Choking on an Elephant

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” — Wayne Gretsky

I woke up at 5:15am to a chilly, grey morning. After weeks of single digit humidity and temperatures in the 80s, 53 degrees felt downright freezing. I’d been thinking about this ride for weeks. Sandwiched at the most optimal point between chemotherapy treatments, I was going to attempt a 200k. I’d picked the easiest route in San Diego County, a straight shot up the coast from the train station in downtown San Diego to San Clemente and back called the Surfliner. The same route I’ve done every month since spraining my foot in March. The only route I’ve been able to manage ALL F@&KING YEAR. Because after the first sprain, I reinjured the danged thing in May. Then, just when I thought I was ready to jump back into training I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Early stage 1, but a type of cancer with a high likelihood of metastatic re-occurrence without aggressive treatment.  I had a lumpectomy in September (4 weeks off the bike!?), and started a course of 4 chemo treatments in November, with radiation still on the horizon.

I let go of my plans for a 2017 Super Series. I let go of my training for the Million Meters of Milk 1000k my friend Michelle was hosting. But I clung to my R-12, the last hold out of my goals for the year, and managed to limp through one Surfliner permanent every month despite injuries and surgery. Every month there was the question of “can I actually do this?” And so far, every month I’d managed to finish within the time limit and feeling reasonably ok. For this final 200k of 2017 I planned my food. I wrestled with asking someone to join me or going solo. I had my husband on stand-by for the “just in case” scenario, and I had myself on a short leash – I had promised my husband I wouldn’t do anything stupid, and he had invoked the right to tell me I couldn’t start if I was running a fever or otherwise “unfit”.  I knew it would be a stretch goal. According to my oncologist, most people going through chemo don’t want to get off the couch. Many don’t work through chemo because fatigue can be extreme and how you feel varies from day to day seemingly with no rhyme or reason. I was given strict orders to make sure I get up and walk for 20 minutes at least 3 times per week (I laughed at that!).  She was concerned I was doing too much when I told her I had ridden a total of about 100 miles in the weeks between my first and second infusions. I didn’t tell her what I was planning for December 16. It’s easier to apologize later than to obtain permission.

Why, you might ask, would I even consider riding 125 miles in a day while undergoing chemotherapy? It’s a long story, which started in January 2012 when I rode my first RUSA 200k brevet on a seriously wet chilly day, almost called for a ride when freezing and drenched 35 miles in but decided to stick it out, and started what has been a 6 year love-affair with crazy long distance riding. I did another in February 2012, then a third in San Diego CoastlineMarch. Somewhere in there I discovered that there is an “award” for doing one of these things every calendar month for 12 consecutive months, and it was “game on”. In 2012 I completed my first R-12 award, and just kept going. For 71 consecutive months. To complete my 6th R-12 and keep my continuous streak of 200k or longer rides going, I had to complete one in December. For these awards, there are no excuses. There is no try. There is “DO” or “NOT DO”. Even though I had doubts about whether I would have the stamina and endurance to complete this ride, I couldn’t let this streak go without a fight. So, dressed in a wool jersey, winter weight tights, arm warmers, a second long sleeve jersey, a wind breaker, wool socks, and a warm cap for my (mostly) bald head, I got myself and the trusty Beryl (my steel touring bike) to the train station, did a quick “Facebook Live” proclaiming my intent, and rolled out a few minutes after 7.

I was cold starting out. Despite all of my layers, I was TOO cold. In Chinese medicine (I’m an acupuncturist), all foods and medicines and herbs are considered to have an associated temperature based on whether they make a person feel hot or cold when used. Chemo drugs are COLD. After each infusion, I’ve watched my tongue and pulse change from my normal to showing signs of extreme internal chill. I’ve craved hot Epsom salt baths, spicy foods, and warm sweaters. I’ve worn wool and a hat through two weeks of unseasonable heat. And 53 degrees with a stiff wind was cold to me. Even when I worked up a bit of internal heat from exertion, I stayed chilled. And staying warm takes energy – energy which was in short supply today.

My friend and fellow rando Osvaldo, who has also been riding less than usual this year, met me in Rose Canyon. He had a few hours free, and wanted a buddy so he joined me for the time he had. As we rode together up the bike path, it started to drizzle. Not a heavy rain, just enough to feel a few drops on our jackets and some foreboding of what might come. The forecast had said 20% chance, but the hourly predictions didn’t show any measurable precipitation. We chatted amiably as we pedaled, and thankfully the water from the sky amounted only to a few episodes of spitting and we never got truly wet.

My first sign that this might not go as well as hoped was coming up Scholar’s Drive. If you’re a rider local to San Diego, you’ve ridden this snarky little hill on the UCSD campus. It’s short, and gets steeper as you go up, peaking at about a 9% grade. I usually take this hill at about 8 mph, and have PR’d at about 11. This time, I was struggling to maintain 3mph on the climb, and I actually felt a little bit dizzy at the top. But I recovered on the rest of the ride through campus, and enjoyed flying down Torrey Pines Rd. even though I was shivering at the bottom. The thought of climbing back up this at mile 107 was uncommonly daunting, and I tried to avoid thinking about that. Today would be one pedal stroke at a time, and I was NOT allowed to push my pace. Slow, steady, forward progress was the name of the game if this was going to happen.

I never really got into a groove. Osvaldo and I kept chatting and pedaling, and I was secretly wishing he’d decide to turn around early so I could quit without the shame of telling him I was done. He stayed with me until Carlsbad then time dictated that he head south to his family. I decided to go on to Oceanside a few miles up the road, then re-evaluate.

Usually I text my husband at rest stops. This time, I called. I was having a crisis of faith in my ability to do this ride, and wondering if it was worth continuing at all if I was certain I couldn’t finish. I was cold, tired, and averaging 12.8mph with a screaming tail wind – too slow, especially knowing I was going to be fighting a headwind all the way back.  I had my oncologist’s voice in my head, telling me not to overdo it. I had the voice of a friend and fellow randonneuse telling me how she had never ridden more than 70-80 miles while going through chemo. I had the voice of my father cautioning me about doing too much. The cacophony of the committee in my head was such that I couldn’t separate what I was actually FEELING from what I was ruminating on. The classic mindset crisis.

So I called for another opinion. I was secretly hoping he would tell me to quit. But, my husband who has never ridden more than 35 miles in one day in his life, instead asked a simple question: “Do you think you can ride another 10 miles right now?” The short answer was “yes”. But I was worried. Because between Oceanside and San Clemente, there are two possible routes. One takes the shoulder of I-5, the other goes through Camp Pendleton. If I went through the military base and got into trouble, he wouldn’t be allowed to drive the route to pick me up. Even taking the freeway, there would be a stretch of road going through San Onofre which was inaccessible to cars. We figured out that if I took the freeway, there would be only about 4 miles where I’d be truly on my own, and that seemed Old Pacific Highwaymanageable. We hashed it out, and he said “ride the 5, let me know how you feel when you get off at Las Pulgas, and we’ll figure out the next step.” I had a great tail wind going up the 5, and by the time I got to Las Pulgas I was feeling better. So I texted in and kept pedaling.  Now that I was only thinking about the next 10 miles, I started enjoying myself. The sun had come out and I was finally warm enough. The scent of fennel and sage was intoxicating. Hawks were playing on wind drafts, wings outstretched in a glorious display of avian prowess. The views of the coast were spectacular with huge surf crashing into the jagged shore. My speed picked up, and my mood improved with it.

A voice in the back of my head kept nagging – you’re going 17mph and barely pedaling right now. You’re going to pay for this. I shoved this voice back and ignored it. For now, I was truly in the moment. Pedal the next mile, re-evaluate, repeat. How do you eat an elephant? ONE BITE AT A TIME!

So instead of calling for a ride in San Clemente, I had a hot chocolate, ate a bunch of “ride chicken” and a few potatoes, and got back on my bike to a text of “Go, grizzly, go!” One mile at a time, worry about the impending head wind when/if it becomes a problem.

Christmas in San ClementeI took the back route out of San Clemente to avoid the awful traffic on El Camino Real, and the hills were killing me, but I was managing the wind ok. I was painfully slow on the small climb up to San Onofre, and now I was heading straight into the wind. By the time I was into the camp ground I was barely managing 9 mph on the flats. Needing both a potty and a mental break, I stopped and texted in “grizzly has become a whimpering cub who wants her mommy.” Once again the question:  “Do you think you can ride another 10 miles?” The answer again was “Yes”. So I had another snack, got back on the bike, and pedaled on. At Las Pulgas I was feeling pretty good, so I let Shaun know I was heading to Oceanside and would plan to get more food and take a longer break there. I started down the freeway, with a plan in place for one more bite of this pachyderm.

As I was approaching the rest area between Las Pulgas and Oceanside Harbor, I was hit with a wall of fatigue. Out of nowhere my legs felt like lead and my eyelids started drooping.  I pulled into the rest area, and felt wobbly as I got off my bike. I ate a cookie and a few gummies – it could be a bonk, but it didn’t really feel like it. I’d been religious about eating regularly, keeping up with electrolytes, and forcing myself to drink even though my water was cold and I was cold – a bad combo for me and hydration. My blood sugar should have been fine, and food didn’t really fix it. I texted Shaun that I was feeling REALLY tired and he replied with a phone call. This time, when he asked “Do you think you can make it 5 miles to Oceanside?” I truly wasn’t sure.  This no longer felt like a mental game. I was approaching a physical wall which wasn’t going to be fixed with food or electrolytes. I had promised my husband, myself, and my doctor that I wouldn’t push to the point of putting myself in danger. I was facing 5 miles on the shoulder of a 4 lane freeway with a stiff head/cross-wind to get to the next safe stopping point, and I was still feeling really tired and a bit wobbly.  Together, Shaun and I made the decision that this would be my end point for the day.

I sat at a picnic table, sipping water, finishing my cookies, and chatting with people until Shaun arrived, one rider for extraction from the Alisio Creek rest area.  80 miles ridden, but a DNF for the day and an end to my streak of continuous 200k rides.

I’m sad to end my streak of continuous months of riding 200k or more. I’m especially disappointed that after all the struggles to get a ride in every month this year, my 2017 R-12 goal was thwarted in the 12th month. But there’s also relief. Ending the streak takes the pressure off for “having” to try to push this hard each month through the rest of my treatment even though the pressure is purely self-inflicted. At the end of the day, nobody cares about my goals and feats of ultra-riding insanity except for me. But it still FEELS important. Letting go of a goal is hard, no matter how logical and appropriate the circumstances. It just is.

San Clemente turn-aroundSo where to go from here? Whenever you try to tackle something as big as eating an elephant, there is an opportunity to choke on a bite and never finish the goal. I still have my passion for long distance riding, but right now my body is simply not up to the task. So the revised goal is to keep as much of my fitness base as I can. RUSA has another award – the P-12 – where a ride of 100k-200k (roughly 63-120 miles) is ridden each calendar month. For January, I’ll look for a nice, easy 100k and start there for the next few months. And then we’ll see. One ride at a time. Because really, what’s more important than meeting every stretch goal is just getting out and doing SOMETHING. Keeping myself safe and healthy, working within the boundaries of my currently challenged physiology, enjoying the ride, and being excited to plan the next one are more important than finishing any single 200k.


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2 Responses to Choking on an Elephant

  1. Pam jones says:

    This was an amazing ride. The mental aspect was truly special. And I loved Shawn. Can you do 10 more miles. Wow, what a huge support. Hang tough. You got this stupid cancer crap!!

  2. Felice says:

    Beautifully written. Lisa you are one courageous grizzly. I love your grit and ability to adjust as needed. Shaun is amazing as well how he encouraged you and then knew when to bring it down a notch. You guys make a sweet team. Thanks for sharing. ❤️


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