Monday, March 23, 2009

The Epic Climb(s)

Um, ouch?

I can safely say that I’m toasted. My legs are fried, cooked, done, end-of-story.

But for a good reason, of course.

Saturday’s bike ride was, in one word, epic. The first time I have ever, ever climbed Palomar twice in one day. The hardest part? Getting to the top of South Grade Road, and willingly descending 12 miles down East Grade Road, knowing that I would soon be re-climbing this exact road I was biking down.

FYI: I did let a few curse words fly.

There was, of course, an opt-out option at the bottom of East Grade Road. I could have turned right on 76 and looped around the base of Palomar, leisurely making my way back to Harras Casino (where I parked). But the lack of shoulder, Saturday mid-morning traffic and the desire to push myself beyond what I thought possible were key in my second ascent.

My day started early, but no complaints. After a 60+ minute drive to Harras Casino, I parked, set up the trainer, and hopped on the bike for a solid 30 minute warm-up. In the past I’ve either ridden to the mountain, or have biked in the valley below. But the local wildlife (ie scary dogs, whose owners think it highly amusing if they ‘run free’ and chase cyclists), and lack of flat road made the trainer seem downright fun.

I have no desire to climb Valley View Hill before doing Palomar, thank-you very much. Nothing about having my heart rate in zone 5xxx screams “warm up!”. A few friends had suggested that I spin on the trainer and then climb 5 or 10 minutes to the Taco Stand at the base – so I did just that.

A few minutes into my warm-up, three other cyclists pulled into the same lot and gave me a crazy, “what the hell-are-you-doing” kind of look. One of them offered to let me, “jump on their train…”, but I politely declined. They looked at me as though I was nuts – spinning at 100+ rpm on the trainer, water bottles, carbo-pro 1200, power gels, arm warmers, wind jacket, and a vast array of other crap that I had prepared just in case – shook their heads, and rode off.

I wanted to spend this day, this incredibly hard climb, alone. And while I do enjoy riding with others, for some reason I really wanted to endure my 5th – and as it turned out fastest – climb on Palomar to myself. Something about being alone with myself, my thoughts, the suffering and pain, I guess. The solitude, the hard effort, pushing beyond what I thought possible, making myself suffer but growing through the effort – different, I know. But sports (and life) aren’t always butterflies and sweet-smelling roses.

Warm-up completed, I tossed the trainer in the car, changed my top out, huffed my way over some bushes to the main road, and was quickly on my way. I knew I would have to stop at Jilberto’s (traditional start of the climb) and use the rest room. No squatting on the side of the road like I’ve done in the past. No today, anyway. And though I really wanted to be on my way climbing, the stop was more than necessary. Besides, I couldn’t – for the life of me – squat in a busy parking lot to do my thing. Too many people and cameras for my liking.

A final inspection of my bike, making sure my gels were in the correct back pocket (left!), I re-set the bike computer and then paused for a moment to watch two cyclists slowly pedal up the road. They reminded me of the snail I had watched move from one side of the parking space to the bushes during my 30 minute warm-up.

“Good morning!” they shouted, extending their arms in greeting. “How are you?” one of them asked. They looked very comfortable, wearing full tights, vest, jersey, and gloves.

“I’m great! Excited to climb!” I yelled, oblivious to the early-morning taco people just behind me.

They laughed, probably thinking that this was my first time up the mountain. Ha!

But as I waited for the computer to re calibrate, I realized that I WAS excited. I really wanted to go after my watts, get redemption from my previous less-than-stellar climb, push myself out of what’s comfortable, discover how hard I could work while suffering, and (at the very back of my mind) – beat my time from last year when I first climbed Palomar (and pre-crash).

I waited for the two riders to be out of sight, grabbed a quick sip of water, reminded myself that this was IT, and took off (as fast as anyone climbing can – 9 mph was great!).

Right away I found a good rhythm. “Push pull push pull push pull” – Kate Oliver’s mantra for her Mt. Lemmon climb became something I focused on. THANK YOU KATE! My goal was to focus on leg turnover while keeping an eye on my wattage. Jen had specified xxx watts that I should aim to hold (her words – xxx watts should be EASY!), and I forced myself to glance at the computer every few seconds.

Last time I climbed, I switched the thing off – too disheartened by the numbers. But today the power meter was a tool I planned to use to my advantage. Today the numbers would be my friend – assets used to substantiate the work output I was producing. I wouldn’t define my performance by them, no. Instead use them to push harder and validate the work I was already doing.

My heart race corresponded and eventually settled into the upper 160s – not too high, but still in that zone of OUCH that we reach every so often.

And then I just went. Climbed up up up. I enjoyed the beauty of the day, the fog on the lower slopes, and bright sunlight on the upper. Time seemed different, minutes ticked off faster than any previous climb. One minute I was 13:30 in (a point where, in the past, I’ve thought that the climb would be impossible, but today I refused to acknowledge that idea), and the next I was hitting the false flat section at five miles in just over 30 minutes.

Watts were good, heart rate was great, and I was feeling physically strong. But the key today, I discovered, was how much I wanted to succeed. The hunger, the drive, the passion – were all there. If it’s one thing I’ve discovered, is that if my heart isn’t in a task – racing Timberman in 2007 or even climbing Palomar a few weeks ago – it doesn’t matter how physically prepared or strong I am. The heart, the head, the mind all need to be in the game for the desired performance to be achieved.

Soon I found myself turning left onto South Grade Road, and I knew the HARD PART – the 7 or so miles of 8% average gradient – was rapidly approaching. But for the first time that I’ve climbed Palomar – I attacked. I ignored the desire to downshift to an easier gear, and instead, remained in my 23 (or was it 21?). Yeah – the cadence was slow, but I just focused. Focused on the numbers, on the ‘remaining steady’, on the feeling that I WAS GOING TO SUCCEED.

After a while I checked my watch, and realized I had been climbing for just under an hour. I was so focused on the task at hand that I only briefly noted the beauty of the overlooks (it was VERY sunny above 4,000 feet, and I could see the thick marine layer draped over San Diego and the valley below), and just made an effort to PUSH around every hairpin turn. I noticed that through a few of the turns, my watt output would decrease as the slope leveled out: so I turned it into a game of either downshifting or upping my cadence in order to keep the power up.

Slowly the miles ticked by… 41.2, 41.4, 41.6…44.8, 45.0, 45.2…4000feet…46.4, 46.6, 46.8, 47.0…

And then it hit me.

Oh. My. God.

The legs just wanted to stop, and my watts dropped a good 30 points, in spite of my best effort. I played mind tricks – ‘It’s only .8 miles to the top – don’t give up now’, and ‘You’re RIGHT there!’ But the lack of energy persisted. Then a thought hit me – one I had tucked in the back of my mind:

“If you push it now, you can beat your pre-crash time.”

And somehow, that thought got me going. For the final half mile, I pushed MORE than I had for the previous climb. Simply put, I bore down on the pedals, gritted my teeth, put my head down, and bashed up the final half mile. I thought that by beating my old time, it would be like I had never crashed, had never been through the pain, and fear, and sadness of the previous year. If I could beat my old time – well, it would feel as though I was released from what I once was, and instead could move onto what I was meant to be.

I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of explaining. It’s just that the first time I climbed Palomar – 48 hours before I crashed and my life changed – was so monumental. I spent a lot of time in physical therapy thinking about that ride, that fantastic ride – wondering if I could ever bike again, let alone climb Palomar with the speed that I had on March 15, 2008.

Suddenly, curving towards the left, I saw the STOP sign – where I’ve always finished my climb. With a few more fierce pedal strokes, I crested the top, chest heaving, legs burning, heart racing. It took me a few moments to collect my thoughts and glance at my watch. I was too concerned with NOT hitting the motorcycle enthusiasts and car about to descend to register the clock.

And then, I saw my time. And I was a full minute and a half faster than my previous best. I would have cried – except my lungs felt as though they were on fire, and really – the legs hurt too much. Instead, I coasted to the Mountain Store, refilled by bottles, and did the second most difficult thing of the day.

I descended East Grade Road, with the intention of climbing up again.

And I did.

The second climb was a lot easier than the first. East Grade Road is very different than South Grade Road – not as steep, but still 12 miles long. I would know, as I watched the mile markers go from .2, .4, .6 to 3.6, 3.8, 4.0, 4.2…8.2, 8.4, 8.6….so on and so forth. I didn’t pressure myself to hold a certain watt output, or keep my heart rate in a specific zone. Instead, I enjoyed the scenery, reveled in the fact that I was “charging” (as fast as anyone can “charge” at 8 mph) up this hill for the second time, and figured that with each foot of elevation gained, I was making myself that much stronger. East Grade Road was my icing on the cake.

And we all know how much I love sheet cake.

Second time I crested the top it felt unreal. Truly, an epic day, if I do say so myself. The backs of my legs felt a bit fried – the sun had been beating down for the previous hour while I climbed, and the calves, especially the left, felt a bit toasty. After cracking some jokes with a few British Riders at the store (mostly about how I couldn’t fit a small bag of Salt & Vinegar chips in my back jersey… Mary Bradbury, I blame you!), and buying a 20 oz coke and pack of starbursts, I made my way down.

It didn’t matter that no fewer than 30 riders zorched past me during my descent. Yes, my name is Marit and I ride the brakes while descending Mt. Palomar – I couldn’t care less. The hard part was done – I had climbed, set a new personal best, but better yet – had come full circle on the mountain for the first time since my crash.

And then climbed again.

After loading the bike in the car and making a quick change of clothes (discreet – very discreet!), I set off for a 40 minute transition run. 5 laps around the Harras Casino never felt so good. I think the casino workers were bemused, the poker players confused, and bus drivers that I passed after each subsequent lap had serious doubts about my idea of physical exertion. Nope – I didn’t look all that great, then again it was 80 degrees and I had just climbed Palomar X 2. No one would look good running.

Trust me.

So that was my epic day. Now – two days after the fact, I’m feeling pretty good. Sore and tired, yes. But I attribute that to Ironman training in general. A little more fatigue, a little more hunger all around. I’m REALLY excited about Oceanside 70.3 in less than two weeks, and can’t believe that my season is just around the corner.

Let’s make it a good one!


Mama Simmons said...

Awesome! Epic! Although seriously... The bike trainer in the beginning was clearly the most hard core part. ;)

Missy said...

That rocks! What a physical and mental accomplishment. That's got to do wonders for the psyche.

ADC said...

You are a superstar Marit. Can't wait for CDA now. Oh and i looove starbursts. And I bet those Brits called them Salt & Vinegar "crisps" ;-)

Beth said...

That truly was an epic day Marit! Congrats on a great ride and the great attitude it took to get there. You have come full circle! Racing season here you come!!!!

runningyankee said...

wow! way to tackle that mountain, twice. so impressed with you positive never give up attitude. you really show what hard work can get you. you should have gone into harrah's and put all your money on #2. you would have gone jackpot!!

TriGirl Kate O said...

Glad to have helped out from over 3000 miles away! You are going to ROCK at Oceanside!!!!

Mary B said...

Wow, Marit's legs can get tired!?! Who knew? Well that was a big day to put in your bank! Awesome job diesel! Now go have some more salt and vinegar! :)

Shan said...

NICE - I am SO doing that ride before I move!!!! Good idea on not riding up to the mountain - I like the idea of using the trainer to warm up :)

Nice work Marit!!!! See you SOON! XOXO

Charisa said...

GREAT climb!

Ryan said...

Where's Mr. Freakin Anonymous now? HA! What a great story Marit! You had my heart rate up reading this wondering if you are going to make it...and you did! WooHoo!

So how was the run afterward? Did the legs finally come around? I'm with you, kicking myself in the head, for signing up for an Ironman without looking at the bike profile. It is going to be a fun show for the spectators to see a 200lb man in lycra crying "there's too much steep," in a bad German accent at the base of the climb. I'm not sponsored so I won't be throwing my bike.

Super Story! My greetings to Nate!

Ordinarylife said...

Awesome, awesome, awesome!!!!

Well done, and I think you will have a great one.

Kim said...

I liked this comment:

No squatting on the side of the road like I’ve done in the past.

Ha! True..some crazy chick must have convinsed you to do that! So glad you had a great climb. Way to be prepared and get it done! That is just awesome! Way to go're almost there!

Chad Holderbaum said...

That's so awesome that you PRed the hill and are back to your "pre-crash" fitness level. I couldn't be more happier for you!