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Falling Falling
It’s late. Martin’s Ride is a week away from LA and a plane trip home. We are tired and nursing wounds. A few days ago I climbed Monitor Pass elevation 8,300. I’ve climbed longer mountains, but none steeper. Turns out we went up Monitor Pass backwards, or backwards to how the locals ride it. Jeremy spoke to several riders in need of assistance. They let him know most riders came DOWN the side I was riding.

It was easy to see why. Monitor pass on my side was STEEP staying at 10% grade for over a quarter of the ride. This day reminded me of Martin’s Ride’s Longest, Hardest Day because we were ending the day with a big climb. Monitor Pass wasn’t my biggest climb, but it was the steepest and those 10% up grades came at the end of a thirty-five mile morning ride through the hill country between Nevada and California.

“I’ve always been on this climb,” was one thought during the several hour ascent of Monitor Pass. I would push the crank over another hundred times, round a bend and see another 10% grade. Monitor Pass’s grade slowed me down keeping me on the climb longer. I tried to fool my legs. I would go up a gear, ride standing up for a few minutes, sit down returning to the lowest gear. For a few moments after this trick the mountain felt easier then the inevitable effect of grade, gravity and distance came quickly back.

I was alone. Brian rode in the morning, but his knee was hurting. He thought about starting the climb. “This is an all or nothing situation,” I tried to explain while sitting at below 6,000 feet of elevation. I knew climbing close to 3,000 feet in elevation with some of the steepest grades we’ve seen was nothing to do with a hurt anything. Brain decided to ride Monitor Pass in the RV (the right choice).

Stupid me continued to climb. You are in trouble on a long climb when its preamble is made up of 8% grades. Normal preambles are 5% and 6% grades. Monitor Pass, at least the side I was climbing, jumped right to 8% and only went up. I’ve written how the key to climbing is psychological. You must simultaneously deny your body’s pain and keep spirits up. Thinking about the end of a climb in the middle is deadly. You won’t finish because rounding a corner and seeing another deadly grade is too disappointing. You can’t have a fragile mental state on a climb.

On this climb I was obsessed. I kept rolling the thought that I’d always been on THIS climb. Time collapsed. I’d been born, raised and was still climbing Monitor Pass. My mind was creating a metaphor. Honestly, I was so tired I’m not sure what my mind was doing. Returning to this thought of always being on this climb was an attempt to understand.

There is never a free lunch on Martin’s Ride, life in microcosm. Every day brings challenges including: rain, heat, exhaustion, steep climbs, fast descents and the need to do what my sister Caroline calls “fueling” (what I like to think of as eating). Monitor Pass was no exception. It was the rule. It was hard, long and physically and mentally exhausting. Several times Jeremy offered the RV as an escape. I believe climbs are made in beginning not in the middle or end. I’d made up my mind. I would make it to the summit no matter the costs. I’ve only quit on a climb once – when asthma made it feel like a large family was sitting on my chest as my sister and I climbed above 9,300 feet on our way to Bishop’s Castle. My theory is we can effectively manage two simultaneous problems. In Colorado my legs hurt and I was tired. Once the third problem, not being able to breathe, hit I was done. Breathing is important, as my friends at the Respiratory Care Unit of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) know so well.

My breathing was fine on Monitor Pass, but there were two problems. My knees started to hurt about halfway up and I was already tired from our morning ride. Two problems can be managed. Luckily I never experienced a third problem as I slowly climbed to the top of Monitor Pass. This post is about falling.

I didn’t fall on my ride up or down Monitor Pass. If I fell on my way down…well let’s say you couldn’t hear the story from me. Riding down a ten mile descent averaging forty mph was almost too much descent. I never thought I would say “too much” and “descent” in the same sentence, but the other side of Monitor Pass was chock full of hairpin turns and drop offs where the only thing you see from the road is the valley way below. Make a mistake on such a pitch and as such speeds and you don’t have to worry about aching legs and knees. At one point I stopped just to catch my breath and relax my hands. Hands hurt from squeezing brakes so hard.

After the climb, we stayed at Lake Topaz, a beautiful small lake on the Nevada and California border. Tired doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. I was so tired I fell into Lake Topaz. After riding our bikes to dinner (up a damn hill too), I dangled aching legs in the cold lake. It felt great. The water was only up to my calf. I tried to wriggle down on the rickety dock. I wanted my knees in the cold water too. Then the dock gave way and I was in the lake. Fully clothed and with my iPhone in my pocket I struggled to kick my way back on the dock. Each kick moved the dock away from me. Finally, after about two minutes, I hefted myself back onto the dock. Water ran off me. My wallet was still in my back pocket. Wet money works, but wet iPhones not so much. My iPhone was dead.

Falling off the dock was my first of what would be many falls. We are in California so sunrise is early. We started our ride at 6:30 the next day and the sun was already up.  Something was wrong. My tank was empty. Riding was hard. I was riding through a canyon on 395. There was a river on my left and mountains ringed the road on either side. A vicious headwind came roaring down the canyon hitting me right in the front. I pulled on my wind breaker, put my head down, and rode on.

I saw the RV parked at a small store on my right. I turned into the thickly graveled parking lot, spoke to Jeremy and Brian and drank some water. Jeremy was surprised it was taking me so long to get not very far. “I’m empty,” I tried to explain. Monitor Pass took everything I had, but I didn’t know it until I tried to leave the parking lot. Jeremy went into the store and Brian went back to his book. I turned my bike, pushed down on pedals and feel hard on my right shoulder and knee. “Are you alright,” I heard a woman’s voice ask as I lay like a turtle turned upside down (remember I am clipped into the bike). “I’ve been better,” I called back sitting for a moment assessing damage. Standing up I felt sharp pain in my shoulder and arm. I shook my arm and rubbed my shoulder to little effect. “Descending Monitor Pass at 45 mph yesterday and I get hurt in a general store’s parking lot,” I thought. It wasn’t a good or helpful thought. Pain was searing its way into my mind. I walked slowly to the street and started to ride.

It was Sunday. Traffic was heavy and getting heavier. There was no shoulder on the road. There was a white line, six or eight inches of gravel-y concrete and then a cliff. I tried to ride on the white line or just to the right. Cars were passing at over sixty only feet from my left hip. I was slowly grinding out miles with an aching shoulder and knee. I can manage two but not three problems while riding. I was now battling head winds of better than twenty mph and a bruised and aching knee and shoulder - at least 3 problems. I was dead man riding.

My head was down. Traffic roared by. Cars sound like jets when riding in a canyon. There was enough grade, about 4%, that many drivers where stepping on gas hard. It was like riding a bicycle on an airport's runway if the runway was limited to six feet across. “Rap, Rap, Rap,” a loud unidentifiable sound started just behind my left ear. There was no warning. I looked up to see what was causing so much noise as a truck with flapping tarp passed. Looking up when riding a six inch white line between cliff and road is NOT a good idea.

A bicycle goes where your hands tell it. When I looked up my hands moved ever so slightly to the right. My wheels hit the sandy gravel. I went down hard on my left side. “You are in the road,” was my first thought. I looked down. My upper body was over the white line. I was sitting in the road. I tried to scrunch my body toward a small amount of safety trying to get my head out of the road before some speeding tourist ran over my head like a melon. Panic set in.

Quickly I looked back. There was no car, but no time to relax either. I stood up clipping out of my pedals and moved as far right as I could. I was on a bend. There was no room, so I got back on my bicycle and rode a quarter of a mile to the next turn out. The turn out was gravel too. I dismounted instead of taking any chances of riding into another fall. I took inventory.

My left calf was badly scraped. “I may wish I’d shaved my legs,” was my first goofy thought. “Now my left side matches my right side,” was my second goofy thought. The fall into the road hurt my body less than falling in the parking lot, but this fall killed my confidence. One moment I was riding. The next I was sitting in a road where the average speed was over sixty-five. If a car was following the loose tarp truck closely I couldn’t have gotten out of the way.

I rode on. Pulling over to the RV at the next stop Jeremy spied the road rash on my left calf. “I fell,” I explained. I continued to ride but my heart wasn’t in it. Riding is all about confidence and belief – both were shot now. “Some days you eat the bear, some days he eats you,” was the thought rolling around in my head. I was over the three challenges limit with an aching shoulder and knee, confidence shot by a fall into the road, a growing grade moving to 6%, heavy and fast traffic and a headwind that didn’t stop when the sun came out. I stopped. 

Tomorrow would be another day, another chance to eat the bear. There was a lake this night in Bridgeport California too, but no rickety docks. I waded up to my knees and watched the sun set over the Sierra Mountains. Tomorrow we would see Yosemite’s granite kingdom. What have we known since we were children learning to ride bicycles? Falling requires setting our bicycles up and climbing back on. Perhaps this is the ultimate Martin’s Ride lesson and one cancer patients know well.
Posted: August 18, 2010 by Martin Smith | with 0 comments |
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