Main menu:

Fill out your email address
to receive occasional messages from Josh!
E-mail address:
Zip code:

Get Adobe Flash player


Categories +/-

Archive +/-

Links +/-

Meta +/-

RSS Feed

Curing Cancer

My Second Century

At the finish line, with one of my prizes.

At the finish line, with one of my prizes.

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!

Truck Left!

A Man, A Plan, A Port-O-San.

A Man, A Plan, A Port-O-San.

So on last Saturday’s training ride, a truck hit me.

Well, to be a bit more accurate — at the cost of some dramatic effect — a truck clipped me.

I was cycling uphill along a winding road near Pt. Reyes when all of a sudden: BANG! — there was this loud noise, which I soon realized was from the impact of a speeding truck slamming into my left elbow and the left edge of my handlebars.  The truck — a dirty white pickup — was going really fast (at least, compared to me — so admittedly, that might not be incredibly fast), and by the time I’d absorbed what had just happened, it was already way ahead of me.

I didn’t fall off my bike; I didn’t even stop pedaling — though I imagine that if the truck had just swerved a smidge more into me, things might have ended unhappily.  It turns out that my elbow had flattened the truck’s passenger-side rearview mirror.  This leads me to think — and I’m not normally a boastful man, at least about my joints — that I have really strong elbows!  Maybe my ancestors, when pondering the futility of their lives, assumed a particular position — elbows on desk, say — that, over the generations, led to an unheard-of toughness.  In any case, I can assure you that I feel totally fine!  My elbow has a little bruise, but it doesn’t hurt at all.  Although, as they say, you should see the other guy!

I caught up with that other guy — the truck’s driver — eventually.  At first, after he’d hit me (and let me mention that I wasn’t riding in the middle of the road or anything: I was as far to the right as I could go without falling off) and I’d watched his truck zoom away without stopping, I was pissed.  You know, New York-style pissed!  As I continued pedaling, as fast as I could go, I gestured after him with my hand, as if to say, Are you effin’ kidding me?  I tried to make out the license plate, but couldn’t.  By the time the truck disappeared around a curve, I assumed that I’d never see it again.

But then it stopped, at a turnout — and right away my anger at this apparent clip-and-run evaporated.  When I finally pulled up alongside the truck, and the guy rolled down his window, I found that I couldn’t be upset at all.  Because here was a big man with a little chihuahua on his lap.  I mean a really big (and bald) man, with this little tiny scared-looking chihuahua!  The man looked scared, too.  He kept asking me, again and again, “Are you okay?  Are you sure you’re okay?”  And instead of saying something snippy (like “No thanks to you, Mr. Erratic Truck Driver!”), all I could do was emit the little babyish sounds that I tend to make whenever I encounter cute little doggies (and even big doggies): “Oh, look at you!  Look how sweet you are — yesh you are!”  Etc.

Finally, the driver — having been unable to get me to say that I’d been hurt in any way (I hadn’t) — drove off.  And I had a fairly impressive story to tell my Team In Training teammates at the next SAG stop.

SAG stops are cool.  I believe the term is an acronym for Support And Gear — but in my experience with TNT they tend to be food-and-drink stations, usually run by volunteers.  (Often there are also Port-O-Sans.)  All SAG stops are magical and lovely things, but the best I’ve experienced have been set up by Jim Fenolio, whose daughter Jennifer was one of my teammates last season.  I believe Jim was going through (successful) treatment for cancer as we trained last year.  Here are some of the things that I remember being available to us weary riders back at my first-ever Jim Fenolio SAG Extravaganza:

  • Numerous, carefully sliced peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich wedges, with many different varieties of preserves (e.g., rose-petal-and-guava), which were labeled so you knew what you were getting.
  • Peet’s coffee.
  • Hot chocolate.
  • Teas, herbal and caffeinated.
  • Many types of pretzels and chips.
  • Eggs prepared in a number of ways.
  • Water.
  • Sea salt.
  • Steaming, hearty soup.
  • Manna from Heaven (or maybe Dublin).
  • AC/DC blaring from a boombox.

I’m sure I’m leaving out a ton of stuff — but you get the idea: It was the kind of SAG stop that makes you think it would be pretty cool if you could just live at a SAG stop.

Well, this time, among Jim’s offerings (and don’t get me started on the delicious meatballs!) were these rice-patty things that contained crab meat and a type of mushroom whose name I don’t recall but I know is popular among connoisseurs.  Jim explained to me that at one of his SAG stops on an earlier ride (one that, tragically, I had missed, as I had a gig in Florida that weekend), he had prepared a similar dish, but with another kind of fish (halibut, maybe?) — and that someone had mentioned to him that, well, it might be even better with crab meat.

Who the hell requests fancier ingredients at a SAG stop?  It put me in mind of these two little girls who happened to be playing “ice-cream truck” at the “tot lot” in Berkeley that I used to take my son to, years ago.  One of them said something like, “Welcome, customer!  What would you like?” and the other one said, totally seriously, something like, “Um, I’d like a scoop of cappuccino-mint gelato and also a lychee-lemongrass sorbet, if you would.”  Perhaps we have reached a point — and I am speaking here specifically of Bay Area bourgeois culture — where there are just too many choices.

In any case, Jim’s food (and the food of all the other SAG volunteers) was yummy.

Overall, the ride — nearly 61 miles in length, and 4,329 feet in elevation (but who’s counting?) — was quite challenging.  But I made it to the end (at Stafford Lake, in Novato) and was able to return home in triumph and experience the hot bath I’d been fantasizing about for lo, those many miles.  I’ll admit that — especially when the road got particularly narrow, and the winds became especially gusty — I sometimes got a bit jittery when one of my teammates called out “Car back!” (or, more bracingly, “Truck back!”), or when some skinny hotshot cyclist (not with TNT) came brushing past me without first calling out a helpful “Bike left!”  But that dirty white pickup truck hadn’t killed me, so it must have made me stronger.  Who knows?  Maybe, even now, at truck stops throughout Marin County, a legend is spreading — about a mysterious, indestructible cyclist with Elbows of Steel.  Mark me well, truckers of Marin: I will be back.  So drive carefully, keep your chihuahuas close, and keep your passenger-side rearview mirrors even closer.

I am training with the Leukeumia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT) to cycle the Solvang Century on March 9 — both to try to shrink my pendulous tummy and (more important) to raise money to fight cancer.  You can contribute to my ride by clicking here.  (As of this writing, I am 42 percent of the way toward my goal.)

Below are maps of my two most recent rides.  If you click on them, many additional details will be revealed to you.

Cycling Again To Fight Cancer

I’m thrilled (and, okay, a bit nervous) to say that I will once again be training to ride the Solvang Century — a 100-mile cycling event — with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT)!  The Century will take place on March 9, 2013, and I have committed to raising at least $2,250 by then.  These funds will go to help blood-cancer patients — finding cures, improving treatments — and also to their families, offering much-needed support.

Each week, on this blog, I will post a map and stats from my latest training ride, uploaded from my cool little GPS device.  So you can keep track of my progress — even including such minutiae as my heart rate and pedaling cadence from moment to moment!

I would be so grateful for any donation that you might be able to make!!  You can donate by clicking here to get to my TNT fundraising page.

In my first TNT ride, this past March, I raised way more than I’d originally asked for — and I cannot tell you how moved and gratified I was!  It’s so incredibly tough to fight cancer, and your contributions did so much to improve the quality of life for so many cancer patients and their loved ones.  I’m hoping to do even better this time!!

Below — if I have successfully navigated through the murky swamps of http coding — are the maps and stats for the few training rides that I’ve already done this season.  (If you click on any of the maps, you’ll be shown all sorts of details about that ride.)

Again, you can support my cancer-fighting efforts with Team In Training  by clicking here.

Thanks for reading this, and be well!!





My First Century

Our ride dedication ceremony, at about 6:15 a.m. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Fenolio Faye.)

A dog was barking, furiously, as we began our 100-mile bike ride on Saturday, March 10.  It was about 6:30 in the morning in Solvang, California, and my Team In Training (TNT) teammates and I were thrilled to finally be starting the Solvang Century after months of training.  The dog was in a house on what I’m sure is normally a sleepy street, and it clearly considered us to be potential intruders.  What it couldn’t have known was that we were only the first of thousands of riders who would be pedaling past the house that morning.  I wondered whether the dog would have the stamina to keep barking until the last possible helmeted intruder, smelling of sunblock and chain lubricant, had wheeled off into the distance.

Also, I wondered — and not casually — whether I would have the stamina to make it through all 100 miles.  I really, really didn’t want to fail.  In the week leading up to Solvang, I’d felt nervous and restless — a condition that wasn’t helped by our coach’s strict instructions that we not do any strenuous training during that week, so that we’d be fresh for the ride.  Over these months I’d gotten used to doing four days of workouts each week: core-strengthening, spinning, and stretching (including the continuation of my futile lifelong quest to touch my toes; I bet my toes feel like smooth pebbles on a balmy Mediterranean shore; I’ll never know).  Without that daily endorphin rush, my essential, sedentary self threatened to wrest back control from the wannabe athlete who’d been in charge lately.  Maybe, by the time we were ready to start at Solvang, I’d have completely reverted to a couch potato.

Alex Pezzuto. (Photo courtesy of Mary Pezzuto.)

But as we continued past the barking dog, through more residential streets, and then onto a freeway, those fears mostly evaporated.  Biking with my teammates had become a natural thing for me: My feet now belonged in biking shoes, clipped to the pedals, and my butt belonged on the saddle.  As always, we called out potential hazards to our teammates: “Car up!”  “Glass!”  “Slowing!”  And we thought about the people we loved — and people whom others loved, as well.  It occurred to me, as we went along, that after a lifetime of obsessively thinking about and talking about my family (particularly my late father), I now was focusing, in part, on people I’d never met.  For example, Alex Pezzuto.  Alex died 22 years ago of chronic leukemia.  I learned about him from his daughter, Mary, who is on my e-list.  He was a delightful guy — accordion player, delicatessen owner, terrific dancer, loving father of six children.  He had one wonky eye, and he was always joking and teasing.  This is my favorite thing that Mary wrote to me about her dad:

Alex had a signature comment whenever anyone was aggravated or impatient with him.  Usually it was in response to some horrifying or deeply embarrassing breach of etiquette to which he paid no attention.  His response was: Love Me, Love My Dog.  It always put us into stitches because it’s so ridiculous.  I don’t know, maybe you had to be there.  Anyhow.

“Love me, love my dog.”  I thought of that phrase over and over during our training, and it helped to sustain me through the Solvang event (including when that dog, which I’m sure is very much loved, was barking at us), making me smile even during long climbs.

Of which there were several.  The first ascent happened relatively early in the ride, between miles 20 and 30.  It began the way so many climbs do: You’re just cycling down a hill or along a flat stretch of road, minding your own business, and suddenly … you’re going up.  And up, and up.  Before I started my training, I was mostly preoccupied with whether I’d be able to deal with climbs — but now, after so many Saturday sessions with my team, I knew to just go down into my easiest gear, pin my ears back, and pedal my way to the top.  Inching up the incline with hundreds of other cyclists, all of us stretched out in single file along the side of the freeway, felt something like being a tiny part of a giant, wheeled millipede.  Though of course, here — as throughout the event — many cyclists would, traffic permitting, speed past me.  (A teammate would warn, “Biker left!” — which, for part of the ride, I daydreamed about titling a publication for progressive cyclists.)  One time, a biker zipped by me, really close, and it momentarily unbalanced me: suddenly I found myself veering out into the traffic lanes (albeit incredibly slowly).  (Something like this — a possible near-spill — happens to me on pretty much every ride.  So far — knock wood — I haven’t actually had an accident.)  I managed to unclip my left shoe in time to get my foot down on the road and prevent myself from falling — and fortunately, there were no cars coming up behind me at that moment.  Within a few seconds, I was back on track, in my single file of cyclists.  Voices called out: “Are you okay?”

One of the concerned voices, inevitably, belonged to my coach, the Bumpster.  The Bumpster has a very distinctive voice: sweet and sharp and high.  Her laugh (and she laughs quite a lot) is amazing — you can hear it from a long distance away.  On this day I decided that the Bumpster’s laugh kind of resembles the call of a seagull: you know, that resonant, question-marky sound they make?  In my little group (nicknamed Team Margarita, for the drink that the Bumpster likes to serve during post-ride celebrations), we always responded powerfully to the Call of the Bumpster: no matter how far we may have strayed, that laugh drew us back to the safety and solidarity of our flock.  In the non-cycling part of her life, the Bumpster is an ER nurse; I would bet that her laugh has speeded many a patient back to good health.

With Sara at a SAG stop.

When we got to our second SAG (refreshments) stop, my wife, Sara, and son, Guthrie, were already there waiting for me.  I cannot tell you how much joy I got from having them down at Solvang to share this experience!  They met me at several SAG stops, and occasionally would pull up beside me in my wife’s car as I biked along.  These encounters made me feel glorious, like a participant in the Tour de France or something, only much slower and without any alleged performance-enhancers (unless you count the peanut-butter-honey-and-banana sandwiches that Sara had prepared for me).  Several other teammates had friends and family members with them as well — and so did many other riders at Solvang (most of whom were not with Team In Training).  As a result, especially towards the end of the ride, the vibe along the route was incredibly festive.

But before we could get to the end, we had to go up “the Wall.”  Or, as it was often referred to, “the notorious Wall.”  The Wall — a steady, relatively steep ascent — goes from about mile 70 to around mile 83.  In fact, one of the things we’d been warned about regarding the Solvang Century was that the bulk of the climbing happens late in the ride.  The thing is, a few miles before the Wall there was another ascent — one that, the Bumpster repeatedly told us, was actually harder than the Wall itself. Whether or not this was true (I have written before about the Bumpster’s propensity to lie in the service of motivation), it did make the Wall seem less daunting to me; after all, according the Bumpster, we’d already gotten through worse.  Moreover, our training rides had often packed in way more climbing per mile than Solvang could throw at us.  So we just downshifted, pinned our ears back, and kept going.

As often happens, the toughest ascent — psychologically, at least — came when many of us assumed we’d already gotten all the hard climbing out of the way.  In this case, it was a section (around the 90-mile mark) that the Bumpster had (from her previous experiences at Solvang) nicknamed “Little Bitch.”  Somehow, Little Bitch isn’t officially counted by the ride organizers as a hill — but believe me, it’s a hill!  And a twisty one, at that.  On previous ascents, I’d swallowed a packet of caffeinated energy goop to help propel me.  But by this point in the ride, I was over the whole eating thing — especially sweet stuff; I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.  Normally among the most avid eaters of peanut-butter-and-anything-sandwiches, I gazed upon the ubiquitous PB&J’s at our later SAG stops with utter disinterest.  Like a camel that had learned to depend on its hump, I felt a serene certainty that my body contained sufficient stores to power me the rest of the way.  Plus, I was the opposite of hungry: I felt like a nation that had suddenly gone from being a net importer of energy to an exporter.

Also, I felt hot.  Throughout our training sessions during the Bay Area winter, it had always been relatively cool — sometimes, downright frigid.  Down here in SoCal, the chilly morning had given way to a scorching afternoon.  Anticipating this, I had, the previous week, bought a kind of skullcap designed to go under my helmet and protect my bald head from the kind of airhole-pattern burn-striping that had inspired my team to nickname me “Manimal.”  I found it ironic that I was now biking while wearing a skullcap, as this reminded me of all the Saturday mornings that my cycling training had kept me from going to synagogue.  (I have kind of a passive-aggressive relationship with God — though, to be fair, God started it.)  What I hadn’t anticipated was that, for the very first time in my relatively short endurance-cycling experience, today it would become so hot that I’d be moved to take off the arm-warmers I’d worn on every training ride.  As a result of this (and of my lack of sunblock), my arms became so burnt that — even now as I write this, nine days after the event — they are peeling like the skin of a horror-movie creature.  Which, of course, makes me very proud.

With Guthrie at mile 98.5.

The last few miles of the Solvang Century were all downhill or flat, and my teammates and I enjoyed them immensely.  Guthrie and Sara were cheering by the side of the road as we neared the finish line — one of the peak moments of my day, and of my life.  A bunch of us actually cycled past the finish line — causing the Bumpster to yell out to us, penetratingly, to circle back.  But even though we’d covered that extra bit of distance, at the end of the ride my bike’s little computer thingie told me that we’d gone only 98.5 miles.

This wouldn’t do!  After picking up my way-cool Solvang Century completer’s medallion and pin at the TNT booth, I continued biking to a nearby parking lot.  And there, with my son jogging along beside me, I cycled an additional 1.5 miles — until I had officially made it through 100 miles.  At which point, I finally got off my bike, and Guthrie, Sara, and I wandered around Solvang in search of some celebratory aebleskivers.  Aebleskivers are said to be the supreme delicacy in Solvang, which is kind of a Disneyfied replica of a Danish town.  Well, we finally found a place where we could buy aebleskivers.  Let me tell you two things about the aebleskivers we ate:

  1. They tasted like blobs of deep-fried dough immersed in cherry cough syrup.
  2. I thought they were delicious.


(From some Googling, I’ve learned that apparently the correct plural is not “aebleskivers” but “aebleskiver.”  I will not, however, allow the Danes to exercise their usual linguistic hegemony in this important matter.)

After the ride, there was a celebration dinner at a nearby hotel for TNT riders and their entourages.  The food was terrible; I had three helpings.  My hunger, briefly dormant for those last few miles of the century, had returned — with a vengeance.  The Bumpster came by my table to serve me one of her homemade margaritas; it was the very stuff that dreams are made of.

The next morning, we hooked my bike onto the back of Sara’s car and headed back up to Berkeley.  It was poignant to say goodbye to my teammates, and it felt weird to have already completed the event, after all those months of training and worrying and wondering.  I don’t deal well with finishing things; it took me over a week to bring myself to do this little blog entry about Solvang, as if writing about it would seal the whole experience into an inaccessible past.  I worked really hard to prepare for my first century ride, and then I actually did it — which, me being me, I find somewhat depressing.  I’m a lot more comfortable with incompletion, even more so with failure.  I realize that this is creepy and wrong, but really, there’s nothing to be done about it.  You know: Love me, love my dog.

Again, let me offer my infinite thanks to everyone who contributed the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in support of my ride!  You have helped to fight blood cancer, and to make life better for cancer patients and their loved ones.  People who want to donate still can, through April 9, by clicking here.

Below is a map of my Solvang Century ride; you can click on it to get details regarding speed, heart rate, elevation, and more (though strangely, it contains no sunburn-related data).

In Praise of Rollers

In the old days — before, say, last November, when I began my cycle training — I used to think that there were three kinds of biking terrain: uphill, downhill, and flat.  But now I know that there’s a fourth kind, and it’s the funnest kind of all: the roller.  Rollers are little hills, one after another — and if you play them right, they can turn you and your bike into kind of a perpetual motion machine.

Here’s how to do it: you build up as much momentum as possible when descending, and then let that momentum carry you up and over the next (mild) hill — at which point you start descending again … and the blissful process continues, over and over, until Satan decides that it is time for the rollers to stop.  At which point you come to the painful realization that you are back in the universe of regular physics, of ups that hurt and downs that frighten, of endless flatnesses that can sap you of all hope.  Rollers are sex and jelly beans and discount matinées; the rest is silence.

Well, maybe I exaggerate: there’s often a grim satisfaction to grinding up a hill, and it certainly can be exhilarating to swoop down a winding mountain road, and you might be able to make a decent case for coasting along a zero grade while taking in the view.  But rollers … well, they’re just friggin’ awesome.

Maybe it was because of all the rollers that our training ride two Saturdays ago — nearly 80 miles through Pleasanton, Dublin, San Ramon, Danville, Livermore, and possibly hundreds of other cities (see map below) — actually felt like fun.  None of our previous rides had felt like that: all had been gratifying, in the sense that we had survived them.  But this one — I mean, we were smiling, and cracking jokes, and thinking of new nicknames for one another (it was on this ride that I became known as “Manimal,” for the stripes of sunburn on my bald head due to the air holes in my helmet) … it was actually enjoyable (mostly)!

By the same token — or, more precisely, by the flip side of that token — our subsequent ride out of Walnut Creek, last Saturday, though “only” 50 miles, felt much more challenging.  Oh, there were some rollers, to be sure, but they were overwhelmed by the big ups and scary downs and headwindy flats.  Plus there were some people along the way who looked like, if we happened to stop near where they were standing, would have enjoyed killing and eating us.  (A theory: not everyone is fond of stretchy-outfit-wearing, pedal-clipping, goo-chugging bike riders.)

This was our “taper ride” — the last one before the Solvang Century, which happens this coming Saturday.  “Taper” as in tapering off, saving ourselves for the big event; not, as my wife would like to imagine, “tapir,” as in replacing our bikes with large browsing mammals.


The tapering has continued throughout the week, and this has been messing with my mind.  Prohibited from doing strenuous workouts, so as to remain fresh for Solvang, I have felt myself reverting to the static, lumplike me who existed before all this cycle training began.  Gym time has been replaced by, well, thinking time — and we all know that this cannot end well.

So I am counting down the hours to Solvang, when I can get back on my bike and stop thinking for 10 hours or so — or at least limit my thinking to thoughts like Ow! or Hungry! or Must pee! or Only 82 miles to go!  I’m like that daughter of Tevye’s, early in Fiddler on the Roof, who begins the song wishing for a dreamboat of a husband, only to end up saying she’ll settle for pretty much anything with arms and legs.  I’m not ready to stop yet!  I’d love a hundred miles of rollers, but you know what?  Bring on the gnarly hills, bring on the switchback descents and the monotonous straightaways.  Solvang, do with me what you will — just keep pushing back the time, that horrible awful inevitable time, when I must return to being … myself.

Though, happily, I have surpassed my fundraising goal, you can still donate to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in support of my ride (through April 9) by clicking here. And thanks to everyone who showed up at the Ashby Stage on Feb. 27 for my benefit performance of Ben Franklin: Unplugged — it was lots of fun, especially as no one mocked my “Manimal” head-stripes.

Manimal (detail).


After last Saturday’s ride — 70 miles from San Rafael to Stinson Beach, and back — I felt pretty wiped out.  There had been a lot of climbing (by my standards, at least) and a surly headwind, and my tummy felt messed up starting at about mile 20 — but mostly … it was 70 friggin’ miles!  My coach, The Bumpster, usually says only upbeat and encouraging things during a ride (“You’re lookin’ great!  Lookin’ real strong!”); this time, as she pulled up alongside me around mile 50-something, she said, with audible empathy, “Hey — only one-quarter of the way to go!”  I must have looked miserable, or at least grim.  Certainly, by then both my muscles and my emotions had lost the elasticity they’d had early in the ride.  My basic — nearly my only — thought was, next-next-next-next, as I kept turning the pedals.

Actually, despite the strain and effort, occasionally my thoughts did just go kind of Dada.  Ascending one endless-seeming hill, I suddenly visualized a TV series called Touched by a Rangel.  Based loosely on the old drama Touched by an Angel (which, admittedly, I’ve never seen), this show would feature different folks every week — each of them suffering in some way, and each of them saved somehow by gravelly voiced New York Congressman Charlie Rangel.  That’s as far as I got in my conceiving of this program, as at some point I finally crested that hill and turned my thoughts to not crashing on the way down. …

Oh, someone did crash!  One of my several teammates who is currently enduring cancer treatment — but who, it should go without saying, is a much better and faster cyclist than I — was zipping down a twisty mountain road and didn’t see a dip in the pavement in front of him.  He flew off his bike and landed on the back of his head — which fortunately was protected by a helmet.  I was at the SAG (refreshments) stop at the 35-mile mark at Stinson Beach (just where we were to turn around and go back to San Rafael), with several of my teammates.  We saw a white truck pull up and a Park Ranger got out with the injured guy, who joked that the only thing that hurt was his ego.  The ranger said the guy knew who he was, etc., and so didn’t seem to have suffered a concussion; but, of course, there would be no more riding for him that day.  I noticed that the guy’s hand was shaking, and wondered whether that was from the crash or from his cancer meds.

Really, there’s a level of courage in my “honored teammates” (the term that Team In Training uses for participants who are now, or have been, in cancer treatment) that exceeds anything I could imagine in myself.  And I do think of them as I go forward in the later miles, and of all the kind people who have donated in support of my ride, and of my family and loved ones, and I wish — wish hard; you might even say pray — for their health and happiness.  So that’s another recurring thought that I was having, along with Touched By A Rangel (coming soon from C-SPAN3) and next-next-next-next and When will I be back in my own bathroom, with the latest New York Review of Books? and … and fractions: Okay, I’m one-35th of the way there … I’m four-sevenths of the way there …

But the weird thing is, each week, the moment the ride is over, I’m already recovering — emotionally, at least.  I feel relieved to have made it through the latest challenge, and not to have bonked or crashed or cramped up.  In fact, one curious thing I’ve noticed in our training is how each long ride is itself, in part, a series of recoveries: You strain up the hill, then recover going down.  Actually, it feels even more micro than that: I can get a sense of recovery at the top of a pedal stroke, before having to press down hard again.  Though of course each recovery doesn’t bring me back to the way I felt at the start: it just takes me to somewhere more workable than where I just was.

And the next day — Sunday — wow, that’s another recovery.  A big one.  Last Sunday I woke up feeling like something that a mastodon had just scraped off of the bottom of its foot.  Plus, as in previous Sundays, I had a terrible headache.  It only occurred to me last weekend that maybe, at least in part, the headache was from caffeine withdrawal: nothing that I had consciously done — it’s just that, as the rides have gotten longer and longer, I’ve been going all that time without coffee.  And anyone who knows me knows that I rarely go more than a second or two without coffee!  So for tomorrow’s ride, I’m bringing some goop from the bike store that has caffeine in it.  The young guy at the store told me that the goop would help lower my “level of perceived exertion”; it took me a moment to realize that he was basically saying it would make the ride easier for me.  Which, really, was all I wanted.

Tomorrow’s ride will be the longest of our whole training — 80 miles.  And then, two weeks later, the big event: the Solvang Century.  One of my honored teammates (not the one who crashed last week) had a medical setback and will unable to participate at Solvang — but he assures us that he will go on to do all the various marathons, etc., on his schedule, once he’s better.  His recoveries are achieved through enormous perseverance.  There comes a point, for those who are battling mortal illness, where recovering means surviving, means defeating entropy one more time.  As a result of all their effort and pain, more love is in the universe than there would have been otherwise.  This is a gift to all of us who have yet to reach that point, and who hope that when we do, it will be with at least a small measure of the grace that my honored teammates have displayed.

My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has contributed the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in support of my ride!  The official fundraising deadline has passed — and I’ve surpassed my goal! — but you can still donate, if you want, through April 9, by clicking here.  Thanks, also, to everyone who has bought tickets for my performance of Ben Franklin: Unplugged in Berkeley this coming Monday — all proceeds will benefit the LLS.  (As of this writing there is exactly one ticket remaining on sale!  If it’s still available, it can be purchased here.)

Below is a map of last Saturday’s training ride; you can click on it to get all sorts of statistics, some of them vital.

In Passing

Just a short entry to note our longish ride last Saturday — 60 miles and change.  Experienced a tire miracle: my front tire was flat in the morning, before the ride; I inflated it and hoped for the best; it stayed inflated through the whole ride, whereas like a dozen members of our team had flats; and then, after I got back home, it went flat again.  I’ve now replaced the outer tire (not just the flattened inner tube), as the woman at Mike’s Bikes thought that the holes in the previous one were allowing the flats somehow (there had been many unwanted deflations in that front wheel, none — knock wood — so far in the rear).  The old me (circa a few months ago) would have asked her to change the tire for me; but the current me, grizzled several-month cycling veteran that I am, calmly rode home with it slung over my shoulder and put it on myself.

Other than the tire magic, the ride confirmed for me that I am a slow but steady rider, whom most everyone else passes but who so far has gotten to the end eventually.  I see the other riders as they pass me — strong, usually happy, despite their lifely concerns.  I don’t feel left behind — rather, I feel that I am behind them all the way.  I guess that’s what teamwork can do for you.

You can support my upcoming century ride — and thus join the fight against blood cancers — by making a contribution on my TNT fundraising page.

Below is a map of last Saturday’s ride; you can click on it for more info.

Feb. 27 Performance to Benefit the LLS

Photo by Mark Leialoha

On Monday, Feb. 27, I’ll be performing my comic monologue Ben Franklin: Unplugged at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley — with all proceeds going to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  (The LLS runs Team In Training, the wonderful organization that is whipping me into shape to bike the Solvang Century next month.)

As far as I know, Ben Franklin wasn’t a major cyclist — but, contrary to his paunchy image, he was an athlete: he’s the only Founding Father honored at the International Swimming Hall of Fame.  My guess is that, if he were alive today, he’d ride a nifty folding bike to the printshop — and would blog about the benefits of physical activity.

Tix & info for this benefit performance can be found here.

Lollipop of Pain

Stafford Lake, just before we began our "fun" ride.

Over the course of my cycling training so far, I have learned that seasoned cyclists use certain words in different ways from what most of us are used to.  For example, when one of them refers to a course as being “fun,” or “great,” this probably means that biking it will hurt like hell.  Another example: My coach, the Bumpster, spoke of a section of last Saturday’s training ride out of Novato — a ridiculously steep ascent known as the “Marshall Wall” — as “enticing.”  Now, to me coconut gelato on a hot day is “enticing”; what climbing the Marshall Wall felt like was something more akin to “grueling.”  Actually, I suspect that for the Bumpster and other super-cyclists “enticing” and “grueling” go together quite naturally, whereas “easy” would be a turnoff.  And amazingly, I’m starting to feel the same way.  Starting to.  I still really, really like “easy,” but there’s definitely something gratifying about pushing through challenging terrain.  And even though the gratification is mostly in retrospect, often from the vantage point of a bathtub filled with hot water and Epsom salts, some of it is there even at the time of the struggle.  Or maybe it isn’t, and I’m just thinking that because it already happened and I’ve mostly recovered.  Perhaps cycling history would come out differently if it were written at mile 31, and were dictated by your quads.

At one of our “SAG” stops (where blessed volunteers dole out food and drink to all the training cyclists), a guy who seemed to be in tip-top shape pulled his bike over for a few minutes to chat with us.  When told of the route we were biking, he expressed approval: “Ah, yes — the lollipop.  It’s a great route!”  And indeed, when I later uploaded the ride from my bike-computer thingie, it mapped out as something like a lollipop.  (See below.)  At that moment, my legs were screaming obscenities at me — but yeah, even then there was something “great” about the experience.  It was a beautiful day in Marin (is that a redundancy?), and I was pretty much keeping up with my remarkable teammates, even though there had been times when I’d kept going by focusing only on the next pedal stroke, over and over — because to look farther ahead was an enticement to think, I can’t do it.  (Maybe that’s why the Bumpster called it “enticing”?)  And you know something?  I couldn’t do it: that course was too hard for me to complete — and yet I did complete it.  And when you do something you couldn’t do, even once, it makes you think that maybe you could do something else you couldn’t do.  And then (maybe) you’re hooked.

In any case, I plan to keep going — through all the “fun,” “great” courses that they throw at us on the way to the enticing Solvang Century on March 10.  Just don’t ask me how I’m feeling when I’m in the middle of a really difficult climb, or I might reply with some less positive-sounding adjectives.

You can join the fight against blood cancers by making a contribution on my TNT fundraising page.

Below is a map of Saturday’s lollipop-shaped ride; you can click on it for more info.

The Unbearable Flatness of Vacaville

It doesn’t make intuitive sense, but cycling on a flat road for many miles seems to be tougher than going up and down hills over the same distance.  Such, at least, was my experience on Saturday, as we rode nearly 60 miles out of Vacaville.  There was quite a challenging ascent at about the 10-mile mark — but after that: flat, flat, flat.

Which turned out to be really hard!  Hard on your butt, for one thing: you tend to stay in the same exact position on your saddle, instead of the natural adjustments you make when ascending and descending.  Hard also on your genitals.  And on your hands, strangely.  Hard, certainly, on your leg muscles, which — especially with a headwind, which we had for most of the day — are engaged all the time, rather than intermittently as in an up-and-down ride.  But mostly, I’d say, it’s hard on your brain: there’s a numbing quality in doing exactly the same thing over and over, and in seeing pretty much the same stuff again and again.  I tried thinking of interesting things — like solutions to the problems in the screenplay I’m working on — but my mind would always snap back into zombie mode.  It was as if I had become just another accessory on my bike, a thing whose job was simply to turn the pedals around — a cycling automaton.

Though, to be fair, I did see some notable things: A peacock, for instance.  Also, a baby deer.  And, disturbingly, a dead cow.  Well, it looked dead: it was lying on its side, with its legs sticking straight out and another (living) cow staring down at it.  Also, I learned that people in Vacaville apparently like to combine such activities as truck-driving and dog-walking with the activity of marijuana-smoking: at one point, a truck went by in the other direction with a bunch of people in it looking really, really happy — and it was going slower than we were on our bikes!  The fumes in its wake were pungent and medicinal.

Most notably, toward the end of the ride, a power line came down.  Fortunately for me, I’m in the slowest group — it was a faster group, just ahead of us, that bore the brunt of the downed line.  Actually, it was one particular rider in that group — Mark, who is doing his first Team In Training ride, like me, but is a vastly stronger cyclist.  The rider in front of him observed the surreal sight of a power line coming down, and called out “Wire!” just as a thick cord literally grazed the top of his helmet.  On hearing this, Mark, while zipping along on his bike, instinctively looked down at the ground (for a wire).  And this, Mark thinks, may have saved his life: with his head tilted down, the power line struck him in the crown of his helmet, rather than in his face or neck.  The helmet pulverized; Mark, fortunately, came through with only some nasty-looking facial bruises (and maybe a broken nose).  Amazingly, he wasn’t thrown off his bike; he just kept cycling.  When I got back to the parking lot that was both our starting and ending point, Mark was being tended to by a teammate, who was applying band-aids in a big “X” across his face.  Showing Clint Eastwood-esque toughness, Mark refused an offer of painkillers.  He also expressed relief that his expensive sunglasses hadn’t been broken.  (People from Marin are really protective of their shades!)

So on this ride, nothing happened for a long time, and then something really did happen.  Though what happened was so much better than what might have happened that it kind of took my breath away.  Turns out, the flatness I’d experienced had been a gross misperception on my part: all that time, the future was veering drunkenly toward us, killing cows and downing power lines; it almost took Mark away from us.  So what was flat, really?  Certainly not Vacaville.  (How could a town be flat when half of its inhabitants are high?)  No, the flatness, it seems, was — is — in me.

[UPDATE: I later found out that the cow I saw wasn’t dead — rather, she was about to give birth!  When I heard this, I said, “Well, I won’t get foaled again” — which I thought was pretty clever, until I remembered that a foal is a baby horse, not a baby cow.  I really shouldn’t have dropped biology.]

You can support my upcoming ride in the “Solvang Century” by making a contribution on my TNT fundraising page.

Below is a map of Saturday’s ride: you can click on it for more info.