hen I saw Sam ahead of me I knew that it was time to attack. Glory was at hand. Sam was the strongest rider amongst the group of friends I was racing the 2010 Julian Death March with and if I finished ahead of him, I would be first among my friends. It was Go-Time.
The Julian Death March is an 86-mile mountain bike race that gains 14,000 feet of elevation on everything from clean pavement to hike-a-bike jeep trails. I first raced the JDM last year and completed the first 62-mile loop in about 7 hours before calling it quits. Not being able to complete the full course last year left a sour taste in my mouth and I was back for redemption. I would do everything to finish the full Death March this year.
The race started at 8:00am from Frank Lane Park in Julian which is really just a dirt parking lot. About 80 riders rolled out of town on pavement with a police escort. We turned left onto a rolling country road making our way into the hills. I was in a group just behind the leaders, watching them quickly spin away. Placing high up in the JDM was out of the question; my goal was to simply survive the race. In order to survive, I needed to keep an easy pace early on and let the leaders go. My friend Sam was in that front group – he’s a serious hardman.
The gap was widening when a rider flashed out of our group, sprinting to join the leaders. She was going all out to chase them down and I seriously wondered if she knew this was an 86-mile race. If it was so important to stay with the leaders, she should have been with them from the start. Chasing at full power in the first half hour of the race can’t be good.
The leaders disappeared and soon we were flying down the 8-mile descent along Eagle Peak Road. Down, down, down we went on gravel roads. It’s eerie losing 2,500 feet of elevation all at once because you know you’re going to have to get it back soon enough. After 20 minutes in free-fall, the fun was over and we made the left had turn onto Cedar Creek and began climbing rugged jeep trails.
I kept an easy pace and focused on proper nutrition – it was going to be a really long day. The jeep trails gave into gravel roads and then quickly into smooth pavement as I began the climb up Engineers. I was feeling much better than I did racing last year and made quick progress to the top.
I was racing with several friends. My friend Sam was with the leaders. Dr. Hodges was somewhere ahead, not sure how far ahead. And my friend Mickey was somewhere behind, taking a slightly easier pace to finish the day. So, I considered myself 3rd among friends, which isn’t bad – it’s at least on the podium, right?
After a quick stop to refill bottles, I began my descent down Chariot Canyon. I was feeling great and kept a quick pace as I turned down Rodriguez Canyon to the base of the infamous Oriflamme climb. Oriflamme is an absolute beast climbing 1,600 feet in just 3.5 miles over a rutted and rocky jeep trail. It was in the early steepness of Oriflamme that I discovered that my lowest gear was worn out, the chain skipping whenever I tried applying high torque. I walked a lot more than normal telling myself I was preparing for the hike-a-bike sections of the Leadville 100.
At one point I was passed by two women racers. They looked super strong and were climbing fast. I remembered passing them earlier and said “Hello” as they rolled past me walking. I caught them up near the top as they apparently stopped to pee. We would spend the rest of the race leap-frogging each other. The only reason I ever caught them was when they stopped to pee. Funny.
Back at the top of Chariot Canyon I felt déjà vu descending again. But, instead of turning towards Rodriguez this time, I kept left headed for the base of Banner Grade. I found Dr. Hodges at the Aid Station at the bottom of Banner Grade and we left together in search of the new section of the JDM nicknamed “Wayne’s Trail”.
The trail turned out to be little more than a goat path through the rocks and weeds. With my lowest gear out of commission, I was forced to walk a lot and got frustrated and a bit bonky. I was not prepared for the climb back into Julian to be this difficult and I suffered as I watched Dr. Hodges go off the front.
The Girls passed me at some point then another woman racer passed me that I recognized as the one who’d sprinted to join the leaders early on. How the heck did she get behind me? She must have gotten lost along the way. She climbed ahead of me and then dropped down another trail to the left and began to accelerate away. I didn’t think there was a descent here so I stopped and consulted my Garmin to find out she’d just gone off trail again. She was headed back for the bottom of the climb. I shouted “Wrong way!” to no avail. I remember seeing her wearing earbuds…
I finished the remaining bits of the climb and headed back into Julian, the first 62-miles of the race complete. This is when I had quit last year, too exhausted to go for the final 22-mile section. When I had checked in last year they asked me if I was headed back out and I had answered, “Heck no!” This year, when I checked in I told them I was headed back out before being asked. I wanted to commit to going back out.
Dr. Hodges was just finishing up refilling his bottles when I arrived. We decided to head out for the second section together. As I was mixing Perpetuem I saw Brent Prenzlow (race winner) who said “Hello”. We chatted a bit and it dawned on me that he’d won the entire race 20 minutes faster than it took me to complete the first 62 miles. Damn, that’s fast.
Within minutes, Dr. Hodges and I were speeding towards the Santa Ysabel Preserve and the final miles of the race. I was feeling good and optimistic about a strong finish. We hit the initial sections of dirt in a strong clip and Dr. Hodges admitted to feeling a bit knackered and suggested I go on ahead. He couldn’t follow any strong pushes now. I thought about it but decided to finish with him. I had nothing to gain by being a few minutes ahead of him so we continued on. We caught the Girls (peeing again, I believe) and descended to the bottom of the hill. They caught us up on the climb and everyone was friendly about it. They were getting to be old friends at this point. They must have stopped again for some reason because we caught them just as it started to flatten out in a faster section of the course. I spotted Sam ahead just after passing them.
I accelerated up to Sam to see what happened and could tell immediately that he was struggling with The Bonk. He said something about being surprised we had caught him then mentioned he probably hadn’t eaten enough. He looked confused and pale and his eyes were almost rolling in their sockets. I offered him a GU which he accepted and then I was off the front, hammering to put some distance between us.
I was ahead of the Girls, Sam and Dr. Hodges. I was the first of my friends on the course – in my mind it became a Stage Win that I was after. I doubled-down on GUs and sucked at Perpetuem to keep myself from bonking and forced my legs to go harder. I spotted a rider ahead of me and made it my goal to catch him on the next hill. I did that and then spotted another rider and another.
I caught a rider just as we were leaving the Preserve and dirt trails for good. The only thing ahead of us was the 3 or 4 miles of pavement back to the Start/Finish line. We had to dismount to get through the gate and I made sure to use a cyclocross move to get going again faster than him. He said something like, “Well, I hope you’re good on the road” and I thought to myself, “Actually, yes, I rather do enjoy the pave…” I hammered it hard to keep a gap to him, but never really looked back either.
My legs were searing, on the verge of cramping up. I was dead tired. Salt encrusted, sticky from GU and Perpetuem, I had been on the bike for NINE solid hours. I was scared shitless that a revived Sam would chase me down in these last miles so I kept the pressure on, not believing that I could stay away. And that’s when it hit me…
I absolutely love this shit.
I got pretty emotional at this point. After all the hard work, long hours and endless miles of training. All the energy and preparation, it was really worth it. I was doing something that was extraordinarily hard and I was doing it well.
I wiped the tears away and continued to hammer back to Julian. I finished the Julian Death March in 9:27:10 in 18th place overall, 7th place in my age group. Of the 80 riders who began the day, only 28 would finish the entire course.