Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hills, heat and humidty - Leesburg to Lexington

I did not ride the DC Randonneurs' Appalachian Adventure 1000K. The AA1000K linked three tough permanents to create a tour of the Shenandoah mountains of western Virginia - a randonneur's tour, complete with scenic views and all the climbs it takes to view them.

I was supposed to ride it, but work got in the way. Instead, at the suggestion of a friend, I rode the first and last legs of the course as permanents. My abbreviated course was supposed to cover over 650 kilometers in two days. The first leg was Leesburg to Lexington in 346 Kilometers . . . 

I wake in the dark and remember
it is the morning when I must start
by myself on the journey 1
The night before the ride, I slept on a cot in the mini van temporarily converted to one man RV. Dark curtains over the windows and a battery powered fan offset the ambient light and later summer evening heat.

We  start before daylight in the quietest hour of the morning. Before the birds sing. Before the early risers. After the night owls have gone to roost. If midnight is the witching hour, then four a.m. is the hour of repose. The time of silence. A good time to start a long journey.

The DC Randonneurs gave ample warning. This was going to be a tough course, on par with the Endless Mountains 1000K - a real challenge. The riders at the breakfast gathering, those I knew, are fast climbers ready for a climbing course. I am not a fast climber but I hope I am ready.

The night made even more acute the runner's senses, lent more poignancy to his aloneness, made his fast pace seem even faster, generated an urgency, a subdued excitement in the act of solitary motion. 2
With little fanfare, we are off. Not much time passes before I am off the back. I always start conservatively and being left by the field no longer surprises. But the ride is long and the day is young. Things will change. Change is the only constant.

The other headlight in the darkness belongs to DC randonneur Calista. She rode the LOL 1000k and I heard that she like to ride her own ride - without any drafting -  I respect that and so I ride near her, but not with her. The morning mist fills the dips and hollows. I mention to Calista that it feels like we are riding through ghosts. She says they are big friendly ghosts - Casper in the country side. She likes riding at night.

I meet Eric K. at the second control. He is ready to roll when I am and we leave together. We pass through Harper's Ferry, now like a ghost town, in the last darkness of the night. 

Soon enough, the world turns toward the sun and daylights blooms from the shadows. The morning mist grows thick above harvested fields where scattered rolls of hay serve as milestones marking the closing weeks of a farmer's summer. 

We ride along the banks of a river, dew like drops collecting on the fronts of our passing forms and filling in the small space we leave behind.

Left off the highway and down the hill.
At the bottom, hang another left.
Keep bearing left.
The road will make a Y.
Left again.
There's a creek on the left.
Keep going.
Just before the road ends, there'll be another road.
Take it and no other otherwise, your life will be ruined forever. 3

We follow the cues into West Virginia. The sun rises. Layers of hills appear against the horizon turning blue as they recede into forever. They encircle lush green farms and rolling fields connected by roller coaster roads. We climb and descend, again and again, rising and falling on the fixed waves of the earth.

The heat builds as the day emerges. The heavy morning mist transforms into humidity that covers me in a film of warm sliding liquid. My first line of defense is to ride a pace below the red line of heat exhaustion.  The hills continue. The reward for cresting each ridge is the revelation of another layer of distant blue hills and the knowledge that they too must be crossed.

My second line of defense is to keep moving. When Eric stops to mix up some liquid nutrition, I wait as long as my anxiety to press on will allow before moving forward with my plan to keep moving forward. 

Calista, tucked into a downhill swoop, is ahead in the distance. Sprawling green pastures frame her movement along the otherwise empty road. Her flying descent is the earthbound equivalent of a raptor rising on thermals; quiet efficient use of the laws of nature that translates to a balanced dance with gravity. 

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.4
The heat continued to build. The sun burned off the morning's overcast leaving us exposed to its unfiltered light. Back Road is a treeless ribbon of black asphalt that threads through the wide open fields. In the still air, the heat rose off its surface.

Exposure to the elements is an often overlooked challenge. Just being outside in the sun, the wind, the elements, with only a thin layer of clothes for protection takes a toll that an indoor, climate controlled life does not prepare me for. It is easy to forget that  shelter is a survival necessity because we naked primates have only marginal defenses to the forces of nature, even the mild ones. On this ride, the heat, hill and humidity teach a remedial course in that life lesson.    

Somewhere in the afternoon, I catch up to Bill O. He is having a hard day, but he continues on. We ride together in the heat of the afternoon sun and take a break at a controle that offers air conditioning, ice water and food. The break is short lived - efficient - we return to the course.

The controle was not enough to stop Bill's difficulties. He is having trouble keeping his liquid food down. He heaves up half his Perpetuum in the parking lot. Then we continue on, riding hills in the afternoon heat, waiting for the relief night would bring.

We plunged down from the summit
  over the slither of scree
till the path jackknifed
over clints round a baldish moor
and across cloughs sets in its side
    and welded fields, a hundred of them,
with thorns embedded, and into iron
    woods, faintly aromatic, on a precipice
harboured in boulders taller than Stonehenge. 5

Despite the unexpected heat, the beauty of the Virgina countryside is undeniable. Yet, the immensity of it escapes my ability to describe. It is like trying to take a picture of a landscape to portray the experience of being there. We try, but no two-dimensional image can convey the sense of vastness that your consciousness experiences when it reaches out to try to find the edges of the horizon. The blue mountains in the distance echo the silence of the open spaces. They promise hidden treasures to be revealed only to those who enter their confines. They are curtains that part and close with each ridge crossing. It as though by being made tiny against the landscape, we become aware of the vastness of the world around us and its reflection in us. 
He looked around, as if seeing the world for the first time. Beautiful was the world, colorful was the world, strange and mysterious was the world! Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green, the sky and river flowed, the forest and the mountains were rigid, all of it was beautiful, all of it was mysterious and magical.6
Night falls. We drink our fill from a natural spring that flows from a roadside pipe. Bill jokes that if we get dysentery we should have enough time to make it to the overnight control before it kicks in. We ride on.

Late into the night, we arrive at the hotel in Lexington. Bill will leave 3 hours later to continue the 1000K. Since I am riding a permanent, Christa,  the perm owner, gives me the option of selecting my start time for the return trip. I choose a 5 am departure. I eat. I shower. I sleep the dreamless sleep of deep fatigue. I wake to ride again. The return trip would be a solo venture and on that long road I would find my breaking point. 


1. Rain Travel
2. Night Run
3. Waiting
4. Uphill
5. Insight
6. Siddharta


  1. Nigel - wonderful writeup and i know you left much out but what an apt description of the Virginia countryside. Looking forward to the rest of the story....

    1. Mike,
      Unfortunately, I never capture all the details but I do try to get at least some of the essence. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Work got in my way too and regrettably with much angst, I could not make the ride but we all squeeze what we can from life but in the end, we must provide for our children and completing any brevet or randonnee is mere icing on the wonderful luscious cake of life. Thanks for the writeup Nigel, your words are part of my return to the white line.

    1. Very well said. That juggling act is gift to have and a challenge to manage. Tailwinds for your return.

  3. Love it. Looking forward to the solo return trip.