Sunday, May 26, 2013

On Catching Up or Falling Behind: Another Study of Perspective

photos by Jay

There was a moment at the end of this Saturday's ride-- around mile 89 for me-- which succinctly captures my experience of the past two weeks in the intimate, wordless way only cycling can: I found myself in a pace line with Ward, Jay and Cisco D-- and worried that they would drop me because they can all go much faster than me on the flats. But somehow, I always found myself tucked behind one of them, until mile 89. And then, feeling guilty about staying on a wheel the entire time, I used what was left in my legs (not much) to pull ahead in order to pull the last little bit before I'd go my own way, toward home.

Only, it didn't quite work out that way: I pulled ahead, and perhaps they all got the wrong impression and thought I was racing. Or, maybe I am just slow and I pissed everyone off by becoming the human roadblock. Either way, a pack of three would cruise right on by, leaving me where I have consistently been in running, swimming, writing, riding and... life. Breathless, exhausted and feeling pretty awful about what I've got to offer the world.

At the top of Morgan Territory. At this point, I wanted to go home where it was warmer. Cisco D, however, suggested a map stuffed in my jersey might make a difference. In the end, it didn't.
I'm sure it has something to do with effort. With having too much of one sort and not enough of the other. Granted, I've been spread pretty thin as of late: work at work is exploding with the increased pressure of book promotions as summer publication dates approach. I have taken on another job as a news editor of an online music magazine-- a fun job, but one that requires me to write a lot more than I would otherwise write which would be a good thing IF I wasn't also approaching a HUGE deadline for the Tin House Writer's Workshop-- an honor that I've been graciously granted by some strange twist of luck (someone liked MY writing?? Weird!)-- only to find myself now, ten days before the deadline with absolutely NOTHING to submit because my writing is absolute crap.

Needless to say, I've developed an ulcer which feels like knives stabbing me in the gut, GI issues that feel worse and a habit of sleepless nights. All of these have required a lot of effort to obtain, but unfortunately, they have taken whatever reserves I had left for what I consider the "important" parts of life: everything I do when I'm not sitting on my ass at a desk. (Well, aside from the writing I do for myself. That is the one ass-sitting activity that is completely acceptable. That, and sitting in the saddle of my bike.)
At a crossroads. And I should have bagged it here. But I didn't. I decided, against all sanity, to keep going. 

I half wanted to bag the Saturday ride. The guys are in incredible shape and, due to my new schedule, I'm, well, not. Or, that's not quite true: I still swim three days a week and this would be my first week of running 50 miles in 7 days. Not a huge effort for many: but a milestone for me since, for the past two years, my body just couldn't take it. I haven't been on the bike, though and I have no excuse for that other than 1) I'm lazy 2)I'm running a lot more and 3) I have an expensive deadline coming up that makes me feel as though I'm going to vomit nearly every hour of the day.

So. That's me, starting off at 9:00 am on a Saturday. We were headed, first, to Morgan Territory, an area that's just past Clayton and among my favorite rides. I think, in some ways, because it reminds me of home: this is horse-country where the landscape, though hilly, opens up. Stables, corrals and a narrow, winding lane: if there was sagebrush, maybe I'd be back home. This isn't to say it isn't a challenging climb-- it is-- but this, too, is one of my favorites: once you're in the narrow canyon, you're under the shady cover of trees as the road turns and undulates up.

Today we would ride as a pack for the first part of the climb. Dave and Jay out in front; Ward, Matt and I exchanging positions in the second row of cyclists. Political banter laced with the ridiculous would keep us company until the incline increased and the front pack pulled away leaving Ward and I (and whomever was behind us) to climb on our own. It's one of my biggest fault that I go into a "zone" when I'm doing something--riding, running, swimming. I just find a pace and stick to it: fast or slow. That's what I did for that first climb and so I remember only the flicker of shadows and the sound of my own breathing. I passed a few other cyclists-- guys with hydration packs, or those who had stopped by the side of the road-- but really, it was a solitary effort which was fine with me.

The wind at the top, however, nearly drove me home. It was sunny-- but COLD. Damn, it was cold. As I left the bike by the fence and sat down at the wooden table for my water/snack, I was seriously considering going home, wrapping myself in blankets and working on my Tin House submission. I nearly had a reason: Cisco D said he felt awful, too (although his awful would be a pretty stellar day for me.)

How did I get talked into doing more miles? I didn't want to and I knew it would be a shit-show because no matter what I do these days, I feel awful: about my work, about myself. But then, I don't know, I just sort of wanted to and did and it isn't so hard to imagine what the rest of the ride was like: I'd go out in front and turn back to see the rest of them, in a pace line, streaming past me. Again and again.  But they are a nice group: even if I'm in the back, they always waited for me to catch up.

Talking to Mike-- a real inspiration. A true long-distance rider, I wish I had his grit and determination.  Instead, I will feel awful for pretty much the entire ride.

Out to Livermore and Del Valle Reservoir: a steady two (or three?) mile climb up. It's usually the type of climb I love: steady, nothing too steep. The key is hitting an aggressive pace and sticking to it. But Saturday, I just felt "off"-- my stomach feeling like I'd eaten knives for breakfast, my left knee tugged by a too-tight IT band and the constant reminder that I am not really good at anything.

Feeling awful, but the scenery's great. Del Valle's behind me.

I made it, though, to the top where people fly electric gliders in the wind and down the other side to the reservoir where they hold open water swim events I've signed up for and decided I can't do. The campground was filled with tents of all sizes and colors-- and kids. Cisco D. joked he wanted a hot dog. The mere thought made me want to throw up. I ate some of my second bar but I couldn't finish it; by that point, my insides were doing gymnastics. It didn't help that Jay told a story about a woman they used to ride with who would eat full meals (hotdogs?) in the midst of these long rides. His story was funny, and I laughed: but I worried, with the laughing, if I wasn't about to throw up, too.

What can I say about the rest of it? I made it, obviously, because I'm writing this post. I made it to Livermore and past the water tanks painted with whales and the stink of sewage. I made it to our stop just past the Livermore Airport where I bought a big, cold jug of water and Fig Newtons for everyone to have because of how guilty I felt about my own awfulness. Then, there's Collier Canyon when I thought I had a thorn stuck in my front tire (it was only a rock) and the way the rusted old windmill turned at the top of that last climb in those desolate, brown-hilled miles and how that somehow reflected how my body felt: old and rusted. With knives in its belly.

I'm the fat cowboy, on the right.
Down the boulevard; at first I didn't keep up. And when I did, I tucked in behind a wheel for self-preservation so no one would have to wait. Until mile 89 and then... well, you know.

I woke up and ran today: the ridge trail, around the Lafayette Reservoir. I received correspondence from my contacts at museums for the research I'm doing for this writing project which have given me promising leads; I attended the graduation of my colleagues at Saint Mary's College.

The wonderful thing about sports is that there is always the promise of getting better: you just have to train harder, try harder: the human body will respond. It isn't like that with writing: sometimes you create something amazing; most times you don't and you're rejected. I wonder what it means that I'm focusing on the capricious half of my life. Or, that my body is beginning to respond to the writing and not those other things I do when my ass isn't in the chair.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

First week of Double-Century Training: The Solo Century

I went to bed last night with a lot of questions-- mainly: was I really going to do a double-century? One supported by Planet Ultra, no less? Well, luckily one of my ride-mates gave me another, much more sane option: another ride in the Eastern Sierra that's held in September called the White Mountain Double. The hardest climb begins at mile 17 and results in riding through the sort of high country that sports bristlecone pines. SOLD.

Oh yeah: but you have to ride the rest of the 180 miles for it to count as a Double-Century. Hence, today's ride.

The lovely club I usually ride with decided-- long ago back when registration was still open-- to ride the Wine Country Century. I, alas, did not make the cut-off before all slots were filled and so this week left me with two options: ride alone or putter around the house, doing things like laundry. So, I thought: well, if I'm going to be able to ride 200 miles in September, there's a good chance I'll have to do those miles-- most of them-- alone. And what a way to kick off the training than by riding the distance of a century-- 100 miles-- all on my own.

You see, it's kind of a big deal for me since I've never ridden that far by myself. I've done 80-mile rides. And I've done 120-mile rides with the Diablo Cyclists. But neither one is quite like riding 100 miles all on your own-- or, that's the lesson of the day. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

6:00 AM: THE CAT WENT OFF.  (who needs an alarm clock when you have a CAT? Or, if you have my cat who absolutely will not stand for me to be in bed once the clock's display changes from 5:59 to 6:00 am.) Trill-chirp-eow and then a catapulting-jump-to-the-stomach and I'm up.  While the water boiler does it's thing I start to think: what if I started today's ride by climbing to the summit of Mt. Diablo?

I questioned my sanity while I poured the water over the coffee: Mt. Diablo? Really?  I sort of hate that ride.  Or, I tell myself I hate that ride because I remember hill sprints I did on that mountain and tempo rides and rides after full swim workouts and the junction is about enough if you're going as hard as you can... and, usually, the summit, for me, is out of the question. But there was something in the air today; or, some new focus I have that said, gently: you don't have to go fast. You just have to do it. 

From there, I decided I'd just tack on a club ride-- what we call the "Peets Coffee Ride" which includes the following climbs: The Pig Farm, The (3) Bears, Wildcat Canyon, Grizzly Peak, Tunnel Road, Redwood/Pinehurst and for fun I added Glorietta (not really much of a climb, but a fun downhill) at the end.

The best decision of the day came moments before I rushed out the door, hopped on my bike and began this solo journey: I made myself an almond butter and jam (Mom's homemade plum jam) sandwich. Little did I know: it would be the thing that would save me.

1. MT. DIABLO. I got to the gate around 8:00 am and already it was warm.... and windy. DAMN. I think my teammates might be right: I'm a jinx when it comes to wind. If you've never climbed Mt. Diablo, let me describe it for you: this sort of sucks, sort of sucks, then the road levels (funny, it feels downhill) before the climb to the 1,000 foot elevation mark when "this sucks" turns into whatever word would describe what it would feel like to throw up a lung because it's steep. I passed a guy there who had stopped-- he was the first one I saw at all today, which was so odd. There are usually a lot of cyclists on Diablo on the weekend; but starting out, I had the impression I was the only one.

I soon caught up with another: this one, wearing white bike shorts (the kind with suspenders) OVER a thermal blue shirt. What people think is OK to wear in public.... I didn't see him again (thank heavens.)

Up the switchbacks, I passed one other (male) cyclist but hardly saw anyone on the road. I kept telling myself to drink all the water I had--- I nearly did-- before reaching the junction (about 6 miles up.) Once there, I did see a group of cyclists but they seemed to have no intention of moving (to say nothing of cycling) so I quickly refilled my bottles and headed up for the final 4.5 miles.

You know, it wasn't as awful as I remembered it: I just kept a steady cadence and heart rate-- nothing outrageous, nothing too low, either.  I would pass another guy maybe two miles later before the expansive lookout, before the 3,000' foot marker. But otherwise, the road was mine. I worried about the wind: would it be in my face for that final climb to the top?

From the Summit of Mt. Diablo looking toward the bay, the Pacific Ocean and beyond. Hard to see much from all the fire-smoke.

This would be the first day I didn't stop en route to the summit. I just kept up that steady pedal stroke, a steady heart rate, feeling slow (seeing visions of the guys I ride with passing me and shaking their heads) but just going.  Sooner than expected, there was the last push to the summit--and it wasn't so bad. It was windy as F*** but not so bad.

I tried to refill my water bottles at the top, but the wind kept the water from coming out of the water fountain the way it was supposed to. I tried holding my bottle on the opposite side, but I would only catch stray droplets.  I decided to refill at the junction after taking a few quick snapshots of the incredible view, obscured in the distance by fire-smoke.

My trusty steed at the summit; lucky she didn't blow over from all the wind. I couldn't even refill my bottles since the wind made the water from the fountain spray in the opposite direction.

2. THE PIG FARM & THE BEARS: There's probably nothing more fun than riding down Mt. Diablo. Wow. I wish I had a video-thingy on my helmet. But you'd probably still not "get" it: the wind, the road, the swerve: it's a roller coaster you control.  Back down to civilization: I had a dingle-berry (another rider on my wheel) the entire way down. Why-- I have no idea. I'm pretty slow on downhills, in part, due to falling hard in 2010.

To get to the Pig Farm-- and to the Bears-- you have to ride through Walnut Creek and through part of Pleasant Hill. I hate city-riding: and I was the only cyclist on those sections of roads today. Looking back: I wonder if I ought to have stopped at one of the gas stations for more water. The sun was higher in the sky and it was, already, HOT.   But these are the details which become important in retrospect.

It would a 30-mile stretch between the junction on Mt. Diablo and the next water stop. I decided I would ride it was quickly as I could and refill at the top of Wildcat Canyon. It wasn't the smartest decision I've ever made; but I made it. And, once Pleasant Hill faded into farm and ranch land, there wasn't anything I could do but ride.

The climb to the Pig Farm (I guess it was a pig farm at one point, though I've never seen any pigs here. Goats. Some Cows. No pigs.) It's an undulating up with trees until you get to the climb and then, it's all sun and UP. The downhill's fun, but it killed a guy last year when he ran into a wild turkey who was hidden by the shadows.

From there, you continue to "The Bears"-- a series of long, steady climbs in full-sun.  IT WAS HOT OUT and I hated every drop of sweat that fell from my helmet knowing my water was limited until I could refill at the top of Wildcat.

Once again: I was alone. Hardly another person on the road. Even the cars were scarce and I started to worry that the world had ended an no one had bothered to tell me. I saw one guy after the climb on Mama Bear-- I caught him, passed him-- but he passed me again at the top of Papa Bear and he turned toward Orinda when I would head up Wildcat.

I FELT AWFUL. My knees ached and it was an effort just to MOVE. (I think I was dehydrated.) So, climbing Wildcat was awful, which is unfortunate because usually I love this climb. It's not steep, but steady: I love shifting into the absolute hardest gear I can handle and really passing others on the up. But today:  no one else was on the road and I had nothing in my legs. I kept telling myself to get to the water stop. If nothing else: drink all the water I could and then I could quit.

But you know, the funny thing is: I didn't want to quit.

3. WILDCAT TO GRIZZLY PEAK: I drank an entire bottle of water and more when I stopped at the "top" of Wildcat-- at a restroom which was populated by Porche enthusiasts and not a single cyclist but me. I ate the first half of my impromptu sandwich and felt-- almost immediately-- better. I drank another bottle of water and refilled everything to the brim.

The Porche convention from my spot in the shade. About 25 cars all lined up; and a group of people, below with chips and salsa. I was giddy enough with water and the half of the sandwich I didn't think I'd need.

Up Shasta to Golf Course and then Grizzly Peak: it was strange, these empty roads. The fact that my cell phone offered me no coverage made me even more wary: what on earth was going on? But I chose to ride, because, I guess, that was my only option. Up Grizzly Peak and down into Berkeley to the Peets across from the Claremont Hotel. There, I'd guzzle a coconut water and eat the other half of my sandwich, knowing I was not yet done with this ride.
The bike outside the Berkeley Peet's. I'm the only cyclist there; so odd for a Saturday. The coconut water was delish.

4. TUNNEL ROAD TO SKYLINE TO REDWOOD: There was not another body on the road: hardly any cars, either. So strange. The first few miles up Tunnel Road--taking me out of Berkeley and back into the Oakland hills-- hurt. My heart rate was rather low, but it was as though I had nothing left in my legs.

I stopped and tried to take a photo: the bay was clear and you could see out, even to the ocean, but I re-saddled quickly since I was hardly feeling 100%. I wanted to finish: I wanted to ride this stupid 100 miles on my own.

I had originally planned to take Pinehurst home-- a windy descent that would lead me into Moraga, but I was worried I'd come in under 100 miles, so I decided to extend the ride and do Redwood Road before Pinehurst. That meant another (2) climbs; nothing too crazy; but my legs were tired.

Yet: I really wanted to ride a century on my own and that goal was enough-- even at mile 75-- to keep me from turning back early. Why? I still have no idea. but yes: I made the decision to go the long way home. To climb more. To hurt more. Alone.
Once again, my trusty bike, this time in Sidley Park after the climb up Tunnel Road. 

5. PINEHURST, GLORIETTA, HOME.  Have you ever had a moment when your body supersedes your mind? Like: your mind says: there's no way I can do this! And your body simply, efficiently, well, does. That would be the best way to describe my final miles. Half of my brain was ready to be done. The part that kept me going was the body-part: the part that said, again and again: you can do this. One more mile. Just one more. And then, another. 

Down Redwood and then up again: that would get me to Pinehurst, to Moraga Road. I decided to head back toward Orinda; I was afraid I wouldn't even come close to 100 miles if I just rode by Saint Mary's College.

Wind in my face; nothing in my legs. Moving, them, though. Riding. Alone. Down the boulevard. Turning onto Glorietta. The slight climb. The descent. Riding by the reservoir. Riding through town.  My lovely driveway. The disappointment that I only rode 93.7 miles. Event though I felt worse than a used wash rag.

BUT WHAT A DAY! I climbed to the summit of Mt. Diablo: and rode nearly 100 miles without any help or any one. I hope I can finish a 200-mile ride in September.
HOME! HOME!  The most amazing bike EVER on my deck at HOME. I am so happy to have made it, considering the wind & the heat: my two greatest foes.

For now: dinner and bed. I've got to get up and run and then another 40-50 miles to make this solo weekend adventure worthwhile.

Friday, May 3, 2013

What am I afraid of?

Taken in Smith, Nevada last year when I rode to Bridgeport (about 44 miles) one morning at dawn.
I'd be lying if I didn't admit that there's a certain sense of malaise about my life: there are far more "didn't do's" or "didn't make-its" than I thought I'd ever have. I didn't turn out to be the sort of person who runs a marathon every weekend; I didn't turn out to be the person who has a family or a house or even a car I truly own; I didn't turn out to be an Olympic Trials Qualifier; I didn't turn out to be a swimmer (or, at least one that can do the backstroke); I didn't even turn out to be a writer. And today I feel the weight of all these failures more than usual. Maybe it's the weather; or maybe it's time I try something new.

I wish I could say it was something I came up with on my own; but when you're depressed, the world looks a little darker, like you're in a hole in the ground and you can't always see very far that way. I guess there's a reason why they call it "tunnel vision." It took an email chain started by a guy I ride with who just completed the Devil Mountain Double-- a very challenging 206-mile ride to get me to wonder that old-question-- the one I used to use a lot more in my twenties: "what if?"

I should preface the rest of this with a disclaimer: I ride (and swim and run) with some pretty amazing people. Fascinating, strong and kind people; the sort who devote hours of their lives to a sport that may never pay them back. People like me-- but better.  Anyway, when it came to talking about future double-centuries, the question was posed to me: would I consider doing one? 

Maybe it's a small thing: but I guess the question meant they believed I could. They asked not if I could but if I wanted to. Even though I don't consider myself much of an athlete anymore. I go to swim practice; I ride up Mt. Diablo on Tuesday mornings as fast as I can and do 100-mile rides with the group on Saturdays (most Saturdays.) I've even started running again, slowly, building up my tendons and ligaments to handle a more challenging load, later. But I wouldn't call myself an athlete. I am lucky enough to surround myself with several; but me, I'm just a person who didn't do a bunch of things and who feels, increasingly, like life has lost its glow.

But the what-if question trickled down to my fingers and I did a search and I found out that there's a Double-Century on June 1 in the Eastern Sierra, not too far from where my family resides and where I-- long, long ago-- might have called home. And you know, I really, really feel compelled to do this. Even though it's supported by Planet Ultra which, well (sorry Planet Ultra) sucks. (Yeah, sucks. And I hate to say that because their events raise money for a good cause. But I'll continue because I might be a jerk but I'm not the only person I've heard with similar-- or near-similar comments. I'll never forget the 2009 Solvang Century, the way I ended up riding more miles because I got lost because the route wasn't marked AT ALL and the way there was hardly enough food at the support stops and the best part of the ride was the people I chanced to meet that were riding along with me. Oh, and the end, when I got to stop after 6 hours and thirty minutes, two hours too much for me, then since it was the first time I'd been on a bike that year-- but decided I still had it in me to ride 100 miles. OK-- maybe that last one wasn't your fault.)

But I don't know: why is it I think that getting up before the dawn and riding into the darkness of morning and riding long after the sun has gone down will make me feel better about my life? A part of it, I think, is because I'm afraid of it. Afraid of getting lost out there, in the dark, alone. But in a strange way, I think that's about where I am right now. And why riding might be the perfect metaphor: if I just keep going, the sun's got to come up and light my way.

And you know, maybe I'll find it. The thing I'll "do." Finally.