The first running race I ever signed up for was a marathon – in Alaska.
The second triathlon I did was an Ironman.
Some people like to dip their toes into the water before they jump.
For better or worse, I’ve never really been one of those people.
So when the doctor gave me his blessing to start riding again, it didn’t occur to me to take my bike out for an easy spin around the neighborhood to see how my body felt.
That would have made too much sense.
Instead, Brent and I left home Saturday morning for what would turn into a 115-mile adventure. We knew we wanted to get in a long ride, so we made a loose plan, with three towns targeted as potential turnarounds.
First up was Phoenixville. I had labored through the first 5-6 miles of the ride, struggling to get into a groove, but by the time we hit the paved towpath that stretches from Philadelphia to Valley Forge, I had found my rhythm. We were pedaling hard and moving well. We sped through the historic park (where I waved to Denise
, who was looking strong as she finished a 31-mile training run for a summer ultra). And when we reached Phoenixville, just over 20 miles into the trip, I felt like I could ride all day.
So, onto Pottstown. From Phoenixville to Pottstown, we left the comfort of the flat paved towpath and wound our way across 14 miles of rolling roads. We veered off course a few times, exploring different trails and checking out park maps, but we made steady progress along the busy streets. The scenery wasn’t much to speak of – chain stores and gas stations, water parks and industrial plants – but the combination of hills and sporadic conversation was enough to keep me from getting bored. When we got to Pottstown, around mile 40, I was still feeling good.
Now we had a decision to make. We could turn around and head home, logging an 80-mile day (and rivaling my longest training ride ever), or we could push on 18 miles further, down a soft gravel trail, to Reading, PA.
Growing up in Philly, Phoenixville and Pottstown weren’t really on my radar. Sure, I’d heard of them, but I had no real gauge for where the small towns were, or how long it took to get to them.
But Reading… Reading was FAR. Reading was out in farm country. Reading had its own minor league baseball team. Biking to Reading – now that would be something.
Brent had completed the ride two weeks earlier and knew that he could handle it, so he left the decision to me, the one with the dislocated tailbone who hadn’t biked in five weeks.
Onto Reading it was…
We made it another four miles before I started to get nervous. The problem with rides like this is that the further you go, the longer the trip home. I knew that I could make it out there, but I had no idea how my body would hold up after we turned around. I began to let the doubts get inside my head. I slowed down, and my energy sagged.
“Maybe we should turn around,” I called to Brent, who was biking a few yards ahead of me.
We pulled off the trail.
“I’m just getting anxious about the ride back. Maybe it’s a bad idea to go all the way to Reading.”
That’s when Brent pulled out what he likes to call “the pep talk.”
He reminded me that the doubts were more mental than physical. He assured me that we could slow down on the way back if I needed to. “This gravel is awful,” he said. “It’s the worst part of the trip. Once we get back on solid ground, you’ll feel like you’re flying.”
The speech held up better this time than it has in the past. A minute or two later we were back in the saddle, and after a quick stop at a gas station and a giant bottle of gatorade, I was feeling good once again.
We rolled into Reading 14 miles later, paused for a snack and a bathroom break, and then shoved off for home.
The rest must have done us good, because on the return trip along the gravel path, we averaged upwards of 1.5 mph faster than going out. Brent had a few down moments during that stretch, and I began to sag once we reached the hills between Pottstown and Phoenixville. There was a bit of grumbling and griping, but after another short break and some proper fueling, we both rallied quickly.
We added some additional hills for good measure by sticking to the roads from Phoenixville to Valley Forge (including a ridiculous climb up to George Washington’s quarters from the main road), and when we hit the paved towpath again with 18 miles to go, we felt like we were almost home.
Right around the hundredth mile, I looked down at my odometer and took note of the minutes ticking by. I didn’t say it out loud just then, but I realized with a bit of incredulity that I was on pace to better my ride time from the Ironman.
We biked to the end of the towpath with little fanfare and spent miles 109-111 weaving our way through Manayunk traffic before coming to the homestretch – 4 more miles of rolling hills. With my eye on the watch, I sprinted through to the 112-mile mark, and saw that my actual time in the saddle (discounting the short breaks we took on this ride) was 6 minutes faster than my time in the saddle (discounting the time I spent attempting to fix a flat) for Wisconsin.
Granted, this ride wasn’t as hilly as the Ironman course. And granted, I spent a fair bit of time drafting off Brent’s back tire. But I was also on my mountain bike, and as for terrain, the 40 miles of hills that we did cover were certainly comparable to Wisconsin, and we’d also spent the better part of 40 miles slogging through soft loose gravel.
I deemed it a draw.
Now, I could look at those statistics and conclude that I’m a lot stronger on the bike now than I was in 2008 (which is probably true). Or I could say that I’m much more comfortable on my mountain bike than I ever was on my road bike (also true – my road bike never fit quite right). But more significantly, I think these statistics attest to the reason why I’ll never be a good triathlete.
I found the Ironman to be one of the more isolating experiences I’ve ever had. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the challenge of it, and loved pushing myself. But not talking to another person for the better part of a day got kind of lonely. I’ve always been a pretty self-motivated person, but particularly when it comes to biking, I thrive when I’m with other people – not from the competition, but from the camaraderie. I rode far longer and far faster yesterday with Brent than I ever would have, had I been riding by myself.
Maybe it’s a sign of weakness, that I need other people around me to push beyond my comfort zone. But in this instance, I’m okay with that.
I was toast for the last three miles of hills. I’m sure I asked more of my body than it wanted to give, and my mental stamina lasted only through that 112th mile. I have no doubt that I could have hopped off my bike and gone for a run – I actually contemplated it briefly – but I was pretty happy when we turned onto our block and pulled up in front of our house.