Two weeks ago, basking in the post-pumpkin-chocolate-chip-pancake (my specialty) haze of a Labor Day brunch, I turned to my new friend and fellow adventure racer, Val.
“So, have you heard about this century ride next weekend?”
“Yep, part of the Philly Bike weekend. I’ve been thinking about registering.”
“A Century? In Philly? Let’s do it.”
So what if neither of us had really ridden since the Untamed three weeks earlier? And so what if my road bike was still sitting in the cardboard bike box in which it was shipped back to my house following the 2008 Wisconsin Ironman?
It was only 100 miles, after all. Only half a day.
“We can do anything for half a day,” Val said.
I looked at her dubiously that morning, emailed her uncertainly that evening, and promptly registered the next afternoon.
The rest of the week was a marathon sprint (does such a thing even exist?) of course prep, teaching, long commutes, and Jewish holidays. There was little sleep and less hydration.
By the time I got home Friday night from my one-hour speed workout, five-hour prep, three-hour class, four-hour commute, and two-hour wine bar reunion with a college friend, I was pooped.
And I still had to clean up my bike.
I contemplated calling Val and telling her we were nuts.
Instead, I took a shower, set the alarm for 5:30 AM, and promptly passed out.
The ride began the next morning at 7:45 AM, and had a 9-hour cut-off. We arrived at 7:15, checked in, and stood around for a few minutes before it hit us:
This wasn’t a race.
There was no formal gun that would go off, no penalty for setting off early. It was a fun day on our bikes. All we wanted was to finish before they cleaned up the post-event pizza party at 5 pm. Nothing more.
We were the only two participants tackling the 104 hilly miles on mountain bikes. We were the only two with packs and hydration on our backs. We looked around at the paper-thin tires and pencil-thin frames, and decided that we could use all the extra time we could get.
At 7:30, we set off.
The ride took us out past Evansburg State Park and back, a circuitous loop that had us riding through the city, past the suburbs, and into the northwestern farmlands. With the cue sheet secured neatly to Val’s bike, we stayed off the smooth, flat, paved Schulkill River trail, and instead traveled up and down the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania.
With temperatures in the 70s, we rode under glorious blue skies. It was peaceful, if not quiet, with the constant commentary from other riders about our fat tires and heavy frames and our own continuous conversation. We chatted about everything – from adventure racing to traveling, families to facebook, kids to religion. We talked about school, about jobs, about having a mom as a therapist from both the perspective of the child (me), and the parent (her). One of my favorite parts about endurance sports is how quickly and intimately you get to know your training partners and teammates, whether during a 20-mile run, a three-day race, or a 104-mile ride. By the time we finished, I felt like Val and I had grown up together.
We pedaled steadily, keeping pace with many of the other riders far better than we anticipated, and took in the suburban Philadelphia scenery (including the life-sized metal alligator sitting on someone’s lawn, followed several miles later by a similarly life-sized iron oxen in someone’s front yard).
Around Mile 40, I turned to Val.
“You know what?” I said lightly, “I’m tired. And my legs are sore. My legs shouldn’t be sore yet. Why are my legs sore?”
“Oh, Abby,” she responded, “don’t let me tell you about my hamstrings.”
We both laughed and continued on.
A minute later, Val said, “But you know, it’s only nine or ten hours. We can do anything for nine or ten hours.”
It was the same thing she’d said over brunch the week before.
I was still dubious.
“I guess… but nine or ten hours is still a long time.”
It wasn’t that I was struggling mightily. It wasn’t that I was contemplating stopping. But still, we were less than halfway through a day-long ride. It didn’t seem insignificant.
“It is a long time,” conceded Val, a far more seasoned adventure racer than I. “But we did a three-day race this summer. We spent 72-hour slogging through the woods. Half a day of riding on the roads? This is nothing.”
I knew she had a point, but I wasn’t wholly on board quite yet.
We continued on, mile by mile, aid station by aid station. My legs rebounded and the heaviness subsided, aided by some calories and electrolytes. Val raised her seat, and her hamstrings thanked her.
I looked at my odometer at 3:52 PM to see that we were only eleven miles from the finish.
“Pizza, here we come!” I said, certain that we’d get there before the 5pm cut-off.
“Think we can make it back by 4:30?” Val asked.
I paused. “We can certainly try…”
The last seven or eight miles were on city roads, flat and smooth – and plagued by Saturday afternoon traffic. We weaved around cars and pedestrians, beelining for West River Drive on the banks of the Schuylkill, shut down to cars on weekends from April to November for “recreational activity.”
We pushed our legs, pushed our lungs, pushed our fat tires and heavy frames. We were almost there.
We rounded the last corner and found ourselves on a half-mile obstacle course, dodging runners and bikers and picture-taking wedding parties.
And then it was over.
We pulled up to Lloyd Hall and dropped our bikes.
I looked down at my watch.
4:30 PM – and 57 seconds.
Smile. Fist bump. We made it.
It didn’t really matter. There was no one there cheering for us, no one to put a medal around our necks or hand us a bottle of water.
Actually, in a lot of ways, it was just like the finish of a long adventure race.
But still, it felt good.
We grabbed a slice of pizza and sat down for a few minutes before riding the final two miles back to Val’s house.
“You know,” I said, “It’s not that it was necessarily easy. But it wasn’t really hard, either. A year ago – hell, a few months ago – 100 miles would have felt monumental. Today it sort of felt normal. Just a run-of-the-mill long ride.”
“See,” Val said with a laugh, “you can do anything for nine or ten hours.”
When did that happen?