Monday, August 3, 2009

Still Smiling

I always wondered how people got to the point of breaking down and crying during a bike race. I mean, all they were doing was riding a bike, right? I had read a few different accounts of people throwing their bikes down and crying on the side of the Resurrection Trail and thought, how could it come to that point? I didn't understand.

But I never had to push my bike up out of Swan Lake after riding 60 miles before. And now I understand. I understand completely.

I was prepared to push the bike at that point, because I had heard Brian talk about it, and if he was pushing, I was pushing. What I wasn't prepared for was how my body would feel while doing it and the resulting mental breakdown in the miles after.

After the start in Hope I was quickly at the back of the pack, which was okay, because it was completely what I expected in a race like this. The people that finish this race are ridiculous athletes and I was glad to be able to participate. Despite all of the times I have said I would never want to do the entire 109 miles in one day, when I was out on the trail I said to myself several times, I am so happy to be in this race today. My mood was good.

I settled into my pace and felt good for the entire climb out of Hope. I stuck with my nutrition plan, despite having rocks and mud mushed into my shot blocks and mud all over the top of my bottle of Perpetuem. I would stick a block in my mouth, suck the mud off, spit it out and then start chewing. When I was little my grandfather used to call me "Dirty Harry" because I always had food all over my face or was playing in the dirt. This day gave that nickname a whole new meaning.

My legs felt fresh even at the top of the climb, I was only slightly worried because it took a lot longer than I thought it would to get out of the trees. After three hours of riding I was flying across the tundra in one of the nicest days I have ridden up at Resurrection Pass. The sun was out and the fireweed had grown over five feet tall in some places. I turned a corner and suddenly I was at the Devil's Pass cabin, which meant I had 17 miles of mostly downhill to the first checkpoint in Cooper Landing.

This section seemed to take long, but it was nice to see racers again climbing back up to the cabin. I realized then how important human contact is. Sometimes it seems like hours since you've seen someone and you wonder if you'll ever see anyone again. Just the slightest smile or "Way to go! You're doin' great!" picked up my mood and upped my energy for the next few miles.

After 6 hours of riding I arrived in Cooper Landing, the last person to check in there. I was content with this and felt good enough to begin the long climb back up to the Devil's Pass Cabin.

My crew was awesome. (Thank you Tim, Ken and Heather again.) They filled my water, changed my tube that may have been leaking, lubed the chain, and helped me untangle my headphones, so I could get some music on. I stuffed some food in my mouth and was on my way. Tim gave me a big push as I pedaled off and I said, "See you on the other side!"

I don't really ever ride with music, so I hadn't created a playlist and I randomly chose the Decemberists album "Hazards of Love" because I love it. This was a bad choice.

Some of the songs really had me hammering up the climb and others sent me into a dark sloooooow place where my mind wandered and I forgot where I was for a bit. I suddenly snapped out of it, looked down to see my speedometer at 3 mph and quickly shut off the music.

The climb was hot and I could feel the sweat dripping off of my face, but I still felt relatively good and as I got to the rolling section, I thought, I might actually do this!

Then I found myself at the intersection for the climb out of Swan Lake. I took the right hand turn into the rocky section and got off the bike. It was time to push. Since I was the last person to climb out of Cooper Landing, I suddenly realized I was alone again and that I would be for the rest of this climb.

What I didn't realize was how quickly things can turn around. Soon I was pushing up the steep, rocky slope giving it all I had. My upper body felt weak as I took small steps and my speedometer jumped back and forth between 0 and 1 mph. My bike felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. The sun was beating down on my head and I noticed that at that moment it was really quiet. Eerily quiet.

I had no idea how long this section of trail would be, but figured by the steepness of it, it had to be shorter than the section we came down. Still, even if it was only a mile, at this pace it would take me over an hour to push through it.

Eventually I popped back out of the top and turned my music back on as I got on the bike. I was still climbing and knew I had about 4 more miles of it, but it was more gradual at this point. To my surprise, I could not climb. I pedaled for a minute to total exhaustion and got back off the bike. I started to feel desperate. I briefly thought about turning back to Cooper Landing, but knew everyone would be gone at that point. I had to keep going and had at least 14 more miles until I reached the next checkpoint.

The song that was now playing on my headphones was depressing. Something about a man who was trying to get across the water to his true love and was trying to convince the water to let him cross. He said if you let me cross you can turn me into a rat when I come back. I stuffed some potatoes into my mouth thinking that food was the only thing that would be able to help me.

And at that moment when I could not even muster up the energy to chew my food, and I was feeling sorry for the man who could not get to his true love, I started to cry. It was pretty ridiculous now that I think about it. I was mostly feeling sorry for myself for not being able to chew and wondering how I could go from feeling so good, to feeling like this over the course of a half hour.

I thought about how long it was going to take me to get up to the cabin at this point. I wanted to sit down and come up with a plan, but was in a section where the brush was over my head and wanted to get out of there. I put on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and suddenly was able to pedal, albeit very slowly.

Then I saw the cabin. It looked to be about a mile away and I knew once I got there it would be 10 miles of downhill down to the next checkpoint. Just get to the cabin, I was telling myself.

I was riding now, but slowly and cautiously. A few times I crashed into the side of the trail for no apparent reason. I was having trouble controlling the bike. I shoved down more food and that seemed to help me with the climb.

In my mind I had already reached my limit and was just trying to get to the next checkpoint. I knew at that time that I was not going to finish the race. I had already decided to scratch at the Devil's Trailhead. But I felt surprisingly good about it.

I thought if I decided to quit during this race that I would feel bad about it. I thought that I would get down on myself for not being able to complete it, but after competing in this race I now know that it is harder than I ever imagined it to be. And for me to get to the Devil's Trailhead after riding for 72 miles and 11 hours would be a huge accomplishment.

I got up to the Devil's Cabin and saw some people up there. They were Frank and Lisa who I had met at one of the AEA races last year and they had chocolate chip cookies. I sat down and chatted with them and told them how I had decided to quit. Saying it out loud made me 100 percent sure that it was the right thing to do. It was nice to talk to people. Thank you Frank and Lisa for being up there and cheering on all the racers. They even carried up an extra sleeping bag in case someone needed to stay the night in the cabin.

When I started down the descent to the Devil's trailhead I was smiling. I knew I would be done soon. I saw Brian on his way up. He said he forgot his jacket, so I told him I was quitting and gave him mine. He said he had a chance to finish in under 12 hours and that he had to go. It made me happy that one of us was going to finish and that we both were going to do something we had never done before.

Back at the Devil's trailhead I saw the faces of 5 friends jumping up and down and cheering me up the last hill. I mustered up the energy to finish strong. Maura, Kurt, Ken, Heather and Tim were the only ones left in the parking lot and I was glad to see them.

They said, "She' still smiling!" and I yelled, "I'm smiling because I'm done!" I went on to explain how things quickly turned around since I last saw them. They handed me a beer and I heard Kurt talking to the people at the finish line, "Julie's here, she's smiling, and she's got a beer in her hand." I was smiling because I was done, but I was also smiling because I had already decided that I would be back again next year.

Thanks to Maura Shea and John Quimby for the photos.


Jill said...

Awesome race report. That's how I felt after my first Soggy. Wrecked and happy.

And, amazingly, that's how I felt this year, too.

I'm not sure I'll ever be back for the race, but the Res Pass trail has a draw I can't deny.

jennydunn said...

What a day you had, Julie! That Swan Lake section is the absolute abyss. It was definitely a low point for me last year - stole most of my mojo for sure. Thanks for telling your tale so vividly and honestly. You may have inspired me to go for my 2nd finish next year.... Jenny

bikegirl said...

well done and well told. In some strange way it makes me think I should actually train to do this event... maybe a relay!

saved by biking said...

Yes, I DNF'd at Devil's too. Haven't been back since. Well written. Your words really resonated with me. Still need to check this one off - next year perhaps...

Laura said...

jules, you never cease to impress me. doesn't make me want to do it, but maybe come cheer you on next year...? great job, you're very inspiring!