Tips for doing the Seattle to Portland (STP) in two days: What I learned in 2007


Two weekends ago, I participated in the 28th annual Seattle to Portland bicycle ride, wherein I joined up with 8999 of my closest friends for a friendly ride through western Washington and Oregon. Earlier this year I provided tongue-in-cheek bad advice for preparing for STP. Today I restore the balance with proper advice.

This was my first STP, and I was somewhat apprehensive over whether I was up to the task, since I had never ridden more than 60 miles in a day prior to this. Here are some notes I'm recording for the benefit of future generations, since I couldn't find much in the way of this type of advice on the Web. (Note: These remarks apply to two-day riders. I refer one-day riders to Eric Gunnerson's STP 2006 blog. Obligatory disclaimers: Every person is different. These tips may not work for you. Consult your doctor before starting a major exercise program. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.)

It's not as hard as you think. Sure, it may be longer than you've ever ridden before, but if you're like me, your training rides were 50 to 60 miles without any significant break. In that sense, STP is easier than a training ride, since STP has a rest area every 15 miles or so. It's not really two 100-mile rides; it's more like a dozen short rides.

It's an endurance ride, not a race. If you're like me, your usual bicycling is done at a decent clip, 16–18 mph on level ground. When I told one of my colleagues that I was wiped out from a 60-mile ride and he learned that I went 17–19 mph on the flats, he was horrified. Riding fast is the wrong strategy for STP. Keep it down to 13–14 mph. If you find yourself exerting, then you're going too fast, because you won't be able to keep it up the whole way. It turns out that if you're used to going 16–18 mph all the time, then going 14 mph takes almost no effort at all. You can do it all day without even breathing hard. And that's the idea.

Watch your pit time. As with auto racing, the amount of time you spend in pit stops is important. Although our group managed an average speed of around 13.3 mph on the first day, we also hung around for over four hours at the various rest stops, stretching that first 125-mile leg into a grueling 13½-hour day. (That's right, we had more downtime than this guy, and at the end of the day, he was in Portland!) Some of our extended stops were triggered by mechanical troubles, but others were just dawdling, or at least they felt like dawdling to me; perhaps the others in the group really needed the break time. If you've been moderating your pace per the previous tip, you might very well not be tired at all and need only stop for a bathroom break and a water refill. Besides, if you stop for too long, your muscles may start to stiffen. A lot of short breaks is better than a small number of long ones.

You don't have to stop at every mini-stop. Stop at the major stops, but if you feel fine when you reach a mini-stop and don't need a water refill, then just keep going. This is just a special case of the previous tip, where the pit time is zero. My colleague who had a suboptimal training regimen told me that he had to take frequent breaks, and when he got back on the road, he found himself passing the same person each time. (Said person was easy to recognize because he was riding a Razor Scooter. I experienced the same thing in reverse on this ride: I would recognize the same person passing me over and over.) It's the tortoise vs hare. If you go too fast, you'll need to take a long break to recover, and you end up going no faster overall than the person who goes slower but takes shorter breaks.

One slow leg isn't the end of the world. Even if it looks like you got dropped by the rest of your group, it's not as bad as it looks. At one point, a subset of our group wanted to do a fast leg, and off they went. I stayed back with the rest of the group, but lost track of them in the crowd. I assumed the others were ahead of me, so I picked up the pace a bit and was able to sustain 17–18 mph without any real effort. (It's easy to go fast on Highway 507 between Spanaway and Roy.) Eventually, I caught up with the fast group and realized that I had left the main group behind. I pulled over and waited for the others to catch up. They did, six minutes later.

This was over about two thirds of the leg, so the total difference between a fast pace and a relaxed pace on a single leg is just ten minutes. Being ten minutes late isn't the end of the world.

It's not your legs that will hurt. Your legs will be fine, since you won't be pushing yourself much at all. What will hurt are your hands and butt. (And for me on the first day, my toes, since I didn't lace up well and my toes rubbed against the inside of my shoe.) Vary your hand and seat position to shift the weight to different parts of your body. At the start of the day, you applied butt cream, but since you don't know where it's going to hurt yet, you kind of covered everything and hoped for the best. Towards the end of the first day, you'll start to figure out where you should've applied it. Pull over and apply butt cream to the trouble spots. Yes, you may look like you're getting a bit too familiar with yourself standing by the side of the road with your hand in your pants, but everybody else going past you will say "ah, reapplying butt cream" and not "what a pervert", because by this point, they're probably thinking of doing the same thing. (Note: Attempt only along isolated country roads. In populated areas, seek a private place like a rest room.)

Get your bike ready early. Don't think you can get your bike tuned up with only a month before STP; the local bike shops will be hammered with people who got the same brilliant idea. Also, don't make major changes to your set-up, like a new saddle, a new handlebar configuration, or (heaven forfend) a new bike! It takes a while to adapt to a new configuration, and you don't want to ride STP while you're still adjusting to the new saddle.

Other quick tips:

  • Bring your bicycle mirror. Saves you from having to turn your head to see what's behind you. Use it to make sure you're not pulling away from the rest of your group, to wait for a break in traffic so you can pass somebody, or to spot the car approaching from behind. If you turn your head, you stop riding straight, and you slow down. I broke my mirror at the start of Day Two, and life was significantly more difficult.
  • Bring a bell. You can ding your bell to announce your presence instead of having to shout "On your left!" all the time. You can also ring your bell to celebrate crossing the finish line.
  • Remove your bicycle computer when you finish so it doesn't count your post-race puttering.
  • If you are into performance statistics, you can bring a digital camera (or use the one built into your phone) and take a picture as you arrive at each stop, and again as you leave. The timestamp on the photo combined with the mileage on the route map will let you compute your average speed for each leg, as well as calculating how much time you spent resting. If you don't trust the mileage on the route map, you can take a picture of your bike computer to record split statistics for posterity. If your phone doesn't have a camera, you can leave yourself a voicemail message saying, for example, "Arrived at Seward Park, mileage 10.8." The voicemail system will automatically timestamp the message.
  • If you're a guy and you just need to make a tinkle, then check out the line for the "men-only" portable toilets; it is often shorter.

You may not need (but since you can toss it in your luggage, it probably won't hurt to bring anyway):

  • Book, deck of cards, or other light entertainment. I brought a book and didn't even crack it open, I was so tired. (On top of that, we overnighted in a high school, so there were plenty of books in the library to choose from.)
  • Disposable fork, knife, spoon, cup. The people who serve you dinner will immediately notice when they run out of plates, but they are less likely to notice right away that they ran out of utensils and cups. If you bring your own, you won't be stuck standing there for five minutes with a plate of food and no way to eat it.
  • Pillowcase. Wadded-up clothes + pillowcase = pillow.
  • Sleeping mask. You may want to go to sleep before Nature decides to turn off the lights.

Okay, those are the tips. Trip report begins next time.

Nitpicker's corner: Numbers have been rounded for simplicity of presentation.

Comments (13)
  1. Raymond – Sounds like you had a good time.  And it almost makes me want to get into biking (almost, not quite yet).  

  2. keithmo says:

    Kasia and I did the 2-day STP this year — our first time, and we have a total blast. We’re definitely doing it again next year.

  3. Juan says:

    Great advice!  Heck, that’s fine advice for training for long races, not just bike tours.  For what it’s worth, the best way I’ve found to reduce pit time:  eat on the bike.  Working in pairs to fix flats reduces time too.

  4. joe says:

    “If you are into performance statistics, you can bring a digital camera (or use the one built into your phone) and take a picture as you arrive at each stop, and again as you leave.”

    dude…. get a GPS. Garmin Forerunner 305. I don’t bike or run without it anymore

    [That’s a bit of an investment for just one ride, though. -Raymond]
  5. Aaron says:

    Hi Raymond – The STP sounds like a fun ride.  Those are some great tips for any long distance ride.

    I just finished the Tri-State Trek (www.tristatetrek.com) and you forgot one other very important tip:

    Drink a lot of liquids!  Even when you don’t think you need it.

    When we left it was raining and since it was so wet I forgot to drink – by lunchtime I was really ill from lack of hydration.

    Hopefully not a mistake I’ll make again.

  6. DewiMorgan says:

    Ghbleh, you’re making me actually think this exercise stuff might be fun.

    Amusing nitpicker’s corner about the rounding. You’ve taken all the fun I would have had. I can no longer argue that that highway 507 is more correctly known as 507.1 after resurfacing work removed some UI bugs… or that the razor rider only counts as half a person, so it would have been 8998.5 people riding with you. Though perhaps I could still argue he wasn’t a *real* person, giving 8998+j.

  7. Damit says:

    Sounds like you had a good STP experience too, Raymond! It was my first time too and I was pretty nervous about it (especially since the longest ride I’d done before that was an attempted ride to Snoqualmie Falls that didn’t quite get there), but I’m proud to say that I finished the 2 day STP almost exactly as the finish line festival was ending.

    On a hybrid commuter/mountain bicycle, no less, so 13-14 mph was pretty much a high speed for me…

    Do you think you’ll be doing it again next year?

  8. Alex I says:

    Hey Raymond,

    Last year I did the 2-day STP, and also stayed in Toledo High School (this year’s location was Winlock Elementary, and to think I missed a chance to meet my favorite micro-celbrity!). I have a story to share about that occasion. Me and my girlfriend arrived Toledo dead-tired, had some food, and picked a spot in the school’s library to put down our sleeping bags. We were by the "career advice" shelf, if my memory serves me correctly. Soon enough, the room more or less filled up, and around 9 pm the lights went out. That’s when we found out that we picked a spot directly underneath the one light that was not turned off, and as the custodian-in-charge eventually informed us, could not be turned off. As in, there was no switch to disable it. We couldn’t easily move into another spot without invading someone’s personal space bubble, either. At the end, I ended up crawling under a nearby library desk, and snoozing there. It worked out OK, except when I woke up at night to use the bathroom, sat up, and hit my head. Stupid light.

    Anyway, I am curious, did they have the light that could not be turned off this year as well? (assuming you slept at the library). And, for bonus points, which Windows feature would be most analogous to that light in your opinion?

    Cheers,

    Alex

  9. Ray,

    Congrats on finishing the ride.

    On the butt pain part, different shorts can make a huge difference. The new thing in shorts is having thin and flexible sides on the chamois, so that it moves rather than rubbing. These make a *huge* difference for me – I did a hard century last weekend and was still pretty comfy at the end.

  10. joe says:

    "dude…. get a GPS. Garmin Forerunner 305. I don’t bike or run without it anymore

    [That’s a bit of an investment for just one ride, though. -Raymond]"

    yeah, maybe. But I bet you’d find yourself using for a lot more than just that one ride. A ForeRunner 305 (or any other model, really) is a lot of fun for biking, walking, hiking, running, skiing, even driving and road trips. I enjoy plugging the data into any number of websites, like motionbased.com or mapmyrun.com to see all the ride/run/drive data, including map overlays, which are always fun.

  11. One more thought…

    If you have an expensive heart rate monitor, you get all the timing data recorded for you so you don’t have to take pictures or nuthin’.

    To Joe:

    To run a garmin on STP requires an external power supply as the battery doesn’t have a long enough life for most riders.

  12. joe says:

    ericgu – A Garmin ForeRunner might make it the whole way. The ForeRunners are very small and efficient – not like the big clunky ones with removable batteries. I’ve left a ForeRunner 305 powered on during 11 hours cross-atlantic flights  (multi-leg flights) and it still had juice when we landed. I’ve also gone over a week without recharging it while using it nearly every day, for probably 10-12 hours of use, and it never died on me.

    but, whatever. I’m just saying – having a GPS on any bike ride or run is really quite fun, and if you have one, you might end up using it a lot more than you would think.

Comments are closed.

Skip to main content