2002 > Eastern Sierra > Sarah's Report

Theory of Relativity


Feeling satisfied in life is a matter of finding the right perspective from which to view it. At least that's the conclusion I came to after finishing this year's Eastern Sierra Double Century.

The 2002 Eastern Sierra Double marked Lynn's fiftieth double century.

Nearly all cyclists I polled offered the same assessment: The day had been hard. Even Lynn, standing at the end of the ride with a bouquet of yellow roses in her arms to commemorate completing her fiftieth double, said, "Some days you have good days, some days you have hard days, and today was hard." Back at the campsite, a cyclist from Eureka stopped to introduce himself since he'd seen me on all of the doubles he had ridden that year. I asked how his day had been. "Hard," he said.

By fairly early on in the ride I thought I was having a difficult day, too. The stretch to the first rest stop had been pleasant enough. After a mass start out of Bishop, riders broke off into clumps, climbing gently through an open valley. The terrain on Eastern Sierra has a unique aesthetic that appeals to me: It's somehow desert-like and mountainous at the same time. The air is dry and the ground hardly seems to contain dirt, only rocks broken to varying degrees of granularity, pale gray in color and seemingly unlikely to sustain life. The scenery almost looks like a moonscape.

And yet from the rocks, sage and other plants looking capable of surviving a nuclear war thrive. Higher up, huge strands of fat conifer somehow push their way through the rubble and drive roots deep enough to find nutrients and water. Craggy snow-capped peaks stand as incongruous backdrops to the stretches of arid flatland. As we wound our way around town in the morning, the rising sun washed the scene in a warm, pinkish-orange glow.

First climb of the day winds through scenery that is somehow simulatenously both mountainous and desert-like.

The high point of the ride at Sage Hen Pass -- at about mile 120 -- is a welcome oasis.

After the first rest stop, we began our first significant climb of the day. I initially found myself enjoying riding slowly and resting on the ascent. I hadn't needed to stop at the rest stop, and consequently felt like I had bought myself some time. As more and more riders passed me, however, I became frustrated with my pace. I quickly realized I was going to have to adjust my expectations for the day. My left knee was bothering me, as it had on and off for several months, but more than that I had forgotten how easily affected I am by altitude: Bishop stands at about 4,000 feet above sea level, and the elevation of the highest point of the ride -- Sage Hen Pass after lunch -- is over 8,100 feet. The drive over Tioga Pass the day before, at nearly 10,000 feet, probably hadn't helped me much either.

Me at the third rest stop in 1997

The first summit of the day marked the beginning of a descent that seemed much slower and shorter than I had been hoping for during the climb.

As I climbed I realized that I was experiencing the symptoms of breathing thin air -- slight nausea and dizziness -- that I recognized from the first time I completed the ride in 1997. When I finally reached the top of the climb, the descent into a canyon seemed much shorter and slower than I had remembered, and didn't give me as much rest as I needed before the road started climbing again.

For several miles I alternately considered throwing up, passing out, and turning back for my car at the start and driving home. Somehow retreating a mere forty miles into the ride seemed far less appealing than grinding forward and putting forth at least a decent effort, however. I'm glad I did, because even though I rode slowly and laboriously and had little appetite for most of the day, I didn't again feel as poorly as I had during that first climb.

At lunch I bumped into Steve from Brisbane, who helped put my ambivalence about the ride into perspective. I had first met Steve at the Solvang Double earlier in the year. With similarly matched paces, we had spent most of the day leap-frogging each other before finally finishing together. We later repeated the experience at Central Coast. Now at Eastern Sierra, we had found each other again. Fifteen miles before lunch, Steve had stopped to repair a flat and, while working, unexpectedly lost the entire contents of his stomach, practically including the previous night's dinner. He was to repeat the experience -- puking while stopping to fix a flat -- later that evening less than ten miles from the finish. At lunch he said he felt okay, though, and was game to continue.

We talked for a while and I mentioned that I intended Eastern Sierra to be my last double for the year. At some point during a double, I typically experience some moments -- of varying durations -- when I wondered why I'm there. My seat and feet usually spend a good portion of the day competing for most-numb body part. I sometimes get into my aerobars even on climbs just to more evenly distribute the soreness in my back and neck.

During such moments I wonder, if I'm having so much trouble during a single day's ride, how on earth would I ever survive, let alone enjoy, riding my bike across the country in the coming fall? I explained to Steve that for the rest of my training season I wanted to focus on shorter rides so I that I could avoid burning out and using up all tolerance I had for the process of long-distance cycling before my cross-country ride began in September.

Steve said that he also wonders why he is there for at least part of the time on every double and yet the following weekend finds himself out there again! Neither of us had a rational explanation for why we continued distance cycling despite such moments of doubt.

After lunch, Steve mentioned a couple of times that he was starting to feel not well again, although each time as he said it he was pulling around me and shooting off into the distance on his bike. Nonetheless, I didn't envy him, and thinking about how he was feeling made my ride seem easy by comparison. After talking with Steve, and especially after hearing about his second misadventure in the evening, whenever I heard any one else say that they had had a hard day, I wondered if theirs had been as difficult as Steve's had been.

At the end of the ride, Steve coasted in to the hotel with a giant grin on his face, glad to have finally finished. I asked if that was the hardest double he had ever done. He laughed and said yes. His main concern, however, was that he stay well enough to ride Terrible Two -- the state's toughest double -- the following weekend: The difficulty and struggle of the day had somehow failed to dampen his interest in the next challenge.

Back at my campsite after the ride, however, I met someone who put even Steve's day into perspective. As I was cleaning my bike, and older man approached me and asked how far I had ridden that day. I replied, 200 miles. "Oh my," he said. "That's a long way."

I was impressed that he seemed to 'get' that 200 miles was a long way to cycle. Most of the time when I tell non-cyclists that I ride that distance, either they seem not to believe me -- as if I were confused or misspeaking -- or their reactions are mild, as if I had said twenty miles instead of 200. I was satisfied with the reaction of the man at the campsite, however, and to extend the conversation I asked if he had ever been to Mono Lake, which is the ride's turn-around point.

The man said that he hadn't seen Mono Lake in years; his doctor didn't want him going above 4,000 feet in altitude. I scrunched up my face in concern and in question. "I have a bad heart," he explained. "There's a lot of things I want to do but can't." I pointed out that I thought we were at about 4,000 feet where we stood and he said yes, he and his family were leaving the next day, it wasn't necessarily good for him to stay there. I told him to be careful and to take care of himself.

After hearing the man's story, having the opportunity to throw up twice, fix two flats, and experience one's worst double ever suddenly sounded like a pretty good deal, a privilege even. The solution to my previous puzzle of why ride all day with numb butt and feet, sore back and neck, and queasy stomach now seemed clear. Because I can, seems reason enough

On the descents after Sage Hen Pass, my speed tops 50 mph several times in a 30-mile stretch.
Early in the ride, I had complained to a fellow rider Dave that I enjoyed the descents after Sage Hen Pass -- where my speed surpasses fifty miles per hour several times in a thirty-mile stretch -- so much that I forget how much I suffer in the morning to get there. Dave is in his sixties and I've seen him regularly on doubles since my first in 1997. Two years ago I saw him, at four in the morning, complete his tenth triple century.

The final 35-mile stretch down Highway 6 can be either joy or misery depending on what the winds are doing.
I don't remember how Dave responded to my griping, but after a few moments I realized that blaming my apparent memory loss on the thrill of descent didn't quite paint the whole picture. Without the effort in the morning, I realized, soaring in the afternoon would be meaningless. If I had driven up to Sage Hen Pass to cycle only the final seventy miles of the ride, the fast descents on Highway 120 and being pushed by a tailwind on Highway 6 at twenty-five miles per hour for thirty miles would be a giant yawn.

I had uncovered a paradox that I didn't particularly enjoy -- the difficulty and struggle on the ride is what made the good parts good. By themselves, the good parts would be bland. Pain, to some extent, is a necessary evil. Just as the barren-looking earth around me meted out improbable existences to sweet-smelling sage and pine trees, hardship and struggle, I thought, bred sweetness and life.

In 1998 I rode the Death Valley Double, and the landscape there made that of the Eastern Sierra seem like a rain forest by comparison. Judging by the road kill, wildlife in the Eastern Sierras is abundant: deer, mice with oversized feet, giant caterpillars, butterflies, snakes, lizards, and numerous chipmunks. At my campsite, crows the size of small dogs vied for food with blackbirds the size of small crows. For 200 miles at Death Valley, in contrast, I hadn't seen a single reptile, flattened ground squirrel, or even an insect. The only moving life I saw besides fellow cyclists were crows; with no carrion for fuel, however, I was left to guess at how the creatures survived. It was clear how the Valley had earned its name.

Rare wild flowers scattered the Death Valley floor in 1998.

When I saw it in 1998, however, Death Valley was experiencing a kind of hundred-year-flood of abundance; the endless stretches of basins were scattered with yellow and white wild flowers in apparently their most prolific display in over a century. Throughout the day, I repeatedly heard other riders comment on their disbelief at how much life the valley held compared to other years. From my frame of reference, however -- never having seen Death Valley before and only knowing the out-of-doors typically to contain plants and critters -- the landscape was eerily barren.

Abundance or paucity -- two opposites are separated by a vantage point. With knowledge of that thin separation, however, comes power: The difference between wealth and poverty, sadness and joy, is only a thought away and, more importantly, is a choice. Looking at the Eastern Sierra terrain I could think it appeared threadbare. Or, seeing it as a hardy sage bush might, I could think, "Yes, the glass has long since passed half full, but it's enough. Enough to sustain me."

I recently heard a story about a man who had a full life -- with a responsible profession and caring family -- who woke up one morning after suffering a stroke to find himself able to move only one eye. With that one eye, he learned to communicate with people around him, and, ultimately, dictated to them an entire book, letter by letter. In his book he described the freedom he still enjoyed daily: Lying beside his wife, walking along a river, watching a sunset, were things he could experience in his imagination at will.

In his situation I surely would have focused so intently on all that I'd lost I would have looked around with that single eye and seen only prison walls. To him, however, life was a ride on catamaran that raced along for whatever adventure he could conjure up.

At the end of the Eastern Sierra Double, I asked Dave how his day had been. His was the only answer that wasn't some variation on "hard." I asked him if he ever had a bad day. I told him that I couldn't imagine him having a bad day, he seemed to ride so consistently and to always be in good spirits.

"Sure I have hard days," he said. "I just never let them get to me."

Respectfully submitted,
Sarah Beaver

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