The Centurion Lessons

The Centurion Smile

It has always been in my nature to try new things…things that make me push a little harder and find out what I’m really made of.  This is particularly true when my life cards are dealing tough hands. The 2012 summer was a season of incredible racing but it was also filled with injury and other medical challenges.  I used racing to help keep me sane, maintain focus and push past my daily physical pain that kept trying to crush my spirit.  Now that the O-cup series was over and my medical issues never take a day off…I thought, “what can I work on next?” A lack of goals brings stillness and stillness allows pain to creep in and consume like a Nova Scotia fog.  Since I insist on living life to the fullest every day and try to push the fog back out to sea, if only for a short while, that means there always has to be “something next!”

Centurion start

The “something next” became the Centurion race that took place on Sept 16th.  A road riding event with various distances, the 100 mile (160 km) distance attracts thousands of riders from far and wide.  The courses travel through the beautiful roads of the Blue Mountain area outside Collingwood, Ontario. The location is lined with  green pastures, red barns and views of the majestic Georgian Bay. It’s a must do event for anyone that loves to road ride.  My passion is mountain biking and road riding is used for training.  This meant I was in for a real adventure!

I registered last minute for fear of monsoon rain conditions.  I might be adventurous but riding 160 km in the pouring rain for a first time experience wasn’t enticing.  The weather man was right for once and I woke up to blue skies and crisp temps the day of the race.  Anxiety turned my stomach as I snuggled up to my morning coffee at 6 a.m.  I was about to be surrounded by at least a thousand or more other cyclists and well, I usually rode in groups of 6 or less.  Oddly, the distance of 160 km with approximately 6000′ of elevation wasn’t a threat.  I knew I could ride that far since I’ve ridden that far alone before…but I’ve never raced that distance in a swarm of cyclists.

Two hours seemed to fly by as I tried to wolf down some food, inhale coffee and settle my nerves.  Suddenly I heard the announcement for racers to be at the start line and Steven did the last run through on my Opus Vivace.  My bike was ready to go. Fortunately for us we stayed at a Bed and Breakfast called Pedulla’s that was 100 feet from the start line so I didn’t have to go far.

Staying warm at the start line in my fruit loops sweater!

Squeezing in amongst the couple of hundred riders that seem to instantly appear, I ran into a mountain biking competitor, Jenny Grass Brown. A highly experienced road racer as well, I was instantly relieved that I may be able to ride with her for a while.  Further ahead I saw Peter Kofman of Erace Cancer Cycling as well as Linda Shin, another mountain bike racer.  My heart rate began to settle and the desire to rush to the bathroom for the fifth time in an hour passed. I was convinced that there were plenty of familiar faces nearby and I would be able to “tag along!”

Blue skies at the Centurion

The beginning of the race has a neutral rollout star.  This means a pace car moves ahead slowly holding everyone at a moderate speed.  This is to prevent a catastrophe of a thousand racers trying to bust it out at the gate.  As the horn blew to begin, the car moved ahead and slowly and we began to shuffle along like a herd of cattle.  I thought neutral would remain neutral and suddenly found myself being grazed by cyclists coming from behind scurrying ahead and jockeying for some position up front that I obviously didn’t see.  Jenny very confidently and casually worked her way forward through the crowd. I, on the other hand, had several close calls with cyclists approaching from behind so I backed off trying to follow.  In less than a kilometre I could no longer see her.  I was now alone in a crowd that surged forward then slowed rapidly.  A whiplash process that continued for 5 kilometres to the first major hill, an 8 kilometre climb.

“Oh well,” I thought.  Ride to ride another day is my motto so I tried to chill out and survive the surges.  I believed that eventually I could work my way to my group of friends  in the front racing pack.  As we were nearing the leg burning climb, I became in awe of what I saw. Ahead of me was a wall of cyclists filling the entire road, undulating with the contours of the landscape. The whir of thousands of wheels filled the air.  Sunshine sparkled off the hundreds of helmets that moved like a swarm and I was right in the middle of it all.  I have never seen or heard anything like it.

Heading into the climb, I tried to not burn all my matches ascending but hoped to find some familiar faces.  Steadily climbing, I passed many riders struggling on the harsh warm up.  My legs and lungs felt incredible and I knew that I was about to have a really “on” day!  Glancing at faces in search of friends (since I don’t always recognize the back of their heads), I would say hello to strangers and move along. I weaved my way to the summit…I realized that the racers I had hoped to connect with were somewhere in the swarm way ahead. They were moving a hell of a lot faster than me in their peleton.

Telling myself there was 150  kilometres left and I could catch up with them at some point, I attempted to settle in with a small group of riders.  Sharing in “pulling” by taking the lead, I pushed the pace to try and close the gap and reach another group much further ahead.  Turns out my pace was too fast and I had dropped them.  Riding alone again, I put my head down and for several kilometres I hammered until I reached the next group.  It was a relief to feel the draft from a large group of riders and I enjoyed hanging at the back.

Riders everywhere

It didn’t take long before I was well rested and it was my turn to do the pulling.  I asked a few of the guys if they wanted to try bridge the gap to the next group.  The bigger the group, the more efficient we will be.  They said “sure!”  So I put my game face on and began the push.  Pulling the group for 5 km,  we were closing in on the next group.  I moved to the back and the rotation began again.  It was an incredible feeling travelling with such efficiency. My legs seemed to be getting stronger by the minute.  Back to my turn and I pushed the speed a bit more, looked back and I had dropped them.  Slowing down for them to catch up and some of the riders said the pace wasn’t sustainable for them.  I thanked them for the great rotation and that I was going to try and catch up with the next pack and off I went.

Catching up to the next group,  we made our way into the town of Creemore.  This is a picture perfect, quaint town in the middle of endless tree-lined rolling hills.  Riding into town I suddenly felt like I had just interfered with a parade…turns out we were the parade.  Seeing children with painted faces clanging cowbells and people lining the streets, applauding and shouting words of encouragement was incredible.  I felt a rush of pure energy fill me from their support and enthusiasm.  Strangers were there to keep us motivated and more motivated I became.

My legs and lungs became robotic.  Every effort I demanded, they provided.  Passing through a feed zone I slowed down to get some nourishment and disconnected from the pack.  Suddenly, I was riding solo into the wind in pursuit of them which remained my quest for some time. I kept talking to myself and saying, “if this was the last ride of your life, how would you ride it?” I would answer, “with everything I’ve got!” Eventually, my efforts paid off and I caught them.  One rider responded, “welcome back!” I drafted, recovered, got into the pull duty and somehow dropped the group on a climb. I was alone again.

Happiness is…completing the Centurion

This process was the extent of my race.  I spent approximately 80 kilometres overall riding alone. Working my way along between groups I managed to never really settle in.  Much like the Tour de France, the rider that goes out alone rarely wins. The effort without a team is huge.  I realized I was happy to meet the challenge of the workload alone. It became a journey of finding out how hard I could push, for how long and if I had enough mental tenacity to do it to the finish.  There were only half a dozen riders from earlier groups that I met again and they were also riding alone and seem to be in the same pursuit.

It was an incredible feeling crossing the finish line feeling energized and ready to go longer. Given the fact that I ate every half hour and consumed 6 bottles in 5 1/2 hours…it seemed to be the right recipe for stamina.  My husband stood there with his amazing smile and a look of relief that I was intact as well.

Feeling good!

Ultimately I came in 9th out of 25 women in my category.  Out of 99 total women, I was 31st.  I knew I had made mistakes at the beginning of the race and all throughout that cost me a lot of time.  The beginning cost me the most but I was satisfied with my decision to stay safe in a less than comfortable and new situation.  Perhaps if I had withheld pushing the pace with some of the groups it would have been an easier ride. That being said, I never saw them again and I found my pace alone and finished in a great place.  My friends came in 1/2 hour before me and worked as an efficient group pushing their way to success.  My success was discovering a new, deeper level of drive within myself and that I could dig even beyond what I thought was my ultimate limit.  My digging appears to be bottomless. The more difficult the situation becomes, the more driven and confident I seem to be.

My other time cost will always be the descents on a road bike.  Reaching 65 km/hr is my comfort zone…beyond that…well I just don’t go there.  I witnessed my husband have a terrible road crash on a descent last year.  He now has the daily reminder with his deep, permanent scars.  I decided the consequences outweigh the benefits for me.  Hitting the pavement is different than hitting the dirt…they both hurt but the road is far less forgiving.  This means a loss in time in a race and constant effort to catch up to those with the confidence and bravado to descend at warp speed.  I witnessed many stealth bombers whizzing past me that day. Their bikes sliced through the air as they crouched down, level with their frame, chins almost resting on their bars exceeding speeds of 90 km.  I felt like I was standing still but I left my ego behind and made decisions that were best for me!

A huge thank you to Centurion Cycling for such an incredible event.  The entire race was well organized and supported.  I have never seen so many volunteers, handing out food and liquids with a positive attitude.  Then there was the neutral support travelling the roads offering help to those with mechanicals and physical ailments.  If you haven’t seen this event before, it will be broadcasted on TSN some time this fall. I’ll post it up when I get wind of it.

Even though I rode alone often, I was truly never alone. It is because of my incredible husband Steven, Opus/OGC, Erace Cancer Cycling and a plethora of friends that this event was such a success for me.  The support they provide is never ending and essential to being a better cyclist and human being.

So now that this “something next” is done…what is my next pursuit in living life to the fullest and creating other incredible memories…well, it does happen to be cyclocross season and let’s not forget rock climbing.

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