Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Dancing Thru the Mountains

When we signed up for the Mt. Tam Double Century a few months ago, I had three main reasons for wanting to move beyond the solo century experience and beyond the 200K tandem distance.

  • Understanding: Ultra distance cycling is my husband’s passion. I am SAG (Support and Gear) for the big events but I wanted to share an event with him on the bike as opposed to in a chase vehicle. I wanted a window into the next level of cycling I’ve only observed from the outside.
  • Personal Challenge: We used to refer to marathons, centuries as triathlons as “stupid human tricks” and have always needed a regular dose of the insanity. This was simply the next level.
  • Couples Connection: I wanted another opportunity to touch the level of intimacy that only happens when two people work as a team to overcome adversity. There is nothing more ‘together’ in my opinion than tandem cycling. Cancer is up there but simply not as fun.

On August 1, 2015 we rode 200.1 miles on our tandem as two of only 300 allowed participants in the Mt. Tam Double Century. Depending on whose Garmin you’re reading, we ascended between 15,600 feet and 16K+ feet over Mt. Tam, Coleman Rd, Marshall Rd and a few other seemingly gratuitous hills. We spent close to two hours at the rest stops chatting it up, stretching our legs, munching on ride food and almost 14 hours just riding our bike.

A truly epic day.

Countdown to a 5am mass start

This was my very first double century and our first ride over 200K on our tandem.

“Uh, this isn’t a good first double century ride,” said everyone in the know. “Have you been training?”

All I could think was, “Together, Brandon and I can do anything.”

And I said as much.

We have been through adversity; we’ve come out the other side together. My cavalier attitude however, was tempered by some of Brandon’s reasonable misgivings. My husband had concerns about our ability to successfully complete the double. He was worried I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and, most importantly, he didn’t want to see me suffer.

A little pensive, perhaps?
(Didn't see this image until after we finished!)

While I tend to undervalue my abilities in some areas, I feel nearly invincible on the tandem. And it shows. I cannot steer, I cannot brake, I have absolutely no control. But I can push a gear. I feel safe and I feel strong. On the tandem, I have a level of 'together' confidence that has, in our 20 years of marriage, never been achieved before.

The weeks leading up to the ride were a bit tense as he suggested I ride my underutilized Cannondale to train. I protested vehemently that I didn’t want to ride without him. As a typically fiercely independent female, this was a paradigm shift.

I will admit, I was not a smart athlete about this event. To be fair, I am rarely a smart athlete about any event. Whether it’s a marathon, a tri or a century after 15 years of not riding, instead of “putting in the time” training, I often just suck it up and figure it out on the course. It’s not a conscious choice, it’s just the way it’s been. Kids take time. Jobs take time. Training is hard to schedule. But probably the single most important factor to my nearly unshakable confidence, is my knowledge that I can suffer; I can persevere long enough to overcome adversity.

In one of many pre-ride conversations about being physically under prepared, I explained to Brandon that I have a list of moments in my life I can recall to assess perceived suffering.

Twenty years ago it was my first marathon. Having a drug-free natural child birth made the list almost 13 years ago. Sitting cross-legged in my bedroom with uncontrollable chest muscle spasms two days after a second mastectomy and the beginnings of bilateral reconstruction now sits at the top of the physical suffering list.

But endurance events are not simply about physical adversity. 

Neither is life. 

There is an emotional and mental space that must be acknowledged, touched and overcome. There are the outright emotional abysses and I have a list of those that I can dip into as well. “Is this as bad as finding out the heartbeat of what was to be your first child no longer exists?” “Is this as bad as the dark place where you were unsure whether your marriage would survive?” “Is this as bad as temporarily swallowing the personal fear, terror, confusion and lack of control you felt in order to tell your two children you have cancer?”

No athletic event ever trumps that list. EVER. And so, to date, regardless of how challenging things get, I know these lists exist in my own head and I know how to access them to both motivate myself and to meditate.

The reality is, although I wasn’t looking to suffer, I didn’t want this double century to be easy. I wanted to embark on an adventure that challenged us both. I wanted this course to be one that neither of us had done before. I wanted to explore unknown territory. And I wanted to do it together.

We started at 5am. Pre-dawn.

Beginning in darkness and finding the light together cannot be metaphorically overlooked by the writer in my soul. I devoured it and used it to push physically.

We climbed. We climbed slowly. Powering up the mountain(s), physically attached and mentally focused on the same goal. Again, I love, believe and desire everything that image represents to a marriage.

And then we flew. And it felt like dancing. It always feels like dancing. Faster and faster. Then slow and steady. Another hill? So what. Little circles. We’ve got this. Together.

Mt. Tam Summit - above the clouds

The tandem has become somewhat of a totem in my life. We purchased it less than a year ago as a 15th wedding anniversary present to ourselves. Twenty years prior, early in our dating lives, we had tried a tandem. It didn’t work. We didn’t communicate well on a bike. I couldn’t relinquish control.
I am, by most anyone’s standards, a control freak.

Even after 10 years of marriage, I could not fathom giving up all control. On the back of a tandem, the stoker has no brakes, she has no ability to steer. Sitting behind your captain is the epitome of a trust exercise.

On May 30, 2013 I lost the perception of control I had maintained for the better part of my life. After playing by all the health rules, here was the wild and woolly world of breast cancer. Four surgeries in 10 months found me, at times, more dependent and yet more determined than I have ever been.

Mortality hits me in the face more often than I care to admit to anyone but my husband. And this is one of the many reasons I can pedal into oblivion with him.

When we get on the bike he inevitably asks, “Where do you want to ride?” And I inevitably say, “I don't care. I’m letting go.” 

I am not a climber, yet we have tackled Mt. Hamilton, Montebello Road, Sierra Road, a trip up the Southern California coast and many other classic big climbs together. I just pedal and I just trust.

As our Garmin’s flashed 49.8mph on a downhill, Brandon yelled, “Wow, that’s ballsy. Sitting on the back of a bike with no brakes and no steering capabilities.” I laughed. “No hon, it’s not ballsy. It’s the epitome of trust to willingly give up that control.”

Around mile 150, we were both feeling great. He yelled back, “Not a lot of cancer coaching going on here, eh?” A reference to some of the bucket list conversations and fears I had expressed just days earlier. “Nope,” I chuckled, enjoying the Cancer-Free-Get-Busy-Living mentality.

Some thirty miles later we picked up a solo rider named Clay. He had been in our cohort for the better part of the day and now we were headed back with plenty of flat road and only a single climb left. Clay sat in behind us for a bit. He was a strong, capable rider but grateful for the pull. As we wound our way into town, Clay thanked us for the draft and mentioned that three years ago he was in the middle of chemo and radiation. He had been 60 pounds heavier at the time. He had overcome a lot to share part of the ride with us.

I smiled and teared up, “Wow. Wow. Wow. Congratulations,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said. And mentioned something akin to “It’s been a long journey.”

There was silence.

“I’m two years cancer free,” I said. We just looked at each other and smiled.

Living life. Really living life.

Feeling connected, feeling strong. I pinched Brandon on the butt (easy access for a stoker). He knew what the pinch meant. Meeting Clay was simply the icing on the cake for my day’s affirmation.

We did it. I can now understand the different physical and mental cadence of a double century. We were absolutely challenged although there were never tears or doubts as I imagined there could have been. (I never had to mentally access my 'worst ever' lists.) And we connected. 

We are inextricably connected whether we’re on the bike or not but again, everything is just a little more fun on a bicycle built for two.

As an acknowledgment to Brandon, I’ll admit that some additional training would have sped up the day. But it wouldn’t have changed the journey.

We are a fiercely strong team and we are dancing through life’s mountains. Together.

Finishing happy before 9pm!