(Story and pictures by Natalie Walker, Swami’s Team Fun host)
On Labor day, six of the Team Fun gals and Swami’s decided it would be fun to climb over 4000 feet of elevation in 14 miles… what made me think this was a good idea in the heat? I have absolutely no clue…
I arrived with my Nephew, Zach (dragged him with me after my sister volunteered him a few days prior) at Harrah’s Rincon Casino a little before 7 am. As we opened the doors of his lowered yellow truck I observed there were already about 20 riders and more arriving. My nephew asked smartly, “This is what you do for fun Aunt Natalie?”… I had to laugh! As the gals arrived, we exchanged greetings and our apprehension on climbing this beast and discovered in our brief exchange that 5 of us had never attempted to climb this peak before (myself included). We were all a little nervous and admitted we had considered using excuses to get out of it that morning… but heck… it’s just a mountain and cyclists climb it all the time. After all it”s only the highest peak in San Diego!
As most of the riders arrived and assembled, Jason Lee of Swami’s cycling who organized the ride overall (and originally promised he would come back for us and make sure we ascended safely) spoke in front of the now large crowd of about 40 riders (maybe 10 females) and welcomed and encouraged everyone to take their time and make sure we all had lots of water and food. I was excitedly nervous and ready to go… Jason introduced Fred Muir (President of Swami’s) who spoke and told us there were 2 riders climbing up East Grade Road with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). One a quadriplegic ( with partial movement as his C-spine was only partially severed), the other a paraplegic… he took a show of hands as to who would be descending down East grade (after So. Grade and back up again… Only 9K feet of climbing) and might be able to help push these two athletes up East Grade as needed. That was out of our climbing ability but many of the guys were happy to help. That was definantly the best part of this ride, cyclists helping others who love this sport and do it despite their limitations!
After the announcements and greetings I told Zach to leave us as I knew he was capable of a much faster climbing pace and we (Team Fun) would see him at the top. Rosio was the only cyclist who had climbed the mountain so she gave us some tips as we headed out… we decided to stay in the back and just conserve energy as much as possible. For the first 2 miles to the base of the mountain (before the Taco shop) there was maybe one mile flat and a mile of a slight uphilll grade… that was the warm up? OMG, my legs were already burning! Then the right turn to the hill… WOW… it looked VERY long and quite steep. I encouraged the ladies to take it slow and easy as we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.
We naturally broke into 2 groups… After a few miles I pulled in the front with Angela (whom I had just met) and Janice (a cycling friend for a year now) while Rosio (an ultra distance rider whom I have the pleasure of riding with a few times since July) stayed back with Chin and Dena (I had only met Chin a few rides prior and this was my fist meeting with Dena). I encouraged both Angela and Janice to drink little sips often and keep the nutrition steady, take a mental note of the downhill for any safety hazards since we would be riding down at an average speed of approximately 30 mph and to shift into the tougher gears when they could so they had the easier gears when the grade increased. We actually talked… a lot… about Team Fun, how long we have been with this awesome group, how great it was to be riding up this beast of a hill with each other and not feel like we needed to race or prove anything. Behind it was burning legs and the shear desire to succeed.
At the split in the road my group chose the wrong way… the blind leading the blind… I was thinking WOW, this is more then a false flat, it’s downright nice.. as we continued at a speedy pace I knew it couldn’t be right!!! Then I saw the downhill ahead. Well darn… I knew it was too good to be true and I KNOW there is no downhill option on this ride so we turned around and went a mile back to the split. The good news is our legs felt much better because of this little “recovery” section… bad news was we just rode a few miles further then we needed to (:
We continued to chat as much as possible, drink water as the morning heat started to envelope us and enjoy the left turns into the shade (despite the looming flies who continuously pestered us in the dark). At about mile 7 we caught up with Rosio, Chin and Dena… told them of our unintentional detour and continued past. They looked in good spirits with plenty of energy to complete the punishment. A little past the 4000 ft marker we found a turn out and pulled over for a quick energy supplement, some photos and quick encouragement since the mountain was getting steeper and warmer. We dared not stay too long as we knew our legs might fail if we did!
As we set into our pace I began to create a little distance between myself and the gals… taking note of how they were doing behind me and looking back often… I couldn’t slow down as the punishment would be MUCH worse if I did! I turned a corner and there was Jason Lee.. true to his word and fixing a flat, he had already been to the top and was descending to get some pictures of us climbing. Fortunately I had pulled out my phone and took a few selfies as we climbed… I had to take a LOT actually and wasn’t very good at it but at least I got a few. I continued past Jason and as I rounded another corner I noted that Angela and Janice were becoming smaller and smaller in my rear vision so I decided to find one last place to pull over since slowing was just not a good option.
I pulled over in an area that was not too steep and made sure it was leading into the left turn (they always seemed to be just a little less steep then the right turns). I refulled and rehydrated and a minute later Angela rode past saying “I can’t stop because I may not get going agin!” I just said “you go girl… we’re really close now”… not that I knew… no garmin to track the miles and no idea where I actually was… just a guess and a sheer desire to rest my burning legs for good! Janice pulled up a minute later and I told her she didn’t have to stop but she wanted to. I stayed with her for a minute and then said… “come on, we can’t stop long or our legs might not work again!”
The last mile was probably the worst as other cyclists descended at high speeds opposite us with smiles on their faces shouting words of encouragement and offered an occasional thumbs up. I must admit I had many naughty thoughts cross my mind… I don’t think I can do this anymore… my legs are burning… I think they are gong to fall off… I want to go home now!!! I had to wipe away my feelings of doubt and negativity image myself at the top with a big smile with the others (as my sister Pam so widely advised me to do).y positive thoughts and visions began to help and I continued to pick up a little speed. My nephew Zach appeared descending and he made a u turn as soon as he saw me… such a nice young man! We spoke and he told me there were only a few more turns and I was there… thank goodness! I asked him to go back and check on Janice as I could no longer see her behind me. I knew she would be fine, but Zach is 20 and he could handle the extra work. Although he did ask me… well how far down is she? This was his first time climbing the Palomar too and he was a little tired.
Finally I saw it… the summit… as I reached the yield sign I had to slow for a Jeep making a turn to descend down the mountain. All I could think was “get out of my way, I need to rest these legs”. But I had a surprising amount of energy in my legs still and Zach was right behind me assuring me Janice was doing fine and would be up soon.
Rosio arrived before Janice assembled at the general store where we found a few other ladies (Meagan and her boyfriend and I didn’t know the other giirl) who had made it up a few minutes before us. We took some pictures and a little later Chin and Dena arrived looking all smiles and tired like us. Jason Lee had fixed his flat and returned up the hill so we could some nice pictures. We congratulated each other for a major achievement, filled our water and headed back down. On the long, fun (a little scary at times with few steep turns) descent down I reflected on my journey… The grinding, the doubt, the burning and the strain… The support, encouragement, laughter and sharing with old and new friends. then I though… Mt. Palomar… you’re not so big!!!