Thursday was my last big ride.
6 hours to be exact. Normally not a problem. Late October in Illinois – slight problem. It’s kind of cold outside. Anticipating this, Jen and I came up with a few alternatives. My alternative was maybe sort of skip the ride. Her alternatives were to do 3 hours outside then 3 hours inside. Or do it all outside.
Those aren’t really alternatives!
But I needed to get uncomfortable. Mentally shook up. Stressed. A little low on electrolytes, sweaty, sore and wondering how I would get home. That was the purpose of this ride. Knowing that made me honestly a little scared. I’ve been shook up plenty this week already. The 20 mile run. The Anwar swim-a-thon. Everything else which is mostly just recovering from that in time for today’s ride.
You could say my body and mind were on the Ironman ledge.
Enter Thursday morning: temperature was 37 degrees. It’s easy to tell me to HTFU from your climate controlled home where you are all on off season break right now. I don’t like riding below 40 degrees but I also didn’t have a choice. It was nearly 9:30 am and if I didn’t start then I’d get caught in rush hour on the way home. So I HTFU’ed and dressed myself. Wool socks, booties, fleece tights, two thermal shirts, my favorite new Cannondale jacket, lobster gloves and my trusty fleece-lined balaclava.
I had about 1 minute to exit the house before I broke into an uncontrollable sweat.
I headed out on my cyclocross bike. Why? Have you ever ridden your tri bike into an east wind at 15 mph when it’s 40 degrees outside? Right. Because you don’t do that. I don’t either. That’s not fun. That’s cold. Torture. And what’s the point of riding aerobars if you can’t ride in them? Bring on the cyclocross bike, black Surly Cross Check weighing in at 25 pounds of pure steel madness.
I love that damn bike.
I cross the highway, ride under the bridge of death and within 10 minutes I am at the path. The path is crushed limestone winding through preserves of maple groves and oak forests all exploding in crisp fall colors. In a word it is beautiful. Plus it goes for miles.
I make my way through Danada, Herrick and finally to the crossing near Blackwell. And just like that I have a plan. I hop on the Prairie Path and decide I will ride up to Jennifer’s house today. I have no idea how to get there or if the path even goes that far. As long as I keep pedaling north and west eventually I’ll find my way there. I suspect at some point the Prairie Path crosses the Fox River Trail which goes right to her house. Of course there were maps posted at every major spur but part of the fun of the ride was not knowing, finding a new way, going somewhere I had never been before. No map necessary. No heart rate monitor, Power Tap or cadence. It was the perfect day for an adventure, so I gave it a try.
The path was filled with multi-users today. Cyclists, runners, horses, moms with strollers, convicts, homeless, a crazy man on a bike blowing a party horn, cats, unleashed dogs, squirrels, children on scooters, high schoolers holding hands, crunchy fall leaves, black walnuts, walkers, birds – all out there.
And then there was me. Cruising along at 15 mph. It doesn’t sound like much but on a bike like this I feel like I’m on speed. The other day someone asked me the difference between a cyclocross and other bikes. A cross bike is like a mountain bike and a road bike combined. It’s a similar position as a road bike but sturdier like a mountain bike with thicker tires. It's heavy but that's what makes it easier to face cold days - you aren't moving as fast into the wind so you don't get as cold.
I reach the spur where Prairie Path meets Fox River Trail. I decide to keep going north and follow the river. Soon enough the trail becomes familiar and I realize I am by Jennifer’s house. After 2 hours, 20 minutes I arrive and invite myself inside.
I demand coffee. She tells me she doesn’t know how to make coffee but I chime in with “I’ll give it a try.” Sure, I drink coffee but I don’t woo coffee like Jerome does. There were four different contraptions on the counter that looked like they had something to do with coffee. I went straight to the most familiar one – the one with a pot – and made some coffee. A quick cup, some conversation, an apple, a bar for the road and it was back on the path for me.
3 hours and 40 minutes to go. The ride back towards home was now into the wind and the day became overcast. I think I like fall best when it’s overcast. The colors stand out against the gray sky and light up the gloomy day. I think to myself how this would be my last long ride before Ironman. Not an ideal ride or…was it? Change your perspective. See obstacles as opportunities. I then think to myself how lucky I am. At that start line, I will have what no else has in their training log:
Which was going well so far but would shortly get worse making it a great weapon in my arsenal of things that make me tougher than Ironman. It started to unravel at the 3 hour 48 minute mark when I started to get tired. And a little bit of a headache. The coffee was wearing off. I was so sweaty I was hot but the headwind was making me cold.
So I stopped at a gas station for some fuel and then rode more. The fuel started working but then the time started to drag. 4 hours, 4 hours 12 minutes, 4 hours 18 minutes. Each minute seemed to take a month to pass. The path started to feel uphill. And the east wind was starting to bite. At 5 hours into the ride I finally had to stop. I dismounted and stood by my bike.
Ouch. Everything hurt. I needed a talking-to myself.
“Your head will try to say you can’t do this Liz but you can.”
I said that to myself because it was starting to happen. That voice in your head trying to convince the other part of your head that you’ll never make it home alive. You’ll have to stop. The battle in your brain between good side and bad. Bad side starts making plans for who you’ll call or where they’ll pick you up. For no reason at all. It’s not like you broke your bike. Or lost a pedal. Or have never ridden 6 hours before. It’s just the mental games you play in a stressful situation or a long ride.
I realized the whole “stress you out” purpose of the ride – it was happening.
I remounted the bike and just pedaled. Every time I thought it was too long, cold, hard I just kept telling myself I will get this done. I will ride 90 miles today. Not a choice but a committment that I made and will follow through. And I will have what no one else has – this memory of knowing I pushed through the feeling in my legs and finished this ride. Sometimes I just get this idea in my head and get on my own singletrack. It’s either stubbornness or determination. I haven’t decided yet.
As I got closer to home I kept having to add more loops for more time. And then more. Just one more loop. A little out and back. Traffic was building. The temperature was dropping. Cars everywhere, noise, traffic, construction. I hit the neighborhood around 5:50 into the ride. More loops. Finally just circles around the cul-de-sac. Then finally I am home.
My ass hurts. My back, my neck and triceps from the different position. My quads hurt a new hurt from spinning so much. And there’s a strange feeling in my head. Of all the rides I’ve done this year, this one sticks out the most. I felt like I was out there in another world today. The path was mostly mine, the day was so quiet and the ride…well for the first time in a long time I can say that I did something today I had never done before – ridden this far on my cross bike.
I walked in the house and Chris was there. “90 miles” I said. His response, “no shit?” Yes, shit. And crap. And damn. That is what my body is saying right now. Plus my eyes were literally cyclocrossed. Chris has no sympathy. He tells me to get my ass on the treadmill. Time to run. I don’t like so much when he’s not doing his own training. He has too much time to meddle into mine!
On the treadmill the first 10 minutes and the legs feel heavy. But then they come back to me. I set the treadmill at a solid pace and after awhile I’m just lightly moving along. 25 minutes goes by and I think to myself I have 17 more to go. And what’s 17 when you’ve done 25. When you’ve done 6 hours. What’s any of this at all when you’ve done_____(fill in your hardest training memory)? It’s nothing really. It’s just a matter of passing the time. Pacing yourself. Racing smart. Setting out for the best day that you know from training how to pace, fuel and pass time with yourself.
When I was finished, I had the memory of the ride and then run. There is not much that sets us apart when we hit a starting line. But then there are personal days like these – where you stretched outside of your regular routine, challenged yourself in a different way and learned something new. I won’t forget dismounting my bike and arguing in my head. I won’t forget heading out an unknown path to ride 35 miles to Jennifer’s house when I know that in a car it usually takes me an hour – on a bike took me 2:20! I won’t forget the stress – or that I eventually made it home and was still able to run well off the bike.
Memories like this make us who we are on race day – and beyond.