Sunday, August 19, 2012

High Country 200k (132 miles) Brevet: Now That Was A Challenge

Our route from Show Low->Springerville->Big Lake->and back to Show Low

Map Credit: Susan Plonsky AZ Brevet

The start/finish was in Show Low, AZ, 185 miles mostly north of Tucson. 

At one point it looked like I would be riding the brevet with a couple of recumbent buddies from Phoenix and one from Tucson. But it didn’t work out for Dave, Gerry, or Mark to join me, 
so Kirk and I drove up to Show Low on Friday, 
getting there in time for dinner with Dan Fallon from Prescott, a strong bent rider. 

I was eager to see a part of my new state and enjoy a day in cooler climes. I felt totally prepared for the climbing, which was advertised to be somewhere between 5,400 and 7,400’ depending upon whose altimeter or GPS mapping software you used.  After many local Tucson climbs, including a first-time scamper up Mt. Lemmon and a recent ascent of the McKenzie Pass from Sisters, OR to Eugene, I was confident this ride should pose no extraordinary challenge. 

I did take note of the fact that Show Low sits at a base elevation of 6,400’, about 4,000’ higher than Tucson and 3,000’ higher than Sisters. I did NOT take note of the fact that for much of the brevet I would be riding at 7,500-9,100’ of elevation.

About 16 riders (including 4 females and 2 bents) left the Safeway on Deuce of Clubs at 6:00 a.m. with a temp of 58. Haven’t seen that kind of “low” in Tucson for months. Even wondered if I should have brought my long-fingered gloves. But, since I didn’t have any with me it was one of those “Just Deal With It” realities. 

What I noticed right out of the “gate” was: I was short of breath. The chill (which wasn’t much), the elevation, and my tendency toward exercise-induced asthmas all coalesced as a desperate effort to suck oxygen wherever/however I could. Soon 13 riders were out of sight and it was just me and two women from Phoenix. No worries. I don’t mind riding alone.

The grandeur of this ride defies being captured into words. The expanse of verdant blankets sloping oh so welcomingly at the base of mountains, open range cattle grazing, and roads you could trust to descend at 40 mph was magnificently breathtaking, breathtaking in a good way. 


Until some thoughtless oncoming motorist decided to pass 3 or 4 cars at upwards of 70 mph in my lane when I had NO shoulder save a 6” ribbon of deeply punch-pressed rumble strips.  Hard to stop at 35 mph rattling in rumble strips. But stop I did, breathing heavily, this time from adrenalin, not altitude.

Mile 47 found me in Springerville. Hadn’t been there since 2006 in my 1st Transcontinental. Brought a smile to my face. 

And then at mile 52 we began our climb to 9,000’ plus and where we’d stay for the next 50 miles or so. Mile 52 was where I began to get leg cramps, really the first time ever in over 100,000 miles of riding the last 11 years. 

I usually think of cramping as a fluid and electrolyte issue. Goodness knows I’ve had my share of dialing in the fluid/fuel/electrolyte balance. And after much work with a nutritionist, Joanna Chodorowska, after moving to Tucson I got my new “settings” for my Tucson climate and elevation. But, that plan wasn’t working for me at 6-7,000’ more elevation than I’m used to.

But cramps would end up being a constant companion for the next 75 miles, once pulling me off the road in traffic. I kept experimenting with a little more water, a few more Hammer Endurolyte capsules, a little more Hammer gel, a few stretches. Finally about mile 100 the cramps eased up. Had I found the sweet combination or had I just lost enough elevation that I was “home free” 

And, what role did hypoxia play in this whole scheme? Clearly I wasn’t getting the same amount of O2 I’m accustomed to at 2,100 feet. Clearly my exercise-induced asthmas reduced my available O2 and VO2 max and clearly muscles will cramp when they are asked to do a big job and don’t have the O2 fuel they need.

Take aways?
  • I loved this route and would do it again
  • I will be much more aware of elevation before beginning an event and its potential effect on my physiology
  • I will reduce my performance expectations if I’m playing at altitude (probably would have finished an hour sooner had I not struggled with altitude issues) 
  • Huge appreciation for “big dog” cyclists (all athletes, actually) who can perform at altitude when it is not their home elevation
  • Huge gratitude that being two months shy of 67 I can still perform respectably 
  • Huge gratitude for Kirk who is such an awesome supporter of me in my quests. I wish for everyone at least one person in their life who offers support with unconditional enthusiasm.