The Death Ride, or the Incredible Strangeness of My Life

I woke this morning to a facebook stream filled with photos from yesterday's Death Ride. They were photos of friends who'd ridden together, of family members offering support; many pictures featured my friend, Rich, who did a certain part of the ride twice in what was torrential winds, making sure others finished the journey they set out for in the early morning hours. 


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. 

When I look back now with 24-hours of retrospect, I'm not sure what I think of that. Or, what I think of the fact that I was offered numerous options of helping others complete their longest ride, with the probability they might not finish. I wanted, for just a day, to be "fast", and to see what all this training has amounted to. I'm worried that it amounts to a selfish 34-year old woman who's slightly fat and will always be slightly fat and who has silly aspirations, and far too many disappointments. 

It's a question I ask myself a lot lately: what is the meaning of all this training, riding and racing I do? I know it has something to do with who I am, how I understand my place in the world. But, when the world at large is riddled with questions of senseless violence, poverty and injustice, what does it mean to say that I ride my bike so many miles each week, and that my VO2 max is XX,  my resting heart rate 48, my max 189?

Or, even in the microcosm of my the world I encounter on a daily basis: I work for a company which helps kids aged 4-24 who have no families, and have turned to crime or the foster system as a last resort. What does it mean to these kids I sit with at lunch, and who ask me questions like: "Do you think we are all just criminals?" and other such questions, and it breaks my heart, and my response is to ride my bike. And, to ride my bike. Miles and miles of solitude where I am enclosed in my own thoughts, which is to say, I linger in a space of nothingness. 

What does it mean that I am athlete? That I win a few races? That I rode the Death Ride in eight and a half hours? That I completed Ironman? That I am training to ride even longer races and rides, and that I want to race and go faster and faster, and to weigh my food and measure every second of my days (on and off the bike) so that I can compete and race, and spend more and more time away from people and all those painful moments and what they surface in me. 

Sometimes I think I'm not built to endure anything but the sport I've chosen. And then, I'm ready to bury myself in it.


I have ridden the Death Ride many times, but never the official Death Ride where you are given a race number, and a sticker each time you climb one of the five passes. The goal is to climb all five: Monitor, Monitor, Ebbetts, Ebbetts and at the end, Carson Pass. I have climbed all these mountains before, just not in this order. Or, just not in that order or with 4,000 other cyclists.  So, I can't honestly say why I chose to ride as fast as I could on my own instead of riding with the kids from the program in Minden where I work, or any number of people from Reno who might have benefited from my company, or maybe just my draft.  

It's a decision as arbitrary as any other. Why not ride as hard as I can?  (I realize this might mean I am a huge selfish jerk.) 

The morning is not quite dark and beautiful when Rich and I leave Turtle Rock park. It's already windy, which doesn't bode well for the rest of the day. But we pass about 300 people, tucked low in our aerobars for the first few miles of the course. We join seven other riders from Reno, and after we roll through the first rider checkpoint in Wolf Creek Canyon en route to Monitor Pass (the first climb) I already find myself alone. 

I don't listen to anything but the sound of my breath. I keep passing other riders, and my power meter tells me I'm pushing harder than I usually do, but I'm going so slowly, I convince myself I'm not moving at all, and that I have to go faster. The dawn fades to day on the climb.  I wonder if I've buried every relationship in this drive to become an athlete, whatever that means. The desire to be the best I can, given the physical constraints of my body, and of the constraints of time. 

I can't explain it, and by the halfway point up Monitor, I feel as though I can't breathe. It's a feeling I'll carry with me all day. A strange breathlessness, like I'm seconds from passing out. I keep telling myself I'm so slow, I'm not fast enough, and I answer myself with something like I'm panting. I stop at the top of Monitor Pass to get my first sticker before descending the East slope nearly to the shores of Topaz Lake.

When I arrive, I get my second sticker (because you have to climb back up Monitor Pass in order to continue the ride) and try to eat something at the aid station. The thought of anything they have (cookies, Clif Bars, bananas) makes my stomach turn. I try a fig bar, and get halfway through before I know I can't eat any more or I'll be wearing it. 

I see a two familiar faces--one is a man who races with the Alta Alpina Cycling Club (an Ironman Triathlete with an Australian accent) and I wave because we race together Thursday nights. He's waiting for a friend to reach the aid station, and he will ride the rest of Monitor with her before continuing on his own ride.  The second, a woman from Reno who is a dear friend. She leaves before I do, and I clip into my pedals, and leave, worried about my stomach and breathing, but not knowing what else do to but ride, and to try and ride faster. 


Up Monitor for the second time, I continue to pass other riders, wheezing, feeling faint. At first, I get compliments on my Shebeest kit (which is black, yellow and white and matches my bike) and then I begin to hear: "Hey-- it's Bumblebee!!" (my nickname from the Alta Alpina.) My spirits lift a little, and I stop feeling so guilty for wanting to ride my own race today.

"Hey, it's Bumblebee!" one cyclist calls to me. "I chased you all Alta Alpina!" It makes me smile. Then, before the 180-degree turn through a grove of aspens, the kids with whom I eat lunch are manning a water station. One student who was on the cycling team at the beginning of the season recognizes me. "Ms. Rebecca!" he calls, and the rest of the boys chime in. I smile and say "woohoo" before the road turns, and I climb again, passing several cyclists. For a second, I think I can breathe, but once I'm in the sun again, the problem returns. I sit up from my aerobars, and try to regain my balance.  But, I still feel as though I can't breathe.

I can't stop, I can't stop. I can imagine everyone passing me. I'm not fast, I'm not fast. I want to be an athlete. What didn't I do? What did I do wrong? I worry that everyone from Reno is upset with me. 

I keep climbing. I see one woman I know, and I cheer her on, and I remark that we are wearing the same black and white headband (a saving grace that kept my hair out of my mouth.) Up the mountain, I regain my aero position a mile or so from the summit, and power through the top. I don't stop at the aid station. I descend, instantly chilled by the wind, so that by the bottom I'm shivering so hard I worry that I can't control the bike. 

There's another aid station at the bottom of Monitor, but I don't stop there, either. Instead, I continue up Wolf Creek toward Ebbetts Pass, the most technical climb/descent of the day. 

Up Ebbetts, I pass another cyclist who has ridden with Rich and I at the shop every weekend since December, and nearly every Thursday morning at 5:00 am since January. Outside of the shop, I don't recognize him at first, so when he says "Hi, Rebecca," I'm violently jolted from my world where I am struggling to breathe. 

I stop at a mini-aid station at the foot of Ebbetts pass. I force myself to eat three potato chips. I refill my water. I try to text Rich, but I have no signal. A young man, maybe ten years old at most, keeps trying to talk to me. "are you having a good ride?" he asks me. "Are you happy?" 

I nod and smile, but the question says with me, even as I get back in the saddle and I can't breathe again. I want to be an athlete. Does it make me happy to be an athlete? 

  • I love the early mornings when I train, alone. 
  • I love pushing myself, and finding that my ability is not a finite thing. 
  • I love the wind in my face.
  • I love the thrill or racing; the pain, the uncertainty, the test. 
  • I love watching myself progress, getting stronger, my body adapting to the demands of a sport. 
  • I love the hours after long races or rides, when I simply collapse. I sleep so well. 
  • I love the crazy outfits. 
  • I love my bike. 
  • I love the dawns. I love the sunsets. I love the places and circumstances I see from the saddle.
  • I love the illusion that my life matters. 

Ebbetts turns and meanders, wavering between moderate and steeper along a one-and-a-half lane-wide road. The wind pushes and pulls on the turns, and I think that it will be an interesting descent. At the top, I park my bike and refill my bottles, and get my third sticker. I eat a half a PB n' J, which doesn't taste great, but I know I need the calories. 

Down the back side: I stop only to get my fourth sticker before climbing back up Ebbetts pass again. I am so accustomed to doing this climb in the late afternoon, that this becomes an unexpected joy. I'm in my aerobars for most of the climb, and most of the road is covered in a dappled, lovely shade. 

I can't really breathe, and my stomach feels awful. But it's a beautiful day. I see my Reno friends descent as I climb. At the top, I know I need to eat-- or drink-- or both.  The volunteers have poured sodas into plastic cups and I try to take a drink from one. It simply won't go down my throat, and I worry I'm going to throw up in front of everyone. 

I'm terrified. I want to tell someone I can't breathe or drink or eat, but I realize that if I do, my ride is over. I refill my water bottles. I throw away the soda. I throw away the half PB n J with one bite in it.  

If I can't eat or drink, I know I have to keep riding, and doing my best to drink water. My nutrition throughout the week was great, and I know I have enough reserves to get me through this ride. I just can't stop riding, or my day is finished. 

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be a competitive athlete. I've written a lot about those years, and why I failed and the minute details of it. Honestly, I think I have failed at pursing the proper channels moreso than it was any physical failure, a.k.a. an  issue of not being "good enough." For example: if I were to work my way up through the ranks of cycling, it would be a four-year journey with a lot of broken collar bones if I was ever to "make it" to Cat 1 (and that's an optimistic estimate.) 

I've gotten to the point where I'm too old to learn new tricks. I'm 34. I need to pay off student loans. I need to write a book. I need to cultivate a life that will enable me to give back to the world. And yet. And yet. 

It's so easy for me to be pulled into the athlete's life. The illusion of the self-importance that starts to grow around races. I love 4:00 AM rides. I love the pain of push-ups. I love the way that a cycling kit can be like a superhero costume, and I can escape from my boring life where I'm awkward and slightly overweight to a world of via spandex and lycra where my legs are "strong" and not simply "big."

I love to believe that someone as dull as me can inspire. I know I don't, of course, but it gets me out of bed, it gets me on the bike. Out of the nothingness, sometimes a candle of hope flickers, and I think: maybe this not all pointless. Maybe I have a voice with words, and a message about simplicity. About the power of loving a thing or a person or a life. Watch a sunrise, I want to believe my life says. Feel the gratitude down to the marrow of you.

I remember the first year I rode the Alta Alpina, Rich and I slept in the back of his GMC. His marriage had just ended, and I tortured myself about what part I had in that, and the ripples through his family that I couldn't possibly know, but had caused.  

I remembered how divorce had shaped my own life. I remember hearing accusations of affairs as I huddled into a staircase. I remember the way a house emptied after the legal proceedings ended. I remember feeling so torn between my mom and dad that the best thing I could do was to say nothing at all.

The winds are so bad up Woodsford Canyon, I'm blown into traffic simply from the wind picking my bike up off the road and setting it someplace new. I'm still riding alone. For 4 of the 5 mountain passes, I have eaten: 1 fig bar, 1 coke, 1/2  PB n J, 5 potato chips. And, I have had a lot of water.

I hate this canyon. Traffic cuts too close to me. A trailer is one inch from my handlebar on the left, and I struggle not to fall as he blasts by me. I slip into my aerobars as I reach Hope Valley and pass two male riders. They arrive at the end of the ride and ask me if I race because I passed them so quickly.

There are so many good moments, even though I feel so absolutely awful. I worry about my friends. Where are they? 

Where am I? I just pedal. I mindlessly pedal as I wheeze. I wonder why I want to be an athlete so badly, and what it would mean for me if I did become one since I'm not good at suffering. As the winds push and gust against me, I think I'm really shitty at this. 

I keep going., So slow, I pedal and pedal, and I feel guilt. I helped no one do this ride. I missed my own mark of completing the ride under eight hours as the wind flings me around like a toy up Carson Pass. My legs have hardly anything left in them, but I keep pedaling because that's all I can do. 


When I reach the finish line after 8 and a half hours, I don't know why the volunteers cheer me on. When I come to a full stop, they tell me I'm the second woman in for the day. I'm the twelfth rider to sign the board. Rich will later tell me that's kind of amazing since most people start the ride around 3:00 or 3:30 am (two hours before I did.) 

I eat an ice cream sandwich. Another rider takes a picture with me since we are both doing the CA Triple Crown Stage Race. 

I am blown down from Carson Pass, down Woodford Canyon to the finish at Turtle Rock Park. I change into normal clothes, and find a spot on a boulder far from the road to watch the riders enter the "finish line." It is a cornucopia of ages, bikes and body types. I try to pull some meaning from watching young and old; experienced and beginner-- I come to no conclusion.

I wonder about what it can mean to be an athlete. What does it mean or not mean? With the retrospect of 24-hours, I can say that there are things I'm good at and others that I'm not. I can get up at 4:00 am and I can ride so many miles each week. I can ride 120 miles on basically water. I can keep going when most sane people would stop. 

I can't help other people. I can't inspire. I can't look a young person in the eye and say that they have so much life in front of them, and that their identity isn't attached to the worst decision they ever made. I can't save a family, or make a home. 

What I do, and what I am incredibly good at: I can get up, and I can ride. I can disappear into time, fall into the landscape and simply keep going. I can cry. I can feel terrible. 

I also know that 4:00 AM comes early. I can disappear into the miles. David Foster Wallace said that athletes are articulately inarticulate. Perhaps that is my gift.