“I made it up that hill. Oh my god, I did it. I’m actually going to finish!”
After 92 miles of cycling and 4,000 feet of climbing, I crested the top of the last big hill on a May afternoon. I gasped for air as my cadence increased down the backside of Chalk Hill (and maybe also gasping as I realized I knew that the word “cadence” meant “how fast I’m pedaling”). I had dreaded that hill for months, worrying that it would crush my spirits because it came so far into the ride. I feared that I would stop halfway up, that I might crash if I couldn’t unclip from my pedals in time, and that I would have to be picked up in a crew van and driven to a medical tent at the finish line. I rarely cuss, but when I reached the top of that hill, whispered expletives flew: “I f***ing did it. Holy sh*t. I god-d**n did it. I’m going to finish a century ride.”
May 2 was redemption in several ways. In October, I bailed out of a century ride. This year, I spent a serious amount of money on a road bike and committed to a century ride with my friends Michaela and Arvan. My training was the bare minimum but there would be no backing out this time, and now that it’s over, I admit that I was more than a little worried. However, I was also determined — I really wanted to chase down this goal.
OK, enough rambling. Now I’m going to write about Saturday’s Wine Country Century in a bit more orderly fashion. If you want the short version: I finished in 7 hours and 3 minutes, and it’s a good thing because Michaela and I are signed up for a ride that’s, um, twice as long.
I drove up to Santa Rosa on Friday afternoon, which is never a good time to drive through the Bay Area. It took me 2 hours, 35 minutes to drive 86 miles — that’s a whopping average speed of 33 mph, despite being on freeways. When I finally arrived, I was hungry and angry. Michaela stuck a Kona Brewing beer in my hand, because she is a very wise and good friend. We were staying with friends Thai and Josh, and their 4-month-old baby also calmed me down. Things were starting to look up.
We drove to the ride check-in so we wouldn’t have to deal with that in the morning, and that’s where things took another good turn: I was given bib number 5050. My first reaction: “It should be 5150″ (California’s legal code for crazy). My second reaction: “Oh look, it’s my odds of finishing!” Funny enough, even though I enjoy number games, I never thought of the “50+50=100, the number of miles I will conquer” idea. A MUCH more hardcore numbers nerd pointed that out, and I must say that it’s much more optimistic. Dinner was at BJ’s Brewing, with a personal deep dish pizza and a beer. All was well in my world.
On Saturday morning I woke up before the alarm. It was very similar to a marathon morning, only with padded shorts. We drove to the ride start, parked with no troubles at all, topped off the air in our tires, put our race numbers on our bikes, fastened our helmets, and got some guy to take a picture. And then we were on our way.
The air was chilly and the sky was completely overcast to the point of being slightly misty. I recently used an REI coupon to buy some new sunglasses whose lenses automatically go from clear to dark, depending on the light. They’re one of my better $60 purchases in the past year, and I was so glad I could see in that gray light. We were surrounded by fellow riders, and Arvan was already in excellent form: “To our right, we have a vineyard. To our left, we also have a vineyard,” he said in his best tour guide voice.
We got through a couple stoplights and around mile 3 I ate my first gel. For those who don’t care about this stuff, I’ll get all the nutrition jabber out of the way in this paragraph so you can skip ahead. I have a terrible time with solid foods on the bike, and the only thing I’ve been able to guess is that my slow-moving blood just can’t be tied up digesting food in my stomach, or else there isn’t enough blood to get to my head and keep me from getting dizzy. However, my stomach itself is rock solid and I don’t mind Gu gels that have 100 calories each, and Gu Roctane drink that has 240 calories per bottle. I buy lemon lime gels (no caffeine) by the 24-pack box with my Marathon Maniacs discount at runningwarehouse.com, and I get Roctane drink either there or on sale at nashbar.com. I intersperse a few caramel macchiato and salted caramel gels (with caffeine) for the occasional extra boost and change of flavor. On Saturday, I successfully ate a gel every 10 miles without fail, for a total of NINE GELS. I drank 3.5 bottles (24 ounces each) of Gu Roctane. I also ate about six strawberries total at the aid stations, and because the lunch stop was longer, I risked a slice of turkey lunch meat, half a slice of cheese, and some pickle slices. My fueling was a success.
The first hill started around mile 16 and went to around mile 19.5. (Here’s a map of the course. For some reason, the organizers’ page isn’t working anymore.) My friend Deanne recently moved and her new house is steps away from the course. She was excited to wake up early and come outside and cheer for me, which is pretty amazing and I’m not sure what I’ve done to have such a good friend in my corner for a dozen years now. Even her husband, who works nights and is NOT a morning person, insisted that she wake him up. Knowing she would be there is what made me less fearful of the climb. The funny thing is, I was riding up the hill in a line of cyclists going a bit slower than I would have, so when I reached the top I still had several gears left. I reached the top and began flying down, but realized the long downhill might send me sailing past Deanne. But I did see her, and somehow waved while braking without falling over.
You guys, Deanne had made a sign! And she’d even put pictures of Michaela, Arvan and me on that sign! Poor Arvan with his zero percent body fat was shivering in the cold, so once we took some pictures, we hit the road again. Between seeing Deanne and her sign, and the long downhill, I was basically high as a kite. We rolled into the first rest stop five miles later, where Arvan’s shivering may have registered on the Richter Scale.
Then we had the Green Valley Road climb, which I hadn’t really heard about until our friend Josh was talking about it Friday night. He said it was the toughest hill for him when he did this ride a few years ago. And Michaela said she’d never ridden all the way up it without walking. I wasn’t sure what to think until I reached it, and before I knew it I was at the top. I stopped to catch my breath and wait for Michaela and Arvan (they are smart and pace themselves up hills, while I charge up them until my lungs collapse). There were a whole bunch of hardcore riders who’d also stopped there, and I wasn’t gasping any more than the rest of them. For the first time in my brief cycling life, I actually felt that I might be able to do this. I didn’t have too long to think about it, though, because Arvan and Michaela arrived — and Michaela had ridden up the whole thing without walking. We were all checking off small victories.
The ride had 2,500 cyclists between the 120-mile, 100-mile, 62-mile and 35-mile routes. I hoped I wouldn’t see anybody crash or get hurt, but what I wasn’t expecting was to see an oncoming SUV nearly rear-end a car in front of it. Instead, the SUV went careening off the side of the road, down a steep embankment, and somehow landed upright next to a vineyard. It was going so fast that it kept driving on the narrow strip of dirt beside the vines. A girl just in front of me diddn’t even understood what happened, so we chatted in shock for a few minutes. Then we came to the next rest stop, which was a nice chance to get my heart rate back down to normal. I’m so glad that SUV didn’t hit the car and send it flying into us.
The lunch stop was at mile 72, and by then my neck was screaming at me. Since we were going to take our time there, I took the opportunity to lay flat on my back and try to relax my neck. It didn’t do a lot of good, but I also reapplied sunscreen and finally took off my arm warmers (the weather had been fantastic). Mom, I’m pleased to report that I did not get sunburnt!
After the lunch stop, Michaela’s hip was hurting and so was my neck. That’s when I thought about a buddy of mine, Virginia. She’s been going through chemotherapy treatment for something like 18 months, and her latest scans showed that she needs an even more aggressive form of chemo. In March, her husband Hal was diagnosed with cancer. Virginia is one of the hardest-charging people I’ve ever met, and I told myself, “Riding 100 miles and having some neck pain is nothing compared to the double-whammy cancer fights Virginia has on her hands. I GET to do this, I CHOSE to do this, and I’m surrounded by all this gorgeous scenery.”
I hadn’t looked at the route map very closely, other than to know where the dreaded hills were. The rest stop locations were definitely an afterthought, since I was really only using them to refill my water bottles. I thought the lunch stop at mile 72 was the last aid station of the day. But at mile 82, when I had been a bad friend and ridden away from Michaela and then stopped to wait for her, a guy told me there was a rest stop two miles ahead that was stocked with Coke and ice. Cold soda suddenly sounded like the best thing on earth, and I told Michaela when she came zipping along. She was surprised, too, and I vowed that if the guy was wrong and there was no rest stop with Coke, I would actually backtrack the miles just to hunt him down and knock him off his bike. Believe me, I was serious.
Luckily for that guy, there really was an aid station at mile 84. And they had cups to fill with ice and Coke. I drank a cup, and I swear that it tasted better than any $300 meal in a five-star restaurant can ever taste.
And then came Chalk Hill. The hill I’d dreaded for months. The hill that I feared would crush my dreams. By then the crowds of riders were very thin and sparse. But when I reached the hill, I immediately passed about half a dozen riders. “Uh oh, I’m charging up this hill way too fast,” I thought to myself. I kept going, and it was honestly longer than I had hoped and how others had made it out to be. But it did come to an end before I did, and I really can’t quite describe that feeling of accomplishment. That’s when those rare whisper-gasped expletives came out, and that’s when I knew for the first time all day that I really was going to finish the ride.
In December 2008, I reached mile 23 of my first marathon. I still distinctly remember being on a highway in Tucson, Arizona and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m actually going to run a marathon.” Until then, I hadn’t known if I could really do it. Seven-plus years later, I recognized that feeling once again: I, the person who had excuse notes to get out of PE classes and was always picked last in games at recess, was going to finish a crazy athletic event.
We entered the Santa Rosa city limits and were greeted by nice roads and bike lanes. “Well, these roads are about 97 miles too late,” I said. The ride route was absolutely gorgeous, with countless green vineyards everywhere, but the roads of Napa and Sonoma counties leave a lot to be desired. At one point, I found myself braking down a straight hill just because the bumpy road was so jarring.
At mile 99, we reached the finish line. I believe we cussed again. There was NO WAY I could end this ride at mile 99. I had come to ride 100 miles and, dammit, I was going to ride 100 miles. Michaela’s watch registered 99.2 miles (she switch-backed up a hill, while hard-headed Layla charged straight up). So, around the parking lot we rode. “This is so dumb right now,” Michaela said, and I just started laughing, because it was so true.
Finally, 100 miles appeared on my watch. I hit the “stop” button. I had finally done what I failed to do in October. This was revenge, and it felt so good. Thai and baby Oliver were at the finish line. So was Greg, whose cycling and ultra-running feats make mine look like 5k’s. I tell you, friendly faces at a finish line are the best things ever. I got some food, and that first bite of potato salad was simply amazing — it wasn’t sweet gel or sports drink!
Recovery was easier than most of my marathons, although I was more tired. The next day, walking upstairs was very tiring, but it was a lot easier than walking downstairs after a marathon. Sunday evening, though, I got chilled despite it being 72 degrees in my apartment. I went to sleep with all the blankets, then awoke around midnight completely drenched in sweat. I wondered if I was getting sick, but that never happened; I guess my body was just trying to regulate itself after all those hours on the bike. I had low energy and needed more sleep over the next few nights, but it wasn’t bad, really.
I still wanted to get back on my bike, which is a very good thing — Michaela and I MAY possibly have signed ourselves up for a little ride in July…. It MAY be 203 miles in two days from Seattle to Portland, and it MAY have 10,000 riders… And that’s why I can now say that I had a lot more hinging on this century ride than I told people. If I failed, that bigger ride would be in serious jeopardy and my spirits would be crushed. But I succeeded, and I’m now back out on my bike. Seattle, I’m coming for you.
I do have one post script. As I type this 10 days later, Hal is now home in hospice care. My little bike ride certainly couldn’t stop his cancer from spreading. But I’m so glad I got on my phone after the ride, opened up the Facebook app, told my friends I’d conquered the ride, and said, “Virginia and Hal, this was for you.” We all need to live life as well and as fully as we can, or else it’s an injustice to those who cannot.