I don't really even remember what sound started the race. It was probably a whistle. I know for a fact it wasn't a shotgun start, not in some sweet little suburb of San Jose. The race started on a hill, and for the Pro/1/2/3 women, it started just about when the red sign with the white writing announced: "Race Start Here."
The break came early--within the first two miles. I was (unwisely) in the back, doing my best not to pull and fall victim to an attack. It turns out the back of the pack is also a shitty place to be, sometimes. I'm still learning this sport.
Yet, this is the race I've been looking forward to all year. The morning was about as perfect as mornings can be: crisp and clear, with blue sky, no wind and a pretty touch to everything.
Once, long ago, I was a college student who was trying to figure things out--among those things were: who am I? What do I want from life? And, why is it that I want to be an athlete, but I can't seem to pull it together?
I had wanted to walk onto the university's track team. I'd been a descent runner in high school, and had won a state title in the pole vault. I wondered, walking to my various classes, if I still had any of that in me.
But, I didn't walk onto the UNR track team-- or any team-- for my four years there. Instead, I joined the karate club and beat up small children for a while. Then, I half-learned how to swim-- how to move myself through the chlorinated water fast enough so that I wouldn't drown, even after I decided to do some laps after giving blood (no one said I was smart.) And then there was the bike.
It was a red, aluminum Cannondale with shfiters on the downtube I bought from my high school English teacher who had ridden it across Mexico. At the time, the bike was more expensive than the car I drove and I made a point of using the bike more than the car. When essays stalled out in my head, I'd jump on that Cannondale, and head over to Verdi-- a ride, at the time, that required a brief foray onto the shoulder of I-80 with semis thundering by, inches from my handle bars. I probably peed myself a few times (I do remember crying when a few of those fifth-wheelers got too close) but riding was what helped me get the words onto paper.
Granted, at the time I wanted more than anything to learn what it took to be "great" at something, riding or writing. In my twenties, it was clear I didn't have it for either pursuit. I guess my favorite story I share with my fiancé: he owns a local bike shop I was, in my twenties, too intimidated to enter. When I finally worked up the courage to buy myself some clipless pedals and shoes (I was bike commuting from Truckee to Homewood), I picked the one day he wasn't there.
We laugh about it now; but it makes me wonder about all that timidity. What are all the things in life I missed out on, because I was too scared to even try?
I know several people will point and laugh at middle-aged me, toeing the line at these races. "Who does she think she is?" they might ask.
Here is my answer: I am myself. And, I'm not scared now like I was in my twenties of things like races or "what so-and-so might think of me," etc. or the not-so-earth shattering possibility that I might not live up to other people's expectations of me.
These days, I know two true things about myself. I might not win, but I'm going to be in two places in every race I enter: at the starting line, because I can be and at the finish line because I'm too determined not to stop short.
I have never really ridden Mt. Hamilton.
When I had the chance, back in graduate school when I rode with a really awesome community-based cycling club (the Diablo Cyclists) who took me all over the bay area. They had this deal on Saturdays, that (after the prescribed 70 or 80 mile ride) you could do "bonus miles" with a few of the more experienced guys. I did a few off those rides (that's how I was introduced to windy Patterson Pass, to Palamares Road, to Sunol...) but never to Mt. Hamilton. They invited me up Mt. Hamilton, then up Sierra Road, as we sat at the biker-bar at the Junction between what would amount to a "normal day" in the saddle and something that sounded absolutely epic.
I was afraid I wouldn't survive the epic. I mean, you know, I was in a Master of Fine Arts program and deeply in debt and living way beyond my means in the bay area. I'm still upset at myself that I didn't just try it once. I probably would have puked, but puking can be good for a person sometimes.
Fast-forward three years and I'm back in my hometown Reno. (Not surprisingly) my life fell apart, and my parents were kind enough to pay for the registration fee for my first Ironman triathlon. I'm not afraid of bike shops anymore; I need them to survive this 140.6 mile, multi-discipline craziness I signed up for.
I walk into Great Basin Bicycles.
That's when I meet Rich and he convinces me that I had to ride this crazy double-centuries, and that turned into competing in the California Triple Crown Stage Race which is three of the most difficult doubles strung together and you get to celebrate that you didn't lose a limb or half of your private parts after 600 miles and 60,000+ feet of vertical gain. Two of those (in the years I raced them with Rich) included Mt. Hamilton.
The Devil Mountain Double routes riders in the opposite direction of the Mt. Hamilton Road Race, and instead of starting the climb at a nice time (like 8 or 9 in the morning) the Mt. Hamilton section of the DMD comes squarely in the hottest part of the day. The climb on the Eastern side of the mountain is also notoriously treeless. I remember it as a hot, endless up.
The Mt. Hamilton Road Race, by contrast, goes up the western face, a climb that features more trees and shaded sections. I was about to write "more switchbacks", but I'm not sure that's true. But, anyway, it's greener, and maybe it's easier to climb when there's stuff to look at.
This blog isn't a place for me to pussy-foot around the fact that I didn't win a race because of some stupid excuse. I didn't do better in the Mt. Hamilton Road Race because the other athletes who toed the line with me were stronger and more experienced. Yet, I'm happy with my numbers and my race, and that is really all that matters. (Hey, it's not like anyone is paying me to do this.)
Two leaders-- the women who would place 1 and 2-- kept their gap in front of me. I paced them for the first 15 or so miles, and then another rider (a climber) caught me nearly at the top of Mt. Hamilton. At the bottom of the descent, I was stopped for construction that had one road lane closed (I am the only person who was, it seems.)
Then, I continued along the rolling terrain from Mt. Hamilton to the "junction" (a.k.a. the Biker Bar) which then leads into Mines Road. I slowly caught the cyclist who had passed me. However, on the final climb before the rolling descent to the finish (about 20 miles out) another competitor passed me.
Once on the descent on Mine's Road, I knew I was in for a time-trial: it's not entirely downhill all the way, and there was a horrible headwind. The climber who had passed me on Mt. Hamilton was struggling in the wind. This race was a part of a larger stage race over the weekend I had decided not to do for several reasons: 1) I live in Reno; 2) I really don't want to spend $1,000+ for a weekend in Livermore; and 3) I love my life on the bike, but I also love my life off the bike. But, the athlete who was struggling was doing all the stage events.
So, I pulled in front of the cyclist who had passed me and I told her I would work for her finish. We passed men who had fallen off their race groups on the winding, windy descent. It was honestly the most fun I had all day-- working toward a goal (finishing) while helping someone out. She ended up fourth place; me, fifth.
A part of me wonders if I'm not made of the athlete-cloth, but something else. I hear that there are supposed to be no friends at the the finish line, and I suppose that is (mostly) true. And yet, on the drive home, I'm not upset with myself at all. Instead, I'm really glad I did this race and that I finished where I did. Could I have done better?
Probably-- I mean, we can always do better in life, in hindsight. And yet, I did the two things I have promised myself I would: I was at the starting line and I made it to the finish even if road construction got in the way. ;-)