Monday, January 25, 2010

Welcome to Hell...

Few words strike fear into the hearts of serious Midwest cyclist like the following:

Horribly Hilly Hundreds.

It is a one day challenge ride that starts and ends in Blue Mounds, WI. It is billed constantly as the hardest one day challenge ride there is. There are many quotes uttered around the cyberspace world that indicate this particular ride is more challenging than some of the legendary rides out west, such as Colorado's Triple Bypass Ride in which the participant tackles not one, but 3 mountain passes. That is a statement right there. Those of us whom have participated in this ride have been called many terrible things: crazy, insane, nuts, loopy, Yankee's fan. Yet every year from it's inception the ride has lured people from all over the country and has gained popularity each year. In fact, this year the 1,000 rider slot filled up in less than 7 minutes.

I have done this ride 3 times now and I have yet to finish the whole thing. Year one (2007) was my second serious year of riding. I made it 101 miles before my body literally shut down. I was probably 2-3 minutes of sun exposure away from heat stroke. Year two (2008) was the same year Daven was born and as anyone who has children knows, they take up time so I didn't have anywhere close to the training miles needed to tackle the full ride, so I opted for the shorter course. Year 3 (2009) was my best showing as of date. I made it 105 miles, didn't set my foot down once, and tackled the last tortuous 3 mile climb that is Mounds Park Road. This ride not only challenges you physically, but it also brings you to the limit mentally. I would now like to try and take you on a tour of what it's like to ride the HHH. Now would be a good time to get something to drink.

Hey! I thought this was gonna be hard.

The HHH tips it's hand before you even get on your bike. All the ride literature and all the forums say the same thing, "This ride is heavily end loaded. Save something for stages D and E". So you know going into this that the organizers have pain in mind. But those first few miles you are out on country roads spinning along with hundreds of fellow ultra-fit cyclists participating in a ride with incredible status. The sun is just coming up and everyone is laughing and happily chatting away. Those country roads roll on by, and that false confidence that is brought about by rolling in the beginning of a big event come on full force. You forget that on that long long decent into the valley that where you started is 3 miles lower than where you end. That 45 mph decent is nice, but you're gonna have to come back up.

What your day will be like, and we're only 6 miles in.

Once you get to the bottom of the decent, you enter what cyclists call a "working downhill". This means that the road sloaps gently down, so that you can still find a high gear so that you don't spin out, but maintaining that high gear at 23-24 mph is nothing. You roll for about a mile or so and then you turn right onto a seemingly benign road. Your first clue something is up is that this is where your first water stop is. "Water?", you say possibly out loud but at least in your head, "We're only 6 miles in. I haven't touched my water. Pffft." So you roll right on, not noticing that the road sign you passed said "Mounds Park Road." The mere mention of that name to anyone whose down this ride is enought to make them want to go cry in the corner curled in a fetal position. Anyhow, the beginning isn't all that bad. It slopes up, maybe 3% or so, and winds along for a mile or so. Then you come through a tree line, around a bend, and the roads explodes upwards. You cannot see the top, it's just a sea of cyclists churning gears. Some are on the side of the road walking. You go into your granny gear, shut your mind off, and throw the pedals over at 4 mph with the rest of the pack. One of the things you notice right away is how quiet everything is. The playful banter has stopped. All you hear is heavy breathing, maybe a water bottle pull or two, and the occassional cussing. Most people aren't broken yet, but you can see on the faces of many that they have now realized they are far far from adequate training for this ride and are way over there heads. And we all realize we are only 7 miles or so now into our 125 mile day. Last year at the summit of this climb, Ian said it best when I caught up to him, "I've never done a climb like that before." I cooly replied, "We're just getting started".

The hardest 24 miles I've done on a bike.

After the Mounds Park Road climb (which you know from reading the map is the same climb you have to do at the end of the ride only you go another half mile or so), you get a few more decent climbs in before the first rest stop. But before you get to that rest stop, you will have your first taste at just how sick and twisted the organizers are. You come up to the climb to get into the first stop only to be stopped at a busy intersection as the police let motorists by. That's right, you lose all rythym and cadence, (which is essential to have a good climb on the bike) stop, and then be immediaetly assaulted by a gigantic climb. You curse their names and wish a pox on them. By this time it's somewhere around 9 o'clock or so, and the temperature is on the rise. So is the humidity. You pull into rest stop 1 feeling springy still, but definaetly a little worse for wear than any other 24 mile mark you've put on the bike computer. You can see it in plenty of faces, "What did we get ourselves into?"

Garfoot/Barlow Road

1 mile or so out from the first rest stop you come across Garfoot Road. This climb is nothing more than a wall. It's one of the ones cars have trouble getting up. It's horribly steep and relentless. Thankfully though, it is shaded, because after taking time at the rest stop the sun is a little higher now, and the humidity is in full swing. Every year I've done the ride the temp has been in the mid to high 80's, and the heat index has been close to 100. But then you make a quick turn at the top or Garfoot, go down a road, get a decent downhill that leads you into the Barlow Road climb. This one isn't bad because that downhill carries you up almost half of it. And there is a photographer waiting for you at the top. My favorite picture of me taken while I'm on a bike was taken my first year at this point. You feel good still, are climbing well, and someone just took your picture. The rest of stage B is short and steep hill climbs that you tackle far from easily but you make it up with little problem. You start to notice more and more people walking their bikes, and that sun is beating down on you something fierce now. The jersey is at least 3/4 of the way open, and you feel hot sticky air rise up from out of it when you slow down on the climbs. You're now starting to feel some caloric deficiency as well.

Screw off! We already did this one!

Just before your computer shows you're at the next rest stop, you realize the country you're cruising in looks familiar. "Haven't we done this already?" people ask. Before you realize it, you are indeed stopped at that same police controlled intersection, looking up at that same daunting hill, only this time your 44 miles in instead of 24. Your legs aren't nearly as springy, and that climb involves a few more stints out of the saddle than it did the first time. That second time at that rest stop you see sorrow in a few faces. Some people are starting to crack, and we still have 3 more stages to go. Food is starting to lose it's appeal, which is the black cirlce that is endurance eventing: You need calories, but you start losing the will to ingest them. You start wishing for a blender and an IV line.

The easy miles.

Stage C is billed as the "recovery" stage. It is supposedly designed as less intense so that you can spin your legs out a little bit and replenish your food and hydration needs in preparation for the last 2 very brutal stages. Bullshit. Stage C has Spring Valley Road, which is a quaint little climb in the middle of nowhere. You've just cruised back down into the valley only to make a left curving turn and have the road go shooting back up. I came across a guy sitting on the guard rail at the side of the road last year whom I asked if he needed any help. "Just waiting for the sag wagon" he replied. I nodded and put my head down and churned away. I will say that I do not in any way look down at those who take the sag wagon in this ride. I myself took it the first year. The thing is until you do this ride, you absoluetly have no idea what it will be like, so you can't train properly for it. As a funny side note, Ian was about 10-15 minutes ahead of me at this point and came across members of a cycling team waiting at the top of this hill. They asked him if he happened across anyone wearing a jersey like the ones they had. Ian replied in the negative, and they said something about their teammate went right instead of left at the bottom of the hill. The other member of the team flipped out exclaiming "I'm not going back down that hill! Screw him! I'm not going back down there!!" It is a nasty nasty climb.

I could curl up and live here.

Your 3rd rest stop you come into is a park in the middle of a small town. It goes by the name of Veterans Park in Black Earth, WI. It's the same set up as the last rest stop, however it has two magical things about it: A large tub of water with hand towels to dip and wash your face and neck with, and next a person with a garden hose with a sprayer attatched that will hose you down with wonderfully cold cold water for as long as you want. The hose is refreshing, and I have commented how I would love to just lie down and have the spray on me for 10 minutes. I don't know if that feeling is because I'm so hot and the water feels good, or I'm so beaten down by this point that I'm hoping that act would result in me drowning. Whatever the case, you find a tree after your hosing with a handful of food and drink and try to eat it realizing that you are only a shade past the halfway point. And the worst is yet to come.

The long pull into "The Graveyard" and Sweeny Fu%^ing road

Stage 4 is the longest of the 5 stages. It's 33 miles long, which by normal century rides is excessively long between stages. For this ride, it's completely insane. At this point, you just don't feel good anymore. You're lacking proper nutrition, you're sick of the energy drink in your bottle, you're baked from being in the sun, and your chamois is starting to grow new lifeforms from the humidity. The sag wagon is coming by in force now, and it seems the trailer is always full of bikes. The more people you see quit, the more you realize you want to as well. It's demoralizing to see people dropping like flies, because your own self doubts start yelling louder in your head. The climbs are brutal on stage 4. They seem to never end. You get done with one, thinking you're out of the valley, only to be assaulted by another one. Forget pedaling circles or any form whatsoever. You're in survival mode, and if that means pedaling blocks and standing out of the saddle or swearing up a storm to try and get adrenaline going, you do it. Everyone is so delirious by that point that they aren't gonna remember how sloppy you look. I remember last year that at this point, my gloves were so soaked with sweat that I was slipping off of my handlebars because of it. Life sucks at this point.

I'm coming right out and saying this: I hate Sweeny Road. This gem is at mile 95, and it had been nicknamed "The Staircase". Why? Because it's a series of one false flat after another, thus making it seem like 4 or 5 giant stairs leading to the top. And it's incredibly steep, at one point hitting 12% or so in it's grade. It doesn't stop, and I have seen many people make this the end of their day. I've seen carnage such as people heaving over their handlebars, or laying on the side of the road in the shade trying to get their core temp back down. I have never wanted to quit so badly then on this road. I'm now convinced that if purgatory truly exists, it involves biking Sweeny Road. You go and go and just when your legs are on the verge of shutting down, just when you are about to fall over, just when your lungs about explode, you're coasting downhill, and you see a sign indicating the next rest stop is just around the corner. You pull into the last rest stop, which is literally a local guys front lawn, and you realize you are almost done. You survived until the last stage. By the way, this last rest stop is called "The Graveyard" because those who've made it this far are scattered around like dead bodies strewn about the lawn. It should be noted that year one, this is where I stopped, and last year I cheated and took the short cut to Mounds Park Road, but year 2 I did do this last stage into Mounds Park Road, so I will briefly summerize here what Pinnacle Road was like: It sucked.

Mounds Park Road Part Deux

Last year, when I was leaving The Graveyard I heard on one of the volunteers radio that half the field currently climbing Mounds Park Road were on the side of the road throwing up. With good reason. This is the same Mounds Park Road as the first time we did it, however now you have at least 100 miles (if you did the whole thing, at least 120 miles) in your legs. You've climbed close to 9,000 feet, and you've been cooking in what feels like 100 degrees. You're beaten down, and you are broken. Mounds Park Road in it's entirety is 3 miles long, and you gain almost 1,000 feet in the climb. I have seen people topple over because they don't have the strenght to clip out or keep pedaling. I've seen people crying on the side of the road. I've seen people staggering up while leaning on their bikes. And I saw one guy heave his $3,000 bike into the woods because he snapped. I don't know how to describe this climb. For me, it's exhaustion at it's highest. Any wrong movement and my legs cramped up entirely. You stand, you sit back down, you sit back in the saddle, you concentrate on pulling up, you concentrate on pushing down. Over and over. You try to ignore the roaring voice screaming to stop and just put a foot down for a minute because you know you'll never get back on the bike. You go what seems like forever, and then you see them. Volunteers and specators. They're cheering for you on the side of the road, and you hear the music playing up ahead. You're almost done!! Then you see it! A cone in the road. And then another! And then mercifully, the road eases just slightly, and you see it: The finish banner. You've made it up Mounds Park Road. For me, I crossed the line, weaved to a spot in the grass, and toppled over. The impact from landing caused me to unclip from my pedals. I tore off my helmet and glasses, and tried not to vomit. A concerned looking volunteer came over to me, but I indicated I was OK. I was just glad to be off that damn bike, and vowed that would be the last time doing this ride.

The Day After

I remember each year that the day after my legs are never hurting. They are just drained. I wouldn't be able to generate any power under any circumstance. And I remember honestly hating my bike. Looking at it, I always think I'm never gonna get back on it. Last year, I lost 10lbs. on the ride. My body was so broken down that it took me almost a full week to feel normal again. One of the things that sticks out most from last years ride is that the morning after I didn't have the typical morning urge to pee. My body was using all the fluid for other purposes I guess. The HHH lives up to it's billing. It is the toughest ride I do, and I have no doubt believing it is one of the toughest out there. Like years before, people asked me if I was gonna do it again. At that time I honestly didn't know. I was broken.

Ian and I are signed up for this years ride. I guess it wasn't so bad after all.


  1. I might call you a lot of things, but I'll never call you a Yankee's fan.


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