Thursday, September 15, 2011

The long road to success

A year ago I wrote how a nagging knee injury cut short my goal of completing the Gran Fondo Whistler, a 120 km cycling event from Vancouver to Whistler. I remember sitting on the side of the road, just 20 km from Whistler and calling my wife in defeat, “I can’t do it,” I said into the phone. I can almost feel the pain today, as I willed my legs to climb the hills, wincing in pain, with each turn of the pedal.
Waiting to be picked up and transported to Whistler, I tried to comfort myself in the notion that success doesn’t always come easily, though I never thought it would end with someone helping me to my car in a wheelchair. I vowed that day that I would return. 
There were a chorus of people who told me I didn’t need to do it again. Some were gracious about my having made it as far as I did, given the circumstances. But 100 km wasn’t my goal. And so I had to return this year to give it another try.
Over the past year, I saw three physiotherapists and an osteopath. It was only after the last physiotherapist that things started changing for the better. He prescribed exercises that would strengthen my glute muscles (those are the ones in your butt), and correct the misalignment in my pelvis and hips that he (and the sports therapist in Whistler) had identified.
I was cautious in my training, afraid of aggravating my knee, but when I did 40km, then 75km, and finally 90km without the pain I experienced last year, I had a good feeling that I was going to conquer the ride. And so last Saturday while waiting at the start in downtown Vancouver with 7,000 other cyclists, I was excited, yet anxious—fresh with the memory of a year previous.
I rolled across the Lion’s Gate Bridge, and marvelled at the ocean and green mountains. The clear blue sky and the morning sun rising over the harbour. Climbing the first hill at Taylor Way, with a tight pack of other cyclists, I eased onto the Upper Levels Highway. I was pushed on by the enthusiasm of the cheering spectators that lined the roadway and overpasses.
I opted not to stop at the first aid station near Horseshoe Bay. A good sign I thought. Fifty kilometres on, I pulled into the second aid station at Britannia Beach. Then at 73 km I stopped at the next rest station, where my wife was waiting. I was feeling great, and the ride so far was a lot of fun. But I knew that the hardest part lay ahead.
The hills here are unforgiving. Making it worse was the oven-like heat that sucked away the energy. I pushed on, wiping away the rivulets of sweat dropping off my head. I gained strength as I passed the 100 km mark—the place where I had to give in a year ago. Then the muscles in my legs began to cramp. At first I tried to settle them down, but they’d had enough of the abuse, and made like a wet towel being wrung out. My muscles were telling me they were done, but they didn’t know I had a goal to complete. I pushed on.
At the last aid station, I called my wife, who was waiting in Whistler. “I’m going to do this. I’m coming!” With 16 km to go, the hills didn’t let up, and neither did the muscle cramps. In fact, with 7km to go I had to stop and have a talk with my muscles. I hadn’t gotten this far to quit. I sent a text message to my wife telling her that I would be a little longer than I thought. I stretched my muscles at a bus stop that had become an oasis for other riders seeking respite.

Nothing was going to stop me now. Not the hills. Not the heat. Not the exhausted muscles. I climbed back on my bike and pedaled down the kilometres. A sign on the side of the road read, last hill. A welcome sight indeed. Six hours and fifty minutes after leaving Vancouver, I turned into Whistler Village and sprinted toward the finish. I tried putting both arms up in celebration, but my muscles were screaming out and my legs tried to seize up, so I did a couple of fist pumps with one hand instead.
It took a little longer that I thought, but my goal was complete. No one at the finish, except my wife, knew what this meant. To them I was just another rider. Congratulations. They knew nothing of the pain...the struggle...the doubt. To be sure there were others that day, fighting through their own battles, and trying to climb that mountain.
Sometimes you have to fail before you can taste success.