05 July 2006

Death by mud

This past weekend, I biked from Boston to Maine and back again.

Before, the farthest I’d ever ridden on a bike was about 12 miles. It was on a mountain bike on the ridiculously sharp hilly roads near my house in Santa Fe, and it completely wiped me out. I distinctly remember finding a new appreciation for the bikers I drove by/dodged every day. How do they do it? WHY do they do it? After my little 12 miles of fun, I wrote off biking as something for hard-core masochistic uberathletes. I rolled my eyes when Ryan talked about biking 40 or 60 miles a day, but still quietly marveled that any human body could be capable of subjecting itself to such torture.

Then my roommate Liz in Thailand told me about her adventures biking along the west coast or through Canada. What really hooked me were her stories of how much you could eat, nay, *needed* to eat if you were biking. It sounded bloody fantastic. Stuff your stomach at night, burn it off during the day. I started seriously considering undertaking a long distance bike trip sometime.

Then, last week Chris called to say that we weren’t going to a Jazz festival is Montreal with Eve after all, and my consolation prize was an invitation to bike up to Maine with him.

“How long will it take?”
“I was planning on two, maybe three days.”
“Ummm…how far is it?”
“I don’t know. I figured we’d bike about 80 miles a day.”
My jaw shattered on the floor. [Stunned silence] “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Well that’s about how far I bike when I’m being lazy. That’s not very much by biking standards.”

Right. 80 miles. A day. That’s farther than the distance between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. I don’t even like driving that far.

Chris told me that on the first day, biking hurts. The second day, it hurts more. The third day, even more. After that, it mellows out. Too bad we were only going for two or three days. Then he started laying it on really thick, describing the pure misery to be found in long distance biking. I think he just wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into. The odd thing is, the worse he tried to make it sound, the more I wanted to go. Fighting exhaustion and pain, covered in mud, biking through a downpour? Yeah. Sign me up. I slowly realized that not only was I doing for the absurd quantities of food I would be eating, but I also really felt like I needed to prove something to myself. Prove that I could take it. Prove that I was tough. Prove that I wouldn’t fall apart at the seams. Prove my utter stupidity.

No matter how bad it got, I told myself, I could do it.

The first day was a blast. I felt so powerful. Like I could cycle forever. Then night started to come and my right knee started cramping up. We slept in a “refugee camp” as Chris called it, amongst endless rows of RVs and car campers, especially packed for the 4th of July weekend. My knees hurt bad that night. I was limping, and my left hand felt all tingly and numb.

The next morning it hurt so bad to jump back on my bike. My knees screamed, and I wondered if my crotch was ever going to forgive me. “This can’t be healthy,” I thought as I winced and peddled gingerly. However, it was muscle pain and not bone pain, so it was okay to grit my teeth and just get through it, right? But it was *weird* muscle pain. Those funny little muscles around my knees. The ones that seemed to be there only for the purpose of giving me pain on this bike trip. It was so bloody frustrating. I had expected to combat muscle fatigue in my thighs or calves, or to pant and gasp for air, but nooooo…it was my friggin’ knees complaining, holding everything else back and making me feel less like a hardcore uberathlete and more like a wimpy chump.

Chris was incredibly patient with me. I asked him for advice on how to deal with my especially achy right knee and he said to take it slow, take lots of breaks, use lower gears…oh, and there was a trick I should know about. He recommended grabbing my knee with my hand and using my arm to push it up and down. I tried it…and, gosh golly, it worked. It took a little practice to pull it off and stay balanced at the same time…and it made me feel like a royal gimp. A super hard core royal gimp.

I thought about dropping out. I would stay at the camp, Chris could bike up to Maine and then swing back around and grab me on the way back. “I know from experience it sucks to put a lot of effort into something and then not go all the way through with it,” he said. “I would recommend going all the way to Maine, even if it kills you.” Right. Okay. Kills me. Right.

No matter how bad it gets, I can do it, remember? So I crept along the road at the fabulous speed of a mile an hour and thought real hard about how pain is only a perception and perceptions come from my brain and therefore I can choose to ignore it…right?

We biked past Hampton beach, and I thought, “Holy hell. I’ve been here before. It took a long time to get here by car, and I just fucking biked here.” A few more miles up the road, we stopped and had ice cream at an ice cream stand I remembered from another New Hampshire fiasco last summer that involved a van full of fire-hungry kids on a wild goose chase to find a nice secluded beach for fire spinning. I couldn’t believe I made it all the way to that fucking little ice cream stand.

My knee, however, just got worse. I wasn’t [gulp] terribly worried because when I got off the bike and walked around, it was okay. Hey, and you know what? Nothing made me feel more hard core than riding along the beach, on a road as flat as a pancake, grunting and sweating and pumping my stupid knee with my arm...and then getting passed by a couple of joggers. That was fun. I had to stop for a second because I was laughing so hard.

And then somehow, I made it to Maine. Weird.

Ha. and I thought it was bad in the morning. Turning around and biking back to our campsite was…definitely the most painful thing I’ve ever done in my life. (Wow, I’ve been sheltered, eh?) It fucking sucked…but now I know that I’m a strong person and I don’t break that easily. Corny, I know, but it means a lot.

When I finally allowed myself to collapse at our campsite, Chris grinned at me and said, “Congratulations! You made it to Maine,” and I thought, “and I didn’t die. I’m okay. I made it to Maine,” and he said, “Now we can get some rest and bike back to Boston tomorrow,” and I thought, “Yeah. fucking. right. There’s no way in hell. I’m shot and this is stupid. I would do it if I had to save someone’s life, but I don’t need to prove to myself that I could do it by actually subjecting myself to the pain.” There was a commuter rail stop about 2 miles away at the border of Massachusetts and I fully intended to take advantage of it…I would just inform Chris as we passed it the next morning. That way he wouldn’t have much time to talk me out of it.

The next morning, I woke up, and my knees felt…okay. They started screaming again when I jumped back on the bike, but it definitely wasn’t as loud as the day before. Weird. Then Chris noticed that my seat was too low. So we stopped, had breakfast at an awesome little diner and he raised my seat two inches. Suddenly, biking started to feel very good. My knees still hurt, but it felt marvelous to stretch them out with every peddle. and I felt like an idiot. I didn’t know exactly how high my seat should have been because I’m not a expert biker, and it felt about the same height as my clumpy mountain bike at home. But at the beginning I had faint suspicions that it was too low and didn’t say a thing. Stupid.

Long story short, I made it all the way back to my apartment on my own power. And my legs felt fucking fantastic. Seriously. By the end of the day, my knees had almost stopped hurting entirely. A miracle.

150 miles. Wow. I biked 150 miles. And now, 150 miles doesn’t seem like such a long way anymore. And my leftmost fingers still feel kind of funny, but at least my knees are fine, right? I would definitely do it again. Without the knee pain.


dlin said...

wow, good job. i remember driving between albuquerque and sante fe last summer. it always felt longer than it really was.

Anonymous said...

Question, was that 75 each way (150 total) or 150 each way (300 total)?

Tuco said...

Although I'm tempted to advise that next time you eeaaassseeee into long distance cycling, Wow! Good job!
I was just searching for Canadian cycling blogs and came across yours. Check out
if you get a chance and want to hear about long distance commuting in Ontario.
Take care!

Ken said...

Two words: Bar ends.

I did a tiny amount of long-distance biking two summers ago through New York, but fortunately had time to "train" in advance, so I practiced on the Minuteman trail and learned that my hands suffered more than any other part of my body -- all tingly and numb like you described. Bar ends are these attachments to the end of the handlebar that give your hands more placement options presumably so the same nerve isn't getting smushed for long periods at a time. The same friend who suggested bar ends herself has Moustache Handlebars which accomplish the same thing.

Just like you, before I biked 80 miles on my first day, the farthest I had gone in a day was 12 miles, albeit through the ridiculously sharp hilly roads of Kansas.

Alas, my nice bike got fucking stolen last fall.