I am typically up for anything. With very little to no pressure, I can be convinced that anything is a good idea. I also have
what I refer to as “small dog complex”. This leads me to believe that I am stronger, mightier and more ferocious than anything life can throw at me without regard to the reality of the situation. It was a combination of these traits that led me to find myself at the starting line of the Garrett County Gran Fondo Diabolical Double this past Saturday.
We had originally heard about it from a friend who had done it the previous year. He likely said something like, “it’s a 125 mile, Tour de France caliber ride with 15,500 feet of climbing.” What I likely heard through my “small dog” filter was something like, “meh, whatever, it’s only 13 miles longer than an Ironman bike and it’s got some big hills. Totally doable.” And with that, I was registered.
Here’s what I know now. 125 miles is just 10 miles shy of the distance you would cover driving from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia. I am also now aware that if you climbed the highest peak in the contiguous United States (Mount Whitney in California), you would have only climbed 14,495 feet. This small dog was in for a very rude awakening.
I started the day feeling pretty good. From the Start to check point 1 was 18 miles with a net down hill of 1600 feet and only one rated climb. There was a large pack from the start heading down some pretty fast and tricky descents. At some point on this segment I reached my max speed for the day of 50.2mph. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t actually see that I was going this fast at the time or I might have wet myself. Ignorance, truly is bliss and I actually really had a lot of fun letting it fly.
The real fun started from checkpoint 1 to 2. This consisted of 21 miles, 5 rated climbs covering 3,797 feet of climbing. On paper, this, to me, looked like the hardest stage. It’s never good when you see an area named “Devil’s Half Acre”, but, still, Ryan and I arrived at checkpoint 2 in good spirits and decent shape.
From checkpoint 2 to 3 is where the darkness began to appear. It covered 18 miles, 2,311 feet of climbing, including the well-known (to everyone other than me) Killer Miller climb. Killer Miller is a 1.3 mile climb which at one point reaches a 20% grade. This was my first glimpse of carnage as I watched a cyclist in front of me concede and get off his bike to walk up. It was so demoralizing to watch. My legs and lungs were burning. If he was walking, then I could walk, couldn’t I? Instead, I immediately kept my head down and avoided looking at him as I passed. At this point, all talking between Ryan and I had ceased. We were both silent, most likely in deep contemplation of life. We had gone 56 miles, not even half way through, had already done roughly 7,100 feet of climbing and we approached the splitting point of the Diabolical Double Course with the Savage Century course. The opportunity to reduce the ride from 125 to 100 miles presented itself. I saw the mile markers in advance-Diabolical Double straight, Century to the right. I saw people stopped at the corner in deep thought. I dropped into aero, jammed my gears down, yelled “STRAIGHT” to Ryan who was right behind me and gunned it past the intersection. I needed to get the hell through there before I had the opportunity to think. I was incredibly relieved to see check point 3 approach, the worse was behind me, I thought. I was totally wrong.
The next segment, from checkpoint 3 to 4, was the longest. It spanned 26 miles, including 3 climbs and 3,000 feet of climbing. Included in this was a 2 mile stretch of gravel road. When we first turned onto it, it was a nice down hill grade, but it would soon change to an uphill with the gravel being replaced with mud. At this point, the last thing my legs wanted to do was to grind through an uphill, muddy road, but when you’re in the middle of wilderness, the options aren’t plenty. At the end of the gravel, we were treated to a short downhill, but it wouldn’t last long. The next 7 miles would take us up to a peak and directly back down to a valley over and over again. Ultimately, it would add up to 7.1 miles, totaling 1,950 feet of climbing including pitches of over 20% and culminating in one final climb of Big Savage Mountain. After a steep and treacherous descent into Westernport (basically down most of the famed ‘Westernport Wall’), we arrived at checkpoint 4.
While leaving checkpoint 4, I was confident the worst was over (again). The map showed only 16 miles, 2 climbs and 2,200 of elevation gain. This stage, however, was the single hardest time period in my entire sport history. The first climb was 900 feet over 5 miles. On paper, it looked nowhere near as daunting as the shorter, yet steeper climbs we had already done. In the end, this 16 mile segment would take us a full hour and a half. It was constant grinding of the gears. We were also completely alone. At this point, the group was so thinned out that most of the time there was no one within sight in either direction. Having Ryan there saved me. I don’t know if I could have made it without him. We never talked. We were both so fatigued speaking was impossible. It was just such a comfort to not be alone. About 4 miles into the first gradual climb the road made a sharp turn up a switch back and got much steeper. I went to stand up out of the saddle and my quad just completely failed. It collapsed underneath me and I fell back to my seat, almost going down. Somehow I recovered and kept grinding away. I never thought we would make it. There were plenty of times I told myself that I would allow myself to get off and walk at the next tree or at the next pole, but somehow I kept pushing. This was the hardest thing I have ever done, but finally we were at mile 100. Only 25 more to go.
Only 10 miles separate checkpoint 5 and 6. I knew that these were the last hilly miles. There were 2 climbs totaling 1,800 feet, including another long, gradual hill, but I knew I could make it 10 more miles. I knew it. I knew the end of the climbing was near. The sight of checkpoint 6 was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.
Now, only 15 miles remained with only one final climb at the very end. It was the final climb up Wisp Mountain to the finish. For the last 15 miles of easy rollers I contemplated this climb. I had done it on Thursday just to get an idea of what it would be like. I knew the toughest part was the .6 mile stretch that climbed 600 feet. A chair lift, literally, runs from the top to the bottom of this same hill. I would have to cover it on my bike after 8.5 hours of climbing. After my quad had failed earlier in the day I was pretty sure that I just couldn’t physically generate the power needed to make it up. I told Ryan as we approached that I was going to walk it. Afterall, it was only .6 miles. It would probably only take me 2 minutes longer to walk up than it would to ride. I was okay with this decision. I had done so much already. If I walked a half mile, I was still really proud of the day. He told me he would wait for me at the top. “We are crossing this finish line together,” he said. We turned the corner to make the ascent and I saw it. The hill was lined with people cheering and ringing bells. Shit. There was no way in hell I could get off my bike in front of all these people. It took every fiber in me to make it to the top, but I did it. I was so overwhelmed by the support at the time when I needed it most that I almost cried. When we got to the top all Ryan said was, “I knew you wouldn’t walk it. I knew it.” After another .25 miles of uphill, Ryan and I crossed the finish line together. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to do this with him. I am so grateful. I am so lucky. We really are just the best of teammates. In the end, it was less than 9 hours of ride time, about 2 hours less than I had originally hoped for. I can’t say I will ever do it again, but I don’t regret it for a minute. It was an amazing experience and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to have done it with my best friend.