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.