Million Dollar Challenge Ride: 622 Miles from San Francisco to San Diego


Posted by Patty Collins

Before I was named to the 2016 Paralympic Team, I had a couple fun things on my list of late season activities to soften the blow in case I wasn’t named to the team. One of them was to join the Challenged Athletes Foundation Million Dollar Challenge 622 mile ride down the coast of California from San Francisco to LaJolla. 622 miles in 7 days….GULP….that sounded like a lot, but I planned to start upping my mileage in July when I didn’t make the team. BUT, I DID make the team and there was no time for mileage increases them. My focus was all about a sprint distance.

So, as you can all imagine, RIO was a BLAST, and I came home at the end of September with three weeks to get my behind in shape for the long rides ahead. Little did I know the “Caboose” was exactly what would need it most!

Coach Chris knew of my fall plan and was as usual, not stressed at all.  “Of course you can do the miles, just stay at an easy pace and enjoy the miles” Her other advice was “Lube early and often (sic) no monkeybutt”  Chris’s words were sage counsel to live by last week.  (Side Note, if you get a chance, ask Coach Chris about the summer she and her husband spent 10 weeks riding their bicycles across the USA)

I flew with my bike to San Francisco on Friday the 14th and met up with the other 120 or so riders - some old friends and lots of new friends.  Some veteran riders had done all 11 MDC rides, and some were newbies like myself. Fortunately, there were 5 other Paralympic Athletes who rode all or at least a couple days of the ride including Team MPI athlete Mark Barr who rode the first three days before returning to work.

I wasn’t nervous about the miles ahead, but a little curious about how and when the wheels might fall off my proverbial wagon. I had ridden Bike Tour Colorado twice in 03 and 04, and also from San Fran to LA, but even that was in 2008.  My longest ride this year had only been 40 miles.  There might have been a 50 miler in Jan, but still, that was 10 months ago. 

We started off early Saturday Morning under overcast skies with a bit of rain. I had a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, and a bowl of oatmeal and coffee (standard breakfast for the entire week) and a big slathering of Assos chamois cream. 


Day 1 was 87 miles of rolling hills (5k of climbing).  We had intermittent rain throughout the day, but nothing significant.  The rest stops throughout the week were at appx 20 mile intervals, so there was always something to look forward to and breaking it up was a good way to eat the elephant on this ride.  Each rest stop was stocked with all the snacks one could crave, bananas, berries, grapes, trail mix, jelly beans, gummi bears, pretzels, PB&J and of course water and electrolytes, and gels and bars. Truth be told, I ate more PB&J this week than the entire summation of my grade school years. To me, it’s the perfect food. It’s easy on your stomach, no surprise flavors or aftertaste, a good mix of carbs, fats, and protein, and well, it’s comfort food.  Truth be told, I didn’t know how my legs would hold up with my lack of miles, so I erred on greater calorie consumption. Paralympian Cyclist, Jamie Whitmore and I found ourselves together taking turns pulling and enjoying the amazing views of NorCal.  Jamie and I had known each other a couple of years and we would spend nearly every mile of the ride together.  There are no better friends than those you meet on a bike.  By mile 60, I started wondering when the bad feelings were going to set in. I didn’t have snappy legs on the hills, but they were responding OK, so I just kept plugging along.  At mile 72 or so we had a stop for PIE. I mean, who doesn’t want pie on a chilly misty bike ride? The sugar rush gave us the energy to zip our way to Santa Cruz and up the cruel last ½ mi climb to our hotel.  SIDE NOTE: every night our hotels were on top of hills!!!

We dismounted our bikes pretty happy with ourselves. Mechanics took our bikes from us, cleaned, tuned, and racked for the next morning.  We enjoyed free 20 minute massages and optional NORMATEC recovery boots. Until that week, most of the cyclists had never used compression boots. Jamie and I sang their praises a little too loud and by week’s end there was a sign up sheet because everyone wanted to use them. I made sure to spend an additional 20 minutes stretching after my massage and compression and also slept in compression tights.  I was going to do everything in my power to prep my legs for the next day’s ride. There is a sign in the recovery room at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista that says, “recover hardest”  TRUE WORDS!!!!

While we were recovering there was an enormous spread of heavy apps, wine, beer, and chocolate milk. I stuck with the milk and waited for dinner.  Dinner was as delicious and bountiful and advertised and by day 4, I was calling this ride the Million Calorie Challenge

Day 2 greeted us with torrential rains and heavy winds. The forecast was unchanged throughout the day all the way to Big Sur Lodge, 86 miles down the road. I think most of us thought Day 1 was the “rain day” and we’d have normal CA sunshine the rest of the week.  We were so very wrong!  I don’t remember too much from Santa Cruz to Monterrey other than fog, rain, and sand and dirt from the road blowing hard enough in our faces it felt like microdermabrasion. One of the CAF employees got about 100 shower caps from the hotel and we wore them over our helmets most of the day. It was a fantastic idea. It kept out a bit of rain until they blew off sometime early afternoon. We didn’t linger at SAG stops too long because we didn’t want to get cold. I ate lunch with Mark Barr inside a van and about 15 minutes into it I decided I needed to just press on because I was too cold.  Earlier in the day, we rode along Pebble Beach on the “scenic” 17 mile drive.  The drive is purported to be one of the most scenic drives in the world along the Pacific coastline to the majestic Del Monte Forest. I’m here to report; all I saw was the wheel in front of me. The wind gusts were unbelievable and coming from all directions.  The sky was gray, the water was gray, we were soaked, and our visibility was limited.

I would estimate half the riders did not complete this day of riding. The conditions were the worst any of us had ever been in on a bicycle. My last miles 58-72 for me were alone. A few of my group went ahead hanging on stronger wheels and a few more bailed. I pressed on. I sang songs in my head over and over and just kept spinning my wheels. In retrospect, I am SO thankful I forgot my Garmin at home. I would later learn many of us pedaled down hill into winds at 4 mph!  The gusts were in excess of 40 mph and three times my bike blew from the pavement onto the dirt shoulder. I kept it upright, but it was hard. Why did I keep riding? What did I think about?  Honestly, in a demented sort of way, the suck is good for us and it makes us feel ALIVE. Anytime I thought of quitting, I knew I’d have to get to a SAG stop or pull over and get cold waiting for someone to pick me up. I might as well have kept riding. With 13 miles to go another rider and I met at the last rest stop and decided to stick together. The SAG crew had just had their second tent of the day destroyed by the wind. I think their days were harder than ours. So, my new pal Shaun and I passed the next 13 miles telling each other stories. Lots of bonding goes on when we share hard times. Of course the Big Sur Lodge sits atop a very steep hill, but it didn’t matter. We were so excited to be done, get off our bikes, and get a hot shower. We were dirty from head to toe. I was wearing a base layer, jersey, vest and raincoat, and yet the inside of my sports bra was covered in road dirt. How does that even get there? The upside is, I was so focused on pedaling and getting out of the elements, I didn’t even think about my sore caboose!

Day 3:  114 miles, Big Sur to Pismo Beach.  The dawn broke GLORIOUSLY!!!!!  If yesterday was the worst conditions all of us had on a bike, Day 3 was the BEST.  I have one IRONMAN under my belt and that was in 2000, so I was pretty sure 114 miles would be an arduous task, but the sun was shining! We headed off at first light in a group of about 10 and started the first 3 mile climb up to Big Sur. It was long and a bit of a shock to the system to start climbing right away, but BOY the views were worth it! The gorgeous coast, clear blue skies, a rocky coastline, all the best things to see on a bike,  were laid out before us. We zoomed down and around curves feeling like Formula 1 Drivers and met a second climb nearly as long. We would only climb about 6k today, but still, 114 miles!!!  By the first rest stop I was actually felling pretty great. I was amazed the legs were still doing what I asked. Everyone was in great spirits and we were having a ball! After much of the climbing was done we had a 20 mile run into lunch with an enormous tailwind. After yesterday, we deserved that tailwind. We got in a fast moving train doing about 27mph and stopped once to check out the elephant seals and then a few miles later for lunch. I was drinking about one bottle of fluids (water or electrolytes) every hour and eating at the rest stops. I was pretty certain I was eating more than I needed, but better to err on the side of too many calories instead of no enough when I didn’t have the endurance on my side. The remainder of the day was generally a tail wind and with the exception of a few sore spots on the undercarriage, everyone was pretty pumped about the day!

Day 4:  123.9, Pismo to Santa Barbara (7k of climbing)  This ride had previously been 121, but there was some sort of error in marketing and so one of the riders suggested he would donate an extra $500/rider to everyone who completed the extra 2 miles.  So, keep in mind many of us just completed our longest ride ever the day prior!  This ride took us east to some farm fields, into Solvang, and Cambria, and then back out to the coast near the end of the day.  Of course coming back to the coast means climbing a range of hills, again.  We had a bit of wind today, but by in large, it was a perfect day.  Surprisingly, my legs were still there and a few of us would even race up the hills for bragging rights. Mile 80 met us with a SNOW CONE TRUCK. Talk about lifting spirits! We were all about 12 years old again fighting over grape or cherry or lime and guessing flavors by checking out each other’s tongues. Only 43 more to go!  WHAT!!!!  We still have 43 to go!!!  We had a couple long climbs on some country roads that hadn’t seen a paving truck in a few too many years and then a 25-mile run in on Route 101. This was a highway with a wide shoulder, but still trucks gong by in excess of 65mph wasn’t that enjoyable. We were off the road and over 100 miles, and the next 23 seemed to tick off pretty easily.  Just a few blocks from our hotel, (the Parker Fess, we stayed at some very swanky places) there was a detour and we took the bike path along the beach.  Of course we went a few blocks PAST the hotel and our 123.9 became 124.8.  HOWEVER, we did it!  The last few miles consisted of a continuous wiggling of the bottom and standing to try and find some real estate that hadn’t been abused the past four days!  About 50 or more riders made the entire day’s ride and we couldn’t be more proud of our teammates and accomplishments. 


Day 5:  Santa Barbra to Santa Monica:  87 miles.  Gorgeous Ocean Views ALL DAY LONG!  There was a small stretch of about 8 miles that had some gusty winds, but nothing like Sunday and overall, just a beautiful run down the coast. 87 miles with only 2k of climbing made this day seem like a breeze after Monday and Tuesday. My legs were feeling stronger every day and we ended this amazing day riding through Malibu along PCH and the last 6 miles along a bike trail on the beach right up to the Santa Monica Pier.  Perfection!!!!

Day 6:  Only two more days.  Today’s plan was 72 miles and again only about 2.4k of climbing.  We thought we were to start on the bike trail again, but a few of us got off track and wound up a couple miles over by the time we back tracked and made it to the first rest stop.  What is two extra miles?  Unfortunately for me, it was a little foreshadowing of what would come. I left the rest stop early because I didn’t need the rest room but figured the pack of about 10 in a pace line would come upon me soft pedaling in no time. Well, there was a good bit of climbing along the coast and I was feeling great and apparently never saw the turn off. At the ten-mile point I thought one of two things, 1. You are ON FIRE with power and speed and a group of 10 can’t catch you, OR, 2.  You are lost!  Well, how lost can you be if the Pacific Ocean is on your right and you just head south?  So, I just kept going.  When I finally stopped to check my map, I realized I was not 3 miles from the next rest stop, but 11 miles from it. Oh, well. I verified my route and headed in the right direction, I caught a slower moving group and stuck with them until I knew exactly where it was and when a fast group came by, I hopped on. After the second rest stop (should read 38 miles, but mine phone read 50) I stayed with the fast group since I was feeling so spunky. HA! The overabundance of self confidence didn’t last.  The group took off and I was hanging on for dear life. I heard we were going 28-30, but just kept my head down and clawed onto any wheel I could.  20 painful miles later (you know, the kind where you want to get off your bike and barf a little) we hit the third sag at a shake shack where FREE milkshakes and french-fries were available for everyone. I could not tolerate anything like that. I was hot and tired and just SMOKED. The 69 year old man leading this bullet train was none other than John Howard. I was humbled to say the very least!  However, I was not stupid and looked for my normal group to carry my tired behind home the final 15 miles. We rolled into Dana Point and up a giant hill to our lodging for the night.  We had this amazing view of the coast and watched the sun set low in the sky.  As excited, as we all were to get home and see our family, we were a little melancholy as we knew it was our last night as a group.

Jamie Whitmore with Patty behind

Day 7: Dana Point to LaJolla, 52 miles.  This was the most “chill” relaxed day of the ride.  None of us wanted it to end.  We made a point to ride in larger groups to interact more with one another.  We reminisced about Day 1 and Day 2, laughed, joked, and promised to stay in touch and actually train for next year.  We spent about 15 miles riding on Camp Pendleton yelling a “Hoo-ray” or two to the Marines, and just smiled to ourselves.  We did it.  We challenged ourselves, we grew as cyclists and people, we started as strangers and were leaving as friends.  We raised $1.5 million dollars for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and we accomplished a BIG goal.


I’m so very thankful for the friends, the volunteers, the experience, the amazing mechanics, and the worlds best invention, Chamois Butter in a single serving tube that fits in your jersey pocket!!!


~ by Patty Collins, 2016 US Paralympic Triathlete


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