The Death Ride: Lessons in Failure

This past weekend, I attempted to complete the Death Ride for the 3rd time.

And I failed.

The first failed attempt was in 2002. The first time I finished the Death Ride was in 2003.

Yes, I am older, and yes it gets harder with age, but this was a complete fiasco.

Here’s what I accomplished.


What happened?

First a little bit of terminology.

  • The Death Ride is a fun ride in the Sierras.
  • The ride has cyclists go over three passes. The first pass is Monitor. The second is Ebbets, and the third is Carson. For both Monitor and Ebbets, the cyclists are expected to go up the pass and then go down the other side and then come up again and go down the side they originally came up.
  • The side you originally go up is called the “front-side,” and then the other side of the pass is called the “back-side.”
  • A five pass finisher is someone who goes up the front side and backside of Monitor, and then the front and back side of Ebbets and then just the front side of Carson.

There are both strategic failures, and tactical failures.

The strategic failure was my weight. As a result of all of my triathlons, I have lost some weight. However, my weight at the time of the Death Ride in 2002 and my weight now are off only by about 10 pounds. And with age, we can’t lug as much weight as we want.

Amusingly enough, I saw another gentleman who probably did the Death Ride at my current age. He and I were wearing the 2003 jersey. And he only did two passes this time and 5 last time. We were both older, and both defeated. And both amused.

The second strategic failure was poor mental preparation. My poor memory combined with my weight did not prepare me for the long climbs. The Death Ride is challenging for amateur cyclists because it involves 2500 feet climbs with very long stretches of 10% grade. And I had thought that training on smaller hills could prepare me for the Death Ride. Going up Monitor requires a level of mental intensity that I had not accounted for. On a positive note, once I got over the shock of the elevation gain, I dug in.

But the important consequence is that there is a lot of climbing. More than the rides I had done in the past prepared me for. This became important on the ride day.

The third strategic failure was assuming that the level of race feeding was like a Marathon. In a Marathon, a well done one, there is so much food and drink thrown at you, that carrying supplies is silly. If you can make the 1-mile trek to the next feeding station, you will find food and water.

The Death Ride is not a race. There was plenty of food, but it was spaced very differently than a race would be. There was food at the top of Monitor. The problem is that the race organizers assumed that this would be used to feed athletes who came from the front side, not the backside.

Furthermore, Ironman races spoil you. You don’t have one kind of Cliff bar; you have several. If you don’t like a flavor, that’s okay get another.

There was one environmental issue, the weather was hot, but I am discounting that.

My strategic failures made any number of tactical on-the-ride day events likely to result in failure, and boy did I have a number.

  1. The night before I had tomato sauce with my pasta. Tomato paste is a problem because it can cause heartburn. The sauce did not cause heartburn, but I believe made me more susceptible to heartburn or gastrointestinal issues.
  2. The night before the race, I decided to take enough food for emergencies but rely on the ride supplied food for most of my nourishment. In particular, I ate a lot of my food up Monitor to get to the first rest stop, and the plan was to reload there.
  3. At Monitor, I ate an appropriate amount and took some race supplied cliff bars.
  4. At the start of the climb of the backside of Monitor, I skipped the feeding station because of all of the cliff bars I got (see 3).
  5. On the way up the backside of Monitor, the cliff bars I picked up caused me heartburn. And because of (2), I had eaten through the non-power-bar, non-cliff bar emergency food. And now all Cliff bars were evil. And I couldn’t eat anything.
  6. And at the top of Monitor, I bonked. But because it’s 8000 feet of elevation, I think it’s because of not enough oxygen, not because I am hungry. And the combination of thin air and lack of food was making for poor decisions.
  7. At the top of Monitor coming up from the backside, there was very little food left I could eat. Because well, I was supposed to eat at the base of the backside.
  8. But that’s okay; there should be some gu etc. Except this is not an Ironman. And so the only food is – the same kind of cliff bars I couldn’t eat.
  9. But that’s okay because it’s a quick descent to lunch. Except, a 3000-foot descent is not a short descent. And it requires even more of the precious energy reserves …
  10. And if I had bothered to look at the map and done more preparation, the 800-foot climb from the descent of Monitor to the lunch station would have screamed at me “EAT MORE FOOD.”  Except, of course, I couldn’t eat anything at that time.
  11. Finally, I make it to the Lunch station and then collapse on the ground shaking. I crawl all the way to the lunch area. After lunch, I feel better and decide to start the ride again. Especially since it was 11, and the road home was closed until 3 pm. A nice lady encouraged me, saying what else do you have to do…
  12. But this ride was done.
After all of those tactical errors, the ride was over. I tried continuing the ride and fell asleep twice on the side of the road. I was so exhausted that my brain said maybe if I took a nap, it would get better.
And it didn’t get better.
My plan was to climb 500 feet, then rest and keep doing that until I ran out of time.

I turned around after the second nap because my decision making was no longer sound.

After my second nap:

  1. I momentarily thought how much cooler, riding without a helmet would be and actually started to think about where to put the helmet.
  2. I took my bike across the road and almost collided with a descending cyclist.

I was no longer just a danger to myself, but to others and so quit.

The rest of the ride was painless.

One final note, I was so exhausted that I slept for an addition 1h 30 minutes at Turtle Rock on a slab of cement. People were talking and milling about around me and I didn’t care or notice.

Then I came home and slept for another 3 hours.