I did it. One month to the day after I blew my knee, I rode in – and completed – the 100k Pacific Populaire.
It was really, really hard. Six weeks ago, I would have eaten a 100k ride for breakfast. But things are different now. My cardio has plummeted, my knee is wrecked, and I’ve lost an inch and a half of muscle from my left leg. Two weeks ago, I couldn’t even turn the pedals on my bike. Ten days ago, riding for 5 minutes on the stationary bike felt momentous. A week ago, I finally got out on the road for the first time. Progress has been good since then, but the furthest I’d ridden was 30k – and it was hard.
Going into the Pacific Populaire, I made a conscious choice not to downgrade my registration. I’d already ridden further than 25k, so participating in the ride wasn’t in question. With 30k under my belt, I knew I could ride 50k. I didn’t know if I could ride 100k. That made it a challenge, and more importantly it didn’t put an artificial constraint on my distance. I felt like I’d rather DNF in the 100k and know that I rode as far as I possibly could than stop at 50k if I felt I could ride further.
The first 50k was pretty smooth. The leg felt good; I cruised up the UBC hill without any real difficulties. Going into the last 5k or so to the Woodward’s Landing control, we ran into a brutal headwind and forcing my way through it produced the first significant pain of the ride. Within a few minutes of stopping, the leg had seized up and hurt like hell when I bent it past 90 degrees. That eased off, but I found myself anxious to continue before it happened again.
We set off down No. 5 Road, where the knee grumbled a bit but felt okay overall. Then we turned onto the Westminster Highway, and once again ran into that vicious headwind. Forcing the pedals through every turn, the pain in my knee escalated to the point where I zoned out into a little tunnel of hurt, completely unaware of anything apart from the need to keep the pedals turning and the backs of the riders in front of me. As we slogged for several endless kilometres into the wind, I seriously thought that I wasn’t going to finish; but I also knew that those extra 10k, the ones I wouldn’t have ridden if I’d reregistered for the 50k ride, would make the DNF worth it.
After an eternity we turned onto River Road, and out of the headwind. And suddenly everything was different. A smooth, comfortable pedal rotation was enough to send the bike flying along the smooth tarmac by the river. The sun broke through the clouds, and finishing suddenly felt like a possibility again. Objectively I knew there was a long way to go, and that fighting through that headwind had sapped all the remaining strength from the remains of my quad muscle. I knew that my knee had nothing left in it for the uphill stretches at the end of the ride. And yet I’d come so far; if I could make it to the end of River Road I’d be pretty much back in Vancouver, and from there it was the home stretch. Wasn’t it?
It certainly felt that way when I rode the Canada Line bridge over the Fraser. The next few kilometres, up Southwest Marine and through UBC, were so familiar that I knew exactly what to expect, even when the headwind returned and made every pedal rotation a struggle. It was the stretch from 16th back to Riley Park that almost beat me. My legs had absolutely nothing left to give to the hills; after pedalling the slight incline through UBC my knee was generating a sick, rotten feeling every time I turned the pedals and my wasted muscles had gone into a whimpering lockdown. The hill at Arbutus and 25th loomed ahead, a challenge that seemed impossible.
Yet when I got there, it wasn’t. I just dropped the bike into the easiest gear, gritted my teeth, and forced my bitterly protesting knee through the pain barrier once again. The odd thing is that in spite of how much it hurt (and it was brutal by that point) I knew it was just the sick, aching pain of overuse. It wasn’t the sharp, agonizing pain of something going catastrophically wrong; if I’d felt that, I would have stopped immediately. Pushing the injured joint that hard probably wasn’t the best thing for it, but on the other hand it probably did wonders for my wasted quad muscle.
A little over 5 hours after we set off, I reached the Riley Park Community Centre. A 100k ride that I previously wouldn’t have thought twice about had, in the space of a few moments on the ski slope and a season-ending injury, become one of the toughest physical challenges of my life. Deteriorated cardio, muscle wastage and pain from the injury site combined to make finishing something I really wasn’t sure I could achieve. A month earlier, lying in a hospital bed while the doctor delivered the crushing verdict, I felt like I was watching most of the things I love doing disappear down a black hole. Yesterday was about reclaiming a little piece of those lost things back. The finisher’s pin from the ride will be my reminder that with hard work and determination, anything is possible.