“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” ~ Sir Edmund Hillary
As Sunday quickly approaches, I am left to ponder what the hell I have managed to get myself into yet again. After all, since the beginning of my cycling journey I haven’t been known for making the soundest decisions…
Here is the formal description of this Sunday’s Six Gap Century Ride:
“The Six Gap Century boasts many of the same roads and mountain climbs as the elite Tour de Georgia. The ultra-challenging route takes you up and down six of the steepest climbs in the North Georgia Mountains. Elevations on the six gaps in this ride range from 1,400 feet to 3,460 feet. The toughest climb, Hogpen Gap, will challenge even the strongest riders, averaging a 7% grade for seven miles, with sections as steep as 15%.”
Let me give a little history lesson about some of this course… In 2014, Three Gap Fifty which consists of the first and last two “gaps” (climbs) of Six Gap Century was my very first organized ride EVER. Yes, a Miami girl decided that her first organized ride ever would be 58 miles with 6,385 vertical feet of climbing. If I may say so myself, it was NOT my smartest move ever…
Wolfpen Gap made me cry. I wanted to quit. I wanted to throw my bike off the mountain and never ride again.
But I did not quit.
I did not throw my bike off the mountain.
I did not even walk once.
But, had one more person told me that the rest stop was ‘right around the next turn’ I may have opted to get off my bike and throw them AND their bike off the mountain.
I finished Three Gap Fifty and it was amazing, glorious, and utterly painful all at the same time. That was the day that I truly fell in love with riding in the mountains.
There is something about the pain and suffering that goes along with riding in the mountains that I hate, love, and crave all at the same time. It is the epitome of entering the “pain cave” and “embracing the suck.” There is no way around it and the only way to go is up, one pedal stroke at a time. There is this funny swerving movement that starts to happen when going suuuuper sloooow up a steep incline… You can’t control it, it just happens. When stuck in that space you only have two options, keep pedaling or get off and walk. The problem with quitting and walking is the realization that you will have to walk the rest of the way up because there is absolutely no way to get back on your bike and get forward momentum again. So you just keep pedaling, one stroke after another, how ever you have to in order to keep moving. When one set of muscles starts to hurt, you simply start pulling up on your strokes until those muscles start hurting too and then you go back to pedaling like normal. You repeat the process over and over and over again until you reach the top.
It appears that I love to put myself through the wringer whenever possible. Despite, analyzing this fact to death, I have yet to figure out exactly why I do these things to myself.
I love a challenge.
I love the feeling of being on the edge of life and death.
I love proving the doubters (including myself) wrong.
I love the suffering.
I love giving everything I have and then digging deeper for a tiny bit more.
I love crossing the finish line.
I love the exhaustion and rush of emotions that comes afterwards.
Six Gap Century is a bucket list ride for me and I have been waiting three years to finally get to do it. (I even tried to convince my friend we should do it in 2014, thank God that he knew better than I did then.) Unfortunately, this has not been a banner year for me so far with all these injuries. I am not going into this ride having trained how I wanted/needed to. But, what I do know is that I am in 100% better shape now than when I did Three Gap Fifty, Assault on the Carolinas, and The Assault on Mt. Mitchell (read about my Mt. Mitchell ride here: The quest towards a century ride, REALIZED.). I also know that I have a bike that is lighter, faster, and better than the one I had back then. And, most importantly, I know the drive and determination that I carry inside me to be successful at the stupid things I challenge myself to.
What’s the saying? “If you’re going to be dumb then you better be tough.”
I am incredibly lucky that I am going to be able to do this ride with one of my favorite people and biggest inspirations, Caroline. She is, by far, my favorite training partner (sorry Zac). Caroline drives me to be better at everything that I do. I know that there will be moments where I will want to quit and may not be able to rely on my own brain/heart to push me forward so I am thankful that I will have her there to look over at and give me the “put on your big girl panties and suck it up” face.
Although I am nervous about how my foot and hip will hold up, I am beyond excited for the challenge that is ahead of me. I have been waiting for this day for so long and I am 100% sure that the climbs and descents will not disappoint. My main goal for Sunday is to soak up every single second of this experience no matter how difficult it gets.
I have written about visualization in some of my past posts and that is exactly what I have been doing the last few days, visualizing this experience and visualizing myself (in one piece) crossing that finish line.
And, let me tell ya… the end of this ride feels pretty damn sweet.
“Sight is a function of the eyes, vision a function of the heart… Vision sets you free from the limitations of what the eyes can see and allows you to enter into the liberty of what the heart can feel. Never let your eyes determine what your heart believes.”
~Excerpt “The Principles and Power of Vision” Myles Munroe
We set off on Sunday morning (May 17, 2015) for South Carolina at the early hour of 7am, my brain was a mess and I was sure that I had forgotten something vital to my upcoming ride. Finally, I let the thought go because repeatedly going over and over everything I had packed in my mind was useless and a pointless waste of good energy. My brain had so many other things to worry and fret over… I decided that sleep would be the best option and so that’s what I did for a very large portion of our 8 hour northbound adventure.
Upon arriving to the hotel, we saw gorgeous bikes everywhere we turned. Seeing all the beautiful bikes was a stark reminder that my bike would surely be the least fancy at the ride the next day. This is both a curse and a joyous reminder of my achievements. You see, while all the people around me would mount their beautiful (and super light) carbon bikes with amazing components I would be hopping on to my trusty aluminum (much heavier) bike with its not so fantastic components. If you don’t ride then this fact probably doesn’t mean much to you but what it means to me is that I would have to work infinitely harder to achieve the same goal as them, therefore making me that much more of a bad ass (or idiot, you choose).
The rest of Sunday was pretty uneventful; we spent some time at the pool, I ate a huge meal at Fuddruckers, and Steve (my coach) asked me 957 times if I was ready for Monday. Of course I replied no 956 times and yes once to make it stop. I also explained to him that we were going to have shots at the bar following our glorious completion of the ride to which he repeatedly reminded me of my propensity towards falling asleep after long rides and how this one was much longer than any I had previously done. I ignored him and proceeded to sing “shots, shots, shots, shots” (a tune you hopefully know and a fact you should keep in your mind for later because, hint, it’s important).
Before going to sleep we prepared everything we would need to be ready for the morning so we could wake up, eat, and ride out to the start line. This was an especially spiritual time for me because I had to figure out the best placement for a Valentine’s card that Jimmy had given me with roses the year before. This card had so many meanings for me; not only was my first century ride dedicated to his memory but it was certain to be my inspiration along my long journey to the top of the mountain. I had been planning this for a bit but I wasn’t really prepared for the emotions that washed over me. It was so hard to see his handwriting on something and not think of the promise that his life had held and the pain that his untimely death had left in its wake. Nonetheless, I kept myself together and placed it where it would not interfere with everything else that I needed for the ride.
Morning came after a very restless sleep and, just as we had planned; we woke up at 5am, ate, threw the last few things together and made our way towards the start line. Even as I sit here writing and recounting the day, I feel the same flutter of emotions within me. I am not sure if the emotion was doubt or fear or anxiety or excitement or what really. I can tell you that it felt as if my heart was floating to the top of my throat and that I was surely going to vomit. There aren’t many words to describe what it feels like to know that you are about to set out on a 103 mile journey for the very first time ever. I kept switching between looking down at Jimmy, looking up to God, and looking over at Steve; my mind was flying with thoughts. I tried to look around and take in everything going on around me but it was hard to do with all that was going on in my mind. As the time approached, Steve began to give me my last-minute instructions. “Be careful at the start because most crashes happen there, we need to move and get with a good group so that we can make everything on time, we are going to pass the first two stops and it will be ok, make sure you drink plenty of water, no flat tires…” There was probably more that he said but I didn’t hear it. All I could respond with was “I will follow you, just lead me where you want me to go…” The time counted down and we were off.
The start was indeed a mess but not as bad as I assumed it would be. I did see a guy that blew a tire right at the start and my heart sunk for him but I had to focus on my journey today and leave his behind. We moved in and out and around slower people and were able to join a nice large group. We were moving at a good pace and I felt good so I was able to settle in and stick close to Steve’s back tire. In the crowd, I heard a familiar voice and realized that it was a guy that I had ridden next to for a bit during my Assault on the Carolinas ride just a few weeks ago. We chatted for a bit but it was difficult for me to focus and make small talk so I moved away and dug in to my journey. I became comfortable in the group and we rode, I had no idea how fast we were going or where we were in the journey but I decided to trust the process. We passed the first rest stop at mile 23 as planned and continued on. I was feeling really good and when Steve made a move towards the front of the pack, I promptly followed suit.
Then, it happened… One of the things that I was dreading… I started to get dropped, no matter how hard I was pumping I was losing speed and then I lost the group. Steve noticed and dropped off too. My immediate reaction was to blame him because I had tried to follow him to the front and then I felt it and I knew… I shouted out to him to check my tire and sure enough, to our chagrin, it was flat. We were about to head into a downhill and it wasn’t blown so I decided that we should continue on. As soon as we came off the downhill (around mile 39), it was done and needed to be changed. Steve decided that he would do it because he was faster than me but, of course, given my strained relationship with the universe it wasn’t going to be that simple. We couldn’t wedge the tire off despite an extensive amount of cursing and ranting. When we finally got it off, Steve wanted to just throw a new tube in but I knew better and I checked the tire. Upon inspection, I found my arch nemesis, the eternal thorn in my side… a piece of radial wire. Seeing as though this is a common occurrence for me I have, on many occasions, proclaimed that I was going to put tweezers in my bike bag. But, despite all my talk, I had not. I yanked the wire out with my teeth as Steve looked on in horror. (You see, we had to move, we had already watched two more big groups pass us and we knew that we were losing precious time). I continued to check the tire and found yet another piece of wire, this one significantly smaller than the first and I was unable to pull it out quite as fast. We fought with it to push it through to get it close enough for me to yank out with my precious teeth. While struggling with the second piece, a SAG motorcycle came by and called for a mechanic. Prior to the mechanic arriving, I was able to get it out. We let the mechanic pump up the tire and they assured us that more groups were coming that we could join. We set off yet again and seeing my face, Steve assured me that we were ok, we would find another group, and that we had been making good time with our pace of 20mph until my tire blew.
We kept riding and continued past the rest stop at mile 43 but couldn’t seem to find another good, solid group of riders. It was evident at this point that the rest of the way would be up to us to complete without the benefit of others to draft off of. Around mile 44 there is a dangerous curve that Steve started telling me as we passed the last rest stop. It is one thing to have someone tell you but quite another to see all the crazy blinking, noisy signs and feel the terror when riding into it despite knowing that you are being careful and probably won’t crash. We continued on and so did the rolling hills. I still felt good and was pushing myself to move so we could still make all of the timing points that Steve had told me about. My mind wasn’t struggling, my body still felt good, and every time I looked down Jimmy was still with me. We stopped at the rest stop at mile 48 for a quick water fill up and potty break. We headed out again and were still making good time when we came upon road construction and were forced to stop by the road crew. This may not seem like a big deal but losing 7 minutes standing in the road is bad… It’s bad for the timing points you have set for yourself and it’s bad for your body which is now having the opportunity to remember that it should be sore. I could feel the beginning of cramps and tried my best to hydrate and also slam down Gatorade chew after Gatorade chew.
We finally were able to take off again and made it to the rest stop at mile 65 with little other adversity. My mind started to think about how incredibly easy the ride had been thus far and I knew there would be a catch at some point. As we continued on, I was reminded of the weather updates that we had been watching which the predicted 50-60% chance of thunderstorms. I looked around at the beautiful, yet hot, day and was thankful that the weatherman was wrong (or was he?). We rolled into the Marion stop at mile 74 at 11:39am (5:09:00 into the ride) about 20 minutes ahead of our planned schedule. Steve’s parents were there cheering for us and videotaping our arrival. I was pumped, super hyped up, and all smiles. I felt great and upon realizing that I had just set a new distance PR for myself, I was ready to go and finish out the rest of this ride. Steve grabbed a rain vest thing from his parents in case it started raining for which I made fun of him because the day was gorgeous and there wasn’t a rain cloud in sight. (Remember my precarious relationship with the universe? Yeah, you can see where this is going). We filled up, said bye to his parents, and took off again. I was truly feeling amazing and as if I could conquer the world.
As we set off, Steve kept asking if I wanted the truth about the rest of the ride to which I consistently answered no. (He still tells me anyways.) He told me that after the next rest stop, things were going to get much harder. We made a quick stop at the mile 82 rest stop and he again reminded me that the next 5 mile ascent was probably the hardest on the ride. As soon as we left the rest stop the rain began falling on us. The weather got bad very, very quickly as did the course we were on. The steepness was incredible and the amount that I had to pump my legs to equal the speed of a land tortoise crossing the road was nothing short of amazing in a very terrible way. My mind began to rip at the seams and my body started to cramp in places that I never realized could cramp. I wanted to cry or scream or both. I kept pumping, praying, and talking to every person that I have loved and lost in my life begging them to push me forward. I kept looking at Jimmy’s words taped to my bike and telling him that we were going to make it to the top no matter what the cost, we would make it. Steve clearly saw the pain and doubt across my face and he slowed to ride next to me. He asked me how I was doing and all I could do was muster an awful look in his direction. This is where the fun started… He asked if I was ready for “shots, shots, shots, shots” as he sang and bounced on his bike. I couldn’t not laugh, he had yanked me from the darkness in my mind and all I could do was laugh. Steve is not the sing songy type which just made the situation all the more entertaining. I think I told him once that I wanted to stop and he simply told me, no. So we didn’t, we kept pushing, riding, and we didn’t stop (neither did the rain) until we got to the rest stop at mile 87. I kept thinking that if I had just pushed through the toughest ascent then the rest of the ride would be a piece of cake… Wrong. As we arrived at the rest stop, cold and wet, I proclaimed that what we had just ridden was THE. WORST. FIVE. MILES. OF. MY. ENTIRE. LIFE.
We rolled in to the mile 87 rest stop at 1:40pm again ahead of the schedule that Steve had set for us. This was the key stop in the ride because it was slightly downhill from the entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Ride rules state that if you aren’t on the parkway by 3pm, you can’t continue in the ride. So, we were golden and would certainly have the opportunity to continue on. I looked down at Jimmy and quietly assured him (and myself) that we would definitely be finishing this journey. Steve let me rest a tiny bit longer at this stop and the rain let up when we got there as well. We talked to some of the other cyclists that were there about the terribly miserable previous 5 mile ascent and then about the apparently almost as awful 6 mile ascent in front of us. We clicked on our lights (we would encounter two tunnels on the parkway ahead of us) and set off again.
Despite how awful the previous 5 miles were, it was the next 6 miles that would test every facet of my heart, mind, and soul. The next 6 miles almost broke my psyche in ways that I didn’t know possible. My body hurt and was cramping everywhere, the thunder was deafening, the rain torrentially poured down on top of us, the lightning was blindingly bright, the wind was blowing, and the fog was rolling in. The rain literally looked like a river pouring down the road. We not only had to contend with working against the wind as we climbed the steep ascent but we also had to contend with the force of the water that was pushing against us as we continued to roll upwards. If there was ever a point in the ride where I wanted to quit, this was it. The rain was blinding as it pelted my eyes and all I wanted to do was stop pedaling. I was doing everything I could to not cry but I don’t think I was as successful as in the previous 5 miles. I again began to call on Jimmy, my grandparents, and everyone else that I believed was an angel by my side to help me. I begged. Begged for them to push me, begged for God to make the rain stop, begged my body to stop cramping, begged myself not to quit. Steve tried several times to ask how I was doing and drop in the “are you ready for shots, shots, shots” but it wasn’t quite as effective as before because I was angry and tired and freezing. I wanted it to stop, all of it. I asked Steve repeatedly if he knew how close we were to the next stop but he didn’t know which made me angrier because, to me, if I knew how far I had to go then I could will myself to get there. A couple passed us and as they rode by I asked them. “About 1.5 more miles to the next stop.” they said. I told myself that I could do that. An infinite amount of time later, another man was passing and I asked him too… 1 more mile he said. 1 more mile!! It had been forever since the couple passed us, I told myself. There was no way that there was still another mile to go and no way that I could keep going for another mile. My mind needed a break and I called out to Steve that I needed to stop. To my surprise he called back, ok. What?!?!?!?!? He is the one that is supposed to tell me no!! One would think that given permission, I would stop. Nope.
I started to think about the chapter of a book, Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose Through the Power of Words by Kevin Hall, that I had just read to the kids I work with on the Friday before the ride. The chapter was titled Sapere Vedere (meaning ‘knowing how to see’) and talked about the importance of visualization on our life’s path. Ever since reading them the chapter, I had begun to visualize my own century ride journey; what it would look like at the top and how it would feel to stand atop the highest peak east of the Mississippi just having ridden 103 miles to get there. At this very moment on our journey, when all I wanted was to pull over and make it all stop, I again began to visualize the end of this journey. I began to remind myself of how it would feel and what it would look like. I reminded myself of the promise that I made to Jimmy that we would make it to the top together. I was reminded of a quote I had seen that morning on Instagram, “breathe in confidence, breathe out doubt” and I began to repeat it to myself as I began to breathe in and out. Every time we turned a corner, I shouted out to Steve to ask if he could see the rest stop ahead. Many times, repeatedly, the answer was no. I kept trying to breathe in and out but soon I resorted to my more callous and less lady like coping skill of cursing aloud A LOT. I again reached a moment when my body wanted to shut down and I literally began to think that my body was going to quit on me if I didn’t stop. I again began to toy with the idea of stopping but at that precise moment we turned another corner and Steve threw up a thumb and shouted that he could see it. I wanted to weep at the sight of his thumb but I had no energy to do anything but push through the rest of the way to the stop. The last man that had passed us had been wrong about the distance ahead and, had I given in to the doubt that had covered my mind, I would’ve stopped only to start again and realize just how close we had really been to the next stop. I was less mad at the man and much more proud of my ability to push through the pain and misery that had engulfed my entire being. In Aspire, Kevin Hall writes “it’s been said that vision is what we see when we close our eyes. We have to see it before we can be it. ‘Dream lofty dreams,’ wrote James Allen. ‘And as you dream so shall you become. Your vision is the promise of what you shall one day be.’” My purpose, my dream, my vision was to complete this journey so that I could truly see myself as the cyclist that I know I am. I could see it, I could feel it, and, despite the all the adversity the weather was carrying with it, I knew I would become the dream I had envisioned.
We made it to the rest stop at mile 93, I was exhausted and miserable. I was the most miserable that I had ever been in my entire life and I really began to wonder what it was that drove me to do insane things like this ride. There are a few things that stuck out about this rest stop… One of the first things I encountered at this stop was an older volunteer under the tent who was holding a tiny dry towel in her hand. She had just wiped off the face of another female rider next to me and asked if I wanted my face dried off. I am sure that I looked at her like she was crazy because I kind of thought that she was. What was a tiny towel and a dry face going to do for me when my entire body was soaked to the bone and shivering from the cold? She kept insisting and I knew she was going to keep insisting so I gave in. The feeling was, in fact, wondrous. I don’t know what it was that made it so amazing, that my face was dry and seemingly warm or the charity that I felt when she wiped my face. I thanked her profusely and then found myself wishing that I could dry my whole body with the tiny towel so it could feel like my face. I began to find a semblance of laughter inside again which I knew was a very good thing.
Another thing that stuck out for me at this stop were amount of people that were quitting (there was a line of people waiting under a tent for SAG vehicles to take them the rest of the way to the top). I didn’t understand (I still don’t) how someone could be so close and give up. To this day, this is one of the things that resonates in my mind because I don’t give up, I don’t fail, especially when I am that close to what I want. I talked to a couple cyclists that were considering quitting because the weather was just too bad and I told them that they shouldn’t, I reminded them that we had all come this far and that the top was only a short distance away. I willed them to continue and I am not sure if I was willing them to continue or willing myself to. We also discussed the upcoming 2 mile downhill piece that I was completely dreading. This may be the only time in my life that you will ever hear me say that I did not want to go downhill. It wasn’t so much the thought of how dangerous the road was thanks to the weather or because going downhill only meant that there was that much more to climb (again), but it was more so because I was so cold that the thought of the wind hitting my body made me feel that much more chilled to the bone.
I had a couple cookies and then Steve began to hound me about leaving the rest stop. I began to whine and reminded him that before the ride he told me that after mile 87, we could rest longer and take our time. He continued to hound me about leaving and I continued to whine about staying which went on for several minutes. I knew that I wasn’t going to win the battle so we started to move towards our bikes and the exit of the rest stop when we heard a terrible crashing noise. I asked Steve what he thought it was and he looked at me with a puzzled glance. I heard someone say that it was probably thunder but I knew better because we had, after all, been consistently listening to the crashing sound of the thunder for several hours now. We tried to ignore it and as we were about to move, we heard someone say that they believed that there had been a rock slide up ahead. Steve wanted to leave despite this knowledge and I wanted to wait a minute to get confirmation. Finally I gave in because I began to worry that, if there had indeed been a rock slide, the ride might be stopped due to the severe weather conditions. Like I said before, I don’t fail and unlike the 20 or so people in line to catch a ride to the top, I wasn’t going out like that. We rode off before anyone could say anything and maybe 1000 feet from the exit of the rest stop, there it was. There were small boulders and rocks littering the road while a crew worked feverishly to clean it all up. We weaved through the rocks and continued on. It began to dawn on me that my whining had saved us from getting caught in the rock slide. We had missed it by 5 minutes and the thought, although scary, was the furthest thing from my mind. I couldn’t stop shivering and the rain was again pelting me in the face. My face was no longer warm and dry.
As we got closer to the downhill portion, all I could think about was how bad I wanted to rip off my gloves because of how cold my hands were. Despite wanting to, I had no time to because the downhill was upon us so I shouted to Steve that I was going to stop to take them off after the downhill but I’m not sure he heard me. The downhill was terrifying and not in a thrilling, living on the edge sort of way, it was just deathly terrifying. I couldn’t keep my eyes open because the rain was hitting my eyes so hard and my whole body was trembling from the cold so my bike was also shaking. I rode the brakes the whole way down and I kept thinking that this might really be what takes me out. When you start to have those thoughts, it’s hard not to feel guilty and selfish for wanting to do something like this in the first place. The thoughts didn’t last long because the cold was too overpowering to think about anything else. The descent was fast despite riding the brakes and as soon as we started to climb again, I ripped the gloves off with my teeth and shoved them in my back pocket. My hands were still cold but they felt infinitely better so I kept riding. I caught up to Steve and saw a not so happy look on his face. When I asked what was wrong, he said that we needed to stop because he thought there was something wrong with his bike. We pulled over at a beautiful overlook as the rain began to slow to a drizzle. While Steve looked over his bike, I took in some of the beautiful view (the steam coming off the mountains made them kind of look like chimneys). I asked if he figured out what was wrong with it and he said it didn’t look like there was anything wrong and that he thought that he must’ve been so cold and shaking so violently that the bike was shaking too and it just hadn’t felt right. We laughed and talked about the cold for a couple seconds, took some time to snap a couple pictures, and again rode off.
The time between our stop at the overlook and the final rest stop at mile 101 (there was another rest stop in between at mile 99) kind of blends together for me so I will do my best to describe them as accurately as possible. The sun came out at one point and I remember talking to Steve about my hopes that the sun would stay out for when we finished so that I would get to see the beautiful view from the top. Unfortunately, the sun didn’t stay out for more than a few minutes and the wind and rain continued on. I believe that the mile 99 rest stop had Coke which tasted heaven sent at that point. I believe it was also at mile 99 that we encountered another rider who looked about as spent as I did. He was an African-American gentleman (whom I later learned was from Augusta, Ga) that looked like he spends lots of time in the gym. He had an upper body that could rival that of a body builder. Despite his very muscular build, his face looked spent and we chatted about his thoughts about giving up. I again found myself talking about finishing the journey to convince both him and me that it was what we needed to do. I knew that it must be hell for someone so strong, upper body wise, to ride so very slow up a mountain. It is hard for me to balance myself when I ride that slowly and I am infinitely smaller than that guy. But he went on and so did we. I believe this was also the rest stop where one of the volunteers was a very cheery man with his dog cheering the riders on as they took off. It was actually quite humorous and uplifting to see how he cheered everyone before us off and then us when we left too.
About 1000ft or so after leaving the rest stop we encountered another man who I had exchanged deep sighs and miserable grunting noises with at previous stops sitting on the side of the road simply staring at his bike that was laying on its side. Cyclists are really good at asking if each other are ok when they are stopped but the reality is that most don’t actually stop to help each other (it’s the thought that counts I suppose). We shouted to him and asked if he was ok, he wasn’t. Apparently, as he was shifting something had gone terribly wrong and his rear derailleur bent in. This was the kind of issue that was a ride ending one… I couldn’t even imagine how he felt as he shouted back that there were only 4 miles left and that it couldn’t end this way. I couldn’t stop to help because, honestly, if I did then I may not have been able to will my legs to finish. Steve told me to go on as he stopped to try and help. The man even tried to convince people in the passing SAG that someone should lend him a bike to finish; even I knew that one wasn’t going to fly. Steve quickly caught up to me and told me that he hadn’t been able to help and that he wasn’t sure what the man planned to do. So, we rode on…
The 2 mile portion between the last two rest stops was also another very challenging part for me. There is another very steep climb that tested my body’s limits. The soreness was ever present and my muscles felt as if they were literally shredding under my skin. Everything hurt and things started to seize up. I remember that we were going so incredibly slow that I wasn’t sure we would ever make it to the next stop. I also remember that, because we were going so slowly, it was very hard to maintain balance and continue in a straight line so I was kind of riding in more of an ‘s’ type path. There was one point where tears were falling because I was hurting so bad that I looked over and realized that there was no barrier between me and the cliff straight down and I began to think that because I had so little control over going in a straight line that there was a good chance my arms would twitch and I would go right over the edge. What sticks out is how undisturbing the thought was at that very moment. I was so tired and in so much emotional/physical pain that it was almost a welcomed idea at that point. I thought about how it would at least be a glorious way to go. I was able to snap myself out of that thinking, keep pumping my legs, and keep repeating “breathe in confidence, breathe out doubt.” I kept reaching out to my angels and praying. Steve and I were in sort of a dance with our body builder looking friend who would ride for a while and then walk for a bit and then ride and so on and so forth. I kept thinking that he was doing it and so were we and that, no matter the cost; we would all finish this journey.
We reached the rest stop at mile 101 and I had to sit, actually I had to lie down. The volunteers were nice and very encouraging people that were willing to tend to our every need. They cheered for us as we came in and made sure we were cared for. One of the volunteers gave me ibuprofen and I proceeded to find a spot in the grass to lie down in. I was hurting and cramping and cold and wet and miserable and strangely happy and sad and lots of other emotions too. We had 2 more miles and we would finally reach the finish line. I remember taking off one shoe and one sock in a desperate attempt to decide if I should forego the soaked socks and hope that my well ventilated tri-shoes would dry my feet. I had the silly discussion with Steve and even our body builder looking friend whom had arrived at the stop. I decided, finally, to leave them on mostly because I lacked the strength to take the other off too. I also noticed that another older gentleman who I had talked to about not quitting at the rest stop at mile 93 rolled into the rest area. He had kept going too, unwilling to give up on his journey despite how hard it had become. Yet another older gentleman who I had chatted with at other stops earlier talked to me about the terrible weather conditions and all the other times he had completed the ride which had been so much easier. We talked about this being my first century and he looked at me with a very surprised look on his face stating, “well, you sure picked a great one to do as your first, this is by far the hardest century ride in the country.” (Oh my God, didn’t I know that by now!) We chatted about all the people that quit at mile 93 and how the weather had probably taken its toll on them. I responded with “I guess if this was easy than everybody would do it.”
The final 2 miles of my journey are hard for me to remember as well but I know that they were no piece of cake. I remember looking ahead and seeing the trucks that were transporting the bikes back down the mountain and getting super excited that the end was around the next bend only to have my hopes dashed when Steve told me that the end wasn’t there. I know that I dug deep at the end because I hurt, A LOT. I remember coming around the final curve and seeing the finish line and having a rush of emotions hit me at once. We had made it… Steve and I and Jimmy and everyone that had accompanied me along the way had made it to the end. I remember looking down at Jimmy and the tears welling up in my eyes as I crossed the finish line in 11:08:05 with strangers cheering for us, Steve’s dad videotaping us, and his mother cheering almost uncontrollably at the sight of us making it. I started to break down, I could no longer hold all my emotions in and I started crying. I tried to hold on and not let go of my sanity completely but I couldn’t hold it all in.
Immediately when you cross the finish line, the volunteers come to take your bike from you so that you won’t be the idiot that tries to ride back down the mountain. (They also shove a medal and ride patch in your face while they are trying to snatch your bike away, probably to distract you from what they are doing. Lol!) I kept telling the volunteers to hold on and they kept assuring me that I could take my time. I had to get the Valentine’s card off the bike because I needed Jimmy to come with me for the final part of the journey. They patiently waited as I fumbled around trying to pull the tape from around the card continuously telling me to take as long as I needed. I wondered why they didn’t help me get it off but I suppose that they could see what it said and knew that it was probably something that I needed to take care of. My fingers were ice cold and it took me seemingly forever to peel the tape away. I finally got it off and the tears began to flow a little harder. I gave Steve and his mother and father hugs to celebrate what we had just accomplished and we moved to the overlook where we would take pictures to signify what we had finished.
The fog, the rain, and the clouds ensured that the view from the top was much less than majestic for our pictures. Honestly, it didn’t even matter. We took our pictures together and separate, all smiles and full of pride. I had accomplished something that I wasn’t sure that I would ever do a year ago.
That feeling of accomplishment became bittersweet when I took the next set of pictures. I taped Jimmy’s card to the sign on the overlook and took pictures of it. This ride, after all, was dedicated to his memory and we had made it up this mountain together. The process came with a lot of prayer and reflection. I was acutely aware that he was not there in physical form and that hurt in a place of my soul that I can’t begin to describe. I forgot that I was cold and wet and I lingered at the overlook, unwilling or unable to walk away. I felt as if, when I walked away, it would all be over and that everything I worked for would end with that final change of clothing and that bus ride down the mountain. I knew that I couldn’t stay no matter how bad I wanted to so I got my warm, dry clothes and made my way towards the “changing room” (really it was a large port-o-potty). I began to change and simultaneously began to weep uncontrollably. I had fought so hard to finish and I used every bit of my being to will myself up to the top of the mountain. I wept because I was so happy and I wept because I was so incredibly sad. My mind was tired and that meant that it moved to thinking about what the ride had come to mean for me. I wept because I knew that if Jimmy were alive he would’ve made the trip to see me cross the finish line. I wept for his promising life that had been lost and the effect it had on people that I had grown to love and care for. I wept because I had worked so hard to get to that point and it had become so important to me that I didn’t want it to end because I was unsure of what I was going to work towards next that had the potential to give me the fire and drive that this goal had given me. But, as we all know, all good things must come to an end so it was time to stop crying and get on the bus towards a warm meal.
One might assume that this is where the story ends but… it’s not! A good story really ends with meeting new awesome people and celebrating your accomplishment!! We got on the bus for what would be a SUPER long ride back to the Marion stop. It felt like it took forever for us to start moving and I was getting sleepy. I knew I couldn’t fall asleep because I had talked a big game about having shots after the ride and if I fell asleep, it was over for me. Instead of allowing sleep to overtake me, I started to look around to see who was on the bus with us and I was overjoyed to see our body builder looking friend, the older man that had talked about quitting, and even the guy that had been sitting on the side of the road was there. They had all finished, none had given in and quit. Our body builder looking friend continued to alternate between riding and walking for the remainder of the ride and the man from the side of the road (who we learned later was Philipino) walked the entire final 4 miles until he crossed the finish line. Walking in cycling shoes is no easy feat so they are definitely winners in my book!! But, they weren’t the stars of our ride down the mountain, the fantastic crew from Indiana were. I mostly eavesdropped on their hilarious conversation but also engaged in some. I came to find out after the ride that they are part of a group in Indiana called Cure Chasers. They had me laughing most of the way down with their funny back and forth banter between each other and with their stories of the ride, other rides they had done, and their “normal” rides back home. The highlight of the bus ride has to go to my weary mind, however… There were two older (older than me anyways) men on the bus and they clearly were not doing so good and were clearly going to be sick. All of a sudden there was what seeming like a very loud crashing noise in the bus (ok, so it might not have been that loud but it sure seemed that way at the time) and we all kind of looked around wondering aloud what it might have been. I exclaimed that maybe it had been another rockslide but, nope… it happened again and then we realized that it was in fact one of the men throwing up into a trash bag. As stupid as my exclamation may have been, it brought with it many more laughs for the rest of the ride. I am thankful that, upon everyone opening the bus windows to release the throw up stench from the air, one of my new friends was gracious enough to give me his plastic blanket to keep me warm since I had chosen shorts for my dry clothes bag and had again begun trembling. Truth is, without them, I surely would’ve gotten lost in my thoughts and feelings and probably begun to cry again. They made my heart smile and laugh, something I will be forever grateful for.
We made it to Marion, ate a nice hot meal, and hopped in the car for the rest of the ride back to Spartanburg where we would pick up our bikes. I was able to stay awake for all but the last 15 minutes of the trip but quickly awakened when we got to Spartanburg. We retrieved our bikes after a little more adversity concerning my bike (of course) and made our way back to the hotel where I continued to remind Steve about our “shots, shots, shots!” He was taking entirely too long so I threw on my medal (yes, my medal) and made my way to the bar. Shortly thereafter, Steve joined me and we made sure to have our “shots, shots, shots!” We discussed potential rides in the future and took a drunken walk to Krispy Kreme for some late night donuts but apparently they aren’t 24 hours and promptly told us (when we WALKED up to the drive-thru) that we needed to be in a car to be served. Clearly, the not nice woman inside DID NOT see the medal around my neck and did not understand why we desperately needed donuts. Needless to say, we did not get any donuts but we did have a super fun time stumbling back to the hotel and inside the lobby. (I even made him carry me up a couple steps which I think almost caused him to have a heart attack. Lol.)
All in all, this was a truly humbling, amazing, awe inspiring experience. I would not trade any of the adversity that we faced for an easier ride. Not only did it make for a MUCH more interesting blog post but it also made for a more triumphant journey. This ride taught me that I can truly do anything and accomplish anything that I put my heart, mind, and soul to. It was the perfect way to honor an amazing man that had been lost and it gave me another opportunity to be close to him. This ride also renewed my faith in God. It is not cliché when someone says, “if he brings you to it, he’ll bring you through it.” It is the truth and I am a believer. Without my amazing coach/friend/cycling husband pushing me and my prayer, faith, willpower, and sheer stubbornness I would not have finished this ride. Only 529 out of 731 cyclists that were registered actually finished the ride and I am very proud to be able to say that I am among those finishers. I am not sure what the future brings as far as cycling adventures but I can say that I am fairly certain that, while intoxicated, I agreed to come back and ride the 2016 Assault on Mt. Mitchell (after all, I didn’t get to have pictures with that great view so I need to do it at least one more time to have that). Who knows, you might even find Steve and I up at the 160 mile 2016 RAIN ride in Indiana!! The future is bright and full of promise and dreams! My adventures always hold the promise of plenty of adversity so stay tuned for whatever comes next!!