“When the Walls Are Closing In, Do You Have the Strength to Climb Out?”

I started pedaling like a bat out of hell.  You would have thought the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz was behind me cackling and Toto was trying to bite my back tire.

Miles, I needed miles.

For some reason I felt that the more distance I could put on those two wheels, the farther I could travel from the problems of the last year.  I was getting stronger and faster with each passing day and it made me feel unstoppable.  That is until Laverne and Shirley came up with another crazy scheme.

“What’s a century ride?”

“It’s where you bike 100 miles in a day.”

“oh…I don’t know about that.”

To date I had only ever pedaled 50 miles and after that my legs felt wobbly and my rear end was sore for almost a week.

“Come on! It’ll be great.  There’s supposed to be this huge hill called Tussey.  It has it’s own facebook page! It’s so steep they have a photographer who sits there and takes your picture when you make it to the top.  We’ve got to do it!”

“But…100 miles…that’s really far…and that hill sounds a little too intense.”

“Pam says if you can push your body weight in watts you can get up any hill. (eventually) and you have all day to get in the 100 miles.  We will just keep going until we get there.”

Right. Simple. 100 miles in a day.  Just don’t stop until you get there. Piece of cake.

“I don’t know Cheryl.”

In the end they convinced me and we started training our little legs to go the distance.  I remember one specific day when Cheryl suggested going to Grimes Mill for a “hill workout.”  We pedaled out there, made the descent down to the old mill, took a water break, yelled Gironimo, dropped all of our gears and slowly pedaled our way out.  I remember looking down at my bike computer and realizing that I jog faster than the pace I was cycling but we made it!  I looked over and gave Cheryl a high five and then got ready to continue on down the road but she was turning back around.

“Everything ok cheryl?”

“Yeah, you ready to go back down?” I looked at her confused.

“I want to do it three or four times today. We came for a hill workout!”

That was perhaps the most climbing I have done in one day but my coercive friend knew what we needed.  After swinging like a pendulum up and down that pit, I felt confident that I could climb any hill that showed up on the 100 mile adventure coming up in a few weeks.

When the morning arrived we packed up our bikes and headed to the group start.  We checked in, got our bib numbers, and I went to use the restroom before we began what promised to be a long and challenging day.  After navigating the bathroom tiles with my cleats on (which any cyclist will tell you turns amateurs like me into Bambi on ice), I met up with Cheryl and Tina outside. (Joni could not make it so we had recruited a friend of mine from grad school who I had happened to see out on the road one day.  I had no idea she even had a road bike! She became our third musketeer.)  I heaved a big sigh and began contemplating how not to fall into another cyclist during the mass start when Cheryl piped up,

“Steph while you were in the restroom I signed us up for the Century Challenge!”

Century what?

I looked at her as if she was speaking gibberish.  “If you complete three of the four centuries in the series you get a Jersey! Look!”  she pointed to a gold colored jersey hanging up next to the registration tent.  Well it was pretty cool looking.  But 300 miles in a summer? I wasn’t so sure about that.

“you’re going to do one today so you know you can do the others. “

Right. Simple.  I was about to do my first 100 mile ride. Which meant I could of course do another. Piece of cake.

At that moment though I didn’t have time to think about the other 200 miles because it was time to get a move on.  The three of us stuck together all day, Cheryl was in charge of the map, I was the spotter for route markers and Tina was head Cheerleader, keeping the three of us motivated especially when it was time to climb Tussey.  We had been warned that this hill contained a 20% grade at some points and not to let it fake us out.  We would ascend for a bit at a moderate grade, it would level off, and then when you thought you were finished it would continue very steeply to the top.  For those of you who are unsure of what climbing a 20% grade feels like exactly I can only describe it as feeling like Spiderman on two wheels.  There were moments when I felt like if I leaned backwards the bike and I could peel off the side of the incline and tumble back to the starting point below.

But I was ready, deep breathes, upper body relaxed, heels down, 1,2,1,2 strong and steady to the top.  I finished the first incline with minimal difficulty, experienced the brief plateau then pushed forward to the top. I had done it! I had reached the summit of this notorious hill! Tussey wasn’t so tough. I was queen of the mountain! Where was my polka dotted jersey? Actually now that I think about it where was the photographer they said would be here to forever record my mountain climbing prowess?

I pedaled around the corner and noticed there was something written on the ground in sidewalk chalk.

Hmmm what’s this?

I squinted to see that it read, “LOOK UP!”

and as I did I realized that Tussey was a sneaky B****

(excuse the foul language but it was truly what went through my mind) The incline I had just experienced with a somewhat gentle plateau in the middle was merely the first half of the hill, the  flat afterwards was the pump fake.  The 20% grade loomed up before me and I can’t be sure but I think I saw a few buzzards circling up above me.  A tumbleweed blew across the road and the theme music from The Good the Bad and the Ugly was playing in the background.

I swear.

The road looked like a wall and it was littered with cyclists who had admitted defeat and were now walking their bikes to the top.  Tussey seemed to sneer at me and ask, “do you feel lucky punk?”  I sneered right back.  I didn’t need luck, I had been training with Pam Thomas all winter long and I could push my body weight in watts even on my worst day in the gym.  Bring it you over exaggerated access ramp! I dropped all my gears and started pedaling like the Wicked Witch was once again behind me.  I was the way cooler female version of Peter Parker and it was time to scale this wall.

Like every challenge I have faced in my life there was a moment of doubt.  2/3s of the way up it just didn’t seem like I was getting anywhere.  My legs were starting to feel like lead and the pedals felt like they were pushing my tires through wet cement.  I looked up  at the top.  I could see it but it wasn’t getting closer fast enough.  I saw a woman pushing her bike to the top and briefly, for one second, thought about joining her. But as I passed her she turned my way and gave me a huge smile,

“You’ve got this. Keep going!”

and she was right.

This is what I had come for.  To challenge myself mentally and physically and to climb this godforsaken hill.  The second half of any challenge, and what makes it so worthwhile, is that the momentum from the start has faded, the adrenaline is no longer pumping in your veins, the lactic acid has built up in your legs, and you have to work twice as hard to get half as far.  Broken down to this state of fatigue everyone is equal.  Physical strength will not get you to the top.  It must be an act of sheer will.

You have to decide to be strong…or to get off your bike and walk.

As I crested the hill Tina was already there waiting for me and we both turned to cheer Cheryl to the top as well.  As we all experienced the euphoria that only a summit can bring I shed a small tear.  I would not tell them until hours later when we had finished all 100 of those miles (which we did with gusto) but exactly one year ago on this day I had been on an operating table at Mayo undergoing my first skull base surgery.  I never could have dreamed that 365 days later I would put 100 miles on my bike in one day.

Cheryl had been right. Simple. Keep going until you get there. Don’t stop until you do.


5 thoughts on ““When the Walls Are Closing In, Do You Have the Strength to Climb Out?”

  1. Pingback: “When the Walls Are Closing In, Do You Have the Strength to Climb Out?” | The Chronicles of Mayo

  2. Stephanie, thanks for sharing this inspiring story.

    There is no way that I can pedal out my weight in Watts for more than than a few seconds, but I have a secret to climbing any hill: super low gears. Super low gears and patience can defeat any hill. Thank God for the granny gear!

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