Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christmas with the Faheys

Instead of exchanging presents, my family has an arrangement to reallocate that money toward taking a vacation together. This year, the destination was Cocoa Beach in Florida. When I first heard that we were going to Florida, I have to admit I wasn't jumping up and down with excitement. It's not exactly a cycling or cultural destination. What do people do other than sitting by the pool and relaxing at the beach? How would I keep myself amused? But, I figured the destination wasn't the point - it was about spending time with my family.

My parents had scheduled the trip so that I could go on the way back from my bike race in Costa Rica. By the time I crossed the finish line at La Ruta, I couldn't have been more excited about sitting by the pool and relaxing at the beach. When I arrived in Cocoa Beach, my dad showed off the bike that he and my mom had bought at Walmart for $65 for use during the month that they would spend there and they talked of going for a ride with me. It broke my heart to tell them that I had no intention of putting my bike together or getting in the saddle anytime soon. I spent the whole first day laying by the pool getting a sunburn and catching up on the approximately 600 emails that flooded my blackberry upon my arrival in the US (no data reception for the whole week in Costa Rica). We went for a walk with my parents on the beach. It was blissfully relaxing. Florida wasn't so bad afterall.

My sister, her husband and my insanely adorable nephew Rory arrived that evening. By this time, my 23 hours of 'relaxing' had caught up with my and I was jittery for some action. We decided to check out some of the tourist destinations - Disney World, Sea World, Epcot Centre, Merritt Island Nature Preserve and the Kennedy Space Centre (though this ultimately got dropped from the itinerary due to exhaustion). We had more to see than we could comfortably fit in the few days that we had there together, so we would have to forego watching gator wrestlin' at Gatorland and finding redemption at The Holy Land Experience.
Mom and Dad babysat Rory while Meriah, Todd and I experienced every child's wildest dream - 3D movies with smell effects (apple pie and chili cheesedog burps - ew),
rollercoasters that made me feel like I was going to black out (who wants to go faster!!),
giant fish splashing groddy water on enthusiastic spectators, Mickey Mouse shaped ice cream sandwiches. It was a great time, but thoroughly exhausting. I'm looking forward to the next family holiday already. I hope we go somewhere relaxing. Maybe I'll even take some good pictures with me and the WHOLE family (I'm such a jerk).

Saturday, November 17, 2007

La Ruta Stage Four - It Ain't Over 'til it's Over

I rolled out of bed so sore that I didn't know how I would have the strength to ride 120kms today. Knowing it was the last day - the last 4:15am breakfast, the last test of strength, the last cold shower at the end of the day - helped a lot. My legs were in reasonable condition, but my neck was so sore from yesterday's descent that it was hard to lift my head up to look any reasonable distance in front of me. Imagine how horrified I was when I got on my bike and discovered that my front fork was locked out still. I had locked it out to save energy on the volcano ascent yesterday, and, come to think of it, never turned it back on for the downhill. I thought the descent seemed so difficult because I was fatigued, but maybe it was because I had no suspension in the front. Ugh, no wonder my neck is sore.

It was overcast and rainy for most of the day. While this made it slow, I was glad we weren't dealing with the intense heat the riders faced last year. Over half of the stage was flat and took us on, or adjacent to, the railway tracks. Its hard to describe the challenge of riding over train tracks, but let's just leave it at really, really, really bumpy. I tried supporting my head with one hand (because my neck muscles essentially gave out), while directing my bicycle with the other. Progress was slow.

We crossed several train bridges. Imagine walking across a slippery wood bridge fatigued, with your bike on your shoulder and the cleats your bicycle shoes impairing your ability to acheive steady footing. Now imagine that there are stride-length gaps between the wood railway ties. Through the gaps, you can see a rapidly moving river some distance below (remember, it's been flooding on the east coast). Now imagine some of those ties are rotting, unstable, or missing. Danger is my new middle name.
The actual river crossings were a cake walk by comparison - though the current was easily the strongest of any that I'd walked through before.

We saw yet another face of Costa Rica - an endless sequence of poverty stricken barrios. The little girls passed bright red hibiscous flowers to us as we rode by. Little children lined up to high-five you as you rode past. One time I high-fived a handful of kids all in a line and there was a devilish little boy at the end that wound up and punched my hand. The older boys would hiss until you looked over and then blow you a kiss. It was hard not to laugh. Boys.

The last stretch of the day was mostly on 'ground'. I didn't know wtf that was supposed to be - hadn't we been riding on the ground this whole race? Turns out it was mostly hard packed sand, which would have been nice to ride on if the area hadn't experienced flooding. There were frequent standing pools of mirky water. Some were warm, some were waist deep or more. Who could know what lived in the water. I kept my tears inside because I needed the fluids and to direct my efforts to 'keep on moving'.

I finally crossed the finish line at Playa Bonita on the Caribbean at around the ten hour mark. I was hanging together by an inconceivably thin thread. It was a much longer day than I had bargained for and I couldn't believe it when Erik was standing there at the finish waiting for me. He had to have waited for hours. I was so grateful to see him. I could hardly believe I had survived the last four days and here was my best friend to comfort me and he knew exactly what I had been through (only, it took him about half the time). It made everything seem easier to handle. For the moment.

The party was in full swing on Playa Bonita. It seemed like everything would be easy now, but my La Ruta was not yet over. Never underestimate La Ruta.

Due to the heavy rain, there had been a mudslide on the main road back to San Jose, where we were headed tonight. The ride would now take five hours, in wet clothing, with airconditioning on one side and a backed up toilet on the other. Oh, La Ruta, you are so cruel!

Friday, November 16, 2007

La Ruta Stage Three - In the Clouds

I learned something new when I woke up this morning: it IS possible to be more tired and sore than I was yesterday. The problem is not that I'm not sleeping well - I'm sleeping like a baby. The problem is that I'm sleeping fewer hours at night than I am riding during the day. I don't think it matters who you are, 21 hours of mountain biking in two days takes its toll.

The stage profile was straight forward today. Up, up, up the Irazu volcano, followed by a long gravel downhill to the finish. I don't have what would be described as a 'climbers physique', but I can totally dig gravel downhill. How hard could it be?

I started slow, knowing that pace would be critical today. After hearing that 'Tim-the-Bear-Naked-Cannondale-Singlespeeder' cleaned the paved climb on Stage Two, I was inspired to try to do stay on the bike for the entire ascent today. That dream was soon squashed, but I tried my best where I could. The climb went on forever. At first, it was dark and cloudy and rainy, then we rode into the clouds. For a long time you couldn't see far in front because the cloud was so thick. There were houses and towns and everything in the clouds - people actually live in clouds! Crazy.

For a brief time, we emerged from the cloud. It was neat see the cloud from below, from the inside and, now, from the top. And then we rode into some more cloud. Cold, wet, cloud.

I dug deep - really, really deep - to get to the top. I arrived cold and wet and exhausted at the top, but looked forward to the 'easy' gravel downhill to the finish. Yeah, right. Not at La Ruta!

To describe the descent as gravel is really a stretch. Miles upon miles of steep, wet, slippery large, technical, powderface-like rock. I was so tired I could barely walk, so I rode as much as I could. I passed a lot of people, but it still felt like an endless downhill. My neck muscles were so tired that I couldn't lift my head. My fingers were numb and my wrists felt like they were fractured. I was wet and cold to the core.

I kept waiting for the moment that we would emerge from the clouds again, but it never came. It was cold and rainy until the finish line. The showers were cold, but it felt good to get clean. I mean that relatively speaking, as I was still dirty by civilized standards. The wait for the shuttle to the hotel was over an hour, standing in the rain. The drive took another 40 minutes. I fantacized about the hot shower I was going to have at the hotel.
The hotel was a nature lodge nestled on the side of a hill overlooking...something cool, I'm sure. It was hard to tell because it was after dark. Damn. I rushed to the shower, only to find that there was no hot water at the hotel either. Oh, this race is so cruel!
My friends had waited for me to order dinner (they were waiting a LONG time - now that's friendship!!). When I sat down, they asked my how the day went and I broke down in tears. I was so lucky to have these beautiful people here lift me back up. Thank you so much Jack, Gerry, Trish and Jon. That meant more than you could ever know.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

La Ruta Stage Two - I Love Surprise Endings

With Stage One under my belt, I felt an enormous sense of relief. All of the La Ruta vets say that the other days are a cakewalk, compared with the first. This year, Stage Two was a new route altogether - but the consensus was that it should be easier than Stage One. Slightly less vertical, slightly less distance, and - more importantly - a lot less mud. Unfortunately, I was starting the day fatigued. Under normal circumstances, I would never ride this sore. But, having survived Stage One, I certainly wasn't going to back out now.

The route took us through a continuous series of little towns - in contrast to yesterday, which felt much more remote. We passed houses and shops and schools. As we rode past the schools, the girls would be on one side cheering enthusiatically. I had little girls with a scrap of paper and a pencil ask me for my autograph. Yes, I was going THAT slow - and, yes, I did stop and give them my autograph. On the other side of the road there were boys, 'practicing their english'. This mostly involved cursing, but also included marriage proposals and professions of love.

As I approached the last five kilometres, I remember thinking 'that's it? Phew, that wasn't so bad'. It was a long day, but lacked the Holy-Crap-I-Can't-Believe-They-Expect-Me-To-Ride-This factor that was so prevalent in Stage One. Then we took a right turn up a steep, wet, rocky, muddy hill. Ah, yes, this was more like it. Climbing it with fresh legs and with appropriate shoes would have been a challenge in and of itself. Throw in fatigue, bike shoes, and a 50lb mud magnet, and let's just say there were a few long faces.
Those that thought they were 'through the woods' at the top, were crushed to find that the opposite was true. We carried our bikes through warm thigh high mud (the consistency of applesauce) and then it was downhill through the jungle on what was, at times, barely wide enough to even call a 'path'. I tried riding parts of it, thinking that the worst that could happen was that I would fall into the thick vegetation on either side of me. I imagined that all of the poisonous snakes were already scared away by the vibrations created by the earlier riders. Then I realized that the path was actually on a steep ridge. A foot and a half to either side would result in a fall that would be unlikely to kill me, but might take hours to recover from, assuming I didn't encounter any challenges from the wildlife. So, I pushed my bike down much of the hill.

I crossed the finish line at about nine hours, with mud in my teeth and a smirk on my face. It was a longer and harder day than I'd anticipated, but I couldn't help but laugh at the muddy surprise at the end.

Never underestimate La Ruta.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

La Ruta Stage One - Let's Get it Started

I woke up surprisingly fresh for the amount of sleep I had. I don't know whether it was my full stomach, anxiety, or the hot weather that was the cause, but my heart was pounding so fast and loud that it was almost impossible to sleep.

They checked our ID at breakfast to make sure we were racers. I don't know who would line up at 3am to steal breakfast. Then, we lined up at the start a few minutes early and were treated to an impressive fireworks show (noise bylaws must not be a problem here), with the Black Eyed Peas' 'Let's Get it Started' blasting in the background (I hate the Black Eyed Peas). There was a crazy army vet doing a crazy dance beside the starting chute. It was hysterical and definitely took the edge off.

I don't even know where to begin for the stage. It was only 95km, but we covered 14,500ft of vertical, crossing through jungle mud, subsistence farmland, fresh ashphalt and remote gravel roads.

The craziest part of the stage was riding through the mud in the jungle. Bright green lines of leafcutter ants crossed trail. I saw lizards, birds and all sorts of cool vegetation. The trail was littered with the remnants of shattered egos - including my own. The mud is beyond description. At times the mud is slick and feels like peanut butter. Going down, it's sort of like skiing. Going up, its like being on a stationary bike. There was no 'flat'. At times the mud is like clay and accumulates on your bike so that the wheels refuse to rotate and the drive train is caked in pounds of mud and the bike is to heavy to lift. For HOURS, I went so slow that it didn't even register on my bike computer.

I focused on my bike computer to measure progress, constantly recalculating whether I was on pace to finish the day. I guessed that my odometer would be shy by at least a bit due to the stretches of painfully slow movement. Imagine my surprise (and utter disappointment) when, at the second aid station, my odometer read 44km and they told me I had gone less than 37km. Was my odometer off by 20%?! Son of a...

I kept pedaling, determined to continue until the threat of darkness was upon me. I still had six hours before that was a concern. After the mud, things got mildly faster, but we still faced challenges. Bumpy roads. Steep climbs. Brand new ashphalt in blazing heat, with the tar seeping to the surface and sticking to your tires and making that tacking noise and slowing you down. It was so hot. I tried not to get bogged down by the challenges. On one shoulder I had the Black Eyed Peas telling me to get it started. On the other shoulder, I had Gerry telling me to just keep moving. So, I did.

I rode for miles without seeing anyone and wondered if I had taken a wrong turn. The occassional cliff bar wrapper or gel offered comfort that I was on track - I'm pretty sure subsistence farmers don't eat these things.

As I approached what I thought was the end, my spirits lifted. I was out of food, but realized that should be able to finish in daylight! I recalled Jon telling me that there would be a sign indicating 5kms to go. For almost 5kms I looked for the sign. My energy plummeted as I realized I might have wrongly estimated the finish. How much longer could this friggin stage be?

Gerry's voice returned, telling me to keep on moving. And I did.

Eventually, I turned a corner and there was a man in shorts that looked like Erik. He was smiling and clapping. It was Erik. I hammered a few hundred yards to the finish and was met by my deadgoat (and Ridley's) friends. 11 hours and 40 minutes.

Holy crap that was the hardest thing I've ever done.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

La Ruta - Ready or not, here I come

We slept with our door open again, as we have each night we've been in Jaco. The theory is that it will help us adjust to the heat. It's uncomfortably hot and humid, but its nice to not have a loud airconditioner moaning all night, plus our room stinks, so the fresh air is nice, even if it is like a steamroom. I woke up to a loud pounding noise and looked out the door and saw a little man with bare feet, no gloves and a machete, perched on top of a four story high palm tree in front of our room. We watched him climb (unassisted) and cut the rest of the trees along our side of the hotel while we listened to Jon tell us about how his 'short walk on the beach' the night before turned into a three hour adventure. Short story is that he saw a back alley and decided to explore (typical Jon).

He ran into some friends and they decided to check out the Jaco nightlife. They agreed that the key marker of a good bar is a large number of taxis out front, and found a club that fit the bill perfectly. Every guy in the club was enjoying the company of a provocatively dressed woman. Some even had more than one female friend. Either these guys had some serious game - or, the opposite. It explained the taxis out front - and helped make it an early night for Jon (who, again, had to break some hearts).

Gerry and I went for a light bike ride to Hermosa Beach. The weather is spectacular and not wet at all, in contrast to earlier reports. My fingers are crossed that it will stay that way. Gerry did the race two years ago and he gave me a piece of advice - just keep moving - I'll have to remember that tomorrow.

There is a constant flow of riders arriving at the hotel, including Tom, a friend of ours that did TransRockies and went to France with us last year. He brought the full weather forecast. Apparently we have been living in a bubble and Jaco is the only dry spot in the country. It's been raining constantly over the last few days everywhere east of Jaco and there is waist deep flooding near Limon. Like I'm not terrified enough!

All I want to do is finish each stage of the race. For now, I'm focused only on Day 1. Last year, only half the racers finished the first stage. I think I might be able to finish if everything goes perfectly, but it will be close. Every minute will count. Usually, I don't worry much about placing, as long as I'm not last. Here, I will be overjoyed if I am the last rider across the finish line on Day 1. This isn't a matter of setting the bar low - this is at the limit of my physical abilities and that's why I am here.

Breakfast is at 3am tomorrow, so that we can leave at the crack of dawn, so it will be an early night tonight.

Costa Rica Day Three

We started Monday by pre-riding the very first part of Stage 1. The bike is working well and the conditions are dry, for now, so, I can't complain. I'm very glad that I have an extra day to get used to the heat and relax.

Our ride took us past some entertaining Central American gems: an 18 wheeler that had a man taking a siesta on a hammock that was hung between the wheels, numerous men transporting their girlfriends around town by doubling them on bicycles (how romantic), and chiquitas talking on cellphones while riding stationary bicycles inside an air conditioned gym.

At dinner, we had a freelance street band approach us on the patio. I'm sure they grow tired of playing La Bamba for every table of white people, but it satiated my craving for live music.

Walking back to the hotel, we passed a few souvenir shops and Jack pointed out a lot of trinkets that actually have their origins in Southeast Asia. Lesson for the day: Don't assume the wooden mask or carving you see at the souvenir shop represents anything historical about the area you're visiting.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Cervezas, Crocs and The Hoff - Costa Rica day two

We met up with four Calgary friends in San Jose. Jerry and Jack - two tough deadgoats that can pedal the pants off many guys half their age. Trish - one of the strongest female riders I know and capable of reaching the podium here if things go well. And Jon, one of our RV roommates from TransRockies - he's also got a shot at the podium.

We put our bikes together then rented a bus to take us to Jaco, where the race will start on Wednesday. 85 miles separates Jaco from San Jose, though it looks much shorter on the map because you can't see hills or how the road isn't actually straight for any longer than a few dozen meters. The drive took us about four hours, which included two stops, but flew by as we chatted non-stop. Jack kept us entertained with stories about his exotic travels. He looks a bit like Mick Jagger (less a decade of the rockstar lifestyle) and carries a perpetual smile. He found a way to turn his passion for travelling in to a means of income - importing antiques and cottage crafts from Southeast Asia - after getting his wife pregnant in a climbing hut in New Zealand. As he said it 'when we got back to Canada, she was feeling pretty sick. We thought she caught a bug from something in Asia, but it turned out it was from me. So, I figured it was time to get serious and get to work'.

Our first stop was a roadside lunch place that was perched on a steep hill, with the Pacific Ocean visible way down below in the distance. It was a wall-less hut in the middle of nowhere. It felt remote - except that there was an autographed photo of David Hasslehoff hanging on the wall. Everyone loves the Hoff!

Next stop was a river crossing. On the banks of the river there were crocodiles! Jon joked that he wished he could see them up close and we laughed and talked about the stupid tourists that we see taking pictures of bears and Bison at home. But, before I knew it, there was Jon, walking through the mud and grass toward the river. Not too far behind him were the three other guys. I watched the crocodile hunters from the bridge and, while I had no desire to get closer to the crocodiles myself, I couldn't help but laugh when a morbidly obese woman walked by smoking a cigarette saying how dangerous it was for those guys to be down there. Danger takes many forms. When we checked in the our hotel, we noticed that the exchange rates offered by the front desk were still offering more colones per US dollar than per Canadian dollar. We contemplated going to the bank so we could make some money by capturing the arbitrage, but decided to hit the beach for some sunset body surfing instead.

Then it was dinner time. We found a quiet little restaurant down the street. It didn't sell cervezas, so our waiter went to the liquor store on his 'Bike Star Reactor' (which looked more like Bike Scar Reaccor because of the stylized T) and came back with 12 beers in his basket. Service! It made up for the fact that we didn't have live music.

We ended the evening at a seedy local bar that was playing spanish music and had Dancing with the Stars on the television (it beat the NFL broadcast offered at the other places). There were some rough looking characters inside and no other gringos. It was perfect. Our waitress, who was dressed like she was ready to tango, was popular with the men and obviously used to a lot of attention. It must have been quite a surprise when Jon turned her down at the end of the night. What a heart breaker.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

En Route to La Ruta

'This is serious, sir'

I'm listening to the words, but struggling to take her seriously. She is a grown woman, yet she still thinks it is a good idea to cake her eyelids with glitter. Her attention to her appearance, also evidenced by her fake tan, hot pink lipstick and big hair, is diminished by her unfit, slightly overweight body having been stuffed into a uniform that has probably not fit right in years.

'Sir, this is serious', she repeats.

Are all airline employees bitchy? or just the ones that work for Air Canada? We have an Air Canada confirmation number for Erik's ticket and Air Canada can see that he's reserved a seat on this flight. Unfortunately, Air Canada will not check him in for the flight out of concern about how it will be paid for the ticket (which we purchased two months ago). Seems to me that this is not our problem, yet we are being inconvenienced by it.

The issue is eventually resolved but, once again, Air Canada has introduced a totally avoidable element of stress and annoyance to the start of our holiday.

Checking in for our connecting flight in LA, it feels like we are in Central America already. I'm a notable minority, not just because of my skin colour and language, but because of my choice of clothing. The essential travel attire for the typical Latina woman includes high heels and a pair of jeans that fit tighter than my spandex bike shorts. I realize that we can't all walk around in track suits, but it seems impractical to wear jeans tight enough to affect your gait for a six hour flight. The TACA airline employee is polite and accommodating, evidencing that my earlier observation may, in fact, be an Air Canada phenomenon.

As we board the plane, I see there is an elderly Buddhist monk riding in first class. I approve of the choice of travel attire but can't help but focus on the contrast of his cabin choice.

Finally, at 9AM Central time, we arrive in San Jose. The bikes and luggage made it too. Now the adventure begins.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Kids These Days

Here's a summary of halloween at Castle Road:
- Our front entrance was decorated with mutated squash from my vegetable garden (it was NOT a good year for produce in my yard).
- The two kids that came were dressed up like public school kids, which was disappointing. Then again, I was dressed in my pajamas when they arrived.
- Since we had no visitors last year, I didn’t have any candy on hand. Instead, I offered them granola bars. With somewhat forced enthusiasm, they said ‘oh good, nutritious snacks’.

Kids these days...