Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Asterisk* ride (aka Montezuma's revenge)

Randonneuring offers many medals, but the R12 award has a special meaning. Earning it takes one year of monthly rides of at least 200K in length. Unlike a single event medal, the R12 awards consistency, perseverance - in short, commitment. Miss one month, and a year's worth of effort is lost. Other riders may be faster, more traveled, may cover greater distances but even a below average rider with above average perseverance can build a streak of R-12 awards that literally takes years to accomplish.

Living in the northern U.S. adds another level of challenge to the R- 12 as winter can close roads with ice and snow.

I have ridden at least one 200K rando ride every single month since my first randonneuring event in April 2010. This March would make 48 months straight - four years - without fail. But February comes before March and, weather wise, February in the northeast United States is no gimme. That was especially true this February.

In my part of the world, the polar vortex of 2014 brought arctic temperatures and layers of unrelenting snow. New snow fell on old snow and, in between the snowfalls, the temperatures dropped to single digits.

There were a couple of windows of opportunity. The Pa Randonneurs rode on February 1 and got the February ride done. I passed on the ride for a family event. Then there was my birthday weekend when the temps rose into the balmy 50s for a brief spell. I chose not to ride that day either. By the time the last week of February arrived, I had not been on a bike for over 5 weeks.

But I had plan. I had a work trip to San Diego in the last week of February. Just add a day, take a bike and *boom* problem solved. I would just ride my 200K in the Golden State where winter meant sunny 65 degree days. In fact, I would ride a 100K and a 200K! I made arrangement to ride a 100K permanent called Old Town to Carlsbad and two days later, the Montezuma to Mesa Express permanent. All together it would be 195 miles up and down the beautiful coast north of San Diego. Ha! Take THAT Polar Vortex! Life is good!

Since it was the first time I was going to fly with a bike, I decided to take the fixie. I figured that if a bike was going to get damaged by either my bad packing or someone's bad handling, the fixie was the bike I wanted to risk.
 {For those who may not know, a "fixie" or fixed gear bike has one gear. That gear turns with the wheel. If the the bike is moving the pedals are turning.No changing gears and no coasting - ever. To ride it is to keep pedaling. Always.
I hadn't ridden the fixie on a 200K since September but hey, the ride descriptions made the course sound relatively flat. No problem!

The first ride was just about as good as I imagined. Better in fact.

Old Town to Carlsbad 100K

From Old Town San Diego, I rode west to the Pacific Coast, through the U.C. San Diego campus, past Torrey Pines and then north along the ocean. 

The wind was faint to non existent. The temperatures ranged on the ideal 55-65 range. The Pacific Ocean, vast and blue to the west, serenely filled the gap between the seaside communities and small towns, each of which had its own flair and flavor. The rolling hills of La Jolla. The public art in Solana Beach. The bold green sign of Encinitas that arched over the Pacific Coast Highway.

I had an al fresco breakfast in Carlsbad and sipped a thick green veggie and fruit smoothie on the return trip. 

Wet suited surfers, yoga pants power walkers and sleeveless runners animated the beachscapes. I chatted with passing cyclists and cars passed with room to spare. This ride was a California post card brought to life.

The 100K ended as it begun, in sun and fun. The plan was working.

Montezuma to Mesa Express 205K

The 200K, the ride to keep my R12 streak alive, would be the Montezuma to Mesa Express. It started further inland, near Cal State San Diego before overlapping the prior course. It also went further north, through Camp Pendelton, into San Clemente, before backtracking south. 

I spend most of the day before the ride was to start laying in my hotel room sipping water periodically. Each sip caused the audible stomach gurgling and rumbling that had begun that morning to percolate and inevitably, start a chain reaction that would end minutes later with me back in the bathroom dealing with sudden onset assplosions. I had no idea how a sip of water could turn into that much volume. I had no idea what food would do, I hadn't eaten since morning - the mere thought of food made want to pull the cover over my head and moan. This had been going on for hours. 

The ride was tomorrow.

Later that evening, I left the room to get some Pepto Bismol and some food. Food was essential. If I was going to ride, I needed to eat something. I came back and did shots of the pink liquid chalk every hour hoping to stem the tide that was crashing in waves through my intestines.I nibbled at the food. Then tried to sleep. I can't remember the last time I had this problem. I hoped that a night of rest would return the cast iron lining to my stomach.

My stomach woke me well before the alarm. Given the colors that were coming out me I wondered if the green smoothie was to blame. Feeling a little less roiled, I drank the last shot of the pink stuff for breakfast and got the bike ready for the ride. Maybe once I got moving I would feel better.

The ride started at a Starbucks off Montezuma Road. They had coconut pineapple water. I remembered that coconut water has electrolytes. So, after using the bathroom, I got that and a banana. I saved the banana for later in case I felt like I could actually swallow something solid. Then, I started out, in the pre-dawn darkness, to preserve my almost four year streak.

Already a little tired from the prior ride and depleted of carbohydrates by the inability to properly digest food, this ride started with a very different feel. I had no lightness of being, no sensation of flight.  I have never tried to complete a 200K when I could not eat and drink at will and I knew it was not something I ever wanted to do, but this was my reality now and I hoped I would get better over the course of the day. 

After snaking under the freeway, the course quickly comes to the first control, an AM/PM gas station. I buy a pack of mint gum hoping it will help calm the gurgling and then out again, this is no ride to dally at controls.

The ride started with my having very little to eat and continued that way. I was bonking - badly. Having been there before, I knew a few things: 

1 - I needed to get some carbs in me, and
2 -  Until I did my max speed would be about 12- 13 miles of misery an hour. 

But the hard burning pit in my stomach took away the option of eating. So I rode on in discomfort, letting some more time pass. I stopped to get some Gatorade and took a bite of the banana, chewing into mushy semi liquid paste before letting it enter the cauldron. 

The Gatorade and banana lasted for 65 miles as I slowly but steadily rode from bathroom to bathroom north along the Pacific Coast highway. At one point, weak and slightly dizzy, I lay on the beach to rest. I set the alarm on my watch for 10 minutes and promptly fell asleep. When the tones went off, I re-started, trying to make the halfway control before it closed.

I rode into the new territory of the northern section of the route. The course weaved through Camp Pendleton then into San Onofre State Park. The ocean was far off in the distance. The ongoing drought conditions seemed evident in the inland desert succulents and hard sandy soil. Life in this region breeds tenacity.

Once again, favorable weather blessed me. Moderate temperatures throughout the day, the wind gently blew west to east in way that seemed to give as much as it took. The view went clear to the horizon. It was a good day for a ride, if only I get some calories to stay in me.

I made the halfway point with a little more than 20 minutes to spare. Over 6 hours to ride 65 miles - which is a distance I have completed in about 4. I had a fruit punch and picked at an order of sweet potato fries. I slept for five minutes in the steel patio chair. All I had to do to get this done was just get back to my car. Just. Get. Back. To. The. Car. 

To ride while bonking is to be a person of two minds.The carb deprived brain plots against you. Makes you feel miserable. Encourages you to stop. That mind occupies itself with imagining scenarios of escape. The Coaster is a train that runs along the coast. It stops in towns I rode through. As I pedaled, I imagined taking the train back to San Diego. I imagined renting a car or maybe a room and then a car later. I imagined taking the bus. I imagined just laying on the beach and sleeping till my stomach returned to normal.

The other mind recognizes that these thoughts are a reaction to the lack of carbohydrates. It cannot stop the thoughts but it can keep you moving despite them. I kept moving.

In Carlsbad I bought another Gatorade and two bananas. I think I had about 55 miles to go. I kept pedaling. 

Sometimes the difference between success and failure is the will to just keep moving forward. Whatever pace, however you can. Just keep moving forward. I kept moving forward.

Endurance cyclist Lon Haldeman has said that if the physical problem you face in a ride will be better two weeks after you are done, keep riding. I kept riding.

I have friends who have battled major diseases and dealt with far greater losses and personal challenges than this. If I let this stop me, what would I do when confronted with something that significant? I will not quit for this. I am stronger than this.

I kept riding. Until I got to the climb into La Jolla. On Monday, I rode the entire thing, passing a geared road cyclist on the way. Today, it was too much for my empty tanks. I rode and walked and rode and walked my way to the top. 

At the crest I remounted. With over 100 miles done, I was in the final stretch. Back on familiar ground, I zoomed down North Torrey Pines heading for Gilman Drive and the Rose Canyon bike path. Somehow I missed the turn. And I had to climb 1.7 miles to get back on course. And then the sun set. I simply couldn't make the climb without stopping.

When I stopped, the world turned into an aquarium, liquid but stable, before my eyes. The earth shifted almost imperceptibly. On the sidewalk, in the rush hour traffic ascending Torrey Pines road, I sat on soft dry pines needles leaning against a tree, wavering in the liquid world. 

Then I remembered that I had half a banana and some Gatorade. Not wanting to be the figurative guy who dies of dehydration with a full canteen, I drank all of the Gatorade and ate the banana. My stomach erupted in noisy protest, but it all stayed down. If, necessary I would find another bathroom to deal with the inevitable result. 

I could feel the sugar enter my brain. I stood up to a solid world and climbed the rest of the hill.

As I rode along Rose Canyon Bike path, the digestive process overrode the waste creation process, and the energy influx continued. My pace picked up to a more normal 15-16 miles per hour.  less than 24 miles to go. I convinced myself to push harder. The end was in reach. I could save this thing after all. Through the park along Mission Bay and then east into the city. Less than 10 miles to go.

The penultimate control is 8 miles from the end at the AM/PM convenience store. I got there bought another pack of gum and went out to finish what I started. 

Montezuma road is the last 3 miles of the route. It includes a 1 mile climb with a a 5% grade. The hill was too much. I had burned through the Gatorade and banana energy from over two hours ago and the gum offered nothing of value. I wished for another gear that I didn't have, more calories that I didn't have and, most of all, an end to this ever lengthening ride. I could only do something about the last on that list. So I kept moving forward.

 I reached the last control well past the official time to finish.  Although I completed the 200K, there would be no credit, no official recognition. The ride was over but so was my streak.


10 pounds lighter, I flew home the next day. I was greeted by my nephew, Lance, who had just taken the bar exam for the second time. The first time around, he missed it by one point  - just one stinking point. After all that time, effort and preparation. But despite the setback and disappointment, he rebounded, refocused and returned to re-take the test. 

We talked about my trip and how it had all gone and how much I thought about quitting. And he said, "but there is no quit in you." I don't know if that is true. I do I know that there is no quit in him and if hearing my story about pushing through one difficult day to fall short of a goal, inspires him, or my kids, or anyone, to have the push they inevitably will need to keep going when times get hard, then every minute I spent in discomfort was worth it. That has more meaning than any medal.

The streak is over. Long live the streak.


  1. And so begins another...perhaps!

    1. Absolutely Mike. I ain't done yet.

  2. You had me until the very end...thinking it ended successfully. Can't recall one like this. I think most of us give it away early in our writings.

    1. I may not have made the cutoff. But I found some success after all.

  3. There are goals within a goal; a matter of perspective, and you met all but one. Congratulations, and I hope you're feeling better.

    1. I am feeling better. I'm back to normal digestion and Randonesia has begun it magic.

  4. The stomach is a cruel organ. Well done, Nigel. With the world as it is, the fact that you made it 46 months straight is quite remarkable. I still feel good about my one and only R-12. Chapeau!

    1. Thanks George. You have a much tougher weather challenge in the Hudson Valley. Also, I think I can fairly say that I rode 200k for 47* straight months, even if one won't officially count for RUSA. (Hence the asterisk). I'm good with that.

  5. Long live the streak! Sometimes life intervenes and the streaks must end. I'm glad you made it home safe and sound.

    1. Indeed MG. Your reply shows that you also got one of the unspoken points of the piece. Thanks for reading and commenting. Bring on the Spring!

  6. For sure and without doubt you are an inspiration. I know that is true for myself and for others of your readers, both for your rides, and for your ride reports. And so I am sure also it is true for family and friends. Be well, that ride is quite the story. Glad you got back safely. Though ended, it remains quite the achievement, your 200K every month streak ... as was finishing this200K, even out of time.

    1. Suze,

      Thanks for the kind words. Having now recovered, it is much easier to put it all in context. One of the good things about the internet and blogosphere is to have developed a virtual community to mutually inspire. As you do for me. Ride on. Be safe. Enjoy.

    2. How familiar, your description of bonking. This is a trying sport, in so many ways. The stomach is in control.