Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Steens Mazama 1000

I made it home.  Corn on the cob is cooking on the stove, the cat's on the patio and I have a little story to tell.

It starts way before day one but that is where the start line is, so I'll begin there too.  Well, first, the ride to the start line at the Tilikum Bridge had my heart rate at its highest pace of the entire race.  Nervous about something stupid happening or forgetting something, or, really, of starting something I might not finish.

So many amazing friends and boosters and racers gathered by the opera house that morning.  It felt like a nice miniature of the spectacle I'd witnessed at the start of this year's Trans Am Bike Race in Astoria.  I can't imagine doing what those racers or any of my competitors on the inaugural Steens Mazama 1000 do.  Riding through the night.  Spontaneous bivvy overnights in unexpected places.  Going with very little sleep.

My plan to survive this thing involved just that, a plan.  I scotch taped giant map pages on my bedroom wall and traced the route in black sharpie, crossing the already marked Oregon Outback route.  Which reminds me, I couldn't've done this, no way, without having done the Outback. Although they're different in many ways, riding the Outback gave me valuable gear and terrain knowledge. Also critical was my experience as a randonneur, which I've been away from while training for this race.  My rando brain would calculate "miles in the bank", which varies from some randos' "hours in the bank" strategy.

All spring, I tried hard not to take it as a bad omen if a map page wafted off the wall randomly.  I marked my planned overnights with smiley face stickers.  Then I stared at the map a lot, made grids and lists, and even came up with a post office drop scheme to ease my way.  I am still somewhat stunned at how the rhythm of planned overnights and spontaneous ones worked out.  The little cabin called Squirrelville and the hot springs camp in the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge were equally sublime even though one was reserved and the other totally unexpected.
So, who did I ride with?  I had the pleasure of riding with almost everyone at one time or another, but mainly I rode with my good friend James, who I also rode the Outback with, and who confirmed during a TNR (Thursday Night Ride) that he was for sure racing the Steens and would like to match my day plan.  We had a third, a lady, but she had to pre-scratch due to health stuff.  A last minute add on to the ten dayers: Justin.  This kid: a prodigy.  A serious bike prodigy.  He was originally a bicycle kitty blog fan, and we met and became friends by chance.  We also rode for several days with a really fit Ironman lady who pedicabs in Austin for a living.

What went wrong?  Well, I got a flat tire.  That was a mile from Riley and I filled with C02 til I got to the little store, I was so thirsty and hungry.  My panniers and trunk bag off, tools out, bike upside down, eating chips and ice cream while fixing my dirty tire.  Classy lady, c'est moi.

I always joke to kind motorists who offer flat help - "oh, do you have a floor pump?".  So naturally that's what I said when a coupla cute guys asked me if I needed help.  One said "well, actually..." and the big camper behind him pulled away to reveal his company sprint van wrapped with a popular mountain bike brand logo.  He told me he knew the rules of trail magic and offered me not only the floor pump, but a tube and a sticker.  A really cool sticker that I put on my chain stay.  Tell me what it says and I'll give you a pair of painted valve caps.

Ok, onward.  The main thing about riding bikes, the main thing I like anyway, is how important it is to stay in the moment.  Yet, being consumed with planning and training in the months leading up to the race required the opposite of that staying present mindset.  I recognize how there are deposits and withdrawals in life and all of that planning and training worked as a large credit that I could pull from during the challenge.  It's kind of like being two people - one of you taking care of the other.  My caretaker self treated my riding self like a coddled princess.  Thank you, caretaker self.

Leaving town, I was just so high on life.  Everyone riding with us, blowing horns and cheering. Nathan at the front, just like on other urban rides, directing the way.  "Neutral roll out, people!", then, around Foster: "OK people, bike ride!".
The best piece of gear I had were my thermal knee warmers, which give great coverage from high thigh to below the knee.  I wore those almost every day.  I also felt really good about my first aid kit, and never needing it.  Improvements: My kite sucked and wouldn't fly, even on top of The Steens.  My disco ball was way too small.  I thought I could get away with a micro-mini one for this, but it really wasn't big enough to create the desired light show in my tent.  Live and learn.

Santiam Pass was a trial of overcoming fear and bracing oneself against a relentless onslaught of fast cars, semi trucks, double long semi trucks, huge campers and campers towing cars.  I'm sure I missed a few types of vehicles.  I ate a huge chocolate bar at the bottom of the hour long climb.  That helped a lot.
Which brings me to the fascinating topic of nutrition.  I feel like I really rediscovered my nutritional instincts on these ten hard days in a row.  Ramen and jerky for dinner, oatmeal and dried fruit for breakfast are old standbys and worked great again.  I had lots of intense cravings for anything made of potatoes and candy of all sorts.  Oh, the chocolate bars I put away.  I sucked down citrus like I had scurvy.  Little middle-of-nowhere stores often have lemons.  Cut 'em up, suck on 'em, toss 'em in your water bottle.  The best.
Day five was by far the hardest.  An early start to summit The Steens, then onto a terrible washboard gravel road, heading into a headwind, a hot afternoon sun and nowhere to hide.  Sage brush desert as far as the eye can see in every direction, with the stern silhouette of The Steens and its now familiar "bite" shrinking behind us.  Surreal to see it get so small after having just climbed it. 

It just kept going.  The washboard, the wind, the sun.  Until the sun set, which it tends to do.  I don't really dig night riding, especially as my approach to gravel is to train my eyes on it and pick the most supreme line possible at all times.  Surprisingly, once the light faded, I stopped looking down and it didn't seem to matter.

The sage brush became a big monochrome in the fading daylight and animals started to awaken for their night duty.  I saw several huge white owls that flapped away dramatically when they heard me coming.  A few weasels, which I thought at first were meerkats.  Cows.  Wild cows!  Lots of jackrabbits with cartoon-looking ears.  No antelope.

I hallucinated just once.  A big black shaped moved up ahead.  A bear?  Puma?  What's my puma plan of attack?!  I slowed down and rang my bell gently.  The animal receded so I continued on.  It turns out what I was seeing was the road itself.  Losing daylight can really mess with the way you see things.  I finally arrived at "headquarters", after watching their lights twinkle on the horizon for at least two hours.  Headquarters is what they call the ranger station in the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge.  I couldn't see a thing and dogs were barking.  I unhooked a hose to access a spigot located just past a sign that literally said "do not pass this sign".

I was freaked out about the place and continued on.  A mile or so up the road, I stopped to look at my phone map and realized a huge descent lay just ahead.  No way did I want to try that with my tired, scared, not-seeing-straight self.  So, I did what comes naturally, I cried.  At just that moment, a pair of headlights appeared and a man stepped out of a white pick up truck to ask how I was.  He may as well have been riding a big white horse.  He drove me to the hot springs.  He had heard about the race and assured me it's not cheating to accept a ride off course.
The hot springs were unbelievable.  Just what I needed to recover from the horrible day five, and the not so easy days one through four.  I broke a personal policy, uncreatively named my "no public nudity" rule.  That's a thing of the past now.  I must be getting really old because even my mother approved of that story.

Locals in this area would say things like "now all you've got to do is get down this mountain!".  If you saw someone in a car, you'd all stop and say hello and compare adventures.  One couple pulled over to ask if I knew I was in the middle of nowhere.  Another couple slowed briefly to tell me only five more miles until pavement.

I only cried twice.  Well, three times if you count one for happy.  That one was descending out of the refuge.  It felt like being on top of the world. Knowing the tough climb and most of the gravel were over didn't hurt.  I had been writing a little song during the ride and started to serenade the panorama around me.  You could just see forever up there.
There was still a lot more hard stuff ahead, but we started announcing the number of the day at camp every morning.  We felt the hardest part must be behind us, but we weren't quite right.  Even our alleged rest day included a huge washboard descent, and about fifty paved semi-hilly miles.  What I didn't factor in was how my fatigue and fragility would increase as the ride wore on.

By the time we were crossing the Outback route (for the second time), I was a shell of my former self.  Climbing took energy.  Heat took energy.  Moods plummeted.  Performance fell into the crapper.  Tears were expelled.  I bought a bottle of beer with my hand down my pants the whole time.  Yes, I'd fallen that far.  Arriving at camp after the non-stop climbathon that was Crater Lake, each of my co-riders came up and hugged me.  Good guys, those two.
Day nine may have been my favorite.  That was the stretch from Diamond Lake up to Springfield.  It was beautiful terrain, nice trusty pavement, just one medium-hard climb and a nice fried potato lunch at a cafe.  We rode on a little BLM road along the Umpqua River that felt like a secret.  Ideal conditions.  We developed a multi-tiered road grading system during the race and this one earned four stars, despite slightly bumpy pavement.

Day four was a favorite too.  I loved the pretty patchwork country leaving Burns, which even featured a water spigot stop at the Agricultural Research Center.  The road to French Glenn, and the way through The Narrows, felt like we were leaving this world and going somewhere else.  The land formations, which you watch change as you gained on them, added to the other-wordly feeling.

So, all that's left now is the ending.  Day ten was our longest one, with a fair amount of climbing.  I had anticipated the combination of being "trained up" from nine days of riding, the gear drop in Springfield, along with that phenomenal smell of the barn, would make us fast and strong that day.  And we were.  In great part due to the dot-watchers, our friends and families and fans from home, who started making themselves more and more known during that last stretch.
Nothing can beat roadside cheerleaders standing by their cars and waving and screaming your name. Other riders started to join us in Oregon City and soon we had an entourage.  Riding the race with friendly faces made each mile easier.  I asked to be in the middle with both guys' arms on my shoulders for the finish, and they generously agreed.

There was a great little crowd at the finish line, which included most of our fellow finishers.  The three of us were tied for last place, and happy for it.  People handed me beers, flowers, hugs and congratulations.  I've never felt like such a real athlete, especially when all of the finishers lined up for a photo.  What an honor to be counted among this group.

So, now I'm at home, eating corn on the cob, swimming in butter - just as I'd fantasized about during the ride.  My achilles is swollen and I took a three hour bath today.  I miss riding my bike, after only riding to work this week.  The boring recovery time, along with the post-climactic mood of finishing something big like this, has me wondering what to plan next.
UPDATE: I was just interviewed by my friends over at the Sprocket Podcast.  If you have an hour to kill, give it a listen!  To listen, click here: Sprocket Podcast of SM1k.


  1. Oh, my goddess you write well.

    BTW, I just finished a 7 day tour of Montana, fully supported with food and showers and camaraderie, and by day five I was getting ready to be getting ready to be tired of riding every day.

    I can't even imagine what you were going through on your day five where it was just one long sloggy day of hurtful things.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, and congratulations on finishing a thing that much of the population of the world would recoil from in horror at the idea!

    You absolutely rock, Maria!

  2. Wow, I am somehow just seeing this now! Thanks for the sweet comment. Let’s ride together if you’re ever in Oregon!