Today, thousands of bicyclists are riding the annual Hub On Wheels event, an annual ride around Boston's neighborhoods to raise money for computers in the classrooms of Boston Public Schools. Three years ago, for the first and only time, I rode in the 26-mile version of that event; in fact, the picture that heads this blog is from that momentous day. I was training to do it again last summer, but a major respiratory infection that began last Labor Day weekend put an end to that dream, and this year, my continuing health problems similarly made participation impossible, so I am left staring out the window, remembering.
Here's what I wrote to family and friends a few days after the event:
So, there I was, last Sunday morning at 7:15, feeling extremely excited and kind of sick, watching my fellow bicyclists lining up for the 8am start of the Hub on Wheels ride around Boston. Supposedly there were 4000 riders registered for the event; 3800 lean, sleek cyclists, 197 regular people, and 3 really large people, of which I might have been the largest. I had a moment of wondering what on earth I was doing there, but then the still, small voice I've been learning to listen to during the past couple of months of coaching sessions with Teri from Green Mountain took over and said I am what I am and I'm doing the ride anyway.
It finally got to be 8am, and off we went. It was a perfect day to be out on a bike, and absolutely awesome to be riding down the middle of several of Boston's main streets with a police escort and no traffic! Riding up the ramp to Storrow Drive was amazing and exhilarating, only I almost immediately slipped my chain off the derailleur. But even that was amazing, since one of the riding marshalls rode up with his little bag of tools and not only helped me get it back on, but adjusted something so it wouldn't happen again. When else in life does that happen?
The first 7 miles or so were pure joy, though riding home afterwards I realized I hadn't taken in a lot of specifics about where we were riding, at least then. But then we got to the Jamaicaway, which had a fairly narrow bike path that was really neat until I realized that it was a steady uphill pull.
Let me stop a second and explain the physical difficulties I was facing. For starters, the day before the ride had been Yom Kippur, when, among other things, Jews are supposed to abstain from food and drink from sundown to sundown. I had actually had to break my fast in the afternoon because of really bad asthma, which can happen if I use my inhaler in the absence of liquids. So, I was starting out with something of a deficit. Then on Sunday morning, I was so excited/nervous/agitated I couldn't eat. I knew I needed to and I tried, several times, but I just couldn't do it. I knew I'd pay the price, but there really was nothing I could do.
Back to the Jamaicaway, in the absence of glycogen stores. I was tired, but Carol was waiting along this part of the route, and so were Dan and Nathan, to cheer me on, which I much appreciated. After I got to the top of that incline, slowly but surely, there was an exhilarating downhill dash into the Arnold Arboretum, and that's when things got tough. There was a hill. I pedaled and pedaled, and finally I had to get off and walk the bike up to the top. People were very encouraging, as they rode by, which was nice, but let me tell, you, pushing a bike up hill isn't so very much easier than riding it! But finally I got to the top, and then there was a rest area but I wanted to push on. I was drinking from my personal hydration system and eating my Sports Beans (jelly beans specially formulated with electrolytes, etc.), and didn't want to stop if I didn't have to.
And then there was Forest Hills Cemetery. Another long uphill. It was very hot at this point, and no shade, and I stopped and called Carol for an encouraging word. I told her my dilemma and that I had no energy and that at least if I died it would be convenient because I was already in the cemetery. She laughed and said I could do it, so I did hung up and did it. And just before the gate out of the cemetery, I did stop at the rest area and sucked on some oranges -- I still couldn't stomach the idea of eating anything more substantial than the Sports Beans, even though they had all kinds of things there. I did take a mini Cliff Bar in case I needed it later, and I tried to find out if there were more hills coming up, but nobody really knew. So I flung myself back into the fray.
Fortunately, there weren't any really bad hills, but I was so exhausted (this was about 11 miles in) that quite a few of the inclines along the route got the better of me, even though they might not have under normal circumstances. I really enjoyed pedaling along through Franklin Park, where my family was again waiting to cheer me on, and through Roxbury and Dorchester. It was especially fun to suddenly recognize an intersection that I had driven through, seeing it from a totally different perspective. It was hard, though, and I was getting more and more tired, but I just kept pedaling. Most of the time there were other riders around, especially at the major intersections (where there were marshals and occasionally police or rangers to stop traffic for us), but quite regularly I was chugging along on my own. It made me feel a little better to see other folks occasionally stopping or walking uphill, and I was leap-frogging with a whole group who were faster than I but stopping more often.
Finally, at about 16 miles or so, I reached the waterfront and knew that the rest of the route was along the shore, which meant no more hills. But I was horrified to realize that I was only able to get up about 7mph on a totally flat path! This was NOT GOOD, so I stopped on a bench overlooking a gorgeous harbor view and choked down that mini Cliff Bar I had snagged from the rest stop. It tasted like sawdust, but I knew I needed some fuel. I have no idea how long I actually sat there trying to finish that lump of food; I intended to stop for only a few minutes, as I was planning to take a longer break at the next rest area, which was coming up, but I actually sat there for about 45. It was, at least, a beautiful place to sit and contemplate the water.
Eventually, I got back on the bike and slogged along the mile or so to the rest area at Carson Beach. I sucked down some oranges again (I had always wondered why they always gave out orange wedges at the Boston Marathon, since they didn't seem like they'd give you enough of either liquid or calories to do you much good, but now I GET IT), took a banana (which I absolutely did NOT want to eat) and refilled my water reservoir (I'd just finished the half gallon I'd started with), collapsed on the curb of the parking lot and called Carol to see if they were nearby. She was, though they were just getting ready to leave, thinking they had missed me (due to my unanticipated stop); so they came over and Nathan came running up the wonderful way he has and flung himself at me -- all the other bikers in the parking lot said "aaaawwwwwwwwww" as if on cue -- and Carol got me more water and made me eat the banana. I stayed there for about half an hour -- Holly, who had just been swimming with the girls, drove over, too, and gave me a much needed pep talk. Nathan also kept finding interesting rocks to give me; after the first two, which I put in my back pack for luck, I had him give them to Carol to hold. Left to himself, I think he would have emptied the parking lot for me!
The best moment of my rest stop was when Nathan looked at my bike, furrowed his brow and asked, "But where does the gas go?"
So, it was now 12pm and I'd completed 20 miles, with six miles to go. I didn't think I could do it, but with encouragement from my wonderful family and a promise to myself that I'd stop every mile if I needed to, I got back on the bike and started off. To my amazement, the next four miles were totally enjoyable (must have been those calories!). Then, all of a sudden, with just under two miles to go, my butt went numb and my feet went numb on the pedals and I had to get off the bike that very minute. So I found a congenial bench on Fan Pier and stretched a bit and got back on the bike for the final push home.
The last mile or so was the scariest of the whole ride -- on Atlantic Avenue with all the traffic, and having to turn left across all those lanes with only one marshal to show us the way, but no one to make it safe. Then, on State Street, with the end in sight, I was making my way between a bus on one side and parked cars on the other, and feeling a bit apprehensive about that, but then all of a sudden the road opened out and there were Hub on Wheels volunteers yelling and ringing cow bells and making me smile so I rode across the finish grinning as widely as when I started. I called Carol, who was just parking the car, and told her where to meet me, and then found a place to sit and collapsed, barely containing the emotions welling up inside until she and Nathan got there. Poor Nathan; when I was done sobbing I tried to explain to him how grown-ups were kind of strange sometimes and cried when they were really happy. He was looking really distressed, since in his world you only cry when you're sad or you have a boo-boo.
We parked my bike at the bike valet and I collected my free lunch from Redbones (the best barbecue place in Boston and a great supporter of biking), which I actually managed to eat about half of, with some enjoyment. About every 10 minutes, Nathan asked me if I had won, and I would patiently explain to him that everyone who had done the ride won, that there were lots of ways of winning, that it wasn't a race, etc. etc. And 10 minutes later he would ask me again, "Sherry, did you win?" Finally, I just said "YES", and that was the truth, too.
I still can't believe I did it.
And I can't believe how much I've been learning from the experience. New ways of looking at food. How my body reacts to extreme physical stress (I didn't actually feel hunger until Tuesday lunchtime, then went through two days of getting ravenous every few hours all night long, and I kept falling asleep Monday and Wednesday, and even today (Friday) I'm feeling totally unenergetic.) How it feels to set a goal and train for it -- something I've done in other areas of my life, but not in terms of physical activity. How much I love riding my bike -- I rode for an hour yesterday and enjoyed it enormously, though I realized I have no reserves still, and couldn't push myself to reach my normal riding speeds. How much I want to do this again next year, and how I might train for the hills.
It was an amazing journey. 26.3 miles, in 3.5 hours of riding time (not quite 5 hours by the clock). I'm grateful that I was able to do it, and even more grateful for everyone's support and good wishes.
Looking back on that event now, the lessons that I've taken from that whole experience are a little bit different than what I reported at the time. For one thing, the post-ride week was really the first time in my adult life when I really paid close attention to what my body was signaling about its physiologic needs, and that I gave myself complete permission to satisfy them. During the first 48 hours after I got home, while I was mostly sleeping, all I could stomach was a little bit of sharp cheddar with a challah roll -- I think the contrasting sweet and salt tastes were what made that palatable. On Tuesday, when I experienced actual hunger, I got a message as clear as a neon sign that what I needed was protein, so I downed a can of tuna fish, nothing else. Then for the 48 hours after that, when I was ravenous every couple of hours, all I wanted was carbs -- crackers, pretzels, cereal, bread. After that I went back to normal. It all made sense, and it all felt fine.
The second important lesson was the nature of the training I did. I was basically following two of the programs set out in a wonderful little book called How To Get Wheely Fit. The first four week plan took me from first mount-up to riding 60 minutes straight, and the second from one hour at a time to two hours. Each plan called for specific length rides on four days per week. So each week I would figure put in the ideal schedule -- in pencil -- and then figure out what I could actually manage that would be close to that ideal. Sometimes I did exactly what the book said, but often I couldn't. But if I couldn't ride enough to advance to the next week's level, I made sure to do enough to maintain where I was, with the result that the Tuesday before the ride, I made a glorious 18-mile circuit on the bike paths along both sides of the Charles River, passing through four different towns in the process. Somehow, I've never managed yet to be that flexible with myself in any of my other endeavors, though I've consciously looked to that as a model for how it can be done.
I still love riding my bike more than any other physical activity I do, and I don't doubt that I will sign up for Hub on Wheels again. Maybe even next year. I look forward to seeing what I will learn from that experience.
A hui hou.