Ed’s PA 1000K: The Toughest Randonnee You’ll Ever Love

I’ve written up the story of our Pennsylvania Randonneurs Endless Mountains 1000K. It’s been four years since we undertook a major randonnee on the tandem and it was a good event for us. It certainly felt like the 2006 Cascade 1200 (our other randonnee together) in difficulty, but with steeper climbs and many more of them. In that regard, it was more like Boston-Montreal-Boston.

I’ve also captioned my photos, in case you want to see the names and the places. They’re at my Flickr page.

Finally, after some digging around on the memory card on my Garmin and getting some tips from Garmin-expert Nick Bull, I pulled together a GPS track of the entire ride. It is at my Garmin Connect page.

The basic stats: 44,277 feet of climbing! Top speed of 55 m.p.h.! 47:11 moving, 20:37 stopped!

Today we’re sitting down, still, as our knees continue to recover. The typical “let’s go ride!” impulse we have on sunny three-day weekends is losing out to “let’s heal” common sense.

Endless Mountains 1000K Aug. 26-28, 2010: The Toughest Randonnee You’ll Ever Love

by Edward Felker
Sept. 4, 2010

Photos at my Flickr page. Our GPS track is at Garmin Connect.

Prologue

My wife MG and I planned our randonneuring program this year around the Pennsylvania Randonneurs Endless Mountains 1000K randonnee. We wanted to see if we, too, could get a tandem around the hilly and occasionally mountainous course designed by RBA Tom Rosenbauer.

We prepared with a fleche, a full brevet series and 1,500K of long, hilly rides in June and July. After a three-week break from hard riding, we arrived at Quakertown on Aug. 25 to begin the event.

MG and I typically have mixed emotions at the start of big events. She gets a case of nerves, while I get all giddy with excitement after the months of planning.

Gradually we exchange places during the ride. MG gets excited about the finish and I gradually start to drag from sleep deprivation and fatigue. It works out fine in the end, but the night before the start, we’re in our own jittery worlds.

After checking in at the Hampton Inn, we met up with our pals Bob Casciato (also nervous) and Gary Dean (who is riding everything this year) at the Weisel Youth Hostel that serves as the home base for Tom’s rides. Tom, ever organized, bounded out of his car and handed out carefully prepared packets of cue sheets, post office control drop cards, and pre-labeled bag drop tags.

He also showed the framed finishers’ medals ready to give us when we returned. Not if, but when. Right. We liked Tom’s optimism!

After a pleasant dinner with Bob and Gary at McCoole’s Red Lion Inn, we retired to our hotel rooms to get our little naps before the 4 a.m. start. MG and I finished our drop bags and turned in around 10 p.m., more than a little aware that the four hours sleep ahead would be our longest until Saturday night.

Day 1 Quakertown-Hallstead, Pa. 218 miles.

We arrived to find randonneurs hustling through the dark grassy parking area at the hostel, unloading bikes and donning reflective gear. Tom put out his usual spread of breakfast snacks and drinks. I hauled our Co-Motion down from the roof rack, attached the front fender and stuffed rain jackets, food and the rest of our gear into the Carradice rear bag.

Tom called us all 24 of us together around 3:50 a.m. and gave us the final pre-ride pep talk under a cloudless, starry sky. I bounded into the restroom only to emerge to find riders rolling out. “Come on Ed, Tom started everyone already,” MG said. I fired up the front Dinotte 200L and B&M Ixon IQ lights, steadied the bike for MG to board, and we took off after the group.

The field was made up of many randonneuring veterans, including Gary and Bob, Larry Midura, Laurent Chambard, Mark Sheehan, Bob Olsen and Bill Olsen (not related). Also attending were our fellow local DC Randonneurs Charlie Thomas and Scott Gater, who finished the EM1240 last year. We saw a number of other faces we would come to know better over the next three days.

The first job at hand was to get past the Bethlehem area before rush hour traffic. Traffic was building after 5 a.m. but all was well until mile 26 on Howertown Road, when we saw the dreaded flashing lights of emergency responders. There we found a bike on the pavement with its rear wheel pretzeled, bottles laying nearby, and a rider stretched out on the grass surrounded by medics.

Mike Lutz told us the rider, George Swain, had been hit. The road was narrow, but most of the traffic was oncoming. The driver was parked nearby, pacing and smoking a cigarette. We would find out later he claimed not to have seen George, and was cited for distracted driving while George was found to have been riding properly and well-lit. He just plowed right into George.

George would sustain two dozen broken bones but, miraculously, no internal injuries. His family has set up a blog site about his recovery. See more at http://thehudsonvalleyrandonneur.blogspot.com/2010/08/caring-bridge-updates-on-georges.html. Our best wishes go to him and his family.

We waited for a few minutes, then proceeded reluctantly, deeply disturbed by the accident. We felt the threat of every overtaking car and truck. We talked about returning to the start if our fears did not subside.

The first control at mile 52 was a Sunoco swarmed with car commuters, where the clerks declined to initial our cards. We kept receipts for proof. The fog lifted and with many miles of climbing ahead, everyone quickly left the control.

The climb up Fox Gap to the Appalachian Trail was very hard. We had summited before on a 200K in 2008 and it was every bit as grueling as we remembered. MG and I turned the granny ring for much of the way with little to no shoulder and cars whizzing past. We were still uncertain about what we had gotten ourselves into, but kept pedaling.

Our outlook had brightened by the time we met Vytas Janusauskas of Ottawa, Canada at the pedestrian bridge over the Delaware River. He would ride much of the event with us.

The Gourmet Gallery control at Blairstown, N.J. was heavenly. We bought lunch sandwiches, espresso and other drinks and sat at outdoor picnic tables. The sandwiches were big enough to take leftovers with us for later!

Off came the knee and arm warmers, and we started another serious climb to the top of Millbrook Road. Later we stopped with most everyone at the quaint general store at mile 103 in Layton, where we all ate and bought water.

At the gritty town of Port Jervis, N.Y. at mile 120, we were warm and starting to feel the many hills in our legs. The time was after 2 p.m. and we were a little worried about our progress. The diner control was a basic affair and we decided to sit down at the next control, a pizza cafe along the Lackawaxen River at mile 147.

The shallow, twisting climb up Rt. 97 was familiar to us and we enjoyed the sweeping river valley views. Despite a light headwind, the flat run along the river was a welcome relief and we talked about all the pizza we were going to eat. Yum. Not convenience store food.

The sun was starting to mellow as we arrived with Bob Horner of Powell, Ohio at the control, famished, only to find that it was permanently closed! This was a big disappointment, and there was nothing else nearby for food. The adjacent post office was still open and we bought some stamps to verify our passage.

The folks at the post office helpfully pointed out a drinking water source, a pipe from an artesian well. We filled up, glumly dug out some energy bars and hit the road.

Luckily we found a good Turkey Hill convenience store about 12 miles later at Lake Wallenpaupack, where we visited with Gary Dean and other riders. Next came the steady ascent over rollers and then a major climb to the highest point on the route at 2,159 feet. We were the last riders on the course at this point. Sigh.

We chatted with Chris Nadovich on his lovely Rivendell Atlantis, and saw Laurent on the way up. Route sweep Guy Harris drove by and offered encouragement, and we felt pretty good despite our position in the field.

The descent was fast and brief to the Dunkin Donuts control in Carbondale, which is quite the popular place on a Thursday evening. The DD was filled with riders and local folks. Guy topped off bottles in the parking lot and skateboarder kids hung out, looking at the bike weirdos in their night gear.

We ate sandwiches, drank coffee and made a couple of phone calls before hauling ourselves out into the night for the run to Hallstead. Little did we know we were in for another cruel granny ring climb out of Carbondale.

We got up the hill with a fair bit of complaining, and tried to settle in for the miles to New Milford. We struggled to stay alert, despite the bright full moon. I chewed on Clif Shot blocks and MG got out Accelerade gel, both with caffeine.

At the store at New Milford we stopped to turn over our cue sheets. The cashier came out and a customer at the gas pumps both asked us where we were going — without expressing any surprise that it was close to midnight! “I had a bicycle for two when I was a kid, and rode it with my mother,” she said.

I asked about the terrain to Hallstead, only seven miles away.

“Just one little rise!” she said cheerfully, and of course we did not believe her. Thankfully she was right, and we arrived at the hotel at 12:40 without another major climb. The control room food was a little meager but we got some cold lasagna, chips and drinks and bee-lined it for showers and sleep. Volunteer Jim Logan was helpful and got someone to take our bags to our room. He also took our 3:30 a.m. wakeup request.

We found out that Bob Casciato, leading the field, had withdrawn because of a medical issue. We expected him to ride through the event without any hiccups, but were glad to know he had made a prudent decision.

MG and I turned in, somewhat exhausted, and wondered how we’d get through the next day. After more than 20 hours riding we were still well short of the 400K mark.

We had hoped to get three hours sleep, but that was not to be if we were to make the morning controls. I counted on the fact that some shut-eye makes everything better, and we happily succumbed to sleep’s welcome embrace.

Day 2: Hallstead, Pa. to Lewisburg, Pa. 219 miles

The wakeup knock came far too early for civilized people, but not for randonneurs!

Neither of us were very hungry and we left without eating around 4:15 with Scott, Charlie, Bob Horner, Mike Lutz, Mike Anderson and Bob Bruce.

The fog was thick and around 5:30 a.m. we stopped for coffee and breakfast sandwiches with Bob H. and Gary Dean, while the rest went on. Gary had gone down when a car brushed him and he slowed until we rolled by. He bruised his elbow and lost his computer magnet, but was otherwise OK — and remarkably calm about it all. He told us he fell, but failed to tell us a car was the cause!

The stop was just what we all needed to keep us awake during the grey, foggy ride over easy terrain through Owego to the postcard control at Tioga Center, N.Y.

The next segment to Towanda, Pa., featured lots of little rollers, some quite steep, and river views. The fog lifted and we arrived warm and hungry with about 70 minutes to spare — very close for comfort.

Our pal Maile N., who checked out the EM 1240K last fall, told us on the phone the night before to keep eating, and she was so right.

We were starting to bonk by the time we arrived at each control. MG and I bought some Dunkin Donuts’ surprisingly good panini sandwiches and more coffee. The local customers didn’t bat an eye at the rather large group of cyclo-nuts in line. We left under brilliant skies and temperatures in the upper 70s.

Towanda is certainly pretty, with beautiful homes, but was showing the stress of the natural gas drilling rush going on in northern Pennsylvania. Heavy trucks were everywhere. Bob H. later told us he was run off the narrow uphill road leaving town, along a curb that he had to hop to get out of the way of a big truck. He banged his big chainring on the curb and it would later give him shifting problems.

Tom later told us he had to send us on the main road, Rt. 414, to Canton, Pa., because the quieter side road he used in past editions was too damaged by trucks. The truck traffic is all part of the hydro-fracturing drilling process that has swept through the Marcellus Shale region. This controversial practice is detailed in more depth here: http://www.bradfordcountypa.org/Natural-Gas.asp

We saw a steady stream of 18-wheel tankers and giant dump trucks as we pedaled along, but most were going the other way. This section featured shallow rollers and we enjoyed the clear day and moderate temperatures, though we had to contend with another slight westerly headwind. Still, MG and I were starting to suffer from sleep deprivation and saddle soreness. We stopped at a shaded drive to take ibuprofen and slather on some chamois creme.

Our eyes were on the clock. We faced another tight control window at Canton. We decided that if we timed out, we would agree that we did our best. It was a sobering realization that we were on the verge of DNQ’ing.

With relief, we made it to the Acorn Store control at mile 315, with about 80 minutes to spare. We had actually put another 10 minutes in the bank! We had about five hours to make the next control at mile 358, and felt the pressure lift a bit.

The drama was only beginning, though. A few miles later we began tackling the 15-mile segment of increasingly steep ridge rollers on Rt. 414 dubbed the “Heartbreak Hills” by our friends Crista Borras and Chuck Wood. They were the first tandem team to complete the EM1K, in 2008, and still hold the low tandem time of 65:35.

None of the hills were long, but they were tall enough that we had to drop to the granny. There was little payoff: the descents were twisty and I had to brake to stay in our lane.

Not helping were the dump trucks on the road barreling to a natural gas construction site. Fortunately our low gear of 26×34 was easy enough for us to get over all but one rise, where we hopped off and walked a short stretch rather than serpentine our way to the top.

Finally the road turned off the ridge at Liberty and we gratefully began the long descent into the forested, notched Pine Creek Gorge area. With the big effort behind us, MG and I began to again feel the weight of sleep deprivation.

It’s amazing how descents can bring out the yawns. We surrendered to the urge and parked for a 15-minute nap at a community center near the metal bridge before Little Pine Creek State Park.

Despite the occasional dump truck rumbling past, we had no problem drifting off, and felt much refreshed for it. Vytas rolled up and joined us for the forested creekside rollers to McConnell’s Country Store control at mile 358. There we rested and ate with Mark Sheehan, Laurent, Bob H. and Bill Olsen.

The staff was very nice and sold me some terrific potato salad, which filled my craving for something not made of sugar or in chip form.

We rolled out with Vytas and Bill, and pedaled over moderate hills to Lamar, Pa. with a stop to admire one of the Goodyear blimps at an airport near Lock Haven. Again, MG and I were sleepy — she emerged from the Pilot Truck Stop control restroom having forgotten why she went in!

We lingered over caffeinated drinks, ate Subway sandwiches and tried to get our wits collected. Guy was there as was Christine, who had ridden through the night before. We left in a main group of us, Vytas, Bob H., and Bill.

The night ride to the hotel in Lewisburg was initially familiar to me because it skirted the State College area, where I have ridden previously.

I knew we were in for a stair-step climb up Long Run Road, but was taken by surprise by the tough, 3.6 mile twisty grinder up Bull Run Road. We were overtaken by an 18-wheeler just as we began the descent down to Rt. 192, it’s taillights showing the way down the steep switchbacks.

After a short ascent on Rt. 192, the 20-mile descent to Lewisburg began. We knew a downhill was ahead, but had not idea that it kept going, and going!

MG and I took the lead and bombed over the sections where the surface had been milled for repaving. There’s something about an 8-foot long bike with 32mm tires to smooth out the road, and I kept my hands off the brakes. Ominously, however, MG’s knee began to ache as we coasted for long stretches.

We caught up Christine as we rolled into Lewisburg at 12:10 a.m. where we were warmly greeted by control captain Ron Anderson and Jim Logan, who got us fed and into our room quickly. Another 3:30 a.m. wakeup call, showers and sleep. One day to go. We were beginning to think we’d make it!

Day 3: Lewisburg-Quakertown, Pa. 184 miles.

MG and I were dragging this morning, no doubt about it. Randonneur zombies!

I woke up famished and ate another bowl of lasagna in the control room, along with my latest doses of Pepcid AC and ibuprofen. Ron thoughtfully brewed Starbucks coffee. I wanted to hug him. Coffee snobs unite!

There was more than a little concern for Ron that Laurent had not come in yet. Word was that he had stopped to sleep by the side of the road before the descent to Lewisburg. (Laurent eventually got picked up after waking up too late to get to Lewisburg).

MG and I groggily re-mounted and made our way along rail lines to the first control at a gas station store at Herndon. Yet another convenience store stop. Nothing looked good.

I bought a big cup of half coffee-half hot chocolate — the only way I can drink gas station coffee — and downed the “half-pounder” breakfast burrito. Whoa.

The two Olsens, Christine, Mark S., Vytas, Bob Bruce, Scott and Charlie were there, looking a little worse for wear but in good spirits. We took heart from the fact that we were still showing up at controls before everyone else left.

MG and I made our way as far as the quiet, bucolic Rt. 3016 before she began nodding off. The little Emmanuel Chapel offered a serene wayside for another 15-minute nap in the warming morning sun. We were getting set to go when we heard Bill Olsen and Vytas talking on their way up the hill.

More climbs led us to the control at Pine Grove. We gnawed on little personal pizzas. Christine came out of the restrooms and told MG that someone had laughed at her cycling outfit. Imagine that!

Under clear skis, we rode with Vytas toward the next control, 16 miles away at Jonestown. This stretch featured more hills, including the Swatara Gap, and the sun was hot as we arrived. The good news was that we were now only about 115 miles from the finish. What could be easier, right? HAHAHA!

By the time we got to Mt. Aetna, all of us were dragging. A small crowd of riders were hanging out in the parking lot. A few miles previous I had rolled into an intersection too fast and had to take evasive action to avoid a car coming from our right. This was my second errant moment at the helm today and was a wake-up call that my reaction time was slowing.

A bunch of us stopped again in about six miles, where I took a little catnap of 10 minutes. It was enough to sharpen my focus a little, but I was still wary of making another mistake.

The run through Amish and Mennonite farm lands was slow-slow-slow. We saw a number of club cyclists out for their rides looking remarkably clean and fresh, and I envied their snappy legs. MG and I were suffering by this time, from sore butts, achy knees and general sluggishness.

The miles seemed to drag but we finally arrived at Brownstown, where everyone hung out on the curb eating, drinking and talking. And, most importantly, sitting. Bob Olsen bought bungee cords to deal with Shermer’s Neck. Andrew Mead came by on his bike, took a head count for Tom and gave us all some kind words. Thanks Andrew.

Bob H. joked that the sidewalk ramp to the store was the perfect take-off incline for the randonneur bikes. The “Randonneur Ramp” may have been officially borne there and then!

With 75 miles to go, MG and I were confident of finishing, but knew it would take awhile. I tried not to look at my watch and just ride.

With Bob H., Vytas, Jon Clamp and Michael Anderson, we got through the heavy traffic at Morgantown and took another stop at a store at Mile 571.

A nice downhill section on pleasant Harmonyville Road gave us a chance to spread our wings before we got back to work over the bridge over the Schuylkill River and the narrow, traffic-y climb to the last control at mile 592.

Tom was there to urge us to take care on the final segment to the finish, which was composed of many turns and back roads — and lots more climbing. He said “a couple of steeps,” or something like that.

MG and I gobbled sandwiches, took pictures and waited for Bob Torres, who arrived a little after us, to reset and head out with the group.

The next 2.5 hours were fun and horrible at the same time.

We certainly enjoyed our little group of Vytas, Bob H., Jon, Mike and Bob T. as we crawled up the hills and flew down the few descents. It was completely dark and MG called the cues to me, while I double-checked our route against our GPS.

The bad part was that our knees were in near constant pain by now and it was hard to sit. We were pedaling squares! Adding insult, my shifting skills fell apart. I kept choosing the wrong gear for standing climbing, which only made our knees worse.

I dared not look at the clock — I didn’t want to know how slowly we were progressing. I asked Vytas to take the group ahead, but he only yelled out, “Anyone unhappy with the pace?!” Bob H. yelled back, “can we slow down some more?” and with that we trudged onward.

All that said, the miles piled up, we had nearly perfectly quiet roads, and at 11:37 the hostel showed appeared around the corner.

I was floored to find out we had finished before midnight — for once we made better time than I perceived, rather than slower. MG and I shared a grateful hug to be done after so many long hours in the saddle.

We were met by volunteers Gilbert and Christiane Torres and their post-ride spread of snacks and vegetarian chili. Food not in wrappers! Thank guys!

And, of course, we claimed that framed medal we had seen more than 67 hours before.

Epilogue

Our GPS track showed us climbing more than 44,000 feet. That explains why we were so trashed at the end. OK, now we don’t feel so bad.

We learned a lot on this ride.

First, Tom calls this a “not-tandem friendly” course and we would agree, but it was do-able. The toughest day was the second, though MG thinks it was the first. We had to stay focused to make the second-day controls, and then to get through the toughest hills of the three days.

This course demands respect. Push too hard and you’ll blow up. Tarry too long and you will time out. Keep moving.

We loved the scenic sections and were also entirely relieved to be done. That’s randonneuring, I guess.

Second, we pushed too hard on the first day, mostly at my urging. It came back to haunt us with sore knees later in the ride. We would have done better to cut our rest stops shorter and ride slightly slower. LEARN.

Lastly, the help of volunteers and fellow riders makes all the difference. We are so grateful for the company of those who rode with us and helped keep our spirits high. We were impressed by the skills and patience of our fellow randonneurs.

To them and to our superb volunteers Tom, Guy, Ron, Jim, Gilbert, Christiane and everyone else who contributed to our success: THANK YOU ALL!

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