there's a banana, whole, peel and all, in my leg right now.
it's in the right quadricep, the vastus medialis, about an inch below the surface, and a thumb length from the bone. it doesn't hurt so much as nag. it is a recurring pain, a reminder, a recalcitrant bit of evidence, surly and unsilent. it only hurts when i remember it, and it keeps reminding me to remember.
sixty kilometers is the meandering distance from paris to ancaster in southwestern ontario. many of these beautiful kilometres are flanked by farms and fields and scenes centuries old. some of these kilometres are covered in thick, slippery, deep brown mud. others are chutes of sloppier light-brown mud, peppered here and there with granite and concrete. some of these kilometres are covered on two dirty, weeping wheels; others, on slipping, saving, slipping foot. the sixty kilometres between paris and ancaster are long, and those that are paved barely whisper respite before the next trench slog.
at the start of the paris to ancaster race, hopefuls line up by the dozen, sizing each other up and steeling themselves against the agony that is about to ensue. some plan to win. others plan to survive. i just wanted to make it in a time that wouldn't embarrass my lady too much after our results were totalled in the mixed team category.
the road is not really my friend. i love it, usually, but on top of two knobby cross tires and with absolutely no high end fitness, the road was the worst for me. the trail, with all its handling necessities and slick chutes and rocks and mud and mud and grime and chance and luck, was my saving grace.
a sixty kilometer race is fully manageable. hard from the start. pace line on the flat stretches and rail trail. the first hill made the selection for everyone. i stopped and took off my rain shell and glasses. i walked, remounted, rode. sixty kilometres is fine. except: sixty kilometres is far when it's mostly in mud, trying not to fall over or unclip, with only one bottle in the cage. it's far.
the last 12k of the race were the entirety of the race for me. i began to lose heart, and then, hope. i fantasized about the last agonizing hill being around every corner. i got dropped and let people go. i surged only to slip backward. single track looked like missed opportunity. and my legs faltered heavily.
i had joked earlier in the last 12k about how i had had so many religious experiences (hard times) throughout the race that i wasn't sure which religion i was at that point. the rider to whom i was speaking was probably religious, didn't get any humour in the statement at all, and rode on, after asking which religion i was at that point. of course, i responded that i didn't know, but that it hut a lot. some kind of flagellant or something... funny ha ha. just not to him. when doing hill repeats, if it hurts a lot, i usually claim that i am having a religious experience, more as an exaggeration device than as a theological epiphany. and then, right there in front of a few hundred people and a guy banging a pot with a wooden spoon, i knelt.
kneeling, on the rocks and mud and sand of the final climb of a 60k race, with shouting in my ears and my bike in my hand, i was confronted with reality. i always talk about going to exhaustion or failure. i often wonder how hard i would have to go to actually throw up or black out. i always figure i'll finish, no matter what. but right there, kneeling in the dirt, i wasn't so sure. people were yelling like their sheer volume could lift my cramped legs and force them to bend. that guy was banging so hard on his pot that i thought he would split it or the spoon. the mud felt cool, and the sand was pleasantly gritty. after a while, i rose, fearful of the impending cramp that had turned my entire leg into a spasm. the cramp had subsided, just then, for just long enough, and i managed to take a few steps. then i walked, poking my wooden limbs forward in the lurching, robotic fashion of a rusted tin man, willing myself to the top. i would finish.
in just a few more steps, my legs remembered themselves, and the hill levelled off, and i managed to mount the machine, spin the pedals, and take off toward the line. so sudden was my recovery that some spectators wondered at the truth of my previous genuflection. i was happy to leave it behind, on shaky legs, and cross the glorious white band of completion.
i had stopped the clock in 2:36, 6 minutes over my hoped-for time, not at all helped by extreme muscle cramps or the lone water bottle, now empty save for its liberal coating of sludge. enjoying the new functionality of my legs, i made the most of them, stashing my bike and heading back down the hill to cheer on the lady. i went hoarse with encouragement for each of the steady stream of riders making their last gasp effort for the day. i clapped wet gloves together, told them everything i had needed to hear, and hoped for them, one foot in front of the other. i did this, legs splayed and helmet still on, sitting in my kit at the halfway point of the hill. i did it because i needed it to get myself up the pitch. and it was the only thing to do.