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El Tour de Tucson: 109 Miles to Freedom

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The longest I had ever ridden my bike was 85 miles, and that was only 2 weeks ago.  Everyone that I knew riding in this year’s El Tour de Tucson was riding the 109 distance.  I was thinking I might only do the 80-mile race, but when a couple of older riding buddies (44-year-old female and 58-year-old male) kept egging me on to go the distance, there was absolutely no way I could back down from that.

I buckled down about 3 months ago.  I went from riding once or twice a week to three or four times a week.  I haven’t had a normal Saturday morning in that long.  I would actually get up earlier on Saturdays than any other work day.  Up at 4:15ish, meet my riding buddies around 5:00, back at home by 9 or 10.  Home around 1:00 more recently.

I ran cross country and track in high school, and continued to run recreationally in college.  I even entered a couple home-town races just to make my running worth it and feel the edge of competition again.  But this was different.  The physical demands were different.  The training and inherent tactics were different.  The nutrition was only similar.  I never ever drank anything in the middle of a run under 8 miles.  I was having to learn to not only drink during a ride, but also eat once and sometimes twice.  I was having to learn how to properly eat for the rest of the day after a long ride.  And post-ride naps were out of the question per my wife and mother of our two small children.  If daddy was going to be gone on Saturday morning, then there was no napping or other me-time for the rest of the day.  Or weekend, for that matter.

El tour started at 7:00 am, but with nearly 9,000 riders, we’re wanted to get in the start line around 5:45.  We were up at 5, trying to down bagels and peanut butter at 5:15, checking tire pressure at 5:30 and out the door at 5:35.  Arrived to our place in line around 5:45 and had the next hour and 15 minutes to chat and stay warm.

Seven ‘o clock came rather quick and before we knew it we were off.  It felt like it took me a good 15 or 20 miles to decipher how cold I was vs. how much adrenaline I was pumping vs. how hard I was really working before I settled into a manageable pace that would work for the next 90 miles.    Just when my saddle started to feel somewhat comfortable around 8 miles in, we came across a dried river crossing.  One or two riders tried to brave the dirt pathway, while the remaining 8,990 of us didn’t hesitate to get off the bike and safely walk across the ravine.  The culture of Tucson awaited us on the other side, and I was in a much better mood now than I was going to be much later in the race, so I had to document this…

Other than the dried river and another wooded hiking trail that would come a little while later, I didn’t take my first real pit stop until 45 miles in.  Refill one of my bottles, grab some orange slices, stretch a little bit and apply some Bengay on my left knee, and off we go.  I was a little disoriented as to where we were in relation to downtown where we started, but the next several miles were through the suburbs of Tucson…I think.  I’m not gonna lie, it was fun to blow right through red lights as police had traffic stopped in all directions.  A lot of the locals even took time to camp out on the sidewalks with their cowbells and signs of encouragement.  I figure that’s about as close as I’ll ever get to climbing the Alps in the Tour de France with thousands of rabid fans running along side my bike waving United States and California flags in my face.

At this point there’s still 50+ miles to go, so one, especially a newcomer like myself, has to be smart about how you ride.  As a first timer, I didn’t have any shame or guilt about drafting behind other riders the entire race.  Drafting can save up to 40% of your energy, and with winds coming out of the south at 20 mph, I made sure to never lead any packs.  I’ll admit it, I even drafted behind a couple of girls.  Another factor I couldn’t overlook was fatigue.  That sounds simple enough, but I was about to surpass my longest ride by 25 miles.  I was feeling my way through the race as far as food and drinks were concerned.  How much to eat, how much to drink, a Clif Bar with higher density vs. an energy gel with no density and maybe half the calories.  When the body is tired, then the mind soon becomes tired.  When the mind is tired you forget things.  Simple things.  I needed to consciously remember to eat and drink and map out the remaining miles ahead in my mind to do so on a course I had never ridden.  My friends that have raced Tucson before cramped up around mile 85 or 90, so I needed to stay well hydrated to avoid that.

Things were going about as well as I could have expected until I hit the frontage road of the I-10 going south back to downtown Tucson.  The winds were still blowing as hard as they were earlier, but now I was getting a face full of headwind.  I knew I had the energy to finish, but I didn’t have any explosion left in my legs, so I was consigned to finish the last 12 miles at whatever pace I could go.  Riders would creep up on me and pass right by.  A couple times I tried to go with them, thinking that if I could get enough momentum to stick behind them, I could use their draft.  But every time I tried to fall in line, they just kept passing me.  Five feet head.  Ten feet ahead.  Now twenty.  Oh well.  I’ll try it again with this next group.  Nope.  That didn’t work either.  Oh well.

Aside from it being the last 10 miles of the race, there were 2 things that made it exponentially more difficult than I expected.  First, the wind.  Physically speaking, if there is no wind whatsoever, and you’re riding 20 mpg down the road, you actually have 20 mph of wind pushing back against you.  We call it “drag”.  But now there is actually 20 mph of wind pushing back against me, plus my drag at about 12 or 13 mph.  The second characteristic of this final stretch was loneliness.  It’s a frontage road, so there’s not a lot of businesses, or parking lots, or neighborhoods along side.  Which means there were no spectators yelling and clapping.  It all of a sudden got real quiet.  Just the sound of my wheels spinning and my legs hurting.

Eventually the police escort standing in the middle of the intersection directed me to turn left.  All of a sudden, people.  And they were clapping.  For me?  I think so!  And more people.  Still clapping. I turned one last corner and the finish line is about 100 yards away.  And then, out of the hum of hundreds of people cheering I hear “STEVE-O!!!”  Me: “Hey, that sounded a lot like my wife!”  In fact, it was my wife.  After I crossed the finish line and got off the bike I was staggering back towards the crowd  and I see my wife emerge from a sea of people.  After 7.5 hours of riding with complete strangers it was nice to see a rather familiar face.  There was absolute, positively no way I would be riding and racing as much as I have without the love and support of my wife.  She’s been the #1 reason I’ve been able to get on the bike and push myself like the good ‘ol days.  And then I saw 2 more faces.  My 5-month-old, Leia, and my 2-year-old, Max.  I picked Max up and to no surprise all he wanted to do with play with my glasses and helmet.

I was done.  I did it.  This was something no one could ever take away from me.  This race was apart of me.  I didn’t really beat anybody on the course but myself.  I pushed my body further than it had ever gone before, for longer than it had ever gone before.  I was an El Tour de Tucson finisher.

I have to admit it was a bit emotional for me to finally be done.  Months of training. Rides at 5:00 am.  No Saturday mornings.  Gatorade economy cases at Costco.  Clif Bars.   Smoothie Powerbars.  Two or three tube changes a month.  A new bike.  A different pair of shoes.  Stiff legs.  Pulled muscles.  Rides in the rain.  Rides in the wind.  Fifty five degrees outside.  A hundred degrees outside.

Three days later I’m still a bit stiff.  I’ll get back on the bike sometime this week and warm my body back up and let my muscles stretch back out.  And then…I’m not touching my bike at least until after New Years.  But I already can’t stay away.  I’m already thinking about how I want to train differently next year and areas I want to work on.  Maybe I can make it out to CA for either the AMGEN Tour de California or Levi’s GranFondo.  Tour de Phoenix will be a must.  And it’ll all end this time next year at El Tour de Tucson.

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