Last weekend, I loaded my family into the truck, hitched up the camper trailer, and we trekked up to Sheep Mountain, on the Glenn Highway, for what has become my annual participation in the Fireweed bicycle race.
For those who don’t know me, I took up cycling a few years ago as a way to get back into shape. Actually, I started with a couple of short triathlons, but bad knees limit my running, and while I can swim, I don’t necessarily enjoy it, so for me it’s all about the bike. I am now a MAMIL — Middle-Aged Man In Lycra — and loving it.
The Fireweed is one of the biggest bicycle events in the state. There are four different distances — 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles and 400 miles. They all start at Sheep Mountain Lodge at Mile 113.5 of the Glenn Highway and head east. The 50 and 100 are out-and-back events, with a turnaround at the halfway mark. For that matter, the 400 is out-and-back as well. Participants hang a right just past Glennallen and head over Thompson Pass to Valdez, where the 200 finishes, then turn around for the ride back to Sheep Mountain.
My preferred distance is the 100. It gives me a nice goal to shoot for, and it sounds impressive when you tell your friends you did a century over the weekend. The only problem is training to ride that far — not because of the distances involved, but rather that it’s hard to find friends who want to ride that far with you. When you tell people you’re headed out for a 60-mile ride, the reaction you typically get is, “What are you thinking?”
So, with that in mind, I’d like to share some of the things I was, in fact, thinking during my 100-mile ride.
The start: I feel pretty good. It’s turning out to be a nicer weather than predicted, with mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s. I hope it doesn’t get too warm; I planned for showers and 50s. Oh well, I’ll take it. My wife just commented that she had trouble spotting me in the sea of spandex; clearly, I’m with my tribe.
Miles 0-6: The first part of this race is uphill, but that’s a good warm-up, and it means it’s a downhill finish, right? I don’t want to go out too fast — there’s still a lot of miles to go — but I’m feeling pretty spry. It’s actually pretty warm; time to lose the sleeves.
Miles 7-18: I feel great! The road has some gentle climbs and descents, but there’s a little bit of a tailwind. Uh-oh, that’ll be a headwind coming home. No worries; I entered the “ride” category, rather than “individual time trial,” so I can ride with a group. In fact, another rider just caught up to me and suggested just that. I tell him how fun I think this will be, because I rarely get to ride with a group at home. Life is good.
Miles 19-25: The first of the time-trialists, who started 15 minutes after me, just whizzed passed. These are the folks with the teardrop helmets and the carbon fiber aero bikes that are worth more than my truck. Riding my aluminum road bike, I’m actually pretty pleased with myself that it took them this long to catch up. This section ends with a long descent, during which I hit 42 mph, leaving me with a feeling exhilaration (mixed with a small bit of sheer terror). There goes the race photographer — smile for the camera! I’m starting to see riders coming from the other direction — individuals and relay team members finishing up their 400. They look tired. I wonder, what are they thinking?
My wife and kids are there to greet me at the first aid station on the course. They’ve passed me a few times on the road with Journey blasting on the stereo. Life is great.
Miles 25-49: Life is still pretty good, though things are getting a little sketchy. That tailwind has turned into a crosswind, and I’m actually leaning into it to keep from being blown off the shoulder. That’s something new. Speaking of the shoulder, some of these cracks are bigger than I remember from the last time, and I’m worried that one of my water bottles might pop out of its cage on one of them.
The turnaround: Halfway, and I still feel pretty good. The turnaround is actually just shy of 50 miles (something my son will be sure to point out over the next few days any time I say I rode 100 miles). The folks manning the aid station here are wearing leis, blasting beach music and serving peanut butter and banana sandwiches. You gotta love enthusiastic volunteers. My family is there to see me off for the ride back.
Miles 50-65: I still feel good, but I’m starting to wish I had been able to get in some longer training rides. The guy I’ve been riding with says he’s in the same boat, but he’s young, probably in his 20s ...
Mile 68: I look down for a moment to switch out water bottles, and when I look back up, the guy I was riding with is about 50 yards ahead and pulling away. Looks like this just turned into a solo ride. I’m starting to feel some fatigue, so as long as I’m by myself, I’m going to stop and consume one of those energy gels. I say “consume” because it’s not really something you eat. I’m pleasantly surprised by the flavor; it actually tastes like apple sauce. That should get me to the last aid station at Mile 74, where I’ll spend a few extra minutes to psyche myself up for what I know is coming next.
The Climb: The ascent starts shortly after leaving the last aid station, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to end. That sun that felt so pleasant this morning is now burning — my plan for the day’s predicted weather did not include sunscreen. The steepest part of the climb ascends about 900 feet over three miles. It sure didn’t feel that long when I went zipping down it at 42 mph a few hours ago. Now I’m struggling to maintain 7 or 8 mph. The crosswind has become a headwind, but it’s not doing anything to cool me off. I hit a bump and my taillight pops off, but there’s no way I’m going to turn around to go get it. I’m gaining on a rider up ahead, but as I get closer, I realize it’s a dad riding behind his daughter, who looks to be 10 or 11 years old, and all of the sudden, I don’t feel so impressed with my effort. I get to the top of the steepest part, but there’s still several more miles of uphill into the wind and I can’t get my legs to turn over any faster. My family seems to have abandoned me, as they’re nowhere to be seen.
It occurs to me that if I’d entered to 50, I’d be done by now. What was I thinking? Life right now is not so good.
18 miles to go: Finally, a descent! I think I’m going to make it to the finish after all. And hey, looking at the clock on my bike computer, I might make it in under 6 hours, which for me is not too shabby. Maybe life isn’t so bad.
10 miles to go: The final climb is a little intimidating because I can see it coming from a long ways off, and I’ve just remembered that my bike computer clock is about 10 minutes slow and I never reset it, so finishing under 6 hours isn’t going to happen. But I’m getting my second wind, and this climb is nothing compared to the last one, and after that, it’s all downhill. Life is looking up.
The finish: Downhill finishes are the best idea ever! There’s my family — turns out my son had a gusher of a nosebleed, and they went back to the camper to stem the flow. But now they’re at the finish, where there’s also pizza and chocolate milk. Apparently, my kids weren’t allowed to serve themselves until they brought some for me, so they can’t wait to feed me. I am more exhausted than I’ve been in a long time, and I’m having trouble bending down to sit on the ground. My arms are sore from absorbing all those bumps, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make my legs work later. But all in all, once again, life is good.
I’m actually thinking I can’t wait to do it again.
Reach Clarion editor Will Morrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.