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.Read More
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?Read More
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.Read More
Video captures the sound, light and motion of cycling that I love so much.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
What are these hours, these miles?Read More
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.Read More
This weekend, I competed in the third stage of the Triple Crown Stage Race. I toed the line with my bike just like everyone else did. If you have ever watched a cycling event-- the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia or any of your local road races-- you know that riders use strategy as well as physical fitness to reach the finish line first. In cycling that means you kill yourself to climb the hills the fastest and then you do your best to push the downhills so you come just short of crashing out. And if you're smart, on level ground you tuck behind a tandem or a stronger rider for a while to give your legs a rest before returning the favor and taking a pull at the lead of the pack.
This is called cycling.
Yesterday, a male cyclist accused me of cheating because I drafted during the Triple Crown Stage Race in a comment on Strava.
To him, I pose this question: how do you think the lead male riders reached the finish line so quickly? And, why is it OK for a male rider to draft and to work in a group, but for us few women who populate endurance cycling, we "should" battle the distance alone?