And Now For Something Completely Different: High Pass Challenge Reflections

I usually spend most of my time here writing about my midwifing and occasionally my parenting, relationships, and biking, but mostly in relation to my life as a midwife. Recently, I did a wild and crazy thing that I think probably deserves some reflection all on its own.

This winter I broke my elbow on my bike while commuting to work and it was probably the scariest, most painful thing I have ever experienced. I didn’t really know how I’d feel getting back on my bike and was unsure if I would ever want to ride again. I healed, slowly but surely, and have a large, angry red scar over my right elbow that will always remind me not to take icy corners too fast.

Coming into the spring I felt so grateful to have healed and to have use of my body in ways that I hadn’t for the past four months. I had been a pretty serious rider when I was in grad school and fell in love with the city and its surrounding hills and paths and waterways by bike. After I started my first full time midwife job I was spending long hours commuting by car and my long 30-60 mile weekend rides were becoming a distant memory. I’d still ride around town, out to meet friends, but my bike became more a method of conveyance instead of a tool for me to be an athlete.

Getting pregnant and staring down hyperemesis put an almost immediate stop to my bike riding for several months. Also, because of my aggressively framed racing bike I had to stop riding altogether around 24 weeks. After baby E’s birth I struggled to love my postpartum body and instead of feeling strong and healthy, I felt squishy and exhausted.

As a plan to help stave off some winter blues, my therapist encouraged me to get some good rain gear and commute through the winter for the first time. I’ve never been a fair-weather rider and am not scared to get soggy, but commuting through a cold, dark winter seemed daunting.

The day I fell was sunny and bright, but brutally cold. My legs were warmed up, I was about 2/3 of the way to work, and coming around a corner I felt my whole bike come out from under me. The next instant felt hot, searing pain radiate from my shoulder down. I heard my helmet crack against the pavement, instantly grateful I was wearing it.

The rest of that day remains incredibly sharp, but it’s the proceeding weeks following surgery, physical therapy, and near-endless boredom that are fuzzy for me. I didn’t think much about my bike during those months but the day my surgeon and I had our last post-op visit he asked if I’d gotten back on yet. It hadn’t occurred to me to do so, but that very next day I rode around town slowly and cautiously to run some errands.

Quick rides turned into commutes, then I really got a bee in my bonnet. I was so grateful to be healed, to have use of my body, and wanted to feel strong and fast again. I set a goal of riding a 47 mile route in June, and instead rode the 67 mile loop. It was a lot of climbing, and at the end I wished I had hopped on the Century (100 mile) loop instead. I started making plans to ride a century of my own this summer, and then found The High Pass Challenge.

The High Pass Challenge is a 104 mile out and back ride with roughly 7,500 feet of climbing that starts in Packwood, WA and heads up to the Mount St. Helens blast zone. It’s a rigorous ride, and I wasn’t sure I was physically capable of completing it.

The morning of the ride was cool and foggy. I woke up and stared out of the sunroof of my partner’s car we had camped in the night before. I was really going to do this, whether I felt ready or not.

I rushed to pack my jersey full of snacks, had a last minute worry that my tires weren’t full enough, and the start line bell blasted. We were off!

The first 15 miles were flat to slightly downhill. It was 7 a.m. on a Monday, so traffic was light and the fog gave us a nice cover to warm up our legs. I passed lots of farmland, and off to the east I watched as a giant heard of elk run in an undulating block. I rode briskly but not too fast. I didn’t know yet what was ahead of me, and I wanted to take in these easy, beautiful miles before the big climbs started.

After turning off the main highway, I hit some rolling hills and had my first climb of the day. It was short, about a mile and a half, but steep. Right after that climb, I returned to more rolling hills and felt like my pace was on track to land me at the peak at a pretty impressive time.

I rolled into the first stop, which is at 25 miles, feeling warmed up, strong, and like I was about to totally crush the rest of the course. I’d covered the first 25 miles by about 8:45, so a little under two hours of riding.

I took off from the first stop feeling happy and healthy and strong. I fell into a groove climbing and hit the first long uphill. I pedaled under the thick forested cover and weaved up and up and up the switchbacks. It was a steady climb, but the grade was shallow. I was working hard, but wasn’t exhausted by the climbing. I rode mostly by myself, passing and getting passed by the same folks a few times. We exchanged pleasantries but mostly kept our heads down, focused on the work in front of us.

Eleven miles of almost straight climbing took me about an hour and a half. By the time I reached the water stop at mile 36, I felt simultaneously so close to the end, and so far. I was still in relatively good spirits leaving the mile 36 aid station, but I wasn’t prepared for what I met on the other side. Four punishing miles of climbing at varying steep grades (between 5-8% grade) wore me down. Even more demoralizing was seeing every single mile marker as I was reminded of exactly how slow I was climbing. I started getting physically uncomfortable and at that point had a very difficult time getting out of my head.

I stopped at the mile four marker coming out of the station (roughly mile 40) and had a few minutes of panicked breathing. How much more climbing did I have? How much more could I take? Could I make it if the next 12 miles were like this?

I talked myself back on my bike, and was rewarded with having almost completed all of the major straight-up climbing. The rest of the 12 miles were still extremely steep, and I covered about 1500 more feet of climbing but at least it was rolling and there was some variation.

I came around a big turn and suddenly I was in the blast zone. All the trees were barren and I could see clear across the big canyons and up to Mount St. Helens. I had never seen it before, and it was amazing to think of all the damage that was done if the area still looked like the moon 40 years later.

I started seeing more riders come back down and many waved or encouraged me onward. I screamed past a sign on a big swooping downhill that showed me seven more miles to go. Seven. That’s like, one and a half commutes. Almost there, almost there.

As I came down the last hill, I powered up to the clock. “Bib 77 in at 5:19!”

I hopped off my bike and walked in little circles. I should have felt more relief, but the last twelve miles showed me that instead of 52 hard miles of climbing followed by 52 mile descent, I actually had about 65 hard miles of riding and about 20 downhill followed by rolling hills to the finish.

Because of this realization, I didn’t take much time at the top. I grabbed a snack, refilled my bottles and headed back out of the valley. My legs were tired and my neck ached. The blast zone was completely uncovered, so the heat started to get to me. By the time I turned the corner to head down a several-mile descent I couldn’t feel my legs burning anymore. All they felt like were achy logs, ceaselessly moving up and down.

I stopped at the first aide station 25 miles out from the start and started to come undone. I was so tired and I just wanted it to be over. I wanted to call it, hop in a car, and let my tired body have a break.

The last covered miles of forest were more rolling hills than I had remembered, which made me angry at myself for not paying more attention on the way in. I finally made it back out to the main highway and knew I had 15 miles of slightly uphill riding to do. Gone was the gentle fog, and now the sun was beating down and the highway was busy with logging trucks and RVs. My feet were so numb they hurt, and I had to stop several times to just shake some feeling back into them. I thought of my partner at the end of the race, knowing he’d be there waiting and so proud. Thinking of my support team and loving friends and family at home, I knew I had to keep going. Almost there, almost there, almost there became my mantra.

The finish snuck up on me, and all of a sudden I saw the big green tents. I pedaled down over the grass and drank it in. My body had worked so hard and it didn’t let me down. I looked around at the other tired cyclists and supporters. It felt surreal. It was simultaneously harder and just as hard as I thought it would be. My final finish time was about 4:40 p.m., just under the 10 hour cut off.

It’s been a week now since hopping off my bike at the end of those 104 miles and now I’m not sure what I’ll do next. At first I felt like, “I’m never doing a race like that ever again,” and then by mid-week started having dreams of riding up Snoqualmie Pass on the John Wayne trail, joining my local Rondeneuring group, and, of course, someday completing the historic Paris-Brest-Paris 1200 km race that is the pinnacle of racing for long-distance riders.

We’ll see what the rest of this summer and fall hold for my riding, but thanks for following along on my crazy journey and encouraging me and telling me I’m nuts, and telling me to get on my bike anyway.

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1 Response to And Now For Something Completely Different: High Pass Challenge Reflections

  1. Katie says:

    Found you bc I’m looking for CPM programs–but I also broke my elbow bike commuting a month ago. So encouraging to read your story!

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