Mountains of Misery
May 25, 2014
The madness that was May finally came to an end with the Mountains of Misery Double Metric Century. Mountains of Misery is an event with which I’ve always had an “interesting” relationship (interesting in the sense that you might describe the relationship with an abusive ex-spouse as “interesting”). Both the century and 200k versions have a healthy dose of climbing (10K and 13K feet respectively). There are certainly bike rides that are tougher on paper (the Garrett County Diabolical Double, for example) but there isn’t much out there that is as tough as the final 3 miles of MoM, a daunting climb of approximately 2000 feet that keeps getting steeper until it maxes out at nearly 15% for long stretches. Thrown into any ride it would be a leg breaker. At the end of a century or a 200k? It is a heart breaker.
It is also, however, one of the loveliest rides I’ve ever done. Tragically, the more beautiful of the two is the longer one; it features all the best descending and a stunning stretch of more than ten miles of wonderful slightly downhill tempo riding. Our triathlon team also had a very large contingent going this year, approximately 30 riders. Many of them were first-timers to the century, and most of the group I was riding with had done the century before but not the 200k. So I was looking forward to it.
There was, however, one slight problem.
The previous 6 weeks.
But All the Cool Kids Are Doing It
In that time I’d gone from a longest ever ride of 150 miles to riding my first 600k. Tackling this ride a mere week after completing the 600 was, well, “ambitious” was the word I was going with. My friend Damon, however, boldly predicted on my FB page that I would be a mere wreck of a man by mile 60 or so. I kind of laughed it off, but I was more than a little shocked to see the number of people who mentioned that post and were, it seemed, kind of wondering what I would look like as a wreck of a man. Probably not too dissimilar to the way I look on a good day, I suspect, but whatever.
So why was I doing this ride? Well, part of it was the exuberance and foolishness of youth. Or that would have been the reason if I still had any youth about which to be exuberant. Mid-Life crisis? Let me tell you, there are many less painful ways to chase your fading youth. If I was in to exercise for appearance sake I’d join Cross Fit. If I wanted to try and live forever I’d pick up some food fad like the Cretaceous Diet or some such. And the good old standby of a mistress would sure be a lot less painful (well, most kinds of mistress. . .). I had signed up and my friends were doing it, and that, at the time, seemed to be the reason.
It was certainly more than enough motivation to get me up in the morning. Once we arrived at the start there was all the usual pre-ride fussing: multiple trips to the Porta Johns, double-checking tire pressure, good luck wishes all around. I felt more than ready to be riding, excited for what the day would bring. Last time I completed the double it was on a tri bike and that was a miserable experience, so I was thoroughly looking forward to tackling it with my road bike.
And then before I knew it, we were lined up at the start (the 200k riders constituted the first wave) squinting into the rising sun.
I think we were all feeling really good. We had talked about the ride beforehand, we had a plan to minimize stops and ride efficiently and patiently together.
And then suddenly we were off!
. . .and our plan lasted exactly 29.5 seconds. Bob realized he had forgotten his sunglasses. So we pulled over to wait.
Then finally, we were off! For real this time!
Once we had survived the peletons from a couple of the waves starting behind us, the ride settled down into a nice rhythm.
We caught a small group made up of fellow Zers and another rider (our Zer friends jokingly lamented that their “breakaway” attempt had been so short-lived) and the next thirty miles were gently upward trending rollers through green valleys, culminating in a brief, twisty descent to the second (our first) rest stop. We spent an extremely short time there, just enough to grab water and a quick bite, and then it was on to the first major climb of the day.
Which was where things began to get considerably less fun.
The Bike Goes on Strike
It wasn’t really the climbing. The first major climb is several miles long, but the grade (7-8%) is just manageable at a steady pace. I knew that I wouldn’t have the pop and zip to keep up with everyone, so slowly let myself drift off the back. Then I dropped my chain. A short while later it happened again. Both times the chain fell off on the inside of the large rear cog. The number of times that has happened since I’ve had this bike is approximately never. This, therefore, was concerning. I stopped, and made a few adjustments to the limit screw. That stopped that problem, but now the bike wouldn’t shift smoothly. A few tension adjustments and things were sort of working again. But only sort of.
Still, I made it up the climb in relatively good order and then blasted down the other side. The descent from the top of Potts Mountain into Paint Branch is one of my favorites; big sweeping bends with only one tight corner where you have to be a little careful. We had planned to ride on through the next rest stop but I found all my crew waiting for me. I begged their forgiveness to wait a little longer and managed, it seemed, to get the bike back in fighting trim.
Then it was on to one of the best parts of the entire ride, a ten mile, slightly downhill section, most of it through a tree-lined corridor where a rushing stream alternate with rock walls, and views of a valley beyond which the mountains separating Virginia from West Virginia seemed close enough to touch. Spinning easily, we were nevertheless rocketing along at well over 20mph.
Things got a little more lumpy prior to the next rest stop. . .and lumpy also described the deteriorating state of my bike shifting. So the next rest stop saw another attempt to fix the bike. By this time, I was starting to get concerned. I know how to fix shifting problems on the road, but the fact that these wouldn’t stay fixed was indicating, potentially, other issues (fraying cable? problem with the derailleur spring?). So I told others not to wait for me, and watched as they pedaled away from me up Jamison Mountain Road. But it was starting to become clear that the bike wasn’t the only issue. Last time I did this climb I found it much harder than I remembered. Proof that I never learn from experience is that today I found it much harder than I remembered. I had to pause a couple of times on the way up to let my HR settle a bit, and before long my comrades had vanished over the top of the climb and into the distance. But I was encouraged because I seemed to have fixed the bike well enough to at least give me good shifting on all my small gears, which were the critical ones. And soon I was on the descent, a long, 8-mile affair, that weaves gently back and forth at a comfortable 25-35 mph through a constant play of light and shadow.
Marti MaDe Plop Plop!
When the road flattened out again I was surprised to come up on Dana and Marti who were both biking quite slowly at that point. It was immediately clear that Dana was in trouble. She had been battling a strange knee problem where after a trouble free early ride she would experience sudden intense pain. By the time I joined them, the pain had become pretty severe. The terrain was not hilly but it was definitely rolling and Dana was basically single-legging it by that point, a process punctuated by involuntary groans. Marti and I did our best to pull her toward the next rest stop at mile 80 but she was clearly suffering. At one point I glanced in my mirror and saw the SAG vehicle coming up behind, and asked if she wanted me to wave it down. “No,” she said promptly. Then, “Yes,” in a smaller voice, then finally, “No,” in a resigned tone.
But when we reached the rest stop it was clear that her day was done. We met up with Bob and together it was our job to simply hang with her until she’d worked her way around to accepting the same conclusion. With big races coming up later in the year, there was no point in risking serious injury at this point. But it was a hard sell. Dana has never quit at anything and has more pride and determination than just about anyone I know, a quality more admirable for how well she keeps it hidden. I couldn’t imagine what she was feeling.
While the process of figuring out how to abandon an event worked its slow way through Dana’s reality, we were all momentarily distracted by Marti who exited the Porta John and announced that she had almost lost her phone inside. “It’s lucky you didn’t drop it in, ” Bob remarked.
“But I did.”
The rest of us all looked at one another.
“Well it was in a plastic bag,” Marti continued. “So it just sort of floated on top for a moment. So I was able to grab it.”
I made a mental note never, ever to ask to borrow Marti’s phone. Or even shake her hand. And keeping her away from the rest stop food table also suddenly seemed like a good idea. Nothing gives a ride a worse reputation than a mass bout of explosive diarrhea.
We all hugged Dana, and then mounted up, looking back briefly to see her trudging toward the bus. With heavy hearts we rode on.
Sometimes A Man has Gotta Not Do what a Man Could Do
The next stretch is lovely; views over a beautiful valley to a high ridge beyond. But in all the times I’ve done both versions of MoM it has always been the bane of my existence. It is upward-trending rollers for about 15 miles, much of it on roads exposed to what is by that point the afternoon sun. The shifting continued to deteriorate and by this point I’d lost my lowest gear. Furthermore, the body was also starting to fail. I was a mass of aches and pains, of the kind I’d never experienced before at this point in a ride. My lower back hurt. My neck hurt. My arse was screaming. Not just the usual kind of “long day in the saddle” complaint, but more a “help help I’m trapped in the prison proctologist’s office” kind of scream. I’d actually been pretty lucky, pain-wise, in the aftermath of the 600; I’d had no foot, hand, neck, back or shoulder pain at all. My one lingering issue (apart from some “interesting” twinges in the ventral area) was some minor discomfort in one knee. That minor comfort had now become considerably less minor; at one point we hit a pothole and the shock went through my knee as if someone had lanced me with a needle. I swore so loudly and forcefully that Bob commented on it after the ride, something he’d never heard from me before (I ride in many states of mind, but anger is usually not one of them; in fact I ride in part to become less angry at things). I tried to distract myself with the sights and sensations around me: the smell of fresh-cut grass, a gorgeous white church set back from the road. But nothing worked.
We stopped at mile 95 or so at the rest stop located at the crossroads at Maggie. And there I made the difficult decision. I wasn’t going to be able to finish this ride. Suddenly, I knew exactly how Dana had felt. But I didn’t want to be bussed in. The route took us past the start point again before the final monster climb, and that was only 15 miles away. Of course, there was the small matter of the John’s Creek climb in the way, a short, but brutal, 8-13% workout.
I let Marti and Bob know, ate and drank, then watched them get on their bikes and pedal away. I wanted them to get a good gap on me so I wouldn’t have anyone up ahead to remind me of how badly I was doing. And yes, it was tough; I didn’t walk, but I did have to stop a couple of times for a short rest, at which time I would stare morosely at my bike chain not sitting on my lowest gear and try not to become bitter. I was passed by a couple of people including one woman who called out encouragingly (but with very little breath to spare) “Don’t give up!” More discouragingly, I was also passed by one of those ridiculous smart cars. You know, the rubber-band-powered ones that only fit a single person if they hang their buttocks out the door and which collapse with the weight of a good sneeze? It was still climbing faster than I was. But as we approached the top I started to feel. . .well, at the time I deluded myself that it was a second wind. But I think at that point that I was just so desperate to be done that I could smell the ride start even though it was ten miles away. Sweating buckets and breathing heavily I ignored the rest stop at the top and plunged down the other side.
The twisting descent dumped me out onto the main road, and a patch of mainly downhill fast riding, that would have been even faster if it hadn’t been punctuated by the sound of my chain dancing a merengue across the top of my cassette. I passed the encouraging woman, then she passed me back again. Finally, I arrived back at the Newport Rec Center and stopped in front of a couple of volunteers talking in the shade of the main building’s overhang. “How is it going?” one of them asked cheerfully.
“Actually, I’m going to have to abandon today.”
The volunteer didn’t register any surprise, nor ask me any questions. Indeed, he seemed almost delighted at the prospect. For a moment I thought he was even going to congratulate me. It was a little surreal. They took my chip, and I trudged slowly back to the car, stripped off most of my gear and put my bike inside. I didn’t linger, however, because my next priority was to catch a lift up the mountain to the finish line so that I could see my friends come in. There were a lot of shuttle buses standing around but most of them were waiting while their brakes cooled off; the acrid smell of scorched pads was thick in the air, covering up even the smell from the Porta Johns. Finally I hitched a ride with a lovely woman driving a school bus back up and arrived just in time to see my friend Rich cross the line, beaming triumphantly. I knew that he and my partner had been riding together, and sure enough, a few moments later Mary crossed the line, a gasping, sweaty but victorious mess, having ridden the entire climb without stopping, something that I’ve never been able to do.
Misery Loves Company. Mountains of Misery Loves Mountains of Company.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Best of times because I saw so many of my friends and team mates finishing, many of them doing the ride for the first time. This is a ride that you never, ever forget, simply because even if you are an experienced cyclist it completely re-calibrates your sense of what hard actually means. It is also the only bike ride I have ever done where you can complete the damn thing, an awesome achievement in anyone’s book, and still feel as if you have failed, as if the ride defeated you.
It was the worst of times because I was not a very good team mate. I wanted to be happy and overjoyed for everyone else. I tried. But I was bummed and pissed and feeling a little sorry for myself. Moreover, I knew that was childish and yet I couldn’t stop myself and that just made me more bummed out and angry. So eventually I started walking down the final climb toward where Team Z had a cheer station set up about a mile below the summit. I knew that it would be hard to feel low with all that energy about. But more than anything, I wanted to be away from the loudspeakers. Every time the accnouncer welcomed someone to the finish line and announced that he or she was “one of our double metric finishers” the words cut through me.
Once out of earshot of the announcer, I felt a little better and I did my best to encourage the riders still laboring up the summit. Some were still riding, most weren’t. Some were walking. I came across more than a few in a posture I recognized so well, slumped over their handlebars, trying to get their breath back and to stop their hearts leaping out of their chests. In the mile walk–and it was a long mile; a road that steep is actually no joke to walk down and my calves were pretty sore by the end–I had a lot of neat exchanges. I came across one guy near the final turn, his bike leaning against the guard rail, helmet off, staring contemplatively off into space as if pondering the meaning of existence.
“You alright? You need anything?” I asked.
“Nope. Just trying not to throw up.”
I came across another guy stopped temporarily; he’d had to abandon the previous year and we talked about our experiences with this final climb before he finally summoned up the energy to get back on his bike. With other riders I cracked jokes, trying to elicit even a weak smile because I knew from experience how important even that slight lift in energy could be in taking your mind off the suffering of your body.
Finally, I reached the cheer station. Team Z was in full cry; vuvuzelas and cowbells going, screaming encouragement at the riders, and with one indefatigable member even pulling exhausted riders who were walking into a side road and then using it as a launch ramp to push start people. Even people who swore they weren’t going to get back on seemed powerless to resist her. As usual, the whole thing was kept going by an impressive array of food, sugary drinks and adult beverages. I grabbed one of the latter and a giant unopened bag of cheese puffs and settled in to the hard work of cheering the final few exhausted riders.
You Always Finish What You Start. Until you Don’t.
My feelings about the day don’t actually mesh with the reality. Objectively speaking this was a very good day on the bike for me. I rode almost 110 miles and climbed 10,500 feet. And what I didn’t realize until after getting home was that I had done it in a time where, had I been riding only the century version of this ride, would have been my fastest ever MoM century by a considerable margin. When I loaded everything into Strava I’d actually PRed a number of sections and even the John’s Creek climb where I’d been missing my lower gears and had to stop a couple of times, was my second best effort. And that long stretch toward mile 95? The one that I described as the bane of my existence, and even more so today without my full spread of gears? Fastest I’ve ever ridden it.
But I hadn’t finished the ride I set out to do. More significantly, this was my first ever DNF. For anything. Since I started doing what seemed at the time wildly improbable sprint duathlons way back in the mid-oughts I had finished every event I started. (And almost every event for which I’d signed up; the only exception was a half-Ironman in 2011 where I’d been unable to start due to the worst migraine I’ve ever had the morning of the event; notwithstanding the fact that there was absolutely no way I could even get to the start line, I was pretty bummed about that as well).
Obviously the prospect of a DNF is always there. What makes an event an event is that with the prospect for success also comes the possibility of failure. But until you have experienced your first one you really have no conception of how it feels. Moreover, the longer you go without one, the worse it is when it happens. I’ve been competing in multisport events and been part of Team Z long enough to understand that not everyone sees things this way. Some people have in fact perfected the art of the DNF. I’ve seen people sign up for events, not train for them, and then predictably implode on race day. Some people never even make it that far, signing up for multiple events that they never even start. Others are congenital over-committers; whether driven by peer pressure or FOMO they sign up for way too many events and then end up not completing most of them because they are too tired from previous events or trying not to tire themselves out for ones to come.
Engaging in athletic pursuits is, then, linked with your character. If you let it, that link can be a great thing. Tackling athletic challenges can change you in many positive ways; it can help you build on existing strengths, reveal to you abilities that you never knew you had, allow you to tackle elements of yourself with which you are less satisfied. All of that, however, takes work. If your athletic career demonstrates, for example, that you constantly sign up for events that you never start, or constantly sign up for things that you never complete, there are some hard lessons there about the kind of person you are at that point in time. It doesn’t mean that you can’t change. But it does mean that you can’t lay it all at the door of an intervention by malevolent deities.
For me the link between character and event has been a rather vexed one but for a different reason. I discovered early on that I was, in general, a better person when I was competing than I was in other areas of my life. In my real life I’m impatient and more than a little disorganized. When I’m competing, however, organization and preparation tends to be my strength. Under the most adverse race conditions you can imagine (everything from hail, to wrath-of-god thunderstorms, to scorching heat) I’ve generally remained calm and positive. And I finish things. In my real life, not so much. We still have a kitchen that isn’t quite finished, even though we remodeled it when we moved in years ago. Ditto our bathroom remodels. As someone who writes for a living I have countless projects that I’ve started but haven’t finished; they remain full of promise and potential and most of that, I’m forced now to acknowledge, will never be realized.
But I finished every athletic endeavour I started. Until now. So on that afternoon I understood very clearly how Dana must have felt. Yes, I know it is petty. I knew it at the time. Particularly for an event where I had nothing, I thought, invested. But if you are a certain kind of person who weighs their challenges carefully and undertakes them all with serious intent and disciplined focus and has managed to complete everything they have started. . .well, you will not understand until that first DNF happens to you.
Lurking Behind the Scenes
But wait, there’s more. Isn’t there always? The saying goes that life is what happens while you are looking elsewhere. As I’ve grown older I’ve become increasingly convinced that one of the greatest vulnerabilities that people possess is that they spend most of their lives expending a lot of effort trying not to think about things. Sometimes, of course, there seem to be very good reasons not to think about things, as when you’ve experienced severe trauma. Even there, however, research has demonstrated pretty conclusively that locking things away and not thinking about them can be a recipe for long-term disaster. I think the key is to acknowledge that it is important not to dwell on things, but that things must still be acknowledged. Otherwise you run the risk of being completely blindsided. Putting aside the question of trauma, however, it seems to me that most people determinedly spend their lives trying not to think too deeply about much of anything. That fact explains pretty much everything from the appalling shallowness of social media (Twitter is of course the communication form par excellence for shallow thinkers) to the US political system.
It is, however, a process that is not entirely under your conscious control. Life sucks you in and it takes a lot of effort to stand apart from it if only for a moment. In my case, what I had determinedly not been thinking about was May 2013. That was when, a little over a week away from tackling the double metric Mountains of Misery, I was knocked off my bike by a teen driver and left concussed with a shattered collarbone that required surgery. The kind organizers of the ride had allowed me to defer until this year. Obviously I was aware of that, but I hadn’t been thinking about it. I hadn’t been acknowledging any of it.
Your brain, however, has a vivid and active life of its own, underneath the surface across which we heedlessly and optimistically skate at speed. An inescapable aspect of our presence on a planet with a specific solar revolutionary character is that we are yearly beings. Anniversaries matter, consciously or not, or however much we might attempt to deny them.
Most of my athletic life this year had been concentrated consciously on randonneuring, on setting myself a seemingly-impossible goal of riding a 1200k and doing all the necessary qualification rides to get there. If you’ve been following this blog you know that the rando world seems to be a good fit with me both in terms of disposition and the kind of riding I’ve been drawn toward over the years. That said, however, I could have simply spent a year doing shorter brevets. Why the huge goal?
Well, this year’s MoM showed me that the 1200k goal for this year had, in many ways, nothing whatsoever to do with randonneuring. Instead, it had its roots in the long months of June, July, and August last year, months where I clawed my way back to bike-worthiness by riding ridiculously short but nevertheless exceedingly painful trainer sessions. 15 minutes. Working up to half an hour. Working up to 45 minutes. 6 days a week. For month, after month, after month. Then throwing myself in to team training rides that I wasn’t sure I could complete. Then determinedly tackling at least one brevet every month since October. All of which finally led to the personal triumph of completing the 600k.
But it had all, in some ways, still been about May 2013.
About the experience of being scared and uncertain and suddenly vulnerable. About feeling suddenly old, forced to confront the fact of how much slower your body heals as you get older. About feeling that you would never be as fit or as strong or as resilient again. About wondering why you were doing all this. About feeling envious of your younger and healthier team mates. About feeling angry for feeling envious.
Fast forward to 2014, where, standing in the blazing sun at the Newport Rec Center, all of those things seemed once again true. All of which seemed to indicate that on this unacknowledged one year anniversary I had made no progress at all.
Of course, that is rubbish. The odds against me completing this ride were always long. Nor would most people I suspect think any the worse of me for not completing it, given that most seemed to be expecting that Damon’s prediction about all my internal organs disappearing into a hole in the space-time continuum would in fact come true. And objectively, as I pointed out, I rode pretty damn well for someone a week off a 380 mile effort.
Our blessing and our curse, however, is that we are never fully present to ourselves. And it has taken me a while to put some of this together, which is why I’ve been so behindhand with this account. It is not an excuse, but it is an explanation of how a great day on the bike can end up being a tough and lonely climb for the soul.
Postscript: Is the Bike OK?
Any real cyclist will not have cared about any of the foregoing existential twaddle and will in all probability have skipped straight to this section. After stripping the bike down I found no obvious problems, no frayed cables or damaged shifter or derailleur. The bike had been slightly overdue to have all the cables and housings replaced, an item on my list for after MoM (somehow riding all those brevets hadn’t left a whole lot of time to work on both bikes; keeping the touring bike running was the priority). I’d ridden the bike for long distances prior to MoM and given it a thorough check up. My best guess is that, like a frat boy turning thirty, everything just kind of sagged and collapsed at once. The cable simply kept stretching which is why I couldn’t trim it out.
The alternative explanation is that Sylvie the road bike became jealous that I was stepping out so much with Gypsy Rose. So she withheld her favors. Therefore, I did what men have always done to get back in the good graces of their women: I bought her gifts. New shoes, new bling (Jagwire cables in sterling silver) and lavished attention upon her.
I’m still not quite back in her good graces, but at least I’m no longer in the dog house.