Cracking one eye open, the clock read 4:30 a.m. The alarm was set for 6 a.m. but subconscious pre-race jitters are louder than any alarm clock. My head began flooding with thoughts and the race day gastro issues immediately kicked in. Bam, wide awake and any hope for getting more sleep was gone.
It was Paris to Ancaster race day. A 70 km point-to-point event full of mud, gravel, unpaved roads, unpredictable weather and life-sucking farm fields with a steep, windy, dirt hill climb to the finish that can break the best of them. Just to make the race extra special, mother nature dumped 10 mm of rain two days before ensuring that all that was firm would turn to goo. Sound like a good time? It sure is! I’ve done this race before and there are 2000 other crazy people psyched for the same.
My early rise gave me more prep time and bathroom visits. Every person that races or competes in any sport understands this. The extra time gave plenty of opportunity to get to Paris for a sufficient warm-up and release of race jitters—or so I thought. If one could have taken an aerial shot of the location it probably would have looked like an ant colony furiously moving about but not really going anywhere. There were riders and cars everywhere. Most of the warm-up was spent riding up and down the road, dodging cars, riders and spectators. My face was freezing and my lips were barely pliable from the windchill. My main question was what to wear? You’d think I was going to the Oscars. That being said, it was 1 degree Celsius and the sufferfest would be done before it really warmed up. Four clothing changes later, it was commitment time and warmth won.
With my results from last year I earned a place with the pro’s, the Olympians, World cup winners, Elite riders and a bunch of the Erace Cancer Cycling Team. Just over 100 of us lined up at the start and the body heat combined with sunlight kept me warm. However, any hint of warm-up achieved earlier disappeared with a delay in the start time. When the horn finally sounded, we shuffled like a herd of cattle which accelerated into stampede pace in about 5 seconds.
My sprinting ability is only useful heading into a finish line and it felt like I was standing still as some of the Elite racers flew past me. Leaving the comfort of pavement, we rounded the first turn into the gravelly, pothole-filled roadway and suddenly a pothole jumped out in front of me. Slamming dead on, one of my water bottles ejected to be lost forever. Instantly, I had donated to the pothole gods and joined the club of those that entered survival mode for hydration.
Heading into the rail trail it was a breakneck pace. My lungs were already screaming to stop after 2 km of riding. Insufficient warm-up combined with cold air and it was a guarantee for oxygen deprivation along with fire running through my legs. Eventually settling in to a rhythm, it appeared my pace was fairly quick since I began passing small collections of riders. Only a good strategy until you find you’re the one pulling the pack and no one else wants to get in front. Donning my raging bull nostril flare, staring straight ahead, it was decision time—go as hard as possible for as long as possible or pace it. Pacing has usually won in previous races in order to avoid spontaneously combusting before the finish. Not this time though. A quick memory of post chemo-treatments and asking myself the question, “if this was your last race how would you race it?” The answer was immediate and certain—I was going to go for broke.
The early part of the race was dry and hard-packed dirt or pavement. A few farm roads with gravel, some solid bumps and hazard dodging but overall bike friendly. The kilometres were clicking by and my lungs and legs were officially consumed in an inferno. Looking at my GPS, only 50 km more to go, “piece of cake,” I told myself. Oxygen deficit will do that to you.
Encountering sporadic groups ahead, clinging for a quick draft, the pace wasn’t painful enough for me. Yup, I just said that…so a quick pass, a thank you and a gesture to tag on and it was back to being solo. It was a necessity to push every part of me to deliver a performance to never regret. After all, the goal was to finish better than 5th, possibly podium in my category and within the top 10 women overall. A lofty goal considering the calibre of female riders racing this year.
The first section of Betty Crocker icing mud appeared. I don’t think there are any racers stomach that doesn’t sink from the knowledge that they are about to experience full resistance training when those skinny tires get swallowed. Bravely and with ramming speed my bike entered the soul-sucking zone. Instantly, this year felt different. There was almost no sinking, no life-force being taken, followed by moments of levitation. Parts of the track-filled, power-sucking goop was still frozen and providing ultra-glide. This was the benefit of going out in the first group and a below zero degree night. The conditions would only get worse as the day warmed, but for the time being, it was pure magic.
Eating steadily and sampling a small flask of maple syrup to test as fuel seem to be working. Experts always say not to experiment with new things during a race but what the hell, it’s maple syrup. Energy was high, lungs and legs weren’t happy but that was merely a formality at this point. Rationing my beverage intake wasn’t hard since mastering consistent hydration still hasn’t happened even after all these years.
Many gravel and paved roads intermixed with dirt trails later was wrapped with endless internal dialogue. At some point there was a realization that this race didn’t represent a sufferfest to me, it was a ‘strengthfest.’ It was a time to find out what strength lies within me. Suffering is a by-product, but not the mission. It’s incredible what you can do when you talk firmly to yourself. Some of the going dialogue when my legs and lungs wanted to surrender: “you’re stronger than you think,” or “only your best first,” then “surrendering is not an option,” along with my usual, “strong Jany strong…believe!” I told myself I was worthy of the podium—why not! Then there was the “fairy dust is in the air.” WTF does that mean? Well, my interpretation at the time; it meant that there was magical strength that I could draw upon from the sky, clouds or bugs that I swallowed. Yup, I know….totally weird but it doesn’t matter if it makes sense…it helped.
Most of this time involved riding alone, being passed by riders or passing others, so talking to myself didn’t scare anyone. Just when the thought passed that perhaps the organizers must have taken out the hay and grass-filled, life-sucking, power draining, demoralizing farm field that spikes the cardio-effort to overdrive, it appeared. With each pedal stroke the terrain required effort and a lot of it but not as much as previous years. It was still sort-of frozen and it made more crunching sounds than sucking sounds. Regardless of the unexpected ease of the terrain, by this time my legs were starting to give me attitude and the knowledge that there was still a long way to go just summoned a “get your sh*t together! You’ve made it this far!”
Heading into another grassy zone that lead to dirt singletrack, the whir of fast-moving bikes became increasingly louder behind me. Male voices were telling me they were coming on my left. Respecting their need to pass I held my position on the right side of the mound-filled, deceptive terrain. Suddenly, the mound I was now going over hid a front wheel eating hole on the other side. It was a guarantee of going over the handlebars. My butt and jaw officially clenched. An, “oh sh*t,” flew out of my mouth…not uncommon. Instantly, my arms pulled up my handlebars and with a a full body thrust, threw my two-wheeling carbon machine forward. With quick thinking, my bike cleared the gaping hole with only a quick hit on the edge with my back tire. It’s awesome what can be accomplished out of necessity! The last speed demon whizzed past me and sweetly said, “nice save!” My heart was racing from the excitement of my recent accomplishment—well, actually it was from fear!
Shortly after, pavement and hard-packed trails provided a reprieve from all that required bodily clenching. Further ahead there was a black and white jersey that was recognizable. It was Paul Trebilcock from the Boundless television series, Opus sponsored rider, all around hard-core athlete and we go way back. He was off his bike and tinkering with the back end. Slowing, I said “Hi,” and asked if he was OK? With a slight giggle, he said “yeeeehhhhh,” and that was all that I heard as I rode past him. Shortly after, he caught up and mentioned his rear derailleur problem. He only had one functional gear and may have to race it as a single-speed. Regardless of this setback, Paul is a beast and perpetually positive. Feeling the fatigue from pushing my threshold from the start, there was no guilt or hesitation to draft off of him. Clinging onto his wheel, the draft was sensational and very needed.
Getting into more dirt trails, Paul busted out some mad strength and skills and there was no matching the effort. The ground was warming up, the soil was becoming squishy and every pedal stroke felt like four. Watching him becoming smaller as the gap grew made me more determined to chase when the terrain was more forgiving…at least that’s what I told myself. Fatigue doesn’t always provide clarity.
He eventually disappeared in the distance and even with a race of 2000 registrants, somehow you can still end up riding alone. Still putting out effort like a time trial, the strength tank had sprung a leak. I know from experience that the brain tries very hard to make you believe you need to stop way before your true potential has been exhausted—that’s because true potential hurts and a brain doesn’t like that part! I was, however, in need of a serious refill of leg power. As the saying goes, “be careful what you ask for, you just may get it.” The hope for a draft was fulfilled. Catching up to a fellow with a steady but strong pace, he looked back at me and I politely asked if I could draft off of him. He responded with a delightful, “please do!” A few quick words determined he was a Masters road racer with an excellent, consistent cadence and also had prominent quadriceps. I don’t have those!!!! He kept pulling me down the road and onto the rail trail we went.
The rail trail is kinda like driving through the prairies with a relentless head wind. It feels and looks like it goes on forever and is mentally exhausting. It’s also leading you to the two bike eating mud pits of despair followed by the death climb to the finish. That’s when you have to focus on the moment and not what lies ahead. It may be bringing you closer to the finish but it’s not over, til it’s over! I offered to do some pulling since I don’t mind sharing the workload but Mr. Quadriceps declined my offer and told me to save my energy. Perhaps he heard my heavy breathing and figured I was too slow. He was a saint with legs of steal and was doing all the work for at least 10 km against the energy sucking force we call ‘wind!’ Managing to relax my focus, eat then drink some of my liquid gold (maple Syrup) chased with some Skratch Labs beverage, it was second wind time.
Mr Quadriceps and I came upon Paul again. Paul let me take the lead just as we entered the first mud gauntlet; a low angle fudge chute hiding stick gremlins that are waiting for the opportunity to suck you down and rip a derailleur off. Picking a bad line, my bike stuck in the mud and it took stepping out and a few forceful pushes to make the dirty gremlins release their grip. Paul must have had a nice conversation with those that hide beneath and got ahead through a better line—a wise man. Not looking back to see where Mr. Quadriceps went, I pedalled furiously to catch Paul on the welcoming hard-packed dirt road.
Paul and I headed into the Everest of mud chutes. It is steep, long, oxygen depriving and full of hidden rider-eating holes beneath it’s fudgy exterior. This gooey mess is laden with rocks and broken branches. Then there is the invisible, tangled vegetation that knits its way into derailleurs, chains and anything it collects on forming a patchwork as strong as silk and certainly forceful enough to rip everything clear off the frame. Going in with ramming speed , my bike sailed part way through and then fully sank. Completely stuck in the mud, there was a definitive sucking sound “schluuupppp,” yanking it out. With mud too thick to ride or surf over, the only options was to run through it in search of firmer ground. My bike shoes were tugged on from the force of suction with every step. Another attempt to ride nearly ended up in going over the handlebars so it was time to pick up what use to be a 16 pound bike and now weighed 30. There is no doubt the photographer from Sports Zone Photography snapped a picture of that!. Ecstatic that neither I nor my bike were a casualty of the devious, savage mud chute and the fact that the waxing of my bike pre-race wicked away the hangers-on of mud and debris, there was renewed strength to attack the final death climb.
Paul was officially out of sight having picked a better line yet again. It was solo time to the last stretch to Martin’s Rd—the climb that makes people swear like a drunken sailor or imitate the possessed Linda Blair from the Exorcist. Everything in me was ready for this hill. The longer, the nastier, the steeper a hill climb is, the bigger my smile gets regardless of how tired I am. My gearing is hard for this type of hill but there was no fear since Mr. Quadriceps gave me enough recovery that Martin’s Rd would be climbed with ease.
It’s incredible how delusional one can be to how quickly things change! Without warning as I entered into the cardio-killer zone, the inside of my left leg freaked out! It wasn’t an, “oh, this ain’t so bad kinda twinge cramp,” it was a full blown, my leg just became shorter cramp. Letting out a yelp as the piercing pain shot through my leg it was reaction to rapidly unclip that leg from the pedal. Dangling it off to the side in hopes that straightening the leg would help, my right leg continued to pedal. Feeling the cramp ease and just when it seemed all was well, it was time to clip my foot back in. Instantly, pain shot through my whole upper leg and all I could do was unclip and let out a very loud, “F@@@@@ck! Not now!” Grabbing the inside of my leg with my left hand, while still pedalling with my right, I was steering uphill with one hand and probably looked like a squirrel trying to cross a road. The demon on my left shoulder kept telling me to stop and fuzzy cat on my right shoulder (which usually wins) was screaming louder to keep pedalling. The reality was if I dismounted my bike, there was no getting back on. The thought of walking up the hill was a strike to the ego—yup, I do have one of those when it comes to hill climbs and sometimes its actually harder to walk than ride! So I kept pedalling. With the steepest part of the hill coming, I turned my left leg in towards the frame to shorten the muscle activation and put a left hand death grip on the screaming muscle. I probably looked like I was trying to hold in a pee! Steven shouted out my name and tears began to run down my cheeks. Grimacing and drooling at this point, the ticker-tape in my head kept repeating, “keep pedalling damn it, keep pedalling.” The cramping was so intense the pain reached into my abdomen.
It was at this moment that self discovery is at its finest. I found how deep my well of strength goes. Seeing a friend on the hillside, he kept saying my name and encouraging me to keep going. Little girls were screaming words of motivation. All the spectators were shouting and clapping. They had become my ‘fairy dust!’ Weaving uncontrollably, in a full-blown cry experiencing knife piercing pain in a leg that no longer worked with my stomach aching and my eyes now blurred from tears, I was nearing the end of the steepest part of the hill. My brain told me that I had to tip over before I clipped out! One pedal stroke at a time, it felt like eternity to reach the top of the hill. I swear I could hear trumpets blaring and the finish line glowed like a Vegas neon sign! The relief felt was pure bliss since the proximity of the finish was achievable—even if I had to crawl and drag my bike. Attempting to do a one-legged power sprint (just for good measure) to the finish didn’t work out so well, it probably looked more like I was riding a bike for the first time in my life. That being said, the taped line was crossed, my chip was timed, another Paris to Ancaster was under my belt and emotions flowed with no care for whom might witness my meltdown.
Sobbing, whimpering and gasping for breath with snot falling from nose onto my shirt as the tears stained my cheeks was quickly followed by elation that the race was done. After all, I still practice my rule of only being allowed five-minutes of sadness. There was no doubt that I accomplished what I expected— my best and more than I had imagined. Steven appeared from the sidelines with his always incredibly proud smile and snapped my moment of pure joy which was followed by another gut-wrenching cramp.
Attempting to change after the race required assistance to even remove my socks. Guess my leg doesn’t bend that way after a race either. Nothing like chugging a glass of wine that went down faster than a shot of Jack Daniels. Not exactly an appropriate recovery drink but it sure did taste good! Either way, a quick clean up, my liquid muscle relaxant kicked in and we were catching up with friends after the race. This is always as special as the race experience. A surprise 40th birthday celebration post-race for a friend was successful and the remainder of the afternoon was spent socializing with the Erace Cancer Cycling Team, old friends and new friends in the Ancaster Community Centre.
Did I reach my goals? Yes and no. How do I feel about it? Absolutely satisfied! I came in 6th this year instead of 5th or even podium but that placement came as a result of racing with some world class athletes which makes 6th place fantastic! Being in the top 10 eluded me, but being 18th out of approximately 90 women is purely incredible. My goals were set really high and there was no doubt I dug deep into the ‘tank of badass’ to get there. Seeing the end result on a piece of paper is gratifying and being on the podium is always special but I recognized that I won what was truly valuable; the knowledge of how deep my tank of strength and “badass’ goes even if the gauge says empty. Not only that, there was the privilege of having a good, healthy day which is sporadic at best, another amazing day with my husband feeling his love and support for all that I do and feeling the power of the ‘fairy dust’ people when I felt like I couldn’t possibly do one more pedal stroke. I finished, I suffered, I laughed, I cried (boy did I ever) and I have had the privilege to have lived long enough to have another race story to share. It doesn’t get any better than that!