... that's how I decided to approach the MS 150 Ride.
I started feeling bad on Wednesday. The telltale signs of an impending flare were there. By Thursday I was increasing meds and trying to manage each new symptom that cropped up. On Friday I simply wasn't sure I was going to be able to ride and I was having trouble putting thoughts together in terms of the various distance options.
Friday night... made it to packet pick-up with moments to spare. Got my bike inspected and headed to the hotel for what would prove to be a not very restful night. Back in the day, I am quite certain said hotel was THE place to be but, uhhhhh, not so much anymore. When I'm not feeling well, I like my space. Five folks in a room built for maybe two very tiny people wasn't working well for me. Needless to say, I didn't get much sleep.
Saturday... up at 5:30 to shower. Why do I shower before such things? So I can French braid my hair better. DUH! Realized in the shower that I felt horrible. My muscles ached and my head hurt. Waves of nausea were washing through me and I had a nosebleed. None of this seemed to be setting me up for a successful day. Crawled back into bed and began the final internal struggle of whether or not I should be there at all. I can honestly say I don't have many moments of self-doubt... and this was not about that. I knew I would be able to ride whatever distance I opted for but that some choices might be better than others. The concern I have in these times is not about the actual event but, rather, the fallout from the choices I make. What will happen after the fact? How will my body respond? Who will pick up the pieces for me in each of the arenas of my life? Will I regret it if I don't do it? The answers to these questions never get any clearer. Perhaps if it was just me... if there were no small humans involved or friends or family members that love me in spite of my crankiness... perhaps then only the final question would matter. However, the reality is that I feel an obligation to be true to myself while still being fair to them, and because of that, I struggle.
Eventually, I pulled up my big girl panties (yeah, OK, just bike shorts but work with my metaphor here), threw on a team jersey and headed out the door. I had very little time to spare. I wasn't hungry but knew I needed to eat. Sweet talked a boy into doing my tires while I grabbed a banana and a yummalicious Caribou coffee cold vanilla latte thing. I don't think that's the actual name of it but it sure does sum it up. Managed to get everything down plus a bottle of water. I could hear the announcer calling for the team to line up. We're big sponsors so we get to go to the head of the class and start first, but for whatever reason, I just needed to hang back and wait. As I was making my way over to the start I realized I didn't have my sunglasses. I'll spare the details of the quest for the shades but suffice it to say, it took some time since he who had the car keys was also he whose cell phone was turned off. Finally made my way over to the start and just quietly waited until I could feed into the mass of riders.
And then? I started to ride... one pedal stroke at a time. I had no idea how long I'd ride, I just knew right then, it's where I belonged, and that mile by mile it would become clear what I was capable of. My goal was simple... ride my ride and make sure my heart rate stayed as low as possible. Meds and the flare were making my heart beat in a squirrelly kind of way and I knew the heat was not going to help. My mantra became "it's not a race".
Yeah, OK, it wasn't a race but "on your left" was all I said for awhile as I tried to escape the mass of people at the beginning of the course. I don't really enjoy big group rides. For me, personally, it defeats my purpose. I see riding as almost a mind/body experience and having to focus on so many other cyclists takes away from that. I did settle into a really good paceline for awhile, right behind a pair of very nice calf muscles... the right one of which had a small M-dot tatt smack in the middle. There were 5 of us and we worked well together, but when we hit the next mass of people and traffic got wiggy, well, that put an end to that.
It was incredibly inspiring, as always, to see riders of all shapes and sizes out there on every kind of bike imaginable. Because of the nature of the event, there were quite a few people living with the disease out there riding. It was touching to hear their stories, especially given my own connection to the disease having grown up with an aunt who suffered, and she did, indeed suffer, from MS.
The first 25 miles seemed to fly by. I had plenty of water and Accelerade with me, ate a pack of gel bursts at the 45 minute mark. I skipped break point #1 and stopped at #2 to refill water bottles. I was pleased to see that I had averaged just over 18 mph despite some hilly terrain. Little did I know, that wasn't going to last! Chatted with some friends, ran into a few people I didn't except to see there. One said, "I'm sure you're doing the hundred today". I was embarrassed to admit that I actually had absolutely no clue whether I was riding the century or taking the 62 mile option. I'm fairly certain I didn't sound like the sharpest knife in the drawer at that point. His parting words to me were "decide quickly... the turn off is in 4 miles".
Headed back out onto the course and immediately struck up a conversation with a man riding a hand cycle. I told him I couldn't even do a pull-up and here he was putting me to shame by climbing these badass hills with his arms. He told me he liked women with hill climbing legs... I think that was a nice way of saying, "my, what large thighs you have". The better to climb hills with, my dear. His own legs were small and atrophied and though I didn't ask and he didn't offer, I assumed he has MS. In the distance we could see the turn off signs for the different routes. I asked him how far he was going and he said he was doing the century. "And you?" he asked. "Me too," I said, looking around to see if someone else had actually said that.
So there it was. Decision made. Game on. One mile at a time, I was going to ride the century I'd been planning to ride, the one I'd been training for before my training was completely thrown off by the will of something over which I have no control. Again, I had no doubt I was capable of the distance, it was more about the current state of health and being able to manage my symptoms well enough to make it through the day and, of course, the possible after effects.
I spent quite a bit of the next 20 miles or so in quiet solitude, riding the way I like to ride. The hills started coming one after another with false flats or false tops or plateaus in between them. And I had this thought a few times: Where the hell are the downhills?
And suddenly, there it was... no, not a descent... it was that damn song I got stuck in my head on Friday. Over and over and over again climbing hill after hill and in my brain I'm singing: Born Helena Jane with a restless soul... she moved west to California... became a centerfold... blah blah blah... And there's never any rain... when you want it... a hollow little game... you've won it... looking for a thrill but you've done it alllllll. Soooooooooooooo long, put your blue jeans back on girl, remember Hollywood's not America...
NO NO NO! Make it get out of my head!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! UGGGGHHH!!! Are you kidding me? Of all the cheesy songs in the world... why this one?!!
But I digress. At some point in there the route crossed the Alabama line and I knew the Exhibits were gonna love hearing that I rode to Alabama and back. Even if I only rode a total of 100 feet, they would still think it was cool that I was in two states. Shortly thereafter was a break point and I was happy to see it. The volunteers acted as bike catchers and my bike, in all its sassitude, was quite a conversation piece. I needed water and an Endurolyte. I didn't feel hungry but figured I was behind on calories. Standing at that aid station I suddenly realized that it was hot. I mean really, really hot. Africa hot. Keep in mind that my demons are fueled by stress, fatigue and yes, in fact, the sun. I knew I needed to step up my game and stay on top of nutrition and hydration as well as find shade as often as possible. I grabbed a banana, drank some Powerade (uhhh, sponsored by Coke, no Accelerade or other such products once my concealed in a plain water bottle stash was gone!) and headed back out with a bunch of boys from the team. We rode together for a bit but eventually each settled into our own paces.
There came more hills (sing it with me now 'cause it was still in my head: And you can take the heat, will your heart grow coooolllllld????!!!). I'd planned on skipping the next break point but I couldn't help but stop. Mardi Gras theme? Church ladies cookin' up some stuff? Seriously, they were so cute I could hardly stand it. They had PB&J and all kinds of other food (chili dogs?) that didn't appeal to me in the least. Instead I had a pack of salted almonds in the shade of the covered front steps of a small Baptist church in rural Alabama. Best dam... er... darn nuts I ever had.
Ever onward and back to the hills. Sooooooooooooooooo long, put your blue jeans back on...
Skipped the next aid station. It was midday and the heat was brutal, I wanted to keep moving, get the miles in, one at a time, they clicked by. I was terrified of jacking up my heart rate which would likely have ended my ride, and so I stayed focused on keeping it low even on the worst climbs. I was able to get the song out of my head but now I was stuck in spin instructor hell. I was literally cueing myself up the hills "settle into a cadence you think you can maintain and gear through your hill". I might never, ever say that into a microphone again.
There were some rough roads along the way. The most notable rough road included a toothless man and two small children, one of whom came running into the middle of the road. I hope she didn't get squished by a car and, given that she actually ran to my bike and touched it and me, and therefore, I assume other riders, I sincerely hope that no cyclist strangled her. I do not think ol' toothless liked it when I told him that what she was doing was incredibly dangerous.
It felt good to get back to Georgia. Nothing personal, Alabama, 'cause south GA is what it is, but still, it was good to cross the line from a mental standpoint if nothing else. I can't actually remember when it was but one of the highlights of the route was crossing Lake West Point. Absolutely beautiful and a good reminder that your pace on a bike is often the very best one at which to watch the world go by.
Mile 75... stopped for lunch. Air conditioning. Real bathrooms. Oatmeal raisin cookies. Not sure why I needed to leave that little slice of heaven right there. A Troup County Sheriff came by and we had this conversation:
Him: How's it going out there?
Me: It's a tough course but I like it... and if it were easy, everyone would do it.
Him: Yep, that's a good point! The police officers at the intersections doing their jobs?
Me: Yes and we so appreciate not having to stop. Thank you.
Him: We enjoy it. It's a fun weekend for us. We also like when the Georgia Cup is here 'cause we do that, too.
Me: I guess it's a nice change of pace.
Him: Yep it is. The next 7 miles are kinda tough.
Me: Oh yeah? More hills?
Him: Yep (keep in mind... south GA... yep, he said yep about 15 times). Some big hills coming up and it's hot out there. I reckon it's about 96 to 98 degrees. SAG vehicles are pulling people off the course in 4s and 5s.
Me: Yikes, that's not good.
Him: Yep. You be careful out there.
OK, so aside from Boss Hogg, the best part about lunch was the ICE. I put ice in my bottles of water and Powerade. The GSU basketball team was there volunteering and they were giving out GSU water bottles. Put some ice in one of those puppies and stuck it in my jersey pocket. Ahhhhhhh.
Just 25 miles to go. No.Prob.Lem.O. Found out there was one more aid station before the finish. WTF? Really? HA! Obviously I'd be skipping that one. I mean hell, who's gonna stop at mile 89?
Ummm, yeah, that would be me.
The hills were relentless after lunch. Constant climbing. Settle into a cadence you think you can maintain. Gear through your hill. Settle into a cadence you think you can maintain...
Physically, I thought I was doing fine. I was definitely hydrated. The joints in my ankles and knees started talking to me a little bit but nothing major and there had been no point at which my legs cramped or that I felt like I couldn't keep pedaling. Despite having started the morning with muscle aches from the flare, my legs were holding up remarkably well.
The cop was right. There were people dropping like flies out there. I stopped to help one guy who, as I passed started talking to me about 16 bottles of beer left on the wall and he was just resting. He was in bad shape. I mixed some electrolyte drink mix in his water and he drank it and told me he was ready to go. He could barely stand but was insistent. I didn't really know what else to do so I told him I was feeling a little tired and asked if he would mind waiting with me for just a moment. Fortunately, that worked. As if on cue, the rockin' motorcycle chick with the pink helmet was on the spot and I was on my way again.
The final rest stop was on a hill. Huh? Oh, right, that's because there were only hills there. I played with ice. Ice on my neck, ice on my back, ice in my bottles. Honestly, I am not so sure that I needed to stop at that point but the mental break was well worth it and I probably needed some shade. I could find nothing there I was interested in eating which concerned me slightly because I knew I needed something and I felt like my system might be shutting down a bit if nothing but nothing was appealing. I decided on a mint chocolate Gu from my fuel box. It made me think of Jonah... which will become relevant in a moment assuming you know that he was recently hit by a car, which you obviously now know (no worries, he's fine).
Ten miles to go. Just ten miles. I started doing mental math. If I could average 20 mph, I could be done in 30 minutes. Yeah, OK, probably not going to happen when it's eleventy billion degrees and I'm climbing 13,000 feet. Next! How about if I can average 18... scratch that... let's look at 17...
Car came by dangerously close before I could finish the math on that. New mantra? Thank you, Jonah: You must assume you are invisible to every car. Assume you are invisible. You are invisible. No car sees you because you are invisible. Every car, cloak of invisibility. Invisible Jet. Wonder Woman. Wonder Twin Powers... activate... form of: lots and lots of ice.
Big hill. Must.Keep.Heart.Rate.Down. Pedal through, don't blow up here. I looked down at my bike computer and saw several things that alarmed me all at once. How was it possible that in all the time that I thought had passed since being at the last stop I had only gone a mile and a half? And, uhhhh, was I pedaling backwards because my speed at that precise moment was 6 mph. Do the math on that with 9 miles to go! Seriously. I started looking around because I was sure I was being punked.
Ummmm... yeah, this was definitely my low point. I really gave serious thought to just calling it a day. Six mph. 6. As in greater than 5, less than 7. This is not a race. My heart rate was where I needed it and I still had the ability to move my legs. I suddenly became very appreciative of every single one of my bike's gears and, trust me, I used them all.
So there I was. A few more miles to go. I don't ride with gloves. I often take them with me on long rides but never wear them. When I have used them before, I always end up taking them off. I just don't like them. Well, it never even occurred to me to bring the gloves on this ride but at mile 92ish, I regretted not having them.
My hands became very sweaty towards the end and suddenly there was this major descent that ended with a bridge crossing. I wasn't so concerned about the descent itself but the bridge didn't look so smooth and there were signs stating that the road surface would change. I knew it would be wise to control the downhill momentum a bit. As I went to flutter the brakes the joints in my fingers, wrists and elbows seized. I can think of very few times in my life when I've been that scared. My arms were shaking and my fingers were useless. I couldn't grasp the brakes well because of the sweat and I certainly couldn't sqeeze them. For some reason I tucked tight. Not sure why, but I did. I put my hands in the drops and used my palms to apply pressure to the brakes as best I could. I used my whole body to control that bike and I got an immediate and lasting abs ache. Forty-eight hours later I am still feeling that descent in my core.
Now, a normal person with joints that have given up might call it a day. Maybe I should have, but I'm a wee bit stubborn and quitting makes me cranky (well, crankier than usual). No effing way was I gonna do that at this point. No sirree Bob. Now I was pissed off. You don't get to win, Thing. I seriously had this conversatation with myself: "What are the chances there will be another fast descent with a hazard at the bottom like that? If there is, even if I crash, it probably won't be a bad crash. If I can use the heel of my hands to shift gears and I can find some lateral movement in my wrists, I'll be totally fine!"
And I was. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't fast, but it was my Day 1 ride... a hundred miles, one mile at a time.