Angels and Demons and Hail…Oh MY!

“You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.” ~ L. Frank Baum

The thing about tackling bigger and bigger projects is that eventually a project becomes a monster which takes on a life of its own. I’ve been thinking a lot about packing up my bike and heading to Paris this August, but feeling a bit daunted by riding 1200 kilometers across a foreign country where I marginally speak the language. Especially since I didn’t succeed at completing the only ride I’ve attempted at this distance. When the San Diego chapter of RUSA decided to offer the insanity of a brevet week this year, I cringed but signed up for the whole enchilada. I figured if I couldn’t ride 1200k over 5 days, I probably couldn’t ride it in 90 hours. Better to find out BEFORE spending a few thousand dineros I don’t really have and ending up on a train ride of shame back to Paris from the middle of nowhere.

lake hodges morning

Brevet week is a ludicrous undertaking for both the organizers and the riders. A complete Super Randonneur series is offered over a week, and riders have a chance to complete 200, 300, 400, and 600 kilometer events back to back. Some randonneur clubs start with the 600k and work backwards, some start with 200k and make the rides progressively longer. San Diego created a series of 200k loops and offered multiple options (loop 1, 1+2, or 1+2+3) on several days, allowing many options for the intrepid rider seeking a big challenge. I looked at the routes and was excited about the 200k on day 1 and the 300k on day 2. I was less inspired by the three loops comprising the 400k and 600k, and opted to register for 200k instead of 600 for the final day, saving the 600 for a stand-alone event in April.

I’m one of the slower riders in the San Diego club. If I’m really lucky I have companions until the first control before I’m left in the dust by a mostly male field of faster riders, so I expected to be doing a ton of solo riding. But my friend Osvaldo had opted out of heading to Arizona to ride 300k in the rain last month and signed up for the 300k. My friend Michele decided riding with a buddy in San Diego was preferable to riding alone in Arizona, and bought a plane ticket out of the arctic expanse of Minneapolis. The only day I would not have a buddy would be the first.

As we got closer to the first week in March, the weather showed an unpleasant possibility. A big winter storm was heading to Southern California, and it looked like it would be a wet week. Weather fears are almost always overrated here, with the most advertised and feared storms dropping a fraction of an inch of rain and blowing over with a whimper rather than a roar. I refused to worry about the weather in advance, but was thankful I’d bought rain pants for my Arizona ride. At least I had the right gear if the weather were to really be stormy.

For two weeks I prepared homemade date/oat bars, fruit/nut bars, turkey and rice bars, and other food for the week. I like to carry most of my own food and forage at controls for supplemental snacks rather than depending on them for all of my nutrition. I organized my clothes, checked my bike’s brakes, tires, chain, and cables.

soggy startWhen I woke up on Sunday morning, it was already raining. A steady, light patter which was more than a drizzle but less than a downpour. I loaded up the car and drove to Poway for a 7am start, muttering curses at the sodden sky. We need the rain, but WHY NOW? I started the ride in the middle of the pack of 15 riders, all of us immediately wet and uncomfortable despite a full complement of wet weather gear. I managed to stay with the group, falling behind just before the first control and making my stop short enough to leave with the others. As we got into a groove, it didn’t take long for me to fall off the back of the pack. Up Rt. 395 to Temecula, a quick stop at the Starbucks in Old Town, and through roller after 13% grade roller in De Luz, I didn’t see another rider for miles. The rain was an all-day shower, finally letting up late in the afternoon.

As I ground my way up the steepest climb of the day, I passed a man who was pushing his bike up the grade. Tom from Anchorage was suffering after a long winter of riding on a trainer without setting his nether regions on a moving bike. We rode the final 40 miles together, enjoying the grey on grey of the coast on a rainy day. We made it back to the beginning in a bit over 12 hours, slow for a 200 kilometer ride (125 miles) but appropriate when it was the beginning of an 1100 kilometer week.

It was raining again when I woke up on Monday. There are few things more disgusting and demoralizing than pulling on shoes still sodden from the day before while anticipating another day of riding in the rain and I cringed as I put them on, loaded my filthy bike into the car, and headed for my 6:00am start. By the time I had the bike ready the rain had stopped, leaving a grey heavy sky threatening to lose more hail in the roadmoisture. We had a reprieve for about 30 miles before the heavens opened in Valley Center dumping a torrent of water from the sky. Osvaldo and I slogged up the climb out of Valley Center as the rain came down in buckets. As we climbed up Rt. 76, the rain turned solid. We could see snow not very far above us on Palomar Mountain, as we were pelted with wind driven ice crystals. My legs were tired from the climbing of the day before, and weren’t helped by the cold damp air. It became harder and harder to move the pedals, and I realized my two layers of wool socks were so full of water they had become heavy.

As I started the descent towards Lake Henshaw, I feathered my brakes. Nothing happened. I squeezed harder. Nothing happened. By the time I had my brake levers depressed to the point of touching my handlebars, I was no longer accelerating but I also wasn’t stopping. Time slows down when you are in a potentially life-threatening situation. Thinking is either absent in favor of complete panic or icily clear. With heart pounding, I weighed my options. I was going too fast to turn across the road to stop without crashing. I had serious doubts to whether I could control the bike around tight curves at high speed on wet/icy pavement and the penalty for failure would be significant. I saw a driveway at exactly the right angle to the road with a slight uphill slope, and without thinking I turned the bike into it, squeezing the brakes with everything I had. I’ve mentioned I have an angel who watches over me on the bike. He was working over-time to keep me safe that day and with the help of the uphill slope I was able to stop the bike without incident. I inspected the brakes and realized I had forgotten to close the front calipers when changing a flat tire. The pads were quite worn, but still just barely ok. The rear pads were completely worn, almost down to metal on the rims. I closed the calipers on the front brake and tested the levers. Yes, the pads would grab the wheel. Just barely, but enough to get back down the lake henshaw in the rainmountain. I can only imagine what went through Osvaldo’s head when I caught up to him and said my brakes had just failed. Given that he was as cold and wet as I was, and capable of moving a bit faster, I’m guessing it was some combination of incredulity and frustration. He did know more about bicycle brakes than I, and was able to help me tighten the cables enough to compensate for the nearly non-existent pads. We were 30 minutes late for the Lake Henshaw control, and decided that completing 300k would not be in the stars for the day. We warmed up and dried off a bit with bowls of chili and coffee, then took the shortest route back to Poway abandoning the course, but without making the phone call of shame to either of our spouses.

I took Mags straight to the bike shop. Tuesday was a rest day, and she was given a complete overhaul including new brake pads and cables, new chain, and a good cleaning. Jeff, the mechanic, said she was so full of water he stripped all the components off and actually turned her upside down to drain the frame! While Mags was made whole again, I spent the day napping and feeding. I picked up Michele at the airport and found her looking a bit puckish after flying over the storm I’d ridden in the day before. We decided neither of us was up for riding 250 miles on Wednesday and opted to switch the order of our rides, making it a 200k (125 miles) day.

misty morning Lake HodgesThe alarm went off at 3:00am, and we stumbled through the house forcing eggs and coffee into unwilling stomachs. The weather was thankfully clear, though chilly. Lake Hodges was magical in the sunrise with tendrils of mist swirling above the puddles of water and shrouding the trees in veils of haze. We were greeted by a chorus of frogs singing morning songs and flocks of birds passing overhead. We lingered too long, soaking in the splendor of the earth’s waking, but were jolted out of our reverie quickly by the construction and traffic on Bear Valley Road. We made the first control in Escondido with 10 minutes to spare, grabbing receipts and sprinting onwards. Tom from Anchorage was there at the control, and in typical small-rando-world fashion he and Michele knew each other from a previous ride. We all left together, braving the insanity of rush hour traffic through San Marcos and Carlsbad.

taco stopWe bantered with Tom and Alex from Canada, sharing stories of brevets past and dreaming of new places to explore by bicycle. We had over an hour in the bank when we arrived in San Clemente without incident, and stopped for chicken tacos and guacamole before heading south. Michele was having issues with her seat, and finally realized one of the bolts holding it onto her seat post had failed. With her saddle pointing upwards at an impossible and invasive angle, the last 20 miles were an exercise in creative positioning for her making us glad we had opted for the shorter ride. Once again, we finished 200 kilometers in about 12 hours and headed to a bike shop for repairs.

Michele and I spent Thursday in our pajamas, sipping coffee at the kitchen table and chattering like a pair of high school girls at a slumber party. With endurance eating in full swing, we went from table to fridge and back until it was time for an early and too-short nap.

temecula valleyIt was cold and clear on Friday morning when we got back onto our bikes for the final 400 kilometers. Lake Hodges was pretty but less ethereal without the mist and we made good time pushing through Escondido. As I was descending towards our first control on Old 395, I felt a thwack against my helmet followed by sharp pain in my temple. At the control, I had Michele look for the stinger, and she found the whole bee still attached to my head. OUCH! Borrowed tweezers from Hector allowed removal of the stinger and we went on, my head throbbing. I had to look on the bright side…it went worse for that bee. The wind picked up as we approached Rainbow, and it kept on blowing straight through Murietta into Lake Elsinore. While I’m a strong steady climber, I find riding into a headwind to be a demoralizing exercise in fatigue and frustration. Michele struggles with climbing, but she is undaunted by a michele on old395_1Midwestern gale. We worked together to make it through this section, her pulling me as I cursed the wind. In Lake Elsinore, we had ice cream and chips at the control, then let the tailwind push us back down Old 395 to Poway. A quick stop to grab more food, and we were back on the road and heading towards the coast.

San Marcos Blvd. was no more fun during the evening rush hour than it was in the morning, and we were both irritable and mentally drained from the combination of the vigilance required to navigate streets choked with vehicle and pedestrian traffic and the constant stopping and starting spawned by the myriad stoplights through this section. We took a break in Oceanside, sipping hot coffee and snacking before heading north into the night to our turn-around in San Clemente. We had another snack at the control, and were dismayed to find the zephyr had kicked back up into yet another headwind. Somewhere around the south end of the Trestles beach I reached critical mass with the pressure on my sit-bones and succumbed to the topical anesthetic I carry for such occasions. It was about 2am, and under cover of darkness I rested Mags against the fence marking the line between Camp Pendleton and the State campground. As I stood with my shorts around my knees and my hand full of cream on the offending bruises, a random truck pulled up leaving me starkly exposed like a deer in headlights. Two men got out and literally scurried to a truck on the other side of the fence, barely looking at us. I’m not sure who was more startled and embarrassed, the men or me as I scrambled to return the shorts to their upright position. I was so flustered I forgot that I was intending to use a bush for a bladder break before continuing south.

Carlsbad, 3:00am. We were both chilled and resisting putting on extra layers afraid the warmth would make us too sleepy. I watched Michele’s bike weaving and realized I was doing the same. We pulled into a camp ground and rested our bikes against the entrance kiosk, set an alarm for 30 minutes later, then sat down against the building. Snuggled up together against the cold, we took a power nap, waking when a ranger drove her truck past before the dawn1us smiling in the darkness of early morning. We snacked, piled on the rest of our layers, and kept heading south, watching moon beams dancing on the ocean’s expanse. My bladder complained loudly and I resisted the urge to water someone’s front lawn as we pedaled through the night. Port-o-potties conveniently placed at the beach in Del Mar finally provided welcome though fetid relief. We were on the 56 bike path when the sun came up, a dazzling display of pinks, oranges, reds streaking across the sky and silhouetted mountains to the east. 7am, we finally pulled into our last control, finishing the ride with 1 hour to spare. With nobody there to greet us but the hotel clerk, it was an uneventful and anticlimactic finish to an incredible week of riding.

There are few opportunities for a true vision quest in modern-day America. Nights spent alone in the forest under the influence of the tribe’s hallucinogenic brew have been used by native cultures as a rite of passage to adulthood and as a means of communicating with spirits to help guide the community through challenging times. Similarly, long hours of pedaling a bicycle through remote areas under cover of darkness can take you to places unimaginable, with fatigue and sensory deprivation inducing a hypnotic and sometimes hallucinatory state which opens doorways in even the most shrouded mind. Barriers come down and emotions come up. With vision less acute in the dark, sounds and scents are magnified. Night blooming jasmine and citrus blossoms provide a heady note beside exhaust fumes. Sage and honeysuckle scent otherwise non-descript passages through lightless valleys. Crashing waves and the call of birds and coyotes hunting in the night offer sharp and primal proof that you are not completely alone. Demons surface which require wresting back to the shadowy corners in which they’ve quietly lurked. The inevitable pain in the sit-bones and wrists makes you cranky. Vehicle and pedestrian traffic wear on you, begging for a crack in your armor. The ability to manage these feelings and put the demons in front of the sled rather than behind often marks the difference between success and failure on an extra-long ride, and the companions along the way can provide welcome respite or transform an adventure into an ordeal.

You quickly become intimate with the people who share these dark hours with you. You see how they handle stress and fatigue, frustration and pain, hunger, temperature extremes, and unexpected challenges. They see your process as you deal with all of the same. Sometimes your ride partners see sides of you even your spouse or partner has never encountered. There is a delicate balance between the philosophies of “ride your own ride” and “never let someone ride alone, especially at night”. When the person you’re riding with eats something which disagrees and is vomiting on the side of the road, do you stay with him at risk of being late to a control and disqualifying? Or do you leave him to his misery in the name of finishing what you started? If you descend faster in the dark than your buddy, do you wait at the bottom of every hill or do you keep going leaving her to hope another rider comes along to keep her from being alone in the night? There is no right or wrong answer, every rider needs to make these decisions for him or herself on every ride. Waiting for me as I struggled with fatigue, cold, wet weather, and bike issues may have cost Osvaldo a successful finish on Monday’s ride. Would he have had the 56 bike path flood zonefortitude to complete 300 kilometers alone under the conditions at hand? Only he really knows. It is likely Tom would have gotten lost navigating a flooded bike path at night where I had the local knowledge to get us past the submerged road and back on track. Perhaps this saved him from a disqualification due to time, perhaps not. The wind in Lake Elsinore may have been too much for me to manage on my own, and Michele was relieved to have me setting a cadence for our harder climbs. On the bike as in life we are often more capable together than individually, but there is a trade-off in which the individual sometimes sacrifices for the good of the herd. Each ride is an opportunity to explore the depths of your soul and decide which type of rider, which type of person you want to be. The answer is different every time and there is no single correct rejoinder, only your individual truth at the moment of decision.

I pedaled Mags a total of 950 kilometers with more than 30,000 feet of climbing over Brevet Week, through rain, hail, sleet, sun, wind, heat, and darkness. Not quite the 1100 kilometers I was aiming for, but enough to feel confident that Paris-Brest-Paris is not so much of a stretch after all!

Lisa and MicheleOnce again, Road Pixie Michele proved a fun and worthy partner for this monster of an adventure. She was strong where I was weak and willing to let me take the lead where my power prevailed. We faced the demons of the night together, shared stories and food, braved drivers and construction zones, kept each other warm during our late night nap, and welcomed the sunrise bringing promise of a new day and successful finish. I’m looking forward to more miles shared with my sister from another mother.

Many thanks to Tom from Anchorage, Alex from Canada, Osvaldo from San Diego, and Michele from Minneapolis who shared this week-long odyssey with me, to Greg Olmstead and Dennis Stryker of the San Diego Randonneurs who put all the routes together and made the events happen, to my husband who had to put up with not one but TWO female eating machines, and to my road angel who kept me alive to ride another day. I couldn’t have done it without you! Next up…600 kilometers next month 🙂







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2 Responses to Angels and Demons and Hail…Oh MY!

  1. Judy Kelling says:

    Inspiring, how do you remember everything to put it into the blog? Happy to hear you found that hill when you had no brakes.

    • Lisa Nicholson says:

      Judy, thanks for the comment. I think about what I’m going to write the whole time I’m riding…coming up with descriptive words and phrases gives my brain something to focus on in the middle of the night! Some things get left out, but there are always highlights worthy of remembering 🙂

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