I’m not sure which was harder, the physical aspect of riding my bike from sea level to over 10,000 feet or the mental game that was going on inside my head both before the moment-of-truth arrived and during the five hours of steady climbing. One of the many reasons that I wanted to visit my daughter Hannah who lives in Lahaina on the island of Maui was to tackle the second highest climb in the U.S. – the Haleakala (“House of the Sun”) volcano. While probably not the hardest, it is certainly one of the longest. The route I took started in Paia at sea level and finished up at the observation building at 10,249 feet, 35 miles later. My goal was to accomplish this ride in less than five hours.
Perhaps it was a mistake to drive up to the top from Paia a few days before. I went from thinking that it was no big deal to wondering if I could actually carry enough food, water and clothing to be comfortable and to ride the mostly steady 6% grade for that amount of time. The temperature in Paia was in the 80’s at the start and in the 40’s with wicked winds at the top both days. In between was about five road miles and a few thousand feet of elevation which were socked in by a layer of clouds. After conferring with my friend and training partner Peter who has done the ride twice (once from Paia), I was able to get helpful hints about where along the route to find water (very limited) and what clothing layers to bring. Maybe I was going to have to ride with a backpack.
To prepare for Haleakala, I had ridden many long hilly rides in western Massachusetts in the winter and very early spring, trying to get a few rides with at least 5,000 feet of elevation gain. It was, however, impossible to prepare for the heat. Once on Maui with a nice Specialized Roubaix road bike that Peter’s brother (who owns numerous properties on Maui) was kind enough to lend me, I did two hard rides around west Maui to acclimate to the heat and sun. It was then that Hannah and her boyfriend Andy offered to drive the climb while I rode and stock their car with water, food, clothing but even more importantly, moral support. This must be what it feels like to be a professional rider!
Some of the people in Hannah’s circle of friends had heard about my plan to ride up and this put even more pressure on me as I knew that I would probably see them before I flew back home. Like most folks, the thought of not accomplishing what I set out to do was also weighing heavily on my mind and I became concerned that so many people knew what I was going to do. How would it feel to have to face them and say that I didn’t manage to get to the top? Not devastating but not the best-case scenario. Then there was Peter. How could I not do what he had already done twice? I suppose it’s obvious that we can be somewhat competitive, especially with each other.
The day finally arrived. I had done an “easy” three hour ride the day before (with 2,700 feet of climbing) thinking that I was going to ride Haleakala after a rest day. Due to logistics, we decided to go that Sunday so I was a bit apprehensive wondering if my body was rested enough. It was go time though, so off we went to Paia. After they dropped me off in town, I began the climb within 50 yards, pedaling up towards Makawao and then up the Haleakala Highway to the turnoff to Crater Road. Hannah and Andy ate breakfast in Paia, did a little shopping and then started up the road to find me. I kept a moderate pace, one that I thought I could maintain for five hours which meant no big efforts and no big gears. My worry was that I’d encounter other riders and get sucked into an unsustainable pace. Fortunately, this never happened. I saw two individual serious riders coming down and scores of recreational riders in full face helmets and body armor riding modified mountain bikes that had paid to be driven to the top so they could coast down.
I was about thirteen miles and 3,000 vertical feet into the ride when Hannah and Andy caught up to me. My strategy was to drink at least one bottle filled with Gatorade every hour. Since I was riding about 8 or 9 mph, I asked them to find someplace to pull off every 10 miles or so. These stops turned out to be great benchmarks for me as I could break the ride into smaller sections. As I would approach them each time, they’d be out on the road, dancing, cheering, yelling ridiculous things, taking photos, and generally making me laugh so hard that it was hard to keep pedaling. At one point, a car filled with young guys pulled up beside me (I think from behind they might have thought I was a woman) and gave me a lot of encouragement, ending with “You’re killing it, dude!”
My real struggles began at around the 3-hour mark at 6,000 feet. My nemesis, muscle cramps, started kicking in. I had to get off my bike at this point, stretch, drink, down a gel, take a few magnesium pills and walk for a minute until the muscles finally released. This is the point where I had to deal with my first serious doubts. Usually, once I start cramping, it’s over for me. Once they settle in, they usually don’t leave for hours. I managed to pedal another mile or two very slowly until I found Hannah and Andy, being careful to just pedal as easily as humanly possible without sliding backwards downhill so that I could sort of hold the cramps off. When I saw their car, I was in serious need of more supplies and a pep talk. Hannah is really good at this. Three years earlier, she talked me out of abandoning our trek around Manaslu in Nepal on day 3 of 12. My prime motivation out there on Haleakala was to not disappoint her. After another hour of very slow riding, all my new electrolytes finally kicked in and my cramps disappeared for the final hour.
The summit was in view at around the 8,500-foot mark. I knew at this point that I was going to reach the top. There’s a small visitor center about 300 feet below the summit and then the last half mile where the grade kicks up to over 10%. I blasted past the 10,000-foot sign and then another few hundred feet of elevation to the very top. I felt like a man possessed at this point and attacked, riding up the final paved sidewalk weaving around lots of picture taking and surprised looking tourists who must have thought a madman was on the loose. Hannah and Andy were waiting for me, taking pictures and videos while many of the other folks did as well. They offered congratulations and asked streams of questions. I kind of felt like a rock star.
If you are ever looking for a perfect descent, this is it. Never scary steep, great road surface, and, except for the layer of clouds in the middle, fantastic visibility as most of the ride is above the tree line. You can ride faster than the cars so passing is easy and I was even out of the saddle on occasion to push my speed effortlessly over 40 mph. Just be sure to brake hard going into each of the 31 hairpins (I forgot to do this on one and almost went over the edge). And finally, thank you from the bottom of my heart to Hannah and Andy. I’m not sure that I could have done this ride without you!