Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My First Century

Now that I’ve had the time to let the dust settle and fully absorb the experience, I figured it was time to blog about completing my first century ride (ok, Twin told me to, so here I am).

Just about a year ago, it would have been insanely foolish for me to even consider riding 100 miles in one day with a knee like mine. In fact, I was specifically told then that I should never ride again. That I should be happy working out on the elliptical trainer (the only exercise that caused no pain/swelling at the time) and to give up on the bike, both indoors and out. But, in what turned out to be one of my first life lessons over the course of 2009, if I really want something bad enough, I’ll find a way to make it happen. So I found another doc, another physical therapist, a phenomenal personal trainer and even a magical chiropractor, and got myself 100 in a day. Yee ha.

Getting back on the bike outside was an exercise in self-restraint. My physical therapist warned me that I would have to temper my obsessive personality and learn to set limits and stop, even when it feels too good to do so. He cautioned me to increase my mileage by no more than 10% a week. So that meant if the first week’s rides were 20 miles, next week would be 22, then 24.2...you get the picture. A gradual build. But in May, I was just happy to be back on the bike. When I was discharged from therapy, I hooked up with Jon the SuperTrainer and we started on a course of quad strengthening, which was the crux of most of the knee issues. And off we went and that strength work and the slow build-up of miles began in April.

Just after WSSC, I got it in my head that I wanted to ride the Seagull Century with other Spinning Instructor Friends of mine. It can’t get any cooler than that, but part of it too was this burning need to take on turning 40 (next year) and shake my fist at it. Do something that not a lot of people my age can do. But I think at that point in time, I was lucky to be up to 30 miles on the road. I had all summer to get closer to 100 since the century wasn’t until October, so the training began in earnest. Apparently my personality is pretty transparent, because Jon also recognized that obsessive streak in me and focused that obsessiveness into a fairly rigid and extremely extensive strength training program that he called, creatively enough, “century training”. Now that he and I had something to work towards, we were cooking with gas. As my miles got longer and I experienced soreness in the base of my neck or lower back, I’d tell Jon, he’d give me some weight work and after a couple weeks of working that, I’d be pain free on the road.

My training plan was to ride my Tuesday night Spinning class as a high intensity interval training ride, weight train with Jon on Wednesdays, ride outside for a short ride on Thursday night, off day Friday, medium ride on Saturday and long ride Sunday. I’d teach off the bike on Mondays or ride it if weather prevented me from being outside on one of the weekend days (learned and acknowledged early on that the knee doesn’t like 3 days in a row on the bike). I’ll tell you though, there were days when either my heart wasn’t in it, my training buddy would bonk or I’d be training alone riding into an insane North Shore headwind and just wonder to myself “why the hell am I doing this? Who’s going to care if I bag it now?” But the part of me that wanted to prove something pushed on. And then there were days that were picture perfect; days I’ll pull out of memory during the blizzards of February, and remember the cliff-side rides around Cape Ann, the gorgeous blue sky and surf of the perfect summer morning, the rolling hills in Hamilton. With days like that to balance out the “why?” days, I kept logging the miles on MapMyRide and comparing notes with the Twin. As long as we were at about the same place in training, I felt good. She’d be with me, we could sag together. And I’d keep going.

Overall, training went pretty well, until somewhere into the 50 mile range and then all hell broke loose. Or it felt so to me. I had to move in late July and lost 2 weekends while I moved on my own. Then I got strep-C and lost another 2 weekends. I got a couple of good weekend rides in once I felt better and then around Labor Day my knee flared up again and I was off the bike entirely. Mentally beaten, I started to tell myself and everyone else who would listen that I was probably not going to be able to ride the whole century. I was in constant pain and state of swelling so I was mentally laying the groundwork for not doing the ride at all. Jon was still working with me, but that was about the extent of my activity for 3 weeks. Then he suggested talking to Deanna, a fellow Spinning instructor and chiropractor. The two of them convinced me to work with her rather than wait the months to see the ortho again only to get referred back to therapy. Life lesson #2 was this: try the unconventional; you never know what will happen.

Deanna worked on me with an instrument of cruelty that looked like a cattle prod from a Russian gulag (also known as the Graston Technique) and a cold laser. Deanna’s goal was to break up accumulated scar tissue, inflame it to get it to start healing again and get the knee cap floating properly again. After just one session, I went out and rode 25 miles pain-free. Seriously! I went back for a second session for good measure. But that was it. I was back on the bike. So for 5 weeks, I continued to build my miles and managed 56 miles before the century. That wasn’t looking promising for a finish, but I was hoping for 75 on a good day. I convinced myself I would have been happy with that. My last ride before the century was the Sunday before on my finely tuned Specialized, which I’d just picked up from a tune-up at the best bike shop in the land. The ride was effortless, the shifting like butter, the bike my new best friend again. So this is what a little lube and fine tuning gets you? I was psyched. Bring on the 100.

So that nice early fall weekend in October, I drove to Maryland and met my Twin and other Spinning pals for the ride. I was nervous, obsessively tied to my training plan (would I be able to have my pre-meal scrambled eggs? Would I have enough GU? Nuun? Would the knee hold up? Would I be able to sleep the night before?) and really anxious to get rolling.

Saturday morning, we headed to the start line and within 5 pedal strokes I knew I had a serious problem. And like all best-laid plans, it was not my knee as I might have predicted. Instead, the previously smooth shifting and “smooth like butter” ride I had the previous weekend had turned into a painful clunk and chunk, with the middle 4 gears not even clicking in at all; the chain would just bounce right over them. Somewhere in transit the derailleur got compromised (as well as gnarled up handlebar tape, which is just plain ugly). I stopped at the mechanic station and they told me "nothing is wrong but if there is something wrong, it’s probably just sand from the area in the derailleur". Witnesses who rode with me will attest to the “that shouldn’t be doing that” sound it made the whole rest of the day. But at 9:00 that morning, I could bag it or bust it. Life lesson #3: bust it. I worked too hard and worried too much to walk away now.

The first 20 miles were, for me, meant to get over the mechanical and deal with it and to get into some kind of riding formation with the group. It was a casual pace and all about finding a groove. At the first rest stop, I felt good and kept going. Same at 40.

The only “problem” I had was going into the 60 mile rest stop, I all of a sudden got really light-headed and insanely hungry. I drank a water bottle full of Nuun and knocked back a Gu and a pack of Fig Newtons. I also ate everything in sight at the rest stop. Oranges, multiple slices of pound cake, chocolate chip cookies. And I switched from Nuun to a really sugary sports drink. That seemed to help, so I got back on the bike and headed out again.

The ride itself was actually fun for me, not a drain at all. The terrain was flatty-flat. Insanely flat, like no where on the North Shore flat. The weather was reasonable. It was hardly an effort to keep moving, as I remember it now. The lure of the food at some of these stops definitely helped. The group didn’t really stick too closely together and I found myself riding on my own or with people I didn’t know at all a lot. I did ride with a few of our group for parts of the ride, but this definitely was more of an individual effort than I thought it would be. And I killed it, at least in my mind, where I think it loomed bigger for me than it did for anyone else.

At 82 miles, I texted David and my sister and said I was going for it. They both replied with encouragement and I just jumped back on and went. My odometer died coming out of that rest stop (so no photo of the 100 on the meter!) so I had no idea how much road was left in front of me, other than it was less than 20 miles. When we got close to the end, a cop stopped us all for traffic and I sat there and wondered what it would feel like to finish this. I think that was the first time it occurred to me that I was actually going to do this. I was going to finish. And finish in fairly good shape and time. Little did I know that I was just around the corner from the finish line. When I saw the tunnel down to the finish, I recognized where I was and I got teary-eyed. After everything that had been thrown at me in the last year to keep me off the bike, I just kicked it all in the ass. I beat it down and won. I’ll tell you, it’s a good feeling. And I’m already looking for another one or two next year, because once you’re bitten by the bug, you want more. Believe me.

The To Do list (because we all learn something from things like this):
Learn to ride in the drops
Learn to do what you need to in a port-a-pottie
Buy all-weather-wear

Many people supported me and made this experience extra special, but a few deserve a shout-out, in no particular order:

To Brian, your color commentary and stick-to-it-tiveness got me through the training, and some of those rides were glorious and some were just plain ugly. Eat your breakfast first (a real breakfast) and we’re back at it as soon at it’s over 60 in the spring. Special props to you for teaching me to drink at speed!

To David, I know you knew I was going to do this even when I didn’t. Thanks for listening to me bitch though! Are you in for a road trip next October?

To Evans the Ortho who made me believe again, Brendan the PT who brought me back, Jon the SuperTrainer who keeps me there, Deanna the Chiro who tweaks when needed, Scott my LBS guy (I’ll be back in March to get the derailleur replaced and handlebars retaped!)...you are part of the team. You’re not going anywhere, ever! I couldn’t have done it at all without you.

To Twin, I wouldn’t trade that weekend for anything and if I played it over, I’d do it all the same. All of it. Even the fire drills and the guy in compression socks. Just bring a corkscrew next time, will you? Seeing you gnaw that one off with your teeth was not attractive! ;-)

To Turning 40: bite me. There aren’t many people my age who did what I just did. Just wait till you see what I’m going to beat 41 down with!