This is an essay recounting my personal journey riding the Tour de Blast 2012.
The Tour de Blast is an annual out and back journey to the Johnston Ridge Observatory that overlooks the post apocalyptic blast zone of Mt. St Helen, in Washington State. At 82 miles (132 km) distance and over 8,000 vertical ft (2,438 m) of climbing, it is known for both breathtaking beauty and potential for bone chilling conditions.
I am publishing this essay on the heels of the 2013 Milan – San Remo race, which delivered epic and punishing conditions upon the riders over its 185 miles (298 KM). True grit and athletic prowess is defined by the racers hardened enough to push at top speeds through the snow, the wet, the winds, and the freezing temperatures. This personal tale, of the Tour de Blast 2012, is no comparison to the testament of will over conditions the riders of Milan – San Remo 2013 exhibited, however, it provided me with a tiny glimpse into that world and gave me a true level of respect and admiration for the “hardman” characteristics of professional cyclists.
This is a story of a weekend warrior’s challenge to confront a bit of post traumatic fear while gaining appreciation and respect for a sport by suffering and enjoying the conditions nature put forth on the course.
The month prior I had a significant crash during the Seven Hills of Kirkland charity ride. Caught off guard by a sudden increase in rain and a 15% -18% descent, I had too much speed and lost my brakes. My choice, in an attempt to stay upright, was to try to make a 90 degree turn directly at the bottom of the hill at a tee intersection. Upon crossing a wet paint stripe I suffered sudden failure that sent me hurtling across pavement and into oncoming traffic. I escaped becoming road kill and was fortunate to walk away from the crash with with fourteen stitches and a banged up and bruised right side. My body healed, but my nerve and stomach to take descents, particularly in wet conditions, was a lingering casualty of the crash.
As the Tour de Blast event day approached, my confidence was low and my nerves were high. I seriously doubted that I could do it. I told my riding companions, Mark and Pat, that if it was forecasted to rain, to count me out. Rain was eminent, Mark and Pat bolstered my confidence. Reluctantly, I told myself I needed to get back on the horse, and with anxiety disguised, I confirmed that I was still in.
We drove to the event the night prior. Rain was falling steadily and I hoped it was dry down south, in the blast zone. It was late afternoon and Pat rolled up to my house in his beautifully restored yellow VW Westfalia camper bus. My bike fit perfectly in the protected comfort of the cab; no complaints on my part. He turned the key and the bus fired up with the clearly identifiable ping of a VW motor. We were off to fetch Mark and his bike near Pike Place Market. The steady rain clogged the traffic headed out of town on a late Friday afternoon. The rain came down heavily. We loaded Mark’s Rivendell Ramboulet on the rear rack and were were on our way up stream.
If you have ever ridden in the front seat of a VW bus then you know what it feels like to be out front and in traffic. My overly stimulated nerves had my mind convinced that I was sitting on the front bumper ready to crash into anything we were close to. The bus hurtled down the highway at its top speed of 59 MPH. Heavy raindrops splattered on the windshield. Working overtime, the wipers could not keep up. The lights of passing cars and pumping brakes lights diffused into psychedelic patterns inside the bus and across my retina. It seemed that I was in a nervous trance, and the second to last stanza of “Truckin”, by the Grateful Dead, looped continuously in my mind. If the song is unfamiliar, the words of the stanza are:
“Sometimes the lights all shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it’s been”
Perhaps it was a coping mechanism or a foreshadow of the ride to come. We buzzed along the highway through the rain and lights, ultimately landing at the Toutle River Resort, where Mark’s mother owns a weekend getaway trailer spot. The cold and wet conditions made for a miserable welcome. Sleep did not come easily and when it did it was only in short stints.
We woke early and dressed, applying layers of clothing with the intent to stay warm and dry. I had bought a thin clear Castelli rain jacket that was on the sale rack at one of the local bike shops. It was a shadow of a replacement for the Rapha rain jacket that had been shredded on the pavement during my crash. Concerned about overpacking my jersey pockets, I deliberated whether to include my unfashionable bright yellow commuter jacket. After considerable effort, I was able to roll it tightly enough to stuff in one of the rear pockets of my jersey. We cleaned up the trailer, packed the bus, and rolled onward to Toutle Lake High School, the starting point of the ride. The rain changed from a light drizzle to steady drops as we pulled into the parking lot.
Skipping the pancake breakfast we made our way to pick up our numbers. Conditions were 43 degrees, wet, and poor visibility. The promise of the warm shower that would be waiting at the finish already sounded good. My nerves were racing and I was eager to get moving to blow off pent up energy.
The first 10 miles was a fairly constant low grade climb with some rollers mixed in. The rain came steadily and it took about an hour before the moisture began to overcome the rain booties I was wearing. I felt the water trickling in around the edges of my feet. The only function the booties played now was to shield the wind. The ride photographer was miserably stationed just a few miles from the start, this was good because not many made it that far with a smile. The thin little rain jacket was holding up pretty well and seemed to be keeping me dry.
As we rolled along, my nerves began to settle. I was expecting to see more riders on the road. We set a good pace and at about mile ten, as the grade increased, Pat dropped off. He had just been cleared to ride following an injury and was not in shape yet to keep up. We hated to leave him behind, but knowing that he would only go as far as Elk Rock, we had to sustain a rate that would take us up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory and back.
The course is divided into three levels, beginner, intermediate and advanced. Beginner is 33 miles with 900 feet of elevation gain and turns around at Hoffstadt Bluffs. The intermediate course is 54 miles and 3300 feet of climbing and turns around at Elk Rock. The full course covers 82 miles and 8000 feet of elevation gain and tops out at the Johnston Ridge observatory, which on a clear day holds a phenomenal view of the Mt. St Helen blast zone.
We bypassed the rest zone at Hoffstadt bluffs and continued to climb to Elk Rock. The temperature was dropping and the rain continued with an unrelenting onslaught. The thick atmosphere enveloped everything and obscured the wide and beautiful views across the lower alpine landscape. From beyond the mist came the trill of elk whistling within the wooded wilderness. It provided an eery soundtrack to accompany the cold gray rain.
Climbing the long grade kept the core warm with exertion. This was not the same for the extremities, which were soaked through. A naturopathic general anesthetic effect of the wet combined with cold was taking effect. I was not physically fatigued, but could feel the strain of the wet and cold siphoning my energy. The rain descended upon us with a relentless fury and the atmosphere thickened. For every 500’ we climbed, we were rewarded by loosing a degree in temperature. Mother-nature unwaveringly meted out punishment to all the do-gooder charity riders and weekend warriors alike. Most were ushered back down from Elk Rock like logs in a sluice. We pressed on blissfully undaunted by the conditions.
Marking the apex of the first 27 miles and nearly continuous climb was the appropriately named Elk Rock. The wind blew sharply across the ridge and bit into us as we dismounted our bikes. We were welcomed by the parka clad volunteers doling out bananas and other goodies to nourish the intrepid two wheelers. A huddle of cyclists and volunteers encircled a small fire pit that heartily blew smoke in all directions. The fire was like a harpy though, beckoning you onto the rocks. It seduced you to stay and try to warm at its edge, however, with every second that ticked by, the warmth, that had built up over the 27 miles of climbing, began to dissipate. We snapped ourselves out of the trance, made one more salute to the porta-potty colonnade, and mounted our bikes once again. As we departed, there were more riders turning left to the return route than right turn toward the 7 mile descent to Coldwater ridge.
As the descent began my nerves heightened with the prospect of high speed mixed with copious amounts of precipitation that coated every surface and filled every void. As we picked up speed, the cold swiftly gripped us with a ferocious clutch. Mark knew I was nervous and braked with me as I slowed the pace as the descending grade increased. He asked if I was okay. I assured him that I was and urged him to press on without me. Within seconds the mist swallowed him up and I was alone to face the cold and the demons of fear that swirled inside of me. My fingers ached with numb, my toes vanished, and my feet became blocks while my body shivered. I forced myself to move to avoid becoming frozen into a position and unable to react if needed. The drive train mocked me as I circulated the pedals to create movements that did not engage forward motion. I slowly allowed myself to pick up speed, and gained a churlish reward of increased intensity of cold due to the wind chill. The water was so think that I could barely read the speedometer. The smaller readout telling me distance was a hopeless effort. I tried to calculate how long I would need to endure the unscrupulous descent. I knew it was approximately 7 miles. My nerves continuously checked my speed back to 25 mph, to make an excruciatingly slow descent. I fumbled in my mind to develop the middle school formula to factor speed and distance into time. Rounding errors included, I arrived at at a seemingly brief 17 minutes and less if I could increase my speed. I reckoned in my mind that my body could endure this sadistic infliction. However, my mind would not allow my tormented fingers to release the attenuation of my speed. I slowed to less than 20 miles an hour. Coaxing myself, like an enabler, to eek out just a few more miles per hour, was marginally successful.
Under the power of suggestion, my cheeks iced over as I read the sign telling me I was in the Coldwater Creek vicinity. I had no idea how far I had travelled or for how long, I was only certain that the intensity of the cold gripped me further. I reminded myself to focus and to force my body to move to allow for circulation. I longed for the 9 mile ascent to the Johnston Observatory. My solitary ride continued. There was no scenery to behold, just gray, spray and the whistle of elk to accompany the whir of the free wheel.
As the road began to flatten, I breathed with relief, the climb up hill should start soon. At the opposite side of the road was a car and a person wrapped in a mylar blanket. A bike was being loaded in. Upon reaching the interchange of the Coldwater Creek observatory, the descent to my dismay continued for what seemed to be an eternal corkscrew turn that took every ounce of my concentration to navigate. It seemed to go on and on. I knew it must end, but it did not relent. I did not think I could endure this much longer, but I knew I must be close to the most welcome climb I could imagine. At last the road stretched out ahead and the start of the incline was there.
I began to pedal again. My legs were two fallen logs, saturated and heavy. I pumped them furiously, hammering pedal strokes, trying to regain body heat and circulation. My handle bars and brakes breathed as I release the death grip. Straightening my back and rotating my arms and shoulders, I tried to revive my circulatory system. I stood to pedal out of the saddle; I came to the realization that everything other than my belly button had gone numb. Fumbling, I reached for my water bottle with concentration. Instructing my hands with deliberate and direct commands to avoid dropping it with the grasp of my numb fingers. I continued to drive myself hard, but knew I needed to temper the pace and fell into steady cadence. I imagined the Johnston observatory, and welcomed the thought of entering the doors of the building and warming myself, perhaps washing my face with warm water.
Pedaling on, I noticed one rider, then two, descending quickly in the opposite direction. I marveled at the speed and confidence they took the plunge with. It gave me hope that I too could reach the midpoint and start the return journey.
The math was a bit easier this time. With approximately nine miles to go, I could be at the top in under an hour. Through dense conditions, I could see two riders ahead of me. I set my mind that I would catch them; to have the sense that I was not alone. The gap was closed ever so gently. One rider rode a cantilevered bike and he sprung up and down as he pedaled. A few more riders sped down, back toward the finish line. Temperatures lowered as the climb continued. It was cold enough now that with each exhalation a plume of condensation formed with every breath. I pressed on and was now within 100 meters of the pair in front of me. I could hear them talking to each other, intermittently offering words of encouragement between suffering breaths. Now ten meters behind them, we were just a mile or so from the top. As I passed them we offered encouraging smiles, but wasted little energy on words.
Snow banks formed the shoulder of the road and the cold reached deeper into me. Rain transformed into heavy chunky snow flakes that landed hard on the face, sticking, dripping, and running from my face, down my neck, and into my core. I crested the last turn and thought I would be headed to the warmth of the observatory. Cruelly that was not to be. Hunkered under a tent, the volunteers gave a rousing and welcoming arrival with great salutations of encouragement and statements that “you made it”. The cheers, however, rang a reminder to me of an inspirational speech I recently heard from mountaineer Ed Visteurs,who has climbed without supplemental oxygen, all peaks above 8000 meters. The mantra Ed shared was, “getting to the top is optional, getting back home is not.” As encouraging as the cheers were, the cruel irony was that I was only half way, and the first descent back was three miles longer and consistently steeper than the plunge from Elk Rock that initially sucked the life out of me.
I parked my bike, struggled to hoist my numb leg over the saddle and placed what I thought was my foot on the ground. I turned around to the tents that housed the shivering and smiling volunteers serving food and drinks. In a haze, I walked woodenly toward them, having to consciously direct each step forward to maintain balance. Shivering, I looked blankly at them, while I ate something. Rigidly, I looked around for Mark, but did not see him or any other riders for that matter. Of the few riders I saw making the return trip, I did not recognize any as Mark. I assumed I must have just missed him. As I stood shivering and staring blankly at the people in their dry clothes, a nice women uttered something that I could barely understand. After she repeated it a fourth time, and perhaps through an interpreter, I understood that she was asking me If I wanted to warm up inside of the bus. I nodded, turned stiffly and penguin walked over to the doors. They opened and I entered the steamy interior. There was Mark. We smiled and commiserated about the suffering. While I was certain it must be warm inside the bus, my body did not feel it. I stripped off the thin saturated little rain jacket and hung it with the hope it would dry. I took off my gloves and rung them out. There were maybe eight or nine people in the bus. No one seemed eager to leave. The dispatch radio squawked with banter between stations. I could hear multiple calls being put out for sag wagon support and extra vehicles to pickup riders. There was a report that came out in an urgent tone stating that they had two more riders suffering form hypothermia who needed to be picked up. At that moment I remembered that I had packed my yellow commuter jacket and was gloriously thankful that I did. I unrolled it and fortunately it was completely dry. The driver put out the offer asking who needed a ride back down. A few hands went up. Mark and I looked at each other and decided that we would try for the finish. Mark, who had been in the bus longer than I had, was ready to go. I told him that I would linger a bit longer and that he should go on. We bid each other farewell and good luck.
After a few more minutes, I decided that I was not going to warm up much more and put on my jacket and prepared to leave. I recalled the words of Ed Visteurs again and did a mental and physical check to make sure I thought I was fit to ride. With renewed incentive, as well as fear of the longer decent, I mounted my bike and pedaled for the return route into the bitingly cold 35 degree air.
There were a few more riders headed to the top as I started the descent. I did not recall seeing any more from that point on. The added layer significantly helped to stay the cold and repelled the heavy wet snow falling. I was determined to allow my self to go faster and did to some degree, but still had a mental block that kept my pace slowed. The pair of riders I had passed on the climb to Johnston Observatory raced past me, with a demoralizing whoosh, whoosh. I did not care, I kept me speed checked. As expected, the cold crept in drawing out any shred of warmth that I may have been protecting. Again, I challenged myself to confirm that I should continue on. I justified it by telling myself, if Shackleton could walk poorly outfitted for days across uncharted arctic territory, than I could certainly endure this degree of suffering.
My body shook with the cold at times. I moved my hands, shuffled my shoulders, and faintly pedaled to encourage circulation, but I was still locked into position and fearful to release my grip of the bars. “I can endure this”, I repeated over in my mind and I allowed myself to increase speed, but still checked below 30 MPH. Once again, the cold seemed particularly acute at Coldwater Creek; my body had chilled and my hands ached and stiffened. I pedaled hard through the transition from descent to climb to regain circulation.
Visibility improved but the rain and the cold did not relent. In the distance the extent of climb toward Elk Rock was visible. There were still miles before me to climb. My derailleurs groaned with distress as I shifted. Substantial layers of road grit coated the drive train. I had no desire to linger on this ascent and pressed a hard cadence, knowing that after Elk Rock the climbing was over. Once again I reached the familiar pair of cyclists, we exchanged some friendly words and I rode with them briefly before pressing on. We laughed at ourselves and the conditions, and longed for the warm shower at the finish line.
Rounding the turn at the approach to Elk Rock, I could see that the disbanding support camp was was not as cheerful as when I previously saw them. The food was mostly gone and there was not a batch of energy drink prepared. One of the volunteers handed me the mix and welcomed me to make a personal batch, which I did to replenish my system with electrolytes. The fire was still going and I stood by it under the delusion that I would be warmed. My only reward was smoke in the face. Abandoning this prospect, I moved out quickly not wanting to linger a second longer. I initiated the descent to lower land. The rain began to lessen and I allowed myself to increase speed to some degree. I could feel the temperature rising. It was by no means warm, but the difference between 37 degrees and 40 degrees had a substantial impact on my constitution. I could see a patch of blue sky in the distance. The clouds were separating and the rain diminished. As the grade leveled and the rain dispersed, my desire to finish increased with fervor. Pedaling as hard as I could sustain, I put the hammer down for for the next twenty miles, eager to complete this test. The promise of a warm shower was the carrot that sustained my pace. I caught up to a man and a woman who had rocketed past me earlier on the descent. They were noticeably spent and struggle to climb the small rollers. Farm houses and homes increased in frequency, signaling civilization was at hand. I imagined a cheering party to victoriously greet the weary riders as they completed the full 82 mile ride. The High School was visible in the distance. I increased my pace again. As I turned into the parking lot, there were no cheering supporters, no music, no reveling riders. There were just a few cars, and the very welcome site of the yellow VW bus. Pat was my greeting party and welcomed me to the finish. He helped me off my bike and said that Mark had just finished his shower a little while ago. Wearily, I groped for my bag of dry clothes, towel, and toiletries. I sighed heavily and asked, “which way to the showers, because I am looking forward to the feel of warm water.” Pat smiled wryly and laughed, and said that they were just through he doors about 40 feet away. As I hobbled off, he called out saying, “by the way, there is no warm water!” This was the cake. I headed in shrugging it off, determined to get cleaned up. It seemed to take me forever to peal off the clammy cold gear that was saturated through. The locker room shower put out a pitiful volume of spray, completely antithetical to the day. The drizzle struggled to make impact on the thick layers of road grime on my face and body. Pat came in to see if I had gotten lost. I was just putting on my last sock. I was being slow and deliberate, not wanting any of my clothing to get wet.
We climbed into the bus again, and the engine gave the familiar VW ring and we were bidding the epic weather and ride of the Tour de Blast 2012 goodbye. My nerves were calm now and the front seat of the of the bus seemed a bit further from the road than on the trip in. I could feel the exhaustion setting in and my body craved calories. I had a longing for fried chicken, which I had not had for years. We stopped at the Country Cousins Restaurant in Centralia, WA. I knew that they served comfort food and that is what we needed. We entertained ourselves by retelling the tale of the ride over and over again. Describing the pain and suffering endured, the mental games to stay focused, and the self vigilance to monitor our physical capacity to endure the journey. These were not conditions that I would wake up on a Saturday morning and decide, it was a good day for a ride, however, I do have the satisfaction of saying I did it, I survived, and it was an epic tale for me.
I can honestly say it was the most physically grueling experiences of my life. Enduring this ride helped me to overcome the fears spawned by a major crash and it grew my passion to continue with the sport. My appreciation for the pros at all levels increased. They take on conditions of much greater extreme, at dauntingly high speeds, and in tightly packed competition.
These are not official statistics, but I understand that of the riders who registered, only half showed up, and of those who showed up only a small fraction made the compete trip. Tour de Blast is known for its cold weather challenge; 2012 must have been the tipping point, as the organizers have moved the event to the 3rd week of September, which has better promise of warm weather and clear views of the glorious scenery of the area.
The sketches included with this story were made from memory shortly after the ride.