Monday morning I woke up feeling like a small truck had rolled over me. But it could have been worse. I could have woken up and gone to work, found myself sitting at a desk.
Our eastern time clocks gave us an early start in the western town of Tucson. On today’s agenda, per Chris’ request, an epic climb up Mt. Lemmon. Epic in the sense of 27 miles climbing over 7000 feet at a 5 percent average grade on a twisty, winding low-traffic road overlooking vistas of the surrounding Tucson area, scattered with saguaros, lined with rocks, along an endless road that seemed to end directly in the sky.
We headed out around 7 am, got tangled in a little early morning Tucson traffic and arrived at the intersection of Bear Canyon and Tanque Verde by 7:30 am.
There’s a few things that could be worse than realizing you forgot your cycling shoes back at the hotel room; having to do the entire climb with one crank arm missing, having to do the entire climb pedaling backwards, having to do the entire climb with your eyes closed. But today, it didn’t get much worse that realizing that indeed I had forgotten my cycling shoes in the hotel room.
After apologizing profusely to Chris, begging him to go on and climb without me, leave me here to dry out in the desert……he selflessly said we were in this together and we would go back together to get my shoes.
Some 90 minutes later, we arrived again at the intersection of Bear Canyon and Tanque Verde – this time to ride, for real.
The road rolls along to the start of the climb with 20 minutes of dusty flats. It’s a nice warm up and it’s nice to see that my legs didn’t feel too trashed from yesterday’s desert duathlon. They were really, really REALLY sore but they were operational. Not fully operational but mostly there.
We reached the base of the climb at the Coronado National Forest and immediately it went up, and up, turned right and went up some more. And then it hit me – it would be like this for 27 miles. For sure I could ride today, but climb for the next 3 hours? I only had two margaritas last night. To trick myself into believing something like that it would have taken at least four.
Chris immediately pulls away, damn him, spinning along effortlessly up the mountain. I am behind him spinning oh so happily along on my time trial bike. And as I watched him pull farther and farther away, I knew this bike would serve me as well for this climb as would a unicycle. Or a tricycle missing a wheel. Or hauling a 200 lb gorilla behind me. Time trial bikes and climbing are never a good combination, especially today.
I am alone, climbing Mt. Lemmon, spinning at 70 rpms, geared out and my legs refuse to spin faster. They left themselves somewhere yesterday in McDowell Mountain Regional Park sputtering in the transition area. I am hoping by this weekend they find their way home, but somehow I know I’m going to feel this race in my legs for at least a week. Early season duathlons are vindicative like that.
I reach mile 1, then mile 2. I’m climbing at some awful slow pace but I have know idea what it is because I realize my wheel magnet is not on my rear wheel. I have no time, no speed, no distance. Just cadence which is screaming 70 rpms and not one revolution more. It was probably a good thing that I couldn’t see my speed.
I continue climbing. I really don’t have any other choice. It’s a one-way ladder and it’s only going up. Every once in awhile, Chris turns around and circles back to me. He’s taking pictures of me which he finds entertaining. He sits on the side of the road saying things like “how are you doing sweetie.” Inside I am thinking that tossing my bike over a 3000 foot cliff would make a great picture right now. How does that sound, sweetie?
Somewhere between miles 3 and 4 I realize it has taken me almost 10 minutes to go 1 mile. I start doing the math but it starts to get mathematically depressing. Forget the numbers. Just keep climbing. Chris pulls away further and we make a turn in a different direction. Directly into the wind. The wind is cold, the wind is strong. And the wind makes this 5 percent climb feel like 50 percent with me going backwards at best. I am now grinding 65 rpms and standing occasionally to give my legs a break which soon makes my hands and feet feel like they will break. I sit back down. Back to the grind.
Around miles 6 – 7, Mt. Lemmon started throwing cold, windy lemons my way. It had a hell of an arm and perfect aim. Each lemon hit me with force splattering all over me and spilling it’s stinging sour juice into my open post-duathlon wounds.
Nearly 1 hour has gone by and I feel like I’ve been trapped in a neverending muscle tension interval. My legs are so sore, my mind is so tired. I try to talk myself into going a little further, just around the bend, up a little more but it climbs higher and steeper.
I reached my breaking point. Here along this rock-lined road, I found my rockbottom. I pull over the side and I stop. Leaning over, head down on my aerobars, sweaty and spent, I cry.
It lasts about 30 seconds, and then I see two men come zipping down the mountain on the other side of the road so I pull myself together. What kind of cyclist stops crying on the side of the road? Not this one, not anymore.
I bargain with myself, I make a deal – I’ll climb to mile 10 and then reassess the situation. So I push off on to the pedals and continue the climb.
I climb past 5000 feet. It’s getting colder in the shade and the wind is still strong. I climb for what feels like forever and then surprisingly see the 10 mile marker. I stop.
I pull over to the pullout and look out into the canyon. It is still and quiet. It makes no mention of the painfully steady climb that takes place along the edges of the canyon walls. It’s a secret that the canyon's stillness, the saguaros, and the sky will keep.
I think to myself that I could keep going on, at 65 – 70 rpms. I could keep climbing. But that’s not what I want to do. It just wasn’t in me. It’s not often that I give up, but you can’t win them all, you can’t always be great. Some days you just have to admit your mortality and hope for a better tomorrow. I turned around.
Descending was worse. What was cold turned very cold and my time trial bike with race wheels was built for speed. Unfortunately, speed was not something necessary on this descent. It was already a given. I think I burned my brake pads off in the first mile.
I descend 1 mile and stop. I stand in the sun, hoping to get warm and just need to slow the speed down. I decide this will be my plan – descend a mile, regroup, then descend another mile. I continue this plan and for about 5 miles it works. I’m making it down, mile by mile.
With 5 miles to go, I am so cold my legs are quivering and my teeth are chattering. My hands hurt so much from gripping the bars that I fear they will seize up and send me flying into the steep canyons below.
4 miles to go and I’m standing in the sun again. It’s not working. My hamstrings are twitching. My toes hurt. 3 miles to go my neck aches. 2 to go and I get passed by a woman zipping by me shouting ON YER LEFT! 1 to go. I reach the bottom.
I hightail it back to the car in an attempt to get warm and just in a rush to be done with this. I reach the car, about 2 ½ hours after starting after about 3 dozen breaks, breakdowns, and 3 inches off my brake pads.
I was done.
Some days you set out to make lemonade and all you get are a bunch of lemons. Big old sour juicy lemons that stung to my core. But it wasn’t a complete waste; it’s good to hit rockbottom and find yourself at 5000 feet on the side of the road crying while leaning on your aerobars, sweaty, and in all sorts of leg pain. That’s a good learning experience.
And somewhere, later in the year, I’ll find myself again in a world of pain and I’ll think to myself THIS IS BAD, really REALLY bad. And I’ll pull through it because while it will be bad, I’ll think to myself that indeed it’s bad but nowhere near that day on Mt. Lemmon. Now that - THAT was bad.