D.C. Randonneur Nick Bull rode the Seattle International Randonneurs Four Passes 600K on June 7-8, 2008. Here is his story with pictures, all by Nick. Unlike the blazing heat we experienced out here in the East, Nick had to pull on his winter gear to keep warm over the chilly passes in southern Washington.
2008 SIR 600 Four Passes,
How the Weather Gods Smiled (or at Least Smirked)
by Nick Bull
I had a tremendously fun ride (except when I didn’t) on this awesome brevet through some of the most beautiful country in the world. Many thanks to the volunteers. They may not have made this an “easy ride” but they sure made it easier! For a quick glance at the terrain and map, see my MotionBased page.
My mother asked me to fly out to Seattle for my dad’s 80th birthday, thereby providing me with an easy excuse to not have to make myself ride the Shenandoah 1200 (which I really didn’t feel I was in good enough shape for). So I thought I’d check to see if Seattle International Randonneurs (SIR) had a brevet going on while I was out there. Hah! Indeed they are, something called the Four Passes 600K, described on their website as one of their most challenging 600’s. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
After some correspondence with Mark Thomas and after GPS’ing up the preliminary cue sheet, I contemplated the ride profile. This was without doubt the most intimidating ride profile I’ve ever seen. Four major climbs, averaging 3160 feet of climbing apiece (Steven’s Pass, Blewett Pass, White’s Pass, and Cayuse Pass). Plus some smaller stuff thrown in for good measure, adding another couple thousand feet total of “significant” climbs (those more than 400 feet, which is about where I start thinking “will this climb never end?”).
Without doubt, this was the most intimidating brevet I’ve contemplated, except for BMB and my first 600. (To see the profiles of this ride and BMB, click Here.)
Mark says that unlike the east coast terrain I’m used to, there isn’t as much climbing of small stuff in between the significant climbs, so the total climbing won’t be like what I’m used to on the east coast. Plus the climbs never get really steep. OK, Mark, I’ll have to trust you. But I’m still intimidated.
During the month before the ride, I amp up my training schedule, including a ride up Skyline Drive with a “big climb” of 2800 feet that about blows out my knees. Then finally I arrived in Seattle and am making my final ride plans. I decide I’d better get estimates of when I should expect to make it to the controls so I can keep tabs on whether I’m doing alright. So I re-examine the ride profile, putting estimated climbing and descending by 20-mile segments into my econometric analysis. I get a total of 15,000 feet of climbing, which I know will understate the actual total. How much? I guess maybe the total will be 25,000 feet. I scale up all the climbing/descending estimates by that much, plug it in to SAS, and it says my total time to completion will be 42 hours (assuming I sleep for an hour and 45 minutes). Not good.
I change my assumed total climbing to 20,000 feet. Now it says that I’ll finish in just under 40 hours. But I’ll arrive at the Greenwater control eight minutes after it closes. I write “Focus Focus Focus” on the cue sheet in the miles before the Greenwater Control. I hope the total climbing is around 20,000 feet, not 25,000. I write down on the cue sheet the expected times of arrival at each control. I hope I’m not leading an active fantasy life.
The weather forecast is for 60 percent chance of rain at the ride start, declining gradually through the day. Winds are forecast to be a modest tailwind early in the day and then a very stiff tailwind coming from Blewett Pass to Yakima. But at Yakima, we turn in the direction of what is forecast to be a modest headwind for the remainder of the ride. Jan Heine posts a report that the tailwinds out in the desert are forecast with gusts to 37, and that temperatures in the passes are expected to be freezing with a possibility of snow. I beg the SIR listserve for the loan of a pair of tights, which Mark Thomas kindly offers.
I take the ferry over from Bainbridge Island to Seattle, and then ride from the ferry to Issaquah (getting lost several times on the way: why do they spend millions on bike paths but then not signpost them?) I get a nice, solid six hours of sleep, the most ever before a 600K. I ride to the Tilden’s house and line up with 50 other intrepid randonneurs.
We take off, and I’m about in the middle of the pack, hoping not to get quickly dropped, but repeating the mantra “ride your ride”. Despite the weather forecast, it is nice at the ride start. Then a little down the road we are riding through mist. Then the mist becomes light drizzle. No problem, wool is warm when wet. But then I start thinking about wet wool under a Goretex jacket, descending at 40mph in freezing temperatures from a mountain pass. I pull over and watch as the group I was with pulls away, and as another big group passes. But at least now I’m wearing rain stuff from head to toe.
This usually means it’s about time to stop raining, but not this time, and I ride through the rain for hour after hour. Every single ride I’ve done for the last month and a half has had rain. What’s up with that?!? Good training for this ride, I guess :-)
Coming toward Skykomish, it seems like I’ve been doing a lot more up and down than expected. I check my altimiter — 2000 or so feet, so far. That seems high. Is that about right, or not? I spend awhile trying to estimate how much climbing I expected in this section, but end up still in the dark. Just hope it’s not an indication of more-than-expected climbing. Steven’s Pass is a long, hard, grinding climb in the drizzle. But I’m riding faster than I expected, and the descent is gradual enough that I don’t have to keep braking on the wet road. It stops raining, and I arrive at Leavenworth an hour earlier than expected, control fairly quickly while listening to oompah music, and scoot down the road ahead of some who had arrived before me.
I have the road to myself, and I ride up Blewett Pass with plenty of time to look at the beautiful scenery. I think about how beastly humans are to each other, but how beautiful our planet is. It makes your heart break and be full all at once. I think about how lucky I am to have been born at a time and in circumstances that let me ride these brevets. I think about how gracious it is of my wife and family to let me ride them, and not even complain too much about the yard full of shrubbery that needs trimming.
Pretty quickly, I’ve ridden half of the 21 mile climb up Blewett Pass, without much of a strain. But I’ve only done a third of the climb, so it’s pretty clear that things will have to steepen up, soon. A rider comes up and passes me, but he’s not one of us and he looks at my saddlebag and bar bag with evident disdain. Soon enough, some SIR riders pass me, as well. I focus on eating enough to maintain the climb. Eventually, I notice I’m catching up with SIR riders and then pass the non-SIR racer dude, who seems to have hit a wall. I pass the SIR riders and am feeling good as I come to the top, where there is a refreshment control. I refresh myself for as long as I can justify, before concluding that I really must move along.
The long descent is gradual, and again it’s easy to modulate my speed by alternating between sitting up or “becoming one with my top tube.” This is so much nicer (in many respects) than descents like Wolf Gap where you have to focus very hard on your speed and make sure not to hit gravelly corners too fast and wipe out, as someone did a couple of years ago.
Every so often I find myself calculating when I might be able to get in to Rimrock and finally to Issaquah. Maybe I’ll break my all-time-best 600K pace? I have to keep reminding myself to just focus on the moment and not count any chickens. After 14 miles of descent, we turn left toward Bettas and climb a little 500-foot speed bump. The tailwind is so strong, that while I’m trying to get my camera out a gust of wind blows me uphill at 12 m.p.h. without pedaling. Wow!
At Ellensburg, I arrived in town 1h 45m early, and hoped to control quickly and extend my lead. I decide to see if there’s an Arby’s, remembering how good the Arby’s tasted on the 400K last month. It turns out to be at the far end of town, and apparently many locals think that Arby’s is a good place to eat lunch. My time gets frittered away waiting in line, and I leave 1h 45m ahead of where I expected. The ride through Yakima Canyon starts soon after. It’s a sort of a perfect, fantasy of a canyon, with a river and traintracks in the bottom, and pastoral rangeland going way high to the serpentine ridges on either side.
I stop to put on the night stuff and a rider passes. But with tailwinds and the gradual descent, I soon catch up, and though I contemplate slowing down so I’ll have someone to ride with at night, I decide that I can’t afford to slow down and will be fine riding by myself in the dark. I’m really making good time down the Canyon and pass several other riders in the dark. But I notice a pair of headlamps in the distance behind me, and they seem to be gaining on me, so I figure it’s just a matter of time before I get passed. I remind myself to just ride my ride and not worry about it.
Coming into Selah we change directions and now have a headwind. Riding up to Selah Ridge, the headlamps really seem to be gaining on me, and after a quick visit to the roadside bushes they’re only about a hundred yards back. I ride hard up to the Ridge and then descend fast and they recede into the distance. Why does this stuff matter? You tell me. I hit US12 and now the wind is just blasting down the road. I’m down to one bottle of water, and a bit worried about whether places will be open — it’s just a little before midnight. A Chevron station is closed, and then there is a nightclub — should I stop in? No, there’s a Shell station down the road. It’s open, and I water up and when I come out I have a brief conversation with a rider who complains about the wind and the rumble strips and how could anyone design a route that goes down such an awful road. I decide to continue on by myself.
As I get to the road, who should come up but the pair of headlamps. I ask if I can join them and we ride on, taking turns in the lead. Though I expect a gradual climb, about 50 miles with 3,000 feet of climbing to Silver Beach, the climb we’re actually on seems much steeper. Is it really steeper, or is it just the wind? After a dozen miles or so, we turn left and the wind dies down a little and there is a secret control where I get the chance to fuel up with soup, sandwich, and cafe mocha. Fabulous!
We continue on, climbing harder now, and for awhile the wind is less of a factor but then as we get higher up the forest diminishes and the wind picks up and howls away. The climb just goes on interminably, and I alternate between looking at the odometer and the altimiter, neither of which seem to be moving at all, and the time, which seems to tick away unbelievably fast. So much for our early projections that we’d arrive at 2 am, which would be 2-3/4 hours ahead of schedule. Now I’m just hoping not to lose the 1-3/4 hour lead I had at Ellensburg.
As we get within five miles of the control, Chris-with-the-Raleigh-International comments that it must get flat, soon. I remind him that Mark Thomas told us at the secret control that the last seven miles in to the control were flat. Hmmm. Finally, the interminable ends and the impossible happens and we come up to the control and eat soup and go to bed. I put my earplugs in and while I’m wondering if I’ll ever fall asleep and listening to my breathing and pulse and telling myself it’s OK to let myself fall asleep, I finally do. I wake up a couple of times and roll over and then someone’s calling out that it’s time for the 5:30 a.m. crowd to get up and roll.
I get everything together in the dark and am ready to go when I decide to fill up my water bottles and discover that there are pancakes and sausages. So I eat some and make a number of trips back and forth between my bike and the drop bag in the cafeteria, before finally getting stuff together enough to go. I worry about the fact that I’m almost out of Lantiseptic, and my butt is very sore.
Pretty soon I’m climbing up White’s Pass by myself. After a long time, a fast randonneur passes me, and then I pass someone. I’m thinking about the beautiful and strange audacity of our tiny, puny selves going out into this absolutely gigantic piece of nature and riding distances that are way further than I would ever want to drive a car. We arrive at the top pretty close together and I put on everything I have, even Mark’s tights which I’d hoped not to have to use in the end. I put on my winter shoe covers. I put on my SealSkinz gloves, which are somewhat warm. I put on my winter heat-exchanger facemask which saved me on PBP.
After a mile of descending, I stop to put on my Windsilk gloves as well. I’d have stopped another mile later to put on more clothes, if only I’d have had them. Shortly after, I passed the fast randonneur, who was now going slowly and visibly shaking. Another couple of miles, and now my legs were shaking and the deep, deep cold is moving up and through me. I’m just starting to shake all over when I get to the bottom where there is a control. They pour hot mocha into me while I sit in a warm car and eat a muffin. Paul Johnson introduces himself and it takes a minute to figure out why the name seems slightly familiar–Dr. Codfish, I presume. They hypothermic fast randonneur joins me and the car gets switched on and blows hot, hot air. I’m scared to get sweaty so I get out and let someone in. Soon I move along, having been joined by Chris from the Saturday night ride. I’m pretty happy, because my time at that point is good, and it looks like I might get to Greenwater a couple of hours before the control closes, instead of the eight minutes late that I’d predicted.
We start climbing up Cayuse Pass and it is a pretty stiff climb. Chris is climbing faster, so I’m alone again, soon. I finish off all of my HammerGel, but seem to have zero energy. I stop at a waterfall and eat an energy bar. Still zero energy. After interminable climbing, I’ve finished half the distance but only a third of the ascent, which suggests a dim future will soon be at hand. I continue to eat energy bars that seem to have had the calories drained out of them. At 4.44 miles from the summit, I decide to celebrate by walking. I decide to walk until the rider who I can see in my mirror catches up, but he isn’t gaining on me. I duck off to the other side of a snow bank for a visit to the bushes that would horrify the leave-no-trace crowd. Sorry. I come out and don’t have the heart to get back on my bike, so decide I’ll walk out the full mile. I keep looking to the left hoping to see Mount Rainier, but all I see is clouds and the occasional bit of mountain covered with pines and scree.
I walk and eat, walk and eat, walk and eat. At 3.44 miles from the summit I still have no energy, but decide it’s time to ride again. Now I’m riding at 4.5mph instead of walking at 2.9mph. The tenths of a mile roll by like a snail crawling on flypaper. I decide it’ll be OK to walk when I get to 2.44 miles from the summit, but when I get there I decide to keep riding.
I get to the summit, which is all mist and clouds and freshly fallen snow, and I go through the clothing-up-procedure. At first the descent is just as cold and fast as from White’s Pass, but then as I get lower and it warms up a bit, a wind picks up and now I’m pedalling hard to keep my pace up to 12mph. So much for the reward for all that climbing. I’m bonking again, as I couldn’t eat on the descent. I’m starting to think that randonneuring is the stupidest sport ever invented, and I’m never going to do it again. And to top it off, I’m getting drowsy and a little worried that I’ll nod off on the descent like I did at PBP. Then I notice a little ranger station with a sign for free coffee, so I pull over.
After a cup of coffee, I check the time on my GPS and go lie down in a sunbeam on a picnic table. Very comfortable. I fall asleep, have a vivid dream, wake up to notice more randonneurs have arrived, fall asleep again and dream, wake up again, fall asleep and dream and wake up. It seems like I’ve been here forever and I worry that I’ve been here too long so I call out to ask what time it is. Noon, someone says. I’ve been asleep for nine minutes. I roll on out, still pedalling hard into the wind. I try to eat, but everything tastes like petrified porcupine turds.
What with the long climb up Cayuse, and fighting the wind on the way down, my lead time to Greenwater is gradually disappearing. I’m thinking that if the wind holds like this, I may not be able to get to the end in time. I’m thinking my shoulders hurt, my butt hurts, my hands hurt. I’m thinking this is a stupid sport. Well, I’m thinking that a 200K seems like a nice distance, but a 600K is just ridiculous. Eventually I get to Greenwater, about 45 minutes before the control closes.
What I really want is a cup of soup, but the cafe doesn’t have any, so I roll toward a sign for another cafe, which says “Opening Soon”. Big help. I go to the Greenwater General Store, which also doesn’t have soup. I buy a ham and cheese sub that is mostly made of chewy, thick, and tasteless bread. I get to talking with someone (Dan, I think) about how tough this wind has been. He asks if I’m riding alone. I say that I am, and ask if I can ride with him, though I tell him I don’t expect I’ll be any help. He is very kind and offers to let me draft him. After a quick visit to the bathroom to slather on my pitiful dregs of Lantiseptic and a pouch of Chamois Butter that I’ve discovered, we hit the road. I realize I’ve got to eat if I’m to have any hope of finishing the ride.
So we roll on out and I sit behind Dan and I try to force down energy bars. I eat a couple of bars and feel a little sick. Dan starts to pull away and I consider just letting him go, but decide I’d better dig in. I catch up. A few minutes later he eases over to the left to let me take the lead and I figure I’m just going to embarrass myself, but am surprised to find I have a little energy. I lead for a bit and then we switch and he leads for a long time, and then at the next switch I realize he’s letting me lead on the steeper downhills. Still, I take it and am proud of what an accomplishment it is to ride at 15mph downhill! I keep eating, and eventually I actually feel somewhat recharged and energetic. I’m probably not quite doing my fair share of leading, but I’m doing better.
At the turn onto Farman Street, with fifty miles to finish the ride, we stop to make a cellphone call and see some of Dan’s friends coming up (Corey and Ian). But we move out before they get there, and now we’re riding at a hearty clip on rolling terrain, until we stop to water up. The riders come up and we join them and all ride together to the outskirts of Issaquah, where we stop for some reason. While I’m calling my mom, who is coming to pick me up from the ride finish, I wave the other three on and I’m by myself for ten miles to the Redmond Control, riding on the “quiet country roads”. I’m really focusing on eating as I ride along, having bonked in the last ten miles of a 600K before, and knowing how unpleasant it is to get sucked into the mire.
At the Redmond Shell, I’m glad to see my friends are still there. I wolf down another energy bar, washing it down with a Pepsi, and then we all leave together. I know it’s only 11 miles to the end, which is the distance I commute every day to work, but that doesn’t make it seem any the less. I focus on pedaling and force down another half of a peanut butter and jam sandwich, and think about titles of movies I’ve seen, and as so often happens in randonneuring, the impossible happens and we are soon sprinting back up to the Tilden’s house.
We finish in 38:02, which is right around average for me. Nonetheless, I set a new world record in my class: DC Randonneurs riding the 2008 SIR Four Passes 600K!