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Death Riders hit the road

Some may think Dr. Paul Rork should get his head examined, living up to challenges as if his patients’ lives depended on it.

Take the South Lake Tahoe man’s entry into Saturday’s Death Ride, a grueling 129-mile ride that separates the serious cyclist from the weekend warrior. This year’s race sold out in five days in April.

Six months ago, a knee injury forced Rork to trade running for cycling. Barton Memorial Hospital medical staff presented him with a $2,600 GT bike, when he left the chief of staff post. A dare by a fellow doctor sent the 54-year-old Tahoe Family physician to enter the ride that takes cyclists over five mountain passes, and more than 16,000 feet in elevation. Rork will join more than 2,700 cyclists riding the high-altitude course which starts and ends at Turtle Rock Park north of Markleeville.



Rork’s only been training consistently for about two months. But having endurance is par for the course for the ultra-runner.

Rork began his undaunted quest for physical fitness and the mind-over-matter aerobic burn a quarter century ago when he competed in the Run for the Nuts in Colorado.



Doctors in Fort Collins and Greeley – where Rork lived at the time – raced to a bar on the 15-mile course to eat Rocky Mountain oysters. Otherwise known as beef testicles.

So when orthopedist and fellow cyclist Terry Orr challenged Rork to take on the Death Ride he knew his friend wouldn’t back down. Part of the challenge requires Rork complete all five mountain passes Saturday. This would be a personal best for Orr, who has run in cycling circles for years. He’s participated for seven years.

“Paul’s pretty amazing. He took the (idea) head on. He’s so strong from years of running. His transition (into cycling) has been remarkable,” Orr said. “We’re going to try to ride together, but I think he’ll be faster. We’ll make him do it twice, if he’s too fast.”

It takes more than a fit body to complete the Death Ride, which reports no fatalities but a number of dehydration cases. It takes a zen-like mind-set that Rork is familiar with.

This is a guy who has competed in the Quadruple Dipsea, a 28.4-mile trail run that requires scaling Mount Tamalpais four times between Mill Valley and Stinson Beach, Calif.

Rork – who may have weeks in which he’s on call for 80 hours – uses these events and the training leading up to them for stress reduction.

On four occasions, Rork ran in the Western States 100, a century-long foot race in the Sierra Nevada that most people couldn’t fathom in their dreams.

“There’s no race in the world like the Western States,” he said nostalgically. “I like the camaraderie.”

Like many runners who love the endorphin rush of the sport, Rork misses pounding the pavement. His knee gave him signals in the last few years that it had other ideas for his future.

Rork recalled seeing an X-ray of a banged-up knee in Orr’s office.

“I asked, ‘Who does this belong to? This guy’s in bad shape. He’ll never run again,’ ” Rork said. “They said, ‘Guess what? That’s yours.’ “

He had surgery in September, and his own recovery involved overcoming the mental anguish of the loss.

Even the people in his life noticed how difficult it was for Rork to give up running.

“It’s the only time I’ve seen Paul speechless. They knew how much running meant to him,” his wife Cookie said of the hospital staff’s gift of a racing bike.

Rork sees his life in an upward swing now though, enjoying the scenery of Alpine County in his Death Ride training.

His strategy for completing this weekend’s ride is simple.

“I have a choice. I can either live in the Hermit Valley for the rest of my life, or I can go up the hill,” he said of the plateau west of Ebbett’s Pass on Highway 4.

Addicted to the rush

Personal bargains and pleas to God are not uncommon among veterans of the Death Ride. In its 20th season the ride has about a 40 percent return rate for riders. They just can’t get enough.

“I’ve had times when I’ve thought, ‘why am I doing this?’ ” said Ross Johnson, who’s participated eight times.

Rainstorms, especially those involving lightning, appear to be the biggest test of will.

In one of his earliest years since he started in 1987, Ross said cows crossed the road after a downpour. The mess on 8,732-foot Ebbett’s Pass made for a cow-patty soup that gave many riders unwanted green skunk tails down their backs.

Then there is the 1989 ride, when lightning struck too close for comfort.

“I was so tired that I took the attitude, if God was going to strike me down, that would be OK,” he said.

But the bucolic scenery, Alpine County road conditions and friendly volunteers make this event worthwhile for the 46-year-old South Shore rider, a member of the Alta Alpina Cycling Club. The club, with the help of the Alpine County Chamber of Commerce, organize the event that has attracted riders from 34 states and four countries.

“I’ve done a lot of centuries, and the Death Ride has the reputation for being the best supported,” Johnson said.

His wife, Jackie – who’s coordinated the event for the second year – said that is the first aspect of the ride people comment on.

The ratio speaks for itself. There are 600 volunteers to handle the whims of 2,700 cyclists riding to 12 rest stops. This year, their ages range from 9 to 79.

The Death Ride starts at 5:30 a.m. with the first wave of cyclists, and the course closes at 7 p.m.


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