I knew this was going to be tough.
I didn’t sleep much the night before the ride. It was all churning around in my head: the illness, the things I’ve lost this summer, the sheer improbability of going out there to ride at all, and a burning need to be in a space where all that mattered was my ability to do one thing: ride my bike. I drifted in and out of strange disjointed dreams where I was stranded at work and missed the start of the ride, even though it was only a couple of blocks away.
When the alarm sounded, the skies were still dark. I shoveled down a giant mess of bacon, eggs and potato, silently giving thanks that for this ride I could at least count on keeping my breakfast. Then I tucked a few Stinger waffles into my jersey and set out into darkness cool enough to bring my bare arms out in goosebumps. I rode alone to the Burrard Bridge, where a trickle of cyclists emerging from sidestreets suddenly became a flood and the first smoky light began staining the eastern edge of the sky.
The corrals were more spaced out than last year, and Georgia Street didn’t feel as packed. Quite by accident I ran into my friends P and K; poor K had taken a tumble on her way to the start line, and was decorated in band-aids before the ride had even begun. Shortly after we took our places in the 5-hour corral the sun rose, flooding the streets with morning light. As the national anthem echoed from the glass and steel, I realised that eight years before I’d been on a plane flying toward a new life. It seemed somehow very right that I was about to set out on a bike ride that encapsulated so many of the very best things about that life.
When we finally started to move K and I bumped fists, and then we were over the line and underway. My physical condition was so poor that reality kicked in as soon as we hit the Stanley Park causeway. Last year I was so high on the adrenaline I didn’t even notice the Taylor Way climb. This year my quads shuddered as they hit the small gradient through the park. As the ride progressed I would better understand the consequences of the weight I lost while sick, and just how much of it was muscle. At that early point I was a bit concerned that my legs already felt tired, but I was also mentally ready to power them on for as long as l needed to.
The Lions Gate Bridge, like last year, was a beautiful moment. The stream of cyclists flooding along its narrow span, with the sun low and golden in the distance and all the blue mountains of Howe Sound waiting ahead. At that moment I knew it was worth attempting the ride, regardless of where I stopped.
The first half really wasn’t that bad. I didn’t have much power in my legs, but I maximized the breaks on the downhill sides of the rolling road and pushed myself as hard as I could through the uphills. It felt like I was going slow, but I passed a lot of people on the climbs. I was so conscious of where the limitations were making themselves felt: my cardio was fine but my shrunken leg muscles were a whimpering, jello-like mess.
The day was glorious. The sky overhead was unbroken blue, and the road unscrolled ahead of us incredibly quickly. I paused to refill my water bottles and scarf down a couple of waffles at Galileo, then pushed ahead through Squamish. And then the long climb began. I had nothing left in my legs. I hadn’t really had much to begin with. It became a case of mind over matter, where I just told myself over and over: this I can do. It doesn’t matter how my legs feel. Just believe that I can keep the pedals turning, and I will.
There was a point at the very end of this summer’s long illness when I hit the wall. I was cycling home from work and I literally did not have the energy to keep my body upright on the bike. I’ve never known such an absolute and bone-deep exhaustion. Whatever my legs were feeling during the Fondo, it was just my legs. I still had enough willpower to keep them moving.
It was hard. It was brutally hard. There’s no source of hope on the Sea to Sky: I know every turn so well that at the top of each long, long hill I knew exactly how much climbing I still had to go. I kept eating, giving my vitamin-depleted body the fuel it needed. I managed my water a lot better than the previous year, taking pulls every few minutes and filling up the bottles whenever needed.
By the time I passed the Salt Shed I was done. More than done. But it was also close enough to Whistler that I knew I was going to make the distance. The mental dialogue between my mind and my weary legs didn’t stop. Over and over: this I can do. This is within my control. If I want to keep the pedals turning, I can.
And then Brandywine Falls, the final hill, and Function Junction. Riders all around me breathing a sigh of relief to be in the village, except that I’d glanced at my clock and understood that with a last, final push, there was a chance I’d break five hours. One more hill, and down into Creekside. Up again. The final curve ahead. I raced past everyone on that last stretch. The finish line: one last effort. A fist raised in triumph, and after everything that happened this summer it felt like redemption. This I could do.
When I got off the bike, I actually felt better than I did last year. My legs were trashed – they’d long since passed the wet noodle stage and felt more like tenderized steak – but I’d monitored my food and water intake pretty carefully, so in spite of the heat I wasn’t dehydrated. I did down a couple of bottles of water to be on the safe side, and draped a wet towel gratefully over my bandanna, but overall I was in reasonable shape. It had been a desperately hard ride, but that felt right. I needed to prove that I still had it in me to push through barriers.
I made my way to the Celebration Plaza and ate a couple of lunches and drank a beer while I waited for my friends to cross the line. It felt very good to finally let my legs stop moving. I realised, reflecting on the ride, that most of the twelve pounds I’d lost over the summer was probably quad muscle. My cardio had held up really well considering how limited my activity and preparation had been; it was my legs that let me down. Right from the start, they had nothing in them. I had to bully them every single kilometre from Georgia Street to the finish line.
Given everything that happened this summer, it was unlikely that I would even start the race. It was amazing that I finished it. What was really miraculous was that my time was 4:54, just seven minutes slower than last year. All of that preparation in 2011, the miles I rode, the 30km daily commute – it made no real difference. Yes, this year felt ten times harder, but in the end it was willpower, not physical condition, that mattered. Clearly, I need a better training strategy next year. Right now, though, that’s the least of my concerns. I’m just going to hold onto this moment, when I made it against all the odds.
And then I accidentally bought a pair of skis on the way home, but that’s another story.