Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Final Julian Death March MTB Ride, October 25, 2014

Cuyamaca State Park, always one of my favorite sections

The Julian Death March is an ultra-endurance mountain bike event  in the mountains (and deserts) near Julian in San Diego County. I had my first try at long mountain bike races at that event, as did my son Obin and my neighbor Ron Vance. The JDM had a good run, but all things come to an end and this October was the final edition. The pictures are from various time I've ridden in that area.

Ron had long made plans to go, but it didn't look as if I could join: Kathy was visiting her parents in Colorado and Anya had a highschool race Saturday morning (Mount Sac). But Ron's wife Susan offered to take care of Anya and I gladly took her up on that. Anya's run and my ride went well (Anya was 10th overall and the first from Santa Monica in the varsity race, even though she is a freshman), but Kathy fell during a trail run with her brother and hurt her shoulder that morning.

We left Friday afternoon and had time to ride a little bit in the Santa Ysabel Preserve. I remember it as a fairly muddy area, but in October, it was very dry, but also lots of sand. We started on the West Entrance, whereas the JDM will enter the Preserve from the East Entrance.  From the west, it is a steep climb to get into the main part of the preserve.
Ron struggling on the first climb

Doing better here

Ron does not believe in newfangled stuff like tubeless setups for rides in thorny areas
We stayed in Ramona in a cheap hotel that had two rooms. Julian is a lot more expensive and also booked up during weekends. 

Julian is a nice town, although suffers from faked cutesy as a tourist attraction. It is an excellent area for bike riding, though, with lots of accessible open space and a variety of terrain. The Julian Death March route goes through Cuyamaca State Park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and the Santa Ysabel Preserve. A bit further north is the Cleveland National Forest (and another route, the Stagecoach 400, goes through there when looping back to Idyllwild).

Rich Wolf is the organizer of the Julian Death March and it has come with multiple options as typically few people could handle the full loop. Most quit after the shortest version, which is 50 mile. Some of it is psychological: After the first loop, you come back to the start and then there is a second 22 mile loop that goes out to the opposite side of town. In recent years, the the regular first loop was 64 miles with about 9000 feet of climbing, including the famed Oriflamme climb, but the final edition skipped Oriflamme and was 50 miles long, followed by the second loop for a total of 72 miles and about 9500 feet of climbing - so in more understandable measures: About 116 km and 2900m. 
Start of the final edition of the JDM, October 2014
The ride starts out with 17 km or so of paved and graded road mainly downhill from downtown Julian. Fast pavement initially, suddenly turning to more sandy dirt that can be tricky. It was warm this year, but the descent often is cold. I remember a year when we it was below freezing at the start. Many people bomb down the long descent, getting overly excited by the "race". Sure enough, one of the racers crashed himself this time and I remember seeing people ending up in a big dust pile in previous years. As you can get up to high speeds, 60 km are easily possible, this will result in serious road rash. 
But that downhill stretch at the beginning can be taken easier and it actually is quite enjoyable. On a warmer morning, with Obin, probably in 2011.

Eventually, there is a sharp left turn onto real dirt, which is the beginning of a long (6 km or so) climb. That will warm you up on any day and this year, it felt hot. After the dirt climb up, another fire road and pavement that shouldn't be too hard, but it was more painful as I took the first climb a tad too hard. The switch between pavement and gravel can be tricky, one time I was riding a bunch of motorcycles passed me on a slight uphill and a few curves downhill I found them again splattered over the road. There was an aid station this time (after all, it was an organized race), followed by a longish road climb up Engineers Road. On a previous Deathmarch, we had snow on the road, but this time it was pleasant weather. After the first climb, we seem to have gained enough altitude to be out of the desert heat again, so Engineers Road didn't feel miserable. After cresting the top, a short downhill to 79, on the 79 around the lake. The traffic is mild, but then, more traffic than I like. The best stretch of the ride comes after turning off the highway:

Some rolling dirt road through the Cuyamaca section, then a nice single track climb (this picture is going the other way during Stagecoach in 2012, I had just caught up with Jill Homer).

Jill Homer in the single track section near Sunrise Highway
After crossing Sunrise highway, there is another pretty grass section, which on the Stagecoach route is among my favorite parts because it means that I had made it out of the desert.

Obin in 2011

The meadow-like section ends at Mason Valley Gate, which is the start of a long descent into the desert on rutted jeep roads and sandy washes. The descent can be treacherous, especially Chariot Canyon. However, it is easy going this way, coming the other way (climbing out of the desert) is a very different story.

Mason Truck road

In previous years, there was a detour into Rodriguez Canyon and then up Oriflamme, although this year's route skipped Oriflamme. The infamous Oriflamme Canyon climb is only 5 km and 1700 feet, but much tougher than it sounds. Small baseball sized rocks everywhere and the gradient keeps increasing.


You never know when this climb is just hard or extremely hard. Some times, I have to walk more than I ride, other years, I've ridden almost all even with camping gear.

Halfway up Oriflamme in the spring - this looks almost pretty, but it is grueling desert. Spring 2012 or 2013
At the bottom of Chariot Canyon, the route hits highway 78. It is a long climb back to Julian and riding the highway may be a bit faster, but there is a single track and dirt road combination that has no traffic, although goes through somebody's junk yard.

Obin climbing back to Julian on the Toll Road, nice and green in 2011
This year, the top of the Toll Road looked very different as there was a fire not long ago. With some rain, maybe there are some green shoots next spring, but right now, it is barren black landscape.

Toll Road in October 2014
Back in town, if you have energy left, there is a 22 mile loop on the opposite side of town through the Santa Ysabel Preserve. I grabbed some gels and water and headed back out, maybe the 5th or 6th person to start the second loop. On the first climb in the preserve, I saw the race leaders coming back already, so they were more than an hour ahead of me by then. That gap widened quite a bit as I really started to suffer on the last section and they were able to keep cranking. But there was nobody behind me for a long time either and I saw the next riders as I was on my way out. I made it back to Julian after about 7 hours and 40 minutes riding time and maybe another 10 minutes stopping time, well under 8 hours total, which had been my goal. I was really wasted, though, this was a hard ride for me. Ron was the next finisher, about 20 minutes behind me.

Julian is famous for its apples and apple pies. Not sure if that is deserved or a marketing trick of the chamber of commerce, but in any event, we had to buy pies. However, the line out of the Julian Pie company stretched for half a block. We didn't want to wait, but there is a much easier solution. It seems that the pies aren't made in Julian anyway, but in Santa Ysabel, and there is no wait at that store and it has a much more efficient express window for whole pies.

Which is the classier medal from this Saturday? Anya's or mine?

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