Over 19,500 ft. of climbing. 373 miles. 40 hours. These were the numbers I faced for my biggest brevet of this year.
All of my training over the past 5 months led to this epic event: the Ft. Bragg 600k. And the SF Randonneurs’ description of the route on their website advised: “Views, weather extremes and a challenging route. Better use all you’ve learned during the season.”
This distance is just half of what randonneuring veterans undertake for the hallowed Paris-Brest-Paris event. But for me, the anticipation of riding this far in one continuous time frame conjured up a whole slew of adjectives: intimidating; unfathomable; insane. I suppose being unable to imagine how difficult the ride could actually be worked in my favor. I’d essentially be adding another 200k (124 miles) onto my previous PR of 249 miles. And that just seemed…CRAZY. Upon arriving in Point Reyes Station during the Tour of Five Bakeries 200k (about 43 miles into the ride), I spotted a road sign that said, “Ft. Bragg – 141 miles” and thought to myself, “Holy shit — what have I signed up for?”
But when faced with the daunting prospects of the unknown, I do what I usually do: a lot of research. I solicited advice online and in person from other randos, read a ton of ride reports, then mentally filed away all of this wisdom into my brain and hoped it would kick in during my journey. My plan was to divvy up the brevet into two segments — a 400k and 200k — which meant I’d be stopping in Cloverdale for a few hours’ of sleep. Hopefully that would be enough to power me through the final 124 miles to the finish. (And by ‘power’, I really mean ‘survive’.)
When I received my email from our RBA Rob Hawks with the cue sheet and ride info on the Monday before the brevet, I was both genuinely excited and completely freaked out about the ride. Reviewing all of the paperwork suddenly transformed this abstract adventure into reality.On Thursday night, I hung out with a group of randonnerds at the Bike to Work After Party in Old Oakland, including fellow 600kers Bryan Kilgore and Jason Pierce. They were remarkably calm — and even ‘blasé’, to quote Pudu — despite the impending ride. Must be nice to be a veteran and have such a nonchalant attitude about this distance; perhaps I’ll eventually become one of those people who can smirk at any ride less than 400 miles in the future…
I spent Friday night in a frenzy of preparation. I loaded up my handlebar bag to full capacity with Amy’s Kitchen organic pizza pockets (and to mix it up, I had also bought some of the Indian variety made with curry), nuts, fruit, Pro Bars and the ol’ reliable PB & J with banana. Then I packed my drop bag; this is the bag that’s stashed at a non-control point before Ft. Bragg. Volunteers at the start would transport them to Indian Creek Campground, our rustic oasis located 138 miles north of the city. You could fill it up with whatever you needed to get you through the ride (although it was advised to not get too carried away as heavy bags would be rejected — so leave the hair dryers at home.) Mine contained my midnight pasta dinner, specially made with The Bearded One’s delicious ragu sauce; coconut water; fruit; more pizza pockets to replenish my supply; and a change of clothes (minus a clean pair of shorts which I planned to carry with me. As I’d be riding another 30+ miles to Cloverdale where we’d nap and shower, I wanted to put on a fresh pair after my break at the hotel.) Just as I finished one final bike check before heading to bed, I received a funny text message from my friend Martin who’d I’d be riding with over the weekend.
Start Control: Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza – Open: 06:00 – Close: 07:00
A 6AM start — fortunately we were spared the 5AM start of years before — meant getting up at 4AM so I’d be ready by the time Martin and his wife came to our house. But uggggggggh, early mornings. There simply isn’t enough coffee in the world to make this a painless experience for me. But my sleep deprivation subsided as soon as I checked in with Ely Rodriguez at the start. He handed me some gifts — reflective bands (a randonnerd can never have too many) and a special sticker:
After the pack leaves the start, riders typically sort themselves into groups based on friendships and/or pace. Martin and I joined up with Alex Plumb, JT and Aaron “The Glowing Carrot” Little in Marin.
Control #2: Open Control – Point Reyes Station (34.6 miles) – Open: 07:39 – Close: 09:44
Working together as a group, we arrived at our first control in no time and settled in for a quick breakfast before leaving for Petaluma.
Control #3: Safeway – Petaluma, CA (55.4 miles) – Open: 08:37 – Close: 11:56
With scones, muffins and bear claws in our bellies, we followed our familiar route past Nicasio Reservoir to the Safeway in Petaluma.
After my usual mad dash around the store in search of snacks — you’d think after visiting countless Safeways in the past few months I’d have memorized all of the layouts — we finished our second breakfast and made our way to the next store in Healdsburg.
Control #4: Safeway – Healdsburg, CA (86.9 miles) Open: 10:07 – Close: 15:20
We added another veteran randonnerd, John Guzik, to our crew en route to Healdsburg, and I managed to capture the entire group in one photo after several failed attempts. “We’re not the Blue Angels, you know,” said Alex with a big laugh.
We left the chilly fog of San Francisco only to be blasted by heat in Sonoma County. Temperatures ranged in the upper ’80’s and low ’90s all afternoon. I start to melt when the thermometer creeps up past 90°F, and I was sweltering in the flat, exposed miles through wine country. Fortunately, I was able to draft off of Alex to help keep me motoring along. He’s the perfect paceline setter: steady, holds straight lines and is quick to point out debris in the road. An added bonus: he’s a good foot taller than me so I really benefit from his windblocking capabilities.
We had a brief stop in Cloverdale to check into our hotel rooms where Alex, Martin and I would hopefully catch a few hours of sleep on the return leg of the brevet. I took the opportunity to drop off some gear and wash the layer of grit and salt off of my sweaty face before heading up the long climb on Route 128. As we pedaled up 128, my right knee started to twinge on the inside of my leg. My IT band had been sore that morning, but that went away only to be replaced by this new pain. It later migrated to the front of my kneecap as well. (I’ve been having some issues with this knee in the past two weeks and had been trying to pinpoint the issue, but that’s material for another write-up.)
Climbing started to become problematic for me as the rolling landscape stretched on for miles. Alex gave me some ibuprofen and Tums to help me soldier onwards to the north. From here on out, this was all new riding territory for me and I loved this part of the ride, despite my knee complications.
By the time we stopped in Boonville for snacks and water, my right knee was throbbing and my strength was sapped from the heat.Kevin, Manny and “Arizona” (the rando who was visiting from that state) were resting as well, and we wished each other happy trails to Ft. Bragg.
Optional: Indian Creek County Park (138.2 miles) Food/Water Stop
JT graciously pulled me through the nasty headwinds to the Indian Creek campgrounds where we were greeted by a group of our awesome volunteers. After signing in to document our progress, we continued the long slog up Route 128 until it met the coast and Highway 1. The temperatures had dropped back down to a friendlier conditions, and we were done with climbing for the time being. We plunged back into the fog at Highway 1, so I wasn’t able to capture the full beauty of the coast as we climbed up to Ft. Bragg.
We made it to the Ft. Bragg Safeway just after 10 o’clock. After getting our receipts and saying hello to other randonnerds who were lounging in the cafe, we made an executive decision to get dinner at McDonald’s instead since there wasn’t any hot food available at that hour.
So much for fast food — it took nearly half an hour for our McMeals to arrive since the skeleton crew was already on duty at that time, so our plan to hit the road as soon as possible was put on hold as waited for our dinner. But as soon as our McGreasy gut bombs arrived, we wolfed them down so we could head back to Indian Creek.
On this next part of the ride, I jumped into the Black Pit of Despair. My knee was feeling pretty ragged and I was rather despondent about my prospects of finishing at this point. John and JT forged ahead while I crawled along trying to keep up my pace and spirits by listening to music and podcasts on my iPod. When I started tallying up the number of climbs I still had ahead of me, I wondered whether I should take the next express train to DNF-ville.
This is where the camaraderie of riding with other solid randonneurs, especially experienced ones like Alex, comes into play. Martin and Alex stuck with me and waited as I slowly struggled to reach the top of the steepest climbs. And Alex kept me company for most of the way as we meandered through the dark and fought off sleepiness by swapping stories and words of encouragement. I thanked him for his kindness and he replied, “It ‘s time to give back,” as he’d been mentored by many other generous souls like Kitty Goursolle on past rides.
Optional: Indian Creek County Park (224.2 miles) Food/Water Stop
I arrived intact at Indian Creek just after 2:00AM, and the next group of angelic volunteers on night duty welcomed me into their sanctuary. I collapsed into a chair by the fire next to JT and John.
Emma Dixon asked if I was hungry. “We have batter ready and can make you some pancakes, or eggs any style, fruit…” My appetite had vanished, so I replied, “I think I just want to close my eyes for 10 minutes.” As I soaked in the warmth of the fire and quiet voices murmured around me, I debated whether to just call it quits right there and then. I had already texted The Bearded One about my knee woes and gave him another update:
I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but my mind was filled with worry about the next 149 miles. But I felt guilty about asking TBO to come all the way out to the campground to pick me up, and I’d dedicated so much time and effort these past months training for this series. Fuck it, I told myself, I’m going to keep going, even if I have to curl up on the side of the road with my knee totally shredded beyond repair. I stood up, stretched and managed to extricate myself from the circle of tired riders huddled around the fire.
Emma instantaneously appeared by my side as if I had summoned a genie and asked if I wanted anything now. I requested a half a cup of coffee, which immediately warmed both me and my soul. After eschewing coffee for almost two weeks so that I’d be extra energized by caffeine on the ride (including this morning), it perked me up right away. I adjusted my saddle, grabbed more pizza pockets from my drop bag as well as my wool jersey (and sadly left my late-night meal of pasta untouched) and was ready to take on the hardest part of the ride: the never-ending rollers and climbs to Cloverdale.
I had pre-loaded some stand-up comedy podcasts onto my iPod, so those helped keep a smile on my face while I lumbered along at walking pace on the hills. I couldn’t put any weight on my knee at this point, so I had to do all of the climbs seated — and sometimes I’d have to help out my right leg by pushing down on my thigh. I really had to dig deep into the inner sanctum of some heretofore untapped source of strength to move forward. But Alex was my carrot in the distance, and as long as I could see his orange vest on the horizon I knew I was making progress. Dawn was approaching and the sky was started to fill with light as the sun rose.
And then, just as the sunrise illuminated the valley above Cloverdale, I was done. As I descended the final climb on Route 128, I shed a few tears of joy in celebration of my accomplishment. I knew I could finish the brevet now.
At 6:30AM, I caught up with Alex and Martin at the Best Western and we planned to just take just over two hours’ rest before setting back out at 9AM. I gave TBO another update and he sent along more words of support:
While I didn’t get much sleep — and poor Alex was tortured by some loud kids in the adjacent hotel room during his break so he got about 20 minutes’ of shuteye — I’m so very glad we stopped in Cloverdale. Taking a hot shower and changing into a clean chamois made me feel like a rock star and I was ready for the last segment of our brevet. And beginning our ride in the sunshine helped trick our bodies into thinking, “Hey, it’s like any other lovely another day — let’s get on that bike and ride!” My legs felt fresh, my right knee felt like crap but nothing that more drugs couldn’t help (I hoped) and my lucky charm from my flèche-mate Manny Acosta would be watching over me today.
Control #6: Info Control – Westside @ W Dry Creek (276.5 miles) – Answer question on brevet card
The next two controls were information controls, so no proof of arrival was needed; we just had to find the answers to the questions written on our brevet cards.
Control #7: Info Control – Inside Guerneville Safeway – (293.7 miles) Answer question on brevet card
I forgot to snap a photo here, but we were tasked with finding the price per pound of bananas for sale at the Guerneville Safeway. We saw many other happy randonneurs here as everyone was reveling in the fine weather and the prospect of finishing the ride on a beautiful day. Alex, Martin and I lunched here, then resolved to ride to the last control in Pt. Reyes Station with no other stops for food or water. I turtled up the climbs out of Valley Ford, but the tailwinds on Highway 1 helped my knee take somewhat of a breather through the rollers. I picked up the pace and we made better time on the scenic stretch of Hwy. 1.
Control #8: Open Control – Point Reyes Station, CA (336.5 miles) – Open: 22:50 – Close: 18:04
We clocked in at 4:30pm and I persuaded Alex and Martin to join me for a gourmet dinner at The Cowgirl Cantina (where TBO and I supped on the 300k). There’s a large lawn that’s perfect for picnicking on the grass, and we feasted on tasty chicken salad sandwiches and roasted tomato soup. (I said this meal would redeem ourselves with our stomachs after forcing them to digest that McNasty ‘food’ in Ft. Bragg.) I had a cappuccino and more ibuprofen for my power dessert, counting on them to propel me pain-free to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Finish Control – Golden Gate Bridge Plaza (373 miles) Open: 00:48 – Close: 22:00
With only four climbs left, the end was in sight. My knee was aching, but it couldn’t match the fire in my belly to get back to San Francisco. Alex and I chatted up the climbs so that they’d pass by more quickly, and when we reached Fairfax — I was en fuego! My drug cocktail had kicked in, so I took it up a notch on the flat streets through Marin and hammered up Camino Alto as fast as I could. Alex said, “Wow, I’ve never seen you in racer mode before!” And I replied, “LET’S GET THIS SHIT DONE!”
An hour and a half later, there was the majestic Golden Gate Bridge — ready to welcome us back into the city. Alex and I both yelled, “Woohoo!” as we crossed over the bay.
A great big cheer erupted from the crowd of finish volunteers as we rolled in, and The Bearded One gave me a big hug as I hopped off my bike. We made it in just before 8 o’clock in 37 hours, 55 minutes!
Now bear with me as I’m about to launch into a long-winded thank you speech à la the Oscars, but there’s so many people who have helped me finish this series this year. First and foremost, much love and thanks to my husband, Shawn “The Bearded One” Hatfield, for supporting my goal of completing my first SF Randonneur series. I’d also like to thank Martin and Alex for sticking with me during the cold, bleak hours when I wrestled with my personal demons and battled my knee pain — I wouldn’t have finished the 600k without your phenomenal support.
And thanks to everyone who I’ve ridden with during this series, who’ve shared their stories and advice with me and spurred me onwards to become a super randonneuse. (Now I know why they call give that designation to riders who finish a series — you do feel like a superhero afterwards!) Of course, last but certainly not least in my book, thank you to the San Francisco Randonneurs for organizing a fantastic set of rides for us — the hard work put in by all of your volunteers is greatly appreciated.
So what’s next? I’ve formed a team for the Dart Populaire that’s coming up in June with non-RUSA folks (maybe I can indoctrinate them into joining SFR!) And I think I’m going to go for an R-12 this year, because why the hell not, right? Just have to fix these pesky knee issues and I’m good to go!