Seattle to Portland on a Unicycle

For more information on long-distance and high-speed unicycling go to the unicycle section of my blog, available here.

 

The Challenge

In the spring of 2004 I purchased a Coker unicycle. This unicycle has a 36 diameter tire and a reinforced air seat with hand grips and was designed for riding long distances. I started riding my new unicycle to work (an eight mile commute each way), and on some twenty to thirty mile rides with other Seattle area unicyclists. Around the same time I met Lars Clausen and read his book “One Wheel – Many Spokes”, about his unicycle ride across the United States. These events conspired to get me thinking about doing the STP (Seattle to Portland bike classic) on a unicycle.

 

The STP is a two-day 204 mile ride which draws 8,000 cyclists every year. A few people—notably Jack Hughes—have done it before on a unicycle. Other riders have done STP level distances in a single day, so clearly doing it in two days was quite possible, but not easy.

 

It was too late to start training for the 2004 STP. However, in 2005 I would be turning 40 just a week before the STP. What better way to celebrate my 40th birthday than by showing myself—and anybody else who cared—that I was still strong, tough, and a little bit crazy.

 

I had a bit of experience with endurance sports. I’d done a couple of triathlons—the one mile swim, twenty-five mile ride, six mile run type—but I’d never ridden a bike farther than the triathlon distance in one day, and I’d never been particularly good at triathlons. All I would have to do would be to quadruple my maximum daily distance, do it on a unicycle instead of a bike, and do it two days in a row.

 

If I could maintain an average riding speed of 10 mph—a respectable speed over long distances—then I would be sitting on my unicycle for over twenty hours. Compared to this a marathon or a triathlon feels like a sprint. With no gears, brakes, or coasting my legs would be working the entire time, so good training was going to be important.

The training

The STP was scheduled for July 9-10 2005, so I started training in January. I rode to work as often as possible, rode with a group of friends in the Chilly Hilly in February, and abandoned my family many weekends to put in over a thousand miles on the roads and trails around Puget Sound. It’s satisfying to be able to hop on a unicycle and ride to pretty much anywhere in the greater Seattle area. During my training I improved my leg strength and endurance, but I also figured out nutrition. Some of my longer rides ended horribly as I ran out of energy, or experienced nausea and dizziness. With help from the local group of riders, some library books on endurance racing, and my wife Helen, I got better at eating and drinking the right combination of food, Gatorade, electrolytes, and water to keep my body functioning through hours of continuous exercise.

 

Some of the personal achievements while training included riding thirty miles without getting off, maintaining an overall average speed (including stops) of 10 mph for over seventy miles, and riding up a 16% grade.

 

I got to see a lot of different parts of greater Seattle on my rides. On one training ride I accidentally ended up at the front of the Fremont Solstice parade, which was bizarre enough that it could be a whole separate story.

The Ride

After a year of planning it worked. At around 6:10 PM Sunday I rolled in to Holladay Park in Portland and cracked open a bottle of champagne, having left Seattle at 7:10 AM the previous morning. The vital statistics are:

 

204 miles

20:40 of saddle time

26:30 of road time

 

This gives me an average riding speed of a bit less than 10 mph. I’d hoped for more, but it was tough to maintain a good pace the second day. The first 40 miles on Saturday I managed a riding average of 11.4 mph. The first 40 miles on Sunday my riding average had dropped to 9.2 mph.

Day 1

I woke up on Saturday at an ungodly 5:30 AM, had a quick but substantial breakfast, and headed off to the University of Washington. After sitting in STP car traffic for half an hour I made it to the start line. The ride got off to an inauspicious start as it took me four tries to mount my steed. As I headed off I noticed my body felt oddly jittery—either too much sugar from breakfast, or perhaps just excitement from the ride.

 

Over the first few miles the jittery feeling gradually disappeared and was replaced by seat discomfort. Five miles into the ride I felt like I’d been riding for fifty miles. This is not a good sign and I started to wonder how I could possibly do this ride. I rarely adjust the pressure in my air seat and I’d actually considered leaving my pump in my support vehicle in order to save weight, but luckily I’d ended up bringing it with me. I stopped and added more air to the seat and suddenly I felt quite comfortable—disaster averted. Over the rest of the ride I was frequently adjusting the seat pressure, trying to find the perfect pressure, and experimenting with varying the pressure in order to spread out the wear and tear on my body.

 

The next forty miles were uneventful. I stopped more than I really like to but I was riding fast and feeling good. I was enjoying the view from up high, talking to some of the cyclists and watching the miles tick off. I was eating, drinking, and taking salt tablets in order to keep my body working properly.

 

“The Hill” at the 43 mile mark is a legendary 7% grade that goes for a mile. It’s not really that bad a hill, but you can’t argue with a legend. This was one of the highlights of the ride for me. The really fast cyclists were far ahead, so I was riding with cyclists who were, once you removed most of their gears/coasting/brakes advantage, not as fit as I was. So I toasted them. Nobody passed me on The Hill and I passed sixty or more cyclists, while talking on my cell phone in order to make it seem even more effortless. It was very fun. It’s worth unicycling the STP just for that.

 

Shortly after The Hill some jerk drove buy and yelled out rude remarks urging me to get off the road and questioning my sexual orientation. These remarks always perplex me, and make me sad. I don’t know why some young men have so much anger, or inability to accept somebody different. It doesn’t bother me; it just makes me worry about them. This was the only negative comment I heard on the ride and it was completely overwhelmed by the hundreds of encouraging comments from other riders, drivers, and pedestrians.

 

Shortly after The Hill I pulled a muscle in my right leg. It wasn’t a bad muscle pull, but it was a nagging twinge every time I flexed that leg muscle, and I’m not good at riding one footed with my left foot. For the second time I started worrying about whether this ride was going to work.

 

When I got to the 53 mile mark my wife Helen and my daughters were waiting for me. We sat on the grass in the sun, ate the food that Helen had packed, and loaded my backpack for the next section. My leg was still bothering me a bit, I had trouble eating, and Helen said I looked terrible. I made it about ten miles before deciding that I needed to do something to improve my energy levels and reduce my seat discomfort. I stopped and added air to my seat, took an ibuprofen, and slurped up a package of Lava Gu. One of these changes—combined with a few minutes out of the saddle—did the trick. I resumed riding and I felt like a new man. My pulled muscle stopped hurting, I was riding fast, and I was back on track.

At a couple of minutes past 7:00 PM I rode in to Centralia, the halfway point on the ride. At 102 miles this was my longest ride ever, on a bicycle or a unicycle. Helen and my daughters Maria and Sarah, were there waiting for me with barbecued chicken, watermelon, and other tasty food. Many cyclists had set up tents in the park and were getting massages, drinking beer, watching the Tour de France, and generally having a great time. However, with my slower average speed I couldn’t afford to stop for long. I needed to get a head start on the second half of the ride if I was to finish. So, after a brief rest I remounted and headed off.

 

I was now one of the few riders left on the road. I didn’t see a single rider the rest of the day. For the first time I had to pull out my map and pay attention to the Dan Henry’s painted on the road. There was a brief period where I was convinced I had missed a turn because I’d been riding for several miles and had yet to reach a turn that was supposed to happen about two miles earlier. It turns out that that the STP mileage calculations are not completely accurate. I suspect they fudged the numbers in order to make Centralia’s park exactly the midpoint. It’s really only 100 miles, which is confusing, and a discouraging discovery. Despite the worry that I’d missed the turn I didn’t turn around and I soon realized that I was still on the route.

 

A lone unicyclist in the middle of nowhere sticks out more than a unicyclist surrounded by bicyclists so I started getting more random comments from pedestrians. In Napavine I managed a brief and amusing conversation with a young man loitering in the center of town.

 

Loiterer: Hey, it’s a unicycle!

Me: (wave)

Loiterer: Dude, are you totally crushing your radial vein?

Me: (wondering if his question is anatomically accurate) Yes I am!

Loiterer: Dude, you’re never going to get wood again!

Me: (heading around the corner out of town) It’ll be fine in a few days!

Loiterer: (laughter fading off into the distance)

 

Male bonding—it's a wonderful thing.

 

My destination was the outskirts of Winlock: 119.6 miles into the ride. Helen and I had discussed this on our cell phones and I expected that she was there already. About four miles out of Winlock I got a call from Helen—one of those useless calls where each person says a garbled “Hello” a few times before the connection is lost. I’d managed to unicycle out of coverage just as the call started. I didn’t worry about it because I assumed she was just checking to see where I was, and I was fast approaching her.

 

Around this time it started getting dark. I turned on my flashing rear light, held a bike light in my hand, and continued on. Two STP safety patrol cars pulled alongside to make sure I had proper lighting and to check that I was okay. In order to ensure my safety—and probably because not much else was going on—one of them followed me all the way to Winlock, lending extra light, and ensuring that nobody ran me over. I’m sure I would have been fine—my light was sufficient to see obstacles, and my rear flasher made me feel relatively safe—but I certainly didn’t complain. Riding at night is more stressful and dangerous, and it was good to know that if I rode into the ditch I wouldn’t lie there until morning.

 

I got to Winlock and found that Helen wasn’t there. Oops. Apparently she had been calling to say that she was lost. I still had no coverage so I borrowed a cell phone from the volunteer car that had been tailing me and called her. We talked for about thirty seconds before—surprise—she drove into the cone of silence that surrounds Winlock. In our brief conversation I told her that I was half a mile into Winlock but I wasn’t sure how much she had heard. After fifteen minutes of waiting the volunteers started driving me back along the route, looking for Helen. We found her at a gas station using a pay phone to call my cell phone, and feeling quite frazzled by being lost and then thinking that she’d lost me. It was a powerful reminder of how valuable cell phones are on a ride such as this, and how frustrating it can be when coverage fails you just when you need it.

 

My final stopping point was 120 miles, and I suspect this will be my all-time one-day unicycle record.

 

It was close to 11:00 PM by the time we got to our hotel, so by the time I’d showered, eaten some more, had some more to drink, figured out how to jury rig my laptop as an alarm clock (what kind of hotel has neither wake-up calls nor an alarm clock?) it was pretty late. I set my laptop to play “Walking On Broken Glass.mp3” at 5:30 AM and did my best to sleep.

Day 2

Annie Lennox woke me in the morning and I had a quick breakfast, including toast from the toaster that Helen had helpfully packed. Then Helen drove me back to Winlock to resume the ride. Our hotel was actually about 20 miles closer to Portland than Winlock and it was awfully tempting to skip that section. Who would know? However, I decided that I didn’t want to disappoint me, Helen, or God, so to Winlock we went.

 

I hopped on my unicycle and rode about half a mile before deciding my seat had too much air in it. I’m not sure how I’d managed to ride it the previous night, but it was lifting me up so high that I was worried about getting calf cramps from stretching my legs so much. So, I stopped to let out a bit of air. I was careful to stop on a downhill in order to make remounting easier. It was a good idea, but not sufficient.

 

Unicyclists all know that a failed attempt to mount a unicycle—especially a Coker—doesn't count as a fall. If you go on a long ride and have a few failed attempts to get on then you can still say, with a clear conscience, that you had no UPDs (Unplanned Dismounts). Well, I tested the limits of this rule that morning. I managed to have my worst Coker fall ever, and I did it while mounting. At roughly zero miles per hour I fell suddenly and violently forward, landing on my hands and knees. My hands were lightly scraped and both knees were bleeding. Helen was right behind me at the time and she said that at that point she was very skeptical about my finishing the remaining 84 miles. I was feeling a bit shaken, but too stubborn and proud to admit any weakness. However, after a couple more failed tries to mount I used our van as a leaning post to get on. Mounting a Coker with 5” cranks (shorter than normal, giving less leverage) when you’re tired is a real pain, and this reality guided my dismounts for the rest of the day. No matter how tired or sore I felt, I would never stop unless there was a steep downhill, a well placed leaning post, or a burly cyclist who could help me get on.

 

Other unicyclists have done the STP before, especially Jack Hughes, and throughout Saturday and Sunday I was reminded that all unicyclists look alike. I was greeted several times with comments like “it’s good to see you again”, “I was wondering when we’d see you”, or even “Hi Jack”. I even had a long conversation regarding this with the official photographers. They started by greeting me with “you’re later than usual” and then, after I’d pointed out that they were confusing me with somebody twenty years younger, they started listing various other ways that they then realized I was different from Jack—shorter hair, taller, more handsome (actually they forgot to mention that one), etc. It’s amazing how long a conversation you can have at 10 mph if the road is quiet.

 

If The Hill is the defining terrain of Saturday then The Bridge is the equivalent for Sunday. The Lewis and Clark Bridge across the Columbia has a reputation of being harder than it looks, and it looks like a huge bridge with a fair chunk of vertical climb. Because the bridge is narrow and crowded the organizers make cyclists wait until there is a huge group—probably 500-1,000 riders—and then they shut the bridge to traffic in one direction and escort the riders across. My one concern was about riding on a reasonably steep hill (some sources claim it’s a 9% grade) packed in with a thousand cyclists. It certainly could have been a bad ride, and if I’d fallen on the uphill there would have been no chance to remount. But, it went well. It was a bit slower than I would have liked, definitely crowded, and occasionally I had to dodge an unpredictable and slow biker, but overall it went smoothly. On the downhill side I just kept to the right and let the lazy cyclists coast past me without pedaling. Wimps.

 

Throughout the day I kept reminding myself how far I’d gone. One tenth of the distance for the day. Two thirds of the total distance. Half of the distance for the day. But it was still sometimes hard to keep going. My average speed was down from Saturday which meant it was taking me more saddle time to make the distance, and some estimates were showing me not making it to the finish line until 7:00 PM.

 

At 175 miles, after hours of rolling hills, I decided I needed another performance boost. At a food stop where I met up with my loyal family in the support mini-van I pulled out my secret weapon: longer cranks. It takes just a few minutes to switch from 5” to 6” cranks (having pedals pre-attached to the longer cranks helps) and the extra 20% of torque was a godsend. Suddenly I could free mount on level ground again, I didn’t feel like I was constantly on the edge of falling, and my speed actually increased. This surprised me at first, but it does make sense. Short cranks are great when you’re going fast. They really come into their own at 12 mph and higher. At 9 mph they are completely pointless because your speed is no longer cadence limited, and the shorter cranks force you to waste more leg strength on balance. I probably should have switched to longer cranks earlier—perhaps at the beginning of the day, or maybe even Saturday evening. I am still learning how to best adjust the myriad variables in endurance unicycling.

 

At the beginning of the day, faced with riding farther than I’d ever ridden in one day prior to Saturday, I sometimes wondered whether I would be able to finish. With less than thirty miles to go and a brief burst of enthusiasm from the shorter cranks there was no longer any doubt: I was going to finish this ride, and my only concern was wrapping it up as quickly as possible. The last thirty miles were long and hard, but basically uneventful.

 

Just a few blocks from the end began the highlight of the ride. My daughters Maria and Sarah were waiting, with their unicycles, ready to ride to the finish line with me. It was an amazingly powerful moment. As we rode through the blocked off streets the crowd was cheering us wildly. They were cheering everybody, but a unicyclist who makes it to the finish line gets an extra loud cheer. A unicyclist with two beautiful and talented daughters as a unicycle honor guard drove the crowd completely wild, and I felt like I was the king of the world as I rode triumphantly, giving high fives to my subjects. It was indescribably powerful, and I still get choked up thinking about it. I was again incredibly grateful to Helen for being there to support me, and thinking of bringing the girls’ unicycles. I was also thankful to her for being there to greet me, and for handing me a bottle of champagne to pop up open and sloppily drink.

 

The moral support from the crowd at the finish line was amazing, but the moral support along the ride was no less important. A huge number of the cyclists that passed me—and many of the cyclists that I passed—had powerful words of support. Throughout the ride I had hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of people say “you’re amazing”, “that’s incredible”, “you’re my hero”, and “you go boy!” If such comments make you feel conspicuous or uncomfortable, don’t do a ride like this. But if they buoy you up, as they did me, then they can be the force that sustains you and pushes you to keep on going. These comments, and the dozens of brief conversations about the realities of endurance unicycling, helped to distract me from the discomfort, and focus my thoughts on the monumental personal achievement of each pedal stroke.

Afterthoughts

The support of my family was crucial. Unicycling the STP is hard, and it would be foolish to do it without a personal support vehicle. My family was incredibly understanding and selfless and I couldn’t have done it without them.

 

Throughout Saturday I fielded a wide range of questions, but the number one question was “Are you riding all the way to Portland?” To this I answered some variation of “yes”, “I think so”, or “here’s hoping.”

 

On Sunday the questions continued, but the number one question shifted dramatically to “Did you ride all the way from Seattle?” It made me very happy to be able to answer with an unambiguous “Yes!”

 

Another very common question was whether I had difficulty on the uphills. This shows a lack of understanding of the difficulties of unicycling. I would quickly explain that the inability to coast made downhills and flats hard work, but that uphills were where I crushed the spirits of weakling bicyclists by maintaining my speed while they slowed down. Usually I phrased it more politely than that, but you get the idea.

When people asked me if I had done the STP before I replied that this was my first time—and my last time. The ride is so demanding, and so long, that I’m not convinced I want to do it again. The last fifty miles were incredibly brutal. If I did it again it would be to do it faster and better, but the equipment limits how much improvement I could achieve. If I were to do it again I think I would use a 1.5:1/1:1 shiftable 29” unicycle. This would give me a 20% higher top speed, while letting me cope with hills and tired legs more easily. Perhaps most importantly, the lower seat would let me get on more easily, thus removing a psychological barrier. This is all speculative—I don’t have enough miles on such a unicycle to say for sure. I also considered a geared up 36” unicycle, for even higher speeds, but my experience suggests that this is too exhausting a gear ratio for endurance riding, and it makes getting on even harder.

 

I learned a lot in my months of training, but I was still refining my seat inflation, eating habits, and crank lengths during the ride. If I was doing it again I would devote more of my training time to figuring out these variables. I’d also try and do even more training—having a 150 person birthday party just two weeks before the STP was great fun, but punched a big hole in the last month of training.

 

I used a GPS wristwatch to track my speed and distance on the STP. This lets me analyze my performance and plot my route after the race, and it also lets me monitor my speed, distance, and one-mile times on a display that is easier to read than a frame-mounted cycle computer.

 

I like the benefits of training. I can eat all the food I want, my legs feel strong, and I’ve got the best abs I’ve had in years, despite not doing any sit-ups.

 

I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t encourage others to do it. I say this partially because I like being a member of a small club, and partially because it’s a tough ride. The training demands are substantial, and you have to be pretty compulsive or foolishly proud to stay in the saddle for the 20 or so hours that it takes a mere mortal to finish the ride. 228,000 pedal strokes (114,000 revolutions) in two days is not a normal thing to do. I have a whole new respect for Lars Clausen and Ken Looi, who did STP level distances in less than twenty four hours, and for Jack Hughes, who does the STP on a unicycle most years.

 

As I slogged through the last thirty miles I decided that doing this once was enough. But then, the day after I finished I got an e-mail from Lars Clausen. He congratulated me and then said "Maybe we can do the STP together sometime". You know, it actually sounded kind of tempting...