As the plane descended towards the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, I wondered what I was getting myself into. The summer of 2000 had been unusually cold and damp in Albany, New York. But it was hotter than blazes in Texas.
From the windows of the plane, the parched countryside was barely visible in the haze of the late August heat. It did not look inviting. Like upstate New York in the middle of an arctic freeze, it looked like a place where you did not want to spend much time outside.
And yet, in two days I planned to spend at least five hours riding a bike 100 miles in that heat. Unbelievably, I'd be joined by over 9,000 other people on that ride, in an event called The Hotter 'N Hell Hundred. Texans sure seemed to have a peculiar sense of fun.
The ride sounded easy enough six months earlier. My sister Kris, a Fort Worth resident, does a little cycling when her job and the weather permit. She had done the 25-mile route of the Hotter 'N Hell a number of times, and said it was a fun event.
I do a fair amount of riding every year, including a 4-day ride from Albany to Provincetown to raise money for the Jimmy Fund. After riding over the Berkshires, I figured riding the plains of Texas would be a piece of cake. Plus, it would give me a chance to sample "Texas culture."
Coming out of the airport terminal, I walked into the blast furnace that was North Texas in August. The heat was relentless. I found myself plotting my route to the car based on the available shade, dodging the sun's rays as if they were raindrops.
We had dinner that evening in downtown Fort Worth. Unlike the steel and glass structures of Dallas, Fort Worth has numerous older buildings that have been beautifully restored. As a result, it had a warm feel to it that wasn't just due to the climate. I spent the evening alternating between air conditioning and visits outside, trying to adapt to the heat.
The next morning we headed off to Wichita Falls, site of the Hotter 'N Hell ride. Located about 3 hours northwest of Fort Worth, Wichita Falls is comparable in population to Albany. However, with no other cities or towns around it, it feels much smaller.
When we went to check in to the local Motel 6, we found a crowd already there. I noticed everyone in front of us was making reservations for next year's ride as they checked in for this year. Apparently, they were so enthusiastic about the ride that they knew they'd want to come back and do it again next year.
After parking in the shade of the only available tree and unloading the car, we drove over to the rider registration. The weekend headquarters for the ride were in the MPEC, a fairly new arena with the rather functional name "Multi-Purpose Events Center." According to a nearby bank sign, the outside temperature was 106 degrees when we got there.
After getting our ride numbers, water bottles and T-shirts, we checked out the huge bike trade show going on in the main arena. Assuming the role of tourist, I bought a variety of Hotter 'N Hell mementos. My most important buy was the official event bike jersey, which was dark red and trimmed with lots of fiery-colored gears and flames. I had seen the jersey on the event website, and it had been a big reason for my doing the ride. I thought it was cool (all right, hot), but I didn't feel I could wear it unless I did the ride. Trust me, there's logic in there somewhere.
Having checked in early, we had a few hours to kill before the big spaghetti dinner and "Best Bike Legs" contest started. Since Kris was only familiar with the 25-mile route, we decided to drive the 100-mile route I'd be riding the next day. Off we went into the hot and dry countryside, cooled only by the car's air conditioning.
Over the next 2 hours, I noticed a couple of things about the route. For one thing, it was very flat. As Kris had promised, the biggest hills on the whole ride were the bridges over the railroad tracks at the beginning and end of the course. Because of this flatness, the roads were also very straight. There were many stretches where we went 4 or 5 miles before encountering a curve. Heck, I thought, this should be a breeze.
I also noticed that the towns along the route seemed deserted. I was used to seeing people outside on sunny days, shopping, mowing the lawn, or just relaxing. But we drove through whole towns without seeing a soul. Again, I thought of upstate New York towns in the middle of a winter freeze. But it seemed strange to see the sun's heat creating the same effect on people as snow banks and icy winds.
Back at the MPEC, I piled my plate high with spaghetti and sauce and settled down at a table to carbo load and watch the bike legs contest. Then I tasted the pasta. Eeyoww! The sauce tasted like no other I'd ever had. Instead, it was heavily dosed with Tabasco sauce. Wanting to fully experience Texas culture, I ate everything on my plate. But I secretly wondered how much more "Texas heat" I could take.
I got up early the next morning and got ready for the big ride. Wanting every possible advantage from the heat, I put on the lightest-colored jersey I had. After filling up 3 water bottles, I headed off to the start. Although it was about 6:30, it was very dark. Wichita Falls is on the western edge of the central time zone, so the sun rises later than I was used to.
I got to the start over a half hour ahead of time, but the area was already crowded. The main street through town had been closed, and three of the four lanes gradually became packed with cyclists. The start order was determined by route distance and speed. In addition to the 100 mile route, people could ride 100 kilometers or 50, 25 or 10 miles. There were also provisions for mountain bikers and roller bladers.
Feeling pretty good in the "cool" (87 degrees) dawn, I took my place in the two city block stretch designated for "fast 100 milers." Then I waited, listening to people talk and laugh about bikes, the weather, and their plans for the ride. There was a sense of anticipation in the crowd, tinged with a sense that we were about to embark on a rather crazy adventure.
"This year, we're stopping at every water stop," I overheard someone say to his ride partner. With 11 stops spread over 100 miles, they'd be stopping a lot, I thought. Usually, on big rides I like to go 40 miles before taking a break, to get ahead of much of the crowd and its related crash potential. However, I figured I'd make an adjustment for the heat this time and only go 30 miles before stopping.
Finally, a nearby cannon blast signaled the start of the ride and we were off with a massive cheer. I felt tense the first 10 miles, riding in a huge mass of cyclists who were going at different speeds. But I eventually got into a pace line running along the left edge of the road and settled into the rhythm of the ride.
The crowd thinned out some after the first water stop, and things went pretty well for the first hour or so. I worked on finding a pace I thought I could stick with over the long haul. Sometimes I rode with others, and sometimes I passed people or people passed me. After about 25 miles, the route turned into a slight head wind and I joined a line of cyclists riding at a brisk pace. All of a sudden the head wind slackened, and I realized a long freight train heading the other way was blocking the wind for us. It was an unexpected benefit of the extremely flat countryside.
I was relieved when we pulled into the water stop in Electra. I had used up most of my water over the first 30 miles, and I needed a break. After filling up my bottles with water and Gatorade and having a couple of cookies, I headed on. After going directly north for five miles, we turned east into the sun and a stretch of road that ran straight for about 20 miles.
The crowd had dispersed by now and the wind was at our backs. I joined a group of cyclists who were drafting two guys on a tandem bike. To entertain themselves on the ride, these two had strapped a boom box behind the front rider and were listening to music from a local radio station as they rode. It made for a party atmosphere, as long as you avoided the antennae sticking out on one side of the bike.
I chatted with other riders as we cruised along, talking about the weather, the event and where we were from. Several of them were veterans of many Hotter 'N Hells, and they told me stories of previous rides. I learned that one year had been unusually cool, with temperatures only reaching the low 90's. That year the event organizers apologized for the ride not being "hotter than hell." Judging by the day's forecast, it looked like that wouldn't be a problem this year.
When I reached the 50-mile water stop, I checked my bike computer and found that I was averaging 20 miles per hour. While I was on track for a 5-hour century, I wondered if I could keep up that pace. The temperature had reached the high 90's and I was starting to feel a bit frazzled.
Other riders seemed to be feeling the same way, and we groaned when we turned south into a strong head wind at Burkburnett. We were approaching Hell's Gate, the stop 60 miles into the ride where riders can bail out of the 100-mile route and head directly back to Wichita Falls. Many stopped there or headed south. But not me. I had come to do the Hotter 'N Hell Hundred, and by gum that's what I was going to do. Besides, I wanted to be worthy of that jersey...
Looking back, Hell's Gate is aptly named. Up until then, the ride had just been hot. But from then on, I felt as though I had entered a hell on wheels. As the thermometer rose past 100 I felt my energy fade. I began to focus on just maintaining forward motion: turning the pedals, taking a swig of water and splashing some on my head through the vents in my helmet. I started to see other riders resting by the road wherever there was a rare tree offering shade. I didn't trust such spots though; I figured they might also be favored by rattlesnakes.
By this time I had discovered the wisdom of the "stop at every water stop" philosophy. When the 70-mile stop finally appeared, I numbly leaned my bike against a port-o-john and wobbled over to the tents that provided the only shade in the area. In addition to water and snacks, this stop offered something new: a woman with a garden hose who would cheerfully soak overheated riders.
With some ice water in a bottle, I sat down with some other riders in the shade of one tent.
"Hey," I heard someone say, "did you see those crazy people back there, playing golf in this heat?"
"Yeah," said someone else. "What a bunch of idiots!" We all laughed at the thought of our own idiocy.
By the time I reached the 86-mile water stop, I felt I was in a war zone rather than on a bike ride. This feeling was reinforced when I stepped into the tents that again provided the only available shade. The first tent was crowded with people getting ice water, Gatorade and snacks. I overheard a man say to a woman, "I don't care if it takes us an hour and a half to do the next 15 miles; I'm just trying to survive now."
With no room to sit down there, I stepped into the second tent. The first things I noticed were two field air conditioners: huge fans 6 feet tall and wide that blew air through cooling coils. There were a few people standing in front of them, trying to cool off. Then I realized the rest of the tent was filled with cots, many of which were occupied by people who looked to be in really bad shape. Some had IV drips hanging above them, attached to their arms. Others were covered with white paper towlettes that had been soaked in cold water. It looked like a scene out of MASH.
This is nuts, I thought. I couldn't believe people would do something like this, and then come back and do it again next year. Then I went out, got back on my bike and started riding again.
By this time the heat was incredible. It attacked from two sides. The sun bore down on us from above, feeling like an open flame we had gotten too close to. Meanwhile the road radiated heat off its surface, creating the feeling of riding over an open oven. I later learned that a thermometer held over the road at the finish line had read 125 degrees. And that was during the morning.
Even though we were again riding into a head wind, many people didn't seem to be interested in drafting other riders. Instead, they seemed to have retreated somewhere into themselves. Although I had slowed down by this point to about 12 miles per hour, I was passing more people than were passing me. Even the slightest incline felt like a mountain. By this time, I wasn't pedaling to go fast; I was pedaling to keep from falling off my bike. The finish was less than fourteen miles away. But I felt like it was on the other side of Texas.
At Dean the route turned right and went up a slight rise. The next water stop was about a hundred yards away, but I saw a gas station and convenience store to my right. I noticed a number of riders sitting in the shade of the canopy over the pumps. "That's close enough for me" I thought, and pulled in. Everybody looked equally haggard, and they welcomed me with a bemused expression that seemed to say "Is this crazy or what?" Somebody mentioned the a/c was on inside, and I staggered into the store.
The store owners had a table and four chairs set up back in one corner. A couple of women were sitting at the table, and I collapsed in a chair next to them. For a while I didn't have the energy to do or say anything, and just soaked in the cool air. After a little while I recovered and noticed a bowl of candy bars and snacks sitting on the table. The woman behind the counter invited me to help myself; they were free for the riders.
Eventually, I went outside and sat with some other cyclists. Someone mentioned that a Coke helped them feel better, and I went in and bought one. Sitting and drinking it slowly, I heard the sound of metal on concrete and heard someone say "Hey, are you OK?" Looking over, I saw someone had dropped their bike and had sprawled out on the ground next to a gas pump. "Yeah," I heard them mumble in reply. I found myself wondering again why anybody would put themselves through this ride more than once.
Somewhat revived by the rest and the soda, I called Kris on her cell phone and told her I was still riding, even if it was much slower than I'd planned. Then I got back on my bike and started out again. I stopped at the last water stop, not so much because I needed to but to play it safe. Plus, the stop broke up the monotony of the sun, the heat and the wind.
Eventually I pedaled up a concrete bridge over some railroad tracks and rolled down into the deserted streets of Wichita Falls and the finish. I was greeted at the finish line by Kris and by a woman handing out pins for this year's ride. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, 8 hours after we started out. Riders and others were scattered about under the various trees in the area, avoiding the sun's heat. Someone announced on the PA system that the temperature was 109.6, making 2000 the hottest Hotter 'N Hell Hundred on record.
The next day, the local paper was filled with reports on the ride, including stories about individual riders. I noticed one story in particular, about a rider on the 100-mile route who "hoped to make it 85 miles." This amazed me. I'd never heard of someone riding in an organized event like this whose goal included being incapacitated before they could finish it. And yet, this person did not appear to be alone. Almost 900 people did not finish their ride in 2000, requiring transportation to either the finish or to the hospital. Many others had their rides shortened when the event organizers closed Hell's Gate at noon, forcing them back to Wichita Falls.
So what did I learn from my weekend taste of "Texas culture"? I learned that at least one part of Texas was very hot and very flat. I found that Texas has many generous people who are willing to cheerfully volunteer for hours in blazing heat for a community event. And I learned that Texans can have a sense of humor about themselves and their occasionally inhospitable weather.
I also observed that many Texans have a kind of kamikaze streak. They seem to seek out challenges that offer the possibility of disaster, with a faith that this will make the experience that much more valuable. With this perspective, the outcome becomes almost irrelevant. Finishing is nice, as is having a good average speed. But not finishing is OK too, as long as you gave it your best shot. While others may focus on ability and results, I got the sense that many of my fellow riders found a greater glory in the challenge itself.
Coming from a different background, I tend to put a lot of value in ability and results. And yet, I now have a greater appreciation of this "go big or go home" attitude. I feel that riding and finishing the Hotter 'N Hell Hundred is a major accomplishment that tells me something about myself and what I can overcome.
But I'm not in any rush to do it again.