I pulled into the parking lot at Hanna Springs Elementary school and got my bike from the truck of the Kia Optima I had rented. Not an ideal rental car but I could lower the two back seats and the trunk was roomy enough that the bike would fit, minus the front wheel.
Although I was at least 20 minutes early, I was in a hurry to find my “teammates” for the day. I did not anticipate meeting Vanessa Beltran and her friends because they were departing at 9:00 a.m. and not rolling out at 8:00 a.m., the start of the 50-mile ride. I got on my bike and went 20 yards before returning to the car. Lights.
I had brought a rear tail light for the bike and flashing helmet lights. I have found myself much more antsy on the bike since my crash, even though I was near no one. No riders. No walkers. And especially no cars but found in the last week as I returned to riding that cars especially made me antsy. Those lights would do no good locked in the car for the day.
Properly lit up, I rode down Hackberry Street and was directed to the Atlas start – I followed others via sidewalks or just cutting through the park’s grass. I wanted to get a look at the Mile of Silence, a mile (or quarter-mile) of signs dedicated to people fighting or have fought cancer. I found the sign dedicated to my cousin, Kay Walborn. To see the others would have to wait until we rode this stretch at the end of the ride.
I had two ride options today: a 25 mile loop or a 50 mile loop. I did not come to Texas to ride 25 miles. So I was committed to 50. While normally I can ride 50 with almost no effort, since knee surgery in February, I only had ridden 50 miles once. That was three weeks ago from Reston to Purcellville when I discovered Scott and Nichole Davison had sold their bike shop and moved to France.
But after the crash and concussion, I was off the bike completely for 10 days and then allowed to slowly introduce “light activity.” I rode 10-12 miles three of four times although I rode 26 miles once. The day I rode 26 miles I cut it short and thought then about changing all my reservations from this weekend to the Livestrong Challenge in October instead. But I didn’t.
I looked for Mary. Mary Natoli is the president of the Rice University Cycling and Triathlon team and a friend of mine who I met five years ago. I saw the Rice jerseys lining up at the start and asked Cat, one of their riders, if she could hold my bike long enough so I could hug Mary. She obliged.
Mary introduced me to Cat and Caitlyn. And Brian Menegaz, who was a 2009 alum of the T4K. She said we could ride together, they would probably go 16-18 mph and I thought I could handle that.
We rolled out and quickly Brian was off the front and Mary and I had to bridge up to his group. His fiancé (?) was with him as well as another rider. If they introduced me then I suck at remembering (which is true).
I don’t know how it happened but we organized and Brian and I were on the front, setting a nice easy (so I thought) pace, although a couple of times we were asked to slow down.
The thought that “an easy 50 miles” would be my first effort since the concussion and that I should save myself did not exist. In reality, I was burning matches that I would need at the end, without even realizing it because the pace we were going is one I maintain when I am in “bike shape.” With Brian and me at the front, we averaged 17 mph over 13 miles, our fastest segment of the day.
At one point I even told Brian that I probably shouldn’t be up here setting the pace the entire time and should drop back and sit in. But I didn’t.
There were four rest stops on this course which made for an easy day. My group stopped at all four. Because I anticipated getting a complimentary bottle from Mellow Johnny’s with my rental, I had brought just one water bottle. A sponsor, Bush’s Chicken, had some bottles, not necessarily for the bike, but I was offered one and put it on my bike.
The roads were mostly “heavy” roads. Those are of the chip and seal variety and don’t present a smooth riding surface. They didn’t affect my ride or comfort, but I was working harder than if I was on smooth pavement.
At Mile 27 we had a rest stop just as we turned onto a newly surfaced road. By new I mean yesterday. Literally yesterday. Fresh oil. I was very glad I was not on my bike but was on a rental. Our group stayed together but after five miles or so I noticed that I had gapped Mary. I slowed a little for her to stay with me and we joined a teammate. We had 11 miles on that tar and chip mess.
At our last stop, Mile 38, the star seemed to be this 9-week old German Shepherd puppy named Murphy. Everyone wanted to pet him and he only wanted relief on the ground under a table in the shade. I was hoping his owner was getting him enough water as I was finding my own.
This is a supported ride and at every stop they had bags of ice. One did not have to settle for lukewarm water in your bottle but always could add ice and make it ice old. I refilled my bottle (the second one stayed on my bike with 100 degree water in it) and went to tell Mary that I couldn’t wait for everyone to finish eating fruit and filling bottles before rolling out.
I could feel my body shutting down and I didn’t want to spend more time at this stop than necessary. But Mary’s group didn’t linger and we were soon on the road. We were off that new chip and seal road but it looked like we had a half-mile climb right out of our stop.
Brian and his couple of riders went. Mary hadn’t yet clipped in so I went at a slower pace determined to let her catch me. I looked back and could see her but also saw a couple gaining on me. First the man passed me then his wife passed me. And I felt a twinge.
Strangely enough, whether the road got steeper or leveled out a bit I couldn’t tell you, but I found myself passing this couple. We were all riding at our own pace.
About a quarter-mile later, Mary caught up, along with a friend. We had talked for most of 38 miles but said nothing the last 10. It was a sign to me that I was beat.
There was a strong headwind. A strong, hot headwind. It seemed every time I looked up the road was going up. There were no major climbs just a gradual slog into the winds.
The twinge was a warning. My body was shutting down. I carried a bottle of Hot Shot designed to eliminate cramping. I had never needed it before but was able to unseal it and drink about 1/3 of it at once. And just like that, the cramping went away.
We continued on, without talking. As the road turned up again Mary pulled away. Earlier in the day I would have gone with her but I knew better than to try. I was light-headed. And I was watching my heart rate monitor. It seemed to record a higher than believable rate. I was pushing 170 bpm yet I wasn’t breathing heavy.
I also thought, in no particular order, that maybe my blood pressure was way off. I couldn’t feel my heartbeat at 170 bpm but maybe I was ready to have a stroke. I saw one SAG vehicle go by and lamented they had room for three bikes on the back and they had three bikes on the back. I thought maybe I would pull over and call for a SAG but sitting on the side of a shade-less road seemed more punishment than moving forward.
With Mary up the road, I was keeping pace with her friend, neither of us saying a word. I changed my Garmin screen and could see I had 5.2 miles left. Then 4.5. Then 4.0. Mary’s friend seemed to be struggling and it was all I could do to tell her “3 miles to go – we got this.” I counted down 2.5 then 2. Then we passed a couple of riders coming in from their 25-mile ride which unconsciously may have given us a boost. And we saw Mary.
With one mile to go, we caught Mary and soon turned down the street to make the Mile of Silence. I asked Mary to stop with me so I could get a picture of Kay’s sign. And then I sought out signs for Jake and Alex (Jacob Grecco and Alex Shepherd).
Mary and I rode the last half mile together, with Mary, not me, wanting to stop and take some pictures of the old downtown. Another sign I wasn’t thinking straight.
We parked our bikes and I called Vanessa. She had texted and wondered if I was there and I wasn’t going to mess around with texts. She asked if I was OK and told me I didn’t sound good. Her group was in the food line and allowed me to cut in. I was so cramped and tired that social norms (not cutting line) were not going to be obeyed.
We found someone who found this year’s bicycle buddy, Grant McFarlin. After meeting we talked about the day’s ride. He had done the 25-mile route. I am a big supporter of the T4K program including their safety and training. They have a required metric that all riders must meet – a 10-hour century ride. Grant told me one of the riders had crashed at Mile 90 in April and never finished his requirement.
So on Thursday, the day before they were to leave, Grant and two other riders, joined this rider so he would finish his test and ride the T4K. Grant had ridden a century on Thursday, 70 mile roll out yesterday, so he was to be excused for a 25-mile ride today.
Grant couldn’t stay and talk much as they were getting ready to present. After this year’s T4K teams presented, music started playing and everyone sort of scattered. I was told that Grant walked “that way.” And pointed to the horizon.
Although I had cramped even while sitting and eating under the big tent, I needed 1.5 miles to make 50. I would have quit at 49.99 two hours earlier but thought I would take “the long way” back to my car. As I arrived, there were just two cars left in the lot. Mine and a pickup truck next to mine. And Grant was talking to the driver.
Grant and his girlfriend, Lizzie Hill, had walked over to the school and I was able to see him before they would depart. That warmed my heart I could say goodbye.
They walked back to the event and I drove off into the horizon. Or sunset. Or to the nearest In-N-Out Burger for dinner. Yea, I think that was it.
EDIT/EPILOGUE – I still had the effects of my concussion and should not have traveled to Texas for this ride. My body was not in shape (see photos) and certainly could not handle a 50-mile ride in Texas heat. But the next night, in Houston, was the last night that I had headaches from the crash so I was healing. Slowly.