Monday, May 12, 2014

H140: Tour de Long Beach Lessons

The morning started off cool, as a southern California beach-side morning does. Some riders were complaining it was cold, but I didn’t think it was, probably because the humidity was so high. Regardless, I had a lightweight windbreaker on because I knew once we got started the wind would make it a little cold.

It was uneventful for the first nine miles. I was keeping up with people, or at least still had riders from my ride in sight. At about mile nine I became aware that my left pedal felt a little wobbly. Wobbly like it felt like there was a little hitch in its getalong on the upstroke. We had just passed an aid station two miles back, and I knew the next one was coming up at mile 16, so figured I’d wait until then to have the volunteer bike mechanic look at it.

We turned down a road behind the Long Beach Airport and something went wrong. I wasn’t sure at first what it was; all I knew was that I was fighting for balance and wibbly-wobbling all over the place. I tried to put my feet back on the pedals, because somehow I wasn’t on them, and realized there was nothing to put my left foot on. I braked, gently, trying to avoid other riders, and steered over to the curb. I heard some riders saying, “She threw a pedal,” and “Look out!” for other riders to avoid hitting my pedal. Not just the pedal, but the entire pedal/crank shaft had come flying off. I jogged back about 50-70 yards to retrieve the pedal.

Mini-miracle #1 – I wasn’t clipped into my pedals because I didn’t have those pedals on. Haven’t had them on for quite some time, actually, which is a story for another time. If I had been clipped in, who knows what kind of havoc I would have wreaked.

Mini-miracle #2 – the pack had thinned so even with my erratic driving for several yards, caused no accidents. And didn’t crash myself.

I frantically called Linda, who was back at the start/finish area. She willingly and quickly asked some ride officials about SAG or ride or mechanical support out on the course. Knowing I was several miles in either direction from an aid station, and being in an industrial area, there was no immediate help available. After speaking with someone, she learned that there were ride marshals out on the course and someone would see my plight shortly and be able to help. I was doubtful because I wasn’t exactly at the head of the pack and was sure that everyone would have already passed me by.

About 10 minutes later, a woman stopped, identified herself as a marshal, and proceeded to make some phone calls. She assured me that someone would be along to “SAG” me forward to the next rest stop where a bike mechanic would take care of the problem. While several riders carried hex wrenches with them, they were all too small for the type of repair I needed. The marshal gave me the phone number of who she had spoken with “just in case,” and proceeded on her way.

Another 10 minutes after that I got a phone call from another woman who said she was SAG support and would be along in about 15 minutes to come and get me.

Twenty-five minutes later, she showed up. She asked me if I wanted to go back to the first aid (not first-aid) station or forward to the next. I declared in no uncertain terms that forward was the right direction. She seemed to lose a bit of respect for me as that would mean missing out on six or so miles of the ride, but I didn’t want to backtrack too far. In fact, the second wave of riders for the metric century (62 miles) had already mostly passed me, so I knew I was losing too much time.

Life Lesson: Help is on its way. It may not come in the way you thought, or especially in the time that is most convenient for you, but someone will help.

The aid station was at mile 16. Someone else was already getting a flat tire repaired by the capable, if not exactly time-efficient mechanic, so I impatiently waited my turn. He not only put the pedal crank on, but gave my bike a mini-tuneup as well. My brakes definitely felt tighter and better and more controlled by the time he was finished.

The downside? Somehow my seat got lowered, which didn’t register until I was several yards on my way, and didn’t want to turn around and go back,  knowing there had been other people in line for his services. So I rode the next 17 or so miles with a seat that was too low for comfort.

Life Lesson: Take care of problems when they arise, instead of waiting when it’s convenient. I can’t be certain, but had I taken care of that problem immediately, my low back may have not seized up much later in the ride.

For the next several miles we’re on a bike path that runs parallel to the San Gabriel River. There are two lanes for bikes, and a side lane for pedestrian traffic. There is no easy street access, except at certain intervals where the path intersects major roads. Between the side of the path we’re on and the river, there are large rocks, even boulders, with a lot of sharp edges. There is nothing friendly about those rocks. At Mile 21 I see several riders off to the side and realize that one of them is bloodied. The others were either in his group or had stopped to help. One is a few yards back helping to direct bike traffic around the minor path obstruction that their group was causing. I stopped because I have a first aid kit in my gear.

However, when I saw how bad his injuries were, I knew I didn’t have anything to help. By eavesdropping listening carefully, what I gathered had happened was that there was a tandem bike that was going slow. The lead bike in a group of riders behind the tandem braked suddenly, causing the others to have to react quickly, apparently in not such a great way. The rider most affected was the one who landed in the sharp boulders and bloodied his face/nose. His knee was scraped up too, I noticed, but he probably wouldn’t even notice that injury until much later.

Life lesson: Don’t ride too close to people you don’t know and/or trust. You never know when someone else’s dumb choice is going to throw you off the path into the boulders.

By this time we were completing a loop through Cypress and headed to Seal Beach and Huntington Beach. The next pit stop was at Mile 35-ish, which seemed to take forever. Once we hit the coastal road – Pacific Coast Highway – there was nothing but breeze. Sadly, it’s the coastal variety that only seems to blow one direction – as a headwind. It was a flat road, but a grind. Huntington Beach welcomed us with signs “Surfer City,” and it was beautiful to be sure. It also seemed like the Longest. City. Ever. It took forever to transverse, it seemed. Just on the other side of Huntington Beach was Newport Beach and the next rest stop. I found a rider with a small wrench set and adjusted my seat. I availed myself of facilities, refilled water, ate a Power Bar, and headed out again.

At this point the 100-milers were still on the same course as the 62-milers. One woman hollered at me, “Excuse me! Do you know if this is the right course for the 62-mile ride?” I said, “I don’t know. I know I’m on the right path for my ride. Do you have a turn-by-turn?”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “But I don’t know how to read it.”

And later still, after the 100-mile course separated from the 62-mile course, I was on a hill (more on those horrible hills very shortly) when another rider pulled alongside me. “Is this the right course for the 62-mile ride?”

“No,” I huffed and puffed at him. “The turnoff for the metric was a couple of miles back at Bayside.”

“Oh,” he said a bit sadly. “I guess I’ll turn around then.” He had gone several miles out of his way and climbed unnecessary hills before realizing his mistake.

Life Lesson: While you may be on the same path as other people around you, that doesn’t mean you’re on the same course. Everyone has a different race to run, different path to follow. Don’t assume that your fellow travelers are riding your course.

In a race or a ride like this where there are different distances being traveled, the course markers are generally differentiated by different colors. In this case, the bib that each rider wore was a certain color labeling which course they were doing – 100, 62, or 30 miles. At each intersection or turn, there were adhesive arrows on the road that matched the color of bib you wore. If you wore a yellow big, follow the yellow arrows. Purple bib = purple arrows, etc. That’s how I knew where I was supposed to turn for my 100-mile course at Bayside. I followed the yellow arrow.

Life Lesson: The road is marked for your journey with clear signs on where you’re supposed to go. You have to know your destination if you’re going to arrive at the right place, having taken the right path. 

This is where the horrible part of the ride started. It takes some nasty loops through Irvine. The ride organizers obviously wanted us to be as safe as possible because it went through largely residential areas with bike-friendly roads. “Bike friendly” meaning not a lot of auto traffic. The terrain was anything but friendly though. Starting at Mile 42 to 48, there was 5% grade. The Map My Ride link shows it as a Cat: 4. Only to be followed by a 9% climb. NINE PERCENT. That one doesn’t show a climb category number, but I have unofficially designated it as Cat: Hell. (Not feline hell, as that’s something completely different.) I had to get off and walk for the worst part of it. Remember, I had just finished a Cat:4 climb. Even walking I couldn’t recover my breath. I saw an older gentleman out for his daily exercise and said, smiling, “Does this hill ever end?” because you couldn’t see the top. It wasn’t straight up; it was straight and curvy up, so it appeared infinite. He looked at me, not smiling and said, “No. Not yet.”

He wasn’t kidding. It went on and on and … it was like a bad (any other kind?) Celine Dion song. Then there were some 4%ers, followed by a short 7%. (See elevation and course map here.)

Because I had burned a lot of leg energy on the first, nasty climb, I didn’t have enough to get up the second part.

Life Lesson: It’s okay to get off and walk. Listen to your body. Don’t be stupid.

At one point in a lovely residential area, there was a local woman out for a leisurely ride on her leisure (that’s how I knew the ride was leisurely) beach cruiser. She was considerably overweight (probably what someone would say about me who was riding behind me), and had not-great form (not something I can be accused of). I thought, as I huffed and puffed to myself, “Ah, finally someone I can catch up to,” knowing full well she wasn’t a part of the ride.

Sure enough, I pulled pretty close to her. Then another hill started. She geared down. I geared down. She pedaled. I pedaled. She pulled ahead. And ahead some more. I fell back, and watched despairingly as she put distance between us. The only thing that made me feel better was when she pulled off down a side road and I didn’t have to watch her anymore.

Life Lesson: Ride your own race. Don’t compare yourself to other people. She may have been riding for only ten minutes and had fresh legs. It didn’t matter that her bike wasn’t road-efficient as mine is (supposed to be). What mattered was that I had been on the road for 45 or so miles already that day. Comparing myself to her negated any accomplishments I had achieved that day. (And good for her for absolutely killing a hill in her heavy three-speed bike.) “Comparison is the thief of joy.” -- Theodore Roosevelt.

Mile 50-ish: Rest area #4. There was a super nice woman there, a volunteer, who identified herself as a nurse. She also assured me that at each aid station there was a nurse and/or EMT person, along with other volunteers who were handing out snacks and water. I asked her what would happen if you’re out on the course and something happened. Her husband quickly snarked, “Call 911.” She politely interrupted him and said, “Here’s my cell phone number. Call if you need. I won’t be the one to come help, but I can call someone who can.” She was lovely. When I said I thought for sure I was the last one out on the course she reassured me, “Oh no. There are still others. And we won’t shut down until 2:00 or the ride marshal comes along and tells us it’s time to go.” This was in stark contrast to the woman at the next rest stop (Mile 73) who was packed up and ready to go at 1:00 because that’s what time she was told to expect. She was completely unhelpful when I needed assistance, and even left while I was in the restroom.

Life Lesson: Just because someone’s wearing a volunteer shirt doesn’t mean they can be counted on. On the other hand, other people are lovely and helpful when they’re supposed to be. Learn to trust the right people.

The nice lady had also assured me that there was only one more climb to go, but it was shorter, and the rest would be easy. She lied. But I know it wasn’t intentional.

Life Lesson(s): Just because someone has driven the road before doesn’t mean they’ve ridden the road before. Also, they don’t know your capacity, ability, or capability. Take everything you’re told with a grain of salt. Don’t let it turn you into a pessimist, but don’t be stupidly optimistic either. (This one varies by situation, and as with all individual lessons or rules, there is always a corollary.)

The next 20 miles or so can only be described as painful. They weren’t the hardest part of the course, but they were for me. My legs were already shot from the horrible climbs I had done. The wind didn’t help either. I never felt a tailwind once that day. And even on that part of the course that looked like it should have been downhill and easy, I still had to keep the bike in a lower gear than I’d like to admit and pedal just to keep forward momentum. The wind was that bad. (This was on Laguna Highway.)

It was at this point that horrible noises started coming out of my mouth. Loud groans and wails. I knew no one could hear me, so felt safe doing so. There was some relief to it, but it didn’t really help physically – just emotionally. It was also at this point that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish the entire hundred miles, and started reconciling myself to that fact.

It wasn’t hard, actually – the reconciliation. My body was shot. Low back was hurting, leg strength was gone. It would be stupid to keep pushing myself beyond what I was capable of that day. I figured I’d make it to the next aid station (the aforementioned mile 73 with the unhelpful volunteer) and inquire about SAG support. I texted Linda to put her on alert in case SAG wasn’t available.

I desperately kept checking my turn-by-turn to see how further was left. I knew I was close to the turn for PCH, and after that it would only be another two miles. The turn came, and all I saw was another hill. I had to get off and walk again. Even when it flattened out in parts, the thought of getting back on the bike made my legs rebel. Walking was easier. Slower, but easier.

I made it to the rest stop (riding), had the aforementioned experience with the not-helpful volunteer, and finally agreed with Linda that she would come and get me as it appeared that course support had ceased for that part of the ride. I kept wondering if I could make it just another six miles to the next rest stop, but all I could see was another elevation increase in front of me, and knew I couldn’t. It was frustrating, yes, but the relief my body felt at not having to continue beyond what I was able to far outweighed the frustration. As an indicator of how bad it was, I cried as I talked to her. I don’t do that often, which is how Linda knew that I was done, and there were no words of encouragement that could overcome the realization that my body was done.

Life Lesson: The end of your course isn’t always marked by cheering fans and checkered flags. Only you know when it’s over. As long as you haven’t quit and know that you have done everything you can, it’s okay. Tapping out is different than quitting. Know the difference.

When Linda arrived, having driven the last 25-ish miles I was unable to complete, she agreed that it was tough. In fact, she drove me back part of that same way, and even in the comfort of a car, bicycle safely behind me in the back seat, my legs screamed. I would not have been able to do the rest of those hills. Sure, it would have gotten easier and doable AFTER the hills. But not before.

Linda had food and water for me, as well as a listening and sympathetic ear.

Life Lesson: Have a good support crew. These are people who encourage when encouragement is needed, and empathize when empathy is needed. They don’t judge, but are willing to help however they can.

Bonus Life Lesson That’s Just Downright Practical: Wear sunblock.

I worried that I wouldn’t be able to complete my usual four-mile run this morning. I’ve been struggling with my runs, knowing that I’ve lost a lot of the fitness that I had gained last year when preparing for a half-marathon. Once I got started this morning though, I felt great. Stronger than I have for a long time during a run.

Life Lesson: That old German philosopher was right. What doesn’t kill you DOES make you stronger. It’s not often pleasant to get to that point of being beaten down to the point of submission, but you will be stronger in ways you can’t anticipate.

Overall, I’m glad for the experience. I’m not thrilled that I had to tap out after 73 miles. And if I compare myself to my sister who knocked out her own 72-mile ride on Saturday, it gets a little bit more depressing. But that’s the comparison thing working against me again. If I put it into perspective of readiness for the H140, it’s discouraging. If I put it into the perspective of, “Hey! I rode a really tough 73 miles on Saturday!” then it’s okay. I also believe that this course was harder than the H140 course is. I don’t know if it’s because I was in better shape last year and physically more prepared, or if it’s actually a harder course. It was a good day, made better by a chocolate shake and a well-earned two hour nap on the floor.

I figured going into this ride that since I had done 110 miles last year in the Huntsman, at Utah elevation, I’d be able to do 100 miles this year at sea level.

Another Life Lesson:
 You can’t compare past accomplishments to future goals. Just because you’ve done something once doesn’t mean you can again – at least, not without putting in the effort and training necessary, or because you’re just not able to even if you have trained. But did you accomplish good things? Did you do your very best? If you made it to Mile 73 when you wanted to give up at Mile 63, you succeeded.