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Cycle to the Sun, The Race Up Mt. Haleakala


I’ve put off writing this report in part because I needed to decompress from this event and the lead-up to it. In 2016, I did Cycle to the Sun and placed 14th overall. My preparation was solid, but afterward I was wishing I’d done at least some altitude prep — half of the race, after all, takes place over 5,000 ft. That year, I raced it fairly conservatively, which is smart but always leaves you wondering if you could have done just a bit more. 

In the months leading up to the 2019 race, I was focused, disciplined, and willing to suffer deeply in training. My friend and coach, Joel Schweiger, put me on a 12-week program that would boost my threshold and prepare me for the slight variations in tempo that you simply can’t avoid in a real-world race. One thing I specifically prepared for was the heat on Maui. I did at least 6 training rides with hard efforts on hot days in Sonoma County, making sure I could handle the heat and the required hydration. I got to the point where I actually felt good while climbing when it was over 90 degrees. To top it off, I went to Tahoe for 11 days right before flying to Maui. I worked remotely and trained hard but not carelessly, sticking to the program prescribed by Coach.  
Upon arriving on Maui, it was even hotter than expected, with temperatures in the mid-90s and high humidity. When I arrived, I had three full days before race day. First day: spin and chill. Second day: some hard (but not terrible) efforts to warm up the engine. Third day…well, let’s talk about the second day. Mid-intervals, I knew I was hot, but I drank 2 bottles of mix in the first hour of the ride, and I didn’t have the familiar “chill” that I usually associate with overheating. I stopped at a bike shop to re-fill water and pour some over myself, did one more effort, then headed back to the A/C at the vacation rental. I drank some more mix, ate some food, got a quick massage, then walked around Paia, eventually meeting up with Hilary for dinner. 
At dinner, it seemed like the server wasn’t staying on top of filling our water glasses. Near the end of the meal, I asked Hilary if she felt hot. “Not really.” As we walked back to the rental, I felt light-headed and started walking faster to make sure we got back before I passed out. Once we got back, I drank some more and laid down, hoping the food, hydration, and A/C would bring me back to neutral. I woke up about 2 hours later drenched in sweat. I sat up and immediately felt like I was going to pass out. I woke Hilary up and told her, “Something’s wrong. I don’t know what.” She asked if I wanted ice packs, and I said, “I dunno, maybe.” It wasn’t clear to me what I needed. I was kind of hyperventilating and shaking, Hilary was getting worried, and all I could say was, “Don’t panic.” Luckily, the rental was well stocked with ice packs. As soon as one touched my skin, I knew that’s exactly what I needed. For the next hour, we alternated the ice packs under my arms, on my chest, and on the back of my neck. I finally started feeling better and we decided to go back to sleep. 
The next morning — the day before the race — I felt better but still felt “off.” I tried to eat but had no appetite. I kept drinking and hit the ice packs again. I called the Kaiser advice line and they recommended a trip to the clinic. An hour later, after calls to Kaiser Oahu and then Kaiser Maui, I had an appointment. Pre-appointment, Hilary had the presence of mind to get me some soup, which had 50% of my RDA of sodium. That definitely helped, but I knew I wasn’t at 100%, so we went to the clinic at 3:30 p.m. the day before the race. Thetook an EKG and 4 vials of blood for a battery of tests. Watching the vials fill with red blood cells, I wondered if I’d just canceled my altitude training benefits. But they gave me an IV and I started to feel a bit better, so I considered it a wash. They even sent me for a chest x-ray to make sure I didn’t have major heart abnormalities. [Side note: They found I have slight left-ventricular hypertrophy (“athlete’s heart”). I still need an echocardiogram to rule out anything more serious.] All other tests came back normal, and my temperature was okay. It was likely a case of heat exhaustion and dehydration. The doctors recommended I take it easy for a day or two. I didn’t tell them about the race in 13 hours. 
As we left the clinic, I felt ok, but not great. I tried to choke down a leftover sandwich and some water for dinner, but the appetite was still shot. I slept fairly well and woke up at 4:45 a.m. to eat and get ready for the race. Nothing looked appetizing, but I forced myself to take in about 400 calories and drink some coffee and a tall glass of water with a bit of salt. 
As I rolled to the start, I honestly didn’t know if I’d be able to ride half a mile before having to turn around, or if I’d feel fine and crush it. I did, after all, have a huge block of altitude training and a full IV drip in me. I resolved to forget about everything that had happened in the last 36 hours and just lined up at the front of the 200-person field, ready to race. I kept the option in the back of my mind to turn around if anything felt even a little bit off. 
This being a climbers race, you see a lot of ultra-light gear and rail-thin bodies at the start. I looked like a tank compared to most guys around me. I was also a bit paranoid about hydration, so even with 3 feed zones on the 36-mile climb, I decided to bring 2 large bottles plus another in my back pocket. I had practiced drinking a bottle every 40 minutes in training, and I estimated I’d drink almost 2 bottles by the first feed at 3000 ft, then another 2 by the second feed at 6000 ft. I was also paranoid about calories, having had no appetite for the last 30 hours. Luckily, I had practiced taking gels every half-hour or so in training. I figured if I ate and drank enough on the bike, I might be able to overcome my slight calorie deficit from the last 24 hours, or at least break even.
The race started aggressively, which was a shock considering how chill it was in 2016 and the fact that we had at least 3 hours left to race. As race photos would later indicate, the first 3 riders around the first turn (only 200m into the race) were, in fact, the top 3 overall at the end of the day. The first 5 minutes featured a series of accelerations that immediately exploded the group. I looked down at my wattage and thought, “this is insane, I’m already over threshold power.” But I channeled Coach Joel’s over-under intervals and tried to stay with the first few accelerations, figuring it was just early race excitement and it would all settle down soon. As it turned out, there was no letting up at the front. I was actually feeling very good, but I backed off to maintain sensibility. Post-race analysis would show that those first 5 minutes were my highest 5-min power of the race. After hanging with the front group for maybe 2 minutes, I let them go and joined the second group for about 1 minute, then drifted to the 3rd group. I traded a couple of pulls with 2 or 3 other guys on the flatter, faster sections at the bottom of the climb. Up ahead, I could see the 2016 winner was already getting shelled from the front group. 
I made it to the town of Makawao (7 miles in) a couple of minutes behind my 2016 time, but I chalked it up to a chaotic start and a slight cross-headwind. The pitch leaving Makawao is one of the steepest, and I let a couple of guys ride away as I stayed within myself. Just as we reached Hanamu Rd — 40 minutes into the race and the only flat/slightly downhill section of the entire race — a group of about 10 guys caught me, and I sat in and avoided the front for the next mile. I allowed my heart rate to come back down, took a gel, and finished my first bottle.
At this point, I was in about 30th place, maybe even farther back. As we finally reached Haleakala Hwy, I was in a group of about 6 or 8. It wasn’t quite to the point of “every man for himself”…more like “every group for itself.” I made my way to the front of the group, kept it steady, and over the next mile or so, rode away from them. I started catching and passing more people every few minutes as I passed the first feed, rode through Kula, and turned onto Crater Rd — 21 miles to go. For that whole first hour, my legs were pretty good, but my stomach was a mess. After one audible belch, a fellow racer asked, “How’d that taste?” Digestive issues aside, I was feeling super-zoned and determined. Normally, I’d glance down at my garmin every few minutes and see that only 0.3 miles had gone by. On this day, it seemed every time I looked down, 2 or 3 miles (all uphill, mind you) had just gone by.  
I checked in on my power and heart rate every once in a while, and I was holding very steady, with the slight, expected decrease in power with altitude. Most other racers seemed to go out way too hard in that first hour. One guy who made it to Makawao with me ended up about 30 minutes behind at the top. Some other racers who were initially ahead of me for the first third of the race ended up 20 min behind. At about 4000 ft I caught another guy and asked if he knew how many were up the road. We both thought maybe 20 or so. I stayed on top of drinking and gels, averaging a gel every 30 min and a bottle every 40 min. I would catch myself getting “comfortable” and up the pace a bit. 
It wasn’t till I got to the half-way point that I realized I would actually finish the race, but somehow I was able to stave off all of that doubt for the first 1.5 hours and just go for it. It turns out that having confidence is probably your biggest weapon on Haleakala. Most efforts that we’re familiar with on the bike last only a few minutes or maybe an hour, but nobody knows exactly how hard they can go for 3+ hours up a volcano, what their “target” heart rate or power is. If you let an ounce of doubt creep in (“I don’t know if I can sustain this, I don’t want to blow up…”) you risk backing off so much that you’re just on a sort of “tempo” joy ride. 
As I approached Haleakala National Park at about 6,500 ft, catching people became more difficult and more infrequent. As I passed other riders, I would accelerate a bit to discourage them from sitting on. This is a race, after all. One particular guy stayed on my acceleration, and as we both turned right onto a tailwind section, he actually accelerated away. This is where Joel’s training kicked in, and I put in a dig over the next few minutes to bring him back and stay on his wheel. I knew at this point that each mile-long switchback segment was either a tailwind or a headwind, and being with other people mattered; it wasn’t a time trial. As we turned left into a headwind, I was actually able to recover because of the draft, but I was in no position to get to the front of our duo. This guy actually seemed okay with pulling into the headwind sections, and I was almost at my limit staying on, so I was ok with it, too. We very gradually reeled in a couple more people. Things began to move in slow motion — everyone was going about 10 mph and it sometimes took 20 or 30 minutes to pass the next person. I felt like it took about 6 switchbacks to pass one guy in particular, and the only time we’d make up any ground on him was through left-hand hairpins, when he would stay on the white line on the far right of the road, and we’d take the inside, right on the centerline. 
My pacing partner continued to accelerate on each tailwind section, shifting up not once, but 3 or 4 times. I would gradually bring him back over the course of several minutes, making sure to re-attach in time for the next headwind section. By the last feed zone at 8,000 ft, my stomach was good, my nutrition was good, my legs were good. No pain in my knees, my saddle, my back. Endorphins engaged. At this point, I could clearly see the top, and the landscape turned to a sparsely vegetated moonscape. That meant I could see racers dotting the road for a mile or two in front of me. I didn’t look back at all; only forward. 
As we approached 9,000 ft, I was thinking to myself, “I have to attack this guy, and I will…but when?” Since he had done so much work on the front, I also thought, “I can’t attack him without taking at least one pull into the headwind.” But I also remembered that his significant other had been driving support just for him, meeting him every half-mile or so and giving him numerous illegal feeds. So yeah, fuck that guy. With about 3 minutes of headwind left on one of the last switchbacks, I finally pulled through. He gave me some encouragement, which was nice. I figured we had about 20 minutes left to race, so I channeled one of my 20-minute high-altitude intervals from training. I was feeling better than I had at any other point in the race, and as I turned onto the tailwind section, without looking back, I calmly shifted up once, then again, and just went for it. After a couple of minutes, I glanced back and saw I had 20m on the guy, so I gave it more gas, still trying to stay within myself. The gap grew.
With about one mile left, I spotted one more guy about a minute up the road; he became my next target. By the time we reached the last ranger’s station with half a mile to go, he was 30 seconds ahead. The last .5 mile has some of the steepest pitches, and you can blow spectacularly if you misjudge your effort. Throwing caution to the wind, I threw down what would be my highest 4-minute power of the race (at 9,700 ft). I passed the guy with about 200m to go and surged across the line, relieved. 
I finished in 3:29 — a bit slower than in 2016, but good for 13th place overall and 5th in my age group. Turned out the race really did detonate in the first hour for the front 10 guys. I’m sure some of them went super deep to try to stay with the front duo, a couple of young lads who both broke 3 hours. The winner was a 17 year-old phenom from the Big Island. We’ll be seeing more of him in the future, I’m sure.
This race is something special. It demands a lot, mentally and physically. It’s unlike any event I’ve done before, and I’m sure I’ll be back. Mostly, though, it’s just a great excuse to visit Maui.
Thanks for reading,
Patrick Zahn