After finally settling into the place I now call home, just 2 years after retiring from derby, I found myself lost in new territory. I like to call it my “losing my bearings” crisis. Introducing a competitive sport later in life to train for and commit to was already life-changing. It taught me discipline, gave me structure and how to be part of a team. It showed me what I was capable of mentally and physically. It was what inspired me to become a trainer. So now that it wasn’t a part of my life anymore, it left me with the ultimate question of, “now what?”
Moving to Seattle brought on a new level of challenges. Having so many more options for recreational activities was like having a chest full of shiny new toys open before your eyes and becoming blinded by its beauty. Part of the reason for moving here was for the bf to get back to his love of outdoors. He went full force into hiking and climbing. I happily join him on his amazing adventures and enjoy every minute with him, but didn’t find what I was looking for the way he did. So I needed something of my own. I needed a different kind of challenge.
In January, as I was showing off my new bike to a friend, she asked if I had heard of STP. And that is where it all began. I had ridden organized rides before, but nothing of this distance or commitment. And doing a ride in the midwest is nothing like here in the PNW. As in, the only thing flatter than the midwest is a sad pancake. When I first moved to Seattle I didn’t bike for a better part of a year because the hills were just so intimidating. I needed to get over it. So what better time to face them than to start training on them. I went ahead and mentioned to a few friends that I was going to sign up, and shortly after I found myself with a bike gang to endure the challenge with me. Two friends I had made here in Seattle, and one back home in Chicago who I have a knack for talking into doing crazy physical challenges (I happen to be the one who talked her into roller derby!).
By February we were all signed up and beginning the training regimen. It started with some short distance rides, between 10 and 20 miles. Along side with which I decided to reset my strength training to lay a foundation for the work that needed to be done. For the first 6 weeks I went back to basics. Bodyweight and resistance band training only, along with any corrective exercises I needed for my hip (which I had injured in December) and bad shoulder (which had always been a problem since my dodgeball days).
By mid-spring the mileage was up to between 30 and 50 miles. By then I had moved onto core strength and lifting again. My first long ride was after I had helped my friend Joey buy a road bike and we tested it out on the 54-mile Lake Washington Loop. It was strenuous to say the least and the first taste of what the actual ride could be like. In addition to that, I was training with a rower, whose job was to work on endurance 6 days a week. So just imagine 54 miles of sprinting just to keep up and then reflect on what your mind and body would feel like after.
By early summer, the daylight was longer and so were the rides. 50 to 60 miles every Saturday, with 25 to 30 miles during the week and 1 day of intervals on the trainer mid-week. I began to lift heavier and reintroduce kettlebells for help with endurance. At this time was when I started to really feel the mental challenge of getting through these longer distance training rides where I was solo, several miles from home, just far enough to wonder if I would even be able to make it back. On my longest ride towards the end of training was 75 miles through quiet backroads and cow-grazing fields. I remember being out on a winding road tucked far behind several acres of farmland, being afraid that the sun would go down before I could make it back to where I had started. I was pulled over on the side of the road, telling myself out loud to get back on the bike and just get somewhere that wasn’t so desolate. Fear at this point in training will either break you or push you into survival mode. When I finally made it back I sat down and nearly cried. But instead, I silenced my mind and watched the sun set in the beautiful orange and purple sky above.
The final weeks leading up to the ride brought on a lot of challenges. Just a few weeks before, I re-injured my shoulder during a rock climbing session. I was angry at myself for being so reckless, and was forced to stop kettlebell training or any sort of upper body strength training for that matter. I could barely do a push up. So I had to refocus my energy and concentrate on lower body strength and mobility, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If I had not spent so much time in the last weeks doing so I am sure my story would have a different ending. Then, just 10 days before, I went on the most grueling hike up a volcano. Thinking I wouldn’t even be able to walk myself down from this one made me question my physical status all together. Would I have enough gas in the tank at mile 180? Would I be mentally strong enough to finish with a smile? The hike was only 10 miles and I almost threw down my pack and poles and gave up. How would I bike 206 miles and not feel the same?
The Ride: The Final Week
The week of. The anxiety is settling in, keeping me up at night like a bright spotlight shining on all my insecurities. To calm my nerves I took it easy. A light rock climbing session, a lot of foam rolling and a little bit of retail therapy. The excitement doesn’t set in until Friday morning, when I am driving to the airport to pick up my friend from Chicago. Then, as I pull up and see her face, the excitement turns into pure calmness. I am now ready. We spend the day carb loading, picking up our packets, touring sites from 10 Things I Hate About You and packing our bags. But as relaxing as the day was I still can’t fall asleep.
The Ride: Day One
Having done the Lake Washington loop several times during training, the first 15 miles are easy and familiar. We blow throw the first rest stop and ride until mile 24 where the REI stop is. Everyone is cheery, bikers are dancing and enjoying all the free orange slices.
Everything is still pretty flat and crowded as we arrive at the mile 41 rest stop, where there happens to be a park and I jump on the opportunity to take a break on the swings. This is just before the “THE HILL” at mile 44. Looking back, although I climbed it at an ultra-slow pace, it wasn’t the toughest hill I had to climb. On my training rides, there were longer and steeper ones, which made me think back to Chilly Hilly where I thought I would have to get off my bike and walk. But I conquered “THE HILL,” quickly shook my fist at it at the top and pedaled on.
At mile 57, we were slowing down a bit and were ready for lunch at JBLM. It was a unique opportunity to ride through the base and stop to sit and eat lunch, where they have old aircrafts and other army vehicles on display. Riding through the rest of the base seemed like it went on forever, but it gave us a better picture of how expansive it was.
A quick stop at mile 72 where they were handing out free hard boiled eggs. Don’t get me wrong, I love hard boiled eggs, but the thought of eating one after being on the bikes for that long made me want to gag. By mile 88, we were ready to just get day one over with. At the last rest stop they had Freeze Pops and music, so it was a nice little break for the last haul. At mile 102, we had reached our destination for the night—Centralia College—just after 5:30p. We quickly corralled our bikes and set up our tent in the back where it was nice and quiet, then wandered our way into town. We all ordered burgers and a local joint called The Hub, where the server was decked out in tattoos and a Wu-Tang sleeveless shirt and the cook still managed to sport flannel behind a grill full of ground beef. My kind of town.
Back at campus, it turns out that the tent I had borrowed from a friend was the largest tent of all, so we spent the last hour before bed with the 6 of us tucked inside learning how to play Hearts. Joey’s friend Ted and I went undefeated and it what made it better was that it my first time playing. At lights out, we crawled into our sleeping bags and listened to the the first real rain in months over here hit the top of the tent. There was no need to listen to Jeff Bridges’ sleeping tapes.
The Ride: Day Two
Day two. Up by 4:45a. We head down to the student center to grab our pancake breakfast. We are all clinging to our half cup of coffee that it came with, hoping it will be enough caffeine to wake us up. There is a line of us standing in the bathroom, brushing our teeth and splashing water on our faces. We run into a man in the student center who is carrying his pet Cockatoo (he was not on the ride but was there supporting his wife) and he lets us pet him. It was probably the first time I had seen a bird snuggle his owner. It was cute overload but definitely a pick me up to make up for the missing half cup of coffee we didn’t get at breakfast.
After breakfast, bags were packed and put back on the truck. We retrieve our bikes from the corral, and are on the road at about the same time as day 1. The boys take off and us girls begin by setting a nice steady pace, faster than the day before. After leaving Centralia we hit the farmlands just shortly after Chehalis. A quick stop at mile 122 and we are off through Winlock. From here, we finally meet the rolling hills of Washington. Our pace begins to slow at this point as our legs are now challenged with continuous climbs. We reach mile 147 for lunch, where we run into the boys and slowly savor the cookies that came with our sandwiches. We are moving at a faster pace than the day before despite the hills, and are still in good spirits.
And then, at mile 154, we reach the Lewis & Clark Bridge. Any time there was a hill, there was always a small amount of panic followed by a long winded expletive. When I looked up and spotted the bridge, it was the first time during the ride I questioned myself. It was a, “You want me to do what?” moment. But there were so many bikers bottlenecked at the bottom of the bridge and traffic was being directed that there was no need to go fast. There was no turning back either. Everyone climbed at a slow, steady rate, so it made it easier to climb than the other hills we had to huff up all alone. The biker in front of me kept taking selfies as we climbed, so I’m sure he had plenty of me photobombing him. It was then that we crossed into Oregon.
From then on, we learned that it was the hardest part of the ride. For the next 42 miles we were on Highway 30. Although it was flat, it was single file riding on the shoulder with cars flying by and no scenic relief. All we were left with were our thoughts focused on our aching muscles and the momentary shock of cars driving by at 60mph. A short break at mile 164 to fill water and apply sunscreen as the sun had finally broke through the clouds and began to beat down on us. We crawled into the rest stop at mile 176 and didn’t even grab food other than the blackberries we picked off the bush where we were resting in the shade. The final rest stop at mile 188 was when my body started to break down. I could feel my mind starting to lose its grip on patience and although I had been calm for nearly 190 miles, it was not the time to have my mind break with just under 20 miles to go. My eyes glazed over as I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana. I lingered in the shade just long enough to put myself back together, and then we made our final push for Portland.
Leading up to the St. Johns Bridge, we were pushing it. No more easy pace or enjoying the view, just pedaling as much as our legs would let us to get us to the finish line. Just before the bridge at mile 197 was a short windy hill up. I am counting on my momentum to ride into it, but just at the bottom of the hill a rider takes a spill and all bikers come to a complete stop. All I can see is a pod of the Georgia team-in-training riders with their little peaches and bows atop their helmets bobbing around to help the rider up. A Cascade Outrider happened to be right there, so she quickly shuffled everyone aside and got the rest of us moving. Unfortunately, it had taken my focus off the hill and was now faced with climbing up from a dead stop. I lost both Molly and Rory at this point, so I had to push hard to catch up with them. I thought about just walking up, but I had no reason to wimp out at this point. There were still 13 miles to go. As I climbed the bridge solo, I dug into every push and used my breath to steady myself. That relief of coasting down was just within reach, so I blocked all other senses to finish the climb. As I made it over the bridge, there was a huge sense of accomplishment knowing I had finally made it into Portland. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the last 6 miles. Knowing that there was still a hefty amount of distance from the finish line with nothing left to give was a true test of mental and physical strength.
Just under a mile to go and the struggle is real. Molly and I had dropped our pace significantly and were now just cruising our way downtown. At a stoplight I look over and see Molly is ready to be done, so I just give her a nod and we get ourselves to pick it back up. As we near the final block, my spirits lift. There are people lined up along the street with cameras and bells and signs. They are cheering and high fiving. I can see the finish line just on the next block and I sit up in my saddle. I can hear the announcer and the music and I come to terms that it is going to be over if i just peddle a little more.
And then there it is. The finish line. Shortly after I cross it I notice a little sign with my bib number on it. It is the bf, with the biggest, cheesiest grin on his face. He had spent the whole day telling me he wouldn’t be able to make it to the finish line, but there he was, ready to embrace me and look me in the eye to tell me how proud he was of me.
After we finish and dismount our bikes, it is a bit of a hot mess, with crowds of friends and family members and bikers delirious from miles of pain, sweat and maybe some tears. All I want to do is ditch my bike and drink my free chocolate milk, so we get that done right away. We make our way to the beer garden where I join the rest of my bike gang. One has already passed out on the table, but the rest are happily drinking their beer. My old teammate Goods, who now lives in Portland meets us there with donuts in hand, making her the best human being in the world.
Another leaguemate who is also a recent Portland transplant, Schwartz, meets us and brings us to dinner at Teote, where we devour plates of plantains, arepas and lamb chops along with very tall glasses of Michelada and Princesa Sucias. Before heading back to our accommodations for the night, Schwartz brings us to a romantic little ice cream parlor called The Rimsky Korsakoffee House, where the place smells like 100 year old dust and has the wallpaper to match.
Settling in for the night and not wanting to even climb the stairs, we hit the bed hard. Even though my body was completely exhausted, I still couldn’t fall asleep right away. I ended up lying awake, my mind running. Not on the ride in particular, but what I had just put myself through. I fell asleep with no particular question answered, but pleased that I had gotten myself there after enduring such a challenge.
Monday morning we head to the the train station and hop on the Amtrak back to Seattle. Joey had been talking non-stop about the dining car since before we had booked the tickets weeks ago, so as soon as our tickets were checked, we made our way over. We ordered our microwaved breakfast sandwiches and enjoyed a bit of train luxury. It was everything he had dreamed of. Passing through Tacoma was the most scenic, making plans to come down one day and explore the islands. Arriving back in Seattle, we embraced each other and parted ways to get back to the regular routine of heading to work or home.
Would I do it again? For sure. But probably not next year. It took a lot of work to get myself prepared for STP, in which a lot of it meant being solo and dealing with my own demons. I definitely want to keep pedaling, so the plan is doing do another organized ride later in the fall and then sign up for a few centuries next year. The next month or so will be going back to kettlebell training now that my shoulder is slowly recovering and getting more technical with rock climbing. But now I can add a badge of PNW living to my accomplishments—with my bib number and finisher patch now hanging on the wall. Molly said that one thing she observed about PNW living is how people like to earn their battle scars and compare their most grueling physical challenges in the unknown. What is it about that badge of honor? Why do we own these accomplishments so proudly? I can’t quite say, but she also put it in the most eloquent words. She said, “... the physical effort was all my own. No one could help me peddle.”
Despite all the support and organization by the Cascade Bicycle Club, the friends who believed in me, the complete strangers offering nothing but smiles along the way ... 206 miles. Those were all my own.