Day 7 – the last day of Ragbrai 2009.
This is my seventh time doing Ragbrai. Maybe my sixth. I’m pretty sure I’ve done it more than 5 times. In 2002, my then boyfriend, Chris, convinced me that I simply had to go on Ragbrai. I remember Meredith had long braids and Jen was about 12 years old doing the entire ride on her mountain bike. In 2003, I survived the ride along with a moving speech from Giff about how girlfriends “change team dynamics.” Being the dynamo that I am, I came back the next year and had a blast with Chris, JB and The Timmers. I remember naked laps around a dirt track in Sioux Center. I remember JB coming out of a 1000 degree Kybo with flecks of toilet paper all over his face from wiping the sweat off. In 2004, I got engaged in the playground of a grade school in Marshalltown. In 2005, Meg Meg joined us proving that you can buy everything from the Amish except a small child. In 2006 and 2007, I took a Ragbrai break as to not disrupt my ever so important triathlon season. In 2008, I returned to Ragbrai to find it had gotten softer, slower, a little rounder around the middle. In 2009, well, add that all up and I guess I really have only gone on six Ragbrais.
But the point is I’ve never done a full one. I’ve always sagged a half a day or taken the first day off to do a long run. But not this year. This year I was in it to win it. I was going the whole way – every single mile.
It’s very special to do a full Ragbrai. It means somehow you flew under the radar every morning when it was decided who would drive the van for the day. It means you stayed healthy. It means you were the least hungover. This year I was all of those things and I wanted to go all the way. I wanted to get as close to 500 miles as possible.
By day 7 I was feeling it. Every mile, every bump in the road, every drop of rain. My feet were still on fire. In fact the night before I was so mortified by my feet that I ran up to Dr. Nuts, stuck my bare foot in his face and said “there’s something wrong, my toes are turning purple.” He told me it was the glue he painted on a few days earlier. It was purple. I was convinced my toes had gone gangrenous and just gave up. Not only that but I had a raging case of athlete’s foot between every toe. You spend a week forcing your foot into a sweaty, wet cycling shoe and see what happens. It was also very possible that an entire small island chain of saddle sores had turned into an angry, itchy red continent on my ass.
I woke up in the morning to get a head start on the day and ride alone. It was the last day and this was my pilgrimage to Burlington, the end town. I wanted to get going without waiting for anyone else. The last day is notoriously rough to ride. Teams are out riding in full force, large pacelines moving down the road at disruptively slow speeds. The roads are crowded and passing on the left becomes a chore. The easiest way to get through it is to go solo.
The day was amazing. The sky was once again blue and it was…tailwind. 43.2 miles with 1,145 feet of climbing. Which at this point was as good as calling it a flat course.
My goal was to cover the distance in about 2 hours. I thought about 43.2 miles then I thought about 2 hours. 2 hours sounds much faster, much easier. That’s 2 x 1 hour. That’s 2 gels. That’s 2 water bottles. It seems like still so far to go but so short compared to where I’ve gone. This is what I love about Ragbrai – by the end, a 2 hour ride feels like nothing.
I covered the first hour alone. I was cruising along with the tailwind and enjoying what felt like an oddly empty and uncongested route. Around the hour mark, I was passed by Chris, Kristin and Dave from Atlas. I saw the opening and I took it. For the next 30 minutes, Chris and Dave took turns pulling us at 25 mph. It was a small group which made weaving through the larger groups easier. Plus it just felt great to be going so fast on the last day and cruising through the towns.
Around Geode State Park the route got hillier. The descent into the park was slowed by an ambulance and police car. I was riding through just as someone was putting a bike in the trunk of the police car. When you have thousands of riders pushing their physical limits, some experienced, some novices, something is bound to go wrong. And accidents are many on Ragbrai.
In fact, the day before Dr. Nuts had come across two accidents. Per his doctorly duty, he tended to one concussion, one deep laceration and one fractured hip. Moments like this make me think that Dr. Nuts deserves MVP for the week (it was a close call between The Weatherman and the doctor but The Weatherman completely missed the storm in Chariton but in his words, he has a 50 percent cushion for error that most of us expect). Dr. Nuts probably tended to everyone on the team at some point, wrote a prescription and even offered to give my husband an exam to be sure his junk is functioning properly should we choose to make the baby. I can still recall looking at Chris while sitting in camp one night, with the most disturbed look on his face. When I asked him what was wrong he said, "I have to get really drunk tonight so Dr. Nuts can touch me." Fear not, I said. Surely Dr. Nuts had plastic gloves in his little medical bag plus it was he who chose to make a career out of touching other men. Besides, I told Chris, it would save us a co-pay. Buck up and be a good patient.
I later learned that someone died on the bridge in the state park just minutes before I arrived. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes people die on Ragbrai. Whether it be by storm, by crash or by random health problem, it reminds us how life is fleeting, how fragile we are, how you can start a day knowing the end town but end up in a completely different place.
I rode out of the park and then realized there were only about 30 minutes to go. At this point I played back and forth with a few guys before pulling ahead of them. Here I was nearly 470 miles into Ragbrai and still had the desire to race. Still had the giddy up to go. Still fighting for it just because I can.
Around 3 miles to go I got a little teary-eyed. Not because I had overcome anything significant to finish Ragbrai but because I did it. Because I could. It was a sense of completion and in a sense, victory. I had spent 7 days riding my bike through the weather, up the hills and around the cornfields. In all honestly, I feel like I have accomplished so few things this year athletically that this finish, this ride meant a lot to me. I have not set a personal best in nearly two years. But this week was my personal best. Every day I gave it my all. I set some new power bests. I rode hard and even impressed my husband not once but twice. This week was the first tangible thing I’ve accomplished athletically in a long time. It gave me hope, it made me hungry and most of all reminded me I’ve got many more miles – and dreams – to go.
As the route came to an end, signs counted down from 5 miles. The route ended in Burlington, a hilly town along the Mississippi River. One mile to go and a sign said “challenge the snake." I knew where we were headed: Snake Alley.
Snake Alley is my all-time favorite criterium and I’ve done it a few times. It is a short steep climb with 6 tight switchbacks up cobblestones. This year Ragbrai was ending up the snake. We took a sweeping downhill to the base of the snake and I was ready to climb. It’s out of the saddle, easiest gear and hope that no one stops in front of you. Until a woman dead-stopped in front of me which forced me to unclip and then DAMMIT walk the rest of the climb. Are you kidding me? I love this climb. There was only one thing to do. Descend, turn and do it again.
And so I did.
A quick descent from my second time up the snake and then I finished the ride along with thick crowds by the river. Ragbrai was done. Goodbye riders clad in spandex, beads, boas, stickers and virgin tattoos. Goodbye bicycle. Goodbye white tents. See you next year. Time to pack up and head home.
First, time to find the van. I checked my phone to see a text message from Chris: “van is at the top of the snake.”
I climbed up to the snake from the back way and found the van. Pulled up on the sidewalk, unclipped, took my helmet off. Ragbrai game over, 480 miles in 7 days.
Chris and I waited for everyone else to arrive then heckled our own as they climbed the snake. We told Dr. Nuts it didn’t count unless he climbed it in his big ring. We told JB it didn’t count unless he did it twice. We watched a tandem navigate the snake. We watched a man eat the cobblestones while everyone else shouted RIDER DOWN!
Finally we gathered our belongings from the van, said our farewells until next year and headed home. The drive home is always long and reflective. You talk about the ride, the good times, the bad times, what you will do differently next year. You also start to get sleepy when you finally give your body permission to stop and therefore – shutdown. You also get very hungry. Insatiably hungry. Imagine doing a series of group rides across Iowa. You ride 20 miles, stop, ride 10 miles, stop, ride 15 miles, stop. Your metabolism becomes supercharged and vigilant, looking for calories. And so, we fought over who would drive (I’m tired, no I’m tired, no I’m more tired, no I rode today while you drove the van, fine I’ll drive but…). For a break, we stopped in Galesburg at a delicious restaurant known for its crepes and healthy fare. When I spotted the “Healthy Sandwich” on the menu, I said “I’ll take that” and enjoyed my first real vegetables in days.
I fought off sleep for the rest of the ride home and when I got home did about 20 loads of laundry, took a real indoor shower then we went out for dinner. More food! Sat at a local bar with a glass of smoky full bodied Malbec while waiting the final stage of Le Tour. It was like our own little end town Ragbrai.
That night, I woke around 4am with eyes wide open in the dark. Where am I? Where are we riding tomorrow? Did the damn air mattress deflate again? How soon until morning? And, is that a train? My mind was in a sleepy Ragbrai daze. It took a moment to realize that I was home again and I knew I would go through the same questions for the next few nights.
The next morning, I looked in the mirror and saw a different face. My face was tan, my lips are chapped and I need to stop furrowing my eyes. In daily life we walk by a mirror how many times? We begin each day by looking in the mirror, close each night with another glance. Ragbrai is one of the few places where you can even hide from yourself. You become ageless. You feel how you feel in your mind. As you age you realize that your mind feels one way, it’s thoughts are young and energy is beaming. Until you look in the mirror and realize – damn, I’m older now. I look tired. I am tired. So your thoughts slow down. It’s good to step away from that for a week and just live as you feel. Other than an occasional glance in a mirror on the side of a van – I hadn’t looked in a mirror in days. I should have worn a visor, should have put more sunscreen on my face, probably shouldn’t have done Ragbrai at all…it makes me older, I wears away at your skin, it leaves it mark on your body. But it's worth it. Some people spend their life hiding indoors to preserve their face so they look pretty in the mirror. As I age, each line is an adventure in the sun, on my bike, pushing myself. The mirror tells me that and that's ok. My face one day will read like a road map of these good times.
Good times. One week of good times. What I like most about Ragbrai is that it can be whatever you want it to be. We’re all adults defining our own good times. Some people get loud, some drink a lot, some take off their clothes, others eat all the pork they can buy in a night (one night Shady ate a pork chop, a fried pork tenderloin and a cup of bacon in his words “just because I could”)…and still others just like to ride their bike. I like to ride my bike. I like Ragbrai. I’ll do it again. I like the freedom and I like the quiet. I like how it strips life away to simplicity for a week; eat, ride, sleep. Repeat.