Is this what dying of cancer feels like?
You’re under water. Someone is pushing your head down. In the middle of the ocean the waves give way to tiny breaths of air. You cough in water. The ocean– a womb and a tomb at once. You tread water, going nowhere but you know the end. How do you continue on?
I don’t know what it feels like to live through the process of dying of cancer. But I am thinking about it.
It’s 20 minutes in to the 2013 Furnace Creek 508 and I am ready to give up. How am I going ride 106 miles further when I feel like I’m being pummeled by the ocean?
I’m thinking about Milly.
I was a spin instructor at Pedal Spin Studio in South Pasadena when Bryan Yates introduced me to Milly Valdes. Milly was on the tail end of recovering from breast cancer and was ready to get back on the bike. She had her sites set on the Furnace Creek 508, a two day ultra endurance cycling race through the desert of California, and was vetting out a coach. Over coffee, Milly and I interviewed each other. She wanted to race the 508 on a four person team this year with dreams to some day finish the race solo. I was thrilled to have such a special person on my client list. Milly was enthusiastic, realistic and such a genuine and lovely individual. I was blessed. We started working together right away.
Within 4 months of sitting with Milly at the coffee shop, she passed away from a cancer resurgence. (Read more about it here.) It was one of the most profound passings I had witnessed. Here we had beat cancer, and we were going to show the World the unstoppable Milly. A cancer survivor.
The wind is pushing me back.I try to shift to an easier gear– none are available.
As I pedal, I think about what pain she had to endure and her crushed hopes as the Furnace Creek 508 slipped away. She was never going to make it to the start line. Those dreams were but a puff of smoke. I recall my phone ringing off the hook in of January of 2013. Noah Kanter called me and asked if I would ride the 508 in Milly’s honor. I joined. We were riding the FC 508 as a two person mixed team (40+) as a relay. I would take stages 1, 3, 5 and 7; Noah would take 2, 4, 6 and 8.
The Race Starts
At the start line, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and found myself on the front row. Chris Kostman announced we were allowed to draft the race official’s van during the neutral start. With winds of 20-30 miles per hour and gusts up to 50, I was looking forward to hanging out on the bumper. As the race rolled out, no one else was making the jump to the back of the van. I decided to take my chances and bridge up. A few followed and we quickly rolled through town and stop lights. It was a relief to hang out in the draft, knowing what lie ahead.
As we turned out of Valencia and into the canyon, the van pulled away and the race was on. I was in the lead group of around about 10 people. The pace was going to be too difficult for me, so I metered myself and allowed the first group to go away. There is no drafting in this race, so there is no pack, leaving the riders with little choice but to ride their own pace. The second group were closer to my abilities, mostly they were faster on the downhills and I was as fast or faster on the climbs. Much cat and mouse.
This was my core group– my disjointed peloton– for the rest of the Stage.
Santa Ana’s Revenge
Lowest gear. Hardest wind. Slight hills. I’m pushing hard on the pedals to little avail.
“This is going to be a 10 hour Century,” quipped Scott, one of my new riding friends– we just met
on this ride. We were literally averaging 10 miles per hour. The mental blow could have knocked you out cold. Dread. Pain. My knees began to ache after an hour. And I knew at that point I could only concentrate on finishing the race. Don’t go too hard, keep easy gearing and a fast cadence, and survive to the end. When knee pain sets in, your time is finite. You can only ride through so much before you have to get off and give up.
I could not give up on this ride for Milly. But the wind was so hard, and I had to put so much force on even my easiest gear that I was not certain I could make it to the finish line. Even riding, for the first time, a compact crank.
It was somewhere around the 2 or 2 and a half hour mark when we finally reunited with our support crews. I had emptied 2 water bottles and some food, and was happy to see the caravan ahead.
I rode into the first feed zone and the crowd were cheering. I was the first female to come through. I was so happy, I hope Milly was happy. I really wanted to do this for her, to be the fastest and the first, just for Milly. The excitement floored me, and I forgot for that moment what I had just been through.
I saw Noah, then Ron and as they handed up I yelled out “Find KT tape!” With no explanation, the crew were likely scared. I can’t blame them. I forgot to bring my tape, and now they were going to have to ask other support crews for help.
From the first feed zone the support cars were now allowed to leap frog support. That means the car drives ahead, stops, the crew get out and hand up or help out as you ride by. It’s wonderful! If every ride could be so supported you’d just never have to get off your bike.
I teamed up with Scott and we rode side by side, he rode ahead, I rode ahead– of course no drafting so it’s this strange way to ride with others which I am unfamiliar with. He had the directions, and I was going to have to try to keep up with him so I would not get lost. We almost blew by a turn, luckily another support crew were there to point us in the correct direction. I wish I could remember the crew so I could officially say thank you.
It was at this point when I had to stop for a nature break at about mile 50. This is where Scott would ride away and I would find more new friends.
To be continued…