Wednesday, February 27, 2013

If the wind doesn't kill you, the climbing might...

Yesterday was the first day of CorpCamps, and the usual ride is the innocent-looking but leg-busting Artist's Drive loop. This route has become my nemesis. It never gets easier, I just know what to expect. And I know that I can do it although it always feels like I can't.

There are forces at play here in Death Valley, some that I have power over, and some that I do not.

I have power over most weather conditions. I have learned the hard way that conditions can change here without warning, and in directions that are completely unexpected. But if you know to be ready for anything, then you will be.

Wind is a little different, and I have some power over it but there are limits to that, as you certainly know if you follow this blog.

Climbing, I feel I have some power over. I love to climb, and I brought along a bike that has a couple extra gears for exactly the kind of terrain you get out here. I have some power over elevation grades.

But what I'm finding I have ZERO power over is my ability to say NO to Tim Marks when he suggests something that may otherwise seem crazy. Like when he mentioned to me that he was planning on climbing the road to Dante's View the next morning (the same day as the planned Artist's Drive loop), I weighed it out carefully in my mind (50 extra miles, unpleasantly steep grades, cold and windy at the summit) and recklessly agreed. And, actually, I didn't exactly agree to anything, because Tim didn't exactly invite me to join him. He simply mentioned it, and I invited myself. Or, maybe he dropped the gauntlet, but I think he knew I would pick it up.

Dante's View is, according to Tim, one of the 10 most difficult climbs in California. It rises 5500 feet in 25 miles, with the last 4 miles averaging around 10%, with a set of even steeper switchbacks as you near the summit. There are vehicle size limits imposed because of the steep, tight turns. The National Park Service stopped allowing AdventureCorps to include this route as an option because of the tough terrain and narrow roads. And of course, I've always wanted to try it - kind of an American version of Alpe d'Huez, I guess.

And since Tim suggested it, I was going to do it.

It was a tough climb, of course. It took us 3 hours to cover the 25 miles from Furnace Creek to the summit (it was a relentless uphill the entire way). That set of switchbacks toward the top had me thinking I might be walking my bike to the summit (which I didn't). The descent was terrifying. The thought of having to tackle the climbs on Artist's Drive a couple hours later weighed heavily. But the satisfaction of having climbed Dante's Peak - thanks to Tim, and to Jill, too, of course - is more than I expected for this adventure in Death Valley (and I have a lot of expectations for this trip).

I guess I should be grateful that I can't control every little part of my life. Otherwise, I might miss out on once-in-a lifetime opportunities like these.

Monday, February 25, 2013


 It all came back to me, why I'm here again. Why I come back here every spring.

The warmth of the sun. The smooth black ribbon of never ending road. The impossibly vast and bleak landscape.

Being able to throw on only a single layer of clothing before heading out for a ride.
The challenge of long miles. The futility of strong headwinds. The exhilaration of that same wind gust, now at my back and making 30 mph seem (almost) effortless.

Friends that I only see once a year, those of us who know exactly why we're all here.

And this year, a new group of Death Valley riders, who bring a new energy and enthusiasm and another way of experiencing this place, at this time. It truly is a privilege.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Land of Extremes

My last post was all about training for AdventureCorps' CorpsCamp, in Death Valley. But really, it could have been about training for any early season event just about anywhere.

A cycling event in Death Valley is a little different than a cycling event in most other places. There are things about riding a bicycle through the desert that you simply can't train for.

For CorpsCamp, a good off-season training plan is critical because it prepares you for the things that are within your control, like endurance for long miles and strength for big climbs. For the things you can't control, you also need to work on power and mental toughness (always the most-neglected aspect of training). An honest knowledge of your own abilities, combined with some humility and a healthy sense of humor, might also be things you'll want to pack along for this trip.

Death Valley never fails to deliver on challenges that are outside anything you can train for. Here are a few that I've come to expect:

Temperature changes: The dry air and lack of cloud cover ensure that you'll freeze every morning, and then melt in the afternoon heat. Layer smart, expect to peel off clothing during the day.

Brutal sun: There's no shade here. When you're out on the road for hours and hours at a time, sunscreen is your friend. Particularly the spray-on 80+ SPF kind that you can carry with you in a back pocket. Find a good one that is both water- and sweat-proof.

Nonexistent water sources: If you don't bring enough, or if you don't have a support van or a water cache to look forward to on your return trip, you're asking to be condor bait. Bring way more water/electrolyte then you think you'll need. I underestimated my water needs last year on a 75-mile solo ride, and I'll never do that again.

Warm water: I prepare my electrolyte bottles every evening, and freeze them overnight. Within a couple of hours, they're completely thawed out. An hour later, they're warm as swamp water. Live with it.

Lack of cell phone service: Having issues? Need help? Too bad! Death Valley routes take you to places that are of no interest to positioning satellites. Know your limits. This would be a good time to learn to be entirely self-sufficient.

Rain: Death Valley is the hottest, driest location in the United States, receiving an annual average of 2 inches of rain.  The first ride day of my first year of CorpsCamp, I expected hot and dry. What I got was a steady rain and bone chilling cold, and I was simply not ready for it. When the roads get wet, they get silty and slick as ice. Be ready for anything and everything, because that's exactly what you're gonna get.

Wind gusts: I saved the best for last! Here's the deal with Death Valley: it's long and wide, a low and flat salt pan surrounded by huge mountain ranges. Without any shade, the salt pan reflects the daytime heat that builds throughout the day, and by mid-afternoon that heat gets converted to energy that fuels the notorious spring wind storms. A gentle breeze early in the day can turn into a steady 35+ mile, in-your-face maelstrom. This usually happens at the exact same moment you decide you're ready to call it a day, and  you're now mentally going through the cold recovery beverage selections that await you at Furnace Creek. There's nothing more discouraging than being only 5-miles away from a cold beer, and then looking down at your computer to see that you're going 5 mph into a quad-killing, spirit-crushing headwind. Not to mention the blowing sand and knock-you-off-your-bike cross-winds. There's not a lot you can do about it.

Here's a video of Tim Marks, 3-time Furnace Creek 508 finisher and a BIG, POWERFUL cyclist, with less than a mile to go in the 2012 Spring Century:

What's it like to ride in Death Valley? The only thing you can know for sure is that it won't be boring.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Training for AdventureCorps

AdventureCorps holds its 'Corps Camp' cycling event (or 'Death Camp', as Jill M. recently re-named it) in early spring. CorpsCamp is a weeklong series of daily out-and-back rides, the shortest of which is only 25 miles (but surprisingly brutal, more about that in a minute), and the longest up to 100 miles. And then at the end of the 5-day camp, there's always the Spring Century/Ultra/Double. Pick your poison.

For those of us living in northern climates*, the timing of this event presents a special challenge. How do you get in enough training miles and intensity to feel strong enough for the big miles and big climbs (and big headwinds) you'll face at the end of February?

All the planned routes begin and end at Furnace Creek, which is situated at 190 feet below sea level. Unless your destination is Badwater, (18 miles away and, at 282 feet below sea level,  the lowest point in the US), you're gonna be doing some climbing. In fact, the first ride of CorpsCamp (and also the shortest) is the 25-mile Artist's Drive loop, which starts off so gradually that when you get to the 10% part you wonder what just hit you. And then you stay there, hovering upwards of 7% for 2 miles or so, legs burning and lungs sucking in the desert heat.  You're not in the Cuyahoga Valley anymore...

AdventureCorps requires commitment, and preparation. Here's what I find works well:
  • Set a goal. Signing up for AdventureCorps back in November immediately motivates me to start training.
  • Follow a plan. Just riding a bike for a few hours 3 times a week isn't gonna cut it. To be effective, the plan has to be intense enough, with some long days thrown in to build endurance and pain management.  I've followed Chris Carmichael's "The Time Crunched Cyclist" training methods, specifically the 'Experienced Competitor'** plan, for this event, and it has served me well. The training requires a full 10 weeks or more; plan accordingly.
  • Wheneven possible, I ride outside, in the elements. Elements are unpredictable, and in the desert, they are extreme. Best to go outside and remember what they feel like before putting rubber to road in sunny California.
  • Just freakin' do it. If the workouts are grueling, oh well - Artist's Drive is grueling, too. So is the climb to Hell's Gate (and beyond). So are the desert winds every afternoon. Here's where mental toughness training pays off, big time.
  • Consider survival. Learn to ride stronger, and faster, and more efficiently. The desert can be completely unforgiving, and so limiting exposure to the elements should always be a consideration.
*All of our returning friends live in brutally cold places: Jill and Tim are from Minnesota, Chris is from Toronto. Maybe that's why we all ended up in Death Valley, in February, to begin with.

**It seems like it would make more sense to follow the 'Experienced Century" plan from the same book. But I opted to trade long, less intense hours on the trainer for shorter, higher intensity training time. Mainly because riding a trainer for longer than 2 hours is a life-sucking endeavor.

I've done my time, I've sacrificed evenings and weekends for hard, solid training rides. With only two weeks to go, I feel ready for this.

Next post: What it's like to ride in Death Valley.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Desert Dreaming

I just realized it's February, and that means that I'll soon be in Death Valley again. The bikes have to be packed up and shipped out in just a few short weeks, and I have to convince myself that I'm ready for this.

AdventureCorps offers an early-season cycling event in Death Valley every year to coincide with their Spring Century (I'm signed up for the Ultra Century this year - 155 miles of 'WTF was I thinking???'). Since my first time out here for AdventureCorps, back in 2010, I've fallen hard for the long, desolate roads, the brutal winds, relentless climbs, and breathtaking surrealism of this place.

I'll be writing more about this upcoming adventure (because it never fails in that regard) in the next few weeks, and hope to post updates while in California. For now, I'd better get back on the trainer. I've got Artist's Drive in my very near future.