Man, what a day. I guess I’ll just start at the beginning.
I got up at 6AM and got to the base of the auto road a little before 7:00. I did about 20 minutes of easy pedaling around to warm up, and than waited in the crowd for the race to start. We left in waves. Joe Merril was in a different wave, and left first at 7:50
I started at 7:55am. Mike and I were next to each other in a large group of bikers, and I pedaled past him and stayed with the bikers for the first several hundred feet of downhill and than flat course. When we got to the beginning of the hill, it was sort of surreal for me. I’d been told that the course gets very steep right away, and this didn’t seem that steep to me. After months and months of anticipation, I had managed to overestimate the slope. Mike caught up to me pretty quickly on the hill, and we rode together for the first couple of miles. I still couldn’t really believe that I was actually riding up Mt Washington. It seemed like just some road with a lot of bikers on it. Mike and I were passing bikers at a pretty steady rate, and I was riding at a pace I felt like I could maintain. We passed Joe.
After two or three miles, it became clear that Mikes pace was a little faster than mine. He slowly worked his way away from me in the crowd, and I eventually lost sight of him. Around this time I also started to get a stomach cramp. I drank some water and tried to pace myself a little more.
At about four miles, I had already passed the halfway point, and was feeling pretty good. The road passed above treeline around this time. Spectators told me that Mike was about five minutes ahead of me. I realized that I could maintain a slightly higher speed than I was riding, so I set out to see if I could catch Mike again. There was a long steady uphill straightaway at this point, and I passed a bunch more bikers. The running joke among the riders was “yeah, this is hard, but at least there is only one hill!”
Around 4.5 miles is when we first passed in to the wind. I’m not sure I can describe how much of a factor this wind was. It changed my riding from comfortably riding up a hill and making decisions about how fast I wanted to go, to just trying to stay on the unicycle and move forward. It was ok when it was a sidewind, but brutal as a headwind. There were hardly any tail winds, with one exception I’ll talk about in a second.
After a few more battles with the wind across switchbacks, the road turned to dirt and started a long rightward traverse of the mountain. You could see the road laid out in front of you for at least a mile before it disappeared around the edge of the mountain. The dirt surface was not too much of a factor. It was pretty smooth and well packed down. I was glad to be riding a 2.0 tire rather than something skinnier, though. There was a pretty consistent headwind along that entire section of dirt, which made it a real slog.
Around the top of the traverse, the road briefly traveled away from the wind, and it was amazing. I wished I had a sail. Instead I held my arms way out to the side of me and let the wind help me up the hill. This didn’t last very long though. The road curved back the other way, and the wind came from the side and than from the front. It started to rain around this time.
As bad as the wind was before, it started getting worse at this point. As I climbed up a steeper section, I turned a corner in to wind so strong it literally stopped me in my tracks. I would try to bend way forward to make my profile smaller, but it didn’t help much. A little later, I had trouble even pointing my unicycle in to the wind. I rode sideways back and forth across the road a couple times before I started making forward progress again.
I passed a sign that said 5000 feet. I knew that the mountain is 6288’, and another 1200 feet seemed like a lot. I kept riding forward, but everything seemed to be taking a lot longer than it had earlier in the race. My leg muscles started to show signs of cramping up. Over the next mile or so I went through a series of muscle cramps. Some muscle in one leg or the other would get worse and worse till it cramped up entirely. If I kept pedaling it would eventually feel better, but another muscle would start to go. Eventually I had muscles cramping that I wasn’t really aware I had.
Up to this point I hadn’t dismounted. I’d been trying not to focus on it too much, to keep from jinxing myself, but my goal had become to make it up without a dismount. Sometime between 5000 and 6000 feet there was a sharp lefthand turn in the road, which had the steepest grade I had seen yet. My tire actually lost traction on the wet pavement, and when I tried to power through the skid it was to much for my legs, which cramped up. My no UPD goal ended at that point. While I sat for a minute trying to stretch out my legs a little, I saw at least three bikers fall on the same section. Clipless pedals and exhausted people make for some nasty falls.
From that point on, I was just trying to survive the ride. My legs were so far gone that any extra effort caused excruciating cramps. I ran out of water around this point, which didn’t help. (Note to future riders: 32 ounces isn’t enough). I passed a sign that said 6000 feet, and I new that 288 feet wasn’t very much more, but at that point in the ride it seemed like forever. The fog at this point was incredible. There was maybe 50 foot visibility. I knew I was near the top, and that there were lots of riders around me, but I couldn’t see any of it. I started to hear the people cheering near the finish line.
Around 1000 feet from the finish (I only knew the distance in retrospect), I pedaled hard to make it up a steeper section in a fierce headwind, and my right leg completely locked. I stepped off as best I could and sat down. It felt like I didn’t have a knee. A few people walking their bikes down the road appeared out of the fog and asked if I was all right. I said I thought I would be in a minute. Eventually my muscles loosened a little, and I could bend my leg again. I stood up and walked back and forth, and decided that at this point I had to just keep on riding. I got back on and pedaled through the fog towards the cheering sounds in front of me.
I felt like if the road got extra steep again, I probably wouldn’t be able to make it. I tried to ask some racers coming down the road if it got steep again before the finish, but they didn’t understand and just told me I was almost there. The energy at this point was amazing. More and more people appeared out of the fog on the edge of the road the higher up I climbed, and they were all cheering like crazy (not just for me, there was also a steady stream of bikers coming up). Once there were cheering people for two or three rows back along the edge of the road, I realized that the finish had to be just in front of me. I just started cranking at that point, which I didn’t realize I could still do. I was still thinking that if the road got steep again, I would be finished. I didn’t realize that the crowd was lined up along the mythical 22% grade, the steepest of the ride. I honestly don’t know how I rode up it. The finish line was about a hundred feet later, and after I passed through it and made sure my timing chip registered, I just sort of stood there in a daze. People came and put a blanket on my shoulders, and offered me water, and my parents (who had been in the big crowd by the steep section) showed up and took me over to the visitors center. I think it’s kind of sick that a big mountain like Washington has a visitors center at the top, but I wasn’t complaining about it than. From that point on the story mostly consists of me drinking a lot of warm drinks, and than eating a lot of food.
There is more I could write about the event outside the actual race, which was a lot of fun, but I’ll leave that for later.