Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Insanity times 5

I regret that I haven’t chronicled more of the stories from my life. They’re probably not that great, but I’ve forgotten too many of the details.

I’d like to think I’m a good storyteller because I try to paint a vivid picture with lots of details and context. I imagine many people would tell you I’m too good with the details and context and not nearly as good of a storyteller as I think I am. I do hate to leave anything out, and I do have a habit of making a long story longer, but I can often weave a fascinating tale.

I have told tales about my buddy Roast Beef many times, to many people, and those are stories most people don’t complain about after the fact. That’s because Roast Beef’s life is far more entertaining than mine. Usually I’m thankful for that.

With all that in mind, I’m sorry to say I don’t remember all the details of my 100-mile bicycling days. For most of them, the story isn’t that interesting anyway, but I do wish I remembered more of the details from my first 100-mile ride. I have told the story more than once, but after all these years the details are a bit sketchy. It's a great story, and I’ll do my best to recreate it here.

So here, finally, is a recount of my five 100-mile bike rides. They’re not ranked in any order, they’re presented in reverse chronology simply because the first is still the best tale of perseverance.

5. In July 2006 I spent a weekend in northern Minnesota, staying with friends at their lake place. There’s a nice bike trail that starts near their lake, a trail that runs 56 miles. It’s paved the entire way and is one of those old railroad bed trails, so it’s very flat. I had biked part of it during previous trips and longed to bike the entire distance.

The drawback to the quest is that it’s often windier in the plains of northern Minnesota, so it’s hard to find a day where wind isn’t a factor. And in July chances are it’s going to be hot, too hot to be bicycling all day, unless you get started at 6 a.m.

But last summer I picked a magical weekend. I went on a weekend that was average, not above average like most weekends last July. And the wind was minimal that day. So at 10 a.m. that Saturday I set out to cover the entire trail. Fortunately it passes through enough small towns from start to finish that I can stop every couple of hours at a convenience store for a snack and cold water to refill my water bottles.

I had a cell phone with me to call my friends in case my bike didn’t hold up. (I assumed I’d get a signal wherever I was.) I paused at the northwest end of the trail to call my friends and let them know I made it that far. Then I headed back.

With minimal wind to compete with all day I managed an impressive 17.1 mph for the entire 113.5-mile trip. I was back at the lake by 6 p.m.

That was my longest single day of biking. I remember watching my mileage as I approached 100 miles, knowing that nifty round number is magical to distance bicyclists. (We like to call it a "century.") My celebration was tempered a bit by the fact I had 13 miles left to get back to the lake.

That weekend I also biked 50 miles on Friday evening and Sunday morning, putting my three-day total at 213 miles. Not too shabby, and not too difficult, either.

4. It was Father’s Day in June 2005 when I decided to push myself a weekend after the MS150. On the second day of the MS150 we use most of a 24-mile bike trail to travel south. I got up earlier than I could possibly care to that Sunday in order to drive 30 miles to an access point near the middle of the trail and start of a series of two round trips.

I was on the trail around 7 a.m. and it was already a bit windy. The wind was coming out of the south. I started by biking north 16 miles. Wow, that was fun. Turning around and traveling south was far more challenging. I took my first break back at my car, with 32 miles down. I rested, refilled the water bottles and headed south for the remaining eight miles. Again, it was tough, but then I had 24 miles of wind-assisted riding to look forward to, with another rest stop at my car thrown in.

As I headed north the second time I didn’t worry about traveling south a second time. I turned around at the north point of the trail and started to regret my quest. I had biked 64 miles and now I had to go 16 miles just to get back to my car.

I stopped at a small park about eight miles down the trail. I was rather fatigued. Even after resting I didn’t have it in me to go another eight miles. I stopped at a convenience story about four miles from my car. When I finally made it back to the car I was really tired, and 20 miles from my goal.

I rested and refilled, again, and decided I couldn’t give up, despite the wind. At that point I knew that if I toughed it out by traveling south to the end of the trail I’d have a great ride back to the car. So I did it.

And at the south end of the trail I stopped at another convenience store. I remember the attendant asking me how much I had bicycled. He was surprised when my response was 90 miles.

The last miles north were quick and easy, and thoroughly enjoyed. I was a couple of miles short of 100 at that point so I biked through a nearby neighborhood to reach the magic number. It was about 4 p.m. by the time I was done, but it was time well spent in retrospect.

3. In August 2004 Margaret and I spent a weekend in Northfield, which is south of the Twin Cities, ironically. Every August the Twin Cities Bicycle Club organizes a weekend of bicycle riding somewhere. It’s based in a college town so they can work out a deal with the local college to provide cheaper accommodations than the local motels.

The club maps out a few different loops of varying difficulty and length while using a town park as the base of operations. You bike a loop, come back to the park and hit the snack buffet. Then you either call it a day or head out on another loop.

On that Saturday there were three loops that totaled 100 miles or so if you did them all. Margaret and I did two of them. At that point she wanted to quit. I really wanted to do the third, even though it was mid-afternoon. She opted to wait at the park and read her book while I went out and biked another 30 miles.

The routes aren’t supported and there are less than 200 people who participate in the event, so you don't see a lot of other riders on the road during these loops.

While the base is supposed to be staffed until all riders have returned, (you sign a sheet to let them know what route you’re riding and when you’ve completed it,) when I rolled in at 5 p.m. there was nobody to be found, other than Margaret.

The area had a lot of rolling hills, so it wasn’t an easy day of riding, but in the end I tallied 102 miles or so and was glad to have pushed myself to ride a third loop on my own. Amazingly Margaret and I biked 60 miles the next day.

2. I think it was September 2002 when I completed my second century ride. (I have a shirt somewhere commemorating the year. Off the top of my head I cannot remember it definitively.)

Margaret and I were part of a group that headed up north for a weekend getaway near Park Rapids, Minn.

We picked the weekend when the Headwaters 100 was taking place. It’s a one-day bike ride that offers a few options for bicycling, with the longest being 100 miles. The routes go through Itasca State Park, famous as the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

It was around the third weekend in September and not surprisingly it was kind of cool at 8 a.m. that Saturday. I think it was about 35 degrees. I had a long-sleeve top, but I was biking in shorts. My legs can tolerate the cold, but I remember thinking I’d never survive because my fingers were quite cold, even with bicycling gloves.

Despite the early morning cold weather it warmed up enough to be tolerable. We biked many rolling hills through the day, averaging better than 15 mph and finishing our day, about 102 miles, around 4 p.m.

1. My first organized bike trip was The Ride Across Minnesota (TRAM) in 1997. It’s an MS Society of Minnesota bike trip that spans five days and 300 miles. I became rather curious about it in 1994 when I wrote a story about a father, his teenage son and his son’s friend after they completed the ride. I was working in a small town in western Wisconsin so the fact the three of them participated in the TRAM was a story in Small Town, America.

I remember being amazed that the teenagers completed the ride. I moved to Canada in December 1994 and started bicycling regularly one summer because my knee was quite sore from the pounding it was taking from daily running.

Fast forward to May 1997 and I’m moving back to the Twin Cities, without a job. It seemed like a great summer to train for a TRAM.

I enjoyed it so much I took a week of vacation from my newspaper job in July 1998 to do it again.

I remember seeing a bonus loop on a daily map in 1997, showing a route you could do to complete a 100-mile day. This was during a day we biked about 81 miles to get to our destination. Biking 100 miles had no appeal to me in 1997, but knowing it was some sort of mystical bicycling goal by the time the 1998 TRAM rolled around, I decided I wanted to give it a try.

The 1998 century was offered on a day we biked about 76 miles. There are so many people camping during these bike trips that it’s hard to sleep past 5 a.m. because some people just have to get up before the crack of dawn to pack up their tent.

That July day I was on the road by 6:30 a.m., hitting the rest stops every 12 to 15 miles. I was at 50 miles by 10 a.m. and thinking, “hey, this is going to be an easy 100-mile day.”

I hit the rest stop at the 50-mile mark and decided my rear tire could use a little bit more air. Just a bit.

Each rest stop has a mobile bike shop set up to make on-the-road repairs. I used a pump at the rest stop to top off the air pressure in my tire and promptly blew the tube. And it was loud, like a shotgun. My ear was ringing.

So I had the bike shop replace my tube. I had to wait a bit, unfortunately, but so be it.

They replaced my tube and I was ready to roll. As I walked my bike toward the road to resume my ride my rear wheel stopped spinning. I looked at the tire and saw the tube was bulging at a spot on the rim, and had pushed the tire out of the rim. I carried the bike back to the mobile shop and stood there to have the tire fixed when the tube blew. The mechanics looked up and were surprised to see me standing there.

They replaced the tube, again, and I bought a new tire from them, since it seemed like my rear tire was a bit worn out. They set me up and I departed again. This time I made it a few miles down the road. I was biking up a long hill when my rear tire blew, again.

The best thing about the MS rides are that they have so many people participating, and so many volunteers providing support along the route that within a couple of minutes a motorcycle chaperone stopped to check on me. He radioed for a SAG wagon to come pick me up. I said I’d be willing to go back a few miles to the previous rest stop to try rather than be driven ahead to the next stop along the route.

Naturally the mechanics were surpised, and disappointed, to see me yet again. They gave me my third new tube of the day and also replaced the rubber strip around the interior of my rim, thinking perhaps the old one was worn out and causing a puncture. I told them if I blew a fourth tube I was calling it a day.

So after three flat tires I was on the road again. By now it’s noon and I had lost two hours of time. I was still 25 miles or so from the daily campsite and I still wanted to bike 100 miles.

Thankfully I didn’t blow a fourth tube. Unfortunately I blew a rear spoke somewhere along the way. While my wheel was a bit out of shape, I was able to continue riding on it, which isn’t something you can automatically do when a spoke breaks.

I made it to the finish, finally, around 2 p.m. and promptly sought out the bike shop. I left my bike there while I went to set up my tent, which needed to dry out a bit since it was wet at 6 a.m. when I packed it up.

My spoke was replaced before 3 p.m., so I decided I could still hit the 25-mile bonus loop to complete my 100-mile quest. I should have been done with 100 miles before 3 p.m. and yet I was just starting the bonus loop. A lot of people who were slower than me were doing the bonus loop, and it was supported until 5 p.m., so it’s not as if I was the last one out there.

As I departed the campsite for the bonus loop I wasn’t more than three miles into my quest when it started to pour. It didn’t rain, it poured, like salt on my open wounds. What the hell was I doing out there at that point?

But I couldn’t turn back, I determined, so I continued, hit the rest stop on the bonus loop, bought a root beer float and proceeded to finish. I was soaked and dirty when I pulled in at the end of my day. I looked like a drowned rat. I got a pin for my effort, acknowledging I biked 100 miles in the fight against MS. I earned it, and I still have it to this day.

It was sunny by 6 p.m. so my tent was able to dry out, again. I went to the beer garden at that night’s destination and sat down to rest. A guy I had met earlier that week saw me, and commented that it looked like the lights were on, but nobody was home, or something like that. He determined I needed a beer, and bought me one. I detailed my story to him, and I’m sure it was more than he bargained for.

Physically it wasn’t my toughest day of riding, but mentally it was probably the second toughest I have faced. The details are a bit fuzzy nine years after the fact, but I’m OK with that. Imagine how long this story would be if I had written it the week after my bike trip.

1 comment:

Dinesh Ramde said...

Wow, you really are a good storyteller, especially with that last story.

I don't understand why you were apparently so blase about the repeated blowouts of your rear tire. After the second one did you chew out the mechanics, or did they offer you repairs for free, or did you just figure it wasn't really their fault?

I've always found it hard to judge bicycling distances. If someone tells me she ran 10 miles, okay, I've run five miles before, so it's twice that effort.

But when someone mentions a 10-mile bike ride, is that a lot? Is that easy? Is that something a 12-year-old could do or do you really have to work your way up to it?

You mention all these 100-mile rides, and I imagine that's definitely a big deal. But when you talk of a 16- or 20-mile ride, I find I can't really appreciate those distances without some basis of comparison.

The other thing I've never understood about cycling is the motivation. That's a lot of exertion, a lot of repetitive motion, and it's probably all worth it when you cross the finish line. But what keeps you going?

For example, in basketball, I could be butt-tired but if there's a loose ball I'm going to go all-out for it because I don't want my opponent to get to it first. Plus we're keeping score and in a few minutes there'll be winners and losers, and I'll play my butt off because I want to be a winner, tiredness be d*mned.

What pushes you when you're by yourself, 16 miles from the car against a fierce headwind and under a blazing sun, when you feel you have nothing left in your tank? Can the thought of reaching your goal be enough to sustain you through all those hours of pain?