Ride Report: RAMROD 2019

On Thursday July 25th, 2019 completed the RAMROD (Ride Around Mt. Rainier in One Day). This is the ride report.

Goals

I was just there to finish the ride.

This was something that was on my bucket list and I jumped on the opportunity to join a few coworkers who wanted to do it together. I also used this as a training ride and litmus test for this year’s real bucket list item, a 93 mile run around the same mountain.

  1. Finish – ACCOMPLISHED
  2. Finish before the time cutoff – ACCOMPLISHED
  3. Finish strong – SORT OF ACCOMPLISHED

Successes

What am I proud of from ride day?

  • Longest bike ride I have ever done
  • Longest duration I have ever done a physical activity for
  • Completed a fairly challenging ride on 5 training rides of 100 miles total

Failures

What areas could I improve for future rides?

  • Should have eaten more breakfast while commuting down
  • Had a section around miles 60-70 where I didn’t eat much & bonked a bit
  • Post ride beer was a bad idea – my stomach wasn’t ready for that

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • People to ride with
  • No flat tires or bike trouble for me
  • Support crews that were always there
  • Sock ice!

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • I really couldn’t have asked for anything better

Ride Recap

Strava here

This ride was a big test for me. I wanted to see what my body was capable of with little, to no training. I was able to finish the ride in 13 hours 37 minutes, 23 minutes before the time cutoff of 8pm. That meant I was one of the last finishers, not something I’m used to, but a finisher nonetheless.

Pre Ride Day

Going into the race I had done five training rides of a total of 100 miles. The longest was a 55 mile ride in April, three months before the ride. In the 12 weeks leading up tot he ride, I had done a total of two rides totaling 15 miles. I had run a bit more, averaging ~2 runs and 8-10 miles per week. Essentially I was riding off the couch.

The Morning of

I woke up at 3:30 so I could meet the guys I was riding with at 4am at a park & ride, so we could get to the start around 5 and actually get riding around 6. We had to park a mile or so away from the school where it started so, we got some extra miles in, just to make sure the day was hard. That was a long morning.

I had signed up for the pre-race breakfast. In retrospect I should have eaten something on the ride down and probably should have eaten more there. It was good to get some solid calories in though.

Since this wasn’t a race, the start wasn’t an all-at-once thing. Riders were able to start as they pleased anytime between 5am and 7am. We started towards the middle of that range, which put us towards the back of the pack. Most riders seemed either eager to finish early before it was too hot or nervous that they wouldn’t finish, and thus eager to start earlier.

Start

We started the ride by nearly immediately making a wrong turn. We were supposed to take a right turn on SE 424th st towards the top of the image below and then turn left onto 244th but ended up following some riders that seemed to know where they were going and went into the heart of Enumclaw before someone realized we were off course.

Thankfully our trusty navigator found a shortcut back to the main course on Griffin Ave, that avoided us having to backtrack 1.5 miles to the start. In the end I think we rode a tiny bit more than we should have, but not enough to materially impact the 152 mile ride.

The first 55 miles

The first section of the ride, from Enumclaw into the park was relatively flat and on country roads. The biggest issue I had was getting used to riding in a paceline again – something I hadn’t ever done much of as pacelines are illegal in triathlons. The road was fairly rough, generally bumpy asphalt, shoulders that sometimes disappeared, potholes, branches reaching into the road, etc. That meant it was important to pay attention to the people in front of you and to signal to those behind you, especially when you were in the front. I messed that up a few times which resulted in someone taking a branch to the side or a pretty decent bump.

Our group of 4 riders took turns in the lead spot and periodically we grouped up with other riders. We were going intentionally slow.

There are two rest stops in this stretch, one at 36 miles and another at 55. We took both opportunities to get out of the saddle for ~20 minutes. We ate, stretched, used the bathroom, put on sunscreen and took slefies. Generally we set the tone that we were going at a relaxing pace.

I averaged 106 bpm through this part, which is essentially the effort level of a brisk walk.

The Park & First Climb

After the mile 55 rest stop we started climbing. The next ~23 miles would take us from 1,500ft to 4,800ft, a climb of 3,300 ft. The nice part about this section was the pavement was like butter the second we entered the national park. The shoulder wasn’t huge but for the most part traffic was light and the fact that we were off regular-use roads meant that most riders were not in a hurry.

The park is essentially three climbs. A big one, followed by a partial decent, a small one, followed by some more decent and then the last big one – the one that breaks people.

Our group split up on the first climb and found our own pace, agreeing to meet at the top.

We ended up stopping for two unplanned rests on the climb though.

The first was a 20 minute break at 2,400 ft for our group’s one mechanical failure of the day, a flat tire. Thankfully ride support was nearby within minutes and sold Phil a new tire, as the one he was using had a hole in it and would likely result in another flat tube.

The second was a quick 5 minute stop to refill water and regroup less than 2 miles from the top. At that point most of us were out of water and we weren’t positive how far the next stop was, so we used the chance to refill. In the end we would have been fine pushing through it. I did forget to eat for a good bit of the climb though, and it had been three hours since our last aid station, so eating something at that point ended up helping me feel a good bit better.

We took another 5 minutes at the very top to refill water bottles and get a group picture in front of the mountain.

I generally tried to stay in the 130s for the climb, only popping up into the 140s briefly. I averaged 131 through this section, including rests.

The Descent & Minor Climb

From mile 78 to 86 was a beautiful descent past reflection lakes. The nice thing about cycling is downhills are restful and not high impact like running downhill. I averaged 28 mph and 97 bpm through this section, so basically I was resting. What I did notice is I was much slower on the downhills than the others in the group. I suspect that had a lot to do with me not spending any time riding this year, I hadn’t built up much confidence in my downhill abilities so I was riding the brakes.

We took a 20 minute stop at box canyon where I must have eaten five chocolate croissants. They really hit the spot. That was also a chance to reapply sunscreen and chammy creme before the killer climb.

The minor climb was mostly uneventful climb from 2,800 ft to 3,400 ft. I required 140 bpm through this section to keep 7.7 mph up though, so things were getting a bit tougher. I know from experience that 140 bpm is about my 10 hour limit, so I was nervous to get into the 140s much for fear of having a major bonk later.

We eased through the final part of that descent and stopped at mile 97 to refill bottles before the killer climb. There was a sign that said ‘Sock Ice’ to which I was immediately curious. The volunteer informed me you could fill a tube sock with ice and put it around your neck and then as you rode up the hill with the sun on your back it would melt and cool you. I was sold.

I decided to ride the rest of the ride without socks (which was my original intent anyhow) took off my socks and filled one with ice. I offered my other one to the other guys I was riding with but for some reason none of them felt like putting a sock I’d just ridden 100 miles in around their neck. Beats me.

Cayuse Pass

This is the climb that gets you. Cayuse pass is a name that will live in infamy for any rider who has done RAMROD. When I first looked at the course map I wondered why there was a rest stop at mile 4 of an 8 mile climb – that seemed excessive. On the day of the ride I ended up wishing there was an additional rest stop at mile 6.

It is 8 miles at a constant 6% grade rising from 2,400 to about 4,700 ft. Most riders get there at the hottest part of the day and the sun is beating down on your back as there is hardly any shade as you climb along the black asphalt reflecting the heat back at you. By this time you get to the start of the climb, just about 100 miles an 8k fi into your day, your legs are spent, your glycogen stores are depleted, the sunburn has kicked in and your sit bones are sore from, in my case, 9 hours in the saddle. Then you start climbing a hill that, even fresh, would be a solid effort.

This is the final test. Once you reach the top it just an easy 44 mile ride net downhill to the finish. All you have to do is make it up and the finish line is within reach.

Our group split into our own paces to grind it out. I kept slow and steady, averaging 6mph and 140 bpm for the first 4 miles and then pulled over at the rest stop I had previously (naively) thought excessive. By four miles in my sock ice was nearly melted and my bottles were now lukewarm so I refilled both with fresh ice & cool water before. This felt like a quick stop but was nearly 10 minutes. Our group hadn’t all caught up but the first two of us decided to keep going lest our legs lock up before we made it.

Just four miles left to go but each one was a grind. About three miles in I looked ahead and saw cars driving on a road way higher than I was. I started to dread that maybe my math was off and I had another few miles and thousand feet to go. I got to the point where I was just ready for the climb to be over – looking around each corner hoping to see a tent. Sure enough a tent appeared and I thought I was done. But unfortunately this was just a communication tent. Nonetheless I pulled over in a small patch of shade near it to cool off – mentally needing a rest before finishing the last mile or so.

The final mile was more digging deep, doing whatever I could to find 130 bpm until finally I reached the top. Seventeen minutes later I was down the other side of the hill that had taken me nearly two hours to climb. It’s funny how gravity works like that.

Deli Stop

The final rest stop had a lot of food to refuel everyone for the last miles. I was there for about 50 minutes as we waited for our group to catch up and then gave everyone some time to rest. I ate like a post race feast. Turkey sandwich, three or four croissants, chips, pickles, orange juice, cookies – I must have put away over 1k calories right there.

The finish is ~37 miles with ~2k net downhill but unfortunately there is a solid headwind. By the time we left the deli stop it was 6pm and the course closed at 8pm so we figured we had to average ~18-20 mph in order to finish on time – which seemed impossible given we had mostly been chugging away at 6mph for the past few hours on the climb.

It turns out we were able to form a pretty good draft line. We averaged ~22mph for the first hour taking turns in the wind. I found that I needed to put out 140-150 bpm to take lead where as being in the back of the draft line I could keep the same pace with only 120 or so. It is pretty amazing how much of a difference that makes. We ended up passing a few groups and periodically some of them would join our line, but none of them took the lead. Phil from our group ended up doing the lion’s share of the work out front.

As much of a physical rest as being in the back of the line is, mentally it is super challenging. I hadn’t spent much time (any time) riding in packs this year so I just wasn’t in tune for that, which makes it especially hard when you’re on your last leg.

Finish

The last miles drag on a bit as mentally the race was finished hours ago but a few miles of flats remain. We spun it in and got to the finish a solid 23 minutes before the cutoff.

Our one crash of the day happened at the finish line. A volunteer stepped in front of Matt to hand him his award patch and he slammed on his brakes, forgetting to unclip his feet. He tipped over in slow motion (as seen in grainy picture below) and I slammed on my breaks but hit him in slow motion right as I was stopping. If you’re going to wreck, do it at the end and at ultra slow speeds.

We ate ice cream, picked up our packets, noticing most of the 800 others had already been taken.

We then hopped back on our bikes to go to our car. 152 miles of riding + a mile or so before and after the race makes for the longest day I’ve ever spent riding.

We went out for burgers and beers afterwards and had varying levels of success getting food down. After 3 oz of beer I had the hiccups for a few hours.

Data Breakdown

It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this ride.

First, straight out of Strava, is the elevation chart and my speed + effort throughout. You can see that generally I chugged along at an even pace, minus the few big climbs and descents.

What is kind of interesting is that if you adjust the elevation profile by time you can see that I spent much more of the day going uphill. In total I spent 5 hours climbing of ~11.5 moving. This is because the downhills go so quick they take proportionately less of the day.

The Bike Counter

My Bike Commute

For the past five years, I’ve commuted to work primarily by bike. I find it to posses the positive attributes of being healthy, flexible, and consistent – while also avoiding the negative attributes of being stressful, costly and polluting. In many ways it is the perfect opposite to the dreaded car commute.

Biking was a constant for me the entire time I lived in San Francisco. Many parts of my life changed, but my 20 minutes to unplug as I pedaled through the streets of the city was something I could depend on. It was how ramped up my energy to prepare for the day and it also served as a buffer to help me unwind at the end of the day.

That all began to change when I moved north to Seattle last August.

The distance between my house and office was over twice as far as it had been previously – significantly increasing the time and effort required to bike. As fall set in, Seattle’s famous rain started to pour and I had to learn to deal with conditions I hadn’t seen much of during the long drought in California. Winter eventually came. The shorter days brought morning temperatures that would often remain in the 40s, sometimes the 30s.

I love biking, but there were days where the cold, rain, dark or wind were just too much for me. Some days it is all four at once. There were mornings where I would look outside and just not have it in me to get on the saddle.

I hold the opinion that challenges make you stronger but sometimes you need a little help to rise to the challenge. For me help came in an unusual and unintentional form – a six foot tall black metal pillar with a few neon green LEDs.

My New Bike Commute

West Seattle, where I live, is separated from downtown Seattle by Elliot Bay, a beautiful vibrant blue body of water. As you watch it you will see the water taxi carrying commuters across and perhaps hear the faint sound of sea lions barking from a nearby floating dock. The south end of the bay is home to a shipping port that ranks 30th in the US by dollars transported – not that you could tell by looking at it – it doesn’t seem very busy at all.

As you follow the shore around you will run into where the Duwamish River empties into the bay. An estuary that remains polluted despite cleanup efforts over the last decade.

There are two brides over the Duwamish River. The one you will most likely use if you ever visit is the West Seattle bridge, a large six-lane highway bridge that rises 140ft above the water. It was built after a freighter hit the old drawbridge in 1978 – something the locals are still upset about. Shortly after the large bridge was built, a smaller, though more architecturally impressive, bridge was built just next to it. The Spokane Street Bridge has two sections that rotate to create an opening that allows boats to pass.

Despite its small size, I like the lower bridge the most because it has a dedicated two-way bike section separated from cars by a concrete wall. That is the ideal situation to bike in and it was very thoughtful of the designers to put it in.

In fact, this bridge is the only way to get over the river by human power. All bike paths from the West Seattle area convene there, which is why the city of Seattle targeted that place for a bike related project they started in 2014. The same project that resulted in those neon green lights that serve as my motivational help on rainy days.

The Bike Counter

Like most cities, the City of Seattle has realized the importance of decreasing dependency on the horribly inefficient car. In order to support the growth they will experience over the next decades they will have to increase the use of more efficient modes of transport. They have, as most wise people do, realized that bike transportation is one great alternative.

In order to increase the commuting that happens by bike, the city is undertaking efforts to become more bike friendly: designating more bike lanes, building barriers between cars, closing some roads to cars completely, etc. They want to measure the effectiveness of these efforts over time, so they created a feedback loop in the form of bike counters that live in a few strategic places. The Spokane Street Bridge being one of them.

The counter itself is a six foot tall black metal pillar with a tiny bit of white writing describing the purpose and a few LED lights. Across the body of the pillar, on either side, there is a bar that counts up to one million with LED lights filling in the portion to represent to total bike traffic for the year. Above that, also on either side, is a numeric display that shows the total for that day as a digital number.

Image credit: Seattle PI
Image credit: Seattle PI

As you bike past the counter, a laser at ankle height is triggered an inductive loop buried in the ground detects the metal of the bicycle wheels and the counter increments by one. (Thank you to Eco-Counter, the company the manufactures the device for reading this post, correcting me and sharing it) The data are then transmitted back to a central repository and made available to investigate. The city has a website that shows some basic visualizations and other people have used the data to make even cooler visualizations, like this one.

bike-counter-variance-by-day

You can’t see those visualizations when you’re biking, but if you turn your head to check after you pass, you will see the number change. That is your number for the day – your tick on the board. At least until you return that evening and are counted again.

That subtle decision to include the number, to let me see myself get counted, is a crucial part of this story. They didn’t have to do that. They could have installed the counter and transmitted the data and never had an LED light. They could have been subtle like the laser counter on city buses or secretive, like the employee working the clicker counter on the ferris wheel. But they were neither, the put your number up there in big green text that you can not avoid seeing.

My Number

As happens with numbers, after a few days I began to notice a pattern. When I went to work I would be in the 500 range and when I came home I would be in the low thousands. I started to wonder how many people that had biked in before me had also returned before me. How did those numbers add up? Was it that I worked on a later schedule than everyone or were there lots of people that started work even later than I did?

I then started to play with the number. I would leave early to get a lower number or stay later to get a higher one at the end of the day. Sometimes I would guess my number before I got to the bridge and then check how close I was. Numbers are fun for nerds.

I began to have a feel for the days. Most, it seemed, peaked at about 1,500 in August. As fall approached and the rain started, the numbers got a bit lower. I would find myself in the 400s or 300s in the morning. By November there were days I was in the 300s coming home.

Like me, there were lots of people that had a hard time biking when the weather was bad, the numbers made that clear. I’ll show you (because it wouldn’t be a Greg post without some charts. Note that this data is actually from another bike counter, not the one I pass, so the numbers are a bit different.

Generally, there is just a lot of seasonality. The winter months see about 50% of the traffic of summer months.

bike-commuting-seasonality

Per day, the variance is even greater though. Lets compare nice days to miserable days.

Here is the aggregate data from nice days, over 80 degrees, with no rain. You can see it peaks going in to the city at 8am at around 400 and peaks going out of the city at 5pm at around 500.

bike-counter-nice-days

Here is the aggregate for days where it rained more than an inch and was colder than 50 degrees. Note the n is pretty low here – only 5 days met this description. Nonetheless, the effect is visible, the peaks are at about 100, only 20-25% that of nicer days. Huge variance based on weather.

bike-counter-cold-days

This is where things get interesting for me.

My HTFU Score

I frequently talk about how challenges make you stronger. One way to measure how challenging something is, is to consider how many people are able to and chose to do it. Often it is true that the fewer the number, the harder the challenge, and thus the stronger you must be to complete it.

It is under this mentality that the statement “you’re crazy” is one of the highest compliments in my book. It means you’re an outlier at something you chose to spend your time accomplishing. You are of a select group, of small count, that was strong enough, dedicated enough & innovative enough to do it.

So when the weather got worse and the number on the bike counter got lower, I began to look at that number as a score of sorts. The lower it was, the fewer the people willing to make the commute, the more elite a group I was placing myself in.

There is an acronym in biking I write about sometimes. HTFU. It stands for harden the f-word up. Generally it means that whatever your excuse is, isn’t good enough. Get out there and do it.

While it stinks of machismo and arrogance, it stands in stark contrast to the accusations of entitlement and laziness too frequently cast on my generation. We’re out there biking. Are you still polluting and hoping someone is going to fix it for you?

The number on the bike counter has become my HTFU score. Seeing a low number means I got up earlier, toughed it through the weather, rose above the excuse. It is the numeric representation of my ability to become stronger in the face of a challenge.

I still don’t bike every day. There are still days where I am too tired, too sore from a run or just unwilling to deal with the weather. But on days when I don’t, when I give in and take the bus or an Uber, I know that counter is still there, its green lights showing a score I won’t get. That is what motivates me to try harder the next day.