The rains have come to the northwest and a close to the end of the regular randonneuring season. This was another year of milestones for me: Endless Mountains 1240k in PA, earning the Mondial award (40,000 kms and counting), riding to Whitefish, and another whole series of rides. And yet the ride that stands above them all was a short little 200k. This ride was by far the best grand adventure, blending physical challenge, spectacular scenery and new cultural experiences.
At first I didn't think 13,000 feet of elevation gain was possible in this 200k. There must be some sort of mistake, but I had never been to Hawaii before. Could it be possible that you can go from sea level to 9,000 feet in under 100 miles on this tiny island? I had a hard time conceptualizing the difficulty of this ride and what I could do to prepare. The permanent owner David did a good job trying to scare me about this ride. "Most people are going to Hawaii on vacation to relax," he started part of his reply. This route has lots of climbing through areas with no services. I sent a quick reply: Sign me up.
I looked out of the window of the airplane and watched huge waterfalls cascade down through dense forest and white crests of waves crash on rocky beaches and hidden coves with quiet sandy beaches. This was my first trip to the tropics and when I stepped off the airplane, I felt like I had walked into the tropical house from the botanical garden I visited as a kid. Dense humidity mixed with an ocean breeze, and a perfect 82 degrees.
Two of my best friends were getting married on a small farm outside of Hilo. I spent the first part of my trip helping with their festivities and gorging myself with fresh tropical fruit and washing it down with cool drinks every evening. We snorkeled with sea turtles on the sandy beaches and warmed our skin with the intense tropical sun. The idea of cycling up the largest mountain was put on the back burner until after the wedding.
The start of the ride was over on the other side of the island. I found that the local bus, Hele-On, left from downtown Hilo and would deliver me to the start near Waimea in time for a 6am start for only $3.00. However, this meant catching the 3:50am bus. I clipped into my pedals at 3:00 sharp and coasted the 6 miles and 1500 feet down from the house where we were staying to the bus station downtown. The only company were the loud coqui frogs and the dense smell of guava and yellow ginger as I sped through the darkness.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I showed up to the bus station. I couldn't help but wonder who would be taking a public city bus at 3:50am but assumed that it would be that crowded this early in the morning. I was shocked when there were over 30 people waiting at the stop with me. All of them locals who were using the bus to get to work on the other side of the island. I stuck out like a sore thumb in my spandex and neon vest and pale skin and them in baggy sweatshirts, jeans and sun-baked skin. I found a seat in the back of the bus and dozed for the 2 hour ride around the island. The bus continued to fill at each stop until all of the seats were taken and people began to sit on small folding chairs in the aisle. My stop was approaching and I wasn't sure how to navigate up to the front of the bus to exit. I carefully moved around people. "Where you goin' white man?" a large man abruptly asked me as I tried to get past him. I couldn't tell if he was mad at me or trying to help, but I replied that I was going to Waimea. "Next stop," he said, "not this one." I thanked him and crawled over more legs and bodies to get off the now over-packed bus.
A cold wind howled around me as I made my way through the deserted downtown of Waimea. I put on more layers and a rain jacket as I descended to the coast in the pre-dawn darkness. It was a ten mile descent to the gas station at the start of the ride. Each curve became warmer as I dropped from 2500 ft elevation back down to sea level. I showed up just fifteen minutes before the ride start time of 6:00. I bought a cup of coffee and a muffin for breakfast and re-organized my handlebar bag for the ride ahead.
6:00 sharp. I left the start of the ride with a huge grin on my face. Dawn was trickling over the island. Mauna Loa was shrouded in pink clouds as if the sun was causing an eruption. I could feel my body warm up with the series of rollers as I headed north to the tip of the island. 30 minutes into the ride the sun exploded through a break in the clouds over the ridge to my right at the same time a gust of wind caught me off guard from the same direction as if the wind were the tangible hand of the sun. I rested my elbows on my handlebars and held onto my handlebar bag as if there were invisible aerobars on my bike and pretended for a moment that I was in the Ironman. I put myself in their headspace on this exact section of road and tried to hear the sound of race tires and a solid disc rear wheel as they raced to capture the lead. I sat up and smiled, glad that steel touring bike and wide tires would carry me to different challenges.
The route curved around the northern end of the island toward the town of Hawi, the first control. I was rewarded with an incredible view of the island of Maui just to the north. There were patches of rain squalls in the channel and I could make out a few rainbows in the morning sun. These were pleasant distractions from the pounding headwind and the first true hills of the ride. I waved at the curious children who were waiting for the school bus at the ends of their driveway and was met with blank stares and the occasional tentative wave.
The control was at the Kohala Coffee Mill, a welcomed break. I grabbed a fresh tropical smoothie and refilled my bottles. I left the control and was glad the route turned south out of the headwinds. The sun was now out in full force although the roads were still wet from a squall that had just passed. The route also headed back inland and began to climb. And climb. I had looked at the elevation profile, but I was still early in the route, this wasn't supposed to be the hard part of the ride yet and yet here I was in my smallest gear crawling uphill. In fact I would gain 3,000 feet in the next 15 miles. I had a moment of fear as the realization of the difficulty of this ride swept over me. I pushed those thoughts down, ate some food and admired the view.
Kohala is the oldest and extinct volcano on the Big Island. The slopes of the mountain are covered in grassy pastureland and dotted with old cinder cones called pu'u. Cows and horses looked up as I slowly pedaled by. I was buffeted by the side winds from the east again and was glad when the road was protected by eucalyptus trees. These same winds made the decent into Waimea a challenge. At each switchback, I had to slow down to avoid getting pushed into the guardrail. I balanced the urge to make up time from climbing with the need to make it to the bottom of the hill safely.
Waimea wasn't a control, but it was the last stop for food and water until the top of the climb and I was running late. If Waimea was a control, then I arrived at the closing time and I still needed to buy lunch. I pulled into the first gas station I could find and bought as much food and water as I could carry with me, two full water bottles and an extra 25oz collapsable bladder. I hurried out of town desperate to make up some time. Again the fear of not finishing on time bubbled up under the surface. I was only 40 miles into this ride and I was pushing the time limit with the majority of the climbing later in the day. How could I finish this in time?
Two miles out of town, I was swept up by a 25 mph tailwind. I made up 30 minutes on the clock in just a few miles and reached the bottom of the big climb. I had 7,000 feet to climb in 30 miles and began to rise up out of the lava plain. The tropical sun beamed down in full force and cast almost no shadows as I crawled up the relentless grade. As I looked out over the sun-burnt grassland, it was hard to remember the lush tropical forest just 60 miles away and realize that this was the same island. I reached the Saddle Road, the main road that traverses the island from Hilo to Kona in-between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. This is a wide modern road and crosses the most recent lava flows of the route and the scattered cinder cones. The route turned back to the east and back into the wind. This time there weren't any trees to protect me. I put down my head and struggled to keep any kind of momentum.
I reached down for a water bottle and realized that it was empty. I had drained my backup bladder hours ago. Now I was crossing a windy lava desert with only 3/4 of a bottle. I passed the Mauna Kea state park in the wild hopes they might have some water in the restroom but was met with a sign indicating that there was no potable water, not even a sink to wash my hands and face. I choked down the rest of the food I had without more than a sip of water and pressed on.
I saw the sign for the turn for the final climb from a mile away but it felt like it took hours to get there --a mirage in the desert. Six miles and then I would be at the top. I reached down and polished off the rest of my water. No use carrying it to the top. It seemed and endless distance but there was nothing to do but push on. The ride up to the first switchback went well. I was able to keep pace until I rounded the corner and encountered the first gradient over 10%. I stood out of the saddle and immediately spiked my heart rate. I forgot what life was like at 7,000 ft elevation. I sat back down and continued on but still couldn't catch my breath. I pulled over to the side and tried to relax to bring my heart rate down.
Five miles to go. In my lowest gear, I crawled up the next switchback only to come into view of the next pitches of the climb. Each half mile I was forced off the bike to rest a minute until my heart calmed down. Two miles to go. I crested the steepest pitch so far and got a short reprieve as the grade backed off to almost flat and I could see the final push. One mile to go. I paused again to let my heart rate go down, but I still couldn't catch my breath. I put my head down on my handlebar bag and closed my eyes and could feel my face pounding with each beat of my heart. I sat up, swung my leg off my bike and slowly began to walk and push my bike up the steepest parts of the last pitch. 1/4 mile to go. I turned around to admire the incredible view down to the lava plains. There was a caution sign for drivers doing to the descent warning them of the 17% grade that I had just ascended. Finally the route flattened out and I slowly pedaled to the visitors center at 9,000ft.
I was greeted by clapping as some tourists applauded my effort and someone offered me an extra tray of food. I quickly filled my water bottles and guzzled the first bottle without stopping. I checked the time and realized that there was no way I would finish the ride in time. I had over 45 miles to go and less than 3 hours to finish. It had been a valiant effort, but just wasn't able to climb fast enough. I could just pedal back to Hilo rather than finish the ride. But I should just see what time it is when I get back down to the turn. I packed up my bag and turned around to head down. Again winds whipped at my bike threatening to push me into the guardrail. I slowed down until I could keep control of the bike but was still surprised at how fast I made it back to the Saddle Road.
Left or right? Is there any way I can finish? I might as well try. I turned right and was greeted by a 30 mph tailwind. My tires hummed in the quiet vacuum as I headed back to Wimea. I looked one more time at my watch and realized that there was only one thing to do. I put my head down and buried myself into the ride. I would push as hard as I could and would not check the clock. I just needed to ride until I reached the finish and I would either be in time or not. On a small uphill, both legs began cramping and I took three Endurolyte tablets at once. Now was no time to deal with cramps. The descent to the valley floor was incredible and I couldn't grasp how quickly the miles were going past. I powered into the headwinds just before Wimea knowing that it was a 10 mile descent to the finish.
The setting Kona sun blinded me briefly as the road turned west to the beach. Nothing was stopping me from the finish and I watched the miles fly by. I pulled into the parking lot of the finish and rushed into the store to get my finish receipt. I picked out the closest candy bar to the counter and collapsed on a bench outside. I couldn't bare to look at the time. Did I do it? 6:45 pm. I still had 45 minutes to spare! I couldn't believe it and sat there in shock for a minute as I let the day wash over me.
The day wasn't quite over. I still had to get back to the bus stop 10 miles away in Wimea. The rando clock had been turned off and now I could relax up the long climb and slowly spin in my lowest gear. McDonalds was the only place to get food late in Wimea and I stuffed myself with hot food and hot tea. I patiently waited for the next bus that came through at midnight. I loaded my bike and collapsed in to the seat and slept until the last stop in Hilo. In the darkness, the only sounds were the coqui frogs welcoming me back to Hilo as I slowly began the 4 mile climb back to the house.