May 8, 2012. My first Century. Some days are more special than others. Some days are game-changers. Some days leave you more alive, more exuberant, and more zesty than others. These days may be filled with important people in our lives, challenges met, time spent in nature, moments of meditation, or reflections on life. For me, May 8th was filled with all of this. And more. It’s almost hard to believe that the day was only 24 hours long. Surely time stood still for awhile at some point that day.
I know. I’m getting a little too philosophical for what boils down to just a bike ride. Even a long bike ride shouldn’t warrant such pomp and circumstance. But like I said, some days are just more special than others. And some bike rides are more important than others. You know I’m a sucker for “firsts”. I memorialize “firsts” and “lasts” like a parent who thinks they have the first child who ever learned to crawl. I can’t help it. When I think to myself, “This is the last time I am changing a diaper.” or “This is the first time our whole family is on our new boat,” my mind takes a snapshot of life at that particular moment. I stick it in my brain’s vault so I can access it at any time. It’s lovely to remember all the firsts and lasts over the years and how those moments were often pivotal events in my life. The “mind picture” I have of Chris, Bryson, Reese, and I on the eve of Porter’s birth is so special to me (here is the actual picture):
It was the moment right before our family was complete. We did not yet know how perfectly wonderful life would be with Porter. We guessed, but, of course, he turned out to be more of a joy than could ever be imagined. But here I am, digressing. Don’t worry, I’m getting to my ride and the 15 pictures that I just have to include… (no wonder the ride took so long. i had to keep stopping to take pictures!) The point is, this “first” century was a BFD for me and it changed me in ways that are way more important than being able to say, “I rode 100 miles.”
When I started riding a few years ago, I knew right away that I wasn’t interested in racing, or even going particularly fast. But I do have a streak of an endurance athlete in me, so I suspected, even at the beginning, that I would someday be tempted to try to ride a “Century”, which is a 100 mile ride. It seems that once you start road cycling, you either aim at completing your first triathlon or your first century. If you’ve ever seen me swim or run, you know why I chose the latter. I tried all last year to get in shape for a century, but it just didn’t happen.
This year, I was determined. I knew we were leaving for our sailing trip and wouldn’t be riding for a year. The winter was so mild that I trained up until November and then started up again in January. I’ve logged 563 miles and 25,000 feet of climbing since January 1st this year, which is great for me. I had a few long rides that were tough but great learning experiences. A 63 mile ride in Tarrytown and a 72 mile ride up near Bear Mountain were especially great rides that taught me a lot about my specific needs, including staying cool and finding the right balance of nutrition for my easily overheated and slightly hypoglycemic system.
The day finally came and I was completely pumped with just a little bit of nervous energy. I started packing my stuff a day before I would normally pack for all five of us to go to Florida for a week. I had clothes, extra clothes, alternate clothes, snacks, Hammer products (more on that later), water bottles, my bike computer, the route printed out in a tiny font so it fit on two sides of one piece of paper, extra tire tubes in case of a flat, tools, sunblock, chapstick, tissues, money, credit cards, my Road ID (a bracelet with my emergency contact information on it), and more.
My friend Larry, who agreed to chaperone my ride, chose a route down in Princeton, NJ because it is flat (read: easy). The route is done every year during an organized event, so there are arrows painted on the road at each turn point. This would prove to be especially helpful throughout the day. My goal was to ride 100 miles at an average moving speed of 14.5 mph. I didn’t care how long the rests were or how many I needed to take. My main goal was to finish feeling happy and strong, not feeling like I barely survived.
We left Ho-Ho-Kus at 5:30am. I consider this time to be “The Middle of the Night”, so add that on top of the fact that I was nervous and excited and you might say I wasn’t the most charismatic person to drive with. Larry was a good sport and humored my panic attacks about forgetting something and my angst at whether or not to bring an extra long-sleeved shirt. (BTW, in case you were slightly impressed at my mileage this year, Larry rode 200 miles. Um, yesterday.)
We parked at a community college and started off. I was not 100% sure that I would be able to finish, but I was 100% sure that I would give it my best shot. The beginning of the ride was typical of riding with another person. Larry and I chatted, noticed the scenery, and reviewed our plans for eating, resting, and refilling water bottles. Then I remembered something I read online somewhere. That event organizers are rarely able to map out a “Century” route that is “exactly” 100 miles. I turned to Larry and stated quite clearly, if not adamantly, “I came to ride 100 miles and that is what I am doing. I am GETTING. OFF. MY. BIKE. at 100 miles. You’re just going to have to go get the car and come get me if the route is longer than that.” So yes. I am a road cycling diva and a complete baby. But I bet you’re wondering if I held him to it. (You’ve got a long ways to go before you find out, my friend, because I could ride another 100 miles before you finish reading this. But you should know that he did agree to come get me in the car if I really wanted him to.)
After 10 miles, I couldn’t continue to pretend that the winds were pretty strong and that we were riding straight into them. I used this as an opportunity to allow my confidence to flag, and our conversation turned more serious. I whined a little about not being able to ride 100 miles straight into the wind. Larry started with a pep talk, promising that the winds wouldn’t be in our faces the whole time, but I wasn’t interested in logic. I needed to dig deep and remind myself that I was ready for this ride. No amount of pleasant chitchat, cute horse farms and majestic fields of New Jersey grain could distract me from the challenge ahead. I got my head in the game and got a bit serious for awhile.
The plan was to stop at 15, 30, 45, and 60 miles. After that, I wanted to stop every 10 miles to make sure I got enough time to stretch and alleviate the lack of circulation in the bike shorts area. When we stopped to fill our water bottles the first few times, I was feeling strong, but hot. It wasn’t a terribly hot day, but I tend to get overheated easily. It helped to pour water on my wrists and neck at the breaks.
Nutritionally, I was doing everything right. Larry laughed at me all day, because I was originally skeptical of the Hammer brand of endurance fuels and supplements that he uses (www.hammernutrition.com). But I had been experimenting with them for about a month and was finding that they made a difference. Every pocket and pouch of my jersey was loaded up with energy bars, gels, electrolyte tablets, and my favorite: Perpetuem solids, which are like giant, chalky Tic Tacs that slowly dissolve in your mouth while simultaneously occupying your mind and giving you 50 calories of carbs, vitamins and minerals. Larry and I had 6 water bottles between us and one of them was just filled with Perpetuem powder, so that we could keep making new bottles of the mixture as we refilled with water throughout the day. The drink it makes is a high calorie combination of carbohydrates and protein that is healthier than drinking something like Gatorade. We joked that I was going to be their new spokesperson, except that their typical customer doesn’t consider 100 miles to be worthy of anything more than a light breakfast and a Snickers bar. If you are looking for more of a laugh than I can provide, check out their “testimonials” section. Athletes write in about how they “trained extensively for the 125km Canadian Death Race”, which only took “22 hours”. Can you see me writing in and telling them about how I used every product they make to conquer the “Flattest Century in New Jersey”? But seriously, it worked. It was all I had all day except for 2 treats, which I’ll tell you about later. Okay, enough about Hammer. See why Larry was laughing at me all day?! (My older friends will be reminded of when we were one of the first people to get Tivo and were talking it up to our friends like a couple of Amway salesmen. But we were right, right?)
The first 40 miles went by without much hoopla. The 40s were uneventful, although I panicked a little that we weren’t finding a single store to replenish our water. Where were we? How do you ride 10 miles and see NOTHING but horse farms? We were getting to the bottom of the first page of directions, which was encouraging. The winds had died down just a bit. I spent a few miles riding by myself, emptying my mind and allowing my legs to just spin around and around. I didn’t look around. I looked at the pavement right in front of my wheel and experienced the peace of a “rolling meditation”.
Just before the halfway point, we found a supermarket in New Egypt. It was so nice to walk around in the air conditioning and cool off. I poured as much water on myself as I drank. On the way out, I had a hankering for macadamia nuts, so we bought some as a treat. It was so nice to eat real food. The saltiness hit the spot. On the way out, we had an older gentleman try to take our picture with my Droid. Pretty funny:)
At the halfway point, I didn’t even want to stop to take a picture of my Garmin reading 50 miles (but I did, of course.) I was feeling good, even though I was overheated, so it came as a surprise when the rest of the 50s were a total nightmare. The next part of the route went right through the McGuire Air Force Base and Fort Dix. We were on a road called Browns Mill-Cookstown Road for what felt like an eternity. In fact, it was only about 5 miles, but it went through an area known as Hanover Furnace. Seriously? That’s what you name your town? It was a straight road, cut through the trees, so the wind whipped through like a windtunnel. I was pedaling at the same cadence as before, but my speed dropped from 14.5 miles per hour to 9 mph. It was demoralizing and the barren, sandy landscape of the base was depressing me. The energy of the area was not the kind of energy that is good for my soul. I rode by myself so as not to spread my funk, and I was so glad when it was over. Even now, 3 weeks later, I can close my eyes and feel the negative vibes of that stretch of road. I will avoid that spot for the rest of my life if I can help it. The only redeeming part was that I busted out the second treat of the day: Fig Newtons. Which NEVER tasted so damn good. Ever.
Once we left the base area, I bounced back. We circled Mirror Lake in Whitesbog, which was very pretty. At around 60 miles, Larry asked me how it felt to be doing my first century. I immediately snapped back with something about counting chickens. And then I went on to downplay what I was doing. I pointed out, again, that it was the flattest 100 mile route in New Jersey. I pointed out that during Ironman Triathlons, he does a century plus 12 miles on the same day that he runs a marathon and swims 2.4 miles. So what was the big deal with doing a century anyway? That I was taking a million breaks. That I needed him to get me through it. That really, anyone could do one. And more. He just looked at me, confused, and asked me why I was saying those things. I realized that maybe not everyone finds a reason to downplay their accomplishments. And so we had our second “serious conversation” of the day. It was great to explore the emotions that come up while stressing your body physically. There is an organic flow to the way the emotions follow the feelings in the body during exercise. I think about how the same type of thing must happen with my friend, who practices an intense type of mixed martial arts, and athletes in every other sport for that matter, but especially endurance sports. I started to think about how I might be able to change my internal dialogue so that I celebrated my greatness and congratulated myself on my accomplishments, big and small.
At around 70 miles, we stopped at a little bodega that had the cutest, crumbly yellow walls. Waters all around with 2 scoops of Perpetuem for me, 3 scoops for Larry. A quick bathroom break and we were back on the road.
Now here comes some fun. 80 miles. Awesome, right? Wrong. I needed to stop and cool off. I felt completely overheated. My helmet was driving me crazy because it wasn’t allowing any heat to escape. I felt strong and my muscles were fine, but I was so hot that I was getting a headache and once that happens, I’m done for the day. Of course, now we couldn’t find anywhere to stop. We were on a busy road with houses right next to each other. We rode for a few miles and I finally insisted that we stop when we saw a small grassy area right on the edge of the road. I was so out of it that I took off my helmet, laid right down on the ground, and started pouring my precious drinking water on myself. I rested for about 15 minutes to allow my core temperature to go down. Poor Larry. When cyclists talk about Larry’s riding, the first thing they comment on is that he doesn’t wait for anyone. He just rides without stopping, all day long. Good thing I’m such a witty conversationalist, though not when I’m passed out on the ground with bugs crawling all over me looking like the garbage pick up.
The rest did wonders, because this picture of me at 80 miles is right before I got back on my bike. I look a lot better than the last picture! I was feeling much, much better and was ready to finish strong. After a few hundred yards, we passed a house that had an old toilet bowl sitting at the street. We had a chuckle about how many bathroom breaks I had to take from drinking so much and it lightened my mood even further. I suggested that we go back and take a picture of the toilet for laughs. I think my 180 degree mood change was freaking Larry out, because he just stared at me and said, “You want to go BACK?”
I thought about it for a second. For the first time that day, I felt like I was just out riding my bike, like I did when I was 9 years old. I wasn’t “Finishing My First Century” or “Being An Endurance Athlete”. I wasn’t taking myself so seriously. I wasn’t concerned with just getting to the finish line. I was living in the moment and enjoying myself. Yes. I wanted to turn my bike around and move away from the finish line, so I could take a funny picture of a toilet bowl. If I could only tell you about three moments from this day, this one would be one of them. We had a hoot taking a picture of my umpteenth potty break (not really, I swear.) When I picked up my bicycle and hopped back on, I looked at my bike computer and noted the mileage. We were at 81 miles. As I clipped my shoes into the pedals, I knew for the first time: “I am going to finish a Century.” I was 19 miles from my goal and I knew I could do it. That realization gave me even more energy and my legs went spinning away.
At 92 miles, a strange thing happened. Larry was up ahead, so I was riding alone, silently. All of a sudden, my legs slowed down. They weren’t tired at all. I just couldn’t get them to spin very fast. Everything felt heavy. I tried to figure out what was happening and panicked just a little bit. I wondered if I was going to bonk less than 8 miles from the finish (bonking is when you run out of energy. completely.) Thoughts about earlier in the day popped into my head. I remembered how my internal dialogue sometimes criticizes, belittles, and chastises my thoughts and actions. What set those patterns in place? Could I change those thoughts and treat myself with the love, care, and compassion that I treat my children and others I love? I realized that I could decide right then and there to leave that negative voice behind me. I imagined that voice leaving my body as I slowly continued to move forward in space. I imagined it dropping down onto the pavement, never to find me again. In fact, I physically felt like negative energy was leaving my body out of the back of my head and my back. (Stay with me here.)
What was left was my own true voice. The innocent voice of a child who believes in herself and thinks she is great, just the way she is. Nothing to prove. I saw finishing a century as an amazing accomplishment. One I could and should be proud of. Something to remember. But it wouldn’t change my sense of self-worth. I’m an amazing person no matter how many miles I ride my bike, no matter how well I parent my children, no matter how nice my house looks, no matter how many friends I have, no matter how many hours I volunteer, no matter how beautiful or thin I am, no matter how productive I am. I am amazing because I am a precious human being. I am just as amazing as all of you and all of humanity. If we can take away the internal voices that seem to get to decide what makes us “good enough”, we can see that we are all good enough. Flaws and all. Mistakes and all. Mean, petty thoughts and all.
Suddenly, my legs were back. I was at 94 miles and I felt fine again. I had had an epiphany about life and it was remarkable. A game-changer. And now it was time to finish. Because damn it, I wanted some ice cream.
I remembered how hot I was just as it started to drizzle. It felt miraculous, like a cleansing of sorts. An emotional christening or something, even though that sounds strange. The rain continued for the rest of the ride and I was refreshed.
At 100 miles, we stopped to take a picture. I’m such a dork. You would think I just got the yellow jersey in the Tour de France the way I’m carrying on, holding up my bike. Always with the pomp and circumstance. I’m surprised I didn’t call a reporter to come write an article. Oh wait, I’m kind of writing my own article, aren’t I? See?
Larry inquired politely if he should swing back with the car to pick me up. I laughed and agreed to continue on. Luckily, the college was only a mile away, so my total mileage for the day was 101. The most surprising thing was how great I felt at the finish. I had lots of energy (Go Hammer!), my muscles felt great (even the next day!), and I was on an emotional high that lasted for days.
So what’s next? Well, a one year sailboat trip. So there will be a bit of a cycling hiatus. (I’d tell you to breathe a sigh of relief, but you’ll still have to read about every leg of our trip on our website- www.conwaysailors.com) And then? A 400K (248.5 miles). Wonder how long THAT blog post will be…
BTW, good luck to my friend Kate, who is doing a 2-day 150 mile ride to raise money for MS!