Yesterday I’m fairly certain I looked death in the face. No, this isn’t a metaphor for how icy cold it was that morning (32 degrees F) as we rolled out at 8:00 a.m. in Westlake for a 45-mile ride, but a treacherous moment during our ride that has either made me a stronger cyclist and person, or has scarred me for life. Time will tell.
Other than the ridiculous cold, I felt pretty good heading out. We encountered stoplight upon stoplight , and I managed to remain upright throughout all. Celebrate the little things–that’s something I’ve learned here so far.
I still had a small reminder of my previous falls with me, however. I had decided that I needed to wear my favorite tri pants that had just the right amount of padding–not too little, not too much–that I had previously punctured with multiple tumbles. Because spandex isn’t the easiest thing to repair, especially on the bendy knee area, and I wasn’t looking to dispense a fortune of cash for the repair, I had to use a bit of the ol’ “Solly D” ingenuity. My solution? Black cotton KT tape as a patch. And you know what? It worked pretty darn well. The stuff actually adheres better to fabric than it does to skin. Go fig.
We wound through some country roads, and, to my delight, a vast number of sporthorse stables. The smell of hay, grain, and other horsey fragrances, brought me back to my regular riding days, and how, back then, neither wind, sleet, nor snow would keep me from getting to the barn. The President would have had to declare a state of national emergency to keep me away from the one thing I loved more than life itself. What a trooper I was–in extreme heat or cold. A little chilly-ness never hurt anyone, I thought, as I tried to quit grumping about my numb fingers and toes.
The climbs began early on. I powered up in my usual, steam engine fashion, grinding away at those pedals as if my life depended on it. My uphills started and finished strong, and often had me catching up to and passing teammates who were faster than me on the flat. There was a spot, toward the top, where things got quite steep, that required one of those slow-motion, dig deep, gritty pushes to get over its crest, but I made it. Of course, the other side held the “reward” of some relatively steep and winding downhill slopes.
Our coaches had warned us about a steep and wind-y downhill portion of the route, which, as a beginner, is my least favorite thing to navigate. Not only does a person’s bike flame down the road, slicing reaction time to a fraction of a second, but the wind-y part forces the rider to have utmost control, lest he or she go flying off of a ridge into some kind of hellfire abyss (or rocks). Plus, because the road winds, it is impossible to anticipate what’s coming, or when the treachery will end, or even to pick out a decent spot on the road for one of those roadside crosses with your picture on it (which reminds me, I should get new headshots).
Coach Amy was stopped along the side of the road as she waved us on.
“This is the start of the steep downhill,” she said.
“Oh, crap, I’m scared!” I whimpered, mostly because we’d already done some fairly steep and wind-y downhills, which, silly me, I thought were the steep downhills to which my coaches had been referring.
Oh, no, my friends, I had been wrong. This hill dove dangerously downward, carving true hairpin curves along the cliffs. As I started down the hill, my heart leapt into my mouth. Gibberish tumbled from my lips about how scared I was, combined with “Help!” to no one in particular, combined with a “You’re okay, stay calm” repeated mantra. As I got halfway down, I noticed a bunch of my teammates walking their bikes. My fleeting lament as a flew by: “I could have walked this??” It was too late now.
Somehow, someway, by the strings of the universe, I made it all the way down that hill. Nothing, NOTHING ever has been quite that terrifying before. Still, somewhere inside all of that terror, there was a satisfaction in knowing that I’d made it all the way down without dismounting.
The rest of the ride was pretty peaceful, with minimal hills between mile 15 and mile 30. My bike got stuck in the large chainring on a short, but steep climb around mile 32, and I had to walk it up the hill, as my legs were now thoroughly trashed. Climbs got increasingly difficult as I kept going. I couldn’t wait to get back to our parking lot. As I approached the last big hill and started to climb, I realized that my legs wouldn’t cooperate. I stopped and proceeded to walk my bike up the hill, a terribly humiliating experience for someone who is supposed to be decent at climbing.
Coach Emily rode up behind me, asking me what the problem was. I told her that my legs were trashed and that I just couldn’t do any more climbing. She asked about my nutrition, which, admittedly, I had not consumed enough calories or hydration. I’m too scared to take my hand off to drink while on the bike, so I find that I need to consume whenever stopped. The stoplights on the route were relatively short, so I didn’t get a lot of time to sip, and stopping every 10 minutes, mid-route seemed detrimental to my already slow 15 mph average pace on these long treks.
After impressing upon me the imperativeness of keeping up with nutrition on the bike, Emily looked down at my bike.
“Why are you in the big chainring?” she asked.
Doh. So, that’s why I couldn’t get up the hill? The dang thing had gotten stuck again, and, because I was probably already on an incline while switching, and because I was so incredibly exhausted, I hadn’t noticed. I thought it was me the whole time!
“There’s a lesson in this,” Emily mentioned as she pedaled beside me. “You always assume that something’s wrong with you, instead of wondering what else could be going on.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You’re right, I do that a lot.”
“Didn’t you know? This whole IronMan thing is a metaphor for life,” Emily chuckled.
She was right. Every single lesson I learned during my training has revealed more to me about myself than anything else. I’ve had to face my deepest fears, I’ve had to learn to trust myself. It’s humbling, but also empowering. So far, it’s been the greatest single life experience that I could have put myself through.
“Every week you’re going to feel overwhelmed,” Emily said. “You’ve just got to get used to it.”
I was never more relieved to get my carcass off of that bike when we entered the parking lot. I stripped off my bike jacket, gloves and helmet, grabbed my running shoes and belt, and took off. Still on that broken toe, I tried to take it easy. My first 2.5-mile run loop was about a 9:45 pace, but, as I tired and as my toe started to throb, I slowed considerably. I walked, a lot. My legs felt wobbly. Running felt like torture. The last uphill portion had me suffering, but the comfort of the parking lot was waiting. I couldn’t wait for the moment when I could finally stop moving, for good.
Today, I can say I’m considerably sore, but it is the first day of considerable soreness since I started IronTEAM training, so I’ll wear it as a badge of honor. I’ll be endeavoring a 10-mile run-walk today, along the beach, all by my lonesome, but it will be a nice day to just get out and enjoy the ocean, reflect on my experiences, and to get in the mileage.
I told Coach Jason I would never ride that hill again and he seemed surprised.
“Why? You got through it, you did the whole thing and you were fine,” he said.
“Once is enough,” I declared. “That was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
“Every practice you’re going to find something like that,” Jason said. “I’m not saying we’re doing that hill again, but you’re always going to encounter things that are scary for you. You just have to get through it. You’ve come a long way since you started. You’ve proven you can do it.”
I couldn’t argue. I haven’t failed yet. Every week there will be a new dragon to face, a new “Boss” I have to fight to get to the next level in this crazy game. I keep winning and I keep coming back. There must be more to gain just over the next hill.