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Reflections on a Cross-Country Bike Trip

December 18, 2011

Training for the Ironman has got me thinking about the last time I committed to the sort of training that I had no idea where it would take me. In summer 2004, a good college friend and I set out to cycle from San Francisco to Virginia Beach (we only made it through Kansas due to injury, but that’s another story). That trip started out as a crazy idea on a night I couldn’t fall asleep. And then the next few days I couldn’t get that idea out of my head. And next thing I knew, I had convinced a friend to join me.

I grew up mountain biking through the mountains of San Diego county with my dad. I never did super-long rides with him, but I loved the 10-15 miles we would do. But by high school that trailed off, and by college I hadn’t seriously been on a bike in years. And I had never been on a road bike. The friend who I talked into joining me, another rower, had even less cycling experience than me. So in the middle of December 2002, we committed to a bike trip, not knowing what we would need to do to get through it. We committed just for the sheer joy and excitement of it.

My training was somewhat haphazard. The saving grace was I already in really good shape from crew. I got in plenty of miles on the bike, including a lot of mountains (this time on the road, of course). But I’ll admit, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and did not train as seriously as I should have. It was a good thing my brother and sister drove sag support with us through Colorado — we did our riding, but we started out with no gear on our bikes and slowly started carrying our gear as we got used to the daily grind of cycle touring.

We started out riding across the Golden Gate Bridge before dipping our rear wheels in the Pacific Ocean. We promptly missed the last ferry across to Oakland and had to call my sister to drive us across. We then rode late into the night, arriving at a hotel (oops, meant to be camping) around midnight. Over the coming days we slowly got our act more together, but were clearly under prepared. But we were having a blast doing it! We didn’t worry too much about the next day or week. We just made sure we were roughly on our calendar for making it across the country.

Nevada was more of a challenge than we anticipated. Climb 1000-2000 feet up a mountain, drop down the other side, ride relatively flat through a valley for 10-15 miles, and repeat. Again and again. But it was also the tedium of a lonesome dessert road. It’s amazing what you learn about yourself when you have all day to talk to yourself.

The high point (literally) of the trip was Monarch Pass. The ride up there was one of those rides I will never forget. We set out under clear skies and good weather, bodies exhausted but spirits high. As we rode up the mountain, it got colder, and started to sleet and hail. And we were in shorts and cycling jerseys. Fortunately my brother and sister drove by and stopped on the side of the road. They expected us to want to get in and call off our ride. No way! We grabbed our tights and jackets from the car, thanked them, and kept on riding. Every 30 minutes or so we took a break, but for no more than a minute or two, so we wouldn’t lose body heat. And I loved it, every minute of it.

By the time we were riding through Kansas, we had become stronger, more disciplined cyclists. We had no more sag support, but we were still making it into camp every night at a reasonable hour. We were doing 100 mile days on the windy plains of Kansas with all our gear. We were making that crazy dream into a reality.

So why do I highlight this trip? It was a long trip, but we rode at a moderate pace (of course, moderate pace with a lot of extra weight on the bike). We stopped for lunch most days. My training has since become more consistent, more disciplined, more intense. I’ve since run marathons that demand the same endurance, but without the breaks for food and rest.

But this cycling trip captured the same raw spirit of tackling a goal for the sheer joy of it, even though it’s a huge goal and I really have no idea of what I’m getting myself into. This trip captured the joy, the pain, the excitement of training for something beyond anything I had ever tried.

Sure, if I just wanted to push my limits physically, I might not need to do an Ironman. I mean, I’m far from elite in rowing, crossfit, or running. I continually push my limits in crossfit and in rowing. But even though the training is intense, it’s an intensity I know in some sense. A 2k on the erg is going to hurt, and it’s going to test my limits, and I’m going to need to push myself way outside my comfort zone. But it’s a test I know. And even as I continue to train to go faster, it’s a training I know.

The Ironman is something different, for me at least. It’s the same spirit of daring to try something beyond what I’ve ever done before. The same daring to commit to something long before I know how I will get there or what it will take. The same spirit of knowing I have enough base to make it to my goal, but knowing that the journey will be a tough one. You see, I have not followed the typical path to an Ironman (if there is such a thing). I did an Olympic distance triathlon once, back in 2008. And that’s it. I’m a weak swimmer (but at least I’m comfortable in the water and not afraid of it). I haven’t done a streak of triathlons, no half Ironmans, no serious swimming. Yes, I will do several shorter triathlons over the next year to train for Arizona (including hopefully a half Ironman in training). But those are coming after I’ve already registered for Ironman Arizona.

My training for Ironman Arizona will certainly be more disciplined than my training for my cross-country cycling trip was. Once the Ironman starts, I don’t get the equivalent of sag support for the first half of the race. So I better be ready when I start. But right now, I have the same giddy feeling as when I started training for that bike tour. The same sense of sheer joy. This is more than just another test of my physical limits. This is about the raw surge of energy from committing to a goal that seems so much bigger than anything I’ve ever done.

336 days till Ironman Arizona 2012.

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