Kelly Smith’s 2010 Cascade 1240K: The Tour of the Nasty Cat

Kelly Smith completed his second 1200K last week and he chose a good one: the incredible Cascade 1240K in Washington state. He completed the ride in an admirable 88:05 time.

Kelly making his way through the Cascades (courtesy Kelly Smith)

Kelly has written a great story about the highs, the lows, and the higher highs that we all experience on these very long randonnees. Also, check out his photos at Kelly’s Photobucket page.

Was that a Nasty Cat, or what am I doing on the Cascades 1240 with this crowd?

I saw the description of this randonee in 2006 when I began to ride brevets, but was not confident enough to enter before riding an SR series. In 2008 I planned to ride the local Shenandoah 1200 and had no thought of a second grand randonee in the same month (tip of the hat to Bill Olson here). When I saw that SIR was running this again for 2010 I decided to go for it.

This season’s fleche and brevets all seemed tough and there were some challenges such as wind and heat. But, it also seemed I was not hitting nearly as good fitness as in the last few years. As the date approached I grew more and more concerned as I skipped big training rides to recover from previous ones. My weeknight non-rando training rides were equally mediocre leaving me concerned about finishing the days in time to get any sleep.

On the Shenandoah I’d gotten in at midnight for two nights which left me pretty sleep deprived by the end. That is one of my weaknesses as a rando rider – poor coping with lack of sleep. On the plus side I was able to sleep surprisingly well the week before, which had been a problem on the S1200 when I started already well in the hole on sleep.

After much agonizing I’d decided to fly out Wednesday morning before the event and spend a day sightseeing in Seattle. This was a good call as the day was beautiful and I really enjoyed the Pikes Place Market/Pioneer Square/waterfront walk that Tom Lawrence of SIR suggested. He was giving me a lift to the start town of Monroe. While Seattle has an excellent transit system it is very difficult and slow to get to the surrounding towns without a car, so SIR volunteers provided rides. I managed to stay on East Coast time so I was in bed by 8:30 p.m. and slept till 7:30 a.m., banking sleep like a champ!

I got there mid morning and built up the bike, which had survived another flight without damage (it’s always tense when I open the bag). Tom had provided cues for a 25-mile loop which started on the 1240 route, then climbed a small ridge and returned through Snohomish. Unfortunately I flatted during the ride, which was worrisome. I’d gotten some Vittorio Open Corsa tires, which are famous for a great ride, but also for being somewhat fragile. I’d already flatted at home but could find no sign of damage or objects when I examined the tire. After the flat I discovered a cool farmers market and had a couple apricots, local ice cream, and coffee (of course). Back at the hotel my roommate Larry Brenize had arrived and we hiked to a local Italian place for dinner.

Friday the crowd was arriving and bikes were decorating the lobby. Larry and I joined Irene from Colorado and Wolfgang from Germany on a checkout ride of the last leg from Granite Falls. I had intended to write a reverse cue of this but hadn’t and we managed to get lost immediately out of the access road, then again halfway out. Eventually we got back on route and made it to within 5 miles or so of the control. That was enough for the day and we headed back with 30 miles done. Funny, while I remembered a lot of the turns on the fourth day of the ride, the hills seemed much tougher!

Back at the hotel Larry and I had lunch with Art and John Fuoco, packing in the pizza and beer – carbs! Now the crowd was big and intimidating. As I chatted with people I met more and more who had ridden RAAM, Furnace Creek 508 (including current champ and 24-hour record holder), and other ultra riders. I spoke to a woman from Texas who had just finished RAAM on a 4-tandem team in 6+ days – they did 30-or 45-minute pulls the whole way! I spoke to Yataki Moriwaki from Japan who had just ridden two 1000ks in Vancouver!

What was I doing in this crowd!? I had my bike inspected then headed to the room to pack and freak out, both successfully.

Day One

Surprisingly I was still able to sleep and got about 6-7 hours that night. The morning was very cloudy and though no rain was forecast I loaded all my wet/cold gear in the bag. The start was low key, like ours, and we rolled out in a group. The group seemed to stay together tightly for the first 10-15 miles then I noticed a few people moving up on the left. Soon I saw a gap had developed with maybe 30 bikes off the front but the group I was in was plenty fast so I resisted the urge to chase. I began to wonder if I should keep up this pace but it was too much fun to pass up.

Bummer – I got another flat at 22 miles. This really worried me. I had tubes and patches but how many flats would I get before the finish? Again I couldn’t find anything wrong with the tire and just a tiny hole in the tube. This took a while and I was now pretty sure I was lanterne rouge. I was impressed that I overtook almost no one as I rode along; I only saw 2-3 bikes before the first control at Cumberland at mile 53. Jan Heine was signing cards there so riders could roll quickly through, but I decided to get a sandwich and top up my Gatorade so I spent about 20 min there, putting me about at the back again.

This part of the route had been suburban, becoming what we Easterners would call rural farmland (hah! We would soon see rural!) and rollers familiar to mid-Atlantic riders. I was hop-scotching with a local rider and as I was approaching him again he stopped and pulled out a camera, I turned my head and WOW – Mt Rainier burst out of the trees in the now clear blue sky. I’m not in Virginia any more!

I continued to ride alone, more and more impressed with the pace of this group, until the Eatonville control at mile 95 where I had a delicious lunch at the Truly Scrumptious Bakery. At last I overlapped a group of riders here and no longer felt like The Last Randonneur. I spoke to George Moore and another Dahon Allegro rider named John/Paul (some running joke I never understood). We chatted and I moved along alone again till I met a group of locals. This seemed like a group I would have enjoyed riding with, until another FLAT! At last I discovered the cause, the rim strip shifted when mounting the new tires. What a relief. It wasn’t the new tire and was easily fixed. As it turned out I had no punctures the entire ride, most of which was on rough chip seal or shoulders with the usual litter.

So I rode on alone again through increasingly beautiful country until about mile 150 where I met two locals in the classic blue SIR jerseys. They told me about the dramatic geology along the route before the Packwood control at mile 158. This was now pine forest and mountain views in the Mt Rainier Park, next stop White Pass. The chatter about this was pretty intimidating but I found it was a nice climb, fairly steady with no really steep pitches. I was thrilled to be able to descend in daylight and reached the penultimate control for the day at Clear Lake (mile 188) just before 9 p.m. This was very nice; temperatures were falling so the volunteer’s hot coffee and soup hit the spot. I ate a bunch of apples too, then rolled out with Don Jameson, his wife, and another local plus Vickie Tyler of Texas. This was a good group that took advantage of the downgrades and tailwind to fly through the night.

I got to use my new Ixon IQ headlight for the first time too, and it was awesome! Even I could ride fast at night with this. Still, we didn’t get to Naches (mile 223) until 11:20 p.m. SIR had tasty lasagna, cold showers, and a mechanic who looked at my rim tape and computer problems. All this meant it was 1 a.m. when I hit the mats.

Day Two

The second day was both a lot of fun and fairly miserable at times. Blueberry pancakes were served and I rolled out at about 5 a.m. with Vickie Tyler. The first miles were uphill and upwind so we were moving pretty slow when a group steamed by that we could just jump on. We swept up more small groups and were overtaken by faster groups till we had maybe two dozen riders hammering up the canyon. As the grade and pace gradually increased the process reversed and the group began to resemble a meteor, streaming riders like sparks till I think three reached the control together. Along the way I connected with local rider Steve Frey and another with compatible paces, allowing me to keep a decent speed up the climb. Steve and I would ride the remainder of the event together.

The control was at a campground at mile 269 with a pleasant fire, hot coffee and muffins. Steve and I rolled out with another local and a fellow from Denmark for a fast, fun ride down back to Naches. This was a ton of fun, but probably not the smartest move. The Dane sat out the rotation so we three were pushing pretty hard. We finished that section of almost 90 miles mighty quick, but would pay for it later.

Here Steve and I entered a region of agriculture on a grand scale. Everything was heavily irrigated with water diverted from the Columbia and other rivers, canals flowed alongside the road and branched out into fields of corn, onions, hay, potatoes, hops, orchards and vineyards. These were huge fields, with the enormous rotating sprinkler arms that make circles you see from airliners. Any non-irrigated area was gravel and sagebrush, but such places were few. Sadly my camera battery died so I got no photos of this day. When I wasn’t raving about the scenery Steve was cracking me up with hilarious stories, many of the SIR brevets – all apparently ridden at furious pace in cold rain with no stops. Folks, if you think you are tough randonnuers come do Seattle’s spring series!

Nearing Yakima we connected with Kerin Huber and a few other strong riders and left Fruitvale, mile 326, together. This stage left the fields heading into the dramatic high desert of the Rattlesnake Hills. It also was mostly uphill and upwind, and I began to suffer. I took a pull and when I pulled off the pace went up 2 m.p.h! I sat in the back dreading having to ride this stretch alone, imagining coasting to a halt and collapsing to expire in the sun. Then a member of the group sat up and dropped off, next Steve did the same, and I thought – what a good idea! Steve and I joined up forming a two-man laughing group. Amazing how much more fun it is to ride 1 m.p.h. slower!

Here we encountered several big descents into the ‘hairdryer’ heat Ed and Mary described, and I wondered how they were able to finish when it was 15 degrees hotter! We only saw mid-90’s and it was plenty tough. We recharged at the Vernita rest area, where we found the only trees in 30 miles and pushed on to “yes up that hill”. One of the few ‘eastern’ climbs, it hit near 10% but felt much tougher at mile 380 in the totally exposed heat.

The volunteer-manned Mattawa control at mile 391 was a godsend, and also the way they booted us out when the next group arrived. In my book the next 40 miles were the toughest of the ride. We left on a busy road and I thought we would have to cross a bridge on this road, which I was dreading. When Steve pointed out the turn onto a quiet road I was thrilled, but then we faced miles and miles of dead straight climbs, stair-stepping through more fields and orchards. The air was so clear and the horizon so bare you could see for miles. Riders who passed us were visible ahead for hours. This was demoralizing to me. The final traffic light was in view for perhaps four miles, and since we averaged about 12 m.p.h. into a headwind, that was a long time. It seemed longer as well as noisy, fast traffic roared by – though we were safe on a wide shoulder.

Steve had taken the words from my mouth when he said that if we got in early enough he was up for getting a beer. Imagine our thrill when the volunteer at the Quincy overnight control at mile 432 pointed us to a cooler of Washington’s finest ales! Never has beer tasted better! This was a feature of the next overnight, as well as the finish and I can’t thank them enough!

We arrived a few minutes before 9 p.m. and Steve dawdled a bit before getting signed in so he could exactly match his first night’s 21:00 arrival time. Quincy also featured monster high jump mats and I grabbed one to sleep, it was as comfy as the best bed!

Day Three

We rolled out a few minutes after 5 a.m. past the Quincy Seed Co.’s small fields of seed crops. Leaving Ephrata we entered a dramatic coulee cut, perhaps 400’ into layers of basalt from lava flows that covered the region many thousands of years ago. This stretch had been a worry because it was chip sealed during the pre-ride. Amazingly to me, the work was finished in the last few days and all loose gravel was gone. WDOT must sweep after chip seal, unlike here where we would have been riding in deep gravel along the lanes edge. On the climb to Dry Falls, mile 474, we were passed by a local rider on a gorgeous Davidson, I was stunned to look down and see it was a single speed! At the control I shook his hand, another super rider doing the unbelievable. Unfortunately he broke an axle on the next leg and had to abandon but he was showing no sign of struggling until then.

From here we climbed out of the coulee and I was stunned to find myself in endless wheat fields! If you know the default Microsoft green field screensaver – we were there! These fields were stunning to an easterner. They went on for close to 50 miles and stretched as far as the eye could see. Scattered here and there were building sized boulders of basalt, apparently glacial erratics left by the melting ice cap. All was contrasts: deep blue skies, bright green wheat, tan plowed fields, deep red brown boulders. I raved to Steve for two days about the amazing landscapes.

In the middle of this was the Farmer control in a Grange hall, mile 501. Farmer must have been a town in the days when farms were smaller, but now there was nothing but a silo and graveyard nearby. The hall was clearly still used but now to fill it must require the population in a 10-mile radius at least. The next stretch was a lot of fun, a tailwind pushing us along bike friendly rollers. A screaming descent took us into Bridgeport where we tanked up and met a long distance bike tourist. He was clearly starved for company and collared each of us until we forcibly broke away. Steve recounted a hilarious story the fellow told of downing a beer every 15 minutes on a long hot climb. Hopefully he camped at the top!

We re-entered irrigated orchard country leading up to the oh-so-welcome Malott control at mile 560. I drained my entire Camelbak in this 40-mile stretch, a first for me. Cold drinks were seldom more welcome. Volunteers provided delicious sandwiches and fruit here, but discussion of upcoming Loup Loup Pass was intimidating. The tales were not far off. The climb began straight from the control and continued with some breaks for 17 miles. We spotted a rider ahead who kept me working honestly, and we joined forces from Winthrop for the final stretch.

In Winthrop we stopped at a grocery and I watched the bikes while Steve shopped. Looking at our bikes I noticed my saddle was tilted way too far forward – this after riding almost 600 miles!!! Grumbling loudly, I sorted it out and my saddle problems, which had been getting bad, went away immediately. How clueless can I get!?

From here we began a half serious “time trial” to the overnight control, trying to make 21:00 again. Noel, the rider I had been chasing, took a monster pull, then bailed to ride in solo. We also had to give it up soon after. I was thrilled with our time of 21:05 anyway, and immediately headed to the cooler! This control is famously luxurious, in a very nice mountain lodge, and offers solo showers and beds with sheets. You also shared the bed with another rider but in my state that was no problem – I would not have noticed Scarlett Johansson next to me!

Day Four

We didn’t roll out till after 6 a.m., but that was just as well as the canyon was still quite cold. The final big climb began from the driveway and went up Washington Pass. This was another intimidating sounding one, and lived up to it with 18 miles of unbroken climbing topping out at 5477 ft. Nearing the top the pass is all rock and ice, with a hairpin showing the final stretch traversing your view at what looks like 15%! I first tried to tell myself this was not the road (like there are a lot of side roads up there) then decided that if it was that bad I’d have heard. It was an illusion, the grade remained no more that 8 percent, and the relief provided a boost that allowed me to reach the summit with a smile. I stopped here to layer up and met Joe Platzner, a friend of Steve’s who was fantastic riding company. The descent was very cold and we stopped several times to warm up. On one of these descending runs a large animal scurried across the road, what the hell what that? Not marked like a badger, wait — it was a nasty cat – a.k.a wolverine! Much cooler sighting than a ho hum bear or even a cougar (well maybe not, but less scary). And no, it didn’t have 6” long steel claws, or sideburns!

Eventually the cold began to relent, as did the grade, but for the rest of the descent through the canyon to Marblemount we struggled against howling headwinds. I spied a charming sign stating, “Caution Severe Cross Winds Next 27 Miles.” At least they weren’t really crosswinds that day. Rather, on-the-nose, requiring pedaling most of the downhills. We regrouped at Newhalem. Joe had gotten very cold and I fell way behind Steve on the ‘real’ descents. I had the tastiest convenience store hot dog ever! We rode together to Marblemount, mile 686, where we took another leisurely break for espresso drinks. In fact this whole day was filled with long stops and a general touring feel.

From here we began to realize Steve’s 21:00 finish was unlikely, but we did make an effort for 10 miles or so. After a potty break in Darrington we raised the white flag, and went back to conversation and laughs. The only rain of the ride caught us as we headed into Granite Falls, mile 753, where Steve broke a vow of many years and ate a McDonald’s burger. Desperate times! The rain ended by the time we left and we happy three rode the shockingly steep rollers as night fell, arriving back at Monroe at 22:05.

Epilogue

What a ride! Everyone talks about the volunteers – and it is no exaggeration! They were all smiles and ready with anything you could need. I partied with incoming riders for a couple hours, then crashed. There was a celebratory breakfast at 10 a.m. so I got up early to pack and check out. Breakfast was a blast, hearing stories and telling tales. I heard of some truly epic rando toughness.

Yataki Moriwaki missed a turn on the descent of White Pass the first day, only realizing it when he reached Naches. To continue he climbed 40 MILES back to the turn and resumed the route, adding 80 MILES for the day. Irene Takahashi hit a wall of bonking, heat, and dehydration after Matawa on “yes up that hill” and had to lay down, unable to move. Volunteers brought her to the control where she rested for five hours until she was finally able to eat and drink. She then resumed riding from where she had stopped and reached Quincy as we were leaving in the morning – yet she finished. As Kerin said, in this sport those who suffer the most and persevere are respected more than those who ride the fastest. Hard to top those tales.

Don Jameson gave Kerin, two other riders and me a ride to Seattle, wrapping up a fantastic trip. We were so lucky with the weather. Steve said it was his first ride of the year that wasn’t in cold rain, and we avoided the killer heat too. I can’t recommend this event enough, especially for an easterner like me, it is breathtaking!

P.S.: I got home Thursday morning to find my amazing wife Josie had baked a blueberry pie with 1200K pierced in the crust!! It can’t get any better than that!

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