Pulling the Pin
I was only a few kilometers into the 200-kilometer Rift Gravel Race and I knew it was going to be a hard day. “Feel free to ride your own pace,” I told my friend Chris. “My body’s just a little bit slow warming up today.”
Just a week prior – on one of my last rides before departing for Iceland – I’d crashed in the final mile of the ride. It wasn’t some kind of high-speed hero crash on a wicked descent or a crazy stretch of road. No, it was a stupid, low-speed crash. I’d been turning around to come back to the parking lot (where the rest of my Sorella Cycling club mates were setting up our annual picnic), and I’d taken the turn at just the wrong speed – too slow for the loose gravel surface, and too fast to get a foot out in time to stop myself from going down. I went down hard – hard enough that I laid on the rough fill gravel for a few minutes just trying to get my brain back in working order. That said, when I got to the picnic pavilion, my knee and elbow were bloody, but nothing really even hurt that much.
The second day, of course, is when it really starts to hurt. And the third day is when the bruises get spectacular.
When I crashed, my first thought was, Thank God it wasn’t the drive side. My second was, Is my kneecap broken? It wasn’t until I was scrubbing grit out of my palm with an alcohol wipe that I thought, What about Iceland?
I’d been planning to come to the inaugural Rift Gravel Race for months. My friend Chris had talked me into it – he works for Marin, and they’d just signed on as a sponsor. I decided it would be a great, fun ride after a long season. Something less intense than Gold Rush 200, and an opportunity to spend a summer week in a country that I’d only ever visited in winter. I got in a post-crash ride before I left, and a few rides once I arrived. When I got to the start line, I knew my knee didn’t feel great, but I was sure that 15 or 20 miles in, I’d be warmed up enough for get through the ride.
My lack of attention to course profiles will, someday, probably be the death of me. Someday I’ll sign up for a race that includes a mandatory rock climbing section or something like that, and I just won’t notice it, and then I’ll fall to a horrible death trying to free solo a cliff. In this case, if I’d looked at the race profile, I would have noticed that virtually all of the climbing was in the first half – not exactly ideal conditions if you’re hoping a problematic joint will “warm up.”
It quickly became clear that the day was going to be a long ride on the struggle bus. Every time I pushed a lot of power, my knee felt like it was sawing away at something internal. As we climbed out of the trees and into the weird, gorgeous landscape of Iceland’s volcanic highlands, I surreptitiously rubbed the side of the joint, and wondered if I could sort of massage it into normal function. Maybe pressing on the parts that really hurt would help, I thought. Like foam rolling. But with my fingers. While riding.
Once a brutal headwind kicked up, even the flat stretches offered no relief – I was pushing 100% of my threshold power just to go 6 mph. Chris tried valiantly to tow me along, but I could barely hold his wheel. “I may not make it,” I told him. “I’ll make a decision at the 100km checkpoint.” We separated permanently on a long stretch of climbing, and then I was soldiering on alone.
I wasn’t having, I should be clear, a bad time. The landscape was almost shockingly beautiful: hills rose ever upward from the course in smooth curves like a perfect uninterrupted sweep of an artist’s pen, green moss giving way to black ash and then to the greyish white of the volcano’s icecap. An outlet glacier hung improbably at the very edge of a high valley, a collapse seeming like an inevitability. A waterfall dropped from the sheer edge of a green escarpment into a suspended cliffside basin hundreds of feet below, gushed, barely visible, through a shaft, and then burst out again into the air, somersaulting down into a canyon somewhere below the plateau that we rode across. It was the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen, if you are a person whose taste runs to the stark and the desolate, which I am.
About 40 miles into the course, I’d even convinced myself that the situation was survivable. I was in pain. It was going to be a long day. And it had started to rain and I was very cold. But the second half of the course was supposed to be much easier, and paradoxically, the steepness of a few of the climbs had really helped – a few of them were unridable, so I’d had to get off, and walking a bit seemed to make my knee feel better. And I was into my second Honey Stinger waffle, which was like eating a cookie that I could pretend was healthy.
But then a very stupid thing happened: I got to another of those ridiculously steep hills. People started walking as soon as they saw it. But (when my knee joint isn’t chewing through cartilage) I like climbing. I’m good at climbing, especially short nasty climbs. I decided to go for it: I was sure it was ridable. As I started up the slope, a woman immediately in front of me clipped out. My momentum carried me into her back wheel, and I went over again.
I didn’t even realize how hard I’d crashed right away. I felt the impact on my knee, although the most immediate pain was in my palm and my shoulder – I’d stupidly thrown a hand out to try to catch myself. Is my wrist broken? I thought, as I laid on the ground. I wiggled it. Not broken! I got up. My collarbone? Moving! Everything, I thought, was fine. I walked to the top of the hill, pulled my bike off to the side and worked on straightening the saddle and handlebars, which had been knocked out of position. It was strangely hard to get my left foot into the clip, but I figured I was just shaken. I set off down a long, sweeping descent, whooping in fear and delight as I caught a bit of air off of an unseen dip in the road.
Pain, to endurance athletes, does not generally read as a signal to stop. Pain is usually information, information that we may disregard entirely, if the discomfort is normal, or note as something to deal with later – after the workout, after the race, after the season. Sometimes, however, pain carries a visceral wrongness. And that pain is what I started to feel a few miles after the crash. With every climb, there was a strange tension inside the joint, the feeling that something was being stretched almost to the point of snapping. I fell twice more because I couldn’t clip out on my left side – the joint seemed not to be strong enough to bear the twisting force. Very quickly, I knew my day was over.
There’s a saying bike people like to throw around – DFL before DNF. Cycling lives on stories of Hard Men Who Never Gave Up. Rusty Woods just finished the Tour de France with two broken ribs. Lawson Craddock spun his 2018 TDF ride with a broken scapula into a massive fundraiser for his hometown velodrome. But there’s a huge difference between a professional cyclist and me and you, and I’m not talking about vastly higher threshold power, immense VO2 max, or the contractual obligation to wear full team kit on every ride no matter how unflattering. No, what I’m talking about is this: they get paid to ride bikes, and we don’t.
When you’re trying to push your limits, it won’t always be fun. Sometimes it’ll actually be terrible. But there’s no glory in finishing a race if finishing it will injure you. There’s no moral superiority in getting across a finish line at all costs. No one is giving you a paycheck to be here – in fact, you’re probably paying someone for the privilege. To be an amateur is to have the right to decide you’re done, without answering to anyone for your decision. And yet, if we do make that decision, we’re often incredibly ashamed, as if our effort is only worth it if it ends the way we want it to.
I almost quit Gold Rush 200 at the first checkpoint. It had rained for the first 70 miles, and the temperature had dropped into the high 40s. I was so cold that I couldn’t get my bottles out of the cages or open a gel. I couldn’t work my shift levers. I wasn’t even shivering anymore. I knew I was very close to hypothermic, and perilously behind on calories. “If it doesn’t get warmer by the next checkpoint,” I told my friend Kathryn, who was supporting me, “I’ll have to pull out.”
It did get warmer, and it stopped raining. I didn’t quit and I won the race. But my instincts were right – if I hadn’t been able to warm up, quitting would have been the right thing to do. The race was remote. It’s no exaggeration to say that I could easily have gotten severely hypothermic before the next checkpoint. And if I had, I could have died, and it wouldn’t have been heroic. It would have been stupid.
At the Rift, the question I asked myself was the same one that I asked myself at Gold Rush: is there something that can change that will make this misery go away? A lot of times, the answer is yes – if you can get some food, or rest for a few minutes, or chat with another competitor, the depth of suffering lessens and the sense of possibility comes back. At Gold Rush, I knew I could finish if the weather improved. At the Rift, I knew that nothing could make the situation better – in fact, it was almost certainly going to get worse. And so I walked away (okay, got driven away in a tricked out 4WD ambulance van by Icelandic National Search and Rescue, along with a guy with a broken collarbone) with no regrets.
Now I’m sitting in a hotel room in Reykjavik, with an ice bag on my knee, trying to get through to my orthopedist to see how quickly I can get in for an MRI. I’m already thinking about the next race, and busily calculating whether there’s enough time to recover from this (whatever “this” technically is) and still get in the training for that. Good days on the bike aren’t defined by how you placed or even whether you finished. My DNF won’t be the main thing I’ll remember from the Rift – I’ll remember somersaulting waterfalls and crazy river crossings and how the Icelandic SAR guys told me about the special armored ambulance they have for rescuing people during volcanic eruptions. It was worth doing, even if it ended badly. Hard things often are.