Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Seeking redemption and the edges of our limits

Last year I participated in a one-day 206-mile bike ride called the Devil Mountain Double Century. I got as far as 165 miles and dropped out.

My excuse?
I’d run a 50-mile race just two weeks before and was still feeling the effects of that ultra-marathon.

Not to mention I’d never ridden a “double century,” which by definition is two 100-mile rides combined into one long day. In fact, the Devil Mountain Double registration form states “This should not be your first double! This is a very tough ride.” And later, “You have been warned!”

For a 50-something baby boomer like me who heard the call of endurance sports when Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon in 1972, placing a warning about the difficulty of an event makes the appeal that much stronger.

The moment I dropped out of last year’s ride, I started planning my revenge for 2010. My diabolical plan was to skip the 50-mile run, cycle many miles, add weight training to strengthen my core and legs, and ride, at least once, every section of the route--especially the toughest climbs--
to gain course knowledge.

Keep in mind, the DMD course includes 20,000 feet of elevation gain. Some 200 riders from as far away as England signed up for the event that took place on April 24. And this year we were joined by ultra-marathon legend Ann Trason who won the Western States 100-Mile Endurance run 14 times.

The DMD starts in San Ramon and goes over Mt. Diablo, over Morgan Territory Road, out to Tracy, back up Patterson Pass, out Tesla Road in Livermore to Mines Road, up to the top of Mt. Hamilton, down into San Jose and then into the foothills via Sierra Road, down Calaveras Road to Sunol, out Niles Canyon and up Palomares to Crow Canyon and Norris Canyon, and finishes back in San Ramon.
Since misery loves company, I was joined this year by Steve Sherman, a local attorney who has finished two Ironman competitions and yet, like me, had never ridden a double century. We trained together, not just cycling on Saturdays but often running with our spouses and friends Jerry Pentin and Tom Hall usually 12 miles over mountain trails along the Pleasanton ridge on Sundays.
In keeping with my not-so-secret plan to beat the devil, Steve and I rode every part of the course, sometimes several times. This was no small feat since we both lead extremely busy professional lives. But such commitment in the workplace is why these weekend rides are so vital to our physical and mental health. Cycling and running keeps us fit and, frankly, sane.

One of our favorite weekend training rides was Sierra Road in San Jose, an incredibly steep hill that is part of the Amgen Tour of California route that bites cyclists at approximately 150 miles during DMD. We knew that on the day of ride, we'd want to know exactly where we were and how far we had to go to the top of that monster.

For our training rides, we were often joined by several friends, including Bryan Gillette who is such an amazing cyclist that this year he set a goal to ride the DMD and then continue on to 300 miles in 24 hours “because I’ve never tested my limits,” he said. This 300-mile idea to push his outer limits prompted Jerry Pentin to re-title Bryan's ride "DMT," or Devil Mountain Triple.
Jerry is also credited with redefining DMD to mean Dumb Means Dumb, since he refuses on principle to ride any farther than 100 miles at one time.
Yes, I know. I probably do need to find a new group of friends. Though I can't think of better people to hang with on weekends. Plus, I'd easily trust my life in their hands.
When the big day arrived, we awoke early to drive to the San Ramon Marriott where everyone saddled up to ride at 5 a.m.

Steve and I set out on our odyssey, accompanied by Jerry who rode with us 9 miles to the base of Mt. Diablo. (See photo above with Jerry, me, and Steve.)

The ride was supported by 99 incredible volunteers who worked the rest stops, patrolled the roads to assist cyclists with flat tires and other needs, and offered rides for those who opted out along the way. We can't thank these volunteers enough for their energy and enthusiasm.

Somewhere around 80 miles Jan Sherman (Steve's wife) joined us to ride a long stretch to the 90-mile mark. Jan is a strong rider and trained with us during most of the rides. Seeing her friendly face helped boost our spirits.

As the miles ticked by, Steve and I often felt as if we could ride forever. But other times factors conspired to have us question whether we’d be able to finish. Keeping the right amount of calories and electrolytes and fluids in balance is essential to success in long runs and rides.

Like life itself, every endurance event has its high and low points. My low point came as I climbed the hot and difficult miles up Mt. Hamilton. Steve had ridden ahead and as I found myself coming around a certain turn in the road I stopped and got off my bike. I was breathing hard and wanted to quit. I wondered if I just wasn't cut out for such distances. My mind went into survival mode and quickly concluded that I'd never be able to train enough to finish the DMD.

I didn't realize it at the time, but where I'd stopped was only yards from a sad scene.
While I was aware that several police and paramedic vehicles were blocking the road, I assumed someone had crashed his or her bike and was being assisted. I also assumed it was a cyclist coming downhill, and not a DMD rider.

I later learned that the cyclist was Tom Milton, age 56. He was a DMD rider, and had suffered a heart attack. Efforts to provide CPR were unsuccessful.

I simply had no idea.

As I stood on the edge of this tragedy, a volunteer named Katy came over and asked if I was okay. Another cyclist who looked to be in his 30s walked over as well. I decribed how I felt.

"Nibble on this," he said, as he pulled a quarter-sized tablet from a small plastic case. "It has a sweet taste and will make you feel better."
Neither of their faces showed any sign that a fellow cyclist had lost his life just yards away.

I thanked them, nibbled the tablet, and started to walk with my bike. I passed by the vehicles and never thought to look to see what had happened.
Within five minutes, my stomach settled and I climbed back on the bike.
I knew Steve would be at the next rest stop waiting for me, and since he'd been there a while, I stopped only long enough to top off my bottles and guzzle most a Sierra Mist soda, a foreshadowing, perhaps, for the next major hill.
Sure enough, we soon found ourselves encountering Sierra Road. I was surprised the climb was not as gruesome as I thought it would be. Last year I'd had to walk my bike up most of this beast. This year, I rode.
As day turned to night we came to the rest stop titled Pet the Goat. I’d reached this stop last year and, yes, petted a goat named Aldo. Sadly, Steve never got to meet Aldo, who recently hoofed his way into goat heaven (his owner said he'd led a happy life), but Aldo 2.0 was on hand, along with the little goat’s mommy.

Trust me, after cycling 160 miles along a dark country road, it’s a joy to greet goats, chat with friendly volunteers, and slurp soup.

Of course, not even goats can top the warm embrace of family, friends and spouses who greeted us at the next stop. After meeting up with Jerry (again under cover of darkness), we cycled together to reach 181 miles in the small town of Sunol where so many friendly faces cheered us on.
Seeing my wife Pam was especially wonderful. Getting a hug and kiss from her boosted my resolve to finish.

So, did we make it? Did I find redemption among the beautiful vistas and desolate roads?
Yes. We did it.
Finishing ahead of us were friends Gary Boal and Barry Schwartz.
And yes, Bryan Gillette accomplished his 300-mile trek to test his limits.
Of course, only one of us that day truly reached our limit: To Tom Milton's family, please know how sad we are for your loss.
To my wife and family and friends, thank you for this opportunity to redeem myself.
And to Steve Sherman, my cycling companion these many months and for over 20 hours on the day of DMD, thanks for listening to my jokes, for your expertise about nutrition, for your moral support, for doing all the math before the ride and during the ride after my capacity to think had shut down, for waiting for me at the top of every hill, and for a day I will never forget. We said we'd do it, and we did, and I'd be honored to ride again with you any time.
So, how about 60 miles this weekend?


4tridad said...

Thanks for the nice words. I had a great time training with you as well. Our personalities, philosophies, abilities and goals complement each other so well. It was just like Abbott & Costello! There were times I needed to rely on you for support (and drafting).Thank you for being there for me.

she said...

you athletes are an amazing species! congratulations to each of you!

love, ~s.