Whistler GranFondo, take three

This was my third time riding the Whistler GranFondo. This is the year it was supposed to be easy. I didn’t do any targeted training, but I’ve done a ton of riding this summer – just over 300km a week average since July 1st – and as a result, I’m in pretty good cycling shape.

2011 was my first Fondo. I’d registered in 2010, but had to sell my registration following a serious injury and major knee surgery that left me unable to ride. I went in with a great summer of training behind me and blew all of my expectations out of the water with a 4:47 finish. I had never expected to come anywhere close to five hours.

2012 was a disaster. I contracted a serious gastric illness at the beginning of July, and by the time doctors finally diagnosed it six weeks later I was 12 pounds below my ideal body weight, severely malnourished, and had ridden my road bike exactly twice over the entire summer in preparation. Riding that Fondo was physically the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I can only attribute my surprisingly good finish time (4:54) to my drastically altered power-to-weight ratio.

This year, I felt like I was ready for the ride. Time isn’t that big a deal to me, but I felt I was in a good place to come in at around five hours again and feel pretty comfortable doing it. And then last Friday I slipped on a wet dock at high speed in the aftermath of a late summer thunderstorm, turned my right thigh into tenderized steak, and suddenly everything was up in the air.

I went out for a ride two days after the fall. It took me two hours to cover 25km. I wasn’t unable to pedal, it just hurt like crazy. Every downstroke felt like I was ripping flesh apart under the huge bruised area. I took a few days off, then managed 40km in two hours. I still couldn’t generate any real power with the right leg. A steady pace was fine, but uphill effort made the muscle under the bruise scream.

Bailing crossed my mind, which for me is inconceivable. I don’t give up on things. I never seriously contemplated opting out the year before. But we had had an insanely stressful week, during which I’d barely slept, and coupled with the injury I had to question why I was even thinking about riding. At the same time, I knew that it would be like last year: once I was on my bike, I’d be in a situation that I was completely in control of and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I can bully my body into doing pretty much anything. Mind over matter.

And that’s exactly what I did. It wasn’t like other years, when the atmosphere was enough to provide motivation. I showed up to the start alone, and waited in a damp drizzle that gradually soaked both me and the bike and seemed to slightly depress the entire atmosphere compared to previous rides. Oh Canada was beautiful and moving, but after that it was just a slow, increasingly wet parade through Stanley Park and over a gloomy Lions Gate bridge to Taylor Way. A rider had taken a hard spill at the start of the Causeway, and we were all held back as we passed the scene. She looked shocked but conscious and moving. Very tough to go down so close to the start, but easy to do in the slippery conditions. I hope she’s fully recovered now.

The rain fell steadily as we passed through North Van, and after my own bad fall the week before it really tempered my approach to the early part of the ride. I kept it slow and careful on the descents, wary of the slick road. On the uphills I stayed with the pack, though not entirely by choice; I was consistently frustrated by riders who wouldn’t move aside to allow me to pass. There were just too many people on the road at that point, including a number of riders who were more concerned about chatting to each other than moving forward or allowing others to do so.

The Galileo coffee stop was time-consuming (almost ten minutes for the bathroom – pointer for next year, more washrooms) but very worthwhile since it included a jolt of their amazing coffee. After that the pack finally started to thin out a bit, and I was able to start dictating my own pace. The KOM climb was great. I passed people slowly but steadily all the way up, and wasn’t passed by a single rider. I put on a small spurt for the Squamish sprint, but sprinting is never going to be my strong point.

Sea to Sky, Whistler GranFondo 2013

As we started the long haul out of Squamish, I realised that the NSAIDs I’d downed with breakfast were wearing off and my bruised leg was starting to hurt quite badly. My left knee, which took a hell of a whack on the top tube when I fell, was also protesting in a slightly more subdued way.

At this point it became a mind over matter battle again, but in a different way than last year. Then, it was weakness. This time, it was pain. Is it weird to say that in some way, I didn’t really mind? All of these things are just challenges. I don’t compete in events like the Fondo to prove that I can be faster than other people; I’m not an elite athlete and I know that there are always going to be folk who are faster than me, so comparative times don’t really interest me much. What I care about is pushing myself to my own limit, and then just a little bit beyond.

Just out of Alice Lake, I passed the scene of a horrible accident. A rider was lying in traffic in the opposite lane, with a shocking amount of blood surrounding him. His devastated teammates were holding each other for comfort at the side of the road, and an ambulance was already there. I read afterwards that the rider was in a critical condition in hospital. I really hope he’s okay.

It was hard from there on. Pain is a different kind of battle, focused and immediate. I kept taking deep breaths, trying to ignore what was going on with my legs, and pushing on. The kilometres were clocking steadily by – 80, 90, 95 – and even though I knew exactly how much climbing there was to come, I kept encouraging my legs on.

Whistler GranFondo 2013

That “last hill” sign is so freaking deceptive. I know the Sea to Sky so well that I have no illusions. It’s a slog from there until the brief respite before Function Junction. Don’t let that one small flat stretch fool you. The hill still has a long way to go. The hill wants to beat you. It wants you to be one of those people gasping and swearing and gradually getting slower and slower. It wants you to be one of those people lying by the side of the road, massaging the cramps out of their hamstrings.

And still, I kept up my pace. I couldn’t push it harder or faster, but I could keep it up. Almost everyone in my part of the pack was flagging by that point. I was flagging inside, but I wasn’t letting it get as far as my legs. I just kept plugging away and pushing away and keeping the pedals turning, all the way up.

With Function Junction came that familiar burst of adrenaline. Through the village I alternated between racing forward and getting hung up behind people who blocked the shoulder that was our main route through. It was frustrating, but once we reached the final turns it didn’t matter. I pumped the pedals as hard as I could, raced to the line, and raised a fist in triumph. I finished in 4:45, beating my 2011 time by two minutes.

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Was it harder than last year? No. Not even close, really. But last year succeeding in the race was inextricably entangled in other events, giving me a motivation so strong that it’s not surprising that I did so well in spite of my appalling physical condition. This year the difficulties were a barrier to overcome, not a motivation that pushed me forwards.

After I finished I dropped off my bike, traded my shoes for flip flops (very nice touch by the race organizers), and headed over to the celebration plaza. I was lucky enough to pick up my lunch and beer while there was almost no-one at the food station, but by the time I was done eating the lineup was about 40 deep and the plaza itself was starting to feel packed pretty close. After the week we’d had I wasn’t feeling up to large crowds of people, so I grabbed my bags and went for a walk through the village.

Interlude

At the far end I stopped for a beer at the GLC. Sitting quietly at a table in the sunshine, flowers overhead and all of the week’s anxiety left somewhere on the Sea to Sky, I found the little oasis of calm that I’d been badly needing. I watched the kids doing insane jumps and tricks in the bike park for a while, and realised that in spite of how much fun the day had been (and this ride always will be), sometime this summer I fell slightly out of love with my road bike. All I wanted was to get back out on the dirt.

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