Madera Canyon Death March
The wheels are coming off and it’s not pretty.
There are 17,000 feet of climbing already in my legs and 3,000 more to go today.
I am writing the script of my imminent demise as I turn the pedals over in wobbly, jagged squares:
She was found 500 feet from the base of the climb. A comrade reported her death quiet and inglorious. Her body was removed from the road as vultures circled above. The support van drove the remainder of the climb in haste, eager to deliver nutrition to the remainder of the group. Perpetuem and HEED was consumed in her honor.
You could say that my mental game could use some work.
I’m angry. I’m riding my bicycle with a feeling of disgust and surrender. I hate it. I’m over it.
I cannot hold a line to save my life, so I apologize out loud into the desert air: “I can’t hold a line. I’m sorry.”
The voice is behind me, slightly to the left, in my draft. My wheelsucker. My partner in suffering. Vice President of the Vulture Club. Javad Simonson.
I’m surprised that he might still be alive but I am too tired to turn around to confirm that the voice is coming from a real person. If I’m hearing things then I’m glad, at least, that my imaginary friends are ok with my inability to ride in a straight line.
20 minutes earlier, the ride had started in earnest. A tired gruppetto pulling away from a gelato shop. The pace rose and my coach called out, “Swift!! Get that wheel!”
The gap was opening against my will. I stood up and took two strokes.
Nothing. Nothing nothing nothing nothing.
The group rode away.
When I looked around moments later they were small figures up the road – little wavy specs. One group smaller than the other.
My love is in the medium-sized group, I thought to myself. God help him in the chase.
It was the last positive and unselfish thought that I would have for 13.5 miles.
I found Javad and set my jaw.
Now here we are. With the buzzards circling. In the desert, surrounded by cacti.
Dusty brown expanse in every direction. A mountain up ahead. Dry, arid hills. There is a grade waiting for us up there that is going to try to break us.
Javad comes around. “I’ll try to pull us for a little bit.”
I am too tired to thank him. The truth is that we’re going too slow for it to matter much, but the vision of his rear wheel is comforting nonetheless. The pull does not last long.
“We’re going to die out here, Javad.”
“At least we have each other…”
“Car back.” I say.
The car is not a car at all, but the support van. It passes us at something greater than 30 miles per hour with one of our ride leaders drafting on the back at a breakneck pace. He’s heading up to regain contact with the lead group.
I am pissed to have missed the selection. I am pissed to be in the middle of the desert. I am pissed by this incredible feeling of fatigue. This weight in my legs. This lethargy in my heart. I am pissed that I’m pissed.
Headwind and a 2% grade. More menacing than you’d think.
“Where’s Mary?” I ask.
“She’s behind us somewhere.”
I look back and see nothing but a wide country road getting thinner and thinner until it ends in a sharp point somewhere off in the horizon. Javad pulls off and I am on the front again. The mountains in front of us are not getting closer. We pass mile-marker 8. Only 6 more to go.
“Six more miles, Javad.”
“We’re going to die out here, Heidi.”
“I know. Fucking shoot me – will you?”
Javad laughs again. I allow myself to be confounded for 10 seconds about what could possibly be funny. Certainly not this road. Certainly not this ride.
I hit play on my shuffle again and my ears fill with Lil’ Wayne and then NWA. NWA is screaming and swearing. Angry and violent and wonderful. Mason Jennings follows and when I hear his sing-song bittersweet love lyrics I imagine his smiling face and want to punch it. I press the “next” arrow until I find more anger for my ears.
A few songs later, I press pause and look back at Javad and ask how fast we’re going. I don’t display speed on my computer for this exact reason. In this moment, I don’t need to see the single-digit numbers. But I’m ready to make some calculations about completion. I am ready to set up some carrots.
I need something to live for.
“Seven miles per hour?” I wonder.
“Yes… about that.”
This is a godless place, I think. This is a hellish, horrible, barren place. This headwind is the stuff of nightmares and every square inch of my body becomes a sail. My heart rate is through the roof – and for what… for this? For seven miles per hour? For seven fucking miles per hour? We haven’t even really started climbing yet!
I promise myself that I will quit at mile marker number 9. At mile marker 9 I am going to step off my bike and lay it down on the ground. I’m going to curl up next to it with my bottle of Perpetuem and enjoy the final 230 calories while the rest of the crew sits at the top of the climb, wondering where I am and if I’m dead. Mary will pass me and I will call out to her, “I’m done!! That’s it! Tell them I will wait for them to come back down and then ride back. I QUIT!”
In the interim, I preoccupy myself with the mathematical calculations necessary to determine approximately how long it would take me to summit if I was idiotic enough to make the attempt. Around 45 minutes.
I reset the lap counter. Forty-five minutes? Ok, maybe. I resolve to ride to mile marker 10 at least.
It’s not even steep yet, I reason. I’ll stop when it gets steep.
Our progress is a death march and I wonder why I am here. This is my worst day on the bike. Ever. Period. Whatever character this is building, I reject it. The price is too high.
Mile marker 11 comes as a surprise because I’ve missed number ten. Eleven! Eleven! Three miles and change to go. This is where the battle really starts. This is where the grade will begin to tick slowly upward. I could stop here. I should stop here.
I keep going.
Javad is pulling off ahead of me.
“Are you ok?
“I’m going to stop to rest my legs.”
“I can’t stop.” I say, “If I stop I will never start again.”
I ride away from Javad into the never-ending headwind, up the grade that rises and rises. I think of Thompson and Old Germantown and Westwood and Greenleaf and all the climbs at home that I used to consider difficult. I think of ascending Mt. Lemmon the day before. The way the road just soared and soared skyward on a welcoming, soft grade. Mile after mile – 10 then 14 then 18 miles. Until suddenly there you were at the end of 21 uninterrupted miles of climbing.
Three more. Three more miles today. Three more miles of climbing in Arizona. Three. More. Miles.
I resolve to climb as long as the pedals will turn around. The Beastie Boys are screaming: So Watcha Whatcha Watcha want!?” [You think that you can front when revelation comes?]
Finish this fucking climb, Swift. Finish it.
[Well I think I'm losing my mind this time. This time, I'm losing my mind. So Watcha Whatcha Watcha want!?]
There’s a black hole behind my eyes where I store my extra pain and it is overflowing. Exploding. White bursts of agony and suffering. Color and the absence of color where my brain should be. The legs have long since surrendered. The mind was not even in the game to begin with. All that keeps me moving is that special brand of insanity that relies heavily on denial of reality and investment in madness.
I wager that I am surrounded by beauty. Hills and trees and a road that gets smaller and smaller as I climb. Birds in branches. Signs that say “one-lane bridge ahead”. Sunlight through leaves. The word dappled comes to mind. There are probably people lounging and reading and bird-watching along the side of road. They must be happy and calm. I reckon their heartrates are somewhere around 70 beats per minute.
But I see nothing beyond the few feet in front of me, and the trajectory of every next turn ahead.
Even when I know that it will not lead to the finish, I promise myself that it will. When the truth comes out, I squash the pangs of disappointment with another lie. Every time I convince myself to quit, I wonder how far off the top is. Will I stop and push and then see them all gathered there and wish I’d stayed on the pedals grinding out 30 revolutions per minute?
I see the figure of my coach up ahead moving in and out of sunlight. A skinny body on a bike, grinding slowly and with the look of agony. His suffering validates my own. I take a sip from my calorie bottle followed by a sip of water.
“Again With the Subtitles” by Yppah comes up in the headphones and I know I’m going to make it to the top. When I get there, my coach is stopped and sitting on his bicycle. His mouth is moving but I cannot hear him. There is some clapping noises coming from off to the right. I ride straight past my coach without smiling (it’s possible that I glare) and roll into the parking lot where the rest of the men are sitting on the curb like prisoners who’ve been beaten with clubs.
As I pause the music, they become real people with voices and things to say.
“Good job, Swift!”
“Great job, Heidi!”
“Good job, baby.” I know the one that said that. I think I like that one. I will tell you later.
I want to say, “I did it! We did it! We’re great!” but my cheerleader skirt is at home and all that comes out is, “Holy shit. That is the stupidest thing that I have ever done in my life.”
“No, seriously. That was the least amount of fun I have ever had on a bicycle.”
Then I walk across the parking lot, disappear behind a large, white van and vomit up a steady stream of warm, stringy Perpetuem. As I cough and sputter, I consider this unique side benefit of 100% liquid nutrition. Equally as good coming up as going down. No chunks. Was this in the marketing materials? It really should be.
Still coughing, I stumble back to join the broken masses. Men almost as crushed as I am. Shattered after 5 days of hard riding and 20,000 total feet of elevation gain. We’re haggard and ragged and ruined.
But, somehow, not defeated. In fact, underneath the crusty, dried up streams of salt on our faces and the sweat-soaked headbands, there is the hint of something that is almost like victory.
Not the high-speed, shiny-legged, posted-up victory of crossing a finish line first – it’s a quieter version. Disguised as survival. But bigger, maybe, than a victory that is marked by a podium. It’s a victory of guts and risk and doubt and vomit.
A long week whose reward will come later – maybe months later. An investment, an act of trust.
Riding to the edge of delirium not for the promise of glory or recognition, but for the sake of suffering itself.