204 Miles in One Day: A Memoir of the 2017 Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic

After four years of riding the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic, I’ve finally earned the coveted 1-Day Rider badge. Here’s the story of how it happened.

 

A double century ride is a fantastic accomplishment for any cyclist, and I made it my personal goal this year to achieve what only five years ago seemed impossible.

In 2014, I rode my first Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic on a Giant Escape 2 hybrid bike. I averaged 13.7 mph through the whole thing and I was absolutely spent when I was done. But I knew I wanted to do it again, and my ultimate goal was to do it in one day.

This was the year that would happen.

 

THE PREPARATION

Training began early this year. Instead of waiting out the rains that seemed incessant in the winter and spring, I hit the indoor trainer and also waited for windows of opportunity — an hour here, an hour there of no rain — and hit it hard outdoors when I could.

I ride a 2002 Klein Quantum Race that I snagged off someone in Clackamas, Oregon on Craigslist in early 2015 for $350. It’s been the second-best thing I’ve ever bought, and I don’t say that lightly. After some tuning up, seat adjustments and hard work, I gained an ability to log 16 to 20 mph on rides on rural roads this year. The only thing I needed to do was pace myself on a longer ride.

Before long I had logged 1,000 miles in March, then 2,000 in June, and was feeling more comfortable about doing the ride in one day — especially after doing the Columbia Century Challenge a month ago. What had been laborious 30, 40 and 50 mile rides last year flew by with little trouble.

I made hill training a priority, and it showed with personal bests on such areas as Rush Road, Dieckman in Adna, and the locally-famous Bunker Creek-Ingalls-Lincoln Creek loop. After a ton of training rides and much anticipation, July 15 was upon us, and before I knew it I was ready to tackle this thing with my friend Kyle.

 

THE START

A 1:50 a.m. wake-up call came much too soon after five hours of sleep, which weirdly is the most sleep I’ve ever received the night before STP. I’m usually much too amped to even shut my brain down, but this year I took preparing seriously and went to bed at about 7 p.m. Sleeping pills didn’t work well, but que sera sera.

I packed a seatpost bag with several essentials: GU energy shots, sunscreen, chamois cream (that stuff saves future lives), a small portable charger for my Garmin, and a couple cords. My bike’s total weight was 20 pounds.

Kyle’s parents Riki and Jill drove us up to *u*ky Stadium in Seattle (thanks guys!!!), where we offloaded and got to the start just before the very first big wave of riders took off at 4:45. Suddenly, they sounded the horn and it was time to shoot the chute out of the stadium parking lot and onto the streets of Seattle.

For the first 10 miles especially, Kyle and I were jostling for position, trying to stay near each other, and trying to get a good pace going. All three proved to be dang near impossible as we averaged only 12 mph through the city and kept getting separated by people who thought it would be a good idea to draft off either one of us. By the time we reached the Rainier Beach hill, things started to thin out a tad — but they wouldn’t get much better until the REI food stop.

Stopping at REI in Kent, mile 23 or so, is SO MUCH BETTER if you are in one of the first two waves. There were no lines for the sanicans, no lines for food, and everyone was pretty upbeat. We stopped for 6 minutes, 22 seconds, and got right back on the bike.

Then we noticed things were going to be much different than the two-day excursion, simply by noticing the number of riders suddenly beginning to seriously thin out.

 

GET INTO THE GROOVE

Leaving Kent and continuing on through Pacific and into Puyallup gave us all our first real opportunity to start drafting other riders. For those not in the know, drafting is the art of tucking in behind other cyclists in order to reduce wind resistance and maximize your efficiency. It’s a necessary thing to do if you want to finish the STP in one day.

I led a group of five for about five miles, then Kyle led for five more, then we latched onto someone else. Our 16 mph pace became 17, then 18 as we got through Puyallup and to the first big hill with relative ease. We took the hill rather slow but still managed to pass a bunch of other riders, getting to the top in good time and then riding the waves of the streets through the Puyallup and Spanaway area before our next food stop at mile 55 or so.

I reapplied sunscreen and chamois cream in the hopes that I’ll someday still be able to have kids, grabbed a small sandwich, filled up some water and Nuun (electrolyte drink stuff that doesn’t taste great but works very well), and after 15 minutes we were back on the bikes again.

It wasn’t long before the scenery would change and we were in for our first long slog of the day down State Route 507.

 

JUST LIKE THE ISRAELITES ESCAPING EGYPT

Once we left Spanaway, it started to look like a single-file pilgrimage down a highway. I had this weird thought in my mind of a movie I haven’t seen in years, The Ten Commandments, and replayed the scene of the thousands of children of Israel leaving Egypt in this huge line.

Things you don’t think about much on the two-day version of the STP become focal points during the one-day ride, and you really start to seriously consider them about a quarter of the way through the event. Timing matters not in the two-day event, but it’s a major factor in the one day because the finish line technically shuts down at 9 p.m. Wind speed and direction becomes more of a factor because it’ll kill your energy and attempt at a decent time. You begin to really pay attention to when you need to conserve energy and go full bore into a segment.

Basically, Spanaway was where I started to really think technically about the remainder of the ride.

We would ride along State Route 507 to Centralia, and I led another five-person paceline for about 8 miles before we reached Roy, then the paceline leader switched hands a few times, then we reached McKenna and Yelm, about 72 miles in.

I felt my first major fatigue of the day start to hit by the time we got onto the Yelm-Tenino Trail, and by the time we reached Tenino, my lower back was beginning to hurt. I was prepared for this, and once we stopped at Tenino — mile 86 — I took my first Gu shot of the day and downed some ibuprofen. Then it was back in the saddle and onto Centralia.

 

WHOA, WE’RE HALFWAY THERE

Mile 99 brought about a stop at the Hub City Bike Shop in Centralia, and we had several people greet us there! Dave, Patty, Riki, Jill, Susan, Becca, Travis, Amy and Gavin were all there and we had the chance to chat for a little bit. They even had a bunch of food prepared for us, including Black Forest ham sandwiches, frozen grapes, bananas — basic stuff we would need to keep us going.

It was a huge psychological boost to see some familiar faces, and an awesome gesture on their part to not only be there, but to serve as ride support halfway through. I was and still am so thankful for that.

Getting food there meant that we didn’t have to stop at Centralia College, so we continued — with ice water in our bottles, no less! — through the College, out of Centralia, onto Airport Road, into Chehalis, out of Chehalis and toward the Rush Road hill in Napavine.

Only one problem. The food hadn’t settled yet. We were a bit lethargic on this stretch, but kicking it up into gear up Rush Road seemed to kick us back into shape.

I looked down at the end of Rush Road and saw my Garmin reading. Mile 113, it said.

That was three miles longer than the longest ride I had ever done, then it hit me:

We were going to do this.

 

HILLS AND VALLEYS, HELL AND VALHALLA

We left Napavine at about 1:15 p.m. and followed Highway 603, then turned off Pleasant Valley and onto Tennessee Road where we hit some more serious hills. This is where the Lewis County hill training paid off.

I motored past groups and teams of cyclists up hills, only to see them catch me coming back down. Then I’d pass them again on the next hill, and they’d pass me again going down. Back and forth, back and forth this continued, just like ghosts of girlfriends (and maybe an attempted one or two) past unwelcomely reintroducing themselves.

Before long we were in Winlock, then we stopped and shot some more Gu gel, chased it with water, got back on the bike, pacelined into Vader, and stopped again.

I have to give a shout out to the Vader Lions Club. Two years ago I rode STP in two days solo, and had a massive headache on the second day. It didn’t get better until I drank some of the lemonade they had to offer, and since then I’ve referred to it as Michael’s Secret Stuff. That stuff is the TRUTH, and it was so good to fill a bottle with it this year.

I forget what mile Vader was, but after a brief rest there and visiting our friend John for the fourth time that day, it was time to get back on the bike and climb the annoying hills of West Side Highway.

Funny thing: every hill we climbed this year, including those rolling hills between Vader and Castle Rock, were not as hard as I remember them.

 

INTERLUDE: A SPIRITUAL MOMENT

For some reason, Bethel Music’s song “It is Well” replayed in my head during a rather silent stretch of the ride. We were somewhat pacelined going up and down these hills into Castle Rock, and I remember for some reason hearing these lyrics as if they were being sung by a choir right next to me:

Far be it from me to not believe
Even when my eyes can’t see
And this mountain that’s in front of me
Will be thrown into the midst of the sea

I don’t know why those words kept replaying, but I think it was simply the Lord interrupting the thought processes of my mind with a message that had to come straight from him. I don’t listen to worship music at all, and I’ve only heard this song a couple of times, so I knew God was definitely saying something.

Then I imagined my grandmother, who passed away in 2003 and had a penchant for singing hymns whenever the Lord would move upon her to do so, singing this portion:

Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
Through it all, through it all,
It is well.

The imagery of my grandmother — mein Oma — singing these lyrics was vivid, poignant and emotional. Oma used to ride her bike to work daily as the means of providing for her children, and I’ve used STP as a way of paying tribute to her for keeping the family together. She’s still with us and was letting me know that.

And as for the Lord saying something, it became obvious over the last miles of the day when physical pain crept in that I would have to rely on the Lord for strength to pull me through.

After this vivid imagery had run its course and seriously motivated me to continue stronger than I had pedaled before, it was time to stop in Castle Rock then Lexington for another meal and to stretch ourselves out before hitting Longview and the bridge into Rainier.

 

MY HOMETOWN AND BEYOND

Longview was rather boring, and the STP does the town no favors as it takes you through the butt end of it, down Industrial Way and avoiding the downtown core that I seriously love. It was about mile 145, 150 or something close — they all jumbled together at this point — that we hit the Lewis and Clark Bridge to cross the Columbia River.

WHOA NELLY, it’s different on the one day ride. There is no police escort or queue to go across the bridge, and it’s every rider for themselves. I am not a fan of heights or water, and being confined to the far right shoulder as traffic whizzed by on the left terrified me.

“Let’s get off this bridge, come on guys,” I said as riders ahead of us climbed up the span at 6 mph. “LET’S GO.”

I didn’t look out over the water at all, and I just stared at Kyle’s wheel ahead of me until we began to descend. There was no better feeling than hitting solid pavement on land, cruising down the hill and around the bend onto Highway 30 and seeing the Welcome to Rainier sign. WE WERE IN MY HOMETOWN at about 5 p.m. and we knew we were making really good time.

As for Highway 30 itself, every time I travel that road toward St. Helens I am reminded of my childhood and many trips down that highway. Biking that stretch slows those memories down to be played in real time, and I swear I saw my dad driving to work in his old Honda Prelude when we crested the hill and descended toward the old Trojan Nuclear Power Plant.

 

PAIN, PAIN, PAIN

My back started acting up badly in Goble after I began to make an ill-advised push past several cyclists and cruise along solo at a 21 mph clip. Kyle was up ahead — he descends hills much faster than I — and I tried to catch up with him, but he had to have been going 19 or 20 because it took me until the Goble Tavern to catch him.

We ended up linking back up close to Deer Island and although my back continued to hurt, I found a way to mitigate it. DRAFTING!!!

I began to draft him and other riders, making sure to pedal and release, stretching my left leg and getting rid of some of the pain in the process. But by the time we reached Deer Island and Columbia City, just four miles from the last food stop of the day in St. Helens, my back was screaming, my left quad slightly cramped up and I knew it was time to rest for a bit longer than we had before.

We stopped in St. Helens at about 6 p.m. and resolved we might not make it to the finish until about 8:30 — and that was okay by us.

I forgot to mention this before, but our food and water intake had seriously increased by this point. I began to tank whatever food I could get in the line, everything from animal crackers to grapes, sammiches, pretzels, it didn’t matter, I NEEDED FOOD. Holy crap, I was hangry in St. Helens.

We rested and stretched for 20 minutes or so. It was much needed. Then, time to hit the final stretch.

 

EXHAUSTED EXCITEMENT

Jumping back onto Highway 30, we rode at about 16-17 mph into Scappoose and beyond, and at this point I began to count down the miles into Portland. We were both tiring, but we were also running on pure adrenaline, which created a sort of exhausted excitement for the end. I couldn’t let my mind get too excited about the prospect of finishing, because every time I got this burst of energy thinking about it, I immediately fatigued quickly.

My back began to hurt again once we reached Sauvie Island, and I began to seriously question the climb up Germantown Road to the St. Johns Bridge. That’s a bit of a hill, and even though it’s quick, it’s steep and I’ve seen it force exhausted cyclists off their bikes. That wouldn’t be me, though, as I somehow found it in me to motor up that hill and pass more ghosts of girlfriends past.

The light to the bridge turned green. I looked back, but the ghosts were nowhere to be seen.

I pedaled harder and made sure I wouldn’t see them again. Kyle drafting right behind me made sure of it.

 

THE PROMISED LAND

Riding through Portland in the two-day STP sucks. Because you have to stay in the bike lanes through the final 6 miles, you’re only as fast as the most exhausted rider in front of you. But on this day, we all maintained 16 mph and were able to relax a bit as we bunched up into a few groups at each stoplight.

The closer we got to Portland, the more the miles ticked off. We cruised past the University of Portland and the quiet neighborhoods surrounding the campus, then the ride gained a more urban feel as we got closer to downtown.

Five to go. Now four. Grrrr, another stoplight. Another one. Okay, now three miles. Two! One…there’s the Rose Garden and STUFF’S GETTING REAL!!!

One last hill and you can see the Lloyd Center and Holladay Park, the FINISH LINE, just blocks ahead. And unlike every STP I’ve ridden, all the lights along Holladay stayed green and ushered Kyle and I both into the finish just after 8:30 p.m.

And guess what? Most of the same people who were at the bike shop earlier greeted us and congratulated us in Portland!

I had some serious brain fog after the ride, but after 12 hours and 38 minutes of moving time, a lot of pedaling, thinking, eating, wondering, fighting fatigue and fighting pain — we made it.

It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done physically to this point, and not much else even comes close.

 

THANKS A TRILLION

A lot of you have followed the journey beginning with my first sustained 20 mph indoor trainer rides and culminating with this 204-mile epic adventure. You all deserve massive credit for your support, and I appreciate those of you who encouraged me and sent messages, texts, phone calls and more in the weeks leading up to the ride letting me know you’d be praying for us.

There are way too many people to thank on an individual basis, but there were so many people who gave us support before, during and after the ride. You know who you are, and I’m incredibly thankful for each of you.

Also, big congratulations to Kyle Rasmussen (our pastor!), Caleb Geringer, Josh Gering and Ian Guiberson (three first-timers!) for doing the STP this year. Next year, let’s all get a team together, bring some more first-timers into the fold, wear custom jerseys and do this big.

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