Having never done a brevet before this year, going into last weekend’s San Francisco Randonneurs Fort Bragg 600km I found myself on the verge of earning my first “Super Randonneur” award through RUSA (Randonneurs USA). This is when you complete a “series” of brevets in one year – a 200km, 300km, 400km, and 600km. A brevet being an unsupported ride where you must arrive at specific controls within a time range and you collect evidence of this (often by purchasing something and collecting a receipt). In February I did the SFR Two Rock 200km, in March I did the PCH SLO 400km and Davis 300km, and here I was signed up for the final piece to the puzzle – the SFR 600km on May 7th/8th. This was also to be one of my last long training rides before Race Across the West (RAW) in mid-June.
Mike was supposed to be doing the ride with me, however unfortunately he’d been out of commission the last month due to injury after finishing the American River 50 Mile Trail Run. I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to ride with him for this adventure, however I was thrilled when he said that he was going to drive up to Fort Bragg and be at some of the controls. He would only be able to provide support for me at controls, but knowing that he was going to be out there was very comforting, especially since brevets are unsupported and there is no SAG support or anything if something goes wrong. I knew several other riders who were doing the ride, but I’ve never been much of a large group rider, and many of the people I knew doing the ride were either faster or slower than me. Also, many were planning to take a long sleep break, whereas I wanted to try and minimize my sleep in order to get additional sleep deprivation training before RAW.
Saturday morning we were up at 4:00am so that we could get to the start and sign in before the pre-ride meeting at 5:45am and the start at 6am. When we arrived it was extremely windy, so it became apparent that wind was going to be a theme for the ride. I signed in, got my brevet card, and collected a wrist band in memory of Jim Swarzman – a friend and fellow ultra-cyclist who was tragically and senselessly killed by a hit and run driver while participating in a 600km in southern California a month earlier. The ride was dedicated to him during the pre-ride meeting which brought back a flood of emotions. Then 6:00am came and we were off, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in the early morning light.
At the start I was trying to stay with Jason, Becky, and Melville, but when we hit the first hill Melville and Becky quickly disappeared into the distance, and although Jason wasn’t too far in front of me, he’s a much faster descender so I knew after he crested the hill in front of me that I wouldn’t see him again unless he got caught at a traffic light. I settled into my own rhythm, and continued through the urban areas of Sausalito, Fairfax, and San Anselmo. Just as we were about to leave the urban area on Sir Francis Drake Blvd I stopped to take my vest off since I was overheating a bit. At that point a large group passed me including Michele Santilhano and her friend Kim. I joined that group and rode with them to the first control in Point Reyes, chatting with Michele and soaking up her words of wisdom (she’s an incredible ultra-athlete who completed Race Across America last year, and has done many ultra-running and ultra-swimming events as well). The pavement on Sir Francis Drake is awful, and then on the climb out towards Highway 1 I noticed my back starting to tighten up…..ugghhh! When we got to Point Reyes Michele showed me some back stretches to do on the ground which I would find myself doing at almost every control throughout the ride. Point Reyes is one of my favorite controls since it’s the location of the Bovine Bakery and all kinds of tasty baked goods! I love their “Fruit Slippers” (essentially a fruit turnover), as well as their cheese twists for something more savory. The flavor of the day for the Fruit Slippers was raspberry, so I got one, plus I got a cheese twist for later in the day.
I headed out from Point Reyes with Michele and Kim, and we rode and chatted some more through the Nicassio area and up to Petaluma. I was expecting the wind to be worse on this section, but thankfully it wasn’t bad at all. On this section we passed Tim Woudenberg fixing a flat, then he passed us, and then we passed him again fixing another flat not too far up the road – talk about bad luck! We arrived in Petaluma around 10am at the next control. After a quick stretch/food/water break we were back on our bikes and heading towards Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. The headwinds started to pick up on this stretch, and I continued riding with Michele and Kim and a few others. We joined with a larger group just before Healdsburg, arriving at this control around 12:30pm, 88 miles into the ride. Here I grabbed a sandwich and iced tea for lunch, plus ate my cheese twist that I’d bought in Point Reyes earlier in the morning. While eating I saw Kitty and Clyde and some others arrive. Everyone was still in great spirits and enjoying the day.
I headed out from Healdsburg with Michele and Clyde, but Michele’s strength shone through as she powered ahead to catch onto a bigger group in front. I continued to ride with Clyde as we headed north towards Cloverdale. The wind was much worse on this stretch, and was a very steady headwind. Clyde needed to stop in Cloverdale to get some new batteries for his tail light, plus it was a good idea to stock up anyway since there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of opportunities on Highway 128 heading out towards the coast. I grabbed a Mountain Dew while Clyde got his batteries, and that helped to rejuvenate me. We headed out from Cloverdale and as we got into the hills we were protected somewhat from the wind, but there was a lot more climbing. It was really scenic on Highway 128 though, and it was nice to get away from the more urban areas around Petaluma, Santa Rosa, and Healdsburg. On this stretch I saw Mike drive by – it was nice to see him and know that he was on his way to Fort Bragg. We stopped again in Boonville to restock, and then continued on to Dimmick Campground and an “unofficial” control at mile 154. We stopped there and restocked around 6pm. This was the one supported stop on the ride, so we took advantage to have some hot soup before heading out towards the coast and Fort Bragg – it was cool, overcast, and seemed to be threatening rain. When we got out to the coast it was still daylight so we got to enjoy the rugged coastal views as we rode on what seemed like a roller coaster of ups and downs. We finally arrived in Fort Bragg around 8:30pm just as it was getting dark. I was looking forward to something hot to eat/drink, but unfortunately the Safeway was out of hot soup, and the Starbucks had closed early – boo! I did get to see Mike though and get some moral support. Nothing was all that appealing in terms of food, and then I was rushing to try and leave with a group, so I ended up making a mistake and not eating enough. I had a bit of potato salad, and a cookie from the Mendocino Cookie Company that Mike had bought, but probably should have taken the time to eat some more.
As I headed out in the dark with Clyde and our newly found riding friend Jesse, I started getting very sleepy. The flashing tail lights on the other bikes were hypnotizing, and I found myself unable to stay awake. I was also struggling to keep up with Clyde and Jesse on the rollers. I think part of the cause of this was the fact that I hadn’t eaten enough in Fort Bragg. At one point Jesse was kind enough to offer me a carrot of all things! He said that he found things like carrots and apples to be great food on long rides and that they helped him stay awake. I figured “what the heck”, and graciously accepted his carrot. I was surprised at just how well it did work in terms of waking me up – at least for a while. The crunchiness was quite stimulating, so this helped me stay awake. Then as we approached Dimmick I rode and chatted with Jesse as Clyde got further ahead. It was about 10:40pm when we arrived in Dimmick the second time, now 208 miles into the ride.
Given how sleepy I was already, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to keep riding through the night without a sleep break, so I decided that I would stop and sleep for an hour or so in Dimmick since that’s what Clyde and Jesse were planning to do. As soon as I arrived at Dimmick though I grabbed my drop bag and changed into a dry set of clothes. Then I ate some hot chili, and got into Mike’s car and slept in the front seat for about an hour.
When Mike woke me up I was surprised to hear that Michele and Kim were in the camp – I had thought they were in front of Clyde and I, but I guess they missed a turn just outside of Healdsburg and so had been behind us. I was also happy to hear that I had missed the rain – apparently it had rained while I was sleeping. Mike got me some hot chocolate with instant coffee in it, and then I prepared to head out with Michele and Kim and Ian (Clyde had already gone on ahead to try and catch Kitty and Mick who’d come through without taking a sleep break – I’m not sure about Jesse). Michele and Kim were planning to stop and sleep in Philo, about 15 miles out of Dimmick, but it was nice to at least ride with them for an hour or so. I chatted some more with Michele, and she was so encouraging and enthusiastic! Pretty soon I was wide awake and feeling pretty strong again. I said goodbye to them in Philo and continued on my own.
About another 5 miles down the road as I entered Boonville my light started to flash, indicating that the battery was starting to get low. I stopped and swapped batteries, and then continued riding. After Boonville the climbing began, and I passed a couple of riders. There seemed to be a dense fog in the area, and it was like riding through a heavy mist. After a while the monotony in the dark started to make me sleepy again, so I started trying to sing out loud and talk to myself to stay awake. I started belting out “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”. Surprisingly it was quite effective in terms of helping me stay awake since it involved doing math (even though it was extremely simple subtraction – when you’re in a sleep deprived and physically tired state even that can be stimulating!). Eventually my brain again began to shut down, so I stopped and downed a 5 Hour Energy shot that I’d carried with me. I then continued on and started to sing “Amazing Grace”. I thought the lyrics were somewhat appropriate in terms of “save a wretch like me”!! I kept singing this aloud for a while, and then started interleaving it with “Silent Night”. I was racking my brain trying to think of other songs that I knew the lyrics to, but for whatever reason I was drawing a blank. I started a couple of Great Big Sea songs, but kept resorting back to Amazing Grace and Silent Night.
Eventually I got to the last long climb before the descent towards Cloverdale. This climb seemed particularly steep near the top, and I was really looking forward to getting it over with. I finally descended into Cloverdale where I arrived at the Starbucks at about 5:05am, just after they’d opened – talk about good timing!! A couple other riders had arrived just in front of me. I ordered a breakfast sandwich and a vanilla latte and quickly scarfed them down and topped off my water bottles before heading out again. I saw some other riders in the general area as I departed as they stopped at the various businesses to stock up and collect receipts for the control. I figured that I would see some of them later in the morning, and I headed out of Cloverdale just as the dawn was breaking – I was now 260 miles into the ride – only 116 miles left to go!
This next section involved backtracking over the same roads that we’d come out on from Healdsburg the day before, only this time I had a tailwind instead of a head wind! It was quite peaceful and pleasant watching the sun rise as I headed through wine country, riding past all the vineyards. I made it to Guernville along the Russian River at about 8am, surprised that I’d not seen a single rider on the stretch from Cloverdale. This stop was 294 miles into the ride. I bought a Mountain Dew at the Safeway and drank that and ate part of a sandwich that I’d carried with me since Fort Bragg the night before. I took off my jacket, vest, head band, and long fingered gloves and then headed out on the road again.
The next stretch on the Bohemian Highway had some really rough sections of road, and a couple of what seemed like steep climbs (although I’m sure they probably weren’t that bad – it was just the 300+ miles on my legs that were complaining!). I started to see a lot of recreational riders on the road as I got closer to Valley Ford. They would go whizzing past me looking fresh and strong, and I would wish I had a sign on my back saying how far I’d ridden so that it would explain why I was going so slow!!! As I passed through Valley Ford and then headed out towards Tomales Bay on Highway 1 the wind continued to pick up. It wasn’t a head wind, but it wasn’t really a tailwind either. In many sections it was a cross wind that did have a tailwind component to it. The road is rather twisty around Tomales Bay with some quite steep rollers, so I’d round a corner on a fast downhill and suddenly find myself blown around by the cross wind. I finally made it to Marshall and decided to stop for some clam chowder – the Marshall Store has some of THE BEST clam chowder around!! I quickly downed my chowder, put on some sunscreen, and then was on my way again towards Point Reyes.
I got to Point Reyes just before noon and was greeted by Mike. This was 340 miles into the ride, and over 300 miles since passing through the previous day. I quickly unloaded some of my nighttime gear that I didn’t need anymore, and visited the Bovine Bakery again. Today’s Fruit Slippers were mango, so I again got a fruit slipper and a cheese twist. Mike told me that there was a RAAM finisher sleeping in his car – it was Tim Woudenberg. I guess he’d been having stomach problems and was sprawled out on the sidewalk looking rather uncomfortable when Mike had arrived, so he’d offered to let him sleep in his car. After eating part of my Fruit Slipper I was on my way again for the final 35 miles. I could taste the finish!!
The ride around the Nicassio reservoir had some strong headwinds, but then it turned back into a tailwind/crosswind as I got onto Nicassio Road. I chatted with a guy on this section who was training for the AIDs Lifecycle Ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He was blown away when I told him I’d been riding since the previous morning and was over 340 miles into my ride. The climb up Nicassio Road felt steeper than it should have, as did the climb on Sir Francis Drake Blvd, but I continued on. All the stop signs going through San Anselmo and Fairfax were frustrating, but I did stop at them. Along here another rider (Masa) caught up to me – he was the only rider I’d seen since leaving Cloverdale earlier that morning. He’d gotten to the Guerneville and Point Reyes controls just behind me, and had finally caught up to me on this stretch of road. He rode on ahead of me, but I kept him in sight and it was nice to have someone else around who was part of this same epic adventure. We finally got to Sausalito and were greeted with some spectacular views of San Francisco, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge. It was about the clearest I’d ever seen it (probably because it was so windy!!). The climb up to the bridge was the final climb, and I was glad that I was almost done. As I crossed the bridge it was incredibly windy – mainly a crosswind coming off the ocean from the west. There are a couple of places that you have to turn to maneuver around the towers, and I had to stop and walk around those corners because the wind was blowing so fiercely that I couldn’t turn my bike into the wind and make forward progress and maneuver the tight corner.
Finally I reached the other side though, and the finish!! I arrived at 2:37pm, which was 32hours and 37 minutes after I’d departed the morning before. My ride time for the 376 miles was about 26hrs 40min, so I had about 6hrs off the bike. Two of those hours were in Dimmick on the return trip when I’d changed, ate, and slept for an hour. The other time was distributed amongst the various controls and other restocking stops. It turned out that Masa and I tied for 12th place out of 58 finishers. I was shocked that I was that close to the front, but I guess many of the riders who were faster than me ended up behind me because they stopped and slept longer. All in all it was a great experience, despite the ups and downs (literally and figuratively!), plus I earned my first “Super Randonneur” distinction for completing the brevet series! Now it’s time to start tapering and recovering for Race Across the West which will be here before I know it!