In 2008, I was working as an end of life care-provider for an 85 year old, retired Professor of Religious Studies at the local university.
Noel Q. King was a true original.
“Sir, you forever live in my heart!”
For several weeks, during the last year of his life- at the request of his doctors, wife and others- Professor King decided to have In-Home, physio-therapy from a certified personal trainer. The young woman, 28 year old Stacy Schroeder, MA, ATC-was vivacious and experienced – with strong motivational gifts. While Noel actually did the exercises, my training was of the cheerleader variety. And watching a sedentary, actively dying 85 year old man physically train did not translate to cardiovascular efficiency in even the most remote way.
After one of Noel’s sessions, Stacy and I began to talk about sports and soon a ride was planned to the top of Sand Point Overlook in Nisene Marks State Park in the Aptos hills.
Nisene was my old stomping ground, a place where I had completed perhaps a 100 incredible hikes and dozen upon dozen classic, cycling adventures with my riding buddies, especially my friend and early cycling mentor: Tom ‘tenacious’ Mahnke!
Tom and I had done many, unspoken time trials (really races) up the forest road to Sand Point Overlook. Sand Point had a bench on top and incredible views of the Monterey Bay on a fog free day. After a year, the day I finally beat Tom up the climb is forever etched in memory.
Tom always beat me up the climb, at least for a year, on our monthly rides. The first few months, when I hit the big incline, GONE! Out of sight. Gradually I could keep him in view but never draw close enough to mount a serious challenge. Then one day I held his wheel up the first big incline and made my move. Now Tom was the one grabbing my wheel just to hold on. I powered my way to the top.
The Sand Point climb is 8.9 miles and 1600 vertical feet. The first 5 miles is a 2% grade gentle incline up the forest road. The perfect warmup for one in cycling form. For those without form, nor lungs or leg power, the warm up is a climb itself-as I was soon to find out. Because after that ‘little’ warmup things change: Yep, a leg burning climb of 1 mile at an average gradient of 15% where 800 vertical feet is ascended, then another 3 miles of interval climbs dancing between 4% and 8%.
In 2008, I was so far passed my peak (yes, fully into the singalong phase of Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days). My true riding days ended in 1993 though I kept in somewhat decent shape through hiking and backpacking from 1993-2003.
From 2003-2008, though, the only bike left in my possession was a Specialized Stumpjumper, circa the early 1990’s. No matter that I was only doing a short, flat 10 mile ride every year for the last five years. Listening and watching Stacy’s motivational dazzle, I felt anything was possible. It was time to reclaim my name and fame. I felt reborn with her vibrant buoyancy and anything is possible, can-do spirit.
Yep, I tricked myself into shape.
“Sure, Sand Point, wow, love that place. A ride will be great.” I heard myself saying.
We made a bike date –just a few days away. No time for training of any kind. After all there is a reason they call it: muscle memory. Your muscles remember, right?!” Well I was to put that overvalued cliche to a big test.
Soon, the day was upon us.
“I invited two friends with me,” Stacy mentioned before leaving. The only thing I had going for me was knowledge of the climb, pure guts mixed with a substantial dose of sheer, morbid stupidity.
I held up fine on the 5 mile warm up section. The main problem, however, my heart rate was already dancing above my anaerobic threshold. The anaerobic threshold or AT is the top level heart rate that can be maintained for a sustained period. It is the place where oxygen utilization shifts to lactic acid buildup and the dreaded bonk. Where suddenly your physical strength is gone. TOAST. Once you begin crossing above the place where oxygen is the primary fuel, the body can only go on for a short time. This means you have to cut back the riding effort and pace. I was well aware of this building issue as we hit the base of the brutal 1 mile climb to the top of the incline. The pace set by Stacy’s two guy friends was less than during my riding heyday but way beyond my ability to maintain. I bonked and did everything I could not to walk.
“Just keep the pedals moving; don’t embarrass yourself further?” The inner voice said.
Stacy, for her part, let her two friends go ahead and dropped in behind me. It was truly a magnanimous gesture. She knew I was suffering badly. As we made the incline, I slowly began to recover and a crazy, pure muscle memory fanaticism arrived:
“Let’s bridge up!” I enthused, beginning to pedal harder now.
“Bridge up. Great idea!” She said with a startle, knowing full well that minutes ago I was heading towards the precipice of full bonk.
I began to pick up the pace and Stacy easily took my wheel, riding a few feet back, right in my draft. I knew we had 3 miles to catch them and we did just 50 yards from the top. They were shocked to see us come up on them, even though they were riding at a casual pace.
I was in an altered state at the top during the easy downhill back to the car. They call it embers, riding on fumes. A few times I almost fell over from light-headedness. Little did I know but in each successive month after that summer of 2008 mountain bike ride, the body began a full crumble: first eye infection, shingles, chronic fatigue–still pushing myself physically to recover, one thing than the next. 9 years later…here we are.
I don’t even remember 2009. Was that a year?! I’m still here though yet 10% the man I was physically. Though, in truth, good fortune has smiled on me in a big way. Steeped in grace, spiritually enriched and emotionally attuned and open. Less suffering, more peace. Slowing down, becoming still, turning inward and falling into the vastness that embodies love and compassion.
There’s no bike racing these days, no bike riding, heck no bike, nor energy for it. The competitive fire for maximum athletic expression is now replaced with a new kind of magic: THE ESSENTIAL SELF, the SOULIC PRESENCE that holds all life in the loving embrace.