Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Yea, Though I Ride Through the Valley

The Death Valley Century is a cycling event organized twice a year by Adventure Corps. It is actually both a century ride and, for those who crave a little more challenge, a double century. And in fact the century itself is more than a century as the round trip is 108 miles - or 175 kilometres - just shy of the Ironman distance. And in fact, the century distance is a staple of ironman training. We do a lot of them.

As much as I had been looking forward to this event, I was uncertain how it would go, given my serious cycling injury of three weeks earlier. My shoulder was still hurting a lot and hauling my bike box around various airports wasn't going to do it any more good. At least swimming wasn’t going to be part of this event.

My Cervélo and I got to Las Vegas, found our rented car and after a few wrong turns headed west toward Death Valley National Park in California. My destination was the Furnace Creek Ranch, the only resort in the park, at 200 feet below sea level, and the starting point for the Death Valley Century . Furnace Creek is a spring-fed oasis in the desert, dotted with date palms and featuring a golf course (“the world’s lowest…”). The spring water fills the swimming pool, which is always pleasantly warm, a nice place to relax in the cool desert evenings.
Death Valley is described as the lowest, hottest, driest place in North America, and after having been there, I am not going to argue. Really, the only word I can think of to describe the environment of Death Valley is thermonuclear. Everything you look at gives the impression of having been blasted, baked and scattered. The air is crackling dry, the sky so clear it is almost invisible. The sharp mountain peaks pierce the horizon like black sawblades. It is easy to see how the sun - which makes a hurried dawning over the Black Mountains and an equally hasty exit over the Panamint Range – can become an enemy while it lingers overhead. There is no shelter anywhere. The vista is so stark and so immediate that you can’t take your eyes off it. I loved it on sight.

The day before the event I drove 18 miles south to Badwater, the lowest point in the western hemisphere, and the starting line of the Badwater Ultramarathon – also organized by Adventure Corps. It is one of my dreams to stand one day on this starting line (and of course to cross the finish line, 135 miles later).

The century route would take us from the ranch and up the highway (it is hard to get lost as it is the ONLY highway) to a bizarre architectural horror known as Scotty’s Castle, at mile 54, over 3000 feet above sea level. “Scotty” was an early 20th century bagman and flim-flam artist who talked a wealthy mining investor into building him a mansion high up in a canyon at the north end of the park. As H.L. Mencken pointed out, no one ever lost a fortune underestimating the intelligence of the American public. After a food break, the route returns back down to the ranch where it began.

Race morning was cool, clear and mostly windless, a cyclists’s dream; the rising sun would be at our backs all morning. The forecast high temperature for race day had been around 90 Fahrenheit (which is the quaint, archaic way the Americans say 32.2 Celsius). As it turned out, the air stayed a little cooler than predicted, completing an ideal weather day.

The redoubtable double century folks started at 7:00 and we less adventurous single centurions went off in waves at 7:30. I offered imprecations to whatever desert gods there might be that my battered and torn AC ligaments would not trouble me too much, hopped on my Cervélo and we started northward up highway 190. The mountains and desert rolled by on either side. We passed signs indicating that we had reached sea level, 1000 feet above sea level and so on. There were photogenic landscapes everywhere and I snapped a few pictures from the saddle before remembering that it was this sort of inattention and capriciousness that had caused me to crash a few weeks ago. I put the camera away, drank a lot and faithfully kept my nutrition and electrolytes up; there is a terrific aid station at mile 18 featuring all sorts of food and very friendly, helpful people.

The outbound route offers about 30 miles of relatively easy pedalling before the road starts to slope upwards. It is an insidious grade, one you feel in your legs and notice in your speed before you see it. By the time we entered the canyon leading to the turnaround at Scotty’s Castle, the hills had become thigh-burners and the grade steepened around every corner. For a strong climber this would present no challenge at all, but I am neither strong nor a climber. As I strained up and around what seemed the hundredth hill I bellowed at the canyon walls: “Where the Dickens is this Gosh Darned castle? Golly!” At least that is what it would have sounded like if they had aired it on The Disney Channel. Finally, after one last push up and over, we were on the grounds of Scotty’s place. Food, water, shade and green grass to sink your toes into. I dallied longer than I should have before heading back down the canyon for the 54 miles of the homeward leg.

Returning to Furnace Creek was a much easier ride, so I treated myself to some good speed and high cadence work. Rather than slowing me down, the slight headwind served to cool me a bit in the afternoon heat. If the trip upward had taken around four hours, the return trip took about three. I coasted back into Furnace Creek sometime after 3:00pm and dove into the provided pizza, followed by the pool. My shoulder injury had indeed nagged me all day, like an unpaid bill, and I was never unaware of it. But neither was I sidelined by it, and the sheer enjoyment of biking through this spectacular, extreme part of the world was more than enough to compensate.

I left Furnace Creek for home before dawn the following morning. As I drove out of Death Valley, a fingernail moon was shining over the mountains, completing a perfect picture which I will keep with me. There is no question that I will be back.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Because I Can

On one of the Ironman highlights videos I own there’s a quick shot of a guy on his bike talking to the camera, energetically answering the age old question:

“Why do I do Ironman? Because I CAN!”

I responded to similar questions in a similar fashion for several years, consciously self-satisfied and content with the sentiment. I train hard all year, in all conditions, and I put everything on the line after the cannon goes off. I push myself physically, mentally and emotionally as hard as necessary get myself to the finish line. I have earned the right to feel self-satisfied. I “do Ironman” because I can. (And you can’t, is of course the unspoken postscript).

Recently it has occurred to me that my smug little comeback really means much more than I thought. It’s true that I race because I can, but the ability to say this is a product of more factors than simply my training regimen or my commitment to the sport.

I can because I am fortunate enough to be physically able.
I can because I was born into an established, stable society and grew up wanting little.
I can because I live in a part of the world that is not touched by war, pestilence or natural catastrophe.
I can because more than any other generation before me, and more than most of the world today, I am empowered to make choices about my life.

I won’t go off the deep end and say that I am humbled by the previous statements. In spite of being a large winner in the lottery of globalized life, I am also very un-humble that I set and achieved the goal of finishing an Ironman when I was 50. And prouder still of shaving over 2 hours off my original finishing time 6 years later.

Rather, I would like to think that everything we are, dream and do are responses to the gifts we have received. If we have the gift of free choice, how will we choose to live? If we are given affluence, what will we choose to do with it? If we are successful at maintaining healthy minds and strong bodies, how will we use them?

Instead of a smug aphorism, the phrase “Because I can” should be a holistic acknowledgement of the myriad factors and forces that have allowed one to be capable at all.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Well-Tempered Clavicle

Riding home from work along the bicycle path in the dark last week, the flow of my life was interrupted as my bike and I lost an argument with a large boulder, which had placed itself in our way. I was obviously riding too fast for my lighting system; I missed a turn and rode off the path, hitting the offending rock. Lessons learned: go slower when you can't actually see WHERE you're going. I must have gone over top of the handlebars since there aren’t that many other options when you meet an immovable object at speed. Luckily I was not far from home and managed to ride the rest of the way with one hand (the right) to steer, the other one (the left) dangling uselessly by my side. The pain was transcendental. When I finally arrived home my offspring, both trained in first aid, diagnosed shock and whisked me off to the hospital, where I spent a pleasant few hours in the hallowed halls of socialized medicine.

The nice young doctor in the emergency department (who could have been Vincent Lam but wasn’t) told me I had a Type 1 injury to my acromioclavicular joint. Common parlance is a separated shoulder. I can believe this: there may still be pieces of my shoulder out on the bike path, separated from me. Looking up the injury later I learned that the main symptom is pain, a symptom for which I can vouch. Like the Inuit and their myriad words for snow, I could without difficulty find dozens of synonyms for the feeling generated by my battered brisket. If Type 1 feels this bad, I am sorry for those whose have attained a higher Type. The blessing is that I didn’t break my clavicle outright, and sometime down the road, I will count this blessing. Not now.

So began a week of convalescence. It would have been a lot easier were it not that this is the busiest week of all at my job, so my acromioclavicular and I found ourselves working 12 hour days and presenting financial results to inquiring minds. It is fair to say that I was not at my best, gritting my teeth through bond and stock analyses and cursing the flaccid markets.

At home, I have hated the sense of feeling useless and unhelpful, like Dylan Thomas’s ‘few, small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen or anywhere else for that matter”. I am very bad at being waited on or fussed over, which is just as well, since no one offered any such service. Small blessings. So I try to look after myself, only with 50% of the brachial resources. Common everyday tasks like getting dressed become projects, in need of advance planning and logistics and about twice the time. Failure to acknowledge this need will find you standing with your pants around your ankles clutching your shoulder in agony.

As we stand now, nine days After The Fall, the shoulder feels slightly better. There is still pain, although it now resembles being stabbed with a screwdriver instead of a carving knife. I still can’t really lift my left arm above chest level, but I’m working on achieving some more mobility. I believe that I need to move it and use it now.

I am supposed to fly to California in about 2 weeks to ride in the Death Valley Fall Century; I booked this long ago as a special treat for myself (I am aware that only certain folks would understand the allure of cycling 100 miles through Death Valley). I’m sure I will have recovered sufficiently to ride adequately by then but I’m not looking forward to hauling my bike box through the airports.

If, as Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for every purpose, it may be that the purpose for the next week or so is to convalesce and not push the return to cycling too aggressively. Generally I would rather push a wheelbarrow of wet cement to work than take public transit, but as we occasionally need to be reminded, you can’t always get what you want.