CTS Athlete John Sagebiel’s La Ruta Race Report

(Reposted with permission from John Sagebiel. Originally posted here: http://www.teambaconstrip.com/2010/12/12/la-ruta-recap/)
Finish “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

That quote will make more sense later.

“La Ruta,” the short name for “La Ruta de Los Conquistadores” kicked my ass. There’s not much more I can say about that. I have never been so destroyed by four days of riding, but I’ve never tried to ride about 240 miles in four days in a tropical environment with elevations from sea level to 10,000’ and back a few times, accumulating something like 35,700’ vertical in that time. The numbers really don’t do it justice. You can talk about day 2: about 11,000’ vertical in only 47 miles, lots of 30+% grades, a mud-hole big enough to swallow up a motorcycle and still that doesn’t explain it. Some of the descents were so steep that I had my butt off the back of my saddle, brakes screaming and letting up pressure on the bakes for seconds would send you accelerating to dangerous speeds. I’m convinced the only reason I got through this was the fact that I had a fresh pair of TBS Socks for each day, but there are more stories.

A lot of people have asked me if I will do this one again, and I can very honestly say no. I did it. I finished a very hard race, one that was ranked my Time Magazine as one of the 10 toughest endurance events on earth: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1869820_1869688_1869682,00.html

I think one-and-done is good for me. If any of you want to do it, I’ll be happy to go there again and be your support crew, but I’m not riding it. 

Destroyed is how I felt after this. I think just the accumulated fatigue and effort, along with probably the stress of the crash on the last day (more on that later) caught up with me, and about 24 hours after the race, I started feeling sick. That night I started running a fever and I had a pretty miserable night. Mary was up with me all night getting water and cool washcloths to help cool me down. The odd thing was that at first, I wasn’t sweating at all, it was like my body just couldn’t figure out what to do. The next few days I was just wiped, sleeping a lot, but slowly feeling better. Even after we got home, I was still sleeping more than seemed necessary. It’s now more than 3 weeks since I finished and I went out on my first rides just last weekend. Still, I’m not back all the way, but feeling mostly like myself and ready to do some riding again. Not sure my body is ready yet.

Half a million GU caloriesThe whole race experience was pretty neat and more so since I knew a bunch of people out there and had ridden with them. CTS had 15 people riding, Chris, four coaches, and the 10 of us CTS athletes. On top of that, they had 5 CTS people and Lava Tours as our support crew. CTS had brought over 500,000 calories (they counted) worth of GU products as well, all for a ride through the jungle.

That’s a half a million calories of GU

The support was awesome and I’m sure a big reason why I made it through this as well as I did. Especially on the later stages, seeing a friendly face at the aid stations was as much of a boost as the caffeine in the GU’s they were handing out. Lava Tours provided all the transport and mechanics and they were all great, kept the bikes running smoothly and took all the thinking out of it. We were told where to go and when to be where. Food was available quickly and was abundant. “Ride, eat, sleep, repeat” was all I had to do. You cannot underestimate the benefit of that kind of arrangement on this kind of endeavor. The training and preparations, especially the reconnaissance trip in September was also huge – kind of knowing what you are stepping into gives you the confidence to do that. Confidence is a big part of success in an event like this, walking up to the start line with that knowledge, that base of training and knowing that support is out there just makes you feel ready to ride.

Chris Carmichael commenting about the race in Peloton Magazine:

http://www.pelotonmagazine.com/Feedzone/content/6/251/5-Minutes-with-Chris-Carmichael

In this he commented on La Ruta:

“It was a wonderful experience. Not only is the race extremely challenging, but the terrain is spectacular and the people are great. But perhaps more than anything else, I really enjoyed training for the event with a group of like-minded athletes and CTS Coaches. We had 10 CTS athletes and 4 coaches in the race, and in the months leading up to the event we were together for three training camps – including a reconnaissance camp in Costa Rica. We really came together as a team, and even though we were competing individually, there was an amazing amount of camaraderie before and during the race.”

CTS Coach Jim Lehman (a real hard man on a bicycle if ever there was one) won the 40-49 age group and later in this interview (http://pikespeaksports.ning.com/group/mountainbiking/forum/topics/cts-coach-jim-lehman-la-ruta) was quoted as saying “I will say that it is probably the hardest thing that I’ve done on a bicycle.” Coming from him, that’s saying a lot.

My teammate and friend Francois also did a great write up:

How it Went Down

November 17, 2010. Day 1: Jaco to Santa Ana

 About 68 miles, and about 12,000’ of climbing.

This is the infamous first day. That first climb goes seemingly straight up about 2000’ and then you get a spectacular ride along a ridge with a lot of up and down before dropping into Carrara. I guess the official name is the Carrara National Rainforest Park, but even the locals call it Carrara Mud Pass. Between when we went though in September and the race, they had some torrential rains and a number of trees went down across the trail which added some interesting challenges, but on the plus side there had not been a lot of rain over recent days before the race and as a result the mud on the ground wasn’t all that bad. I made it to PC1 (Point of Control, also called aid stations) which is basically just before Carrara. I was with a number of my teammates, I’m pretty sure it was Dave, John and Mark were around. I have to say her that a lot of my memories of this may be pretty bad. We headed in and pretty soon were in the hike (or, more accurately, climb) with your bike through some amazingly rutted, slippery and steep sections. This was in a really odd way very fun. At least it wasn’t too hot or raining hard.

As we dropped into Carrara, we slogged, slipped and rode along, stopping at most of the river crossings to clean the drive-train and re-lube. I know I was with Dave a bunch of this time since he and I kept trading tools and lube through there. The last thing you want to do at this point is break a chain because you are going to have a long walk out of there. Overall, this section wasn’t all that bad and I kept drinking and eating the entire time. As my coach Jay kept telling me, “at the end of the day, these kind of events are eating contests.” If you can keep fed and hydrated, you can make it.

River Crossing  

Mud riding

PC2 is the end of Carrara and almost back down to sea level, which means it’s also the start of the big climb to about 1200m (~4,000’). The first part of this is all on dirt and a few more river crossings before you get up to PC3. Along the way here a group of us met up with Francios who was walking his bike. He had broken his chain at some point, fixed it and then broke it again and he didn’t have more supplies to fix it. I had a spare link and a chain tool, so I stopped and worked with him on it. We got it going again and found out that a 9-speed link will work on a 10-speed system (he was running a Sram 2×10) at least in a pinch. Along this way, there were a few schools (for the most part, we are on roads that are in regular use) and often there were school children in their uniforms lined up along the road and cheering for everyone who came by. Amazing to see that. Also sometimes, kids would try and come over and get a hand-slap, which is ok on the steep hills where we are going like 4 mph, but not so much on the flats where we are faster. This habit of the kids will become my literal downfall later. Francois and I rode together for a while and seemingly pretty soon we were at PC3, which is the first time that we saw the CTS support crew. I refilled the camelbak, got some food and was feeling good so I told people I was going to head on. Francois was going to get a new chain installed because he was afraid that the 9-speed link was going to break. From PC3 to PC4 is a lot of pavement climbing, so once I was on the climb, I just locked out the suspension and got into my zone and spun. I made great time up to PC4 and was feeling strong. Refilled, refueled and got on my way. The start of the descent there gets REALLY steep in sections and this is where during the September recon trip Jane just about slid the whole thing (cursing as she went) and I made sure I stayed on the road. Actually it was a lot dryer so that helped. I ended up pretty alone a lot of this section and there didn’t seem to be a lot of markings. At one point I was wondering if I was off-course (wouldn’t be the first person to do this), but luckily pretty much everyone in the area knows “La Ruta” so when I saw two young kids on a motorcycle, I waved at them and asked “La Ruta?” while pointing down the road. They answered “Si, si!” and pointed the same direction. I kept riding downs and ups and a couple more river crossings (this time on bridges) and I got into the town. There were people showing us the way and all of a sudden Francois came blowing by me like a mad-man and I tried to catch him but couldn’t on that down-grade (he’s fast), but fortunately for me he missed a turn and I didn’t so I managed to get him on that up-hill and locked myself onto his rear wheel. In a wonderful payback for my helping him with his chain, he pulled like a mad-man and we were hauling along these roads. Just a few km from the end there’s a very steep climb that’s on dirt and it’s another of those 30% grades. We put the pressure to the pedals and just rode this hard. Around and down and finally I knew where we were and we were mere meters from the finish. I rode up alongside Francois and we finished side-by-side at 9 hours 41 min. A great day and we were just 3 min behind Chris. It was a nice day and we sat on the grass and enjoyed the moment.

After Stage 1 
So lesson #1 learned: we went a long way and it was good to have people with you. It was fun to have people I knew slogging through Carrara and it felt good to be able to help a teammate and even better to get some help from him at the end.

My other great memory of this day was seeing my friend Dax just before the start. Dax is the amputee rider that I met first during our reconnaissance trip in September and he’s in a lot of the video from that trip, since we rode together a lot. We’ve kept in touch since and he is quite inspiring to ride with and hear from. I knew he would be way up near the front, but I saw him as we were lining up and he had some small flowers taped to his handlebar stem – an early morning gift from his 5 year old daughter, and perhaps a reminder of what’s important. He told me one last thing: “to finish La Ruta you must have head, heart and legs: all three together.” I kept that in my mind the entire time and I must say he’s right. Unfortunately, he had a bad mechanical breakdown (think I heard he busted his rear derailleur) the first day and didn’t finish. He had a philosophical attitude toward it and I can’t help thinking that in some way his daughter’s gift was the reminder: we take our fun seriously and we do this for some serious fun, but there are other things that are more important. 

November 18, 2010. Day 2: Santa Ana to Terramall

Day 2 Hey this is “only” 47 miles (76 km), but it has about 11,000’ vertical packed into that relatively short distance, plus you just did Day 1 the day before. This is the day of UP and DOWN, with pretty much nothing else. Yes, there are a few “flat” sections, but really the profile lies.

This was also my birthday. 47 years young. More on that later.

Overnight my coach Jay sent an email to the effect of “don’t let Carmichael beat you” and so that morning I was contemplating the start and how I was feeling and I was surprised to feel as good as I did. I ate a bunch for breakfast and got ready. As the profile shows, heading out the climbing starts pretty much right away. As the pack spread out I found myself riding Carmichael’s wheel and just king of hung out there. I always take a bit of time to warm up so this was good for me and I was feeling ok.

As an aside, I’ve ridden quite a bit with Chris over the eight months of doing this, at each of the camps and even here. Chris is a pretty quiet guy much of the time and especially when riding. What I’ve discovered is that he doesn’t just go to his happy place and sit and spin… No, when he’s quiet, he competing with you. He’s considering his next move and wondering what your weaknesses are. You don’t take a guy who’s ridden in the Olympics, as a professional and competed for years in business and just magically take that out of him when he gets back on a bike. “The competitor” is still in there and still fighting.

I guess I knew that and was playing with fire, but I was feeling really strong and as we rolled up the first climb, I pulled up alongside him and said “Jay tells me I have to take 3 minutes off you today, sorry…” and with that, I looked forward and hammered. I just rode away and never looked back. Oh, don’t worry, I got my comeuppance for that and later Chris told me that as I did that he was thinking, “this is long race, don’t kill yourself.” Still, I gained 6 min on Chris that day and it felt awesome. Chris has several times gone under 9 hours at Leadville and is a serious competitor, so to be playing at that level, even for two days, is a memory I will cherish, even as I know about what’s to come.

The course is as crazy as it looks. 30% grades, downhills so steep and muddy is was two-wheel sliding at a few points, long, seemingly relentless climbs and then you just go down again, only to head back up soon enough.

One of the Downhills  

One of the downhills. Note the TBS socks.

I rode alone much of the day, seeing other riders but not spending much time near anyone. I did see teammate John M at PC3, but only briefly as we left together and John is an incredibly fast downhiller and just rode away from me with ease. Toward the end the race was on pavement for a while and I traded pulls with another rider but he was slower than I was on the technical descent near the finish and I finished pretty much alone. I felt good, got some food and just enjoyed the energy of the race as I relaxed and thought about what tomorrow was going to bring. I noticed that my front disk was making a lot of noise and the mechanics looks at it and it was pretty beat up, but was holding together and I didn’t have a spare, so I was running that to the finish. This race is tough on equipment as well as on bodies.

That evening, our support team brought out a cake for my birthday. That’s Carlos and Giovanni standing at the end of the table – great people. I really couldn’t think of anything better to do on my birthday than go for an epic ride on some crazy route with a bunch of my friends.

Birthday   

Day 3 Terramall to Turrialba

Day 3 

In a lot of ways, this stage looks pretty straight forward: Climb the Irazu Volcano, “traverse” over to the Turrialba Volcano and descend into the town of Turrialbla. What could be simpler? To start off with: that’s a lot of climbing. Plus, you’ve done two pretty hard days before you even get to the starting line. That “traverse” is more of the Costa Rican up-and-down, and then the start of the “real” descent after PC4 is full of baby head rocks that roll around and are often wet from the rain. Actually, it’s a lot like many Sierra trails and this became part of my success on the day.

I started with a plan. Really, I did. I was going to stick myself to Chris’ wheel and stay there all day. It was a good and simple plan. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I started off and after about 10 min, I knew my legs were not there. It got worse than that, my whole body felt like it had just about had it. This is early into a long day and really only half-way through the race, I was in trouble. I had been through a few things like that and I knew what was happening to me: it was simple accumulated fatigue. Well, there’s nothing too simple about it, but I knew the symptoms: high respiration rate relative to the heartrate and very little power in the legs. Not much I can do, but suffer and ride and know I was going to loose a LOT of time to Chris. There are a few things I can do: eat a lot, drink a lot and say ahead of that curve. Only thing worse than fatigue is combining fatigue with dehydration and caloric depletion. Despite all that, I did manage a smile when I saw the photographer:

Smiling  

PC1 is only 13km in and it took me an hour and forty five minutes. There to PC2 was about an hour 23 min and then I felt like I was feeling better and the next two were even faster. It was like I was waking up. I got to PC4 in a bit of mist and rain, but got my jacket there and met up with Rick and April. As we started down, I hit something pretty hard on my front tire and despite the Stans in there the rip was big and right in the middle of the tread and it didn’t seal. I stopped and had to put a tube in and got a bunch of help from Rick. That took way longer than it should have but we got on our way and I was glad to be riding with Rick. Between the fatigue and the pain and the flat, I was getting pretty pissed off and I hope it wasn’t showing, but I did finally ask Rick to tell me something positive and he came back with something to the effect of “You are in Costa Rica and riding your bike, what else do you want?” The impact of that on me was immediate and positive and I realized I’m on the downslope of the highest point in the race and I could ride this and I was going to do this, everything else be damned.

I got this great photo of Rick and I riding together on the volcano:

Rick and I  

Amazing plant life, good trail and a friend to ride with. Really, what else do you want? As we descended, we saw more amazing sights and it got warmer and warmer to the point we stopped and took off our jackets. There was one close call on some slick, wet grass where I did my best x-games slide with the rear tire trying to catch up with the front before controlling the skid and getting straight again. Kept telling myself not to screw up here, too much at stake. The lower part of the descent we saw more people and dogs and then finally dropped onto the paved roads that would take us on a fast descent to the finish. Nice to be done; never was the finish more welcome than today. Until tomorrow that is.

It was a long day and I learned yet another lesson about having a team. It’s good to have people to back you up and help you out. Going long, going together.

Day 4: Turrialba to Limon

Day 4 

Simple, easy, quick. Two big climbs in the first 40 km, then 80 km of downhill and flat there to the finish. Oh, wait. That last 80 km will make you suffer. This race will extract it’s payment, one way or the other.

The start was interesting. It rained overnight and we could hear it at the hotel. It was still raining at breakfast and still raining when we loaded up in the bus to head down to the start. It was raining harder as we got organized for the start and checked our bikes. It was flat-out pouring as we started and rode out of town. I was feeling ok, not great, but thankfully much better than yesterday. I rode easy at the first, mostly because I didn’t want to burn out early since I knew it was a long day – we had ridden nearly the entire stage during out recon trip. I stayed focused and kept riding, mostly with Rick, Mark and April nearby. I managed to stay on task.

Riding  

Between the first and second aid stations, we came down a very steep and (since it had been raining a lot) slippery section of the downhill and April was just behind me. I barely made the turn and heard some skidding behind me and when I looked back April wasn’t there. I made a quick bathroom stop and adjusted some stuff on my bike and saw April coming. She had slid out but was fine.

From there it was up the slope to the second aid station where again Rick, April, Mark and I were together and started down. Mark and I were in front and we were flying down those slopes in the rain, I had gotten myself in the position where I could just see in the slot between the top of my glasses and my helmet visor.

At the flats, we started riding some on the railroad tracks. There are about 30km of these including a number of bridges that this day were wet in addition to being a bit nerve-wracking to some people. This day I felt great and confident and cruised over these bridges like they were nothing:

Railroad bridge  

Did I mention these tracks are “live?” There could have been trains anytime. That adds a dimension to it.

The farther along I got the better I was feeling and I myself ahead of the teammates I had been riding with. I got to PC3 and Jason Koop fuelled me up and got me out of there. Along the way to PC4 it stopped raining and I found some people to work with. As I was getting ready to leave PC4, Mark, April and Rick caught up and I decided to go with them. Again, going long, go together. This would prove to be a very good decision. Somewhere out on the flat roads between PC4 and PC5, we were in a pace-line and moving along. My GPS had us at about 18 mph. As I’ve said before there were many places where kids would come out and try and get a hand-slap or something from the riders as they came along. That was fine on the slow parts but out here at these speeds I was steering clear of them. Unfortunately this one kid was not going to take not for an answer and came out at me and tried to slap at my right hand as we were moving at this speed. Unfortunately, he caught my handlebar instead. You can imagine what happens next. I’ve played the next half-second over and over trying to figure out how I managed to ride away from this. In all honesty, I should have been very badly hurt or disabled.

The kid was on my right and hit my right handlebar. That sent me down on my left side. The damage is clear, scratches on the left side of my helmet, scrapes on my left hand, elbow, shoulder, hip and ribs. My right hand has some scratches and a badly bruised thumb back in where it would have been gripping the bar. That still hurts badly as do the ribs and hip. My face managed to be unscratched, which tells me that I was down on the left side, basically the hip, ribs, shoulder and helmet all hitting hard, but my chin stayed up preventing that from getting damaged. The hit to my ribs I finally figured out was due to my heartrate monitor strap. Bummer. My bike seat got twisted slightly right when it hit and the bar-end of my left grip got knocked off the bar. That all tells me the bike and I went down hard on our left side. What’s amazing is what happened behind me. The second guy in the paceline was Mark. He was watching my wheel and we’ll deal with that in a bit. April and Rick were behind Mar and both managed to pull left and stop. The road we were on was about one lane wide and I was probably near the middle when I went down. They were fine.

Mark tells me he saw me go down and first grabbed his brakes and went left, as he realized he wasn’t going to stop in time, he basically vaulted over the handlebars and landed on his feet. He never fell. His bike did go down but wasn’t damaged. The front tire (at least, maybe the back too) went over my helmet. I’m not sure if he was on it (he thinks he was) or not. I did feel the hit to my helmet, but it wasn’t that bad. Mark’s a strong guy who does tri-sports so he’s probably 175 pounds. Add a bike and camelback, etc, and you are looking at 210 pounds or more bearing down on my head. If you look at the video at the finish line:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIaCz_UdU80

You’ll see the track of his tire over my helmet. One inch to the right and he would have gone over my completely unprotected neck. That would have been debilitating or possibly worse. I really don’t want to consider the options. Elsewhere would also have been bad. Had he run over a leg or arm with 210 lb of force at 18 mph, I’m sure it would have caused a fracture, ending my race. Instead he went over the helmet, cracking the foam (unless it cracked from the impact, we’ll never know) and leaving me basically no worse for the wear. Well, except for the pain of all those scrapes and scratches.

When I hit, I never lost consciousness and screamed out in pain and anger and just frustration. There was no reason for this crash, but it happened anyway. Nothing to do but get the bike put back together, get on it and ride. The longer I stood around, the worse it was going to be. 30 km, maybe, to go. I had to finish it. Back on the first day of the first camp in Colorado Springs, Chris told us that the only rule was that we keep going unless we have lost a limb. I was way below that standard and had to get on with it. More railroad tracks, more roads, more mud and we made PC4. 10 miles to the finish. Those 10 miles just kept going, but the whole way I had Rick at my back. He had my back both literally and figuratively with encouragement and I just kept riding. This was the section that in September was dry. Not this day. All the rain had become huge holes that pretty much sucked up a front wheel and more easily. One time Rick and I got up on the railroad tacks and rode between the rails because it was faster than dealing with the swamps. April and Mark got ahead of Rick and I and as we finally got off this section and onto pavement I saw them waiting for us. That brought a real smile to my face and I knew the four of us would finish together. We did and I’m very happy for that.

Again I learned the value of the team and the group. Had the same things happened when I was alone, I would have finished, but not nearly as quickly or as strongly as I did. Going long, go together and we did and the shot of the four of us coming down onto the beach is just great:

Finish
On the beach at last

I learned a lot from this experience. The official La Ruta website calls it “more than a race, a personal growth journey.” Well, I’m not sure I grew on that course, more likely the jarring compressed my disks and made me shrink some, but I learned some things along the way. I learned the value and helpfulness of friends and teammates. I learned that I can do some very hard things, take some hits and get up and keep going. In the rest of my life, the course is rarely as well marked and the finish line is never that clear. I did this on my own terms and finished under my own power. Well, with a few people pulling for me, both out on the course and waiting at the beach, and, as it turns out on the plane getting down there to see me. The joy of that finish will stay with me a long time as will the joy of seeing those smiling faces of my friends who were waiting on the beach and the smiling face of Mary when we made it back to San Jose later that night. Just don’t ask me to do that one again.

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