Climbing Avoided Mountains
Sometimes we avoid mountains. My first plan for Martin’s Ride was skip Colorado. Colorado scared me. I’m what my friend Leslie would call a “flat lander”. Living at sea level in Durham, North Carolina just off the tobacco trail makes for poor mountain climbing legs and lungs. Oh, and then there is the asthma thing. I have to remember to thank friends at GSK’s respiratory care unit for making Advair and Ventolin as those bad boys helped me climb to 11,300 feet today.
Worried I woke up at four this morning. I knew the ride up Monarch Pass Colorado would be my greatest single Martin’s Ride challenge. Fear is a funny old bird. I handle fear best with a plan, so I spent my extra hour this morning creating a plan. Thinking of my sister’s
“fueling” advice I decided to over fuel. I would eat or drink some fuel every mile during the twenty-mile climb from Salida’s 7,000 feet of elevation to Monarch Crest’s 11,300. Caroline believed I’ve been under fueling, so I would over fuel today (if such a thing is possible).
Beside fuel there are other problems. Breathing after 9,000 feet on my first day in Colorado was a disaster. Imagine climbing a 7% incline on a bicycle and NOT being able to breathe. I can take my legs feeling as if they are burning off, back hurting and sweat making me cold. Breathing is a must. I created a “breathing plan”. Slow is better than fast after about 8,000 feet. Fast just creates panic. If panic set in my ride would be over. Panic caused by not being able to breathe finished my day one ride to Bishop’s Castle (read Colorado's Singing Moutains
Martin's bonk post). Today, I decided, I would NOT get going so fast panic set in. I slowed everything down. After the first eight miles of rolling flats the climb began in earnest. I decided to stop every mile and take a picture then drink water and gels and drink some Hammer Perpetuem (endurance food).
I started executing my plan at 8,800 feet of elevation and 10.11 miles into the ride. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I used a favorite business strategy – break big projects down into manageable bites. Applying this lesson I broke a twenty-mile climb gaining 4,000 feet of elevation into one-mile climbs. Once I checked a milestone off I looked for the next one. 10.11 became 11.11 and then 12.11 and so on. I watched my Garmin carefully. I made sure to stop, take a picture and fuel every mile. Climbing to 11,300 is intimidating, getting from 10.11 to 11.11 seemed easy and doable.
Five miles from the crest I met Jeremy and Brian in the RV at the Monarch Mountain Lodge (elevation 10,790). “You have about five miles to go,” Jeremy told me. I felt good. Five miles was doable. “Stop at the Monarch Crest store at the top until we get there,” Jeremy said. Our plan was keep the RV behind me so I could descend down to it if I couldn’t climb further. Based on how much elevation I needed to gain still, the last 1,000 feet were going to be steep grades, thin air and tough climbing. Five one-mile climbs was doable. I knew I was going to do this. I would reach the top making me the highest self propelled asthma, cancer and MS human on the planet. When I told my sister this at 9,300 feet a few days earlier she immediately said, “you are the highest you know of.” I agreed and said if another triple winner (asthma, MS, cancer) wanted to tell me they’ve been higher my email was easy to find :).
Right after I left the Monarch Lodge my Garmin’s grade calculator went haywire. The signal was bouncing around the peaks on my left and right giving negative grades. I didn’t need the handlebar computer to tell me I was on a 7% grade heading to a 9% grade. My legs and lungs knew.
It was cold. I’ve seen flurries on the Continental Divide in July. Today it was low fifties on top. My borrowed arm warmers were a godsend. Sweat was pouring off me now despite a chilling wind. Stopping for my regular every mile picture and fuel my glasses fogged. How can I describe crawling up a shoulder of a mountain while cars put petal to the metal? The shoulder was solid, wide and not full of sand or rocks. There were passing lanes so no close car encounters today, but the noise cars make ascending a mountain of this size can knock you off the bike.
I passed the empty Monarch Mountain ski resort on my right. I wasn’t sure if that was the store Jeremy described. It was too low (not at 11,000 yet) and closed. I pressed on. Legs hurt now, they burned with each stroke, but I was in a rhythm. Rhythm when riding a bicycle cures a host of ills including fatigue. Once rhythm breaks it takes four times as much work to do half the distance. I was sitting back on my seat and climbing with determination and meaning.
Climbing demands attention. Every thought must be about coordination and turning the crank one more time, staying in rhythm and believing in your ability to make it. Climbing and descending are different. Climbing is slow, a struggle with body and mind. Descending is fast, a struggle to process and organize information fast enough to NOT DIE. Climbing is harder psychologically. Descending is more taxing mentally. When you climb there is nothing but time. You’ve seen when people run along side the Tour de France riders on steep climbs. It is possible to run for twenty or thirty yards next to a biker who is climbing a fifteen or twenty mile climb. Runners exhaust themselves as cyclist continues to grind forward.
Grind is a good word for climbing. It describes climbing’s physical and mental state. Think wrong thoughts and you’re doomed. Wrong thoughts include, “when will this be over” or “I hate this”. Once your mind changes to negative your body can’t compensate. You aren’t strong enough. You fail. Keeping the mind focused is key. Problem is climbing destroys cognition especially climbing at elevation in Colorado. After about 8,000 feet there is less oxygen. You get a slight dull headache. Just when your body is screaming for MORE oxygen there is less. You would not want to attempt even simple math during this mentally taxing time. This is why I kept my plan simple. Look for 12.11 then 13.11 then 14.11. I didn’t want to do math. I wouldn’t be able to do any math. Remembering my name can be a challenge. I thought of P&G’s KISS principle. Keep It Simple Stupid is always a good guiding idea especially above 8,000 feet ☺.
Coming around a bend I saw Monarch Crest. I made it. Monarch Crest is a large store built into the top of the mountain. There is dirt and plants on the roof. There is a large sign, “Monarch Crest Elevation 11,300”. I took a picture, fueled and headed in to strip off my wet clothes and run them under the hand dryer. A sign posted in the bathroom said Monarch Crest was a family owned and run store since 1935. The sign encouraged me to climb even further on their chair lift. “I’ll pass,” I said out loud to the astonishment of my fellow bathroom user. “What,” the man said to me. “Nothing, sorry I just rode up here and going higher isn’t in the plan,” I said laughing. The man laughed too. “I understand,” he said.
I would need to wait forty-five minutes until Jeremy, Brian and the RV arrived. We took pictures and I gathered myself for the descent. “Descending is more mental,” Jeremy said. He was right, but climbing is more psychological I thought. Descending down from 11,300 feet to the basin below was less fun than the Blue Ridge Parkway descent I wrote about in 45 mph
. I was going faster down Monarch Pass and there were more physical challenges. I could smell brakes burning even as they only slowed me down. At one point I pulled into a truck runaway and Jeremy joined me. I could smell the RV’s brakes burning too. “Don’t stay here long,” Jeremy said and he was right. Eighteen-wheelers might need this rubber band loop going up the side of the mountain. I pulled back into the high-speed downhill ready for Monarch Pass to be a memory.
This is a dangerous psychological state on a descent. Wanting a descent to be over means you can make mistakes. Any mistake at 45 mph (I was going more like 50 mph coming down from Monarch Pass) is a BIG MISTAKE. I quickly focused on the task at hand and rode through the next series of hairpin turns out into the flats where it was over eighty degrees. A four-hour climb took about twenty minutes to descend. I had to pull over immediately to strip three insulating layers down to one. Crossing the Continental Divide is like crossing into a new country. Colorado on the other side of the divide was lush and cool in comparison. Now I was riding a long flat bowl smaller mountains and hills to either side. The wind and heat felt like a needle drawing every drop of water out of my body. I rode another twenty miles getting our total for the day to fifty. It was a good day. “No need to push it,” Jeremy said and I had to agree.
Fear is a funny old bird. Why did I try to wimp out and follow a flat path across the country? Would I trade my experience climbing Monarch Pass, taking a picture at the Continental Divide and descending five thousand feet in twenty minutes for anything? Nope. Climbing avoided mountains is what Martin’s Ride is about even if I didn’t realize it until others helped me. Strangers always save our lives. A couple of strangers helped re-teach me a valuable life lesson. It is always important to climb avoided mountains, and I have the picture to prove it ☺.
See pictures from this day on Martin's Ride's Flickr