Man vs Road: Cycling Through the Mojave Desert #Uberman #Triathlon

Back on the boat - safe, dry & happy

Back on the boat – safe, dry & happy

After finishing my swim across the Catalina Channel, I was ecstatic and completely thrashed.

Now it was on to the bike…

T1: Swim-to-Bike

We got back to Marina del Rey in about 90 minutes where Paul (my father in law) was waiting. We unloaded the boxes and cargo and everything else to his car and headed back to our rented apartment in Venice. Benjamin was already asleep for the night and Nina (my mother-in-law) just looked at me in disbelief. I think she fully expected me to get eaten by sharks and was honestly surprised that we all made it home successfully. Admittedly, the fear of sharks was VERY real for me throughout the swim, so I’d be insincere if I didn’t admit a certain amount of astonishment myself for being back at the apartment safely. There was something surreal about it having that massive effort successfully behind me.

Lena and I shared pizza and as much of the adventure as we could, though I found myself mostly unable or unwilling to recount the day because of fatigue and a sense of relief for arriving home safely.

My sleep that night was terrible. My shoulders and lacerations on my feet throbbed. My nasal passages were swollen from the salt water. The abrasions on my neck stung. and the cuts on my feet stung. I hobbled to the kitchen in the middle of the night for a midnight snack of  ibuprofen, bananas and ice cream.

The next morning, I couldn’t lift either arm more than a few inches above my waist without a sharp pain, especially my left unless I swung my right arm to push it higher.  I texted Brian MacKenzie. He suggested Voodoo Floss (which we had because Tbone and Lena are awesome) and mobility work – even some pushups and shoulder presses if possible (which they were not). I tried leaning against a lacrosse ball pinned against a wall which was intensely unpleasant.

Next stop: The Mojave Desert

Next stop: The Mojave Desert

We cleaned up the apartment and packed up The Beast, shared leftover birthday cake (it was Paul’s birthday was the day of the swim), and said our goodbyes. Paul and Nina headed back to Boise while Lena, Tbone, Benjamin and I proceeded to Mojave. With any luck, we’d be there by early afternoon to start prepping for tomorrow’s bike segment. I’d pick up with the other competitors there and start the second 200-mile segment on Friday. On the way, I texted my chiropractor – Michelle Chu – she’s awesome and is trained in ART and also works with the Sacramento Kings – who phoned me right away with advice to massage lightly and slowly get them moving. We’d find out later today if tomorrow’s bike segment was a possibility.

The Mojave Airport

The Mojave Airport

2016-10-20-17-40-19After checking into our hotel in Mojave and unpacking, the team vibe was discernibly lacking enthusiasm. Yesterday had tapped all of us and Benjamin was getting a bit stir crazy. Lena and Tanya took Benjamin for a drive to check the Mojave airport while I stayed back at the hotel. To get myself back into a positive mindset, I did deep breathing exercises I learned from the Wim Hof Method, then allowed myself relax and fall into a comfortable nap. I slept for about 30 minutes and felt revived and excited for the prospect of tomorrow’s bike segment. It was time to test out my shoulders.

First I tried George, my TT bike. Not bad, but I definitely felt pressure especially when turning to my left to check oncoming traffic, or steering with any significant turning. A bit disconcerting given the descents on the tomorrow’s course. I returned to the hotel and switched to Pedro, my road bike. Ahhh….. much, much better! Almost no pain because I was sitting upright!

I decided I’d start the bike on Pedro. Then once my body warmed up after a couple of hours, I’d switch to George until I got to the Town Pass climb at mile 130. From there, I’d switch back to Pedro for the ascent, then knock out the last 50 miles on George.

Tbone and Lena used the Voodoo Floss on my shoulders. It worked surprisingly well. I prepped Pedro and my cycling gear for the next morning, and met the team for dinner downstairs at the hotel restaurant. Spirits were much higher now from the breathing exercises, nap, and now the excitement knowing that in the morning, I’d be cycling across the desert in the early morning dark and chill. For Lena and Tbone, I think the wine at dinner helped a little too… Mostly, we all started to embrace the ridiculousness of the journey, and that the effort was as much about the adventure as anything.

Benjamin was predictably finicky at dinner but we got back to the room for bath time and bed, and he fell asleep quickly. I followed soon after with my alarm set for 5am, preparing for a 6am departure to tackle tomorrow’s 200 mile segment from Mojave to Death Valley, finishing at Badwater Basin.

Sunrise in the Desert

I woke up Friday excited. My shoulders were definitely better, though still far from 100%. I felt confident that I’d be okay on the bike based on yesterday’s test ride, and I was ready to hit the road. After a breakfast of nuts, a banana and some coffee-flavored, caffeine-infused nutrition mix, I was ready to go.

Lena and I headed out to The Beast where Tbone slept that night. With my head covering on because of the chilly desert morning, I needed to adjust the strap on my borrowed aero helmet.

Snap. F*ck. The strap broke. Oh well. Two is one, one is none. I had brought my regular cycling helmet, strapped it on, and off I went.

Anyone up for 200 miles through the Mojave Desert?

Anyone up for 200 miles through the Mojave Desert?

I felt great muscularly – refreshed by the cool morning air and thrilled to be on the bike after how I felt just 36 hours on the Terranea rocks. Just hopping on the saddle for mile one felt like a victory.

I planned to go ride at an average pace of 15mph, including stops, as this was my pace at the recent Levi’s Gran Fondo Century ride. That ride had nearly 10,000′ of climbing over 100 miles. Today’s bike segment would be just under 10,000’ of climbing over twice the distance so I felt the 15mph pace was a solid estimate, putting me on a 13-14 hour day to finish the 200 miles – arriving at Badwater Basin between 8:00-9:00pm that night.

Watching the sun rise over the desert

Watching the sun rise over the desert

The first couple of hours were just plain fun. I watched the sun rise over the desert and had my first taste of long, straight quiet desert roads – miles and miles of space to myself. While I felt alone, I never felt lonely. There was a tranquility to the landscape and roads.

A whole lotta nothing out there...

A whole lotta nothing out there…

Our first rest stop, an impromptu break before Randsburg

Our first rest stop – an impromptu break before Randsburg


After about two hours, I turned onto Redrock-Randsburg Road and felt something behind me. It was The Beast! We did an impromptu rest stop where I stripped off my head covering and arm sleeves and started the first climb of the ride towards Randsburg. At Randsburg, I switched from Pedro to George for a two-hour stretch including some magnificent descents where I picked up some time by regularly hitting more than 25mph. We met up again for another rest stop in Trona where I decided to switch back to Pedro because of the long inclines ahead between here and the day’s midway point to Death Valley before the Town Pass climb. Those two hours turned out to be my only two hours on George…

Rest stop at Trona. Just one of a hundred examples of the awesomeness of my crew.

Rest stop at Trona. Just one of a hundred examples of the awesomeness of my crew.

Climbing out of Trona, boredom really kicked in. While the road wasn’t an out-and-out climb, it was a long slow incline that pushed me down to my small ring where I spun at about 8-10 mph. After being on the bike for 6-7 hours, this was starting to get pretty old. I was okay with the ride and the environment – it was just the slow progress that got to me.

I reached The Beast again at the top of a climb to Ballarat where I planned to hop back on George. After reviewing the course elevation profile and looking at the descent in front of me, I decided to stick with Pedro and I’m glad I did.

Dan Bercu caught up with us here. While it’s odd to meet people you know in the middle of the desert, it also shows that it actually pretty tough to get lost out here. I commented to him how the roads had been great so far. Surprisingly good.  Dan offered to drive ahead to the top of Town Pass, ride his bike down and climb back up with me. Even though I’d been riding for so long alone, I did consider whether I wanted company or not, then decided that it’d be better to have company than not and accepted his generous offer.

Seems I spoke too soon about the road conditions. After the descent from Ballarat, the roads were plagued with bumps and ruts. At one point, the strap on my bike bag beneath my seat broke and I pulled over. An SUV stopped to ask if I needed anything.

“Got a rubber band by chance?” He hunted around and found an orange construction ribbon. Bingo!

“You’re a long way from anything. What are you doing out here?” he asked.

“I started in Mojave and I’m headed to Badwater.”

“You’ve got a ways to go. Good luck.”

I asked him the same question. He was a government employee out to see if they had started the road construction on the road up ahead. Floods a few years ago washed out parts of the highway, explaining the road conditions I was experiencing.

He drove on and about 20 minutes later, I caught up with the construction site and The Beast. The road was completely torn out  for two miles and only a dirt passage was available, so I happily climbed into the belly of The Beast for another impromptu break and shoved PBJ sandwiches down my throat at a pace that would make Joey Chestnut proud.

Hitching a ride in the belly of The Beast

Hitching a ride through the construction in the belly of The Beast

The crew dropped me off past the construction and more long slow desert miles lay ahead.

After about 30 minutes, I reached The Beast again at the entrance to Death Valley National Park. It was getting later in the afternoon – about 4pm, so I’d been riding more than ten hours. More importantly, we had only 2.5 hours of daylight with ten-mile, 4000’ climb up ahead, and I was only 130 miles into the trip, well off my planned 15mph pace. I wanted to get to the top before dark so I could descend with some daylight and finish the rest of the ride in quick order on George fitted with lights and glowsticks.

Made it to Death Valley!

Made it to Death Valley!

I refueled headed to the Town Pass climb. Dan was waiting about a mile up the road and off we went. The first 2-3 miles were flat and we chatted. Then the incline started.

“Once we start climbing, I’m not going to much for conversation,” I said. Dan was very understanding and we settled into a quiet, slow pace.

The Climb. Was. Long. It starts at 1000’ on the edge of Death Valley National Park and peaks at nearly 5000.’ After climbing for what I thought was a while, we hit the 2000’ elevation sign. Ugh. Then later, the 3000’ foot sign about six miles into the ten-mile climb.

Somewhere on the Town Pass Climb

Somewhere on the Town Pass Climb

Dan optimistically called from behind me – “We’re about halfway in terms of elevation.”

Of course I replied pessimistically  – “Yeah, and we’re six miles in so that means the grade is going to get steeper for the last 2000 feet.” Poor Dan – I kept dousing his upbeat nature. I promise I’m not a negative person – just realistic about what’s ahead. It was late, I was tired and I could see daylight fading behind the mountains behind us. Just getting to the top before dark would be an accomplishment now, let alone figuring out how to descend and polish off the last 50+ miles.

The Beast leapfrogged us along the way, parking at turnouts and cheering us on. Each time, I quickly exchanged water bottles and nutrition and kept climbing. I unclipped three times during the climb – once about 30% into the climb to cool down where the mountain contours cast shade on the road, and to do a round of breathing exercises. My back was aching more than anything. I felt strong in my legs and my heart rate stayed in check around 120 bpm. The second time I unclipped was to shed some weight from the bike – I dropped off my second water bottle and front-mount bike bag. The third time, I shed my bike pump, rear big bag and anything else resembling weight.

To pass the time, I found a rhythmic counting cadence: I counted pedal strokes in sets of ten – 100 strokes, then 90, then 80, then 70, down to 10, then I would upshift my gears a click or two, stand up and push for 30-50 strokes, then back down and start the counting over again. It was a way to make progress and focus on sets of 500 pedal strokes at a time.

The sun set behind us and I reached a false peak at dusk. The Beast was pulled over, and they saw as I did there was still a bit of climbing left left. Plus Dan’s truck was no where in sight, so that meant we had some more work to do.

I pushed hard for the last 1/2 mile where the grade evened out a bit and reached the peak of Town Pass at dusk. As I pulled up to The Beast, Lena had George out and was pulling out the lights.

“Let’s have a meeting,” I said. “I think this is it for the bike. The descent is pretty tricky and it’s getting dark. I think this is enough. Even I make it, I’ve got three hours to go and that’s going to make for a late night and early morning. I’d rather get to the hotel and eat and be ready for the run tomorrow.”

Atop Town Pass after more than 140 miles and 9000' of climbing over 12+ hours

Atop Town Pass after more than 140 miles and 9000′ of climbing over 12+ hours, feeling great and wishing for more daylight to finish the bike.

No arguments from Lena, so we snapped a picture and loaded up The Beast for Furnace Creek about 35 miles down the road. Dan caught up after a few minutes, reaching the top in the dark. I told him my plan to end the bike segment here and hightail it to Furnace Creek to prep for tomorrow’s run.

Now onto the run…

4 responses to “Man vs Road: Cycling Through the Mojave Desert #Uberman #Triathlon

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