This is a long report, but it was a long climb, so bear with me.
My first ride up Haleakala was in 2007, when I spent a month on Maui with a friend just to eat, sleep, and ride. To help pay for the trip, we led a few bike tours around various parts of the island with Maui Cyclery. Cold, hard cash just for riding our bikes and playing tour guides? Sure! My first tour up the volcano, we didn’t bother to tell the clients that I’d never even been halfway to the top. I pretended to know what I was doing and kept saying, “Just a few more turns…”
Since then, I’ve ridden the 36-mile, 10,000-ft climb from Paia on the north shore to the highest point on Maui maybe 5 times. It’s never easy, and the weather can be nasty near the top. Cramps, bonking, altitude struggles, and general fatigue are always a risk, so I’ve always made at least 2 long, relaxed food stops on the way, just to refuel, stretch, and pray.
Cycle to the Sun takes the experience from a recreational bucket-list item to a competitive throw-down with 200 racers from all over the U.S. (and many from the islands). In 2014 and 2015, I trained for the event but couldn’t attend due to scheduling conflicts. This year, I made it happen.
I flew out 3 days early to get used to the heat and humidity, and also because, well…it’s Maui. By this point, I was definitely in taper mode and was focusing on sleeping and hydrating. I did some short rides up the first few miles of the climb to get mentally ready. I was feeling pretty good in the days leading up to the race and just wanted to maintain those sensations.
On race day, after a night of fitful sleep, I got up at 5 a.m. to eat some cinnamon toast crunch and one scrambled egg — breakfast of champions. I rolled into town, stopped by the coffee shop for a quick espresso, and headed to the start. Everyone looked very skinny and very motivated. I spotted a Mike’s Bikes guy and gave him the stink-eye. Pretty sure that threw him off his game. After a Hawaiian blessing, they counted down and we rolled out.
The first 7 miles were a pretty gentle climb up to the town of Makawao, averaging maybe 4-5%. I fully expected the fast guys to pin it and shell everyone else. I had one game plan: stay within myself and make no sudden movements. Having foregone the beastly powertap wheel for some super-light Ovals on loan from my brother, I only had heart rate and VAM to gauge my effort. As it turned out, no one — even the fastest guys — wanted to attack this first section. That was fine by me, as I gradually settled in right at my target heart rate and kept my nose out of the wind.
The chill pace allowed a group of 40 of us (including the eventual winner) to stay together coming into Makawao. Our VAM was right around 1000 meters/hour. That’s on pace for a 3-hour ride, which is usually about the winning time. It occurred to me that a lot of guys in that 40-strong group might be riding too fast, even though they were still right below their thresholds. That was my hope, anyway, as I was still 10 bpm below threshold. I thought, “Maybe a lot of people can ride like this for an hour, but not for 3 hours, and not at altitude.”
Right at mile 7, coming out of Makawao, there was a 1/4-mile section at 13%. As planned, I kept my own pace and watched nearly all 40 racers ride away from me. A mile later, we hit the only flat/slightly downhill section of the entire race, which lasted all of 2 minutes. Also as planned, I eased up, allowed my HR to drop into the 160s, took my first gel, swigged some energy drink, and settled back in.
At mile 9, we turned onto Haleakala Hwy, where the real climbing started. Long sections at 7% or so, and now the gaps were starting to appear. I was solo at this point, but I had a couple of guys behind me and a few groups of 3-5 ahead. There was a bit of shuffling around as guys would catch me, then I’d ride away, then I’d catch a few, then lose them again. My pace was never dictated by the other racers, though — only my HR and the sensations in my legs. I noticed that a lot of the other guys were drenched in sweat and were breathing like they were right at their limits. I stayed calm and grabbed a bottle of Heed at the first feed zone at about 3,000 feet elevation. I reached that point in about an hour, which seemed reasonable.
As we turned onto Crater Road at mile 15 (elevation 3,500), I noticed a group of 15 guys only 150 yards ahead. I couldn’t believe it: how could 15 people be perfectly matched after an hour and 10 minutes of climbing? We should be shattered by now! I put my head down, kept it steady, and ended up tagging onto the back of the group. I sat on for about 30 seconds, watched my HR drop back to the mid-160s and said, “screw this.” When I got to the front, I saw three teammates keeping tempo at the head of the group. I guess others were just happy to have them set the pace, but I checked the VAM and we were at about 900. I went to the front for about 5 minutes, pulled off on a short, flatter section, and looked back to see that the group of 15 was whittled down to about 6. The three teammates, though complimentary of my turn at the front, appeared to return the favor by taking a collective dig around the next switchback.
At 4,000 feet, my sensations improved — I finally felt warmed up and awake. It was low enough on the mountain not to be gasping for air, but the perfect point in the race to put in a solid 30 minutes and take advantage of other racers’ having gone out too hard. I rode away from the 3 teammates and the now-shattered group of 15 and set off alone.
The section from 4,000 ft to the next feed zone at 6,000 was a blur, but I kept it very steady and stayed on top of my hydration and gel intake. I also made a point of taking 2 Hammer Endurolytes every 40 minutes. At the National Park entrance at around 7,000 feet, I was still solo, but I spotted a group of 3 about 200 yards ahead. It was kind of key to be with a group on this section because the winds always pick up at this elevation, so you alternate between headwind and tailwind as you snake up the switchbacks. Any other day, and at a lower altitude, I would have just danced on the pedals for a minute to close the gap. Instead, it turned into a 20-minute chase. I picked up one dropped rider, traded one turn with him, then continued my pursuit of the other two.
At about 8,000 feet, I took my 5th and final gel before my stomach said, “Please, no more.” I tried to stand to get more pressure on the pedals, but it felt useless. I was feeling a little weak, so I consciously backed off a tad. My VAM had declined noticeably, which is expected but still disheartening. My HR was about where I wanted it, but honestly, at this point, the numbers meant nothing to me. I couldn’t push any harder, and I didn’t want to back off any more. I caught and passed one more rider and saw another in the distance.
Right at about 9,000 ft, I saw someone coming up behind me. Shit. This racer was the only one to catch me the entire race, so I told myself to dig in and stay with him once he caught me. My pre-race “plan” had me giving it everything at 9,000 ft (about 20 min from the top), but that was quickly turning into a fantasy. As he motored up next to me, I noticed that his helmet was unbuckled, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna get beaten by some schmoe with an unbuckled lid. I jumped on and told myself to hit it from the visitor’s center at 9,700 ft to the top. This guy did the same, and when I looked down, we were at our highest VAM of the day: 1100. Then 1150. My HR was climbing but not yet in the red. I ignored the twinge in my hamstring and finally went into “race mode.” As we got to about 300m to go, we were at 1200 VAM. I held steady as the other guy popped. I saw one more guy about 50m ahead and threw down to pass him with about 100m to go. I sailed across the line and got a high-five from the race organizer, Donnie.
My time was 3:20, good for 14th overall out of 200, and 5th in my age group out of 28. My old PR was 3:47, not including generous banana bread and donut stops. Next year I plan to get in some high-altitude training and will hopefully crack the top 10.
Thanks for reading,