Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Voyage Home

I awoke just before 4:00 AM. I stirred a little, opened my eyes, and seeing that it was still largely dark, I closed my eyes again, pulled the thin blanket closer to my chin. The room was cool: the building's heat, having been shut off for the summer months, was not coming on until autumn, when the students, having returned for another year, would be preparing for mid-term exams, counting the days until all the leaves would fall, wondering when the snow would come.

I had crawled into that dorm-room bed, its hard mattress and few sheets supplied for the cyclists, fully dressed. I was too tired to change into my pajamas and my clothes were clean, so who cared? Not me. After having stuffed myself with two plates of food at dinner—one plate of whole-wheat penne with a tomato and meat sauce; the other, prime rib, potatoes, vegetables, and a spongy casserole-like item that I couldn't identify, outside the corn and cooked tomatoes—washed down with two glasses of chocolate milk, Lori and I returned to our room and stretched out on our respective beds, contemplating the rides we had completed.

I was asleep by 7:30. 

My results
When I estimated my time for reaching Kingston, I calculated for about 22 kilometres per hour. I figured that it would take me approximately eight hours to cover the distance. So I was pleased, and in somewhat of disbelief that despite some of my slow climbs up steep hills, I reached the finish line at Queen's University with a time of 7:30:04.

Seven-and-a-half hours. Exactly.

And my bike performed wonderfully. No issues, no concerns (though, after a couple of hours, my right pedal creaks a bit). The gears had shifted smoothly, the wheels had rolled effortlessly.

I love my bike. Not quite two years old, and the honeymoon still hasn't ended.

Upon crossing the finish line and dismounting my bike, I felt elated. There were times when I thought that I wouldn't be able to cycle for more than 170 kilometres, but I had. I was standing in the residence area of Queen's campus, looking out towards Lake Ontario, with Wolfe Island on the horizon. I had been here many times in the past, visiting friends who studied at this university and lived in these dormatories. I wasn't dreaming. I had made it.

But now, lying in bed on day two, several hours before I was to get on my bike and do it all over again, I began to think about what lay before me.

When I rode to Kingston, I had never participated in this event before. I wasn't familiar with this route, had not been on these small county roads. The climbs and descents were faced one by one, unannounced, as I reached them.

Now, I knew what lay before me, knew where the toughest hills were.

I dreaded the first hill out of the city. Not the railway overpass on Division Street. Yes, it was a steep incline, but it was short. It was the long, steep climb a little further on, just north of the 401. I felt my legs, lying in bed, and imagined them cranking me upwards.

The route from Ottawa to Kingston
I also thought of the steep hill in Westport. When I came down it, I travelled so fast that I had to squeeze hard on my brakes. It was that hill where I'm sure I hit my top speed of nearly 60 kph.

But then I thought, those were pretty much it. Sure, there were many more hills, but those were the two I dreaded the most. And the more I thought about them, the more I thought: you know, I can do this. I had refuelled my body, had slept for more than eight hours. I was going to be able to finish this ride.

Shortly after 4, Lori stirred. She whispered from across the room, wondering if I was awake. I softly responded that I was.

"How do you feel?" she asked, "You're breathing loud and heavily."

I had noticed that. From the moment I got off my bike, I felt that I couldn't get enough oxygen into my body. My sinuses were congested, and I felt I had to fight through my plugged nostrils, but I also felt as though my lungs had expanded and required more air to sustain me.

"I'm okay," I said. "My legs are a little sore, my knees feel a bit stiff, but that's to be expected."

"My leg muscles feel shredded," said Lori. "I don't think I can cycle anymore. I think I need to take a bus back to Perth." We started discussing the options. Made some phone calls.

There are no buses from Kingston to Perth. Lori would have to take the bus to Smiths Falls and then cycle the 20 kilometres from there to Perth. She felt she could do that, but she'd have to box up her bike, and the first bus left at 1:00 in the afternoon. By the time she reached our van, I would be somewhere between Perth and Ashton.

Assuming I could make it all the way. I was considering cycling to Perth and seeing how I felt. If I reached Perth and couldn't continue, I could wait for her (I didn't have a key to the van, so the option of driving to Smiths Falls to meet her was out).

Lori tried to persuade me to not ride. She said that the strain I had put on my body would be too much. The cost on me wouldn't be worth it. We hadn't trained for this ride. I hadn't eaten enough during the trek to Kingston. She told me that if I rode home, or even to Perth, I would be a wreck, come Monday.

She considered the option of renting a car. We would leave our things in the dorm (check out wasn't until 11), pick up the car when the rental agency opened at 8, get to Perth, and we'd each drive the vehicles back to return the rental and collect our belongings.

Except, neither of us was carrying our driver's license. Lori left hers with the van, in Perth; I left mine at home (I had packed it, but Lori convinced me to carry only my health card instead).

The Ottawa Bicycle Club, which runs the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour, has a very strict policy. They have vehicles that ride along the course to offer assistance to cyclists whose bikes break down or who injure themselves along the route and cannot continue. As a participant, you agree that if you ride to Kingston and find you cannot make the return trip, you must find your own way back.

But Lori was becoming desperate and we knew time was short. We walked to the starting area and talked to an official. Lori explained that her legs were hurt and she had explored many options to get back to Perth.

Sorry, was their answer. We can't take you and your bike back to Perth.

"What if it was just me?" she offered. No bike, no baggage.

"We're pulling out right now," was the answer. "You would have to come with us right now, and it could take until noon for us to reach Perth." That was an hour before the bus to Smiths Falls was due to depart from Kingston, and Lori was uncertain as to whether she'd be able to pack up her bike.

She gave me a kiss and hopped in the van, and away they went.

I suppose I could have protested. I could have told Lori to stay with our things, that I would cycle to Perth, and then return to collect her. I really wanted to make an effort to complete the voyage home. But over the hours, with Lori exploring her options, complaining about the state of her legs, her concern for me, with my heavy breathing and sore knees, she stated her case that she didn't want me killing myself in my attempt to get home.

So when she left me behind with our luggage and both bikes, I didn't fight it. I returned to the room, rested some more, tweeted, and posted on Facebook, and slowly packed our things in time for checkout.

And waited.

And considered whether I wanted to do this event again next year. Next time, preparing well in advance by setting up a training regime and sticking to it. In practicing how to eat on the go. By making sure I drank often and refilled my bottles at every opportunity.

I'm really disappointed that I didn't cycle home. The more I thought about it, the more I believed I could have done it. But at what cost? On Monday, when I awoke, my legs felt fine: a little sore, but no more than when I cycle to and from work.

Maybe I'll do this again next year. Only to prove to myself, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I can do it.

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