I didn't ride 100 miles.
Sweet mother-of-all-that-is-holy, I cannot imagine riding that 100 miles.
My fat bike 33-miler was plenty...
- - -
The Patapsco 100 event is a mountain bike race set in the river valley of Maryland's Patapsco State Park. It features, well, everything. There are steep climbs, creek and river crossings, winding downhills, flowing singletrack, rock gardens, hilly meadows, and every sort of hiking trail you can imagine. And stairs.
Let's revisit a few of those "features."
It has steep climbs...like The Hell of the North. That's both a name and a description. It's a hill so steep that the only way a mortal can climb it is to fall forward, hoping your feet will catch you before you faceplant.
And—since this is a bicycle race—you need to bring your bike with you, wheeling it up the cliff.
It's a hill so steep that you come to a dead, I-don't-think-I-can-get-going-again stop if your tire bounces off a rock. So, pick your line wisely. While falling forward. Or fall backward, ignominiously.
It has river crossings...twice across the Patapsco, waist and chest deep in the summer flow.
Probably not anything new for the experienced mountain bikers out there. But, I'm a newbie.
I'm on a fat bike. YOU schlep a 30+ pound behemoth across a river. Twice.
Oh, and once you've forded one of those crossings, you get to haul yourself and your bike up several flights of Mayan-ruin stone stairs. Soaking slickly wet. And then you have the privilege of granny-gearing it up the remainder of the switchbacking hill.
It has flowing singletrack...in perfect, tacky condition after a week's kind weather. Some of the trails are new—as in just-cut-through-the-forest-for-this-event new. Those trails are 18 inches wide. Sweet!
Those trails also have several hairpin turns. Exciting!
Those hairpin turns feature complete exposure on the outside of the curve...you go over, and you drop. Like a brick. In the alps. Like a big fat-bike brick falling through alpine air. In some cases, onto railroad tracks. Huzzah!
Patapsco 100 is a real race.
And, yes, a single 33-mile loop was plenty for this chemo-recovering boy.
I was up exactly one minute before my 0400 alarm. It was one of those nights. You know the ones. It was one of those stirring and surfacing non-sleep nights, anxiety-driven, worried sweaty about sleeping through your alarm.
|It was a beautiful heart of the sunrise.|
No need of caffeine; this was a big day.
The music was throbbing, the sunrise was a gift from the gods. The miles rolled past. I arrived.
Magnificent energy abounds before a race. If you've done it, you know it; if you know it, you need it; when you need it, it's your addiction.
Lord, how I'd missed it.
I did a lot of things and chatted to a lot of people and pooped...thrice—thank heavens for real toilets. Magnificent energy abounds before a race. Offtimes it's centered just south of your stomach...
The butterflies collided inside my chest; breathing was quick and shallow. I was nervous energy—personified.
But I was the good energy, the happy energy, the all-I-care-about-is-finishing energy, the no-pressure energy that comes from surviving. The energy that comes from joy.
Earlier races started. Better riders rode. We queued up for our launch, and we rolled—uphill to start. Perfect. It tempered the adrenalized frenzy of the start, forcing it to mellow. I watched a large group pull away; a gap appeared. Out loud, I started singing Fool's Gold. Yep, I'm that guy.
The gold road's sure a long road. Winds on through the hills for fifteen days.
Fat bike 33 would feel like fifteen days.
The Race Begins
This race was about pinning on a number. It was a milestone.
Months of recovery; starts and stops; fits and stops; a shitload of stops led to my start.
I began the race overweight. While down from my January maximum of 225; I weighed 190—still 15 pounds above my cyclocross weight last August.
I began the race out-of-shape. The longest I had ridden this calendar year was a three-hour road ride that featured a 30-odd minute snack break. Thanks to the World Cup, I had a bunch of two-hour trainer sessions in my legs. The stuff of legend, this is not. Merckx, I ain't.
I began the race with neuropathy in my feet and hands. In May I broke two toes in an event. After the initial pain, I didn't feel them at all. Ever. So, I knew that there would be times when I would feel neither feet nor hands. I knew I wouldn't know when it would happen, but I hoped...oh, hell, I don't know what I hoped. You just do what you need to do to do what you need to do.
I began the race with the constant reminder that cancer resides within me. It's not active, thankfully. But the tumor scars are there, affecting me every day. The seeds are planted for its return...again. I'll write more on that in my next post. For now, leave it at this: every time I press a pedal with real power, I feel the scar deep within my pelvis. It's there. It's real. It hurts. It reminds.
I began the race...
Yes. Yes, I did.
The Race Rolls OnI'm a big boy on a big bike. I descend like a dervish. I climb like a bloated slug. I cruise like a train—a slow-moving diesel pulling 100 cars of pure West Virginia coal.
|Big boy rides big bike makes big splash.|
I giggle a lot.
Except when I curse, punchily piercing the air with choice expletives. Nothing creative, mind you. The simple stuff does suffice. It's all in the delivery...
Good things happened. I passed a few people.
Bad things happened. I hopped a good-sized log, cleanly, and then kissed a tree.
Now, why anyone would place a tree in the middle of a forest, I have no idea. It was damned inconsiderate of them, and I was pissed! It ruined my flow! And my handlebars. And my headset. And me!
Ten minutes and a score of riders later, I re-started, with my headset almost repaired and my bars almost straight and my shoulder almost intact.
But I didn't go to the hospital...I kept on riding...
I failed, a lot. I walked, a ton. I suffered, deeply.
But suffering is different, now...
Suffering has changed.
When you have an injury, or you're in the hospital, and they want to assess your pain, they always ask you: "On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the worst pain you've ever experienced, and one being no pain at all, how would you rate your pain?"
With respect to you, honest reader, there are very few of you out there who have experienced my "10." I don't mean to sound dismissive—I completely respect other peoples' experiences (and I know damned well that others have experienced far worse)—but I can write with conviction that I know pain. I've emerged early from surgery—and I remember it. I've felt my sternum try to explode—and I survived it.
|I spent days like this.|
I've suffered on a bicycle. But let's be honest, it's only riding a bicycle.
So, when I write "I suffered, deeply", it means something more.
I went places.
Veteran readers of this blog will know what I mean. I have a good, honest relationship with my inner voices. When I ride, they talk, and I listen, and we argue, and I learn.
I thought a lot about my doctors. I thought more about my nurses—those blessed angels on Bles 2 at Georgetown. I thought about my fellow patients. I thought about a friend who is coming to the end of his cancer battle. I thought about by Little Angels, my sweet daughters. I thought about all the friends who got me from that place without a postcard, enabling me to do what I was doing. People and places and voices and so much passed through my head.
And they inspired me.
There were hills I climbed because they were with me—hills I otherwise would never have tried. There were times I pushed through because they pushed me. It would hurt more to quit, disappointing them, than it would hurt to continue.
Yet, no one was there. No one could see. And few even knew what I was doing. But, they were with me—all day long.
In the darkest places, I thought about those closest to me who had hurt me most. They, too, were with me...all day long. But when I started to feel them approach—when they started to drag me down—I sent them away. And I felt stronger for it. I had no room for doubt. Belief and hope were what mattered, so I seized the memories of those who supported me, drew them close, and let them carry me all day.
- - -
The day wore on, the miles passed, hills were climbed, slopes descended, rivers and creeks crossed, I rambled on...
I passed through the support stops, drinking in the love and positivity. Friends were there, cheering me on. I felt like a hero.
And then things went...wrong. Around mile 26 I started hurting—really hurting. I stopped. I rode. I stopped again. I rode some more. The doubts got louder, and the voices that drove me forward got weaker. But they didn't quit. At the edge of a ravine I stopped and breathed. I looked across the treetops, dappled in the summer's sunlight. I drank in the damp, wooded air, letting it fill me.
I was alone in the woods. In that moment I could have stopped. It would have been fine, I told myself. As my heart rate dropped, and my breathing relaxed, and I calmed...an image came to me.
It was a photograph, recently taken. In it two people with whom I am connected by deep affection...and cancer...look up and smile. They're giving cancer the finger.
I smiled as my eyes welled.
I. Rode. On.
- - -
Somehow, I made my way back into it. I was racing.
Who I thought I was racing, I don't know. It wasn't the other riders around me. It wasn't myself. Maybe it was the ghosts and the voices. I dunno. But I do know this...I was racing again.
And then came The Hell of the North.
I looked up once, and it took my breath away.
So, I stopped looking, and proceeded to fall uphill.
Time slowed. Vision blurred.
The hill is a vortex. An observer would see an idiot pushing a bike up an ungodly hill, but the idiot experiences something completely different...
|Push a bike, cling to a tree, |
it's all the same to me.
I shuffled the halls of the oncology ward, clutching my IV tree, watching my feet slide along the tile floor. The hoses and tubes swayed with the rhythm of my slow, steady, motion. I focused on my feet, willing each small shuffle forward, never feeling the progress—neuropathy robbing me of sensation.
My stomach churned and swelled and threatened, and I beat it down. With my will. Only my will. It's all I had left.
And I shuffled on, to what or where I did not know. One more lap. Once more around the ward.
I was racing.
It got easier. Then it didn't. Then it did again. So, I looked up. I was nearly there...wherever "there' was.
And I didn't look back.
- - -
I entered the route's final climb with nothing left. I entered the park with my will to finish, and precious little more. And what a climb it was. Baked tarmac broiled me from below as the sun melted my brain. And just when I thought I couldn't handle any more...it leveled out, and I was nearly there.
I crossed the line and heard the voices. I stopped—shattered. I shuddered.
- - -
|This is what shattered looks like.|
I'm not a good mountain biker. I gots no skillz. I'm woefully out of shape.
I'm not racing for a podium.
I'm not racing you.
Hell, I'm not even racing me.
Maybe I'm running away.
Maybe I'm running toward.
Maybe I'm racing life...or death...or my ghosts...or my voices.
Maybe I'm racing just to race.
What I do know is this: I have the courage to pin on a number and go; and I'm more alive when I do than when I don't.
I think I have something to prove—more to myself than to anyone else.
I'm just not sure what that thing is.
And as I write this, it does not matter.
What matters is that I did it. I finished.
I didn't let them down.
I didn't let you down.
I didn't let me down.
I did it.
And I'm a better man today for having done it.
Thank you...all of you.
What will be will be what will be.
I've go this.