Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Journey of My Own--Alaska

My last state....Alaska.....the end of my journey and as I sit in my tent the final night of riding the Golden Circle, I am serenaded by the soft pounding of rain on the tent canvas and the wind howling through the aspen.  My thoughts are many, but primarily that it would a cold, wet ride in the morning.  In that strange night 'sunlight', so common at the northern latitudes, where the night never really gets dark, I stare up at my tent top, willing myself to fall asleep.  The hours slide away, and dawn quickly approaches; I need to sleep.  The ride in a few hours will be steep, taking me up through the Chilkoot Pass and into Skagway.  I need to be well rested to meet that challenge.

Drip, drip, drip.

I toss and turn, tangled and uncomfortable in the mummy sleeping bag, so appropriately named, captive in its tight confines.  The knee I had injured in a crash earlier in the week, aches, pain radiating up and down my leg every time I move into a different position....and moving was no easy feat in that sleeping bag.

I must have fallen asleep at some point as the movements of my neighbors woke me as they struck their camps in preparation for this day's journey.  Slow to rise, I staggered to the mess tent in search of a cup of coffee.  Ah.....they know me well after 6 days.....they had it ready for me.

While others ate a hearty breakfast, I nursed my coffee, rubbing my knee.  I really didn't want to ride today.  My knee and back ached, I was tired, cold and grumpy. Because other rides this past week had not been that long or  challenging for me, I decided to forgo breakfast, and have more coffee instead.  That would prove to be a bad mistake; had I paid attention to nature, I would have noticed and heeded the frothy whitecaps on the lake by our campsite, indicating the force of the winds from the north.

The last to leave camp, I pushed my heavy hybrid bike the mile out of the camp site, up a 12% hill on a road of dirt and gravel; it was not safe to ride due to the deteriorated condition. By the time I had limped my way to the top, everyone else was long gone and I was sweating.  Even though it was sprinkling, I took off my rain gear; I was more wet from the perspiration created by my waterproof gear than I would have been from the rain.

Turning north, the wind nearly knocked me over.  It was blowing at 20 to 25 miles per hour, straight out of the north, which is the direction I would be riding all day. The climbing started almost immediately; the grades were long and moderately steep, but it was riding against the force of the wind combined with the grades that presented a challenge.

Though riding in a headwind can be physically challenging, it is the constant roaring in one's ears that is most disconcerting.  In this part of the country, the natives say the North wind will cause one to go crazy; they actually have a Native name for it saying as much.  It never lets up.

On and on I pedaled, alone with the wind and my thoughts.  Eventually, I could see the colorful spots of other riders in the far distance as they rode up the mountain.  Head down, I continued to pedal, soon catching one, then another, shouting words of encouragement over the roar.  Slowly, I catch and pass the leaders, continuing on alone, with my focus on completing one more rotation of the pedal stroke.

So immersed was I in my task, that I had to mentally shake myself to shift my focus from the physical work to enoying the beauty of my surroundings; I most likely would never be here again, and despite the wind and light rain, I did raise my eyes from the road and savor the glorious mountains and lakes, giving gratitude.

With climbing come descents....the glorious downhills that are the reward for working so hard to summit.  But with those northern gales, what should have been an exciting rush of speed and rest was, instead, more work to keep a steady pace.  There would be no rest on this ride and I was definitely feeling the lack of nourishment as my strength waned under the toil.

On and on I pedaled, averaging a mere 10 miles per hour, including the downhills.  The support van passed several times, going in the opposite direction to aid those behind me.  Finally stopping to check on me, I asked how much further to the lunch spot, (the cue sheets weren't very good and mileage on them was often off).

"Mile 28", they said.

I was at 25.... only 3 miles until I could rest and grab some food!  Thank goodness--it felt like I was pedaling through jello!  After a few more miles, my pedal strokes became even more labored and my speed continued to drop, despite the fact that I was working just as hard as earlier. Stopping, I discovered my rear tire had gone flat.....and with the lunch spot in sight!  A few unsavory words entered my mind, but were quickly replaced with the thought that there was no way I was going to stop to change the flat now.....I pedaled the remaining quarter mile on the tire as it was.  (FYI--There was enough air left in the tire to protect the rims).

Once in a safe location, away from the traffic and sheltered a bit from the cold wind and rain, I changed the tire; it was the rear one, of course, which is the more difficult of the two to change.  Inserting the tube, and re-inflating, I found it would not hold air.  Arggggh!  It was then I discovered that, in my fatigue, I had used the bad inner tube instead of the new one.  Arrgghhh!  By then, other riders were coming in......frustrated and tired, I knew it was time to just walk away,  and allow the support team handle it.  I was going to eat lunch and get warm.

Huddled in the warm van with others, I wolfed down a hearty soup, listening to the others talk about their ride. Cold, wet and tired, many were throwing in the proverbial towel, taking a ride to the top of the summit, where they would then ride down.  With my knee aching, my back in spasm and my saddlesores screaming, I wanted to join them.  My little internal voices were having quite a discussion about that.....

"Why push yourself....everyone would understand if you chose not to ride"
"But I would know I didn't do it"
"But what do you have to prove?"
"That I can..."

There is the point where one has to concede to physical exhaustion; I knew I was not there yet.  If I didn't continue, it would be due to mentally quitting. For me, this was a mental ride, not a physical ride.  Pushing past the excuses my mind was presenting, and with tears of conflict running down my checks,  I gathered myself, leaving the warm van in search of my bike.  This was a journey of my own; this was a journey of determination....a journey to complete because I decided I could and would.

Finding my bike was still being worked on, I watched as abandoned bikes were loaded on to the van for the shuttle to the summit and as a few other hardy souls left to ride the 20 miles to the top.  Finally, with my bike repaired, I left in full raingear.

A long, 6% climb and the now familiar headwinds greeted me immediately and I soon began to shed layers, despite the temperature falling into the 40's.  I was already wet, so I preferred riding in my shorts, jersey and armwarmers rather than sweating in the raingear. Unincumbered, on I climbed, acknowledging myself for 'sucking it up' and continuing.  This truly was a ride I had to do by myself and for myself.

Pedal stroke after pedal stroke, head down against the wind, I went.  By now, the big tour buses from the cruise lines were whizzing down the highway in the opposite direction, creating huge back drafts against which to ride, in addition to the headwinds.  I wondered what the occupants of those warm, comfortable buses thought as they saw me struggling up the inclines in the wind and rain....probably thought I was crazy....they'd be wrong; I was determined.

Eventually, I passed those that had left before me, shouting more words of encouragement as I went.  Tired eyes greeted me as all of us struggled against the wind and steep grades.   Alone again, I focused on my surroundings, and on maintaining my cadence without sacrificing my heart rate....this was a true test of putting all I had been taught to the test.

Finally, relieved that I was at the top, I rounded a curve, only to be confronted with the road snaking up an impossibly steep mountainside.  Unbidden, tears streamed down my face....  I wasn't done!  Did I have enough left to get there?

This is what I call my 'cry point'; it is the point where I have pushed myself further than I have gone before.  It is the point where I know if I continue, I am breaking through the barriers I have placed on myself, and on what I thought was possible.  I am not sure what the tears are about, but I have learned to acknowledge them when it cry point marks achievement and breaking past beliefs that have held me back. Tears mingling with rain, I rode on.

Anticipation is often worse than the actual event, and this proved to be true here.  Yes, that final climb was rather steep; yes, I was in physical pain; yes, I was tired, but I reached the summit without a problem.  I had overcome my old beliefs, my doubt.

This ride was, by far, the most challenging I have ever done, mentally and physically. Only four of us completed it. It  would have been far easier had I cycled with the others; we could have pace lined, protecting each other from the wind.  This, however, was a ride I needed to do alone.  This was the ride that changed my beliefs about my abilities, and mental fortitude.....this was a journey of my own.

Rain was a constant companion
Emerald Lake
The world's smallest desert
On the way to Chilkoot Pass

One Nation camp--making totem poles
Forever optimistic--sunglasses and sunscreen
Yes...bears do......
One of our campsites
Million Dollar Falls
The sun is out!

Foraging grizzly

Tribal shelter

Goldrush Ghost town

One of many waterfalls