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Monday, April 20, 2015

Bethlehem Century on a Spring Day

"Good friends help you to find important things
when you have lost them.....
your smile, your hope, and your courage."
Doe Zantamata

It has been raining, dark, and dreary for what seems to be an eternity and I have not gotten back into my regular habit of riding after getting home from work.  But this week-end Saturday is predicted to be gorgeous, sunny and warm, before returning to the gloomy gray that has bathed every nook and cranny of Kentuckiana recently.  If the old adage about April showers is true, then May should be absolutely teeming with flowers.  I briefly pity the ride captain because I feel sure that I am not the only slothful person who has been unable to drag themselves out the door and thus is woefully out of shape. This is also a difficult ride for me because it is the route I had to cancel in December the day after my husband's stroke. Bethlehem, a route I put together years ago and normally have in December so that Christmas cards to friends and loved ones have the Bethlehem postage stamp.  I toy with staying home, but know that however difficult it is I must look forward.  How I wish I were brave.  Sometimes I still think of myself as feeling like an animal in a trap must feel when it chews off a limb to become free:  I miss him so much that I would do almost anything to escape that pain.  But unlike the animal, I know there is no true freedom there through drugs, alcohol, suicide.

I wish I could say that my faith is so strong that I never doubt that I will be reunited with him in heaven, but it is not.  I just am not as strong as he was.  I believe, but I question.  He never seemed to do so.  I still talk with him in my mind, and sometimes I can almost hear his answer, but it is not the same.  The thought of never seeing him again, of never hearing the sound of his voice, of never seeing him smile, is almost unbearable.  How I miss his humor and how he made me laugh.  I would have married him on that basis alone.  But there is no other viable choice, so I try to focus my thoughts on being grateful.  I am a mother and despite the fact my children are grown, I continue to believe that they learn from me and that I must set a good example.  One foot in front of the other. As my mother always said, "This too shall pass."  And death and dealing with it is just part of the human condition.

Today is also the Kentucky 400K, but I have decided Paris Brest Paris is definitely out for me this year.  While there is a part of me that regrets this decision, that knows that my husband would be disappointed in this decision, it is the decision I have made for various reasons, rightly or wrongly.  Too much money to spend when I am unsure if I will enjoy it and with things so unsettled emotionally and financially. Too much planning and thinking when I am not on top of my game. Recently a friend noted that I don't deal well with uncertainty. There is truth in that observation, but seldom in my life has everything been as unsettled and uncertain as it is now.  At least now my not going is a certainty and perhaps I will not overly question my decision and I will be at peace.  I have not qualified and I have requested my refund from Des Perres. 

So there is no need in doing the 400.  Indeed, there is no desire to do the 400K.  Briefly  I wonder if that too has been taken from me or if, in time, the desire will return again.  I realize, however, that it can only be taken from me if I allow that to happen.  Some days it is just hard to get out of bed. I long for him in dreams and still he does not come and things are the same when consciousness rudely invades my sleep.  I am broken and he cannot fix me as he did in the past with his words and his caresses.  I find I have no regret about not having to get up early and riding the brevet other than missing those early morning hours on the bike in the cool, soothing darkness just before the sun comes up, when the day coyly promises and beckons and the world is mysterious and full of possibilities. 

I am surprised at the number of riders at the Forestry when I arrive.  With "Thunder Over Louisville," a local fireworks display, being later this evening and the traffic it will cause, I expect a small turn out.  But I am wrong.  Larry, "Gizmo,"  has his drone up photographing the ride start.  It is the first time I have seen  a drone and initially it startles me until Lucky tells me what it is.  Nancy generously gives me a Mad Dog coffee mug saying she has them made for the women that rode last  year. I briefly think of  how kind people have been, and how loss has given me a new perspective.  I hope that I can become kinder, less judgmental, more compassionate, that I learn from my experience. After briefly chattering with friends, some of whom I have not seen for quite awhile, Troy, the ride captain, gathers everyone around and then we are on our way, wheels spinning and colorful jerseys brightening the roadway.

Despite my rather gloomy attitude, I try to smile and make conversation with friends, and I find that I am interested in what they have to say.  So much has happened since I have had a chance to visit with some of them.  Joe is nice enough to compliment my writing and this blog, and his attempts to make me feel better cause me to find my smile, however temporarily. And gradually I do feel better, more like old self.  Spring has truly arrived and the red bud trees are brilliant  their color lacing and intertwining with the green promise on nearby trees.  Wildflowers line the road in places.  Fields remain empty as of yet, but they begin to show the promise of the coming planting of crops.   I can almost feel the frustration of local gardeners and farmers longing for it to quit raining long enough to do their work. I momentarily puzzle whether I will plant anything this year. I find myself caught up in the beauty, in the rebirth that is spring.  

Lucky is riding his fixed gear, so I ride much of the day with him.  We talk about the spring and about the brilliant greeness this  year. Despite not seeing him often for a number of years, it is like coming home, this riding with a friend that I have spent so much time with in the past.  We briefly reminisce about the first Tour De Mad Dog and conclude that while it is a much larger group now and the dynamics have changed due to the increase in members, it is still a group of very nice people.  And I find hope  in the thought that change does not mean that everything is lost, that nothing will ever again will ever be quite the same, but that different does not necessarily mean bad.  And I find my courage in that hope.

Like so many rides on a pleasant spring day that are shared rides with friends, this ride ends all too quickly and I do my extra lap around the forestry to get my 100 miles.  Life goes on relentless whether we take his hand or get dragged kicking and screaming.  Things happen and we  cope the best we can.  But how much easier everything is with a bicycle and some friends.  Thanks, everyone.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Texas Hell Week 2015

"I'm still recalling things you said to make 
me feel alright, I carried them with me today.

Now I lay me down to sleep 
This I pray,
That you will hold me dear
Though I'm far away 
I'll whisper your name up to the sky
And I will wake up happy."
Sophie Hawkins

I have had trouble making up my mind whether or not I should go to Hell Week this year.  My friends that do not live nearby to my home and that I normally get to see at least a time or two while in Texas are not going this year.  I am fat and out of shape.  And I am depressed. The air seems to have gained viscosity and to have become thick and gelatinous: each movement, each decision, is an effort requiring more than it seems possible to give.  Not all the time, thank goodness,  but still more of the time than I would like to admit.  Even my thought processes are slow and unwieldy. What if I lose it in front of people the way I sometimes do when I am alone? It is always so much worse crying in front of others for some reason, those naked, rasping sobs that come from so deep within laying you bare, bleeding, and exposed.  And to be on the other end is just as hard, to hear grief that you cannot allay or ease, even with a stranger, no less with a friend or loved one.  Such helplessness on the part of both because some things can't be changed and some feelings must be felt.  There are no "do-overs" with death, that "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."  (Shakespeare)  Things left unsaid remain unsaid and things not done remain undone.

People seem to think that three months have passed and I should be over the loss, over the 35 years we would have been married in February.  Or maybe I think that is what they are feeling and thinking.  Or maybe I myself think I should be over it.  As my mother always said, "There is no use crying over spilled milk." While the grief is still intense, it is less frequent and passes more quickly.   I don't cry as often, but I still cry and have little control over the when or how hard.

 Or perhaps it is just that it makes us so uncomfortable, the thought of death, the reminder of our own mortality, or worse, the thought of the loss of all that we hold dear and being the survivor and facing mortality alone without the person that has shared our life, the person that has sheltered us from the storms.  Sometimes the words of "Puff, the Magic Dragon," ( Peter, Paul, and Mary) come to my mind.  "Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave."  Can I be brave on my own? This question is yet to be answered.  But I know that life is out there, and that I hope can be a better person, albeit a difference person, by weathering this storm. And I know that rightly or wrongly my grief is far from over.  Still, you move on because that is what people do, because there really is no other choice. At least, no other healthy choice. 

The only thing that seems to help other than the passage of time are the words that the grief therapist tells me, that the feelings I have are  normal, that not sleeping is normal, that losing my memory is normal, that making bad decisions or failing to make any decision is normal.  It is normal that at times I clutch his  pillow or his wool cap  to my face breathing in the remaining scent of him, that smell of comfort and love,  that smell that is gradually fading and will become naught but a memory. And that slowly, I will return to being, not the person I was before, but perhaps a better person, more compassionate and understanding, wiser.  Life tempers us whether we like it or not. There is a comfort in being normal, something I have too often been accused of not being.   And yes, I do occasionally smile with more than my lips now despite the brevity of the time.

I waiver one way and then the other, finally deciding it will be good for me to go, and reminding myself that I still am responsible for the choices I make, that I should not feel guilty about those choices.  So I head to Louisville on Thursday afternoon to meet at Dave King's house, our yearly meeting place.  When I arrive, Dave gives me a big bear hug with that big, silly grin on his face, and yet again I realize how I miss friendly physical contact and I realize that I made the right decision, the healing decision in coming. I also realize yet again what a splendid person Dave is. Indeed, I knew it all along but was unsure if I could motivate myself.  I know that my husband would approve, that he would scold me for ever daring to think that I might not go.  Steve Rice arrives, the van is picked up and loaded, and we are on the road. 

I do hate the drive to Texas.  It is not so bad now that I have a Kindle, but it is still long and boring and the small, cramped sitting place in the back makes my knees ache.  But I am grateful to Dave and Steve for driving me and try my best never to make them wait or to complain or to ask to stop. I love them both for their generosity.  To thank them, I have taken to bringing small treat bags with me, but it is small potatoes compared to the driving they do down and back.  This year lots of people from the Louisville area are going:  Steve Rice, Dave King, Bill Pustow, Mark Rougeux, Amelia Dauer, Mike Crawford, Kirk Roggencamp, Kathy Hill, and Lise Andreason.  All of them are people I like and admire:  good riders and just nice folk.

We arrive and check in at our motel.  Shortly thereafter, we head to registration where we run into some of the others that we know.  We chat briefly, but everyone is tired from the trip. And then it is out to eat at the Enchanted Inn, our traditional first night eating establishment,  and back to try to sleep.  It is the last truly good night of sleep I will get until returning to my own bed where I can reach over when I awaken in the night confident that Tom will be there, unfailingly in the same spot on the bed each night,  my faithful furry companion. Tom is not a particularly attractive cat:  I adopted him because I feared nobody else would.  But Tom is Tom and has a wonderful personality.  Even grown he reminds me of Tom Sawyer, the character he was named after.  But in my eyes he is quite the handsome fellow. Lucy and Liz jump in and out of bed throughout the night, and occupy different spots or vacate the bed, but Tom is almost always in the same place each night, loyal.  I like that he is there and I am not alone. I like the rumbling that emanates from deep within his furry body; it comforts me. He is a nuisance, but I love him just the same.

The first ride of Hell Week this year is the LBJ Ramble and I set off with Steve, Mark, Dave, and Bill thoroughly intending to ride a century.  It is like coming home.  Every year I am bowled over by how very beautiful it is in the Texas hill country in the spring, a very different beauty than Kentucky or Southern Indiana.  Even the dead trees, bowed over, reminding me of old people who have seen much of the world and have shouldered more than their share of her burdens, are beautiful with their twisting, gnarled branches in varying shades of brown. A hint of green seeps through the landscape amidst the rocky terrain, doomed to never truly reach fruition but  lovely just the same. And I find that despite my mourning, I am glad that I am back.  I find myself smiling and occasionally laughing and actually interested in some things. I even sing a bit. Why do I always forget how lovely it is here in the spring?  How it makes my heart somersault and cartwheel. 

Early in the ride, following Mark's flat, we  run into Johnny Betrand who I have not seen since PBP 2011, and we are able to have lunch with him. When I see Johnny, I think of riding through a tiny French village during the 2007 PBP.  I am alone in the dark in an unknown land inhabited by those whose language I do not speak and feeling rather small and alone when I hear the soothing sound of whistling only to find Johnny is the whistler, the one speaking the universal language that is music, and I am comforted, for it was cold and lonely there on the road at times despite the large number of cyclists.

 After lunch, we head back out on the road. Steve and I have an informal competition each year over (a.) who rides the most actual centuries and (b.)who has the most cumulative Hell Week mileage.  Normally we split the victory with my usually having the most centuries but Steve having the most miles.  Last year I won both.  This year he will wind up doing the same.  I still have every intention of finishing the century,   but it is just so pleasant riding and being warm and talking with Bill, one of my favorite riding companions due to his pace, his humor, his sage advice, and his stories,  that we miss a turn and end up with a shorter ride.  I contemplate heading back out, but oddly enough I am ready to stop while the day was fun. I have determined not to push myself, but merely to try to enjoy myself and savor the company and the scenery.

The following day, we all ride the century ride to Camp Verde.  Mark particularly amazes me as he is approximately six weeks out from open heart surgery.  Talk about a non-wimp.  His bravery and endurance shame me.  But this is a hard day for me, the three month anniversary since the passing of my love.  Mark's surgery fixed his heart.  My experience took part of mine away.  I wonder if I will experience this on the 15th of every month, or if over time I will forget, not that he is gone, not that I loved him with all my heart and soul, but that this particular day was the day he flew away.  Last night, as each month prior, I woke at the time of his death as surely as if I had set an alarm clock.  Dates have never bound me as they seem to do some other people so perhaps it will pass.  I find myself riding off the front or falling behind, seeking where ever I can find privacy, great sobs racking my body, closing my throat, naked and despairing in a way I have not cried for quite some time now.

At the first store stop, I get to meet some of the other Big Dogs:  Larry Ides, Connie Mann,  and Joe Mann.  I try to smile and be friendly, but this is just one of those days where I feel like I am empty inside, a hollow shell going through the motions of living without really being alive.  I later apologize and they say they understand, and I hope they do.  They seem to be kind people.  From his posts that I have seen on Facebook, Larry seems to have a wicked sense of humor and it shows in his eyes, and it does not seem to be the cynical, cruel humor but the good kind.  It has always been difficult for me to meet new people, and today more so than normal.  At the mention of the Appalachian Adventure piece, I almost break down in front of everyone.  How I wish Lloyd had gotten to read it before he passed.  Overly proud of myself, I had wanted to save it until he could see it in print, but by then it was too late.  Yes, pride often does go before a fall. Despite my doubts, however, I do know that he knew how very much I loved him and that he was always proud of me and my meager accomlishments.

 I miss the clerk  that is normally there at this store, the one who for some reason has insisted upon telling me her life history, a rather sad life history.  Once when I questioned why people often seem to do this to me, to lay themselves bare when I don't really know them, my husband  said that people do this to me because, "They sense that you are essentially a kind person."  And all day I try to hold this and the other nice things he has said about me and to me as I struggle within and beat myself up over whether I could have prevented his death, whether a different diet or different medications could have prevented his stroke, whether I should have noticed something was wrong more quickly, whether I should have insisted on feeding tubes and the things he always told me he didn't want.  Thank goodness we had the good sense to talk about these issues prior to his passing.  Because I don't feel kind.  And I don't feel good.  And I don't feel brave. And I don't feel strong. The Sophie Hawkins song floats through my brain over and over in rhythm with my bicycle. I am determined to remember the good things he said to me, the loving the things, the strengths that he saw or said that he saw.  I am determined to move forward.

Normally in Texas, we ride, eat, and sleep, but because there are friends there, after the ride we clean up and then we gather at the house Lise, Amelia, and Mike rented to be treated to drinks and snacks.  There is some laughter and the telling of some stories before our departure to prepare for the 200K brevet.  I try to be there in the present, but I keep slipping backwards and inwards despite the lively conversation.

On Monday, yet again I am the only female at the brevet.  I am standing with the others when someone I don't know comes up and says he wants to ride with me because he wants to ride slowly.  "Excuse me," I think but don't say, "I don't know you."  Perhaps he does not mean it the way I take it as I don't like being out of shape and overweight, but I find it rather offensive that he considers me slow without knowing me and suddenly I am quite angry.  Normally I find speed on a bicycle to be vastly overrated.  I remember rides where I rode quite quickly, and I enjoyed many of them, but many of my favorites rides were the slow, chatty rides with close friends where we meandered and shared memories and stories and laughter. Now I may be slow, but unless he is faster than the friends I ride with, I'll drop him today.  And I do.  I start the ride with Mark, but when he turns back as he is not feeling well, I ride hard thinking I will be riding by myself and I would like to be in before darkness drapes the land.  Instead I catch the man who insulted me, pass him and his companion, and catch my friends at the first control and complete the ride with them.  I do not see the name caller again.  And perhaps I am over-reacting.  Probably I am overreacting.  I am not quite myself yet, or maybe stress makes the true ourselves show and I am just not a very nice person.  But it just seemed like walking up to a stranger and telling them they are ugly or fat or stupid.  Had he phrased it differently asking what pace I intended to keep, it would have been better because I really had no compulsion to hurry.  And brevets are supposed to be about companionship, not speed.

After leaving Mark but before catching Steve and Dave, I come about as close to being hit by a car as I have ever come before.  There are no cars in either direction, but a car pulls out from the opposite side of the ride going in my direction and the driver obviously does not see me.  I literally scream in fright as she passes within inches,swerving when she notices me, then waving over and over in apology.  A month or so before my husband had his stroke, he  told me that  he did not know if it was possible, but that if it was he would continue to look after me when he died.  Perhaps it is his angel hands and angel wings that swerve the car at the last second.  If nothing else, my brush with my own mortality helped me come to a big realization:  despite his loss, I am not ready to die. Yet again I commit myself to moving forward.  Yes again I have trouble visualizing what that looks like for me.

It is just so very difficult to imagine my life in the future because so much centered around our relationship.  Everything has been an adjustment, meals, cooking, household chores.  I don't want to be alone the rest of my life.  Indeed my husband told me I was too  young to be alone if he should die, but the thought of intimacy with another leaves me rather nauseous. I might not have been the best wife, but I was always a faithful wife.

I am disappointed at the first control that the taco stand bordering the river is closed again.  It is my favorite part of  this brevet and has been one of my favorite things in Texas.  We have ridden there numerous times just to get tacos.  But last year they started closing during the winter and this year is no different.  Stone Henge and Easter Island also have moved since the first time I bicycled these roads.  Briefly I am with Dave on that long ago 300K, remembering my amazement when I look to my left and see the Stone Henge replica.  We saw our first wild boar, dead, at the side of the road that year.  And I remember the glorious descent to Vanderpohl and the long climb back, the peculiar beauty of a church in that stretch, and the hum of our wheels on the long climb to Mountain Home. As we pass Mountain Home, I remember another ride where Dick Rauh, hot and exhausted, sat only to get up quickly after finding he was sitting on top of a fire ant hill. 

We finish the brevet at a reasonable hour and I think I will finally sleep, but at 5:00 a.m. I am still awake finally drifting off only to have the hotel fire alarm go off at approximately 6:00 a.m. So much for taking a day off.  Someone had burned toast in the toaster.  The young man minding the motel is obviously disconcerted, but  I point out to him, some of us are just glad it was a false alarm and our bicycles are not going to be burned to a crisp.  Momentarily I wonder about the melting point of titanium.   I decide to ride and just turn around if I am tired.  And we ride the shorter route to Lukenbach. This is particularly nice as we finish in time to eat at Cranky Frank's, one of my favorites.

 Prior to arriving at Lukenbach, however, Steve and Mark forge ahead leaving Bill and I to follow.  We stop to take photos and Bill moves ahead.  As I prepare to ride and catch him, I notice my leg.  To this day I have no idea how I did it, but I have managed to get cow dung up the inside of my lower leg all the way up to my knee.  It strikes me as funny as it is so me, and I laugh so hard my bike shakes.  Laughing hysterically, I ride hard and catch Bill telling him to look at my leg.  Initially, for some unknown reason, (maybe because I always have grease on me) he thinks it is grease.  When he finds it is cow dung, he christens me with a new Mad Dog nick name, "Shitty" dog.  I wash it off with a water bottle and a cotton glove and ride on to Lukenbach where Bill is able to show a photo to the guys.

 The next day Bill and I decide to ride over to Waring for one of their famous hamburgers.  Normally, we head over to Bandera and do either the Death Ride or the Brush With Death, both favorites, but Steve and Dave are doing the 300K, rain was predicted, and this just seemed easier.  I am fairly certain I will not go to PBP this year, and I have little desire to go anywhere, particularly until the medical bill mess I am in the midst of is settled.

Both of us like the route to Waring, the climb up to Old Number 9 from both directions, and our lunch companion, a white turkey who would not share our food, only seeming to want our company. I don't know that I have ever been quite so close to a turkey before, and inside the store we laugh when he gobbles loudly scaring another rider and making him jump.  He later does the same to me and it is still funny. I do feel a bit of sympathy for Bill as I talk his ear off.  I realize that without Lloyd to share things with, I am lonely at times. Just another thing I miss, the way he would listen to me.  Not that I didn't sometimes get the "yes, dear," treatment, but often he was actually interested in what I was thinking, feeling, or saying.

And then, all too soon and ,ironically, not soon enough it is Thursday.  Steve asks if I am okay with leaving on Friday instead of Saturday since the prediction is for a heavy rain, and it sounds okay with me.  The "special weather statement" concerns me. I am glad I came, but for some reason I have not slept and I have had periods of intense homesickness.  I ask if we can ride Kendalia rather than the scheduled ride.  I like the Kendalia route, and what other route passes dinosaur footprints.  Bill does not ride with us today, and he does not believe in the tracks, but I have seen them with my own eyes.  Mark, Dave, Steve, and I head out, but Mark and Dave turn around at Sisterdale after a drink and snack.  While the store is not officially "open," the woman is working and allows us in to get something.

On the route, we run into everyone that has come from Kentucky despite not planning it and it not being the "route of the day."  We end the ride with Amelia, Lise, and Mike.  Steve has ridden strongly all day despite his 300K the previous day.  I mention that it has been the best weather we have had for Hell Week in a number of years, and it was.

And then it is home again, home again, jiggity jig.   A long drive with my husband no longer telling me he is holding down the couch waiting for me when I ask what he is up to.  But then life is about change.  And it is good to be home and in my own little bed.  And I sleep knowing that one day, I'll wake up happy.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Kentucky 200K Brevet 2015

"We experience a discomfort that may be foreign
to others, but that pain opens up a world of beauty."
Craig Thompson

It is frigidly cold and has been, temperatures ranging 20 degrees below normal for this time of year per the news weather people.  Indeed, one day last week, the temperature was 15 degrees BELOW zero when I left for work.  And while tomorrow is not predicted to be that cold, it is supposed to be in the teens at the start.  Where is spring and what foreign world have I been transported into where gray and snow seem to be eternal and without surcease?
I debate whether to face the cold and ride or to grab a bottle of wine, stay home, cry and feel sorry for myself, and burrow more deeply into my grief.  Sometimes the only way out is to go further down first.  A feeling must be fully felt and experienced in order to be freed.  Burial is a stopgap leaving worms festering that will break free or warp. And it will be my wedding anniversary the day of the 200K.  Lastly, I am leaning toward not going to PBP as it seems a shame to spend that much money on something that I might not yet be able to enjoy.  In other words, I have no real, compelling reason to ride and face the cold.
A melancholy grin crosses my face as I remember how my husband tried to trick me into marrying him on February 29th  the year we wed. The night before we married, he stayed up all night after getting home from work installing new carpet as my mother was going to see our home for the first time.  I decide to wait and see how I feel in the morning before making up my mind.  As my grief therapist has pointed out, I can always start the ride and turn around at any time. She reminds me that nobody can tell me how long or how to grieve or what the right way to grieve is because no shoe fits every foot and there is no right way.  I just know that I am exhausted most of the time and that every day seems to be an effort, and I don't expect tomorrow to be any different.  She assures me that there will once again come a day when I will spring out of bed with anticipation, to give myself time.

I decide not to clean my bike as with the melting snow and ice it will only get dirty again, but I grease the chain and put on one of the tail lights I got for Christmas.  I decide not to use the hub generator as I hope to finish well before dark, but I add a couple of smaller headlamps just in case.  One never knows, and I am certainly out of shape and have put on a lot of weight since December.  I check to make sure I have my reflective gear and pack all sorts of winter gear in case I change my mind about what to wear when I get there. Once in bed, I remember that I have not packed Vaseline to grease my face for protection from the cold.  I know that I will be sorry if I forget it, but I just can't wrest myself out of the warm cocoon to go find and pack it. 

As it turns out, I awaken early and can't fall back asleep, so I decide to head out.  I remember to find and place the Vaseline in my bag. It is in the teens at the start, and while I decide to dispense with my wool long johns, I have layers on top to where I feel like a finger push might topple me over. Twenty riders are registered for the ride, nineteen of them men.  Of the twenty, four do not show.  Of the sixteen left, three DNF.  So, out of twenty people, only seven have the good sense not to spend the entire day out in the frigid cold riding a bicycle because of God only knows what psychological aberration or need.

Because of the cold, there is little of the normal pre-ride parking lot conversation whispering through the air.  A few hellos are exchanged, but not much other than that.  But there are head lights and tail lights and the clicks of derailleurs during those last minute checks.  And all too soon, or perhaps with the cold, not soon enough, we are off.  My hands tingle and I hope I don't spend the whole day in discomfort, but there you are.  When you put on weight and don't ride your bike and you add that it is COLD, can you expect not to be uncomfortable?  But soon the rhythm and the gentle exercise warms me.

During the first of the ride, or actually throughout the ride, I must admit that I keep asking myself why I am out here.  I wish I could tell you that I enjoyed this ride, that I didn't cry at times throughout the ride, that  memories did not rise up and threaten to overwhelm me when I rode alone or even when I rode with others.  I wish I could tell you that I did not consider turning around at or before the first control and particularly right after the first control following the descent on Devil's Hollow where the wind took advantage of every nook and cranny gaining entrances in unexpected places and chilling me to the very bone.  I can't.  But I can tell you that despite the hellishness of the descent, it was strikingly beautiful with icicles lining the sides of the descent and snow intensifying the stark outlines of the branches of the trees on the hillside.  And I can tell you that I finished with Tony, Tim, and Scott dragging me along the last of the ride, particularly on the hills when each additional pound means additional seconds and additional effort.  And I can tell you that parts of the route and the snow covered terrain were beautiful, breathtakingly so. Pain does, indeed, open a world of beauty at times.

And the weather, while cold, is a gift in this accomplishment as well.  There is wind, but not a strong wind.  There is not a great deal of temperature variation so there is  no need for additional stops to add and subtract layers.   This is not an "epic" ride as so many of the Kentucky brevets have been:  no rain, sleet, hail, and strong wind.  It is merely cold, and you can dress for cold if you spend the money and have the right gear. 

 But despite the fact that this was not an "epic" ride, it was a painful ride due to my poor conditioning. And I will remember this ride. I will remember this brevet because for me I think it was a good choice, one of many and one of few in a long line of the choices that determine the course that our lives take.  And I will remember the kindness of those that could have ridden off and gotten out of the cold earlier, who I urged to ride on more than once but didn't, but rather stayed and kept me company, even engendering a few smiles that were made with more than my lips.  I will remember the warmth of a hug by a friend at the end of the ride, a comfort that I really miss.  Thanks to everyone who made this  happen and helped me through this most difficult of days.  

Now as to the 300K, it is looking doubtful, but who knows.  Like childbirth, the pain of a brevet tends to diminish in the mind with the passage of time until only the accomplishment of completion remains. 

"No one is useless in this world who lightens
the burdens of another."  Charles Dickens

Monday, February 16, 2015

February 15, 2015

Today the ice on the back roads chooses my route for me.  It is cold outside, numbingly cold, the kind of cold that takes your breath away, and there is a chill advisory; but snow is predicted for tomorrow and I want to get at least a few miles in.  I have ridden a century in even colder weather so I know that while it may not be as pleasant as a spring century, it can be done.  And normally I find I am enjoying myself so long as I am dressed appropriately.

 Before heading out I slather my face in Vaseline and dress in layer upon layer of wool praying that I have no mechanical issue along the way.  At least on a main road, there is more of a chance of rescue if something does go wrong, though my original intention is to ride the back roads.  One reality of my new life is the lack of a prince to rescue me when I do something stupid. Only a short trip on those back roads is enough to convince me to turn around and head toward a main road.  Something within me needs to go free before being confined by wintery weather, and if that means main roads, so be it.   I also know I have no business riding on ice and I do not want to fall. Healing that took month after month has taught me the luxury that is sleeping on your side without your shoulder hurting and constantly awakening you.  Yes, if I ride I know I will fall again, but I do all I can to prevent it. I had  hoped we might miss the snow this year, but God thought otherwise.

I head out into a world where the sun is shining and the sky is brilliantly blue, but otherwise there is no color that is not man made and rather tawdry, at least other than cardinals and woodpeckers, and there is certainly no warmth.  At least the wind is manageable, though as light as it is my pace often becomes only a determined crawl.  The longer I ride, the less blue there is above as the sky pulls her fluffy white blankets up around her neck preparing for the coming of the snow. 

Around me the air is silent, as if the world is momentarily paused, holding her breath to see if the snow and frigid temperature prediction is true.  Not one bird song or frog croak crack the frigid silence.  The sound of my bicycle seems to be the only sound in the world today. Will this silence ever be broken by singing again?  I think of how my husband, despite my poor singing ability, always said he enjoyed having a wife who sang.  I sing doing housework, rocking babies to sleep, etc. until once my children said it was like being raised in a musical.  Oddly enough, I come upon a huge frog, frozen thus changing my thoughts. It is lying in the road, one leg literally jaggedly cracked off.  How did he get there?  Did some predator dig him up from his winter sleep?  If so, why was he not devoured? We have not yet had warm enough weather for frogs to stir.  I tell him I am sorry and ride on briefly pondering his fate.

I only ride 38 miles, but I feel better when I return.  Supper is a non-issue as yesterday I made bread and chili and with just one of me, there is more than enough for dinner tonight.  Thank you, God, for my daily bread.  Chores were done after my run yesterday morning.  But there are books waiting, books that can take me places I have never been or bring me back to visit places that I long for; and there are blankets and pillows and cats to snuggle with while I go without ever leaving my home.  And while this pretend world is not in the end as satisfying as the real one can be at times, it is pleasurable.  And it is warm.  And for right now, it is what I have.  Yet again, I thank my husband for his part in providing me with this shelter and for allowing me to dream.  "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."   Neil Gaiman

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Warm February Century

 "When you love someone, it's never over," Dr.
Carruthers replied gently.  "You move on because
you have to, but you bring him in your heart."
Elizabeth Chandler

While I would not change the predicted weather for today even if I had the power, this faint breath of spring in the midst of winter is almost cruel, another reminder of what we have not. Goodness how I long for warmth and sunshine.  It is Saturday so I do not have to work and I have no pressing obligations,  the sun is supposed to shine, a treat in the midst of an all too gray and dreary winter,  the weather is to warm to near sixty degrees.  The wind prediction is the only fly in the ointment, but I have ridden through stronger winds before. Briefly I think of the t-shirt that I had made for Mike and for myself: "I biked Ike.  Got wind?"  Briefly I wonder if that person is still there but I know she is and  the only real question is where to roam.  

Initially I contemplate new, unfamiliar roads, but my current weakness combined with shortened day light hours gives me pause and I decide to head toward Hardinsburg/Lavonia.  It is odd, this not being accountable to anyone for my time. Soon I settle into the old, familiar rhythm of pedaling and for just a moment in time I can delude myself into believing that nothing, including me, has changed.

Despite the stark, monotone scenery, there is a beauty in the very austerity that meets my eyes.  Wheat fields gleaned in the fall maintain their clean shaven sharpness without even the merest spark of green.  Branches on trees are not yet blurred with the promise of leafing out.  In forested areas, the brown oak leaves are only now littering the ground and give away the presence of the squirrels and deer I encounter. The only color seems to be that of the blue sky.  And the only sign that spring might yet become a reality is the occasional sound of a bird bravely telling the bully winter that her reign will end and raucous calling for a mate will commence.

I spend time of course mourning, for I have not yet made it through a day without spending at least a minute or two in tears, but I also spend time thinking how best to move forward and wondering when life will once again have spice to it.  I do not fool myself that things will ever be the same, but I am old enough to know I will laugh again and that different does not always mean bad. I am old enough to know that I will possibly even love again, however differently.  I count my blessings, and there are many. And I forgive myself for my recent sloth and tiredness.  Grieving is exhausting.  How do you get over something that does not end?  I suspect that you don't, but that you find a way to move forward so that only those closest to you see the life scars.   And I suspect that those scars may give certain experiences even more sweetness than they might otherwise have had as we become who we will end up being. 

I think about brevets.  Originally I had intended to ride PBP again this summer, and perhaps it will yet again assert its siren song, but I also contemplate not riding any brevets or riding the 1000K in Nova Scotia.  For some reason, Nova Scotia caught my eye and sparked at least a flicker of interest.  It felt nice to actually be interested in something and not have it be a pretense.  I even look up the air fare to see if it is financially feasible, for that aspect of my life has changed as well.  I decide that I will just see how the 200K goes and not press myself for a decision when one does not yet have to be made.

I pass the first of the lambs that I have seen this spring, calmly resting, contentedly munching hay as there is not yet fresh grass to pasture on.  I pass abandoned, falling down houses that once might have been glorious, vividly alive with the personalities of the people who inhabited them.  What were those people like? What did the rooms look like?  The garden?  Were there little ones?  Who looked out those windows or loved the light enough to have so many each next to each other despite the sacrifice of warmth in the winter.  And at what point did they just quit renewing the house by making repairs and remodeling and allow it to become just a falling down house instead of a home:  illness, poverty, laziness, the siren song of something new?

I come to the third store stop, but somehow I cannot face Amos yet so I ride onwards and home.  While my friends don't understand it, I still need lots of alone time. The last stretch is on Delaney Park and Eden Roads, some of my favorites with little to no traffic.  And my February century is completed on the kind of day rarely granted by the cycling gods in February.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A New Beginning

Every broken heart has at one time asked, 
"What is important to me now?"
Shannon Alder

When you are married for such a long time, it is as if you each become a part of the other, personalities and incidents weaving together to form an intricate tapestry that is your life. I do so miss those glances where you did not have to speak to know what the other was thinking or feeling, the shared humor, the warmth of hugs and smiles. So with him gone it is as if half of me is missing and I need to redefine myself.  Some things were important only because of him.  Other things that did not seem important when he was here are now of major importance.  And so I blunder on through this rebirth wondering what to retain and cling to and what to shed and leave behind me.  

And where will bicycling fall into all this change?  Is it time to find new avenues of exploration and activity or should I cling to my cycling more fiercely than before hoping to find happiness and absolution there, to find a way to make peace with the cards that have been dealt to me and that I cannot alter?  

Before he died, my husband had gotten my Christmas presents.  My son and his wife wrapped them and I opened them on Christmas morning:  tail lights for my bike and a new Garmin 605, the model he knew I liked so much more than the new Edge Touring.  Where did he find  this discontinued treasure?  And as I open the gifts,  his arm briefly, one last time, settles gently and lovingly around my shoulders pointing the way.  For he knew he was dying.  A few days before he passed he told someone that he was dying, and he told me that he was going to try to make it through Christmas but did not know if he could.  I know he worried about me and how I would go on.  So I know these gifts had a special meaning to  him and were not something randomly picked off my "I'd Like to Have This" list.

I am on my own when I ride in a way that I have never been before, and I am totally dependent upon the kindness of strangers if my bike should break or if I should have a bad fall and be unable to ride home.  For a moment, I hesitate, but only for a moment. 

And so despite the 17 degree feel like temperature that the weather woman talks about, I dress, grit my teeth, set my jaw, and head out the door.  I have to meet my daughter this afternoon so it is not a long ride, but I get in fifty miles.  The weight I have gained during the past couple of months makes each hill I encounter hurt like the dickens and feel like a mountain, but I push through knowing that it will only make me stronger and that I will need all the strength that I can muster in the upcoming year for  birthing is a difficult process.  I remember giving birth and the pain that sawed through every fiber of my being as my body strained and heaved to bring new life into the world, but I do not remember the pains of being born.  So while this is not new to me, it is.  And cycling will, I believe, be a part of it.  It is comforting to know that he knew this and approved and gave me a new Garmin so that I will not lose my way. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Appalachian 1000 K

This unedited article is dedicated to my beloved husband who passed away December 15, 2014.  How I wish he had been able to read it. Without his all encompassing love, compassion, wisdom, and support, I would never have had the strength to challenge myself and I would have missed so very much.  He was  present at my first triathlon, painfully hobbling to the start and waiting at the finish, assuring me I had enough grit in my craw to finish, and he bought me my first grown up bike when he worried I was running too much.  He told me I could have a better bicycle when I was a better rider, and then he kept that promise. I always knew he was waiting, if not at the end of a challenge at home.  Most importantly, I always knew that he loved me:  fat, thin, winner, loser......there was nothing that I could be that he would not accept.

While we both knew this day was coming, I selfishly was hoping that it would not come so very soon.   I say selfishly because he was always in so much pain.  His last words to me were teasing me about us both having gotten the other's Christmas presents and how about going on and opening them as he knew what a stickler I was for traditions at Christmas.  How I now wish we had. 

It was shortly thereafter that a blood clot caused a massive stroke that stole his ability to talk and move.  After a brief hospital stint, I brought him home to pass over as he would have wanted me to do. It is odd how you know what somebody wants without asking after being together over 34 years.  It is odd how difficult it is to not be selfish and hold on despite being told he would never walk or talk again.

There have been times when I have been tempted to stop riding my bicycle, and he would encourage me telling me it was important.  And somehow I know it will play a role in my recovery, in allowing me to move forward despite being more alone and frightened and lost than I have ever imagined being in even my wildest of dreams.  In the end, perhaps his gift of my first bicycle was about this, for he always knew me better than I  know myself and loved me regardless.

He was very brave and my hero.  I am incredibly sad and lost, but I know he would be calling me a "candy ass" and urging me onwards. My world without him has become a "terrible stranger." But I know that he is still waiting for me and doing his best to watch over me because I have never been very smart.  I just don't know how far it is until the end of this challenge.  No split times on this course. And I pray I have enough grit in my craw to last until the end. I have been been a blessed woman to have known a love like that, a love that was always there.  May each of you be so blessed as to know someone who loves you regardless of your flaws, hang ups, bad choices.  May each of you love and be loved. And may you have the strength and wisdom to let that  special person know despite the fact that doing so makes you so very vulnerable.

"I like the mountains because they make me 
feel small," Jeff says.  "They help me sort 
out what's important in life."
Mark Obmascik

It is time to depart, to leave this place, this person, and these pets that are so very dear to me.  And for a fraction of my second, as my eyes drink in their familiar visages and my lips welcome my husband's farewell kiss, soft, lingering and unbearably sweet, his embrace, warm and synonymous with home and safety, I think of just staying here and not riding.  With all of his health issues and his failure to be honest about how he is feeling when he knows I am going somewhere, I worry if he will be okay when I get back. One year when I went to Hell Week, he was admitted to the hospital later in the day.  With his typical generosity, he did not want me to miss something I wanted to do because of his health.  And while I have been an absolute harridan since that time, threatening  him if he ever does such a thing again, I know that he would and no amount of spousal threatening would stop him from repeating his action if he feels it would impact my embarking on a new adventure.  I think perhaps long term illness and pain causes him to appreciate how important it is to live while you can still enjoy it.  Or perhaps he knows that despite good intentions, I could not thrive shut away in a house only leaving to work or go to the grocery. 

Experience has taught me  that I can not live always worrying about what I know will eventually happen to each of us. Also my son, Jeff,  and his wife, Lena, are awaiting my arrival in Annapolis, and while there is a part of me that would like to stay home a greater part of me wants to see them and also knows that I would forever wonder what would have happened if I had ridden. A part of me is eagerly anticipating the adventure and knows that I need it despite being scared to death of it.  Life is not and should not be a lesson in stagnation however comfortable and appealing that may seem at times.  I have never been to Virginia or West Virginia before and I won't get there any younger.  And what better way to see it than by bicycle on a route designed by Crista Borras.

With this thought in mind I head out the door. As Oscar Wilde once said, "To live is the rarest thing in the world.  Most people exist, that is all."  I don't want to just exist:  I want to grow, and learn, and experience.  I want to be brave despite being such a coward at heart. I don't want to die wishing I  had done things that I did not do.  I want to ride my bike.

The land switches from flat to hilly to mountainous during the trip, farmlands yielding to towering aeries.  Briefly I think that is why the best riding requires climbing:  the land is just too wild to be completed tamed and subdued.  Entering Maryland, I see signs indicating that there are bear here.  For some reason, this surprises me.  We have deer and an abundance of wildlife in Kentuckiana, but so far as I know we have no bear in our area.  I wonder if they are aggressive.  Will the thought of a bear keep me from feeling comfortable pulling over for a short shut eye if I feel too sleep to ride safely? In my mind, I go over all I have heard about how to act during a bear attack, but I only remember not to run, good advice when dealing with any predator that is not human, but oh so difficult to remember if one is frightened because it means fighting a basic instinct.

I visit with Jeff and Lena for a few days and organize what I have brought into drop bags, hotel bags, and stay-at-Jeff bags.  I can't decide whether or not to use my carradice or to just stick with a large rear bag and my handlebar bag.  Nick Bull suggests I bring both packing my carradice in my drop bag so that I can add it if I feel it is necessary after the first day.  I heed his sage advice and feel better having it available in case I need it though I end up not using it. Finally organized,  I head for Leesburg. This means driving on the "Beltway," another new experience and quite stressful to someone who is not used to much traffic and is such a poor driver.  Everything is so busy and crowded here.  I wonder how people think with all the noise and bustle.  It is not necessarily bad, just different than what I am used to and rather unsettling.  Still, I am glad that I am just visiting.

I arrive at the host hotel, check in, have my bike inspected, eat, and go to bed. During this time, I meet several of the riders, but I know I will not remember their names.  Not good with matching names to faces in the first place, the stress of the past few days combined with an aging mind has made it more unlikely. Everyone is friendly and welcoming but I still feel rather out of place.  I have trained as best I can, but do I truly belong with these skinny, athletic looking people?  They all look so fit, and then there is me who carries a bit of a belly around with me.  I do love food and were it not for my bicycling I fear I would weigh 300 pounds.

Briefly I wonder if anyone else is nervous and has doubts or if it is just me. So many things can happen on a brevet:  I doubt anyone is completely confident that they will finish. I don't expect to sleep well as normally I toss and turn and sleep only sporadically the night before a challenging ride, but I find myself drifting to sleep easily despite the fact it is only 7:30 p.m. This bodes well for day one.

 The prediction for the first day of the ride is for oppressive heat, something that I have not had enough of this summer to acclimate to for in Indiana we have had an unseasonably cool summer. I respect heat.  I fear heat. During my years of riding, I have seen what heat can do to people and have suffered under his brutal hand myself.  He is merciless and has no heart, squeezing people dry and leaving them with nothing, laughing cruelly all the while, crushing any illusion they have of strength or endurance. I also continue to worry about the course.  With the heat and the hills will it still be a delight or will it turn into a death march? I know three men who are very strong riders who have ridden 1000K rides in Virginia, and all three have warned me about the demands of the Virginia terrain:  Greg Zaborac, Tim Argo, and Bob Bruce.  Each is much stronger than I am, and I begin yet again to question what in the world I am doing here. I have until 7:00 a.m. Monday morning to finish the course I assure myself.  I need not be so very strong to finish in the that amount of time. It is only 623  miles.  Surely with a bit of luck and a lot of determination it is possible.  In the past I have ridden farther, and I have trained assiduously for this ride. But I also realize that I must ride smartly, something more easily said than done.  I decide from the beginning that since it is going to be so hot, I will not press the hills as I often do but gently spin up them, changing gears whenever I find my leg muscles being pressured.

Despite sleeping well, it seems all too early when the alarm goes off, an alarm that I set but almost neglected to wind.  Freudian slip?  I dress quickly and head down to grab something to eat as the hotel check in person had assured me they were serving breakfast at 3:00 a.m. as there were so many riders that would be leaving from the hotel.  Despite it being 3:00, there is nothing there yet other than coffee, yogurt, and cereal, so I head back to my room and down the milk, juice, and bagel that I brought from Jeff's.  I also pack the ham sandwiches with butter on yeast rolls that I made at my son's house to carry on my journey, a trick learned from Steve Rice.

Heading downstairs with my loaded bike, a bike that seems to weigh 100 pounds despite my best efforts to take only what I need,  the lobby/breakfast room that was empty at 3:00 is bursting with activity and sound.   Nervous chatter and laughter fills the void, cleats click against tile floors, derailleurs sing their clicking tune as everyone completes their last minute preparations and hopes that they are one of the lucky ones who finish.  Someone, I believe his name is Mike, is clicking photo after photo as we ready ourselves and for a moment as the flash on the camera triggers relentless, I think that this must be what it feels like to be important and have the paparazzi on one's trail.

Momentarily I desperately long for the comfort of familiar friends who ride the brevets near where I live:  Steve, Dave, Bill, Mark.  There is something about having someone you know on the course even if they are not riding with you, even if you are having one of those times when you need or want to ride alone undisturbed by the demands of companionship.  It is like a life jacket, a source of comfort and safety. I slap myself internally and remind myself to be brave and not such a gutless coward:  it is time to cut the cord that binds me, restricts me.  It is time to assert my independence. For just a moment, I am extremely jealous of the women here who have spouses to ride with and to share their journey with, to help them through those "dark times" that a brevet inevitably holds.  How I wish my husband could ride and not be tied down to an oxygen machine. But in the end, I need to be thankful for what I have:  a supportive husband and friends who encourage me to be here despite the fact many of them think I am off my rocker.  "We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures."  (Thorton Wilder). And I have been blessed with a husband, children, friends, health, employment.

Outside in the darkness, I put the batteries in the GPS charger, a charger made and loaned to me by Steve Rice, the Kentucky RBA.  I download the course to the first control.   Per his suggestion,  I programmed the route from control to control.  It gives me comfort to know that if I mess up one section, I can start afresh at each control.  It also helps me understand some of the nuisances of the course, particularly in those areas where you ride out to a control and turn around.   I have also brought my own GPS to have as a back up.  Yes, people navigate course with no GPS at all, but I do have the most horrible sense of direction and I am not at all familiar with this area.

It is not yet hot outside, but it is clammy.  Just standing there I can tell that the humidity is high and that  it will be one of those days where sweat does not cool you but just stands on your skin until it drips to the ground taking your  life juices and salts with it.  Anticipation can be felt as Nick Bull gives his speech about the course, about calling if you DNF, about safety.  I momentarily panic as I realize I forgot to have anyone sign my brevet card this morning, but I realize that Nick won't be taking off on a bicycle as he rode the prior week.  When Nick asks if anyone thinks they will finish before 55 hours, one man says he hopes to.  Looking at the results, it appears that it was Barry Dickson and that he was successful finishing in 46 hours and 49 minutes.  Unbelievable.  It makes me feel like such a weak, whiny baby.  I know brevets are not races, but what must it feel like to ride so swiftly and conquer the hills so effortlessly?  Would it be a good thing or would you be so caught up in your speed that you miss your surroundings?  Despite the fact that I am not very fast, there are times that I wish I had ridden more slowly and absorbed more of what surrounded me.  Some of my favorite rides have been solo rambles where I creep along stopping to photograph or appreciate the grandeur  of the  scenery.  But there are also those times that I wish I were as swift as the wind and could be home long before it is a reality. In the end I suppose there is no "one size fits all" type of ride, even for the same person.

While waiting, I chat for a moment with a man named Nigel and I wonder if we will ride together at all.   He seems a comfortable sort of person and he even is familiar with my blog.  And then we are off, a blur of white and red lights and reflective gear.  Shortly after we start, I realize I can still hear the night sounds here:  frogs and insects valiantly chanting their farewell to summer.  I will miss this sound, the sound of summer and of life as it yields to the stony, barren silence of winter rides.  And I think how I always celebrate in the spring when the frogs and insects first wake up, hungry for warm summer nights and mating, filling the air and my ears with their joy, a song of hope promising warm weather and rebirth and of long, leisurely rides where you don't have to worry about your fingers or your toes getting cold. 

 I think how differently this group is riding compared to the Kentucky brevets where the front group heads out as if it were a race and there were not so many miles to follow.  The pace is subdued, even slower than I would normally ride.  The route seems to descend forever to Harper's Ferry and I begin to worry about the return trip.  My friend, Paul Battle, warned me that there would be a climb if I was visiting Harper's Ferry.  What a climb it will be at the end of a long journey when I am already worn out, but at the first control someone mentions that this is not an out and back course, something I  knew but had forgotten.  One trick I use on out and back brevets is to tell myself that ever hill I climb I will be able to go down on the return journey.  I am disappointed that it is dark and I can't see this famous place where John Brown once bravely walked, where the states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia all converge.  Tendrils of mist swirl through the lower areas and through the headlights it is as if I can see the dance of small droplets that are the core of its being: silver and beautiful, like a lace shawl, its beauty hiding its potential danger as I am less likely to be seen by any approaching automobile, yet still enchanting and fairy-like. 

After the first control, the larger group begins to break into smaller groups.  Dawn begins to muscle his way into the world, silently but relentlessly, until the last bits of darkness yield. His mane glows and waves with billowing tresses in shades of pink, purple, and gray.  Traces of fog remain hidden in hollows and valleys as we ride along, a resistance movement against the steadily encroaching sun, so I leave my lights on. I am hungry and eat one of my sandwiches.  Butter squeezes out the sides and I rub my greasy fingers on my leg when suddenly the thought arises that a bear may possible like buttered human flesh for dinner. The damage is already done, however. I suppose that any passing bear will prefer me to others due to my sweet butter smell;-)

I wish I could tell you from day to day and hour to hour what happened, but as always on a brevet, the longer I ride the more confused my mind becomes until everything seems to blur together in a rhythm that involves riding, eating, and sleeping:  repeat.  The first day I do remember being surprised at the ease of the course other than the heat.  I remember fields yielding to more mountainous terrain, the verdant green that speaks of fertility and enough rain.  I remember the beauty of the architecture and of the surrounding fields, the camaraderie at lunch where everyone entering the restaurant was welcomed by other riders. I remember the Teresa's friendliness at a control. Mostly, however, I remember the intense heat, heat that will repeat itself the next day. I remember the relief that a brief, late afternoon shower brought, how the rain seemed so cold after the intense heat.  I remember that Norman and I sheltered for awhile in someone's barn when lightening was flashing and he did not laugh at me because I did not have a smart phone or know how to use his before we parted ways.  I remember the rainbow arching lithely over the earth following the rain, off to my left, colorful and oh, so very beautiful. And I remember coming into the overnight control alone and tired and being overwhelmed by the kindness and caring shown by the volunteers.

I hope I never forget how it felt when Crista introduced herself and said that a friend, Greg Smith, had asked her to check and make sure I was okay, as if a soft, fluffy blanket had been wrapped around me.  Mistakenly, I assumed they somehow knew each other.  I hope I never forget the melodious,  mellow sound of Carol's voice and laughter floating through the room, and her tenderness dealing with a rider who came in sick from the heat, unable to eat and nauseous.  Of how she carried his drop bag for him and helped him to his room so that he could recover to ride another day.  I hope I never forget the way the smell of food wafted through the air, heady and enticing, fuel for another day. Or how it felt to take off my riding shoes, to feel my feet sigh with relief. Or how showering felt, the inebriating smell of shampoo and soap, warm and sensuous, washing away the days travels and cares.   Or how the bed was welcoming and warm, a respite from a road and from my long journey.  Sometimes I think that this is what I like the best about brevets: it gives me a new appreciation for things I too often take for granted and a renewed faith in human kindness.  These volunteers will be here all night, doing without sleep, caring for riders as they come and go.  And it will be repeated the following evening by other volunteers and the evening after that.  Who could not want to be part of a club that has such people in it?

Sleeping a few hours, I head back out into the dark hoping to make the first significant climb, Warm Springs Mountain, before the heat once again lays claim to the day and yet again begins relentlessly pounding me with his smoldering fist.  I am more tired than I expected and had trouble drinking the coffee as it was strong and my stomach somewhat unsettled.  I climb and climb, and next to me I hear the rushing, chuckling sound of water, laughing as if it knows some secret that I do not.  I wonder how I missed this sound the prior evening coming into the control as I am tracing my way backward on the same road I came in on.  I wish I could see it rather than just hear it, but it still so dark.  Still it sounds lovely and makes the steady climbing easier somehow.  I worry, however, about two hours later, long after the stream has been left behind, when I find I am averaging only about nine to ten miles per hour.  The climbing is not particularly difficult, but it is demanding and it will be a long day if my pace does not pick up.  Still I know it would be quite unwise to push myself with such a long distance left to cover.  Eventually I meet up with Kelly and we ride together to the bottom of the first big climb.  His company helps to put my sleepiness at bay, and I am wide awake by the time I stop at the store to refuel and he heads onward.

I can't describe for you the loveliness of the climb up Warm Springs Mountain, the rhythm of my pedal strokes, the pattern my breathing takes when I climb, as if my body becomes a song.   I can't say I am sorry when I reach the top, but oddly enough I am not particularly glad either for I have enjoyed the climb, that is until I see what awaits me at the summit.  At first I think my eyes are betraying me, and they are, for there appears to be an ocean winding among the mountains, tapping around corners with an errant paw, arching its back, curling around the edges, and settling down, still but not still as it is fluidity and constant motion, a shining, shimmering sea of mist, blue and gray.  And I begin to cry silently, glad the guys aren't here to see the tears streaming down my cheeks, at finding such beauty in the world.  All the scenery has been delightful, but this view alone is enough to make a 623 mile ride seem insignificant.  It would be a worth a lifetime of climbing and striving and riding to see this, to feel the coolness settle tenderly upon my shoulders like a heavenly shawl.   And I feel small:  small and grateful.  I am grateful to Crista for designing this route, to God for creating such magnificence, and to the DC club that organized the event.

Coming in that evening, once again by the Maury River but this time able to see through the insidiously creeping dusk, I feel like a drunk woman, inebriated by the beauty that filled the day, by the ice sock that kept me from overheating when it was one hundred degrees in Covington. Now the river is going to give me more.  Huge, grey rocks lace the sides of the road forming patterns and the river gurgles and sings and laughs at my human foolishness.  But I am oh, so tired and cannot pedal much faster despite the downhill.  Cimmerian night grabs hold gently brushing my forehead with her cool, soft hand before I reach the end of this road and the cruel last climb after a blessed downhill stretch.  It starts to rain and I find that despite the rain, I need to stop whenever I need to drink as I am having trouble getting my water bottle back in its holder and can no longer do so safely without stopping.  God provides when I am having trouble attaching my jacket to my rear bag so it does not rub the wheel.  There on the ground is an elastic cord just waiting to be picked up.

Again, I am glad I am alone here in the arms of the night, able to do what I need to do to keep myself safe, not feeling any pressure to keep up with others and not impede their progress.   Perhaps I should feel afraid here, alone, in a strange place on strange roads, surrounded by shadows and murky darkness, but oddly enough I do not.  There is so much left to see, but I am temporarily sated.  Like a sponge that has been in water, I can't absorb anymore. Alone I can begin to process everything.

And then there is the third day.  When I leave the control I feel a tad dis-spirited for I am weary, my legs are sore and complaining and my butt hurts. Additionally, I have been warned about the climbs between Lexington and Leesburg and how they will beat a rider up.  200 miles seems a very long way to go when one is already tired. Gratefully, I latch onto someone's wheel as they pass hoping that he does not mind.  I think that this, along with the cooler temperatures, is my salvation.  Would I have finished otherwise?  Probably, but who knows.  Certainly I would not have finished as early or with so little effort because in the end, the third day practically flew by.

 Before long we are climbing again and I call a thank you to this unknown man as he pulls ahead on the climb and settle into my rhythm.  One lesson I learned early on about brevets is the necessity of riding your own pace unless there will be payback for the greater effort, like being sheltered from a strong headwind. Out of the dark on the side of the road Norman appears, temporarily startling me, saying his bicycle has broken and help is being called.  I head on when he assures me he is okay.  There is nothing I can do to help him  and I have "miles to go before I sleep."  (Robert Frost)  I repay the man who gave me the pull when I see him miss a turn and shout out to him so he can turn around.

I later end up spending the rest of the day with the man who turns out to be Paul Donaldson.  He reminds me so of my dear friend, Davy "Packman" Ryan, and I grow comfortable with him quickly, something that is normally quite hard for me. (Packman was a very strong brevet rider consistently arriving at the last control earlier than people who are now Charlie Miller riders.  He never owned or drove a car, but he was paralyzed after being hit by a car, one of life's little ironies). I get the feeling that Paul, like Packman, has forgotten more about randoneurring than I have yet learned.  Of course, he started riding brevets in 1992 while I was still rearing children and would have joined the crowd in thinking anyone riding brevets was, well, just a little bit off.  Rather than soaking myself in scenery this day, though I did some of that, I immerse myself in friendship and laughter and the telling of stories.  The miles pass unbelievably quickly as we laugh and joke.

At one point, on a descent, I feel something moist pelt my arm momentarily wondering if it has started to rain.  A large purple splotch is there, and I mean large.  It have been pooped upon by some gigantic bird.  Luckily, I carry wet wipes on rides and it is on my skin and not my clothing.  I complete the descent and clean myself.  Later in the ride, a truck pulls out in front of Paul and I, a truck carrying turkey dung.  It seeps through the cracks in the trucks siding and tail and dusts us with feces from head to foot.  Now if you have never smelled turkey/chicken dung, you have much in life to be thankful for.  One year, my husband got me a load for my garden for some holiday:  birthday, anniversary.  I just don't remember.  What I do remember is not being able to garden that year or spend any time outside of the house because of the pungent aroma wafting through the air.  I tease Paul about being shit upon twice in one day in one ride.  We also laugh about my inability to find any fried chicken along the route, something I have been craving since the ride start for some reason.  I suppose, as Bill Pustow once told me, it helps to coat the stomach with grease at times on long rides.   

Jim and Roger join us a bit out from the end, though Jim later says he is going to drop back. Nobody else appears to have noticed the house I noticed a day or two ago that allegedly was designed by Thomas Jefferson and I think about how each ride is unique to each rider. I keep teasing Paul saying he said he would have me home by midnight, and he does. 

And it is somehow over.  I have not been eaten by a bear or fallen off a mountain top.   All the planning, training, and hard work lead to fruition. Not just in completing the course, however.  I am not quite the same person I was when I embarked on this journey, and I suspect that the others are not either.  I am a bit stronger, and I realize more that my strength has grown only through the giving of others.  Christa, Nick, God, the mountains, and so many others.......more precious the gift in that it was given by strangers.  Thank you all for this feeling of accomplishment. Hopefully one day I can return the favor and pay back. "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."  (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)