"Dance. Smile. Giggle. Marvel.
TRUST. LOVE. HOPE. WISH. BELIEVE.
Most of all, enjoy every moment of the journey
and appreciate where you are at this moment instead
of always focusing on how far you have to go."
From the first pedal stroke of the 600K, something does not feel exactly right. Maybe these are not the right words to explain what I am feeling but they are what come to mind: a certain lack of commitment or enthusiasm for the task ahead. Sometimes the vocabulary I need to express myself, to define myself to myself no less to others, eludes me. I have no doubt that I will finish this ride if I decide to do so and if I do not have a mechanical issue or take a tumble. After all, the weather is perfect for such a ride since the rain prediction abated. Temperatures are supposed to be mild and there is supposed to be very little wind. It will be a tad cooler than I personally prefer and with less sunshine, but the conditions are truly ideal. And while I am not in the best shape of my life, I am fairly fit and had no trouble finishing the 400K. The course, while terribly difficult, is quite doable. and it is only 600 K. But there is just that intangible something that is nagging me, that feeling that you have forgotten something that might be important, that feeling that you should be somewhere else doing something else.
I try to define why I am feeling a bit off kilter. Perhaps it is the course? Certainly the course is challenging, particularly the last 200 kilometers, but I have ridden it before. It just means that you must grit your teeth and dig a little deeper into the well of your determination. Indeed, the difficulty of a course seems to directly correlate with the sense of accomplishment upon completion. Perhaps it is my husband just telling me he does not think his health will allow him to accompany me to Maryland to visit our son? I intend to tie that visit in with the 1000K there and that has certainly been a motivator for me. I am not sure that I want to go without him. Perhaps it is the rather characteristically stupid decision I made to partial fast twice this week despite the upcoming brevet? But I am used to partial fasting and it normally comes easily to me so long as it is not the day before a ride. I did leave myself two days to glory in unbridled gluttony. Perhaps it is that I headed out a tad too fast and I am now paying the cost? But this sense of discomfiture has been apparent from the very beginning. Perhaps it is that it is the first brevet I have ridden where neither Bill nor Steve are riding? While we don't always ride the brevet together, normally don't ride the brevet together, I gain a certain comfort knowing they are on the course and look forward to sharing our experiences of the ride. Or perhaps it is just my attitude and perhaps I should quit my childish sulking and remember to enjoy every moment of the journey. Because in the end much of the success of a brevet rider is determined by his or her attitude. Life is just too short not to enjoy the journey. You might ride one brevet or even a series of brevets if you find you dislike the journey, but you will certainly not continue to ride them.
Sixteen riders from five different states roll out into the darkness. All but five will finish. As usual, I am at the far back of the pack and I wonder if this time I will actually be one of the last or the very last finisher. I wonder if that would bother me, being the last finisher when brevets are not competitions. I have finished last before, but not in a brevet. I smile to myself remembering a road race in a small local town where I was the only woman and the only one over the age of 20 that was running. While this then forty something year old woman did her best and finished with a respectable time, the young track team was out of sight within the first mile. Indeed, I was last by quite some margin, and rather embarrassingly escorted to the finish line by a police car with sirens wailing and lights flashing. I survived. In fact, I found it rather humorous and took pride that I was brave enough to be out there. And quite suddenly I realize that starting any brevet does take either a small amount of bravery or foolishness. More likely, it is a combination of the two.
Sometime during all this rather redundant pondering that seems to haunt me at the beginning of a long ride, I come upon someone I know. I ride for a bit with Steve Meredith and we share some conversation, but I remember that I have set a goal to be in by midnight so I can catch some sleep before taking off to finish the last 200K and I quicken my pace when he says he does not think he will be finishing that early. I also remember that I want to be past "the scary place" before dark if at all possible and I dance on the pedals even a bit more quickly. Alex Mead and Todd Williams both raised their hands when Steve asked if anyone was planning on riding straight through as nothing is open along the route once it gets late, and I think for a bit what it would be like to have the talent to ride that quickly and not have to worry at all that you will be swift enough to get through "the scary place" before darkness falls. But soon I remember to be thankful that I can ride at all, and I know that I will be more than thankful to have a few hours sleep after riding the first 400K of my journey. When you live with someone who can barely breathe at times and sometimes walks around tethered to an oxygen tank, you get a whole new appreciation of what it means to breathe and the true value of oxygen. When I lack sympathy or get compassion fatigued, I just try to imagine what it would be like to climb a steep, never-ending hill knowing that if you quit it means death but that you will never, ever reach the top no matter how hard or how long you pedal. I take a deep breath of appreciation noting how my chest expands and my lungs stretch and are nourished. How thankful I am that I stopped smoking.
Soon it is just the moon, stars, road, and me. I see no lights behind me or in front of me. On Pea Ridge, what I think is a fox starts to head out onto the road, then slips away into the shroud of darkness leaving only a whispery, rustling sound as a reminder of his presence in this world. Shortly thereafter, passing a home, the homey scent of fabric softener wafts through the air and blankets itself around me for just a few minutes. Someone has started those early morning Saturday chores; someone whose life conceivably has a bit more normalcy about it. But then I am old enough to have learned that normalcy is an illusion we use to soothe ourselves with. Most of us are "crazier than hell," to quote a friend. I think about how there is comfort to be found in routine, that when we are out of our normal routine, however much we may bitch about it when we are in the midst of it, we eventually miss our ordinary lives, like when you go on vacation. And I feel my attitude begin to improve, though it will be a constant battle the entire ride. I have that conversation that all brevet riders have with themselves intermittently about whether or not they really want to continue doing this. Meanwhile, wispy patches of fog slip by and dawn slips up on me taking me by surprise, a delightful pink and purple tinting accompanied by raucous birds still seeking breakfast and a mate.
At the top of the long climb on Oregon Road, I come upon Dustin Tinnell and Steve Mauer at the side of the road, stretched out. I ask if they have what they need and ride on when they say that they do. I think how it reminds me of PBP, this resting alongside the road, though the ride itself is very young. I catch Dave King just leaving the first control as I roll in. He pauses and I know he thinks about waiting, but then he moves on. We pass again later at the turn around for the 400K and he says something, but I don't quite catch it. We will not ride together this brevet. Later, after the first meeting with Dave but before the second, I meet up with Tim Argo and we ride most of that day and part of the next together, though he is much stronger than me and it impacts his finish time. I feel badly about this, but all I can do is to tell him to go on: I can't make him go. At one point, the wind picks up and Tim pulls relentlessly as I wonder where in the heck this unpredicted wind came from. I thank him and ask if he would like me to take a turn, but we both know I am not as strong as he is. Thankfully, that section of head wind, unpredicted and unappreciated, is short. Thankfully I have made another new friend during this brevet series.
Sometime during the day, Tim comments upon how the course has changed with each ride. I think it is odd as I have been thinking the same thing. Stark, gray, leafless trees have given way to verdant greenness, no longer tentative but audacious and bold, transforming the world into a visual feast of color. White daisies line the fence rows and honeysuckle wafts sweetness into the air titillating every sense. The first of the honey bee beloved yellow sweet clover is in bloom, delicate and lacey, and I understand yet again how the contrast nourishes appreciation, how without the contrast even this lush, fecundity would seem mundane and ordinary. Sometimes the things we dislike are so necessary for the enhancement of those we do like. Still I wonder how so much of the season change eluded me and I am struck with a sharp pang of longing for what is already gone. No matter how hard I try to capture it, to remember it, spring passes much too quickly and slips through my fingers like the wind, much like my children's childhood did.
Do we eventually lose the ability to do brevets because we quit making the effort, or do we quit making the effort because deep down we know we no longer have the ability, that the demands it places upon not just our time and our loved ones, but our bodies is too much? And how very much of a brevet is mental. All day I use every mental game and trick in my bag, but for some reason it is a constant battle. Tricks that normally move me miles down the road work only for a short period of time or not at all. I finally just accept that it is going to be one of those rides that I struggle with, the kind of ride that makes me appreciate other rides that are just easier for some reason. No matter what routine I come up with and painstakingly try to replicate when results are good, each ride seems to be unique. I think that is one of the very things I love about bicycling and why I don't seem to tire of it.
I worry at the turn around when I am not really hungry as I have found that is never a good sign on a brevet. But I force myself to eat and I am able to keep going. I briefly mention to Tim how much it pains me to not feel hungry when I should eat, have earned the right to eat. I think of my first PBP when I stopped at a bakery on my return journey and limited myself to two pastries despite feeling absolutely starved. Duh! Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why? For once I could have eaten all the pastries this greed gut could hold. Old habits do die hard. But I do learn a valuable lesson. Still, despite forcing myself to eat, I dd not eat enough and I feel light headed when I dismount at the next control.
Back on the road, Tim and I come across a friend who headed out at the start as if Satan were after him, but he is done. I can see it in his eyes and face, the resignation, the bowing of the shoulders, and I wish there is something that I could do or say to help, but while you can assist others with a flat or fixing a mechanical or maybe encourage them through a slight mental down time, you can't give them the strength to finish the over two hundred more miles that we have left to go. I steel my heart and move onwards knowing he is safe at a control and can rest and move forward later or call in the sag team. Later I find, as I suspected, he DNF'd. It humbles me for he is normally so very strong, and reminds me that sometimes you just have a bad day.
All day I remind myself that I want to be through "the scary place" before dark, so even when my legs begin to beg for surcease and mercy I ignore them and demand more. The "scary place" is a busy section of road with little shoulder that leads out of Lawrenceburg, and I always worry on that stretch. It is the place where Tim Carroll waited with his fixed gear that night so very long ago not wanting to ride that stretch alone. You just feel the danger pressing in on you when you ride that short stretch, cars seem like angry entities, affronted at your temerity in being on in their domain; however, it must be ridden to get to and from the store. I don't like riding it in the daylight, but I like it even less at night. Somehow we make it during daylight hours with daylight to spare. Tim Argo, the other Tim, shares this stretch of road with me today, then speeds off ahead. I think of how many men I know who ride who have the same first names: at least seven or more Steves, two Gregs, four Tims, and a number of Daves. It does make things confusing.
After riding Pea Ridge as if Dave King were by my side, working the downhills to ease the uphills, I catch back up with Tim and we ride the rest of the way in. He asks if I had brought anyone with me. I passed another rider prior to catching Tim and quickly tried to explain the irony of Pea Ridge: it is truly easier to work hard on the down hills to ease the work on the uphills. But he either did not hear me or did not believe me or did not have hard riding left in his legs, so he is not with me. In my rear view mirror I watched as his headlight was swallowed by the night. We pass Todd and Alex heading back out to do the last 200K as we turn onto Zaring Mill. We all yell at each other, but the darkness hides our identities. I only know it is them because nobody else plans on riding straight through. Night masks identities.
And after what seems like forever, I am at my motel. I am so very ready to sleep. Prior to going to bed, Tim and I decide to meet at Waffle House the next morning and start the ride together. I feel guilty saying I do not intend to leave until 5:00 a.m., particularly since we arrived before 11:00, but I know how difficult tomorrow's route is and that my body needs rest. I hope sleep will light my face with a smile until it cracks wide open in a belly jiggling laugh. I hope sleep will improve my attitude, that I will "dance, smile, giggle, and marvel." Alas, it is not to be. I slit fitfully and awaken several times with my toes and feet cramping. Weird. My toes and feet have never cramped before and I hope they never do so again.
Darkness still clings to the earth restlessly waiting for dawns warm embrace when I meet Tim and we take off. I repeat what I told him the prior evening: he should not expect to stay with me today. The hills are just too steep on this route for me to climb swiftly. Yes, I can and do climb each and every one of them, but at my own pace which happens to be, at least today, snail like and without rhythm. On Figgs Store Road he disappears gobbled into the darkness and I am alone. I remember riding this section of road with Dave, Bill, and Steve and how a deer skittered between our bicycles, beautiful and dangerous. I believe it was lightly raining that morning, a warm comforting soak, the kind that gently caresses and nourishes the earth. And there may have been lightening, jaggedly crossing the sky. And then I am near the top of the long climb out. Suddenly I am startled at hearing Tim's voice behind me, shaking me out of my reverie: he had missed a turn. Again I watch him ride off, his legs acting as if tomorrow never even happened, and I am envious of his power and speed.
Turning onto 1066, one of the few number roads I remember because of the Norman conquest, we see Todd and Alex cresting a climb, making their way back to the motel and home. Dawn has not been too long upon us, and I am envious that they are almost done. I am worried because they look tired. No, not worried about them, but about me. They are too strong and have finished too many brevets not to finish this one. If it took this much out of those two; however, what will it do to me. But then I have slept and they have not I assure myself. We exchange greetings without stopped. Other than occasionally seeing Tim, I see no other riders after Todd and Alex until the turn around when Ken pulls in behind us. Occasionally I think how very beautiful the scenery is, one of the gifts that hills seem to give us because the land is not easily farm-able and not easily built upon. Mostly, though, I am caught up in pushing one pedal after the other, trying to keep my rhythm.
When I pull into the motel to finish, Ken, who passed me on the way back in, looks at me and says, "You will feel better when you have been off the bike five minutes." Strangely enough, I do. Steve, Tim, Ken, and I share the pizza that Steve brought, and I head homeward to my own little bed where I sleep without cramps in my feet or toes and I have two furry bed partners purring a soft soothing melody that screams of home. This ride was a rough one for me, mentally as well as physically. No matter how much I tried to focus on the journey rather than how far I had to go there were times when I looked at my odometer every mile for miles on end, thinking surely it must be broken, that I had surely had ridden farther than I had. But I will remember this ride, or parts of this ride because of the struggle, because of Tim's kindness pulling me through the brief section of disheartening wind, because of my toes cramping.
The words of Kelly Cutrone come to mind:
"This is an important lesson to remember when you're having a bad day,
a bad month, or a shitty year. Things will change: you won't feel this way
forever. And anyway, sometimes the hardest lessons to learn are the ones
your soul needs the most. I believe you can't feel real joy unless you've felt
heartache. You can't have a sense of victory unless you know what it means
to fail. You can't know what it is like to feel holy until you know what it's like
to feel really fucking evil. And you can't be birthed again until you die."