As Mohammad Ali once said, "The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance out there in the lights." While I am not the talented champion Muhammad is, I have prepared to win the fracas as best I can and I am ready to dance the hills on my bike, my lights not stage lights but the stars, facing the challenge of the Kentucky 600K, the opponents myself and the course: 375.4 miles with approximately 20,000 feet of climbing. Rather than the normal nervousness that troubles me, I am inexplicably calm. Perhaps having done this route and this distance before in 2007, I have accepted that there will be times that I will feel pain and times that I feel like giving up. Perhaps the previous rides and the exacting weather conditions have distilled in me a confidence that I did not previously know I possessed. For whatever reason, I feel certain that I have the mental fortitude to conquer these moments tomorrow barring something new and unforeseen. I have trained as best I could and I intend to win this fight, a struggle with myself to conquer my own weaknesses, both mental and physical. But if the unforeseen should happen and I should fail, I know that the world will continue to turn and I will go on. Either way I will have learned something about myself. So many times in life I eschewed goals from fear because I might not be successful, but not tomorrow. Tomorrow I will dare myself.
Once again Susan Howell is kind enough to invite me to share her lovely home and enjoy her gracious hospitality, but I have decided to decline and to stay in the motel next to the starting place so that I can have everything in order. My plan is to sleep for a few hours following the 400K section of the course, and I don't want to face having to check in at whatever time I might arrive. Experience has taught me how exhausted I will be and how nice it is to have a motel room key and everything laid out and ready to bathe, sleep, and continue the journey. One thing that continually amazes me is how a few hours of sleep can revive a weary body filling it with the strength to continue when reason tells it to stop, and I treasure every moment of the restoration.
This has been a hard year to prepare for a series. There have been personal issues such as my mother's ill health and work stressors. The winter held me housebound and off the bike more than usual, and the cold, wind, and rain held me hostage through much of the spring. It is just so difficult to force yourself out the door and fling yourself into the face of the wind and the cold sometimes when the house is warm and the couch beckons, seductively whispering that there are books to be read and movies to be watched. It has helped having friends who are also preparing and brave the weather conditions with me for longer rides on the week-ends when the wind is strong and the weather inclement. In a sense we have a symbiotic relationship, these friends who are all so very different but united in their love of distance riding and the bike and the desire to participate in the wondrous occasion that is Paris-Brest-Paris. We encourage each other to ride at times when it would be much more comfortable to stay home wrapped in the warmth of our families.
Before leaving the house, I check the weather forecast one last time. Other than fairly strong wind predictions, Saturday sounds quite delightful though I know the higher temperatures will put me at greater risk of dehydration as I have not yet adapted to any warm temperatures. Even Texas this year was unusually cool. I eagerly anticipate the warmth, but I also respect it and the need to embrace it slowly. Drinking regularly will be of the utmost importance. For Sunday we are back to cooler temperatures and the normal rain that has harrowed this spring, but at least the wind predictions are less than on Saturday. I think how nice it will be to have sunshine on Saturday. It seems an eternity since I have ridden in the sunshine and gazed at shadows frisking on the ground. I eagerly anticipate soaking up the sun, spring flowers, and the lush greenness that an excessively wet spring brings. We have had our April showers; now for the May flowers.
I get to the host motel and sign in. Steve Rice is manning the sign in and tells me that 21 riders have signed up. I am glad to hear that Jeff Sammons from Tennessee is riding. I have not seen him since the Natchez Trace 1000K he organized last year. While we are not close friends, I have ridden with him occasionally and he seems to be a nice person. One has to admire anyone that can organize a 1000K event. Again the series has drawn people from various states and from Canada with various bicycles. There is a recumbent, a tandem, and a fixed gear as well as regular road bikes of different makes and styles. One rider, Alex Meade, is even riding a bike he made and designed himself. His web site is: http://www.sandsmachine.com/bp_amb.htm. I think how special that must feel and how I envy those who have the ability to create.
After signing in, I head to the motel and run into my friend, Bill Pustow, as I am carrying in my bags. Yes, bags as in plural;-) One is filled with normal clothing. The other has bicycling clothing for all conditions and bicycle supplies. I have learned my lesson about weather. It is better to have more than what you need and not use it than to not have what you need, and weather predictions are often wrong. Yes, I have donned plastic trash bags and cotton work gloves while on a ride, but while I applaud the creativity it is not my preference. In the morning I will don clothing I think is appropriate, then double check by stepping outside the door into the open air. It is a surprise to see Bill as I did not know he also was staying. I anticipated that he would drive over in the morning as he lives much closer to the start than I do. After a brief hello, we each head to our rooms. I chuckle to myself thinking that the only time I ask for a 3:15 a.m. wake up call is for a brevet start. Of course, I don't normally try to go to sleep at 8:30 p.m. either. Even though I normally do go to bed early and have suffered the taunts of my children for years over this schedule, 8:30 a.m. is early even for me: 9:00 p.m. perhaps, but not 8:30 p.m.
In my room, I organize everything so as to use as little time as possible getting ready to ride or to sleep. I have prepared sandwiches to take both days and put them in the refrigerator, then I tape a note to my bike so that I don't ride off without them tomorrow. This year I have been working on my nutrition and my drinking while on the bike and it seems to be paying off. (Now if I could only translate that to off the bike and lose some of this weight;-) The rides have been challenging, sometimes incredibly hard, but I have been successful. Before I know it, I am snuggled in bed reading a few pages, entering a world not my own to help me doze off.
I awaken at 3:00 a.m. before I receive my wake up call, clamber out of bed and push the start button on the coffee pot that I prepared the night before, then I snuggle back in bed for a few more precious moments watching the weather channel while the smell of freshly brewed coffee begins to wrap itself around me. I think how coffee is a comforting smell familiar from my childhood, the smell that wafted from the kitchen mixed with other enticing odors while my mother fixed breakfast for us children. I remember fixing breakfast for my own children and that wonderful feeling that somehow comes from feeding people that you care about knowing they are warm, safe, sated, and content. I feel a moments guilt riding today rather than driving to see my mother in the rehab nursing home she recently entered following an unexpected illness, but my brothers have promised to check on her this week-end knowing of my plans. My mother does not like my riding a bicycle because she believes it is dangerous. My mother does not like my riding a bicycle with men as she believes it is unladylike. While she loves me, my mother had hoped for a much different daughter than the one she took home from the hospital and she has no understanding of brevets; but for some reason, this year she surprises me by saying she feels I should go to Paris-Brest-Paris.
After dressing and eating a bowl of cereal that I brought with me as the motel will not serve breakfast for a few hours, I head over to the ride start while double checking my lights. The crowd is much smaller than the earlier brevets, but there are still 20 who will make a beginning, rolling out into the dark night where only a sliver of yellow moon is visible. The wind is noticeably absent despite the prediction. Wimp that I am, I momentarily wish that it will stay that way. It doesn't. Wind makes such a difference in the effort involved in a ride. Steve Rice says someone is missing. I notice that I have not yet seen my friend, Steve Royse, but when I ask I find Royse is there waving with that kindly smile that he wears. While I don't ride with him at all this ride, I am glad he is riding and gladder still when I later receive an e-mail that he is successful in his quest. I don't figure out who is not there that had signed up.
Steve says that it is time to start and we head down the slope of the driveway and onto the road. There seems to be an unusual silence in the air and I wonder if it is just me: not much chatter, simply the sound of cranks and chains and shifting gears, redundant and comforting somehow. In an hour or so, the early morning bird song will begin, sweetly drifting through the air, but not yet. Soon I am with the first group I will ride with: Steve Rice, Bill Pustow, Jeff Sammons, and David Rudy. David says it will be his first PBP and I am excited for him. Firsts are so very special, and PBP is such a unique experience. Jeff and I talk briefly of perhaps riding together during PBP, and I think it would be nice to have company. Still I know that the last PBP I learned that to be successful I had to ride my own pace. Trying to hang with Steve Rice and Joe Camp about did me in. They are just stronger riders than I am. When I gave up the group I came into my own, my solitary rambles around my home coming to my rescue. I enjoy company on rides normally, but I don't require it.
I notice that the honey suckle vines have started to bloom, something I normally see the first Saturday in May during the Pam Ride, and my nose searches for that sweet, familiar scent; however, today it eludes me. I wonder if the rain has washed the nectar away or if more warmth is necessary for the fragrance to begin to perfume the air. So many things I don't understand. The irises are beginning to bloom, their beards a contrast to their petals, and in the wooded areas, wildflowers gaily raise their heads seemingly delighting in the sun as much as I am. I rejoice in the fecund beauty of this birthing world. I note a shadow crossing the road in front of me and look up quickly enough to spot a red tailed hawk soaring boldly through the air.
At the controls, we barely pause. There is time to get my brevet card signed, have a quick bathroom break, gulp a drink, and stuff some food in my mouth, but only barely. In the bathroom I monitor the color of my urine to watch for dehydration. Rather gross, but quite helpful. I have learned to save time by leaving my helmet on. The gloves stay on as well unless I do take a bathroom break. The group waits on no one: friend or foe. It is not that the event is a race or that they have developed some strange desire to get shut of me or drop me, but that there is such a distance to cover. Every extra minute stopped is an extra minute without sleep, a fact I learned well at the last PBP when Dave and I stopped to help a rider who was weaving and falling asleep on his bike. And group riding is just more efficient.
As we pass the controls I think of how I do not anticipate seeing them next year for I have decided to take an easy year next year, and I surprise myself when I find I discern an internal stab of sadness. At one point, early in the ride, I announce that this will be my last PBP. Nobody seems to believe me and I am not sure if I even believe myself, but I worry about whether my body can continue to handle the demands that long distance riding of this type asks of it. Health is a precious gift, one we too often fail to appreciate until it is stolen from us. I wonder if I can continue to maintain the mental fortitude necessary to forge forward even when exhausted and disheartened. And brevets are hard task masters with little forgiveness for those who fail to approach them with the proper respect. I remember the depth of my weariness following the last PBP and how I then understood what is meant by weary to the bone. I remember the faces, mostly unknown, that mirrored my own, exhaustion evident particularly in and around the eyes. I grin thinking of the French man who came up to me at Brest asking how I had stayed looking as fresh as a daisy. Oh, he lied so sweetly.
During the ride, Bill asks me what made me decide to ride PBP this year, a question I am not quite sure how to answer. I suppose the main impetus is my husband saying that he feels I should go or I will live with regret. His life experiences and illnesses have made him wise in some areas, and he reminds me that money is made to be spent as well as saved. Sometimes it seems that our years together have merged our beings so that we know each other as well or better than we know ourselves. Not that he is a spendthrift, but despite being older he does not have the legacy of the Great Depression and of being destitute left to me by my mother. We balance each other. It helps that he gives me permission so that I do not feel selfish. But there are other reasons, still his words are ever there with me.
"If only. Those must be the two saddest words in the world." Thus says Mercedes Lackey, one of my children's favorite authors. I have no need for more "if onlys" in my life. And I am still struggling with the answer to Bill's question because suddenly I find myself desperately wanting to go to Paris once more without really being able to give birth to the words to say why. Perhaps by giving myself permission not to do the ride, I freed myself to do the ride, if that makes any sense. Tied up in all the reasons is the understanding that I don't want to be left out when I hear Bill, Steve, and Dave sharing their adventures afterwards. While I doubt I will ride much of the ride with any of them, I will still be part of the adventure and there will be a sharing between us that excludes non-participants in some elusive way. I think that one day when I see them no more I will still have those memories, and perhaps the memories will color my dreams and make me smile.
At some point on this first day, Dave King, who had ridden ahead with Tim Carroll at the start of the ride, has joined us. Jeff and David have fallen behind. It always interests me the groups that form at brevets and how porous they are. Not so with the lead group so much, but then there are few that can ride at the pace that Alex Meade, Todd Williams, and Micah Fritzinger can maintain.
When we near the turn around, we begin to discuss what to eat. Subway has been a big mistake every time we have eaten there soaking up precious time. The control is crowded, but I take the time to get a sandwich there instead and we sit outside on the concrete and eat. There is a silent camaraderie and I feel content. At this point in the ride, I always take stock of how I am feeling: legs, feet, knees, shoulders, neck, hands. So far everything is good and I am cheered to have reached the turn around point. The sun is actually shining so I trade my clear glasses for sunglasses. All too quickly, we are back on the road resisting the ever-present temptation to loll a bit longer. It is beginning to get warm, and I think how long it has been since I really sweat on a bicycle from the sun. Sweating feels differently during winter rides or on a trainer: it lacks the cleansing power of a good sweat from a hot day on the bike, a sweat that is somehow cleansing.
I begin to climb the hill to leave Liberty when my chain comes off. Being on a climb, I am unsuccessful at picking it back up without stopping. My stopping forces Bill to stop, and we decide to walk that part of the hill rather than trying to restart on the slope. I really don't mind walking and saving my legs for there are many miles to cover. I think of how we discussed this earlier during the ride, the acceptance of the wisdom of occasionally walking a hill when the slope is steep and the distance to be covered is long.
We make the last control, Harrodsburg, well before dark, and I realize we should reach Lawrenceburg before dark leaving only 37 miles to cover before the control at the motel. For some reason, I am having trouble clipping in and out on one side. It is a scary feeling, feeling like you can't pull free, and I worry that I will hurt someone. Steve suggests that I check my cleat to see if perhaps it is loose, but it isn't. I decide to forge forward anyway, being mindful to unclip well ahead of time. At one point, we pass a half mile stretch that is filled with rabbits. Dusk has drawn them out I suppose and they are cute as the dickens, but I worry that one will run in front of my wheel and that would not be so cute. Every time I think I have seen the last one, I see more, until suddenly they are all gone as suddenly as they appeared.
About this time, Steve begins to drop back, fighting his own personal demon: the growing heat. Almost everyone has some trouble adapting when the thermostat begins to rise, but he has more trouble than most. I have been using the sample pack I got of Hammergel's Fizz endurolytes and they seem to be a good choice for me as the heat feels rather good to me. At one point, I turn around to go back and check on Steve, but the look in his eye tells me to go on and so I do. Bill also starts to cramp and one point and I give him the Endurolyte tablets that I have left having given Steve the majority. I have been lucky and not cramped thus far, but I know how debilitating it can be, as if your muscles grow a mind of their own. Losing control is never a comfortable feeling. I think how glad I am that I am female as it is not expected the we endure in stoic silence the way it seems to be expected of the men.
At Lawrenceburg, Steve catches us just a few minutes after we arrive. Another rider also pulls up when we are about to depart. I don't know him, but I ask him if he wants to tag along as it is safer having a larger group when it gets dark. He says he does, but he does not prepare quickly enough and we are gone. Everyone has put on their reflective gear for the coming dark so we should not have to stop these last 37 miles, and we don't. We end for the night at Waffle House. Bill, Dave, and I decide to have something to eat and to meet in the morning at 5:30 a.m. to take off again. Steve goes to McDonald's thinking it will be quicker. He is right about the speed as Waffle House is filled, but I don't want McDonald's. This should give us plenty of sleep as it is only 10:20 p.m. We have cut an hour and one half or more off our previous 400K time.
After drinking my milk and eating some biscuits and gravy, I head to the motel where I take a quick bath, brush my teeth, and retire. The bed feels so soft and welcoming; I fall into its arms. I briefly notice some stiffness in my shoulders before sleep claims me. I do not stir until morning when I awaken to the sound of rain and thunder. Part of me does not want to get out of bed. After all, if I sleep a bit longer the rain may be gone and I am thoroughly weary of rain. Rain riding has lost its charm, at least momentarily. Mother earth has cried enough at her birthing pains this spring and I am losing sympathy. It is so hard to start rides in the rain, much harder than riding and getting caught out in the rain. But my friends will be waiting, so I put on the coffee and begin to fix my bike to deal with the wet weather. Once again I cover my tail lights with a plastic baggie held on by electric tape. Even though I read that mounting the lights upside down will prevent the problems we had in the 400K, I am taking no chances.
When I head out to the front of the motel, bike in tow, Bill and Steve are waiting. After seeing how they are dressed, I decide to don arm warmers underneath my jacket. Later I am very glad I did. We brave the storm to ride over to get Dave and head out. The lightening flashes in jagged streaks across the sky momentarily illuminating the world, a natural strobe light. The sound of thunder fills my ears. We head toward Brashears's Creek, the first big climb of the day. Despite the storm, I begin to enjoy myself as the dawn stealthily approaches and a misty grayness blankets the world. It is beautiful, watching the world wake up. It takes immense concentration to ride when there are worms and frogs and storm debris in the road that must be avoided. I am startled out of my reverie as a deer crosses the road in front of me, as graceful as a ballerina. It seems she is close enough to reach out and touch and I briefly worry that she has a friend that will collide with me. I later learn that her friend scampered between Dave and Bill. Dave comments that he has never seen a deer scamper before. And then begins the climb that is only a precursor to the other climbs.
My legs briefly protest the demands I am imposing upon them, muscles shrieking, before acquiescing and smoothing with my pedal stroke. My breathing becomes ragged and I have a moment of fear. The wind is so strong and the hills are so many, and the wind will not only persist but increase in intensity as we make our way to the turn around. So much for the weather prediction on Friday for 6 mph. winds today. What if the wind conquers? I comfort myself with the thought that it is only 63 miles to the turn around and there are others to share the pummeling. After that it should be a wonderful tail wind, pushing me toward completion and triumph. During the brief periods of time when the wind is a cross wind rather than a head wind, I have to concentrate on not letting it grab my front wheel and dump me. It makes me think of Diesel and the century we rode during Hurricane Ike and how the wind blew me off the side of the road at one point. At one point, my brakes are wet and I glide right past a turn yelling to Steve not to turn in front of me. I briefly ponder how it would be unthinkable to have hurt him, my friend, and vow to be more alert.
As we ride, we are passed by the fast guys. Originally they are riding individually. Todd passes first, then Alex, then Micah. The weather caused them to decide not to ride straight through yesterday evening. We later come upon Micah and Bill cracks me up when he tells Micah that he knew we would catch him if we only rode fast enough. For me catching Micah is as unlikely as my beating Lance in the tour: it ain't going to happen. But Micah continues to have flats that slow him. On one of the last climbs, Steve Rice has a flat, and before we crest that hill, I join him. I rejoice that at least it is light, it is not raining, and it is a front tire. Sharp shards of gravel have punctured both of our tires. While stopped with my flat, the man that owns the home in whose front yard we are ensconced comes out to see if we have what we need and tells us we are about 1.5 miles from the turn around. It is nice to remind myself how kind most people are.
At the turn around, we once again come upon the faster riders. Tim Carroll on his fixed gear is there. It is unbelievable to me that anyone can ride this course on a fixed gear bicycle. We take a bit more time at this control and Alex, Todd, and Micah leave before us. Everyone seems to want to eat at Willisburg. It is okay with me, though I am not really that hungry. I treat myself to a package of sugar waffle cookies, a pleasure I rarely allow myself. When we are back on the bikes, I am amazed at the difference having the wind at our backs is making. Suddenly I realize I am also finally all dried out and I glory at not being sopping wet. Earlier in the ride Steve asked me why the birds weren't swarming the roads since there were so many worms on it. I don't know where those worms went, but they are now gone. Does that bird look a tad plumper than on my last pass?
The miles pass quickly and we reach Willisburg. Dave has stopped, but Steve says he is going on. I ask if I can join him and he says it is okay. I will not see Dave and Bill again this ride. I stop only long enough to take off my jacket. When we reach Chaplin, the store is open and we stop briefly. The fast group is there and talk about stopping to save turtles. I tease them about how it isn't nice to call Steve and I turtles. They take off and we sit for a few moments before once again throwing our legs over the bike. I have reached the point where I know that barring a fall, I am going to complete the ride. And I feel good. I ponder this because I did not expect it and can't quite figure it out. I think briefly of a conversation Greg Z. and I had once in the past when we were tired out from a century. While talking of P-B-P we both found ourselves asking ourselves how in the heck we did it when a century can make you so very fatigued. And here I am, near the end of the 600K, and I still don't know the answer.
In the blink of an eye those last few miles have passed and we are checking in at the host motel where we find Susan patiently waiting, her blue eyes shining and congratulatory. Of the starters, only 13 will finish. A sense of accomplishment floods my veins and I find myself grinning and singing as I head to my car for the drive home. I eagerly anticipate a small chocolate milk shake for the trip home. 54 different riders participated in the 2011 Louisville Bicycle Club Kentucky Brevet series. 8 riders completed the entire series: Steve Rice, David King, Bill Pustow, Todd Williams, Alex Meade, Ken Lanteigue, Tim Carroll, and myself. Ken finished on a recumbent and Tim on his fixed gear. We have won our fight this time, and what a fight it was against wind and rain. All in all, I think that if I consider all the 2011 rides combined, it has been the most difficult series I have yet completed. As Edmund Hillary said about conquering Everest, "It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves."