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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Kentucky 300K Brevet 2014

" I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life.
 It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. 
It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. 
It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease.
 It begins in your mind, always ... so you must fight hard to express it. 
You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, 
if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget,
you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you
 never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”
Yann Martel, Life of Pi

I am not ashamed to say I am afraid of this brevet.  While I often enjoy riding in the rain, particularly a light drizzle in late spring or summer or early fall, riding 192 hilly miles in rain with temperatures that will start near 50 degrees and end in the thirties is an altogether different matter.  Particularly with the additional prediction for strong winds.  It is not so challenging to stay warm for shorter distances or when it is not raining or when the wind does not play with you like a cat with a mouse. It is not such a challenge if you are by yourself and can head home at any time you find yourself becoming the least little bit uncomfortable or bored because you really have set no goal for yourself mileage-wise.

 I have a great respect for cold and rain and wind on brevets and I do not take these conditions lightly. All too well I  remember being caught in a frigid, heavy, all day rain during a past brevet, unable to get my gloves back on my hands without help, helpless in the cold and dark, relying on the kindness of a friend who was caught in like circumstances, and I am afraid.  Could I have coped on my own?  Possibly.  I will never know for sure.  But I would not have wanted to. I remember riding other brevets in similar conditions, and I know they are potentially dangerous and certainly uncomfortable.  And I am afraid.  And yes, I even think of staying home.  But Martel is right, if I stay home I open myself to further, more paralyzing attacks. Because fear is insidious and feeds upon itself, arches its spine, puffs its fur until it appears twice its real size, metamorphosing into something it was not to begin with, something more than itself.  And unless it is defeated, it always returns.  Even defeated, it sometimes returns to try yet again, though not as fiercely as before because I know I won once and might just do so again.

Still I think of going elsewhere to ride a 300:  Tennessee, St. Louis, Ohio, anywhere where it might be easier.  No 300K ride is easy, but some are certainly less demanding than others.  Even the same route can be much more difficult at certain times. Weather, route, personal issues, company, fitness level .... so many things that affect a ride, some controllable and some not.   I decide that I will not let fear conquer and I will cope as best I can.  If I finish, I will have accomplished something, and if I fail I will have learned something. It helps that my husband, as usual, encourages me to make the attempt.  Win or lose, he will be there waiting for me, his eyes and arms my anchor, my safe place.  And while he never has been able to grasp this passion that I have, this need for challenge he will love me regardless.

Experience has taught me that the core can stay warm, even when wet, even when the temperature drops and rain turns to snow, with the use of wool and a Showers Pass jacket that blocks the wind.  It is getting the right combination of layers and not pausing too long at controls. Feet can chill easily,  but they can be kept reasonably warm with wool socks and neoprene booties.  It is my hands that concern me the most. As Eddie Doerr told me when I first started riding, the challenge to cold rides are the hands and feet.  And it would take pages to tell you the experiments I have done to find what works best for me.

 I ponder different options for my hands.  Some people use just wool.  Other people use goretex gloves.  Some use dish washing gloves over wool or a liner.  Suddenly my Bar Mitts come to mind. I know what they can do in cold, how they can keep my hands toasty and warm with the lightest of gloves.  What I don't know is if they will help in rain.  I Google this, but I don't really find much other than reviews about their use in cold weather.  I decide to use them.  The worst that can happen is that they will make my bike heavier by soaking up water.  I know that my clothing will be sopping wet and I will carry so much water along on this ride that a few more pounds will be meaningless. Experience has taught me that chemical warmers are pretty well useless in wet weather.  (Later, during the ride, I wonder if they would work if enclosed in plastic sandwich bags after being opened, but I will have to leave that experiment for another day.) During the ride I do learn that the Bar Mitts keep my hands from being markedly uncomfortable. In fact, my hands barely chill at all.

When I arrive at the start, the rain has not yet started. This is always a good thing for while I have often done it,  it is much harder to begin a ride in the rain than to continue to ride when you are caught in the rain.  21 people are signed up to ride, but only 13 are at the start.  Jacqueline Campbell tells me right from the start that she and her tandem partner are only riding part of the route in preparation for the Ohio 300.  Of these 13 starters, only 8 will finish. The rest DNF. The temperature was around 50 when I left home, but it is a tad colder in Shelbyville and it is predicted to drop throughout the day and end in the thirties.  Rain chances are 90 per cent.  Still, it is warmer and less windy than I expected it to be at this point.  I  take my blessings where I find them:  each mile ridden in comfort today is one less ridden in discomfort.

I have decided to wear a wool base layer, a wool long sleeved jersey, and my Showers Pass jacket.  I have placed extra gloves, a winter hat, and an extra light base layer in plastic bags and stuck them in jacket pockets. I am sure I quite look like a chip monk, a fat chip monk at that,  with all my pockets bulging, but this type of riding is not about fashion, at least for me. I am slightly overdressed, but I do not want to  have to add a carradice to carry additional clothing.  While I am making final decisions, I chat a bit with Tim Argo, an Ohio randonneur who  just seems to be quite a nice man and climbs like an angel, and I find he too has decided it is best to start the ride slightly overdressed. I respect his words and use them to validate my own thoughts.  If given a choice between being a bit overdressed and being cold, at least for a distance ride, I will take overdressed every time. 

We roll out and the lead group speeds off into the night.  For awhile I see their tail lights, like beacons in front of me, tempting me to ride out too quickly; but they soon fade to nothingness and it is just me, the dark, and a long road that needs to be traveled.  I don't note who or how many are in the lead group today, I only know that they are not riding my pace. When you are riding 192 miles,  you have plenty of time to pick up the pace down the road if you decide you have it in you.  And the wind is going to be our enemy on the way back today, not the way out. It is much harder to find more energy for that battle when you have  headed out too quickly.  Not that I was ever much of a marathoner, but the few I did run I always was the last to cross the start line as it was much more fun and satisfying to pass people than for everyone to pass you.   I am not sure who, if anyone, is behind me.  I will either find a companion to ride with or I will ride the ride alone.  Most brevets are normally a combination of the two. The return journey will be much more difficult if I have no help with the wind, but I have faced it before and can do so again if necessary.

I am not sure how I will feel today as I have not slept well for two days.  Lizzie, one of my cats, has been pretty ill.  Luckily, it turned out to be a virus of some type rather than an ingested object that caused an obstruction.  Unfortunately, Lucy, already immune impaired from kitten hood, picks it up as well though not as seriously.  But I find I am feeling fine, not particularly strong but not weak either. Compared to the 200K, I feel remarkably well.

Before Southville, I almost have a collision with a young possum.  He crosses the road in front of me, a silvery streak, sees me, and darts back in front of my wheel.  My front wheel is close enough for him to kiss it as we dance, both trying to avoid the other, and I hope he will not bite me as I pass or cross between my front and rear wheels.  I think for awhile about my cataract diagnosis and wonder how much it will affect my night riding.  So far, I can't tell much of a difference, but I know that will change as my world continues to dim little by little.  If I had seen the possum even a few seconds later, I fear I would have been on the ground.

Around me I hear the frogs awakening, celebrating the long awaited birth of spring, and I realize how much I have missed that sound during winters stark, dreary stillness.  Birds begin to stir.  And always singing harmony in the background is the sound of my wheels and pedals.  Despite still having only my headlight to guide me because there are no street lights here, I see worms on the road, and I am happy to see them although they will make cleaning a dirty bike afterward an even more onerous  task. I hear rustling noises from alongside the road, just out of my range of vision,  and my imagination takes hold conjuring a stalking dog, a wolf, a raccoon.  My headlight illuminates only the road, not what is happening beside me.  Deer bound across the road in places, white tails bobbing, startled by my unexpected passing,  melting into the darkness like ghosts.

Rain begins to mist as dawn sleepily opens her eyes, gently echoing off my helmet in a crazy rhythm, and I find I am quite enjoying myself, the blanketing darkness, and my solitude.  And for at least this part of the ride, I am glad I came. While I like riding in the dark at any time, riding in the dark before dawn is somehow different than riding in the stale dark after light has laid itself down to rest in the evening.  Perhaps because there is less traffic, as if the whole world of people is sleeping and thus the world belongs just to me and I can form it to my liking.  I think of words by Oscar Wilde, "Veil after veil of thin, dusky gauze is lifted, and by degrees the forms and the colors are restored to them."   And I eventually do note that the scenery is unsettled: in some places it is the gray and brown and neutral tones of winter, but in others it is changing.  It is not yet the rich, fecund,vivid green of a Kentucky spring, but a green haze is starting to creep across the fields, promising and hinting of the glory that is yet to come.  In spots there are patches of the wild daffodils that my mother-in-law called Easter flowers, their bright yellow also an affirmation that there will be color in the world yet again. I glory at the thought of warmth and color returning to the earth, at the thought of short sleeved jerseys and shorts and actually being thirsty on a ride.

The branches of the trees are no longer so sharp and well defined, but blurred with the promise of leaves. Cows and newly born calves are enclosed in fences along the route, and shaggy horses and ponies eager to throw off their shaggy winter coats and dapple out in the strong, summer sun snort wearily as I pass.  Dogs chase. Everyone and everything seems to have tired of winter and to be ready to move on.

Turning a corner, I come across Tim Argo fixing a flat.  I pause momentarily to ensure he has everything he needs and then move on.  It seems I could not have helped anyway as I ride a different tire size than he.  Dustin, a very speedy young man, passes me, and I wonder where he has come from because I thought he was in front.  I asked if he had gone off course, thinking how terrible it would be to have to do those extra miles.  He tells me no, he stopped to buy gloves at a store.  Always the mother at heart, I worry momentarily if he is already having problems this early in the ride, then assure myself it is not my concern and there is nothing I can do about it.  Young or not, he is a grown man.

Controls pass, and as I near the turn around, I think how glad I will be to turn on my "return to start" control on my Garmin.  I downloaded the course, but unfortunately it is not showing on my Garmin.  As always, I am sure I did something wrong, for I long ago accepted that I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Thankfully, the Kentucky course is always marked.  (Thank you this year to Mark, Steve, Steve, and Dave).  I pass a store that reminds of another nasty brevet in the rain where Chris Quirey jokingly told me that the rain would stop in 4 minutes and 38 seconds or some other such nonsense.  And while I knew it was nonsense, there was a part of me that wanted to believe.  And I realize that I would like to believe that when I turn around the wind will have stopped and will not slow and chill me. I think that these are the rides that I remember best, those rides that presented a challenge or a complication or where something special happened, and I think of the bonds I have from these occasions even with people I rarely or no longer see.

When I reach the store, I am surprised to find Steve Rice and Ken Lanteigne still there.  Both of them are shivering, not the tiny little shivers you have when you first begin to chill, but the  racking, body shaking quivers that signal a deep coldness that could be dangerous if they continue and can drain all your energy right out of you leaving you spent. They serve as a reminder that I must not pause long or I also will chill no matter how carefully I have dressed today.  The rain has started to come down harder, and the temperature has definitely dropped. A man outside the store jokingly asks how much I will pay him to go get his truck and take me back to Shelbyville.  No sir, not after having come this far.  I almost cry as I head back out and found that not only can I not use the "back to start" feature on my Garmin, it has broken.  Yet again I give thanks that the course is marked.  I later find that Ken's odometer also stopped and Steve's Garmin stopped working.

Ken takes off into the rain and wind alone but Steve waits for me, and I am grateful thinking that we might each occasionally take the burden of the wind from the other, but it was not to be.  The cold rain continues until the very last little bit of the ride, and neither of us have fenders on our bicycles which means that drafting also means eating road water thrown up from the leaders tire.  Still, it is nice to have company in what is no longer an enjoyable ride but a misery.  Even though we talk little, we have ridden together enough to be suitable companions for such a journey, and I consider Steve to be one of my best and most reliable friends. I often wonder why we are friends as he is much smarter and moves in a much different socio-economic circle, but we are and I think once again about how equalizing bicycles are  bringing people together as friends who otherwise would have died not knowing the other existed. As we pass those who have not yet made the turn around, the looks on their faces match how I imagine my own: pale and stoically determined with no trace of humor or a smile.  And I worry about them and about myself.

The wind becomes even more wicked as I ride, slapping my face, ired at my presumptiousness, frustrated at attempts to chill me.  Her icy tendrils wrap around me seeking openings in my armor and the rain begins to sting as it falls.  Much earlier I took off my riding glasses so I try to shield my eyes by squinting and keeping my eyelashes partially over them to protect them.  Then I have to laugh to myself when I see tiny white balls of hail begin to bounce off of Steve.  Luckily, they never grew in diameter and were of short duration.

 Kenis waiting for us at the control right before the finish, and I am glad he decides to ride with us.  It is cold and rainy and it is getting dark and this short stretch of road is very busy right outside of the control.  I will feel safer with three of us.  Again I think how weird it is that I feel less safe in the evening dark than in the early morning darkness. I wonder what cars think when they first spot this weird conglomeration of lights.

At some point, my thighs begin to cramp and my right knee begins to ache and I begin to despair of ever finishing. I suspect the cold is part of the problem with my knee as well as muscle demands and salt needs, but that is pure conjecture and there is nothing I can do about it.  I am wet, the rain has not stopped, and it is cold. And it is not just me that is suffering. Steve is asking me to get him an energy gel because his hands are too cold to function properly.  I try not to think of what will happen if one of us has a mechanical issue or a flat tire.

This is where the mind games truly begin, and those who ride brevets know that much of it is about mind games.  God and I have a standing joke with each other where I tell him that if he just allows me to safely get to the finish with no flats and without being run over or dying, I will be good and never consider doing another brevet or even riding a bicycle.  Being omnipotent, of course, he knows I am lying, but thus far he always gets me to the end safely. And being omnipotent, he knows that I know that he knows I am lying and that it has become our personal joke.  I briefly smile thinking how I have had some of my best conversations with God during my rides.

Ken jokes and says his wife knits and maybe that could be his new sport.  And if you ask me if I will ride the 400 and 600 and the Maryland 1000, I will tell you no, that it is time to leave brevets to the young folks.  I am not having fun.  This is hard and it hurts. I briefly wonder what there is about distance riding that draws me back, what mental deficiency or psychological  need spurs me onward when I could be safe at home with a good book, a cat, and a cup of coffee listening to the rain and the wind instead of battling with it.  Instead of spending my money this way, I could be spending it to walk on a white, sandy beach somewhere and be serenaded by sea gulls and waves.  Or I could spend it traveling and seeing great museums and all the things I have never had the good fortune to experience. I begin to dream of being warm, of bathing, of soft beds, and of sleep.

As we near the last final stretch after turning off Zaring Mill, Steve asks if I would take a ride if Dave showed up right there and I tell him no, of course not.  But if it had happened at the last control, who knows.  Because like all humans, I am unpredictable.  And at the end Dave is waiting with hot chocolate and a smile and it is over.  And I am no longer afraid.