Thursday, July 12, 2007

Searching for the cave

Date: July 11
Mileage: 25.1
July mileage: 269.3
Temperature upon departure: 54
Inches of rain today: 0.61"

I didn't have much time to ride today. But my knee felt stronger than usual, my legs felt fresh, and I thought it was about time I go out in search of the pain cave.

When I lived in Homer, the pain cave was not a hard place to find. With a 1,200-foot monster to tackle just to commute home from work, I was practically guaranteed a daily visit. Big climbs in Juneau are further from home, and I haven't been strong enough lately to take them with any sort of gusto. Reaching the pain cave on flats is even harder. Without resistance, riding at sea level, my lungs can outlast my legs almost any day, until I'm pumping deadly levels of lactic acid but still breathing with relative ease.

But today had the perfect combination of fresh legs, strong knee and decently fierce headwinds out on North Douglas Highway. I notched up the shifters, amped up the RPMs, and shot across the slick street. Tiny raindrops pierced like needles as my heart rate went from noticeable to inexorable. Then I mashed. I mashed faster. I mashed until I could mash no faster. And then ...

Encompassed.

It is deadly dark in the pain cave, and quiet. The pain cave swallows all the sound of even your most motivating mP3 mix and replaces it with the drip, drip, drip of labored breaths. When I go inside there, I can almost understand what it must be like to shoot into the vacuum of space - to see nothing, to feel nothing, to know nothing. The taste is increasingly metallic, like grinding your own teeth until your jaw snaps - but instead you are spinning and spinning your legs toward oblivion.

If that doesn't sound like a pleasant place, that's because it's not. But there is definitely something rewarding about drilling myself deep into the pain cave. Because eventually, I will see light flickering at the end of the tunnel. The colors outside will have never seemed so bright. Even a solid slate of rain-cloud gray will shimmer with flecks of silver and blue. There's a chance that an occasional trip through the pain cave makes me a better cyclist. I have no idea (my guess is probably not.) But I do know the feeling of seeing the world as a friendlier, warmer, more beautiful place on the other side. That's why I go inside.