Monday, March 17, 2008

Sunday morning, coming down

Date: March 16
Mileage: 29.3
March mileage: 175.2
Temperature: 33

The sleet storm was reaching balaclava-piercing velocity as I turned off Douglas Highway into the dark shelter of the Rainforest Trail. A stick-thin strip of gravel snaked through the imposing crowd of Douglas fir trees, cutting an unforgiving line that was half covered in slippery snow. My entire worldview narrowed to the switchback that was immediately in front of me, and then the next, and then the next, as I wend my way downhill to the sea.

Sometimes I am grateful for difficult trails, maneuvers so near the limit of my ability that they clamp down on every corner of my mind. All I see is here and now. All I do is everything I can to not crash. The descending thoughts that tracked me to this point - the letdown beyond the big event, the settling emotions, the questions of what am I doing? Where am I going? Why am I still here? - everything stalls just outside the tunnel. I function as a machine with little room for rationalization, humming a song I just discovered but hardly know ...

"We're living in a strange time, working for a strange goal, we're turning flesh and body into soul."

My bike shot out of the woods and fishtailed wildly across a pile of broken shells before gaining purchase on the sand. The wheels rolled easier and I settled back into the sinking sensation that had latched onto my mood. I wondered what I would be thinking about if I had never finished the race to McGrath. What would I be thinking about if I had never started it? For so long I had this goal, this driving goal, that cast a thick curtain over everything else. Now I no longer have the goal. The curtain's up and there doesn't seem to be much behind it. Just the sand beneath my bike, the sleet above my head, and this story, this memory that fades a little more, disappears a little more, every day. And I miss it. Already.

It's inevitable that every big high requires a return to equilibrium. A post-race downer. It's normal. But sometimes I am grateful for harsh headwind and deep slush and driving sleet to pound on me all the way home, so I can put my head down and spin my legs to the precipice of pain and think only of wind and slush and burning legs. As I approached Douglas, the accumulating slush had become so deep that I had a hard time keeping my rear wheel rolling in a straight line. My goggles had become so full of water that I felt like I was looking through Coke-bottle glasses; the distorted road appeared to be a least 15 feet below me, and shrinking. I had the iPod blaring because I was wet and chilled and so beyond enjoying this ride, so over it, when I passed the scene of an accident. Red and blue lights swirled. A tow truck was hauling an SUV out of a ditch across the street. Cops milled about and I thought I saw one give me a dirty look. It was difficult to tell through my wet goggle fun-house vision. "This can't be safe," I thought. But the moody side of me wasn't about to change that.

When I arrived at home, Geoff was sitting at the table. I thought about telling him I was sad. But he spoke first. "I nearly died today," he said.

"What? What do you mean?" I asked.

And Geoff recounted his own morning. How he was returning from a long run, a mile from the house and more than ready to just be home, when he glanced over his shoulder. It was a random move, he said, just a mindless gesture, but what it yielded him was a direct view of the sideways SUV careening down the icy street at 40 mph. It had crossed the center line and was quietly skidding directly into his path. Out of instinct or pure serendipity, he hopped sideways over the snow berm and sprinted into the woods. "I ran toward the big trees," he said. "I didn't stop until I heard the crash." In those few seconds, the vehicle swooped across his footprints, jumped the ditch, plowed over the small trees and slammed into a big one. Geoff was standing 10 feet away. (Geoff recounts the experience here.)

In the end, Geoff and the driver both walked away. He had already processed his experience enough to be able to laugh about it by the time I came home ("We were both listening to the same NPR program.") But I was a little shaken. My head flooded with new questions, better questions ... What if that hadn't been simply a close call? What if Geoff hadn't glanced over his shoulder at exactly that moment? What if it had happened?

I am grateful because I still have everything to look forward to. And sometimes, I'm lucky enough to realize it.