Cent Cols Challenge: The Dolomites

Total Miles Ridden: 974
Total Feet Climbed: 153,750

Many moons ago, Amy K. did an awesome tour in Japan where they did about 100 miles a day and ~12,000 ft of climbing per day. I thought that was utterly mind-blowing - like holy cow! 12k of climbing a day?! And she kept going day after day after day?! This was coming after my own self-guided tour from Minnesota to Michigan (yet another adventure), and I thought "wow, this is exactly what I want to do". 

So rather than be a normal person and simply ask what company Amy went through, I did an internet search. I ended up on the Rapha travel page where the Cent Cols Challenge was listed (https://www.centcolschallenge.com/) and thought "Hardness: Five Stars? That sounds perfect. Dolomites? That's in Italy, sounds great!". I knew it was going to be a super challenging event and I asked several people close to me if they thought I could do it. The answer was yes, yes you could but you're going to have to put in some work.

Work I did. Thousands and thousands of miles and climb after climb after climb. I won't beat a dead horse, but I started pretty close to zero after getting hit by a car in February and not riding a bike again until April, building up to a commute then a 50 mile ride then an 80 mile ride. From there, I focused on endurance miles, aiming for 350-450 miles a week (repeatedly) in May. I entered June continuing to build base miles, tapered for Coast 2 Coast, nailed it, and then came home and went "I need to start climbing hills".

I goaled on doing 20k of climbing a week, and it was hard. I think I failed at doing this as often as I succeeded. Coming out of June, I was burned out and exhausted. My legs were the strongest they had ever been, but I was overtrained and needed a week off. I didn't give myself a week off - I knew Cent Cols would feel like this, every day, and I was on such a crunched time line it was either make or break. By the time I got on the plane to Italy, I was as ready as I could be for this event -- here it goes.

Stunning end to Day 1

Erika (who decided to join when a spot opened up in July!) and I arrived 2 days early and did some pre riding around San Pellegrino. Immediately, we were struck with how pleasant road riding was around Italy - people in cars were polite and gave cyclists space. The roads were exceptionally narrow and it checked people's speeds; often on a bicycle, you can more comfortably go faster than the cars. The views were stunning, the roads beautiful, the food amazing... we were already in love with Italy!

Day 1: 70 miles, 10800 ft
 There were 28 brave souls in our group. The set up of the event was we started each day at 7:30 (7 for the slow group later) and there were two feed stops at about 1/3 and 2/3 of the distance of the day. There were two support vans, but they didn't follow us closely (no sticky bottles) and were primarily for emergencies and occasional water breaks.  Each day ranged between ~14,000 ft and 22,000 ft of climbing.

We started out together with the organizer (Phil Deeker, who rides every km of every trip he does, which is like every other week. Amazing, amazing man). I started off slow and just got slower, falling pretty quickly to the back of the group. I was in a group of 3 that missed the first feed stop (newbie problems). The route was incredible and the views amazing, but I was struggling after no sleep (bad insomnia) the night before. By mid day when temperatures were in the upper 80s, I found myself dehydrated, light headed, low on electrolytes, and done. If I continued, I was going to start throwing up, so I scratched the first day and asked for a ride to the finish (still a 70 mile and almost 11,000 ft day!). I ate a lot that night, drank a lot of water, and prepared for the next day.

Biking in a magical place 
I should add, in case you were feeling bad for me, this was the day Dale broke his collar bone, around mile 80ish. So as I was getting into a van, Dale was continuing to drag his body to the next hotel despite immense pain. He also proceeded to ride every kilometer of the rest of the trip...

Day 2: 106 miles, 17800 ft
Once again, I started up the first climb one of the slowest. I'm not going to lie, it's hard to be the slowest person in a big group when you've been training really hard for this event. In some ways, I felt like I was disappointing every one who had cheered for me on this journey. But I didn't dwell on these thoughts much - the scenery was beautiful, I was enjoying every moment I was there, and I didn't care if I had to take a short cut every day, my days were full and my experience great.

We had tumultuous weather this day - as we summitted the first pass, I was alone, it was downpouring (almost to the point where you couldn't see), we were on a gravel-ish farm road and water was completely covering it, and, oh yeah, it was lightning all around on an exposed pass. My thoughts were something like "I know my chances of dying are low, but are we really doing this right now? I guess we are". I also couldn't get my waterproof boots to clip into my pedals for the life of me (so I was doing the climbs un-clipped in).

Beauty every day 
At feed stop one, morale was flagging a bit. People were drenched, it was cold and even colder after a long descent, and we were well behind schedule to finish in the daylight. Tim Smith very kindly offered to lead us on a short cut that cut out about 3000 ft, added a really delightful coffee stop, and many of us (~6?) took him up on this. This group formed the "grupetto", or the remedial CCC'ers. We finished early-ish that day with good spirits and still feeling proud of our accomplishments (17800 ft is not "nothing").

Day 3: 113 miles, 16,500 ft
Uwe photobombing my bike selfie
At this point, I knew I was one of the weakest people in the group, but I tackled each climb at my own pace, refusing to push myself to others pace. While this attitude is key for endurance events, it's also a bit of a detriment when you let company (re: happiness) leave you in order to maintain a comfortable pace. Again, day 3 was hot, really really hot. 

 About half way through the day, I was alone and mentally dying after taking a short cut- how was I ever going to get through this event when I was hemorrhaging electrolytes and slow as a turtle? Suddenly, like a gnome appearing in the woods (I'm sure he'll love that analogy), Uwe appeared and was *thrilled* to have found me. He starts enthusiastically talking about how we can ride together like how he and Jen had before in previous CCC's and how it's the key survival. I wasn't having any of it. Picture Wall-E and EVE - I was totally EVE. I was so convinced that the way to do this was to focus and dig deep into oneself, not to tie yourself to other person and their success/failure (spoiler: not the right approach...)

Erika, Lo, Uwe, Bruno pretty excited to be descending
We picked up Bruno and Erika eventually, Uwe totally relieved to find willing and happier company than me :) Although Bruno was pretty independent too. We did the last climb together, with Uwe and Erika talking chipperly as I limped well behind them. We regrouped at the feedstop, descended together, and had this amazing experience of flying through tunnels (now it was cold, see the gear up in the clothing) and incredible lake views. The four of us pacelined (ok we actually just drafted behind Uwe) into the hotel feeling good, strong, and like we could do this. 

Day 4: 113 miles, 16800 ft
Erika before she sped off on the Zoncolan
It's hard to describe how difficult this day was. I still was sleeping poorly and my legs throbbed when I laid in bed, to the point where it was keeping me awake. I was exhausted, barely eating enough to sustain and I couldn't even fathom making it to the rest day after day 5. At this point, the grupetto had established, and we took our 30 minute head start (starting at 7) gratefully. 

View from the top of the Zoncolan
So if this trip wasn't hard enough, we started with the Zoncolan. For those of you who have never heard, it's one of the hardest climbs in the world (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monte_Zoncolan) spoiler: Mauna Kea is harder, and climbing Mauna Kea earlier this year was the only reason I survived the Zonc. It was a pretty relentless 15%+ for miles, a total shut-up-and-grind. It was hard, very steep and very hard. Our grupetto split up, with Erika and Uwe totally killing it. Making it to the top of the Zoncolan was an incredible feeling, our larger group made it up there all approximately at the same time, so there were sprint finishes and big smiles by all. We had perfect, crisp weather and it was one of the first times we all felt really close to each other. 

Another amazing descent, more climbs... this was a hard day. The grupetto cut out a partially gravel climb in the middle, and the subsequent climb was hot and long. After another rich descent, our group really started to fray as we climbed to above 2000 m for our hotel. For the first time in the trip, I felt good - the last climb of the day, Tri Cime, was after our hotel and Phil had told us not to skip it. At a quick water break, our group splintered, some people really hurting and needing to get to the hotel, and me, taking off like a rocket to try to climb Tri Cime before sunset. 

Unbeknownst to me, Uwe chased me (this became a theme later in the trip - the post 4 PM Lo-chase) as I dug deep to get up Tri Cime, which was in a lot of ways a sick joke after the climbs we had had already that day. Although not as long as the Zoncolan, Tri Cime tipped up to 18%, especially at the end. I think they claim Tri Cime is an average of 8%, but they fail to mention there is a like a mile of downhill in there :|

Beautiful morning at least! 
As I crested Tri Cime just after sunset, and looked at the 360 view of mountains surrounding me tipped in pink, I finally felt like I might belong on this trip. Maybe I had more fight left in me. However, there was a price to pay for that kind of effort; both Uwe and I looked like trucks had hit us at dinner, and it was almost impossible to eat. Not. Good. 

Day 5: 71 miles, 12000 ft 
Views from the Giau
To say I was slow after the day before would be an understatement. When Erika and I woke up at 6:15 to start our day, my first words to her as my body ached and I wanted nothing more than to sleep more was "this ... is really hard". We started off with the Giau, which was one of my favorite climbs of the trip. Although dead possums could climb faster than me, we had perfect weather and stunning views. The climbing and descending for day 5 was magical. 

However, by the first feed stop, the grupetto had gapped me significantly. I arrived as they were ready to leave. I was generally pretty quick at feed stops, so captain Uwe asked if I could move quick. If there was a moment on the trip that I was close to breaking, it was that one. I just looked at him and with a pained voice "no, I can't. I need to sit, I hurt". He, Erika, and Howard encouraged me to eat quickly and try to move as soon as I could (it was very cold and windy at the top before a long descent). We made a compromise, we'd stop sometime in the future and I took a < 5 minute stop.
still enough energy to put the bike overhead

Unfortunately for them, I was definitely an anchor that day, forcing the stop sooner rather than later with my molasses pace and unable to hold the group pace on the flats. Uwe took pity and called a coffee stop, and I rejuvenated. Sometimes you just need to stop. 

After another amazing climb, a food stop I don't remember (did we even have it?), we cut the day short (no Fedaia, but judging by the others reactions, it wasn't a fun climb), we made it to the rest day hotel. 

Just another town in Northern Italy
The sweet, sweet rest day was filled with laundry, sleep, talking to our compatriots, and constant binge eating. I ate a big pack of sour gummies in the shower as an all time low for me. It rained all day on the rest day and we thought ourselves lucky to have avoided the rain. Ha. 

Day 6: 97 miles, 12600 ft 
Grupetto smiles
At this point, the grupetto solidified - we planned to do the shortened route from the start and we stuck together. After rest day, I started sleeping better on the trip and started to feel more energetic. Fortunately for the grupetto, our route avoided a massive downpour and kept us ahead of the rain for most of the day (our faster friends were not so lucky, and kept racing to get out of the rain for the first half of the day). 
The best climb of day 6 was the Passo Manghen - with the cooler temperatures at last, I felt great. I hit it with a pretty aggressive pace, which Bruno decided to challenge (and beat, he stayed ahead of me by about 20 m the whole time!). The Manghen was one of my favorite climbs - it starts in the forest, and comes out into an exposed cliff side with 20+ switch backs. It was relentless and breath taking (both from exertion and views!) and the road was super narrow. It's apparently overly popular with motos, but since there was on/off torrential downpours that day, we saw very few motos! 

you can see a small yellow dot - that was my view of Bruno
the whole way up
Day 6 finished early for us, so early that I was able to walk to town in daylight from our hotel and buy a big bag of potato chips and chocolate. It was my first chance to interact with people/other tourists, and honestly, it felt strange and weird. I retreated to my bubble of burgeoning friends and insane cyclists to binge eat and prep for a big day. I had it in my head now that I wanted to complete at least 1 full day, and Day 7's route looked promising! 

Day 7: 72 miles, 12900 ft 
The stats on this day do not do do this day justice for how challenging this day was. It rained from the very start to the very end, cold, steady, relentless rain. The first climb wasn't a big one, but it was enough to get drenched and feel the wet seep in no matter what protective layers you had. As we were descending the first pass, fortunately I was in the front of the grupetto and saw a coffee shop with Phil's bike outside, slammed on the brakes, and pretty much demanded a coffee stop. 

Nice weather, eh? 
I was miserable, I really don't like riding in the rain. We tried to cheer each other up, drinking amazing hot chocolate, and unfortunately getting water everywhere. I asked Phil what he does to get through days like today, and he said it's about continuing and enduring while taking breaks to recharge. As the grupetto got ready to leave, I dragged my feet. I didn't want to leave, and I was willing to let them go on without me. Howard gave me his vest and pressed me to continue, along with Erika, Bruno, and Uwe. As they were about to leave, I quickly gathered my things and decided to suck it up. 

The trip to the first feed stop from there wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. We made it, and came into a coffee shop to behold half our cohort in pretty bad shape. People were coming in uncontrollably shaking and unable to speak. We drank coffee, and the organizers announced that they were going to organize a shuttle for those who wanted to just go straight to the hotel; most people who were on track to complete the challenge decided that completing the challenge was not worth 7 more hours of hypothermia and took the shuttle. 
still smiling, mostly 

A very defining moment of the trip for me was when asked if he wanted to take the shuttle, Uwe looked repulsed and said "I am already in the grupetto, I can not take a shuttle to the hotel". Howard, chipper Howard, agreed ready to take on the day. I did not want to continue, but as I heard Uwe say this, and I thought about all the times he wouldn't leave me, I made my decision in that moment - I would stick with him for whatever misery lied ahead of us. Erika stood with me - if I was going to do it, Erika was going to also. 

but the sun did come out! 
It was a 8/10 horrible getting back on the bike in the cold, wet after 1.5 hours of warm coffee stop. Everything felt wrong, but we were going to do this, and I had all my good rain gear with me for a reason. After the first descent, we lost Howard (don't worry, we found him again! but it wasn't for like 2 hours). Uwe, Erika, and I stuck together. At one point, it was raining hard and we passed a bench that was supposed to overlook what was probably a stunning view when it wasn't cloudy. Laughing, we decided to stop and I posed for a picture of "Enjoying a nice day". We then took a frozen, wet selfie. But to be honest, it wasn't the worst time of the trip... we had each other and we chose to endure this together. 
Uwe taking an early lead at the end 

Eventually the rain cleared after a few hours into a stunning and delightful day. We had beautiful views, some really sketchy gravel roads (thanks Phil). We did the passes together and soldiered on. On the last climb to our hotel in Castel Vecchio (yes, a castle ontop of a cliff, which we had to climb), Uwe and I raced up what was the *worst* climb of the entire trip. OMG it was like 15%+ again at the end of a hard day, and just brutal. I kept dropping things or taking wrong turns, which Uwe would pass me. In the end, it came down to a "sprint" (re: death crawl) finish that I think he won. 

I wasn't the only person who thought that climb was terrible 
I felt really close to our grupetto after this day - our loyalties had been tested and the bond was strong; together we could do this. That evening at dinner, I sat with Leslie, a crazy strong woman on the trip doing the full route, and she pushed me to think about going for the full route the next day. I already wanted it, and she gave me the push I needed. 

Day 8: 132 miles, 20200 ft

Day 8 -- when I finally completed a full stage. This was a particularly tough day with shortcuts anyway, with several big passes back to back. When I told the grupetto that we might as well do the whole day, they weren't as enthused as I was. Uwe said something about Prospect Theory and how making a painful day more painful was not a survival strategy. But I woke up feeling strong, so I started out on the full route. 
perfection (minus the car) 

Everyone was extremely supportive - the faster riders saw me on the full route early and knew what I was doing and cheered. They rode with me and kept me company, and it was nice to get to spend time with people like Dirk and Phil, etc. Of course, I rode past the first feed stop again and had to backtrack, which added another 6ish miles to my total for the day... ugh. 

Entering Passo Creer, the big pass of the day and not on the grupetto route, I was the last rider. It was hot, I was alone and I had no idea how I was going to finish in a reasonable amount of time. But then, Phil, Tim, Dirk, George, and Dieter appeared out of nowhere -- Dirk had told them I was going for the full route, and so they stopped to get gelato and waited for me to go by. I could have cried. They kept me company for a long way up the climb, eventually let me drop back a bit. 

Phil kept waiting for me though - he told me if I was going to do this, he would finish with me that night. I told him I was determined. He asked me a bunch of questions about how I had found this event (re: dumb luck) and I asked him about why he started these challenges. He said he was initially told this event "was way too hard" and he'd never get people to sign up; but he pushed and wanted to give people the opportunity to see what they could do, and they came. 

Eventually Phil drifted back to check on George, and I was alone for a while. I ran out of water and was very nervous about making it -- it was very hot and I still had at least 1200 ft to climb. Then, Dale, broken collar bone Dale, appeared. He asked how I was doing and I told him I was nervous because I was out of water. "Oh I have some" and Dale gives me most of a water bottle (he had two full ones?!?!?!). It was more than enough to make it to a water fountain on the side of the road. Sweet, sweet Dale. 

Before the last climb, sunset over the lake with the moon
Eventually, I summitted Creer (very quick), had a magical descent, and then continued on to the feed stop with a tow from Phil. At the feed stop, Leslie and Colin were finishing up; they saw me and said they would ride with me to the finish. As I ate, drank, and borrowed a headlight (long story), I pleaded with them saying that I would be slow (then we will be slow too) -- once again, the theme of the trip emerged we do this together

we made it! Together! 
I climbed Santa Barbara with Leslie and Colin, and it was brutal. We were all hurting in ways that I don't think most people self-inflict in their lives. At this point, I had developed a urinary tract infection in addition to all the butt pain you can imagine we had. But with Colin in front, me in the middle, and Leslie behind, we cheered our way to the top. After a beautiful descent, we had one more long, very arduous pass till the hotel. It was slow, now dark, cold, and just really not what we wanted to do. But ... I almost screamed with joy as we crested the last pass and descended into the town for our hotel. We made it. Together

Phil gave me a rider of the day hat for making it through that day. I thought this was very kind - I mean, I was one of the last riders in on what should have been a typical day route. He did say though, which was 100% true, that my hat really belonged to all the people who rode with me and supported me throughout the day. I almost cried as he said this because it was exactly how I felt - the grupetto, Dirk, Leslie, Colin, Dale, Tim, Phil, Dieter, George... that was why I finished. 

Day 9: 86 miles, 16500 ft

As you can imagine, I was a lead weight coming out of the hotel the next morning. Who does a 20k ft day and feels sprightly the next morning? The grupetto left me almost immediately on the first climb; they were aiming to finish the full day and needed to move fast. However, as I approached a gate saying the road was closed, there was Erika, waiting for me (also trying to figure out wtf to do because the road was closed). 

We decided since the others had clearly gone ahead and not turned back, we should go ahead too. Although we survived, this ended up being a pretty moronic choice. They were blasting a cliff with dynamite and rocks were falling onto the road. We were yelled at extensively by workers in Italian to which I looked confused and made a walk gesture with my hands. The worker put up his arms and let us by. Success? 

The Gavia was always breathtaking
Poor Erika stuck with dying slug Lo throughout the rest of the day. We planned our short cut - the obvious one was to cut out an out and back to the Gavia, but I asked the support crew at Feed 1 if it would be OK if we did the Gavia but then had a pick up at Feed 2, skipping the last climb of the day. They decided to let us, and that became the plan :) 

Dieter and the mountain goats 
The Gavia was worth it. It is my favorite climb in a way that I can't imagine ever finding a better road climb in the world. You start out in a valley and climb through switchbacks up to an exposed cliff side and then to snowcapped mountains with icy lakes at the top. The views are open and stunning the entire way up. I could do the Gavia every day of my life and probably never get bored.  

At the top we had very over priced hot chocolate (but worth it!) and descended, partly frozen. At feed 2, we were the last to arrive, they took our bikes and we drove the rest of the way, giving our legs a nice break. Sure, it was a total cop out, but I personally didn't have another 9 PM finish in me and wanted to do all of the last day. Howard and Uwe finished the whole day though (#grupettopride!). 

Day 10: 114 miles, 17650 ft
Top of Mortirolo euphoria
The last day. We had almost perfect weather again, and I set out for the full route early, starting off with the steep side of the Mortirolo solo. I have no idea how Phil found this route, but we were appropriately warned we'd be on a concrete path-ish road with a very, very steep grade for a while. I was thinking it would be like Queen Anne Hill (18% for 250 feet or so). I was wrong. It was like 25% for 450ft after a 2000 ft climb and with more to go still. I ended up having to stop and put a foot down twice (!) to catch my breath and continue on. 

Me and Dirk modeling the Cent Cols kits 
At the top, someone commented that I looked good like my bike, my gear, and me all fit together perfectly with the scenery, and that's kind of how I felt - like I belonged at last and I was home in my skin. I doggedly continued on, taking few breaks, knowing that it would be dark by the time I finished again ("the slowest turtle doesn't get breaks"). As we climbed another pass before Feed Stop 1 Phil gave me a high compliment - that people like me make him think a 20 day Cent Cols Challenge is possible. I almost vomitted - I mean how do you tell someone who just gave you such a compliment that you were two days into a urinary tract infection, you had saddle sores in places you never knew existed, and you had sores in your mouth from drinking too much electrolyte mix. My body would eat me alive if I had to do another 10 days. 

But the day continued, more snicker bars, more heat. The Vivione started out hot, and I rode with Dirk most of the way up. What started out a pretty terrible climb, evolved into a wooded landscape with all these intricate stump statues and then at the top was an extended summit that was beautiful. It almost felt like a crescendo on the trip, the final music and endorphins eclipsing everything. 

Feed 2 shenanigans 
The pass before feed stop 2, I was really hurting (UTI again, ugh) and my angel in the darkest times, Dale, appeared again. Dale and I talked -- I had wanted to interview him for my podcast and several days ago had asked him what motivates him to complete the things he does. He used this time to talk more about that and ask me the same question. Our answers were similar - we don't think, we just do. In the words of Dale, it's all in your head, the only thing that stops you is the thing between your ears. 

The Vivione
We made it to feed 2 (I felt inspired now after talking to Dale) and regrouped for the last climb. Phil made sure there was a real puncher in there (25% cobblestones, why not). Leslie and I finished the last climb together, having a nice girl-to-girl talk that we didn't really get much of a chance to have all trip. Have I mentioned she's incredible? I mean, all the women, Mikki (who tops the strava cycling climbing challenge board every month) and Erika (who definitely beat me on most of the climbs) are incredible, but so is Leslie and in so many ways. 

We finished in darkness back in San Pellegrino, and it felt like coming home. Dinner that night felt like a celebration amongst my best friends. Lots of speeches, lots of gratitude, lots of happy memory sharing. Phil + staff + John gave me a rider of the event award, which I felt was totally unmerited. Phil's reasoning was that after Day 1, no one had expected much of me, and by the end I had completely turned that around and with a smile the whole time (I tried to explain that was a grimace). But once again, Phil in choosing me was just choosing a symbol for what happens when the group bonds and decides to do things together - we become an unstoppable force capable of exceeding all goals and expectations.

So my longest blog post ever, but I wanted to do this experience justice. A lot of friends thought this kind of trip was mad, but I fit a month of memories and emotions into a 12 day trip. As Erika said after, my dreams now are filled with descents, and when I look back at the photos I remember how astounding it all was - the physical, mental accomplishment in addition to the raw beauty of what we saw and the bonds we formed. I kind of feel like something in me has changed, that part of me will always be on that trip and part of me will always crave these experiences. For all the suffering and the hard times, there was more joy in it all, and for that I am immensely grateful for the group I shared it with and for Phil, who decided long ago to push us all to find what lies in our core. 

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