If Joe Douglas hadn't listened to his heart, the California Death Ride might have lived up to its name.
Instead, the Death Ride - a 129-mile bicycle ride that features five mountain passes and 15,000 vertical feet of climbing - was little more than a taxing but enjoyable ride in the countryside.
"I could have been in serious trouble in the mountains," said Douglas, a 68-year-old Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Inc. psychiatrist. "I was in good enough shape to get there, but I might have had a heart attack somewhere high on the mountain."
A longtime cyclist, Douglas and his two sons last summer started kicking around the idea of tackling the Death Ride this year.
The mid-July event is known in cycling circles as being extremely challenging for its distance and especially its change of altitude. The Douglases entered a lottery for admission to the event and learned they had been accepted in December.
Douglas started training in earnest. Though nothing around here mimics the steep, sustained climbs of the Death Ride, Douglas made do by "pushing hard."
In February, however, Douglas started experiencing chest pains when he rode.
Concerned, he consulted a doctor, who suggested a "wait-and-see" approach.
"But as I started thinking more about doing a hard climb to over 8,700 feet," Douglas said, "I decided I'd better get in and get a stress test."
Good thing, too. That test revealed "problems," that eventually were diagnosed as a 90 percent block of his left anterior descending coronary artery - the so-called "widow-maker" because of its potentially lethal nature - and a smaller block of another artery.
Both were expanded and stents placed, and Douglas was off to the races.
"I was in on a Friday, and he said, 'We can set you up on Monday,'" Douglas said. "I said, 'OK.' Two weeks later, I did a 50-mile race near Manhattan. Five weeks later, I was doing the (Death) ride."
Douglas figures his story is cautionary.
After all, before he became a serious cyclist in his early 50s, he was an avid runner and triathlete. He didn't fit the profile of a heart attack waiting to happen, though his family has a history of heart disease.
"I'm of normal weight. I've been exercising hard for years," Douglas said. "I eat a low-fat diet. I'm taking a cholesterol medication. I'm not someone you'd expect to have heart problems."
Had the symptoms presented differently, Douglas doesn't know what he would have done.
He recalled the chest pain came only during bike rides.
"This is kind of a reminder that at least chest pain with exercise or anything unusual or unpleasant that occurs with exercise might be something serious," Douglas said. "I had never had this sort of pain before. It was a vague ache with me. I couldn't tell where it was, but it was persistent enough I decided I'd have to find out what it was."
Douglas was unable to complete the Death Ride, but not because of his heart.
On the fourth of the five mountain passes, a thunderstorm hit, pelting riders with heavy rain and hail, and Douglas hadn't packed any rain gear. He made a slicker out of a plastic trash bag and hunkered down under trees for shelter.
"I got really cold," he said. "I was shivering badly. That got kind of grim. I did one smart thing and one stupid thing. The smart thing was getting the stress test. The stupid thing was taking a long ride in the mountains without carrying rain gear."
Douglas and his 36-year-old son Benson were unable to make the time cut to take on the fifth pass and had to cut their Death Ride short - to about 97 miles and a mere 12,000 feet of climbing.
"I went there with the idea, my main intent was to enjoy the ride," Douglas said. "I certainly did. It was a lot of work. It was hard. But it feels good when you're able to do something like that. I enjoy being able to push myself. My intention was to be aware of the whole experience the whole way, and I think I did that."