Pre-race nerves stirring through the subconscious mind during sleep is the Magic Bullet mixer for intestinal contents. The PRP (pre-race poop) urge kicked in the moment the alarm sounded at 6 a.m. My eyes were barely open and a Dumb and Dumber grumble echoed out of my stomach.
I didn’t know I was nervous except for the PRP. This pre-race condition is well-known to anyone that competes in any sport. Poorly planned and you’ll spot many a competitor doing the PRP dance while waiting in line for the blue juice porto-potty…only to discover the toilet paper had been used up! A brutal reality at any mega-size event. Practice makes perfect and my morning was planned around the potential intestinal smoothy.
Arriving in Paris, Ontario with Mandy Dreyer, 2 time Paris to Ancaster (P2A) winner, along with a crew of pro-racers, it didn’t take long for clothing choices and tire pressure discussions to occur! My attire was clearly for a race in Alaska in winter. My one tire pressure could have filled two. A few minutes later, my layers were peeled away and tires were in race mode. One is never too old or experienced to learn.
Swarms of riders sprinted up and down the narrow roadway near the start, attempting to warmup. It’s not enough for me. A quick jaunt down into pothole hell (water bottle graveyard) proved to be worthy exploration. It waits for its victims immediately after the first right hand turn, approximately a minute into the race. Discovering how to avoid the spine-jarring, water bottle ejecting terrain can make or break the race. One of my bottles catapulted out of its cage in 2014 and hasn’t been seen since. A fast way to dehydration and teeth-grinding leg cramps.
A quick glance to the start line and it was still empty. Two minutes later, it was full of eager, lycra-clad cyclists with still 20 minutes to go! My warm-up was over and it was time to join the masses. Finding a spot in the midst of the Elite wave, we are the first pack of greyhounds that will chase the invisible P2A rabbit.
Standing with Lori Kofman, co-creator of Erace Cancer Cycling Team, it became clear that being females amongst the Elite category males would slow them down…or something? Male after male wanted ahead of us. Even if by one bike length, they had to be ahead. Lori and I accommodated for a few, only to have our wheels overlapping theirs. There was little room for us, let alone them. One more young man gestured to squeeze past us and Lori shut him down with a very precise, “We are Elite too and we were on time.” It was a beautiful moment!
The heart-stopping gunshot to begin the race clearly startled many. Shuffling out of the start, we were like a herd of cattle squeezing through a doorway. The progress was chaotic and slow. More open road and the madness began. Lori is brave in chaos…not me. She became a spot in the distance ahead of me as she elegantly and swiftly wove her way through the flurry of racing squirrels on Red Bull. Mine was not so graceful with some tire rubs, shoulder checks and swerves to avoid collisions. The start is piercingly painful and terrifying with an uphill sprint that instantly makes my lungs scream for mercy. It was already a suffer-fest in the first minute!
The sketchy, fresh gravel-laden right hand turn and again riders dodged, jumped, slammed and skimmed the water bottle ejecting cavities of pothole hell. Water bottles flew like cannonballs with its contents exploding upon impact. Further ahead, stains from other electrolyte supplementing contents marked the path of destruction. The casualties and excitement of another P2A had begun!
Another nerve-wracking right hand turn led to tire-sucking soft gravel and then a squeeze onto the first section of rail trail. My mouth filled with a bloody-tinny flavour. This happens when trying to suck air through a straw covered by a wet blanket during extreme exercise! My lungs were beyond maxed out and my legs felt thick and swollen from the brutal start. A few kilometres in and my body and mind were freaking out! Ah, the joys of racing at the P2A.
The pace was blistering, the air was crisp and my snot was flying out of my nose. No time to wipe with the chaos on the path. I can’t multi-task so my focus was two hands on the bars. Left to its own travel…the glistening mucous smacked onto my shorts leaving a wiggling, gel-like snail trail. There is nothing glamorous about P2A. That’s why it’s loved so much!
Stuck in a mass group of riders on the rail trail only wide enough for two riders, there was no room to pass. It was forced recovery time from the eye-bulging, gasping for breath pace. My legs began to deflate and the first right hand turn onto a soft dirt loaded with tire skipping rocks hill appeared. Too many riders were walking to be able to pick a line to ride. At this point, no one is focused when they’re all panting, feeling like they’re about to have a heart attack. Shouting out “rider up” sounds like “hut nuh” or “on your right” is more like “oh by rye.” It was faster to dismount and run up the hill, so that’s what I did.
Clear over the hill and it was hammer time! Rolling dirt roads to pavement to gravel to dirt and repeat. Predictably, I couldn’t find a group to ride with. It seems the pattern of my racing life. Passing groups of riders travelling slower than me, I was in my own time-trial. Eventually a group of guys passed me and my hope was to draft…but no, energy poorly spent left little to maintain their pace. I surrendered to the world of solo riding and silently waved good-bye to those far stronger than me. My head hung low and it was back to the full force of one of cyclists enemies…the headwind.
My mantra in the moments of silence was repeating the name of a woman I use to race with. (I’ve left her name out to respect her privacy.) This amazing woman was a bike racer and was recently diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and faces an incredibly difficult struggle. Young, athletic and leading a healthy life, she is now being robbed of her potential to do what she loves, both physically and mentally. My decision before the event was to race with her in my heart and thoughts. When any of us get to ride our bikes, it is a privilege. There are so many that wish they could but can’t. It’s important for me to respect the opportunities I have and at least take them for the ride with me in thought. Chanting her name in my head and making my pedal stroke go to the rhythm made me stronger. This race wasn’t just for me, it was for her, and my suffering, no matter how difficult at the time, was truly minuscule and temporary.
Coming upon a freshly cut forested section and the soil was the consistency of a defrosting, frozen fudge brownie….squishy on top but firm enough to not squish all the way through. I went to change gears and instantly grumbled “SRAMMMMM.” In moments that lack precision, the odd shifting pattern goes to harder gears, not easier. I’m a Shimano girl and all my recent riding were on bikes with Shimano goodness! This beauty of a bike came with SRAM and my brain was still in Shimano shifting. My legs were not one with SRAM and harder gears in thick fudge laden with branches, stumps and vegetation. A few moments of correction and it was back in the right gear. A squishy section of trail, another shift and it happened again…two gears harder. Spit flew out with the very clear “F**k!!!!!” Standing up to grind up a hill in the wrong gear and it was back to the road. My raging bull attitude settled. Glancing down at my bars to check for cars in the little rear-view type mirrors I have…wrong bike! Oxygen deprivation wreaks havoc on the mind and so does riding a different bike days before a race.
Generally riding alone, passing riders with faces of pure pain and being passed by riders expressing the same, it was clear we were all suffering and we had all volunteered to do it. Grinding up hills then down gravel roads, onto paved roads and back to fudge brownie forest. Then newly plowed farmers field, onto what looked like some kinda grass path to pothole dodging laneways was the standard. Jumping a few logs, squishing through tire-tugging squishy grass mush that was adjacent to manure fragrant farmland inspired me to keep my legs strong and the pedals moving without dismounting.
The next open road and the cross winds were supercharged. Getting pushed from the side, the fatigue was setting in. Another bad shift in my gears, my eyes crossed and my brain began to talk as my jaw attempted to grind my fillings down to dust. “You could always slow down and take it easy,” it said. “You have nothing to prove and you’re not that strong,” it said. The other part of me instantly shouted, “WTF! Shut your brain off when it’s talking to you!” Suddenly a memory from my chemo days popped into my head. My head was bald and there was cherry-coloured toxins flowing into my veins. My eyes began to tear and my chin quivered. Images of my fellow rider experiencing the same followed. This was all that was needed to end the ‘sorry-fest’ attitude.
Onto another roadway through a farm and onto a country road, the local kids set up a small wooden ramp as a jump for those willing suckers in the race. Turns out I am one of them. Seeing it from a distance, it was clear it needed to be jumped. Picking up speed to ensure airtime, I sailed off the one foot wooden ramp without any forethought if it had even been set up correctly. Officially airborne and a sudden realization that this best be landed properly or it could end badly. I was, after all, on a rigid bike similar to a road bike. No suspension, equals no squish, equals brain rattle. A proper touchdown on the ground was met with loud screams from the kids and I let out a clear, countrified “YEEHAW!” as I pedaled away.
Hammering away, rounding another bend, just ahead in the distance was a police car and two riders in front of it. One racer was standing and the other sitting on the ground with an incredible amount of blood flowing from his mouth. It was a harsh and disturbing sight. The only conclusion was that some facial impact had occurred with possible loss of teeth! The hard price of racing.
Continuing to mash-up and down the hills, the power in my legs had a slow leak. A slight burning sensation with a distinct “ugggghhhh” response to my demands was the cost of my pace of solitary riding. 55 km of maxing myself out was complete with only 15 more to go. With the past experience of the epic leg cramp in last year’s race on Martin’s Rd., the decision was clear…be smart, tone it down or pay the price on the finishing climb. My ego never allows me to surrender on a hill, I would rather tip over than stop, so my legs kicked back the pace a notch.
Entering into the rail trail, the terrain is a Dyson vacuum that sucks all brain cells into the crushed gravel below. Looking down the trail, there is no end to it…no object to focus on…only brutal wind and a sensation of being on a road in the Prairies…endless. Spotting racers heads, the truly fatigued ones bob back and forth with each pedal stroke. They are using every muscle and tendon from head to toe to propel the body forward. The grunting, snot flinging, horking. bloody skin patches and clear profanity makes it a “zombies on bicycles pathway.” Out of fear of getting trapped behind the zombies and succumbing to their fate, my legs gained strength to race past them leaving them with a few encouraging words in case there was any human left in them that could acknowledge the English language.
This zombie creating crushed gravel path of despair leads to the first downhill chute of derailleur destroying terrain. More like an industrial size mudslide, it is steep and full of deep, shoe sucking mud. Silently hiding are the hazards of rocks, branches, bricks (go figure), and parts lost from those that crashed before you. If you listen closely enough you can hear the snickering of the brown gremlins that hide beneath, just before they reach out and snag your front or rear tire and send you hurdling head first into the thick, brown mush that permeates every piece of fabric you own and leaves no parts untouched.
My strategy for a successful descent…go fast, ride the shoulder and keep my front end aiming straight (easier said than done). I picked the left shoulder on quick examination and entered the death run like Mad Max at ramming speed. My low-tread front tire for speed on the road had me swooshing back and forth on the edge. Any spectator could hear me yelling, “pedal, pedal, pedal….aim straight, aim straight!…Sh*t, sh*t….AAAAIIIMMM STRAIGHT!!!!!” A few mud demons shaped as rocks and gnarly stumps appeared. They appeared on the right, I dodged left. A quick left foot Jackie Chan kick on the slick shoulder to straighten my line and gauntlet #1 was complete. I didn’t look back but my brain said, “take that you dirty little buggers!”
Power sucking hills and a little pavement provided opportunity to wick away any remnants of mud and debris clinging to the bike..The next bike breaking mud fest seem to come rather quickly…too quickly for suffice recovery and strategy. It was longer, deeper and had a definitive racer-eating vortex. A quick decision to use my earlier, successful strategy and I went in at ramming speed on the left shoulder. It worked well at the start but it was clear from the victims ahead, they were getting sucked into the black hole that shows no mercy and leaves no survivors. A couple of riders went head first into the Bermuda Triangle of the Powerline Mudslide. I felt the gravitational force sucking me towards it (my Garmin remained intact and functioning). “Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t,” I mumbled. A closed mouth is a must in the chute otherwise it’s dirt grinding into the molars until the end of the race. At lightening speed my left foot unclipped and dug into the shoulder. Still upright, hopping off my bike, I ran a few steps past all the victims now wearing the same squishy, brown lycra kits with other earthly goodness dangling from random spots. Skimming past the vortex unscathed, my bike and ego were intact and it was the successful completion of the potential race ending mud monsters.
The final stretch of Minerals Springs; a quick downhill with hair pin turns led to the gravel/dirt-grind called “Martin’s Rd.” The final climb to the top, with only 1.6 kilometres of gravel, rocks, log crossing, muck and a 14% grade turn on crushed gravel before even getting a glimpse of the sprint to the finish. It’s the heart-breaking climb that makes people cry, toss their bikes, fall over, lie down, puke, suffer from knife piercing…leg shortening cramps, bring profanity to a new level, carve new wrinkles into mud-encrusted faces and forces out the best in others as they continue to pedal past all the victims. It is also the climb that is littered with cheering spectators…young and older, eardrum busting cow-bell clanging, motivational speakers running along side whimpering cyclists, photographers capturing every good and bad moment and the knowledge that the finish is near.
Riding into the entrance of Martin’s Rd feels like entering a Stargate. Leaving the universe known for the last 68 km, there was no going back and bad decisions would reveal themselves. My legs felt tired but manageable so I began my slow, steady grind. One guy after another went whizzing past me like the finish was a 100 metres away. I wondered what their hurry was. Didn’t they know sprinting at the start of this was a recipe for disaster. But then what do I know! So I pedaled on, slow and steadily, standing up for almost every stroke. A log crossing forced the sprinters to get off their bikes…I rode over it…my ego told me to, after all, I am a mountain biker! A few more pedal strokes and one of the speedy racers at the entrance suddenly tipped right over onto the shoulder. His leg shot straight into the air as he let out a scream. His hands move furiously up and down his quadricep. His leg couldn’t be any more poker straight and in full on spasm. It was clearly stronger than his will to ride. My legs were still intact so on I went. Just ahead, another of the speedy ones was off his bike, leg poker straight and in full-cramp mode. He too was furiously trying to massage it out. The attempt appeared unsuccessful as he pounded one hand on the ground in frustration. Then another one of the whizzy riders sat on the shoulder of the road, arms crossed on bent knees, head resting with his face concealed. He glanced up at me and it was apparent, his spirit was broken and the grey colour in his face said he was done. All I could say was, “You can do it man! You’re almost done! Come on!” as I pedaled past him, never seeing him again.
The angle began to steepen and I heard the voice…the tear-invoking, motivating and loving voice that has been there for me every year at the P2A…it was Steven (my husband). After 3 hours sleep from a night-shift, he made it to the race to see me finish. Walking up the remaining hill and through the hardest, steepest terrain, to the finish line, he talked me through every pedal stroke. His strength was mine to use and I milked every ounce of it. Cow bells were clanging so loudly I could barely hear myself breathe but his voice was always clear. Spectators were shouting motivational words. Someone shouted, “go JJ, you’ve got it!” Every bit of positive energy on that hill was more stimulating than a pot of jet-fuel coffee. The final evil pitch was done, back to flat terrain and the finish line within view. A sprint to the finish and it’ll be done. Then, bam….a twinge on the inside on my left leg. Eyes wide open with the fear of an on-coming cramp, my legs punched it to the finish before the dastardly muscular contraction had a chance to screw things up. Jumping off my bike, a quick side lunge stretch and all was right again in the world of legs and the P2A.
Another P2A was complete with the help of those facing life struggles, Mandy Dreyer, Christine Vardaros and many others including my husband Steven. This was my strongest P2A even though this last year has been the most difficult since my original breast cancer diagnosis. My liver tumour scare this past year was another reminder to race like it may be my last and give my all in whatever I do. Even in our hardest moments of racing, competing and life’s challenges, it is still a privilege to have those moments…because we are living. I truly feel the appreciation for having these opportunities to share such great and hard times with so many others. It is TIME, good or bad, that I have repeatedly hoped for while ill and scared. This was a moment in time that gave me so much, it is truly unique and it happened riding my bike.
The beauty of such opportunities is there are always surprises. Finding out the results brought me something I’ve never experienced before at P2A…a podium finish in my category. Not only did I get a chance to race against the talented and incredibly kind pro-racer Christine Vardaros, from Belgium (she is in my age group and an amazing athlete), I managed to place 2nd behind her. In a group of 30+ women, solely in our category, I came in 2nd. Asking the timing people to check the results since I was certain they must have had the results incorrect…it was me that was wrong…wrong that I doubted that this could happen. I was 2nd in my age group and placed 16th overall in over 100 women of all ages. At the age of 48, that’s an amazing result for me and proof that fantastic things can happen when you try your best. A race is never over until you cross the finish line. It was a podium finish and I kicked my own ass!