Aaron Johnson | 2015 Stagecoach 400

2015 Stagecoach 400

April 30, 2015  •  3 Comments

The Stagecoach 400 had always peaked my interest, but not in the way the other bikepacking races I've done have. Unlike CTR, AZTR, and the California Sierra Trail Race, the Stagecoach 400 does not promise miles upon miles of quality singletrack; much of the Stagecoach route is paved or dirt roads. What it does offer is a grand tour of the geological, ecological, and cultural diversity of Southern California, from high alpine, to inhospitable desert, to civilized metropolis, and back, with a decent amount of good trail thrown in here and there. Nothing motivates me more than the promise of technical, challenging, big mountain singletrack, but I had a feeling that Stagecoach would prove to be, at the very least, interesting. Something different, a chance to explore a corner of California I otherwise wouldn't see.

I had been training hard for this one. Big, long, consistent hours in the saddle, starting with JayP's Fat Pursuit in early January, and good solid buildup through February and March. Hiring a coach was paying off - I felt pretty fit going into this race, much more fit this early in the year than ever before. My stretch goal was to finish in 48 hours - tough, but maybe doable, and I was planning on giving it everything I had. No sleep kit, just an ultralight bivy, going as light as possible. I did opt for the full suspension rather than the hardtail, as I'd heard how rough some sections are and I like riding the Ripley more than my hardtail, but in retrospect, the hardtail probably would have been faster with all the dirt roads and pavement.

The race started in Idyllwild, CA, a small mountain town high above Palm Springs in the San Jacinto mountains. I loved it - such a cool little town, friendly people, good food. Everyone kept asking me if I was a PCT hiker - guess I was giving off the hiker trash vibe?? Hah. But when I mentioned I was doing the Stagecoach, everyone was super excited and supportive - pretty awesome.

After some mingling and chatting with other racers at the pre-race meeting the evening before - good to see some familiar faces, and meet some new ones - I got a decent night's sleep, and felt great as we rolled out of Idyllwild at dawn. It was chilly, but I knew we would be facing triple digit temps in just a few hours once we'd dropped down to the desert, so I was determined to start fairly hard and get as many miles done as possible before it got super hot. After some fun Hurkey Creek singletrack, I found myself in the lead pack with Blake Bockius, Neil Beltchenko, Erick Lord, and a couple other fast guys. I let them go after the first road section - I knew Neil was going to charge off the front, and I didn't want to blow up trying to keep up with him. Better to ride at my own pace.

Hwy 74

The first 57 miles to Borrego Springs were pretty much all downhill, so we were just flying. About 20 miles in, I was coasting down a dirt road, when a big scary looking dog comes flying at me out of nowhere, barking like crazy. Of course, the road here happened to have a slight climb, so I sprinted my ass off for about 10 seconds to get away - the dog kept up easily, even nipped me right in the shoe. "F#&K YOU DOG!", sprinting all-out, fully expecting to get bitten. Finally the road started downhill again, and I was able to get away - that dog kept up the chase for a good half mile or more. Damn, if that didn't get my adrenalin flowing! 

Coyote Canyon was an interesting challenge - no trail, riding down a dried up river bed, some deep sand and rubbly boulders:

Coyote Canyon

I'd heard stories about the Willows, and they did not disappoint - out of the desert arises this sudden jungle, and we went from hot dry sand to hub deep in a river in literally 5 seconds. Pretty fun bushwhacking though this!

The Willows

Borrego Springs came pretty quickly, and I was feeling great. I got into town just as Erick, Neil, and Blake were heading out, so I grabbed a quick burrito and water, and set off down the highway to Split Mountain. Midday was approaching, and the temps were rising fast. I was pouring water all over myself to keep cool as I pedaled down that highway.

Almost to Borrego Springs

Burrito riding shotgun

Quick stop at the Split Mountain store to refill water to capacity (I could carry about 4.5 liters), and started up Fish Creek Wash. As soon as I left the pavement and hit the sand, the temperature skyrocketed, pretty much instantly. I began to get slightly worried - did I have enough water to make it 35 miles to Agua Caliente? As I battled the sand through the narrow canyons, the heat got worse and worse. I felt fine for the first couple hours, keeping up with electrolytes and hydrating, but after a nasty hike a bike up the aptly named Diablo Drop, the heat started to get to me. Exhaustion, headache....why is there no damn shade in this place!

Fish Creek Wash


Fish Creek Wash

Diablo Drop

Blake on the Diablo Drop

I could see the heat affecting everyone else too. I passed Blake looking not too good before the Diablo Drop, and saw Erick sprawled out in some shade under a cliff. I finally found some shade and took a 10 minute break to let my head stop boiling.

Feeling slightly warm

The last few miles out of the desert were the worst. Interminable heat, heading directly into the blaring afternoon sun, on a sandy road that never wanted to end. I had never been this hot in my life! I hit the road just as my water ran out, and limped the final couple miles to the Agua Caliente store.

I got to the store around 5:30pm - the store owner looked genuinely concerned, and hastily supplied many a cold beverage. I sat inside the store, pretty shell shocked, drinking a Coke, for about 20 minutes, until Blake came stumbling in. Slowly, racers trickled in, strewing gear and clothing and salt crusted bodies all over the porch of the store. Nobody was going anywhere, anytime soon. The heat had pretty much ended everyone's grand plans of pushing hard to make it to the 9:30am ferry the next morning on Coronado Island.

Agua Caliente store

After about an hour, I suddenly perked up and felt ready to push onwards. Another racer, Ton, left a couple minutes ahead of me, but everyone else looked like they had no plans to start riding again for a while. I chased Ton up the road into the sunset, feeling totally revitalized by the cooler temperatures and looking forward to tackling the upcoming Oriflamme climb, 4500 feet up a steep, rocky jeep road.

I caught up to Ton as we started the crux of the climb - just as rocky and loose as they said it would be, mostly rideable, with some hike-a-bike. I was feeling great, and left Ton behind as we crested a ridge to end the steep section. The rest of the climb was amazing, flowy singletrack - wish I could have seen the scenery in the daytime! Before I knew it, I was at the top of Noble Canyon, the start of the long descent down to San Diego.

It was a bit after midnight, and I decided to catch about an hour of sleep before tackling the descent. It was pretty cold up there at 5500 feet, so I descended a bit, found a nice pocket of warm air, pulled out the bivy, and tried to sleep. I drifted off a few times, only to be awakened by a couple racers passing me - finally I had enough, and packed up. Noble Canyon was pretty cool - fun, chunky singletrack, descending 3,000 ft down to the town of Alpine. Lots of frustrating little climbs interspersed throughout the descent made progress a bit slower than I'd hoped, but I had climbed back into 2nd place by the time I hit Alpine at around 5am. (Neil, in 1st place, was hours ahead, already on Coronado Island by the time I was in Alpine. Crazy fast!). I was still feeling pretty good, and after a quick breakfast at Starbucks, set off on a mission to reach the Coronado ferry by the time it opened at 9:30am! 50 mostly downhill to flat miles in 4 hours? Could I do it?

I began to feel kind of shitty as I left Alpine, low energy, but I shrugged it off. Finally got going at a good clip, but once I hit the trails around Sweetwater Reservoir, I knew I wouldn't make the ferry - those trails had some nasty little climbs! I finally made my way onto the city bike paths, and had to bob and weave my way through all the people out for their morning jogs and stroller pushings. Where did all these people come from?? Such a contrast from the previous 24 hours!

San Diego

I made it to the coast at precisely 9:30am. I could look across the bay and see Coronado Island, but I had to bike another 15 miles to actually get out there! OK, 11am ferry, here I come!

Coronado Island

The bikepath out to the Island was pretty uninteresting. I couldn't see much scenery from it, and had a nasty headwind. I ended up having to push pretty damn hard to make the 11am ferry, only to learn upon getting there at 10:57 that the ferry was at 11:30am. Crap. Took advantage of the downtime to get a big ice cream, gyro sandwich, and check the tracker - still in 2nd, but people are creeping up on me fast!

Waiting for the ferry

The ferry dropped me off right in downtown San Diego, and I started riding north along the coast. I thought this part would be fast and easy, but I was starting to feel off, like something wasn't right. I couldn't get in my groove, I had to keep stopping to adjust something, or get water, or put on sunscreen, and was getting frustrated with my slow progress and flagging energy levels.

San Diego

Was I just suffering the ill effects of yesterday's heat? Finally, another racer caught me - Keith - and we rode together for a bit through the city. Pacific Beach, Seaworld, La Jolla, UCSD, Torrey Pines, we saw it all....although I must say, I did not like this section, probably because I wasn't feeling good and had already seen San Diego before many times, but battling sketchy traffic and homeless people did not suit my fancy. I was relieved to finally get back on the trails, heading up to Escondido, with Keith and Ton, who had caught up to us.

All day, I had been readying myself for a strong push through the night to the finish, thinking my low energy was just a low point, that it'd go away, and I'd start feeling good and finish strong. As we got closer to Escondido, I became pretty sure that it wasn't going to happen. I was getting sick. My throat was hurting pretty bad, I was coughing a lot, hacking up green chunks, and couldn't breathe through my nose very well. The trails to Escondido were really fun, especially in the evening light, but I couldn't enjoy them at all, and it took everything I had to keep up with Keith. We finally arrived at a gas station in Escondido at 7pm, and all I could think of doing was sleep. I was literally passed out on the pavement outside the gas station, while Keith hung out and ate dinner and made sure no cars ran over me. Keith and Ton were planning on tackling the final 100 tough miles to the finish, pushing through the night, maybe sleep a bit later on, and I somehow convinced myself that I could do it too. We resupplied for the final push, and set off into the night.

I made it about half a mile out of Escondido before pulling over and crawling in my bivy. I was coughing a lot, super tired, and pretty out of it. I set my alarm for 11pm, for 3 hours of sleep, hoping that I'd magically feel better and be able to push onwards into the night.

My alarm went off, and I felt waaay worse. Sneezing, coughing, snot blubbering, horrible sore throat....there was no way to continue. I made my way back to Escondido and had to bike a couple miles off route to the nearest hotel, only to find it was full. I called every damn hotel in a 10 mile radius - no vacancy anywhere! F#&king Spring Break! ARGGHH...that was a pretty low point for me, feeling as sick as I was, and having to find a place to bivy, with no sleeping bag. Luckily it was a pretty warm night, and I found a reasonably comfortable place behind a bush in the hotel parking lot. Just to top off such a pleasant night, as soon as I was falling asleep, the sprinklers came on! Screw it, my bivy's waterproof....and I was out.

Not so awesome stealth bivy in a hotel parking lot in Escondido.

Slept for about 6 hours and woke up feeling marginally better. I took a nice, long breakfast at a diner, and evaluated my options. Ride 100 tough miles in my sick state, or bail from the race, rent a car, and drive back to Idyllwild? Obviously my race goals were out the window, but not finishing was not something I wanted to face. I decided to push on to at least Lake Henshaw - I could stay another night there at the lodge if I needed to, but I was gonna finish!

Bike proof gate - someone doesn't want us here!

The rest of the morning was pleasant riding and scenery, but I still felt awful. After some rattlesnake sightings, a horrible few miles on HWY 87 with no shoulder and sketchy traffic, and a nervous traverse through a section known to be patrolled by people who hate bikers, I made it to the Black Mountain climb, the big climb up to Lake Henshaw. It was getting hot again, but I was starting to feel quite a bit better, and made pretty good time to the lake.

Lake Henshaw

Quick resupply at Lake Henshaw resort, and I was off to tackle the often bitched about "land of a thousand false summits." I had the elevation profile so I knew exactly how many summits there were, so it wasn't that bad. Plus the scenery was pretty good!

I descended down to the Anza valley during a gorgeous sunset, and was back to the lolly pop stem of the route. Sweet, only a few more hours of known terrain! The first few miles went quickly, the sandy hike-a-bike wasn't too bad, I bundled up with everything I had for the long road descent to Hurkey Creek, and then the wheels fell off. The last 10 miles had a couple thousand feet of climbing, and I was crawling. It took forever, I felt like shit, cold symptoms returned, but I finally grinded my way to the top of that dirt road and descended down into Idyllwild for a finishing time around 11:30pm. 64 hours or something, maybe 8th or 9th place. It was ugly, but I'm damn happy I did it, and pushed through to finish!

Despite getting sick, I fully enjoyed this race. I loved the desert sections, even with the heat - felt like being on Mars. I will for sure return to ride Noble Canyon in the daytime someday. Huge thank you to Brendan and Mary Collier - you guys definitely have created something special here with this route!


Andrew - thanks man. I zip tied a Fenix LD22 to my helmet, and used a Light&Motion Stella 300 on the bars.
Aaron- nice job and write up. I was wondering what you did for lighting?
melody johnson
Nice teeth, Aaron!
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