Years back I wrote a tribute for my friend Jill before her Ironman race, blown away she had the stuff to put her body through this torture on purpose.
After she finished a half Ironman she said “never again,” but she must have forgotten the whole thing, like when childbirth pain (they say) fades to fuzzy in a woman’s memory because the new thought of having another child washes away memories that don’t feel good.
With the Ironman, just crossing the finish line before dropping dead or losing most of your body fluids pretty much counts as a win, doing well is quasi-super human. Jill, it turns out, is the latter. She finished the race so much faster than she expected that her kids and ex-husband, thinking they had plenty of time, grabbed a bite to eat and missed her grand finale.
The day Jill swam 3 miles, biked 112 and ran 26.2, I made my own mark of impressive athleticism by flying off my bike going about 3 miles an hour.
I’d borrowed my friend Lisa’s bike because mine had chronic flats and after buying three tire pumps in a year I decided these things were no longer functional items in society, only no one remembered to pull them off the shelves. Lisa offered to send her teenage son over to show me how to use a tire pump but I saw no point in continuing to test my obsolescence theory and embarrassing the poor kid.
Instead, my husband brought my bike to a local cycling shop, one of those places that charges $2000 for a racer and gets about two customers a week. The salespeople are usually “real” cyclists with zero interest in adjusting your kid’s training wheels or comparing prices between the Kmart Huffy you found on sale last week and their high end inventory.
When you ask if the perspiration drip cup, triple water bottle holder, and carb gel pack fused into an intravenous feeding tube are really necessary expenses, the salesman snickers, turns his back, ignores your question and says, “Congratulations,” you’ve graduated to becoming an “enthusiast” in a tone that implies, “You’re welcome. I’m doing this for your own good. You just don’t know it yet.”
Shop for a bike at Target and pedaling is a weekend hobby for the fat and lazy who don’t understand that cyclists have ancient squatting rights on the roadways. The legacy of who can take up exactly how much room, I was once told by a multiple Ironman competitor, has been clearly laid out by the history of transportation:
“Bikes were around before cars.”
True, but pedestrians were around before bikes and I’m pretty sure they also need to get their asses out the way when a semi barrels down the road.
At the shop, bike boy glanced at my air valve for 10 seconds before he told my husband we were probably sucking air out of the tire by the way we were pushing the lever. I didn’t have a flat; I was making one.
The morning I borrowed Lisa’s bike I still hadn’t been enlightened to my pump incompetence so I hopped on hers and headed down the street, opting to go helmetless because my skull would be immune to injury on precisely October 20th 2007.
Cruising down the street, I cranked up my gears and headed towards a stop sign near an exit out of my neighborhood, adjusting my Ipod to find the “right” song to kick off my 12 miles. Finding the right song can take a while; I have to feel it, and when it comes I’ll know and not a second before.
My husband and I for as long as we’ve been together, have been sitting on our porch every weekend until one or two am drinking wine and listening to music. I play about 2.5 seconds of the intro to about eighty-seven songs until I find the one that fits with my mood of the moment.
“That’s a good one keep it! ” he’ll yell across the porch.
“No, too heavy. I’m mellow. Aerosmith “Dream On” is for 1:07am,” I tell him without further explanation. After 20 years of wine-drenched DJ Laura, my husband gave up trying to get his song requests into my music rotation after 11:30pm.
“What’s wrong with Michael Buble for Godsake? You just said mellow and then you fast forwarded through fourteen songs!”
“Michael is not in my head right now. I’m more Colby Callie meets John Mayer but in a ‘I’m a little angry and sad but on purpose not because someone pissed me off, but because I choose my angst right now. ‘”
Finding the right song while I’m riding my bike can also irritate drivers. Fumbling means I have to choose between nearly crowding the black pick up truck who, mistaking me for a real cyclist, uses his vehicle to announce, “It’s my friggin right to take the road back the way God intended it” so he swerves me into shoulder, or going without the “right” song for 20 seconds so I can hold steady in my lane until Angry Driver passes.
It’s a tough call.
So while packs of cyclists might can be a nuisance, it’s more likely the distracted casual rider who presents a real danger. Because while both types get jacked up on adrenaline and focus, bike riders use music and the passing scenery to pedal through their pain. Cyclists for the most part stare straight ahead and use quiet determination to push towards their next mile.
When large pods move in sync at 20mph single file, tire to tire, bodies of bent lycra silently tearing down a thin sloped shoulder while pebbles and sand threaten to skid their tire, ear buds or roaming eyes are a liability for the group, a sign of weakness and grounds for expulsion.
Trying to avoid death by inches keeps a cyclist juiced and in the moment, listening to “slap that ass again” is pretty much enough for me.
Riding Lisa’s bike that morning I dialed through a few songs with one hand and loosely held on to a handlebar with the other. Oblivious to the car idling a few feet in front of me at a stop sign, I looked up, saw the bumper and with one hand squeezed one break with everything I had.
This meant (I was told later by people who understand bike physics which is pretty much everyone), that the back tire screeched to a hard stop. Flying airborne over the handle bars I slammed sideways into the road, instinctively protecting my head which meant my inner right thigh, right forearm, biceps and shoulder took the hit.
Laying on the road like a stunned fish, twitching and then still, sniffling and fuzzy, I quickly felt sorry for myself because in a neighborhood of 250 houses, no one noticed a body lying in the street or if they did notice they pulled back the curtains, shrugged and made some tea. Best to leave the injured to their quiet thoughts.
By the time I hobbled down the street towards Lisa’s house the scrapes running up my forearm and biceps and bright purplish red mass expanding inside my right thigh were coming along nicely.
Waving to a few neighbors who drove by, I pretended my twisted half- smile, far off glassy look and that I was walking beside my bike was because I was inside a Zen moment they clearly shouldn’t interrupt.
When I knocked on Lisa’s side garage door and explained, jabbering something about “sorry, bike, fell, going home, will pay,” she offered to help me home, worried after seeing my thigh and that I wasn’t blathering my usual 100 words a minute of uninterrupted dialogue. I was a little spacey she told me days later, speaking in staggered sentences and refusing her help as I walked two houses home.
Once inside I sank down on my couch, turning into a sobbing mass in front of my husband and nine year old daughter, an involuntary wave of childlike regression hitting me, comforted by the relief of being home along with an intense emotional release I hadn’t succumbed to in a very long time.
The scene was my daughter’s first real glimpse at her mother turning into a whining, sniveling pile of jelly, someone who needed coddling from any person, of any age willing to offer it.
She’d seen me cry plenty of times during sappy or sad movies or in quick moments I fast smoothed over. But now, with the help of my husband, grabbing ice cubes and a wet washcloth, my child told me to sit back so she could nurse the adult whose adrenaline had suddenly worn off and whose pain had settled in.
Sitting there I recalled the events in backward frames, the slow motion body slam to the asphalt, a flash moment of hang ten in the air, the startling image of the car’s back bumper suddenly appearing directly in front of me.
If the driver had glimpsed back in their rear view mirror and stayed put I might have landed on top of their back hood, so all told I was damn lucky. Still, I was oddly hurt the car drove off because like most of us the driver was probably in such a deep bubble of insulated distraction that I became invisible. As I flashed in their periphery and the event played out behind them with a quiet thud on the asphalt, the driver and their passenger remained entirely disconnected to the moment.
It’s one of the things I admire about cycling groups or training groups in general, the people in them have an attentive and purposeful connection to the guy sweating next to them, a reliance on each other that despite being fiercely competitive during the race, they remain caring and emotionally intertwined during the weeks of intense training.
After the accident my husband I insisted I cancel going to Jill’s race partly because the prospect of watching tired runners for two hours didn’t excite him much and because he thought I needed to take it easy. But four Advil, an ice pack and a few hours later, my daughter, husband and I headed out.
By the time we arrived at the event, located in one of the few towns in Central Florida with more than a speed bump for cyclists to climb, I was limping but mostly down to just a dull ache.
Where my family and I entered the park happened to be the finish line, a long stretch outlined on each side with flags, colorful sponsor signs and a trail of t-shirted volunteers ready to answer questions and to cheer on the participants as they crossed.
Limping over an Ironman finish line with a big round purple bruise across my thigh and an arm full of road rash; I could easily have passed for a seasoned cyclist.
Maybe I was riding with Jill’s group one morning, speeding down a back road when a squirrel jumped out, forced me to swerve so I skid and flew into a Florida pine. Although I’d qualified to enter the race, my injuries forced me to cut my training schedule a few weeks short so I decided it was better to drop out than to fizzle out.
But the reality was I on a borrowed bike because I didn’t know how to use my bike pumps; I didn’t wear a helmet; I pedaled 3 miles an hour in my own neighborhood flipping songs on my Ip0d and squeezing one very good (apparently) brake to keep from hitting a car I never saw.
Stupid is as stupid does. So stupid needs to tell the truth.
“You’ll you love this,” I started to tell the volunteers who noticed me limping.
“I was riding my bike in my neighborhood and adjusting my Ipod. I squeezed one break so I wouldn’t hit this car that stopped right in front of me. I flipped over the handles bars and slammed into the road. Impressive, right?”
A few smiled and flashed me a mocking sympathetic look, crinkling their face when they noticed my thigh. “Ouch, that looks really bad,” one commented.
I had them now.
“This just happened a few hours ago and I’m here anyway because I wanted to see my friend Jill race,” hoping my bruises and decision to show up could compete with people who bike 112 miles in the heat, throw up, wipe off their shirt and keep going. I’m not sure if the volunteers were laughing with me or at me, but I noticed none of them had road rash.
Cyclists, I imagine, don’t use their injuries to garner respect they already have for themselves and for each other. Chances are if one group member hit the asphalt and sprained her ankle last Friday, the month bef0re Frank broke three ribs and dislocated his right shoulder after flying into the road going 25.
About a year after I fell off Lisa’s bike, I fell again. This time I landed hand and wrist first skidding across road and wet railroad tracks that along a paved trail behind a local resort where my family and I were staying for a couple days. I’d turned around to tell my my husband and daughter to take a look at the horse in the pasture up ahead, totally unaware that wet railroad tracks and a turned bike tire don’t mix well.
The cyclists I told the story to nodded and commented as if I’d broken Rule number 8a-103 in their handbook.
“Oh yeah, wet railroad tracks and a bike tire? Not good. You turned your head? Bad combo. We avoid slick tracks like the plague. ”
A year, $3,000, chronic wrist, arm, shoulder muscle spasms that affected how long I could type on the computer, and I decided if I wanted to become “one with the road,” most days my road needed to be stationary.
Now, except for vacations and an occasional ride around my neighborhood with my family, my bike riding takes place in a small dark room at the Y with a loud spinning instructor yelling to the class to get ready for the upcoming virtual terrain we’re supposed to imagine compliments of the cartoonish mural painted on the wall.
The commands lure me into a mental cycling fantasy with pumped music, interval pedaling, long, hard stretches uphill and exhilarating releases down. I’m allowed music, to turn my head, to forget about breaks, wet tracks or a helmet.
I have no aspirations to become a cyclist although I admire their endurance and the entourage of butts squeezed into lycra look pretty damn good. If I joined a group there would eventually be a revolt. Chit chatting with the guy in front of me, I’d ask him what he ate for dinner at Outback last night or I wouldn’t notice the hand signal to turn left because I was listening to Stairway to Heaven and drumming the handlebars.
Cyclists seem to move with the rhythm of the road and the energy generated between them. They likely develop a silent trust and language that connects them across grueling miles, involuntary grunting, and their next milestone.
While I’m an extrovert, the world of group ycling demands a certain amount of interaction, peer expectation and intimacy I’m not willing to enter into. I prefer the solitude of riding alone, propelled by my music and the sounds of my own thoughts telling me to get my ass in gear.
The moving blur of dappled light peeking through the tree canopy above my head might capture my attention and the distraction could splinter the focus of a rider behind me, and perhaps send him flying.
In all areas of my life I prefer to move to my own self-directed rhythm. Leading, following or being told to get out of the way demands I give up some of myself and my own dictates. I conform when I have to and don’t generally grouse about it, but going with someone else’s flow just because they tell me it’s good for me, or because others are doing it feels suffocating.
Being a black sheep in the active world doesn’t impress the seasoned athlete who will forgo my 2am wine fest to be up at 6am to bike 100 miles, or the novice who tells me “Believe me, if I can do it, so can you.” I want to tell them I think I could do it I just don’t want to, but that sounds pretty snotty.
Over the years numerous friends have asked why if I love to exercise I don’t join the growing populous of women taking on triathlons or marathons, some who do it to kick start a weight loss program, others for the challenge of completion. Racing remains a strong catalyst to overcome fear and boost confidence; conquer this and you’ll more likely conquer that.
The women grow so bonded and committed to helping each other stay motivated during training that for me to opt out of such an obvious positive experience is like thumbing my nose at the popular group or dissing their chosen form of empowerment.
But I’m more your athletic booster type. I wear a triathlon shirt Jill designed and gave me because I like the logo and it helps promote her tri training business. I wrote an article about her Ironman event and twice helped welcome attendees during a couple of her training introduction meetings, sessions where she explains the schedule, tells the group how she conquered her fears in the water, and gets everyone pumped.
Once Jill asked me to be a cheerleader during one of her group’s mock practice runs. I stood by my car on the corner of a road where it split clapping. pointing them in the right direction and yelling to the cyclists as “Way to go you’re almost there!”
Most of the women probably wondered if I had any idea what “there” actually felt like and wanted to throw their water bottle at my head but they didn’t have the energy.
I’m not some angry rebel, but biking on my own schedule, moving to my own music, creating my own milestones is who I am. It’s satisfying and I won’t cause anyone slam into a tree because I’m tapping to Phil Collins drum solo and not paying attention. For the most part except when I jog with my neighbor, going solo or cheering others on from the sideline just feels like enough.