The Puget Sound-area running community generally considers the Mercer Island Half-Marathon in late March the first big race of the year. For the bicycling community, it’s the Chilly Hilly, a 33-mile loop around Bainbridge Island.
I’ve done the former eight times in the last nine years. This past Sunday, I did the latter for the first time, and enjoyed what is an orgy of sweat and gears for thousands of Seattle-area bicyclists. I rode with my neighbor friend, Geoff, who’s done the ride seven or eight times before.
The 40th annual Chilly Hilly brought together about 5,000 riders from the Seattle side and the Kitsap County side of Puget Sound. Most came from the Seattle side, packing three or more different ferry rides across the water. The event starts once the ferry reaches the dock and the bicyclists can get their helmets on and ride up the hill from the terminal.
Years ago, I lived in Kitsap County and knew my way around Bainbridge Island a bit. Riding in and around the island again Sunday, I remembered very little, not even downtown Winslow, Bainbridge’s only real commercial district. But that’s OK; it was great scenery and an awesome workout. And my ankle wasn’t an issue, as bicycling doesn’t put much stress on it.
Here are the six things I will remember about the 2012 Chilly Hilly:
1. The procession of bikes onto the ferry in Seattle: Bicyclists were packed together in lanes, just like cars, waiting for the 7:55 a.m. ferry to Bainbridge Island. I mistakenly got into the lanes of the fastest bicyclists, who were going to the front of the boat. A ride organizer noticed I was wearing sweatpants rather than expensive spandex like the elite riders, and suggested I join the slower riders and not get run over. I thanked him.
Just like in many marathons, you have participants in quirky costumes to stand out. I once saw a guy wearing a white shirt and tie in the Portland Marathon round the corner to the finish line and put on his suit coat, suggesting he was finishing a day at the office. Likewise in Sunday’s bike ride, I saw a guy walking his bike onto the ferry wearing a gray dress suit and red bow tie. OK.
2. The tough hills: There were seven or more hills totaling 2,675 feet of elevation on the course, and they required all the energy and leg power I could muster. Typically, you’d be on a rolling hill or flat stretch leading to one of these challenging hills, then see a bottleneck of riders walking their bikes up or riding at a snail’s pace. I set out to ride up every hill, but in two cases, my efforts got sabotaged by riders or walkers getting in my way. Trying to avoid a crash or spill, I totally lost momentum and had to walk a bit myself, causing me to be a little ticked. I had to wait to get back riding as soon as I could do so safely on a hill.
An extremely lengthy steep incline, which my fellow rider Geoff called Baker Hill, was probably the most taxing. This hill went up for nearly a mile, and you could hear everyone breathing hard as they struggled to get to the top. Also memorable were the final two hills to the finish line. Just when we climbed one, we turned the corner and saw the other one. I didn’t think I could handle the second one, but I did.
3. The fast descents: The one thing about steep climbs is that they are usually followed by steep drops. And much of the day was spent flying down hills. In running marathons and other races, as time went on, I’d put the brakes on going down a hill to avoid an injury. Riding a bike down a hill, I similarly have my hand on or near the brake. But in the Chilly Hilly, I let go a bit and enjoyed the wind in my face.
I got a charge out of watching faster riders act like they were skiing and snowboarding down a mountain, making moves on their bikes like they were on TV or something. It really is a thrill to speed down a hill after a hard climb up the other side. And I certainly won’t forget that downhill and turn into the finish line.
4. The strange weather: Getting off the ferry at the start, it looked like it might turn into a dry, sunny day. The weather seemed to be cooperating, putting the bicyclists in a festive mood. To our chagrin about an hour later, snow flakes started falling, and you could feel the “chilly” in Chilly Hilly. In fact, we battled the falling snow as well as the elevation in riding up Baker Hill.
The snow, however, was off and on and did not stick. The chilly seemed to remain until the end. The sun played hide-and-seek, and started shining again was Geoff and I hit the finish line. All in all, I can’t complain about the weather. Because the snow flakes were fleeting, we didn’t get drenched and we avoided finishing the race a soggy mess.
5. The relative lack of free food: This was the first event I can remember where food such as chili and hot dogs, even bananas, cost money. Geoff explains that the Chilly Hilly is a fundraising opportunity for Bainbridge Island charities and nonprofits. OK, I get it. But, based on my past experience with such events, I did not bring cash or a credit card.
We stopped at two food-and-rest stops. At the first, the only thing I remember being free was the sports drink from a cooler. I drank all I could, and ate the energy bars I’d brought. At the second, there were free cookies, brownies, and hot apple cider, and I gobbled it all down. The second stop carried purposely free stuff for cheapies like me, Geoff explained. Yet there was no chili or hot dogs.
I was OK with that, because Geoff was going to loan me some cash for the great chili that awaited us at the finish line. Indeed, signs touting the “Chili Ahead” punctuated the last three miles of the race, teasing riders to make it to the end.
6. The finish line: We crossed the finish line in, by my watch, four hours and 21 minutes. Of that time, according to Geoff, we actually rode 3:45 and spent the remaining 36 minutes at porto-potties or the food-and-rest stops.
What I will remember about the finish-line area is that we didn’t spend much time and, alas, did not get any of that highly-marketed chili. That’s because Geoff wanted to catch the 1:10 p.m. ferry back to Seattle, and so we only had minutes to spare. I had to enjoy my chili a bit later at a Wendy’s in Bellevue.
It was nice seeing former newspaper and Microsoft colleague Anthony Bolante in the ferry line back to Seattle. All in all, it was a great ride and a fun day, and I want to do more of these. I’ve done three major bicycle rides now. My goal is to do a 100-mile ride sometime this summer.
March brings the St. Patrick’s Day Dash (not quite four miles) and the Mercer Island Half-Marathon. I’m tentatively planning to walk/run or just walk both; my ankle is doing OK but still not ready for much pounding.
That’s my Chilly Hilly story. Thanks for reading. Till next time.