Sunday, September 17, 2006

LOTOJA: The Finish

The adrenaline is wearing thin and I start to revert inside myself for the long miles ahead. How do so many miles tick by without my notice. My muscles notice, though. Slowly they are starting to groan. They aren't out-right complaining, but I can tell there is murmuring among the ranks.

I'm in a group now. This one is pretty big and moving fast. It isn't that I mind going fast, but I continue to worry about finishing. I've gone about as far as I ever have on a bike. Anything further is uncharted territory. My heart rate is too high. I sit up and drop back. Alone again? Not quite. There is another that has fallen back with me.

I met him last night at the informational meeting for those, like me, who are first-timers. I can't remember his name. I do remember, though, that he works at a shop that sponsors LOTOJA. A month ago his boss came to him and suggested he fill one of the spots reserved for sponsors. He was pretty excited but it was also apparent that he had no idea what he was getting himself in to.

Does anyone their first time?

At this point in the race, I don't really want to waste energy talking. We smile and begin to work together. Am I being paranoid, or is the wind picking up against us? Though we are going slower than when we were part of that group, I can tell he is struggling.

"Keep going. I'm going to have to pace myself now." I'm not sure what he means until I glance back and see him falling behind. "Good luck," I offer as I press on alone. In life, I would have slowed to help a suffering friend. In a bike race, if it isn't helping me, I move on. This is brutal.

Afton, WY. Feed zone 5. 125 miles. I really need this feed zone. I'm tired. I haven't been drinking enough but I force myself to wait in line to urinate. James has the sunscreen, but I'm certain I've already burned my upper arms. "You need to drink more." I know, I know. I also need to eat more, but I just can't bring myself to do it. He hands me a banana for my pocket and I choke down a half peanut-butter and honey sandwich. I add more GU to my stash. I keep my vest in case it rains. There have been reports of rain up ahead.

I actually lay down for about 30 seconds before my conscience smites me and I realize I need to get back on the bike. James is encouraging though I hardly hear it now. Back on the bike. Pedal.

I find a pack moving at a fairly fast pace, but I manage to keep up. I'm not really paying attention to anything but the wheel in front of me right now. We're still moving into the wind and I need them. A short guy riding bow-legged with his saddle too low takes over. The fool has picked up the pace. We're flying now, moving about 4-5mph faster than before. At least, for a few moments we're flying. One by one, we drop of and the group shatters into 15 separate pieces. I can still see him plowing on ahead. Alone now. He probably thinks everyone is still behind him. I want to shake my fist at him. "Don't you see what you've done? You've hurt us all, including yourself!" Sure enough, when he is about 1/4 mile ahead, I see him ease up. Our group is starting to reform. I want no part of a group with this guy. I'm tired, now, and that surge hurt.

I suck down another vile GU. Not as bad as that Clif Shot, though. My stomach lurches at the thought.

After some miles, everyone has decided on different paces and that group has split and reformed with others producing other groups. The flow of the race is continual and fluid. Cyclists slide up, move back. Some bonk. Others get their 2nd wind. It is constantly changing. I know I need to eat, but the thought is horrible. I peel my banana.

I've found myself in a group of three Cat 5 riders. They all look to be in their 50s. They all are wearing the 2006 LOTOJA jersey. They all have mustaches. I find this amusing and it takes me away from the darkness. I join in the back. I enjoy listening to their banter. Obviously friends. Only friends would sacrifice such energy for laughter. I'm smiling again.

I'm too guilty a rider to do nothing but suck someone's wheel the whole way. I ease up the side and volunteer to pull. "I hope you don't mind me sitting in with you guys. I'm willing to pull my load."

After a hearty welcome I'm in front. I keep my pace steady. I've learned something of the devastation of surging from the squat man with the bow-legged style. At this distance, I really hate riding point. It isn't that I'm in the wind completely, either. No, it is that I know someone is exactly behind me. I know everyone else is matching my speed. I can't stand up to stretch my legs. I can't coast. I must keep it steady and smooth. Especially if I want to stay with this group.

After several miles, I peel off and slide back. "Nice pull." "Good work."

I'm not sure why it is important for me to stay with this group. It just is. Freud might say that they remind me of my father in appearance and demeanor. Surely it takes more than mustaches. One thing is certain: They are going my pace. This is how fast I want to be going, so, if I can find a group that can pull me along at this speed, perfect.

For another thing, they amuse me and help me feel welcome. I am a bit of an introvert, and normally I wouldn't spend much time trying to fit in to a group like this. However, this isn't life. This is cycling. I need the companionship. I need the support. As long as I can get that without taking from them, I'll be allowed to stay. Four is stronger than three.

Ten years ago, if someone had asked me my opinion of road cycling, I would have told them that I couldn't bear the tedium of the road. I needed the mountains. I needed the obstacles in the trail. The constant change of the medium I'm riding on. The white-knuckle descents. The grueling loose climbs. What did the road have to offer?

Something must have changed in me during that time. I love the road. I can't seem to step away from it. The road draws to me like mountain biking never did. It calls to me. It shouts at me. It bullies me into following day after day. Every road, even the same road, leads me some place new each time.

This road, apparently, doesn't have an end. Where is that next feed zone? Though the guys try and keep things lively. The wind is having its affect on them, too. Someone needs to take a "natural" break. We stop and wait for him. I start talking with one of the guys about LOTOJA. He's surprised I'm doing it alone. They've done it each at least three times together.

"You've done this before?" I ask. It occurs to me that I don't ever want to do it again. In fact, I really don't even want to finish it. I don't like this race anymore. "Yeah, it usually takes a month or so. Gradually, the memories change. By the time they open up registration for the next year, I can't wait to sign up."

Last year, LOTOJA was hit with unseasonably cold weather. There was snow in the passes. Though 90% of the riders generally finish LOTOJA, last year--due to lack of preparation for the cold weather--only 30% finished. "Yeah, we were there for SNOTOJA. We didn't finish. The weather is great this year." I can't help but agree. It must be only the 70s now. Sunny. Though many have warned of rain, we have yet to see a drop. I still can't imagine wanting to ever ride this race again. Will I even want to get back on my bike again?

On again. Pedal. Everything hurts. The dull kind of aching that comes after 9+ hours on the bike. Much further than it should have been, I see the sign: "1 KM to FEED ZONE."

"Mind if I join you for the next leg?" I want to establish myself in this group. I feel as though my success in this race depends on them. "We usually take our time at the feed zones. Probably 5-10 minutes," they replied. "If you don't mind that, you're welcome to join us. We don't mind having someone else to share the pulling."

Alpine, WY. Mile 159. "Only 47 miles to go. You can do that. You're doing awesome." James is there as usual giving me the morale boost I need. I don't really want to get on my bike again, but I also don't want to lose this group. I see a couple of them grouping around the outhouses up the road. "See you at the finish line!"

I'm off again, but only to join with them. After a little more waiting the third in the group joins us. With a big smile he proclaims he's ready to ride, "I've got more butt-butter. I'm good to go!" Another turns to me and asks, "How did he put that on?" He didn't even use the outhouse. "Nevermind, I don't want to know."

Immediately following Alpine, we turn up a canyon. I'm not sure there is a tail wind, but at least there isn't a head wind. I remember from the map that the next bit is rolling. I think I might just survive this.

We agree to a system. Every mile marker we rotate. Pull for one mile, off for three. In this way, we slowly tick off the miles. This canyon is gorgeous. If I weren't so tired, I'd really enjoy it. If I could stop, I'd really enjoy it right now. I start to lose contact with everything except the person right in front of me. Watch my speed. Watch my distance. Don't forget to eat. Don't forget to drink. Another banana. Another GU. More Cytomax. More water.

I don't care about the beautiful canyon. I don't notice the river below. A pack slides past us effortlessly. How do they do that? Where did they come from? I pedal.

Somehow, the miles pass. I'm pulling again. How many times have we rotated? The road goes up. I shift, my chain drops, and I can't get it back on. All my momentum is gone. Expecting the three companions to move past me, I mutter an apology as I reach down to stick the chain back on. To my surprise, everyone is there waiting for me. Even that 15-second break helped. I can pedal again.

We've reached another feed zone. This one is neutral. I fill up my water. Only now do I remember that James gave me extra Cytomax. Good ol' James. At least someone can still think. None of the food they have looks good, but the volunteers are friendly. Someone mentions BYU won their game. This news shocks me, but not because of BYU or their record or their team. It shocks me because something is going on outside of this race. It reminds me that this is a bike ride on a normal Saturday in the fall when many people are mowing their lawn or watching a football game. I can't believe there is more than this race.

We're off again. Three miles off, one mile on. Pedal. I start to notice two pains rising above the din of the rest of my body. My knees. I've never felt pain in my knees on a ride before. It goes away, but comes back again--sharper, this time--when we roll up another short hill. The next small hill causes me to wince as the pain redoubles. I don't know how to describe it except to call it cramping. The rest tell me not to worry about it, but to take it easy and work it out. Again, gratitude that I found these guys.

After more miles, the pain starts to become part of me. I can accept it. Here's a hill. There's the pain. Downhill again, and I'm fine. I pedal on.

Less than 20 miles to go. Easy, I tell myself. That's a ride up to Vivian park and back. I could do that without food, water, or preparation. I don't believe myself. I no longer feel solid. I don't think of myself as accomplishing something great, or doing well. I only think of the miles to go. I only watch my cycle-computer and try and will them to pass by more quickly. I glance at my speed: 22mph. That's pretty good. Why aren't the miles going by? I look down again and see we still have 19 to go. Is this thing working?

We're part of a larger group now. I'm irrational in that I don't want anyone to come between me and those three guys I'm riding with. One thing's for certain, though. I don't have to pull anymore. The lead riders are determined not to let someone slow get in their way so they are rotating amongst themselves without sharing the load. Fine by me.

Jackson. About 10 miles to go. Everything is black. My arms are cramping. My wrists are tingling. Of all the many positions available on standard road drop bars--drops, flats, hoods, etc.--I hate them all. This pace is fast but I no longer care. I just need to reach the end. I'm not going to eat any more food, though my stomach feels empty. I know I need to drink, but my left arm seizes when I grab the bottle with my right.

I remember reading that the last few miles are the most beautiful of the ride, with a vista of the Grand Tetons. All I see is that it is getting closer to dark and I'm not done yet. Still 10 miles to go? I can't believe this. It is never going to end. I hate this bike. I don't notice my legs, but part of me thinks they must be tired. 10 miles? That's a ride to the mouth of the canyon and back. I could do that with flat tires. I could do that in a sprint. I can't do it now.

I know I'm going to finish because I'm in a large group. I'm surrounded by cyclists. I'm pulled along. I can't slow down. I can't turn. I can only continue. Seven miles to go. I guess my computer isn't broken. There is a right turn and I find that some of the group is dropping back. Not me. Pull me in. I'm not slowing down until I cross the line. Then, I may die, but it won't matter.

I finally realize it is dark because I still have my sunglasses on and the sun has gone behind the mountains to the west. Inside, I think this is funny. My expression doesn't change. If I weren't so tired and in the middle of this group, I'd put my vest on. I've carried it in my back pocket for the last 100 miles. I'm chilly now. Can't do it. Besides, I'm so close now.

There is a line of cars in the road. They all have their brake lights lit up. Support cars. We must be close. A sign: 5 KM. Could it be? Am I that close? That's a little over three miles, right? I might make it. A few more kicks of the pedals. I'm close now. Kilometers are much shorter than miles. I'm going 20mph. How long will it take me to get to the end? My mind struggles with the math. Is that 3 minutes for every mile? 10 minutes? That can't be right because I'm not sure I can make it 10 minutes longer.

4 KM. I'm so glad they have these markers. I bet those guys in the cars wish they were on bikes. We're flying past them. Who knows how long they'll be there stopped. Of course, if they felt like me, they wouldn't wish for this. I don't want this any more. So close! Pedal. Keep kicking. Don't worry about the water. Too close now.

3 KM. How many miles is it now? Two? I can't remember. My mind is slow. The group has changed and I haven't even realized it. Keep pedaling. Close. I can't keep going. My legs are black. So are my arms. What was serious discomfort in my butt now pales to the rest of my body. Does it hurt? I don't know. I can't tell.

2 KM. I can't believe how many cars are stopped. Is that the finish line? My thoughts fade. Pedal.

1 KM. I can see the finish line. We start to slow. There are no sprint finishes for those who just finish. I start to realize that I'm doing it. I'm finishing. I've made it. I can't believe that's the finish line. I can't believe I've done 206 miles. I hurt, but the hurt is fading now. I see cyclists walking away from the finish line. They've done it and so will I. Do I raise my arms and shout? Can I? James is there shouting for me. I did it, James. You were right.

Though I want the moment to last--this moment of triumph, where I show the world I did it--it only lasts what it is: a moment. They're telling me to slow down. I'm stopped now. I shake hands with my three companions. I don't think they realize what they've done for me. Someone is taking my radio timing chip off my ankle. I'm surprised to see it still there. I've forgotten about it. How much energy did that band cost me?

"What's your number?" I have a number? I've seen numbers on everyone else's bike. I'm used to their numbers. What's mine? I look down and read it, "Eighteen forty-six." Someone hands me a medal. My time is 12:07. I gave myself 13 hours. I won!

James hands me my Crocs and I take off my cycling shoes and hand them to him. I joke around that my bike is for sale for anyone interested. My legs are screaming at me now and I want to sit down. I want to lie down. The car is 1/2 mile away. I'm smiling. I did it!

Suddenly, I'm ravenously hungry. The thought of food now sounds wonderful. I've got to find a restaurant!

I finished.

6 comments:

James Sharp said...

Well done.

tkp said...

Congratulations...

I'm feeling the need to do LoToJa next year.

This year's route (and the two previous to this year) is different from the one they used in the late 80's.

Jon Sharp said...

Have you done LOTOJA before?

Keith Haney said...

Well narrated! As I read your blog it really brought it all back to me. Its funny how an event this tortuous really creates a sense of community. Thanks for sharing.

Robert said...

Great recap. I especially enjoyed the apt description of the thoughts and emotions during the 2nd half. So similar to my own.
I couldn't believe how slowly those Kilometers were ticking off at the end.
Congratulations for finishing you 1st time.
RJI

Oscar said...

I just wanted to say thanks for sharing this. I felt really enraptured by the narration. Like I was there. Awesome.

I live in Seattle and did the STP (205 mile ride in 2 days, but not especially hilly) this year. This is my first year of cycling. Thanks again.