What doesn’t kill you can still make you cry!
Clear blue skies, velvet-green coloured landscape dotted with red barns, endless roads cutting through the tree-filled valley sitting on the edge of the breathtaking Georgian Bay near Collingwood, Ontario…this is The Grey County.
Nestled within this picturesque, magazine cover worthy area is the rustic, european-esque Blue Mountains Village. A place to visit for all seasons with downhill skiing, downhill and cross-country mountain biking, slides, climbing wall, restaurants, concerts and everything a resort can offer on sight…then there are the magnificent country roads for road cycling, water sports on Georgian Bay or simply walking through the scenic town of Collingwood, Ontario within minutes.
This magnificent location, with the hard work of Bruce Bird (Race Director) and others, secured the opportunity to hold the first ever Amateur World Cup Qualifier Road Race (GCRR) and Time Trial (TT) on the weekend of May 22-24th. The only qualifier in North America for amateur and Masters’ category racers, it’s an event that attracts road racing athletes from near and far to put their hill climbing and racing skills to the test for the coveted Rainbow Jersey and a chance for a spot at the upcoming Amateur World Cup in Aalborg, Denmark in September 2015.
Recently hearing about this race got me excited since I LOVE cycling up steep, endless hills that feel more like a treadmill….never having an end. I’m also familiar with these sufferfests on rides in the past but racing them would be new and this was a year of doing new things. Adding comfort to this new adventure, our dear friends Lynn and Mark Derrick opened their beautiful home for me to stay in and it had the feelings of home…a welcome atmosphere that every nervous racer needs when on the road.
What wasn’t new…illness pre-race. For some, life is generally a smooth road with only few obstacles…for me, it’s a cobblestone path in the midst of a hurricane year-round. My neuromuscular challenges remained calm for a change but an evil stomach bug moulinexing my intestines since before the Niagara Road Race was alive and thriving. Drained, skinnier and failing to hold down anything solid for more than 10 days was a recipe for disaster on a relentless course with 4,000 feet of elevation.
The urge to withdraw from starting almost won when my math determined my caloric intake was equivalent to one calorie per kilometre for the race from primarily sugar in a singular Clif Shot Bloc and half a gel. Daring to consume anything more substantial and it was a trip back to the bathroom.
Earbuds in and listening to Ozzy Osbourne, the lyrics twisted my brain from wanting to withdraw to rather DNFing (Did not Finish) if I had to. After an easy spin on the trainer to get the legs moving but not enough to create caloric loss, it was a 3 minute ride from my other home away from home, Pedulla’s B&B, to the village. Taking a spot in the front of the start line, Lori Kofman (Erace Cancer Cycling Team) and I both grumbled about how we felt. Lisa Ulrich stood to my left, awake and ready to do the race twice! Pro-racers and women never having done a formal road race before ranging in ages from 40 to 60+ filled in behind us. Shouting out my words of encouragement to all those in our race, “Have a great race ladies! Be safe! Be strong! Believe!” is a necessary ritual for me but I didn’t feel strong nor believe in myself.
A minute to go seemed like 10 seconds. The deep, male voice began the final countdown from 10 to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…GO! Lisa took off like a slingshot. My brain took a second to register we were suppose to move to race. Leaving the start line meant it was finish or DNF. Guided by two motorcycles and a neutral car out of the village and my commitment became real.
The neutral start was somewhat neutral and for the first time EVER, my position was at the front of the peleton with Lisa. Side by side with the other racers behind us, we followed the neutral car for approximately 2.5 km. Suddenly, the neutral car sped up and moved off the road, the red marker dropped and the real racing was to begin.
Still in the lead with Lisa, my bucket list now had one more item scratched off…leading the peleton. Never having been out front with such a large pack of fierce racers, my child-like energy emerged. Shouting out with a giggle, “I’m in the front, I’ve never been here before….this is awesome!!!!” The ladies laughed. I followed it with “I’m not kidding!!!! Yay, one more thing off the bucket list!” Somewhere from the pack someone said congratulations and we carried on.
Looking over to Lisa, I had to ask her what to do when one doesn’t want to be out front any longer? Lisa gave me the lowdown and safely, I retreated to the middle of the pack. We were heading to the Pretty River Rd. hill climb, the first of many relentless hills and this one packed a punch for approximately 8 km with varying grades of punishment. There was no way being out front in the lead up to the hill was beneficial to the sustainability of the race…my lack of nutrients told me so.
The long and winding climb up Pretty River was brutal. Even with the love of hills…there was no loving them today. It was a hole into the twilight zone where the air was thinner and the riders behind me had short-roped my bike and I was pulling all of them up the climb. Desperate to hang onto the lead group, stars appeared before my eyes and my stomach was searching for calories in my back!
Nearing the top of the eye-bulging climb, the lead group surged like the road had somehow flattened and yet got steeper for me. There was no matching the aggressive attack on the incline. My heart sank…possibly food for my stomach…out of breath and wanting to quit and a car came along side. My head slumped down and not wanting to look up, someone was screaming at me…her voice was clear and demanding…telling me I could catch them…telling me I was strong! Glancing over it was Katie Ozolins. A powerful personality with a forceful voice. She shouted clearly, “Come on Jany, you can catch them! Go get them!!!!” Looking up, the pack was rounding the corner onto Rd. 31. Her words ignited my legs and lungs and I was a cheetah on the hunt!
The lead pack almost seemed within spitting distance if you’re a good spitter. That being said, a pack travels faster than a solo rider against the wind. There was Katie again, I think, or perhaps a hallucination, but she was my drill sergeant and my body was responding to her commands to try. Stomping each pedal stroke, eyeing down the pack ahead, the winds were becoming an impenetrable force field.
The pack was getting away and the reality of catching them alone was clear…it wasn’t going to happen! Almost feeling the presence of a swarm coming, looking back, there was. Robyn Angeles, Lisa Ulrich and a few others, some of which were in my category, catching up to me. Lisa told me to grab onto the back and tucking in like a stealth bomber, the draft was magical and needed.
Robyn was out in the front of our pack of wolves, showing her true skills, mashing it at high speed like no other rider. Her pace was blistering and it was pure desperation to keep up, even in a group of 8. Adding a challenge was dodging a competitor with the riding form of a squirrel trying to cross the road. With her darting from side to side, unpredictably, uncontrollably and blindly, she was on a path of destruction and my position at the back was even more dangerous than usual. Being a victim to her erratic cycling as well as a spectator, I made polite suggestions to improve her riding. It fell on deaf ears. No response and the behaviour continued. She darted again, then half-wheeled then rubbed the tire of the racer in front of her. One incident after another from the squirrel while Robyn, Lisa and a young racer kept doing all the work at the front and I snapped. The real, non-road racer in me surfaced. I mumbled, “Screw this!” and instantly felt energized with the fuel of frustration. Furiously pedalling to the front of the group, shouting, “Come on ladies, we need to work together! They can’t do all the work!!!!!” There was no response and no movement from the ladies. Reaching Robyn and Lisa, I offered to pull, they answered with an out-of-breath, “Thank You.” Getting in front of them, it felt like home and for me, was the right thing to do….suffering is best when shared!
Taking the lead is punishing, drains energy and can be costly for a win but it was my choice. Once Robyn, Lisa and the younger competitor felt recovered the four of us began to rotate effort. Robyn suggested pace-lining and it worked for some of us. Some held back and wouldn’t take a place in the front. This technique requires only seconds of time in the front but it wasn’t a space some would fill.
Passing Drill Sergeant Katie standing at the top of a hill…..she informed us that the lead group was only 1 1/2 minutes ahead. Robyn and I knew that was a gap that could be closed. The push was on by some of us but the rotation of effort had few willing participants. Ultimately Robyn did longer pulls with her ability to hammer on the flats. Multiple times asking for help from the others was useless. They stayed glued to our wheels without any motion to help….ah, the joys of road racing without team players.
The final straw came when Robyn, Lisa, the young competitor and I all did hard pulls without any other help. Ultimately, the accumulated fatigue we were feeling from pushing the pace meant catching the lead pack would not happen without the assistance of the wheel suckers. Looking back, executing a last ditch effort, I shouted out clearly and sternly, “Come on ladies!!!!! We need to work TOGETHER!!!!” Finally a response came, “It’s too much work!!!”
The comment ignited me like a match to a short-fuse firework. Anger surged through my veins and I was about to explode. My brain was processing….”too much work. What the f*ck…too much work? We’re the ones doing too much work!” Looking ahead, a glorious, steep sufferfest of a hill was coming and it was exactly what I had hoped for. My frustration fueled my legs and channeling my inner Mark Cavendish, it was time to hammer. Riding alongside Robyn, I said, “come on Robyn, I’ll pull if you want to join.” I’ve never felt stronger climbing and was certain my bike would break from the force. Being pissed off can do that.
Oddly enough, at the top of the hill, Josée Larocque, (cyclist, coach, Commissaire, Facilitor for the Mattamy National Cycling Centre (Velodrome in Milton) and the sweetheart to the talented Steve Bauer was at the sidelines cheering us on. A woman who doesn’t mince words shouted with her magnificent accent, “Good work ladies! Ladies you need to work together!” Little did she know how many times that had been said in the hour before seeing her.
Josée’s statement made me chuckle. Putting my head down, it was time to mash. Robyn got in behind me along with the young racer. Paying the price for being out front, they volunteered to help and the rotation of shared suffering began. Another racer caught up and glued herself to Robyn’s back wheel. She was not budging regardless of our rotation and it was clear, she was in it to win it with the ‘use and abuse’ strategy. This is the nature of road racing and not in my nature on how to win.
Sporadic rotation, with a lot of effort between three out of four of us, we had gone into the last lap of the race. Nearing a steep climb, the electrical twinge of a cramp shot through my inner left thigh. Immediately slowing down, the other ladies kept their pace and instantly they were ahead. It’s soul crushing to lose a pack and know that one has to face all the elements like sand-blasting wind, alone.
Only 68 km and there was still 20 km more of potential no mans land racing. The lack of nutrition was rearing its ugly head plus the heat was its cruel and dehydrating companion. Regardless of my fluid intake, there just wasn’t enough of anything in my body to match the punishment.
Up another murderous hill they went. Slowly spinning, my cramp moved to my forearms, then back to my leg, then it seem to consume me from my ears down. Everything was twitching and goosebumps had set in. I was neither cold nor sweating at this point. Exhausted, hungry and on the verge of a full-body cramp wasn’t rock bottom until I lost sight of the ladies.
Slamming into rock bottom of my emotional and physical tank like a falling wrecking ball, the tears streamed down my face. More fluid loss from an already dehydrated body was a river of ‘woe is me’ and my thoughts were running amuck. The grumblings of a racer with sport-induced insanity never results in anything positive.
The constant threat of cramping surfaced every time my body tried more than a snail’s pace. My mind wandered and became lost in a hallucination. Fully engulfed in my own mental movie, suddenly Steven was standing in front of me drinking a beer. One hand wiping away each of my tears and softly saying, “J-wow, you rock. You can do this!”
Crying and my sticky saliva mouth mumbled, “I’m SO TIRED honey! Why? Why can’t I get a break? Some are always healthy…I’m always sick. WHYYYYYY?”
He took a sip of beer, wiped away my tear again and said, “Stay on target….you’re J-wow.”
By this time, a river of tears were marking different paths down my face. A jarring sensation snapped me back to reality. Instantly, the harsh reality returned and I was bombing down a hill and had no recollection of the road during my moments away in my mind.
Eyes blurry, stifling the last few sobs, my brain was sucked into another distracting moment. A memory of a navy seal documentary speaking on their training popped into my head. The premise was that those that quit, quit when they think too far ahead. Deal with the task at hand, one second at a time. It was a bit of an ‘ah ha’ moment for a much needed broken spirit. My change in perspective and my grumblings went from a ‘woe is me’ to that I was built to last! Involuntarily, laughter erupted and another stage of sport-induced insanity was evident.
With each slow, painful and methodical pedal stroke, there was the possibility of tipping over from fatigue. The hills kept coming, felt steeper and longer than before but each turn of the crank meant one wheel-length closer to the finish. The kilometres kept clicking away…my Garmin told me so! The pre-cramping twinges were like labour pains, getting closer in time which meant, writhing in pain was imminent. My skin was dry, wrinkly and resembled the surface of a raisin. My body was consuming calories from any remaining fat that existed on me…yet, I kept pedalling.
At the 6 km mark, Lisa came up from behind. Head down, breathing laboured, she mumbled that she was out of water and out of food. She was clearly not out of determination as she kept her pace and pedalled past me. I mumbled words of encouragement through my saliva cemented lips and kept my geriatric pace.
At 5 km, looking back, there was another rider in the distance. Eyes blurry, even on the best of days, it wasn’t clear if the racer was a male or female or even if they were in the race, but the colours of the jersey looked familiar. Suddenly, the song by One Republic… “I’ll keep running, I’ll keep running, I’ll keep running til the love runs out!” was on repeat in my head but with a slight change in lyrics….”I’ll keep cycling, I’ll keep cycling, I’ll keep cycling, have no doubt!” It seemed to go well with the rhythm of my pedal strokes and gave me something to think/sing about.
Hearing the sound of a changing gears on a bike, glancing left, it was the rider seen earlier. She was in my category and was now passing me. She was donning the face of a raging bull with the body language to match. It was clear she wanted to beat me and surged ahead like the finish line was near. All I could think was good for her that she was riding so strong this far into the race and that was a pace my body could not match.
Tugging at the remaining half of a gel conveniently stuck to my jersey pocket, the remaining sugar slop induced gagging as it thickened my already pasty saliva. Squeezing in the last bit of water to provide fluidity to the cement forming goo was enough to soften it for entry past my throat. The equivalent of about 20 calories entered my emaciated, raisin-shaped body.
Glancing up periodically to see where the green jersey woman was felt wasteful. By now, even my neck was tired. The reality…she was ahead and I trailed behind and caring about my position took too much energy. After all, I was certain a podium spot was no longer feasible.
At about 4 km, the sound of a lot of rolling wheels came from behind. Bobbling my head, a quick neck fling to the side and a group of younger female racers were rapidly approaching. Quickly reaching me, they began cocooning me in their formation. One of them gave me a smile and nod and another came in on the right and locked me in. Like a pack helping its wounded, I was well cared for and had a chance to survive. Enjoying the true feeling of the middle of the pack, my 20 calories of sugar had reached my veins. It was GEL RUSH time and about 10 minutes of super human power before implosion.
My newly acquired swarm quickly caught up to green jersey woman. Moving around her in smooth formation, she latched onto the back. Her gear changing had a distinct sound so her presence was clear, but I didn’t care. Finishing was my goal regardless of the placement of my competitors. If she beat me, I would be equally as happy for her accomplishment and having a good, safe day.
The sugar rush was high-powered since there was nothing else in my system. My eyes were wide open, my legs felt alive and the psyche to be near the finish was electrifying. We flew past the 1 km sign like a swarm of killer african bees on a mission. Tucked in the comfort of the pack, suddenly they began to surge ahead. The finish hill climb was visible and it was sprint time up the wall.
At the 500 metre mark they hammered. Unable to match their strength, fear of sprinting too soon and the awareness that fully body cramping was plausible, my pace remained steady. The racers before me began zigging and zagging across the road from the sheer steepness of the wall and sprinting too soon. Some of them opened the valve full and paid the price. I could recognize it…I’ve done it before!
Green jersey gal had fallen behind by the sound of her gears. There was no chance I was looking back to see where she was, I would probably have fallen over or pulled a wheelie from the steepness. Passing the 200 metre mark it was time…time to put it all out there and donate whatever was left of my soul to the hill of pain…to the glorious white line that documents your very existence of being a racer and provides the time of which lengthy conversations abound from. A soft pedal stroke to switch into a harder gear without breaking my chain and standing up with no cramps surfacing and it was go time! Channeling every ounce of feeling broken, hardship, anger, doubt, self-pity into rocket fuel shot me up the hill like my life depended on it. Teeth clenched, grinding down to my gums and grimacing enough to create new crows feet, photographers Peter Kraiker and Jeremy Allen stood there snapping shots of my final, painful effort. It was all I had left and my existence at the race was documented for eternity.
Beyond relieved to have finished and desperate for a breath, the tears began to flow again. Hunched over my bike, the tears dripped onto my frame and endless profanity poured out of me. Race endings, like movies, should come with ‘R’ ratings and “this moment may contain coarse language and acts of violence!” Taking a deep, nasal inhale and a black fly flew up my nose. My response, “yum…protein!”
Waiting to summon the energy to make the 10 km ride back to the Village, Kelly Ellis…a beast of a racer and one of my competitors had finished well before me, said I might be on the podium. Thinking a podium spot was unlikely but it was possible Kelly was right, it was best to get to the village ASAP.
Robyn, Amanda and I descended Scenic Caves Rd together to return to Blue Mountains Village. My heart always skips a beat descending this beast. Having been witness to Steven (my husband) experiencing the worst crash of his life a few years back from a speed wobble at 60 km/hr on this piece of steep, winding pavement, was a life changer. Amanda indicated that the woman who had crashed on it (3 weeks after Steven) and had become a quadriplegic, has since died from her injuries. The risk associated to high speed descents was ever present and we took our time on the teeth-chattering, heavily cracked pavement.
A quick change at Pedulla’s B&B and a needed 5 minute walk to Blue Mountains Village and it was time to hang with the fast people. Searching for the results on my phone through Racetiming.ca with Lori Kofman present, she already knew that she had won her category (she’s badass)! Expanding the screen size with vibrating hands, skimming through the categories already posted, the results were in….my chin began to tremble and my eyes filled with tears and no longer able to see the print. Looking up at Lori and with her wonderful, raspy voice, she said, “Well?”
Fighting through my spit encrusted lips, I mumbled, “I did it!!! I’m on the podium….3rd place. I just can’t believe it!!! Holy !!!!!! I can’t believe it!” My body was shaking!
Lori leaned over and gave me the biggest hug and confidently said, “I knew it! Of course you’re on the podium! I’m so proud of you!” Her husband Peter came along and heard the news. The warmest hugs from both of them and somehow I felt validated as a racer.
The podium call came shortly after and my body was vibrating violently as my name was announced. Running up to the stage, my eyes clearly bloodshot, tear stains covered my cheeks, the adrenaline was flying through my veins. Barely focused receiving the medal and hat, my breathing became short and sporadic. Kelly Ellis was called up for her well-earned 2nd place and we had an awesome high-five! Paolina Allan (the other crusher) took her 1st place position and received the beautiful winner’s Rainbow Jersey. Standing there with two incredibly fast and talented racers, hands up in the air, my smile changed the direction of the tears on my cheeks. My mandatory scream ejected out of my mouth, Yahoooooooooo!” This was my lifetime achievement award in racing and the reality of what a privilege it was to be there racing my bike after feeling like my body suffered a round with Mike Tyson. It was a total “F***k ya!” moment.
Unable to stop the flow of emotions, Mary Friesen (cheerleader extraordinare) gave me the warmest of hugs which subdued my sobbing and all was right in the world.
Every race feels like a life-altering experience. This one most definitely was. My goal initially wasn’t to try and qualify for Worlds, just to finish, but somehow, subconsciously, in the midst of it, the “Let’s see if I can?” creeped its way in, until my limits were reached and hit rock bottom. My ego was present, took a beating and vacated. It was the drive to endure as I always have, do what I do best, that eventually came through.
Racing much like rock climbing is a mental and physical life classroom. Under duress, fear, pain, struggles, the deepest lessons are imprinted and clarity to the greater things in oneself shine through. Self-destructive dialogue is always near since the need for comfort often surpasses the desire to achieve during hardship. Why not stop and drink a beer instead of suffering for what will feel like eternity. For me, I’m not willing to truly submit to my inner ‘just quit’ voice because the guilt for stopping will last much longer than the pain in race. This skill is not necessarily a badge of honour but a needed tool for survival in life and in sport.
Will I be going to the Worlds in Denmark…probably not. My health is not that predictable and I respect that this brief wave of almost pain-free life, outside of the stomach bug, will ultimately come to an end soon. At that point, I will be thankful for the days that walking is a privilege, let alone riding a bike. That being said, this qualification is truly a gift and hanging my medal on the wall will be a constant reminder that it happened because I excel at being difficult with the monster of difficulty.