Self-supported Mt. Rainier bike circumnavigation: 153 miles!
Written by: Sydney LongI fixated on this summer goal after getting a used “quarantine bike” in the spring. I heard about the loop and regarded it as legend. I had never heard of anyone riding that far in a day and it appealed to me as both ridiculous and unimaginable. As an ultra-distance trail runner I’m accustomed to long epic days, but I still didn’t know if I could pull it off until I tried.
I tried unsuccessfully to convince several likely and unlikely candidates to do this ride with me. Clearly I need to work on my persuasion skills (or get more bike friends) as most people were not even remotely interested. Solo it would be! I figured I should get a few century rides in under my belt to prepare. Biking in and out of Portland honestly doesn’t appeal to me that much, so I really only got in a handful of out-of-town long rides and counted on my running mileage for enough aerobic fitness to not die.
For my first long ride I logged 87 miles going up and over McKenzie Pass on the scenic bikeway. While it was a beautiful and fun ride, it felt far from a success: I was trashed at the end! Back at my campsite my legs were painfully spasming and contracting in ways that I had NEVER experienced with running. I was literally crippled. As in: eat-chips-for-dinner, unable-to-muster-a-solar-shower-rinse-off, wrecked. I bounced back quickly though; two days later I set out again with determination. I rode out and back to Smith Rock from Sisters, took a break to eat an entire tub of tapioca pudding, and then tackled Mckenzie Pass again, bringing the total of the day to 117 miles. This ride felt a little inexplicable that I didn’t get the cramping again despite going much farther, but victorious nonetheless and I finished with gas left in the tank. I had my first inkling of confidence that going all the way around Rainier was possible.
Two weeks later I did a 100 mile ride on the RAMROD course- an out and back from Enumclaw to the junction with Stevens Canyon Road. I wanted to scope out water sources along the route (of which there were plenty.) On this ride I learned that Stevens Canyon Road, arguably the most scenic section, was closed to all traffic because of a landslide, and it was unknown when it would be repaired. This added some drama as I brainstormed work-arounds and faced having to postpone indefinitely. Fortunately, work crews unceremoniously got the road back open soon after.
At the end of July I made my first attempt at the full circumnavigation. I didn’t feel 100% confident. I knew I could tap into reserves of endurance, I was just worried it would take me a very long time and I would run out of daylight. Starting out on a loop without a bailout option really raises the stakes but I decided the worst that would happen would be that I would have to spend the night out. I slept fitfully in my truck at Box Canyon. I had planned to start around 4:15am going clockwise but I didn’t get going until after 5. I felt cranky and everything felt a little off. I descended 4000 feet into Ashford, stopping into the coffee shop for a Rice Krispie treat for “breakfast” at mile 32. As I ate it I turned on my phone to several messages - there had been a co-parenting schedule miscommunication and I needed to be back in Portland to pick up Axel the soonest available. I was pretty bummed to have to turn around; I didn’t know if I’d get another shot at knocking it out this summer and the days were only getting shorter. Ultimately though, this fail only made me more driven to complete the route successfully.
Fortunately two weeks later the trifecta for adventure presented itself again: no work, no parenting responsibilities, and no rain - and I had three glorious, consecutive days. Day one I ran a self-supported 40 mile loop around Mt Hood on the Timberline Trail. The next morning I spent relaxing and catching up on calories by eating 3 or 4 breakfasts. I felt pretty good and even though I knew it wasn’t ideal to do a daunting ride so soon after a long run, I decided to just go with it and committed to the idea since I was full of energy. I drove to Ashford that night, having decided to start there and go counter-clockwise instead so as to get the bulk of the climbing over two passes done in the first 60 miles. Contrary to my first attempt, this time I only felt excited instead of full of anxiety. I was up at 3:30 am making coffee and ready to GO! I hit the road about 4:15. I was not anticipating how cold it would be in August in the dark! Early on I was grateful to have my Patagonia R1 fleece hoodie (thanks Mountain Shop!) zipped up all the way. My hands were freezing cold and I had one wrapped in a Buff and the other in a headband. Another advantage of my starting point and direction was that I had a 4000 foot climb ahead of me to Inspiration Point, which was easier to manage than a descent in the dark. Also, I reached Stevens Canyon Road with the best views of the mountain in the early morning light which was pretty spectacular. There were zero cars out on the road and it felt like I had the whole park to myself.
Both times I’ve descended from Cayuse Pass into Enumclaw was into a hellacious headwind, which I’ve heard is a consistent phenomenon. This was the only downside I found to going in this direction. I hit the halfway mark and there was no turning back! I was doing this. By the time I hit Greenwater at mile 77 I was hungry. I pulled over for my first real stop at the small market. In ultra-distance races I’ve always been really disciplined about not hanging around the aid stations for too long wasting precious time and daylight - I get what I need and get the heck out of there. I had this same mindset as I blew through the store looking like a crazed, sunburned looter grabbing everything that looked delicious.
The rolling section from Enumclaw to Ashford is lush and green with the occasional long-distance Rainier view. I entered the unchartered territory past my longest distance ever and the wheels didn’t fall off and nothing went up in flames. I held a steady pace and arrived in Ashford smiling and happy. Full circle back at my truck my watch read 149 miles. UNACCEPTABLE for my OCD self! I kept riding to even it out to a solid 150, finishing in 12 hours 18 minutes with plenty of daylight left.
Mapping - the Redmond Cycling Club holds an annual supported event called the RAMROD and I copied most of their map onto Caltopo - a free mapping site. I then uploaded that route onto Gaia, a $20 worth-it GPS app. This way I could reference my phone to see exactly where I was and the route is marked in a bold line. This is my standard for any new terrain adventure as it really minimizes potential for navigation errors and stress. *I found out after the fact about a bike site called Ride with GPS which would have eliminated the need for me to painstakingly copy the map by hand to Caltopo- oh well!
Water - I took my BeFree Katadyn filter to fill up from waterfalls and streams but I never needed to use it. In Rainier NP there are water spigots at Longmire and Box Canyon. Along the 410, there are 2 or 3 campgrounds with spigots. Between Enumclaw and Ashford there are plentiful options to get water from gas stations/markets.
Camping - Anytime there’s an early start time, I’d rather sleep in my truck than get up even earlier to drive. To me it’s both more efficient and comfy to sleep on the luxurious ExPed Megamat mattress (5 star review!) I have set up in the back than to sleep in a tent or hassle with a hotel. I’ve low-profile slept in the Box Canyon lot several times which is high living because there’s a bathroom and water. Ashford has a quiet gravel lot outside the public park. In Enumclaw I was woken up for a midnight interrogation by a police officer who wanted to know why I had chocolate milk (the drink of criminals!) in a Mason jar. So now you know; the Enumclaw police are bored, extremely bored, at night.
It’s worth acknowledging that road biking culture is at best rigid and at worst elitist, and it can definitely be intimidating. It was empowering for me to prove this ride could be done without super-expensive equipment or shaving the hair on my arms. As an outsider, I’m confused that cyclists are willing to pay thousands of dollars to shave off a couple ounces. First of all, I don’t mind having a heavier bike because I actually want to get a workout in. Secondly, let me tell you a well-kept secret: there’s a reason that biking is the go-to activity for injured athletes. It’s not that hard. You’re just rolling along..on WHEELS! The obsession with trying to make it even easier is baffling to me. Ultimately though, every sport has targeted marketing techniques that it’s easy to get sucked into. It’s not totally our fault, ad executives make a living by convincing us we need things. I’d like to dispel some of that by sharing what I found to be helpful and necessary.
My bike is an old Kona Jake that I bought for $225 off of Craigslist. It was the first and only bike I tried. (I do not recommend this strategy for internet dating;). As long as it fit I didn’t see any reason to agonize over which bike to get. Maybe I got lucky but I think it’s perfect! It was hideous in appearance so I bought some paint from Spray.Bike.US and spent an afternoon wrapping the components that I didn’t know how to remove in tin foil and spray painting the frame. (Sorry about the scrub pants Legacy.)
I will concede that really nice bike shorts are worth the price tag. I was lucky enough to be gifted 2 pairs (one Castelli, one Verge) leftover from a racing team. The difference between them and my old pair of cheapest shorts is extreme, a real gamechanger. I did however, cut the suspenders off of them. I still do not understand what the heck they are for! I have had no regrets or issues since cutting them and it’s much easier to pee without them.
I wear a running shirt instead of a tight fitting jersey. I personally find it to be more comfortable. If my pleasantly flapping shirt slows me down a few seconds, so be it.
I did all my training rides in a pair of trail running shoes with flat pedals. I was low-key terrified of the concept of being clipped onto my bike with cycling shoes. However, I decided to try them and invested in a pair of Shimanos. Hundo P they make riding more efficient and it’s faster going uphill and so far my nightmare of not being able to unclip has not come to fruition. I love them! That said, for a beginner or casual cyclist they are not a necessity. Neither are bike gloves for me - my hands get a little bit sore whether I’m wearing them or not.
I searched the internet and found a new, past-season 2015 Smith helmet for $70. It’s superlight and way more comfortable than my old Giro one that cracked.
Snack-carrying capacity/other gear:
I carried several layers and a day’s worth of calories with me so I needed a couple of bags. I have a Revelate Designs seat post bag that I used for clothing items. I stopped in to local bike shop Golden Pliers and Becky, one of the owners, directed me to an awesome assortment of bags of which I picked these two. She sews the Makeshifter “snackhole” stem bag right there in the shop and it has proven to be especially useful for small items like chapstick and sunscreen, as well as easy access snacking. Having a Nite Ize handlebar phone mount was also really useful for referencing the map and putting playlist jams on speaker.
Food: My takeaways from doing long endurance activities are 1) bring electrolyte powder to add to water (I use Gnarly Nutrition Ruby Red Grapefruit), and 2) bring super salty snacks like chips and Blue Diamond salt and vinegar almonds to counter all the sweet stuff. Aside from what’s pictured above, I ate a hard boiled egg, Honey Stinger vanilla gels, many Honey Stinger cracker bars (crackers with nut butter dipped in chocolate: AMAZING), Spring Energy gels, salty snacks, and leftover dried apricots that I had carried all the way around Hood two days before:).Resources: http://redmondcyclingclub.org/RAMROD/RAMROD_course_information.html#Map_Elevation
My Caltopo map (I did it so you don’t have to): https://caltopo.com/m/0JAK
Questions, comments, further beta, or to make a case for suspenders: