Between a Rock and a Willow: 45 Hours on the Stagecoach 400 Cycling Route

A boulder stops me in my tracks. There is a dry creek bed below, a huge boulder ahead, but no trail to be seen. I put my bike down and try to think logically. First I inch my way around the boulder to see whether the trail will somehow materialize. It doesn’t. I then walk as far to the left of the boulder (west) as I can, hoping I will find a way around. Nothing. I backtrack a ways to see if I missed a crucial turn. I didn’t.

The rock is an impenetrable vertical bridge. I’m suddenly repeating ‘YOU. SHALL. NOT. PASS!’ over and over in my head. Am I Gandalf or the Balrog in this situation? Or Frodo? Or an orc? Hard to say.

And there in my periphery goes that damned black animal again, wildly running away into the sandy night just past my vision. It’s roughly the shape of a boar but it runs like a gorilla. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times at this point, though, so nothing to be concerned about. It’s harmless.

It’s mile 335 of the Stagecoach 400, I’ve gone over 36 hours without sleep, and I’ve been stuck at the transition to The Willows for over 30 minutes.

The Stagecoach 400

Of course, much of the Stagecoach 400 is easily navigable and an absolute joy to ride. If you haven’t heard of it before, the Stagecoach 400 is a bikepacking route and race in Southern California that showcases the three distinct biomes that make Southern California riding so unique: the mountains, the ocean, and the desert. It begins in the small mountain town of Idyllwild before dropping down over 5,000 feet to San Diego where riders will be treated to some fun urban greenways and singletrack. From there, riders climb up and out of San Diego back into the mountains, drop down into the Anza-Borrego Desert, and finish with another 5,000 foot gain back to Idyllwild.

The Calm Before the Storm

With the Tour Divide on my race calendar for 2022, I was eyeballing a few shorter ‘shakedown’ rides for Spring Break. As a counselor in the public school system, my time off is governed by the school schedule, and the Grand Depart didn’t quite fit into my days off. Instead I planned to do an Individual Time Trial of the course a few days before the Grand Depart and then stick around to see and support all of the Grand Depart riders as they began their journeys Friday morning. After seeing them off, Trish and I would head home.

With bikes, dog, and gear loaded in the camper van, Trish and I completed the 17 hour drive to Idyllwild Saturday night and then spent much of Sunday morning packing, planning, and playing with our dog Bryn.

My friend Seth joined us Sunday evening as well. He would be doing the Grand Depart for the Stagecoach but wanted to come out early and snap photos of my ITT attempt, so he got up with me early Monday morning at 4:45am to snap photos of my pre-ride preparation. With the bike dialed (or so I thought), bags packed, electronics charged, waters filled, and body ready, we headed to the start of the race near a coffee shop in Idyllwild and, at 7am sharp, I was off on a 400 mile ITT of the Stagecoach 400.

Personal Riding Goals

Before jumping into some of the details along the route, a note about my own personal goals on the Stagecoach: After looking over past winning times along the route, I noticed there was quite a large time variation but the general consensus was that if you could ride the course in under 48 hours you had a shot at winning the race. In fact, the last two years the winning times were a little over 48 hours. Of course, the outlier on the course was the Fastest Known Time (FKT) which felt all but untouchable at 39 hours and 27 minutes, but most winners fell right around 48, so my goal was to set a time that would push all of the Grand Depart riders to the limit – 48 hours or less.

A Smooth Start

The first 60 miles of the Stagecoach are perhaps my favorite of the entire ride. It consists largely of quiet jeep roads as the varying terrain undulates and swerves, keeping you on your toes. My goal all the way to San Diego at mile 160 was to stay off the gas as much as possible to conserve energy while still laying out considerable watts and this was quite doable all the way to my first quick water stop in Warner Springs around mile 60. I met a PCT hiker as I was getting my waters filled at a small market and when I told him what I was doing he was speechless. “People race mountain bikes for 400 miles?!” As I curtailed the conversation and exited, I realized that, yes, just because I’ve normalized these kinds of rides in my own head doesn’t mean that they’re normal. Message received.

After a bit of hectic highway riding, I once again was on some quiet pavement and then exciting jeep roads as I continued the 5,000 foot net loss towards Escondido. On one particularly rowdy descent, a dark green stick taking up most of the track turned out to be a very long snake that narrowly avoided becoming an involuntary nature casualty as I bunny hopped with all my might, cleared the snake, and then corralled the bike back to controllable speeds and carried on.

Mechanical Mishaps

After a very long gravel and jeep road descent, at around mile 85, the track suddenly turned left onto singletrack, which I of course initially missed and had to backtrack to find. It was on this first bit of singletrack that I decided to stop and properly diagnose a disconcerting rattling noise I had been hearing throughout my ride. It was coming from the headset and, upon further inspection, I realized that my headset screw was loose. Easy fix, right? WRONG. On the first clockwise turn of the screw, it was clear that something was stripped – either the star-nut in my headset or the screw itself. Unfortunately, the headset screw is slightly larger than all of the other screws on the bike (I’m basically talking about bottle cage screws). I tinkered away at this silly mechanical issue for another 10 minutes, trying to problem solve while suppressing the rising feeling of dread that I was officially bleeding time on course.

Nothing was working. I called a friend to help me problem solve and, in the end, his advice was to just keep riding. The rattling of the headset would continue, my fork bearings would be shot by the end of the ride, but the fork and bike frame itself would be just fine. The rattle would just be annoying and a little odd feeling on the front end. I looked at my watch. I had been idle for over 20 minutes and accomplished nothing mechanically. Time to carry on.

I pushed a little harder as I rode towards through some dirt greenways and singletrack, past Escondido, and to my second stop of the ride: Ranch Market and Deli. I resupplied on essentials, including some candybars, gummies, bananas (a staple in my ultra diet) and of course, burritos (THE staple in my ultra diet). I actually bought three burritos, which was a bit overkill, but they just sounded so good. I quickly threw down two of the three burrito bombs before packing up the bike.

And TMI be damned! To make sure readers know the whole story of #ultralife, it’s worth mentioning that from this resupply on, I had to address a concerning saddle-related wound that ate up about 10 additional minutes of time at each stop with a bathroom. These issues rarely happen to me but this particular issue had to be addressed as it was already causing discomfort and I was only 124 miles into a 375 mile course at this point. So before leaving, I headed for the bathroom for a bit of Spring Cleaning and, afterwards, hit the road for San Diego.

All of the Lights

The light started to fade as I got my first glimpses of San Diego beaches, and by the time I was in San Diego proper, darkness had arrived. Much of San Diego was a blur for me. I rode at more of a commuter pace than a race pace as I navigated parking lots, industrial areas, and parks. I was even treated to a few glimpses of street performers out in front of popular eateries, but everything whizzed by my vision as the wheels continued to turn. Soon I was out of the city light and on the outskirts of San Diego. Traffic sounds dimmed to a low hum in the background and as I rolled up to Sweetwater Reservoir at mile 175, the background noise transitioned completely from car traffic to crickets.

The Crash

The first thing I noticed about the singletrack along Sweetwater Reservoir was the extraordinary number of snails. They were EVERYWHERE on the trail. Dodging snails became priority number one over the next hour and it actually was a great exercise in alertness, keeping fatigue at bay for at least a small pocket of time.

The second thing I noticed was some random techy bits along this section. Most of it was tame singletrack but every once in a while I would perk up at a particularly vertical drop or pitchy climb. One particularly pitchy drop caught me hitting both brakes hard as I failed to anticipate the steepness of the grade ahead of time (I blame the snail dodging). I realized I was committed but my line was poor and of course, within a matter of milliseconds, one of my shoes came unclipped and I awkwardly careened to the edge of each side of the trail before a spectacular over the handlebars fall left me tangled in the web of a comically bushy bush that broke my fall.

The damage was pretty minor, all things considered. I bent both the hoods back in place on my handlebar, did a quick once over of body and bike and, since things seemed ok, hopped back on the bike and kept soldiering on.

Unfortunately, I was miles down the trail when I instinctively reached back for my helmet tail light and realized that, alas, it was missing. Fortunately, I still had my on-bike tail light (gear redundancies for the win!) and would continue to be safely visible to traffic.

I also noticed around this time that my stem cap was officially MIA. As I rattled down the trail, the rattle from my already loose headset seemed even more pronounced and upon inspection I realized the culprit was my stem cap, stem screw, and one of the two spacers rattling between my feedbag and stem. SCORE! One less thing to replace after this whole experience was over.

The Sleep Monster Awakes

The night carried on and eventually I got off singletrack and made it to my 3rd stop of the ITT: a Shell station in Alpine around mile 204. It was around 3am at this point and I was starting to feel a bit of the fatigue settle into my system. In these kinds of events, I find that the longer I stop, the more fatigue and even nausea can creep up on me. I tried to restock quickly on food and water and then headed for the bathroom for my Spring cleaning routine. It was here that fatigue transitioned to nausea for the first time. I sat down on the toilet and had a nice cold sweat for a few minutes, trying to decide whether I needed to throw up or pass out. Fortunately, neither were needed. The moment had passed, I gave myself a quick mental pep talk, and carried on into the dark night.

From Alpine, the route climbs for thousands of feet up a long and steady gravel road, and it was here where the sleep monster finally awoke. While my body had experienced waves of fatigue throughout the route up to this point, the sleep monster had not taken control of my consciousness until this long… steady… predictable… climb.

As I was pedaling, I was trying everything to stay awake. I did times tables in my head. I counted by threes for tens of minutes. I sang to myself. I brushed my teeth. I brushed my teeth again. But the slow and plodding pace of the climb was making my eyelids heavier and heavier.

One rather random and fortunate perk of sleepiness, however, is that the mind goes to weird places and sees things that blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction. For instance, even though it was pitch black throughout this climb I kept thinking I saw vehicle lights up ahead on the road. I would think, “Oh, maybe that’s Seth up there waiting to get a cool night shot of me as I pass by,” or “maybe that’s another biker out for an early morning ride. I can’t wait to say hi!” or “I wonder if that light is an agate collector. I bet there are really cool agates in these hills.”

I also caught a few glimpses of a weird black animal running full speed in my periphery two or three times, but I couldn’t place it in any animal category. Each time, I reminded myself that my mind was doing STRANGE things and chalked it all up to sleep deprivation rather than a new animal breed stalking my ITT effort.

And it was these wakeful REM-reveries that helped me make it to first light.

Hope with the Dawn and Other Disappointments

Darkness was starting to make noticeable transitions, and as the gravel road turned to chunky jeep roads interspersed with singletrack, it was officially morning time. I was watching the clock closely because I wanted to know what mile I would be at when I hit the 24 hour mark. When 7am struck, I had gone over 225 miles, which meant I had around 150 to go.

That felt good. Damn good.

Surely I could cover 150 miles over the next 24 hours – 70 miles fewer than I’d covered in the previous 24, right? My sub-48 hour hopes were looking more and more feasible by the hour.

However, as I finished up what was left of the climb, I noticed that it felt like I was dragging my bike through mud. It had actually felt this way on climbs for a while now, like I was having to really mash the pedals in order to keep a relatively high cadence, which helps me avoid knee pain in ultra events.

A quick inspection of my cassette revealed that the culprit was my drivetrain – particularly my cassette no longer shifting into my granny gear. Having already had loads of issues with my barrel adjuster, I felt like attempting to adjust anything with the derailleur would make a bad situation worse, especially since derailleur adjustments are a real achilles’ heel of mine in the bike repair realm.

Before the race, I made the rather dubious decision to go with a 38-tooth chainring up front and a 10-52 Eagle cassette in the back, which was already a pretty challenging granny gear. But for the last 150 miles, not to mention who knows how many miles already, I would no longer have a 52-tooth low gear. Bummer.

But the light of morning brought with it a sense of unwavering optimism that shed any last remnants of sleepiness and fatigue and disallowed further rumination on the loss of my dear granny. Gear.

Desert Life

Morning brought with it some rough singletrack, some VERY rough/steep/chunky/borderline unrideable jeep track, and my first taste of sand before popping out onto pavement. It was mile ~250 and I knew that soon I would be riding the first of two desert portions en route.

I hadn’t been eating or drinking much over the last few hours because of how technical the terrain had been, so I used the next 15 paved miles to eat, drink, and refill on water at a small RV Park market. Here I filled to max capacity – over 4 liters – and then topped things off again just before the desert at a faucet in Agua Caliente, just before the desert.

And then – the desert.

The Anza-Borrego desert is a 25 mile section of the route that features beautiful canyons, open desert vistas, and a lot of really soft sand. I was able to ride 99.9% of the time throughout this segment, but the few times I did end up putting a foot down it was no easy task to get the wheels moving again. It felt like I was commandeering a Mark Twain era Paddle Steamer, forcing the paddle wheels to spin in water for a few seconds before any forward progress was actually made.

And the washboard in the latter portion of the desert was downright jarring. My hands had developed some solid bruising in the palms from the constant hits of the previous 30 hours, but the washboard just stacked pain on pain. Add in the constant sun and zero wind and you have yourself the oft-used and seldom-earned ‘sufferfest’ designation.

For riders coming into this section fresh or in the morning or evening time (before the heat really settles in) it could be a rather enjoyable section of the route, but hitting it in the afternoon is a bit of a worst case scenario.

After a few hours and 25 miles the sand was behind me and I once again had a 25-ish mile segment of pavement to refuel, rehydrate, and mentally recover as I pushed towards my final pit stop of the race: Borrego Springs.

An Unintentionally Leisurely Pit Stop

It took me a couple swings around Christmas Tree Circle – the one traffic feature in all of Borrego Springs – before I spotted the coveted Los Jilberto’s Taco Shop. As I waited for my two burritos to be prepared, a wave of nausea once again hit me. The cold sweats redoubled their efforts to cause discomfort and I was working hard to avoid passing out. Although other customers were already waiting in line, my tunnel vision brought me right up to the cashier where I asked for a cup of ice water, if possible.

Perhaps it was stellar service, perhaps it was my generally disheveled and sickly countenance, but the lady at the register immediately grabbed the water for me and I stumbled to the outdoor seating and put my head down on the table. 10 seconds? A minute? No idea. I was likely on the verge of heat exhaustion, but the tunnel vision began to dissipate and my body’s alarm bells faded and then turned off as my core temperature lowered and life fell back into balance.

A warm burrito wasn’t exactly what the doctor ordered, but I went ahead and knocked it out before heading over to the market to snag some final food items and fill my 4+ liters of water one last time. I also hit the bathroom for the usual before heading off into the sunset. It was a little past 6pm and I was at mile 318. Less than 60 miles to go.

A Comedy of Visual and Navigational Errors

After exiting the pavement, I found myself back in the sand. Race organizer Meg had warned me the sand would eventually become a real ‘choose your own adventure’ style of riding in this section but for the first 10 miles, things were smooth sailing. I actually began to wonder whether Meg was getting her deserts mixed up. This slightly uphill sand section was totally rideable. I was going to be done with this desert section in no time!

Night made itself official and my headlights created a narrow pathway of vision for me to follow. Just me, the trail, and WHAT THE??!!! There goes that weird animal sprinting in the night again! My imagination conjured up a black boar-like animal with gorilla arms that clumsily lumbered through the darkness just ahead of me. But at this point, I knew things weren’t as they appeared.

Soon after the gorilla-boar I spotted an old rusty looking item in the sand ahead of me. Cool! An old army MRE rations pack! I wonder how it got all the way out here in the desert? Maybe this area is an old historic battleground? It is a beach, so that would make total sense. As I get closer the shape solidifies.

It’s a red rock.

The visual contradictions continued until suddenly and abruptly the trail ended. A huge boulder was standing between myself and what should be the path.

And just like that we’re back to the beginning.

30 minutes goes by as I look at the rock in disbelief, look around the rock, look to the left of the rock, backpedal to see if I missed a turn. Nothing. There is a dry creek bed 10 feet below but it just leads to impenetrable bamboo-like reeds. Wait. Are those willows?

Race organizer Meg had told me that there was a section of the route called The Willows that was a bit hard to navigate but that, when in doubt, I should just follow the water. But it looked to me like there was no water.

At this point I was desperate, though, so I once again dropped the bike, scrambled down into the creekbed and, sure enough, once I pushed my way through some of these infamous willows, I could see what looked like possibly a route. It wasn’t much, but according to my GPS it was at least headed in the right direction so I scrambled back to my bike and got to work pushing and breaking my way through to the start of the infamous Willows.

The Willows and a Final Push

Willow branches bent and broke as I trudged through a shallow creek that steadily climbed for the 1+ mile hike. It wasn’t quite as simple as ‘just following the creek’ as the creek would often get completely covered in willows and I had to improvise my way back through detours of my own design, all the while talking loudly to the small rustlings around me that I was a human and very strong and that I’d found a knife in a bathroom that I would use if needed. Empty threats of course – I’m a total wuss. But my voice was the only thing keeping the gorilla-boar at bay.

Eventually the creek led to a few small and possibly rideable sidepaths that led to some more dried creekbeds that led to the final chapter of the desert.

The final chapter started as creekbeds that truly were a ‘choose your own adventure’ maze of options – Meg’s description wound up being spot on. The bummer about this section was that, once again, it required a bit of technical skill to maneuver through these beds and after walking through the willows, my riding shoes were completely gunked up with sand and silt that I just couldn’t separate from the shoe. The result was an almost impossible to unclip shoe that caused multiple slow crashes as I’d hit a rock, try to unclip, and slowly topple over.

After falls, curses, more getting lost, and a few more gorilla-boar sightings, the creekbeds ended and the climbing picked it up a notch. It was about 50% rideable, 50% walkable because of how soft the sand was coupled with the steepness of the grade, but I took solace in seeing one lone set of footprints along the route. Someone else had trekked through this section of the route not too long ago and had also succumbed to the ride/walk shuffle. While neither the past rider or I chose similar lines or similar ride/walk patterns, their footsteps in the sand kept me company.

Eventually, though, the route got steep enough that the sand actually hardened up to something resembling a more rocky terrain and finally, I was able to ride again. Sure, my heart rate was through the roof, I had no granny gear, I was exhausted, and my mind was telling me that I was bearing witness to new animal species, but dammit! I was so close!

And in the early hours of the morning my watch dinged that my climb was complete, I turned left onto pavement, and started to descend.

Sleep is a Cruel Mistress

Of course, the last few hours had been full of exciting misadventures and as the adrenaline of the sand faded, my body reminded me that I had been awake for well over 40 hours now and consciousness became a harder task than pedaling the bike. I continued to climb at a relatively slow pace up pavement and did everything I knew to stay awake. A bit of dirt and cruel hike-a-bike singletrack broke up the monotony, but the final 15 miles were all pavement and all uphill. In other words, pure agony for a body that only wanted to pass out in a bed.

It was clear to me that I wasn’t going to make it this last hour without something to distract me, so I stopped, put on my riding tights (mostly for something to do), and listened to my audiobook for the first time the entire trip. I can’t for the life of me remember what the book was about but it got me up to that last 900 foot climb. Once there, I knew I was on the home stretch. I turned on my race playlist (also for the first time) and the first song was Muse. PERFECT.

A Warm Reception

An ITT is a solitary endeavor with very few extrinsic rewards. But the intrinsic value is immeasurable. As I rounded the final corner and could see some of the Idyllwild shop lights, my body pulsed with gratitude and relief. I was nearing the finish. My friend Seth, my partner Trish, and my dog Bryn all were waiting for me and cheering me in. It was the best feeling.

I started to verbally piece together bits of my experience in disjointed snapshots to both of them but realized that I honestly just needed to get to bed. The narrative of this experience was already playing tricks on my mind but one thing I knew with certainty. It was 4:40am. That means I completed the Stagecoach 400 in 45 hours, 40 minutes, a sub-48 hour time. SCORE!

Despite being my official photographer, Seth allowed for a quick exit to our hotel for the night. Disaster almost struck when I briefly nodded off in the shower and almost fell, but that was the last adventure of the Stagecoach 400. I went to bed and was asleep almost instantly.

The Resident Expert

When I woke up it was Wednesday afternoon, two days before the Grand Depart. The next few days I had the opportunity to not only recover from my effort but also connect with a number of the Grand Depart riders to provide ride reports. I sent my friend Abdul my GPX version of the route with all my personal cues, and we scoured the map together so I could show him resupply spots and specific areas to look out for, particularly the Willows section. Same with our friend Jaimie when she arrived on Thursday. I even had the chance to talk through the Willows and other sketchy sections with soon to be course record-holder Xavier.

But beyond providing intel, it was a joy to have just completed the route and to get to watch the cycle begin anew with so many excited, scared, nervous, experienced Grand Departers. And the Grand Depart ended up being a race to remember, with a new course record for both males and females.

The Body’s Defense System

There are major learning moments in all of the rides that I do, from training, to social rides, to multi-day trips with friends. But races or ITTs are where I learn the most on a bike. This particular race tested my body’s defense systems, namely fatigue, nausea, and sleepiness in new and profound ways. I found these sensations flashing their red warning signs at me throughout the ride, sometimes at very unexpected moments (nausea in gas station bathrooms, for instance), sometimes as if right on cue (sleepiness on a long, predictable climb).

But the most amazing and almost miraculous thing about these warning systems is that they eventually faded and even turned off. It was as if my mind had control of a switch and when I made the decision to flip that switch, the warning systems eventually turned off.

As my favorite character in John Milton’s Paradise Lost says, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” While my body tried to shut things down, my mind would perform a little factory reset and start things back up anew. And I carried on.

Thanks to Meg for organizing the Grand Depart, to Brendan for creating it, and to all the Grand Departers who keep the legend alive. Just keep an eye out for the elusive boar-gorilla. I can’t be the only one who’s seen it out there.

Note: Ben’s ITT was attempted as preparation for the Tour Divide later this summer and not ridden with the intention to set official records en route. Although he saw and even talked to Seth a few times, there was no aid or resources provided by Seth. Also, it doesn’t really matter because the ride was done informally and for the joy of the challenge.