Pedal Until You Taste Blood: The Battle at Barlow
Last week, reader Guy Smith of the Crossniacs forwarded me a link to this article in the New York Times. In the first paragraph, the author quotes a former coach who once told him, “Pedal until you taste blood.”
I liked that.
I thought about it a lot.
The perfect’cross race is composed of a lot of things, many of which are out of your control. A good start, good luck getting through early pile-ups or traffic jams, sheer luck handling technical sections, and, of course, good legs. In addition to this? You’ve got to allot your energy perfectly. You have to be seeing stars by the last lap.
You have to leave yourself on the course – shattered, broken, heaving, crying, destroyed, annihilated.
When you come across the line and want to projectile vomit your pre-race nutrition all over the woman who’s trying to shake your hand, you know you’ve done well – no matter the final results. This is the indicator of success that is the most important, because it’s the one over which you have the most control.
I want a lot of things when I line up at that start, but at the end of the day, this is why I race. To turn myself inside out, to push my body to the point of near-failure, to collapse in a heap.
To pedal until I taste blood.
8:30am. I’m nervous. Really nervous. I dry heave in the bathroom a few times, splash cold water on my face, and tell myself to pull it together.
We leave and when we arrive at the high school I have all day to sit around and think about my race. I lay in the front seat of the car with headphones. I drink a water bottle every hour. I pee 70,000 times. I can keep nothing down except for shot blocks so I eat them methodically, like clockwork.
Calories. I need the fuel.
I cheer for Sal and a few other PV racers for a few laps and then head back. I fidget. I’m quiet. I’m thinking. My stomach hurts.
I get on the trainer and spin. The ‘cross warmup playlist is ripping out F-bombs left and right as I sit patiently in Zone 2. After 20 minutes, all I want to hear is Eminem, so I put “Lose Yourself” on repeat and slide the iphone back into my jersey pocket. There are teammates around me. Inaudible conversations coming from people’s mouths. People laughing, drinking cokes, eating real food. I smell a hot dog.
I put my head down and spin.
There are a few good reasons for my nerves. Today I find out where I stand. Today I get to find out what happens when I pedal until I taste blood. I know I’ll get a good start position, and the field will be respectably large, though certainly not crusade-worthy. This is my race to screw up and I know it. It will tell me about fitness and it will tell me if my head is where it needs to be.
I’m not thinking about the fact that I just came back from four days of dubious training (think tanking drinks by the pool) in Vegas. I still expect myself to perform. I still want to be all in.
At 25 minutes I grind out a 4 minute threshold interval. At 35 minutes one minute at max.
It hurts. It hurts so bad I grit my teeth. I hate the warm-up. I hate it so much I want to quit and get off the bike and go home.
These are the “why the hell do I do this?” moments. They pass.
Start line. Front row, second from the left. I chit-chat with a Bike n Hike rider to my right and Lindsay Kandra squeezes my arm for good luck just before the whistle. Love that girl.
Sixth wheel into the first turn. The legs respond. Off-camber grass section onto fast pavement. Swoopy turns past the OBRA truck. Move up two positions coming over the barriers. The remount serves me well.
As we wind through grassy turns, I allow myself to marvel for a moment and how insanely responsive the new Veloforma is underneath me. The speed at which I am able to corner blows my mind. Me. The girl with no handling skills. The bike is magic I tell you. Straight up Black Magic.
I down-shift into my lowest gear and fly into the first set of barriers. The rider in front of me darts left for the trail so I take my chances with the railroad tie stairsteps.
Railroad tie steps? Are you kidding me? They are the worst momentum killer on the planet. One big step after another. Stomp stomp stomp. The bike saddle smacks me in the back of the head as I climb my way into a wall of Portland Velo cheering.
Note to self: the railroad ties suck. Take the path next time around if at all possible.
In the woods the VF continues to deliver mind-boggling turns. On a grassy straight-away I begin picking my way through riders and find myself next to Ms. Kandra.
“C’Mon BabyMama.” I say as I pass her on the inside. Then I’m thinking, “BabyMama?” Where do I get this shit? Why did I say that?
The mind does funny things when the body is at LT.
I continue moving through the bodies and by the time we are back on the grassy straightaway I’m sitting in third and closing in on the Bike and Hike rider. I follow her all the way until we hit the run-up again and, to my relief, she takes the railroad ties.
I make for the path that winds up the side and scamper up it. We emerge at the top nearly simultaneously but I remount before her, hit the pedals and start to pull away.
“Nice RUN!” she calls after me.
“You too, woman!” I call back.
I’d been told that the B field was a classy group, but I’m still impressed with the incredible sportsmanship. I mean 3rd overtakes 2nd and 2nd cheers her on? That’s cyclocross for you.
Note to self: I love these women.
Now I want to get away. I want to open up a gap, disappear around a corner, and make a getaway. I am on the loose and I do not plan to return to custody. She’s breathing down my neck and so I go to the legs, grit my teeth, and find something else to give. I take a few chances, heat up a few corners, and put power into the egg beaters.
Go legs, go!
My eyes are crossing. Everywhere there are people with loud voices, screaming. Sometimes for me, sometimes for people near me. The sun is a fiery ball in the sky and it is burning me. My lungs are searing. I am drying up and scalding. Heat like a weight and the grass gets thicker with every lap.
The corners are shrinking and getting tighter, the barriers are now ten feet tall. When I cross them I am flying and I have to move the stars aside. Why am I holding this bike? Why am I flying up here? Who set this fire in my lungs?
I recognize little and understand even less. Only the 3 laps to go sign truly registers – and it is a sucker punch. Three more!? Impossible.
Shutup! Everything is possible. All that needs to happen is for the pedals to keep turning over, for the bike to keep moving forward. My hands are bright blue objects operating breaks and gears. They are out there in front of me, so I keep following them.
I am catching more of the back of the beginners and juniors fields now and every pass is a magician’s trick. A small child in the middle of the path ahead.
I am thinking: “There is a very small child in my race. How did that very small child get there?”
I am speaking: “Ok sweetie – I’m on your left! On your left!”
She moves to the left straight into my line and I bail in order not to hit her. She looks back at me over her shoulder and speeds away on her very small bike.
I restrain the urge to swear and get back on my bike. Up ahead I try the pass again and say clearly, “I’m coming on your left, just stay exactly where you are, ok?”
She does. I am momentarily impressed with my ability to form sentences and then the pain sets in again. Sal tells me I’m in second. Maybe I’ve never been in second place in my life, I can’t remember. Either way, I can’t believe it. Why is this happening? How did I get here?
Shutup and ride. Ride faster! Go!
What’s that metallic taste in my mouth?
When the lap board says 2 to go I want to crash at full speed into a wall and end it all. Every pedal stroke an exercise in agony, every foot of grass a triumph. The wheels are coming off. They’re coming off. I’m losing it. I’m falling apart. This is where they will find my body.
But when I hear Sue Butler behind me, I rally. It won’t be two more laps. It will be one. One, goddamit! One!
I am so happy that I go into my bucket of words and make a sentence to send back to Sue, “Hey Sue! Just let me know where you are!” She laughs and says, “You’re fine!” and then passes me on the inside line of the next turn.
One more. One more lap. One.
My heart is slamming violently into the front of my chest and my arms and legs are no longer receiving message from my brain. Is that Jesus I see up there?
I can’t think. I come into a bit of sand on the wrong line and try to correct. Hop, skip, clunk.
The chain is off. “FUCK!” In 10 seconds, the chain is back on.
Ten seconds is a long time and the chasers close in. I do not remember where they passed me, or how, I am only keenly aware that I must somehow get me and my bike to the finish line in one piece. And fast.
I cannot remember how many have passed. I am trying to stay alive.
A hairpin right into a little ripper of a rise. I’ve ridden it all race long, but I can no longer handle the line and I go careening into the blackberry bushes, bringing down the rider behind me, who has just caught me. Our bikes tangle and I’m stuck in the thicket. My bibs tear as I free myself and I scramble up the rise, miss a remount, veer into the brush again, and finally get myself back on course.
The rider has pulled away and I am aware that I am taking on water, but I am not prepared to abandon ship.
In the cone ahead of me there is a path. On the path is rutted dirt. Corners and cones. Look at the pretty red ones. Those go on my right. Red on the right. Yes, that’s it. I’ve been around this course how many times? I can’t remember but it suddenly feels like the first.
Barriers. You jump over these, right? One, two, three, four, five, six. Shooting out of a series of grassy turns, I hit the straight-away, find the drops, and put my head down. These legs are not pulling anyone back now. They are holding off more damage. They are halfway to abandoning me for good. My mind has lost control of this situation. Everything now is blood and guts and muscles and tendons and neurons. The bike is a foreign object. My hands are blue orbs glowing far, far away from me.
I follow them.
The finish line screams mercy and I roll to a stop on the right side of the shoot. Bright light and bodies, parked cars and bikes. The world at a slight tilt. Kenji is the first to find me and I beg him for water, which Sal eventually provides.
I excuse myself because the world is making wishy washy sounds inside my stomach. By the shade of a large truck I sit down, put my head between my knees, and relish the taste of blood in my mouth.
My bibs are torn, I look like I’ve been in a cat fight, and I want to sleep for 17 days.
It must be cross season.