I re-named it.
It’s called the “Montrealer” now.
Amtrak once operated a train called the “Montrealer.” It ran from Washington, DC to Montreal, and during each trip it rolled through the little town of Berlin, CT, a place where I spent many formative years as a kid. My buddies and I used to put pennies on the rails for the train wheels to flatten, and we’d always watch in awe as the Montrealer roared by, heading north to what seemed like an exotic and untouchable foreign land.
Earlier this year, I learned of an endurance cycling event, Solstice Ride 2021, an epic bike ride from Westport, CT to Montreal, that exotic and foreign land which seemed so unreachable in my youth. The ride, 400 plus miles with over 22,000 feet of climbing in just three days, struck me as mysteriously intoxicating. A ride that would force me to summon all my reserves of grit, tenacity, courage and resilience in order to finish? Definitely worth checking out.
A business colleague referred me to a 2019 ride finisher, and we spoke at length about the literal and metaphorical ups and downs of the ride, one capped at 25 riders. I did a little more due diligence, including a thorough review of the ride website, which said it best: “Completing this ride takes SAG support, a team effort and superb individual fitness. Crossing four states and an international border, all while traversing a diverse course, including a seven mile gravel section, and then combining that with unpredictable weather equals a challenge at every pedal stroke.”
Was I up for the challenge at every pedal stroke? I’ve never shied away from physical challenges, whether it was running marathons, competing in duathlons, playing college rugby, hiking up 12,688 feet in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness, skiing at Jackson Hole, often referred to as the most challenging ski resort in the country, or scuba diving in Grand Cayman.
The wording above the orange “REGISTER” button on the website asked the question “convinced you can do this?” Convinced I could do it, I hit the orange button and registered for the ride. I also registered for some group coaching because, frankly, I had dipped my toe into a new pond.
Once the “OMG what the hell have I done” moment passed, the hard core training commenced, guided by my new coach Torr. He provided me with two-week training blocks, which included volume rides (back to back three to four hour rides each weekend), hill interval work, strength training and recovery rides with easy to moderate tempo.
A cacophony of emotions enveloped me as I trained. Although I have ridden 100 miles many times in one day, my longest single day ride to date was a 105 mile hilly and hot trip. Could I do 400 plus miles over three successive days? Am I too old for this? Am I crazy to think I can do this? Do I have enough time to train? Can I stay injury-free during training? Am I chasing lost youth or the glory days?
After a few juicy rationalizations, and reflecting on my years of endurance running training, I concluded that yes, I could do this and no, I was not crazy. A Jimmy Buffett lyric came to mind: “Don’t know where I’m going. I don’t like where I’ve been. There may be no exit. But hell I’m going in.” Besides, I live for moments like this (see here).
I went about my training quite stealthily, telling very few people about the ride. Early morning rides. In the dark. In the rain. In the wind. In the cold. Mostly solo. As Tolstoy once said “it is a bad thing not to be able to stand solitude.” Fortunately, I can “do” solitude and it has served me well all these many years.
The numbers began to stack up. Over 2,000 miles of riding with almost 73,000 vertical feet climbed. For context, Mt. Everest rises 29,031 feet above sea level. In the month of May alone, I rode 807 miles and climbed over 35,520 vertical feet, a monthly number I had never achieved in all my years of riding.
But I knew I could not cheat or cut corners. I had to put in the time, ride the miles and climb the hills. During a recent visit to my cardiologist and a successful spin on the treadmill, he told me that “you can’t fake a stress test.” I figured out early on that you could not fake the training for the Solstice Ride.
The training, anticipation and anxiety continued, as did the inexorable march to the start line. Fingers crossed, I remained injury-free and generally pleased with how the training was falling in place. I focused on nutrition, getting enough rest and taking care of my legs (pretty important for the ride!). In other words, controlling what I could control, and not worrying about what I could not control.
Except one little thing. The US/Canadian border closure driven by the pandemic, one that was to have been lifted on May 21st. Blocking out bad thoughts about a border closure extension, I kept grinding the miles and the hills.
Twitter was ablaze on May 21st when the respective governments extended the border closure another 30 days, an extension running beyond the date of our scheduled border crossing. The ride organizer reached out to take everyone’s temperature and advise of three options: change the route of the third and final day, bump the ride to later this summer, or defer to 2022, reserving his right to make the final decision.
On May 31st, Torr emailed and told me that Solstice would defer to 2022. He “wanted [me] to know asap so [I] didn’t kill [my]self today now that weather is getting better in order to get mileage in.” Ironically (or not), this email hit my box two hours after I had ridden 63 miles and climbed 3,000 vertical feet earlier that morning in deliciously cold, windy and sloppy wet conditions.
The ride organizer emailed the riders to express his disappointment, but wrapped it in a very positive message, telling us he looks “forward to hosting this event next season and providing [us] the experience [we] are all so deserving of…”
When was Solstice Ride 2021 to have started? Today. June 18, 2021. Instead of jumping on my “Montrealer” this morning to start the arduous trek north to Montreal, I sat at home sipping cold brew coffee while reading the morning paper.
Am I disappointed? Absolutely. Am I despondent? Hell no. Have I learned from this experience? Without a doubt. I have zero regrets about registering for the event and having the confidence in myself to know I could do it. I have embraced the physical and emotional challenges of the increased training load, which I firmly believe have made me a stronger rider and better coach. Had you told me six months ago I had to hit targets like my May numbers, I would have fallen over laughing. But I’m not falling over, and I’m not laughing. There is still plenty of gas left in this 57 year old tank, and for that I am eternally grateful.
How about you? What disappointments have you had in these last 15 months? What losses have you suffered? What sadness have you experienced?
Few have escaped unscathed
Yet…we must have the courage to continue. We must. My thoughts here.
Hopefully, my “Montrealer” will get me there in 2022 as smoothly and safely as Amtrak delivered thousands of passengers over the years. Until then, pedal on.
Own the day. Own the weekend.