I’m a known hypochondriac. It’s funny because I can ignore aches and low level pains for ever, but once I fixate on them I notice every. little. thing. Ragnarok was one of those days, and I’m still unwinding and learning about what malfunctioned.
The day started out ok. I had been fighting a sinus / respiratory bug all week, but I thought I had it under control with the inhalers full of steroids and albuterol. I took my prerequisite hits before the race, tried to choke down some last minute food, and got lined up. One year, I lined up way too late, scrambling around looking for my crap until the very last minute. Or the other time, I ended up yakking up my food because of nerves. I thought I had this thing nailed since my pre-race prep was as dialed as it ever is for me!
We line up and take off. The pace was healthy but not too fast. I was jealous of everyone engaging in small talk around me as I was already gasping for air. The course starts up a false flat and goes straight into 4 very steep hills and their corresponding descents. I hung on most of the way up the first climb, but faded at the end. I was wheezing and gasping for air but dammit, I wasn’t giving up.
I am short and muscular and heavy, so I can descend like a cannonball dropped out of a hot air balloon. I began bombing down the hill, calling out my line of choice as I approached people. My speed kept creeping up, and I was flying at 40 mph (ok, only 39.6 mph per my Garmin, but you get the point, hyperbole makes for a better story). There was one rider in particular where I called out “hold your line, please!” and then … he erratically changed lines right in front of me. I slammed on the brakes, not wanting to smash my cannonball self into his hind end. I locked up both tires and the bike skidded and skipped beneath me. Oh %$!&%$#@!! My primary concern was shedding speed before my body inevitably went slamming into the hard ground. I thought “tuck and roll, tuck and roll” to hopefully avoid a broken collarbone. One of the benefits of being thick and dense is I think it makes me less likely to snap something than the more willowy cyclists … I think.
Somehow, I saved it … and I have NO IDEA how. Another rider, Mr. Joel Benton, even referred to me as “RAD!” I can tell you that never in my life has anyone used that adjective on ME, the nerdy, introverted, and socially awkward engineer. I was rattled but kept on heading down the hill and started hammering on the flat section. I climbed again, got dropped again, and was skittish and slow down each and every other hill from that point forward. Usually I can make up ground on the descents, but not today.
I settled into an “all day” pace, trying to catch my breath. I could barely breathe after the climbs. I could feel my lungs seizing up, and screaming in agony. I kept chugging along, but my boyfriend could tell I wasn’t at my usual performance level. He asked me what was going on and I said that I had no %$!#@ idea. I told him I was giving it what I had, and apparently what I had was a nice slow roll. Any increased exertion basically resulted in me hyperventilating. He stayed with me through the checkpoint at mile 30-something, and at that point I told him to do his thing. He had dutifully and sweetly tried to pull me back to the group a few times, and each time I would end up breathless and gapped. I could barely choke out an “off!” as he would slowly chug away and I faded, dropping off his wheel.
After the first checkpoint, I began to accept my fate. Today, I would not place well. Two years prior I was in the top 20% of finishers, and some day I want to do that again. I was damn fast on this brutal course that year, and I had naively thought I could pull that off last weekend, but nope. I struggled with thoughts of bailing on the race, just quitting. Heck, I had quit last year too, maybe Ragnarok is just too damn hard for me, I’m not cut out for climbing, I’m too heavy / fat / out of shape, blah blah blah.
I was able to turn my head around and decide that I WAS going to finish this thing, come hell or high water. I focused on how the chaos that happened earlier with the descent, the state of my lungs, and my lack of preparation were all in the past. I couldn’t change those things as much as my perfectionist self wanted to. I had choices to make with what I was going to do with my CURRENT situation, the here and the now. I slogged on. I went back to my standard long distance cycling question that I ask myself when times get tough, and it’s this — “can you physically keep moving forward in some fashion right now?” and if the answer is “yes”, I keep going. Simple.
I began stopping more, using sugary snacks to improve my mood. I learned in my ultra adventures last year that if I truly believe that EVERYTHING SUCKS, it’s time for some candy. I had packed emergency Skittles in my top tube bag and they helped. Emergency skittles have soothed me after a few trailside bawl-fests, and during Ragnarok they did not disappoint. I ate a few peanut butter cups, took swigs of gel, and downed a bunch of water. I settled into a happy pace and began singing with what little extra breath I had. I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually get actual lyrics out of my mouth, but there was some sort of wheezy humming that went on. The sentiment was there.
The advantage to riding slower and not exerting myself as hard was that I got to look around more. I began anticipating some of the turns, thinking “hey, I bet I go left up there” even before my Garmin would chirp out instructions. (And FWIW, my Garmin file was SOLID and absolutely flawless. I watched a group miss a turn, hollered and got them to come back. Want the file? Check out the “routes” link at the top of this page.) I was able to take in more scenery, but still wanted to keep chugging along so I took no pictures of the gorgeous surroundings. I grew up in the Driftless Area in Iowa farm country, and those hills and fields speak to my soul.
As the middle miles ticked on, my aches, pains, and problems ramped up. The hypochondria started. I noticed that whenever I’d exert myself and get above a heart rate of 140, my left leg would begin to go numb. Not the “regular” kind of numb that generates from your foot or a BOA tightened down too hard, but different. A numbness that crept down from my hip socket and into the core of my quad and hamstring, rendering the leg mostly useless.
Let me tell you, it’s damn hard to climb out of the saddle when you can’t feel your left leg. During one of the trickier minimum maintenance climbs, my leg went numb and I began to tip over. I hurled myself into the mini-ditch to avoid falling on my derailleur. Pro move! After the Alexander experience of ripping my derailleur off due to mud, I’m overly cautious in mucky situations now too. On top of all this, my left leg is my power leg — it’s visibly much larger than the right. I was hosed without it. After falling into the ditch, I made it a point to use the full range of my giant pie plate derailleur, sit back down, and kept my exertion low. I watched rider after rider catch me and then go on.
My “worst case scenario” generator was ramping up in full effect It’s a coping mechanism from my youth and living through a shitty, abusive childhood. If I could just imagine what the worst possible scenario was, and if whatever happened was even *slightly* better, then I was “happy” about it. Pessimism has been a useful coping skill, but I’m working on breaking that habit over time. Worst case scenario generator + hypochondria was pretty sure I had a circulatory or heart problem. I couldn’t breathe, my leg kept going numb, and I was gasping for air.
I got to the gas station near mile 80 and there were a few riders there, but not a ton. I wandered around the store and nothing sounded appetizing. I settled on a sugary Starbucks coffee drink and a piece of string cheese. I ate those, and gladly accepted a few swigs of Coke offered to me by another rider. I was way too happy to leave the gas station and come out to a FULL bike rack! There’s something magical about suffering with others on some inane task like Ragnarok. I can’t adequately explain to non-endurance athletes why I do this, but I knew that everyone at that gas station just GOT IT, and that comforted me. We were all there not to smash a course record, or place well, but we were there to SURVIVE and ENDURE.
I talked to my friend Jere, who said his wife Leah was somewhere behind me. He peeled out early and I loitered around for a while. I had a hope that Leah would catch me and scoop me up. She and I have done a lot of “bad idea” bike rides, like riding across Iowa in a day, riding the Alexander in hail and downpour, and then repeating the Alexander route during “Fallexander”. She never did catch me in those last 27 miles; I found out later she skipped the gas station and had rolled right on by. From then on out, I played leapfrog with a few riders near the end, and my endurance legs eventually won out over a few of them as I passed them for good. I rolled across the finish line and heard someone shout my name (Fast Eddie?!). I was cooked.
I was out of breath for a full TWO HOURS after the race. I felt like a panting dog, only able to take short, shallow breaths. Eating and drinking were difficult because if I stopped panting to chew or swallow, I’d feel like I was asphyxiating myself. Albuterol did NOTHING for me even after multiple puffs. This was unsettling to me as I wondered if I’d pass out while trying to eat a Chipotle burrito. Ha!
A few days after the race, my respiratory / sinus thing came back in full force. I went to an ENT specialist, he cultured my nose (I’ll spare you the pictures of the implement that got shoved in my face, but it was DAMN COOL), and then was prescribed stronger antibiotics and stronger steroids. I’m feeling great and looking forward to a gravel metric century group ride I’ve organized for tomorrow morning. DONUTS!!
In other news, hypochondriac-me calmed down and decided that the numbness was likely due to a spinal thing or pinched nerve instead of more ominous circulatory or heart problems. I saw a spine doc today and preliminary x-rays say yep, something is wrong. I’m an engineer and I love data, and he was able to point out to some ok areas (see those? those are normal and healthy) and then a potentially bad area (see that lack of space there? that’s not right). He asked pointed questions about symptoms and other random things that I never associated with a spinal issue but they could be related. MRI is on Monday and then we figure out options from there. The good news is that he said I probably can’t make it any worse with riding this weekend, so ride I shall. He just said to keep the super high intensity down — perfect, I’m going on a donut ride. Keep your fingers crossed for my MRI and follow-up because I’m terrified!!