Merritt Loop round 3 and then some…

The final weeks to Ironman Canada means there is still a lot of work to be done. Most of the biggest workouts are still on the horizon and it all started last Sunday with the annual Merritt Loop – a ride covering 200 kilometres with more than 2,000 metres of climbing and often in challenging weather conditions. It’s what I like to call, a ‘big girl panty’ ride. This is the third year I’ve ventured out on the journey and the third time I’ve sat down to tell the story; each year, it’s been a different tale.
FullSizeRender (2)The first year, I was inexperienced and naive, and I bonked with 52 kilometres left in the ride. I think I best summarized it when I said, “It kicked my ass.” I remember when I reached the summit of Cardiac Hill – the final steep climb just beyond the 180 kilometre mark – I collapsed off the bike with neither the energy nor the care to un-clip from my pedals. My training partner, Vince, captured the perfect image of me sitting halfway in a ditch on the side of the road with defeat exuding from every inch of my body.

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Last year, I vowed that I had learned my lesson and that redemption would be mine. Unfortunately for me, on the back end of the ride we were hammered by relentless headwinds and soaring 35 degree temperatures. I ran out of water and the delirium of heat stroke set in. We were out there for an elapsed time of 10 hours and 38 minutes. Yet again, another one of my training partners captured the perfect photo of me atop Cardiac Hill, this time lying flat out on the highway and again exuding defeat.
11695998_10153092903287861_4312962366059611938_nWhile I’ve been able to finish every Merritt Loop, I have not yet been able complete the 45 minute brick run afterwards or reach my goal of riding 200 kilometres. While the complete loop from start to finish is a few kilometres shy of 200K, it has always been my goal to put in the extra time to get to that number. In 2014, I was short 4.4 kilometres, and in 2015, it was just 700 metres! There was nothing left in me that could pedal another rotation.

When I saddled up this year, I was more prepared and determined than I’ve ever been to ride the 200 kilometres, complete my brick run and take a photo of myself on Cardiac Hill with a victorious smile on my face. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
13466536_10153796069092861_591032349321431953_nAs a middle of the pack cyclist amongst my group, I have been finding myself alone lately for most of the run and bike workouts. And, the Merritt Loop was no different; I was left alone with my thoughts and a long, lonely stretch of road. This year, unlike every other year, it was cold. My fingers were frozen and at times my teeth chattered against one another. Strong headwinds and rain on the other side of Logan Lake made the ride challenging and, at times, made me question myself. “Why do I like to be tortured? Why does anyone do Ironman? Why am I riding my bicycle in the middle of nowhere, by myself?” At times, I was happy and would sing songs about my granola bar, or my Gatorade, or the rain, or the number 60. At one point, when I couldn’t feel my fingers and all I could hear was the howling wind blowing past my frigid ears, I yelled curse words and cried. The best parts were when I smiled and laughed out loud. You could call me manic, but I think that’s just par for the course. Eight hours is a long time to be alone on your bike with nothing but your own thoughts. The true victory of the day though, was taking a selfie standing tall, proud and strong with a wide smile on my face at the top of Cardiac Hill. The picture that day was not of defeat, but success. I also, put in the extra 5 kilometres to get to 200K, and finished my brick run. For the first time, I had succeeded. It took smart planning, experience and a business-like attitude of just getting it done.
IMG_6159 IMG_6162In previous years, the Merritt Loop has defeated me to the point where I was forced to take the following two days off from training. This year, success meant the work was not over on Sunday evening. It meant I still had two more big workouts the following day – a gruelling set of 9X400 metres in the pool and a 26 kilometre run with tempo. I was already in pain from head to toe; it would take every ounce of physical and mental prowess I had to keep going.

By the time I crawled home Monday night, I was trashed. My body and mind were fried. I could barely lift my legs and simply standing still would make them shake. As I hobbled into the bathroom and looked down at my bloody feet, shaking legs, and salt stained clothes I burst into tears. I felt defeated, and again I questioned myself. What is with all the torture?
IMG_6170 IMG_6180 (1)Three years ago, I made a vow to change my life, to move on from the things that weren’t making me happy, to take on a challenge and live life every day with purpose. That plan didn’t include walking through life in comfort. The plan was to push beyond my limits. I’ve done that in more ways than one. This past weekend is a testament to that, and although it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, it’s making me stronger, faster and in the end, a happier human being.

In the coming weeks, there will be many more ‘big girl panty’ workouts and I have no doubt there will be more pain, blood and tears. But I’ve been to the finish line before, and every moment of this journey is worth it. It is worth proving to myself that I am strong, I am damn crazy and I am living my life right to the very edge. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
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Redemption – Merritt Loop Round 2

Just like any other weekend morning, I was brewing away in my kitchen like a mad scientist, measuring and calculating calories and bottles of water, following a formula to ensure that I had enough to get me through a long ride. On this morning, I was fuelling up for the annual 200k Merritt Loop – a ride that just the previous year had kicked my ass. There really is no other way to describe the aftermath of what that ride did to me. I set out to as a Merritt Loop virgin to conquer the day and instead wound up being conquered, and sitting on the side of the road in delirium trying to figure out where I went wrong. The suffering began with about 50K still to go. My body decided that enough was enough, and for the rest of the journey, I wobbled to and fro, suffering with every stroke of the pedal. In the end, I was angry that I had failed, but in failing, I had learned. I learned the importance of calorie and hydration intake, I learned the key to pacing and above all, I learned how to suffer and survive – an extremely important learning lesson that you won’t find in any Ironman training handbook. Ever since that day, I have been seeking redemption, a chance to conquer that ride and to finish strong. I thought this was the year, so on this morning I had a prize in my eyes.
We hit the road just after 6am to give ourselves lots of time, and with a forecast of 35 degrees we wanted to minimize our time in the late afternoon heat. Just the same as last year, the ride from Kamloops to Logan Lake was calm and enjoyable. There were some gentle climbs to get us warmed up, and quick descents and rolling flats. As we arrived in Logan Lake, still bushy-tailed and bright-eyed, we laughed and swapped stories of the beautiful morning, and reminisced about the freezing cold we encountered at this exact location a couple months ago on our Tunkwa loop. This time we were happy to be warm and dry.
Once re-fuelled, we descended from Logan Lake along the windy stretch to Merritt. Sailing along the smooth curving pavement, we were treated to a gentle fresh morning breeze, the sights of deer and soaring birds, and an incredible tail wind that pushed me past speeds of 75 kilometres per hour. It was sheer joy – just the simple sound of my bike roaring against the pavement and the wind screaming past my ears.
As we stopped for the first time in a while just outside town I could feel the afternoon sun heating up, and as I looked behind us at the long stretch of road that had just been my playground, I realized we would be paying for the enjoyment later. As any veteran cyclist knows, a great tailwind out, means a great headwind home.

After refuelling in Merritt and taking a few minutes to stretch out our legs, we saddled back up for the journey home. With our bikes now facing east, I could instantly feel the hot, dry wind pushing back against us, almost as if challenging us to carry on. For almost 100 kilometres, we would trudge through 30 kilometre an hour headwinds, gusting to 45 in 35 degree desert heat. My neck began to tense, my shoulders began to ache, and the fun started to waver. Every stroke of the pedal felt like we were going up against a hurricane and the heat pouring down from the searing sun as we rode along the exposed asphalt made me feel as if I was melting. With about 30 kilometres to go, the pain within my aching muscles forced me to pull over more than I wanted, and it was in this moment I realized that on this day, redemption would not happen.
As we approached Cardiac Hill, the last, long steep climb of the day, I had vivid flashbacks to last year when Vince pushed me up this mountain. On this day, I longed for the push of his hand because there was a hint of possibility that I might either start going backwards or come to a standstill and then topple over to my death. As I started to pedal, I tried not to think, I tried not to look too far ahead, just pedal, one, two, three, one, two, three. The ache in my quads was excruciatingly painful. I still don’t know how I made it to the top, maybe I blacked out and an angel carried me, or maybe I just made it on pure insanity. Either way I made it, but it was not in the fashion I had hoped. As I pushed out the final rotations of the pedals, I practically fell off the bike and crumpled in a heap on the ground. If a picture was worth a thousand words, this one tells the whole story. There was no super hero pose or grandeur moment – just defeat.

We still had about 15 to 20 kilometres to go and at this moment we came to the stark realization that we had completely run out of water – there wasn’t even a drop. We were nomads in the desert and it was a dire situation. Even if I had water, I would not have wanted to drink it. I could no longer choke down anymore nutrition and even the thought of the water bottle touching my lips made me gag. Instead, I would opt to dry heave, my body revolting against the torture of Mother Nature beaming down upon us. For the remainder of the ride, I would mumble my words in a way that had me sounding like a drunken fool. Even when we had friends come out to meet us on the highway with ice cold water just outside town, I could barely choke it down before staggering back off on the road. I was desperate to finish and hell bent on not quitting. Damn that last 10k – it felt like the longest 10k of my life.
After almost nine hours in the saddle, and more than ten hours after setting out on the road, we finally arrived back home. I don’t even remember how I got off my bike – just walking in the door of my friend’s air conditioned house where we lay on the cold tiled kitchen floor moaning. I had a cold cranberry juice in one hand, a bottle of Advil in the other and a cold cloth pressed against my burning head. Redemption did not happen. I did not come out the victor- in fact I was a hot, pathetic mess.
The aftermath of this ride haunted me for nearly two days. Mother Nature was the victor and my demise came in the form of heat stroke that kept me shivering with a fever and riding out the waves of aches and pains. The adventure may not have ended how I wanted it to, but sometimes you just have to chalk it up as miles logged and another challenge finished. I guess I have a date with Cardiac Hill for next year because my redemption is now long overdue.

The long and delirious road home

Holy shit. Holy shit. These were the only words I could mutter out in delirium as I lay spread out in the back of my air conditioned car. My legs were burning, but somehow wanted to keep going; my skin was burning, like it was on fire; and my ass felt like it had been sitting on a steel pole for days. This is the aftermath of the biggest cycling adventure of my life, from Kamloops to Merritt and back again, totalling just under 200 kilometres in the scorching interior heat. It kicked my ass, and I learned a lot about myself, proper sunscreen application and hydration.
For the first 50 kilometres to Logan Lake I partnered up with a couple of the girls in the group and we coasted together in somewhat broken unison, drafting behind one another, then spinning separately, rejoining to chat side by side, and then flying down hills like children let loose after school. The scenery along the route was breathtaking, and the calmness of nature surrounding us made me entirely forget about what lie ahead. With each passing lake I would stare off at the glassy motionless surface, only to be interrupted by soaring birds, or floating butterflies. I had my iPod plugged in, yet the sounds of the world just waking up was too beautiful to be overtaken by my music.
As we descended upon our first pit stop in Logan Lake, the team regrouped to rehydrate and refuel before saddling up again for the next 50 kilometres to Merritt.
Part of the group took off ahead with three of us lagging behind enjoying the new stretch of road before us. Once again the landscape was incredibly calming and pristine. As we watched the group cycle in unison ahead three stunningly graceful deer pranced across the highway just in front of them. They must have been frantically trying to avoid collision with the oncoming bikes, but from my perspective, they just looked peaceful and majestic.
For the next stretch in our journey I would chase the group through the winding, rolling valley; tucking into TT, flying around the bends and absorbing the landscape before me.
Coming into Merritt I felt a little tired, but mostly strong, and exceptionally happy to hit the halfway mark where we could once again refuel, rehydrate and relax. Like toads sunning on a log we splayed out in front of the Husky station, eating foods high in sugar and salt, while some of the smart ones re-slathered lotions and lubricants. Within a few minutes, the rest of the gang who started later in the day arrived to join us and our little group had grown.
Ready to hit the road again for the final 95 kilometres we started off as a pack, drafting in perfect unison. We were maintaining a solid speed, and I felt comfortable that we would stick together at this pace for the journey home. Yet, slowly the pack started to wean as the fast ones picked up their speed and one group became two. More stunning scenery lay out before us, but within a few kilometres of hitting the highway it was rudely interrupted by the constant roar of erratic semi trucks barreling down the road. At times I wondered if they even saw  the pack of tiny cyclists on the barely-there shoulder beside them. I was terrified; one slight, wrong move to the left and we would have become pancakes beneath wheels that seemed to tower over us. If it came down to it, I would have leaped into the ditch to avoid such demise. As each roar came up behind me, my shoulders hunched in feared apprehension and it was all I could do to not close my eyes and veer off the road. As cyclists, we will always be on the losing end of a battle with any type of vehicle. Our lives are at risk on the open road, and accidents can happen because drivers are reckless and careless, which usually stems from impatience. It seems foolish but it happens, and so we ride with caution, and sometimes even fear. Unfortunately, this seemed to set the tone for the rest of my ride. I was rattled and I continued to unravel as the kilometres ticked away. I started to feel tired, my legs were feeling heavy, I could feel myself slowing. I was becoming less and less happy, and I wanted to burst into tears. Usually this is a sign of bonking, and that you need to refuel and fast, but even the happy colours of gummy bears, a gel and a chocolate bar couldn’t save me. For the first time I started to feel the heat of the sun bearing down on me and realized how dehydrated I felt. Two of my group mates realized I was on my dying last legs and told me that with 52 more kilometres to go that I had no choice but to keep on going. For the remainder of the ride they rode along with me, even as we slowed to a turtle’s pace, and even as I cursed at the world for really nothing in particular, and spat back up water all over myself. I drafted in behind them, while at some points Vince even literally pushed me along. The pain continued to intensify as my legs started to cramp and I could feel every pang within my body start to scream. The heat burned me into somewhat of a delirious state where the side of road began to look like moving waves and my training partner’s voices just began to muffle with the wind. I couldn’t quite think straight and at that point I don’t quite know how I was keeping my bike straight. Then I started questioning my insanity, and if I really had it in me to become an Ironman. Then I began to have a yelling match in my head and nothing really quite made sense. The only thing that brought me back to reality was a soaring eagle that landed with so much grace and power on the beach just beside us that I found a kick within my legs for one brief fleeting moment. Then it was back in my head where I began to repeat to myself, “home, home, home,” yet all I could think about was Cardiac Hill – our final climb of the day, which was slowly approaching. With more than 180k behind me and perhaps a bit of heat stroke kicking my ass, I was thinking about every which way this hill was going to live up to its name and actually kill me. So, when it finally did appear, curse words fumbled from my clumsy mouth, and Vince gave me words of encouragement like he was leading me into battle. With his hand on my back, he literally helped push me up that entire god damned mountain. Even as I sucked back oxygen like a dying cat and made horrible dry heaving sounds, he continued to push and continued to tell me that quitting wasn’t an option. My body screamed in agony and I yelled back to him that whatever my legs were doing, moving or not, it was all I had.
By the time we reached the top, I literally toppled off my bike and lay in a heap on the side of the highway. At first I was certain I would not get up as the earth spun around me, and I struggled to sit upright. I sat there with my head in my hand for only a minute or two before I finally decided I was no longer interested in hearing my internal voice whine any longer. So, with that I got to my feet, clipped in and carried on for what would be the longest 12k of my life back to home base.
We were out on the road for about nine hours, with a total riding time of 7 hours and 45 minutes. I can say without a doubt this was the biggest mental and physical challenge of my life. I learned that applying sunscreen more than once in a nine hour day is essential and that it should cover every last inch of your body. I learned that my bum is not as cushiony as it looks, and that eating a Snickers doesn’t always morph you back into your normal self. More importantly though, I learned how far I will push myself. For 52 kilometres I battled one of the toughest mental fights of my life – to give up or keep going. I chose the only option I’ve ever known – put on those big girl panties and keep going. Looking back on the journey, I have no regrets. It was a fantastic learning experience and now I’m that much more prepared for when I do it again.