Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"Chal-lange!" (Part I)

No, I haven't lost my mind or sense of spelling. For those of you children of the 80s, you may recall an episode of "The Cosby Show" where Cliff takes Rudy to a tap dance class. While Rudy is having her lesson, he is left alone in a room, where he starts to tap "dance" (as only Heathcliff Huxtable can do), and an older tap master comes in. He then begins to dance, stops, throws his hands in Cliff's direction and yells, "Chal-lange!"

As many of you know, I also author many of the blog entries for Trek Bicycle Store of Fairfield. This week's blog, "Challenge Yourself," was as much an homage to the Connecticut Challenge, the upcoming LIVESTRONG Challenges and other similarly named rides as it was a gauntlet thrown to our readers. I didn't want to get too personal, of course, as it is our business blog. So I write this as a more personal post-script to that blog entry.

To say that the past several years have had a recurring theme of being faced with/overcoming challenges is an understatement. Some of you know the depth and breadth of what kinds of absurd challenges have been thrown my way - from construction nightmares to financial blows, from post-divorce aftermath disasters to injuries, not to mention troubling relationships that, at times, have taken shocking turns - it's been a brutal few years. I don't think it's a coincidence that, at a time when my non-physical strength has been tested to what pro riders would refer to as the "razor," I chose to take up cycling and push myself to a physical "razor."

This weekend, I did EFTA's NECS #6 Maine Sport Run-Off. For those that aren't fluent in East Coast mountain bike lingo, it's one of seven cross-country bike races sanctioned by the Eastern Fat Tire Association. You'd think that a 10-mile ride in Maine, compared to the 100+ miles I rode to and through NYC would be no big deal, right? Well, when you throw a mountain into the mix, very technical (rocky, root-filled, pipe-laden, uneven and obstacle-filled) singletrack, with frequent and sharp switchbacks, absurd inclines and descents, it becomes more understandable why this was far more of a challenge for me than a century road ride.

I'll confess that, despite performance, there has not been a single century or road ride of significant distance that I've done where I haven't shed tears. I always seem to push myself - somewhere near halfway through the ride - to the brink of hitting the wall, and, seeing the impending doom, I start to cry. It's when the pain starts to set in. I can feel the lactic acid burning my limbs. My rear end aches from being in the saddle as well as supporting my cranking legs. Shoulders twitch and go numb, aching to be cracked. And mentally, I can't comprehend that I'm only approaching the midway point, as I could have sworn that by now I would have been close to the finish.

But on this race, the wall was even more threatening upon the approach. At NECS #5 Harding Hill, I wrecked my back in the first mile of the race. I stupidly raised my saddle during the pre-ride without realizing that, when I shut the clamp around the seatpost, some grit or sand got into the mix, so when I rode over the first rocky bit of trail, the grit loosened, which allowed the seatpost to slip into the bike's frame with such velocity, my bum slammed down, shooting a wave of pain up my spine, jostling my still-recovering sacroiliac ligaments. From that point on, every bump, sharp turn and climb caused my back to sear. By the time I got to the top of Harding Hill, I knew I was done. I was so angry that I threw my bike on one side of the trail (and out of the way of riders who were lapping me, now, for a third time) and, on the other side of the trail, I had to lay down flat on a rock to try and get my back to function once more. I had to do what I'd sworn not to do - I had to ask a friend, as he passed on his final lap, to send help. I wasn't going to finish. I was going to have to quit. An embarrassing repeat of my bail out of the Bloomin' Metric. I was furious. It's one thing when you have to face an external challenge. But when the challenger is part of your own body, which should, intellectually, be under your control, part of your domain, and yet it proves to be your downfall, it is a most frustrating thing. I'm also hardly a patient individual. In my mind, taking it easy, intra-articular cortisone shots, acupuncture, ice treatments and forcing myself off the bike for several months should have been more than enough time to be able to ride again. My back, however, and my doctor, had a differing opinion.

So, just hearing about the race's technical features, the notorious "white-knuckle" descent and the pitch I could see merely by looking up from the base made this race daunting. But the challenge was already a done deal - I had to do it - I wasn't going to drive 6+ hours up to Maine and not face the beast. Back be damned. I came prepared. I had roll-on menthol, as I knew ice-packs in the sun and body heat would only last a few minutes. I had my emergency percacet, to loosen my back in case of too much pain. I made a mix of inspiring music to listen to on the drive up. "Defying Gravity," "I Believe," "The Day That Never Comes," "A Hero Comes Along," "Brave"... anything that had the theme of beating odds, defying, well, gravity, etc. I drove up the day before and camped out at the mountain so that there was no way I could oversleep or rush recklessly to the race and not have time to get ready. I made sure to get plenty of sleep the night before. I brought my road bike and went for a quick ride in the morning to warm myself up. I performed reconnaissance the morning of the race by hiking up and down most of the long trail, making notes of different landmarks and other important points so that I know what to expect and where. I made note of where the terra forma was deceptive, bridges that had lead-ins that were way too technical, and turns that lead into surprise rock gardens. I scoped out every climb, every ascent, to determine which ones were within my means, would push my limits or not be worth riding up and when to clip out and hike. I studied the course on foot for almost 2 hours prior to the race. Granted, I didn't cover all of the race, but I hiked at least 3/4 of it. I was prepared to face any challenge forseeable.

Without getting into too many details, though, Life has a way of finding new challenges to throw your way when you're certain that you've put a control on all the challenges you expected. All my preparation the day before and morning of could not have anticipated a challenge raised by a simple question. I was asked about a friend who hasn't been showing up to races - something very out of character. Why should that derail my preparation and focus? What wasn't known was that we haven't been in touch for several months - a very personal pain-point for me. I laughed it off, trying to regain my focus.

I joined the ranks, began the race, and as soon as we hit the first turn, and the first incline, while the other riders charged ahead, straining, I pulled off to the side, clipped out, and began my hike. I knew the beginning pitch was long and steep, and any attempt to ride it would likely kill my ability to ride later. I also knew that by taking this approach, I'd immediately fall to the back of the pelotons, and likely be lapped by my competitors. But here was my secret weapon - I knew, as one of two or three in my category, that as long as I finished the race, I'd still get a top-3 position in the race. So the pressure was off. It was like starting the Tour de France with a 3-hour gap between a podium spot and the rest of the pack. So this was going to be a different challenge - a mano-a-mano fight between me and the mountain. At least, that's what I thought.

As I approached what I thought might be a "wall," the first of the climbs that was on my "maybe" list, after a stretch of technical singletrack and switchbacks that were just on the razor of my abilities, I was reminded of my friend. And all of a sudden, instead of the open patch I was preparing to ride across, an emotional wall formed and I slammed into it full-force. My mind flooded with questions, emotions and heartache related to the current situation with this individual, and I began to break down. I pulled out all my tricks - I started drinking water, hoping it was that I was getting dehydrated and my mind was wandering. I started picturing myself at the top of the mountain, about to start the descent. I envisioned scenes from "Race Across the Sky," trying to re-inspire myself. I started singing, "I believe, I believe, I believe, Oh I believe, all will be forgiven... " Uh, oh. Wrong song to use. I tried backtracking, trying to remember the lyrics to "Defying Gravity." I drew a blank. I tried to hear the rips of guitar in Metallica's "The Day That Never Comes." All I could hear was the cast of "Spring Awakening" singing, "I believe, I believe, I believe, Oh I believe, there is love in heaven... " And then it came.

Not the hurricane that began as I finished my last lap of NECS #3 Big Ring Rumpus. It was the torrential rainstorm of tears - a virtual maelstrom on a warm, sunny and clear day - that flooded my Tifosi lenses. I kept trying to ride myself forward, and as the air rushed against my cheeks, I could feel salty crusting forming around the pregnant pools of tears forming in my eye sockets, draining down my jawline. Blinded, with an incessant stream of the chorus repeating over and over, I kept going, and went over a bridge I was planning to walk over. I didn't see it coming. I also missed the approach to the rock I'd given the nickname "the egg" - the obstacle I knew I had to squeeze through far on the right, otherwise I wouldn't have made it. Only, I didn't make it to the right, because I didn't recognize where I was. And I crashed. My physical defeat was now matching the emotional and mental defeat I was experiencing. But I couldn't give up. I hadn't even made it to the top. And I swore - I swore - I would not quit another race. I pulled off to the side, and watched the next batch of racers lap me, speeding with ease and grace, as I, overweight, under-trained and clumsy, swallowed, trying to free my voice up to shout out words of encouragement to those far superior riders. They were still in their zone, and, on any other section, would likely have responded, but I recognized their grit teeth, laser-like focus - I expected no return of support, but that was ok. They wouldn't have been able to encourage me to go forward. It had to come from within.

And, who knew - what had previously been my enemy - my back - felt fine. I mean, it wasn't just tolerable, it felt fine. Limber, even. My shoulders weren't twitching. My legs weren't burning. Physically, I felt fine. Which left one challenge - I had to get out of my own head (and heart) and get back into the game.

Sorry, Lance, I thought about you, but this time, not as the hero or beacon, but at the disappointment I'd felt when I watched you this Tour just accept the blows. You gave up the fight. And I'd felt let down. Mind you, man, I still admire the hell out of you. And it doesn't reflect on my impression of you. But, perhaps what the French might have seen as endearingly humanizing, I saw as just giving up. It was like you'd lowered yourself from cycling god to, well, the likes of me. And I knew you had more in you. And I'm not that much younger than you. And I would have fought harder. You were in fit condition - I wasn't. And I only threw in the towel at Harding Hill because I had a bona fide injury. It's not a race for me unless I crash a couple of times.

Now, yes, some of this stream of thought was mental smack talk to boost myself up - I know even with a sprained back, broken collarbone and with both hands tied behind his back, Lance Armstrong could kick my ass up and down the mountain three times while I was still trying to make it up the first manageable climb. But that was the level of hell I had to crawl back from - in order to get myself back into the saddle, I had to somehow convince myself I was better than Lance Armstrong.

That got me back into the saddle. But it didn't get me moving again. For that, I had to face the challenge that surfaced unexpectedly. I pulled the most dangerous card in my arsenal - the one that could make or break me, because it would either inspire me or defeat me because it was so close to home. Four letters said it all (and for those who can't decode it, don't bother trying.). WWAD?

I knew the answer. I rode. I cried, and my heart ached, but I rode. Because I knew the answer. Now, the song that made me sob started to give me strength. All of a sudden, the treeline broke, I saw the chair lifts, and I saw the end of the lift lines. I saw people standing at the top. And one, lone man clapped. I looked up. I saw the ocean. And nothing else. A couple of trees, below me. I looked to the right, to the left, behind and in front of me. There was no more rock above the ground. There were no more dirt paths leading upwards. And, choked up from crying, dry from breathing hard, I managed to squeak out to the clapping man, "Is this the top?" And he laughed. "You betcha!"

The corners of my mouth rose, my dirt-covered teeth peeked through my lips, and I rode forward, triumphantly.

Well, until I hit the pipes that feed the snow machines. As one of my friends, Sean, from EFTA that I've ridden with on occasion to try and absorb skills by osmosis can tell you, I don't like pipes. Of any size or girth. And these were easily 2-feet in diameter. I crashed. I toppled over, my right calf and knee falling into the spokes of my front wheel. Crash #2 at my moment of triumph. I couldn't believe it. Plus, I was afraid I'd damaged my wheel to the point I couldn't ride anymore. Fortunately, the bike was fine. I rode on.

The view from the clearing
I got to a clearing, just as the white-knuckle descent began. It was a far more private overlook than the actual peak of the mountain. I stopped to take a photo of the view - something my friend had told me to do when I get to the top - he was actually racing other people, not himself and the mountain, so he wouldn't have been able to take a break. So I did. Tears of relief, sorrow and facing the wall came in waves. I went from "I can't believe I made it to the top" to "Why can't I know why he's not at the races?" to "I am going to die on the way down this mountain, aren't I?"

The hardest physical part of this lap was over. Now, was the test of my skills and, more importantly, my natural fear of heights...

I'll continue this another time so I don't bore you all to death...

To Be Continued...

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I'm all about free speech, etc, but I have to ask that comments are respectful of other readers, the fact that I, and many of us who follow this blog, support LIVESTRONG, and that you reserve Lance or LIVESTRONG bashing for another forum. As of right now, I'm still allowing Anonymous postings, however, that may not be the case in the future. Thanks!