Welcome to the zone
„I feel strange“, I typed into my phone, the white screen of the messenger seemed like a crisp blank sheet of paper no one would ever answer to.
„What happened“, appeared magically and much more in a not so papery way.
“I think I died. I'm dead. I'm completely empty, I don't feel anything, no emotions anymore, no nothing I don't feel human. I've been a bit numb before but this is different ,idk. What is happening with me, is this bad?”
From a today's perspective I still think the question „is this bad“ sounds somewhat like an understatement, taking into account that I felt like a part or even more of me – had died.
„You're in the zone. That's good, you're like a machine now, just cycling, no more distraction.“
„What the hell is the zone?!"
„Go go, ride!“ was the answer.
I sat down and chewed some Mentos, the last source of calories I had on me. Usually these circumstances would make me worry, especially because my surroundings looked really deserted and not at all like a shop or restaurant would pop up around the next corner. It was nearly noon and I had been riding all night without food, my breakfast just a 5 minute stop at an early opened bar, standard: Double espresso with 2 bags of sugar and a donut.
The guy behind the bar realized without any need for explanation, I was in a hurry. Without even asking why or wasting precious time with the usual small talk phrases, he just served me a donut straight to the hand, no plate, we don't do that here was our secret agreement. I just stuffed it in my face, gave him two Euros and off I went. It was the fastest and nonverbal service ever, 5 stars.
Still, that small breakfast was no fuel for another 300 kilometers, I knew I could get into trouble without a resupply very soon. Yet, in that moment, sitting in an abandoned bus-stop with anti-capitalist graffitis and plants creeping through the cracks of the pavement under my feet, I didn't care anymore. I had the Mentos and my mind told me very objectively not to freak out, it'd be enough until the next opportunity to buy food.
I told myself:
I'm very far from freaking out. I'm not hungry. I'm a machine now.
What the hell, let's see what this zone thing is all about, let's continue.
Since the third Checkpoint of the Three Peaks Bike Race, the Tourmalet and my rather spontaneous decision to challenge me and my two companions, I had aligned my pace completely to the movements of my persecutors. Especially to Henriette, as she was riding without mercy, pushing her limits further than I would have stretched mine, making me nearly loose my mind during the next morning, longing for sleep, checking the tracker site every 20 Minutes, no stop, no rest, protecting that space on the map between her and my GPS dot as if my life depended on it. In the beginning of the race I rode completely self-paced, I never looked at the other dots on the map, meeting enough riders on the road to know how I was doing pace-wise.
But that was over the moment when this spontaneous urge to flee, to run had overwhelmed me: the urge to race.
Did it matter to anyone but me? No. We were just the very last riders, relentlessly holding on to a brutal race, some would say it was over, why the fuck holding on to it, time limit already history, people at the finish already heading on to their every day lives again, there was nothing to gain, nothing to lose on an objective level.
But at some point, all of the outer world opinions, views and measurements just fall apart, chip off like a useless patina. It's a beautiful procedure, but the way towards it is pure torment and I still don't know if it's worth it.
It probably depends a lot on your motives and if you love the process enough, maybe even more than the outcome.
When I close my eyes today, I often see that tunnel in front of me.
It may sound a bit ridiculous as I am well aware of the metaphor and even I can't take myself serious for living through such a corny version of a near death experience, but be assured it's not just a very clumsy dramaturgical addition. Riding into that tunnel was maybe more of an actual than just a near death experience, at least on a mental level.
After all it was probably more about all the moments of near scratching, pain and joy before the tunnel, the pushing on despite complete exhaustion, the trauma you have to put on yourself to not give up in certain situations, the seemingly never ending stretches of destroyed roads, potholes and raw tarmac, all you see for hours, maybe some dried out fields and factory buildings, sometimes petrol stations, heavenly cold cans of coca-cola, for a few precious moments pressed against the sunburned face before continuing in the heat, more than once having the impression your whole body will go up in flames any second. Then again, cold nights, wearing everything you have with you, including a sleeping bag and a bivy, and don't ask me how you wear that, with grace will be my answer, with grace and a grim smile, still freezing, still riding, rain, storm, it will all pass, but some moments seem to go on forever.
After this symphony of excesses on all levels – joy, suffering, physical and mental strain- here I was in my very personal but not at all glamorous version of dying.
It was all still good when I rode into the tunnel, asking the friendly worker if and where I should ask for permission to enter the tunnel as a cyclist. I had read about the Vielha tunnel before, so I knew it was allowed and safe for cyclists to pass, at least when informing someone of the tunnel staff so they could block one side of the road for drivers.
A friendly woman's voice on the other side of the roadside telephone gave me the okay, so after assuring I switched on all my lights and put on my warning vest, I entered the void.
It was chilly and loud, but I listened to music via headphones when I realized that I actually had the right lane all for myself, as drivers were warned by signs to leave it to cyclists. This way I didn't hear the roaring noise of the passing cars which was insanely loud . The tunnel seemed endless and it was going up slightly, only accompanied by the monotonous view of yellow light and green exits signs.
I don't know how it exactly started but suddenly I felt very sad. Not in a depressing way, which probably sounds weird, but more in a very deep melancholic way. I had the impression to look at my life in a quite objective way, like a complete stranger. It was a bizarre feeling of knowledge, kind of a full understanding of it, my past, my present and in a still inexplicable way even my future. I didn't have visions of precise events, it was rather a feeling than an actual form of information. I saw everything, it was all perfectly clear, as if I looked down on my life from far above, from far outside, but at the same time as close as I had ever been. I felt an incredibly deep calm, a calm so inhuman it made me sad. But it wasn't suffocating sadness, disappointment or sorrow, rather a certainty to see something, to open a door that had nothing to do with what we often think of as our lives.
If you subtract everything, all illusions, all hopes and wishes, everything that makes us human, that squirms, that strives, that squints at vain goals, subtracts all the lies we tell ourselves every day, in short, if you filter the essence of being human, then something remains. A distillate beyond words or meaning and it felt like death to me.
I had never been closer and at the same time, never further afar from myself and to this day I still wonder what happened there. Was it just a psychological state of extreme detachment, some sort of dissociation? A hallucination on an emotional level, induced by extreme sleep deprivation and dehydration? Despite being a rather rational person in my every day life, I sometimes get into states during very long rides, which are hard to describe in the aftermath, to others, even to myself. I never had sleep deprivation induced visual hallucinations (just boring stuff, a bit of shadows or a golden glow on the stretch of road ahead of me), but I got all kinds of funny mental states, paranoia, euphoria and now obviously a near-death experience on a transcendental level, which definitely topped off everything else.
When I finally saw the bright little point in front of me that was the outside, the metaphor I was living in struck me as downright ridiculous.
At the end of the tunnel is the light. For real?
Yes, but there was no fulfillment in it, just emptiness, no love, just pure existence, no god, just me, no answer because there was no question.
As I pulled out of the tunnel into broad daylight, I wasn't the person I had been a few hours ago, ages ago, or anyone else, barely a person after all. If I hadn't been convinced of my physical existence, I probably wouldn't have perceived myself as existing.
Everything was emptiness, a part, maybe too much of me, was gone.
It was not something I can describe in other words than the feeling of being dead and even though I didn't feel concerned about this, I was a bit worried by the complete lack of emotions - rather in a cognitive than in an anxious way.
I was freezing, so I put on my down jacket, even though it was 27 degrees and sunshine. Riding on in an absolute state of indifference about life, the race I was still in somehow and everything around me, I couldn't figure out if I liked this state of being or not. I didn't like or dislike anything anymore, it was a bit like the way I'd always imagined animals might perceive reality, cows or sheep, standing outside, enduring rain or sunshine in stoic calm, simply existing without too many thoughts about it. It was a rather peaceful concept and it wasn't until I realized how far this detachment had developed, when I entered another, shorter tunnel.
I noticed a harsh stroke against my left pedal before I realized that a car had just struck me from behind, passing me an inch too close. I was still on my bike, nothing really happened, the driver didn't stop, nor did I and I was too perplex to even scream or shout some curses. I was baffled, couldn't believe this had actually happened so I stopped and inspected my shoe, which had a black, silvery line where the car had touched it. I had always assumed that colliding with a car would instantly lead to serious injuries, if not death, so I was surprised about still being alive.
In a very ironic way I seemed to be incapable of dying, but getting close this day, in multiple and more ways than I'd ever thought would be possible.
I hadn't been riding reckless nor falling asleep on the bike and the driver wasn't too fast, it was just one second of some factors being slightly off, two objects colliding in space, one second of a driver being a bit unaware of a cyclist on the road, one moment that could have changed my life and in some ways it did.
I had once made a contract with myself, knowing too well that it can all be over in the blink of an eye, being often scared of getting injured or dying in an accident, knowing the risks and dangers of road cycling and therefore trying to squeeze as much out of it as possible.
Nonetheless, in this moment I was calm, because I finally understood what this contract meant, I knew one day I would die and I wasn't scared or sad about it. I was alive despite all what had happened, could have happened and would happen, and this was everything that counted.
It was day one. Welcome to the Zone.
I'm not sure if emotional numbness and near death experiences are things that happen to other people who ride ultra distances too, I guess everybody has different way to react to the intense physical stress of cycling all day in 30-45 °C, without much sleep.
It's one of those memories which never left me, even though I'm not sure if these kind of experiences count as memories after all.
When people sign up for ultra races they probably expect a lot, fun, great memories, a bit of pain maybe, some hard situations but I'm confident to say they probably don't expect this. At least I didn't and it wasn't even my first race.
I'm not saying everyone will have near death experiences, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend, but chances are good you might actually find something very different than what you expected before the journey began. To some, this is scary to others not worth it and I guarantee it's going to be disappointing when you're not ready to let certain things go and open your mind for whatever awaits you.
You can have it all, the beauty, the ice-cream, the people you meet and the stunning landscapes you'll pass. Still, all those happy moments, all these sunrises and beautiful sceneries, they all blur together in my memory and there aren't many of these retrospections which stick out, being memorable, even though there are so many delightful days and sights I witnessed.
It's those moments, the ones that change who you are and how you perceive life, the experiences which turn a simple bike trip into more than just a memory, more than a souvenir, a holiday. May it just be a purposeful hallucination, may it be the moment where you loose the fear of death, while understanding, that life is so much more than just a collection of time stamps.