Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Getting Taken for a Ride

I get in the cab and the driver says "You can ride for free today if you can answer this question correctly. What is the capital of Nigeria?". I guess "um, Lagos?". "No, it's Abuja. But, since you gave it a good try, I will give you another chance". 

He's Mr. Geography; a Kuwaiti-born Torontonian with a passion for knowledge, a car, and a kind heart (he runs a non-profit organization focused on poverty relief, access to clean water and malaria prevention). 

Mr. Geography proceeds to give me four more chances... 
"What was the area that is now known as Hungary called during Roman times?"
"What does Hungary mean?"
"Name all of the US states that border Canada"
"Name all of the countries that border France"

Meanwhile, he's handing me a stack of newspaper articles and letters. He's been profiled in newspapers and magazines, appeared on Conan O'Brien with Snoop Dogg, and identified errors in both the Merriam Webster Dictionary and the Collins World Atlas. 

I didn't earn a free fare, but I had a lot of fun, learned a few things and was inspired to pay a little more attention to geography. I love people with an appetite for knowledge. One of the lines on his business card is "Ignorance is the biggest enemy". How true.

Check him out next time you're in Toronto and you need a ride, or an education. 

Friday, November 21, 2008

Vacation Bliss

It's been almost two weeks since I've brushed my hair, worn a belt, or checked the stock market. It's nice to let go of a few of life's unnecessaries. 

The other day, I picked up the newspaper and tried the crossword puzzle. The only clue I could figure out was '47 Across: Stimpy's friend'. It's good to give the brain a break. 

Yesterday, I hiked Kilauea Iki Trail with my parents. Two hours through a lush, musical, colourful rainforest and down into an otherworldy, steaming black caldera. It's nice to get the full sensory experience on foot. 

This morning, after waking up (without the aid of an alarm clock!) to watch the night turn to day, I walked down to the Kona market with my mom and dad and bought some mystery fruit. It's relaxing to jellyfish around without a schedule or agenda. 

But above all, it's great to share this time with my family. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Oops, I did it Again

Last year I was totally shattered after La Ruta. Although I was glad that I had finished, I said that I wouldn't do La Ruta again because nobody needed to torture themselves like that more than once. I knew that I had lucked out with good weather and saw it as a small miracle that I'd even finished. I'd never done something so hard or been so close to failure after such a concerted effort. While I appreciated the spiritual journey, I hated that La Ruta had almost conquered me. I'm supposed to do the conquering. I think that's one of the main reasons I had to come back and do it again.

Some (myself included) would say that this year's La Ruta was easier than last, others would say it was harder. Weather, terrain, distance, all play a factor. The only way that I can think of to normalize for these factors is to look at how the veterans did, year over year. Ten time finisher Heart Akerson was about two hours slower this year. Erik and Gerry also added a couple of hours to their time. Even repeat winner Frederico Ramirez was slower (albeit by a mere 12 minutes). I shaved almost four hours off my time from last year. More important than that, there was no crying this year and I woke up the day after the race feeling like I could actually do something. 

I like challenging myself and pushing my limits. Perhaps it's two times lucky, particularly given my mechanical rescues on days 1 and 2, but I think I've sufficiently satisfied myself that finishing La Ruta wasn't a fluke. Now it's time to look ahead to something new. Anyone have some good ideas?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

He Did it One Handed

Woke up to have a cup of the best coffee I've ever tasted. Staying near a plantation has it's perks. The morning started a lot warmer and drier than last year. That was a mixed blessing, as I knew that meant we would deal with some wicked heat during the day. Staying on top of hydration would be critical. It did get toasty, but not unbearable. There were a lot of kids cheering us on at the side of the road with hoses or buckets of water. They cheer and cheer until you are nice and close and then BAM!, here comes the water. They seem to make a game out of how hard they can get you in the face with the water. I'm ok with that, because it just feels so good to cool off and it actually makes me laugh every time. If this is winter in Costa Rica, I can't imagine what summer is like. 

I rode for a long while today with a man named Alejandro Oporta (I know his name only because it's on his jersey). From time to time, I come across people who purposely take the hard road. I haven't seen to many people that are on that hard road because they were dealt a bad hand. Alejandro is from Limon and has only one arm. This race is so freakin hard; it is incomprehensible to me that it is possible to do it with one hand. And to top it off, his bike isn't even set up with access to all of the gears on the same side. He actually has to lift his hand and reach over to the other side to change gears. He's pretty good at this too - he'll be screaming down a gravel descent and lift his hand to wave at people cheering. This dude is a talented rider and a major hero. It was inspiring and humbling to ride with him. 

On the last stretch of tracks, I caught up to the Puerto Ricans. They made the kilometres blast by really fast as they kept a steady pace and picked great lines. Last year, stage four was lonely and hard. This year, I was almost always surrounded by friends. It was great to ride with those Puerto Ricans - too bad I never actually caught any of their names. I wish I could thank them for their wonderful company. 

I arrived at Playa Bonita about two hours earlier than last year (90 minutes quicker to finish the stage, 30 minutes earlier to start). It was awesome to not be rushed and to watch the sun go down in the company of my friends. Mostly, it was awesome to be done. I bet Alejandro was glad to be done too.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Tinkerbell and the Volcano

The seemingly endless ascent up Volcano Irazu is matched only is challenged only by the ferocious bone rattling descent back down. The weather cooperated this year, giving us clear views of the city below as we propelled our bikes up the gigantic volcano, one slow pedal stroke at a time. 
I rode for a while with a Puerto Rican guy that I met at dinner after the first stage. He came here with five friends; which is, as he described it, 'a gay club with a biking problem' (I think he was joking, but I'm not entirely certain. Either way, it's hilarious). It's hard for me to remember names when I meet so many new people each day, but somehow it's easy to remember places, so he was known as Puerto Rico. He seemed to take a liking to my bike bell, which led to his nicknaming me Tinkerbell. Every time I found myself in a slump, he seemed to be there yelling 'hello Tinkerbell'. It was a tiny little thing, but it made a huge difference. 
The third check point marks 'the top'; however, it's really a false top, as the 'rolling' profile to the next check point is packed with some mean climbs. By check point four, you're begging for an uninterrupted stretch of downhill, which is exactly what you get. In fact, it's so continuous that you're soon dreaming of an uphill section. The descent is steep and rocky and dangerous in sections, but it is the sheer length of it that makes it intensely challenging. My office-worker forearms screamed for mercy, but it was hard to hear that over my shrieking wrists and shoulders. My brain swished around in my skull so much that it was hard to see straight. I can train my legs all I want, but I'm not sure how I can prepare my body to handle this sort of riding. I will say that having my front shock engaged this year helped A LOT. Gerry was a full hour faster than me - on a 32 km descent!
Last year, everyone told me about how beautiful the finish area and accommodations were, but I had arrived too late to enjoy it. This year was different - arriving almost two hours earlier and staying at a hotel half an hour closer to the finish line, I had time to take a look around. Still, I'm feeling the fatigue setting in. I'm finding it increasingly difficult to eat (which is never normally a problem for me) and keep my body warm. When I lay down, it feels like all of my blood is rushing to my chest. I'm looking forward to laying it out tomorrow and getting to Playa Bonita on the Caribbean coast while it is still light out. 

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Getting by With a Little Help From my Friends

We got an update on Pat over breakfast. He's still in the hospital and will be spending at least another day there. Trish is staying with him and she's still sick. Their vacation sucks. Apparently the ambulance that took Pat to the hospital yesterday got lost along the way and had to stop to ask for directions. 
Starting the day with this sort of news in mind helped keep things in perspective. For example, when I took my bike for a test spin in the parking lot before the race start and wiped out because I couldn't get unclipped from my pedals, I knew it wasn't the end of the world (even though I knew the two new holes in my hands would fester under the filth of my mud and poo saturated bike gloves for the next three days). 
My recollection from last year was that Stage Two was the 'easiest' stage. 'Easy' is a relative term, as the 76 kilometre stage includes over 4,000 metres of climbing. For reference, I think the Cochrane Hill is about 150 metres of elevation gain; so, imagine doing that about 30 times - a day after spending almost 12 hours in the saddle). You just can't find climbs like this in Canada; it's so steep in sections that you have to zig zag from side to side just to keep your wheels moving. Every time you see a switchback coming and imagine that you might be at the top, it would turn into another stretch of climbing. No relief at all. These are hills of infinite suffering. I saw a lot of people pushing bikes up the paved roads, but I rode whenever I could. There was no apparent speed advantage to this choice; it really came down to a personal desire to demonstrate my superiority over a course that tortured me so much in 2007. 
I kept a steady pace and was thrilled when I caught Gerry at the first three aid stations. I have such a high regard for him as a cyclist that I feel a sense of accomplishment just to keep him within sight. A tico (local rider) rode with me for a while. His english was about as good as my spanish, which meant the conversation was extremely superficial and included a lot of laughing and head shaking as we each repeatedly dug into our vocabulary and came up empty handed. The laboured conversation was a good distraction, and the fact that he was a stronger rider than me kept me pushing my limits. I was particularly thankful to have him around when my chain broke on one of the climbs. I'd never broken a chain and did not have the skills or tools to fix it, but Carlos had me back on the bike in no time. Saved, again, as a result of the kindness of another. 
Last year, this race was about independence and radical self-reliance. This year, I think it is about interdependence and the kindness of humanity. Two stages and two rescues. I'm trying not to think too hard about what might be coming on days 3 and 4. I finished the day with a good massage. I used to think that there were only good massages, but I discovered today that this is not the case. The massage table next to me collapsed while a guy was getting massaged, sending him head first into the ground. He appeared to have escaped relatively unscathed, though I'm not sure he'll ever be able to fully relax during a massage again. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Colour of Muddy

It was a controlled start, with a police escort for most of the initial stretch of pavement. I even had Erik within eyesight after the first five kms of the race - that's a first for me. I settled in to my own rhythm and was going fast enough that I even caught Gerry a few kilometres from the first food station (I'll settle for me having a wonderful start, rather than accept that he might have had a slow one).

We arrived at the food station early enough to get the salty mini-potatoes and the mythical tuna sandwiches (I'd heard stories of these, but this was my first experience with them first hand. Life is different at the back of the pack). To my surprise, Timmy (formerly Timmy the Bear Naked/Cannondale singlespeeder, now the Sobe/Cannondale fully-geared 29er) was also at the feed station. I knew I couldn't have been having THAT good of a start - something wasn't adding up. Unfortunately, he was out with an injured hip and waiting for a ride back.

I'd really bent up my deraileur hanger just before the aid station and Gerry helped me get it back to what looked to be a 'ridable' point. After a few kilometres, I discovered that appearances can be deceiving, when my rear wheel ate my deraileur, rendering it completely useless. I was disappointed that my day was over, but I was really glad that it happened within reasonable walking distance of assistance - it could have been MUCH worse. I walked my bike back to the food station and realized I was also lucky because I had a friend with whom to hang out while I waited for a ride.

When I saw Timmy, he looked at my bike and said (very cheerfully)  'awe, Tori, your day isn't over. I can fix that'. Timmy, you saved my day, my race and my vacation. You are my La Ruta Angel. I thought of how kind you were for the next nine hours after I left you.

I decided that I needed to dial it up to make Timmy's effort worthwhile. I crushed most of the people around me in the lodo. For the uninitiated, 'lodo' is the heinous orangey-red, peanut butter-textured sub-tropical Costa Rican jungle mud. It sticks to your tires so bad that your wheels won't move, so you have to carry your bike, which is now fifty pounds heavier because of the mud. And don't bother trying to clean it off, unless you plan to carry your bike for the next 15kms.

I think that cyclocross season was good practice moving on crappy surfaces and hiking my bike up steep slopes. It felt like everyone else was standing still. You really see a range of personalities when the going gets tough - some people really let it get them down. Others are able to laugh it off. Everyone has to deal with it and gets covered from head to toe in it. 
I leapfrogged with Heart Akerson for a bit, which was kind of cool. He's steady on the climbs and a total animal on the descents. I think this is his tenth La Ruta. I felt comfortable with him around because he knows how to pace and knows the way.

My gloves were caked in mud and some kind of poo, so I found myself not eating as much as I should (heaven forbid I actually stop for a break). The result was that I gorged at the next feed stop. Two tuna sandwiches, a red bull, cake, papaya, and some salty potatoes. All in about 37 seconds (gotta make time!). I recommend that you do not try this at home.

The long climb up to Alto Grifo was more pleasant this year under the cover of cloud and with no blistering hot tar seeping from the freshly laid asphalt. This was overshadowed by the dizziness and sharp stomach pain I was experiencing as a consequence for my tuna and redbull binge. I paid for this nutritional blunder doubly as my inability to eat and hydrate caught up with me once the cramps subsided.

Though the first part of the course was different than last year, most of the rest was the same. I found it valuable to know roughly what to expect as it saved me the concern of being lost or not knowing about how much climbing was left. I was farther back in the group than I would have liked, but the nice thing about that was that the farm dogs were too tired to chase you for any more than about ten feet.

In the end, I finished after approximately 11 hours 51 minutes - about a minute longer than last year, but feeling less shattered. Erik had waited for me, along with most of the other deadgoats. Trish didn't start because she is still really sick (turns out her upswing yesterday was just temporary). Pat finished, but had to be hospitalized as a result of severe dehydration. Erik had a tough day. Sounds like everyone else suffered too - but not sure of all of the details. In this race, you can suffer and still have a 'good day'.

Apparently results are online already.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

T minus One

The race begins tomorrow, but, like any good journey, the adventure has already begun. Ours began with counting our blessings when we were not among the twelve people turned away at the gate from Air Canada's overbooked flight to San Jose and then again when both pieces of luggage arrive as planned. Trish, Gerry, Sylvia, Erik and I arrived together. Craig was already in San Jose, along with Tom (another Calgarian). Pat and Steve eventually showed up a bit later and lighter than planned, but everything seems to have sorted itself out now.

It's nice to come out a day or two early. We took our time coming out to Jaco, stopping at the former unofficial David Hasslehoff restaurant (note: there is no longer a signed portrait of David Hasslehof at the restaurant. It must have changed hands and the old owner must have deemed the portrait to be too valuable to include in the sale). There was a quote on the menu that said something like "In the silence your mind acheives stillness". I thought it accurately described one of the beautiful experiences that you get in this race.

We carried on toward Jaco and checked out crocodile infested river. This time there were about 20 croc's right in the location in which the guys were walking last year. That seemed to keep the urges to explore under control. We drove through some torrential downpours and flooding on the road. We laugh about this now, but we know this means that it's going to be tough going in the jungle.

We've spent the last couple of days reflecting on last year's experience - the humour and the horrors. Like Jack Funk eating seven tuna sandwiches back to back at one aid station and then having to take a nap (we sure miss him this year). Or me forgetting to unlock my front shock on the volcano descent (I'm actually not sure how much I can laugh about this yet).

When we first arrived, Erik and I were excited to see that our room was right next to the registration tent. That meant no walking up and down tile stairs in bike shoes and no need to walk too far for all of the registration matters. We have since discovered the flip side of this perk. Erik has renamed the room "Club 133" for the hours upon hours of pounding techno that have been blaring from the speakers over the last 24 hours. No napping!

Trish and Craig came down with some sort of illness yesterday. Consensus seems to be that it was food related. Things are looking up today - hopefully they'll be ready to go tomorrow.

I had breakfast this morning in the same room as Roberto Heras and it finally dawned on me that I'm in the same race as Roberto Heras. How cool (and terrifying) is that! The field is smaller this year - maybe 400? Fewer women too - 23, instead of the 45 or so that showed up last year. We don't have a way to confirm this, but we think that there may be more people from Calgary in this race than from any other single city across the globe. Approaching a dozen, I think. Not bad. The Deadgoat's are very likely the best represented team from outside of Costa Rica. Another something of which to be proud.

After having two beautiful days here and fantasizing about the possibility of things drying out, we are now experiencing a heavy downpour that has continued for over an hour. Tomorrow is going to be a challenge. I lucked out last year with the dry weather on the west coast. This year, stage one is 10% longer and 100% wetter. It's gonna be a tough one.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Four Days in November

Tonight, Erik and I head to San Jose, Costa Rica for La Ruta de los Conquistadores. I specifically remember thinking (and telling people) that I had no intention of putting myself through this experience again; however, I find myself unable to resist the draw of the event this year. It's hard to describe what the experience is about. There are a lot of fun things about it, but most of that exists outside of the race itself - hanging out with friends before and after the race, meeting new people from around the world, discovering a new part of the world, etc. The fact is that this isn't a particularly fun race like some of the others in which I have participated. But it's rewarding in a way that I've never experienced before. There is something therapeutic and cleansing that comes from intense suffering - and the scale of suffering at La Ruta is unmatched by any other experience I've had. Though words are insufficient to express what the experience is about, I thought I'd share some articles about the race and the people that do the race for those that are unable to take part in the race this year.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Halloween 2008

What is short and fuzzy and spotted all over? My two year old nephew dressed as a spotted owl for halloween. As the son of my orno-holic brother-in-law, it was only fitting that he go as a bird. Mom went all out as a clown, and dad as a scottish skeleton (strange, yes, I know). Meriah and Todd took turns as an alien. For an overcomercialized day of celebration, it was a great excuse to leave work early and have some fun with my family.
In my three decades in Calgary, I have not experienced a halloween evening more amenable to trick or treating. Nor have I had the pleasure of handing out candy in a neighborhood in which there is a constant stream of trick or treaters. My sisters neighborhood was teeming with children and the costumes were incredible. When it's not minus twenty degrees outside, there are a lot more costume ideas from which to choose. Erik held the fort at our house and we actually got a trick or treater, but there were no candy bars to be found in our house. I bet we were the only house in Calgary giving out Sharkies (slightly cooler than a clif bar in the eyes of a child).
When the trick or treating traffic died down and Rory was ready for bed, I headed to Nose Hill Park to meet up for Mical's halloween ride. Seventeen grown people, most of whom were in costume, riding through the paths at Nose Hill Park in the dark. Christmas came early to Calgary as our string of headlights and blinkers wrapped around the park that overlooks the city. I'm not sure at what age one stops partaking in activities like riding your bike on a trail in the dark, but I'm lucky enough to have friend's that have not figured out that they are past the age at which most people make that transition.
Between rediscovering the joys of both sides of trick or treating and the joys of riding even though it is dark and even though it is October, this was most definitely the best halloween ever.