Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Summer of Climbs: Carter Lake

Carter Lake is a destination/ride that locals frequently cycle (and drive to as well for boating, camping, and so on). On one of the regular routes I travel via bike, it is not uncommon to have brief conversations with other cyclists who ask if Carter is where I'm headed. I always shake my head, assuring them that I am not, and we generally part ways at the same location on the road - they go off to do their climb to the lake and I tackle whatever distance I am up to for the day.

It's no secret that I am not a climber. While it's impossible to avoid all of it in this geographic location, I am extremely adept at bypassing areas that require any sort of sustained, difficult climbing. Climbing is just not easy, and often downright difficult, so I find that I would rather enjoy a long ride than put myself through the pain of climbing into the mountains. However, at the end of winter I proclaimed (to no one in particular) that this would be the 'summer of climbs.' I told myself that I would not avoid these sorts of rides and would in fact set out (purposefully even) to do these types of routes. I have no idea who took over my body when I said such things, but I suppose I did actually say them.
Looking south from the marina at Carter Lake
There are a multitude of these types of local rides, but many are currently closed off to cyclists (or at least aren't exactly safe to travel due to the flooding last year). I have regularly talked about starting this summer of climbing, but I've started off very slow this season. I've had some injuries to contend with which have kept my mileage down, and I haven't had the time to do the longer rides that seemed to happen earlier in the season last year.

On Friday evening, Sam informed me that he wanted us to ride together Saturday morning. The idea was not particularly appealing to me in the moment. It's not that I don't want to ride with Sam, but he's had far more miles on the bike, and particularly long distance rides, than I have this year and I wasn't in the mood to have to race to attempt to keep up with him. Even when he's not trying to, he doesn't seem to be able to help himself and before I know it, he will disappear out of sight unless I constantly keep tabs on him. We've worked on resolving this by having me ride in front; however, this option gives me anxiety because I often hear him coasting behind me which, frankly, makes me feel like crap because I can't maintain the speed he would like to travel. It is simply easier for me to ride by myself and for him to go with a group who is happy to have someone to race against.

I never really committed to a ride on Saturday, and as morning came about, I was even less enthused about the idea of riding together. Sam mentioned briefly the idea of going up to Carter Lake, and truly this was about the last thing I wanted to do. I was in a lot of pain and exhausted as I hadn't slept but a couple of hours. I knew he expected to go though, so I begrudgingly got dressed, filled a couple of water bottles, and went outside to meet him.

As we started out, I knew I was in trouble only half a mile in to the ride. I already felt like crying, which is never a good sign. I felt weak and drained. I simply didn't want to be on a bike - at least not like this. A couple of miles in, I laid into poor Sam, who, I'm sure wasn't at all surprised by my outburst. I must've been louder than I thought because I recall passing some cyclists who were staring in our direction as I blubbered through my snot and sobs about how this isn't what I wanted to be doing [on a side note, I swear I don't cry on every ride, but I seem to write about it frequently here]. Sam said we could turn around, that we didn't have to do the ride, but that he just wanted us to ride together because we never do anymore. I knew he was right, but I just wasn't at all in the condition to do a ride like this. I kept pedaling though, figuring that I'd just go slow and deal with whatever came my way. After all, how bad could it be? Sam knew I was in no shape to take on something more than 20 or so miles, and surely he must understand that I was in no way ready to climb, so, yeah... just keep pedaling.
*Image from Google Maps
Here's the thing with Carter Lake. I've never actually been there. We've lived here for over 11 years now and I had no idea what to expect. I knew roughly where it is geographically, and I knew there was a decent climb (and not a fun one, from the overheard conversations of others), but I wasn't even aware of the distance to get there. Additionally, I'm currently riding on a road bike that was intended to be a back up. It's not properly equipped with gearing to do climbs on greater than let's say around 5-6% grade - and even those are difficult as I find myself mashing even in the spinning gears to get up fairly mild hills. If I were in better cycling shape at the moment, perhaps it would be a little different, but for the time being, I am not physically where I need (or want) to be.

At this point, we were still in familiar territory for me, but that was about to change quickly as we turned and headed north. It was actually nice to be on a road that I didn't know. Although I could anticipate what might be coming, it wouldn't do me any good. I had to just enjoy the moment and deal with the hills as they came. There were a few rolling hills and then it turned into a steady, gradual climb. "Is this the worst of it?" I asked Sam, as I kept pedaling. He replied with something to the effect of it not being much worse than at that moment. Somehow, I knew he was lying. Maybe it was the hesitation in his voice, or the fact that I had just finished scream-sobbing at him (and I'm sure he didn't want to go through that again), but I knew there was something I should be fearing on the approach. Yes, here is where the Jaws music should be playing.

A few minutes later, Sam says, "That's it. That's where we're going." Mind you, he is behind me, so I don't know if he's pointing or not, so I assume it is the hill in front of us (I'm not very bright people - definitely not bright). "Oh," I say. "That doesn't seem bad at all. I can definitely do that. The one in front of us, right?" For the record, that was not right. Not even a little bit. We turn and head west and at this point I'm still believing that, even though it was a bit tougher to climb, it was still not as bad as I'd imagined. People are passing us, but that's been happening all morning, so we just keep going. We stop a couple of times to adjust a few things, but all in all, I feel okay. My body was tired at the start, but I'm starting to feel a little better now that we're a bit in to the ride. Maybe this won't be as bad as I think, I tell myself. Perhaps I have inflated this in my head to be something it just isn't.

Sam asks me to stop at the ranger station just ahead. I do so, willingly, as I am getting tired from even (what I will soon learn) is the easy part of the climb. As we pull over, Sam points ahead of us. "That's where we are going," he informs me. I am confused, but nod along. Then, suddenly I see a car zig-zagging up a road and realize what I'm being told... that the road I cannot see is where we'll be riding. "So, is that first part I can see the worst of the climb?" I inquire. "I just don't know if I can do anything more than that." From where I was standing, it looked to be a completely vertical line up. Sam tries to reassure me that it is the worst of it, but somehow, I know he is yet again not exactly being truthful... or perhaps he just doesn't remember as it's been a good amount of time since his last ride to Carter. "How far is it exactly?" I ask. Sam points to an electric pole that seems almost invisible it's so far away. "You see that pole? That's the peak of the climb." Ugh, I think, as I watch cyclists who are on the road now. They seem to be in pretty good shape, but they aren't moving all that fast up the hill.

Then Sam begins to speak again, "Look, we don't have to do it. We can turn around right here and go home. I'm not going to tell you that you have to do the climb." Man. I really hate it when he does that to me. He knows that  my stubbornness will always win out over physical limitations. "Really?" I say. "I'm going to come all this way, just to stare at other people riding up there and not do it?" and with that, I started pedaling. I'm not going to lie. I really didn't want to do it. I had been watching a man on a mountain bike climbing up the road and it didn't look like fun, but dammit, I wasn't going to turn around after all of that just to come back another day and try again.

As I pedaled, I kept telling myself that I wasn't in a hurry. Goodness knows there wasn't any way in the world I was going to get up any faster anyway. At the first zig in the zig-zagging road, I stopped. I was having a difficult time breathing and my legs felt like they were going to give out beneath me. A few more cyclists passed by and it seemed effortless for them, which wasn't helping my self-esteem. I got back on the bike and pedaled to the next corner, stopping again - not because I really needed to, but more because I was scared of what appeared to be an even steeper portion of the road (and for the record, it was indeed steeper).

"I don't know if I can ride up that," I said with my voice starting to quiver. I could feel the tears forming but I knew I couldn't cry because then I definitely wouldn't get up the hill if I was choking back tears. It's a horrible feeling to honestly believe that you don't have the physical strength to do something that others are clearly doing (and without all of the stops), but I figured the worst thing that would happen is I'd roll backwards down the hill - which would be scary! So, I decided that image would have to be the strength I'd use to get up the rest of the way. I heard, "Keep going! You're almost there now," from Sam behind me. I know I was frustrating him with the stops up the hill, but it was nice to hear something to keep me moving forward.
I'm used to the rolling hills on the first and middle section, but the last part was more - far more - than I anticipated. Apparently, I have a LONG way to go during my summer of climbing. :O)
And then, we were there. At the top of the climb to the lake. Even though muscles were quivering, I really didn't feel too bad. I could hear my stomach growling though, and I knew that wasn't a good sign. It'd taken far longer than I think either of us anticipated to get to the lake, and I was not at all prepared to be out for more than about an hour and a half or so. "Do they have any sort of food at the marina?" I asked, and the reply was that there should be something there. The items available were not exactly what I needed, but it was something to get me through since I was not aware enough to bring a gel pack or even some type of sports drink with me for the ride.
A (thankfully) cloudy day to Carter Lake.
We chatted for a few minutes about the climb. Sam said he thought I could have made it up in one shot, but understood that it's difficult the first time to know what to expect. I wasn't sure about being able to get up in one run, but thinking back on it now, if I'd had proper gearing on the bike and been in a better state of mind, it was likely doable. He reflected on his first run up the hill and how different it was from his ability today. He talked about the downhill and how it made it all worth while as well. I was actually looking forward to the downhill too and so, we got on our way again.

One of my main issues with climbing (other than the difficulty) is that I have extreme fear of coming down steep hills. A nice 2-5% grade is fabulous - something that I can enjoy, but when it feels as though I am going to fall over the front end of the bike coming down a hill, I scream like a little girl and try desperately to brake the entire distance. Knowing this, I'd have thought Sam would've turned us around and come home the same way we had ventured out, but that isn't what he had planned. Instead, he had us continue on so that we would go farther north and come down the back side of the lake.

Not knowing what was on the other side, and hearing that Sam had enjoyed "going down the back side" on past trips up to the area, I wasn't concerned. I should have known better. As we started down, at first it was okay, but suddenly there was an extreme drop in grade. I was clutching the brake levers for dear life and saying, "I don't like this... I don't like this," pretty much the entire way down. I'm sure I screamed a few times in there as well. Part of me wanted to just let off the brakes and go for it, but even holding them tightly, I was still careening down the hill in the mid-30 mph range. I didn't want to know how fast it would be if I hadn't been braking (but as I'd learn later, my darling Sam said he's easily come down in the mid-40 mph range - yikes!).
The quick drop was more than I was looking for on this ride.
I was informed that the rest of the way home was "pretty much down hill," which was a relief as I could feel the fatigue and hunger setting in. Although I'd been okay at the marina, things were quickly catching up to me and just finding the mental strength to carry on seemed inordinately challenging. We chatted about lunch (always a bad idea when one is hungry and still having to move his/her body), but it certainly wasn't feeling as though we were going down hill. In fact, I would've bet that we were actually traveling up hill. Sam continued to tell me that it was just "a bit more," but in my mind it was going on forever. I pulled to the side of the road. "I just can't do this anymore," I told Sam. "I don't have it in me today." This would happen a few more times over the next half mile, and I was getting extremely frustrated.

The frustration was not with Sam, but with myself. I believed that I was in far better shape last summer at this point in the season, and I knew that I had traveled longer distances, but my body was done. My hands were killing me, my ankles were oddly strained, and I simply didn't have the will to go on. Somehow, I got back on the bike at which point a woman and her cycling mate passed by stating something like, "It's a sneaky little climb here, isn't it - just enough to slow you down," but of course, I almost didn't catch the last part as they were speeding along quite merrily and swiftly. I couldn't help but curse them in my head. They'd done nothing to me, but I was irritated that my body was failing me (or more accurately, that I had failed my body by not training better).

At approximately mile 30-32, my body was done. I pulled off the road, threw my bike down and started walking down the road. "Free bike to whomever wants it," I started yelling at no one. I was crying again, so angry that my body was not cooperating with me. By the time Sam caught up to me (he'd stopped to pick up my bike and roll it back to me), I was ranting uncontrollably. "Why do I even bother? What is the point of this? This is never what I wanted. I just wanted to ride bikes and enjoy it, not be tortured and feel like shit at the end of a ride. I can't even make it home for God's sake. I'm so pathetic that I can't - even - make - it - home!"

I sat down on the side of the road and a couple of passing cyclists asked if I was okay. My back was to them, but I nodded yes and they kept going. Sam sat the bikes down and kneeled beside me. I was sobbing again as I muttered out loud to no one, continuing to bash myself for being so incapable. "This is just sad," I said, "So pathetic." I wish I could explain the amount of pain I was in, but at that moment, I felt worse than I had at the end of my first century ride (for which I was also ill-prepared). My hands hurt so badly that it felt as though I had sharp rods being jammed into my wrist and palms. I was thirsty (because of course my water was gone), it was getting hotter, and I think, more than anything I had convinced myself that I was broken.

Sam and I chatted for a few minutes, sitting on the side of the road and then I said, "I can't make it home. I physically cannot make it home." "Okay," he said, "I'll get home as fast as I can and come back for you in the car." We discussed the route we'd take, but I told him that I'd probably just walk the bike up the road in a few minutes and stop under some shade.

As I watched Sam race off, I felt even worse. Was I really going to just sit there on the side of the road and wait? It sounded appealing - but, not really. I had just climbed something I'd avoided for years now and then I wasn't even going to attempt to keep riding to get home. It just didn't feel right. I picked up my bike and got back on. I told myself that it didn't matter how slow I pedaled because Sam was coming back for me, but I just needed to keep going. If I needed to get off and walk, that was fine, I told myself, but just keep moving forward.

As I rode, I thought about how disappointed I was in myself and how I know that I am capable of doing more, but I also recognized that I need to cut myself a little slack and that sometimes the body just isn't feeling it - and there's not much to be done about it. Before I knew it, I was back in familiar territory. I knew what the rest of the ride home was and somehow, that improved my cadence. I started wondering how far I could get before Sam would be there to pick me up. The speed picked up a bit and I hit a spot that I knew was just a little over 6 miles from home. "Six miles isn't very far," I said to myself and kept right on pedaling.

I was keeping a watchful eye out for Sam, but I still hadn't spotted him, odd as that seemed, so I just kept riding. I pedaled up a few short hills, going as slow as I needed to, I traveled along the highway, grateful for a very slight down hill portion, I pedaled through neighborhoods, by schools and parks, and then as if without warning, I was only a block from home - and just shy of 50 miles, and having climbed more in a single ride than any other ride to date. I smiled and cried as I realized that I had made it home without the need for a rescue. That I had actually completed it - painful as it may have been.
Ride profile - For the record, it seems Sam was right and most of the ride home was fairly down hill - but it definitely didn't feel that way.
As I came over the ridge and looked down to our home, I saw that the car was gone. When I checked my phone, there was a text message from Sam stating that he was on his way 10 minutes prior. I sent a message back stating, "I'm home." A minute later, my phone rang and Sam said, "Where are you?" to which I replied, "I'm home." There was a pause and then he asked in a perplexed voice, "How did you get there?" I replied, "I rode here. How else would I get home?" The phone went silent again. "Uh, okay. I'm on my way back. I'm pretty far out, so it'll be a few minutes."  Later, Sam and I would talk out his confusion - both about how it was that I made it home when I seemed near death, and about how we never spotted each other on the roads.

To this moment, I still don't understand how we never crossed paths, but how I made it home - that, I understand a little easier. Despite the fact that I really did think I was physically done that day, there is something in me that will not give up - no matter what happens or how bad I feel. Whether that's a positive trait or not, I still haven't decided, but I think Sam put it best when he said, "I guess it shouldn't surprise me. It's not the first time you've been 'done' and still made it home... You just got there so fast." In the end, I completed my first Carter Lake climb, and even if it wasn't the prettiest, fastest, or best ride I've completed, I hope it will be the motivation I need to keep climbing this summer - and hopefully, they'll get better down the road as I get stronger and better mentally prepared.


  1. I rode hills at least 2-3 times a week [before my auto accident]. There are a lot of hills in my neighborhood, including one 15 degree grade, which I haven't conquered more than a few times. Doing hills makes you stronger and is the only cycling that helps bones. I went on a beginner ride, long ago, with a local cycling group. It was only a 5 mile ride but it was mostly over hills. One beginner didn't finish as she couldn't get her breath. I was more determined and thank goodness I'd been riding some hills. However so many hills, one right after the other, wore me out by the end of the ride. The group leader asked if we wanted to do a few extra miles and I replied - if it isn't over hills. The rest of the ride was relaxing. I became much stronger as the years passed. However, I'll probably need to start all over by the time I'm able to get on a bike later in the year. I'm determined to drop some pounds. That is suppose to help a lot with hill climbing and speed.

    1. Hills are great training, for sure - whether smaller or larger. Getting healed up is most important for you at the moment though, I'm sure. I have been told that hills will make me stronger, but I suppose I have to do them regularly enough (I do ride hills, but not like this particular one) for it to make a difference. :O)

  2. A couple of things:

    1) Your husband has the patience and devotion of a saint.
    2) What's interesting to me, is the process you went through mentally to get to the different stages of accomplishment and belief in your abilities - or at times, lack there of. Personally, and to a certain extent, speaking as a man, I typically do not want to talk about (verbalize about) overwhelming challenges when confronted by them. I tend to want to stew to myself, think silently and figure out whether I can overcome or not. This can be somewhat frustrating to a partner. I think, beyond cycling, it is important to understand the differences in how we all handle adversity.

    BTW, curious about your elevation gains for the ride. I get a feel for how hard a ride is with the kind of elevation gain I will face more than the distance.

    Kudos for putting yourself out there.

    Finally, we all crack when climbing if we are challenging ourselves - some sooner, some later. Even the Tour riders crack. For me, it comes when I feel like I can not inhale enough oxygen into my lungs. I will get to that point before my legs give out.

    1. True that! Sam is very patient with my shenanigans - or fits - or whatever I seem to be putting him through in a given moment. I have said more than once that if we ever split up, I will die alone because no one else is going to put up with my crap, that's for sure. He says that I'm just passionate about things that are important to me, and sometimes that can be positive or negative, depending on the situation.

      I can definitely identify with the lungs giving before the legs. I often say the very same thing at the end of a ride (or during one). It is generally either my mental state or my lungs that give out before my legs. That said, my legs can always be stronger and I definitely felt it (am still feeling it) after the weekend ride. I'm also very much not a climber. I can have a 50 foot hill in front of me and think it's the end of the world (this one was just over 2100 feet). I just don't do well. It doesn't seem to matter how much I practice shifting different ways or changing the way I approach it, I just suck at it - for lack of better terminology - and I have to keep at it or I lose any sort of improvement very quickly.

      Additionally, I am dealing with some injuries right now and even after taking time off for a bit, they are still clinging for dear life. So, I have to figure out how to work around them since they don't seem to want to heal up. Fortunately, I'm hard-headed enough to figure it out - even if I have a rough go round a time or two.

    2. 2100 feet elevation gain - that puts it in perspective. Enough to make many of us think about crying.


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