Gasping for air. I can do this. I’ve climbed Berthoud Pass many times. I live at 9,000 feet. I’m only at 11,000 feet. Pressure on my eyeballs. The top’s just 300 feet higher. Legs feel like tree stumps. No room between the guardrail and US 40. Not safe to stop here. Vision narrowing. Another 100 yards … then I can get off the road … need to rest.
I’m not on my bike. What happened? How long was I out?
“Are you okay, sir?”
“Uhh, yeah. Let me sit for a minute.” I’m slumped against the guardrail. I open my eyes. People have stopped to help me. Someone disentangles my legs from my bike and I flop down.
What happened? My heart is pounding and I’m still gasping for air.
“Please get my water bottle off my bike.” I only have one half-empty bottle.
The firefighters arrive and start directing traffic. What the hell? This isn’t a big deal.
“What happened? Are you okay” Now I’ve got EMTs and an ambulance. I don’t want them.
“I fainted and fell of my bike.”
“What day is it, sir?” “Friday.”
“Is there a holiday this month?” “Christmas.”
“Is Mickey Mouse a cat or a dog?” “Neither — he’s a mouse.” My brain is working.
“I’m … okay … I’ll just … coast down … to my car.” I try to stand but can’t. “Just let me rest. Does anyone have more water?”
“You shouldn’t drink more water right now, sir.” The EMTs take my pulse and blood pressure.
“Let us take you to the hospital to get checked out.” They load me in the ambulance.
“Get my bike! It’s a vintage titanium Merlin.” They do.
I’m 72. My body feels even older.
The emergency room is packed. I’m on a bed parked in the hall in Denver, Colorado. At 5,000 feet here I’m breathing normally.
The ER tech runs an echocardiogram, which shows images of my heart beating and draws blood samples. The on-call cardiologist appears, “Berthoud’s a tough one! How you doing?”
“I’m fine.” I really feel okay!
He reads the EKG and blood test results. “One marker of a heart attack in your blood is a little elevated. Just to be safe we’re keeping you overnight and monitoring your heart.”
“Can I have some water?” They give me an ice cube to suck on.
“We have a room for you.”
“Please bring my bike, too.”
“We can’t do that. It will be safe in our storage area.” I’ve raced on that bike since ’92 – they better not lose it!
They get me to the room, into the hospital bed and attach all the telemetry. “Buzz if you need help walking to the bathroom.” I can walk to the damn bathroom by myself.
“Can I have something to drink and eat?”
“Wait until we have more blood test results. We want to be sure we don’t have to do a procedure right now.”
Procedure means a coronary angioplasty or stent implant under anesthesia. Damn, I hope I don’t need that. Maybe I’ll have to stop riding. Maybe I can’t live at 9,000 ft. Maybe …
A blood draw every four hours checking for evidence of a heart attack makes for a long night. Time to ruminate. When I turned 67, I climbed different passes totaling 80,100 feet, not including climbing on other rides. The next year I climbed both sides of Colorado’s three paved passes over 12,00 feet, plus Mt. Evans at 14,265 feet. Now I can’t even climb Berthoud Pass. I’m not a cyclist any more.
I didn’t ride much for the last four years. I broke my ankle and was non-weightbearing for 12 weeks. We sold our house in Boulder, Colorado, moved to a condo, bought a house in Tabernash, Colorado and moved again. We were caregivers for my father-in-law. I had foot surgery and was non-weightbearing for six weeks. Then I spent the past summer working on the new house. Time’s precious. How many more years can I ride?
“Good morning. I’m taking another blood draw.”
“Can I have some coffee?”
“Not until the cardiologist says you won’t need surgery.”
Now I’m really cranky.
The cardiologist comes in. “The marker of a heart attack is back to normal. Enjoy your breakfast. Here’s the menu. In a couple of hours you’ll do a stress test.”
After breakfast an attendant brings a wheelchair to take me to the test.
“I don’t need the damn thing – I can walk.”
The lab tech introduces himself, “Hi, I’m Joe. I see you crashed on Berthoud. What happened?”
“Got dehydrated and fell of my bike.” Don’t want to talk about it.
Joe’s a cyclist my age. While we wait for the cardiologist, Joe and I talk about the rides we’ve done and our stables of bikes.
This stress test is no big deal. There’s nothing wrong with me and I know how to suffer.
“Hi, John, I’m Dr. Hamilton. I’ll monitor your stress test.” She’s young enough to be my daughter. Young is good – she’ll be up on the latest medical info.
I get on the treadmill and warm up for five minutes.
“We’re going to start the test now. Every minute we’ll speed up the treadmill and ask how you feel.”
Seven minutes later I’m almost jogging. I’m breathing deeply but not as hard as on Berthoud or mountain bike rides. “I feel okay.”
Joe tells Dr. Hamilton, “He’s an athlete. He’s doing fine.” They slow the treadmill down.
“John, great job,” she says. “Most people only last a couple of minutes. We’re discharging you. On Monday see your doctor. We want you to wear a cardiac halter monitor around the clock for the next seven days.”
“Where’s my bike?”
“We’ll look for it.” Look for it? Don’t they know where it is? My irreplaceable 30-year-old titanium Merlin. After an anxious half-hour they bring the Merlin.
The next Monday I meet with Bill, the physician’s assistant. “Hi John, I want to learn more about what happened and then fit you with a cardiac halter monitor.”
“This is embarrassingly simple. I was dehydrated. I was thirsty and kept asking for water in the ambulance and the ER. The day before I fainted, I did a hard ride and didn’t drink enough on the ride. I didn’t drink driving home from the ride and only had a glass of water with dinner. I’ve been a cycling coach for 40 years and write a weekly column for RoadBikeRider. I know better.”
Bill asks, “How many days a week do you ride?”
“Four or five.”
“How many hard rides?”
“I’m 72. Older people need more recovery so I only ride hard one or two times a week.”
Bill tells me he’s in his 60’s and a triathlete. “I had a similar experience,” he says. “I was on a training run on a hot day and collapsed. I had to wear a heart rate monitor round the clock for a month. You’ll only wear it for a week.” He tapes the heart monitor electrodes to my chest and straps the recorder around me.
“Thank you for helping me.” He’s an older athlete, too. He agrees it was hydration. Nothing to worry about.
I wear the heart rate monitor for the week and do my usual hard mountain bike rides. Then my riding partner John Elmblad and I ride Upper Bear Creek Road, one of our standard rides. Back at our cars I take the damn monitor off and mail it back.
A few days later I get an e-mail from my doc. “I’ve reviewed your chart. Everything was normal with your heart monitor, John. Enjoy your riding.” But I failed. If I’m not a cyclist, who am I?
Four months before failing on Berthoud I’m sitting in my office looking at my trophies and jerseys I feel morose. In my 40s and 50s I was a top ultracycling racer. Twice I won a qualifier for the Race Across America (RAAM). The race was 508 miles long with 30,000 feet of climbing. We all raced non-stop including battling through Death Valley at night. The first time I set a course record of 30 hours 54 minutes. Then I set a course record at Boston-Montreal-Boston, riding 750 miles with 35,000 feet of climbing in 52 hours 35 minutes including two naps. I raced solo RAAM non-stop from Oceanside, California to Savannah, Georgia finishing in 11 days 15 hours. I was a cyclist then but don’t feel like one now.
I decide to resurrect my Merlin ultra-racing bike with new wheels and lower gears. I ride it around the Fraser Valley. Great to be on my ultra-bike. But I’m tired now after 25 miles.
I decide climbing Berthoud on the Merlin would be a real feat. But I fail in December 2021.
Back on Top: August 2022
Eight months after I failed, I recruit John Elmblad to climb Berthoud Pass with me riding the Merlin. He and I have been riding together since 2003. He knows me well. In pro races the domestiques pace the team leader up a climb. “You’ll be my domestique to pace me and to call 911,” I joke.
The week before the climb I make sure I’m hydrated. At breakfast I drink two glasses of water. Driving to the base of Berthoud I down two more bottles. When I meet Elmblad, before even shaking hands, I rush to the outhouse.
“Here’s the plan,” I tell him. “We’re going to stop at least three times to catch my breath, eat and drink. We’re not going to start again until I’m breathing normally. We’re going to talk all the way up. If I can’t talk, we’ll stop until I can.”
We start at Berthoud Falls. I’m wearing my Race Across America jersey. We both know the climb. The first right-hand corner is steep. I’m in my lowest gear doing about 60 rpm, breathing deeply but not hard. Around the corner I shift into a slightly harder gear. Wow, couldn’t do this last year.
“You’re my Sepp Kuss.” I remind Elmblad. Kuss from Durango, Colorado races for Team Jumbo Visma. Kuss paced Jonas Vingegaard to win the 2022 Tour de France and also win the best climber competition. Kuss is indefatigable pacing Vinegegaard. I’m wearing my Jumbo-Visma hat for good luck.
“You’re not Vingegaard,” Elmblad replies. “But I’ll get you up there.”
After about 10 minutes the road gets a little steeper. I shift back into my lowest gear and ask him, “Take it down a gear.”
Several hundred yards ahead a car passes. Its wheels and then bumper disappear from view, a sign the road’s not quite as steep. These subtle changes aren’t noticeable driving at 40 mph, but climbing at four mph our legs can tell the difference. “Let’s stop at the waterfall. It isn’t quite as steep there.”
“Okay, just past the parked car.”
I roll to a stop. Sweat’s running down my nose. I hang my helmet on the handlebar and wipe my face. Climbing at altitude a rider breathes so hard it’s impossible to drink while riding. Stopping is essential. As my breathing slows, I pull my thermos from my bike, drink my espresso and eat a couple of cookies.
Elmblad munches on a granola bar and asks how I’m doing.
“I’m not in the pain locker yet. Let’s go.” Shut up legs. We’ve done less than two miles – this could get ugly. Don’t think.
To distract myself, at the next corner I tell him, “One time I was riding up Berthoud. It started to rain and I took shelter under those trees with a guy on a motorcycle. When the rain stopped, I pedaled on.” I can talk in full sentences. Still hurts but I’m not going too hard.
Two corners later. “More rain so I got under those trees. Then I heard thunder. I put on my rain coat and hustled back down.” Shut up legs.
We’re pedaling toward the snowboarder curve. In the winter, this is where boarders and back country skiers descend through the trees and hitch rides from the curve back up the pass. Eight months ago I was so tired I almost fell over when I stopped here. I stop, lean on my handlebars and catch my breath for a couple of minutes before I get off the bike. I hand my bike to my domestique. “I’m hydrated and need a nature break.” I discretely urinate behind a tree.
“How do you feel?”
No thousand-yard stare from exhaustion. “I’m good – don’t need my suitcase of courage.” I pull a sweet and salty breakfast bar from my pocket. Nothing better than espresso and real food on a bike ride.
We climb on. Just focus on his rear wheel.
The paved shoulder is four to five feet wide the first four miles up Berthoud so we can stop whenever we want. Then the shoulder disappears.
“I passed out about half-way along this long guardrail.” We stop off the road before the guardrail. I’m breathing hard but not gasping.
Fifteen minutes later we almost can see the top. “Let’s stop again,” my domestique says. I want to keep going. He’s smarter … so we stop.
At the top at 11,300 feet I’m tired but not trashed. “Thanks, bro!” He gives me a hug.
We sit by the sign and chat with a guy hiking the Continental Divide from Mexico to Canada. We tell him where he can find water on his way north down the pass. A French couple takes our picture.
“Ready to roll?” Elmblad asks.
We love the descent. US 40 has a wide shoulder here. With the thin air at altitude it’s easy to roll at 40 mph. After decades of riding we’re confident of each other’s bike handling skills and draft just a foot behind each other. Ten minutes later we’re back at our cars.
Since our Berthoud ascent, Elmblad and I climbed Vail Pass (10,666 ft.), which I hadn’t climbed in years. We continued up a rough gravel road to Shrine Pass (11,089 ft.), a new climb for both of us. The next week confident in my climbing legs I rode up Loveland Pass (11,991 ft.), which I also hadn’t climbed in years. Two weeks later I tackled Guanella Pass (11,670 ft.). Although it’s not as high as Loveland, the last 1.5 miles are an 8 – 10% grade. I was in my pain locker. And I needed my suitcase of courage descending the sharp switchbacks.
I’m back on top.
- Anti-Aging: 5 Signs You May Be Dehydrated
- Anti-Aging: How Can an 83-Year-Old Climb Long Hills?
- Eating While Riding: Is Sugar a Bad Thing?
- Ask the Coach: Caffeine and Dehydration
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes chapters on how to meet the ACSM’s recommendations on aerobic, high intensity aerobic, strength training, weight-bearing exercises, balance and flexibility. I include sample weeks and months for different types and amounts of exercise. I give you plans to build up to 100 km and 100-mile rides. I include a plan to increase over two years your annual riding from around 4,000 miles (6,500 km) to over 5,000 miles (8,000 km) a year. You can easily modify the plans for different annual amounts of riding. I discuss the importance of recovery and how to gauge if you are getting enough recovery. I combine the different kinds of training into programs that balance training and recovery. The 106-page Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is $14.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.