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Monday, June 18, 2012

Trek Across Maine - year one

Warning:  this post will be a trek for you.

I have been planning for the Trek with the precision of a scientist working in a petri dish. The minusule details of childcare, lodging, transportation, packing, arranging how to have the necessary supplies in necessary places, getting the floors mopped before departure, in addition to the reflexive mommy-leaving-her-kids guilt, I had myself in quite a state as I drove to the bus that would take me to the start line at Sunday River.

I may or may not have cried the entire way to the bus pick- up after having left Maya with her grandmother, knowing that it would be them, not me, to pick Ella up from school and begin her summer.  I may or may not have thought about turning around and bailing on the whole thing as my heart strings more dragged, rather than tugged, me back home.  This has been my primary gig for the past 9 months and leaving felt really, seriously wrong. 

Emilie had given me a pep talk (more than one actually) about why I needed to do this for myself.  I didn't really know my team members and was anxious about being away from home for something so big and so long.  She had sufficiently calmed me down the week prior, yet as I pulled into the lot where I could see people loading their bikes onto a Ryder Truck, I felt like I was leaving for summer camp.  Except my parents weren't even dropping me off.  They had made me go by taxi. 

I was nervous and teary.  I gratefully ran into a friend who gave me a hug and some encouragement and I boarded that bus, reminding myself of my strength.  I could do this.  I would do this.

After all, I had raised $795 for the American Lung Association and as you know,  breathing issues hit rather close to home in our family.

Except just as the bus was pulling out of the lot, my doctor called and told me I shouldn't go.  The previous day's labwork came back and my thyroid levels were still too high and she didn't think it was safe for me to exert myself with a 3 day bike ride. 

Now if that isn't the universe playing a joke, I don't know what it. 

I went from teary doubt to solid will.  I was going.  I was on the bus.  I wanted to do this.  I had worked hard to get there.  I needed the time away.  I went from almost bailing on the trip to willful refusal to get off the bus. 

This was my line of thinking:  my thyroid levels have been high since February and likely longer since many of the symptoms preceeded the diagnosis.   We've been tinkering with a medication dose and watching the level stay consistently on the high side for months.  All those same months that I have been biking all over the place.  I concluded that I had trained with a high thyroid so I could ride with a high thyroid.

I suffered a nearly 3 hour, lurching and roiling bus ride that left me so car sick I was certain this would be the hardest part of my weekend.  I was grateful to see Sunday River and as we unloaded our bikes and gear, I prayed I hadn't made a self-willed mistake.

Sandi did not exactly approve of my decision to ride. She reminded me about a friend of hers who had died from Thyroid storm (when your hormones get all out of whack and start a  process that can be impossible to reverse- a condition triggered by stress) and I told her I was determined but not stupid and I would listen to my body.

"I hope so," was all she texted me back.

Friday morning, ready to ride:

The Trek Across Maine is what everyone says it is: a fun event that is a marvel of organization, put on by the most dedicated volunteers.  There were over 2,200 riders this year and 800 volunteers.  That is one volunteer for every 20 riders.  That's better than the student/teacher ratio at our school.  From where to put your luggage to where to get air in your tires, these people are on it.  They feed you all day, mark the entire 180 miles of road with orange spray paint for areas cyclists should be aware of,  have rest stops overflowing with food, water, Gatorade, sunscreen, Tylenol, first aid and bike mechanics. 

At each intersection, traffic was stopped to allow us through. The trekkers are like biking royalty. Except instead of a red carpet we got food, lots of food.   We wore orange bracelets all weekend that gave us free range calorie replacement at meal time.  Each day's ride ends with a true finish line, complete with thumping music, balloons, cheering and fans that come out to see the trekkers.  I felt like an actual celebrity.

Here is our team (minus Glen, the early bird) getting ready to board the shuttle to get to our bikes and the start line at Sunday River.  I had nervous butterflies but it was a beautiful mountain morning.

The first rest stop:

There were bikes littering the pavement and swarms of people.  Each day my legs were covered in tattoos of bike grease and I finally figured it out the third day:  I never lay my bike down like this.  I always prop it up on something and all this up and down off the ground meant a lot of greasy legs for me.

Day one was 69 miles of fun.  Me, Rachel and Lindsay at the finish:

The overnight storage of bikes is really a site to behold.  We generally finished fairly early each day so the field was even bigger later, but you get the idea:

Glen, me, Lindsay, Beth and Kim:

Getting ready for day two:

I spent the entire 58 miles of day two with Kim.  We were well suited to ride together in pace and personality.  We were laughing, singing, hooting and carrying on, careful not to annoy too many people by giving them small doses of our cheer as we went by.  When you pass people, you are to indicate by calling out, "On your left!" and it gets a bit redundant. Kim and I saw fit to make up some songs and unique phrases to announce our presence on the left.  Most of the riders were so happy and cheery and only one woman seemed put out with my rendition of "I'm coming on your left, I'm coming on your left" sung to "Hickory dickory dock."

 Coming in to Colby College at the end of day two.  (Thank you Chris for taking this picture!)

Colby is the heart of the Trek fun with something they call Tent City where trekkers can camp overnight in a giant field.  There are vendor tents and Gritty's runs a beer tent with a live band.  We sat up on the hill in the sunshine drinking beer (and water) and watching the other people finish.  I'm telling you, these trekkers know how to have fun.

At the end of each day there was this massive board where we had to highlight our number to indicate that we had completed the ride.  Seriously, no detail was overlooked.

Day 2 surprised us with a disappearance of the sun and a dip in temperatures that had many of us wishing we had packed sleeves and had me hoping for some hills to climb to warm me up.  I saw lots of people with arm bands on and I was so wishing I had packed mine from home. What a great idea- warm but lightweight to pack away when you get hot. 

My friend Beth was really quite cold during that ride and at one point her feet went numb.  She stopped at the next rest stop and they wrapped her in one of those tin foil looking insulated blankets.  When I saw her at the finish, she was sporting this clever get up: 

Some of my favorite things about the Trek:

-The sign on the side of the road that said: "Thank you from the bottom of our LUNGS!" and "What goes up must come down!" and my all time favorite:  "Steep hill ahead.  Use brakes."  As if.

-People who were out there riding with their kids on tag-alongs.  I met a dad and his son who had just finished his last day of first grade.  I saw them come in as the finish line was closing up on day one, that dad having lugged his son up and down 70 miles of road.  I mean, WOW.

-The cyclists with the bike horns- old fashioned honkers and the delicate chime reminiscent of a child's tricycle.

-Biking is happy.  There was no dark and desperate time like marathon running. I didn't cry at the end or want to throw up. I was just smiling and proud and fulfilled.

-Saying "thank you" to the volunteers out on the road and having them say, "No. Thank YOU."

-Eating was its own event. I was hungry constantly and devoured food like I was a cast away.  At the end of each meal I was so sad to be full because it meant it was time to stop. 

-Passing men going up hills and saying, "Good morning!" and having them grunt back at me semi-resentfully.  The women, on the other hand,  were always pleasant.  I just don't think men like to be passed by women.

-Rooming with Jane and Glen, a married couple who made me laugh and whom I now adore anew.

-Aside from loving the biking, it was so nice to not have to worry about anyone, not have to make or clean up dinner and not be concerned with other's needs.  What. A. Nice. Break.

The Trek is awesome because it can be a nice platform for the serious biker but there is lots of room for people of all fitness levels.  I saw all shapes, sizes and ages out there on the road.  One of our team members turned 63 on day one. I saw fancy bikes, cheap bikes, single speed bikes, tag-alongs, recumbent bikes, tandems, triplets and even a quad.  There were kids as young as 10 riding solo.  There was a rolling start each day so you can't compete with people even if you wanted to- you never knew if the person passing you left before you or after you since there are stops along the way.   There are some serious cyclists and at one point I ended up surrounded by them and their intensity was too much for me.  I dropped back until I was with my kind of people- the ones exclaiming, "Isn't this AMAZING?!"

Being someone who loves to bike but isn't "serious" about biking in the technique, gear or attitude, I was surprised by a few things.  First of all, I was faster at the trek.  My average speed each day was 2 miles per hour faster than my usual pace.  Second, everyone had told us repeatedly how intimidating some of the hills would be.  Turns out all the hills I ride around my house paid off because maybe only one hill felt like it kicked my ass. 

Thirdly, as a back-of-the-pack marathoner, it was such a treat to be more of mid-pack rider.  I heard someone say that people had been walking their bikes up the hills and I was surpised because I hadn't seen that.  That's because I wan't riding with them. I remembered the awareness I had at mile 24 of my first marathon when everyone around me looked like they wanted to die and I realized you can kind of gauge where you are by how those around you look.  With biking, the people I was biking near were fast and strong and capapble and I found that comforting.

Our team before dinner at Colby:

Our fancy shmancy matching jerseys:
(Thank you to Rachel, front left, for being such an awesome team captain! We were all Trek novices, Rachel included, and she led the way for us all.)

The last day of the Trek is what many people consider to be the hardest.  While it boasts the shortest mileage day (48) the road is peppered with hills, rolling and steep, which must be pedaled by tired legs.  For me everything about the last day was big.  The uphills were substantial. The downhills were a massive and thrilling.  My energy level was through the roof, whether from a true athletic peak or riding the groove of my overactive thyroid, I felt like I was on fire.  I wanted to ride with my friends but my body was urging me on with the subtly of a locomotive pushing me from behind.

I started out with Lindsay and Kim but they were, smartly, starting out more conservatively. I was trying to hold back but I felt like a caged animal needing to be sprung so I gave myself permission to fly (moderately and with consideration for my heart rate and any other red-flag physical abnormalities, of course).  The combination of the wind on my skin, the rolling green hills, the sun magnifying every color and texture and the smooth motion of my legs stroke after stroke as I became one with my bike, my legs active and hungry for movement, I just felt so incredibly, intensely  ALIVE. 

Riding up and down those hills I felt a synergy of experience and sensation that I have had a few other times in my life- always when I'm doing something physically demanding- a perfect marriage of body, mind and soul.  I was part of everything and everything was part of me. I was on the edge of the world, riding a wave that wouldn't quit.  At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I think I experienced true euphoria. 

If that feeling that I had is the same feeling people get when they find Jesus or smoke crack cocaine then I shall stand in judgement no more.  The feeling filled me to overflowing such that I had no choice but to scream with joy as I tore up and down those hills.  I went from "10 miles down, 38 to go" to "I only have 20 miles left and this will all be over."  I wanted to slow down, to make it last, but the speed and the push was what drove the joy into the upper registers.

Maybe it was just my thyroid.  Maybe you all think I'm crazy and don't at all get how someone can feel such elation from exercise.  Its okay.  Either way, I had a sprititual shake-down out there on the asphalt of Route 3.

Then before I knew it I was in Belfast and I was pulling into the team staging area where you can meet up with your team and ride to the finish line together.  I pulled in, high on endorphins and buzzing from my spiritual epiphany only to get off my bike and stand there entirely alone.  Luckily, I saw my friends Chris and Brenda and went over to chat with them while I waited for my team.

Chris, an avid rider, corrected me when I referred to myself as a biker.  She informed me that we are not "bikers" but "cyclists" (good to know) and that the chain grease on my leg made me look tough instead of just clumsy.  It was so good to see these two.

Within an hour, six of us had convened and it was time to head to the finish.  There were four other team mates behind (and one long since finished) but we knew they still had a ways to go.  We headed in a pack toward the finish and as we cruised the streets of Belfast toward the finish, people were all over the street clapping and cheering for us. 

As we approached the last turn to the finish line, a volunteer called into her radio, "Here comes the Gold's Gym team from Bangor" and then we rounded the corner and headed downhill into the finish chute.  The announcer bellowed, "Team Gold's Gym!" and the crowd roared as we road on and on through the long chute lined with screaming, clapping people.   I thought my heart would burst with pride and happiness as all these people celebrated our accomplishment.  My mom was there in the crowd and I spotted her just as we curved around to get our medals.  Thanks mom for coming to support me.

I got off my bike and a woman put a medal around my neck.  "Can we do that last mile over?" I asked.  What fun.
In truth, I wanted to turn right back around and head back to Sunday River to do it all over again.  At least one more day. One more peanut butter and banana sandwich and a dixie cup full of trail mix.

When the bus finally dropped us back off at our cars I had that same summer camp feeling I had in the beginning.  Except instead of a  macaroni necklace I had a medal and some burning quads.  Back in the parking lot again, I was now lamenting the end of the experience and that I would miss my friends.  It was like the end of summer camp had come and as we split up our duffel bags and hugged each other, we knew regular life wouldn't be as cool as what we had just done together. 

Then I got in my car and drove toward home.  I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw that the man in the truck behind me was smoking.  I wanted to run back to him and scratch my shiny medal against his window and yell, "Don't you know what I just did?  Don't you care about your lungs?"  but in an extreme act of maturity I just shook my head and drove home.

And you know what is different about my life than summer camp?  My regular life is just as cool. I got home in time for date night with Sandi. We sat out on a restaurant deck by the river and drank beer and shared dinner and talked in a way we hadn't for weeks. 

This morning I signed us both up for the 2013 Trek Across Maine.

All day when I've been driving I've felt like I am still riding, the way you can still feel the rocking of the ocean long after you leave the boat.   As the road swells into a hill and scoops down the other side, my body can feel it internally.  My brain says to pedal fast or crouch down and tuck in to coast.  I passed a cyclist today and wanted to yell out, "On your left!" but realized I was in a whale of a vehicle rather than the two skinny tires that held me up all weekend.

Needless to say, I'm glad I went.  For every reason. I loved me teammates, I adored everything about the Trek and I loved playing with my body that way.  Perhaps it was reckless of me to go despite my doctors warning but my body, and my partnership, survived and I'm glad I didn't get off that bus.  (Although I did have to promise Sandi I would never do anything like this again until my thyroid level is normal.)

If anyone has even the slightest inkling that they would like to do this, let me be the first to tell you to go for it.  You won't regret it.  And even if you are unsure about the riding, you could always go for the food...


Emilie said...

I'm so there. And I'm so happy for you. And I won't think you're crazy for experiencing for euphoria on your bike if you don't think I'm crazy for experiencing euphoria while reading about it.

Katie Duffy said...

That sounds fantastic! One of my uncles and his daughter did it this year, and that was the first I ever heard of it. So hardcore!

Christine Nichols said...

Perhaps you should join us for the Cadillac Century Challenge in October. We don't ride 100 miles because it's October and time to relax on the bike. We ride ~45 miles hitting the most scenic roads then hit Jordan Pond House for popovers/coffee then up Cadillac (which is awesome).

Anonymous said...

So, my boyfriend got me to sign up for the Trek this year. I'm a complete newbie and have been only training on weekends on the flat rail trails in our area. I can do a 60 mile day.....on flat ground. And even then it's a challenge.

I googled "can I only do one day of the Trek Across Maine" and came across your post. I must say it's incredibly inspirational and gave me a much better idea of what to expect. I am panicking about the ride and am not sure if I can make it past the first day. I unfortunately haven't had too much time on hills, with the exception of some seriously high resistance in spin class.

Anyway, I wanted to thank you for writing this and giving me a bit of hope that maybe I can do this. It looks like a lot of fun. I wish they offered 1,2 and 3 day options for the ride as opposed to just a full three days....we will see how long I last! :D

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