What began terrifying became glorious and ended in triumph; cycling 150 miles around Mt. Rainier in a day was wonderful, yet there were moments that were absolutely life threateningly scary.
I stayed in my sleeping bag as long as I could; I had a long day ahead of me and four am came early and crisp. I was so excited, I barely slept. I forced down my banana, turkey sausage and Starbucks Double Shot while still in my bag. I climbed sleepily out of the trunk of my car and jumped on my bike. It was still dark out; we rode with headlamps on a desolate highway that would shortly be filled with speeding cars, rock haulers, and logging trucks.
My Father-in-law, Budd, was my inspiration for the ride. At the age of 76, he was the second oldest person in the group of 800 riders, and therefore his bib number was #2. A rider’s age determined their bib number; I was number 671 at the age of 38. I was amazed that most people were older than me; while riding long hills I was always cheering on the people with low numbers. I even walked my bike up a portion of the very last, long and grueling hill to keep a lady with bib number five company. Budd was far out in front of me for most of the ride and I wondered what was wrong with me. Why was I riding so slowly?
The morning fog sat in the valley, shrouding barns, fences and crops. Cat tails and tall grasses welcomed the sun rise and would wave in the growing traffics exhaust. Morning commuters began to speed angrily along our sides yelling redneck profanities for us to “get off the road!”. I could feel my stress level increase, my heart pounding faster in my chest, my hands gripping my handlebars and my breath felt tight in my throat. Cyclists were passing me on my left, going into the auto lane. Why was I so slow? Groups of 14 people drafting one another passed me like a long Chinese dragon dancing up the hill in their colorful jerseys. Then, the double trailer logging trucks and rock haulers came barreling within two feet from my left shoulder, taunting me to lose control and swerve into their death causing traction tires. I could feel the suction of the air current like a river wanting to pull me into a rapid. I thought my heart was going to implode in my chest; I started to hyperventilate. I was only 18 miles into this 150 mile bike ride and I wanted to go home. I didn’t sign up for a near death experience; I just wanted a physical challenge. I pulled over at a wood shed looking bus stop to take a break. I was so distraught, I peed on my shoes while relieving myself around back in the overgrown grass and blackberries. To find cell service I walked up the road and came to a hand painted sign that said “I am watching you through my spotting scope of my rifle, come any closer and I WILL shoot”, welcoming. I stood their brazenly and made my phone call to tell my husband how scared I was, luckily he didn’t answer. After I slowed my breathing and heart rate down I built up the testosterone to get back on my bike. I was not going to turn around; it would have been more dangerous. At least by going with the pack of cyclists, drivers (cyclist hating red necks or not) would expect me. Plus, I was determined to ride my bike around Mt. Rainier; it was forecasted to be a glorious day and I was not whimping out on my Father-in-Law. When I rejoined the riders I linked up with a group of ladies, I realized I was not going slowly; I am just a lady, not a team of competitive dudes. One of these ladies had done the ride five times previously, she gave me the best advice, “Don’t burn yourself out in the first 60 miles, or it will kill you in the last 90”. From that point on I enjoyed my ride completely, it was also right around the time we entered the National Park. The expletives from passers-by turned into encouragement like from a high school cheerleading squad.
The towering cedars and firs filled the air with their sweet smell of sap and decomposition. I pushed up long, swerving, hair-pin turns breathing in this earth flavored air, I smiled with every breath as I took in magnificent panoramic views of the glacier patched dormant volcano. When the ten mile downhill came, I held on and let gravity take me. I swerved joyfully around the yellow median dashes as if I were a skier making perfectly symmetrical turns down a groomed slope. However, I was compelled to keep my speed in check due to ominously exposed cliffs with only a two foot tall stone guard rail to keep me from flying with my bike into the abyss. If I did go out of control the guard rail would keep my bike on the road, but not me!
After meeting up with Budd around the half-way point, we enjoyed one another’s companionship when we had breath to chat. The 10,000 feet of elevation gain came in three large, long hills, but the final hill was the most notorious. The last hill was 10 miles with 4,000ft of elevation gain. Budd’s breaks were rubbing his wheel and caused him seriously strenuous effort; we rested together every mile in slivers of shade or in the cooling mist of a roadside waterfall. To keep the momentum, I would get on my bike first and sing the Bob Marley reggae number “I got to keep on movin’, I got to keep on movin’” and peddle away with plans to meet him in the next shade patch or water stop. At the next water stop, which was at mile marker 100 with a shade tent and big coolers of water, I waited for quite a while asking the following cyclists if they had seen him. Then he came, but in a white truck; he had to bail out, his brakes had fallen off his bike. I got on my bike again, sad for Budd that he wouldn’t ride through the finish line, lonely and jealous that he was in a truck not sitting on a tender seat. At this point my mind started playing tricks on me and the accompanying emotions that go along with tenacity and determination.
The final hill came into view, a long diagonal slope across a sheer rock cliff band. Self-doubt crept its ugly words in my brain, but my sword of determination cut it to shreds. I wasn’t allowed to feel pain, or even sorry for myself anymore, I had to finish for more than just myself! I had to finish for Budd, and his wife, May, who had knee surgery and gave me her position in the coveted event. I had to cross the finish line for the number five lady that I walked with for a couple of minutes. But as I got into the thick of the craggy slope I saw two more switch backs of the highway way up near the top of the cliff band. I couldn’t believe it! Supposedly, there were only 2 more miles and 2,000 feet elevation gain remaining, the slope had to be incredibly steep. I was scared. Everyone said the last hill was more mentally challenging than physical, but I didn’t know if I had enough daylight to make it at my slow and steady pace. I worried my way up the sun baked slope ready to push my bike into the dark of night if I had to. Remarkably, however, a green highway sign appeared at the rise of the long hill marking a junction of the highway. I had made the high point of the ride! I get to go downhill again, the 40 mile homestretch. But I only had two hours to do it…I needed to go fast. I kept my speed at 20mph or higher, I didn’t stop long for the last food break. I calculated my estimated time of arrival with every rotation of my peddles and crankshaft. When I pumped into the final neighborhood and turned the corner into the finish line, where my mother-in-law and sister-in-law cheered, I raised my arm and yelled “F*%# yeah!!!” in pure elation of completing the enormous circumnavigation challenge.
Thank you for this glorious experience Budd, it was a good day! So glad I shared it with you…#2!!!