Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hardship

Date: Oct. 18
Mileage: 17.9
October mileage: 355.6
Temperature upon departure: 38
Rainfall: 1.04"

I was nearly there, nearly to the southern tip of Douglas Island; even with the dismal visibility through swirling rain, it was nearly in sight. I mashed the pedals ... 9 mph, 10 mph - the fastest I had moved all morning. A long walk through a minefield of sharp rocks had yielded this thin gravel bar where I could ride, actually ride, like a delirious bird fighting the wind. The chill needled through every layer of wet clothing and gripped my skin like icy fingers. My own fingers had deteriorated from clammy to numb, and I was on my third set of gloves - my last - because I tried everything I could think of, and nothing really works in this weather. Nothing, nothing, nothing. (Edit: My bike pogies would work. I can't believe I didn't think of it earlier.)

I rounded a cliff and followed the gravel bar as it jutted out toward the open channel. After an entire morning of bouncing and skidding along a bumpy shoreline as slippery as ice, that simple left turn proved to be the ride's fatal move. I was scarcely out in the open when I was suddenly hit from the side by a blast of wind so strong that I felt like I had been punched in the lungs. The bike skidded sideways and I lost control, launching skyward like a sail behind ripped from a flimsy boat. I landed on the rocks several feet away from the bike, wrenching my (good) knee sideways with a sharp shot of pain, and then I crumpled like a broken kite. I had so, so had it with this ride. Had it, had it, had it.

I sat up and began to gnaw on the one Luna Bar I brought with me. I could see a definitive point in the beach less than a half mile in front of me. GPS showed me rounding the sharp curve of the island. That could be my destination - the end of Douglas - but I'd never know and I no longer cared. I decided the Luna Bar might just stoke my core temperature long enough to get me home before my fingers froze. I drank a bunch of water, too, because I hadn't bothered to sip anything in two hours, and hypothermia brought on by dehydration is a real concern. I no longer felt like I was a recreational rider dawdling around on a beach only nine miles from my home. I was on a real epic, and every mile from here on out was going to be a struggle. The thought of that fueled my fury - because I am always eager to overcome hardship.

With the wind I was flying, but I could still feel the chill ripping through. Snow accumulation crept down to an elevation only a few hundred feet above my head. If I wasn't at sea level, I'd likely be fighting a blizzard. The temperature was mid-30s at best, with a steady 25 mph wind gusting to 50. Even as I skirted the edge of dry land, I couldn't shake the image of a crab fisherman clinging to a boat in the brunt of a Bering Sea storm. I wanted to persevere, but I could feel indifference creeping in. My mind always seems to shut off when I'm struggling. It's almost as though my body decides that it can't expend any energy on frivolous things such as emotions and thoughts. Having experienced this state before, I've learned I can trust my instinct more than my mind. The miles flew by in this white fog of apathy, somehow completely free of the many near-misses and actual crashes I experienced on the way out.

By the time I reached the last big stream crossing, I had warmed up enough that doubt was beginning to creep back into my consciousness. I could feel the acute pain of warm circulation stabbing at my fingers. I just wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Since I was soaked to the bone anyway, I decided to ford the river rather than hoisting my heavy bike up a cliff so I could thread it across the narrow, rickety wooden bridge that spanned an upstream waterfall. I lifted my bike on my shoulders and began to step gingerly into the creek ... up to my knees, up to my thighs, up to my waist. The swift water began to sweep the bottom of the wheels before I even reached the center channel. I looked downstream and visualized the river ripping my bike from my hands, ripping me off my feet, and carrying us both out to sea. I turned around with a renewed feeling of frustration and anger at myself, and began the slog up to the bridge.

Once across the bridge, I was finally able to convince myself I was home-free. Just like that, all of that negative emotion flipped over to a massive adrenaline high. The last mile of beach was all rideable and I sprinted over it with rekindled energy. My hands came back from the dead and I could maneuver the bike with ease, powering over steep sandbanks and launching across boulders. I felt great, so great, like I had suddenly been granted some kind of cycling superpower. I laughed at yet another reminder of why I voluntarily take my Pugsley out on a trailless beach on the coldest, wettest day of the season - why I voluntarily put myself through hardship. I crave the lowest lows because I believe I can survive them, and I crave the highest highs because I believe I have earned them.