My buddy Kurt decided that what we really needed in preparation for LiveSTRONG this year was a proper tuneup. I should have known what I was in for when he sent me a map of the ride. It had a two-mile climb to the top of a mountain near Ickesburg. "How bad can it be," I thought.
We met at Lowe's restaurant, a local landmark in Liverpool, Perry County in rural PA. I was greeted by Kurt's always smiling and enthusiastic face, and his buddy Andy, who decided to join us, in spite of knowing Kurt for years and years. Surely, he must know how these things end, but there he was, nonetheless. "How bad can it be," I thought. "Even Andy's here." Kurt's father was there to offer his support as well, and promised to have lunch on the other side of the mountain.
Then we clipped in and started pedaling. The first ten miles are always about getting your legs under you and figuring out where you are in the scheme of things. I could feel some deep-down muscle soreness but nothing to worry about. I was also a little stiff in the lower back but that worked out pretty quickly. The first twenty miles we rolled over the hills, some of them sizable but mostly what qualify as "rollers" in the parlance of local cyclists. I was feeling pretty good, all-in-all.
"OW! What the????" I felt a sharp sting on my stomach. I thought maybe it was just a bug so I swatted it. I rode for another three minutes.
"OW!!!! Holy #&%$! What the?" I swatted again. Nothing.
Okay. I'm okay but that was quite unpleasan....
"Ouchy-wouchy-WHAT-THE-%$&$KY!!!!!!" I pulled over and smacked my jersey and pulled it up to shake out a yellow jacket. Clearly the kind that stings more than once because I had 4 stinger marks where he took umbrage with me interrupting his flight path with my cycling jersey. That really kind of hurt.
On we pedaled to Ickesburg. As we were riding along next to the fields Kurt kindly pointed out the growing mountain on our right (you can see them on the left in the picture above). Behold: The Apps. We pulled into Ickesburg and stopped at a local store. Kurt declared that "Gatorade is on me!" which is a good thing because I realized that when I shook the bee out of my jersey, I also shook the $20 bill I had in my pocket into the street. Perfect.
Pedaling out of the store, we passed a bunch of guys stocking up at the local beer distributor down the street. We hailed them and one kindly gentleman held out a cold brew in Tour-de-France perfection. Kurt said, "It looks good, but can you meet us at the top of the mountain?" They looked at us like we were crazy. I suspect they knew more than I did.
Still, Kurt, Andy and I felt good, strong. We pedaled forward and Andy and Kurt rode on ahead of me. I knew it was going to be a long slow grind, so I was in no hurry. I felt my heartrate surge and my breathing got heavier as I rose up the mountain. Kurt and Andy rode on out of sight. I was in my own zone of hurt and effort, and it was not a bad place to be. I thought about my friend Terri, who went down swinging this year against a cancer that was just too big for her to fight. I thought about Collin, a young boy who is fighting for his life right now against Leukemia. I thought a lot about people I know who have survived cancer and those who have not. Too many to count, or name, it seems. Their names are written in my heart, and in the hearts of Team Fish, though. I pedalled on.
I saw Andy on the side of the road ahead of me. He was resting, trying to get his heart rate down. I knew where he was. I rode on and Andy hopped back on and we soldiered on up the mountain. We both hurt. I could feel myself nearing the top. I was barely pedalling, mixing between standing and spinning in the lowest gear I had. I could feel Andy pushing me, willing us both forward.
And then, my bike just stopped. I tried to will myself forward, but my body would not respond. I had not one more turn in my legs, but my mind was screaming to go on. I clipped out just before I fell over, and my leg just barely had the strength to hold me up, quivering as I got off to the side of the road. Andy stopped with me while my strength slowly returned. I got to a point where I was sure I could pedal up the rest of the mountain.
Andy and I hopped on. We rose together and found that I was stopped about 200 yards from the top. It was bitter for me. Of course, Kurt had ridden to the top and now came riding back to check on Andy and me.
"How are you doing, buddy," he asked with a smile.
"I hate you."
If the ride up the mountain was a plodding nightmare, the ride down was a rocket flight at 50 miles per hour. It took us about 20 minutes to ride up the mountain. We took about two minutes to get down. The only part that was a little unnerving is that hairpin turn about one-third of the way down.
Lunch with Kurt's father, step-mom and kids was a treat to behold. The chicken salad with walnuts and celery on whole-wheat rolls, watermelon, salt-laden potato chips, whoopie pies and ice-cold drinks were appropriate fare for our NOM NOM NOM fest. Kurt's father said a blessing over the meal and the riders, which meant a lot to me, and then we commenced to eating to offset everything we had just ridden off. ZOMG! I was brilliant!
But, as with all things, this came to an end and we got back on our bikes. The heat was rising and we were hurting a bit going into the last 20 miles. The heat was hitting my stomach pretty hard and I was not digging the Gatorade. Andy was, I think, in even worse shape and had a hard time with the Gatorade, so he was nursing his lone bottle of water. Nursing is not what you want to do in that kind of heat and humidity. Still, he just kept his head down and pedalled. We saw a lone tree in the middle of a long stretch and decided to stop under it for a spell to get out of the sun.
We pulled under and stretched out a bit. I sat down in true cycling fashion: never stand when you can sit; never sit when you can lay down. Then Kurt said, "Look at that. Is that what i think it is?" I followed his gaze and knew immediately it was what he was hoping. Blackberries. They were small, and a little tart, but very juicy. Bloody brilliant!
We hopped back on and finished the last of the ride. It wasn't always easy, but I would ride with Kurt and Andy anytime. Strong riders with solid constitutions and a good idea of what Team means. I appreciate their spirit and their focus on the task at hand. There are people you ride with who just get on the same page quickly, and these men both fit that bill. Thanks so much, for everything you did to put this together.
And next year: I am going to roll over that mountain.