by Cristin Sohm (Pinkie)
I didn’t tell anyone about my hopes of completing the Grand Tour Triple Century. No one. It was a very private goal that held incredible meaning for me. Whenever anyone talked about the triple that I did 3 years ago in my first year of cycling, I always said that it was a lifetime ago and it literally was. After my father died from Cancer, it felt like there was a big seam down the middle of my life of “before dad died” and “after dad died”. For me, I knew what it was going to take to change that. At the Grand Tour, riding 300 miles, I could feel that seam fading away. I cried several times on the ride just knowing what this event meant for me.
I chose a few very close family and friends and added them to my text message group. At every rest stop, I texted what mileage I was at and how I was feeling. Everyone replied asking me where I was and what I was doing. I didn’t answer. I just kept those messages going for 23+ hours. It felt amazing. I felt like I was changing something big within me and keeping it very personal. When my closest friends received the text message at the 210-mile rest stop, most realized what I was going for. The messages I received after that were amazingly supportive and fun and made it easy to keep the pedals going around.
Jon Kaplan invited me to join him for the Grand Tour several months ago. I didn’t commit to it then, but I’ve worked really hard in training for the event so that if I participated, I wouldn’t let him down. In 2007 Jon courageously signed up for the Grand Tour Triple and invited a few of us to join him. He encouraged us and made us feel like we could actually pass this huge test of character, strength and endurance. We had an awesome team of 4 that year: Jon Kaplan, Art Cruz, Patty Dougherty and myself. We finished the triple and we felt fantastic. It was an amazing year. Patty & Art went on to do Paris Brest Paris after that. Just 3 months later my dad was diagnosed with Cancer and I took time off from cycling and karate to care for my dad. By the time the Grand Tour rolled around again in 2008, I had just lost my father to Cancer and my world had broken apart. In 2009 Jon went out to do the triple again. Unfortunately I was at home in a bright pink cast after a bad break and hand surgery. Patrice Carney, Art Cruz & Jeff Urnes joined Jon for the adventure last year. It turned out that the wind and weather conditions were not favorable and since they were behind on the timeline, they decided to make it a double century instead of the triple. Along comes 2010 and Jon decides he wants to go for the triple again. He said he wanted to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.
I woke up at 2:30am to prepare for the ride after a difficult evening of trying to sleep with nervousness of the adventure ahead. We started the ride at 4:15am. They give you this sticker that you put on your helmet and they scan it and you HAVE to get back before that same time the next day or you DNF (did not finish). So we had 24 hours to complete 300 miles. It doesn’t sound all that bad right? Well then you factor in wind, heat, rest stops, lunch break, potty stops, filling water bottles, mechanical issues, slowing from incredibly sore bum, oh and don’t forget the 12,654 feet of climbing hills. It makes for quite an adventure and strictly watching the timeline.
We secured all our lights, front light, headlight, blinky light in the back of the bike, red blinky on the back of helmet, and every reflective sticker we could find. It’s pretty dark at 4:15 in the morning. We rode out along the coast of Malibu. Unfortunately we couldn’t see the ocean in the dark, but we could hear it and smell it. It was very invigorating. We pulled over at 4:22am for Jon to take his arm warmers off and I decided to take off my vest. I lugged that vest around the rest of the long day, but I was thankful to have it in the evening. At 6:31am we arrived at our 1st checkpoint of the day at mile 34. We had an average speed of 16.7 and it was already humid.
Our first big climb of the day was Potrero at mile 44. There are different route opportunities at the Grand Tour. Some chose the Lowland route which keeps them out of the hills and instead puts them in the urban area with all the traffic lights. We chose the Highland route because it’s much more scenic and we prefer hills rather than dealing with stop lights and car congestion all day. Out of 442 registered participants at the Grand Tour this year, only 17 of us were registered for the Highland Triple. Potrero hill was exactly as they described it. It was incredibly steep and very difficult, but short. I used every gear I had, unlike the big boys using fixed gear bikes that are simply insane. My Garmin said 12-14% grade at the bottom and steadily climbed. It stuck at 17% for most of the last mile. Everyone else said they were registering 19%, but I must have blacked out at that point 😉 Thankfully it was a short climb and knowing that we had already conquered the steepest hill of the day felt really good. We arrived at the 2nd checkpoint at 7:43am with 52 miles and 2 hills done and an average speed of 15.2. Several people took pictures of my pretty pink bike at the rest stop and cheered us on.
We hit a few more hills and came around the side of a mountain into a massive gush of wind that stuck with us for a bit. I couldn’t believe how strong it was. While descending we were only going about 12-16 mph because of that wind pushing us back. Thankfully I got into a little tuck on my aerobars and soon the wind decided to go pick on some other people and thankfully, we still had energy to spare. As Jon and I started another climb, I told him that Mylie Cyrus was singing on my iPod “it’s not about how fast I get there, it’s not about what’s waiting on the other side, it’s The Climb”. It really is all about the adventure right? When we crested the summit of the hill, my iPod starting playing “We Are The Champions”. Perfect timing. I really felt like God was watching over us and answering my prayers for strength. At 10:02am we hit mile 78 at the 3rd checkpoint with an average speed of 15.2. We had finished climbing 6 of the hills and after the wind, I started to be concerned with our timeline to get to the finish without a DNF.
At 11:35am we hit mile 97 and were about to climb our 9th hill of the day on Ojai. It was 8 miles long, but a moderate climb. I really enjoyed this one. I had been doing good with drinking my Sustained Energy bottles (basically protein powder) since my stomach usually gives me trouble eating on long rides. Before the long climb, we stopped at a store so I could refill my water. As I pulled up, a group offered me their water. Jon chatted with a cyclist for a bit and I ate a power bar faster than I’ve ever eaten anything before. I don’t generally like to eat before a climb because then your muscles are working on digestion instead of climbing, but I was really hungry after dealing with the wind. We then started off for the long climb.
I think there was magic in that water they gave me because I felt incredible. I passed every cyclist I came upon and flew up the hill. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like that before. When I got to the top, I stopped for a moment to ask some people at the Summit Restaurant if they knew if this was the top of the climb. They didn’t know, so I continued on. By then many of the guys that I had passed on the climb, had caught up. I was scared of missing a turn and getting lost, so I tried to follow two guys that were far ahead of me. The guys behind me grabbed onto my wheel and I pulled at 23mph trying to catch up to the two guys that seemed to know where they were going. Unfortunately I never did catch up to them and the guys on the back kept dropping off. Two of the guys held on and when I caught them up to their group, they dropped off to be with their group and I continued to try to chase the lead. It was 10 miles at that speed with me trying to keep them in sight to get to the lunch stop. Fear of getting lost is a big one for me, so I gave it everything I had. When I got to the lunch stop around 12:55pm, at mile 115, the two guys out front said something about me flying, but I was on empty at that point. I have hypoglycemia and the 23mph pushing it as hard as I did, left my blood glucose levels far too low. My whole body started shaking. I know the next step is passing out, so I quickly got a 7-up soda and the sugar did the trick. Jon arrived and he ate lunch and chatted with some cyclists. I ate a few bites of cantaloupe, few bites of watermelon, 1 ½ sodas and filled my water bottle with Sustained Energy and used the restroom.
We left the lunch stop around 1:33pm and we finished up the last 2 big hills of the day for a total of 11 with an average speed of 14.9. All that was left would be more mileage, the freeway extra loop and lots of rolling hills in the dark. I felt fantastic, but was starting to panic about the deadline. At 3:10pm, I hit mile 136 at our 5th checkpoint at Rincon. This is where the double and triple cyclists say goodbye. The triples pick up another route sheet and continue on for an extra 100 mile loop. The doubles all start their way back to the finish. Jon came into the checkpoint a short bit later and had a plan ready. He said that if I can pull through the wind, that we could increase our speed and after the extra loop, he would get me to the Pacific Coast Highway and I should take off to meet the deadline. I appreciated that Jon gave me the opportunity to pull him since he had done so much in encouraging me to do this event and was a complete angel in handling all the directions and navigation. I know it had been a frustrating process for him. From the very start of the ride, his bike computer was not showing the mileage to be able to know where to make the next turn. He asked me to tell him about the mileage, but it was very hard for me to hear him with the wind in my ears and the traffic around us, so I felt bad that he had to waste energy re-saying everything constantly.
We started off from Rincon with another guy (wearing a Furnace Creek 508 jersey) that was going for the triple, but he quickly dropped us. At about mile 149, we got lost and couldn’t figure out what the route sheet was describing. We back-tracked and finally worked it out. At 5:37pm we made it to the 6th checkpoint out in Goleta at mile 164. My blood glucose had dropped again, so I had another soda and tried to tell myself to be better about drinking my Sustained Energy. My bum was horribly sore and I was hating all the stop lights and getting on and off the saddle. I felt ok as long as I stayed where I was, but lifting and sitting back down was really painful. Jon’s cleat had broken so while we were at the rest stop, he had a very nice guy fix his cleat and he had some soup. The text message that I sent at this rest stop said that my bum was on fire, but will be better.
This is where we get onto Hwy 101 for the extra loop. I remembered that I absolutely hated this part 3 years ago as it was very scary. The cars and huge trucks are going by so fast and there are big divets in the road to help keep the drivers awake in case they get off course. This part didn’t bother me this year. I felt very purposeful in pulling Jon to the turn around spot. It was much easier to have one person pulling since there isn’t enough room to pull off in a paceline. The only part that I didn’t like is that it was facing straight into the low setting sun which was directly in my eyes the whole way. My face got burned and my eyes with contacts were drying out quickly and my right contact got cloudy. When I saw the freeway sign that said Gaviota was coming up in 7 miles, I was excited that we were almost there and I pointed out the sign. Jon very calmly replied with “yes”.
We arrived at Gaviota at mile 190 and they took down our names and rider number. They said that I was the first woman to check in for the triple turn-around spot. How exciting is that! They didn’t have any Sustained Energy, so I was very thankful that I had brought a bag of my own from home just in case and had kept it in one of my pockets. I used it to fill up my bottle and we chatted with the volunteers (Steve who was SAG and guided us 3 years ago and I think Sarah?) for a short bit and headed back out for Highway 101 again.
At 8:20pm we were at mile 201. The sun was almost gone. We arrived back at the Goleta checkpoint again at mile 209 and I had a Coke. I was curious how my body would react since I never have caffeine. I went to the porta-potty and it felt like someone poured acid on me. My female parts were raw and bleeding from sitting on the saddle for so long. I couldn’t believe how incredibly painful this very sensitive area was. Wow. I would break my hand any day over feeling that kind of pain. I talked to the volunteer there, Saralie, and she gave me her own supply of Lantiseptic cream that she said will hold me straight to my chamois rather than it moving around. Jon also gave me Cortizone cream. I honestly thought of getting a SAG (support & gear) vehicle and calling it a day. I had plenty of energy to spare still and my legs felt great, but not in my bike shorts. I decided not to go to the restroom anymore the rest of the ride to not feel that acid pain again. Jon had some soup and refilled his Camelbak and we were off again praying that the cream from Angel Saralie would offer some relief.
Jon navigated us through the dark town. At 9:17pm we hit mile 210 with an average speed of 15.2. My mom sent me a text message saying that 210 was a good round number and it was okay to call it a day, plus it’s dark outside. Burcu sent me a message saying not to think about my bum and to just keep pedaling and that she didn’t know the ride was more than 200 miles and she was proud of me. At mile 222 Jon pulled over to ask for directions. He found a driver that provided detailed information on where we were supposed to be going. I sent Jon’s wife a text message saying that he was an angel with directions and holding in strong.
We arrived at the Rincon checkpoint again at 11:21pm with 235 miles completed. It was pitch dark outside, my bum hurt and we still had all the rollers to do. Jon had done a phenomenal job in navigating us back to Rincon in the pitch dark through the many traffic lights. With the timelines we both had created, it definitely seemed to me that we would DNF, not making the time cut-off. My heart sank, but it had been a great day.
At 1:19am we hit the last checkpoint at 260 miles with an average speed of 14.9. I didn’t need to go in, so I waited on the bike and sent my daughter, Mellissa, a text message that said “I want to go home. I hate the dark”.
We had 40 miles to go and still had the rolling hills to go along the Pacific Coast Highway. I remembered them being steep and tiring from 3 years ago and lasting many, many miles. That wasn’t the case at all this year. If you asked me to describe the rollers now, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t remember them being bad at all. That was a nice surprise. Jon had suggested that I ride the last 40 miles along the PCH at my own pace to try to get to the finish line before our deadline. He was very sweet and said that he knew I could do it and there were no turns to worry about and to just ride. I thanked him and decided to try to get there in time.
I took off and climbed the rollers at a good pace. I came upon two guys on one of the hills and as I passed them, I said hi. One of them caught up to me and I realized it was the guy in the Furnace Creek 508 jersey that had started the extra 300 loop with us and had dropped us. He asked me where Jon was and I told him that Jon suggested that I try to make it before the time cut-off. What happened next was amazing. The two guys that I had just passed on the hill both got directly in front of me and you could right away see their intention. They set out to pull me to the finish line. It was so touching. Unfortunately it only lasted a few minutes as one of the guys seemed to be struggling and they dropped way back and I continued on, but it was so very kind.
For 280 miles I felt strong, capable and no pain except in the shorts area. Unfortunately the last 20 miles the Sustained Energy caught up with me or maybe it was the fear of using the restroom the last 90 miles. In the last 20 miles, I got a gas bubble in my stomach that was really painful with each pedal stroke. So I muddled through the last 20 miles quite slow. In the last 5 miles, I prayed for a hill because my eyes were getting so sleepy and I needed something to wake me up. I finally made my way to what I thought was the finish location. Unfortunately one of the Grand Tour guys was kind enough to email me the route sheet and it turned out that it was from a previous year and the ending location had changed! Ugh. I went to Pepperdine University climbed the little hill to get there and everything was pitch dark. Since Jon had done all the navigating and I have no sense of direction, I was out of my element with trying to find my way, especially at 3:30 in the morning after 290ish miles. I finally headed for the start location and as I was coming back from the opposite way, I saw the two guys that had tried to pull me as they were nearing the finish. I went for it and rushed ahead before they arrived, ran in and got my helmet scanned. When Frank Neal (keeper of the California Triple Crown stats) told me that I had arrived in time (3:55am), I about lost it. It took everything in me to not break down. I was so excited to not have a DNF on my record. The other very cool thing is that Jon arrived just a few minutes later and also successfully completed the triple century within the timeline! I was so excited to see him.
It was an amazing experience. Yes, we rode a whole bunch of miles and that is awesome, but for me, this event was SOOOO much more. The seam of “before dad”/“after dad” is gone. I know he was watching over me and proud. I had INCREDIBLE support to accomplish this goal. I lost 2008 & 2009 to my dad’s death and my hand surgery, but in 3 1/2 years of cyling, I’ve now completed 3 doubles and 2 triples. On a side note, out of 442 registered participants for the Grand Tour, there were only 2 women registered for the Triple Century this year. The other woman had a crash about a week before the event and ended up volunteering instead of riding. She has completed the Furnace Creek 508 and other huge events way over my ability. So I think that means that I may have been the only woman to complete the Triple Century this year! I am so blessed. What an amazing experience. Thank you everyone for your support and prayers!
Miles – 297
Climb – 12,654
Average Speed – 15.0
Max Speed – 43.9
Time in Saddle – 19 hours, 38 minutes
Average Heart Rate – 123
Max Heart Rate – 181
Elapsed Time – 23 hours, 40 min with going to wrong finish location
When you pray for Courage, God gives you an opportunity to become Courageous