Monday, June 30, 2014

Alta Alpina: Black and White with a lot of Gray

Stacy, Me and Rich at the foot of Kingsbury!
I wanted to begin this post with "FUUUUCK" or "I'm sorry I wasn't faster" or, even, "What if I'm not able to...". But really, none quite capture the feeling of the Alta Alpina 8-Pass Challenge; or, rather, how I understand it in this very strange-- but lively-- time in my life.   A time when nothing follows a precise definition of itself; a time when I'm not quite an athlete-- but not quite not-one, either. A time when some of my writing is going to be published; but a time when most of it is not. A time when I find myself in a community of "strangers"-- like during an event like an Alta Alpina-- but an event which binds bodies together through the miles, especially the hard ones.

I signed up for this event because my friend/cycling coach, Rich, asked me if I wanted to do it with him and another man. Sure, I'd said-- this was back in April, I think-- when riding 200 miles over 8 passes was more of an abstract idea than reality. My focus, then, anyway was on the Boise Half IM and this was in those hazy gray weeks after the race. A time I hadn't thought much about.

Why not, then, say "sure?" and hope for the best. And I did.

The these things have a way of sneaking up on you. One day you're sitting in your office chair in the gray cubicle at work trading hilariously nasty skyppe messages with your female coworkers and the next you realize "Crap, tomorrow I'm riding 200 miles over 8 Sierra Passes." And if your'e me, you go to Raley's on your lunch break and stare at the aisles of food, wondering what to bring, what to make the magic happen, this time. (Not that the Davis Double OR Boise wasn't a success. It's just I've been struggling trying to find the right nutrition for me, especially in these longer efforts, to keep myself from cramping. But all I did was stare. I ended up with: gluten free bread, freshly ground peanut butter, raw almonds and grapes. Um. Not exactly what I needed, but oh well.

I'd wanted to finish all 8 passes. But this ride presented several unique challenges I can't say I'm particularly equipped to face: an extreme temperature fluctuation (when we began it was near freezing; however, on several climbs soon after, temperatures reached nearly 95 degrees F) and climbs which (despite being from the area) I had neither driven nor ridden.

I have also never not-slept in a bed before an event before. Rich, Stacy and I decided to car-camp at the foot of Monitor Pass-- the base of the final two climbs of the day. Stacy-- before he met me-- said: "I hope we won't have to wait for her!" when he found out I'd be joining the group. Even though he changed his mind after our first conversation, my lizard-brain held onto that counting down the hours at work Friday afternoon in my gray cubicle and also in my head as the Milky Way spiraled into infinite dots of stars above our heads at the base of Monitor Pass.

No waiting for me, I said, and that was the mantra that kept me tossing and turning in that state of near-dreaming.


The morning began at 3:00 am shuffling through the freezing dark. Rolling up the sleeping gear and forcing myself into cycling clothes, hoping I got it all on right and not backwards or inside out.

4:00 am: we arrive at the start/finish (Turtle Rock Park) where I sign in and retrieve my race number. I see, on the corner, that someone (a mystery to me at 4am) wrote: "AN SMC GRAD!" next to my name. I wonder at the smallness of worlds; how sometimes even in a sea of strangers, we can find an expected familiar face.  Another unexpected blessing: coffee. My God, coffee. I'd been worried how I would fare without it.

Then, the last minute details: affixing lights to the bike so we could be seen before the dawn.  Gloves, helmet, glasses. A down-feather jacket for the morning even though Turtle Rock Park felt relatively warm, considering the hour.

By 4:30 am, we were rolling. The blink of Rich's tail light in front of me; Stacy's headlamp like brights on a car, lighting the way. The first descent was mere feet but the temperature plunged. Immediately, I couldn't feel my hands, they were so cold. Then, down from the evergreens and into irrigated fields of alfalfa: my hands froze even more. The only way I knew they were still attached to my body was the fact that I could see them.

Shedding the down jackets en route to Luther Pass.

The sun crested the hills to the east as we reached Fredricksberg and there was hardly anyone on the road but us. A few cyclists here and there: but really, just the sound of early down. The smell of wet alfalfa fields and sage mingled with the damp, crisp air. And then a turn and it was the first climb: Kingsbury.

Too soon, I thought.  I wasn't even awake yet.


Rich told me to slow down on the climb. It was not the last time I'd hear that advice on this ride.

What I remember of Kingsbury: a long, even ascent whose cadence matched the speed of the sun rising. The down jackets were a bit too much on the way up: with each foot gained in elevation, it became warmer out. Soon, I was sweating and I told Rich, jokingly: "I think I'm going to have to buy you a new jacket."

I remember passing other riders. No one passed us. Up and corner: up and corner. Up and up: at the summit we reached the first aid station. "Queensbury" where a friendly and inviting (and very obviously gay) men greeted us with open arms. They were dressed as: queens, fairies, princesses... with wigs and shoes and all.  I remember being so hungry (I'm a breakfast person) that I ate a goopy peanut butter and jelly something and made the biggest mess. I remember hopping on my bike, trying to keep time with Rich and Stacy on the descent, but failing.

But mostly, I remember the cold. How all that speed down the hill made me freeze and how hard it was to start riding, after that.

I'm not trying to be a gigantic wimp: this was one of the unforeseen challenges of the ride. The change in temperatures wasn't something I'd planned on; it wasn't something I'd ever experienced before. In some ways, it is easy to ride when you know it will be "hot" or it will be "cold." That conditions will be black or white. But today, the distinctions blurred while remaining distinct: mountain tops were "warm" at first compared to the valleys; but then, it switched so that mountain tops were cold, valleys were warm. Nothing was stable and everything in question. And yet, to call the ride the area of gray would be misleading.

It was a day of extremes. Of absolute joy and suffering. And that brings me to the next three passes.


This was JOY:  Luther, Carson, Blue Lakes. A dance, if ever there was one, on a bike. Me, I played the part of the little train that could. And hot damn, I did. Up those hills keeping my cadence high. Passing so many bodies. Rich and Stacy fell behind me; my legs turned as if the motion was inevitable. No pain, no fatigue: I was all power and smile.

Me climbing out of Blue Lakes and feeling like a million bucks!

Dawn-time up Kingsbury, morning-time up Luther and Carson, smelling the wet damp of mountain meadows as I passed, wildflowers in bloom beneath the flickering aspen leaves. Alternating sun and shadow up to Blue Lakes, a narrow two-lane road my dad and I drove many times (he took me camping there every summer until I was six years old.) I remembered the road as I rode it; the way the engine of the old 1979 Ford Truck (painted a pale green with an evergreen-colored interior) how it revved and sighed up that hill. And the beautiful meadows filled wind ponds before Blue Lake itself. Memory came back to me with the miles.

And the riders: fit ones, ones with Alta Alpina 8-pass jerseys-- veterans of the event-- and I wondered if I should be passing them. I received compliments, mostly: one man at a rest stop said I looked so strong and wanted to know how many of these I've done. When I told him this was my second, he seemed a little shocked.

I also ran into a rider who'd also done the Davis Double. We chatted at the Blue Lakes rest stop while I waited for my friends. He was once a runner, too.  And in these little moments of recognition, I wonder at the size of the world. So many times we hear about how large it is, how over-populated. But the world of the double-century is small, intimate. It is a world relatively little people enter. After all, you don't know what you're going to find in the pursuit of 200 miles. You will find joy (of course) but there are other things-- parts of yourself, the weather conditions, destiny and/or fate-- that crop or tend to crop up for a distance so long.

How could they not? With all that time to fill, it's inevitable not everything will go as planned. And that brings me to Ebbetts Pass/Ebbetts Pass, Monitor Pass/Monitor Pass-- the most challenging-- and final four (or, for me, three)-- climbs of the day.


Down from Blue Lakes I would nearly get run off the road by a man in an orange jersey.

He wanted to pass us and when he couldn't, he wanted to cut in and take my spot in the paceline Rich, Stacy and I had formed. I am not a small girl, but I'm hardly large, either. I admit, I've had trouble with this on other rides, too: being forced to the side, pushed away, by men.

This is (normally) what it looks like to ride a Double Century with Rich.

Sometimes I wonder if it's a gender-thing: am I really that threatening to someone's masculinity at these speeds? And then I wonder if it's something more like cluelessness: maybe he just wanted to go fast and didn't realize he was riding like an asshole. Anyway, when we turned off highway 88 toward Turtle Rock Park, I tried my best to save myself from a bad situation: I sprinted up the hill into a swarming mass of locusts, colored golden by the sun.

Rich followed me, took the lead.

"I watch out for my girls," he said.

It's nice to have a wing-man.

Back at the car, lunch was: watermelon, nuts, grapes, an ensure and water. Rich didn't want to eat the catered lunch because last year he'd gotten severe food poisoning from it-- but had finished the double anyway. (Yeah, Rich is amazing that way.)

Even though it's a bit daunting to eat fruit and water and think: OK,  I've just ridden over 100 miles, now I'm going to ride 100 more," I felt good leaving the parking lot. My legs, not fresh exactly, but strong: the sun high and hot in the sky.

My mantra: just ride, just ride as we entered the canyon that would lead us to Ebbetts, to Monitor. I lost myself in the sound of the West Carson River and caught myself (more than once) looking off my right shoulder, thinking about wading into its cool current as the temperature continued to rise. It wasn't until a car passed me that I looked over my left shoulder to check for Rich and Stacy.

But behind me was nothing but the open road. Just like the image before me. For the first time that day, I was completely alone. I thought about stopping, waiting.  But I'd just eaten lunch. I wanted to get this climb over with-- and the next and the next-- so that I could finish before dark. And so, feeling guilty and selfish, I kept on, pedaling alone through the metal gate they shut because Ebbetts-- a part of Highway 4-- is so narrow and winding (and steep) that it isn't safe to drive for a good part of the year. Not in summer, of course. But still: I remember driving this way with an old boyfriend (J.) and his explanation of "Cadillac Corner": a man in a cadillac hadn't respected the speed limit after he had his heart broken by a girlfriend. Up and over the side: the cadillac he drove sat poised on the hill for years. A monument of sorts to the kinds of extremes we drive ourselves to in the face of absolute loss.

I don't think the car is there anymore. But then again, on this ride, I didn't (couldn't) look.


I saw a lot these pass-signs on the Alta Alpina. I wish I'd seen one more!
Up. And up. Make a corner and it's a wall of pavement in front of you. No sitting down: out of the saddle because if you don't, you're walking the bike up the hill. That's Ebbetts-- the first time. I saw the man in the orange jersey who'd tried to run me off the road. He was in a group of men I passed early. I remember wondering if he would come after me, be angry with me, say something mean. But nothing: so perhaps my second theory was right. He wasn't mean, just clueless.

Up and up. I wondered how long this climb could be; and how many steep pitches I'd have to negotiate. About 3/4 to the summit, I'd see a familiar face (or, jersey): a Diablo Cyclist-- the ride group I'd latched onto in the East Bay. "Go Diablo Cyclist!" I yelled, because I couldn't make out the rider's face.

It turned out to be Dr. Dave-- not only a friend but a "colleague" at Saint Mary's College where I'd gotten my MFA back in 2012. Next came Jay and I shouted him words of encouragement, too. It made my legs lighter, to see familiar faces. And it explained a lot: on my number for the event, someone had written "An SMC grad in black pen" and I had wondered who that had been. Now I knew (or, I'd figure that out later, when the blood returned to my brain from my legs.)

Up and up. I pass rider after rider. Another, a kind man named George I'd met in Davis and who joined our group near the end of that double century cheered me on.  That encouragement meant the world to me, then, when I felt very alone and unsure of where (and how) I was going.

Up and up. I came up to another rider. Matt P. Another Diablo Cyclist. We chatted. Another boost to my spirt. We rode by a lake. I believed the summit was near. It was; but not as near as I wanted it to be.

I did make it, though, and did my usual at the rest stop: eat, drink, pee, eat more. Wait. When my half-finished Coke was in my hand, Rich appeared, sans Stacy. It was just us two now, for the final three climbs. Fuel up: head down.

Down into Hermit Valley. A narrow 1.5 lane road on the side of a mountain. I stay behind Rich and listen to the sound of his brakes behind the cars. We reach the aid station at the bottom of the hill and it occurs to me it might be nice to stay there for a while. Like, in the ground. Like I'm dead. Because, by this point, I think I am.

Rich is not in good shape, either. We set an easy pace back up the hill-- back to Ebbetts Pass. I try singing songs, telling jokes, but there comes a point in that long, hot climb when I just don't think I'm breathing anymore. And I tell Rich this and he tells me to ride slower. But I can't. I'm in my easiest gear. And we go back and forth for a while before falling into silence.

The moment is what it is.  Rich encouraged every rider we passed by name. I was hanging onto my sanity by a thread: but I admired those women I saw out there so much. Strong bodies, strong minds. How much I wished I was as strong as they were. I was near my breaking point: moving, yes, but feeling as though my bike would fall over and I wouldn't have the strength to pick myself off of the hot, black pavement.

The aid station: I nearly cry, but don't. Rich and I huddle in the shade of a mosquito-infested grass, not-eating, not-drinking. He tells me we will make it. We will go slow.

I nod. I want to believe him. But I know I have reached the point where I don't want to eat or drink. I really don't want to do anything. I don't want anymore peanut butter on stale bread that has air-crust all over it. I don't want watermelon or banana or melon at all. I don't want nuts with salt, pickles or cookies. I especially don't want any more soda or electrolyte drink. My stomach churns in the sea of sugar I've eaten.

I want nothing but to finish. And that can either be a good or a bad thing.


Down Ebbetts. I don't want to fall. I follow Rich's line precisely. He falls behind me when he hit the rolling flats. Later, he'll tell me he was falling asleep on the bike and he was trying not to lose consciousness as we made our way back down the canyon to the foot of Monitor Pass.

I am trying not to think. Or, not to think about the climbs. The miles. The time.

There is an aid station before we go up and Rich and I stop there in the full-hot sun. It is nearly 100-degrees out and I feel the sun baking me beneath the black bike shorts. A friend of Rich's is being carried to a hospital for a fractured collar bone-- a nasty fall-- on Ebbetts. Stacy, our lost member, joins us here and has a car with a cooler; he'll crew for us, he says.

By this point, I just want to stop. I am feeling dizzy and I know I have a saddle-sore that would make a popular youtube video. Rich slumps in the frame of Stacy's minivan, falling asleep with his helmeted head resting on the frame of Stacy's car.

I don't want to, I don't want to, I don't want to: but there is something wrong with me because I shake Rich and say: "Let's go."

And, we do. Up Monitor. Going slow. Ass burning in the sun like hot, dead, iron. But we are moving.


I decide, heading up Monitor Pass, that I know what Hell (if there is such a place) would be like. It's not a fire-pit. It's not your worst nightmare. No, Hell is beautiful. Hell is where you love.

Or, let me be more clear:

Hell is so beautiful you want to gasp every time you blink.

Hell is the struggle between survival and courage.

Hell is the vista: the heights, the depths.

Riding up Monitor Pass was Hell. Such beautiful country. Such pain. Rich 's shoulders slumped and I know we're fucked. I've got my waves of cramps: they start in the arches of my feet and circulate up my calves, my hips, my deltoids until they find the space behind my knee caps and stay, pulsing.

800 feet from the summit, I take my bottle filled with electrolytes in my hand and take a sip every two pedal strokes, hoping to stop the cramps. The summit takes so much longer than I want it to. In the last stretch, I'm near-crying: I just want to make it, I don't want to quit. I can't see Rich (he's behind me). I talk to myself and I have no idea where any one else is: I just talk nonsense words, I just sip and I try to keep myself from crying.

Go, you go. Think of flowers. How wind is a messenger. Fluid air we swim through. Cliffs were once sea-shores and this will pass, too. Breathe and breathe.  And breathe. And breathe.

I wanted to finish this double so badly. But the wave of cramps-- that pain-- tells me I won't. I won't let myself cry in the saddle, though. However, when we pull into the aid station, I lose it. I sit down in the dirt and the gravel with the wind sweeping over me and I cry- no, I sob. Embarrassing. But I do. I made it. But I won't make it anymore.


They feed me V-8. Pickles. Pickle-juice. It's 6:00 pm and the light is low. One woman in the med-tent with me tells me it is her birthday. Rich is alseep on the cot, not moving. I feel-- what do I feel?-- I can hardly tell. Can I ride? Yes. Do I want to? Not anymore, not really. We are at the top of Monitor Pass and the sun is still out, but low in the sky. Stacy sits in his car, waiting for my verdict.

And it's all up to me: whether we go or we stop. The wind cut across my face as I stood from the chair where the volunteers placed me. Riders; they stopped, They ate. They stared again.

I am not strong. I am not amazing.

I decide not to do any more.  No more miles.

No more climbs. I am done; Rich is done.  Stacy and I load him into the car, first, before we load the bikes. I want to cry but can't: conversation keeps me from my thoughts.

Down Monitor Pass. Down to Turtle Rock Park with the wind from the open window through my hair and I tell myself again and again that 170 miles is enough. That I am enough.

I'm not, I know. I never am.

At the close of night, I pray: maybe one day.


At Turtle Rock Park the mystery of the note on my number is solved: en route to the Sani-hut I run into Jay and Dr. Dave-- my Diablo Cyclist friends from the bay. We trade war stories, catch up on the time we haven't ridden. It's so nice to see them, it almost makes up for not finishing the ride. We pose for what Jay will label as the "SMC Cycling Team" shot before we part ways, going back into our separate lives in the world again.

Me and Dr. Dave, after the ride.

But there will be other Double Centuries, I know. I'm not finished yet.


Anonymous said...

Great job on your 2nd double and first alta alpina 8. I didn't finish the AA8 in my 1st attempt. On my 2nd try Coach/clubmate Toby had me riding painfully slow on the first 4 passes that I had some (not much) energy to complete 8. Slow down next year, don't mind passing (or getting passed) by other riders-all who start at different times, and I know u will finish 8! If you want to race a double, ur perfect 4 the Mt. Tam double., best,pumpkincycle

Anonymous said...

Nice writing. Moving and true and uplifting and sad all at once.