Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A good place to be (notes from the Boston 600K)

It is the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon in July.

I am on an audacious New England adventure, riding my bike up yet another hill, in temperatures well over 90 degrees.

The sun relentlessly beats down on the sun sleeves that protect my arms and the white wicking skully cap that protects my head.

My short sleeve, green plaid bike shirt is unbuttoned to my belly so that passing breezes can lift the sweaty fabric and cool my back.Fortunately, after weeks of summer bike commuting, I've acclimated to the heat and humidity and actually enjoy the hot weather.

On the descents, the wind cools and refreshes. I soar through the curves of the rolling hills having earned these moments of flight.

This is my life today, any for most of tomorrow, because this is a 600K in July.  
What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.  Henry David Thoreau
The Boston 600K, hosted by the New England Randonneurs, didn't actually start in Boston. It started in Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is the place where the first shot of the Revolutionary war was fired and also the birth place of Emerson and Thoreau. In that sense, historically speaking, Concord is a place where thoughts, words and deeds challenged the conventional thinking with the goal of uplifting individual freedom. My goal is not quite so lofty, with temperatures predicted to be in the high 90's and a course loaded with extended climbs, I just wanted to finish this 375 mile bike ride within the 40 hour time limit safely, successfully and, if possible, enjoyably.

Truth be told, I started the ride with an unusual amount of second guessing. At 3:00 a.m., after four and half hours of the fitful half sleep of the first night in a different bed, I made my way to start in the parking lot of the Best Western. The ride organizer and RBA, Jake K., quickly checked me in. We've met before and it was good to see him at the start. A few other friendly faces were there as well. My friend George S., despite living in the Hudson Valley, is a fairly regular rider in my local regions and, in addition to seeing each other at various events, he and I have ridden the 1000K LOL and a fleche together. In the short time that we had to chat before the start, he introduced me to Jan D., a Randonneur from Woodstock, VT, of whom I'd heard but never previously met. DC Randonneurs Mike W. and George W. drove up from Maryland for the ride and they seemed to be in good spirits. After Jake gave a few brief pre-ride announcements, we rode off.

The course would go southwest into Connecticut then turn north, crossing Massachusetts to go into New Hampshire and then into Vermont, turn south and re-enter Massachusetts, turn west to go to the Northeast corner of the state, before turning east and going back to Concord. In other words, we would ride across the state north to south, south to northwest and then west to east. 

I once read that Polynesian explorers, who paddled their sail aided canoes across vast distances in the Pacific ocean, envisioned themselves as standing still on the surface of the water and pulling the land toward them with the power of their effort. The person who wrote that piece imagined that this perspective gave them a sense of place in the world in that they were always at home in the boat and merely bringing the world to them. At the start of the ride, I have no such sense of place. I am all too aware that I am far from home embarking on a long solo journey. I am stretched thin between the familiar comforts of home and the unknown prospects of this new challenge and the pull of home is strong. As I wait for the sun to rise, I keep pedaling forward even as I calculate how far I can ride before it is too late to turn back.

 I meet up with Mike and George as the sun rises and the day soon gets brighter.

Riding with Mike and George, we pass the time as Randos do, with stories, jokes and more stories. We talk bikes and rides but we also discuss family and share memories. In the early light, as the miles build, the walls of distance we all build to protect ourselves fall quietly to the side. This is a good place to be.

Daylight not only lifts my mood, it brings the beauty of the course into full view. Massachusetts embraces its significant place in American history. The town signs proudly display their year of establishment and they date back to the birth of the nation. Stately homes, rolling farms, antique shops and town centers ebb and flow along the length of the course. By bypassing the major roads and highways in favor of literally, the roads less traveled, the course takes us on a beautiful tour of the state.

There are only 5 controls on the 375 mile course. That means long stretches between most of the mandatory stops although there are options for food and water every 20 miles or so.  The first control is at mile 62. After riding together, getting separated in the hills and reuniting again, Mike, George and I met up at the first control. They ordered breakfast and sat to eat. The next control was 12 miles away. I looked at the clock: 8:45; I looked at the course elevation profile: rolling hills ahead; and decided to press on. The hills were coming. Mike and George were riding a little faster than me and my plan was to go slow but go steady and stay in the aerobic zone that would keep my heart rate monitor from beeping at me. I figured I would see them again soon.

The morning air, laden with dew, heats under the midsummer sun and blossoms into humidity. At 115 miles into the ride, I arrive in Amherst, Massachusetts. Its my first time here. The college town is bright, clean and active.  In the shadow of the CVS drugstore, I refuel, re-resupply and briefly rest. But not too long, the clock is ticking. The mantra of a randonneur is relentless forward motion. I move forward.

In the midst of the afternoon heat, I cross a small bridge over a creek. Kids are swimming and jumping from the bridge. People are picnicking on the banks. The water looks cool, inviting and tempting. On the other side of the bridge, I see Jake. He has water, cold drinks and snacks. I give in to this temptation and eat and drink sitting in the shade by the creek. This is a good place to be.

Kris from Portland arrives while I'm there. He was off course for two hours dealing with a broken crank. Kris was fast enough of a rider to make up that time difference (and catch up to me) within the first 200K of the ride. A few miles down the road. Kris catches me again. But instead of pulling ahead, he rides with me and we make our way to Brattleboro, Vermont pushing relentlessly forward against a steady, hot, headwind.

At mile 155, the  co-op in Brattleboro Vermont has smoothies, coffee,  hot food, cold food, water fountains, bathrooms, A/C, indoor and outdoor seating. In other words, its pretty much a rando paradise. So much so that there are more riders here than I've seen since the start.

George S. and Jan D. are still here when I arrive. It looks like Jan is taking a cat nap. George is finishing his meal.

I get some food and my quick stop gets a little longer as I eat, chat and re-group. When its time to depart, George, Kris, Jan and I leave together.

This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it. Ralph Waldo Emerson
There's a storm coming. Roiling clouds darken the north sky and the winds that push the clouds blow hard. Luckily, we are heading south from Brattleboro which means the wind will be at our backs. 

We flew down the road, buoyed by the rushing wind of the oncoming storm. We rode fast under its leading edge, bright skies ahead of us, dark skies behind us, hoping to find shelter before the storm hit.

The mix of setting sun and distant rain produced a double rainbow. We joked that the rainbow ended at the sleep control and wondered how long it would take to get there.

Jan then shared a story of a rainbow that he saw on another ride. He described it as so bright and vibrant it looked capable of being the fabled rainbow bridge to Asgard. He talked of the strength of the memory and the surprising emotional impact it had on him. I know the feeling. Under the extraordinary effort of a long ride, the layers of emotional distance we wear on a normal day can fall away, exposing  the ability to see and react to the small things in raw and unguarded ways. In that place, we experience the strength of the wind, see the bright colors of a rainbow, watch a blue heron unfolding its wings to fly, with long graceful strokes, rising slowly above the water as we lift our eyes to follow its path as it disappears into the distance.
Photo by Kris
Riding our bikes, we too fly into the distance, a minute ahead of the rain, then a minute in the rain, in and out of the leading edge. We reached a small town as thunder boomed in the distance. Then, when faced with a choice as to whether to seek refuge from the storm or to press on, we press on, moving forward with relentless motion.

As night fell, we stopped at a convenience store about 50 miles from the sleep stop. We figured we'd get there in about four hours. Jan warned us about the long climb which was still ahead. I thought I had done long climbs before. Hell, I climbed the Kanc. But that was in daytime, after the sleep control. As we moved on, I realized that this climb was different. It seemed never ending. It rises over 3600 feet and descends 1890 feet over 32 miles. It is 32 miles of hill repeats with no place to re-supply. And we were riding in the dark. With 187 miles of riding behind us that day, this climb seemed interminable. We rode up, up and up again into the night along a black ribbon of highway ascending into the darkness under a starry sky with no end in sight.

My eyelids got so heavy. I was getting double vision, I needed to stop for a few minutes, just need to close my eyes, reboot my brain before I continued. In a small town on the route, Jan pointed out a church just a little bit further along the road. It had a long entrance ramp.

I parked the bike and lay down on the concrete ramp to close my eyes for about ten minutes. Even with my eyelids closed, I could see and hear in the headlights of a car making a u-turn near our position. I thought, "Oh great! It's the cops." But I'm too tired to care. I decided I would continue to lay on the ground with my eyes closed and let the other three deal with the cops.

A male voice called out from the car. It's not the cops, it's a local resident. “Hey, you guys okay? Do you need a place to stay? Water?" The guy even offered us a place to take a shower and get out of the weather. He said he just lives down the street. I didn't say a word. I just lay there with my eyes closed and listened.

Jan spoke up. “Thank you for the offer but we're just staying here for a minute or two and then we’ll be pushing on. “ He sent him on with a heartfelt “God bless you.”

A minute or so later we were up from the all too short break. Someone joked, “What was up with that guy? Was he trying to get us to sleep with his daughter or something?” We laughed and someone responded, “More likely he wanted to chop us up and put us into a pot.” The laughter continued as we resumed the climb to the sleep stop. There were long tough stretches in the darkness and I'm thankful for having people to ride with to break up the monotony and help the time pass. Despite the late hour and hard climb, this too was a good place to be. Eventually, we reached the highest elevation point on the ride, about 2000 feet up.

When we finally arrived at the sleep stop, - the beautiful home of a volunteer (Thanks Bruce and Julie M.!) - I planned to sleep just long enough to keep riding so I don't set an alarm. I will just sleep for as long as happens naturally. I figure if I sleep too long, someone will wake me up and if I wake up before someone wakes me, it's time to go.

At about 4:30, I find myself awake. I'm not fully rested but I can ride so I got up and packed my things. I learned that Jan has already left, and George and Kris are still asleep. George plans to leave at six. It’s five now, and dawn is breaking outside. It's still cool outside and there is climbing ahead. 

I leave to take full advantage of the light and cooler temps to make the climb back to the high point on the course. The morning air, foggy with dew and humidity, is cool, grey and damp. The hair on my arm catches moisture droplets and they form a delicate web of bubbles. The reverse climb to the high point of the ride comes soon and it is much steeper from this direction. Rising slowly above the river of fog into a bright sunny day in the country, I lift my eyes to follow the course  as it disappears into the distance.

The second day of the 200K shows the wisdom of the route designer. The route has four challenging climbs that are spaced by gentle descents. In the heat of the afternoon, I ride in the shade of tree lined roads. 

The route is a challenge but the challenge is fair if you but know what to do with your time. Riding a steady pace and knowing your limits proves that what lies behind and what lies ahead are tiny compared to what lives inside. Inside, on the second day, I am at peace with the difficulty of the day, and that is a good place to be.