Photo: @abbylwatson climbing into the mist – photo by @mmcyclist
I got in the van four or five times today—mentally. Within the first ten flat miles up the coast, my patellas were crying for mercy. Sometimes you can pedal through the pain and it goes away. Other times, it doesn’t. I have learned through failures, injuries, and successes that there is a fine line between massive discomfort and pain that signals injury. At times like this, more than ever, it is important to listen to your body.
“Y’all, I think I’m going to have to get in the van,” I told the group.
“Hang on a little more,” someone said. “There’s a beach of elephant seals in five miles.”
The elephant seals kept me out of the van. They were lounging in the sun, napping in a giant, corpulent puppy pile. We laughed at one doing the worm across the sand, inching its way along with great effort. I swelled with empathy. I could so relate.
The seal beach gave me a moment to stretch my warm muscles and reevaluate. The knees felt better. “I’ll ride until the bottom of the first big climb,” I told myself. “Then I’ll get in the van.” And then, to my surprise, the first big climb didn’t feel all that bad. “At the bottom of the next one,” I thought, “I’ll hop in the van.”
But the day would not let me quit. To our left was a sweeping 180-degree view of a restless Pacific licking the edge of the continent. The nasty headwind that usually howls down the coast was little more than a whisper, and the sunshine rained down in buckets. The air smelled of kelp and you could lick the salt off the air. The sun warmed our forearms and calves, and the descents felt like flying, with our vests flapping behind us like capes.
I won’t lie; my knees ached with every turn of the crank, for almost all of our eight hours in the saddle. But the view was a fine distraction, and it pulled me around every bend with its beauty. The road rose and fell beneath our wheels like waves of asphalt, and at some point along the way I found the perfect gear for a standing climb that gave my knees a little relief.
And then, for 15 sweet minutes, I felt good.
I do not know what happened, but for those moments the pain just disappeared. We had just crossed one of the bridges across a ravine, and my legs began to move with a mind of their own. I sprinted to get out of the way of a passing car, and suddenly I found myself pulling the group. No one sprinted around me, so I kept on, happy to finally do at least a brief, symbolic moment of work for the team after four days of shameless wheel-sucking.
It didn’t last long, but it felt euphoric. It was refreshing to see the open road unspooling in front of me instead of a pair of rocking hips, to feel steady wind on my face instead of the wisps that whip around a wind shadow. And the respite from pain reminded me of the feeling you get when an ice cream headache goes away, or when you’re freezing and step into a hot shower. Your whole body goes “Aaaahhhh.”
We took our time today, but we still rode fast, and as we approached Carmel, the views grew even more beautiful, which had not even seemed possible. The last 20 miles, though, were a dichotomy of pleasure and pain. My knees ached with every stroke, and I could feel my neck and shoulders tensing under many hours of steady hurt. All I could do was grit and grin. I did not get in the van.
Knee pain aside, I am lucky. I am the only one in the group without saddle sores. The friction and pressure of eight to 10 hours on a seat about as big as your sneaker does awful things to the skin it touches. And once “soft-tissue issues” begin, it’s a downward spiral. Ever gotten a really bad blister on your foot? Imagine that on your most tender bits. At least one woman rode through tears.
After the ride, my knees felt swollen and hot. I iced them in the restaurant and thought about what to do tomorrow. It’s a brutal course—120 miles with two summits. If I want to ride into Sacramento on Sunday, I need to be strategic. Will ice and take more ibuprofen and sleep with my knees propped on pillows tonight, and see how things feel in the morning.
By Kim Cross – Birmingham, Alabama – Competitor, writer, editor, mother, wife, all around bad ass. Learn more about Kim at Spokeswoman.me.