Somewhere during the final afternoon of the 2013 Endless Mountains 1240, a partial verse from a song by the Wild Tchoupitoulas (Meet de Boys on the Battlefront) got stuck in my head.
“I walked through fire and I swam through mud,
Snagged a feather from an eagle, drank panther blood.”
Although the EM1240 did not involve these specific challenges, it did offer about all of the challenge I could handle. For 88 hours and 44 minutes, I rode my bicycle, along with 26 other cyclists, through a circuit of Pennslyvania’s various mountain ranges. We had pedaled over steep hills, gradual hills, long hills, winding hills, short hills and every other imaginable variety of hill. In addition, we had dealt with intense humidity, fog, torrential rain, hot sun and chilly descents.
The ride started at 4:00 in Quakertown, Pennsylvania on August 8, 2013. While I have gotten to the point that I am usually pretty confident at the start of brevets, the intimidating reputation of Endless Mountains was in my head. Ride Director, Tom Rosenbauer, gave a short, understated speech and set us off with a simple “OK, you can go”. Actually, I swear he said it twice because no one moved the first time. Maybe Endless Mountains’ reputation was in everyone else’s mind too.
(photo: courtesy of Mike Wali)
The opening miles of the ride were more mellow than the other 1200K’s I have done. Usually, the opening 40 or 50 miles are really fast as people are trying to get off to a quick start. At Endless Mountains, however, most people seemed pretty content to roll along at a decent, but not hurried, pace. By and large that attitude held as we rolled in darkness through a number of communities near Quakertown, including Coopersburg and Bethlehem . Almost all of the field held together until the first control in Danielsville, Pennsylvania at mile 35. The control was at a small gas station. A ride volunteer was there to sign everyone’s card and note their arrival on the sign in sheet. It was somewhat reminiscent of a group of baseball fans crowding around a star player trying to get an autograph. The small gas station only had one bathroom. By the time the three or four of us who needed to use the bathroom were done, the group was gone.
I left the control with Mike Fox and Mark Olsen. Almost immediately we started climbing Blue Mountain, the first real climb and first of four crossings of the Appalachian Trail. The climb rose into the cloud level greatly reducing visibility and leaving me soaking wet. By the time I reached the top I was feeling pretty good about my climbing form. As it turned out, I did climb well throughout the 4 days, but Blue Mountain was probably the easiest of the major climbs. Descending Blue Mountain was interesting and fast. Without trying, I reached a speed of 48 miles per hour. And I was riding with my hands on the brake hoods, not the drops like you would to achieve an aerodynamic position.
The next climb named Fox Gap is apparently well know to randonneurs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and was markedly harder than the climb over Blue Mountain. The Fox Gap climb was approximately 2 ½ miles long and tended to get steeper near the top. At one point I tried to stand up, but the wet ground was steep enough that my rear wheel slipped. I remember thinking that I had never experienced that on a road bike before. A volunteer met us in the fog at the top of Fox Gap with a secret control and some water. Mark and I paused for a photo while waiting for the rest of the group to catch up.
I promise I’m not 3 feet tall. It just looks that way for some reason.
The ride briefly crossed into New Jersey by way of a pedestrian bridge over the Delaware. Apparently we didn’t stay in New Jersey for long because the next control was in Port Jervis, New York. At least I think we were in New York. For most of the first day and a half of the EM1240 I wasn’t exactly sure what state we were in. The control in Port Jervis was at a diner that was crawling with customers. Our group decided to order just enough so the staff would sign our cards. We then dodged across the street to a convenience store to load up for the upcoming miles.
Leaving Port Jervis, we rode up the Delaware River along the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway. The scenery here was very pretty with nice vistas of the River and surrounding bluffs. The presence of the bluffs meant more climbing and there was no shortage of climbs on the section to Glen Spey, New York. At Glen Spey, we controlled at an ice cream shop. I loaded up on an unconventional meal of ice cream, potato chips, and Gatorade. That’s the kind of a meal that can only sound good to a randonneur! Leaving Glen Spey gave us one of the only extended flat stretches of Day 1. However, the Olsen brothers decided this was a good time to ratchet up the pace. Our group of 5-6 motored along the Delaware and Lackawaxen Rivers at speeds near 20 miles per hour. I enjoyed the scenery on this stretch which included a Roebling one lane bridge. Apparently, this bridge was once a bridge for a canal over the river. Also in the same area was the Zane Grey Museum. No one was interested in my plan to stop and pick up a novel for the overnight stop.
Our group split up at the final control of the day in Carbondale, New York. After Mike and I had finished eating, other members of the group wanted to hang around for a while and eat some more. We decided to press ahead over the final 35 miles and get to the overnight control. The final 35 miles turned out to be the hardest of the day. Although there didn’t seem to be as many big climbs, the whole section was constantly up and down. The uphills were a slow grind and the downhills were plagued with bad pavement and potholes which resulted in slow speeds. Overall, this resulted in a feeling that time was flying away from us. We arrived in Hallstead, Pennsylvania at 11:45 after putting in 224 miles.
Other than a short shower on leaving Carbondale, it never rained on Day one. At least, I don’t think its rain if you climb up to the cloud and pull the water out manually.
Mike and I decided to leave at 4:00 am on Day 2. As we crossed back over the Susquehanna River (and back into New York), the weather was warm and humid. The rain we had been expecting still hadn’t appeared but we wouldn’t have to wait long. As we were riding through Endicott, New York, we got caught in a torrential downpour. Because it was warm and we had been wet for most of the last 24 hours, we didn’t bother to put on our raincoats. This morning rain would create a problem that almost ended my ride but I wouldn’t realize it for several hours. The morning’s ride was over gently rolling terrain which let us move along efficiently and start banking some time. The free ride ended as we approached Towanda, Pennsylvania. The road was becoming gradually hillier. Also, there was a section of roadway that had was closed because of a washout. The organizer decided to stick with the route, so we had to do a brief Rando steeplechase maneuver to haul our bikes over 2 rock and dirt barriers onto an empty roadway.
Mike turned out to be much more graceful in this move than I was. I almost fell on both ends of the closed road.
The next two sections were two of the most frustrating miles of the EM1240. We were under the impression that these sections were relatively easy. However, they turned out to be made up of miles and miles of oversized rollers. Two roads in particular stand out, Southside Road and Route 414. Southside Road had the look of gently rolling road. However, as I rode it, the darn thing never seemed to actually go down. It seemed like we would climb 150 feet, descend 50 feet and start over. By the time we got off this road in Canton, I was getting pretty worn out.
At the Canton control, one of the other riders in the EM1240, who happened to be from Pennsyvania or New Jersey said that we would really enjoy the nest section and that there was minimal climbing. Instead we got around 11 miles of Route 414. Route 414 was very difficult for me. I would grind my way up one half mile climb at 4 or 5 miles per hour, descend the other side at 40 miles per hour and start over. Additionally, the road was winding, with little shoulder and with a steady stream of oversized pickup trucks and flatbed semis cruising by, seemingly inches from my left arm. The trucks all seemed to be involved in the oil and gas industry although none of them slowed down long enough to fill me in.
Just as we finished Route 414, it started to rain. As luck would have it, we were just on the edge of Liberty, Pennsylvania, where we had previously decided to take a 5 minute break to stock up on water and snacks. By the time we came out of the little grocery store, Liberty was experiencing a full on deluge. We ended up waiting for about a half hour. We finally gave up and rode off into the rain, about 10 minutes before it stopped. The final stretch of this leg was through the beautiful Pine Creek State Park to a well deserved meal in Waterville.
I had one of my worst stetches of EM1240 between Waterville and Lamar. I don’t remember a lot about this stretch other than that I bonked fairly badly about half way through. I was out of energy and having a hard time maintaining any kind of pace at all. I am sure that I was struggling to go 10 miles per hour at times. Mike graciously refused my offers to go on ahead to the control. Additionally, my whole body was starting to hurt. Especially painful were my feet. Each hard stroke felt like I was stepping on broken glass. Somehow, I managed to pull myself over the last climb and coast into the Flying J at Lamar. My strategy was to eat everything I could get my hands on. I ended up with a meal of a cheeseburger, a bowl of loaded potato soup, a bag of potato chips, a candy bar and a bottle of coke. It must have helped because I thought the next section was one of the most interesting and fun legs of the entire ride.
Everyone had been warning us that the climb out of Lamar was a monster and really hard. Although they were right it was awesome. We left Lamar in the dark and started climbing almost right away. Although it was pitch black, I got the sense that I was climbing up a really beautiful gap. I could hear a rushing stream to one side and the woods were filled with the sounds of some other wildlife, I think it was some kind of tree frog or cicada. The first 3 or 4 miles portion of the climb was generally gradual and winding. We then rode out onto a plateau with a small settlement. The stargazing in this area was amazing. The stars were bright and the Milky Way filled a large section of the sky. After riding on the plateau for several miles, and passing a stream of amish buggies with rando-style taillights, we made a couple of corners and started the second portion of the climb. This section was much steeper and difficult. But the stars were still out and it was a beautiful night. We then rode another 25 miles, including a long, gradual descent into the second overnight at Lewisburg. 442 miles down.
As we got to Lewisburg, it dawned on me that my feet were hurting because they had been in wet socks all day. When I pulled my socks off, it looked like the entire bottoms of my feet were covered by a giant blister. Unsure of what to do, I slathered each foot with Lantiseptic, put on fresh socks and went to bed. When I woke up, my feet were a million times better. They had this weird shine to them, but they didn’t hurt and I could put weight on them again. I thought up a new slogan for Lantiseptic. “Lantiseptic---its not just for backsides anymore!”
Day 3 got off to a slow start. Mike and I decided to skip the hotel’s free breakfast and go to the McDonalds about a quarter mile away. We got there right as it opened at 6:00am. As we rolled out of town, Mike got our only flat of the ride. All told it took us about an hour to cover the first mile of day 3. Neither Mike nor I had a lot of energy, so we made pretty slow progress on the morning of Day 3. Early on the route featured a series of tough but not huge climbs. We made steady but slow progress over the hills. We finished the early portion of the day with numerous crossings of the Juniata River in and around Mount Union, Pennsylvania. By now the temperature had risen and several riders were showing signs of struggling with the heat. At the Sheetz in Mount Union several randonneurs were hanging out trying to load up on food and fluids. As there was no seating, most of us were sitting on the floor near the ATM to take advantage of the air conditioning. I didn’t realize it at the time, but one of the highlights of the EM1240 was only a few miles away.
Shortly after leaving the control, we climbed a long climb only to immediately turn a corner and descend back to the river we had just crossed. We then immediately turned and started climbing Sugar Grove Road. Someone had painted the words “Oh My!” on the roadway immediately after the corner. The road was beautiful as we climbed up a valley along a rushing creek. The first couple of miles were relatively gradual and lots of fun. We then turned a sharp right hand corner and the road seemed to be hanging vertically from the sky. I was instantly forced into my lowest gear, a 39 x 33. I was standing, going as hard as I could and moving at speeds between 3.5 and 4.5 mph. I wasn’t alert enough to clock the distance on this climb but I’m pretty sure it was about 2 miles. After the steep section, we had a couple more miles of uphill trending road before getting to a secret control. As we rolled in, I was absolutely pumped. That was one of the most amazing and hard climbs I have ever done. I was thinking that the ride organizer should have a volunteer at the top of the climb handing out medals to anyone who climbed the hill without stopping. The first hill was after the secret control was a different story. I tried to pedal up a tiny, gradual hill that could not have been more than a quarter mile long. Unfortunately, there was NOTHING in the legs. I almost ground to a stop. Fortunately, my legs did recover some over the next few miles.
My second major bonk of the ride came a short time later on Route 26 into State College. I was tired enough that I found the traffic to be absolutely annoying. We were on a steadily rolling road with about an 18 inch shoulder and lots of traffic. The more tired I got the worse it seemed. By the time we got to the last big climb of the day to an overlook above State College, I was in a downright foul mood. I was slogging along at 4 or 5 mph and struggling to keep the bike stable enough to stay on the shoulder as a steady stream of cars sped by. My mood got even worse when the group I was in somehow cruised past the control and coasted another 2 miles before realizing their mistake. I should have caught the mistake myself but I was in pretty bad shape. A valuable lesson learned-no matter how tired you are or what size group you are in, every randonneur has to pay attention to the cue sheet. Like in Lamar, I employed the rando cure for a bonk, buy every kind of food you can get your hands on and eat as much as possible. I think the meal was beef jerky, potato chips, coke, and a candy bar. I would have added a sandwich of some sort, but the store didn’t have that option.
The rest of the days ride back to Lewisburg was pretty uneventful. A few miles of rolling hills, a late night informational control and a long gradual run back into town. We decided on 4 hours of sleep.
The start of Day 4 saw Mike and I back at the McDonald’s for a déjà vu breakfast. Our timing was perfect because the Olsen group rolled by just as we were pulling out. For most of the next 25 miles, we rode in a group of 9 riders. Much of this section was flat along the Susquehanna River so being in a group let us make really good time. By the time we did the long, gradual climb along an abandoned coal mine the group was reduced to Mark, Mike, Bill and I. Mark and Bill decided to stop for an early lunch. Before leaving them, I asked Mark about the upcoming climb I could see on the cue sheet. Bill’s response was that it wasn’t a big deal. “You probably won’t even notice it.” I would remind Bill of those words later.
As we rode through Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, there were lots of detour and construction signs. I became a little concerned about whether we were on the right course so I stopped and asked a pedestrian if this was the right way to Highway 645. She confirmed we were on the right road but added “but I don’t think you want to ride your bike there.” Within a couple of miles, the road went from gradually climbing to straight up. Another rider later told me that the climb was 1.75 miles long with grades between 14% and 18%. I had everything I could do to keep from tipping over. At the time, I wasn’t very happy about having a climb this hard show up at mile 700 of a 770 mile event. I certainly noticed the climb!
The remainder of Day 4 was filled with more climbing but no huge mountains. As promised by past riders, the climbing continued right into Quakerstown. There were two mile long climbs in the last 15 or 20 miles of the event but they were generally pretty manageable after all we had been through. The ride ended with an 8 mile section on a busy highway to the hotel. The first half of that stretch was pretty dicey with lots of traffic and a non-usable shoulder. The second half kept the traffic but added a nice, paved 10 foot wide shoulder.
I arrived back at the hotel with Mike at 8:44pm on Sunday for a total time of 88 hours and 44 minutes for the 1240 kilometers.
I am writing this report about a week after the event so my thoughts on the Endless Mountains have mellowed dramatically. However, even a week later, the word “relentless” keeps coming to mind when I think of this ride. There are very few sections of this ride which don’t feature lots of climbing. The scenery on the route is first rate. For most of four days, I enjoyed the sights of deep, wooded valleys, mist covered mountains, beautiful rivers and streams, and rolling green farmlands. Although this ride was brutally hard, it was also very rewarding. I think I felt better about finishing Endless Mountains than about any other ride I have ever done.