My heart was pounding out of my chest. The smell of the pavement from the morning warmth eked its way past my runny nose. Standing up, stomping on my pedals, my stroke went from round to square. Stars were dancing before my eyes and the hill grew in length right before me. The steep pavement felt endless and the oxygen in the air was gone. I couldn’t breathe but I wouldn’t stop pedalling. Screams echoed from the sidelines. “Beep, beep, beep, beep!” The alarm sounded at 5 a.m. and the nightmare ended.
A stomach bug leading up to the Niagara Classic Road Race meant days of bodily cleansing, not just PRP (Pre-race poop). I was five pounds lighter but I felt like I was carrying the weight of the earth. With mandatory pre-registration for road races, I paid for the day of suffering so regardless of my ailment, it was important to try. After all, I have been through worse.
Steven (my husband) came as support and with a puke bag. Nausea consumed me throughout the drive. By 7 a.m., vomiting up my oatmeal race fuel meant digestion capabilities were inoperable. Belching like a drunken sailor while warming up was clearly disconcerting to those within earshot.
The attendance was high for the women in the categories at my race time. There is a specialness to going out with the younger speed demons. Their age is evident with their ability to start at mach 5000! 8:35 a.m., the gun shot, the race began and our neutral start bolted down the hill into the circuit of voluntary suffering.
Effingham Rd., is referred to as the “Ff”ing hill,” in the road racing world. In this neck of the woods, it is a wall of pure pain. It evokes mostly profanity from the shear mention of it. The climb builds from 2% to 5% to 10% with 16% grade at its steepest with a false summit. There’s a final little kicker just to suck out any remaining life before it levels out.
The young bucks hammered up the climb like it was a speed bump. My body said it was Mt. Everest and there was probably snow at the top, even if it was 20° Celsius. I was certain it had gotten steeper since my pre-ride, earlier in the week! Halfway up the hill, last nights dream became a reality. Stomping the pedals, oxygen was scarce. The racers, one after another sped ahead of me. I was on a high-speed treadmill…lots of work but not moving forward. Seeing stars and sucking air through a straw, the top eventually came along with a good dose of dizziness. The speedy ones, of all ages, were ahead and going into the first, fast descent.
Hitting 70 km/hr descending without pedalling is a rush and terrifying. The reward: the smell of lilacs filled the air and oxygen replenished deprived lungs. Looking ahead, the group was larger than ants in the distance so they could be caught….with help! The sound of a rotating wheel could be heard from behind me. Glancing back, two other racers, dropped on the climb earlier, had latched onto my wheel. My desire to vomit was overridden by the psyche for having company.
Race like it could be the last race of my life is always a mantra of mine. Pushing the pace to catch the lead pack, my newly acquired comrades shared in the effort. Pace-lining, we kept pulling each other in a rotation. Before the first lap was over, we caught the front group. Just as we caught them and desperate for a recovery, there was none to be had. The leaders pushed the pace and it took everything in me to hang on.
Rounding the last bend, the “Ff”ing hill seemed to shoot up to the sky and was touching the clouds. My life drained out of me at the sight of it. It somehow had grown even taller in a matter of 20 minutes! My brain reiterated that I love hills…my body said to just DNF (Did Not Finish). I’m not even sure I’ve ever DNF’d in all my years of racing. My brain said, “Show it who’s boss! it picked the wrong bitch, crush it!” My body said, “um, yah, whatever!” As the angle increased, the difficult pedalling became distinctly square and painfully slow. Any slower and I would have tipped over. Glancing up on occasion, friends shouted encouragement. My spirit was about to crack and they knew it!
The summit to the top felt like days long. Two minutes can feel that way! Legs burning, lungs empty and an overwhelming desire to quit consumed me but it was time to descend. The fast pack was just ahead, yet again. Repeat mode of the first lap was in place. A few other women got onto my wheel and off we went. It was at this moment that I realized something about myself….I race best when helping others. My own suffering seems to dissipate when there is a purpose beyond my own….especially if it helps someone else suffer less. This is far from being a race winning tactic! The trick to winning…do the least amount of work. My racing process… doing more work than necessary because of poor tactics and to help others, I seem to like racing most in the moments when my strength was shared. Even if my competitor smoked me across the finish line, it doesn’t seem to matter. I made a difference and my true competition is against myself. Besides, a hug from a competitor lasts longer in my heart than any medal.
Catching back onto the group, the front pack was exercising the full extent of their youthfulness. The pace was relentless. Nothing like a pack of Juniors deciding how to break people’s spirits and lungs. Another sufferfest up the hill of death and a menopausal hot flash (yup, I’m that age) and I was certain that spontaneous combustion would occur. Suddenly, an image of me standing on the podium popped in my head. Poof, it was gone. Delusions of grandeur in a hypoxic state. The pain wall wasn’t over and I didn’t want to look up. Climbs feel longer when looking up.
Another repeat of catching the pack with the help of a few women, my head slumped out of fatigue. The need to vomit had stationed itself in my throat. My face had turned a shade of grey. A racer heard my belching and encouragingly said there was just one more lap up that “Ff’ing” climb. The words, “one more lap,” shut off my suffering and gave me wings!
It only took 45 minutes of pre-race spinning and redline racing for an hour to finally feel warmed up. Ah, the joys of being crispy, crunchy older. It has been said, in sport, that you can do anything for one minute…especially if you’re warmed up!. I decided that it could be the same for one lap. That “Ff”ing hill” became “Ff”ing” awesome and seem to flatten on my approach. The first time in four laps and it felt like there was a motor on my bike…there was…it was me! Dropping rider after rider, I was hunting the young bucks and they were going down…at least in my mind!
The top of the hill hurt beyond belief but it didn’t matter. Much like my cancer diagnosis, I mumbled in my head, “you picked the wrong bitch!” Tucking in with them, I was determined to not lose the pack. Some of the remaining women caught on the back. The last lap felt only minutes long before the final stretch on Metler that leads to the finish line.
Anne Guzman (retired pro-racer and amazing nutrition advisor) told me recently that it’s tactics that lead to a win, not the fittest. I could hear her words while picking a line on the right-hand side of the group of greyhounds amped to sprint to the finish. It was a clear opening and opportunity to get slightly ahead of some. The big, red sign for 500 metres was like a Las Vegas sign just ahead. The finish line was visible but is further away than it seems…from past experience. Suddenly, those I passed began to pass me. A previous mistake reminded me…sprint too soon, implode too soon.
It was disheartening getting passed. My inner voice was shouting, “Waaaiiiiit…….waaaaiiiit…….waaaaaiiiit!” The 200 metre sign glowed against the green backdrop! The megaphone in my brain yelled “Go!” Channeling Mark Cavendish (in a female version), I stomped the pedals so hard, my bike rocked side to side. Shooting forward like a cannonball…two juniors to the far left were doing the same. Two racers swerved in front of me, a quick jog to the right and the finish line was crossed. My results didn’t matter…the vomit was coming fast.
The thriving greenery to the side, offering no privacy, beckoned me to donate my intestines. The need to expel overrides any fear of shame from such a display. For all to see, the liquids consumed during the race came out like a fire hose on high! Kate Heckman from Masters A came to congratulate me and make sure I was OK. Between gagging, a quick hug and congratulations, Steven appeared. Like a loving husband, he held my hair back while the final contents hydrated the earth.
If this was the last race of my life, it was a worthy one. My two visions came true: wanting to die on the hill and being on the podium. Completely surprised about my result, it was “Ff”ing” unbelievable to be in the pack and sprint to the finish with 15 year olds. Being old enough to be their mother…it’s a real boost to the spirit of life by showing the youngin’s that being older doesn’t mean being old. After all, most 15 year olds think 30 is old! Rockin’ it can be done….I know, I did it! I faced my fears, delayed the need to vomit and had the will to keep trying to be the best inspiration I can be at any given moment.
The end result, 1st place in my category and 3rd place overall of women ranging from 15 to 40+ (Juniors, Elite 3, Master A (30+) and Master B (old fart=40+). The discovery of my strength under certain circumstances was truly enlightening. Helping others is not recommended in road racing…especially if you want to win. “Use and abuse,” and “make others do the work,” is what makes the real winners in road racing…so I am told. My tactics and strength weren’t winning tactics, especially being opposite of what is coached, but my state of mind was and the hugs I received afterward proved that. I’ll go with that!
I love that “Ff’ing” hill!