The morning of the LiveStrong ride I hopped in the shower and for the first time in a week I could breathe out of both nostrils. Yahoo! Finally this horrid cold was letting up. As far as I was concerned, this day was off to a great start and I wasn’t even out of the shower yet! Plus it was Terry’s birthday and riding for LiveStrong seemed like an amazing way to start off a year.
Terry and I slipped into our gear, ate breakfast and rode to the starting line where we met up with the rest of Team Fatty for a photo. I double checked my gear and my bike computer to make sure everything was just as it should be. We waited in the good company of 1,500 other cyclists for the ride to begin. Butterflies skittered around in my stomach. Would I make it to the cut off point in time to stay on the 105 mile course? Would I be able to do the extra climbing that was added earlier in the week? I was nervous, but determined to finish the 105 mile route.
As a cyclist, I’m not very fast or very strong, but what I lack in physical prowess I make up for in mental fortitude. I’m the girl who finished a metric century with pneumonia and a broken toe just to prove to myself that I could do it. Shoot, I’m the girl who rode my bike days after heart surgery because I couldn’t wait to live my life as someone with a strong heart. So, as I stood with my team at the starting line, I knew my determined mind and my strong heart would carry me through.
Lance Armstrong spoke that morning about what a great day it will be when LiveStrong doesn’t exist anymore because cancer has been cured. What a great day, indeed. Then a local woman sang the national anthem and a hush fell over the crowd. I stood with my hand over my heart watching the flag above the start line ruffle ever so slightly in the breeze. When the singer hit the line “the land of the free and the home of the brave” my eyes welled up and a lump caught in my throat. There I stood in a sea of people wearing the names of loved ones they were riding for. Other cyclists wore signs proclaiming they’d survived cancer. I knew in every fiber of my being that these were the kind of people our national anthem is about. I was standing in group of people whose bravery was not only pinned on their jerseys, but was evident in each of their faces.
Before I knew it, the starting horn was fired and we were off. About a mile in, I looked down and noticed my bike computer wasn’t working. Shoot, I needed my bike computer to tell me if I was going fast enough to make the cut off at mile 27. I also needed my computer to make sure I was drinking and eating enough. 1 water bottle every hour along with a Clif bar mini and a Shot Blok or two every 15 miles was the magic equation for me. Not to worry, I would just rely on Terry’s bike computer. A few minutes later it quit working. Damn.
We soon linked up with Mike, a fellow Fat Cyclist from North Carolina. His computer was working fine and dandy and the three of us formed a nice little paceline. Knowing we had plenty of food and water, we skipped the first rest stop. 13 miles in Terry’s seat decided to drop of its own volition and so we stopped for a couple of minutes while he fixed it. While we were stopped I fixed my bike computer and ate a snack. Cool, now all I had to do to figure out where I was on the course was add 13 miles to my odometer. With plenty of food and water we zipped past rest stop #2 and hurried on to the cutoff point. We made it to the cutoff and Mike turned left to the 70 mile course and Terry and I turned right on the 105 mile option. Things were looking good. We were riding pretty quickly, I was feeling great and my legs felt strong.
We soon got to the climbing portion of the ride. Terry is a much faster climber than I am and so I told him to go ahead and that I’d see him at the next rest stop. He nodded and in no time was out of sight. I hunkered down in my lowest gear and pedaled past beautiful Lake Berryessa. It was a warm day, but being from Redding, the heat wasn’t a concern at all. I continued to drink water as needed and climbed some more. What I didn’t know then was that in an effort to shake this pesky cold, my body was burning through much more liquid than usual.
As I was climbing, I noticed my arms and legs prickling with goosebumps. I’d heard of that happening to athletes who were dehydrated. I drank some more water knowing the rest stop was at the top of the climb. I climbed some more and rapidly moved from having goosebumps to being downright cold. I drank the last bit of my water and pedaled my bike toward a shady spot where I stopped. As I got off my bike the unthinkable happened. Suddenly I had the sensation that I was wetting my pants. I couldn’t make it stop. I’d lost control of my bladder and I knew in that moment that my overheated body had taken control and was throwing a Hail Mary to cool itself down. Very little urine came out, not even enough to make a dark spot on my Spandex. On one hand, that was a good thing because I did not want to stand on the side of the road with pee running down my leg. On the other hand, I knew it was a bad sign that my body wasn’t producing very much fluid. Cyclist after cyclist asked if I was okay. I told them I was fine. And I truly thought I was. I knew I just needed some water. I pulled out my cell to call Terry, but there was no service.
I hailed a course marshal on a motorcycle and asked him to bring me some water. A few minutes later he returned with a bottle of icy cold water. I downed it and asked him to call a SAG wagon to take me to the next rest stop at the top of the hill. He radioed the SAG and I decided to walk my bike a little further while I waited for them to come and get me. Often times moving forward, even if it’s just walking, makes me feel better. At this point I heard someone behind me yell “Hey, Fatty, wait up! I’ll walk with you.” I looked back and saw Christine, a Fatty from New Jersey. I was so happy to have company. We walked until the SAG wagon scooped us both up to the next rest stop where Terry was waiting. I was glad we’d chosen to take a ride in the SAG wagon because the rest stop was down the hill and up another climb, much farther than I remembered it being on the course map. At the rest stop I downed a few bottles of water and ate some food. I told Terry that the climb was too much for me and that I’d run out of water. I also told him that I felt much better now and should be fine for the rest of the ride. I really did feel better. I really did think I’d be fine.
Remember earlier this week when I told you the course had been changed from a big loop to include an out and back? Well, that out and back meant that after the rest stop, I had to tackle the hills again. When we were ready, Christine, Terry and I left the rest stop and began the climb. Terry stayed with me until I couldn’t climb anymore and told him I had to get off and walk. Christine had to walk, too, and so I waved Terry ahead assuring him I was fine and that I’d see him at the next rest stop. Christine and I walked our bikes to the top of the hill. We were chatting and cheering on other cyclists who passed us by. At the crest of the hill, we hopped back on our bikes and enjoyed a nice descent and some flats.
Usually I can really motor across the flats, but that day I was a slower than usual. I tried to be patient with my body. After all, it was having a little bit of a tough morning. I pedaled along, making sure to drink lots of water as I went. Christine clipped along ahead of me and I caught back up with her at a water stop where I drank some more and refilled my bottles. We rode together for a little bit, but my body still couldn’t go as fast as usual. I pedaled along by myself over some rolling hills and then the course turned into a headwind. It wasn’t an unbearable headwind. I’ve ridden much faster in much stronger winds. As I rode, I watched my speed plummet. It felt like I was pedaling in quicksand. I kept pedaling and drinking water and eating, determined to snap out of this major bonk.
The goosebumps returned, making my arm hairs stand on end. The muscles in my calves twisted and cramped. To my shame I again had the sensation of wetting my pants. This time not a single drop came out. I pulled out my cell. Damn, still no reception. I knew the next rest stop had to be close. I watched for course marshals or bike medics or SAG wagons, but I was all alone on this stretch. I tucked my head into the wind and pedaled.
Then my phone rang. I clicked my earbud and heard Terry on the other end, but the wind was so loud I couldn’t tell what he was saying. I told him I couldn’t hear him. He yelled “Where are you?” I looked down at my computer. It read 56 miles. All I had to do was add 13 miles for the stretch at the beginning of the ride when my computer wasn’t working and another 5 for the part where the SAG wagon had driven me up the hill. Now, I’m not normally good at math to begin with, but even I can add three numbers together. I tried to add them and I couldn’t. Come on brain, just add the numbers. I tried again. Nothing. I told Terry I didn’t know what mile I was at. Terry said something, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I told him I thought I was close to the rest stop and I hung up.
It was one thing for my legs to cramp, for my body to throw in the towel, but now my mind was giving out. It was scary and for the first time that day I admitted to myself that I was in real trouble. I felt a lump rise in my throat, but I forced myself not to cry because I knew I needed to stay calm.
Even worse than admitting I was in trouble was admitting that there was no way I could finish the 105 miles. I was absolutely heartbroken at the thought. To know that I was not going to make the goal I’d been working toward for months was a crushing blow. I can’t even describe to you the depths of the disappointment I felt with myself.
And then I saw the most glorious yellow sign! The next rest stop was only a mile away!!! I could ride a mile in my sleep! I summoned all my remaining mental fortitude and pedaled a little faster. I saw another cyclist. Then I saw several cyclists leaving the rest stop. I pulled in and relief washed over me. Terry was there along with my friends, Nick & Abby, who were driving the SAG wagon for that stop. Never in my life have I been so happy to see friendly faces. I unclipped from my pedals, laid my bike on the ground and hugged Terry tight.
I wish I could tell you that this is one of those stories where I tap into unknown reserves of strength and finish out the last 30 miles. I’ll tell you right now, it isn’t that kind of story. I gave this ride every last bit of strength I had.
And it just wasn’t enough.
I sobbed on Terry’s shoulder and told him I wasn’t going to make it to the end. Saying it out loud brought a fresh round of tears. I told him I just didn’t have it that day. I was too embarrassed to tell him about wetting my pants or any of the other humiliating details. Terry told me it was ok and that I’d done an amazing job considering I’d been sick all week. Terry could have easily finished the ride, but I needed him to stop with me and so we climbed in the SAG wagon with our friends and drove toward the finish line. I was quiet in the van, disappointment heavy on my shoulders.
LiveStrong gives the SAG drivers strict instructions not to drive people all the way to the finish line unless they’re in need of medical attention. I probably did need medical attention, but I was too ashamed to admit it. A few blocks away from the finish line, Terry and I got back on our bikes. To be honest, I didn’t feel like I even deserved to cross the finish line, but I stayed close on Terry’s wheel.
As we approached the finish line, I heard people cheering and I plastered on a fake smile. Terry and I rode side by side and the announcers said “Here come two members of Team Fatty. They started the ride together and now they’re finishing it together. There’s Terry McCauley and Alicia McCauley. Alicia raised over $1,000 for LiveStrong.” At that, another cheer went up among the crowd.
For that one moment the disappointment and humiliation of the day left me. I knew I’d been part of doing something great in the fight against cancer. In that moment, I was crossing the finish line for my grandmother. I was crossing the finish line for my friends who are navigating their own path through cancer right now. And I was crossing that finish line for all the people who believed in me enough to donate to LiveStrong on my behalf.
After finishing, Terry and I got some food and drink. We joined our fellow Team Fatty members for pie and each of them told fantastic stories of their rides. North Carolina Mike told us funny stories from his 70 mile route. The fast 105 milers told about their speedy double paceline and the Fatty who almost caught up with Lance Armstrong. New Jersey Christine rolled in as the Lanterne Rouge of our team and I congratulated her on a job well done. Hearing their stories was bittersweet for me. I was thrilled to hear about their successes, but was sad I couldn’t say the same thing about my ride. When people remarked about my finish time I’d quip “Yeah, riding in the SAG wagon for the last 30 miles really makes it go by fast. You should try it sometime.” I’d laugh and quickly ask more about their ride. After eating pie and thanking the Fat Cyclist, it was time to go home.
Later that night, I confessed just how bad off I was on the ride. I told all the embarrassing details and like the good man that he is, Terry reassured me again that I’d done a great job. A little part of me even started to believe it.
As I was throwing my profusely stinky cycling kit into the washing machine, I unpinned my race number from my jersey. I smoothed out the wrinkles and hung it on the fridge. When I look at my number, I think of the LiveStrong motto:
Unity is strength, knowledge is power and attitude is everything.
It’s that last part that strikes me most. I’m still the girl who finished a metric century with pneumonia and a broken toe just to prove I could do it. I’m still the girl who rode my bike days after heart surgery because I couldn’t wait to live my life as someone with a strong heart. And now I’m the girl who gave up every last bit of my physical and mental strength for 75 miles all in the name of fighting cancer.
That’s something I can be proud of.