202 miles, two states, heat, rain, pain – and one awesome crew chief
Things seemed just a little surreal Sunday, July 12, at about 1:30 p.m. The sky maintained its steel gray color from the morning lightning and thunder show in Centralia, Wash. – definitely not the kind of omen one wants when straddling a bicycle with 104 miles of rural Pacific Northwest roads ahead.
Two hundred feet above the Columbia River, roughly 300 people pedaled their way across Lewis and Clark Bridge, saying ‘goodbye’ to Washington, and ‘hello’ to Oregon.
At least I did so, and raised a defiant fist in the air as I crossed the stateline, my legs fatigued, and my body saddle sore from the past 150 miles of cycling from Seattle to Portland.
Punctuating the moment, a freighter about 500 yards west of the bridge blasted its horn. The end of this 202-mile adventure was nearing, and I was going to have to find something within myself to finish the next 50 miles.
But I couldn’t do it without some help along the way.
My longtime college friends Christina and Steve (who live in Beaverton, Ore.) asked me, “Why are you doing the STP again?” I didn’t have an answer for them. I wasn’t really in shape for a 100-mile ride, much less pedaling 202 miles in two days.
I guess I wanted to get back into cycling again. Work had been a little crazy the past couple years, and my road trips had taken me offroad with my truck. The ritual of me getting out on my bike fell by the wayside. I love to take my truck offroad, but four-wheeling is the kind of activity that doesn’t burn many calories.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not giving up offroad adventures. If it weren’t for four-wheeling, I wouldn’t have met her.
We met in 2007, during yet another Oregon road trip. She was there to promote a new Toyota offroad vehicle. Steve and I were there for a guys’-weekend four-wheeling trip in the Tillamook Forest.
Little did I think that two years later she’d be my support crew, getting me through the toughest parts of the STP.
I met the first test the STP threw at its 10,000 riders at mile 45 – the “Big Hill” climb out of Puyallup, Wash. With a 7 percent grade, the “Big Hill” challenged many who were thankful the climb only lasted a mile. I kept it conservative, and didn’t try to crush the “Big Hill.” Finishing the 2003 STP taught me a valuable lesson to ride at a moderate pace, rather than tackle every challenge full throttle. Ride smarter, not harder.
There she was at mile 55, the lunch stop. I had surprised both of us early in the ride by reaching the first major rest stop in short order. Getting out of Seattle was rather easy, and the first few miles ticked away as thousands of cyclists took over the rural roads of Washington. Mount Rainier loomed large almost every pedal revolution of the way. She was still at the hotel in the city, but promised in our cellular phone conversation she’d be there for me whenever I needed.
She had a camp table set up away from the rest of the crowd, and served an Indian lunch menu of hummus and naan. She kept me hydrated with water and Cytomax. This was much better than wading through a sea of cyclists for bananas and nutrition bars.
Though not a very technical ride, the STP became an endurance trial. The mercury shot up and settled somewhere between 85 and 90 degrees. The line of cyclists on the road seemed endless. Riders were starting to fatigue, and it looked as though a handful of riders were being treated after some sort of collision.
Somewhere between Yelm and Tenino, the heat started wearing me down. Off the road and on smooth, paved bike trails, thousands of us relished any shade we could find. It was difficult to cool off, and the water and electrolytes were sweating out of me as fast as I could put them in.
But there she was at the Tenino rest stop, where she got me off the bike and into my air-conditioned truck. A carton of rocky road ice cream and a small bag of Fritos corn chips were waiting for me.
“Ice cream and Fritos?” I asked.
“Your body wants something cool, and it needs salt,” this angel replied.
Almost 20 miles from the Lewis and Clark Bridge on day two, I was having that internal conversation with myself – as I’m sure many hundreds of others did at some point along the 202 miles. I hurt more all over than anywhere else … I really don’t want to be on this bike anymore … this rain sucks … I want this day to be over.
But she wouldn’t let me quit. She was there with snack foods, water and more Cytomax. The next time we’d see each other, we’d be in Oregon. That was all I needed to cross the Columbia River.
At mile 186, my arms hurt. My hands hurt. My back, my neck, my feet, my calves, my quadriceps, and yes, my butt hurt, too.
“I’m hurting, babe.”
“You want to quit?” she asked.
“No. I want that finisher patch.”
With 16 miles left we parted ways, saying we’d see each other at the finish line in northeast Portland. Fueled by a banana and lots of pomegranate and blueberry juice, I began to block out whatever pain I’d been feeling all day.
My legs felt strong for the first time this day. I began charging down Oregon’s Highway 30. I focused on pedaling harder, as well as smarter. Other riders who were ahead of me began falling behind.
I passed many more as I entered Portland’s city limits. I didn’t care about the torrential downpour that spattered rain and road grime all over us. The ride organizers threw in one very short, but viciously steep climb these last miles on the course. I crushed it.
Turning street corner after street corner, I just pedaled as hard as I could. Soon, a crowd came into view four blocks up the street.
I got ahead of a pack of cyclists who got jammed up at a red light. I crossed the finish line alone, but to a roar a cheers from the crowd. A volunteer handed me a finisher patch. Get me off this bike.
I couldn’t find her amid the crowd of STP finishers, friends, family and volunteers. I just wanted to find her.
Soon enough, there she was, her arms outstretched.
We hugged. “You did it,” she said.
I buried my face into her shoulder and wept.
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