Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Long Way Home: My First Double-Century (The Davis Double)

I think of my sports as imprints on my body: the time spent out in the elements with the sun or rain or wind or snow literally tanning, thrashing or nipping at my skin. But the experience of an endurance athlete is more than skin-deep, too. It imprints itself into the heart and soul of me. Or, at times, sheds light onto this strange creature I am-- this person who wakes and swims or runs or rides without thinking-- falling into the mindlessness of motion. 

I once rode with an Ironman Triathlete. You know the type: the repeat offender. He once told me about training for Ironman Saint George and how his body fat percentage fell so low that he couldn’t swim in a heated pool without a wetsuit. He also coached athletes for the distance and, in trying to encourage me to sign up and try my hand at the event, said words that have imprinted themselves in my mind because I found them so incomprehensible-- and strange: You learn things about yourself when you train for something like that. 

Maybe that doesn’t seem incomprehensible or strange: but at the time (and until yesterday’s ride) I wondered what there is left about me to discover. I know I can’t run a marathon anymore. I know my weight. I know I can’t eat shellfish, that I like to go to bed early and get up and train. I know I’m afraid of open water and wearing a wetsuit. I know I love to write, and will do so even though no one (likely) will publish my work. I know that I will never be thin enough to be beautiful. I know I look awful in polka dots.

But as it turns out, there are several dark reasons each of us holds inside of us for the reasons we do what we do in the world. Most times, those reasons are covered over by the habitual actions of the every day we hardly think about because we are not forced to feel them. Swim 3000 yards? Ride 40 miles? Run an easy 10? These are not things I necessarily feel. I can lose myself in those distances, become a mindless shell of a person. 

But when you ride 200 miles (or, for 12 hours) there comes a point in time when you can’t hide anymore. The barrier between yourself and the world narrows-- or so it did for me-- and the reasons why I push myself the way I do bubbled to the surface, resting on my skin like the sun, the wind. 

The phone rang mid-dream at 4am. I’d been dreaming about an aid station I might see on the ride that day which forced me to wait in a long line for coffee. In the dream I put the cup down and lost it. Distraught at the possibility of all that waiting, I woke up to a dark morning. 

Out on the road by 5am: I can’t say I’ve ever ridden my bike that early-- or done any athletic event that early. I think the earliest race I’ve done before was the San Francisco Half Marathon back in 2008-- we started at 5:30 am for that one. I still remember the dark and the slap of the bare feet of the man next to me on San Francisco’s paved streets. 

It wasn’t cold, but rather, moist and dark. A criss-crossing of darkened streets in Davis I hardly remember and suddenly the openness of a service road next to I-80 and the barest glimmer of dawn. It wasn’t long into the 200 mile ride when something akin to the humming of a hive came over our group of six. The “peloton”  lead by a handful of tandem bicycles whizzed by at something like 25 mph. Rich easily sucked himself into their draft. I struggled not to be left behind. 

Soon, I was in a sea of cyclist-bodies. The humming sound-- coming from our wheels and cranks-- filled the air. Men at my right and left shoulders; there was a type of frenzy in trying to hold that fast pace, but to be on the edge of awareness to every change in speed, knowing the proximity of the wheel in front and back of you, Knowing one false move would mean the pavement and road rash-- a crash-- feeling the responsibility of several lives (including my own). I only caught glimpses of my teammates: Rich and Brian far ahead. Tanna, too, at one point and I rounded the group and sprinted to keep up-- or, at least to keep them in sight. The sound of a dog barking, once, made my hand leap to the brake (who’s braking so fast? I wondered.) But it turned out to be a dog in a fenced yard among the open fields growing slowly lighter as the smell of wet alfalfa filled the air. 

The first aid station came unbelievably quick. The tandem crowd didn’t stop and I found my group easily. I also found that I am not good with the kind of stops required by a Double Century. The idea, I guess, is to stuff as much food and drink in yourself as you can, manage your hydration (in and out, I mean) and then leave. I’m used to chewing, pausing, thinking. This would be an issue later in the day. 

But for that part of the morning: I just remember a quick stop before we became creatures of the road again. The humming gone, we watched the sun rise through the linear lines of orchards, my legs trying to make perfect circles. 

The hills would be my favorite parts of the day. I am remarkably good at hills (funny: as a runner I really suck at them. But put me on a bike and watch me go.) The first ascent to Lake Berryessa was by far my favorite part of the day. The atmosphere was still somewhat moist and misty; the trees shaded the road and something blooming smelled sweet like summertime. There was a slight headwind before we entered the Putah Creek canyon (who comes up with these names?? Putah Creek? Sheez... later we’d also ride by “Pleasure Cove”, a campground, which sounded, um, sort of dirty!) 

I remember rolling terrain and regretting not making use of the porta-potty at the first stop (I think my thoughts between miles 30-59 were something along the lines of:  please don’t pee your shorts, please don’t pee your shorts...) 

Luckily, just when I thought the great deluge had arrived, so did the second stop. Over 50 miles and it was still morning. Maybe I could do this, I thought, standing in line, eating as much fruit, peanut butter & jelly and water as I could. Eat-eat-eat, drink-drink-drink, pee-pee: the dance of the double-century rider when you’re not riding. 

Then up and out again. We saw a pony on a small farm not far from there who stood, blinking as we went by. A horse in miniature; my spirit-animal, perhaps-- I am not (quite) an athlete. And so begins my descent into the darkness. 

To know where and how fast and how far you are: these are the measures of my sport. It shouldn’t be: but I have to admit my sense of worth is balanced precariously on these things: where and how fast and how far. But those things make no sense unless you have some point of reference. And what do you do when you are surrounded by other people? If you are me and in need of these measures, you compare yourself to all of them. 

So many people in front of us: incredibly fit bodies and not-so-fit ones. Here is where I’d find that I am not so strong in a paceline or on the downhill stretches. I have gotten better, true, but Rich and Tanna would leave me multiple times because of this weakness-- something I found again and again was deeply embarrassing. Of course, I’d sprint, catch up, hang on Tanna’s wheel only to fall off again. And again. 

(The dance of a bad cyclist.) 

This was where we would meet the orange-jerseyed cyclist on a fixie. “That guy’s an animal,” said Brian and I had to admit, there was something chiseled and raw about the physique on that single-speed. He was like those mountain men who subsisted on berries and bear, his toughness a roughness, too. His wife would follow us in a white SUV and snap pictures of his crossing. He was raising money for something. I’d asked him, much later, for what, but I couldn’t hear him due to the wind in my ears from the speed we were riding.

And then another climb. This is where I’d meet a rider named George (a man of amazing calves) with a white jersey. He would climb with me that day and say that his ride partner had fallen apart trying to keep my pace up the hill. I’ll learn this about 40 miles from the end; when I met George (not knowing his name) he was another of several passing figures in my field of vision (Rich had fallen back to help Brian up the climb.) 

The terrain: beautiful. The mist had lifted to a deep blue summer sky. Vineyards and ponds, posh country developments, a winding paved and open road. Tanna and I fell behind the wheel of a nice young guy named “Scott” who would pull us into the third rest stop at an unbelievable clip. Funny: it turns out Scott would be a friend of a friend-- a fact we’d find out at the finish line. The cycling world-- like the writing world-- is both very large and small. Cutthroat (there always has to be someone who is fastest) but kind-- the balance camaraderie and competition resting upon the edge of a blade.

There was a four-mile stretch of unpaved road. This, I was not prepared for. I have to admit: all the times I’ve found myself on my road bike in the dirt it’s been the result of some poorly considered choice on my part and I nearly (always) end up on the ground, dusty, bruised and bleeding. To say my anxiety level was high during this part of the ride would be putting it mildly. I felt like I was out of control and on the verge of crashing. Tanna and Rich navigated the dirt easily and soon slipped out of view. Oh God. Now I’m going to ride the rest of these miles alone, I thought. And then: I’m not good enough to be here. 

I would be lying if I said I took this stoically, sucked it up and just kept going. Instead, I nearly started crying and, in a desperate fit, sprinted up the gravel hill with all I had until I caught sight of Rich and Tanna again. Only, once I caught them, I kept going. I knew Rich would catch me (it’s sort of inevitable, like gravity or the fact that the earth will circle the sun again again or that toast, when dropped, always lands jam-side down). He did catch me, (and so did Tanna) but I said hardly nothing for the rest of the climb (the second of three), thinking they’d both had enough of me and my incompetence, by then. 

And the downhill to the “lunch” stop: I realized that if I do not finish Boise, if I do not do well in competition or practice, if I do not get over my fear of wetsuits and open water, it will no one’s fault but my own. Every fear and doubt I have are the product of my own imagination. Rich and Tanna weren’t leaving me: I’d made that up because I’m weird and have deep emotional issues, apparently.  

This realization would settle in when we did stop and I forgot to do the eat-eat-eat, drink-drink-drink, pee-pee dance. Instead, I’d stared at the sandwich I’d grabbed and sipped the coke distractedly. I am not an athlete nor do I have the heart of one, I thought and when Rich said, “Let’s go,” I realized I’d wasted my time staring at a sandwich. I threw (most of it) uneaten in the trash, my face on fire. 

You learn about yourself when do train for things like this, someone told me long ago. On mile 114 of a 200 mile ride, I learned that I had to want to finish regardless of anyone else around me. I had to decide I was enough to do this on my own. No more measures to the outside world. No more wondering if my ex would be proud of me (I’ll always be your biggest fan, he’d said, once-- a lie I’m finally ready to let go of); no more wondering what a coach might say or how his slap on the back might feel, no more (even) wondering about Rich and Tanna and their perceptions of who and what and how fast I am. 

In the world of a 200 mile ride, there is only yourself-- and what you are riding towards. My life: my writing, the students I teach, the distant finish line of Kona, my relationship with a talented poet who loves me. All these things-- intangible-- would be the flashing images I’d turn to in the final miles when all I wanted to do was not to feel the pain any longer. 

And so, I promised myself I’d make it, come what may. 


What would come was unexpected. In the end, it was my left shoulder that would ache unbelievably from my position in the aerobars that would make the final forty miles unbearable; not the pain in my butt or legs.  Little things caught my eye: the little critter face up in the middle of the road, legs splayed in rigor mortis, the body of a rattlesnake, flattened and imprinted with tire marks from bikes. Arrows on the road leading us to a mis-marked pit stop in a campground where a pot-bellied man with a beer in his hand would shout at us: “How long you guys been riding?” 

And Rich answered: “We’re at about 149 right now.” 

“Holy shit,” he’d said, nearly speechless. 

Back on the road. Tanna singing “On the Road Again”-- a ritual she’d started back around the second rest stop (mile 59) with Rich chiming in. The ache of gearing up and settling into the pace again. The rest stop, when it came, was nearly empty of bodies and food (later, we’d find out that we did the ride so fast we beat the support supplies. Other riders had grilled cheese sandwiches, hot soup-- real food, in other words. This compared to: fruit, some random assortment of bars, and slightly stale peanut butter & jellies that had been ferried from the rest stops that morning.) And that precious Ginger Ale. I’m not much of a soda-person: but Ginger Ale became the thing I dreamed of between each remaining stop. 

Well, that and a cold shower.

Rich popped the bones in my back at the second-to-last stop of the day to try and make my shoulder feel better. But when something hurts in the final 40 miles of a 200 mile ride, there’s really nothing much you can do about it but keep riding. 


And the end: the final 20 miles a brutal ordeal riding into a headwind. Rich out in front: I sprinted ahead of the mass of cyclists who stuck to him like lepers stuck to Jesus  in the New Testament (I teach Core Humanities) and tried to help him out. And I did, for a bit. 

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy as I was when I saw the sign announcing we were in Davis, again. Elevation 52. Streets with wide shoulders for bikes and trees which blocked the wind, somewhat. Even though we hit nearly every stop light, there was a giddy joy in my stomach as I half-recognized the dark streets we’d ridden through 12 hours before. The manicured lawns, the houses, the piles of leaves someone unwisely placed in the bike lane: this was the land of civilization. I’d gone into the wilderness of my mind for a 12-hour ride and came home, again... not only knowing what and how fast and where I am, but another small clue as to the imprint of "who" I'm becoming in the miles I run, the meters I swim, the miles I ride.

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