Even though the days continue to get shorter, and whenever I'm outside, it's dark, I am going through a regeneration of mind, body and spirit.
I've been thinking about the nature of nonfiction a lot lately, mainly because I have several writing projects on my plate, but also because I spent the better part of my teens abrandonnd twenties studying-- and writing-- in that particular genre. So, in a way, it's become my modus operandi for how I organize my thoughts, even without realizing it. I’ve also been thinking a lot about cycling and how that fits into my writing life (most times, it doesn’t.) Races like the 508, though, which require so much explaining and storytelling to give anyone a sense of its breadth— allow the two worlds to collide.
For me, writing nonfiction is a lot like taking a photograph: you have to frame your subject while taking into consideration what exists in the natural world around it. It's an act of selection--of focus. If you take a picture of the road, you might miss the mountain range to the right, or the clouds directly above you. If you photograph the tree, you miss the river, (etc.) Events, therefore, are also snapshots of the end of a particular journey— of the training it took to compete, yes. But, also of whatever other challenges circle through my ligaments and mind, and what little I’m left with is what I tend to write.
These days, photographs are not necessarily true; they render something that looks true enough. This is not that kind of photograph. This race report takes neither the high or the low road— instead, it focuses on the truest moments across 508 miles shared by six unlikely athletes brought together by a common purpose: to break a few barriers and to set a record for the “toughest 48 hours in sport.”
Start & Stage 1.
It's 6:45 am on Friday, September 15th. The sunrise has a light pinkish hue to it; the air bites at the skin with its teeth. There are a handful of cyclists gathered in front of the Hilton Garden Inn, a hotel in Reno's South Meadows. For the "toughest 48-hours in sport" you'd think there would be more fanfare: more spectators, more families… just more. But, ultra-endurance sports are not social: they are individual struggles, spread out across roads and mountains. The lucky thing— for a team, anyway— is that you get to share these private moments with a handful of other people.
Our team’s first rider, Rhonda Y., is a true Reno local and resident and also an accomplished cyclist. A Cat 2 racer, she earned her USAC status through years of hard work, racing, training and talent. In 2011, she was struck by Hummer, and injured so badly that she had roads and screws (a level 5 fusion) placed in her back. Yet, she returned to racing and won several USAC Crit races, working her way to her current Cat 2 status. Two years ago, she married and had a little boy, Till, who is 1 1/2 years old.
As she stood at the start line, another racer told her: "I'm a very fast climber.”
When the race began, she sat back and watched the two "leaders" (including the “very fast climber”) struggle up Geiger Grade. Rhonda picked her moment, and attacked. "I got to Geiger Summit alone. I looked back and there was no one there," she said.
Into Virginia City and down Six Mile Canyon, other riders didn't stop at the stop signs despite race rules which dictate otherwise. She watched other riders break the rules and accelerate down the narrow road. Yet, Rhonda would emerge as the third rider to meet NV Hwy 50. Strong headwinds and construction made for an interesting first exchange point as teammates Monica and Katie organized the mini-bus (the shaggin’ wagon, as my partner, Rich— who was competing on another team— called it.) I sat up front with our driver, Linda, an ultra-endurance athlete recovering from her own traffic accident, trying to settle into the cadence of the race.
Already, we had a rivalry, and it wasn’t with the other Reno team like I had expected. Each and every woman in that mini bus had their sights set no on the only team to wear skin suits for the first two legs of the race. The one with the fast climber. As our second rider embarked on the 31.5 mile stage to Fallon, I knew this year was different from the previous three I had raced. This race was gut-deep.
Flat and Fast Stage 2.
The Silver State 508 is a non-stop 508-mile time trial race that has five different racing categories: solo- randonneur, solo, 2-person relay and 4-person relay. Because people come in two flavors (male and female) and bikes come in five (standard, recumbent, classic, fixed gear and tandem) the permutation of race categories is more than I want to calculate (hey, I became a writer for a reason.)
Never before in the history of the Silver State 508 has a four-woman team even toed the line. There were four-woman teams in the Furnace Creek 508, but they never cracked the top-ten. I never imagined that, in gathering local female racers, that we would be competitive with male teams. I only wanted us to finish, to have a good time and to get to know each other better.
But, maybe that reveals some deeper bias about what men and women are capable of. Or, of what we are willing to accept from a person depending on their gender, their socio-economic status, the color of their skin or the cost of the bike upon which they log their miles.
Monica G., our second rider, is probably the woman who articulates this the best. Tall, athletic and the most determined (tenacious) person I know, she’s also very wise. In the weeks prior to the race, I internet-stalked all my teammates, cobbling together a sponsor letter to convince some local business to loan us a vehicle for the race. I found a quote she’d offered to an athletic trainer who had helped her prepare for Leadville last year. She wrote: “Life is full of labels and definitions. It’s not number; a weight, finish time, salary, age, heart rate, speed, watts or even tire size. It’s not a title or degree. It’s not a membership to a country club. It’s not finishing one race, it’s finishing each day with grace and humility. It’s the opportunity to show up at the start line.”
Monica showed up for this stage. She rode so strong that our crew, Linda, remarked: “I hate to say it, but she rides like a guy. And if anyone ever says that to me, I’m going to think of Monica, and I’m going to take it as a compliment. Man, she’s strong.”
We got to the exchange point well ahead of our companion Great Basin (Reno) team. The skin-suit team was still in front of us, though. Our third rider, Katie, got on her Q-Roo TT bike with a fire in her eyes that she would do the best she could for the next 106 miles.
Long, cold and windy. Stage 3.
The Silver State 508 is a long enough race that you have to think about logistics and details. And, not to throw myself under our mini-bus—which I somehow managed to secure by coordinating with Rich who owns Great Basin Bicycles and Darrell Plumber of Sierra Nevada Properties— I will freely admit that “logistics and details” are not really my thing. As a literary artist, I am a more conceptual and abstract thinker: put me in charge of the Facebook and twitter feed and watch me literally blow it up. Things like a vehicle, coolers for food and water and ice, etc. That’s definitely not my thing. (We have a saying in my household: I can fix it if it’s a manuscript. If not, you’re on your own.)
So, if it were up to me, we might subsist on dry turkey sandwiches, which is what I did, because somehow all the food I packed disappeared and I couldn’t locate any of it throughout the duration of the race. (I would later discover it ended up on the Great Basin Ichthyosaur Van— our companion team. Oh well. ) Luckily, my teammates were all a lot more organized than I was. Katie, for instance, stocked the van with three coolers, one of which held ice water that we didn’t go through quite as quickly as we feared (it was colder this year than in the past) but that proved invaluable.
Katie, with her Q-Roo TT bike, rode the flats and downhills at mach one speed, pulling us across the Nevada’s vast Great Basin on hwy. 50. Past the dunes of Sand Mountain, the bombing range of Dixie Valley and Middlegate— a bar/motel/semi-landmark along the route. Here is where we’d pull the bus off the road to stop and wait for our rider to pass.
The run-down, in stage 3, was that we were well behind the four-man fast francophone team, Coconut Crab as well as the two-person mixed Hutton’s Vireo and, only recently, the other Reno/Great Basin Bicycles sponsored team, Great Basin Ichthyosaur. Their rider, Fritz, had passed Katie on Sand Pass, just after Sand Mountain. So, we were fourth or fifth (not including any solo riders)— and had something like twenty minutes before we expected Katie to ride by the van again. We all stood around, talking about Reno’s decision to close the strip clubs downtown and move them elsewhere. It was an odd conversation, admittedly, but I was wearing a tutu, we were driving in a mini-bus and there was something like 400 miles ahead of us. Who was I to judge what was strange?
Linda, one of our crew, got out of the driver’s seat and located her yoga mat to do a series of therapeutic stretches and strengthening exercises. Seven weeks before, she was struck by an SUV in a four-way stop intersection in Carson City when the woman behind the wheel decided to put the pedal to the metal from a dead stop for no apparent reason. Linda’s pelvis was broken in multiple locations, and I was shocked when she told me she still wanted to crew for the team.
Carroll Summit is probably one of the most beautiful spots in Eastern Nevada. It’s technically not on “the loneliest highway” but a side road of that— on NV highway 722, a sharp right turn just after our semi-famous “shoe tree.” I had told Katie about the climb weeks before the race when she’d enthusiastically signed up for this epic adventure without asking me about it much (I worried about her sanity a little bit. :-) Actually, she saved our butts, and I’m glad she joined up with us.) Katie, who has competed in countless triathlons (mostly the long kind) had more aerobic base than all of us put together. But, TT bikes are built to do one thing (and they do it well): go fast on the flats and downhills.
About a week before the race, I borrowed a friend’s TT bike and rode it around just to see what it felt like. It was like sitting on a tank— granted, it took some effort to get that thing going, but once I was rolling, I was unstoppable. Hills, though— yeesh— I’m typically a fairly decent climber, and I struggled on terrain I would, on my road bike, call “a hill.”
When we started the Carroll Summit climb, I changed out of my sweatpants and into shorts. Then, after stepping outside the mini-bus, I promptly put my pants back on again. Sharp rock formations frame the initial entrance to the canyon and an old farmstead called Eastgate, welcomes you to this new, strange world.
A fire swept over Carroll Summit last year, so the remains of juniper trees lend an eerie air to the otherwise stunning climb. Katie pushed through that climb like nobody’s business, but I can’t imagine what that was like on a TT bike. If determination were elements on the periodic table, Katie’s would be uranium.
Once the climb was over, she would reach over 50 mph on the downhill and pull us neck-and-neck with Reno’s third team: Blerch (a four-man team.) Great Basin Ichthyosaur had pulled 18 minutes ahead; Hutton Vireo 30 minutes and Coconut Crab, probably around an hour.
The last part of the stage is cruel: a sharp uphill and up-wind climb into Austin. I rolled around at the gas station on the hill to warm up. The rider on the Blerch team took a selfie with me at the exchange point. Then, as Katie came up the hill, I cheered her on while silently telling myself that it was time to saddle up and go into puke-mode for as long as I could stand it.
Stage 4: Almost getting run over, Austin to Eureka.
Up Austin Summit, I pass the other Reno team immediately. My legs are already filled with lactic acid, and I’m breathing so much cold air that it feels like I’m rubbing cheese graters up and down my throat. I can’t let my team down, and I know this stage well: as long as I don’t cross my own red line, I can make it on water and a few energy chews. It’s about 6:30 in the evening, the sun is low and the desert, beautiful. The low light captures the earth tone hues and distant, purple mountains.
I don’t expect to see my team vehicle for a while. And, that’s fine with me. I settle into a pace, down in my aerobars. Music— piano— plays in one ear while I listen to the endless wind— the sound of distance—around me.
Eventually, I do see the orange mini-bus. They offer me water. They offer me other things, but I don’t stop, can’t stop—it’s only 70 miles. I start in on the chews at thirty miles in. Grape flavored, I wonder why I didn’t check the package before I stuffed it into my pocket. But, as I’ve already said, I’m not really a details person, so whatever. Chews are chews.
The sun sets, and the sky turns rosy-violet-blue. My team tells me to turn my lights on. I do, stopping (only so briefly)— I’ve passed a lot of riders I don’t recognize, but not GB Ichthyosaur, and not the two-person mixed team from So. Cal. I keep pushing harder— or so I imagine— in this place of endless headwind and panoptic horizons that fade with the arrival of evening stars.
I move through every single emotion a person can as my legs turn around the crank of the bike. I’m great, I suck, I can ride forever, I need to stop, I’m powerful, I’m weak… the litany of narratives is endless and vast like the darkness and soon I can only see a single lighted spot on the road in front of me.
Red blinking lights in the distance ahead tell me I’m catching riders, and I’m excited and I ride harder. Then, a white stalker-van pulls up next to me, and I turn to look and this man yells at me with big, gesturing arms. My heart is in my throat, and when I realize that it’s my boyfriend, Rich, and that he’s in his team van (GB Ichthyosaur) I’ve crashed my bike, bruised my arm, stomach and leg and I’m panting on the dark pavement.
He tells me my tail-light had failed and that some other motorist had almost killed me. He puts several lights on my bike, and pushes me back on the road. I’m less impacted by the news that I almost died than I am knowing their rider is close.
I catch her in the undulating terrain of 20-miles-to-go and call out a friendly greeting— the darkness is lonely. Up and down— I seek that other team, pushing as hard as I can. I tell my team to go to the exchange point even though I’m low on water. The final climb before Eureka, the horizon turns a light shade of lavender in the dark black of night. I pass a man on the climb to the gas station in town, and spot deer in between the old, brick buildings. I point, but the lights from the exchange points are so bright, they almost blind me.
I settle into the mini-bus. I remember we backed over a curb. I remember we followed Rhonda (who would ride the 70-mile stage 5) out of town. My body ached after that stage. I tried so hard, but I didn’t catch them all. I lay down onto a seat and tried to stop shivering.
Stage 5: Cold night and athlete-dreams, Eureka to Austin.
As Rhonda set out on our return ride home, I scrambled to peel off the cold, wet layers of cycling clothes and settle into a seat to sleep, since I’d be the one to help our crew through the “deep” part of the night for the sixth stage of the race. A rider from another team drafted our mini-bus as we turned out of Eureka and back onto the lonely highway. I couldn’t get my teeth to stop chattering.
I felt bad for telling Rhonda (before the race) that it would not be a cold leg to ride. To my own credit, it wasn’t that cold the year I rode it— back in 2015, when I had competed on a two-person mixed team with Brandon Tinianov team Sanguine Octopus (we captured the course record that year following the race results that include stopping at every stop sign and riding each and every leg to which we were assigned without changing out riders—which, for this race, constitutes cheating.)
This year, it wasn’t just cold. It was— just about, literally— freezing. I couldn’t warm up in the bus; I couldn’t imagine what that felt like in the dark night at 20+ mph. Linda drove the mini-bus, directly following Rhonda (per the race rules).
The other rider— a man on a four-person team— surged in front of Rhonda and the bus, only to drop back, and have us overcome her. This happened about three times before he shook his head and silently accepted that “the girl team” would move ahead of him.
I kept trying to sleep. I listened to my teammate, Katie— who is a seasoned triathlete— talk to Linda about her ultra-triathlon experiences. As they talked about the swim-bike-run, my dreams turned triathlon: I swam through deserts. I biked across a pool. It was really, really weird.
Then, at some point, I heard my name and bolted awake. Rhonda’s headlight had failed. Without thinking, I ran to the bike rack on the back of the bus where the rest of our bikes rested. I loosened the headlamp on my bike and ran to Rhonda, attempting to fasten it to her handlebars. Immediately, my fingers were almost too cold to move, and it took me three or four attempts to get the light secured on her bike.
I’m still upset with myself that I didn’t capture any pictures of Rhonda riding this leg. I was so tired and cold, and I knew that my shift of co-piloting would start in Austin. Rhonda rode it brilliantly— she was second fastest time overall on that leg of the race out of 46 teams. She was barely behind the four-man French team Coconut Crab, and decimated everyone else in the race.
I remember, back in 2015, climbing the last climb, Austin Summit. It’s brutal: it is dark, you can’t see where you are going or how far you have come. The year I did it, I glanced into the night sky and happened to see a shooting star. I wished that the climb would end. Then, out of the darkness, the green highway sign announcing Austin materialized. I held my arms in the air.
I was awake for Rhonda’s final climb. I watched as she passed other riders. I watched as she pushed hard up that final ascent, not being able to see it. And then, as the sign came into view, she lifted a single fist-punch into the air: the sign of victory. It was one of the most inspiring moments of the race.
Stage 6: Deep freeze, dark morning and mysteries.
We arrived in Austin at 1:32 am. It was dark and Pluto-cold; I’m honestly surprised there was no trace of ice on the roads. My teammate, Monica (who would ride the 112 mile stage from Austin to Fallon) was, due to her extensive experience as an athlete, ready to ride. When we arrived in Austin earlier (when I began Leg 4), she and her boyfriend left the orange bus, and rented a room in Austin. They had a warm meal, showered and slept while Rhonda and I rode to Eureka and back again.
There was nothing in the race rules which stated all riders must remain in their vehicle, or that they cannot rent rooms in the tiny towns we would pass through. In fact, we were encouraged to support these small economies as much as we could. So, Monica did her part and ate at one of Austin’s two restaurants and stayed in one of its three motels.
When we arrived in Austin, I grabbed Rhonda’s bike, put it on the bike rack and ushered her into the bus. I checked with Monica to see that she was ready. Her boyfriend, Matt, took over the job of driving as crew while Linda (still recovering from a major injury) would sleep and shower in their hotel room and drive his car to Fallon where we would meet, switch drivers, and continue to the finish line.
Matt, a high school government teacher in Reno, took the wheel. A true adventurer and athlete, I did my best to support our team even though late-night anything is really not my strong suit. We made sure Monica turned left onto highway 722 (a turn other riders missed); we made sure she had water and food.
Yet, he said that more than a few times, I would be talking to him and mid-sentence, would fall completely asleep. (Honestly, I tried.)
Every time I heard my name, I jumped to action: I filled a water bottle, I fixed a headlight, I gave or removed gloves.
Monica flew. The team in front of us— a two-mixed team— had a fifteen minute lead on us leaving the Austin time station. I watched the online tracking on my phone and the blinking red lights in front of us simultaneously: she was gaining on them, and gaining fast.
I know Monica saw the blinking tail lights: Matt said that she would do everything to catch them. She is tenacious like that. We reached the bottom of Carroll Summit and gave her a new warm layer (that she could sweat in) new water (hers had frozen due to riding in 19-degree temps and a handful of encouraging words. The red flashing lights became more brilliant as we approached.
And then, the lights vanished.
I can’t say what happened. Wake and slumber flatlined, and even after reviewing race data, I cannot tell the true story. Yet, after a month of reflection, I have this unframed thought: that for all the hours and all the discomfort, athletes are left only one thing to celebrate— integrity. At our best, we represent this particular strength of spirit through the extremes we push the body by completing feats most people would rather not even try. We are integrity, embodied.
Yet, without integrity— when the rules aren’t followed, and when excellence is arrived at by cheating, there is nothing to frame: an athlete is just another person who would rather not complete a difficult race.
I can say that Monica rode 112 miles (fast!) for that stage of the race. I watched her do it. I was awake for every stop and, when Matt had a question, he would wake me up to ask.
Dawn across the alkali flats, dawn over Sand Mountain: Monica rode steady and strong. When we stopped at a gas station at the outskirts of town, we heard the Fallon Naval Base play the Star Spangled Banner. Delirious from lack of sleep, we stumbled out of the bus, placed our right hands over our heart, and stared up at the American flag flying over the gas station. The gas station owner—and his wife— joined us.
Stage 7: Time Trial: It’s getting real.
Monica and Katie made the exchange while I was putting my cycling clothes on in the orange bus. I had made another dry sandwich of turkey and white bread (because that was all I had to eat) and another bottle of water. Monica asked if we wanted coffee drinks while Rhonda and Katie found a local cafe in Fallon for breakfast and real coffee.
My stomach was in knots: I tried to do my best with what I had. Katie leaves the exchange point on the Q-Roo TT bike, flying fast down the flat terrain. We gather Monica in the bus and continue to the turn. Everyone but Katie and I are eating non-bike food and relaxed. My nerves are sharp and when Rhonda asks me what I know about other riders in the ride (and what to do when they don’t follow the rules) I don’t have an answer for her.) There are rules and relationships: you should always follow the race rules. I don't have an answer for her about the other half of it, relationships, the nebulous part.
As the morning warms, I worry that I’ve let everyone down. Katie rides so strong; she is steady and strong due to her large-volume training and grit. When we pull into Silver Springs— a casino parking lot as the exchange point— I go into the bathroom one last time before my ride.
In the casino bathroom, I look at myself in the mirror. My face looks completely horrible. I’m wrinkled, tired and old. While Katie kicks ass on her final stage of the race, I take boogers out of my eyes and ears, and put the mass of my hair into a ponytail.
As I leave the cigarette-scented environment in the casino, guilt seeps from my blood into every part of my body.
Stage 8: Making up (stolen) time
When Katie and I make the exchange, there is not another team around us. It’s just desert and distance. Former Race Director and always-race-guru/photographer, explorer/instigator Chris Kostman filmed me riding for a time in his car along highway 50, even taking his blue Saturn off onto the dirt shoulder of the road. Kostman, a friend and supporter of my writing, kindly offered his thoughts on our bumblebee team: “It was a true pleasure to have our first four women team on the Silver State 508 course!” No pressure, right?
No matter what I tried to tell myself, my muscles— and body— were not 100% due to how hard I’d pushed in the fourth stage and probably my lack of sleep since then. I felt mechanical— and half-alive— as I turned my pedals around the crank. I worry someone might catch me, but there is nothing in the world that tells me that there is another person around me.
At some point, a truck carrying bottled water had a wreck and I had to negotiate broken plastic bottles across the highway. Then, when I turned onto the road leading to the climb up Six Mile Canyon, I encountered an older man on a bike. He asked me if I did the Alta Alpina races to which I answered that I had.
My team, who drove up shortly after this exchange, were alarmed by this early Saturday morning rider who, they said: “was all over the place.” Afraid he was going to weave into me and force a crash, they told him to back off, which he eventually did, as I attempted to hold a steady pace and cadence up the pitchy and sometimes-steep climb of Six Mile Canyon.
I’m not going to lie— I felt like I was riding in slow motion, and I figured that I had no shot at catching anybody. I felt bad for my team— whom I’d dragged out into the desert for a night of no-sleep, below freezing temps, mediocre food, and the opportunity to water a lot of bushes along the way. I knew they deserved more out of me, and I was sad that, in the terrain where Rich says I shine, I was barely making it.
I didn’t have any idea where George was, and I told myself to just ride my ride. So, I listened to the piano chords in my right ear and fell into the rhythm of the road, pushing the steeper sections and easing up on the flats to give myself a slight recovery. I would only find out later, after the race had ended, that I was catching the war-torn rider ahead who went to considerable extremes to keep me from catching him.
Down Geiger Grade, I held onto my aerobars, not touching the brakes once. Unfortunately, I caught just about every light red on the way back. And, wanting to adhere to race rules, I stopped for each of them. I came into the finish line hot, though, and I think there was genuine concern that I would crash out on that final turn. But, I owe whatever I know of the bike to Rich Staley who’s taught me how to ride hard, turn on a dime go back to the barn soaking wet with sweat, dirt and tears— and to make sure that everyone else on the course suffered more than I did. I would ride the fastest final leg, out pacing the next rider by about ten minutes. I nearly did catch that guy in front of me. His twenty minute lead dwindled to eight minutes by the time I crossed the line.
A part of me wonders if I would have caught him had my luck been better, RE: the traffic lights. Rules are rules, however, and everyone who competes in this race is a warrior in one way or another.
Our team would come in third overall— impressive for the Silver State’s first all-female team comprised of my friends… other women who embody what this sport is all about: bravery, honor, integrity and grit.
Kostman, when we crossed the line, would say: “Team Great Basin Bumblebee not only burned up the course, but they did it with style and with great smiles, strength and poise, no matter the conditions.”
Thirty minutes later, the other Great Basin Team, Ichthyosaur, would cross the finish line, too. “It’s also exciting to have so many locals embracing the race, and I’m sure these talented, energetic ladies will inspire others,” Kostman said.
After taking each team’s finishing photo, we gathered for a group hug that included both Great Basin teams and Chris Kostman. It was truly an incredible moment for all of us.
Officially, we would finish 3rd of all teams that competed in the Silver State 508 this year. We would also capture the course record for an all-woman four-person team. No other four-woman team competed in the race this year; and only a handful have ever completed this race.
For races like the Silver State 508, you don’t come away with much— a few saddle sores, dirty cycling clothes and a jersey. Added all together, it’s probably a net loss of resources, but what you gain from the experience— and the challenge— is priceless. For me, I found something unexpected in the desert this year. As our team packed up our individual items, cleaning out the orange bus and saying our goodbyes, I knew I was going to miss these remarkable women who shared the toughest 48 hours of sport with me.
For all the animosity competition can bring, this race reinforced the incredible capacity of the human spirit to reach for— and exceed— its own greatness. Granted, I wasn’t ready to start talking about our plans for next year (I needed a shower first); but events like the Silver State 508 bring out the best— and worst—in each of us. Not giving up, pushing through discomfort and supporting our riders and other teams— these are the memories that surface when I think back to this race.
That, and the incredible way we kicked nearly everybody’s ass.
Maybe it's because I'm running the RTO this year with a team from work which includes a handful of high school students. I admire their bravery because, even for all my thoughts about "being a runner" I don't think I would have been able to complete the RTO in high school even if I had wanted to. They are willing and excited-- especially at first-- running something like 7-minute flat pace on challenging legs of the race. I think they are either incredibly fit or incredibly crazy. But then again, it's 2:00 am and I have a high-powered flashlight strapped to my head and I'm climbing a mountain road in the complete darkness when most sane people are at home in their beds, sleeping. So, who am I to judge one's sanity?
Time trials magnify time. They make life seem long and beautiful and worthwhile. Many years ago, one of my professors asked me why it was I wanted to be an elite athlete so badly. I had no idea that my response was connected to time.
The wind in my face, and yet-- the sound of the bikes around me, like a swarm of bees. A turn, a break when someone sprints. My legs and lungs burn. We re-group. This might be happiness.
Today I watched a storm roll over the Sierra Nevada range from the idle quiet of my car, parked where the road ends, just behind the Minden Airport. It was 2:50 in the afternoon and I was observing a moment of silence. It struck me as odd that silence has become a novelty to me-- something I don't much encounter on my busy days. The sound of the wind as it played keys with my loose license plate in discordant pangs as the clouds rolled gray to white and back to gray again.
What challenges elite endurance athletes? is it the miles or the hours? Or, are challenges simply "there"? This blog reports on the 2016 Silver State 508 for team Great Basin Ichthyosaur while exploring these questions.
There aren't any posts like that about me. And for good reason: from the start of my ride at 5:02 am, I basically rode by myself at a pace that made eating or drinking impossible. I wanted to see if I could complete the 120-mile course in under eight hours. Sure, I waved and said kind words when I passed, but I was basically a phantom on the course that day.
Is once a runner always a runner? The 2016 Reno-Tahoe Odyssey offers this cyclist a chance to remember and deconstruct a runner's life.
About a month ago, I was invited to submit a piece of artwork that would contribute to an Installation called "Aesthetic Blitz." Curated and conceived by a close friend, the installation was meant to explore the idea of how we come to know who we are, via the tangible artifacts around us. For my friend (a Korean adoptee), the exploration of self through found objects makes sense (the reconstruction of a lost past, and the "installment" of a present and a future self); but for me, the invitation was a challenge. What part of me is made up of tangible pieces and parts?
I didn't end up taking part in the Installation (showing now in a gallery in San Francisco). My day job as a technical writer got in the way with more than three RFP's (Request for Proposals) to respond to and web content to draft. I'm also a cycling coach for at-risk and at-need kids at work as well as for anyone who will listen to me in Reno through Great Basin Bicycles (for fun).
So, I arrived at the Central Coast Double torn to shreds by stress and guilt. When Rich and I arrived at the registration table, the race official asked Rich for his last name (to retrieve his number) and turned to me to ask: "So, are you his SAG?" Whatever shred of self-confidence I had dwindled to about nothing. If this stranger could only see me behind the wheel of a car (and not turning the wheels of a bike) what hope is there for me for me in this world, no matter how I define myself?
So, that pretty much set the tone for my race. Defeated from the start. Honestly, there's more to it than that, but I've got 211 miles to cover, and so there is plenty of time to unpack. What I can say, honestly, is that I found my "found object" for this race early: my "torpedo" bottle: an unplanned obstacle, a distraction, a saving grace (sort of.)
They let us sleep in. Unlike other doubles, this one got underway with the sunrise, which meant 5:41 am. We gathered in the little town center of Paso Robles-- a cute place with brick buildings and bistros--and listened to the pre-race meeting which, in a nutshell, told us not to do anything stupid. The morning was beautiful. It was colder than I expected, but nothing to complain about. The air was calm.
I rode with the lead pack, which consisted of Rich, Brandon (who was my partner for the Silver State 508) about a dozen men, Lori (who is in first place) and I. The first climb was a gradual effort, and the group talks the entire way about past races, and who is who. I tried my best to be invisible. I felt, simply, "off." Not quite cold, but not warm, either. My legs didn't respond when I told them to "go."
The climb was beautiful. Fog rested over the hilltops which was turned slightly pink in the changing light. Trees lined the narrow winding roads which tended up more than down (or undulated across small hillsides.) When a downhill came, Rich moved to the front of the pace line and I into his draft. The scenery became a blur of greenery. I thought: "This ride is really turning out to be a lot of fun." Rich and I have so much fun that we miss the orange arrows on the road which indicate for us to turn left, up a hill.
Someone yelled something about falling off the back, but I knew Rich and I would catch up. We did, and we fell into the rhythm of a pace line- the buzz and whir of tire and spoke. Another right turn, and half our group continued straight, in the wrong direction. We yelled at them, but they kept riding.
We climbed York Mountain and the lead group pulled away from Rich and I. Just when we thought we are a pace line of two, we heard a familiar voice behind us. Brandon joined our little team which was about the best thing that could have happened. I was still in my funk (I fell off the main group, I'm not fast, I should be SAG, I'm hot/cold, etc., etc.) but the banter between Rich and Brandon distracted me from my internal monologue which was like something from MacBeth, but more depressing.
At about 30 miles, we began the Santa Rosa Creek climb which had a few steep pitches. We don't have those in Reno, and they always come as a shock, especially this early in the ride. Brandon charged ahead and I felt so slow. I set a pace, out of the saddle, and climbed. Later, Rich would say that he felt demoralized when I climbed away from him. Maybe some part of us is relative, always gauging ourselves by where we stand in relation to other people.
On the descent, my "torpedo bottle" (a bottle nestled between my aerobars) tried to kill me. I didn't know the bracket which held the bottle in place had broken; I only knew that, as I gripped my brakes around a hairpin turn, that I looked down to see the bottle dangling above my front tire like a loaded gun. If it had fallen, I would have eaten pavement, and probably lost all my front teeth.
After Santa Rosa Creek Road (which was another twenty miles or so of rolling hills in the diminishing fog) until we reach Cambria, which took us to Highway 1. The air was so calm that the ocean was a mirror of the sky. On the opposite side of the Pacific are old ranches, where cows grazed in golden-colored fields. Several of the cows that morning, though, didn't look "right"-- black and white-- as we rode closer, we discovered why: they're Zebras.
Then, we rode by beaches and beaches of elephant seals. A few of the males pressed their chests together and growl. Gray Whales spouted miles off our left shoulders in the deep blue. There was hardly anyone on the highway, and I couldn't help but feel grateful for the wildlife around us, the near perfect conditions and for such great riding partners. We fall into a pattern: Rich pulls us down the hills, Brandon pulls us up them, and I am pulling in between. I mis-calculate miles: I think I've only ridden 50 miles and I get quiet again.
Up and down; through a town called "Gorda" (yo soy SAG gorda, I thought) to the first big climb of the day, Nacimiento. I should rewind this story slightly, and tell you that we missed an aid station back in Cambria, and so I was hungry when we got to the aid station before the climb. I knew about the climb, and didn't want to eat much, so I started this section of the race hungry, but willing to survive on water, which I'd refilled in my "torpedo" bottle.
The first part of the climb is the most aggressive, which meant my discomfort in climbing was immediately rewarded by incredible panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean in nearly every direction. At 17% grades at some points, the climb is demanding. If you don't know grade percentages, perhaps the best way to describe some of these pitches is this: you can't get off your bike. If you do, you won't be able to create enough forward momentum to keep upright. Even experienced riders fall over if forced to stop.
Brandon rode ahead of me. Rich was behind me. I was in the no-man's land of the middle. I passed another rider, a woman, with earbuds in and I wondered what she was listening to. The temperature climbed as I climbed, and when the ocean fell from view, I decided it was time that two of my three layers needed to go. Rich caught me in the middle of my strip-tease, and joined me. Brandon, by then, was well ahead of us.
We climbed together. We were mostly silent. An Aussie we'd met on the last double passed us. Cars passed us, and one filled with teenage girls, cheered me on with "Go, girl, ride!" The climb lasted forever. Literally. A small flicker of hope raised in my chest at every turn, that it would be the last turn, and every time I was disappointed.
We reached the top and I refilled my torpedo. Rich's Garmin was really on the fritz, and he asked the race volunteer for directions to lunch.
(OMG lunch. I was so hungry, it was painful.)
"It's on your route sheet," the volunteer said. And it was true enough: but we left the route sheet in the hotel because we had both uploaded the electronic version to our Garmins. Mine, for whatever reason, didn't have the route, but displayed accurate mileage. Rich's had the route, but he only had 20% battery left. I didn't know this at the time, but he only turned his Garmin on at critical moments to get the right directions.
The downhill portion was winding with mostly bind corners. We flickered through the dappled light, and we had to control our speed. Then, we passed through a very strange gate, entering (I didn't know this, in the ride) Fort Hunter Liggett. The landscape turned hot and dry; we were passed by Hummers captained by uniformed and helmeted army officers. Then, there were barracks tucked beneath the oak trees, and obstacle courses designed for some sort of military exercise. My heart fell. My stomach grumbled.
Lunch wasn't here, I knew.
We joined a group of male riders. Rich and I traded the pace line lead, and I wondered if lunch was an idea I invented to distract myself from the 211 miles. Then, more insistent questions came: Did we make a wrong turn? Are we off-course? We kept riding. I pulled the group through another funny gate and we were out. In less than five minutes, Saint Luke's Church (the only building for miles along a lonely stretch of road) announces itself as our lunch stop. I ride my road bike up the dirt driveway, so excited to know I will have a sandwich.
My torpedo bottle jostles more than usual on the dirt road, and because I'm weird, I think it's because the bottle, like me, is ready for lunch.
Two Squirt sodas and a million potato chips later, we're back on the road. The torpedo bottle is full, but seems to rattle more than it used to prior to the lunch stop. Starting the ride again is a painful, slow process and my legs don't like turning the crank at least for another mile or so. We regroup with the five or so men from before lunch, and Rich, Brandon and I take turns pulling the group through the empty, dry fields. We arrive at a gradual downhill and we take "pulling" to a new level. Averaging 27 mph, the landscape turned to color-streaks as we formed a diagonal pace line across the deserted, country road. At first, the road was smooth and riding that fast, fun. Then, cracks appeared in the road and the ride became less than smooth. After a series of rather large cracks, my torpedo bottle launched across the road and landed in the shoulder on the opposite side. I went back to retrieve it, but our pace line was broken. The men who'd followed us down the hill kept going, and I watched them disappear around a bend in the road.
I don't know why this hit me as hard as it did, but the futility of riding fast, of pulling other riders along, of going nowhere because of something stupid-- a torpedo bottle of all things-- and now I'm here, and the men who drafted aren't, and will (I thought) beat me to the finish line. The narrow space behind my knee cap was beginning to hurt. I was so upset, I wanted to cry.
I stopped riding, got off the bike and pretended to check my phone (because at 130 miles of a 211 mile race, it's really important to see if you are all caught up on email.) Rich and Brandon circled back, and I said something like: "I'm done."
Rich gave me his "look" and said something along the lines of: "Shut up and get on your bike."
Which I did. Quietly, realizing that I'd crossed some awful line. I felt bad for Rich and Brandon, and until about mile 180 or so, I repeatedly told them that they were welcome to ride ahead, and leave me to the elements.
They had popsicles at the next aid station, which I'm reluctant to take because, by mile 160, I didn't believe I deserved them. It's a community center located on the corner of "nowhere street" and "desolation highway." I asked the volunteers about the possibility of a SAG, and Rich gave me another one of his looks. I filled up torpedo and languish in the shade of a tree which looks like I feel: droopy, sad and covered in bugs. Even the luxury of a bathroom with real plumbing isn't enough to lift the rain cloud hovering above my head which told me, again and again, I had, due to the capriciousness of a water bottle, failed.
Plus, my knee hurt. It felt like my knee cap was going to explode every time my crank rotated past 50 degrees. I tried pedaling with only one leg, but the lack of motion only seemed to make it worse. In our last few minutes in the aid station, Rich looked at me sharply, and said, "You're just going to have to figure out how to make this work." I knew he was right: races aren't always about kicking ass. Sometimes, it's finding the best way to handle the cards you've been dealt for the day.
Brandon, our friend, offered me some advil he always carries on long rides. I declined, and felt horrible for being just like my torepdo bottle: super lame.
I followed Rich's advice and found a way to make it "work." For every climb, I'm out of the saddle because my knee hurts less that way. On the downhills, I'm spinning, keeping the motion going. The landscape undulates and we ride up and down. We catch a few of the men who'd drafted us. The order of climbs and who we passed where blurs a bit for me now, but I remember one climb in which a check-in point rested near the top of the hill which overlooked a reservoir. We stopped, briefly, to refill our water bottles. The sun was still high and hot in the sky, and I knew I'd need more water before the next aid station.
A man who'd driven to the scenic overlook told us the downhill was long and fun. It's not quite as long as we'd hoped, and soon we found ourselves battling the wind, just as before. We caught the men who left us on that windy stretch. There were only two of them riding together. I remember passing them both, and one of them telling me, as I rode by, that they were eying our water bottles. "We didn't stop for water on that climb," he explained.
I handed him my extra bottle (not the torpedo) so he and his friend could share. They stay with our group through the next section of miles which are mostly unremarkable, except for the moment I drifted into Rich, and his right leg lifted the front of my bike off the ground, and somehow, we didn't crash (Rich will say, later, this is a testament to my bike handling skills. I think it's testament to how far gone I was; not hitting a person in a pace line is a sign of good bike handling skills. Hitting them and not falling is luck.)
Whatever it means, the next aid station is a wind storm. We make it, though, and that's the moment when I take Brandon up on his offer of an advil for my knee. I wish I would have done that sooner.
I became an animal for the final thirty miles. Up Hare Canyon, I was out in front. I don't know why, honestly, I chose to be "strong" at this point in the ride. Maybe I wanted to make up for being so awfully lame earlier. Or, maybe I really did feel that much better. Hare Canyon was the final climb of the day, and I tackled it with legs that have already ridden over 180 miles. I reached the top with another rider, and we traded the lead for another ten miles.
I expected the other rider to write me off like the man who gave me my number did. However, he rides with me as though I'm an athlete, too, and maybe that contributes to how well I felt. I'm not a rock star, but darn it, I'm a cyclist. I was in my aerobars and pulling as efficiently as I could. Rich told me later it was hard for he and Brandon to catch up.
The final eleven miles take FOREVER to complete. The cross winds blow across our faces and shoulders. The road meandered, and I kept thinking: "Where IS this town?" We reach it, we stop at two red lights. When we turn to the park and the finish line, I almost cry from happiness.
I finish in the top ten of all riders that day. I have come so far this year, I wish I knew how to believe that about myself before the finish line. It is hard for me not to be disappointed that I don't have the glitter-finish of first. But, I have ridden the fastest, the farthest and the most steady that I have ever done.
I discovered the bracket which held my torpedo bottle fractured at some point during this ride. My knee issue is residue from the increased running miles I have been doing to compete in a 178-mile running relay race next month. The Advil, not usually an item in my jersey pocket, saved me. These are the residual traces, or materials, which define this race. Maybe these aren't the elements of an art installation; they nonetheless are evidence of what pieces and parts make up an athletic body.
To be an athlete is to immerse yourself in all the elements, to be subject to the whims of the body and to chance. It's a game of a torpedo bottle: balanced on the precipice of total ruin and success. It's in the balance, though, where you continue to ride without any reason to keep going, where the spirit of what we do resides.
I think it's funny to hear people tell me I'm young. I can see their point-- 34 is "young" for a person wanting to be an ultra-endurance athlete. But, 34 is the oldest I've ever felt myself being, and so for me the perception that I'm "old" isn't an entirely inaccurate one. After all, I don't bounce back from all-nighters like I used to; my hair grows more slowly and looks limp most of the time, and I find value in supportive, rather than merely stylish, shoes.
This perception of "oldness" gets mixed up with what I would consider the "normal" anxiety that swirls around any competition: the question of "am I good enough" suddenly becomes "What if I'm too old for this?"
I find it hilarious--and incredibly interesting-- how this is what slips into my mind on long races. Take, for instance, the Devil Mountain Double-- a 207-mile double century that is also the first stage of the California Triple Crown Stage Race. Arguably one of the most difficult double centuries in the circuit, the DMD wrings a person inside out by the finish line, and for me that process includes a lot of physical discomfort, elation, fatigue, thinking deep, silly thoughts and, well where would we be without them: salty potatoes.
Much before the potatoes, though, I'm 70-miles into the race, and the 4th woman, at best. Patterson Pass, typically a demoralizing experience for me, is made less demoralizing because there isn't a direct headwind today. Imagine a vast expanse of tawny-tan, the sort made by dry grasses. At the very base of the climb, is an old power station, now surrounded by a tall, brown concrete fence. The climb is California's favored 1.5 lanes wide (because why should there be enough room on the road for cars to pass each other?) and winds up a deserted landscape, save for the windmills on top the visible ridge lines. By this point, the headwind is already unbearable. Today, though, there is a respite, and Rich (who's riding beside me) says he's proud of me.
I've been listening to a lot of David Sedaris lately, and what comes to mind is borrowed from one of his essays in which he discusses his swimming ability. "Someone will have to lose this race," he writes, "and ...I can do that for these people.' " That's about how I feel, knowing there are four strong women in front of me. I wonder: "Am I too old for this?" Or, "why can't I ever push myself hard enough-- in training or in a race?"
On Patterson Pass, I keep climbing, though, and another rider-- a man who looks to be a Pacific Islander-- tells me: "You dropped your partner!" I turn, and Rich is a few hundred feet behind me. I reach the false summit, and wait at the aid station. One of the volunteers tells me that I'm the third woman. He mentions, with awe, that the lead female rider was working with the lead man. Her name is Lori, and she's a hero of mine for her incredible accomplishments. I watched her chase the lead male rider down Diablo earlier that morning, and it made my heart skip a beat. It was inspiring.
And, so I'm torn between the fear that I'm all washed up and a sense of awe watching a woman ride as strong as the men. I wonder if I could ever be that strong, and thank whomever's in charge that there are women who are.
To prepare for the California Triple Crown Stage Race, I've changed the way I train. I've given up swimming (to get rid of my big shoulders), and have substituted swim mornings for solo CompuTrainer sessions in which I focus on maintaining a steady power output over the course of an hour or so with an efficient pedal stroke.
My weekly mileage in the saddle has increased, and I am building my running miles each week, too, since running seems to keep my body's tendency to "bulk" at bay (and, honestly, I do miss the running even though I'm not sure how smart it was to sign up for an "ultra-relay team for the Reno-Tahoe Odyssey. But, that's another blog post.)
I was also hired as a Writer for a company which helps at-risk and foster kids. A major part of their programming involves athletics. This spring, I've gone on three-mile runs with the kids every Wednesday, and have been teaching them the basics of cycling in a pace line. The boys have raced time trials, road races, and criterion's with a local cycling club -- and we trade "battle stories" after each.
From late March through mid-April, though, I was off the bike for a few large writing projects at work which meant a week away from home where I was caught in the snow-storm of the century in Denver (no-riding) and then a string of all-nighers at the office (no-riding)-- and maybe that factored into my performance.
Or, maybe not.
Maybe it was an early taper? It's really hard to say. Not to skip ahead too far, I'm not accustomed to sprinting to the finish line of my races. The outcomes, in a race over 50 miles, are determined early, and are typically a permutation of pace, nutrition and luck. In my experience, you pass a person and they fade into the distance because they didn't eat or drink enough, pace themselves correctly, or simply arrived unprepared. This was not, however, what happened for this race.
Will there every come a point in my life when an alarm sounds at 4am, and I think: "Yay!?" Dark and crisp: I try to not forget anything essential, like my shorts.
I don't remember much from the first six miles of the course. I do-- and did-- remember the pre-ride meeting in which the Race Director told us like five times: "Don't climb over the gate on Mt. Diablo or you will be disqualified." The gate was supposed to open at 5:30 am, so with a 5:00 start time, this wasn't supposed to be an issue.
So, we rode through the streets of San Ramon to Mt. Diablo. It was dark, and I kept pace with the group. We turned to climb the mountain, and, about a mile (not even?) up, we encountered a closed gate. We all stopped. Someone was going to climb over, and Rich repeated what the Race Director had said. We waited some more. A random person (it turns out he was affiliated with the race, but didn't say so at first) started to help the shorter women pull their bikes over the gate. I looked to Rich, and he said: "I don't want to chance it." We stood there what seemed like an eternity more, and the man came and talked to us again.
"Why are you just waiting?" he asked.
"We don't want to get disqualified," Rich said.
The man told us to just go. Rich, to clarify, asked the man at least three times if he was affiliated with the race. When he said yes, again, we lifted our bikes over the gate, and began to ride into the dark. It's hard not to get a little dramatic at this point, but really, my race was already more or less over.
Up Diablo, I just hold a steady pace like I do in CompuTrainer classes. Nothing crazy, but nothing to be embarrassed over, either. We steadily pull riders back. The wind pushes us around some switchbacks and pushes us off the side of the mountain on others. We encounter a downed oak tree (which had kept the Ranger from opening the gate) and carry our bikes around it, get back on and keep riding. The sun barely begins to rise, and although it's scary-windy, it's also incredibly beautiful.
I have my first encounter with the female cyclist who will battle me for second place right before the Junction (the six-mile mark) up Mt. Diablo. She matches my pace, and first, and rides faster and faster. She's relentless and determined, and finally-- as I've learned to do-- I let her ride her race, and me, my own.
Right before we reach the summit, I see the lead man, Lori and another woman (not the strong one who pulled in front of me) descend. I'm so far behind everyone, I decide to simply do my best and see if I can achieve a personal best.
The descent freezes me solid. I try to match the chattering of my teeth to a pop-song I heard on the radio, but it doesn't quite work (damn, you're a sexy chick.) After Mt. Diablo, we cut Southeast through a town East of Walnut Creek called Clayton toward an area of ranch land called Morgan Territory. When I lived in the East Bay area for graduate school, I absolutely loved cycling there. The climb through this narrow canyon of oak and fern is one of the most beautiful places I've seen. Sure, it's a long climb, but even on the hottest or windiest days, its is shadowed and sheltered.
Rich and I reach the aid station at the top, and learn that a rider had been hit by a moving van on the narrow descent. I'm not a speedy descender by any means, but I'm cautious on the way down, not knowing what I'll find. We pass a farm of pigs bigger than cows.
Then, we round a corner and see the carnage: a rider off the right side. I don't look, and Rich gives me a list of details later.
I hold my brakes for much of that descent, and I'm hyper-vigilant for vehicles headed up in the opposite direction. We pace line through the flats, and pick up a cyclist who might be a Pacific Islander and another man in a Davis Double jersey. We ride the miles through the outskirts of a town then through a quiet suburb to Altamont Speedway, a dry and desolate patch, and the entry to Patterson Pass.
Up Patterson Pass, I realize that over the course of a year, Rich and I have each developed our strengths as riders: his, are the long steady efforts. Down in the aerobars, I don't know if anyone could ride as far or as fast as he can. Me, I'm starting to have more power on climbs. I'm no where near the "real" racers" yet, but I wonder with time and experience if I could have the ability to do the steep stuff and do it well.
We catch the second and third place female riders at the next aid station. They don't seem to notice I'm there, and I try to eat and refill my bottles as quickly as I can. I'm feeling OK-- not great, you know, but good considering that I've spent most of the morning telling myself I'm not an athlete anymore, and that I should start wearing mu mu's.
Next, we reach a section of the race called "Mine's Road" and it really does seem to go forever. It's only 24-miles, but we ride and ride, and still we don't arrive at the promised lunch stop (a biker's bar-- for Harley AND Cannondale riders.) California Poppies, California Buttercup and purple Lupine line the road; it's probably one of the most mellow sections of the race; Rich and I ride together, taking in the scenery, but we don't talk much; we're riding too hard.
At the lunch stop, I put too much mustard on my turkey sandwich like I always did when I was a kid, and it bleeds all over my gloves like yellow blood. There's a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich on the menu I used to order on rides out here, years ago; and today, there are a handful of Harley riders sitting at the picnic tables, too, and I half-wonder if any of them are eating PB n'J's. The wind is cold, and it cuts through my damp cycling clothes. I surprise myself that I really don't want to eat or drink anymore, but I know I have to.
I think about this past year, and wonder if 34 will be the year I become a "has been." A fifty-something year old man I work with -- who had once been a four-minute miler-- told me that he only continues to train so that he's not a "has been." Is that why I'm here?
It's not until I finish my sandwich that I realize I've moved into second place (maybe.) I wonder "what if?" Rich and I set off as quickly as we can, down the road to Mt. Hamilton. What if this body is still an athletic one? At that point, I'm willing to explore.
I love the typeface Garamond. It's a font, and that's what I wrote all my essays in-- everything from theses to term papers to personal essays, newspaper articles, resumes and books. It conveys a sense of distinction, yet allows for a certain academic exploration; as much fun as you can have with a serif.
So too, I love a certain kind of riding. The kind when you know you're going to finish, and how. A challenge, for me, in some of these double centuries, is not-knowing any of that. I never know when I will finish, or how. Or, even if. I always wonder: what if today is really not my day? What then?
The beauty of the meadows leading to Mt. Hamilton are not lost on me. There are fields of purple and orange and yellow. There a little lakes. There are FROGS. I am, however, thinking of the climb up Mt. Hamilton and the climb after that.
How much strength do I have left? I ask myself. Newtonian physics come to mind, and I wonder if my early miles will propel me through the later ones because a body in motion wants to stay that way, and it's harder to stop than to simply keep it moving. I know it doesn't work like that, but, as the climb begins, I think: but how lovely if it did?
The climb up Hamilton lasts forever. I mean, literally, forever. Some of the faster men who started an hour later than I did pass me on the climb without a single "hello." Or, one with a British accent barks: "5 or 6?" as he rides by me. It takes me a second to figure out what he means. He is too far ahead of me when I realize he wants to know the time I started the race that morning.
A collegiate cycling team passes me, and I feel like I'm just standing still on that hill out in the sun and wind and silence. I imagine I'm a fat, decayed Greek matron with no teeth on a bike, riding to market with a basket on my aerobars filled with potatoes I'd just harvested that morning.
Καλημέρα, I would say.
Rich is behind me, and I keep riding, blindly.
I tell myself I'm so slow. But, breathe, dammit. Pull up and out of the cycling shoes. Stand up. Sit down. Pedal. Never stop until they peel your dead body from the bike, and I keep going and going and going and going up that endless climb. I make it, and I stop for Rich by the observatory where I eat my last peanut-butter filled pretzel and stick of red licorice while I wait.
We descend together. An East Indian driver headed up the mountain in a white luxury sedan almost kills us because he's in the wrong lane (ours). A dragonfly explodes its guts on my forehead, and I wonder if there is something wrong with me as its body trickles down my nose and cheeks to the roadway moving below my feet. You crazy, I tell myself.
At mile 150, we climb in and out of an aid station that is literally uphill both ways, at someone's house. After descending for a million years down Mt. Hamilton, I'm frozen again and my hands ache from gripping the brakes. But, after all that down, Rich and I turn up a steep road, and my legs complain. San Jose is spread out over our left shoulders. Extra Large Prickly Pear cacti line the hillside, and even though I was freezing, I'm also suddenly hot.
We turn down a steep driveway to our aid station. I want Ramen noodles more than anything in the world. I have volunteers fill a half-full water bottle with gatorade and I drink it as quickly as I'm able without puking. The ramen, though, I savor. I know I need the salt (I tend to leach my elements), but more importantly, they taste good. Ramen never reminds me of poor college days (instead, I overdosed on carrots, so much so that my hands were covered in a purple rash from too much beta carotine)-- never Ramen. Ramen is what double centuries taste like after mile 150. And maybe that's why it makes me smile, even though I know I'm grinning at the one aid station where most people frown and linger, because they know what's coming next.
The woman in 2nd/3rd place arrives shortly after we do, but I don't want to let go of my ramen noodles. Or, the potato chips. Or, the gatorade laced with water.
I do what I can to delay the inevitable as little as possible. I eat, drink and admire a ruby-throated hummingbird who visited the aid station while I apply sunscreen to my face and legs. One young rider (a part of a race team which broke apart in the later stages of the race) is there, and speculates that he will not be able to do the next climb (Sierra Road) in his cycling shoes. I rode this race last year, and I know what is ahead of me is no fun. And, that he will probably not be able to walk the hill because it is that steep. You HAVE to ride it.
We climb out of the aid station. My legs hate me, and bite at the space behind my eyes. Rich and I cascade down a short hill to the town of Piedmont. We catch every red light. When we turn right onto "Sierra Road", it's just like I remember it from the year before: a concrete wall that you're supposed to, somehow, climb.
I lose second place on Sierra Road. The other cyclist rides away from me, effortlessly. I cry a little, and really question this whole "I'm an athlete" thing. My identity is shattered, and I say, out loud: "I don't know if I can finish this."
Rich responds: " I don't know if I can finish this, either."
It's so ridiculously hard, and so ridiculously not like anything at home, and so ridiculous that Rich would even say that. I want to cry, but I envision ramen noodles coming out of my eyes. I have to be selfish with my salt. I buck up, whatever that means, and whimper while keeping all my fluids inside my body.
I don't know why, but I can't stop. Maybe it has to do with integrity: even if I have a bad day, I owe it to every athlete on this course to do my best to finish, because it's not a picnic for anyone (even if it looks that way.) I want to honor every athlete and do my best, even if my best is failing and somewhat pathetic. Some people will take over twenty hours to finish this course. What about their day, and their struggle? I think, sometimes, we get caught up in outcomes. The magic in events like this are in doing them, no matter where you finish.
Washed up or not, I didn't get of the bike or stop. I rode slowly-- OMG so slowly up the hill-- but I keep making forward progress. A top of a climb never felt so sweet. The wind brushed some ramen off my face, and I thought: well, if I can do this, I can pretty much do anything.
On the other side, I see Calavaris Reservoir in the distance, which is the gateway to the final legs of this race.
I don't want to sit in the saddle anymore. By mile 180, I've had enough Rich and I trade off pulling us through. Rich takes the downhills and most of the flats. I take a pull here and there to give him a break, and do what I can on the climbs. We progress to early dusk, and crickets join the frogs for the evening song. I'm not even thinking about my place anymore-- I have resigned myself to playing the part of the old Greek widow who delivers potatoes to the local town, who might have been a great cyclist, if it hadn't been for all those potatoes.
We pick up a young cyclist on the downhill side of Palomares Canyon. He asks if it's OK to join us; he's fried, but offers to pull once or twice, if he can. Three of us ride on; Rich holding an aggressive pace, and I hold on behind him. We switch off now and then, but Rich is pulling us most of the way.
How do we become who we think we are? Is it an accumulation, or a day-to-day thing? Do elite athletes go through this anguish of am I, or am I not? It's exhausting: The daily routine of doing something odd and that makes no money; or, maybe it's especially odd because I write and I ride, which means I do two demanding things which make no money. And how do you reconcile that with the requisite amount of responsibility with which every adult is shouldered? What are dreams if not the intangible relics of youthful idealism before the demands of rent? My heart aches: is it from the pace we're riding or the constant fear that I have lived long enough to become my own unique failure?
Then, we are eight miles and one climb left and I see her.
We pass the woman I have been fighting this entire day.
She's at the base of Norris Canyon with another male rider covered in the white relics of salt sweat. We pass the quickly, and I don't look back to see if they hung on.
We hold a steady pace up Norris, and when I turn around, I hope not to see anyone behind our trio, I see my competition. I try to turn my depression and doubt around, and stand up, out of the saddle. She responds and sprints ahead of me, up the hill. A part of me knows that I have it in me to keep up, but the race doesn't end at the top of this hill, but is still another six miles away. This makes me pause, and settle into a pace which puts me between the girl and her partner, and Rich, who is behind me. I've given up, I think. I've failed.
The young guy who joined us could have ridden with the other two, and perhaps have finished faster. Instead, though, he lingers at the top of the hill to wait for Rich and I.
We're a team for the last part of the race, and I reel him back into our group of three.
When Rich takes the lead, we do at least 30 mph down that hill, me behind Rich and our new teammate behind me. We watch as my competition sails through the first green light, and it changes right behind her. We tap our shoes on the pavement impatiently (or, I do. The men are both track standing.) We hop into motion the second it turns green for us again.
And again, we move in pace line behind Rich, doing something like 30 mph. Again, we gain ground. Again, she and her partner sail through an intersection. And again, the light turns red for us.
When the light turns green, we again ride hard. Across an overpass, a right turn: we're mere blocks from the finish. I see the hotel on the right. We pass the driveway the girl and her partner took; I trust that Rich knows what he's doing. He leads me to the exit, much closer to the door through which the registration table resides. I unclip from my pedals, and dismount into a run, triathlon-style, for the registration table.
I don't think about the ethical implications of what I'm doing-- running in a cycling race is like baking sweets for a professor in order to pass hard final exam. I just do what I do: I hand of my bike to a friend who happens to be there, and I start running in cycling shoes, through the open door and down a hotel hallway as if this was, somehow a natural and normal thing to do.
Can I or can't I?-- these aren't my thoughts in the moment. It's as though I'm not 34 years anymore, but 4; I want to win! Improbable and unearned as it is. I'm presented with it after 15 hours of believing I'm a washed-up old nobody: here it is. A chance for second-best to say that all the 4am early mornings, all the missed afternoons with my family, all the sores and scabs, and the feeling like I could fall asleep at the wheel during my two-hour daily commute and all the times I didn't write, but rode-- all of that somehow amounted to something tangible. My life, somehow, for a second, could have meaning.
"Number 51" I tell the man behind the registration table, and the moment ends.
I turn around, and there is my competition: this strong, able-bodied woman who has trained and sacrificed just as I have. We congratulate each other before I leave the room to find Rich and my bumblebee bike.
No matter what I may think or how old I feel, this will continue in two weeks. I hope, by then, I learn not to feel my age, but embrace it as another measure of time-- a measure against we all race.
What does it mean to be an athlete?
So many people have told me that my greatest fault is that I have a full time job, and a life-- those keep me from being an "athlete." My life requires me to work 8-5; my professional life suits me in non-athletic clothes, keeps me in a cubicle. When I'm home, I have to care for two cats, five chickens and a sizable garden, not to mention the other "stuff" like laundry and general cleaning. Does my "normal life" make me not an athlete?
The only reason I can see anything is that the back of the GMC is open and the hatch door pours a hazy, dim light over the cycling gear spread out across the back and the ground around us. Rich is assembling the tandem bike by the light afforded by the sliver-moon and the GMC's light.
Video captures the sound, light and motion of cycling that I love so much.
I'm ready for a new challenge.
I woke up this morning and watched the world covered in white turn from dark to light, and I felt potential in my arms, legs and heart again. I can't really explain it: I'm not fitter, not thinner, not richer or more successful than I have been. But, somehow, I was ready for change.
Ironman still echoes, and so does the California Triple Crown Stage Race. I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to compete in such long races.
This year, too, I was granted another honor: I was named an Athlete Ambassador by Shebeest Cycling, a company which makes women-specific cycling gear and whose initiative includes getting more women out there, on the bike.
But, there is something about a race that's over a hundred miles long that makes it somehow "different" and... abstract. After all, there is the possibility I won't finish a race that long no matter how fit I am. Over a hundred miles is a long way, and well, even driving that far in a car has its own risks and chances of failure.
I love distance. I love the unknowable quality of it. But, there is a part of me that loves a new focus, a new challenge. Another kind of unknown.
This weekend, I watched a documentary of sorts
...on a local cyclist who has been training to win the USA Cycling National Time Trial for three years. He's taken second place two years in a row, and the video outlined his training, his life and how incredibly close he's come to that first place finish.
For those of you who don't know, a time trial is literally a race against yourself and the clock: open road for twenty or so miles, and the question becomes NOT will I make it but rather how fast can I ride?
It made me wonder: how fast can I ride? Am I fast? Do I have the ability to do something other than endure for hours on end? Can my legs do what they did when I was a runner: only faster now, and under the strict watch of a power meter?
One year ago, someone told me I'd never be a cyclist because my shoulders are too big.
And, because I take criticism to heart, I more than adopted this as a personal mantra and reason why I couldn't do something. This is a thought-process I'm trying to change. Instead of finding (or, inventing) reasons why I can't do something, I want to find reasons to try. Or, forget the reasons: let's just do it.
As an athlete, I train with a lot of men. And while men carry their own reservations about their ability to complete a certain race, broadly speaking, their insecurities aren't the same kind that I notice that I have.
While their worries seem primarily focused on not being able to hold a certain wattage for a specific climb or lose enough weight before the next race (but they will still race regardless); my worries have a certain finality about them. I can't because... I'm physically unable and, usually, I don't think that training will fix whatever road block I've put up for myself.
Is this true for female athletes generally, I wonder? Or is this my own personal problem? The possibility of a cycling-specific race for a distance I haven't ever trained for has lifted the fog, somewhat. After all, I survived over 1,000 miles of racing last summer. If I'm not too heavy for that, how can I be too heavy for 20 miles?
I imagine I will ride the bike a lot more.
I will do drills. I will ride so long that my mind will drift and I will come-to and not know where I am, out on the open road (as I've done, at times, when training for something else.)
When I was in the Master of Fine Arts program in the bay area (and a semi-elite runner), I remember hearing the words of my academic advisor in my head as I ran mile repeats on a track before dawn. Immerse yourself in this life, she'd said. Drown in it. Breathe it. Of course, she'd meant writing. For me, though, writing and running were one and the same. It was the life I wanted, the life I was willing to race for, to be injured for, and to live my entire life.
Yet, it was a scary thought to me, more scary than the fast pace I was supposed to maintain around that quarter-mile rust-colored track. There are already so many ways to fail in life; why was it that I had more than one?
A moment came, though, right as the sun crested the Coastal Range and I surrendered myself to not-knowing, to the track and the words. And now, here I am again, only this time my challenge involves a bike.
I want to focus on a Time Trial.
I want to focus on Nationals.
That morning on the track was six years ago, and since, I've learned that there is nothing guaranteed in life, not even life itself. And, I as corny as it sounds, I take my job as "Athlete Ambassador" very seriously. Athlete Ambassadors aren't whiney damsels, frail and pale stick figures who pose for scenes they never actually live. Instead, Athlete Ambassadors are Athletes first, which mean they ride and run and swim and do yoga and hike and bike and get bruises and scratches once in a while. They are wrinkly from sun exposure, from swimming too long and from smiling. Sometimes, they have helmet hair, sweat (or, sparkle) and sometimes they win big races. And, sometimes they don't. But, no matter what their personal hang-ups, they always get to the starting line and they try.
I admire the women out there who are winning these kinds of races, and who have raced for years and bring a lifetime of experience and hard work with them. I know I will have to work very hard in order to even hope to do well, and that I have so much to learn.
Bring it, I say.
When I was in a sophomore in high school, I thought I was going to become a Personal Trainer...
...in part because I was an athlete, and in part because I thought sitting behind a desk was about the worst thing you could do to make a living. Because of a lot of things which boil down to an eating disorder, living abroad and growing up despite all that, I didn’t become a Personal Trainer, ever.
I didn’t, really, even become an athlete like I’d planned until I was in graduate school and decided to run a marathon and I fell in love with training again when, no matter how much I might have wanted to be even mildly competitive, time had passed me by.
So too with coaching others. When you’ve invested in three graduate degrees which lead you to a desk job (and the student loans to go with them) you better damn well sit behind the desk you traded in the running shoes and the bed for, because you bought that desk over and over and now you’ve got to sit behind it.
But, I’m in my thirties now, and I did Ironman (and I didn’t do great, but not bad, either) and now I spend many hours on the bike and thinking about the bike and how so many people want to be fast on the bike but still haven’t gotten there, and from my lovely vantage point from this desk of mine, it occurred to me that even in my un-athletic life in which I did not become a coach or trainer, I’ve learned a thing or two through the races for which I’ve signed up and the training which leads me to them.
The most important thing, the vital thing, which I wish more people understood and appreciated, is this: greatness isn’t built on quick-fixes, fads, or coaches which tell you that four weeks with them and you'll be World Class. Any sport like cycling— or, long distance running— instead, is a slow mastery of form and efficiency which forms the opportunity for strength to build. Without learning the proper movements and creating muscle memory for those movements, developing pure power will not ever get you to the finish line. And, half the time, it might even keep you from the starting line, too, sidelined by injury.
Eight years ago:
I’m 26 years old, and slightly overweight. I haven’t run in years. I have just started a graduate program in French Language and Literatures at the University of Nevada, Reno because the job I had— and, that I really loved— ended and I worked seasonally at a ski shop in the winter and a marina in the summer to survive. I lived in the basement of kind English professors I’d had as an undergraduate student years before and I’m deeply depressed about all of this. I’m so out of shape that I never tell anyone about my life as an athlete in high school. I also have a dozen rejection letters from creative writing programs which tell me I’m also not a writer— and so, this is not a happy time in my life.
When the semester starts, I have a full course load and I’m teaching two sections of undergraduate French which pays for an apartment on the wrong side of the train tracks which run through Reno, a place my mom calls “a shit hole” where pigeons come to die on my doorstep and homeless people burn trash in cans in the park across the street to stay warm.
This forms the backdrop of my running. I bought a book, Distance Running: For Beginners which offered training plans divided into miles. I thought I was so fat and slow (and I only owned a digital watch, no Garmin or GPS device at the time) that I assumed I ran 20-minute miles. So, every run was long and slow and probably longer than it needed to be.
I ran on trails. I ran on the streets. I ran whatever pace I ran, without a single thought about speed. I was fat, remember, and slow.
Later in the training program, I was supposed to do half and full mile repeats on a track. So, I’d have to come face-to-face with my pace. But, funny enough: because I did all these workouts alone, asking myself only to finish, and to hold a steady pace. So, if the workout asked for three one-mile repeats, all I had to do was run each mile at roughly the same speed, feeling as though I was pushing myself, but never to the point of collapsing.
As I progressed in the graduate program, so too, my running began to frame my life. I lost the fat that wasn’t useful. I gained muscle.
I mention all of this, because this was the training regimen that led me to win a marathon that fall, my first, beating the elite field by over ten minutes. I hadn’t relied on hard-core interval training. I didn't have a coach or a special nutrition plan. What I had done, instead, was focus on my form, and of learning what it felt like to maintain a steady, constant effort-- or, in other words: what it felt like to make running my life.
I fell in love with running.
Not the speed, but the lifestyle of it, the way I could blend into the world and climb a mountain if I had to, or not. I wish I could describe how much I loved running. Running was the reason why I breathed and ate and woke up in the morning. It was my morning ritual, the way the world and I talked about time, back and forth in the pre-dawn crisp.
I have never been so happy as I was, running. I saw the most beautiful dawns. I saw deer and bear and eagle and sparrow— all pristine and precious and a clip of the landscape, sliding by me. For the first time in my life, I felt beautiful, running. Only when I was running.
My injuries came years later...
after working with coaches who took me out to the track and had me run hard efforts around that quarter-mile red-road, again and again and again. My marathon times dropped.
3:21, 3:13, 2:54.
But, the injuries increased. Tendonitis. Stress fractures. Strains every other week. Fatigue. The last marathon, my best, I ran a 2:47 which was still 60-seconds off the Olympic Trials qualifying time. I tried to come back, faster, so I went back to the track.
18-miles of intervals—which my coach told me not to do— and my Achilles tendon snapped.
Running ended, that rainy day at the track. I’ll never be a runner again.
These days I spend a lot of time on the bike,
thinking about the bike, and how so many people want to be faster, but (somehow) can't. The nice thing about the bike is that overuse injuries are usually not as dramatic as running injuries due to the lack of constant impact (unless you fall off, or you’re hit by a car.) But, how to get faster? There are many theories.
I remember my running days which are now compounded by Ironman days: I ran a 26.2 mile race because I ran one in practice. I was able to complete Ironman because I had already completed 16+hour efforts before, and knew that it wasn’t the sprint that would carry me all those hours and all those miles.
It isn’t fun and it isn’t easy to know that to do something— especially for the first time— you just have to practice doing it over and over again. It’s the 10,000 hour theory, right? (Where you have to do something for 10,000 hours in order to truly learn how to do it right.)
From this vantage point, as a writer, I do think there’s some wisdom in this: to be great, you have to do. Not for one hour or five seconds of the day, but you have to live what you want to be. And, that is not an interval (a presence-absence-presence) but, instead a way of life and a way of being in the world every single second and every single breath.
I also have a theory about athletes,
particularly adult athletes who are serious about the sports they do, who may want to win a race, or if not, who want to pull a PR every now and then and will smile widely when they do.
For these athletes, the sport stands in for some aspect of life that doesn’t glow very brightly; to win a race erases a failure (real, self-imposed or imagined), a tragedy, or reclaims a mistake from long ago. Seconds dropped crossing the line represent a particular kind of triumph that doesn’t present itself in normal day-to-day life.
And, it’s only natural to crave this particular kind of happiness, no matter how fleeting or hard-earned. The intervals, then, a siren’s call, beckoning a faster path to fastness, an easy way to excellence. Intervals are what the professionals do, intervals create an equation between us and them and the possibility that we are all the same.
Yet, there is only so much of me, of you, and of these adult athletes who hold full-time jobs and support families and home mortgages and who exist in the world in so many more ways than one.
Webster’s definition of you would contain maybe a dozen variations, and sometimes span numerous parts of speech (noun, verb and adjective.) We are mothers and daughters; business-owners and non-profit event organizers and teachers; we are friends and mentors; we are caretakers; we are artists, funny, intelligent, go-getters; phat, sassy, sexy; tired, worn, persevering; cycling, working, living. We are every single aspect a person can be, which includes “athlete,” but that is only one single part.
And so, here it is: we have to live in the world in more ways than one. Intervals promise a quick fix, but life is a lifetime long and you can’t do repeats forever. What you can do, and what you should do, is something much more simple and something much more difficult.
You should live the sport you do.
I write, and think about narrative, tone and voice.
I form words with my hands and try word after word until I find the right one. There is no substitute. So too, on the bike. I simply must ride, finding that inner rhythm, finding how to release the tension from my feet, finding how to use all the big muscle groups in my hamstrings and glutes, finding how to breathe so I can go the distance.
I don’t know if I will ever be a great writer or a great cyclist. I only know that those are the things I do: I live language and the way words are delicate carriers of thought and meaning. I am also a cyclist, but one who is learning: my feet hurt sometimes, and I have to use my hamstrings to pull the bottoms of my feet above the bottoms of my shoes. I have to think about how to breathe, exhaling more than I inhale. I have to think about cadence, not bogging down into the tough gears. I have to love my life, as it is, because this is what I do.
The nature of beauty is tied to the nature of ourselves.
Because I’m not quite myself (a fancy way of saying that I’m exhausted) it takes me a minute to tell myself to make a wish. And I do: I wish to be free.
What are these hours, these miles?
The Donner Double is a 2-day event which includes a 2.7 mile swim across the length of Donner Lake and a 10-mile road race in Reno, Nevada.