July 22, 2002

miles to go: 998.49

I once squeezed a six-pound human being out of my body, through an opening the size of a lima bean. It took twelve hours, and it involved the loss of massive amounts of bodily fluids and dignity.

That was painful.

One year prior to that, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a 1972 Dodge Dart Swinger as it flew over a concrete embankment, rolled in mid-air and landed upside down on the pavement ten feet below the street.

As I recall, that was pretty painful too.

The summer I was forty years old I quit drinking, cold turkey. I went through withdrawal alone in a crummy little apartment in Oregon City. Nobody was there to hold my hand -- or my hair -- as I vomited into a metal wastebasket for five days in a row.

That was VERY painful.

But none of these experiences -- extreme as they were, horrific as they were, brutally painful as they were -- prepared me for the agony I endured last Saturday, as David and I participated in the annual Healdsburg Harvest Century ... my first organized bike ride.

I thought I knew what I was getting into, last month, when I signed us up for the Healdsburg ride. 
I honestly truly did.

My pal Bitter Hag had posted a blurb about the ride on our women's cycling message board, saying she thought that it sounded like a good potential BOOB adventure. So I followed her link and went to the official website, where I took a good long look around, trying to decide if this was something David and I could manage.

At first glance ... it seemed perfect.

We've been to Healdsburg a number of times since I moved to California. I remembered it as being spectacularly beautiful: mile after mile of lush, verdant vineyards and endless blue skies reaching off into forever. The website advertised a choice of 60, 37 or 23 mile rides, depending on skill level. At that point I was just beginning to get comfortable with weekly forty-mile rides on the Iron Horse Trail, and I felt certain that I could handle the 37-mile Healdsburg option. (And if not -- if for some reason it proved to be tougher than I'd anticipated -- I could always cut it short and do the easier ride. Right?)  Plus the event was being held the weekend of our first wedding anniversary. I'd been looking for something special for the two of us to do together -- something different and fun and emotionally significant -- and this seemed like just the ticket. After all, what could be more 'emotionally significant' to two middle-aged people for whom bike-riding has been nothing short of a miracle?

I called David at his office and said "So what do you think?"

"Let's do it!" he replied.

After I sent our registration off to the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce, along with our $90 (completely unrefundable) registration fee, I had a few weeks to waffle and obsess and work myself into a thorough, dithering panic. 

I worried about my social comfort level, for one thing. Basically, I'd just signed us up for a gigantic party with 1,000 total strangers: something I generally would go out of my way to avoid. I worried about spending money we can't afford right now. I worried about stoopid girly-stuff: I don't have the right shoes, I don't have the right helmet, I don't have the right jersey, I don't have the right breasts.

But mostly I worried about the hills.

Everything I read about the ride mentioned the hills. The brochure for the Harvest ride optimistically described them as "moderately challenging." My book of Northern California bike rides, on the other hand, described the exact same hills as "brutal." I began to have serious misgivings about the whole thing. A week before the ride, I timidly broached the idea of blowing it off to David.

"I'll just eat the registration fee," I said hopefully.

But of course he was having none of it. "You can do this," he said, zeroing in immediately on the main source of my anxiety. And he took me, point by point, through a recap of all the little milestones I've achieved lately. The forty-mile rides in Contra Costa County every weekend. Riding with fewer breaks and greater speed. Conquering the Moraga Hill. Gaining greater technical skill on the new bike. (Read this: I've ridden in every gear at least once, and I haven't fallen down in over a month.)

I still wasn't completely convinced, but finally I said "OK. I'll do it."

Friday night after work we tossed our bikes, our cycling paraphernelia and an overnight bag into the Subaru, and we drove for a couple of hours north to Santa Rosa, where I'd booked us a room at the local Comfort Inn. Check-in time for the ride would be 6:30 a.m., so as soon as we got to town we grabbed a quick bite to eat and went directly to bed.

I can do this, I told myself over and over as I fell asleep that night. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.

"I can't do this," I gasped.

By my count, this was the 43,897,621st time I'd uttered the words 'I can't'  within the past two hours. Even *I* was getting sick of hearing myself say it. But now, as I exhaustedly pushed my bike up another goddamn vertical hill straight into withering Sonoma Valley sun, 'I can't'  was becoming less a whiney reflex than an absolute statement of fact.

I can't do this anymore.

Cyclists call it 'bonking' ... the state of complete physical and mental depletion a cyclist experiences during extreme riding conditions. Basically, all of your systems just shut down at once.

That's what was happening to me.

The first part of the ride had been fine. After registering, David and I left Healdsburg High School at 7:15 a.m., rolling out of town with an army of other riders, 99.9% of whom were 1.) younger than we were, 2.) faster than we were, and 3.) more groovily dressed than we were. Right away we were being passed in droves by thundering herds of young Power Rangers. "On your left!" they would announce, with mixed deference and derision. But that was perfectly OK. David and I were having a lot of fun, toodling along through the Alexander Valley in our matching buttercup yellow windbreakers ... stopping for occasional photo opportunities ... taking our time as we cruised the long, rolling hills of the scenic valley country. (The irony of *me* -- a former cheap chablis addict -- riding her bicycle through WINE COUNTRY was not lost on either one of us.) 

And yes, there most definitely were hills, right off the bat. Endless, looping hills, one right after another after another after another. As Bitter Hag described them in her very funny journal entry about the ride, "They weren't hard hills, just relentless."


By the time we reached Geyserville Elementary School -- the first official rest stop of the ride, at about mile eighteen -- I was more than ready for a break. We plunked our bikes (and our butts) down on the green grass and enjoyed a nice, extendedmutual admiration society sit-down. As I slipped out of my shoes and waited for circulation to return to my bunion-twisted right foot, David went off to explore the food tables. He came back a short time later bearing Power Bars, banana bread, little squeezy packets of orange "energy gel," and -- best of all -- refills of ice cold water. Bitter Hag found me in the crowd, at this point, and hung out with us for a while as we rested. (Her transformation from nervous, newbie cyclist into sleek, powerful Road Goddess -- see picture at right -- has been nothing short of amazing this year. She looks like a magazine cover, just waiting to happen.) We ate. We took a few pictures. We chit-chatted about gear and about riding conditions and about our fellow BOOBs for awhile. It was definitely one of the highlights of the day for me. (Rumor had it that fellow BOOB Jenipurr and her hubby were participating in the ride -- and I was hoping for a chance to meet them -- but I realized, as I was sitting there watching the crowd, that I have absolutely no idea what she looks like! Next time I guess we'll all have to wear BOOB jerseys.)

Soon, though, it was time to get back on the road. Bitter Hag rode along with us companionably for the next couple of miles, until our pokey middle-aged pace threatened to hold her back. We watched admiringly as she zoomed off in a blaze of long-legged athletic glory.

Right away, *I* started having trouble.

It suddenly seemed a whole lot warmer than it had been before our break, for one thing. David and I had both long since removed the buttercup yellow windbreakers and tied them around our waists, but even in a ridiculously expensive "moisture-wicking" tank top and a pair of unflattering bike shorts, I still felt like I was melting. I had eleven metric gallons of sunscreen slathered on every exposed *Skin Molecule,* but I could still feel the sun microwaving me like a Meatball Hot Pocket. Plus I was desperately thirsty but trying to resist the impulse to chug down my precious remaining half-bottle of water, mainly because I didn't want to add a full bladder to my misery.

I was not having fun.

Still, I plugged along gamely as long as I could. I actually managed to take a couple of the lesser hills without stopping: a minor achievement that had me basking in my vast reserves of grooviness ... for about ten seconds. But pretty soon the 'lesser' hills began to morph into the 'not-so-lesser' hills, and I was having to get off every couple of minutes and walk the bike for large chunks of the uphill. Soon I was walking more than I was riding. Eventually there was no riding involved at all anymore: just walking.


Into the sun.

Pushing a BICYCLE.

It was the worst kind of misery. I would get to the top of the hill, finally, and collapse into a sweaty, nauseous heap by the side of the road for a minute or two ... only to get up and face yet another longer/steeper/more hideous incline, dead ahead. After a couple of hours of this, I began to bonk in earnest. Even the occasional flat spots had become impossible for me: I would pedal and pedal and pedal, but get nowhere. It felt like I was riding my bike underwater. Plus my water bottle was now empty, my thigh muscles ached, I was sunburned nearly to the point of blistering, and I had absolutely no reserves of energy (or humor) left.

And that's when I called it quits.

"I can't do this anymore," I said to David, for the 43,897,621st time.  And I burst into tears.

"Then we'll just have to wait for the SAG wagon," he said gently. He helped me pull my bike off to the far side of the road, and we stood there in a thin patch of shade, waiting for the rescue truck to come and collect us. As we stood there, I wept uncontrollably.

All I needed was for Danny Kent to show up and my humiliation would be complete.

The summer before I started junior high school, I went on a bike hike with my church youth group.

As a somewhat lumpy and bookish preadolescent, I loathed physical activity in general, and bike-riding in particular. But I was determined to participate in this bike ride for one reason and one reason alone:

Danny Kent.

That summer, Danny Kent was the object of my ardent (and wholly unrequited) twelve-year-old desire. He was my first crush: a blond Adonis in a crew-neck sweater. I fell in love with him during an oceanside Bible Study retreat, somewhere between beach volleyball and asking Jesus Christ to be my personal Lord and Savior. He already had a girlfriend, a loathsome pixie named Joy, but I didn't care. I loved Danny Kent with a love as pure and as true as the first golden sunlight of morning.

And for most of that summer, I followed him everywhere ... just to make sure he knew it.

The bike hike was a disaster from start to finish. All of the other kids were riding something called "ten-speeds." I had no idea what a "ten-speed" was. Frankly, I thought they looked unnecessarily complicated. My bike -- a holdover from elementary school -- was an ugly purple Stingray with a banana seat and raised handlebars. On the rare occasions when I rode it up and down the sidewalk in front of my house, it seemed to do the job. I figured it would be just fine for a bike hike. What I hadn't counted on, of course, was the fact that 1.) my bike weighed a bazillion pounds, and 2.) I hadn't "ridden it up and down the sidewalk in front of my house" since fifth grade.

I was piteously unprepared to ride down the street to the mailbox, let alone a ten-mile ride to the park.

Ten minutes into the ride, I was panting like an overheated Siberian Husky. Danny Kent was little more than a handsome golden dot on the horizon ahead of me.

Twenty minutes into the ride, I was trailing painfully at the very back of the line, along with the fat kid and the myopic kid and the kid with the broken arm. Danny Kent had long since vanished into the distance, along with all his groovier, more athletic friends.

Forty minutes into the ride I was sitting in the back of Mr. Martin's 'rescue truck,' next to the fat kid and the myopic kid and the kid with a broken arm. Our bikes were piled in a heap in the truckbed behind us. A block away from the park, the truck turned a corner and we passed right in front of Danny Kent. We were so close to him I could have reached out and brushed that errant blond hair from his perfect forehead.

Instead, I turned my head and pretended I didn't see him, as my face burst into flames.

It was one of the more significantly humiliating moments of my childhood.

The SAG wagon was heading up the hill toward us, as inexorably as the executioner's cart coming to take us to the guillotine. In a matter of moments I would be surrendering my bike -- and my dignity -- and having the support staff drive me back to our car, less than five miles from the end of the ride. Worse still, I was about to force my husband -- a man who once rode his bike from San Francisco to San Diego and back -- to suffer the same indignity with me.

(With my luck, Danny Kent would be driving the fudking SAG wagon.)

At least you'll get some water in a minute, whispered the parched, dehydrated little voice in my head. I'd run out of water at least three or four hills back.  For awhile we'd considered flagging down a SAG driver for a refill, but I knew I needed more than liquids. I needed relief. I needed a sit-down break. I needed shade and sugar and a bathroom and complete disengagement from riding, if not for the rest of my life then at least for the rest of the day. And since none of those things were likely to happen, out here in the middle of Nowhere County ... giving up seemed like the only option.

And it was at that moment that we experienced our miracle.

The older I get, the less I believe in the divine sort of "miracle" we learned about at those Bible Study retreats, and the more I believe in the miracle of plain old right-place/right-time serendipity. Like the serendipity of meeting my husband-to-be in an AOL chat room. Or the serendipity of being offered the perfect new job the same day I'm leaving my old job.  Or the serendipity of walking into Long's Drugs at the precise moment that Luna Bars are going on sale for ninety-nine cents apiece.

Or the serendipity of standing on that road in Healdsburg, as the SAG wagon approached, and hearing David say the ten most beautiful words in the English language: 

"Wait a minute. Isn't that a store across the street?"

Isn't that a store across the street?

I swear to god, that store hadn't been there thirty seconds earlier. (Maybe it's one of those Brigadoon things: the store appears magically every hundred years, or whenever perimenopausal cyclists are threatening to drop dead from heat exhaustion.) We waved the SAG wagon on as it passed us -- Maybe next time -- and wheeled our weary way across the street to get a cold drink and rest for a few minutes. 

"If this doesn't work," David promised, "then we'll get a ride back."

I plopped myself gratefully onto one of the shaded picnic benches in front of the little general store and waited as David went inside to buy drinks. There were several other Healdsburg Harvest riders hanging around nearby -- I recognized the pink wrist bands, identical to the one chafing at *my* wrist -- all of them refilling water bottles and swapping hill horror stories. I took off my helmet and felt a delightfully cool breeze on the back of my neck. For a few minutes I layed my head down on the picnic table and closed my eyes.


A few minutes later David was back with our drinks. I was expecting him to bring us bottled water -- all of the other riders standing around were drinking Calistoga and Arrowhead -- but instead he had a Vanilla Coke in one hand and a Pepsi in the other. I grabbed the Pepsi and slugged down half of it in one long voracious swallow. I'm sure there are a hundred perfectly valid reasons why Pepsi is the worst possible thing to drink in situations like this -- sodium, sugar, caffeine, preservatives -- but I don't care. It revived me instantly. I took the rest of it in little sips, over the course of ten minutes or so, and by the time I was finished I felt like a new person. After that I sent him back into the store to buy a large Calistoga, which I divided evenly between our water bottles.

We stayed at the general store for almost half an hour ... long after the other riders had already remounted and ridden off into the distance. Finally I stood up and started strapping myself back into my helmet.

David looked at me questioningly. Well? his expression seemed to say. Are we going for it?

"I think we should go for it," I said. I still wasn't convinced I was going to make it. We had at least another hour -- and, according to the map, at least another two or three monstrous hills -- left to go. But at least I was starting this last leg of the journey feeling replenished in body and in spirit.

As we loaded up the water bottles, I remarked that my tires had been rolling 'funny,' the last hour or so of the ride. "That's one of the things that has made it so tough," I said. And I told him how it felt like I was riding underwater ... how I would pedal and pedal and pedal and get nowhere.

David picked up my bike by the handlebars and gave the back tire an experimental spin. It rolled smoothly. "Nothing wrong there," he said. Then he did the same thing to the front tire ... except that the front tire didn't "spin." It rolled about half an inch forward, and then it just stopped. 

"Well, that's not good!" he said, surprised. And he monkeyed around for a minute with the gears and the levers and the miscellaneous doodads hanging off the handlebars. After a moment, he looked up at me with a look of pure amazement on his face.

"I don't know how it happened," he said slowly, "but it looks like you've been riding all this time with your brakes locked."

He gave me the quick technical explanation. Somehow the brake wire had gotten tangled up with the parallel flange indicators -- possibly when I plunked my bike down in the grass at Geyserville School during that first break, hours earlier -- and it had essentially locked my brakes in place, making it impossible for my front tire to roll smoothly.

I had been trying to ride uphill with my brakes on.

I didn't know whether to laugh, or to scream ... or to just lean over and vomit Pepsi all over my shoes. In the end, though, I did none of these things. What I did instead was this: I got on my bike. I followed David back to the road. I adjusted my sunglasses, and I tucked a couple of stray hairs under the brim of my helmet. Then I slipped my feet into the toe clips, I gripped the handlebars, I took a big deep breath ...

... and I followed my husband towards the finish line.

Healdsburg Hell Ride
and i've got the t-shirt to prove it

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~ nil bastardum carborundum ~

next year: we're going tandem.
[and we're carrying CAMELBAKS.]