The Titanic 400k - A Survivors Account

This ride is cursed. We should name it the Titanic 400k. The day before the brevet, Lonnie Epic Wolff wrote from Utah: "How do you do it?" he asked, meaning, how do I always manage to schedule the Arivaca brevet during a perfect storm of sand, wind, rain, and snow. I obviously have a talent for it; if only it were useful.

Here are the stats: 25 finishers, 13 Did Not Finish, and 7 Did Not Start.
-Susan Plonsky, RBA Arizona Randonneurs - Feb 27, 2011

I am starting this entry saying that I was in the 25 people who made it through this ride.  There are rides and there are RIDES,  this was one was a RIDE.  I should also add that at least one person did nearly die of hypothermia.  He was found by two others on the side of the road with a body temp of 93 degrees and a blood sugar of 40 - it landed him in the hospital after a 911 call.  As a person who has ridden in some really epic situations (like 200ks in the single digits), I will be the first to congratulate everyone who came to this ride and either finished or didn't finish.  The skill and determination needed to do this kind of thing is something to appreciate, especially in these kind of conditions.  They don't give medals for those that don't finish, but all 38 starters sure deserve something special.  

This was a ride that defined camaraderie in the best sense of the word for me.  I was diagnosed with cancer about 3 weeks ago and though it isn't as bad as it could be, I was scheduled for surgery 2 days after this ride.  Normally, I psyche myself pretty well for a 400k - it's my very favorite distance.  This time, I had so much time in doctor's offices that I only had time for one training ride in the entire month.  4 days before the start, the forecast turned bad, then worse.  I saw on Susan's directions that she would provide drop sacks at 200k.  I started dumping my heavy duty winter gear in.

My dad, the man who took me out in a canoe on the Atlantic ocean when I was about 7 during a thunderstorm, tried to convince me that the weather too bad to go.  I had to admit that it was going to be a battle, but I really felt like I had come to ride and if I couldn't get to the finish, I could at least get to the start.  Kathy came to Casa Grande with the express purpose of lifting me if either my asthma or something else gave out.  I made emergency last minute preparations like a dust mask.

Mike Sturgill was doing the support at Arivaca and was at the sign in.  One of the nicest and most supportive riders I know, he really helped a ton of people.  I've done ride support for riders and I hope I did a tenth as good a job.  He had done the pre-ride and noted that it was 46 degrees at the start, far warmer than the pre-ride.  There was a fairly strong 15 mph headwind blowing even at 5:00am, a harbinger of the day ahead.  Susan Plonsky made some last minute comments including one about hearing that people had been moaning and puking at the last control on last month's 300k, "Let's have none of that this time," was her remark, said with a great deal of humor.  We were off.

The wind was in our faces at the start and I got into a huge, highly disorganized paceline.  We made it about 20 miles when I realized that I was working way too hard for this early.  I dropped off the end feeling my lungs burn and nearly stopped the ride right there (I have asthma); that probably saved my ride.  A guy on the back looked backwards and dropped off as well.  His name was Dave and I had actually run into him leaving the hotel an hour earlier.  We chatted and had a few things in common.  I warned him that riding with me might be a bad idea, I had overextended myself and needed to re-coup as well as getting my head into the game.  His response was that he'd done the ride before, his wife was from Minnesota, and he was a volunteer at his church - it just didn't sit with him to leave me alone on the road.  He even said a little prayer for me on as the sun came up around Picacho, hoping I would make the correct decisions that day.  Small words, they made a huge deal later on.

We rolled into Marana at 8:15 fighting notorious pavement and a pretty stiff wind.  Mike was there signing cards and I grabbed a big chocolate milk.  We didn't dally and others were there including the Picnic Parade (as I call them). 6 friends who ride together, they had gotten to the start late, but I was glad to see they made it.  They are always fun to have around.  I was still in a mental fog and Dave and I pulled out into a brief stretch of tailwind (like 1 mile), before turning onto Sanders Road.

The next few miles are uphill into Saguaro National Park.  This park is always a pleasure to ride in.  This day was overcast and with the wind, I still hadn't shed any clothes.  We got to the climb at Mile Wide Road sometime after 9 and waved to Mike, who was headed for Arivaca in the support truck.  Mile Wide is a shallow climb with steep rollers at the end.  The cactus were really beautiful and we stopped to finally drop jackets (even though I kept the tights on).  Near the top, a screw fell out of Dave's shoe and we went back to look for it.  I grabbed a candy bar while Dave fixed the problem and 2 other riders showed up.  These were Margaret and Bob from New Mexico; I had seen their names many times, but never had the pleasure.  They stopped to make sure we were okay.  They were taking it slow but pacing well.  We found out that there were some others behind us, which surprised me a little.  I had thought we were last.

The next few miles through the park were lots of fun.  At this point, around 60 miles, it's close to Tucson, but on the other side of some mountains.  We sailed into the Circle K seeing bikes there and stopped.  The Picnickers were picnicking out front and waved hello.  I got a Turkey sandwich, a Thirst Buster Powerade and a candy bar.  Dave and I sat down and ate - by this time it was around 11:00 and we were hungry.  The sky was still gray and the wind appeared to be picking up.  I was a little cold, but warmed up on the bike.  The Picnickers passed us just as we got to Mission Road.  They do a great job at pacelining, I rode with them for the last 25 miles in the 300k and it's seldom that you see randos do such a great job with that style.

Mission Road is 27 miles long and winds south out of Tuscon to Green Valley through a heavily mined area.  95% of it is false flat and uphill.  The wind accelerated (by this time it was after noon) and dust became a bit of a problem.  I put my mask on at this point.  Half of Mission was apparently re-paved since last year and that's a good thing because this stretch was a killer.  20 mph winds gusting in my face to the point that I could barely keep the bike up.  I started looking forward to the steeper rollers; at least the hill blocked the wind a little. Dave and I had to stop a couple times just to eat something and get tiny rests.  Dust poured off huge open mines and I was really glad to not be coughing - the mask works.  Making a 10 mph pace was really hard.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally crested on last hill and the road gave us a little break, the good pavement had ended, but it wasn't quite so horrible and we stopped again to eat.  Lesson: if it is very windy, don't eat on the bike lest you be blown over.  We sailed down the big hill into Green Valley with another brief tail-cross wind.  The descent was a just a little scary with a gusting 30 mph wind and when we turned south onto Camino Del Sol, the wind smacked us in the face like a hammer.  The last 3 miles to the control were so bad, Dave thought we might need to stop for another rest, but we made it.

Phil, who I met at the 300k, was at the control with the Picnickers.  I did a little dance of joy on arrival.  Margaret and Bob were there as well.  The Shell Station has a little cafe attached that was closed, but the owner re-opened to feed us.  I remember a lot of eating on this ride.  I had a bunch of milk, another candy bar, a can of Campbell's soup and a banana for lunch.  Dave wanted a sandwich and looked really tired, but told me to go ahead with Margaret and Bob if I could.  I didn't want to leave him, but I remembered his words earlier in the day.  The Picnickers were still there and Tammy pulled in as well so I knew he would not be alone.

Margaret, Bob and I left the control at about 1:45 with about 30 miles to Arivaca.  The wind howled in our faces down the frontage road on I-10.  Both of them are really nice.  They are members of the Bullshifters, what better name for a bike club.  They also sing polka music.  It was kind of heart warming.  As we turned onto Arivaca road with 21 miles to go, the Picnickers and Dave showed up.  We all rode together for a couple miles, but their pace was too fast for me in digestion mode and I dropped back to ride with Dave.  Margaret and Bob pulled ahead as well, but remained in sight.

About 10 minutes later, Dave pulled over to make Gatorade.  The wind was not friendly and I was finally catching a stride so I didn't stop, but said I would ride a little slower until he caught up.  I have really mixed feelings about this moment.  He had stopped for me, but I did remember his words in the morning hoping that I would make the right decisions to finish the ride.  So I continued.

I had been warned that the area around Arivaca can be dangerous to be alone on so I tried to keep Margaret and Bob in sight.  I wanted to catch up but it was a little like Tantalus, as soon as they seemed close, they would disappear behind a roller and be gone, then appear again.  The area around Arivaca has the most actual climbing on the ride and with the big wind, it was no walk in the park.  I finally caught up just as the sun went down, which was gorgeous, after they stopped to put coats on.  I put mine on too.  I was glad to be with others in the dark.  Margaret had done the ride 3 times previously "this is the hardest it has ever been", she said.

We rolled into the control at about 6:40pm, 40 minutes before it closed after picking up Phil, who was lost.  The Picnickers were still there with Mike and I grabbed my drop sack.  At this point, I saved my own ride by putting on my heaviest winter tights and grabbing all the rain gear.  Mike remarked that all the clouds had disappeared and it might be a nice night.  We spent about an hour getting bikes ready and eating as much as we could.  It is 45 miles to the next water stop and the area is dangerous with border patrols and illegals creeping around in the dark.  Dave pulled into the control 1 minute before it closed and we all cheered.  But he shook his head, he had already called his son to come get him.  We tried to talk him into coming, but he was pretty beat.  I will always wonder what would have happened if I had stayed with him.  I hope I made the best decision for both of us.  I pondered that as I pulled out of the control with the Picnickers and Phil.

The 8 of us were together for the next 50 miles to Three Corners.  The first 11 miles are full of rollers and potholes.  But for the first time all day, we had a sustained tailwind!  This caused us to ride way to fast for awhile.  I nearly went down on a pothole - thank goodness for Armadillo tires that are very pinch flat resistant.  I did lose a bottle and had to go back.  We turned onto AZ 287 with a full tailwind at 30 mph going downhill.  It was a circus.  I was in the lead with Mike and we easily cruised at about 22-25 mph.  After the grueling day, I was shocked at what a great rider I am with a tailwind going downhill!  We double pacelined with the 2 of us in the front for about 20 miles.  It was absolutely crazy.

We passed the border checkpoint and waved; they must think we are nuts.   We pulled into Three Corners at around 10:15 pm and Dave and Mike were there in the truck as a secret control of sorts.  This is the only water for another 20 miles and it was now closed.  Irene and Dan were just leaving and one other guy was quitting and jumping in the truck.  We refilled water bottles.  The wind was so strong that it was hard to stand up.  I wanted to continue, but everyone was exhausted so we made a 20 minute stop huddled next to the gas station to stay away from the gale force wind.

At this point, I called Kathy on the phone to let her know we were 75 miles from the finish and that I was okay.  On a last thought, I had her pull the weather report.  Rain and high winds at Marana, was the response.  Gulp, I pulled out all my rain gear (being from Minnesota, we ride in lots of hard, cold rain) and put it on.  This includes an attachable hood and booties for my feet.   Margaret and Bob pulled up as I was starting to get cold and I went ahead with them.  The 3 of us would be together for the next 60 miles.

We kept the tailwind all the way to Marana and I had a delightful time talking with them.  The stars were magnificent as we blasted back through Saguaro National Park.  This was a high point of the ride for me.  I was feeling pretty good, though the time change was starting to wear a little.  An amazing 30 miles.

The three of us pulled into the Circle K in Marana, 45 miles from the end at 12:45 am.  With a tail wind all the way back, I figured a 4:00 am finish was in the picture.  We stopped and ate, again, and said hi to Irene and Dan who pulled out about 10 minutes later.  The Picnickers showed up a little later; they had been stopped by the police who had questions...  Margaret, Bob and I pulled out shortly afterwards as Phil pulled in.  The stars were still beautiful as we rode underneath I-10.  Not a drop of rain in sight.

About 2 miles later, I felt a drop.  Being from New Mexico, Margaret and Bob don't use rain apparel much.  But we stopped so that they could put it on.  Good thing, because within about 3 minutes, the favorable wind turned to the north to become a fierce headwind and driving cold rain started.  The temperature dropped from the 50s to the 30s.  I am pretty sure at some point there might have been hail but my face went numb so it was hard to tell.  The three of us drove through the rain at about 10 mph past Picacho (which we couldn't see) and on the Eloy.  There, in Eloy, was salvation in the form of a 24 hour Circle K.  Though I didn't really want to stop, I had cold hands and Margaret was looking like she had the shivers.  Bad news.  They asked for my rain advice and I gladly gave it.

"Look, more drowned rats" was the response from the cashier at the Circle K.  She had just made more coffee.  I immediately stripped off my jacket, wind vest, gloves, and rain hood to let them start drying.   Bob found some new gloves (gardening) for sale which we bought and wrapped with plastic bags.  2 of the 6 Picnickers showed up shortly afterwards having gone ahead.  We used every trick I could think of to warm: socks dried in the microwave (yes it works if they are wool), plastic bags, etc.  Hats off to Margaret and Bob who both had some extra clothing that was dry to put on; my rain gear was doing a fabulous job - three cheers for Showers Pass - so I settled for just hot chocolate and new gloves.  I attempted to amuse by telling my worst weather tale of woe: I was stuck trying to warm myself a few years back in a strip club and finished with my clothing stuffed with porn magazines.  At least we all laughed.  The rest of the Picnickers showed up and I heavily tipped the cashier.  She even let us bring the bikes in.

I wrapped a garbage bag under my rain gear and suited up in gardening gloves.  It was about 5:00am and I was ready to go.   I took off with 3 of the Picnickers, not wanting to get too warm.  Everyone else followed.  We powered along the last 14 miles in paceline taking very quick turns on front.  About 5 miles from the end, someone said "look over your shoulder".  I did, it was the second sunrise I had seen on the ride.  The clouds were breaking and there was a big line in the sky.  The rain had stopped and the winds seemed to get just a little lighter.  I realized, for the first time, that I might make it to the finish.

The 4 of us pulled in to the Round Trip Bike Shop at about 6:10am.  One of the Picnickers had called ahead and a friend (someones wife) was there with hot lentil soup and all kinds of food.  We congratulated each other.  At least some of them are going to PBP.   If I make it, at least I will know that I have friends in the crowd.

I still had a mile or so to ride to the hotel, so I said my goodbyes.  Besides, I had been awake for way too long.  I would have liked to have stayed and thanked everyone personally, but this blog entry will have to do.

There were many strong riders that did not finish this ride.  I can only say that my finish was a group effort; I hope that I at least helped everyone else in return.  There was never a time that I heard anyone complain or be wishing to be somewhere else.  That kind of camaraderie is the kind of thing you only really see on rides like this one, where offering a hand or taking the wind or just talking keeps someone on the bike at a critical moment.  It's something to see.  I wouldn't change a thing (except have Dave finish too).  My thanks to all who rode this epic tale.  I will definitely see you again.
Hills of Wisconsin
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