The weekend in San Diego was a success! Though I didn’t get any ocean swimming in – long story that involves darkness, cold water, and fears of being shark bait – I did enjoy a 10 mile canyon trail run, a 60 mile coastal ride, a 108 mile century called Tour de Poway, and a YMCA pool swim that tasted salty enough that it could have been the ocean.
Most importantly, this was a pivotal weekend that went very, very well. It was my last big push before Hawaii and what better place to push myself than in the beautiful hills, heat, and coastal views of San Diego.
I had been looking forward to Sunday all week – my last big ride before Hawaii, a time to solidify and test my pacing, nutrition, and fitness. Chris, Brad (the evil twin), and I headed out early to ride the Tour de Poway. We arrived at the start of the ride which was swarming with riders. It was clear that San Diego takes it’s riding seriously. Brad had shared with us that on Saturday night you won’t even find a night scene in San Diego because everyone goes to bed so early – because the next morning they have things to do – like hike, or ride their bikes, or run. And taking a quick look around at the start, I notice that everyone really looked like fit, serious riders. And, everyone has a nice, really nice road bike. In fact, I was probably one of the few on the ride with a tri bike.
The ride started promptly at 7 am with crowds of cyclists eager to push to the front. We set out at the end of the large group, chiding those that seemed to confuse the "ride" with a race. And then karma immediately threw us a mechanical problem – I couldn’t clip in. Over and over again, I slapped those Speedplay pedals with my cleats, forcing, pushing, cramming my shoe on the pedal. But they wouldn’t go in. Chris demanded I stop and remove my shoe. Diagnosis – Speedplay Poison – in other words, sand. In Illinois, you find Speedplay Poison in a cornfield (mud) and usually can remove it with a stick. In San Diego, the poison is ten times worse because sand is grittier, finer, and finds a way to sneak into all parts of your cleat. After 20 minutes of Chris cleaning out my cleats, we set out.
By this time, the entire ride had passed us. But it didn’t matter if we started sooner or later, it was going to be a long day with over 100 miles in the saddle. The first 2 miles were foggy and flat, rolling through the roads of Poway. The fog had enveloped any warning that this hill, or mountain, was ahead and it took us by surprise. 6 minutes into the ride, I found my heart rate spiked over 170 bpm and my legs completely geared out. We had begun the long, arduous 3 mile climb up an 8 percent grade. Suddenly, we were passing the eager riders that had rolled off so quickly at the start. I kept climbing and pulled past Chris and Brad. Though the crowds of cyclists were clearly consuming half the road, traffic was still whizzing down the other side. About 5 minutes into the climb, I heard someone huffing behind me. I thought maybe Brad had taken my wheel but out of the corner of my eye noticed a man in a different colored jersey. Some guy had attached himself to my wheel, matching me pedal stroke for pedal stroke but not stepping up to do the work. I climbed sitting, I climbed standing. He was right on me. I picked it up, I backed off, he responded. I kept climbing. 15 minutes go by and we are still climbing, I am still geared out, my heart is still beating and screaming. I think to myself that if I ever could, would, might explode on a climb this very well might be it. But I kept going, with the wheel sucker in tow. Chris buzzed by me, spinning along effortlessly. Another 10 minutes pass and it is getting treacherous and dangerous. We are climbing side by side with traffic also climbing the mountain while trying to avoid the traffic descending the mountain. Though we are weaving in and out of traffic, and sucking their exhaust, not one car cussed, honked, or belittled us. In fact, a pick up truck full of guys began talking to us. They asked what we were doing – riding – and then asked if it was a race – no – and then questioned why we could do this for fun – good point. After 28 minutes of climbing, we reach the top. I am 34 minutes into the ride and my heart rate has averaged 168. And the guy behind me is still behind me. We crest the top and I try to catch my breath when I notice some little whippersnapper sprint by me on the left, get just past my front wheel, then put his head down like he had claimed the victory by an inch. What the hell was that? I turn to the guy that was sucking my wheel and said “Looks like he got the stage win.”
Chris was waiting at the top of the mountain/hill for Brad, but I kept rolling on. We had all agreed that it was every one for their self today, to ride your own ride and meet back at the end. I got into a good rhythm, enjoying the rolling roads and the rugged landscapes in the background. The fog was clearing and a blue sky was emerging over the mountains. I rode through the first aid station into a series of winding climbs and descents. It reminded me of riding in Arizona, with tricky, blind descents. There were times I was climbing at 8 mph. There were times I was descending at 41 mph. I was no longer in Illinois - this was San Diego where you go up or you go down. You are spinning furiously in your smallest gear or coasting down a steep hill. There are even those traffic signs with the little truck tipping downwards or a yellow sign that shouts HILL In big black letters to warn you that it’s a steep hill and if you are on a bicycle hang on for dear life because you are descending a 12 percent grade hill and your little rubber brakes probably won’t do you much good.
The next part of the ride traveled through Escondido in what should have more accurately been called the tour de 1000 stoplights. This was frustrating and squashed any sense of a rhythm that you so desperately seek on a century ride. Around 2:45, I found a group of 3 guys that were riding a decent pace. Not enjoying the break I was getting every 5 minutes with stoplights, I thought it might be fun to shake up my ride a little and try to hold their pace. And thus began a 40 mile adventure.
The ride headed out towards Palomar Airport. At first there were 4 of us, riding along at 23 mph, holding a steady line. We’d stop at a few stoplights with the guys being very quiet. I wasn’t sure if they cared that I was in their line or even noticed. But after a few lights, I think I got the point. Yes, they noticed, and no, I don’t think they liked it. They would take off like rockets, surging when the light went green, probably trying to drop the girl. But come on. I know this trick, and I can push some serious wattage for my size coming out of a stoplight. I do it all the time at home. They’d have to try another line of defense. Which came in the form of trying to outdescend me. That one didn’t work either. I had the tri bike after all. The bike served me well until one particularly long descent when they got ahead of me. I thought I had let them go for good but then decided that this was not a day I would be giving up. So, I surged to over 400 watts to catch them at which point they picked the pace up again and we began climbing a hill. By now the group of 4 had turned into a group of 10 or more and I took the left and attacked them up the hill. Power to the little people! We kept chasing each other, playing these games, passing the miles quickly until the course headed up along the coast in Carlsbad and it was time for a rest stop.
I filled up with some water and then pulled away. Some of the group had gone ahead, some were still at the stop but I figured I would just enjoy the coast and ride my own ride again. After all, I was only at mile 70 and there was still a long way to go. Riding along the coast, I enjoyed the warmth, the sunshine, watching the ocean waves. A few minutes go by and a man on a tri bike pulls up next to me.
“So are you training for something,” he said.
He was a bigger guy, riding a red Felt, and apparently was mixed in with the peleton I was a part of from the airport to the coast.
“Yes,” I said, “Ironman.”
He laughed. “I said to myself, that girl better be training for an Ironman or there is something seriously wrong with her.”
Hearing that filled with me strength and pride to know that I had made a mark, 2000 miles from home on these hills, in this heat, by mile 70 of a long ride.
“Which Ironman are you doing?” he asked as we rode along the coast.
“Hawaii,” I replied.
“Well, good for you! Congratulations!” he remarked, “Hey, did you hear that,” he shouted to his friend that was riding behind us in a jersey filled with flames on a red road bike, “she’s doing Hawaii!”
His friend said some kind words. There is nothing like Hawaii to turn you into an instant celebrity no matter where you are or who you are talking to - it is a strange drug like that. As we rode together, I discovered that they too were doing Ironman – IM Florida. Apparently the bigger guy had talked his much smaller friend into doing it. Immediately I felt a connection to these strangers, knowing that they had felt the pain of a 20 mile mid-week run after a Sunday century.
After a few miles along the coast, the ride took a left up towards the interior hillsides again. Holding the pace back, the guys from my previous group had caught up to me and looked eager to push. Interesting in passing more miles with them, I hopped on. I took third position in the line, a position that they seemed to gladly turn over to me now, now that I had proven that indeed this little girl can push these gears and spin these pedals hard up a hill or furiously on the flats. Gone was the traffic of the coast and the stoplights of Escondido. The roads opened up and we were cruising through. After a few miles, we began a climb. Still in third position, I pushed hard up the hill. It was a long grinding climb and the second position rider dropped back, surprisingly, as he was leading the group for the past 30 miles and appeared very, very strong. In front of me was a man about twice my size. He was pulling up the hill and I was matching his pace. What a climber – for someone his size this guy was killing the hill. After awhile, he said “I’m off” and dropped back. All of a sudden I was leading the two guys and we had dropped the rest of the group with huge lead. I pulled for awhile and then one of them came up beside me saying “nice pull” and he pulled himself and the other guy ahead. I was trying to catch on but my legs were screaming, barking. I fell off. I watched them disappear in the distance, slowly, but surely.
I kept my pace up and just settled into my own solo ride again. The next few miles flattened out and then we came to an opening that headed towards the coast. The wind had picked up substantially, blowing the tall roadside grasses almost half way to the ground. Oddly enough, I was heading down a large hill, but with the headwind it was heavy work to push 16 mph down the hill. I tried to capture the feeling know that Hawaii would throw the same feeling at me over and over again.
Finally we turned away from the coast again, and riding along I began to just simply enjoy the ride to get through the miles. My nutrition plan was going well, I was hydrating, and the salt tabs I lost at 2 ½ hours into the ride didn’t seem to make a difference. Mile 83 and a guy from the group we had dropped up the hill had caught up to me. He began talking with me. I told him that the two guys were just up ahead, that I lost them on the hill. He said “let’s go get them.” So we began pushing hard to them. We pushed to the last rest stop, pulling in right behind them. I filled up with water and said “thanks for pulling me today,” and the guy who had led most of the day said “no, you’re riding great.” This is what makes riding good, what makes it fun knowing that you have the fitness and training to push hard across long distances and keep up with the big boys.
I didn’t stop long and then pulled out of the rest stop and started climbing what had to have been a 10 percent grade for over a mile. At the top, I realized that no one was behind me and realized that I had probably made a wrong turn. At least I got to climb another hill. Descending, I found another man who had also made the same mistake. We turned back around, down the hill, then got on the right path.
It was around mile 90, and the ride was starting to wear on me. We were riding along a bike path, along the highway, which was mostly uphill. At mile 95, the ride settled back on to the roads and back into a mess of annoying and interruptive stoplights. Nothing like a stoplight every mile to kill your rhythm for the last 10 miles. And they did.
I started picking up the pace, getting frustrated by all the stops. At this point, I was getting hot and just wanted to cruise along to the finish without hitting a wall every mile. The signage on the ride was getting fewer and farther between. I rode past a small group with a man shouting, “Follow her, she knows where she’s going.” I laughed and replied, “No I don’t.” To which he said “But you’re going pretty fast.” And I commented, “I just want to finish this ride before my husband.” Chuckling, the guy said “Follow her, wherever she’s going she’ll get us there fast.” It was true, I was entertaining myself with the mission of holding off my husband for the last part of this ride. It had been over 5 hours and I had not seen Chris or the evil twin. This was motivating as I figured I would easily have been caught and swallowed up by them by now. In fact, it became a game of how long can I hold them off. I had made it 98 miles and was not going to give it up now.
The ride dragged on and on, stretching out stoplight to stoplight. When it finally did open up again along Ted Williams Parkway, I had gotten ahead of most riders and found myself alone. I looked back over my shoulder and saw no one. At that point, I slammed on my brakes almost skidding out and unleashed a fury of cuss words at the ride organizers and lack of signage shouting that I better have been going the right way because I was in no mood to get off track again and climb another 1000 percent grade hill. Then I saw someone coming up the road. I rode on.
Finally, after 108 miles, I made it back to Poway. I felt great, mentally and physically, and was thoroughly excited that I had held off Brad and Chris. Walking around waiting for them, the guy on the Felt came up to me. "Ready for a transition run?" he asked - he had changed into running shorts, shoes, and had his Fuel Belt on. This guy was hard core. This guy would be ready for Ironman. We wished each other the best of luck and he set off for his run. About 15 minutes later, Chris and Brad pulled in with me shouting “Who’s your daddy now” at the both of them until they replied “You are!” knowing that was probably the first, last, and only time I would ever get to say that to them.
So many times I have thought that the riding in Illinois left much to be desired with our flats, and winds, and lack of hills. But after riding in San Diego this past weekend, I’m not so sure. What might seem like a disadvantage may actually be our advantage in the Midwest. You see, on a flat ride you can be in complete control of your ride. You can push big time trial gears while putting out steady wattage. You can do intervals without being interrupted by a climb. You can create a hill by throwing your gears into the big ring and pushing 50 rpms. Or you can make a bigger hillier by pushing hard into a headwind. You can go for an easy, flat recovery ride. When you are surrounded by mountains, this type of steady, continuous riding is difficult. Maybe in the Midwest we are just as strong, or even stronger because there are no breaks, no descents, no coasting.
Another random observation about San Diego riding - sure, San Diego had bike lanes, but the only difference between riding on the ‘shoulder’ and riding in a ‘bike lane’ is that the bike lane has the words BIKE LANE painted across the pavement in big white letters. And it might be about 1 – 2 feet wider. But basically it’s just the shoulder. There are some spots that have diagonal parking along the coast, with a bike lane right behind the car. You are riding along at 22 mph trusting that the drivers are looking for you before backing out. And, if it’s not the cars, it’s the surfers you have to watch for running across the road in their wetsuits with board in hands. It seems dangerous but it works. And I think it’s just the mindset of a city that appears to respect, expect, and understand cyclists. Perhaps because most drivers are cyclists, or runners, or surfers, they are more patient with cyclists. In fact, over 170 miles of riding this weekend and I did not get honked or shouted at once.
All in all, it was a great weekend. I was grateful for the opportunity to ride in the heat and ride with a group of guys that showed me that I am fit, I am well-trained, and I am ready to go on October 21st. Until then, it's time to taper and let all the good work settle in.