There’s a guy at the gym who seems to be a bit competitive with me. This is weird, as no one else at the downtown Berkeley Y feels this way: if anything, I serve as the person upon whom everyone else may look and think, “Well, at least I’m in better shape than that dude!” But this guy … well, there’s an edge to him. Like me, he is middle-aged, stocky, and bald — so that might have something to do with it. But for whatever reason, on the rare occasions when we interact, I kind of stay on my guard.
Well, yesterday I was coming down the stairs from spin class — my first in a long time — and I was feeling jazzed about getting through it. And this guy is going down the stairs next to me, and he asks what I’ve been up to lately. (It’s not like he’s aggressively mean to me — more like a friendly/creepy duality.) So I told him that tomorrow (which is to say: today, as I’m writing this) would mark a month since I’d ridden my second cycling century. And he must have heard the pride in my voice, because his reply was undercutting: “Century? Is that some kind of long ride?”
I mean, come on! How hard is it to figure out how long a “century” ride is? But no, he couldn’t just say something like, “Cool!” or “Good job!” or “Wow — that must have been tough!” No, he had to come back with a sneering kind of pseudo-putdown.
Well, in case he’s reading this — which, I realize, is quite a long shot — let me just spell it out: a “century ride” is 100 freakin’ miles long! And I finished it — the Solvang Century (my second) — though just barely, and with lots of help.
* * *
It was a dark and stormy night when my wife and son and I arrived at Solvang, Calif. … Well, okay, not stormy, but dark. I’d had to teach my last class of the quarter at Stanford (on “The Ethics of Storytelling”) that morning, so we couldn’t get down there in the early afternoon, as had been recommended. In fact, it was 11 p.m. or so when we arrived at the hotel. I’d missed the “inspiration dinner” with my teammates from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT); now the question was whether to try to find some dinner or just grab a bit of sleep. I went to sleep. And an instant later it was early morning, and I had to get up and get ready to cycle.
I won’t belabor this point, but pretty much my entire daily schedule is built around the sizable amount of time I spend in the bathroom (on the plus side, I’ve gotten a lot of reading done — a lot). The challenge of accomplishing this in an efficient manner is exacerbated when I haven’t slept very much — when, so to speak, even my internal organs are sleepy. … Okay, I think I actually have belabored the point — but what I’m trying to say is that by the time I had finished my various processes and ablutions, there was no time for me to look for breakfast — so I began the Solvang Century on (if you will) two empty stomachs. Which is not recommended, as food — besides being, of course, a tool for human self-loathing — is fuel.
Also, unlike last year (my first with TNT), when I hewed closely to the recommended during-the-week workout schedule (brutal) and missed almost none of the weekly training rides (brutal-er), this year — with many creative projects (and one or two nasty colds) to juggle, along with my first-ever teaching gig (which I loved, by the way) — I missed most of my daily workouts and many of the weekly rides. So I wasn’t in the (relatively) excellent shape I’d been for my first Solvang Century.
Add to the above the fact that my bike — a “hybrid,” built to take the lumps and bumps of city riding — is considerably heavier than the “road” bikes most of the riders were on … and, well, I was looking for trouble.
And I got it.
This was a hard ride! I mean, hard.
For one thing, there was quite a headwind. And when there’s a headwind, I essentially become a sail — especially as my bike has me sitting straight up, rather than hunched over as on a road bike (for which, admittedly, my ultra-tight hamstrings thank me). So basically, what the physical world wanted me to do was to go backwards; whereas, I was quite eager to try to go forward.
Also, the Solvang Century’s organizers had altered the course from last year, and this new route — which took us through the Vandenberg Air Force Base — had much more climbing in its early stages, while still having the famous “wall” (followed by the less-famous “second wall that no one talks about but is really a pain in the ass as well”) in the last 30 miles or so.
So that by the time we got to the 55-mile mark, I felt done. There was no springiness in my muscles; I had no energy; Kornbluth was kaput.
But here’s the thing: there were still another 50-or-so miles to go! And a bunch of really, really nice people had donated over 3,000 cancer-fighting dollars ($3,531, as of this writing — today’s the last day for donations, by the way) based on my pledge to complete this century ride! So I was in kind of a Biking for Godot situation: I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
But no one said I had to go fast!
That’s been kind of my ace-in-the-hole, cycling-wise: the fact that the century isn’t a race, per se. All you have to do is finish. … Well, that isn’t totally true: there’s a point at which the Solvang Century folks shut everything down, and that point is, roughly, nighttime. So you have to make it to the end before it gets totally dark. Which is quite easy for most of the riders at Solvang, for whom cycling a century is just a smidge more strenuous than taking a warm bath in Epsom salts. But for me — on this struggle-icious day, especially — it would prove to be quite the challenge.
At one point I was pedaling up a rather gentle incline when my TNT coach, Coach Lisa, pulled up alongside me and noted that I was in my “granny gear.” The granny gear is the lowest gear on my bike — the one that makes it easiest to climb hills — but also the slowest: you can pedal really fast in the granny gear, and you still won’t get very far. Usually you (and even I) save the granny gear for really steep ascents — but here I was using it to climb a relatively gentle grade. … A word about Coach Lisa: Recently she rescued a kitten that had somehow gotten stuck in the engine of a (non-running) car. (The kitten is doing great now.) Well, at that moment I was arguably more helpless than that kitten had been. And though I said that Coach Lisa “pulled up” to pedal beside me, actually what she had to do was circle back around and then slow way down. Coach Lisa pointed out that if I continued biking at this tortoiselike pace, I wouldn’t make it to the finish line before curfew. And here’s the thing: We’re a team — all of us with TNT. But within that team, there are sub-teams that are organized by how fast you ride. I was in the next-to-slowest sub-team — Coach Lisa’s sub-team — and the idea was that we were all going to try to finish together. So Coach Lisa wanted me to go faster. And I wanted me to go faster. But I was feeling like Dead Man Riding, and the granny gear was the best I could manage at that time.
So … a conundrum.
Fortunately, there was also Barb. Barb isn’t technically a coach with TNT, but she always seems to be keeping a watchful eye on us stragglers. And for pretty much the whole rest of the ride, Barb hung back with me and distracted me and kept me company and cheered me on. We talked about our respective children, and our spouses, and how much we love them. We discussed politics. Every once in a while, I would urge Barb to leave me in her dust, to just go ahead and finish at her normal pace — but she wouldn’t do that. … Even when, out of exhaustion, I reverted to my essential New Yorker-ness and began cursing the universe with a stream of invectives — though I could tell that Barb was a bit scandalized, she took it all in stride. (At one point — it was cute, really — she even got herself to emit a quiet, supportive “Shit!”)
And thank goodness for downhills! With the combined weight of my bulky body and my stolid bike, I can build up a great deal of momentum on descents. So between Coach Lisa’s coaching and Barb’s encouragement and my occasional friend Gravity, I was able to finish the Solvang Century with the rest of my sub-team, just before total sundown. My wife and son were there — a beautiful sight, as always. The finish line was actually a few miles from our hotel, so my sub-team and I (our nickname was “Lisa’s Loafers,” by the way) cycled back there together, through the gathering darkness. Which is why I actually biked 102.2 miles that day! (Though who’s counting?)
As I happily wolfed down my “celebration dinner” with the rest of the team, I resolved a few things:
- To make sure to eat well before my next ride.
- To save up for a lighter bike.
- To try to keep up my training and cycling, even without the incredible support of being part of a team.
Which is why I dragged myself to that spin class yesterday, even though my mind and body were united in silent protest. And why no amount of snarkiness from competitive chunky guys at the Y will get me down. And why, from now on, whenever I meet a rescue kitten I will raise my paw in solidarity.
Below is a map of my ride. You can click on it and get more-detailed info (though not my pedaling “cadence,” as my cadence meter got busted somehow). You may note that on many segments I received an “award” for my second-fastest time ever — an impressive achievement, perhaps, until you realize that this was only my second ride at Solvang!