At the end of last Thursday’s blogpost, I was flummoxed by how to present the Rapha Women’s Prestige (RWP) race experience. I remain adrift and uncertain about where to begin. So, let’s begin with uncertainty. What does one do with uncertainty?
According to Wikipedia:
In the case of uncertainty, expectation is what is considered the most likely to happen. An expectation, which is a belief that is centered on the future, may or may not be realistic. … If something happens that is not at all expected it is a surprise.
If pressed to express my expectation of how the RWP race would unfold given that I had never: (a) attempted such a long, climb-laden ride under any circumstances, (b) entered an official race of any sort (all my prior cycling events have been “just rides”), (c) participated in a team time trial, nor (d) met 2 of my teammates, my most realistic expectation would have been:
I’m not sure that we can pull this off, but if we do, then I will be sore, tired, grouchy, and likely unwilling to spend any time with my bike (or my teammates) in the near future.
How did it actually turn out?
There were a lot of surprises.
Surprise # 1 — Off to a Bad Start
You plan. You prepare. You envision yourself succeeding. You fill your water bottles and jersey pockets before you go to bed. You set your alarm. You go to bed early. You get a good night’s sleep. You wake up in blind f*cking panic…
Free life tip: When you set your iPhone alarm, make sure you appropriately select the AM/PM option.
Thankfully, I stayed with a family whose children are early-and-not-quiet risers! I jolted awake to discover that I had just 43 minutes to Hoover-in ~900 calories, take care of personal hygiene issues, don my cycling gear, and get myself to the start line. Thank Dog my hosts lived just 5 blocks to the start. I made it with 4 minutes to spare.
Morning disasters befell other teammates as well: one forgot all of her breakfast food at home (~400 miles away) and another had her tire explode as she attempted to pump it up.
Things did not bode well for us.
Surprise # 2 — The Weather Did Not Suck (mostly)
Two weeks before the RWP, 2/3 of our team did a recon/training ride in the vicinity. The weather sucked. Stereotypical SF misery: fog, rain, cold, wind. It was hell for cycling. This was a horrible shock to me.
Over the past 4 years, I made more than 30 trips to SF for work and I literally never once experienced this type of weather. My SF office used to beg me to visit because sunshine reliably accompanied me. I was crestfallen to realize that retirement had apparently deactivated my weather-transforming powers.
Because the Race Day forecast promised standard SF gloom, I expected the worst. I brought my full regalia of base layers and weatherproofing devices, but – SURPRISE!- I didn’t use any of ‘em.
Because this time I stopped by my former office (to pick up keys to the house I’d be staying in — which belongs to one of my Manatt colleagues) and apparently all that’s needed to activate my weather-transforming powers is just a wee-bit of incidental CZ-Manatt contact.
As the official RWP ride photos attest: It was a 100% GORGEOUS day. Of course, what the photos don’t show is the wind.
Maybe if I had actually set foot in the office lobby, I could have kept the HIDEOUS HEADWINDS from pummeling us. Alas, it was not to be. The winds whipped us something fierce.
Luckily, I am a unique breed of cyclist. I ♥ headwinds. Always have. I first confessed my love of headwinds to my coach back in 2010 when he was just learning how totally NOT normal I am. His response was: “Makes perfect sense. The rest of us enjoy hills, you like wind. To each his/her own.“
Surprise # 3 — I Did Not Suck (mostly)
Coach was not enthusiastic about the idea of me taking on this challenge. He fully expected (as did I) that I would be shellacked by the obnoxiously hard race profile. Or, worse, my desperate attempts to hang on to the back of the team’s fast moving train would totally derail our overall training goal for this year (i.e., dominate Haleakala in June and Alpe d’huez in July). And, after witnessing my virgin attempt at navigating unpaved fire roads on my road bike, he (and I) also suspected that I might get to “enjoy” my 4th bike-wreck trip to the ER with shards of gravel impaling my body.
But, as it turns out, Coach is some kind of evil genius/cycling savant. For the last 3 months, he’s made me do mostly flat (sometimes rolling) rides at unfairly low heart rates. Only very rarely would he throw me a bone and let me tackle a tougher climb or go full-gas for a limited interval. He had me on a very tight leash and I was straining to break free.
For the RWP, Coach very strongly suggested that I continue to follow his draconian strictures but acknowledged that I’d probably have to go balls-to-the-wall for the full 123 miles just to keep up with my teammates. Ergo, I was free to do “whatever’s necessary.”
Who would have guessed (not us!) that what ended up being necessary was me spending a good portion of the day leading the team? Particularly in the headwind sections. If it was flat and the wind was blowing at us, I was usually the one pulling us through. But even as I did this work I also managed to stay within Coach’s heart rate targets.
My end-of-ride heart rate average was drastically lower than the 165+ that we both feared I might’ve had to maintain. As a result, I felt outstandingly GREAT at the end of the ride as you can see in this finish line photo:
I also felt great on the climbs, which is crazy. I am decidedly NOT a climber. Climbers do not have ample ass anchors like mine. Climbers weigh 97 pounds. We had a 97-lb climber on our team. We had every expectation that she would be waiting for us to regroup at the top of every climb. Instead, for reasons yet unknown, she actually struggled the most with the accumulated ascents.
Of course, for other not-clear reasons, she also somehow dominated the descents. Zip! There she went, defying all known laws of gravity, flying past us on the downhills. And there I was, very slowly, ever-so-cautiously, poking around every hairpin curve. I used to be a downhilling demon (hit 52-mph on Hwy 550 in Colorado!). But that whole “skull smashing / brain injury” thing has left me a bit gun shy.
I feel a little guilty that I didn’t share the full nature of my prior wreck or my resultant downhilling disability with my teammates, but hopefully the work I did for them on the front will allow them to forgive the lollygagging I exhibited on the descents. Safety first, right?
Oh, and that ~5-mile gravel section? Piece o’ cake. Totally crushed it. Even managed to pass a couple of bewildered MTB dudes. Sweet.
Surprise # 4 — The Team Did Not Suck (mostly)
We’ll start with the part of the team experience that DID suck. The race organizers had warned us: “There is no outside support. Bring money for one of the stores along the way for water, food, etc.” Like idiots, we took this instruction at face value. This was the reason I loaded 4+ pounds of food/fuel into my jersey pockets. We were 100% on-our-own, right? And we couldn’t afford the time it would take to make multiple provisioning stops at roadside shops.
Teams that did last year’s RWP viewed the “no outside support” instruction more, er, um … expansively.
They were “self supported” in the sense that they arranged their own follow cars and private aid stations to churn out fresh protein smoothies and provide other delights. They had film crews and designated route buddies (other riders who joined them for portions of the event). I heard rumors that one even had a masseuse in their team van! They were savvy in ways that we never could’ve envisioned.
That’s cool though. Now we know for next year. And we can also rest well knowing that we did that whole beautifully brutal ride on our own.
Well, OK, maybe not entirely on our own.
There was this guy. I’m pretty sure he was real. But he might have been a fantastic hallucination. He appeared out of nowhere at around mile 40 and stuck with us until the last ~20 miles and then >poof!< he evaporated. We had no chance to thank him.
He pulled us through an epic headwind stretch (even *I* was not liking those 3 miles!). He rode with our cabooses and provided them with gentle counsel and encouragement. He knew the roads like the back of his hand — which was a godsend given that 1/2 of us live ~400 miles away + our official Garmin was officially wonky and kept putting us off course.
I think the best thing he did for us though was that he didn’t pull for us (other than that one headwind stretch). He just watched us do our thing and complimented us for being strong.
With that kind of unexpected support, I could happily ride all day.
Surprise #5 — The Race Was Not Actually a Race
The weekend before the RWP, there was another brutally stupid race down in San Diego: The Belgian Waffle Ride (BWR). Our ride was 123 miles, with ~13,000′ of climbing and one ~5-mile dirt/gravel section. The BWR was 130 miles, with ~10,000′ of climbing and 8 dirt/gravel/water-crossing sections, that cumulatively encompassed ~6 miles.
So, in terms of profiles and hellishness, the RWP and the BWR were essentially twins. Evil, terror-inducing twins. Which was great because that meant that I could psyche myself up via blogposts written by one of the dudes who was doing the BWR.
Items 19-28 on his pre-race checklist were immeasurably helpful. And if I had failed to pack #14, then I would’ve been doomed. So, “Thanks!” Wankmeister. I was hoping that he’d post his post-BWR recap before I did the RWP (so I could glean additional intel), but he, too, needed an extra week to process what had transpired at the race.
His recap is also exceptionally long, so I just pulled some key quotes by which we can compare the BWR and the RWP races:
|After 25 miles of full-gas “neutrality,” with Strava KOM’s popping and falling like corn kernels in hot oil, the utter awfulness of the 2013 Belgian Waffle Ride had begun, piercing our livers like a rusty meat hook.||The BWR was an “every man for himself” affair. The words “man” and “for himself” must be emphasized. Women accounted for <10% of the BWR field. They were 100% of the RWP. No dudes allowed. No dudes = way less likelihood of rusty meat hooks. And while the BWR pitted individuals against each other mano-a-mano. The “team time trial” (TTT) format of the RWP meant that the first-and-foremost challenge was to keep your 6-woman team together for the entire ride. You could only attack other teams once you had your own team humming along together.|
|Like Pavlov’s dog, I salivated at the sight of the passing wheel. Within seconds I was back in the purple zone, inches off Erik’s wheel … trying to follow his line. [CZ Note for non-cyclist readers: “purple zone” = Crazy high heart rate]||The TTT format meant that we had to tame Pavlov’s dog. This was easier said than done. If I see a wheel off in the distance, I AM going to chase it down. There’s a squirrel! I must capture it! Game on. Pedal to the metal. Full gas. What? Oh, damn. The team. Gotta stay with the team…|
|I latched on as they passed. Ryan brought us back up to the main chase group … [his] bitter pace soon strung the group into the gutter, fifty baby seals receiving repeated murderous blows to the head.||No baby seals were clubbed at the RWP.|
|You know how hard it is to click back in when your cleats and pedal are filled with sand? Try doing it lathered in sweat and filth after a hundred-mile beatdown while a dominatrix with a whip on a horse screams at you.||WTF? Clearly the BWR is an entirely different beast than the RWP. The team that *won* the RWP might’ve metaphorically whipped us but Wank wasn’t writing metaphorically about the BWR dominatrix. Men, they’re into that stuff, I guess…|
|Tires flatted. Rims broke. Whole new curse words were invented on the spot.||Nope. Nope. Yep. I am famous for being able to “curse a blue streak.” The RWP allowed me to take it to a whole ‘nuther level. I think I achieved at least 37 of the 50 shades of blue while I was climbing Mt. Vision. I congratulate myself for this prolific swearing ability. It clearly enhanced my climbing skills.|
|I had forgotten that the designer of this ride was a bastard. … I had forgotten that this ride was put together so that the only memory you’d have at the end was the memory of pain. … Fortunately, the ride was almost over, and I knew what lay ahead: Double Peak. This monstrously steep, paperboy-inducing, windswept climb was the last obstacle to finishing.||OK. Here the BWR and the RWP are absolute equivalents. I remember very clearly a statement I made to our team captain after her Garmin fritzed out: “Well, Jenn, I’ve got good news and bad news. Good news: We’re at 97 miles and 9,000’ of climbing. Bad news: We’ve still got 26 miles and FOUR THOUSAND MORE feet of climbing to go.” F*ck me. This sucks.|
|[P]eople with cameras clotted the edge of the road. They were screaming with excitement. Who were they? Why were they photographing me? Where was this “Go” place they were exhorting me to go to?||Ha! Ok, here’s another point of absolute equivalence between the races. At the RWP it was “the guy in the green shirt with the big camera” and the “girl in the banana costume.” They were EVERYf*ckingWHERE. Banana girl was awesome the first time we encountered her. So energetic. Totally pumped us up. Loved her spirit. By the 4th time we saw her, I wanted to run her over and smash her into pap. What right did she have to be so freakin’ cheerful at mile 111? And “green shirt guy” with the camera? Why were you ALWAYS there when I was suffering the most? Do you get some sort of sick joy out of capturing people’s pain? F*ck you. If I see those pics circulating out in the blogosphere I will hunt you down and you will learn what pain feels like…|
|At the finish area people were milling around in various stages of post-traumatic disbelief.||Because the RWP did not involve dominatrixes, rusty meat hooks, or the clubbing of baby seals our finish area was a dramatically different scene. Yes, we were tired. And, yes, I needed a HUGE amount of cheese, STAT. But overall, it was a scene of jubilation and celebration.|
|It was weird. People were actually happy at having spent an entire day getting their brains beaten out along the toughest one-day road course in the U.S. and most couldn’t wait to puke out their tale of woe.||Yeah. Us too. Except ours were tales of “wow” not woe. And that “toughest one-day road course in the U.S.” statement? I dunno, Wank, I think the RWP mounts a formidable challenge to the BWR for that title. Heck, I’ll go out on a limb and say: The girls’ ride kicked your ride’s ass.|
Final Surprise: I cried. Twice. And for really, REALLY unexpected reasons.
The first time was at mile ~116, about halfway up the climb out of Sausalito. All of a sudden I was completely overwhelmed by emotions. Tears spontaneously leaked out, my tummy did flip flops, and my brain was swimming with a crazy soup of neurotransmitters.
I remembered the first time I did that climb, in June 2010, at the end of a 35-mile outing. I was SO hating life on that June 2010 climb. I kept looking for extra gears. I was averaging 4mph. It was HARD. I was tired. There was a very real possibility that I would need to unclip and walk. It was sheer misery.
Contrast that to my RWP experience. At mile ~110, I had gotten my second wind. When I hit that Sausalito climb, I was on a friggin’ rampage. My legs felt light. My body felt strong. My cyclometer was spitting out data that made me very, very happy. I had just eclipsed my previous “longest ride ever” and yet I felt like I could do another 50 miles, no problem. My god, it was glorious!
So, although they were totally unexpected, tears of joy and relief were utterly appropriate in that situation. But I had to keep them in check — crying on a descent would not-at-all be safe.
The second crying session evolved in an even-more unexpected (and arguably more dangerous) manner. I was driving down I-5 at 70mph. I had plugged a long-forgotten iPod into my car’s media portal. I think it was churning through a playlist that I made for a Colorado trip in 2011. I can’t imagine any other reason why I would have John Denver on my iPod.
But all of a sudden, there he was. John Denver, signing “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and I COMPLETELY LOST MY SH*T.
I started sobbing uncontrollably. Had to pull off the highway. That song. Memories of my childhood. Memories of my dad. My dad who killed himself ~18 years ago. My dad who had no idea about any of my challenges or accomplishments.
If he were alive today, I would have told him how perfectly that song encapsulated how I felt during the ride. As each lyric tumbled forth, my tears followed suit.
Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high
If I had a day that I could give you
I’d give to you a day just like today …
Jesus Christ. Each line was like a punch in the gut. The way I felt on the “Seven Sisters” (a series of short punchy climbs that overlook the Pacific Ocean), with sunshine literally on my shoulders while I powered past several riders, yeah … damn.
To say that that experience was “so lovely” would be the understatement of the decade.
While I was up there on that ridge, I remember thinking: Oh, sweet heaven, have I ever seen anything so beautiful? And I did I really just get myself here on my bike, 22 months and 2 days after I came so close to death? And could I ever possibly convey how perfectly miraculous all of this feels?
John Denver, RIP, you hit the nail on the head:
If I had a wish that I could wish for you
I’d make a wish for sunshine all the while
Pull together all of the surprises (the weather, the team, the conditions, my personal performance) and -yeah- you feel pretty much utterly content with your place in the world.
Long live the RWP.