I was not supposed to do this ride. In fact, I believe I have said it once, maybe twice, maybe three times, that I no longer wanted to participate in centuries. My last century was the San Diego Century, May 2016. Centuries are very long, very painful rides.
My husband, David, seems to love centuries. The longer, the hillier the ride, the better is pretty much his motto. He signed himself up for several rides that fit this description a few months ago, including one called “Breathless Agony” (sounds very appealing, right?) and the Campagnolo Gran Fondo. As fate would have it, a work trip he needed to take over the weekend was moved to the weekend of the Fondo. I figured I might as well take his registration and do the ride, although I thought I would perhaps do the medio fondo distance (a reasonable, yet still challenging 56 miles).
Then I was talking to Jill, and well, Jill loves centuries also, and I said something about not having ever done the Great Western Loop (GWL) and that it might be cool to do the Honey Springs climb. Then somehow Amber got roped into this, and the three of us ended up on the gran fondo roster. This was to be Amber’s first century. While many people train and plan, and plan and train for their first century, many of us find ourselves somehow roped into it at the last minute. Welcome to that illustrious club, Amber. At least Jill took her on one 80-mile training ride a few weeks ahead of time.
Troy also asked me if I was doing this ride, and I had said I thought I was taking over David’s registration, and then Troy and Scharla were also on the roster. David’s original registration multiplied into 5 new participants, with David meanwhile off in Idaho enjoying a downhill ski day.
The term “mass start” was definitely a little intimidating to Amber, and well, it is a bit of a chaotic scene. You are trying to use the bathroom, there’s about 1/3 the number of port-a-potties there should be, you are saying hello to friends and acquaintances you know, then there are a few people saying hello that you are pretty sure you don’t know; you are finding your start location, and trying, vainly, to meet up with the other half of your group. There’s announcements and music blaring, and well, pretty soon you are off and Troy and Scharla are way on the other side of the “mass” and you can’t manage to get to them.
We told Amber there was really nothing to worry about with a mass start, well, except that there is. First of all, there are those few people who seem to not realize that clipping in on at least one foot is advisable to get started and you come across some yahoo straddling and walking his bike as you are about to cross the start line. Then, as you progress down the crack-filled, railroad-crossed streets of downtown and National City with 500 or so of your closest friends, all jockeying for position, you realize that maybe starting at the front or far back of the mass is the best plan, as one, then two of your new buddies succumbs to the bumpy railroad tracks and potentially ends their ride in a heap at mile 5 because they were unwilling to follow the gazillion cones set up to indicate the safest way across. My actual riding friends could hear me mumbling under my breath, “I can’t wait for the climbing to start.” Not only were my hands solidly frozen for the first 15 miles, but the climbs are about the only thing that starts to separate the massive pack. You can only handle so many light runners and music players. People carry speakers and play 80s hair band music OUTLOUD on the ride, you ask? They sure do! A woman next to me on a tandem leaned over and said to me, “He’s lucky I don’t rip that thing off at the next stoplight and throw it into the weeds.” Then I couldn’t stop thinking about that until I finally lost the guy. He was wearing a beer jersey. And then you say, of course he was wearing a beer jersey! (I have this thing about beer jerseys). Ballast Point, not Stone IPA, in case you were wondering.
Jill knows me pretty well, and knows I get pretty antsy in large groups of people I don’t know well, and knows I start to get a little crazy about getting out of there. On one of the first long hills, I realized I was kind of violating our “don’t put out too much too early philosophy” of guiding Amber through her first century, so I backed off a bit and put up with the situation with a few deep breaths.
Eventually it does thin out, thankfully, and you can start to enjoy the ride a bit more – well, that is if you prefer quiet and predictability to noise and chaos. We bypassed the first rest stop around mile 10 or so, and headed out to the second stop at Pio Pico, mile 28, the turnaround of the medio fondo ride, or, where I might have been much happier finishing from. Jill was good about snapping awesome photos (as always, of course!).
The two pictures on the right show us on the ride to the KOM/QOM climb of the day, Honey Springs Road. I had thought the road was about 6 miles long with a constant grade, similar to San Elijo Road (which we were all familiar with), and told Amber as much. She asked if there were any steep portions, like the Couser Canyon climb we did the previous Saturday. I said, oh no, David said there weren’t any steep portions.
Well, the climb is in fact 7 miles, and there are steep portions peppered into the rather NOT constant grade of the road. I had said, “Just stay right behind me, you’ll be fine”, then proceeded to climb and forget about just about everything else. The road flattens and pitches up, then flattens again, and really you never can predict what it’s actually going to do. At some point around halfway, I hear my phone pinging with texts coming in, and I thought, “Who would be texting me now?” I had lost track of Jill and Amber, but I figured, oh, I’ll just get this done and wait at the top. Again, Jill knows me quite well, and knows that even though I pay lip service to “I’m not going to go hard on this one”, I pretty much always go at least pretty hard anyway because “I just want to get this done.”
One memorable quote from the climb was when I was passing a couple of guys (I had warned them I was coming), the one said to the other, “She just on-your-lefted you!”
So I get to the top, circle around a bit, then pull over to check my text messages to find that Jill has broken a spoke and cannot continue to ride. I wasn’t sure if Amber was still coming or not, but I had no service to send additional messages or call, so I waited. And waited. The Campagnolo roving service car drove by, and I managed to find out Jill was in fact unable to finish the ride and was being picked up.
There is definitely a bit of irony in the fact that the one who really enjoys these things ended up sitting on the side of the road waiting for a pickup while I had 60 more miles ahead of me. I figured I better get to a place where I could at least communicate with Amber, so I continued on for awhile until I found service. Just as I wrapped up my call with Jill, there comes Amber around the bend. One of the best things about Swami’s blue is that it really stands out from a distance. I was very happy to see her because not only did I not at all want to do the rest of that thing alone, I didn’t also want to be known as the friend that abandoned her friends on the ride. There’s already this story in my family where I supposedly left my sister on a run we did in our hometown, not knowing she had injured herself behind me and needed help. Maybe I should really re-evaluate some things…
So, there we were, out in the middle of I’m-not-sure where (probably some distance from Jamul, as that seemed to come up on sign after sign), making our way toward the middle rest stop. We came across a mother cow with two babies right on the side of the road and nearly teared up thinking how much Jill would’ve loved that (she loves her cows!). So I tried to do my best to snap a few pictures along the way.
The announcer at the 46-mile rest stop made the following statement, “The rest of the course is 90% downhill or flat.” I’m not sure where he got that statistic, but I was pretty sure he was wrong. My total elevation was somewhere in the high 4000s on my Garmin, and I knew we had to get at least to 7200′ before the end of the ride. But he seemed really insistent on it, and I wanted to believe him.
But of course he was a liar, and after a nice bit of downhill rest, pretty soon we were hitting hill after hill, interspersed with the occasional long downhill, all the way to the last rest stop we were to use for the day – the ~78 mile rest stop back at the Pio Pico location. Amber drank something like 3 cups of coke, I had two Honey Stingers gels, and there were Fritos and cookies consumed. I believe this is the point where I told Amber, “The last 20 or so miles of a century are something like the last part of labor when you are giving birth. Even though it hurts so much, you just want that thing done.” The wanting it done is the only thing at that point that gets you through.
Especially when you are on a course that has mostly been east and uphill, you live on the west coast, and you must end the last 30 or so miles of your ride directly into a strong headwind. I was estimating the wind around the Otay Lakes area at about 15-20 mph. There were times when I had to shift into my small chain ring like I was climbing a hill. There were times when I cursed the lakes, their length, the wind, and my very existence. In the depths of my despair, I remembered the one other time many years ago, the only other time I had ridden this stretch… the infamous ride when David said he would just “go climb Honey Springs really quick, and I’ll be right back” … except that NO ONE can climb Honey Springs “really quick” (it is 7 miles, after all) and he never was in fact right back. Not only would it take a minimum of 26 minutes to climb (Chris Horner’s time, the Strava KOM), it would take time to descend, and well, it takes a lot of extra time when you get lost as well. David made it back to the post-ride celebration after it was mostly packed up, and having practically had a search party sent out for him. I had ridden the whole second half of that metric century alone. Coming back around Otay Lakes is definitely a memorable experience. I’d suggest having a pack in front of you when you try it!
So while I thought maybe the lake was magically lengthening itself as we rode around it, we eventually did make it around, but unfortunately to yet another set of fairly steep climbs. It was at some point along this stretch when I stopped and popped some Hyland’s Leg Cramps pills under my tongue – I could feel the twitches when I would start up again after a light, and I knew I had to make it through this thing. It was now my job to get Amber to the finish. There was no Jill to fall back on. This thing was getting done.
We came across random small groups of men through this stretch (Amber said she later counted on the list that only 77 women did the gran fondo distance out of hundreds), and shared funny tidbits about our time on the GWL. One guy said, “I’ll be happy to never, ever see another sign for Jamul again in my life!” I was going to list other quotes, but honestly, I can’t remember anything else from that point. It was pretty much a blur.
I do know we ended up on the bike path next to the 125 freeway or 128 or whatever it is, that path that’s super cut up and filled with what I’ll call “pedestrians” (for lack of a better term). Wind still in our faces, we were determined to weave our way through any obstacles to see that finish line. You will notice I have no further pictures after the stop at 46 miles. Things got serious at that point, or you might say, $hit got real.
At the end of that bike path, we landed at a spot I am extremely familiar with, the stretch from the port area up through National City and Barrio Logan, and our return to downtown. We picked up straggler after straggler on our little women-powered train of two, and pulled a group of as many as 6-8 guys toward the finish. Seeing the skyline never felt so good, and that little tiny overpass bridge right by the convention center never felt so bad. We finally rounded the bend into Ruocco Park at Seaport Village, where Jill was faithfully waiting to document the event.
We finally met up with Troy and Scharla, who seemed to be just in front of us the whole way, texting me they were leaving a rest stop just about when we arrived. Troy bought us some beers, and we got to hear the story of their ride as well. All in all, a great memory on two wheels!
Amber joins the realm of the Davids and Jills of the world, which is, in my book, the group of people who can complete a century without a single complaint!
Before this ride had even commenced, we had signed ourselves and Amber up for our next adventure – the Alpine Challenge on April 22. Come out and join us for what will be another fun day in the mountains of east county. This is one of the last of the local rides I have yet to do!