Volcanoes, Espresso and Painkillers
On the morning of the 15th October, at 4:40 am, after approximately 3 h of nervous sleep, I rode up the cobbly road towards the start line of the Two Volcano Sprint, my ass already hurting the second it touched the saddle of my bike, and I knew:
This was not going to be easy.
The cold morning sharply cut through my lungs with every breath, but I felt relieved to finally be on my bike, only minutes away from what I had been working for, dreaming of the last months.
When I saw the first blinking red rear-lights and reflective vests in front of the Café Dolce Vita, a glimpse of irony struck my mind; dolce vita my ass, I thought, this will be carnage.
I was just in time to get an Espresso, doppio of course, waiting patiently next to other riders, in tense silence, not many words were spoken.
9,5 bar, that's what it takes for a good espresso, the result an extract of intense energy.
What would be left of each one of us after the pressure of this race? If the process of water temperature and correct amount of coffee isn't executed in the right way, an Espresso gets bitter, so when I watched the flowing movements of the barista, I hoped for a good omen, knowing it wouldn't change a thing. The espresso was, as expected, perfect.
My eyes wondered around and recognized a few familiar faces, riders I had a chat with at the registration and also a young guy, sitting all by himself in the back of the cafe, a rare sight of calm between all the buzzing of excitement. I didn't know it back then, but it was Hassan, one rider I would continuously meet during my ride and share great memories with.
The first kilometers were still illuminated by the street lanterns of Nicolosi, but soon we headed on towards the dark roads of Mount Etna.
Unlike my usual habit I ride without music, listening to the sound of my tires on the dark tarmac, often grinding through sections of black sand. A sea of blinking lights around me, everyone riding mostly in silence, finding the right pace. As we climb up higher, the view down into the night is glimmering like stars in an upside down heaven – for the first time since weeks, I feel a rush of pure happiness. It had been a fight since I returned from my last race, the Three Peaks Bike Race, and just being here on the dark road of this volcano feels like all I could have asked for.
I have to pull myself together briefly so as not to shout loudly “wohoo”, the tension of 2 months of uncertainty as to whether I can ride this race, now gives way to relief and joy that it finally begins. At that moment I almost forgot that before the start I only calculated a 10% chance of successfully completing the Two Volcano Sprint. Not because I haven't trained enough, I feel fit and confident, I'm in the middle of the field. But I know that my seating problems, which made my last race a very painful affair, will cost me a lot, if not everything again this time.
But all this doesn't matter now, I simply enjoy the moment, glad that the gradient up to the summit is manageable. I stop for a moment and stuff a very hard, but at least not yet frozen Milky Way into my mouth, close my windbreaker and wonder whether I should put on my long finger gloves. Oh, what the heck, that takes too long, I think and start the descent with the faint suspicion that I will soon regret this move.
The snow-capped summit of Mount Etna shimmers gracefully in the blue light of the first diffuse rays of the sun, while before my eyes the view over Sicily increases to perfect beauty. However, I have to concentrate, the descent is too dangerous with all the sand drifts and wet spots, from which I try to stay away. Later, others tell me it was ice and I even hear from crashes. It's good that I didn't know about it at the time, because this way I stay true to my downhill technique: a lot of confidence, as little risk as possible, but still fast please and a some adrenaline doesn't hurt either.
Of course I have to stop after a few ice cold bends, taking ages to put on my longfinger-gloves because my hands are already numb and frozen. I hold up my useless hands to my mouth to warm them a bit until I manage put my gloves on, the sharp sound of passing freehubs in my ears.
“I will catch them on the way down” I think, laughing about this megalomaniacy, but to my own surprise I actually overtake a few riders until I reach the first little town. I see a guy in front of me and on the first turn we both get confused by the route, making a wrong turn, realizing it quickly.
As we start the next climb, a few other riders join us and we start talking and laughing about frozen chocolate bars and our past race experiences. Chatting away the steepness of the climb helps a lot and while I still gaze at the beauty surrounding us, I also realize it's the first time for me during a race to have this impression of community. Of course we are all participants in a competitive cycling event, but we are also a bunch of riders, sharing our stories, riding together - without drafting of course.
„So what's your strategy concerning the first night?“ I hear someone next to me asking another rider. Both agree they want to pedal through and while I tell them about my plans to stop in a hotel after hopefully the first 250 km and roughly 5500m of elevation gain, I feel a well known thought creeping up in the back of my mind.
It's the race director.
I gave it this name to make fun of this part of myself, also very aware that it is indeed often taking over responsibility – only to mess up my whole strategy I made at home on the desk, planning not to overpace, not to sleep too little, looking at Strava stats and times of training rides – and then this idiotic part of myself comes, beating to pulp in hours what I planned in months.
I can hear it. „Listen, those guys are maybe just bragging about something they'll never do, but who knows, maybe they succeed with their tactic while you are sleeping in a hotel like a little tourist after what- 250 km??What did you think this is, a Sunday's coffee ride? You know you can go at least for 36 hours without any side effects of sleepiness. C'mon, is this a race or what.“
Shut up, I think, trying to ignore it, but the race director is very enduring.
While the topic between other riders changes to politics, I feel the urge to ride more silently, and even though it's still cold the sun paints the landscape around us in a warm golden shimmer. I stop to eat a few pieces of a very sweet and heavily fried bagel – maybe not the best choice but I had no time to look for something more stomach friendly before the start of the race. A friend of my host in Nicolosi gave it to me when I came to pick up my earring on the day before the start of the race. Long story short - my first accommodation had a power failure only minutes before I was about to go to sleep. I had arrived late in the flat I booked, because my flight was delayed and the rainy ride from Catania airport to Nicolosi had taken me slightly longer than expected, giving a good impression of the climbing lying ahead of me for the coming days. My host Alfio was the friendliest guy you could imagine, nonetheless he and his brother couldn't get the electricity back to work. My only kit for the race had been spinning in the washing machine just when the power failure occurred, so I was moved with a bag full of soaked clothes, shortly before midnight, to a different house. Luckily I had planned my arrival two days ahead of the race start, planning to relax a bit and maybe meet some riders. The reality was slightly less appealing, as I needed the whole morning of the next day to blow dry my clothes, still stressed out by the past 24 hours. When I realized I had forgotten my earring in the other apartment, Alfio had already organized everything. “You can pick it up in the bar next to the apartment, breakfast and coffee is free!”
When I came there I was served a perfect Italian espresso and the friendly old guy behind the bar didn't stop filling a bag with Arancini and sweet bakery for me. I even gave some of the food to other riders, as I couldn't carry all of it.
It was a good prelude for my impression of South Italy; the most hospitable, welcoming people you can imagine, combined with a failure of infrastructure, showers and traffic laws.
After my short break I continued in silence, soaked in the beautiful scenery and little moments of joy, rays of sunshine warming my face, while the meditative monotony of climbing became a smooth rhythm .
Soon I reached the top, now feeling the problematic areas on my butt intensely, as the climbing had resulted to more friction. Niel, another rider I had previously chatted to during the climb, tells me that the small little white flakes raining down on us are actually not snow, but ashes from the volcano. I felt relieved, as snow would have freaked me out way more, mentally adding “ash rain - check” to my list of precipitation experienced during bike rides.
One of the few women of 68 starters, Nicki, stopped right behind me, while I was preparing for the upcoming descend. I knew she would overtake me soon, after all I felt a bit weird to be here and not completely in the back of the field, leading my racedirector to daring thoughts.
It's one thing to say “all I want is a chance” , it's one thing to work as crazy just to be able to get to the start of a race. But it's a completely different story when you are finally there, way ahead of your own expectations, already fulfilled the goal of “just make it to the start”.
“What now” the well known voice in my head began it's monologue. I could feel it had prepared somewhat of a speech, maybe something Caesar would have said to some pitiful Gladiator in an arena, the hungry lions waiting impatiently behind cage bars, everybody well aware of the fact:
That poor idiot is fucked.
But I listened, curious what the race director had to say.
“Well, look, here's the plan. You are already far more ahead of everything you ever dared to dream of, right? Maybe you were wrong in the first place. You were too humble. What the fuck is that , just asking for a chance. You are no freaking beggar, you are an athlete, look at you! Maybe you can make it in time, maybe you can even do more than that, what are you waiting for. Nietzsche said: Shoot for the moon, even if you miss it, you still end up with the stars.”
Oh my, he was good, even trying to get me with some wannabe Nietzsche quote, which is basically not by Nietzsche but still close, as you can find it on incorrectly researched ridiculous motivation post on google when you type in “Nietzsche quote”. Please don't ask me why this voice is referred to as “him” but it's probably due to the fact that it has the typical show-off sound you can often find in male cliches, and I somehow always imagined it to look like Saul Goodman from the series, if it wouldn't just be a stupid inner voice.
The problem with inner voices is, they are a part of yourself, so they know exactly what to say to convince you. It's basically your mind, in all it's shady and brilliant variations. You can't run away, you can just start to argue with logic, consciously trying to shut down their nonsense. Now I was still in control and had large areas of my brain to hold something against this part of myself, but I knew, as soon as sleep deprivation, hunger, exhaustion and even pain would settle in, the race director would take over.
I thought about the people who were probably dotwatching now, getting excited to see me doing so well, hoping I would continue to ride this strong. But I soon discarded that idea again, as I couldn't imagine anyone sitting in front of a map of little gps dots at 8 o'clock in the morning.
As soon as I reached the little town at the end of the descend, I headed towards the toilet of a Café, paranoidly fearing that this was probably the point where at least 10 or 20 riders would overtake me. Stopping this early was nothing the race director approved, but my full bladder had better arguments and I knew I had to be careful with hygiene because of my saddle sore. Having less pee breaks behind bushes and more access to clean water, soap and toilet paper was part of the game now.
I resisted to queue for an espresso and a piece of patisserie, instead I continued my ride in strong headwind, not looking at the tracker map, just wondering about the number of riders who may have surpassed me.
Sleepiness crept up, the night before the start had been more of a fight than an actual replenishment. I was not used to fall asleep before midnight, the early start of the race making it a real challenge, having to force myself to rest while the excitement made it even harder. Several meditation scripts, which usually never failed to calm me down, couldn't bring my nervous mind to settle for sleep, so I had lain awake until 1am, only to wake up at 3:30, feeling like I had just been closing my eyes for a fraction of a moment.
Now, with the first rush of adrenaline coming to an end, I realized the last days had been already quite exhausting.
Shortly after this low I was happy to meet Emanuel at the first gravel section. He was one of the riders I had a chat with at the registration and we continued a bit together, helping my tired mind to wake up again. Apart from the nice company, rougher terrain helped to raise my adrenaline levels a bit, riding through dark little tunnels with a lot of puddles. I still remember being probably not the best person for a chat at that moment, not talking much, but Emanuel kept the conversation alive with ease, while I struggled to concentrate on the potholes and mudd, descending and chatting at once. I would have preferred to sit down for a coffee with him and have a chat, instead of talking while riding. To me cycling is mostly best enjoyed silent, which doesn't mean that I don't enjoy a bit of camaraderie every once in awhile. My race director, who had been just as the sleepy as the rest of me, woke up again, showing off his efficiency stats. ”Talking while you're riding isn't very effective, you know. It costs much more energy and you lose focus really easily. This is serious, Lisa, don't mess it up. You can chat when you reached the finish.”
The race director can actually be very earnest about our goals and as time passes, he'd become less funny. It may sound amusing as long as I still have the mindset to laugh about his advice. At one point, Emanuel and me got lost again in the narrow streets of a little village, which would have annoyed me like hell if I would have been alone. Ha, I thought dedicated to my inner race director, wouldn't have been more efficient all by myself now, right?
Riding a race with the same route for all participants has a different character than free routing events. It was the first time for me to ride a mandatory route like this and I was surprised how much I liked it. I had expected to feel somewhat constrained by it, but it was beautiful and I also liked the frequency of meeting other riders on my way.
Even though we didn't actively help each other it was a natural side effect to feel less alone, while still riding solo.
On a small shop Emanuel decided to continue while I restocked some drinks and sweets, rather looking for a short break for my saddle sore than actually in need for a refill of carbs.
The upcoming stretch was hard, presumably more due to the fact that the pain started to kick in right before the next long climb. I looked at my Wahoo and this made me feel even worse, as I was very slow even before the gradient began.
I tried to channel my inner pain cave, a place deep in my mind, which I encountered during the Three Peaks Bike Race. It's a state of mind where I can sustain pain or unpleasant feelings longer but it's very dark and I don't necessarily go there when I don't have to. Yet, I knew this time visualization wouldn't help me to continue all the way until the end, so I took 2 Ibuprofen, hoping they would help. My stomach was already upset, and I knew it wasn't the best idea to take painkillers in this situation, especially as I had forgotten to take some gastric protection medicine with me.
I continued looking at the hills surrounding me, beautiful round shapes with little trees on top, making them look like someone had stuck pins in a sharp line, a chain of hills, lying ahead of me like a resting dragon.
“Here we go “I thought, addressing my race director, who was plotting against me already. “I told you this would happen, I knew all I could ask for was already in the books.”
“Maybe you shouldn't have started in the first place”, he replied cold. “Why did you come here? To whine like a little sissy? Just swallow those pills and continue. Look at you, just wasting everybody's time, including your own. No one takes you serious anyway, everybody expected you to fall behind. Now fulfill those expectations already, I'm sick of your weakness and so is everybody else.”
I went down into my cave, to hide from these words.
Continuously looking over my shoulder, I expected riders to pass me soon, but when Sarah appeared I was already back in the dullness of my pain driven mind. She also seemed to suffer and we exchanged a few words before I saw her disappearing behind the next corner.
The next kilometers were a mix of ache, alternating with moments of relieve, but the absence of pain for a few hours was something I payed a high price for during the next days.
Due to a severe saddle sore, which developed during my last race, I had already some history of cycling through pain, discovering that, despite Paracetamol being more kidney-friendly, it didn't help my saddle sore pain, making Ibuprofen my painkiller of - well, I'd rather not say choice. It's certainly not the way of riding I would suggest to anyone and I wish I could just blame my inner race director for making such bad decisions, knowing very well I was desperate enough to believe in my own lies back then. Taking into account that the effect of a painkiller like Ibuprofen has it's limits, I rationed my dosage to the minimum, but it was still too much for my already nervous stomach. Combined with fatty food that was hard to digest, I suffered from serious stomach pain and nausea during the next days, accompanied by a massive worsening of the abscess on my backside. I know it may be hard to understand, but I was already too far to give up at that point.
Once I start a race, there is not much that would make me stop before I reach the finish.
I was just about to find out on what a profound level this is one of my strongest fortitudes, but also why it often feels like my most vulnerable weakness.
My inner race director obviously knew all that long before I realized it.
He had already taken over.