The Death Ride, 2008
The last time I did the Markleeville Death Ride was in the early 80’s, the ride was called the “Pain in the Passes,” and there were 300 people who participated in the mass start but only 60 who finished. A training camp for pro racers used the ride as the final day of a tough week of mountain training; my wife was pretty sure she recognized Davis Phinney in the group. Earning the ride patch that year made me feel pretty elite. This year, my second time to do the Death Ride, was a lot different. There was the lottery to enter, the commercialization, the shift from mainly race teams to recreational riders, but most of all, it was the sheer number of riders. When I started the ride, there were only a few other riders on the road and the only clue of the hoards I was to encounter was that the side of the road was a parking lot and I had to leave my car four miles from the start. It seems that starting 15 minutes before the 6:30 cutoff time made me one of the last to start. After a few miles I started climbing the first pass, Monitor, and started passing groups of riders. Soon the groups became a sea that stretched for miles in front of me. The rest of the day was spent either finding the best path to weave around slow riders or standing in line at a rest stop. None of the climbing was at all difficult, with only a couple of steep switch backs on Ebbitts Pass and I finished the ride less tired than I am when I get home from doing Soda Springs repeats.
By the time I got to the last of the five passes, Carson Pass, the temperature had climbed into the mid 90’s. At the rest stop near the foot of the pass there was a volunteer on a ladder spraying riders with a hose. I declined since I had spent the past week, which happened to be afflicted with a record heat wave, adapting to high temperatures and I felt fine. On Carson Pass the pace of the endless line of riders slowed to a crawl and passing was difficult since, unlike the other passes, this one was open to cars. The paradigm was that I would catch up to a group of riders, wait for a break in the motor vehicle traffic and then sprint around the group before traffic caught up with me. This wore me out pretty fast so for the last few miles to the top I gave up and just stayed in the procession of slow riders. I was tired and ready for the ride to end but consoled myself with thoughts of the fast, cool descent down Carson Pass which would bring me back to where my car was parked. When I finally got to the top, I collected my “Five Passes” pin, had a congratulatory ice cream bar, filled my water bottles and started the descent. I hadn’t gone a quarter mile when a thunderhead swept in and, with a single crack of thunder, the rain started. For a few minutes it wasn’t too bad, but then it started pouring rain and sleet and the temperature dropped to the mid fifties. The ride brochure had warned that the weather could change quickly in the Sierras, but of course I ignored that and had no protective clothing. I pulled over and stood under a pine tree for a while but soon the tree started dripping rain and it was obvious that this storm was not going to end soon so I rode the last fifteen miles of the Death Ride soaking wet and with fears of hypothermia. As I pulled up to my car and fumbled to unlock the door with shivering fingers, I noticed that I was within site of the rest stop where, a couple of hours earlier there had been a long line of hot riders waiting to be hosed down – ironic.
It was my own fault that I didn’t have a better Death Ride experience. I should have started earlier so that I would have been mingling with faster riders by the time I topped the first pass instead of threading my way through stragglers all day. But still, I cherish the memories of the first time I did the Death Ride and would like to relive the feeling I had of doing something extraordinary with a small group of compatriots. Maybe it’s time to start reading up on the Everest Challenge Stage Race.