Friday, September 29, 2006

Air Force Marathon 2006

It was August, and I was in a fog. My friend Theresa – we had been friends since junior high school, and I had thought of her as my best friend since our college days together – lost her battle with cancer on July 20th, and, although I knew it was coming, her death floored me. I could function, to be sure, but I was on autopilot. Eat, drink, work, run. Those were all things I did by rote, no need to think in order to do them. But those things that signify life to me - thinking, planning, scheming, looking far into the future, figuring out the next steps in these days we have on planet earth – those things did not come naturally to me anymore. In fact, they didn’t exist in my world.

But gradually, the rhythm of life started to return, and the things I had planned before Theresa’s death rolled around on my calendar. First up was Pikes Peak Ascent; although I really didn’t feel like running it at the time, it turned out to be a good, life-affirming experience for me. And then, a week later, Hood to Coast. With eleven very alive and lively female teammates, I felt that the fog – like the fog in Mist, on the way to the Oregon coast, in the mid-morning hours of the relay - was starting to lift.

So finally, in late August, I decided I needed to find an answer to the question that everyone was asking me, “what marathon are you running this fall?”

I checked out the schedule on, and for some odd reason, the Air Force Marathon caught my attention. Maybe because of the connection to Theresa: the two of us had traveled to Washington, DC, last fall for the Marine Corps Marathon, and it had been a great experience. That day was a PR day for me, and I called Theresa my lucky charm. Something about running another marathon sponsored by the military just seemed “right” to me, even though I’m not really a big rah-rah military kind of person.

And then I saw that the Air Force Marathon is in Dayton, Ohio. My good friends Jonni and Jim moved from Denver to Dayton last fall, and I’ve missed them immensely. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to be with friends. I didn’t care that people told me that the course would be boring. I didn’t care that people told me there are better, faster marathons in Ohio. I didn’t care about any of it. I just wanted to be with friends again.

So this is what brings me to Dayton, Ohio, a place I might never have otherwise visited, on a beautiful early fall weekend. The last two weeks before the race are a marathoner’s worst nightmare: I catch a terrible, full-blown cold, and then have to go to Argentina on a business trip the week of the marathon! Luckily, the cold settles down a bit during the last few days before I have to travel, and the Argentina trip gets scrubbed at the very last minute because of delayed flights. So when I arrive in Dayton on Thursday night, we’re back to Plan A. And Plan A has Jonni standing at her car, waving and hollering my name, as I emerge from the Dayton airport, at 11:30 p.m. In a moment, we’re both screaming and hugging and laughing. And I know, in a heartbeat, that no matter how Saturday’s race goes, that I’ve come to the right place.

Jonni and Jim have been most gracious, offering me loads of hospitality. They’ve given me a full guest suite in their beautiful mansion, in a golf course development in an upscale suburb of Dayton. On Friday, Jonni takes me to the marathon expo, and treats me like I’m a celebrity, taking pictures at every turn. Jim and Jonni have previous plan for Friday night, so they lend me a car so that I can head out to the pasta dinner at the Air Force Museum. And, incredibly, Jonni tells me that she wants to go to the marathon with me. Not only does she not mind waiting around at the finish area for four-plus hours, she’s excited about it, and tells me she loves the experience.

So at oh-dark-thirty on Saturday morning, the two of us drive out of the golf course development. The surprise, on walking outside, is that there is a thick, not-quite-pea-soup fog hanging low to the ground. It’s wonderfully cool. Given that the forecast for the day is in the low 80s, this is a very welcome surprise.

We reconnoitered the route to the race start on Friday afternoon, so we find our way very easily at this early hour on Saturday morning. It’s still quite dark, and still quite foggy, as we drive through the “Blue gate” at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Parking is a breeze. We’re here early, and everything seems to be a bit too easy.

The next hour goes by quickly, and while the fog hangs on, the sky lightens considerably. The music on the loudspeakers is exactly what you’d expect at a military-sponsored marathon: Stars and Stripes Forever is the last song before the Star Spangled Banner is broadcast. I take my time, cycling through the port-a-potty lines, and then, at the last minute, head up to the race start area. I spot Jonni on the sidelines, and she becomes pure paparazzi, snapping photo after photo. It’s embarrassing. It’s flattering. It’s a huge boost, to have this kind of a fan, right at the start of this undertaking.

Truth be told, I’m a little spooked about today’s race. Last year and early this year, I had a streak of five sub-four-hour marathons. I thought that I had it all figured out. I thought that I had mastered the distance. But then there was Boston, where I had an okay day, but not a great one, and for the fifth year in a row, I just couldn’t breach that four-hour barrier. Then came Madison, where it was hotter than Hades – really, too damn hot for a marathon. Then came San Diego Rock n Roll, where I ran with my cousins. The purpose of that race was always to run with my cousins, but the timing was bad; it was another long, slow day when I really needed to be able to run fast. I started to wonder if maybe I’d never see the other side of four hours again.

So today, I’m running with the same goals that I always have. Only, today, those goals are a bit more important. My first goal is, always, to finish a marathon. Second to finishing, I want to have a good race; no bonking or death marching. A negative split (running the second half faster than the first half) is always an indication of a “good race”, so it’s part of that goal. Third, if things are going well, I know I have a chance at that sub-four performance. Beyond the sub-four goal, the sky is the limit. Anything better than sub-four is gravy, and a PR (better than 3:50:29) is worthy of a major celebration.

The start gun sounds, and we begin shuffling to the start line. It’s a chip timed race, so there’s no need to rush towards the start line. But it’s also a fairly modest field – there will be right around 1400 finishers – so the shuffle to the start line will be fairly quick. I start a jog right before the chip mat, and then we’re under the “Start” banner, and running for real.

The Air Force Marathon promotes pace groups very strongly at the expo and pasta dinner. By chance, I met the leader of the four hour pace group – Rick - at dinner on Friday night, and we had a nice long chat – long enough for me to gain a respect for this guy’s running resume. At the dinner, he encouraged me to join his group, but I demurred. I run by heart rate (HR), I told him. In a way, I’d like to have a group to run with, but I know that my HR is a better guide for me than a pace group leader.

But now, here in the first mile, I find myself running at the same rate as the four hour group, so I settle in near Rick and join the conversation that he’s having with a few other runners. In fact, lots of people are chatting with him, and we have a good time as the first mile or so roll on by. Before we’ve even hit the first mile marker, there is an aid station. Wow! To have an aid station this early on is rare. And the volunteers are – as they will turn out to be throughout the day – wonderful and enthusiastic. I’m able to grab a cup of water without breaking stride, and I lose the pace group for a short time.

This part of the course is flat, but at the start of mile two, the terrain takes an upward slant. Suddenly, people are working a bit harder, and I turn my attention to my heart rate monitor, and drift off a bit further away from the pace group. This climb is serious: not dauntingly steep, but just steep enough to get your attention. Then, after a brief climb, there’s a short downhill, and it all feels like it will even out in the end. But then, there’s another climb; again, not too steep, but steep enough to get your attention. I’m starting to be very grateful for the lingering fog.

The fog means that there is very little to see. The day is still cool, and the mile markers already seem to just drift by. My first mile was a bit slow – 9:27 – but then the next few are faster. When I hit the split button on my watch at mile 3, I say, to nobody in particular, “I bet that marker was off by a bit”, for my time for that mile is 8:21. Somebody mentions that it was downhill, but I think “it wasn’t that downhill”. But the next mile – mile 4 – is definitely downhill. We make a right-hand turn at the bottom of the hill, and I say to the folks around me, “boy is that gonna suck going the other way”. Everyone laughs and agrees.

The Air Force Marathon race route is a kind of keyhole route, where the first and last six or so miles follow the same route, but the middle section is a big loop. The route is wholly contained within the Wright Patterson Air Force Base. This makes the race route really nice from the standpoint of traffic control. For the length of the marathon, we have the entire road to ourselves – no sharing the road at all with anyone. But it also makes the race route a bit quiet. It’s not easy for spectators to get onto the AFB, so our only real spectators are a few Air Force guys that we see along the route, and the seemingly hundreds of volunteers.

By the time we hit mile 5, I think I’m having a pretty good day. I pass mile 5 in 44:40, and I think that, if I can maintain this pace, I’ll finish in well under four hours. But I’m working on an experiment today, and have no idea how it will turn out. After some discussions during the week with my on-line marathon group, I’ve decided to push my pace (as determined by my heart rate) to see how that affects my performance. Typically, I target a HR of 150-155 during the first 10 miles of a race, and then work on keeping my HR between 155 and 160 during the second 10 miles. After mile 20, anything goes. On the good days, I can really push it, and I rarely look at my HR after that mile marker.

But today, I’ve decided to push it earlier. I’ve got my HR in the 155-160 range almost right out of the gate. At mile 5, I figure that this has contributed to my better-than-average split at mile 5. But how will that affect me for the rest of the race?

The answer is, not so well. Mile 6 goes by in 8:27 (another downhill stretch), but then the course flattens out, and I watch as my splits get slower. The entire loop section of the route is dead flat. And the best that I can do is an average of 9:15 miles for this part of the race. I will come to believe that the course is badly marked, since my splits seem to be all over the place, while my HR remains steady right around 160. But no matter how the miles are marked, the reality is that I’ve slowed down since the initial six miles, and there’s no picking up the pace without putting my HR in jeopardy for the final part of the race. It’s a struggle to keep my HR at 160.

We’re lucky in that the fog holds. Every mile, every split I take, I look at the low hanging fog, and can’t believe this luck. I know that when the sun comes out, it could get brutal quickly. The halfway point comes, and there is still fog. And it is still cool. This is a gift.

In the loop, I run well behind the four hour pace group. In the early miles – when I was running a sub-9 minute pace – I got a bit ahead of the pace group. Then they passed me, and I wondered about the strategy of the pace group leader. But after awhile, I started to see them as the model again, and I knew if I let them out of my sight that my hopes of a sub-four hour day would be done. So I keep them in my sights. Sometimes they are way up there, but I can always see them.

The aid stations remain plentiful and frequent. This is probably the best supported marathon I’ve ever run. It seems that there are aid stations at least every mile – maybe much more frequent than that. The volunteers are handing out cool, soaked sponges early in the day, and often along the route – although with today’s fog, it’s not really necessary. Many of the aid stations have bananas or oranges or Gu in addition to the water (every time) and the Gatorade (most stations). The volunteers – have I mentioned this – are terrific. They understand that a half filled cup is superior to a full cup, and – I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating – I rarely have to break stride to grab a cup of water. Could they do anything better with the aid stations? Well, unless the volunteers actually came out and carried you for a hundred yards or so, no.

Around mile 17, I hear a woman singing behind me. Well, sort of singing. She kind of belts out a line from a song every once in a while, and then goes silent. She actually has a pretty good voice, and she’s singing something very soulful and bluesy. She sings a line, and then several seconds go by, and then she finally sings another line. I could swear that the voice belongs to a youngish black woman who knows the blues, but when I turn to look, I’m a bit dumbfounded. The owner of the voice is a fiftyish white woman, wearing an Ipod and headphones, and she’s clearly doing a selective sing-a-long to her recorded tunes. She looks like she’s having fun, and she overtakes me slowly. Then she’s gone into the distance.

During this race, I see the same people over and over. I figure that some of them are folks who stop at aid stations, so we trade places. Around this stage of the race – around the 18 mile mark, I start to catch up to people who have left me in their dust in the earlier miles. I’m definitely not speeding up – at least not yet – so I recognize this as the start of a death march for some of the runners.

For a few miles, we run on a bike path. The sun is starting to threaten to break through the fog, and the bike path is heavily shaded by trees, which seems like a really nice insurance plan. The bike path is nice asphalt, and it seems to be the tail end of some nature conservancy that we’ve been running through for awhile. But by this time in the race, it’s all starting to look the same.

The race has a related marathon relay, and it’s only the second time that I’ve run in a marathon that has the related relay. It can be most disheartening; you’re plodding along for the full 26.2 miles, only to be passed time and again by relay runners - who are running no more than 6 or 7 miles per person – so it feels like you’re constantly losing the race. But today, for some odd reason, it’s kind of fun to hear the relay runners approaching from the rear. You always know that it’s a relay runner – they just have way too much energy. And most of them, at least today, are gracious when they blow by you.

The other good thing about the relay is that the exchange points are real concentrations of cheering throngs. Well, maybe not quite throngs, but the crowds are definitely concentrated at the exchanges, so they are something to look forward to. We come out of the nature preserve, off the bike path and onto the road again, and now there’s the final relay exchange. There are lots of people here, cheering, and I’m starting to get that late-in-the-race stupid grin that I get when I’m having a good day. Okay, so this isn’t a stellar day, but I’m having a good time out here. And then, just a short way up the road, I start to recognize that we’re suddenly back on the early outbound portion of the race.

At mile 20, I think, Okay, time to go for it! But I can’t find another gear. It doesn’t help that we have the first of the reverse uphills here, and that the course switches from asphalt to concrete for a short time. It all hurts.

Benji, my coach, always has me break the race into three segments. The first 10 miles are outwardly focused, the second 10 miles are inwardly focused, and the final 10 kilometers are all about racing. Normally, when I’ve managed my HR throughout the day, I can pretty easily pick it up when I reach mile 20. But it seems like I just can’t move any faster today.

I realize that I need a gel, and fish my Espresso Love 2xcaffeine Gu out of a pocket in my Race Ready shorts. I’ve taken fewer gels than normal today, and only had one of these caffeinated gels with me at the start. Now I suck it down and hope that it helps me find that extra energy that I can’t seem to tap into.

And magically, it does. Within just a few minutes, I notice that I’m running faster. The overdrive gear has finally kicked in. I start to pass people left and right. At mile 21, I finally catch and pass the four hour pace group. Hi Rick! Bye Rick! Miles 23 and 24 are pretty much substantial uphill miles, and I just plug right along. Many (most?) of the people around me walk up these hills. The aid stations come, and I take water, and a sponge or two, but mostly just concentrate on running fast.

Between aid stations, a young girl – probably 6 or 7 – all dressed in pink, is yelling encouragement to the runners. “You’re looking strong! Keep it up!” she says to me as I pass her. I wonder where she got such adult language. And I love her for being out here, cheering us on.

Mile 25 is a glorious downhill sprint, and you can start to see the finish area. I’m passing people like crazy. They are, mostly, hurting. And mostly, they offer encouragement as I blast by them. Good job! I try to return the positive message.

Now I’m working on just picking off one runner at a time. The 26th mile is dead flat again, and it’s full sun and quite warm. The road is completely closed and open to runners, but on the other side, there are young Air Force dudes doing running drills with their sergeants. I wonder why they are running drills rather than the marathon, but it doesn’t really matter. It just seems that the whole world is out here running now.

The course does a 180 degree turn so that we can run down through a collection of vintage Air Force aircraft at the finish; the last turn on the course is a clean 90 degrees. I’ve being passing people for a while now, and it has become second nature to target and overtake.

And then, rounding that final 90-degree turn right at the 26 mile mark, I see her again. Her! The fiftyish blues singer. She’s gotten herself quite ahead of me, but I decide, when I spot her, that I have to pass her. So I gut it out some more. My HR is already pretty darn close to its max, so I don’t have much room to find another gear, but I’m gaining on the woman, and think I might be able to pass her, and then I’m spooked for a moment.

At the Marathon to Marathon last summer, I passed a woman with about ¾ mile to go in the race, and she surprised me in a sprint at the finish that I couldn’t answer. Then at the Omaha Marathon last fall, I targeted and passed two women just before the 26 mile mark. Both of them dug deep and passed me again after we turned the 26 mile corner, and they both beat me to the finish. It’s starting to seem like a pattern. And, all of a sudden, with the finish line in sight, and the Blues Singer right in front of me, I have a moment of recognition. I won’t let that happen again.

So I adjust my pace, just slightly, so that I’m behind the Blues Singer. When I think it’s time, I pour it on. Every bit of it. Every last ounce of guts that I have left. I’m dizzy. I think I’m going to puke. And I pass the Blues Singer, just before the finish line, and I win the race. The crowd at the finish appreciates the race that they witness and cheer wildly. I imagine that it’s all for me.

Okay, maybe it’s not really “winning the race”, but it feels good to, for once, get it right at the finish. I look over at the Blues Singer and take note of her bib number; later, I figure, I’ll go home and look up her stats. Is she even close to the same age group as me?

Even without the drama of the sprint finish, the finish of the Air Force Marathon is worth the price of admission. I’m directed into a finish chute, and when I reach the end of the chute, there is an Air Force general to greet me. He takes a medal (the best medal of all the races I’ve done – it’s huge and heavy and beautiful, with a red-white-blue ribbon) and drapes it carefully around my neck. Then he looks me directly in the eyes, and shakes my hand, and offers his congratulations. It’s a huge honor, and brings me close to tears.

Oh yeah, my time. I’ve finished the race in 3:57:37. That’s not my best, by far, but it’s definitely in the category of a pretty-darn-good day. I’ve run the first and second halves in almost identical times, about 12 seconds slower for the second half.

Jonni and I hook up once again, and we get ready to head back to her house. As it turns out, I see that results are posted just as we’re getting ready to leave, and we decide to go have a look. To my utter astonishment, I see a number 3 next to my name in the “age group finish” category. The Blues Singer? She was, after all, in my age group. And I finished exactly one second in front of her. My sprint at the finish made the difference between getting an age group award and just going home with a finisher’s medal. This is not something I’m used to – I’ve only won a couple of age group awards in the past, and they were in really small races – so it’s a huge surprise and a huge thrill.

So Jonni and I hang around for the awards ceremony. There’s an Air Force band playing in the tent where the awards will be, and we sit and enjoy their music for awhile, as incongruous as it is to watch guys in battle fatigues playing very good rock and roll. The band wraps up their performance, and then the fly-bys start. Every year, the Air Force features a different airplane for the marathon. This year, it’s the A-10, or the Warthog. The plane is featured on the medal, and it’s what they use for the fly-bys. Two Warthogs fly low over the tent in one direction, then they come back again from another direction, then they come back yet again. Everyone is up out of their seats, watching this awesome display of air power. For whatever odd patriotic reasons, it makes me very happy to be an American.

The awards ceremony is fast paced, and the awards are very cool. They call all three age group spots to the podium together, and when they call my name, Jonni screams and yells. The guys we’ve been talking to look astonished, and then they yell, too. I get to the stage, and receive my award, and have my picture taken with the base commander and the race celebrities – Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. Bill Rodgers says, while shaking my hand, “you don’t even look tired”. Then he says it again. I wonder if he says this to everyone who takes the podium. But it doesn’t matter. I’m on the podium with one of my running heroes from way, way back. At this moment in time, I cannot imagine that life could be much better.

A couple of days before coming to Dayton, I had a long phone conversation with my brother Dave. He told me that he and some of his friends had been talking about luck. They had decided that everyone is lucky in some particular way. One of his friends is lucky in real estate deals, and another always seems to find a parking place right by the front door. Dave said that his kids were his luck: he feels blessed to have kids who are bright and healthy and generally good kids, and are fun to be around, too. I tried to figure out what I might be lucky at, but, thinking back to Theresa’s death, I couldn’t think of a single thing. I told Dave that I didn’t think I was lucky at anything.

But today, as I leave the Air Force Marathon in the company of my good friend Jonni, I realize that this is where I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have friends and family who indulge my obsession, and who actually take pleasure in coming out to hang around for hours while I’m off running. I’m lucky to have friends and family who have given me rooms to sleep in before marathons, and fed me pasta dinners, and supplied bagels and oatmeal and toast and juice and coffee on race mornings. I’m lucky that so many of these people have given me rides to and from airports and to and from race starts and finishes. I’m lucky that they’ve been out there on the course, cheering for me, and sometimes even out there pacing me for a while. And, mostly, I’m lucky that on days like today, those same friends are there to share the joy. I am, indeed, a very lucky person.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Hood to Coast Relay (August 25 & 26, 2006)

Another year, another Hood to Coast Relay. But nothing old is ever truly the same from year to year. This year I have a new teammate: fellow Tapir Michele! She is a speed demon so it’s a shoe-in that our team will do well.

My summer has been nothing but one delayed flight after another, so why am I surprised that my flight from Denver to Portland is delayed? For a few desperate minutes I’m afraid that I won’t even get out of Denver on Thursday night, but then United comes through with a different airplane and all is well again. In the end, my late-arriving flight is a moot point, since Karen, who is driving down from Seattle to do taxi service from Portland to Salem, is stuck in traffic and is even later than I. The only real consequence of the delay is that Michele has to do overtime waiting at the Portland airport. She, of course, uses this waiting time to a best advantage: when I meet up with her, she’s toting a couple of bottles of wine from the “Made in Oregon” store at the airport. Now THAT is a woman who knows how to take advantage of a situation!

We do the normal routine – my brother Dave cooks us up a yummy pasta dinner, my niece Emily cooks us up some yummy French toast in the morning, and we (Karen, Michele, and I) head over to our team captain’s home mid-morning. After the frenzy of packing way too much stuff into the vans and all of the obligatory pre-race photos, we’re on our way. Mount Hood, here we come!

Leg 1, Mount Hood to Government Camp. As always, I’ve requested to run leg 1 again. Nobody else on the team wants it. I love it. I own it. It’s mine. It’s a match made in heaven.

Among the things that I love about leg 1 are these things: it’s the only leg that has a pre-defined start time (in our case, this year, at 2 p.m.); because we arrive early for the race, I always get to warm up on the trails that snake up the mountain beyond the Timberline Lodge; my legs tend to all be in the coolest part of the day; leg 1 is steeply downhill, so I can run faster here than in any other race I’ve ever participated in; and finally, I get to finish first! While the race organizers score this first leg as “Very Hard” owing to the fact that it drops 2000 vertical feet over a 6 mile stretch, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as hard as the climbs that some/most of the other runners have. And my other two legs are blissfully flat and short. It’s always a mystery to me that nobody else claims this leg, and that it’s mine for the asking.

Today, it’s a bright sunny day, with just a hint of cool at the top of Mount Hood. The illusion of coolness disappears in a heartbeat as I do my warm-up run. Somehow I feel calmer about the relay this year, a bit more relaxed, maybe a tad more organized. Maybe that’s because I’m already running on a sleep deprived body. Or maybe the newness has gone out of the experience. This is, after all, my fourth year running Hood to Coast with the Femme Fatale team.

About twenty teams take off right at 2 p.m., and I sprint off the starting line. I have a goal of running a sub 6-minute mile today, and this first mile is the steepest and therefore my best chance. I know that I have to go hard from the start. It may not be a great race strategy, but the only one that has a possibility of getting me the sub 6-minute mile.

And a funny thing happens: I look around, and there is nobody in front of me. Not a soul. I keep expecting the fast runners to go by, but all I see ahead of me is wide open asphalt. It’s a heady feeling, and one I’ve never experienced before. I can scarcely believe this, but as the minutes tick by, I realize that I am leading the flippin’ race! I have never done this before, and, what’s more, I’ve never really even dreamt of it. The experience leaves me feeling just a bit disoriented. Jazzed, yes. Exhilarated, yes. Breathless, yes. And still a bit disoriented. What the heck am I doing out here?

My watch/GPS beeps to signal that I’ve passed the first mile, and I steal a look at my watch. 6:06. Crap. Missed the 6-minute goal. What’s more, I know that that time is just slightly slower than my first mile each of the last two years, when I covered the same distance in 6:04.

But I don’t have time to dwell on the disappointment, since in short order I’m getting overtaken by a guy. He’s friendly and says something about this being fun as he goes by, and I watch him as he bolts down the road. Clearly, this guy is running a smarter race than I, and he’s picking up speed. I try to keep him in my sights, but he looks strong, and I suspect that he is not going to slow down.

While I haven’t hit my 6-minute mile goal, I figure that I can still target a faster time than last year or the year before. Oddly enough, I ran this leg in exactly the same time (38:09) both of those years. So I push with everything I have.

Another mile goes by, and now I can hear yet another runner gaining on me, and then a woman passes me. Dang! This is getting disheartening. Is the entire 2 p.m. field going to catch me and pass me by like I’m standing still? I worry that I’m really blowing this good thing. And then I can hear another set of footsteps behind me, and it’s really upsetting.

A part of me figures that I’m just going to get passed left and right, and I’m a bit miserable because of it. My legs are tired, my body is tired, and I’m breathing as hard as I can. But another part of me says, “This is BS and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” I kick as hard as I can, and the sound of someone overtaking me fades into the distance.

The gap between me and the woman who passed me is no longer getting bigger, and I start to have just a glimmering of hope that maybe I can catch her again. So I bust my lungs, and now I’m catching her. Little by little. Soon I know that I can overtake her, but now I’m worried. Is this too soon? Will she dog me the entire rest of the way to Government Camp?

But I don’t know how to do anything other than to give it my all at this point, and I blast past her. It feels SO good! There are about two miles left, and I’m afraid of her passing me again, but it’s a risk I’ll have to live with. This being out in front is more work than I bargained for.

With about a mile to go, I pass a guy from the previous start. It’s rewarding, but a little sad. Groups start in 15 minute increments, so that means that this guy started at least 15 minutes before me. He is most definitely going to suffer over the next day, if he survives. But this is survival of the fittest, so I run on down the road.

The only cruel thing about leg 1 is that after 5 ½ miles of very steep downhill, there is one tiny little uphill stretch. It feels like hitting a brick wall. It doesn’t hurt as much today as in past years, but it’s still a major pain. The good news is that past this little stretch, we make one last little turn, and we can see the handoff zone. It’s all good downhill again.

So I finish the leg, and hand off to Jan, and hit my watch. According to my GPS, 5.88 miles in 39:18 for a pace of 6:40/mile. It’s a disappointment after running an average of 6:30/mile on this stretch each of the last two years. But later, I talk to Mick, and tell him that I’m unhappy with my run. He says, “You ran 6:40s for 6 miles and you’re complaining?” He’s right. A change of attitude is in the works.

The rest of the team runs extremely well, and we’re almost dead on schedule when we hand off to Van 2 in Sandy. Karen gets her first roadkill on H2C, and Michele tears up the road, too. It’s a good start.

Leg 2, downtown Portland. We’re a bit earlier this year, so I’m worried about my ability to get some real rest between legs 1 and 2. But somehow, I actually sleep a bit in the two hours that we have to nap in this odd urban environment, with sleeping bags spread out on top of overgrown weeds under a freeway. But then it’s time to be up and getting ready. Van 2 is right on schedule, too. That means my second leg (actually leg 13 of the relay) will start sometime around 11:30 p.m.

It’s humid and still a bit warm as I jog along the Willamette River promenade, trying to get blood flowing in my legs again. We’re on the east side of the river now, and the first thing I’ll do on this leg is cross a bridge to run on the west side of the river. Still, the promenade runs in the same direction, and I don’t like the fact that I’ll have a stiff headwind. But you run with the conditions you’re dealt, and that’s it for me tonight.

Selena hands off to me, and the run is on. I cross the river, and then head north. I try to imprint on my mind this view of downtown Portland at about midnight: lights twinkling in the river and more lights dotting the high rise buildings. The temps have dropped just a tad, so it’s gotten more comfortable in just the short time since I did my warmup mile. This course is almost a straight line north, and I have that miserable headwind to fight the entire distance.

But it’s a short distance – just 4.1 miles – and this leg goes by quickly. There are a few folks out on the promenade, but the only people I see after the first couple of miles – after the promenade ends and we run through an industrial area – are other runners. This is a good leg for me from a roadkill standpoint: I pass 7 people, and nobody passes me. The run is relatively short, so I’m sprinting the entire time. Total time for the leg is 33:57 for an average pace of 8:23/mile. This is slower than last year’s pace – or the pace of two years ago – so I’m starting to feel really old and slow. But I’ve worn my HRM for this leg, and I know that I could not have given much more, so I take comfort in that fact.

The rest of Van 1 runs, and this is my favorite part of the Hood to Coast experience. There’s something magical about standing out in the middle of the night, under the stars, when all the rest of the world is asleep, helping other runners prepare for their turn. Tonight, the entire team is spot-on again, everyone coming in very close to their predicted times. Soon, Michele is taking off on her last leg, and we’re scurrying to get to her next exchange before she does, and we just make it. Then van 2 takes over again, and it’s time for us to head off to the next major exchange.

Leg 3, Mist. The drive from this exchange to the next major exchange has always been a challenge. It’s all narrow two-lane roads, and lots of relay traffic, and it all just seems to crawl along. This year I decide that I might as well take advantage of my spot in the back of the van with my pillow, and get some extra sleep. It’s a good thing.

When we get to the exchange point at Mist, the field that serves as a parking lot is not as full as I remember from past years, and in a brilliant stroke of luck we find a huge tarp that someone has left behind. We park in front of the tarp, and in less than the blink of an eye, everyone from our van is spread out on the tarp, tucked into sleeping bags. (Everyone except Jan, that is, who prefers to sleep in the now-empty van.) We’re like sardines lined up on the tarp. It’s 5:30 a.m. when we hit the ground at Mist, and just 7:00 a.m. when my alarm goes off a short time later. It’s been a short night, but I feel pretty well rested, all things considering. Once I get a cup of coffee and eat a gel (and cycle through the honey bucket lines a couple of times) I’m ready to run.

If ever there was a place with an appropriate name, it’s Mist. The marine layer hangs heavy in Mist, and the air and ground are both extremely damp. It keeps the temps cool, which is good for my run. I’m pleased that my GPS hones in directly on the satellites – who would have guessed through all this fog? But it’s obvious that the fog is not really that thick, as it’s starting to burn off by the time I start to run.

Once again, Selena comes in right on schedule at 8:30 a.m. I take off like a madwoman. I’m feeling a bit upset because my first two legs were both slower paces than I’ve run them in the past. Have I crossed that line, where I’m starting to slow? After all, I’ll turn 50 later this year, so it wouldn’t be a surprise. But it would be a huge disappointment. I’m not ready for that to happen quite yet.

So I run my heart out on this leg. I’ve done that in the last two legs and haven’t been happy with the results, but I don’t know what else to do right now. I count steps from the very beginning, and I listen to my rapid breathing, and I’m aware that my legs are turning over quickly. Soon, I’ve passed a couple of people already, and am targeting yet a third.

Then a guy passes me like I’m standing still. And then another. I look at my GPS, and my pace seems strong, so I chalk it up to the fact that we’re all converging now, and the fast guys are catching up and overtaking the slower teams. Still, it’s disconcerting.

I run hard and breathe hard and try to keep my form strong. The first mile is done, and then the second. This leg is mostly flat, just slightly rolling, and the terrain is perfect for me at this time in the relay. Up a little – but not so much as to slow me down much – and then down a little – and just enough to feel like I can really move. Another roadkill or two, and yet another guy passing me. I run like I’ll never have a chance on this course again.

I recognize the last little uphill, knowing that there’s a brief downhill on the other side, and then the exchange. I’ve been working on catching a person for some time now, and then a tall lanky guy goes by me like I’m standing still. Oh well, these fast guys are not people I have any delusions of keeping up with. I see the tall lanky guy pass my rabbit, and now I’m worried that I’ll run out of road before I get my chance to pass. But I put it into overdrive and get my pass. I’m just about ready to puke as I hand off the wristband to Jan.

This last leg is my redemption leg. The GPS logs the run at just under 4.1 miles with a time of 30:03, for an average pace of 7:21/mile. This is better than my last two years – just by a little bit – and far better than my best 5k pace (at altitude). It isn’t the same as running a 5:something mile at the start, but it’s the best I’ve been able to muster at this Hood to Coast Relay, so I’ll take it.

Finish at Seaside. The rest of the morning melts away, as the rest of my teammates in Van 1 finish their legs in fine style. Since I’m the first to finish, I get some extra time to just relax and watch my teammates in action. First there’s Jan; I’ve handed off to Jan now three of the four years I’ve competed on this team. She’s having hip problems this year, and comes in limping at her final exchange, but she still beats her predicted time. Then there’s Karen, who is the people-gatherer. Everywhere we go, Karen attracts people – men, women, kids. Somehow she ends up getting close to everyone; every time I turn around, she’s having a close conversation with someone new. Not only that, but she also has a body that all of us would kill for. And yeah, she’s consistently beating her predicted times, too.

After Karen, there is Anita, who is running her first Hood to Coast Relay. Anita was a late substitution when another teammate got injured just a week or so before the race, and she fits in perfectly. She is SO jazzed after each leg, that it’s fun to just watch her smile. Then there is Michele, our ringer, and by far the fastest runner on our team. Who knew that she would also be such a chatterbox? I guess it just goes with having lots of energy. She fits in perfectly. And then running sixth is Kris, who is a machine. Not only is she an incredibly strong runner, but she also provides our van (actually a Suburban) and does the majority of the driving. Kris is easy-going and fun; it feels like I’ve known her all my life, even though I just met her last summer.

We hand off to Van 2, and head for Seaside, where we all walk down to the ocean and give our legs a brief ice-bath. After showering and getting into fresh clothes, we head to the beach to await the arrival of the rest of our team. They arrive right on schedule, and Selena comes running down the boardwalk, and we all run through the sand to the finish line. It’s a pretty cool way to finish a race, even though at this point my legs are rebelling at running anymore, especially through the soft sand. Later, Karen and Michele and I will meet up with Toby briefly, and then we’ll all watch a dazzling display of fireworks. And then after a night’s sleep, we’ll pick up our 4th place medals and then all head home again, and Hood to Coast 2006 will become just another memory.

Pike's Peak Ascent (August 19, 2006)

In the end, it is the prospect of shame, pure and simple, that gets me to the starting line of this race today.

It rains all the way from Denver to Manitou Springs, and I use the time in the car to rationalize why I should not run this race today. I have felt really, really tired all week, and getting up at 4 a.m. has not helped. My nose ran all day yesterday, and I can feel a sore throat and cold coming on. The forecast is for thundershowers throughout the morning, and since it’s already raining, I start to anticipate a full 4+ hours in the rain. It’s just not something I want to do, which is a bit odd, since much of my training this summer has been in the rain, and it hasn’t really bothered me. But today I just don’t cotton to the idea of being soaked through and through again. The temperature is dropping as I get closer to Manitou Springs – it’s in the sixties when I leave Denver, but the readout on my car thermometer has dropped to 57 by the time I park, just a few blocks from the race start. I can only imagine that if this trend continues, it is going to be really, really cold on top of the mountain. And speaking of the mountain, all of the mountains are so socked in that you can’t even see them for all of the clouds. I’m betting that Pikes Peak is covered with snow. This is the first time that Mick has not come to this race with me – this is my fifth year – and I’m unreasonably afraid of being alone and lonely at the finish. And did I mention that I’m really, really tired? I just want to go home and sleep.

So I park my car, and make up my mind to not run. I’m just too embarrassed to turn around and drive the other way so quickly after parking, what with all of the cars around me disgorging people dressed for a race. I decide that I’ll wait for them to walk away, and then I’ll leave.

But it seems to take some of the people forever to get going! The people in the SUV in front of me walk off, holding a large blue and white striped umbrella to ward off the rain. People are taking their own sweet time leaving the cars now parked behind me. There is a steady stream of people heading to the start line, and I want to get out of here, because I’m starting to feel guilty just watching them brave the elements.

And then the SUV folks are back, and they’re putting the umbrella away. It takes me a moment to realize that the rain has, for the most part, stopped.


I turn the key in the ignition to check the temperature, and see that now it’s climbed back up to 62.

Double Damn.

Finally, I lift my eyes up to the view straight ahead, and I see that the clouds have lifted some. And there is Pikes Peak, in all its glory. All its non-snow-covered glory.

Ah, for cryin’ out loud. Now all of my legitimate rationalizations are gone, and I’m left with the lousy excuse of being tired. Wah wah wah. I try and try to figure out how I will be able to spin this for all the folks who know I’m running today, and I just can’t do it. So I do the only thing left to me, and get out of the car to go run the damn race.

By now, I’ve successfully piddled away much of my buffer time, so the wait to get the race started goes quickly. It’s actually warm standing at the start line, and I realize that I’m way overdressed (just like 98% of the people around me), and I use the time to take off both my long-sleeved technical shirt and my extremely lightweight windbreaker, and to stow my gloves. This means I’m in a minority, wearing just singlet and shorts (the rest of the stuff either crammed into my CamelBak or tied around my waist), while most of the rest of the crowd is decked out in long sleeves and jackets and long pants.

An Air Force officer – a woman – sings an a cappella version of “America the Beautiful”, and she does a lovely job. For the final chorus, she invites the assembled racers and volunteers to join in, and it’s a nice touch. Since I get way too emotional at stuff like this and turn into a crybaby, I can’t actually sing along, but I love hearing this group ring out the words. Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful” after a trip to Pikes Peak in the late 1800’s, so it is always a perfect opener for this race.

The race gets underway, and it’s the familiar run up the streets through the town of Manitou Springs, past the cog railway station, and then onto Barr Trail. The one change to this part of the race course is that the roadway leading up beyond the railway station, before Barr Trail proper starts, has been paved with fresh macadam. The change is a very welcome one, since this stretch was formerly just a deeply rutted dirt and gravel road.

When we hit Barr Trail, I start to think about my race strategy for today. I’ve realized in the last year that if I don’t train specifically for this mountain, I’ll probably never hit my age-old goal of finishing under 4 hours. And I have not trained specifically for this race at all – no trail runs, no altitude training, and just a smattering of hill work. So it’s not that the goal is completely off the table today, it’s just that I know it’s not very likely. A week or two ago, I met Scott Elliott, who has won this race eight times (and come in second or third several more times). Scott focuses his entire being on this race, making a 5-hour round trip to Gray’s Peak from his home in Boulder every single weekday for the last several weeks before the race in order to train at altitude on trails. On weekends, he sometimes camps out in Manitou Springs so that he can make several assaults on the Barr Trail. This is a man who describes himself as “yeah, a little obsessed”. Scott’s advice to me – other than the obvious need to train at altitude and on trails like the Barr Trail – was to keep running, even if you take baby steps. This is completely at odds with the approach favored by my Tapir role models Melissa and Nattu – they both employ a powerwalk-up-the-hills strategy. What approach should I take?

I ponder this for awhile, and then realize that I have my own strategy for this race, which undergoes some refinement each year. First, I’m running by heart rate monitor (HRM) for the second year in a row, since that approach has been working so well for me in marathons. This means that whether I walk or run is dictated by my heart rate (HR). I’ve also finally recognized that I’m not a great trail runner, and that I should take some care to get around obstacles in the trail by walking them instead of running. In other words, rather than trying to power my way, running, over rocks and roots, today I’ll walk any section that is very rough. Another technique that my marathon (and sometime trail-running) mentor Jay told me about several years ago is to take the straightest line up the mountain, even if it means you have to clamber over more rocks and roots. His advice is based on the simple logic that the straightest line will save you from adding unnecessary mileage to the run. Finally, today I realize that often I trip on rocks and roots because I can’t see them – my view gets obscured by runners in front of me. I decide to try to employ a technique that Mick has been coaching me on in bike riding in groups. Try to see through and beyond the person in front of you, he tells me frequently. That way you can see what’s coming that might be an obstacle for you. Today this means that I’ll work on seeing beyond the runners in front of me, and also trying to pass people more quickly if I’m bound to pass them at all.

So that’s how I attack this mountain today. The first part of the trail is, as always, steep and narrow. I try to settle into a comfortable HR zone. Plenty of people pass me on this stretch, but I figure that’s okay. I’m just motoring along, knowing that there is more runnable terrain to come. I’m always surprised at how many people who pass me this early in the race are already breathing very heavily. One woman follows me closely for quite a while before passing, and she’s wheezing like an 80-year old asthmatic. I later pass her back; I only recognize her after I’ve gone by and hear the wheezing behind me again. Later a guy passes me, and his breathing sounds like a dog about ready to barf. It’s the most incredible thing.

The trail is wet but not flooded. This makes it a little more slippery than normal, but nothing too hard to handle. As we get to higher elevation, it also makes quicksand traps along the way, and in these stretches it feels like running on the beach. The weather stays damp and cloudy and coolish.

My favorite part of this race is the middle section, from about mile 4 to mile 7. There is a bit of a saddle on the mountain in the middle of this stretch, where the path widens and levels off from time to time, and you can actually run. The first truly runnable section is on the south side of the mountain, and the vistas down to Colorado Springs and the plains are normally quite spectacular. Today, when we traverse this section, the clouds have lifted just enough to offer up the view, but the grayness of the clouds robs the vista of its normal grandeur.

Today’s race is quiet. On the streets of Manitou Springs, I run alongside a couple of young women – late twenties, I’d guess – who are chatting and singing the tune from the theme song of Chariots of Fire. But after we leave Manitou Springs, nobody around me talks much at all. The field spreads out quite a bit more than normal, and I end up running alone more than ever before in this race. Although I miss the camaraderie that I had with other runners in last year’s Pikes Peak Ascent, I like having the open trail in front of me. It’s just one of life’s little tradeoffs.

The part of this race that has consistently kicked my butt is a section of three miles just below treeline, and shortly after Barr Camp. Today, I come through Barr Camp in 2:04, and as I look at my watch, I realize that I’m off pace to make a 4 hour ascent. The conventional wisdom of this race is that you have to clear Barr Camp by 2 hours in order to make a 4 hour time to the top. In all of my past years, I’ve made the 2 hour cutoff at Barr Camp, but never the 4 hour trip to the top. So I don’t worry too much about missing the time, although it does puzzle me some. It feels like I’ve been passing people steadily for several miles now, so my sense has been that I’m ahead of schedule. But I put it out of my mind, and concentrate hard on these next several miles.

The trail turns steep again, and now there are rocks and roots everywhere. In the past, I’ve tripped and stumbled my way through this part of the race, and hated nearly every step of the way. This year, I’ve decided to try to walk most of it, but to keep my HR high at the same time. All of my techniques seem to kick into high gear here, and I find that I stumble less and keep up a good pace, and I pass people left and right. This section finally feels good. I feel like I’m kicking some serious a**. For a short time, I entertain delusions of a sub-4 hour race.

But that’s before I reach the A-Frame. Conventional wisdom also says that you have to clear the A-Frame by 2:50 in order to make a 4-hour summit, and my watch reads 2:57 when I hit this landmark. I know that I won’t be seeing a three-something finish today. The final three miles above treeline are just too brutal for that.

Back in the middle section of the run – that wonderfully flat-ish part – the sun came out, briefly, in a burst of defiance and warmth. But the clouds won the battle, and the weather has been cool and cloudy again ever since. We’ve had a smattering of raindrops along the way, but we’re mostly all dripping wet from just running through the moisture-laden clouds that have dropped lower and lower. Now, above treeline, it’s completely socked in. And I like it just fine that way.

You see, the final three miles of this trail are all exposed on a treeless, featureless rockscape. The only break in an expanse of broken shale and granite is typically the colorful serpentine of runners (well, really, mostly walkers at this point) making their way along the switchbacks across and up the mountain. You can normally hear – if not see – the top way up there. And it never seems to get any closer. These are 20 and 25 minute miles, and they go by way too slowly. Today I am relieved that I can’t see much beyond 20 or 30 meters or so.

There are runnable sections up here, between the switchbacks, and I try with all my heart to run them. Who knows, maybe I can improve on last year’s time? I’m still going strong, but I’ve slowed since the middle section of the course. While I’m still passing people, I’m also getting passed some, too. I play leapfrog with a couple of other racers, so I figure that I’m mostly holding my own.

While there are runnable sections up here, there are also lots of sections that require huge steps up and I start scrambling, using both hands to pull myself up. It’s gotten cold enough that I reach for my gloves, but they’ve apparently fallen out of my CamelBak pocket. C’est domage. So instead, I don my lightweight wind jacket. I think about putting on my technical shirt, but it’s soaked through with the dampness of the air.

The final mile takes its toll on me, and it’s painful going to the end. But even with the cloudy and cool weather, there are lots of spectators at the top, and they are very generous and supportive as I cover the last arduous stretch. I hear people shouting my bib number as I go by, offering encouragement, and I’m grateful. At this point, I can use all the help I can get. A guy sitting a short ways from the finish is shouting to runners as we pass him, and as I go by he says, “good job, you’re on track for a 4:15 finish”. My heart sinks, since that’s slower than my slowest time, and it just doesn’t compute to me. But as I see the finish line, and hear the announcer call out my name, I’m happy to find that the guy’s predictions were off by five minutes. I cross the finish line in a time of 4:10.

At the finish, I realize that I needn’t have worried about being alone and lonely just because Mick is not here. The volunteers take fantastic care of us all. Someone hands me my finisher’s medal, and I put it around my neck, and then, because I’m a crybaby, my eyes well up with tears and I have to work not to bawl. Maybe it’s this, or the fact that I’m weaving a bit (who wouldn’t, at 14,000 feet?), that causes several medical staff to come ask me if I’m okay. Even though I protest that I’m fine, one of the volunteers grabs my arm and steers me up the rest of the path, and makes sure that I’m safely on the other side of the cog rail tracks before leaving me on my own.

As always, the ride down the mountain seems to take an awfully long time. Have we really come that far up into the sky? Apparently so. It’s good to chat with other runners in the shuttle on the way down. It takes some of the sting out of the mild disappointment that I feel about my result today. As I get sucked in to thinking about how to improve on that performance, and once again thinking about how I might perform next year, I start to wonder about the sanity of it all.

And so, in the end, if it’s shame that gets me to run this race, what is it that gets me to the finish, or makes me even register for the dang thing, year after year? Anyone who has ever finished a marathon can answer the first part of this question. Like Nattu, I think the answer for most of us is “relentless forward motion”. But why sign up for the thing to begin with? It’s something to do with Edmund Hillary’s famous answer to the question of why he climbed a mountain: because it’s there. It’s something to do with a sense of adventure, with taking on a challenge that seems just a stretch over our head. And it’s something to do with that little hope that lives in each of us that maybe today, just for this once, I can do something better than I’ve ever done before, maybe I can be just a little bit better-faster-smarter-kinder than I’ve been in the past. My finish today was a small disappointment, to not meet that goal, to not better my best time, to not come in under that arbitrary 4-hour mark. Why do the thing at all? So that maybe, just maybe, next time I can be just a little bit better than I’ve ever been before.

Tour de France 2006

July 14, Friday: Travel. Argh. Don’t you love it. Flight delays lead to missed connections, blah blah blah. The best thing about today is that we get to Lyon, France at about 7 p.m. (many, many hours late, but who is counting?), and our bags arrive with us – including bikes! – and we get checked in to the hotel without any more problems.

Our first French experience is to turn on the TV in our little cell-like room, and we get to see the end of today’s stage! It’s a replay, but that’s really the beauty of it. French TV gets into the Tour, and this channel will replay each stage finish ad nauseum. We have dinner in the hotel, and meet our tour director and another cyclist. I’m thrilled that the waitress doesn’t speak any English, and gives me credit for much more French than I can actually understand, but it’s all part of the experience of being here. And then we return to our room and watch the tour finish all over again. Ah yes. It’s good to be in France, especially when the Tour is on.

July 15, Saturday: We have a typical French breakfast, then put our bikes together in a conference room in this hotel. A gecko watches us from the corner of the room. Bike assembly goes remarkably fast. Then we load up the van and hit the road, heading for Provence.

It’s just a small group today, and I’m happy with that. Two years ago, we traveled with the same tour operator, and the group was much too large for my liking. This year our tour group is just nine people, plus Dick and Marilyn, the tour director and his wife. Five of the folks in our group were on the Pyrenees tour, too, and they are already in Provence this morning. Dick has picked up four of us at the hotel at the Lyon airport: Mick and me, and Aaron, from New York, and Zoli, from Fort Erie, Ontario.

The drive from Lyon to our hotel in St. Didier – in Provence – takes much longer than planned, because this is Saturday morning and we’re traveling on a major thoroughfare that heads to the Mediterranean coast. But Dick allows for plenty of stops along the way (French freeway truck stops are nothing at all like truck stops in the US), and I’m already warming to my traveling companions. Add to that the fact that the scenery is great: you know those beautiful views of sunflower fields that you see on coverage of the Tour? We’re driving through country just like that. Who can complain about an extra hour or two in the van?

When we get to St. Didier, it’s already 2 p.m., so we quickly unload the van, check into the hotel, and change into cycling clothes. The rest of the group is already out riding. The four of us newbies take Dick’s advice on routing for a shakedown ride, and head down the road. Dick and Marilyn (who greets us in St. Didier as soon as we pull into the courtyard of the hotel) mention that there were thunderstorms yesterday afternoon, and speculate that there might be a repeat occurrence today. We take this as incentive to skip the search for lunch – we’ve been snacking along the drive – and get busy riding.

Within five minutes of leaving the hotel, we’re lost. But who cares? We’re in Provence, and it’s beautiful and absolutely incredible. The air is redolent with the fragrance of ripening fruit, and there are vineyards and orchards everywhere you look. My sense of smell is typically pretty lame, but the aromas in the air here are heavenly, and I wonder what a sensory overload it must be for someone with better faculties than mine. It’s hot and sunny and dry, and there are insects buzzing all around us. At one point, as we’re meandering along the narrow backroads that we’ve lost ourselves on, the largest bee that I’ve ever seen hangs in the air directly in front of me. I figure that the bee will move, but at the last moment, I have to maneuver my bike in a quick turn to avoid a major collision. First time I’ve played chicken with an insect and lost, but these are no ordinary insects. These insects feed on some of the most famed fruit in the world.

Our first destination – which we find easily, after reconnecting with the numbered roadways - is the walled hill town of Venasque. It’s just a typical little medieval European town on a hilltop, and it has all the requisite charms: the short but steep climb to the entry, the arched entryway, the fountains and churches, the narrow cobbled streets, and the vistas that go on forever and ever. We’re all in awe, drinking in the Frenchness of it all, and we stop over and over again for pictures. One element of the landscape that we all view wide-eyed is the vision of Mont Ventoux in the distance. We’re riding up Ventoux tomorrow, and we all know its reputation. We linger over the view, and then head off in the direction of the gorges.

The riding is beautiful. We climb through a breath-taking gorge, with rock walls on both sides, and rushing water below, alongside the very kind and mannered French traffic. French drivers are polite and patient – a far cry from the average American 4x4 driver who honks and gestures and screams as they pass cyclists, acting as if you’ve entirely ruined their day, if not their life, by asking them to share the road with you. Not so in France. The law in France requires drivers to give cyclists at least 1.5 meters of clearance, and most drivers comply with this happily. You seldom hear an angry horn beep in France. Mick and I know this from our last trip here, but Aaron and Zoli are just getting introduced, and they are amazed.

We’ve been hearing thunder in the distance for awhile, and we’ve all been ignoring it, hoping that we’ll finish our little ride before the storm hits. But we’ve misjudged – and badly. Just as we crest the summit of the climb through the gorge, rain starts to fall. We keep riding. I’ve already firmly established my place as the Lanterne Rouge (last rider) of our group, so I fall behind Mick and Aaron and Zoli as we start the descent. And then the rain starts for real. It comes down in sheets and buckets. I ride on, but I’m getting wetter and wetter, and more and more frightened. I test my brakes early on, and discover that the rain on the hot pavement is not a good match for my skinny tires, and I slide all over the place. It scares the dickens out of me. So I resort to riding my brakes just to keep my speed under control, but it’s storming for real. When my sunglasses experience a flood, I know that it’s time to get off the road – not to mention that the road is quickly being flooded with rocks as well as water. But where are the guys? And will I lose them if I stop?

So I keep riding, completely freaked out. It’s a major thunderboomer, and the lightning and thunder are major scary. There is traffic on the road, too, and that scares me even more. Finally, I round a corner, and see the three guys standing under a tree off on the side of the road, and I join them there.

I’ve been caught out in the rain before in Colorado, but never in anything like this. We stand under than tree for thirty minutes or more while the storm rages around us. We’re all soaked to the skin – it’s dumping buckets. At first, the rain is warm, so although we’re wet, nobody is in danger of hypothermia. After all, just a few minutes ago, we were all sweating like crazy in the dry heat! But then the wind whips up, and it swirls around. Then there’s more lightning, a strike that sounds like it is right on top of us, and the clap of thunder makes us all jump. We look up and across the road as a miniature levee that has formed with the rain lets loose and there is a minor mud and rock slide across the road. The rain lessens a bit for a moment, and we debate about getting back on the bikes, and then the storm seems to have a second thought and returns and starts dumping buckets again. It takes a while, but finally I get cold and start to shiver uncontrollably, and notice that Aaron – who is serious cyclist and very lean, and also standing directly in front of me – is shaking badly. This is not good.

We wait it out, and hope that the storm stops, but we finally decide that we should try to ride out of it rather than stay here and die of hypothermia. So – against my better judgment – we all get back on our bikes and continue our ride down. It’s freaky riding, with rain and rocks and all other kinds of debris littering the road. The good news is that it’s not far before we reach the bottom of this little descent. The bad news is that we discover something we hadn’t realized before: there is another climb in front of us. And the rain continues to fall.

There’s a minor traffic jam at this juncture at the bottom of the hill, since there is a lane here leading to a tourist attraction – a famous local abbey. So there are lots of cars and tour busses backed up by the rain, but we ride around them and start climbing.

If I wasn’t entirely freaked out earlier, it doesn’t take long for that to happen now. As we start to climb – in the driving rain – I see that the road here drops off precipitously to the right, with just a 10 or 12 inch little rock barrier for protection. On the left, the rock wall goes straight up. The road is really a single lane, and we’re riding up, with traffic coming at us from above and trying to overtake us from behind. More thunder and lightning, and I think that we’re entirely exposed, and I just want to get out of this area, and I ride like the wind. The oddest thing of the entire time in France is that, while I’m riding uphill in a major storm with torrents of rainwater rushing down the road, I feel like I’m flying. Maybe dementia has already set in.

But then somebody honks in back of me, and it’s annoying. What happened to those great French drivers? This road is too narrow for me to pull over easily – and I want to just keep moving anyway (and I’m afraid that I might not get started again if I stop along this stretch of road) – so I just keep riding. The car behind honks again, and I resist the urge to curse or make hand gestures, and decide that I’ll pull over at the next pull-out along the road. The guys are all getting quite a lead on me anyway, so it will be better to dispense with the rude driver behind.

Suddenly, the driver pulls alongside me, and I look over to see Marilyn’s face in the passenger side window. Rescue! The “rude” driver was none other than our tour director, come to rescue us! I have never felt so relieved to see anyone in my life. Soon I’m in a car with a dry sweatshirt as a towel, and Dick is attending to getting my bike squared away. Three other of our tour members have been caught in the same storm, and have waited it out in the shelter of a passing Good Samaritan French couple, who took them – dripping wet – into their car without question. And our country theoretically does not like the French? Sez who?

Dick and Marilyn have come to rescue us in the small van, and only have room – squeezed in at that – for four of us. Mick and Aaron and Zoli seem happy enough to pedal on, but I’m thrilled to be rescued, and to make the very wet and close (four dripping wet adults sharing the back seat of a small Kanga is an odd way to meet) and then (soon after) steamy acquaintance of three more of my tour group. They have been caught in the same storm, riding in the opposite direction, and have been initially rescued by the French Good Samaritans. They put in a call to Dick and Marilyn, who had just decided to come looking for all of us, but were running errands in the small van, so ergo, room enough just for the four of us.

Mick and Aaron and Zoli survive the ride, and are proud to make it all the way back to the hotel on their own (although Dick attempts to pick them up later and give them a ride back – they are having none of it). They stop in the scenic village of Gordes – our destination, which I glimpse very quickly through the steamy windows of the Kanga – and dry themselves once the storm passes, and warm themselves on hot chocolate and chocolate éclairs. By the time that Mick gets back to our hotel room, I’ve spent a long leisurely time under a hot shower, and I’m recovering from the ride. Mick is raring to go. We have a great group dinner at the hotel, where we share our stories of today’s stormy adventure.

Tomorrow is Mont Ventoux.

July 16, Sunday: Ever since I heard Lance Armstrong say, “there’s no ride like Mont Ventoux”, I’ve wanted to climb this mountain. After all, what about this mountain could command such respect from the great one himself?

Mont Ventoux is notorious for crazy winds (hence the name: in French, Ventoux means “windswept”). It’s also notorious for being the only mountain to rise from the rocky hillsides of Provence. Since we arrived in Provence yesterday afternoon, we have been in the shadow of Mont Ventoux. Everything in Provence is in the shadow of Mont Ventoux.

Today is the earliest wake-up call of our French vacation. In an attempt to beat the weather that forms over Ventoux, we all plan to summit sometime in the morning. That means that we assemble outside the hotel just after 6 a.m., where Marilyn has arranged for an impromptu breakfast, since the hotel breakfast won’t get going for another couple of hours. We get hard rolls and juice and some fruit and yogurt, but no coffee. Still, it’s better than nothing, and our entire group heads out on our day’s ride before 6:30.

We ride the first 20km of the day mostly together. It’s a gentle grade on narrow roads that take us past vineyards and orchards, and through a couple of small market towns. We’ve been planning to stop for coffee and croissants at a café in the market town of Bedoin, which is the demarcation for the actual climb up Mont Ventoux. But by now, the group has stretched out a bit. I’m following Mick and Aaron, and by the time I realize that we are completely out of town and have started the climb, the guys have left me behind. I’m guessing that the rest of the group has stopped in Bedoin, but I’m reluctant to turn around to join them, since it would mean giving up precious elevation already gained. At the same time, I’m peeved at the guys for not sticking with the plan. It’s not really an ideal way to start a major mountain climb: low on caffeine and calories, and completely pissed off.

So I pedal along, thinking that this ride is not as hard as I’ve heard it would be. The first few kilometers are very gentle, and then the gradient notches up a bit. Still, these first 7 kilometers all average 6% or less, so I have lots of spare energy to feed the anger that’s lodged in my brain. I’m really craving a cup of coffee. And a quality croissant. I try to tell myself that I’m on an epic ride, so I should work at enjoying it a bit more.

But then the road turns steeply upward, and I have to put all of my energy into the climb. Aha! Here’s the steepness of Mont Ventoux, I think to myself. The nice gentle three then five then six percent gradient has given way to a wicked near 11%.

The pictures that I’ve seen of Mont Ventoux are all misleading, since they all show the top six km of the ride, all above tree-line. But this first part of the ride – the first 14 km out of a total 20 km of climbing (more than 12 miles) – is all in deep forest. The road curves and winds through the trees, and you can never see much beyond 50 meters or more up the road. I keep straining to see a point where the road flattens out in the distance, but it doesn’t come. At each curve, I anticipate that this rate of incline will relent. But it doesn’t. It just keeps going up and up, steeper and steeper, and I dig deep into reserves. I’m having deep regrets that I haven’t trained on more hills before coming to France. I’m very sorry that Ride the Rockies didn’t have lots more serious climbs. I’m suffering.

On many of the mountain roads in France, there are markers along the roadside every kilometer that give you a sense of where you are on the climb. The markers are generally concrete, and shaped like grave markers, so we call them “tombstones”: it seems appropriate on most climbs. On this road up Mont Ventoux, the tombstones also are marked with the percentage gradient for the next uphill kilometer. I’m going extremely slowly – under 4 mph! – so it seems to take forever between tombstones, and I start to anticipate each marker with hope. Surely the next one will tell me that the gradient has lessened.

But no. The tombstone readings almost make me cry. 10.5, 10.7, 10.9, 10.3, 9.7, 10.6. This gradient is relentless. There is not a single flat spot, not a place to recover even a tiny bit. It’s all up and up and up. My legs ache. I have no doubts in my ability to summit this mountain, but still. I’m not so sure how much more I want to suffer like this.

The ride is beautiful – or would be, if you could appreciate it. It’s green and thick with foliage deep on both sides. It’s a quiet, early-Sunday-morning world here, almost no auto traffic at all on the road, and the few cars that do go by give me a wide berth. Every once in a while I get passed by a guy pedaling in the same direction, and we’ll exchange Bonjours; frequently the guys will also utter Courage! I pass a couple of guys going even slower than I. But mostly, it’s just me in this dark green forest, pedaling along by myself.

Since the road heading up Mont Ventoux did not originate in Bedoin, the kilometer markers don’t really tell me what I desperately want to know: how much further to the top? I was not paying close enough attention coming out of Bedoin to be able to accurately pinpoint how far I’ve pedaled. I do some mental calisthenics to estimate how much further, but I’m afraid that I’m far underestimating.

By now, I’ve forgotten about my need for a coffee fix. In fact, I’m thinking it might be a good thing that I didn’t have any java, since just the thought of it at this point makes me want to throw up. I’m drinking lots of water and lots of bad Gatorade, made from a powdered mix. And I’m praying for just a short stretch of flat roadway. Oh please oh please oh please.

Dick and Marilyn, the tour operators, go by in the van, and honk and yell encouragement as they pass. Another guy passes me by, and after we exchange Bonjours, he yells back at me in British-accented English, “Are you having fun yet?” I figure that my jersey must have given me away as an American. Either that, or the fact that I haven’t seen a single other woman out here riding. Don’t European women cycle at all???

The tombstone markers now promise gradients of 9-dot-something for a couple of consecutive kilometers, and I start to think that it’s pretty sick when you start to think of a 9 percent gradient as flat. But it’s better than the nearly 11 percent that seemed to go on forever, so I’m grateful.

A couple of guys ride by me, and they yell back greetings in English. I take a desperate stab: “do you know how much further to the top?” I ask. “Is it less than ten kilometers?” I think that if they say it’s more, I might just get off my bike and lie down on the road and die right now. Happily, I don’t have to do this, as they yell back, yes, definitely less than ten.

Then finally, a 7 percent gradient for the next kilometer, and what a relief! At the end of this kilometer, I come to the first – and only – flat spot on the entire climb. It’s a switchback that turns in front of a café at le Chalet-Reynard, just at tree line. Dick and Marilyn are sitting outside, enjoying some coffee, as I go by, and they yell encouragement to me. I hear Marilyn’s hearty “Courage!” as I make the left hand turn and start up the final six kilometers of this climb.

Now, I’m riding Mont Ventoux as I’ve seen it in pictures and video: all rocky moonscape above treeline, just a road cut across the rocks, with switchbacks up to a tower at the highest point above. Thankfully, the gradient stays more modest for several kilometers – 6 and 7 and 8 percent. Now that the road is exposed, I can see a progression of cyclists and cars preceding me up the hill, and now I’m meeting cyclists heading down. This is truly a pilgrimage for cyclists.

I hear metallic tinkling, and wonder for a moment if something hasn’t gone wrong with my bike. But then I make the connection between the odd pellets that I’m dodging on the roadway and the tinkling sound, and look uphill to my right and see a herd of sheep, bells at their necks. The landscape is so rocky and spare that it seems incredible that they could find enough food for forage up here.

And on and on, and up and up. I pass the Tom Simpson Memorial, where people are gathering for photos. Tom Simpson was a British professional cyclist who raced in the Tour de France in the 1960s. In a stage of the 1967 Tour, he famously collapsed on Mont Ventoux, just 3 kilometers from the summit. He is reputed to have said to the crowd, “Put me back on my bike!” He pedaled on for a ways, and then collapsed again, and died. The autopsy showed amphetamines that, combined with this horrendous climb, worked together to make Mont Ventoux his final bike ride ever. At this point, I know I’m going to make it to the summit without a Tom Simpson moment, and I’m getting a bit stoked about it.

Mick and Aaron are just heading down, and so they turn around and accompany me to the top. The last kilometer is nasty again – 11% - but I can see the summit, and I go for it. On top!

This ride is grueling, and when I unclip from my pedals, I’m shaking. For the last ten kilometers or so I’ve been thinking: check this off my life’s list of things to do, I’ll never have to ride Mont Ventoux again! Now, at the top, I stand all shaky and panting and sweating, just trying to stand up without toppling over. A group of British guys stands nearby, and they recognize me. “You made it!” they say, and I think there is some respect. In the last couple of kilometers of the climb, I passed a couple of women on bikes, but this is decidedly a very male pilgrimage. I start to get all teary-eyed and emotional, but I’m really far too tired to cry for real.

The views from the top of Ventoux are incredible, and we’re lucky to be here on a very clear day. You can see all the way to the valley floor; I almost get dizzy looking around. There is barely a breeze, which is very unusual for this mountain; again I think that we’ve come on the perfect day. Mick brings me a cold bottle of water from a little shop at the top, and it’s perfect.

The Brits are all leaning on their bikes, too, just enjoying the triumph of being up here. “Well, I won’t have to do that again!” I say to them. They laugh and say, right, and proceed to tell me about a guy they’ve heard about who rode the climb three times yesterday. Three times?!? In one day? And then more cyclists get involved in the conversation, and the local legends fly, and the talk turns to how long it took everyone to get up here. That crazy voice from somewhere deep in my brain starts to say, “next time, if I’m really trained for a climb, I could ride it in …..” Yikes. Next time. I know I’ve been at altitude too long, and it’s time to head down.

Just as we’re ready to start our downward journey, Zoli comes riding up to the summit. He unclips from his pedals, and breathing very hard says, “That was stupid!” Well put, Zoli. And now it really is time to go.

Mick and Aaron and I ride down to the café at le Chalet-Reynard, and stop for a coffee and a chance to refill water bottles. We take a different descent, to the Provencal village of Sault. Mont Ventoux is a rarity among mountain climbs in that there are at least three paved roads leading to the summit, so we have our choice of ways down. The descent to Sault seems much gentler than our ride up, but then, descents have a way of changing your perspective.

Partway down, we encounter our first lavender fields, and stop over and over again to take photos. It’s beautiful! We find an outdoor cafe in Sault, and it’s good to refresh – off the bike – for a nice long lunch. Dick has mapped out an optional ride home through the Gorges de la Nesque, but has advised against this route since it will add significant mileage and additional climbing. We decide to forego the warnings, and head to the Gorges.

It’s a short climb from Sault to the Gorges, and well worth the effort. The Gorges are spectacular in Black Canyon of the Gunnison kind of way – not quite like the Grand Canyon, but still impressive. The ride, after a brief climb, is a delight, since we head downhill at a gentle grade for kilometer after kilometer. The road hugs a side of the canyon, and takes us through many tunnels and arches. We stop over and over again for pictures.

By mid-afternoon, there are clouds gathering overhead again, so we hightail it for St. Didier and our hotel, getting there before the late afternoon storm comes. It’s been an exciting day in the Tour, and we retreat to our hotel room to watch the finish on TV. The Tour riders are pedaling their way closer and closer to where we are, and to where we’re heading tomorrow. It’s just now starting to hit me that we’re in France, and it’s the Tour de France.

Tomorrow is Alpe d'Huez.

July 17, Monday: Not as early today as yesterday – we actually get to have breakfast in the hotel dining room – but still we’re up early. Pack up the vans and load the bikes, and we head up the road several hours to the Alps! We stop along the route for snacks, and to buy nougat. Apparently, nougat is a big thing in Provence – something I didn’t know before – and now I have an all-too-healthy appetite for it. Somebody in our van gets the chocolate-covered variety, and then passes around the bag. After tasting this most wonderful concoction, I beg Dick to go back so that I can buy cartfuls of the stuff, but Dick is hell-bent on getting us to our destination for the day: Alpe d’Huez.

We arrive in Bourg d’Oisans at mid-day, and unload bikes and people. Bourg d’Oisans is the village at the base of the climb to Alpe d’Huez, and it’s already teeming with activity: people, campers, bikes, tents, cars, more bikes, more people. The stage will pass on the periphery of Bourg d’Oisans tomorrow, just before the riders climb Alpe d’Huez for a mountaintop stage finish. Today, it’s just plain craziness. But that’s exactly what we’ve been looking for – Tour-de-France-mania. And here it is, right at the base of the climb.

A few of the folks from our group immediately take off, riding up to our hotel at the ski station village of Alpe d’Huez. The rest of us meander into Bourg d’Oisans to visit the very famous bike shop there. The town is a beehive of activity – but it’s not nearly as crazy as it was two years ago, when the Alpe d’Huez stage was a time trial up the mountain. It seems nuts, given the number of people and the level of activity, but this is very tame in comparison.

Several of us make our way to the bike shop and make our requisite purchases of Alpe d’Huez jerseys. Oh Lord, soon I will be one of those obnoxious cyclists on the roads of Colorado, wearing an Alpe d’Huez jersey. But how can you NOT bring home this souvenir? I resisted two years ago because it was just too damn crowded in the bike shop. Today it’s just a marginally annoying line at the bike shop – not out the back door – so I give in to the temptation.

Dick and Marilyn are very accommodating, and have come into the town with one of the vans in order to carry our purchases up the mountain for us. Zoli, in the meantime, has had new gearing put on his bike in order to make the ride up l’Alpe a bit more pleasant than his ride up Mont Ventoux yesterday. Given the speed and ease with which the bike shop accomplishes this task, we’d guess that it’s an everyday event for them. We drop our bags with Dick and Marilyn, and then we make our way back out to the turn-off to l’Alpe and to the start of the fabled climb.

Dick runs an informal time trial up Alpe d’Huez, and some in the group (ahem, might that be Mick?) take this time trial very seriously. For me, this just means that I need to keep track of my time from the start of the climb to the finish line in front of the tourist office just as you enter the village of Alpe d’Huez at the top. For Mick, it means attacking the mountain full on.

We stop just before the “Depart” banner at the base of the climb, and adjust bike computers. Mick holds Aaron’s bike so that he can get a good, clean time trial start, and then Aaron is off. Mick offers to hold my bike, too, but it seems too funny. A few seconds expended clipping in will not affect my day, so I roll away and start my time trial on my own.

The first several meters of the ride seem easy – too easy, in fact – but then I turn a corner and realize that the climb has not yet started. You can see the start of this climb, and it’s very intimidating: the road simply turns uphill with no prior warning. It looks like a wall. And no wonder – after a very mellow start at the base, the first real kilometer of climbing is at 11%!

Stuck in my mind is a replay of the last time I rode this route, and I keep expecting the same people, the same traffic, the same sights and sounds. But this year is different. It’s still exciting, and the road is teeming with activity, but it’s not the same ride as two years ago. At the start, it’s a bit of a letdown, since this climb seems harder than I remember it to be – but then again, two years ago I didn’t climb Mont Ventoux the day before, and the ride was kind of surreal, a dream come true. Today, it’s still a momentous occasion, but less of a life-changing event, more of a cycling challenge.

And so what to tell from this year’s climb? The traffic going up is fairly heavy, but nothing like the traffic of two years ago. On that climb, I was forced to stop a couple of times because of traffic jams that I just couldn’t pedal my way through. Today, the traffic is not so onerous, so I’m never forced off the bike.

The campers and walkers and cyclists and all of the people lining the route are still the major story. It’s incredible. You have to be constantly on guard for traffic going every which way on the road. Road painters are getting a start, and it’s clear that partiers have been at it for quite some time. Campers line the road. Tents are pitched at incredible angles on precarious spaces. Tailgate parties are in full bloom.

It’s hot today – and we’re riding in the hottest part of the day – but I’m not too concerned since I have two full water bottles. But somewhere early on the journey upwards, a group of partiers offers to pour water on my head, and I give them the thumbs-up, and it’s good. I get pretty wet, but it’s wonderfully cooling. Several kilometers and many switchbacks later, there is a group of American guys with flags aflyin’ standing on the side of the road. They recognize me as a fellow countryman, and offer water again, and I nod yes, and I get another full dowsing. The cool is wonderful! Now I’m completely soaked. One of the guys decides to give me a hand, and he runs behind me and gives me a big push. If only the uphill pedaling could be so easy for the rest of the way!

There are people of all nationalities parked along the roadside, flying their country’s flags, displaying signs in support of their favorite racers. It’s a huge multi-national cycling Woodstock. At one camper, there is a sign, “EPO: 10 Euros”. All along the route, there is writing on the road.

The switchbacks are, famously, marked in descending order as you make your way up l’Alpe d’Huez, so it takes some of the guesswork out of knowing where you are at any time. The first turn is #21, and then it’s all downhill – well, really, uphill – from there. The beauty of the Alpe d’Huez experience is that the road is in nearly perfect shape, and the switchbacks are dead flat as you make each turn. Even though each turn is very sharp and short, the brief respite from relentless steep uphill climbing is a welcome relief.

Having ridden this two years ago, and having ridden Mont Ventoux yesterday, I’ve somehow expected to find this climb easier today. Wrong! What was I thinking? While this ride is shorter than the journey up Ventoux (14 km compared to 20+ km), Alpe d’Huez is slightly steeper and clearly is more difficult to negotiate, just owing to the traffic. It’s work and more work, but the biggest advantage I have is knowing that I made it two years ago – and knowing not to despair when I get close to the top, where it looks just way too steep to ride.

Another group of partiers is standing on the roadside, offering cups of water. My water bottles are still plenty full, so I point to my head, inviting someone to dump a little more water on top. In fact, I’m still dripping from my last dowsing, and I’m shocked – cold therapy – when all four of the guys with cups of water simultaneously shower me with cool H2O. Brrr! Now I’m officially soaked, and since there are some clouds moving in, I decide that maybe I should decline further offers of showers.

When I get within site of the last couple of switchbacks and see the steepness ahead I have to remind myself again that I’ve ridden this before and will survive. This ride is cruel: the first couple of kilometers are very steep – 11 and 10%, and then it gets “easier” with many kilometers of 8 and 9% gradient. But then just as you reach the top of the climb, it gets crazy-steep again, up over 9%, and it just looks nasty. But there are so many distractions here – the road painting, Tour signs, people along the side of the road, cars and bikes going by, you name it – that the ride goes by quickly, and soon enough I’m at the top. Alpe d’Huez! Home for the night. Everyone – everyone! – is excited to be here.

It’s a rest day for the guys on the tour, so we relax in our hotel room and catch replays of the previous day’s stage on TV. It feels like a huge letdown to not have a stage finish to watch on the tube. So instead, we walk around the village and get some ice cream before dinner and gawk at all the trappings of the tour arriving here tomorrow. How can you not love Alpe d’Huez?

July 18, Tuesday: Well, how you can not love Alpe d’Huez is when you ponder the choices for how to spend the day today, and decide that none of them is optimal. What a quandary – what to do?

The primary problem is one of how to get off the mountain after the stage. We leave Alpe d’Huez later today, because the Cofidis team will take over our hotel sometime in the morning. This means that not only do we have to check out this morning, but we have to check out fairly early. Tonight we’ll be at a new hotel in Albertville, almost a hundred miles away. Dick and Marilyn will drive off the mountain while the roads are still open, but traffic on the mountain will be closed to traffic as the tour approaches.

This means that we essentially have three choices for the day. First, there is Dick’s recommendation: find a place on the mountain to watch the stage, and then ride down a back way through Villas-Reculas to meet up with him for dinner at a restaurant where we have reservations. Another option is to skip the Tour altogether, and to ride from Alpe d’Huez to Albertville, leaving early in the day since it’s a long haul, and takes you over the very tough Col du Glandon. The final option is to ride down the mountain in the morning, watch the stage from the base of the climb, and then to meet up with the group for the pre-arranged dinner.

I don’t like any of the options very much. I’d love to stay on top of the mountain to watch the finish of the stage, but the ride down the mountain post-race scares the beejezus out of me. The road through Villa-Reculas is reputed to be incredibly steep with dramatic drop-offs and very narrow roads and no guardrails. Add to this the post-race traffic, and I know it’s a scenario certain to either land me in the morgue or the looney-bin. Riding over the Col du Glandon to Albertville would be a nice ride, but it would mean missing the stage entirely, and isn’t that why we’re here? So we end up going with a modified option number three, and decide to ride down the front side of the mountain just before they close the road, and to watch the stage – as much as possible – from the base of the climb. Not ideal, but it’s the best of the three options.

Mick really, really wants to ride back up Alpe d’Huez again today, since he’s not all that happy with his time trial result from yesterday, so we adjust the plan to allow him to do that in the morning hours. He takes off to make a round trip down and then back up the mountain just after breakfast, and I take off running. I run on a paved road that leads upwards from the main village. I ran up this road two years ago, and remember that I liked the run. I’m not disappointed today.

The weather is perfect – sunny and warm, but we’re on a mountaintop, so it’s not too warm. The road is lined with yet more campers, all nationalities, but more sparsely situated than down on the race route. A few other folks are out on bicycles, riding up this road as I run up. I run to the end of the paved road – completely enthralled by the scenery and the vast system of ski lifts, trams, and cable cars – and then back to the hotel. I like the run so much that I do a second lap. Each lap is just over 5 miles, so it makes for a nice round 10 mile run.

I’ve stowed my bike gear in the ski check room at the hotel, and give myself a quick sponge-bath before changing into my cycling clothes, and stuffing my sweaty running gear into my camelback. Mick arrives back at the hotel – happier with his time trial performance today – just as I sit down at the outside tables with a rare bottle of Powerade. It’s noon straight up. And we need to head down the mountain if we don’t want to get stranded up here.

You would think that riding downhill would be easy, but it’s just not the case. Have I mentioned that this road is steep? If you think it’s steep going uphill, just try it going downhill at a very controlled speed – very hard to do! The traffic today on the route is insane. There are cars coming uphill, cars going downhill, bikes going every which way, walkers, runners, people with dogs, people with walking sticks, people still painting the roads. I ride with one foot unclipped from the pedal for the first several kilometers, and I stop often just to let my frazzled nerves settle down. This is turning out to be the hardest ride of my life.

All the stops do serve multiple purposes. In addition to letting me gather myself together (so that I don’t become a raving lunatic), the stops also allow us to cool our rims – we’re both braking excessively – and to take photos. It’s really hard for me to stop for photos while I’m climbing a mountain, since stopping really screws up your rhythm – not to mention that when it’s steep, it’s hard to get going again. So now is the perfect time for me to OD on photos of the switchbacks, and of the Tour de France signs, and of some of the prodigious road painting, and of the hoards of people lining the road.

After a few kilometers, the crowding on the roadway clears a bit so that I can finally clip in and actually ride my bike instead of just sort of scooting along. Downhill auto traffic on the road slows, and then stops altogether; now, the only cars coming up the road have official stickers. Ah, to be so close to the Tour! We stop and chat with people on the way down. Mick and I are both wearing jerseys that people recognize from Colorado events, so people yell out at us from time to time. We see a couple of guys camping alongside the road with a CU banner on their car, so we start to chat with them for a while. It turns out to be a really fun ride down the hill.

We reach the base of the climb, and decide to head into Bourg d’Oisans for lunch. It’s amazing: this town that was teeming with people at this time 24 hours ago is now a ghost town. We have our choice of restaurants with plenty of immediate seating. We find our way to a café that has a TV and coverage of the race, and we plant ourselves among the locals. We linger over lunch, and watch on the small screen as the Tour rides ever closer and closer to us. We talk about the optimal time to head back out to the race course, but it’s hard to drag ourselves away from the television coverage. Then we start to rationalize. If we head back out to the road to Alpe d’Huez, we will be too late to find a good spot. We’ll be consigned to the flat bit before the climb starts, and the racers will go by in a flash. We won’t be able to really see anything at all. And, what’s more, it has now clouded up outside, and it looks like it will start to rain at any moment. In fact, the lead group in the race, as we watch on TV, is now riding in a downpour. The truth of the matter is that, while seeing the Tour first-hand is terribly exciting, if you’re interested in the race itself, the best spot is directly in front of a tube.

So, in the end, we talk ourselves into watching the race from here in Bourg d’Oisans. It’s the oddest feeling: to be so close to the Tour, and yet to watch it all from a short distance – maybe a kilometer away – on TV. We’ve heard a rumour that there is a bar that has an English language channel covering the Tour, and go in search, but it’s not to be. The best we can do is to park ourselves at the Dutch bar up the street. This bar has a TV set up on the outside patio, and we can sit in the shelter of a huge awning and watch the race, along with various other non-conformists.

We watch this great stage until the very end, and then watch some of the post-race coverage. We’re thrilled that Floyd Landis is now in the yellow jersey – and many of the friends that we’ve made at the Dutch bar are in agreement. All hail the new patron!

Outside, on the street, people are streaming past, having seen the Tour go by, and are now heading back to cars parked for miles along the approaches to this little village. Eventually, Mick and I get on our bikes and head to the restaurant where we’ll meet the rest of the group for dinner. We ride on the side of the road along with hundreds or maybe thousands of other cyclists who have just watched the same spectacle that we’ve seen. Even though traffic is heavy, tonight I’m not afraid of it at all. This is the world capital of cycling. How could any harm come to me here?

July 19, Wednesday: We start the day in Albertville. It was a beautiful drive here last night, over the Col du Glandon.

There are lots of options for rides today. Dick, the tour director, suggests that we pedal down the Isere River valley, and then up the Arc River valley to St. Jean de Maurienne, where we could plant ourselves at a café and watch the Tour go by not just once, but twice. Today’s Tour route is a killer: the course corkscrews around on itself while going over four major mountain passes. Our tour friend Zoli chooses this option, and has a grand time, just as Dick has predicted.

But Mick and I are both ready for something less crowded, and a bit further from all the hubbub. So we choose to ride the Col de la Madeleine. This sounds like a good plan to Aaron, also, so the three of us ride together. Or, more accurately, Aaron and Mick ride together, and I trail them. They stop to wait often enough so that I’m not riding completely solo.

Mick and I rode parts of the Col de la Madeleine the last time we were here, but never the entire climb. It’s amazingly quiet and pleasant for this climb. We have a short stretch along yet another river valley – actually, it’s just the Isere, but on the other side of Albertville – before finding our turn for the climb. And then it’s straight up once again.

This climb is 26 kilometers, and averages about 6-7% gradient. I haven’t studied the elevation profile, so I’m a bit intimidated when we start up the mountain on a 10% gradient. But the lovely thing about the Col de la Madeleine – from this direction – is that the terrain varies quite a bit, and there are lots of opportunities to recover in between steeper pitches.

It’s casual, unhurried riding for me today. We stop frequently to take pictures, or drink water, or just to regroup. No auto traffic to speak of on the road, and even fewer cyclists. It’s sunny and beautiful. Behind us there are views of Mont Blanc. In front of us, roadway leading up and up.

After some gentle inclines in the middle of this climb, the last several kilometers get steep again, but with the buildings at the top of the col in sight, it’s easy to stay motivated. We reach the top together – Mick and Aaron ride the last part of this climb with me, going slow so we can all enjoy the last pitch together.

We stop inside a restaurant at the top for lunch, and discuss the rest of the day. Mick and I have both been silently thinking the same thing: let’s just turn around and go back to Albertville from here. We’ve ridden down the other side of the mountain before, and we know we’ll hit more traffic – especially since that direction would take us closer to today’s stage in the Tour. We’re also anxious to get back to Albertville to watch the finish of today’s stage, which has been largely heralded as the toughest stage of the Tour. It’s settled easily, then. Aaron leaves us to complete the circuit, and Mick and I have a nice long descent back to Albertville.

Or mostly a nice long descent back to Albertville. The biggest problem with any ride out of this small city is that with these hot days, you have strong – and hot and dry – headwinds as you head back to the city center in the afternoon. It doesn’t matter from what direction – it’s an artifact of the hot air rushing up the river valleys to the cooler higher elevations. So the last part of our trip home, which I’ve mistakenly thinking will be easy, is actually quite a hard ride, and it takes quite a bit longer than we’ve expected.

We hurry to our room to watch the stage finish, and watch in disbelief as Floyd Landis bonks and falls off the back of the peloton. It’s heart-wrenching to watch. It’s a huge disappointment to see America’s chance of winning another tour go down in flames. I go to sleep thinking that it must be horrible for Landis tonight, going to sleep knowing that you’ve just lost the Tour de France.

July 20, Thursday: But what do I know? Another day, another ride. And another stage of the Tour. And in-your-face evidence that I clearly don’t have the same mind frame as a Tour de France champion.

Today is our day to watch a stage, on the Col des Saisies, which is a relatively easy climb out of Albertville. Mick and I take this chance to sleep in a bit – the jet lag having finally caught up to us completely – and we miss most of the rest of the group at breakfast. Two years ago, we rode up the Col des Saisies, so we know what to expect. Well, mostly know what to expect: last time, because we wanted to get back to Albertville to watch a stage finish on TV, we didn’t have time to go to the top. But we know aht it’s a fairly mellow climb leaving Albertville, with fairly steep pitches intertwined with flatter stretches. This ride takes us along side a pretty tree-lined gorge with the Doron River flowing alongside us.

It’s mid-morning when we get rolling, and there are already folks set up along the roadway as we ride. The Tour will come through Albertville today, and will follow this exact same route. People are scattered along the roadside, some in little RV encampments, and even more in tailgate settings. They’re all primed for cyclists going by, and they yell encouragement. Allez! Courage! Once, when Mick has stopped to wait for me to catch up to him, an old Frenchwoman along the roadside watches me as I approach and stop next to Mick. “You are very tired!” she says to me in French, and I just nod and smile. Not really very tired, I want to say. Just slow. But I don’t have the energy to translate my thoughts into the French words.

There’s a turnoff from this road, and then the real climb begins. The roadside is completely lined with Tour fans now, and it’s fun to ride by them. It seems much, much more tame than the crazed fans on l’Alpe d’Huez. People yell encouragement. Allez! Courage! There is a little auto traffic here – very little – and a little bit of bicycle traffic. Very tame indeed.

We’re riding along at a comfortable rate when we hear something approaching from behind. Le Caravan arrive! Says a loudspeaker on top of a car. There is a flash of police vehicles going by, and the gendarmes motion for us to dismount and get off our bikes. And in a very short moment, the Caravan arrives, and it’s pandemonium for the next half hour.

The Caravan is a parade of Tour sponsors that precedes the Tour every day. This is a chance for the Tour sponsors to get some additional advertising time, and they’ve perfected the process over the years. The parade consists of all kinds of cars and floats and odd little one-of-a-kind vehicles decorated with the sponsor’s name and logo. Many – if not most – of these vehicles also throw out schwag along the course. It’s mostly junk, but junk with a high “dive-for-it” value in the moment, and it makes watching the Caravan go by into an aerobic sport. Mick and I gather multiple hats (both polka-dotted bike caps as well as Skoda hats), bunches of magnets, many sample-size bags of coffee, a few rubber bracelets (a la LiveStrong bands, but sponsored by a tire manufacturer), some lanyards, and a few other odds and sods.

After the Caravan passes, the road is officially closed, so we are theoretically stuck at this point, until after the Tour comes through. But the gendarmes vary in their enforcement, so it’s possible to continue to ride up higher on the mountain a bit. On these mountain stages, there are French gendarmes stationed all along the route. We ride past one gendarme, who lets us continue upwards, and then hear of a Nazi manning the next corner, who won’t let anyone through any further. So Mick and I get off our bikes and hike up across a field, missing the Nazi’s switchback.

At this point, we’re at a great vantage spot – we can see several switchbacks below us, and a short distance above us. There are views of Mont Blanc off in the distance. We declare that this is our destination, and we get ready for the arrival of the Tour.

It’s odd, this waiting, with no idea of what is going on in the Tour. No radio, no TV, no commentary. The only indication of the approach of the Tour is the activity of the helicopters. We first see – and hear – the helicopter that hovers high above in the sky. Then gradually, we hear the thwap-thwap-thwap of the helicopter that is following the Tour down close to the ground. Eventually, we can see this helicopter, and it’s an odd experience, since the helicopter is below us! You can trace the progress of the lead rider(s) by watching the helicopter move to and fro, even though you can’t see the contours of the road.

Finally, we can see them coming on a switchback below us. Here they come! The lead cars, the motorcycles, all of the vehicles, and then a lead group flies by. Who was in that group? I can’t tell! How many people – maybe as many as 10? I’m standing almost directly on the road, and it’s amazing not only how close I am to the riders, but also how soon they are gone.

Then there is a lone rider approaching, and I see him heading straight for me. I mean straight for me! Here I am, standing on the inside of a gentle sweeping curve, and I feel I’m about to be run over by the approaching cyclist. But then it hits me – I know who this is! In the midst of yelling Allez! Allez! like the rest of the crowd, suddenly I am shouting, Go Floyd GO! There goes Floyd Landis, all by himself. We have no idea why he’s out there on his own – was he dropped by the lead group? Is he catching them? I’m amazed at how close I am to the guy. He’s little. I mean, really small and slim. Not only could I reach out and touch him, but I could pretty easily knock him off his bike. That is, if I had thought of it in time. But he was here for an instant and now he’s gone. Wow.

The peloton arrives and passes by quickly. It’s so hard to pick out individuals when they go by so quickly. And this is on a mountain climb! I can’t imagine what it’s like to see them on a flat stage – gone in a blur. I congratulate myself for recognizing a few of the guys, but other than that, it’s an impression, just a moment in time, a huge wave of energy headed uphill.

There are not many laggards today, so soon the “fin de la tour” vehicle goes by, and the crowd on the side of the road starts to disperse quickly. Mick and I grab our bikes and head back down the mountain. Two times riding the Col des Saisies, and two times we have not reached the top; this leaves us something to look forward to on one of our future return trips. But today it makes much more sense to hightail it back to Albertville, hoping to elude some of the traffic.

But we’re hungry, and it’s just hitting 2 p.m., and we arrive in the little village of Hauteluce just in time for a late lunch. It’s one of my favorite meals of the trip, more for its simplicity and the pure enjoyment of sitting outside in a beautiful setting on a picture-perfect day, having just watched one of the most spectacular athletic competitions in the world, up close and personal. I feast on an omelet and Mick has a cheese sandwich (somewhat more appealing when it is a “sahnd-wheech avec fromage et tomate”), and we both drink Cokes. I rarely drink any kind of soda, but when cycling in France, Coca-Cola becomes my Gatorade (which you can’t find anywhere on the European continent). By now we’re remembering to order it “avec beaucoup des glacons” (lots of ice cubes), and it goes down so cold and sweet and smooth. Perfect. Just perfect.

We have a nice ride back into Albertville, and I wait at the door to the garage at the hotel, where we will store our bikes before heading up to our room to watch the finish of this stage that we’ve seen in person. Mick arrives with the hotel owner to unlock the door, and excitedly the two of them tell me that Floyd is 7 minutes out in front of the peloton. It’s unbelievable! Even if you are a Frenchman – like our hotel host – you can’t help but stand in awe of this kind of never-say-die spirit. Mick and I hightail it up to our room to watch the rest of this most incredible stage. I sit on the edge of the bed and yell at Floyd: go Go GO!!! It has to be one of the most inspiring performances that I’ve ever seen in my life. It leaves me wanting to go out and ride again, right away.

July 21, Friday: Our tour director has recommended a route for today that requires riding in the van again. Dick and Marilyn will transport the group to the base of the Col du Telegraphe so that everyone can ride up the Col du Telegraphe, then down into Valloire, and then attempt an assault on the Col de la Galibier. These are great climbs – we rode them two years ago – but I’m not that excited about spending yet more time in the van. So Mick and I come up with Plan B.

Plan B means that everyone else takes off early in the day, and Mick and I get a bit more leisurely start. We retrace our ride from yesterday, out of Albertville, and up past the turnoff to the Col des Saisies. Today we remain on the main road, which takes us up to the town of Beaufort, where we take a short break. Beaufort is one of those quintessentially quaint and pretty little villages with alpine architecture and huge baskets of flowers in front of every building. Beaufort is a famous cheese in these parts, so the town attracts lots of tourists. This is where France starts to feel a bit more like Switzerland, and you expect to come across Heidi as you pass the high pastures.

Our destination for the day is the Cormet de Roseland. Dick has pointed out this climb on our maps, but he never really described it, which is a shame, since it turns out to be the most scenic of all our rides this year. After Beaufort, the road turns up steeply, and we end up climbing more than I had bargained for. But it’s okay, since the scenery is well worth the effort. After a long pull up this quiet road, we’re at the Barrage de Roseland – a dam and reservoir – where the water reflects the blue sky that is dotted with big white clouds. Riding alongside the reservoir, we get a couple of kilometers of flat road before it turns steeply upwards again. Suddenly we’re climbing above treeline and into a craggy rockscape. These are some of the wildest and most impressive scenes that we’ve seen during our entire time in France. It feels like we’re on top of the world. You can see Mont Blanc from the summit, and it feels like you can see all the way down into Switzerland and Italy.

We take our time on the ride back to Albertville (this is an out and back ride), stopping for a leisurely lunch at an outside café on the lake. There are wildflowers everywhere, and some ancient road writing, and I stop often to take pictures. Even before we get to our final drop back into Albertville, I’m starting to feel nostalgic. This is it for our rides on this Tour de France trip – our final day of riding these spectacular mountains - and I want to stay forever.

July 22, Saturday: Today is a day of travel and watching the final time trial of the Tour. We load up vans early in the morning and drive to Lyon, where this journey started; it seems that the time has gone by far too quickly. Many of our new friends have flights this afternoon, so we all break down our bikes and pack them up when we get to the hotel at the Lyon airport. The group starts to go its separate ways, and Mick and I are left with the rest of the day to figure out on our own.

We take the bus into central Lyon and try to get a train to the time trial – not that far away, but just not quite doable by train. So instead of boarding a train, we have lunch at a little café and then head back to the hotel. We get there in time to watch the time trial on TV, and we’re thrilled with the results. When I’m at home a week later, I’ll watch many of these stages again on OLN (I’ve recorded them all) and I’ll love the Phil Ligett-Paul Sherwen spin. But for one stage, I prefer the French TV coverage, and it’s today’s time trial. The graphics, the comparison as the race progresses, and the in-car coverage of Floyd’s Director Sportif are all far superior on French TV. Mick and I are both thrilled when Floyd takes the yellow, and is bound for glory in Paris tomorrow.

The French don’t believe in air-conditioning quite as much as Americans do; our non-air-conditioned hotel room feels like a sauna as the Tour coverage winds down. We head down to the hotel lobby a bit later just to sit and read in air-conditioned comfort. Another of our tour group, Jim, has had the same idea, so we hook up with him and have a drink together, and then wander into the dining room for dinner. During this trip to France, I’ve felt more comfortable with the French language than ever before, and as a result, I’ve become the appointed translator in our little group. Our waiter for dinner doesn’t speak any English, so I do the honors when he has questions for any of us. After a few exchanges, he looks at me and, recognizing my foreign accent, asks, “American?” When I assent, his expression changes and he gets all excited. “Floyd Landeez!!!” he says, with great enthusiasm. We all nod in agreement. It is, in this brief moment before a doping scandal hits the press, a communion of different cultures, all recognizing some common respect for excellence. For a moment, I have hope for the world. And a very fleeting extreme pride in my country.