Monday, August 25, 2014

Surviving Venus de Miles

For the last five summers, I have signed myself up to do a local ride called Venus de Miles. If you've read here for some length of time, you are probably already aware that this ride seems to be my Achilles' heel when it comes to cycling. It's not that the ride is physically difficult or horribly challenging for me by this point in the season (though that hasn't always been true), but more so that something always seems to go wrong just before the event. Historically, this "something" is generally that I end up on a different bicycle than intended due to last minute problems or shenanigans with adjustments. This year, my issues had nothing to do with bicycles, but instead shifted to my actual well-being.
*Logo from Venus de Miles
I found myself getting ill the Sunday before the ride, which I believed had given me plenty of time to rest and recover from a round with a cold and flu, but that is not what the universe had in store for me this year. Instead, I went to bed the night before the ride wondering if I would have the lung capacity and energy to get through even a few miles of riding.

When I woke Saturday morning, I could feel the congestion in my lungs and I had no energy, despite having gone to sleep at a very reasonable hour. The first question Sam had for me was, "So, how are you feeling? Are you going to ride?" It was a fair question, but I honestly didn't have a response at that moment. "I'm going to take it one step at a time," I said. "I'm going to try eating something and see how that goes first." Sam understood and went about his own stuff for the morning.

Despite enjoying variety and change in life, there is one aspect that I keep very routine - and that is breakfast. Unless we are having a rare morning meal out somewhere, I have the same thing every day:  half a cup of oatmeal with a scoop of protein powder and a tablespoon of chia seeds. It's a little strange that this is one of the only routines I have in my life, but it seems to work for me and keeps me energized to do what I need to do. The problem on this particular morning was nerves. I still didn't know if I was going to ride, but I was making myself sick with either decision. As I attempted to spoon in my oatmeal concoction, I couldn't seem to actually get it down, so after a few bites, I gave up and went to brush my teeth.

As I brushed, I started to cry. I cry a lot, so some tears shouldn't be news to anyone, but I was really feeling screwed no matter what I chose in regard to doing this event. This is the only organized ride I've been involved with this year and will likely be the only one I'll complete for 2014, so the idea of not being able to ride, even knowing how sick I was feeling, was tearing me up.  I'd also had a conversation with my mother the afternoon before my tooth-brushing, tear-saga and she put things about as aptly as anyone when she said, "Why would you do this ride if you're sick? I always thought you were a smart person, but obviously you are really quite stupid."

Okay, granted my mother is not a cyclist. In fact, she doesn't do much of anything that's active. She used to compete in swimming relays in high school, but that was a very long time ago. Any sort of push within her or competitive spirit seems to have died out long ago. Frankly, she just doesn't understand why I do most of the things that I do. Still, her voice was haunting me as I blubbered over my toothpaste. Maybe I was being stupid to even consider the idea of riding? Even though I'd done my best to rest for the couple of days prior, my body obviously was not ready to take on anything more than a walk back to bed.

At this point, Sam had mozied out to the bike-pen to air up my tires, oil my chain, and make sure that things looked alright for go time. I could hear him rustling with various items, and I still didn't know what I was doing, so I decided to just start getting dressed to ride. As I dressed, I told myself that it wouldn't hurt anything to try to do the ride. I could always go and if things turned ugly, it would be simple enough to make a phone call for a rescue ride. This seemed to give me some comfort, and so I carried on preparing water bottles and other paraphernalia for the ride.

When Sam came back in he said, "I checked out both bikes in case you changed your mind. You are still going to ride the IndyFab, right?" Ah, he knows me well. You see, I'd been debating whether to ride the Hillborne or the newer Crown Jewel. I've recently spent a lot more time in the saddle of the Hillborne, but I knew deep down that the Crown Jewel would be much easier to get some speed going and I could likely finish in a faster time (assuming that I was comfortable). Speed would obviously be a benefit to a person not feeling her best, but at that moment, I honestly wasn't sure what I was doing. I paused a bit but ended up replying, "Yeah, I'm taking the IndyFab. Thanks for getting both bikes ready though." In the back of my mind I was remembering my last ride on the Crown Jewel, and it wasn't giving me great mental comfort. I sighed to myself and suddenly realized that I was less than a half hour away from start time.  Fortunately for me, I'm a ten minute bike ride from the start line... but I knew I had to pick up the pace.

In an instant I decided to stick with the Crown Jewel decision and Sam pedaled over with me to the starting area of the ride. We arrived just a moment before the national anthem began, which meant that I had no time to linger; this ride was getting ready to start. I could see the line of women was very long behind the start line. Sam suggested that I go and get in line, so we said our goodbyes and I headed over. I was not in the best of moods and the idea of spending hours surrounded by happy, healthy, laughing, and highly unaware women was not appealing to me at that moment.

You see, the good and the bad of this ride is just that - that it's a ride and not a race. A good chunk of the women who sign up get their friends together and use it as social time (nothing wrong with that), but it also means that many seem to forget they are on open roads with hundreds (or thousands) of other people on bicycles - and in cars. Call me the buzz kill, but when some choose to ride four abreast, oblivious to the fact that they are not the only ones on the roadways, I can get annoyed. Some get involved in their own conversations and don't listen when they are asked to be considerate of motorized traffic or to announce themselves when passing other cyclists too. But, the worst of them all (in my mind) are those who decide that it is in fact a race and who choose to come blazing past everyone at the start when the crowd is still dense and moving slowly.

I didn't have the luxury of concerning myself with any of them though as I was well aware that time was not my friend on this ride. Being ill meant that if I had any intention of actually finishing, I needed to push to get through it as quickly as I could. The problem was that I couldn't breathe. My lung capacity was minimal and breathing was short and shallow. Every time I attempted a deeper breath, coughing would begin and continued for several minutes. Of course, this made pushing at all a challenge.

The first seven miles were climbing. Not horrible I'm-never-going-to-make-it-up-this climbing, but climbing none the less, and when one cannot breathe, believe me it feels far worse than the actual 500 feet of ascent it was. The good news for me, however, is that I know this route and I know it well. They are roads (with the exception of one) that I travel fairly frequently, so I knew exactly what to expect. It also meant that I could plan the day and my energy to use in places that would require more of me. As I made it to the peak of that first seven miles, I knew I had a bit of downhill to enjoy.
I love this little piggy who is a popular little man out on the back roads locally.
All of the riders that had passed me while climbing got a glance at my backside again as I flew past. "Gotta take advantage while gravity's on my side," I'd smile as I passed a large group of cyclists who'd overtaken me on the previous climb as though I'd been standing still. "Passing on your left," became a common announcement too. It felt awesome to be going more than 10 mph and not be struggling to breathe. At around mile 9, my reprieve ended and rolling hills took over for about 7 more miles, followed immediately by a 4 mile steady, but reasonable climb. I knew I had about 10 more miles to go before I'd hit the aid station where I'd pre-determined to stop for a little breather.

In reality, there had already been two aid stations, but I'd chosen not to lose time by stopping. Not to mention, it seemed ridiculous to me to stop at mile 10 when I was just getting warmed up, and even sillier to have another aid station just 7 miles down the road. I knew, however, that the third aid station at mile 30 was the last on this route and I would have to take advantage of it to make it to the finish. As I got closer to that mile marker, I looked to the other side of the road and saw Sam heading in the opposite direction on his bike. I yelled out, "Hey!" as I watched him spin around and sprint to catch up to me.

"I don't know where the aid station is," he said as he caught my back wheel. "I've been back and forth on this road a few times and it's nowhere in sight. Their map shows it just on the other side there, but it isn't where I thought it would be." We discussed the possibility that the organizers had opted to move the third aid stop to another location, so I told Sam I was going to pull over just up the road. I hadn't stopped (other than at signals that were red) to that point, and I knew my body needed to shake things out. As we stood on the side of the road, Sam asked how I was holding up and how the bike was doing. I told him I was rough, but doing okay considering. The bike had done better than I could have expected. He asked if I wanted to switch water bottles with him, but I told him I was still okay. I'm used to going this distance self-supported, so I wasn't too concerned. Then, he whipped out the best thing ever... a two pack of Resse's Peanut Butter Big Cups (Side note: I had NO idea these even existed, but now that I do, this could spell trouble - they are seriously monstrous - like twice the size of a normal Reese's cup).
*Image found here
I'd love to say that I gobbled them down right there, but truth be told, as much as a chocolate peanut butter cup is maybe one of the best things in the world, I just wasn't feeling it at that moment. I thanked him, stuck them in my saddlebag, took another swig of water, and got back on the road. Sam shouted, "See you at the finish line!" to which I could only smile. Maybe I could actually finish this ride that seemed so impossible just a short time ago.

About a mile up the road there was a course marshal directing riders to turn right. As I made the turn, I suddenly realized that this must be a "hidden" aid station. Sure enough, about another mile down the road, the last aid station appeared. I didn't need to stop, but I didn't know where to go next on the course. Had they changed the route last minute? I pulled off at the aid station to ask some ladies if they knew if we were to go back out the way we'd come in or to keep headed down the road. They had a friend asking for themselves too, so I waited until information was returned and we all headed back out.

At mile 32 we turned and started what I thought would be a short climb and then a long descent. Remember that I mentioned there was one road I was unfamiliar with on the route? Well, this was it. Sam had stated that he'd been on the road many times and that it was all down hill, so it is what I had expected. Except, that's not what it was at all. Every time I thought I'd reached the top of the climb it would continue upward. Women would pass me saying things like, "Really? We're not through this yet?" or "Man! This has to be over soon, right?" but it continued on in this manner for several miles.
There was a point on this climb that I seriously thought I was going to stop and call for a ride home. This distance is something I am used to doing and my body is conditioned to complete, but this climbing combined with a lack of oxygen was getting to me. I was coughing and choking on my own phlegm and I was mentally and physically drained. My nose was dripping and the tissues I'd brought with me were sopping wet in my jersey pocket. I kept thinking I could just pull over and call Sam to come and get me. Who's going to hold it against me? I am sick after all. It's not as though I'm proving anything to anyone by completing this ride.

Except that I was attempting to prove something - to myself - and I didn't like being called "stupid" by my mother.

It's a lot easier to give up than it is to carry on when things get tough. Life hits with some hard wallops sometimes and being sick was probably about the lightest hit that could be offered up. I had made it to this point so there was no reason not to finish the ride. Unless I passed out on the side of the road, I was determined to complete something that I knew very well my body was able to handle.

If you need a break to breathe, just spin. No one said you have to be back at a certain time. Of course, I had set a time at which I wanted to be back, but I also was well aware that I would be slow. Cutting myself some slack seemed to help mentally, which in turn helped physically propel me forward, but I knew I was going to miss that time I'd wanted to hit.
Sometimes, a mental distraction is all that is needed
A funny thing happens to me after about 40-45 miles of riding; I seem to get a second wind. I have a burst of energy and suddenly feel as though I just started a ride. I feel happy, I want to encourage others who seem to be struggling, and on this particular ride, I knew the end was in sight. I'd wanted to complete the century ride this year, but I knew that wasn't in the stars in my current condition. Still, a 53-mile ride is nothing to sneeze at, especially for someone who felt near-death. As I rode, I started to pick up speed. I chatted briefly with other riders as I passed too. As I caught up to one woman she asked if I knew how far we were from the finish. I felt horribly for her as she seemed to be in pain with each pedal stroke. I tried to stick with her for a few minutes and told her we weren't far from the finish. I pointed out the beautiful lake we were passing and stated that I was entirely thrilled that we hadn't seen rain yet for the day. I asked her about her bike - more as a distraction than anything else, but I'm always up for a chat about bikes. She smiled and thanked me and I pulled ahead to finish what I'd started.

At this point, I was truly feeling my lungs - and not in a good way. It almost felt as though they were going to collapse in on themselves. My chest felt tight and the coughing was out of control. Other cyclists were turning around to see what all the noise was about. I kept trying to apologize for the hacking, but there wasn't anything I could do to stop it and I kept getting interrupted by another round of coughing.

As I rounded the corner to the neighborhood with the finish line, I couldn't believe I'd actually made it to the end. My body felt fine (meaning my muscles), but from the chest up, I was a mess. I ended up turning on the incorrect road in the neighborhood and crossed the finish line in the wrong direction. Later I'd learn that I wasn't the only one to make this mistake. Oh well. I only felt badly because I had a couple of women following me who unfortunately also ended up on the wrong side of things. They ended up going back around to cross the finish line correctly. I honestly didn't care about doing so myself. As far as I was concerned, I'd made it. But now, I had to find Sam.

Looking around, he wasn't immediately obvious, but as I walked my bike around the finish line, I suddenly spotted him, staring off in the direction from which I should have come. "Sam," I yelled. He looked startled and confused. "I came in the wrong way," I announced, to which he just laughed. I know. Not horribly surprising for someone who likes to carve her own path.

I would have loved to have hung out and checked out all of the various happenings at the after party, but I was exhausted. I was concerned about even making it the few miles home, so I knew we had to get on the road quickly.

My mom called after the ride to inquire as to whether or not I'd actually done it. As we were talking, I was coughing and she reminded me to rest and take care of myself. "So, did you do the ride?" she asked again after we'd been chatting for a few minutes. I wasn't really sure I wanted to respond. After calling me stupid the day before, I wondered what she'd think of my actually going through with it. "Yeah, I did it. It wasn't pretty, but I finished," I said reluctantly. "Really?" she replied gleefully. "I am so impressed with all that you do. I know that couldn't have been easy, but to push through and get it done, I am really proud." I don't know if I'd go quite that far - after all, I knew I could fairly easily do the distance - but I was somewhat proud of myself too. Not because I did a ride that lots of people can and do complete, but because I didn't let the demons in my head win out over what I knew was possible. Demon - 0, G.E. - 1. I'll take that victory any day.


  1. Congrats!

    Remember, there are many people that you believe are mentally and physically stronger than you who could not have finished. You did great! Every demon you beat down is one less that hounds you further down the road.

    1. Thanks. It's easy to be upset when it isn't quite what I wanted to get done that day, but I'm glad I got through it. :O)

  2. Congratulations! I can't believe you did all of that on a practically empty stomach. I can't do ANYTHING if I haven't eaten. Like you, my breakfast is a routine that almost never changes. It also looks similar to yours: oatmeal with ground flax seed, cinnamon, dried fruit, some chopped nuts, and a little bit of agave. I think I've eaten almost exactly this same breakfast every day for over a decade.

    1. Thank you.

      Normally, it would've been an issue for me too, but I think some of the nerves kick in the day of a big event and that seems to get me through. I did eat some Gu along the way and I had one of my water bottles with some energy mix in it, so it wasn't completely on an empty stomach.

      It's nice to know I'm not alone in my oatmeal-for-breakfast routine. I've mentioned it to a few people and they find it odd, but I just think it's a perfect combination - especially if I add a bit of fruit on top. :O)

  3. Well done, deep down, I knew you were going to do it, sick or not : ). I was un-aware of that stretch of CR1, as we discussed and checked out the next day. It too me that long to realize that I had been cutting the climbing part off of it!

    1. I'm glad someone knew I was going to do it... I honestly wasn't sure, even as I started riding! :O)

  4. It is amazing that you did this while you were sick, and on a relatively unfamiliar bike. You must be very fit ... I usually chicken out of riding when I am not feeling well, just because I am unsure of my ability to cope when I am feeling wobbly. I am insecure about my fitness levels and strength even at the best of times. So, are you more used to the Indy Fab now? Are you getting fond of it? How did it ride? I find the idea of a custom bike attractive, that is why I am asking all these questions :) Thanks for your reply to my earlier post BTW, it was very helpful ... especially the bit about nutrition. Since I have young children, I usually bike on my own (as opposed to with them) only early in the mornings on Sat and Sundays ... and I normally head off without having had any breakfast at all. Maybe this is why I start to flag after an hour and a half. Will try taking some bananas along this weekend.

    1. Stephanie,

      I'm not sure if amazing is the right word - perhaps stubborn is a better choice? At the end I was questionable in regard to stability/balance on the bike from the fog in my head, but I'm glad I was able to complete it. I think that stubbornness also helps carry me through moments when I want to call it quits.

      Nutrition is a huge part of riding distance, so I think that even if you can't eat before you head out the door, taking something with you to eat every once in awhile will help you extend what you believe to be your current limits. If you have a local nutrition or vitamin supplement store (like Max Muscle, GNC, etc) you might go in and talk with someone there to see what they'd recommend for you as well. I don't take everything they say to heart, but sometimes it's nice to get an opinion on what might work well for your individual goals. I think bananas are a great thing to take along on rides, so definitely give that a try.

      You mentioned being unsure of your abilities and I would recommend trying not to doubt yourself. It can be difficult, but I know that for me personally, self-talk can be both a great motivator or defeat - depending on which way my mind is headed. I read an article out of a bicycling magazine recently that stated we can actually do three times the distance of our average ride (so, if the average of your rides is 10 miles - not every ride, but the average- in theory, you could ride 30 miles without a problem). I question this theory a bit myself, but it is a good way to remind ourselves that we are capable of more than we sometimes believe.

      As for the IF, we are still going through an adjustment phase. I had to put a different stem on it and am currently testing that out and have had to move a few things around. I don't know if I'm ready to quite answer your questions yet, so I don't want to sway you one way or another because I don't think it would be entirely fair. I will say, I do think that a custom bike is a nice option because it allows the rider to get things to a great starting point. I think it's a common misconception that if a bike is custom, everything will immediately be perfect, and - at least for me - that hasn't been the case. I like the ride quality of the bike and I do believe that we'll be able to work out the small kinks, but it's just taking a little bit of time to get everything dialed in. If your considering a custom bike, I think talking to a couple of different builders and getting feedback may help you in your decision process. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful to you at this juncture, but I hope to be able to offer more information before winter hits.

    2. We say amazing, G.E. says stubborn. Often the same thing? ;)

      Mental attitude is at least half the battle, and several people in my cycling club who are really serious audaxers/randonneurs (Paris-Brest-Paris etc) say mental fortitude is even more important than physical fitness. Quenching the self-doubt is important, but one thing to bear in mind is that mental strength comes with experience. The longer you do this cycling thing (and by this I mean as the months go by, regardless of distances of your rides), the better you get to know yourself, what you're capable of, where your limits are.... and then experiment with what small changes can stretch those capabilities and limits. Time is on your side. Just keep pedalling.

      As for going custom, as G.E. knows, I went this route myself last year and can second much she said above. My builder told me it takes at least 3 months to get used to it -- partly because of the small tweaks you'll still be making (but thank goodness it's small stuff rather than the big intractable problems faced before!) and also getting accustomed to a different position and different handling. Again, these things take time.

      And it also takes time to sift through experiences and determine what you want or need out of a custom build. No need to rush into it. Every bike you ride in the meantime teaches you something, if only how to listen to your body better.

      I too am looking forward to reading G.E.'s thoughts on her IF when she's ready, but am prepared to be patient. I've had my Enigma 10 months now and am only now starting to internally articulate what it's like.

      Meanwhile, here's something I write a few months back, which goes into a bit more detail on a few points G.E. raised: Read the part under the heading "Productive Interchanges"; the rest of the post is mostly ranting! ;)

    3. Thank you for including the link to your post, Rebecca. I meant to do that as something for Stephanie to read, and completely forgot to mention it in my reply. I think it gives good information for someone considering or even in the process of a custom bike build.

      Thank you for taking the time to add to Stephanie's question here too. All great info/advice.

      Oh, and yes... I'll take amazing (even if I do think it's just my stubbornness in reality). :O)

  5. Hi! I just stumbled across your blog and I love it. I'm a newer cyclist and have the uber fit bf cyclist. I have lots of "too hard" rants and crying stories too. I rode the Venus ride, it was my first century. My mom was much less supportive than your mom. When I saw her a couple of days after the ride she said, "you got too much sun, that's going to give you more wrinkles". No good job, wow you rode 100 miles, I"m proud of you . . .

    1. Trudee,

      Congrats on completing the century! Mom's can be so fun to deal with, can't they? I could go on about mine, but I do love her, even if she's a pain sometimes. :0)

      By the way...I think I indirectly "know" you through SVCG. We've never met, but I've heard your name. :0)


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