The Dirty Double: San Diego County Double Century with 35 Miles of Dirt

The sun morning creeps up over the mountains.

I was tossing and turning in bed- I hadn’t been sleeping well recently. I had that familiar feeling where you know you’re alarm is going off soon- and you want nothing more than to return to deep sleep. It didn’t come and I looked at my phone- 315am. Early, but only 30 minutes earlier than my alarm was set for. I got out of bed and faced the reality of my day: The Dirty Double Century. I said hi to my housemate who was just getting in (good morning? good night?), loaded up my borrowed car (thanks Paul!), popped open a yerba mate and set off for Alpine, CA.

The Montana part of California? Early on before the first dirt climb up Viejas Grade.

I love 200-mile events; I’ve ridden over 20 of them: see my double category. We’re spoiled here in California with the California Triple Crown, 22 doubles a year and counting. You get to be on your bike all day, see obscure places you wouldn’t otherwise see, and they can vary from 11-hour ‘races’ to 18-hour long hauls (see below!). I haven’t ridden many in the last few years, but I could not pass up a new double with 35 miles of dirt. Yes, 35 miles on dirt!

Adam, the last I’d see of him as he went on to be the first finisher. He’s an MD and we had some good chats about nutrition and health.

My fitness is in a strange place. I have the Idyllwild race behind me and the running miles from the Zion 100, but I’m definitely not as fit as I usually am this time of year. But I knew this going in and was out there to have some fun. Read: I let everyone go on the first climb. There were only four of us and one guy started late.  Plus the first climb of the day always sucks! I settled in and rode smartly.  I’m confident on the dirt and even with my 39-28 low gear I was comfortable- for now.

I rode with John M. Clare on and off throughout the ride. He’s the son of John T. Clare, who had ridden 152 double centuries (!!) before passing away earlier this year. John M. Clare has ridden over 50 doubles himself and this year will race the Furnace Creek 508 with the former teammates of his father. More on them and their exceptional family here.

Somewhere on the second climb I started to have some concerns. How many more miles? Oh no, it’s too early to start thinking about this. Dirt slows you down, which makes it mentally hard. I’ve only gone how far? My average speed was about 12 miles per hour. I settled down and focused on why I like these rides so much- their meditative nature. Being out in the world, emptying your mind and intensely feeling the most basic desires- hunger, thirst, compassion, pain. It’s a beautiful experience.

“Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.” -Buddha

Those hill tops sticking out of the clouds look like islands!

Early dirt. Top of Viejas.

Double centuries teach you patience. I started riding them in late 2004 and any events I’ve done since- from 24 hour mountain bike races to iron-distance triathlons- are easier because of what I have learned on these rides.  Each double is different and has its own unique features from insane amounts of climbing to having over 500 people- pacelines all day long! The Dirty Double is special because of the dirt climbs and I think this kept a number of people away. My word to those who skipped this great double- riding on dirt is a skill that can be learned like riding at night, riding in the rain or making the jump from 100 to 200 miles. If you’ve mastered those skills then this is the perfect ride to challenge yourself!

This is what most of the early dirt climbing looked like. So nice to be out in the wilderness on a road ride!

Use horn at one lane curves. This is just before the only major dirt descent.

Boulder Creek, just before the descent. You can see the dirt road off to the right.

At the top of the third dirt climb, mile 77, the aid station was run by the race organizer, Rob. Here the ultra-century riders riders turn right and head back toward Alpine while we did the 56-mile Palomar loop.  As someone who organizes events I could see his concern. How was I doing? Okay? He was very helpful in getting me fueled and on my way. He had a better idea of what I was in for on Palomar than I did. I thanked him and headed off toward Nate Harrison Grade.  I tagged along with some random roadies for awhile and here we had the first fast descent of the day!

At the turnoff for Nate Harrison Grade we hit another aid station. And by aid station I mean the trunk of a volunteer’s car.  He loaded me up with ice cold drinks, snacks and sent me on my way. I was over 100 miles in at the hottest time of the day and I was about to start a 4000 ft western-facing climb with 7 miles of dirt. Deep breath. I won’t lie. This was super hard. I was grinding in my lowest gear trying to keep my rear tire from washing out. It was technical enough that I had to pick my lines well to dodge big rocks and ruts. Standing was near impossible and there was no shade. I passed John on a particularly steep section where he was walking.  What am I doing out here? Delirium sets in.

Climbing up to Palomar on dirt after having ridden 100 miles was something else. At least what I can remember of it…
Here one of the volunteers climbed up with us after closing the aid station.

Chatting with the volunteer helped some of the time: I could be distracted by chatting about triathlon splits and mountain bike championship qualifications. But in some ways it was harder: I wanted to suffer alone in silence.  Near the ‘top’ he turned back to check on John and descend back to his car. I contemplated my situation. It’s a balance of letting yourself suffer enough so you are present in reality and maintaining enough coherence to keep moving forward. I’d pass shaded spots and want nothing more than to curl up in a ball on the ground. But I pushed on. The dirt turned to broken pavement which then turned into an actual road.

I love pine trees! Really, this wasn’t just an excuse to take a break.

View from Palomar. The Southern California most people never see…

At the top I fumbled my way into the store. I had been out of water for about an hour. I replenished with snacks and cold drinks. Later I’d find out the restaurant next to the store has a number of vegan options? Ha. Next time?

The descent was bumpier than I’d like so I wasn’t able to really kill it.  Eventually made my way back to Rob, 56 miles later, at mile 133.  With the dirt sections behind me I got my tires back up to 110 psi from 95 and started getting ready for nighttime and colder temperatures. Riding at dusk- one of the most exciting things ever. My stoke is returning at an indirect relation to the dropping temperature.

Lake Henshaw again. Familiarity does wonders for a fatigued brain.

From here we winded up and around Julian before descending the 79 and passing Sunrise Highway- where I was for the Mt Laguna Bicycle Classic and where I’d be the following weekend to crew the San Diego 100. It took to about here for my brain to return to normal. When I’d see Rob again (he closed the other aid stations and did leapfrog support for John and I) he’d tell me that I wasn’t looking good at mile 133 and that he had been concerned, but was I was looking better now. Phew.

Vista Point sign for the moon. Nighttime already?

The descent continued and I passed the 8 freeway and rode along Japatul Road- which I had ridden only once before, also at night, when I rode out to the Boulevard Road Race (I don’t think I ever wrote about how I rode out there the night before and then got second to last in Cat 5! Ha.). More descending and then the long way back to Alpine. No straight shots and more climbing! It’s now almost 11pm. The cut-off was suppose to be 10pm, but Rob extended it so we’d finish. I’d end up crossing the line at 1115pm- 18 hours after I started. Longest double century ever.  Rob and other volunteers were there, as was Chris Kostman, who had ridden the 144-mile option and also took a bunch of photos- start here. I hung out for a little bit and made my way back to the city where some mushroom sauce pasta (thanks Lis and Marissa!) and a warm shower awaited. Twenty-two hours after waking up I was getting back in bed.

Thank you Rob for the wonderful experience. You asked if you should make it easier- no way. It’s fun, challenging, beautiful; a great day on the bike. I hope to see it on the California Triple Crown schedule next year. There’s no reason for it not to be!

My bike
I rode my only road bike, a steel Seven.
My low gear is a 39-28. I pushed it through, but a lower gear would be more comfortable.
I put 700×25 Continental Ultra Gatorskins on and they were great.
I ran my Ksyrium SL’s, which probably wasn’t a good idea as I had just broken a spoke and got it replaced. No problems though.

Skills for riding in the dirt
The hardest thing about riding in the dirt is changing speeds- both slowing and accelerating. People say, ‘this is easy’ before they have to do either. Practice this.
Choosing lines. Can you read the terrain ahead of you and adjust in time? Crucial skill. It becomes second nature once you practice it.
Know when to slow down.
Shift your weight- balance between wheels, pedals and bars. Roadies tend to have trouble with this and bash things with their front or rear wheel.
Race cyclocross this fall/winter!
Check the Dirty Double site for additional tips. They even offer dirt riding clinics.

7 Comments

Filed under double, off-road

7 responses to “The Dirty Double: San Diego County Double Century with 35 Miles of Dirt

  1. Great post Matt. This sounds like one I’d like to ride.

  2. Matt,

    Sounds like an awesome ride. 18 hours in a saddle sounds like a long time. I did my first century last year and that was over 7 hours in a saddle and that was a killer. I’m not really bike fit at the moment but would like to do another 100 soon. Reading your bit about riding on dirt tracks reminded me of when I road a mountain bike down the road of death in La Paz, Bolivia last year. It wasn’t bad enough the MASSIVE drops on one side, or the narrowness of the road with blind corners and the chance of meeting traffic head on when taking the racing line, but what did get me was the sketchy road surface as I went around the bends… my braking on occasions was that dodgy that i had to take my foot off to give myself that extra lean in order to make sure I didn’t go over the edge to my certain death. Bikes are so awesome and I love reading your blog.

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  4. Tom Nelson

    Matt, Enjoyed riding with you for several miles. Glad you and John joined Adam and I as the first finishers. I am in awe of your ability to get up Nate Harrison with 39 x 28. I was barely able to make it up with my compact and 11-34T.

  5. chris

    Dude, this post totally makes me want to train for and do a double. Too bad I only have the attention span to do 30 miles, and that’s pushing it.

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