Road to relaxation? For veteran staffer, it’s a ‘Death Ride’

This story launches a new weekly series exploring the lives of students, staff and faculty, both on- and off-campus.

Persons of interestBERKELEY — Head out of Markleeville, Calif., on Highway 89 just before dawn — a white beam, cast by your handlebar light, illuminating the pavement ahead. Speed south astride your silver Serotta Legend, feeling the rush of the cold alpine air and the fellowship of hundreds of fellow pedalers.

This is Karen Rhodes’ game plan for Saturday, July 14, the date of this year’s bicycling event known euphemistically as the “tour of the California Alps” and more bluntly — given its five high-altitude passes, 15,000 feet of climbing and 129 miles — as the “Death Ride.”

Karen Rhodes on bicycle

Karen Rhodes hits the road

Executive director of marketing and communications for the College of Engineering, following a decade in University Relations, Rhodes devotes countless hours preparing body and mind for one or another cycling “sufferfest,” as she puts it.

Monster hills are her playground. This spring, weekend training sessions take Rhodes to the summits of Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. Hamilton and, of course, Mt. Diablo, “which most closely approximates Death Ride conditions.”

“I like to do Mt. Diablo repeats,” she says. “Climb the south side, descend the north side, turn around and repeat in reverse.”

Chubby and uncoordinated as a child, as she tells it, Rhodes’ passion for cycling began in her 20s, as a UC Santa Cruz undergrad, after missing the last bus up the hill to campus one night.

“Someone lent me a bicycle, which I rode in the dark up to my dorm room,” she recalls. The climb — a mere molehill to her today — “seemed like the hardest thing I’d ever done.”

It was also one of the most compelling. She was hooked.

More than three decades later, Rhodes has dozens of cycling feats, including one-day centuries (as in 100 miles) and double-centuries, in her rear-view mirror. The “most insane,” she says, was the Furnace Creek 508, “as in 508 miles through the Mojave Desert and Death Valley.”

There, Rhodes and a riding partner in 2005 earned (and still hold) the record for an over-50 two-woman relay team. She also rode in the Everest Challenge, a two-day ride in the eastern Sierra, involving five “monster hills” and 29,000 feet of elevation gain.

Karen Rhodes
(Noah Berger photo)

No beginner’s jitters, for Rhodes, leading up to this summer’s Death Ride. She’s finished the event five times before — once as a rider with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s charity-fundraising Team in Training, four times as volunteer Team in Training lead coach. (Over the years, she has raised more than $45,000 for health-related charities through her rides.)

As Team in Training coach, Rhodes designs a four-to-six-month conditioning program, consisting of increasingly demanding rides, for several dozen cyclists organized in teams, each headed by an assistant coach. And she shares with riders-in-training hard-won cycling tips — from event-day nutrition and hydration (“avoid bonking, where your muscles have nothing left”) to time management during an endurance-cycling event (“keep your time off the bike, going zero miles per hour, to a minimum”).

“I’m sure the participants show up for our first ride expecting a Lance Armstrong-type coach — not a gray-haired woman in her late 50s,” she laughs. “But I manage to show them that anyone can stretch beyond self-imposed limits.”

As for her own rides, “There’s always some point when I realize the challenge is more mental than physical,” says Rhodes. “My greatest satisfaction is getting out of my own way mentally.”

Ahead, over the handlebars, looms yet another monstrous hill. Discouraged, tired or both, “I accept and ride up anyway.”

Know a member of the campus community — staff, student or faculty — who might make a good subject for “Persons of Interest”? Send us a note at news@berkeley.edu.

Persons of Interest photos

To meet other "Persons of Interest," click above.