Monday, August 3, 2015

Mt. Tam Double Century and the last stage of the California Triple Crown Stage Race

This is a very different blog from the one I was going to write. It never ceases to amaze me that, although there have been great gains for women involved in sport, there are still lapses into what I can only describe as a lack common sense and basic human decency.

This weekend, I competed in the third stage of the Triple Crown Stage Race. I toed the line with my bike just like everyone else did. If you have ever watched a cycling event-- the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia or any of your local road races-- you know that riders use strategy as well as physical fitness to reach the finish line first. In cycling that means you kill yourself to climb the hills the fastest and then you do your best to push the downhills so you come just short of crashing out. And if you're smart, on level ground you tuck behind a tandem or a stronger rider for a while to give your legs a rest before returning the favor and taking a pull at the lead of the pack.

This is called cycling.

Yesterday, a male cyclist accused me of cheating because I drafted during the Triple Crown Stage Race in a comment on Strava.

To him, I pose this question: how do you think the lead male riders reached the finish line so quickly? And, why is it OK for a male rider to draft and to work in a group, but for us few women who populate endurance cycling, we "should" battle the distance alone?


It's mile 30 or 40. We started riding over an hour ago in the dark and the thick marine layer catches on the tops of cypress and eucalyptus trees on Mount Tampalais, redwood trees collecting dew and dripping hard like rain, turning the pavement black. The roads are wet, and I worry about the ride down and the ride ahead.

The faint sound of bagpipes still sound, faintly in the distance; when Rich and I had crossed the reservoir, a solitary man stared out across the calm waters, playing the one song you always hear on bagpipes. A dirge, as we rode by, into the thick forest-- the notes of memory, of how events circle back in on themselves, and the magic of chance.

Climbing Mt. Tam 

I get quiet on the climb, wondering what to do now that my strategy-- to climb Tam strongly, but smartly-- hadn't positioned me as well as I had hoped. Just as I think this, a woman passes me as we push through the marine layer and into the sun. She's petite and there's no question about her being in the race: number 027 is a red number, just like mine.  I keep her in view and, at the top, she shoots me a glance which tells me she knows who I am (the girl with the lead from the past two stage races; the girl who has a very important place to win or lose.)

I out-corner her on the early descent before you climb out of the summit (one of Mount Tam's oddities), but she sees me and, again, and rides ahead of me.  I could go with her and I almost do-- but then my stomach grumbles and I feel a twinge deep in my gut. I'm not sure I'd call it wisdom (actually, it would turn out to be something else entirely) but as I watch number 027 ride away from me, I fall back into my rhythm that I have learned to set for 200 miles.

In my former life as a marathoner, a coach once told me that what you do at mile 3 will matter severely at mile 26. Rich, too, in training for this event, has told me the same thing. Maybe, finally, I understand.  The first time I rode Mt. Tam, actually, was an example of how much I didn't know-- I was in my late twenties and too injured to run anymore. So, I spent my Saturdays riding with the Diablo Cyclists, a club out of Walnut Creek. Many times, we rode the course for the double (just not all in one day)-- and I would try to stay ahead of everyone until I just fell apart.

The first time I rode Mt. Tam, in fact, I blew myself up on the summit and back down, and one of the guys gave me the nickname "Rebecca-In-Motion". All that effort came at a cost, however: at about mile 80 of our 100 mile ride, my legs stopped working and it was a miracle I made it back to my car-- for a long time, I put cycling where I put the running: on the shelf, something I "wasn't very good at."

But, I guess something happens when you reach a certain point in life and if your failures were bricks, you could build a schoolhouse out of them. They hardly matter-- but, other things do.  For me, I've been able to find a way to train, to improve and finally, after so many years, I've found a way to believe in myself.

If you don't know, here is a breakdown of the California Triple Crown Stage Race: it's 600 miles long and nearly 60,000 feet of climbing over the course of three 200 mile efforts spread out across spring and summer. Not a lot of women sign on for this, and those that do are elite and strong and incredible. It was a fluke, sort of, that I signed up for this this year.

Ironman was my big focus (2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and a marathon have been a long-time goal, and I decided to just do it) but after riding the Solvang Double early in the year, I asked Rich if he thought I could do the stage race next year.

He believed I could do it this year. And, somehow that translated into riding the first stage of the race to see what I thought of it-- to get a taste for riding double centuries with ridiculous elevation gains knowing that the clock is ticking.  And, honestly, I'm not sure what to say about myself that after what was probably the most uncomfortable and painful day of my life (not only was the Devil Mountain Double just a really, really difficult ride, it was cold and wet and my poor under-carriage really had a rough time) that I said "Let's do the Triple Crown Stage Race," but I did.

Our first real stop is at mile 50 after we descend Mt. Tam and pass Muir Woods. I use the Porta-Potty and my cycling shorts are filled with blood.  Wednesday before the race, I'd woken up to a swollen abscess. It was so bad, I could hardly walk straight so I had it lanced by a riding friend who is also a nurse, but she warned me: it will be a wound so she gave me a few antibiotics and a dressing which fell off before I got my cycling shorts on the morning of the race.  

As I'm in the plastic-blue powder room (the Porta-Potty), I feel another twinge, and I realize that it's my period (such great timing) and I do the only thing I know: I make a joke to myself.

"So, how many tampons does it take to get to the finish line of a 200-mile stage race?"

I picture the owl from those tootsie pop commercials "One, two... [crunch]... three. It takes three tampons to get to the finish line of a 200 mile stage race."  (And I wish it only took three.)

It's utterly ridiculous and I make myself laugh.

I start to feel better and event though I tell Rich "I think I just lost the race," I get on the bike and and decide to ride the best I can because, in the end, it really is just another 200 mile ride (meaning: more than anything, it is important that I finish.)


In college, I rode my fire-engine red Cannondale with shifters on the down-tube when I needed to work through writing ideas in my head. When I had earned enough at my campus job at the Tutoring Center where I helped students through first year French, I decided that more than anything, I wanted clipless pedals/shoes.  I went down to a shop I'd seen just off South Virginia called Great Basin Bicycles.

I find it funny-- or, wonderful in an uncanny way-- that I am sporting their jersey for this prestigious race and that Rich, the owner (now) , is riding with me.

Stinson Beach.
Point Reyes Station.

By mile 80, we reach some of my most favorite places in the world. I ride by them faster than I ever have before. Rich pulls most of the flats, but falls behind me on the climbs past old growth eucalyptus trees so wide it would take ten of us to circle them.

We reach the next aid station and I renew my love affair with the potato (mmm salt and potassium. mmm.) Rich says he isn't feeling super great and I soften how I speak to him- over the next thirty miles, I make sure to pull up next to him, to touch his back or side to tell him how much I appreciate him there. I make sure to pull in front of him, too, even though I know that all 5'2 of me isn't much to draft.

Still, we gain ground. When we reach Petaluma, (and Rich bunny-hops an obstruction in the road while still in his aerobars and I think, my God, he's amazing.)

We see number 027 ahead.

At mile 93, at about a quarter mile to lunch, we pass her.  I never see her again for the rest of the ride.

Valley Forge.
Coleville (loop).
Valley Forge.

After lunch, we join the 100k and Century riders. We witness a high-speed chase where a driver passes us all doing at least 75 mph on a 45 mph zone. He turns onto a dirt side road a cop car catches him. It's like an old Duke of Hazzard's Show.  A few of the men who are riding the century join Rich and I and we take turns pulling each other across the undulating landscape.

At Valley Forge, the 200K and 200 milers are directed to do an extra loop up past the sand dunes of Bodega Bay and up a poorly maintained single-lane paved road. Someone has spray painted "shut up legs" in red across the pavement on one particularly steep pitch of the climb. Rich jokes that I'm a skinny bitch on these sections (meaning: he can't keep up with me) but honestly, I just try to make it up the steep pitches and not to do too much damage to the bike on the downhills. I can't see half the potholes I hit.

I am not a climber, even though Rich says I am.

We descend into trees and for a while, it's shaded and beautiful with ferns and oaks and vines. Back on the main road, we pass the Valley Ford aid station again and I keep telling myself there's less than fifty miles to go.

I haven't seen another woman with a red number for miles.


Life is not like a fairy tale: there is no indistinct beginning (no "once upon a time")  and no definite ending (like "and they lived happily ever after.")  Instead, I have come to believe that life is more like a stage race in which we cannot know the number of stages nor the conditions of each. We may win some and lose others; and sometimes people say things about us which aren't true and other times those around us can illuminate the things we cannot see or fathom on our own. That is the beauty and the pain of it.

I remember that I felt so strong those last fifty miles. A tandem captained by George V. and powered by stoker Lori H. of REV Cycling -- an endurance-focused cycling team out of San Diego joined Rich and I and we pulled each other to the foot of the final "big" climb of the day: Marshall Wall.

At mile 165 or so, the last thing your legs want to do is climb for three miles.

The wind is at my back, however, and I feel like a sailing ship whose sails have just been filled with air. A homeowner left a large jug of water outside their house on a wooden stool and while Rich and George and Lori stop for water, I keep riding up the hill. Another male rider joins me and he tells me this is the hardest thing he's ever done (the Mt. Tam Double in its entirety.)

I try to compare it to all the other rides and because all my blood is in my legs, I can't really say if this is the case or not. Mt. Tam was not an easy ride-- none of the stage race was even remotely "easy." Ironman wasn't easy.

But, then again, life isn't "easy", either.

Down Marshall Wall, we roll into the final aid station.

Rich isn't feeling well (he'd been battling nausea all day) and we sit together and eat a cup of Ramen soup which tastes deliciously evil like the best thing on the face of the earth. Our tandem friends George and Lori leave before we do and I am just so amazed that I feel as well as I do, that it is light out and that Rich is a part of my life.

Riding by Niasco Reservoir, about 20 miles from the finish. Picture taken at 5:28 pm PST.

When we do push off, we trade the lead; I take the hills, he is in front in the flats.

My "glory moment" (which, I guess, is small in and of itself) was pulling Rich and an increasing number of people (we catch George and Lori as well as at least two other male riders) up the last gradual climb of the day. Out in front, after so many miles, I could feel each piece and part of me working on the bike to move myself forward as if my legs were composed of tiny ropes and pulleys, each on the verge of snapping. It wasn't easy and it wasn't pleasant, really, but I knew that I was riding strong and I was proud of myself for having the foresight to not ride Mt. Tam so hard early on in order to save something for the final miles.

Down the 18-hairpin turns and across a five-mile flat, we rode the way we came approximately 13 hours before.  I'm doing it, I'm doing it, I'm doing it I think as we ride around San Raphael and we cross the line.

Rich and I at the finish line of the Mt. Tam Double at 13 hours, 15 minutes.

I ride to the table and tell the volunteer and event promoter my number. I don't even think there will be a problem as Rich and I head to the dinner which waits for us. He eats four Haagen-Dazs ice cream popsicles and I have a bit of salad and some chicken. The story should end there, but it doesn't.


In addition to owning a bicycle shop, Rich is an experienced cyclist and trainer himself. Some of the magic he works involves introducing people to the world of endurance cycling-- men and women. One man had signed up for Mt. Tam in order to earn his Triple Crown distinction-- and was still on the race course. His wife was worried about him since she hadn't heard any news, so, Rich and I gassed up the car and found him about twenty miles from the finish and still wanting to complete the course. We let him go and waited for him to complete the journey-- and he did, with a minute to spare!

However, while at the finish line, the event promoter mentioned that the first place woman never checked in at the finish (!?!?!?!) and he was going to call her.  Someone, for whatever reason, hadn't transcribed my results. So, the woman who finished in second left the event thinking that she had won.

A friend of hers-- a man who had ridden the entire distance with her-- was the one who posted the comment about me not winning legitimately.

I understand part of what he's saying and I'm sorry for causing what must have been an emotional roller coaster for an incredible athlete.  If I haven't expressed this clearly enough, I will say it again: every woman I have met who rides the stage race is strong, dedicated, amazing and I am so honored to ride with them. It was a stroke of luck that I had three good double centuries. If luck had shifted, I know that the results would be different. That is the nature of endurance events.

But, I do not apologize for drafting, for riding with a person like Rich or anyone who supports riders like he does. I hope, actually, that more women continue to enter events like this to deepen the field and that more women discover the utter beauty of what it means to spend so many hours on the bike. It's hard, yes-- but I wouldn't give up my miles for anything.

I did what any serious male athlete would have and it's about time the world recognized that women can be as badass as any man.


Friday, July 3, 2015

Race Report: Coeur d'Alene Ironman

Noonish, Race Day: “You can just stay here and cool down a while,” the volunteer said, crouching in front of me. The tent was dark and there were, maybe, two or three other female competitors seated near me hearing similar lines from the volunteers which attended them.  The light outside was a blinding white and my eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the darkness just as I hadn’t adjusted to the heat once I’d dismounted the bike and there was no longer a constant source of air coursing over my body. 

Not an inch of me is dry from the sweat running in rivers down every crack of me. “You’re in no danger of missing the cut-off time,” the volunteer says, “it’s OK if you stay and cool down.” 

I shake my head and stand. “I really... I really just want to finish.”  I stand, adjust my visor one last time and stride into the 98-degree heat to begin my 26.2 mile run. 


How to begin? Usually race reports are easy for me to write-- the play-by-play of either my failure or victory. I have struggled, however, getting my thoughts down for the Coeur d’Alene Ironman, where I was nowhere near the champion I’d wanted to be, and yet, I have never been more proud of myself. 

I remember that final transition and although it’s not the start of the race, it is (in many ways) “my start”-- where I had a clear decision to make and no one there to make it for me. 

Unprepared as I might have felt, I didn’t realize how prepared I really was for what that race had in store for me. But, before I reveal too much, let’s start at the literal start line. And, if I’m still enough of a writer, I will (I hope) circle back to this metaphorical start for my final lines. 

3:45 am: my phone vibrates under my hand, and I nearly jump out of bed (I hadn’t really been asleep anyway. In the darkness of the room, I can hear my parents sleeping and I do my best to side on my tri suit and flip-flops without making any noise. I leave the room to grab a quick cup of coffee from the hotel’s breakfast room while running through my mental checklist for the day: grab the bottles and the potatoes from the fridge, don’t forget sunscreen, grab the toast, hard boiled egg and slice of turkey you made the night before... and, for God’s sake, don’t forget hair ties!

When I get back to the room, my dad is already awake and tells me he’s ready to go when I am. Although there’s a shuttle which runs between the hotel and the start line, my dad wants to watch me swim (despite the fact that the start has been moved to 5:30 am due to the unusually warm weather.) 

We drive and I try not to be too anxious. I’ve never done a full Ironman before, and certainly not one with over 2,000 entrants. I want to make sure I get body-marked, that I have time to drop off my bottle of chocolate ensure and water on the bike and that I have enough time to triple-check my transition bags so that I know exactly where they are when race-time arrives. 

4:45 am: Two girls about 17-18 years old ask me my race number and I’m so nervous I forget. This is ridiculous because I’d done nothing but recite it to myself since I picked up my race packet on Thursday (it’s Sunday morning.)  I laugh it off, and say it’s pre-race jitters. 

“How old are you?” one asks who kneels to write my age in black permanent marker on the back side of my right calf. 

“I don’t know,” I say, and I really don’t know that, either, in that particular moment. They both exchange glances (wondering, probably: does Alzheimers hit women in their 30s these days?) and after doing the math, I tell them I’m 33. 

I think about cracking an old-lady joke, but hold myself back. I’ve already forgotten enough lines for one day. 

I wander to the edge of the concrete steps which lead into the lake and contemplate swimming here (as a warm up.) No one else is in the water yet, and I quickly decide that I should probably pee at least one more time before the lines get too incredibly long and before too many competitors have accidents in the porta-potties.  

5:25 am: A local 17-year old girl sings the national anthem and I’m back near the concrete steps and still not swimming. Half my wetsuit is on and I was doing light calisthenics when she began to sing. 

I find the flag behind me, right where the sun is rising, and I raise my hand to my heart and hope this isn’t my last Ironman. 

5:30 am: The professionals begin racing. I don’t watch them start. Instead, I keep warming up by battling my way to the start line. I want to get at least ten minutes in the water before the start and given the crowd of spectators (the most I’d ever seen at a race) doing that seems unlikely. 

5:40 am: I’m swimming laps in the warm-up section. The water is perfect (72-degrees) and I haven’t panicked once. This worries me. The beach is packed with competitors, so much so that my pace group for the swim is unreachable. 

When the announcer calls “5 minutes to the start, I slide into the sardine-line as best I can. I’m with swimmers who will complete the course about twenty minutes slower than I will. However, this might have been a wise choice since there is nothing more awful than being swam over early in a race. 

5:50ish am: Over 2,000 competitors enter the water in less than ten minutes. I step in, begin to stroke and talk myself though the suggestion of panic which rests at the back of my mind.  The water is churned and murky from everyone in front of me, but the sky is beautiful and the water itself is the perfect temperature. I try to ignore the fact that there are so many people swimming around me. I close my eyes, I focus on my breathing. 

Sooner than seems possible, I round the first buoy and then the second, and I realize I’m over a quarter of the way through the swim. I feel fantastic. I pass everyone around me. Swimming, for the moment, is effortless. I sing songs to myself. You are kicking ass, I tell myself again and again. 

When I reach the end of the first lap, I stand, run along the beach and I’m back in the water again for the second half of the race. I’m kicked in the face a few times and someone panics, tugging at my leg as if to save their life. I take all of this in stride, so to speak, and breathe and stroke and soon, the swim becomes peaceful again. 

I exit the swim and run up the beach to the wetsuit strippers. I lay on the ground, and they rip my suit off. I run to my transition bag and in less than five minutes, I’m on the bike, riding through downtown Coeur d’Alene, loving the feel of early-morning air on my skin and optimistic about the miles in front of me. 

7:00ish am: I pass people like mad on the bike. I pass them in town because they cannot seem to handle turns the way Rich has taught me to. I pass them on climbs because that is my strength as a cyclist. I pass them at aid stations because I hardly slow to grab the bottles of water which I open with my teeth and pour into the bottle mounted between my aerobars. 

I am one of the only competitors NOT on a tri-bike. I love my black-and-yellow Focus (my Bumblebee, I call her) and I am careful to stay far behind the competitors in front of me, unless I am going to pass them, which (at least on the first lap of the bike) I nearly always do. 

We ride to Higgins Boat launch, make a 180-degree turn and head back to town before riding on Highway 95 (the highway my parents and I had driven on to get here on Thursday.) Most of the climbs happen on this section of the course (South on highway 95).  

As I ride, I smile. The morning is beautiful and I am still feeling (surprisingly) great. You are going to be an Ironman,  I tell myself and the thought, even that early in the race, makes me cry. So, I push it away and find another thought: my nutrition. 

This race may just come down to what and when I eat. 

9:00ish am: My nutrition for this race was a little unorthodox. I’ve never been a big fan of sugary foods and lately, my tolerance for sugar has dropped considerably. I’ve found on the several double-centuries I have done in training that my body performs the best with a steady stream of calories which contain minerals and electrolytes (I’m a total salt-sweater)... and also a great deal of water. 

I have always had stomach issues with using sport gels and chews and with sport drinks. Even back in my marathon days, I would reach a “saturation point” and feel, well, sick, after more than four gels or over a bottle of sport drink.  This time, I planned ahead. One of my favorite foods on 200-mile rides have become boiled potatoes and salt.  It’s weird, but the combination of potassium, calories and salt has helped me through several tough challenges.

To say I did Coeur d’Alene Ironman on two potatoes, salt, two bottles of ensure and tons of water might sound ridiculous, but it’s pretty much the truth.

I had two boiled russet potatoes cut into bite-sized chunks in a bag mounted to my bike frame. I had two bottles of ensure cut with ice in my insulated bottle. I also had a small bottle of salt which I literally licked (like a horse) every five miles... and all the water I could possibly drink. It might sound strange, but this is the only race in 100+ degree conditions where I had absolutely no cramping or stomach issues the entire time.

11:00ish am: The competitor in front of me-- a man-- stands on his pedals and, at first, I wonder why he is pouring out all his water all over himself and the bike. Then, I realize he’s peeing-- everywhere. 

I wonder if I should have/should do the same: in the bike, I will have to stop and pee twice.  But, even then (and more so now) I realize that that would have been a rash waiting to happen. 

11:30ish am: I’m still passing riders. I feel great and not the least bit fatigued. 

Then, it’s as though someone turned an oven on broil and I’m in it. 

It is unbelievably hot. 

I stop eating solid food, knowing that my body is going to use its reserves to cool me, not to digest. If I eat anything, it might just sit in my hot stomach and ferment. And as much fun as having a mushroom-cloud advantage (ew, don’t run by the stinky girl) I don’t want to risk the discomfort. 

As I said, I want, more than anything, to finish. 

My final thoughts on the bike concerned the run. I had no idea what to expect. I did feel really good-- hydrated, prepped and ready-- but I know from experience that a marathon is a long way to run and so many things can go wrong. 

It’s also over 100-degrees out, and I feel the heat in the wind which moves across my body as I ride the final miles to transition.  

Can I run a marathon? So many people have told me I can’t, mainly myself, and it would be a lie if I said I didn’t have a little bit of doubt as I dismounted the bike and ran into the changing tent. 

But, if there is one thing I have learned about Ironman, it’s the golden rule of “Don’t Stop.” 

That’s why I ran out into the heat even though there was, even at that point, not a shot in Hell that I would finish very well.

Afternoon: Time, during the run portion of the race, bends. It’s like gravity suddenly increased its pull and I’m in a black hole where time travel is possible, but I’m stuck in the event horizon where things slow down. 

The first mile takes us through a neighborhood where I watch a tall, slender competitor (male) choke on his vomit so horribly, the ambulance comes to take him away. Residents are out in force, though, to combat the temperatures which continue to climb. Children spray me with green garden hoses and sprinklers. 

At the first aid station, volunteers stuff ice down my sports bra and douse me with water. When I start to run again, I sound like those little coolers you bring for your beer and wine coolers to the beach: slosh, slosh, slosh.  

I’m shocked less at the sound than I am that the ice doesn’t seem the least bit cold. I can’t even feel that it is there.

More afternoon:  I don’t know if I was wetter in the swim or run portion of the race. 

At every aid station (as temperatures climb to 104 degrees) volunteers drench me in ice water. They stuff ice down my sports bra, my back, they soak my visor in ice water, they put sponges which had been soaked in ice water under my shirt, my shorts, they squeeze them over my head. 

I drink water. I pee more on the run than I have probably peed in my life. 

But, I am hot. So unbelievably hot. Nothing feels cold or even mildly cool.

I want to run, but my legs don’t obey the commands I send them. I want to breathe--and, I know I can-- but my lungs tell me I’m not able to. 

At one aid station, a volunteer drenches me with water and says: keep moving, don’t stop, I will run with you, don’t stop, keeping moving Rebecca, keep moving. I will see you running in a few miles, OK? 

I can’t tell him more than: “Thank you.”  

Afternoonish: I had been third off the bike. One by one, female competitors pass me. 

But, it is not a wordless pass. This is not like the races of my past where you looked someone up and down and you crushed them, if you could. Here, these women shared the miles with me. We nod to each other, we say, in between the intervals of silence that “We are going to make it. We are going to do this.” 

I tell them they are so strong. 

One woman, around mile 15, turns around and smiles at me. “You’ve got this,” she says and there’s not a trace of malice in her voice or face.  

They ask me about Ironman Lake Tahoe and I tell them it was cancelled due to the smoke. I hear snippets of their lives-- of early morning runs through snow-covered forests, of children waiting at the finish line. 

At mile 16, my knee begins to hurt... probably because I am not running like I usually do. I adopt a run/walk pattern because I want, more than anything, to finish. 

I don’t care if I have to walk or crawl or claw my way to the finish line. I’m finishing this race, I tell myself. 

Afternoonish: Maybe it was the heat.  I hear Rich in my head asking how I am. 

And I respond: “I’m coming home to you.” 

I repeat this line to myself. I am coming home. I am coming home. 

I’m a steam-powered locomotive which might not be fast, but it is steady, and it will cross the finish line. 

5:20 pm: A man asks me: “Do you know how close you are to the finish line?” 

“No,” I call back. 

“8 blocks. You have eight blocks. Give it all you have.” 

Eight, I repeat to myself. Eight. I am slow-running again and I try to run faster, but there’s nothing left in the tank, really.

I’m sunburned and dehydrated and tired and soppy-wet. I don’t know it then, but I’m also in the top-ten for my age group (which isn’t that bad, really)

I think of that finish line and what it means that I have, after all these years, reached it. I start to sob, and so I try to think of something else because I can’t breathe when I’m sobbing.  I think of my running form, the sound of ice sloshing in my bra, the swing of my arms, the time of year-- anything than that finish line. I have to hold it together.

But, when I turn on the main street I see the finish line before me. The street is lined with spectators and they call out my name, cheering me on, cheering for me to finish, me with my incredible story like each and every athlete here-- and each and every athlete-- has an incredible story. 

I think of my mom and dad and stepmom and of Rich-- I think of the cats and the chickens and all the plants I have planted which I love so much. I think of how hard it was lose everything, literally, in 2014, and how much I wondered if I was going to survive. 

In those final steps, I realized that no matter what, I will. 

5:35 pm: Someone once said that I would never run another marathon. 

That I would never do an Ironman. 

That I would never "make it" as a writer. 

That I would never survive on my own. 

That I would never have a full-time job. 

That I would never be loved. 

I hear the words Rebecca Eckland of Reno, Nevada, you are an Ironman as I cross the finish line, and I realize, for the first time in my life, that no matter the time it takes me, I can. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ironman, At Last

As I sit here looking out across my garden, I can't help but think that something important has transpired, and I simply haven't discovered what it is, exactly, yet. This is not like any other race prep-- nor are the past six months comparable to any other time in my life. Never have I felt more unprepared and vulnerable than I do now: I think Ironman has a pretty fair shot at killing me slowly over the course of 140.6 miles.

Yet, I've never felt so-- well, brave, I guess. After all: how many things in life are we vulnerable against? How many times are we faced with challenges for which there are no prescribed solutions, no "easy way outs" or pre-determined modes of action toward some expected (and, safe) outcome? 

Once a great long while ago when I was writing my book, many friends who read my drafts asked me why I tried so hard to be a great runner (or, a great athlete.) I never had an easy answer for them. At the time, it was a complicated response: winning was how I found value in my life. Running a fast time meant that was a certain kind of person-- that I wasn't fat, that I was responsible and disciplined, worthy of love and respect, and smart enough to handle a considerable training load.   I was all the things I didn't believe I could express simply myself-- simply with words, simply with being myself

I needed my miles in order to face the world and have enough confidence in myself to say that I was extraordinary in some small way. 

In preparation for Ironman, I have had long training weeks and difficult training sessions. I've sweat and puked and cried. I injured myself (running, of course); I wanted to quit. But, if I am honest with you, I did not train the same way I did five years ago-- I didn't have that sense of desperation, that the training was all I had left in the world and the race would be one wordless statement of purpose for a life that couldn't speak for itself. 

When I rode the Terrible Two Double Century this past Saturday (the second stage of the California Triple Crown Stage Race) I saw glimpses of what I'll have to face in Ironman. Falling asleep in my aerobars.  Doubt so heavy it felt like cement shoes. The breathless beauty around me that I could not possibly traverse any faster. The smudge and soft of melting tar on the road beneath my tires on a 13% grade (so soft I wonder if I have a flat tire); my feet with no blood in them, so they pulse as if in the worst cramp... or, as if they are on fire. 

And so, what I mean to say is that I feel wildly-- crazily-- inadequately prepared for what I'm about to do, and for the pain I'm about to endure.  I don't imagine I'll win or even place very well in a sport which continues to grow and attract others with challenges they want to face-- and Ironman is their metaphor.  (Yet, I'm so honored to toe the starting line beside them.) 

But, I've learned I'm wildly---or, humanly-- inadequate for an avalanche of other things, too.  I wasn't prepared for my professional career to (finally) take hold and for my words to find their home in the world so they aren't just mine, anymore. It is wonderful, yes, but also terrifying to know that I have opened my heart to strangers, that people I hardly know may know more about me than I do.

I also wasn't prepared to meet a person who would change my life, who has a beautiful soul and a sweet little girl-- I wasn't prepared, I mean, for the depths of emotion that come with that-- to care for people in ways beyond caring for myself. To see myself as a part of a unit... a home.

Or, how do you prepare to open the door to find arms there waiting for you, and you find yourself dancing in a kitchen for no other particular reason than that you are happy? These are not the moments I have prepared for-- but, perhaps that is beside the point. 

I honestly don't know what Sunday will bring-- I hope to keep my old mantra of "Don't Stop" playing strong in my mind and that I will swim without panicking too much, that I will ride low in my aerobars and that I will run at a steady and strong pace to a finish line I honestly never thought I'd have a chance of crossing. 

One week ago, we crossed a river just before the last aid station of the Terrible Two at mile 181 and my feet were burning again. The skin beneath my cycling shorts had been rubbed red and raw over the previous miles. I didn't want to keep going, but I also knew that at 19 miles from the finish, I had no other choice. 

The light was low, and the canyon we rode in, dark. It was the kind of summer twilight you linger in as a kid, playing tag or chasing fireflies beneath the boughs of trees turned to silhouettes against the pale blue sky.  It seemed strange to me that I was a child once, and then, that I became a runner, a writer, a teacher, a friend all before I could finally become myself-- and, to understand what that means. 

When I clipped into my pedals to ride the final 19 miles, I fell over because I was so tired.  Perhaps that is an indication of how I will do at this race--- that I haven't trained enough, that, in the end, I will fail like many people think I will. But, then there were the moments which followed my crash at mile 181 when I stood, when I Rich told me I could do this and I decided to believe him.  When I kept riding despite not wanting to. When I finished despite those cement-shoes of doubt, and I am still-- after 400 miles-- in the lead. 

And, maybe that is what is so scary.

Or, so incredibly wonderful.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

It's been three years since the MFA...

This is such a random post that I'm not really even sure what prompted it. Maybe it was the quality of light on my run this morning, like a dawn I saw three years ago. Or,  maybe it was the smell of the run after work, the way the clouds rolled in from the Sierra Nevada, the way the air turned just slightly moist, with just the faintest hint of rain (the suggestion of newness, of rebirth.)  Was this the afternoon I ran alone along the Truckee River corridor, moving from Tahoe City to Squaw and I was caught in a rain storm and worried I would never compete again (yet another injury.) Or, was this later?  Was I living in the East Bay and training for the Olympic Trials by myself and I've gone out for some easy, after-class miles)? Or, is it neither of these, but some moment I've forgotten or that hasn't come to mind, yet? It's always hard to tell with the way the mind works, or mine works.

I ran from Woodchuck on the ditch trail headed West; an out-and-back that's approximately 8.75 miles if you stop at "hole-in-the-wall" (which I did) before heading back. And maybe it was the out-and-back route I chose-- or, maybe I should stop guessing-- when my mind wandered over the difference which exists between the person I was three years ago and who I am, today.

Three years ago (almost to the day), I expected that my writing career would be a reality and not some figment of my imagination; I also imagined that I would recover and still be a competitive long distance runner. After all, I'd entered the MFA program with the aspiration of becoming an elite long distance runner (at least the type who qualifies for the Olympic Trials) and then writing about what it took to get me there.

So, I don't think it's so strange that, three years ago, I went into something like a deep depression.  I wasn't a runner anymore or ever (I'd gotten injured several times and I although I would be able to run--physically-- competing was no longer a reality for me) and I graduated from the MFA, degree and thesis in-hand (but the writing life it fostered, too, ended). Everything which I used to define my life (the running, the writing) suddenly came to an end. I wouldn't know it at the time, but my relationship was (more or less) ending or had ended by then, too.

I read article after article about the cycles of depression MFA graduates go through, how it was normal to feel lost, displaced, worthless, uninspired and alone. To my own credit, thank God  I kept writing (even if what I was writing wasn't very good) and riding my bike and swimming with a local teams.  I remember returning from some of the longer, Saturday rides to lie face-up on my wooden deck to watch the canopy of old-growth oaks rustle in the fading light of dusk above me and wondering if my entire life would be a footnote to everything I did before I was 28 years old.

Am I depressed now? I laughed to myself, running, when this question arose. After all, three years later, I still do the things I do, I still swim and run and ride; I still write and send my work out and sometimes (so rarely, so luckily) I am published. I am the opposite of depressed.

Granted, racing holds a different meaning for me. Winning-- and receiving various accolades-- matter much less to me than the training which leads up to them. I love morning swims and runs and rides-- and the afternoon ones as well. I love the miles, I love the time I spend doing my miles, I love the time I spend in my mind, finding the words to describe the sights I see, the smells I smell, the sounds I hear and the people I know.

And, the people I know.

Maybe that is what has changed. If you asked me, now, to count my accomplishments in the past year, only a small part of them would be athletic ones. Instead, I find my joys in the moments I share with others: my parents, those I train with, my workmates.  Sitting with my mom on her back patio on mother's day as we watched the sun lower itself toward the Sweetwater range; watching the women I train with ride their first double century in Davis; and becoming a friend to Rich when I think he needed one.

I also value my writing time more than I ever thought I would. I don't have much of it-- but the hour I steal after work is precious to me-- moreso than I could have ever imagined an hour could be.

I realize this isn't a permanent state for me-- that I am a writer, an athlete and a person who continues to learn, grow and change. Maybe I didn't write a best seller (and maybe I never will) but with each passing year, I write a little more and I challenge myself with new training schedules and new events. What I am most struck by-- and grateful for-- are the many, many people I have come to know on this strange and interesting journey, some who have stayed on the path with me, and even those who have chosen their own lives separate from my own.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Davis Double: Up and down, but mostly up

A few days ago, I completed the Davis Double for the second time.

This means, for me, that I have now completed the California Triple Crown, something I couldn't do last year, and I'm so proud of myself I'm dancing on my toes like a giddy person. (I'm also dancing on my toes like a giddy person because two of my essays have been published by major literary magazines, I'm in love, I have chickens, my reading series Literary Arts & Wine is blossoming, I am writing/swimming/cycling/running and I'm going to finish a full Ironman. But this blog post is not about that.)

The Davis Double was not "truly" a double this year; I guess they had problems permitting the roads and so the ride would only be 188 miles instead of the full 200. In some ways, this was ideal: Rich has been training several cyclists from Reno over the winter to ride a Double Century. For many of them, this would be their first. And, in fact, it was my first double last year and I was excited for them. 

We met at the park in downtown Davis at 4:45 am in the dark and chill of morning. When we posed to take a group shot, I was amazed at how many of us "Renoites" were there-- nearly 20! I was excited to try out new DI2 shifting and to stare at the fancy black and yellow bar tape on Bumblebee all day (this might sound silly, but that bar tape really brightens my mood whenever I look at it) and Rich would ride his fancy Calfee tandem with his stoker, Irena, who'd also never ridden 200 miles in one solid go. 

The early miles of a Double are always dark and somewhat murky: I was excited for the ride and I was up front with Rich/Irena on the tandem as we zig-zagged our way out of Davis. I remember the cold, the dark, the way my headlight only illuminated part of the road and the faint line, suggesting dawn, on the far horizon.  

I wanted to ride well, which meant, really, to feel strong and somewhat fast but not completely blown out-- or, I just wanted to kick ass and climb strong and pull and be the hero. I admit I have a huge ego when I'm in an event and I think that's something I will carry with me for a long time. I learned when I was a kid that my self-worth was tied to how I performed in gymnastics meets, in track meets, in dance competitions-- I don't think I will ever NOT feel like what my body does is disconnected from the other aspects of my life. What is funny (or interesting, anyway) now that I'm an adult is that I understand that I am wrong--crazy, perhaps?-- that what one does in a race has little correspondence to the life which made that race possible. Maybe there are parallels -- discipline, the ability to endure discomfort, focus, etc. -- but I am not my time. I'm a person, which means I am an athlete, but also a friend, a daughter, a writer, a graphic designer, a chicken-owner and a cat-lady.  Hardly any of those can be quantified by the bike and so events have become an interesting combination of "gearing up", but also of "letting go." 

I remember the wind, which wasn't warm, and the dark. I remember the humming sound of wheels on the road, the click of a front or rear derailleur, the warm-moist fear in my chest that I (already) wasn't riding fast enough. Rich will tell me, later, that he saw the intersection ahead of us for quite a while and that he would, later, analyze the scene in great detail to understand the series of events which would follow. I didn't see the intersection; by that time, I'd slid behind the tandem, figuring I'd have enough opportunities to pull in the several hours ahead of us. 

Rich would ask me if I saw the man’s body, the way his shoulders were lower than they ought to have been and half his face seemingly gone beneath the shattered quadrants of his cycling helmet. It surprised me, listening to Rich’s description of the body we passed on mile six or so of the Davis Double. Granted, it had been dark and once I realized the man was hurt, I tried not to look, but none of Rich’s details stuck themselves in my mind. I remember the call of a man behind us in the pace line who said “cyclist down, cyclist down” as if to warn us—whose voice grew louder as we approached, changing from a litany to a wail: “bad cyclist down, very, very bad…”. 

What I remember as we rode by was not so much the form the crumpled body and bike in the middle of the road took, but the sheen of a white cycling shoe which lay nearly in our path. It was the same shoe I wear, a white Mavic clipless shoe with the yellow and black “M” logo on its heel like a war flag. That, and the pool of blood looking like mercury, spread out in a nearly perfect circle across the black pavement. The volunteer stood over the mercury-pool and waved us on and I tried to recall what I hadn’t seen. 

The scene would stay with me all day even after the sun rose over the orchards and even after the warm cup of coffee at our first aid station stop in Winters. Don’t get me wrong: by all counts, it was a beautiful day, a beautiful 188 miles with friends. Hills I would attack and long stretches of flat where I’d slip behind the wheel of someone taller than me (not hard to do) and let the miles slide by. But, there is something about the starkness of the accident that morning which would remain with me all day—which still remains with me, in some respect. 

It is not the question of blame—was it the driver of the Kenworth big-rig pulling a set of double trailers who’d been going too fast (he hadn’t been)? Was it the cyclist who, eager to get a fast 188 miles in, ignored the volunteer who suggested he stop, riding out in front of that large, speeding vehicle? Instead, I imagine them both rising in the early morning dark, doing what they always, normally did. The driver was on his way to work, executing the motions any of us might in our daily lives: drinking coffee from a thermos, listening to talk radio recite the news as the miles streak as streetlights across the windows of the truck. Or, the cyclist: I would later read that he was a 50-year old man from Rocklin and I imagine he’d ridden these kinds of events before. Was he single or did he have a family? Did he have someone with him that morning, to wish him well on his ride? Surely, he didn’t think there would be anything remarkable about the day has he pulled on his jersey and cycling shorts, clipping the white Mavic shoes on his feet as he stepped outside that morning with his friend-- a friend who would shout, several times "slow down" as the cyclist rode into the line of an on-coming 18-wheeler.

What remained with me that day—and that I’m still reminded of—is that white cycling shoe lying vacant on the dark pavement that morning. Identical to my shoe—to anyone’s shoe, in fact, suggesting the end of life is not that different from its beginning: instantaneous, a flash and suddenly everything has changed. 

The scene didn’t dampen the beauty of riding by one of Lake Beryessa’s many fingers or down a canyon along highway 16 or the company of my friends through the hours and miles. I did watch vehicles a little more closely than I would have otherwise and the way I tended to get silent sooner than I otherwise would, taken into myself with thoughts like: how strange that this could be both my first and my last organized double century ride. The smell of star jasmine flowers led us to the finish line.

When we crossed the line, I circled the park a few time before finding a bench. I let the dappled light which passed through the flickering leaves stand in for what I could have, possibly, said. It was a mixture of gratitude (for my life), of pride (in completing the California Triple Crown), of relief (that I wasn’t sitting on a saddle any longer) and of sadness (how could I not feel a trace of this?)  Perhaps I am a strange person: but the feel of the flicker of light on the face of my skin and the quiet at that moment allowed me to breathe. 

I listened to Irena's family-- and Irena-- thank Rich and to our mutual friend, Brandon (who'd ridden with us the entire distance) too chime in with congratulations. I let the happy sounds seep into my skin like the light; it was the moment I needed and I am grateful for that simple moment of silence after so many miles.

And it was the first double century for several of our friends—and maybe that’s what pulled me out of it and what I choose to remember: driving Rich back out on the course to help our friends in (and keep them company, to keep them safe) for the final miles of the ride. Getting lost in the GMC along those long, dark country roads but finding the route again (by a miracle) and the absolute joy of waiting at the finish line and seeing the flicker of their bike lights in the distance, cheering their names as they crossed the finish line. 

Perhaps that would be the opposite of the horrific scene which began that ride—instead of stark ending, it would be a beginning in which everything, in a moment, changed.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ride Report: 2015 Devil Mountain Double

It's funny how life comes back around in on itself sometimes, as though we construct moments not in a linear fashion (from beginning to end), but instead like a spiral, circling back on the people and places we knew that we thought were in the past. I've always hated the phrase that "things happen for a reason" (I don't believe they do)-- but I am learning the value of experience (and the rationale, perhaps, for embracing each moment in life fully); and also the immeasurable ways I have been blessed by having so many incredible people people my life.

This ride begins back in 2011 or 2012 when I met up with a ride group in the East Bay called the Diablo Cyclists. I was too injured to run and although I had joined a competitive master's swim team, too, I  missed being out on the roads and so I thought I'd do something uncharacteristic: try something new. I actually also wanted to see the bay by bike; I didn't know if would stick around after I finished the MFA program at Saint Mary's College (I was studying nonfiction).  A part of me feared I wouldn't due to the high cost of living there.
Riding with the Diablo Cyclists back in 2011 or 2012, learning the route to the DMD long before I'd actually ride it.

Enter: the Diablo Cyclists. I ended up spending my weekends riding with them, doing the longer rides on Saturdays (usually around 100 miles) with a crew of experienced riders and the more casual Sunday rides which usually around 50-60 miles or so. Looking back, I'm glad they put up with me: I was greener than green when it came to riding, but they taught me the basics of pace lining, fueling, not tackling every hill like it was the last thing you'd ever do, etc.  Jay-- who'd ridden countless doubles and always colored every ride with this anecdotal stories and photo-taking (later to be turned into either a video, a blog or both)-- nicknamed me "Rebecca-In-Motion".

I would listen to stories of Jay's latest double, of other riders' past double and century challenges; of windy rides, of mishaps, of proud moments. One ride, though, dominated our conversations back then. It was the "Devil Mountain Double", or "DMD"-- the end-all of rides. Several riders in the group trained for it and I tagged along.

So, going into the first stage of the Triple Crown Stage Race, I knew 80% of what I was getting into (I haven't climbed Sierra Road or Mt. Hamilton before.) I also knew I was facing a ride that challenged the strongest men I'd ridden with, years ago.  One of my many thoughts on race-morning was how funny to be back again, doing the one ride I thought I'd never do. 


Life is also funny with the people you meet. Again, with the spirals.  Who would have thought I was capable of not only riding but racing a double century? (This year, I even had a coach--NOT RICH-- tell me I'd never be a cyclist. I guess that's what happens when you're petite and solidly built.)  But, when the possibility of riding a double came up last year, Rich said "do it." And when he rode another with a friend (the toughest Double Century, the Alta Alpina), he said I could do that one, too (and criticize me too harshly for going out too hard that day and missing the end by about 20 miles.)

So when I'd mentioned I'd like to try for the Stage Race this year, I had my colleagues from the Diablo Cyclists and Rich to encourage me. Rich said he would ride the miles with me and pull me to the end; one of my former Diablo teammates lived just miles from the start line and offered us a place to stay. And Jay (and another strong rider, Dave) offered me a plethora of advice that would come in handy on the ride (something like "don't be a hero up the climbs-- yes, thank you for that one.)

We left Friday night after work, which meant we didn't get into San Ramon until after 10 pm. This is pretty rough considering the 5 am start time which meant the 4:00 am wake up time (I'm usually an 8-hour sleeper), but I was simply thrilled to FINALLY RIDE THE DMD (this is exactly what I was thinking before the ride.) Driving down to the start revealed cloudy, moist conditions, I half-hoped it was the marine layer which sometimes settles in over the valley and that once we got past the junction on Mt. Diablo, we'd see blue skies.  However, that would not be the case.

At the start, I layered up: shorts and tights, jersey, a warm layer and a rain jacket, I believed I'd shed everything but shorts and jersey later, but I didn't want to freeze coming down from the summit of Mt. Diablo (I knew, from my many rides up that mountain, that the descent can be brutally freeze-your-hands-off cold, even in the midst of summer.)

The race director talked a bit too long (as they usually tend to do) before we started off.  Down the wide-shoulder boulevards in the dark and the rain. Rich pulled me to the front of the pack and we reached the foot of Mt. Diablo with the lead men. Climbing, I immediately felt myself begin to overheat. Sweat streamed down my face and body and the rain just wasn't cool enough to cut the heat. About a quarter mile up (so not quite to the junction which is 6 miles up) I just couldn't take it anymore. I felt awful about shedding layers so early (and watching several riders, including two or t three women) ride past me when I did. I was a stream of apologies to Rich: "I'm so sorry, I didn't meant to ruin the ride, I ruined the ride, I was so hot" etc, etc until he told me to knock it off.

After I was only in my jersey, I felt like I could breathe and suddenly it wasn't really a climb at all. I rested low in my aerobars and heard the chirp of birds in the oak trees around me (one sounded just like one of my new chicks, Biscuit, and I thought: how cute. She came down to cheer me on.) 

The climb up Diablo was (mostly) uneventful. Rich entertained the other riders we'd pass by picking up pinecones and rocks while riding and tossing them off the road without getting off the bike. I tried to talk him through the climb since there wasn't much to see (too much fog and rain) with statements like (this is usually a really beautiful lookout.) To which he would reply: "Wow. What a beautiful view."

Greyness and clouds (and cold) surrounded us, but for that first climb I didn't feel the cold. I worried about the last quarter mile, however, knowing that it's steep and you're on a walking path and not a road. I remember feeling as though I wanted to puke both heart and lungs at the end of it every time I'd climbed it before. Funny how so many miles and training hours later, some things don't change. That part of Diablo is still hard and I still wanted to puke my heart and lungs at the top.

Rich and I at the top of Mt. Diablo after the first climb of the DMD.

It was cold at the top. I refilled my water bottles, ate half pb&j and drank some orange juice (I hadn't eaten before the ride and I'd been starving since the junction.) Rich took a quick picture of us at the top before I put all my layers back on again for the descent.  And that was where Diablo gets its name, perhaps (OK, not really) : but the ride down was so cold, I wasn't sure I was going to make it.

Shivering, I lost sensation in my hands about a mile down. I called to Rich and we traded gloves so that I could at least attempt to use my brakes on the way down. The shivering, though made it hard to hold a line and there were several moments when I felt my vision narrow from the cold-- so much so that I worried if I even blinked I might fall asleep and wake up to find I'd wrecked.

Once we were off Diablo, the fog began to lift as we rode through the streets of Walnut Creek and out toward Clayton. We'd passed one of the girls on the way down and she hung with us for a while, actually, even to the top of Morgan.

I have always loved the Clayton-Morgan Territory ride. Clayton does its best to impersonate a "western" town and Morgan Territory is a winding road cut through pastures and ranches and then finally a narrow tree-canopied canyon, lush and green and all the things Nevada is not. I loved riding this stretch of road years ago because it is always sheltered from the wind and shaded-- so even on the worst hot, windy day, Morgan guarantees a long, steady climb without the added bonus of weather conditions.

Wild turkeys greeted our group of three (Rich, I and the other girl) as we began the staircase climb to the top. I didn't push the pace knowing the climb was long and the ride, longer. The woman who rode with us was a Biology professor from L.A. and was amused with my graduate degree in creative writing. Her lithe frame helped her considerably on that climb and she left Rich and I with about a half mile to go-- until we caught her in the step section right before the top, where we pulled into the second rest stop of the day.

This is where Rich would discover "crack"-- those little "cutie" oranges. He would carry a sack with him for the rest of the ride and when either one of us felt the cusp of bonking, out would come the cuties.

I also discovered (while worrying about this woman passing me) that I really shouldn't worry at all-- although I want to compete, I also just wanted to finish this ride and have fun (as they say, "a bad day on the bike is better than a good day at work.")  As I filled my bottle with more water, I turned to Rich and said "I took my FuckItAll pill and I feel fantastic."

And so, I'd keep a steady supply of those "FuckItAll pills" in my back pocket-- a reminder to enjoy life and not take everything so seriously. Another pb&j, some fruit, a pitstop in the PortAPotty. Life was very beautiful, indeed.

"Bundle up," one of the volunteers said as we departed. We would definitely need the warmth although, looking back, we hadn't shed a single layer.

Down the narrow one-lane road through more ranches and en route to Patterson, I fell behind Rich and we pace-lined quickly in the wind. Rich is one of the strongest athletes I know, but his true strength reveals itself when he can find a steady pace and hold it. My strength, at least for now, is being able to hold on.

We caught up to another girl (one who, I think? was in the lead) and she asked me at a red light if we were triathletes.  I said: "well, I am..." but before I could get any more words out, the light turned and Rich was off. I did my best to catch him, fall into his draft and, again, hold on.

This is what I did for the flat or flattish, even sections of road: hang on!

Out the Altamont Speedway, we had the wind at our backs and cruised along at a considerable speed. I've never been able to hold my own in sections like this--- I'm not a powerhouse and the wind tends to push me around too much, but behind Rich, we made good time. At the traffic porkchop, we made a break away from this other girl (a very strong rider) and she couldn't hold on. I didn't know any of this, however; I only looked ahead, to what waited for us.


Every time we rode this with the Diablo Cyclists-- or, every time I came along, it was horribly windy and cold. Today was really no exception. We had a strong headwind and the windmills were turning. Granted, I'd felt harder headwinds in the past, but on those days I hadn't also climbed Diablo and Morgan already.

I explained to Rich about the false summit and he took the news well. We climbed together to the mini-aid station where the volunteers let me know I was "the first of the female kind they'd seen here." I wondered a bit at how that was stated-- but I downed a V-8 and grabbed--but not eaten-- a single package of fig bars (my "Patterson Cookie" as they would henceforth be called) and started out again.

** I should note this is when my Diablo Cyclist-friend Matt, who offered his home to Rich and I for the night before, arrived. Matt had opted for the 6am, not 5am start, and so made some impressive time! In fact, he would ride strong all day and finish about an hour ahead of Rich and I. 

The summit of Patterson was a wall of considerable elevation gain and a headwind, as usual. Down the other side, Matt and a bunch of the faster men caught us. However, Rich did what he does best and found a pace and we all formed a paceline behind him for ten miles until the Mines Road rest stop. I'd begun to fall off (I was hungry, again!)  By this time, they had potatoes (OMG my favorite on rides) and more fruit, water and juice. Once I felt human again, we were off (and once again, we hadn't taken off any clothing.)


Mines Road was one of my favorite rides, years ago. From Livermore, it's a gentle climb out to the junction which could take you (and would take us) to Mount Hamilton. On fresh legs, you can really push the climbs and feel strong. In the cold, the wind and on legs that were definitely not fresh, Mines Road presented the challenge of patience. It seemed to take FOREVER.

I remember, years ago, thinking this stretch of road had reminded me of Nevada (when I had been away from home for years.) Riding it, and feeling just plain drained, I told Rich I must be crazy-- this looked nothing like Nevada at all! Scrub oak, pastures, greenery-- there was not a single trace of sagebrush. I wondered at the marvel of perception, and how funny it is that these things change.

Halfway up the last final climb on Mines Road, I started to feel hungry and tired again-- as if I wanted to crawl into a ball onto the shoulder of the road and sleep. I wondered if this was really fatigue or if it was something else. To test my theory, I opened my package of fig cookies I'd gotten up at Patterson and ate a fig bar. I felt immediately better.  A minute later, Rich offered me his cutie-crack and I was better, still.

It was also on this stretch of road that I stopped being able to shift from my front derailleur. I could go from big to small, but not the other way. It would be an annoyance the entire way (after lunch, I would have to get off my bike and have Rich shift the bike for me. How embarrassing.)

The lunch stop was held at "the junction"-- a biker-bar turned "cyclist-biker bar." I guess they have changed ownership in recent years because "pulled chicken sandwich" and "salad" were unheard of before. I remember the menu featuring hot dogs and fries and burgers as the main fare with the hilarious addition of a $4 pb&j. Today, the owner ran food out to the picnic tables, taking orders eagerly. I ate 3/4 of sandwich, salad, watermelon and a sparkling water. Rich had nearly the same thing.  I hate to say that (because most people would say the last thing I need is a sandwich) but I needed that sandwich. Nothing could have tasted better after those cold, windy 115 miles.

Lunch, though, would be where I discovered the worst-bad news of the day: the stitching in my shorts had come out so the chamois had bunched itself up on one side and had rubbed me to the point of bleeding. It would be a discomfort-- and a major obstacle-- later in the day, and it was the least-fun moment of the day, always, when getting back in the saddle and the five or so minutes after.

After lunch, the next climb was Mt. Hamilton-- and that's something I've never done before. For some reason, I always pictured Hamilton as this moon-scape, barren, dry, steep mountain you wouldn't climb for all the money in the world. And now, I was going to climb it.

We made good time on the way there, passing several single male riders on the way who were in various degrees of cramping. Once we finally began the ascent, I can't say it was horrible. It was, matching the theme of the day, long. And hard. It was beautiful, too-- not brown and barren at all, but tree-covered and green. And did I mention, cold?

Although I can't remember much from climbing Mt. Hamilton, here I am climbing Mt. Hamilton. This is about 1/4 mile from the top. 

I can't really remember much from the climb. I remember that I told Rich it didn't seem like we were climbing at all-- instead, it was like we were riding really slowly with two flat tires apiece to which he replied: "No, we are definitely climbing."  Mt. Hamilton, like Patterson, too had a false summit and I admit, I was taken in by it. I wanted to be done climbing, to be given some "free" (downhill) miles.  Shouldn't I be strong by now? Shouldn't I know better-- that in in toughest moments, sometimes the only thing life can do is get tougher (at least for a little longer)?

We did make it to the top where we stopped between the two space observatories and ate some of Rich's "crack" (cutie orange sections) while he slipped me from the small to big ring on my front derailleur.

The descent down Hamilton was brutal. The corners aren't angled right, Rich said, so you can easily find yourself in oncoming traffic, which kept our (or, let's be honest, my) speed low. By that time in the day, my shoulders and arms ached from gripping the brakes so hard and this descent was brutal on my upper body. It was also unbearably cold.

At the bottom, we re-grouped and paced ourselves across the rolling terrain to the next rest stop located at someone's house (odd). The house was up a climb and the driveway a steep downhill, which meant, basically, it was a rest stop you had to climb in and out of.

They had a billboard-sized elevation map above the garage I studied as I ate my cup of hot ramen soup, three potato chips and a fig bar.  One of the ride volunteers told me the delights (horrors) of Sierra Road, the next climb we faced. 3.9 miles and nearly 3,000 feet of gain. At that point in the day, that did not sound fun.

What was I going to do about it, though? Quit. Heck, no! My FuckItAll pill was still working and I was still going to finish this ride. I was already 130 miles or so into it and even if I had to crawl with my bike strapped to my back, I'd finish.

It was heartbreaking to see that hill, though. We rode through town, hitting stoplight after stoplight. It was mostly flat, save for the mountains to our right. And then, I saw the road sign "Sierra Road" and my heart dropped a little. When we made the turn, it dropped a lot more.


I think my FuckItAll Pill wore off at that moment.

What can I say of Sierra Road? Ouch, ouch, why, why? It may be the slowest I've climbed anything. I wanted to walk at several points, but the happy Filipino people who came out to cheer (everyone? or particular riders?) with their drums and sweet-smelling food made me feel guilty for wanting to walk. They came to see a show, I might as well give it to them? Rich told me to hold my pace slow and steady and I definitely did-- the slow part, I mean. At the near-top (maybe a mile from the real top. What is it with these climbs and false summits?) we saw a Golden Eagle which circled above our heads and which swooped down to "buzz" me twice.

"What is it with you and eagles?" Rich asked me and the only reply-- which I didn't have the breath to say at the moment-- was that an eagle was a much better omen than the vultures we'd seen before.

Sierra Road might have done me in. I'd been pretty good about not cramping and I admit, my legs still felt strong at this point. It was the other parts of my body which suffered-- my triceps (for some odd reason) were on the verge of cramping, my lower back was unbelievably tight and my shorts had done even more damage to my crotch (I asked Rich to take me to the hospital when we were done riding while climbing Sierra Road.)

When we reached the next aid station, I drank more water, refilled my bottles, drank a sip of Rich's Coke and was about to leave when the nice lady offered me chocolate. Like really nice chocolate. What I didn't know is that she laced the chocolate in "FuckItAll" so after that aid station, I would be more or less back. Granted, we still had Calavaras, Sunol, Palamaras and Norris Canyon before the finish line, but I knew I could do it.

We put our jackets back on (shivering. We had never completely dried off from that morning and now, with the sun dipping low, it was starting to get truly cold out. The good news, I guess, is that the wind had died down.)  We ripped the undulating, but mostly downhill, terrain. I sat low in my aerobars behind Rich and kept pressure on both my pedals so that I wasn't sitting, exactly, in the saddle.


When we reached Sunol, it was a bit after 7pm and the sun had nearly set. The aid station workers were drinking beer and I hated them, slightly, for that. Not that I wanted a beer, exactly. At that point, I didn't really want anything (to eat or drink) at all. I just wanted to be done with this ride. I'd been wet, cold, tired, hungry, thirsty and chafed to death for 14 hours. Enough is enough.

I even asked Rich if I could call it a day. Looking back, I'm glad he mostly ignored me. I was only 20 miles from the finish. One CompuTrainer class. I could run that (technically) if I had to.  I won't lie, though, that the final PortAPotty stop made me cry. I've never had that kind of issue before. I tried to ease my discomfort by applying a chamois cream which set my raw, bleeding skin on fire. Clipping my feet into the pedals and sitting back on the saddle brought involuntary tears to my eyes. I can't even describe that pain.

Soon, it became apparent: I had to pick my pain. I could stand up for 20 miles or sit down. Once I picked my position, the fabric of my shorts would stick to my bleeding skin and changing that position was enough to make me almost fall over. So, as the sun faded in front of us as we headed down a canyon toward Palamaras, I chose to sit and let myself cry behind Rich until that part of me became too numb to feel anymore, and I could continue riding.

Up Palamaras, Rich practiced his Peacock calls and I tried not to run over Salamanders as the light faded to near-dark. We reached the top sooner than I thought we would and the downhill, in the near-dark, was terrifying. We hadn't stopped to turn our lights on, only for Rich to put me back in the big ring again. I prayed to not hit a pothole. Luckily, there weren't any or someone likes Rich and I, in the great beyond.

At the bottom of Palamaras, we turned our lights on and made our way back to Norris Canyon. It was completely dark and silent (except for the odd car which would pass, the sound of frogs and crickets) and our pedaling. I thought about completing this race, how it was such an accomplishment (ME? Ride the DMD?) but also a let down (I was going to have a very, very slow finishing time.) I can't say I wanted to stop or to go; by that point, I was operating solely on a mechanical level, pushing and pulling the pedals around and around, but not clinging to any single thought or emotion.

Norris, in the dark, seemed to last forever. So did the downhill. Rich asked me if I wanted him to shift me into my big ring for the ride down and I replied "no." I didn't want to stop; I wanted to stop at the finish line and call it a day.  So, down we went and for a while, I struggled to keep him in sight.  Then, for whatever reason, I felt a click on my feet and my chain switched over to my big ring. I used my motivation to finish to catch up to Rich and we held a fast pace to the finish line at the San Ramon Marriot.

My finish was not impressive as Rich's, though: he rode his bike down the stairs while still in the aerobars to the room where the officials took our numbers to record finishing times. Since I was a runner, and a triathlete, I unclipped, but my bike on my back and ran down the stairs to say that #80 had made it, finally.

At the finish in the San Ramon Marriot. I think I have to work on riding my bike down concrete stairs in my aerobars if I'm ever going to place against this guy. :-)  Seriously, what a great day and I had the best company in the world.

It's funny, though: back in 2011, who would have thought that I'd ride a double century? That I would become a triathlete? That I would, in four years, ride the DMD and finish in the top of the field?

It is funny how events, places and times circle back in life, gaining meaning as we move through the years. I'm so grateful for the people and places I've been.

And, I can't wait for where I'm going.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon: An Unexpected Victory

It's taken me a while to digest this past weekend and the fact that I won a half-marathon.  I didn't sign up for this race thinking I could win or, really, take any of the spots on the podium. Granted, I'm not sure how many people wake up and say to themselves: Ah man, I really want to run up and down and around and up and up and up this random hill which sits over the prison in Carson City, Nevada which can be really sandy and hot because, you know, deep down I love pain. I really, really love it. Almost as much as I love running with sand in my shoes.

Instead, I signed up because running a really hard 13.1 miles right now is just as good as an "easy" 16. I'm not injured yet (knock on wood) and have had a really solid base of running miles. The last thing I want to do is to go out too hard or too long and end up with tendonitis.  So, a trail race that would force me to go "hard" (but still "slow") seemed like the perfect solution.

Plus, I miss having fun. Which makes me wonder about myself-- maybe I am the person who says: Ah man, I really want to run up and down and around and up and up and up this random hill which sits over the prison in Carson City, Nevada which can be really sandy and hot because, you know, deep down I love pain. I really, really love it. Almost as much as I love running with sand in my shoes.

Nevada, for me, is a place with layers (like sedimentary rock.)  I'm starting to realize every place I go is a place I've been before and I'm constantly comparing who I was to who I am. Sometimes I'm proud of who I've become. But, there are other times when a specific spot is a landmark in my life, a crossroads, and coming back again forces me to question the choices I've made and the person I've become.

The Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon is no exception.  This was the first half marathon I ever ran, back when I didn't think of myself as a runner or an athlete at all. It was my second semester as an MA Candidate in the French department and I was 25 years old an I'd lost my "real" job, my house and in a desperate attempt to patch my life back together, I pursued an MA in French. Not because I wanted one, really, but because what they paid me to teach was more than what they paid me at the ski shop where I worked and that would allow me to leave the basement of the professors where I lived because they were kind, and had let me stay with them without charging rent.

So I was an MA Candidate in the French Department who lived in a 250 square foot "shit hole" near the railroad tracks and I'd signed up for this race because running was the one thing I had, then, to console me that life really was going to work itself out, that I was going to become a writer, that I would not always eke through life.  I wanted to know that I was strong, that I could have a goal and reach it.

I still remember that my mom had driven me to the race and had waited for me from start to finish. My dad and stepmom came to see me finish, too. My mom had spotted me first, pointing to the hill, saying, "that's her. I know it's her." My dad and stepmom hadn't believed I would do so well-- but they watched me win my age group and I think we all cried that day.  Looking back, it was evidence that (come what may) I was going to survive.

So, it's funny coming back to the big, sandy hill almost ten years later. I'm still here, surviving. I'm still an athlete and still a writer. I don't have the M.A. program to hang onto (or any academic program); now I'm a writer who does technical writing and who writes essays in her spare time and I manage a reading series-- an unexpected blessing. I am also an athlete. No matter how many times I have been told I will never be a runner, here I am at the starting line of another race.

The world narrows and there is really only a few things-- and people--which matter. One stands before me, just slightly to the left. As the race begins, knowing he is there makes all the difference as I match the pace of the lead runner.


This is a brutal race. Aside from the first 75 meters, the first three miles are uphill on a single track and sandy (although there will be gradations of "sandy" throughout this race. This is not "super sandy"-- the sand that sucks you down to the Earth's core. This is merely "annoying sandy" but still, it sucks.) I'm out in front and wondering how I can be so slow, but I am pulling away from the pack behind me. There are a handful of men, running, in front of me and I watch them to know what to expect from the terrain. I haven't seen another woman yet, but I wait for them to pass me. They are all leaner than I am-- most taller, too-- and I have been conservative with my running miles leading up to this race. (Again, I don't expect to win.)

For that first three-mile climb through "Old Truck Canyon" I think of the running coach I'd had who stopped  believing in me and I imagine he wants me to fail. I think of the tough things, because that is where my mind goes, at first, when I first encounter race-pain. It takes a minute or so to settle in, and I repeat to myself that this isn't a sprint, that I have to find a pace, a rhythm and let what happens, happen.  I do, and I crest the first climb with a nuclear fire in my calves, but still no woman has passes me.

I nearly trip on rocks which dot the single-track and I tell myself that if I eat shit, the race is over. This is another mantra I pick up which seems to help. Don't eat shit. Don't eat shit.  I pick up my feet higher than I normally would and cruise the downhills, not gaining as much speed as I'd like, but I definitely do not eat shit. 


The landscape is stark, but beautiful. Life is not always what we expect it will be, or how. This race is not what I expected it to be. I expected to be last because I am all things I have told myself for years. I was injured, so I'm not a runner anymore. I was injured, so I'm slow. I am not thin, which means I'm fat which means, again, I'm slow. I could parse all of these for you and trace each back to its origin but at this point, it's neither interesting nor useful. Let's just say I started this race thinking I was fat and slow and washed up and somewhat embarrassed that a person I love is watching me race-- or, is watching me start and will watch me finish.

But, even as soon as 75 meters in, I surprise myself. I am not fat, I am not slow, I am not injured. I'm sticking with the lead pack and I haven't heard or seen another woman.

Rich catches us before the single track turns up the canyon and I can see he's taking a picture of me, running. And how strange-- but wonderful-- it is that someone is taking a picture of me, running, in a race. Fat me, discarded me. Old me. Me who didn't qualify for the Olympic Trials after all. Me whose book didn't sell. Me who was unworthy of love, a year ago.

I could cry, really, but I don't. I keep climbing. I run my own race. Oh, but how I want to finish first because I know what waits for me at the finish line.


Up and down; I can't find a pace, but must adjust to the terrain. I don't run trails like this often; I can't, in fact, because of my work schedule. I run at lunch, which means sidewalk and this race is the opposite of concrete curbing. Up a canyon, across a ridge, down a narrow arroyo onto a playa and I see a hawk circling high above.

There are times I hardly see the trail and I feel as though I'm wandering through the desert, alone. I reach a steep incline, so steep I'm on my hands and knees, my feet not quite catching traction up the scree.

I remember the thing someone told me once, that he couldn't stand to wait for me to become. I am clawing at the desert floor, my knee is bleeding and I know I am becoming. You're not worth waiting for and I know so many of my coaches have thought the same thing.

I might cry, but I can't. Anymore.

Now, in this race, I can only say to myself, again and again: I am worth it, I am worth it, I am, I am-- that's me, panting, grappling and grabbing the earth by handfuls. I'm not ready to fail or fall back. Especially not now. I have to keep going.


There is a mile-long climb around mile 8 or so. I can't run it this year because the sand is so deep. I run and then, every now and then, I have to walk. So do the men in front of me.  We keep an equal distance from each other as we climb and climb and climb.

The aid station at the top of the hill is populated by men and women from a local running club and they all tell me I am the first female, that I am strong, that I have to keep going.

There are two men who leave the aid station with me and they, too, want me to finish strong. We run down a long, sandy hill and then the true test begins.

Up and down: steep in both respects. I handle the first of these extreme undulations the best I can: not eating shit on the downhill, digging deep up the ascent. I out-pace the men for the downhill efforts, but on the second steep ascent, I lose my balance and I fall into the earth. I try to crawl my way back up, but the sand gives way to the granite beneath it.

One of the men puts both hands on my butt and pushes me up, saying "Go, go, go!"

Without a word, I feel hands on my backside and the nearest runner gives me a tough shove. It's enough to get me up and I crest the hill.  I leave the two of them behind on the downhill and I don't see him until the end of the race. When I do, he smiles sheepishly and apologies for the "push."

"Don't," I reply. "I wouldn't have made it without it."


I met Rich over a year ago. His CompuTrainer classes saved my life because there was, literally, nothing else I had to look forward to. My partner of seven years left me for another person and the university (where I taught) did not renew my contract. While I scrambled for jobs-- and while I scrambled for myself-- I always had Rich's classes where I could ride my bike and my efforts matched my results. It was not like writing, where I could receive countless rejections for my work with really no justification. It was also not like love-- (which, too, can end instantly.)

Instead, riding was a constant, a guarantee. I could put hours in and see a tangible result.  Rich quickly became my friend. We rode together. He transformed an unsure rider into an endurance cyclist. It was the thing that got me through those hard months of learning to live on my own, of learning to trust myself. I'm not sure I'll ever repay that.

But I think of those months, last year, and how lonely I was. I think of that when I climb another sandy hill I don't think I can but do.


There's one final hill at about mile 12 in the sand that I really don't think I can run, but I do.  I keep thinking of Rich, at the finish line and my mom who said she'd be there, too. It isn't a big race or anything I can really point to in terms of accolades, but since this was my first half marathon it holds a special meaning for me. I love that I am in first and even though my legs are fatigues and I'm dirty and I just want to be done, I pick up the pace and float across the finish line. My mom stands to the right and I reach out to give her a high-five.

She hugs me when I've caught my breath and one runner I passed miles before stops to say: "You are a runner."

A part of me wants to hold onto that an all it could mean. Another marathon, maybe? Another shot at being, truly "fast"?

The feeling fades, though, and it's more important to me that I had the courage to come back and run this race, that I had the courage to finish and that I was able to share that moment with two people who mean so much to me.