A couple of weeks ago, I got really sick. It started with a skull-splitting headache on Friday afternoon, went through three days where I only left the couch to throw up, and then settled into a miserable, nauseated week where I struggled to keep the blandest food down. By Tuesday I’d lost eight pounds and was so weak that just turning the pedals for my morning commute was a challenge. In the back of my mind the Prospera Valley GranFondo, a 160km ride scheduled for the coming Sunday, loomed over me. Training was out of the question. I just kept wobbling to work and back in between uneasy meals of plain bread. I don’t think anyone who’d seen me in person during that week expected for one second that I would be able to start the race, never mind finish it, and I would have agreed with them: and yet I never seriously considered opting out. I knew that I had to try.
Final preparations didn’t go well. I was too queasy for lunch on Saturday, and lost the pasta I ate for dinner. Breakfast on race day was a slice of dry bread and half a cup of milky coffee. I figured I’d just keep eating small amounts every hour or so to try and stay fueled enough to keep pedaling. This strategy worked until I ran out of Honey Stinger waffles; these had gone down well, but the Cliff bar I ate for the third snack left me severely nauseated. I gave up on eating at this point, and consequently rode from about the 90km mark in an unrelenting bonk.
The ride itself was very cool. A helicopter tracked the riders for the first stretch, hovering low over a field of grass that roiled in the rotor wash as it filmed the peloton pouring around a sharp corner. The Fraser Valley is a gorgeous place to ride; long, flat open roads, farmland and little rivers, and rolling hills at the valley’s edge. I always love cycling down Avenue Zero, watching the border markers as Canada flashes by on one side and the States on the other. I didn’t feel too bad at the start of the ride; I could tell I was weaker and slower than normal, but turning the pedals and keeping up a steady pace felt comfortable enough.
It all changed after the Cliff bar. The worst of the nausea wore off after a while, but I didn’t feel right after that and there was nothing in the tank to draw on. I could feel the Sumas Mountain hill climb looming over me like Everest, a 9% gradient as insurmountable as the moon. I stopped at the aid station just before the start of the climb, drank as much electrolyte charged water as I could, and took some deep breaths. With leg muscles that felt like overcooked noodles, I had no idea where to find the power to get me to the top.
It was a slow climb. Painfully, agonizingly slow. I just kept pushing the pedals down, one after the other after the other. It felt far steeper than it probably was in reality; I’m sure it wasn’t any worse than stretches of Cypress or Seymour. My calves and quads quivered and twitched but somehow kept going. And then, all of a sudden, it was over and I was raising a fist in triumph as the road leveled. The beautiful, sweeping curves of the descent made every straining pedal stroke feel worth while, and I suddenly started believing that I was going to finish the ride.
I will be honest: the rest of the ride felt like it took an eternity. The roads unwound slowly in front of me, and a fine rain started to fall. I stopped at all the aid stations to stretch, consider and reject the idea of eating, and top up my water bottles with electrolytes; in the absence of any other calorie source I was going through them crazy fast. At one point a large group of us took an unintentional break when a very long train rumbled by, blocking the road for about ten minutes. The stops were necessary, but they also brought home how beat up my body was from riding while in such poor shape. My left ankle, which has never bothered me before, ached like a rotten tooth; and my sporadically problematic shoulder was a solid knot of pain.
The final climb took me by surprise. It wasn’t long, but it was as steep as the Sumas Mountain stretch. I snarled at it, stood up out of the saddle, and actually did a much more creditable job kicking the bike to the top than I did on the mountain. I knew once that was done that all I had to do was keep the pedals turning and I’d make it to the end. The sign telling me that I had 5km to go took me by surprise, and my weary body somehow summoned a burst of energy at the thought of finishing. I raced back up to 32km/hour – no mean feat with no fuel and 157k already ridden – and passed several riders on the final stretch. Then I rounded one last corner and the finish line was right there in front of me, and I heard them announcing my name as I bumped over it.
I got off my bike and suddenly the lack of food caught up with me. Everything went dark and blurry, and the world span. I wobbled over to the bike park area, put my bike on the rack, and thanked the volunteer who hung a medal around my neck. Then I staggered a few yards away and fell down in a heap on the grass. My legs wouldn’t support me and my right shoulder locked up completely and refused to move. I was beyond worrying about any of it. I figured my body had earned the right to a meltdown after what I’d put it through. I accepted that I was going to be horizontal for a little while, so I called J and texted my fellow riders K and C. C had finished the Medio a couple of hours before and was napping in my truck, and K was still en route to the finish. My time was 6:34, which is really slow, but I didn’t care at all: I was just so happy that I’d made it to the end of the ride.
During some of the moments when I felt really rough, I did wonder why I was there. There was no pressure on me to ride; my friends made it clear that they thought I should at least have downgraded to the Medio, if not stayed home. I think it’s a hangover from the lost summer of 2010; I never want to be in a position again where my body won’t do the things I ask of it, or where physical limitations mean I can’t do something that I really want to do. Maybe somewhere in the back of my head I was remembering the first Whistler GranFondo, and how much it hurt to be on the sidelines.
It wasn’t the longest ride I’ve ever done, or the toughest route. But being so sick right beforehand definitely made it the hardest. I’m just so glad that I gave it a shot. I’ll be honest: there were moments out there when I was hurting pretty badly. But it wasn’t nearly as painful as it would have been to miss out.