Sunday, October 20, 2013

Adventure at the Hard Coe're 100K

Henry Coe State Park is one of the biggest parks allowing mountain biking that you probably have never heard of. It is big enough to organize the "Hard Coe're 100", where you can ride 100 miles or km without repeating a single trail, point to point. The park is remote and desolate, even though the "Hard Coe're" coincided with the annual Henry Coe tarantula festival. In the desolation, a lot of your social graces become no longer necessary. Perhaps that is the draw of Coe for its faithful. It is a place where you can find some peace and quiet, or cut loose and be Bohemian, or suffer loudly with no one to hear.

To a roadie, 100 miles or 100 km doesn't sound very hard. But this is Henry Coe. Folks who ride here know it is a bit like the Tardis. It looks small on the map or GPS, but gets bigger when you actually ride it. This is also known to a few of us as “the Coe Factor”. It actually took me 2 hours less to do a 100 miles of trails in Mendocino than it took to do just a 63 mile ride in Henry Coe. The 63 mile ride (which I did) requires 13,000' of climbing, and the 100 mile Hard Coe're route (which some insane people did) has 22,000 feet of vertical gain! This is almost twice the amount of climbing in the famous Leadville 100 (aka Race Across the Sky), which is a paltry 12,000' of climbing. Leadville of course, is all 10k feet above sea level, whereas Henry C oe is oxygen-rich by comparison at 2k feet above sea level. However many trails are not well-defined and the route is unmarked making any adventure into Henry Coe a route-finding challenge.

The Ride Report

I woke up the morning of the Hard Coe’re at 4:40 a.m. getting a total of 4 hours of sleep after a stressful week filled with day after day short on sleep. This was not my "A" event/race for the year, but this was going to be hardest ride I had done yet, and on very little sleep. I decided that I wasn’t going to let 'da man decide for me what I was going to accomplish in my personal life. If I didn't do this now, who knows if I will be fit enough or able to do it another year. I might have moved on to some other, easier hobby, like stand-up paddle boarding, or maybe knitting.

The bike I chose for this was my trusty "Green Flash" - a carbon hard-tail 29’er On-One with Shimano XT components. As I would discover, its 2x10 drivetrain is way too tall of gearing for the steeps of Henry Coe. But it had a seat post dropper, wide bars and flat pedals. I only ride with flat pedals - yes it may be a bit of a handicap on a ride such as this, which is arguable, but that's just how I roll.

The Fun Part

Every time I come to Henry Coe I forget correct change for the $6 parking fee. So as usual, I ended up stuffing a $20 in the parking fee tube. That’s ok, I use lots of toilet paper. The ride started at 7am with not much fanfare, just a handful of shivering people with grave aspirations gathered in the dirt parking lot of Hunting Hollow. There was a feeling of camaraderie - hello fellow insane people! So pleased to meet you! Pretty much everyone there was new to me except Roy (Plymmer), and Marco B, whom I’d ridden with once before. The sport of mountain biking needs more women to mix things up a bit. 

It feels weird to me to always be out riding with the guys. No offense to the guys. I’m sure they’d love to have more ladies along too. So I was stoked and relieved to see that there were 2 other gals on the ride! Jan Lucido, wife of the 100 mile course record holder and Chris, Sorcerer’s wife. They were doing the 100k course too! 

Us gals began at about 7:08, opting not to stay for the full announcement by Dirk, the awesome organizer and planner of the ride who opted not to race this year. We meandered slowly and judiciously to Lyman Wilson. Climbing up LW, I pedaled as slowly and lightly as I could, attempting to save energy, however this trail is pretty steep and it is pointless to attempt to keep your heart rate in Zone 2 here. There was this one steep pitch that I could not clear. (I decided I need to get a 20 tooth chainring). I heard the ladies cheering below, and looked back. There was Marco B, a 100 miler who left later than us, cleaning this incredibly steep section! Maybe he could ride this section in Z2. I moved over to give him the best line. 

At one point, I pulled over to remove some of my layers. Now that we had ascended a fair way out of the hollow, the air was warmer and the layers had to come off to avoid getting too sweaty. I thought at this point, Jan and Chris would catch up to me, but there was no sign. Perhaps they stopped to do the same. Maybe we’ll meet up later, I thought. Jan & Chris seemed like Coe experts and had each other. I decided it would be prudent to push on and keep my pace. I did not bring bike lights, just an emergency head lamp. (or, so I thought….). 

Originally, I figured on being about an hour or two slower than the first woman to finish the 100k. I told my dear husband that I’d probably get done more or less around 6:30 or 7, right before sunset. So I didn't feel the need for full-on bike lights. (Mistake #1!)Lyman Wilson trail tops out on the side of a meadowy hill with golden grasses, with views of more hills as far as the eye can see…

The sun had just come up, casting a beautiful rosy orange glow all around. While traversing this beautiful golden hillside, I just had to stop and take some photos. Some of those who waited for Dirk's speech were catching up to me (I think Dirk himself was included). Then it was Bowl trail, me following Sorcerer, and Plymmer coming up behind.

We all converged at Camp Wilson, and began climbing up Middle Steer Ridge together. It was great to have companionship and conversation at the start of our journey. I didn’t realize it, but we had reached the top of a fun, long descent. So Sorcerer and Plymmer went zooming down, with me following. I quickly realized my tires had way too much pressure, due to me pumping it up all the way to the max to seat a new tubeless tire. I had to stop and let some air out, because it was like skating on the dry loose trail surface. So I lost them for a while, and missed out on the flow of this section. Then there were a few trail intersections that I wasn’t too sure about, requiring me to stop and check the GPS a couple of times. But eventually, I made it down Spike Jones and Timm.

Down at the bottom, there is a short section on Coit Road, then the course routes you onto Anza, a singletrack trail which traverses the hillside above Coit Rd. My first route mistake was a silly one. I blew past the turn for Anza. BLEEP! My GPS told me I was off track. Cool, I thought, the routing feature works pretty well. I should have recognized this turn because I’d ridden it many times before. But sadly, it had been a long time since I’d ridden at Henry Coe. So I started climbing up Anza. I forgot about these two steepish switchbacks, and so very ungracefully, I ended up having to hike up both. Dirk somehow managed to end up down that way, saw me and shouted kind words of encouragement. After coming towards the end of Anza, I saw Dirk again! (I guess he took Coit Rd.?). He seemed to have some concerns regarding heat, and hitting Bear Mtn. at around 2pm, and asked if I had lights. I tried to assuage his concerns, saying I had headlamp. Perhaps it was my embarrassing performance up Anza, but he looked worried. :)

After that it was a long stretch of gradual dirt road climbing, up Coit and left on Mahoney Meadows. I hit singletrack again on China Hole trail, which is an awesome, amazing flowy descent down to a dry creek bed. I had been on this trail before, and was a little dismayed by the pressure in my tires again ruining my flow in another fun descent. So I stopped again, and took care of it. Finally! My tire pressure felt perfect.

After this was the long, gradual climb to park Headquarters, and the Tarantula Festival! I arrived there around 11:30, and it was fun to see so many families and kids there. In hindsight, I spent way too much time here taking photos and gawking at a stunning array of wildlife for people to enjoy up close:

I refilled my 3 liter water reservoir to bursting, added Elete electrolytes to it, texted Bruce my stats and photos, downed some more banana/date smoothie, and finally at who knows what time headed off.
Flat Frog trail was the next beautiful singletrack. This is easily one of the nicest trails in the park. Since it is so close to Headquarters, it is well maintained. I came upon a section that had sign that said “Walk your bike”. I heeded it, forgetting that this section, a rock drop, was totally easily rollable and I felt a little disappointed. There was a little exposure on the right of it. Then, there was another walk your bike sign. This time I ignored it, and it just ended up being a fun set of steps, which on the hard tail was sounded like "bam! bam! bam! bam!" Wheeee!

Up Hobbs road next, and this is when the heat started to hit me and for the first time in the ride so far, I began to feel a little bit sluggish. Luckily not too far was the fun rolling singletrack descent down Middle Ridge. Unfortunately, I had totally lost my confidence on the steep, loose stuff, and had to walk a couple steep sections. (darnit!) The last time I had ridden this trail I as more of a noob, and I had a bit of residual fear about certain places that I just couldn’t shake. This was not the ride to “session” stuff.

Finally at the bottom of Middle Ridge I reached the Poverty Flat camping area. It was dry, hot, and desolate. Not a soul was around, and despite its close proximity to Headquarters, no one was camping there, and you could see why. The creek was entirely dried up, the grass was yellow. It was just a hot hell hole. At least there was an outhouse. The nice thing about Henry Coe is, you could be out in the middle of nowhere in a desolate lonely god-forsaken area, and still be able to pee in a proper pit toilet. So my hiney was wiped dry with toilet paper pretty much every time nature called. What a luxury! Gotta keep things dry down there to avoid saddle sores.

I decided I needed to stop and take a break, which is unusual for me. I usually like to keep moving and keep very short stops. But the initial excitement at the beginning of the ride was waning, the lack of sleep was catching up with me, and my legs were starting to feel it. I figured I should eat more food.

The climb up Poverty Flat is a rough climb on a normal-length ride in normal heat, and I had been able to clean it just fine many times already. However, my lack of preparedness, plus having 6000’ or more in my legs that day, plus the heat and recent grading leaving the trail surface loose and dusty made it extra-challenging. I had been following the imprints of another set of tires, and soon I saw the imprints of cycling shoes next to them. Aha, somebody walked! I immediately got off and hiked. I figure, heck if the faster, stronger 100k people ahead of me walked this, then I can too. A couple guys left early before us ladies but I didn’t know who they were, and I didn’t really know if they were on the 100k course. The footprints could have been from an out of shape noob on a mtn bike from 1980 for all I knew. After seeing the results from the Hard Coe’re posted, there was one other 100k person ahead of me. Whether those were his tracks or not, only he would know, heehee. Your secret is safe with me, buddy. No one is going to read this far.

At this point, I was seriously considering hanging a right at the Narrows, and making a beeline back to Hunting Hollow instead of taking the left up to Bear Mtn. My lack of sleep the night before and the week before left me feeling positively lethargic. I was even feeling kind of sleepy. I told myself to just wait and see how I feel. When I finally got to that intersection, I made up my mind. There was no question. I am in this. I came all this way to do this, and if I didn’t finish, it would be nothing but a big disappointment! The man would have won! Worst case, I have my headlamp. (or so I thought). So, I took the left and headed toward Bear Mtn. It criss-crossed a dry creek bed for most of the way to the bottom of the mountain, and I made a mental note not to do this route in the wet Spring.

It was on this flat section, just after a rocky bit that I hiked over, that I heard the slam of chainring on rock, and a “GAAH!” behind me. I looked back, and there was Brian Lucido! He is the course record holder for the 100 mile, and was on his way to crush his own record. The 100 mile course already had done an extra huge loop more than my course, and there he was - the only 100 miler to pass me! We exchanged encouraging words to one another, and he was off! Soon it occurred to me that he must have left his companions long ago, and at the time I didn’t know if anyone was in front of us. I took it upon myself to document this historic occasion, got the iPhone out and snapped a photo, just in case no one else would see him that day. 

Bear Mountain - the deep and bleak part

Next up was the lonely, intense challenge of Bear Mountain. When I first saw it, I had to stop and take a photo. It is a set of perfect, sand-castle shaped hills that rise steeply up out of a flat creek bed. Heading straight up the fall line a ribbon of fire road snaked ominously up the steep wall. And there was a yellow dot! Brian’s yellow jersey! The dot was making good progress up this mind-stopping impossible hill. I could vaguely make out that he was riding - on the bike! I thought holy shit! Then the dot stopped, and I think I made out the figure start to push the bike up the hill. That was the last time I saw anybody for the rest of the ride. Spot the dot, if you can:

Just like Dirk said, I arrived at the bottom of this beast at exactly 2pm. At this point I thought it’s a good time for a hike, because my butt is sore anyway! I felt a little bit of humor and the ridiculousness of it. I just surrendered to the Coe gods, and without any thought of attempting to ride it I just got off at the first pitch and hiked.

That slow hike up was quiet and desolate enough to finally pay attention to what was going on internally. I know everyone one thinks that the endurance rider is some sort of masochist. Quite the contrary. You don’t surmount challenges by beating yourself over the head. You can’t make it very far thinking negative thoughts. The puritanical work ethic has no place here. In a ride such as this, that mentality would have you running out of steam pretty quickly and you’d be ready to limp back to the car not even half way through. Could it be that it’s actually stronger to be calm? Rather than feeling panic or getting down on myself for each setback, I started to change what I was telling myself. Hey, it’s good that you noticed that twinge in your knee. Now it’s evident that you need to do some stretching and relieve some pressure. It’s a good thing that you noticed it before it got worse! On the other end of the spectrum, you have the whole “rah-rah” “believe in yourself” kind of thing. That doesn't really work for me either. On that lonely hill I got in touch with something quieter and deeper - knowledge. Belief is a kind of vague hope, and hope is actually a reaction to uncertainty which is based in fear. Knowledge has no basis in fear. 

Well, at least all of that made sense to me when I was about here. Anyway, who needs to smoke weed when you can just climb Bear mountain! Maybe the words don’t get at what I was really feeling. But rather than demoralizing me, hiking my bike up this desolate hill made me feel strong and capable.At the top were of course, amazing views. I looked out over to my left, which had a barbed wire fence, and a cattle gate, so all that land stretching off into the distance was private property. Coe by itself is vast, but Coe with all of the surrounding, similar landscape is overwhelmingly immense. As far as the eye can see off into the horizon were hundreds of Bear Mountains. Each had identically impossible steep fire roads going up them. So this is where the gods must have sent Sisyphus for his punishment of endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill.

Mississippi Lake to Pacheco Camp - the Drinking and peeing part

The rest of the ride, thankfully, was nowhere near as difficult, but presented other challenges. More fire road descent to Mississippi Lake. It was here I stopped again because I found a tiny bit of cell service to text Bruce and let him know I was still alive, I tried to squeeze a photo into the one bar and no G’s, but it didn’t go through. I also ate a bag of Stinger chews. Those things are awesome.

The trail that the course requires you to take to start circling around Mississippi Lake was barely visible, and had a couple trees down at the beginning. It took me some searching around to finally find which way to go. Then, close to the banks of the lake it was quite brushy with many downed and burnt trees to climb over. I was hoping at this point to filter water. I checked my water reservoir, and out of the 3 liters I had at HQ I had just a couple of sips left - a consequence of the 90 degree heat. I started to look for a bank that I could use to filter water, but the lake was surrounded by tall cattails and the water level was low, leaving steep banks. I had to go past the next turn, which went away from the lake, in order to find a place that was just barely suitable to climb down to the water. I found an animal trail, and followed it to a moist dank finger off of the lake. The bank was muddy with deer hoof prints, and the water was choked with weeds, green and murky. This would have to do - I don’t have much time and I could see the sun low in the horizon. The water filtering process is slow, something one must take into account, and I hadn’t. I only filtered 1 liter, thinking I’d best be going, and with the heat of the day waning, I shouldn’t need as much.

Next up on the singletrack front was Heritage Trail! Eventually this trail petered out and I was stuck in some some dry hard scrub. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out which way the trail went. More time lost. Damn! I finally noticed on the route on the GPS that I missed where it hung a left. I finally found it and descended into a deep, dry, spooky canyon. It was here where you pick up Pacheco Creek trail, which is a narrow trail that meanders across another dry creek bed. Riding this bumpy trail on a hardtail this far into the ride was painful. I had to stand up out of the saddle and coast for a bit, going more slowly than I would have otherwise.

It was here I finally saw a wild tarantula!

Potty Humor

I finally got to Pacheco Camp and had to stop for a rest, study the remainder of the route on the map, and use the luxurious pit toilet. Unbelievably, I had to shit. I dropped a lot of number 2’s on this ride. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, other than this is the type of ride that makes you shit yourself.

GPS fun

I tried eating a bar at this point, but I couldn’t stomach it. So, I carried on up Coit Rd. to the left. BLEEP! Whoops, I was supposed to go right on Coit, not left! Thank you, Garmin.

Then it was Live Oak Spring. The sun was getting low. I was supposed to veer to the right, and take the upper Live Oak Spring. I looked for a turn off, but just saw a weedy animal path, so I kept going. Eventually I stopped with uncertainty. Was that my turn off that I just blew past? Where was my bleeping BLEEP? Curse you, Garmin! I'd lost elevation from what I presumed was my turn off. But, riding back up towards the turnoff, Garmin bleeped at me saying I was ON course! What?! So I went down again, BLEEP! off course. That that little weedy animal trail HAD to have been it. So back up I went. Luckily, that was it. BLEEP! Back on course! There were lots of trees down across this trail, adding to my growing concern over not making it back by sunset.

The next intersection was familiar to me. I could recognize the pit toilet (I must be obsessed with them) at the intersection of Wagon and Wasno Pond from other rides I’d done up to Pacheco Falls. I had marked on the map that we go straight to Camp Wilson, and the sign pointing down Wagon said Camp Wilson this way! Yay! But a long ways down the steep fire road that I bombed rather quickly, I heard the dreaded BLEEP! My GPS finally decided to tell me I was off course. No way! The sun was fastly going down, I was supposed to take Wasno Pond?? Way way up there??? Up that huge hill?! So I got out the cue sheet, which informed me I was supposed to take the right on Wasno Pond. Gosh darnit!!!

I made quick work of the climb back up, and quickly descended Tule Lake Tr. to reach Camp Wilson the extra long way.

I passed by Camp Wilson, heading down Wagon road on my way to the 2nd to last trail, which was Phlegley ridge. Just before hitting Phlegley, it was getting pretty dark under the trees. Thank goodness I brought that head lamp. So I went into the pocket of my pack where I thought I’d put my head lamp. Oh no. It was not there. I checked all the sections of my pack, emptying contents as I went. No head lamp! While I was futzing around it was getting darker and darker. I figured I had better put everything back in the pack and get going. There was still a gray twilight to see the vague outline of the trail/road, but passing under any trees presented a challenge.

Finally I made my way onto Phlegley Ridge! To my great dismay, this trail wasn’t all downhill like I thought, and it did have a little climbing on it, setting me back even further. By the time I got to the incredibly steep downhill section of Phlegley Ridge, it was near complete dark, and I had to dismount and walk my bike as I was using my night vision to guide me along the faint gray outlines of the trail on the steep hillside! My 5 10 extra sticky rubber approach shoes slid out a little bit on the loose trail surface and I thought, geez, I’d probably be walking this in the daylight!

Just when I thought Phlegley would never end, I finally get to the easy, wide flat road heading back to the Hunting Hollow parking lot! Just a couple miles left! However, this road had several creek crossings and I figured I’d hit a rock and go over the bars on one of them if I didn't watch out. So I ended up coasting very slowly on what should have been a fast and easy out.

After what seemed like the longest 2 miles I had ever ridden or walked, I saw a light! The parking lot! There were people there! I thought I’d quickly roll in there - it would be so nice to get changed have a beer… but somehow I ended up in an area that was gated off from the parking lot. I went another direction, and ended up in another fenced off area. What the heck? I went back looking for the way to the parking lot. Did the rangers come and close a gate? Finally I cracked. Screw it, I am done. I hucked my bike over the fence and climbed over. That was my finish line!

Several riders who I knew happened to come in from their own ride and then to hang out to greet the straggling survivors of the Hard Coe’re. I was so happy that they were there so I didn’t have to drink beer alone. I got my beer, a wrap and some chips out of the car and had a lovely chat and enjoyed the company for a while of some Coe regulars at the picnic tables.

It was a bit troubling that there was no sign of Jan and Chris at this point. I stayed for an hour, but figured I had to go find cell reception, since I told Bruce I’d be done ages ago, and I was worried that he’d be worried. I left at about 9pm. I later found out that the 2 other women had rolled in at 10pm. Good on them for sticking it out!

The drive home was a nightmare. Once I even blacked out for minute, hitting the rumble strip. I decided to pull off at a gas station and get a can of coke. I got myself home by singing loudly and bopping to the music to stay awake.

Well mysterious gods of Henry Coe SP, here's to you! You have proven your superiority to my cycling capabilities in every way, yet again! I got caught after dark without a light, yet again! You’d think I would have accounted for your mysterious Coe Tardis-Factor. But it catches me off guard every time. How fantastic! I am grateful and humbled. Coe rocks.

Due to a bug in the Garmin Edge 510 and 810 units where the ride file is corrupted when your GPS runs out of battery, my .fit file was nowhere to be found. Sadly, all I have to account for the hardest ride in my life thus far is this blog post, my memories, and the tiny bit of it that I captured on my iPhone after the GPS died.

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