Cycling Marcia's Blog

Marcia’s Blog: My First Century

Marcia Brenner
Written by Marcia Brenner

There’s this movie, The Quick and the Dead, with Sharon Stone, that came out a number of years back. Sharon ends up in a showdown in cliché old west style with Gene Hackman who is some type of shooting savant, and just before they draw, he says, “You’re not fast enough for me!” and Sharon says, “Today I am.”

You can probably guess the end. Sorry if I ruined anything. It’s a pretty old film, but it’s also pretty standard in selling this idea: our body can summon superhero reserves when we really need and want them.

On Sunday, June 2nd I attempted my first Century, and my body said, “Not today.”

Ready to Roll

Ready to Roll

I knew going in I wasn’t at my peak. Sinus stuffiness was bugging me two days before, and then the day before the ride I jammed my left big toe into a metal table, knocking the nail loose enough to bleed profusely and the toe to swell a bit.  The night before the ride I got about five hours of sleep after a rather hectic day.

Six o’clock came too soon. Although members of my bike group were at the start, those doing the 100 had left as I arrived, and I feared waiting for the other group (who mainly consisted of riders doing 50 mile routes) would mean too late of a start. I started riding at 7:45, about 45 minutes behind schedule. The skies were overcast, and the temps moved between mid fifties to low sixties. Immediately upon peddling I felt mildly asthmatic, sinuses dripping, but about five miles in my breathing cleared up and I thought maybe the sun might show eventually. That’s also about when the winds started.

Midwest cycling is generally praised for it’s flat terrain, but in farmland areas you also get vast plains of open fields with no windbreaks. Although the route started off heading south, it quickly had turned west, then north, directly into some of the most relentless headwinds I’ve ever experienced. At the 17-mile rest stop I ate two chocolate chip cookies, a banana, a granola bar, and drank water and Gatorade. I felt comfortably warm, and considered taking a layer of pants off (I had long fitted pants on over my bike shorts) but after a few minutes off the bike a chill set in, and I heard riders in shorts and short sleeves complaining of the cold. I breaked for about ten minutes, left my layers on, and headed back out.

Into more headwinds. Grey waves of clouds rolled overhead, and no rays of sun made it past their barricades. In the loamy light, the rows of green soybean crops looked an eerie green. Ahead the asphalt stretched out to horizons that promised a distant tree or two, and in my head I would plead, “Let that be a break in the wind. Let that be a right turn.” But usually the road went straight, or left—west, and into more wind.

There was a brief relief around mile 30 when the looping route for those doing a Century (there were 35, 50, 62 and 75 mile routes as well) headed back east. At some point on that loop I met Todd, a rider in a green jersey who looked like he’d also about had it with the wind gods. He had planned on the 100, but said he felt zapped—he’d left the start doing about 18 mph, and fought the wind and came out with no reserves left. I offered him a Power Bar and we rode to the 42-mile rest spot together.

While we chowed down peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, peanuts, lemonade, oranges slices and more, Todd told me he just didn’t feel he had 100 in him that day. I thought about a conversation I’d had with Randi, the owner of my Pilates studio: her husband, a regular marathon runner, had finished this year’s Boston Marathon a few hours before the bombing, but at what was—for him—not a great time. He’d been dealing with a cold and Randi had said, “Sometimes, your body just says ‘Not today.’ And you have to listen.”

I practice Pilates and I teach Pilates, and although I preach “Listen to your body,” at times I am as guilty as the next person of choosing to be deaf. Sometimes it is the typical “I’m sick, but I have to go to work.” (And get everyone else sick…) I have lived with pain in shins and knees rather than face the fear of a serious diagnosis; I put off seeing a doctor after months of knee pain that delayed my Pilates certification, only to find out that the torn meniscus mainly needed a stronger anti-inflammatory than Advil; two steroid shots later and some knee strengthening and I’ve been pain-free for years.

Todd was in his late thirties and had done Centuries before. He was clearly in good shape, and yet I felt myself pitying him. He was quitting. It was hard not to feel that sense of failure. That is how we often look at things: we win, or we lose. The Udder Century was not a race, but I found myself referring to it as one, rather than a ride, several times in the weeks leading up to it.

I felt pretty good after replenishing at the 42-mile mark. Yes, certainly, I felt worked. Yes, there was a nagging gripping in my right calf, which I’d noticed a while back, but I never got calf cramps; I figured it would go away. Oddly, my left toe wasn’t bothering me. My boyfriend texted me to ask how I felt, and I replied “Great!” because it was true. He planned to meet me at the 79-mile rest stop. I said farewell to Todd and rode off.

 Marcia 2

Into wind. Again. This time, there was no relief. It was north and west all the way to the 61-mile rest point, and the only way to avoid straining was to stop riding—not an option. I had a couple choice moments of hurdling expletives at the lead sky. By now, most of the course had cleared out. I was often the lone cyclist for as far as the eye could see.  Normally, I enjoy riding alone, but the physical and mental strain of trying to keep going had sapped me of my enjoyment. This was no longer fun, as cycling generally is for me. There were no endorphins perking me up, no admiring of landscape vistas. By sheer luck I happened upon some folks from my bike group stopped at a marked turn. “Just another 12 miles into the wind, and then it’s all gravy on the way back,” someone said. We pushed on into a wall of wind.

The 61-mile rest stop was out of cookies. I ate six slices of sweet watermelon, and relished them although it was only about 55 degrees. The chill started to creep in. My whole body felt stiff, my legs in particular. The right calf hurt just walking now. I tried to stretch, but in my heart I was already thinking that this was not how I wanted to do a Century. Although I had planned a longer break at the 61, the wind had slowed my pace to just under 11mph, even though my exertion was between 13 to 15mph. The slower pace had eaten up too much time. It was 12:50pm, and if I wanted to make it back by 5pm, I had to leave. The course was supposed to close by five and time was tight.  Fifteen minutes break was all we could afford.

We took off. The wind was gone, but my body felt drained. I had trouble keeping up with my group and told them to go ahead. As I rode—alone, yet again—I started thinking about how and why I wanted to ride a Century. I was surprised at what I figured out.  I didn’t want to ride 100 miles; I wanted to ride 100 miles and feel good, feel strong—tired, sure—but strong.  And I wanted to have fun doing it because that’s what I usually feel biking—even on long rides. Although I liked challenging myself, the number of miles really was meaningless if I arrived injured. If I finished 100 miles and I wasn’t having any fun, what was the point?

And I was not having fun. I was feeling my right calf with each revolution of the pedal. I thought about injury, and what recovery time would be if I tore a muscle. Was finishing worth that? And it wasn’t. I texted Rob and told him I’d be bowing out at the 79.

Oddly, about mile 72 I started feeling more energized. The leg was still bugging me, but the exhaustion and malaise had lifted. (Turned out I was back up to 13.5mph for the 61-79 mile stretch.) A couple guys we’d left back at the 61 caught up with me and we rode and chatted and I thought about how important it is to have a ride buddy when the climate turns against you to keep your good humor.

I pulled in to Beck’s Woods—the same rest stop from Mile 42 was also the 79-mile rest stop—about ten minutes behind the group I’d fallen behind on. They inquired after me and I said I was quitting there, didn’t want to risk injury. I felt the same pity from them that I had felt for Todd, and it was hard to take. I felt myself wanting to finish just to say I’d done it. I assessed my body and felt that every part of me—except the calf—was physically able to do another 21 miles—but I knew that just wanting to not feel pity wasn’t a good enough reason to push myself. This was not the Olympics. It was not a movie. There were no lives at stake. “Are you sure?” Rob said. I was. I said goodbye and the group took off minutes later.

Later, after a hot shower and Chinese food, I melted into nap space before bedtime, then slept 10 hours solid. The first two days after the ride my body still felt tired and the sinus issues that had cleared up during the ride came back with a vengeance, plus some bronchitis to boot. I had to wonder how much of that I might have been internally fighting during the race on a level only my internal chemistry was aware of. This was a vastly different physical experience than the 82 miles I’d biked last August, when I had no tightness, soreness, or illness afterward. Monday the calf was still stiff when I walked. Friday my regular massage guru Dyan worked out a pretty nice knot in the calf, along with teeth-gnashing knots in my left foot, calf and upper quad. I realized the tightness in my left leg and foot, exacerbated by my toe injury, likely had me favoring the right leg, hence my straining it. 

I thought maybe the decision not to finish would bother me later, but it hasn’t. I have been reminded that my mind and my body aren’t always in sync. Sometimes my body wants healthy food and I want a beer. Or I want to be well and energized, but my body is battling a cold. We have to compromise with each other.

All in all, I have to say the experience of not completing my first Century is one I am proud of. I listened to my body. I did not injure myself. Wanting to finish a Century is very different from having to finish a Century.  I know how easily a workout can go from something fun to a chore, and I don’t want cycling to be that. And on Sunday June 23rd there’s another Century. I’m gonna see how my body (and my mind) feel this next week. This was my first attempt at a Century, but it won’t be my last.

At mile 80. Finished with this ride, but not defeated.

At mile 80. Finished with this ride, but not defeated.

About the author

Marcia Brenner

Marcia Brenner

Marcia Brenner is an adjunct in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. She has published short stories, essays, nonfiction, garnering awards from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and the Better Business Bureau. In 2006 she’d had enough with being overweight; she joined Weight Watchers, lost over 90 pounds, rediscovered her long-abandoned bicycle and fell in love with Pilates. She now combines her love of metaphors with bodywork by teaching Classical Pilates at Chicago’s Frog Temple, where she is a certified Pre and Postnatal Specialist. She explores the battle for life and health balance on her website, GreatBalancingAct.com

Leave a Comment