Back to New Hampshire

Continuing the story from last summer…

From August of 2008 through February of 2011 I had done a lot of work. From March through July I did a whole lot more. Now, in August, it was time to see whether I had done enough.

It was time to go back to Gordon’s.

I took 10 days off before the day of the ride, and 2 days off after. I dropped the kids off at a friend’s house  in Connecticut, and continued on to New Hampshire. Mount Washington is known for its ‘changeable’ weather, so I brought just about all my riding gear–including my winter stuff. The race has been known to be canceled–for snow. In August. But there has to be a LOT of snow for it to be canceled. Or lightning. Other than that, the race is on.

Gordon’s farm is about an hour’s drive south of Mt. Washington, but it’s still a rather hilly place. Gordon showed me showed me a few routes that he would ride back when he was competing, and even rode a few with me.

There are some people who don’t really age. They just get seasoned, like fine oak. That’s Gordon.He doesn’t look much different than when he was in college. He eats right, and life on the farm will always trump lunchtime trips to the gym. So, even though Gordon hadn’t done much riding in the past few years, it was a bit of validation when I not only could keep up with Gordon, but I could pull ahead of him at the finish.

But riding on some rolling hills ain’t climbing a mountain. So, we put the bikes on the back of his car, and drove to Hurricane Hill.

Hurricane Hill is in Conway, which is the town nearest to Mount Washington. It’s actual name is  Hurricane Mountain but it’s often called a hill for two reasons: 1) It’s a lovely alliteration, and 2) It’s in the shadow of the entire Presidential Range, and compared to them, it just doesn’t look all that mountainous.

But it’s a steep, steep climb. The road on the west side is a 1.5-mile-long 15-degree ascent. The road on the east side is nearly 2 miles, but only(!) a 12.5 degree incline. We got there around 11 am, and started climbing.

We started out slow, and I let Gordon take the lead. But a few hundred yards into the climb, Gordon moved to the side. “Don’t let me slow you down,” he said. I don’t know if I accelerated as much as he slowed down, but I started putting distance between us. About a mile into the climb there was a switchback that felt like it was going to be impossible. I got up out of my saddle and pushed. I won’t lie to you: part of what got me past that bit of hell was knowing that Gordon was behind me. I was pretty sure he didn’t think I would be able to do this. And with good reason. This was nothing at all like anything I’d ever done. He’d never see me push myself, because I never pushed myself.

Well, I was pushing myself now.

I made it to the top a good 5 minutes before he got there. I knew that he hadn’t been riding in a while, but I still wanted to make a statement. And he was impressed. For a minute.

“Now go down the east side, and come back up. I’ll wait for you here,” he said.

Oh. “You’re not coming with me?” I asked.

“I don’t have an appointment with Mount Washington on Saturday. You do,” was his response.

So I did it.

Yikes.

I’ve said it before: riding up a steep incline is tough. Riding down is scary. This time, though, I was also scared because I wasn’t sure I would be making the ride back up. I rode down until the road leveled out, then turned around and climbed back up again.

Ever have one of those moments when something you know intellectually hits you emotionally? Lots of times they’re negative. For about a year after my Dad died I would get these moments when the bottom would drop out of my soul, where I would really, deeply feel the fact that he was gone.

About a half-mile back up the hill I had one of those moments. But this time it wasn’t at all negative. I can do this, I thought. I’m ready. It will be hard, and it will hurt like hell, but I can do this.

Gordon met me about a half-mile from the top. He had started to worry about letting me go by myself. “No problem,” I gasped. “I’m good.”

And I was. Until we started back down again. Yikes.

We put the bikes on the back of his car, and drove down to a little wide spot near a bridge over what was either a small river or large stream, and we sat and ate some sandwiches and fruit we packed.

“I gotta be honest,” Gordon said, “When you told me what you wanted to do, I didn’t think you had a chance of doing it.”

Told ya.

“But watching you climb today–you’re ready.”

It felt really good to hear that. And, knowing what was coming, I’d take any good feeling that I could.

Training

In October of 2008, right after I first committed to riding up Mt. Washington, I had a very steady routine: I would get up at 5, ride my bike to Cobb’s Hill Park, and ride up and down the hill a few times, then come home. I did that until the snow flew, and I put my bike in the basement, bought a trainer, and rode there until spring.

In the spring I discovered that something terrific had happened: The county had put in a gate. Technically, the park was closed from sunset to sunrise, but rarely was the gate closed. Whoever was supposed to stop by and close and lock the gate rarely made an appearance. Over the winter, though, the old hand-swung gate had been removed, and a high-tech sliding gate on a timer had been installed. This gate was big enough and wide enough that it was impossible to get around.

I didn’t think this was terrific at the time, but it forced me to stretch myself. At first I just rode around the base of the hill. Because I’m so imaginative. And, also, because usually by the time I got back around, the gate would be opened.

Then the thought occurred to me that, since I was on a bike, I could ride other places as well. Hey! How about that? So, I started planning routes to ride. And the rides got longer and longer as I got in better shape (and got a better bike as well). And that ride to work on my bike that seemed so daunting was now rather commonplace. Heck, I even rode 51 miles for my 51st birthday.

But with all the riding I was doing, there was something rather important missing:

Hills.

It’s not that I was avoiding them. It’s just that the hills where I live aren’t that steep. So, after I registered for the race, I did what I always did when I had a bike issue: I talked to Bob.

“You want Miller’s Hill,” he said immediately.

“And Bopple,” said Steve, one of his employees.

“Yeah–Bopple’s a good one,” said Bob, pulling out a map. “Oh–and Gannett.”

“South or west?” asked Steve.

“Both,” said Bob, “and Hicks road, too.”

“Where are these places?” I asked.

“Canandaigua,” said Bob. “The west side of the lake, all the way down to Naples, and back.”

So, Bob and Steve mapped out a course, and I thanked them. “You may not want to thank us,” Steve said. “You’ll probably be cursing us for a while first.”

Turns out that some of the steepest roads around are about 20 miles south of me. Cyclists who have ridden cross-country will often remark that the toughest roads to ride are in the Finger Lakes. It’s not so much that the hills are steeper than other places–although they are pretty steep–nor is it that the climbs are longer–and, again, they’re pretty long: It’s the fact that the roads tend to go straight regardless of the angle, and that there’s so darn many of them.

So that was my July. I took lots of days off, and spent all of them slogging around the west side of the lake. I rode those hills, and they left me gasping. The next time I stopped by the bike shop I told them I was riding the routes they suggested. I remarked on how hard they were.

“They’re nothing compared to Mount Washington,” said Steve. Boy, did that worry me.

Another thing that was a concern was the crowds of riders. Most of my riding was done by myself. How would I fare riding in a group? So I decided I would sign up for a ride to see how I did. I chose the Tour de Thompson, which took me all over the area I was already training in. I chose the hardest ride–the metric century. (A century ride is one of 100 miles or more. A “metric century” was 100 kilometers, or 63 miles.) It was set for less than a month from the Auto Road Hill climb, so I figured it would give me a good idea of where I was in my training.

Those hills are hard. The climbs were tough. If you click on the link, above, and look at the bottom of the page, you’ll see three mountain icons. That tells me how many ‘climbs’ are on the ride. A ‘climb’ is any incline of greater than 3% that lasts 500 meters or longer. Three degrees may not sound all that difficult, but when it goes on for three tenths of a mile, it’s noticeable. The lower the number, the harder the climb. So you’ll see that on this particular ride, I did seven Category 5 climbs, three Category 4’s, and one Category 3. Or, as I like to call it, a little slice of hell.

But as tough as those climbs were (and they were tough), there were also spots on the ride that went downhill. The graph under the map shows you that. All those bumps go up as well at down. Some of the spots were exhilaratingly downhill. The best part of the ride was the last mile: all down hill, on a wide, recently-paved road with great visibility and no cross streets. I ended up going close to 50 on that stretch. I passed a Harley. One that was being ridden at the time. I came home from that ride exhausted, and pleased. It was a tough ride, and I did it. Not only did I do it, but I did it in the time frame I had set for myself. Plus I got a cool T-shirt. Maybe I was ready for that big mountain, after all.

Then I looked at this. That’s Mt. Washington Auto Road. Look at the graph underneath. No bumps. It almost looks easy. That’s because it’s all up. Up, up, and up some more. Seven solid miles of up. It doesn’t even have a category number. Just HC. I don’t know what HC stands for. I can guess.

Hard Climb?

Hardest Climb?

Hell Climb?

And I would be doing it in 20 days.

Holy Cow.

Fixin’ to Get Ready

When I lived in North Carolina, I had a roommate who would use that phrase. Whenever we were going out, he’d ask me “you fixin’ to get ready?”

As a northerner, this use of the word ‘fix’ was new to me. It meant ‘prepare’ rather than ‘repair.’  Which, to my way of thinking, meant the question was rather silly. “You getting ready to get ready?” was redundant. You prepared, then you acted.

As a word guy, I always felt superior when I discovered redundancies. Did you enter your PIN number in the ATM machine? Then you’re impenetrably dense. Even well-established words weren’t out of my target range. One of my favorites was ‘overwhelm.’ To ‘whelm’ means to submerge completely. How can you be more submerged than completely submerged?

..and then, of course, I found out the hard way that it is, indeed possible to be overwhelmed. And I also found out that it’s possible to astonish. ‘Astonish’ is the antonym of overwhelm. Trust me. I’m a word guy.

And I was astonished to discover that it is important to be fixin’ to get ready.

That’s pretty much all I did, training-wise, for the better part of two years. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d never been one for personal awareness. What I thought I was doing was training. I thought I would get on my bike and ride for a while, then in August I’d ride my bike up a mountain, everyone would go “ooo!” and that would be it.

I don’t know if ‘arrogance’ and ‘ignorance’ are synonyms, but they should be.

Sometime in the early spring of 2009, I changed my goal of riding up Mt. Washington from 2009 to 2010. And then in 2010, I did it again, to 2011. It was more difficult than I had anticipated.

But I kept it up. Which surprised me a little. At one time, it would have surprised me a lot. In fact, it would have astonished me. But times change. I wasn’t just talking about this adventure in some abstract way. I was doing what I could to change myself. I rode my bike all spring, summer, and fall. And when winter came,  I bought a trainer, and rode my bike in the basement. 4 or 5 days a week, staring at the cat’s litter box, trying to disappear into my headphones.

Then spring came again, and I got the bike I wanted–the one with a low gear the size of a frisbee, and continued riding outdoors. I put 2,000 miles on that bike that summer. I thought I was training.

Then one day in February of 2011, out of the blue, I realized that if I was ever going to put Mt. Washington behind me, I would have to more than commit to climb it. I would need to actually climb it. You know–put myself on the bike, and put my bike on the mountain, and pedal ’til I reached the top. In other words, do what I said I was going to do.

So I went online to check to see when they would begin registering for the ride. Even though it’s incredibly steep, there are about a thousand or so people who want to ride their bikes up this mountain each year, but only 600 positions available. It’s not unusual for registration to close the day after it opens, so I wanted to make sure I knew when it would open. I was pretty sure it was some time in May.

Turns out the registration wasn’t in May. It opened at 9:00 the next day. And it would cost me $350 to register.

I was astonished. Not only at the freakish timing, but also that I had the $350 to spend. And I got scared. This was it. If I filled out the form and sent in the money, I would be honest-to-God committing to this event. I would literally be putting my money where my mouth was.

And I did it. The next morning I filled in the forms, transferred the money electronically, and giggled. Yes, giggled.

And it was then that I realized for the past two years, I wasn’t actually training for the ride. What I was doing was getting myself into good enough shape to really start training.

I was preparing to prepare.

The time for fixin’ to get ready had passed. It was time to really get ready.

I had to train. Oh, boy.

2009-2011

The last few posts have pretty much taken us up to the point where I started this blog. If you want to rehash the entirety of all of what happened between that October day and last August, just go to the first post, and work your way up from there.

In restrospect, it was not the best idea to title the posts with the date. Oh, well. Live and learn.

In a nutshell, here’s what else I learned:

  • It’s important to have the proper equipment. This includes the proper bike and the proper clothes.
  • It’s important to have a routine. I need to pick times to exercise, and to commit to them. Otherwise, I just get lazy.
  • I also discovered I had a misconception about how I would feel when I got into shape. I thought I would be able to go and go and go without getting tired. What I actually learned was how to be able to go and go and go while being tired.
  • If a certain hill tires you out when you climb it, it will most likely always tire you out when you climb it. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to climb it.
  • I get a deep, profound joy out of riding a bicycle. Much deeper than I had ever anticipated.

And there was other stuff, too. If I think about it, I’ll post it. But I want to get to what I’m doing now.  I would be surprised if I spend more than two more posts on this past summer and the ride.

Or maybe I’ll post more. I surprise myself all the time these days.

Talk Talk

So did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year? Do you make them regularly? Did you at one time, but stop, because you never seem to follow through on them?

That’s what I did. Or, more to the point, didn’t do. For a lot of years. When I was younger, I’d make lists:

  • Lose weight
  • Dress better
  • Manage my money
  • Not fall in love with every gir…hey, how ya doin’?

And the like. After a while I stopped because they were vague goals and easily forgotten. And also because when I said stuff like that and didn’t follow through, I felt like I wasn’t being a man of my word.

So to prevent that happening, I pretty much didn’t give my word on anything. At least, anything that might take some effort.

That’s why it was so difficult for me to talk about my decision to ride my bike up Mt. Washingon. And also why it was so important–not only to talk about it, but to keep talking about it. Because I knew if I didn’t mention it, I would back away from it, ignore it, pretend I never said anything about it and hope no one ever mentioned it.

“Hey Brian, weren’t you planning on riding your bike up some mountain?”

“Yeah. I was just being silly. Anyone want this last jelly donut?”

Actually, that’s not what would have happened. Most likely, I would have denied I ever said it. And I would have swiped the last donut when no one was looking.

I didn’t want to be that guy anymore. I wanted to be a man of my word. I still do. So I knew I would have to commit to the goal, talk about the goal, and work toward the goal. Starting this blog was a big part of all of that. Even though I let it go dark when I got close to the goal, it was invaluable at the early part of the process. And it’s also why I’m starting it up again. I’ve got another goal, and I’m starting to work towards it. And, as always, if I don’t talk about the goal, I won’t work towards it.

Another thing I did is I got help. From a lot of places. I got the help because I asked for it. Funny how that works. I got bike advice from a bike shop, and I got head advice from a head shop.

Sorry. That joke was a bit too easy. Actually, I got it from a counselor. And also from a program of recovery. I know I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll continue to do so. If you think you might need help, you probably do. Seek it out. Ask for it.

It’s amazing what you can get in this life if you just ask for it.

Gordon

The next chapter in my tale of riding up Mount Washington. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to tell a story that doesn’t involve tons of backstory. But that day is not today.

§§§§§§

I believe I first met Gordon in 1975, or maybe 1976. His family moved in down the street from me. Gordon was quirky and brilliant. Just like me, except for the brilliant part. He and I were in the same grade at high school, and since we rode the same school bus home, we tended to hang out together a lot. We slowly became fast friends.

After graduation, we went to different colleges, but in the same town, so our friendship continued, although we did start to grow distant at that point–mostly because our lives were taking us places where we rarely interacted. We did still have some contact with each other, mostly letters and phone calls, but the last time I had seen Gordon was 1993, at my wedding.

So, in the spring of 2008, I was a bit worried about calling him and asking if we could come stay with him for a few days. Gordon was now a high school English teacher and a poet, but he also had a farm. I hadn’t seen, or even talked to him, in years. Turned out I needn’t have worried. “Why not a week?” was his reply.

Gordon’s farm is much like Gordon: quirky and brilliant. He and his wife raise Gypsy Cobs, but the farm also includes purebred short-hair collies, dozens of free-range chickens in all sorts of brilliant colors and sizes, and guinea fowl, which are not only beautiful but useful, as their idea of a delicious meal is as many ticks as they can find. Their only drawback is their call, which sounds like someone’s cutting sheet metal with a jigsaw. Plus, they had a large patch of land that they converted into a vegetable garden.

Me, and G., and baby E

Someplace in the mid ’80’s, Gordon was diagnosed with MS. He didn’t like the way the medication was making him feel, so he decided to stop taking it, and start a program of diet and exercise to combat the symptoms. It worked. He started riding his bicycle competitively. And, he became a vegetarian. So, between the eggs his hens lay and the garden, he and his wife were growing a portion of the food they ate.

His wife was also new–well, new to me. One of the things he had done since I got married, was get married himself. I had never met her before that day. She was as quirky and brilliant as Gordon, and their affection for each other was obvious. Plus, she was a cut-throat Scrabble and Boggle player.

One afternoon while we were all hanging out, I asked Gordon to tell me the story of how they met and how they got together. It’s one of my things: I like to hear proposal stories.  Gordon told me that they had met in the late ’90’s, at the height of Gordon’s bicycling career. When they met, he had already climbed Mount Washington twice, but both times he had been stymied by that last 50 yard 22.5-degree climb, having to stop, and push his bike across the finish line.

I’ve mentioned before that the Mount Washington Auto Road is so long, steep, and winding, that you are not allowed to ride your bike back down the hill. Everyone who climbs it has to have someone at the top with a vehicle to carry both rider and bike back down. For his third ride, Cheryl agreed to be at the top for him.

This time, Gordon didn’t stop. He dug down deep, and with the last bit of strength, made it to the top, where Cheryl was waiting for him. “I collapsed in her arms,” he told me, “and while she was holding me, I asked her to marry me.”

“It’s a good thing you fell to your right, rather than your left,” I told him. “Otherwise, you’d be married to some random volunteer dude.”

That’s what I said. But his story did something else to me. As he told it, I heard a voice in my head. “You’re doing that,” the voice said. “You’re going to do that.”

The voice startled me. I have no idea where it came from.

I ignored it.

For a while.

2008

I’ve been asked more than once to write about my ride up Mt. Washington. It’s not that easy for me to do.

That’s not quite true; in once sense, I could be very truthful describing it in two sentences:

I started riding my bike at the bottom of the mountain. When I got to the top, I stopped.

But that really doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. I suppose I could add a little bit of color to the reporting–after all, I was riding up the tallest mountain of a range of mountains in a beautiful part of the world, but really, mostly what I saw was the asphalt.

So if you really want to hear the story, I’ll need to go back to 2008.

§§§§§§

The early part of the previous decade was pretty tough. Among the things I lost were:

  • My savings (bankruptcy)
  • My house (foreclosure)
  • Two cars (one reposessed, one totaled)
  • Half my retirement
  • My wife
  • One of my sons

My wife and son are not dead; just not really in my life any more.

I had a hand in all this. I refused to acknowledge what was going on. I didn’t really do anything to take care of myself. I felt like a victim, and I acted like one, too. Part of me really enjoyed it, too. It was liberating: None of this was my fault, so I was blameless, just a sad clown on his way down.

Things started changing around 2004. I found support, and started working a program of recovery. I still had a lot to deal with, but I was getting on top of things. By the end of 2007, I had divorced my wife, emerged from bankruptcy, and started losing weight. I had gone from obese to merely overweight, but this was an improvement.

At the beginning of 2008, something else happened: A website that I had helped launch in the late 1990’s, that hadn’t made a cent, was sold, and I suddenly had a nice-sized chunk of change. Not a lot, but enough to make me feel better about the world. I started buying things. I bought a new vacuum cleaner. I bought a couch. I bought a used (but powerful) G5 mac tower. I bought a propane gas grill. Not big things, but when a third of your wages are garnished for five years, they’re things that are nice to get.

And I bought a bicycle.

In February  the idea was presented to me that I might try getting in shape. I thought about running, but one sad lap around the block was enough to convince me that this wasn’t the activity for me. So, I meditated about it, and during the meditation, I concluded that I should buy a bike. I hadn’t been on a bicycle since the early 1990’s, but it seemed like a good idea. So I immediately got on Craigslist, and there, just posted, was an advertisement for a Schwinn Frontier hybrid bike. $150. Sold. I did a little bit of riding here and there, and I hated it. Then I properly inflated the tires, and I liked it a whole lot more.

I did a bit of riding that summer. Not a lot, but I was getting comfortable in the seat. It was even suggested to me that I ride my bike to work! Ha! That’s about 10 miles! No, thank you!

Another thing that happened that summer was a vacation. The kids and I hadn’t gone on a vacation since–well, ever. I wanted to take one with them. Finances were still pretty tight, but I had some things going for me:

  • A recently-purchased 2003 Chevy Impala LS with air conditioning, sun roof, leather seats, and a nice stereo system
  • I had enough vacation time stored up that I could take the entirety of the month of August off
  • I had friends and family in several interesting places in the Northeast

So, I got in contact with my friends, and made arrangements to spend several-days-to-a-week with them that month. I would start out by visiting my brother, who lived north of Albany (right near Saratoga Springs, where the Travers Stakes were running, plus he had a swimming pool in his back yard), then scoot up to Rick and Susan’s house just outside of Boston, then deep into New Hampshire to visit my friend Gordon, who owned a horse farm.

It was a great month. How great was it? Well, it was so great, that the fact that my TV was stolen while we were gone did nothing to lessen the greatness of it.

Plus, at Gordon’s farm, I found a quest.

And that’s going to take another post.