Thursday, March 20, 2008

In defense of music

Date: March 19
Mileage: 28.0
March mileage: 222.5
Temperature: 35

Geoff and I both set out for separate rides today (different departure times, different goals), but we both returned home at the same time. He seemed to be in a grumpy mood, said something about awful weather, but I couldn't figure out what his problem was. I hosed the slush off my Pugsley and the grit off my clothing, poured the standing water out of my shoes, regaled Geoff with the tale of the white-out blizzard I encountered at Eaglecrest (“You couldn’t tell the sky from the road”), sloshed into the shower and doubled over in pain as the hot water hit my frozen feet like hydrofloric acid. Then it kind of occured to me ... that sure was a crappy ride.

But for some reason, I was in a good mood. It was hard to discern why. Here I am, no training goal in mind, resting period, putting in all this junk mileage, and still happily heading out into the crappiest crap Juneau has to offer. Couldn’t I just sit back with a cup of tea and “Desert Solitaire?” Why am I still riding my bike? What is my problem?

There can only be one explanation, I think ... I really like to listen to my iPod.

For most of this month, my mind has been flooded with the kind of subdued introspection and memory-heavy thought patterns that music so beautifully accompanies. There will always be debate about how safe it is to wear headphones on a bicycle, and I don’t disagree. But when I am wending around an otherwise-deserted trail or churning along a wide road shoulder, I relish in the way music allows me to feel like I’m moving not only through space, but through time as well.

I lean on the white noise of my iPod shuffle for other reasons during most of my "epic" rides and races, but I always walk away with one song, one special song, that for me is forever linked to the pain and passion of the trail. Months, years later, I will hear these songs and instantly travel back through the mental landscape of those moments. I don’t actually choose these songs. They sort of just happen in the seredipitous way only a random-shuffle mp3 player can dictate. But I cherish them.

2006 Susitna 100: Before this race, I had never owned an iPod and never trained with music. But a number of people recommended that I not go into a potentially 24-hour-long race with nothing to sooth my mental agony. So I took a little FM radio. I didn’t switch it on until about 20 hours into the race. The only station it picked up was some horrible Top 40 drone out of Anchorage. Slightly better than static. I listened to it indifferently until the soft snow on the trail caught my wheel for the 100th time and tossed me into a drift. As I laid in the snow staring up at the sharp steaks of raindrops illuminated by my headlamp, “D.A.R.E.” by the Gorillaz came on. It was the first time I had ever heard that song. It was so surreal, so appropriate for that moment. I’ll never forget it.

Soggy Bottom 100: By then, I owned an iPod. I had it plugged into my car stereo as I drove from Homer to Hope. As I passed through Ninilchik, I came upon the scene of an accident where a little boy on a bike had been hit by a car. There were several people on scene but no emergency vehicles. The boy’s limp limbs were sprawled out on the pavement. His bike lay in a twisted heap in the shoulder. The people around him appeared to be talking to him, so I kept on going. But I was wracked with all of this guilt and grief. Regina Spektor’s “Consequence of Sounds” was playing. I went on to ride the whole race without music until I started to bonk at the top of Resurrection Pass in the last 25 miles. “Consequence of Sounds” was the first song to play. I kneeled down on the trail for a short time and let my grief seep through.

2007 Susitna 100: I cheated and switched on my iPod (low volume) right at the beginning of the race. Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” was the first thing out of the gate. It was a strange, mellow offset to the frenzy as I swerved through strings of skiers on the narrow dog track while other cyclists nudged by me. "Chicago" stuck with me as the one song I remember listening to during the race.

Golden Circle: I loaded up two separate mP3 players going into this 48-hour tour. By then, I was deeply iPod dependent. I burned the first one out during the first 10-hour block and spent the next day listening to nothing, suffering and sweating and swearing as I plowed into 120 miles of headwind on the AlCan Highway. I went to bed that night convinced that I was not cut out for multiday endurance cycling, because common sense told me that once you start to feel bad, it can only get worse. I suffered through the first 30 miles the next day, but then slowly, inexplicably, started to come around. By the late morning I had traveled 100 miles, nearly all of it over steep climbs and descents as I ascended the Coastal Mountains, and I felt great. Better than great. I had nearly reached my goal of cycling 370 miles in 48 hours, and inexplicably felt like I could turn around and do it all over again. And just as I crested White Pass Summit and rolled by the sign saying “Welcome to the United States,” I was listening to Sufjan Stevens’ “Sister.”

2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational: I bought a AAA battery-powered mP3 player that I was only able to load 88 songs on, got sick of them on the Yentna River, and really didn’t listen to music all that much over the course of the next four days. But on the last day of the race I pulled out my iPod Shuffle as a treat. I didn’t think the embedded battery would last longer than two hours in that kind of cold. But the iPod kept plugging along, just like me. And when I was really zoned into the wind-drifted slog, I became fixated on The Wrens’ “Happy.” Not even sure exactly why. “Happy” is breakup song ... a good song for such a moment ... but I was obsessed. I just kept listening to it over and over again, pulling my hands out of my mittens and exposing my poor bare fingers to the minus 50 windchills just to hit the “back” button. Toward the end of my loop I had learned all the words and started to sing along, obnoxiously, to no one but the trail itself ... “Are you happy now? Got what you want? I wanted you. But I’M OVER THAT NOW.”

It was great fun.