Today I was considering the season that lay ahead of me and I hearkened back to a particular event that carried with it a huge lesson. The event was the Mulholland Challenge and it’s completion, or lack thereof on my first attempt, was a turning point in my mental fortitude as a serious amateur triathlete. Thought I’d repost this story from April 2011. After all, some stories, like a good tomato sauce, are even more savory after they’ve had time to sit for awhile. Enjoy…
“Almost doesn’t count, except in horse shoes and hand grenades,” said my father an infinite amount of times when I would respond to a various plethora of queries with the token response “almost”. Whether the topic was something laughable as hitting the waste paper basket with a soiled kleenex, or more serious, pertaining to the completion of my pre-algebra homework, the term “almost” was almost always followed by the same predictable remark… “Almost doesn’t count, except in horse shoes and hand grenades.”
Well, on April 9, 2011, after almost finishing the Mulholland Challenge Century, a cycling event in the Santa Monica mountains, I have a slightly different opinion of that word and its connotation.
The day started like most of my weekend days in training for this summer’s upcoming Ironman triathlon. Up well before the dawn to meet up with training partners for a workout that makes me look like a crazy person to the non-triathletes in my life. Today’s workout, however, was something slightly different, and slightly even more peculiar, in that this particular event even made some of my triathlon buddies stop and contemplate my sanity. After all, with 112 miles, and approximately 12,500 feet of vertical gain, the Mulholland Challenge is a serious undertaking.
To top it off, the day started out just slightly above the freezing level, which is odd, and frankly, somewhat annoying for an April morning in Greater Los Angeles. It was so cold, I was forced to bundle up with a wool base layer beneath my jersey and jacket, a warm beanie beneath my helmet, leg warmers, arm warmers, and a neck/head gaiter that made me bear a striking resemblance to an Afghani freedom fighter circa 1980. Suffice it to say that it was seriously cold. And while there was no snow on the ground, the hills of Calabasas and Malibu were coated with a frost not unlike what you would find on the lawns of Westchester County, New York in early November.
We arrived in this Arctic tundra around 6:15 in the morning, suited up in all our cycling glory, loaded every inch of our pockets with nutritional items and essentials, and headed over to the host hotel to retrieve our bib numbers and timing chips. Hooking up with other athletes from our team in the lobby, we stalled for a bit, secretly praying for a bit of warmth to land on southern California, but the time had come to leave the safety of the Renaissance and begin our journey.
Now understand, that this part of the world is our training ground, our turf. I know these roads from having been up and down them countless times. The painful truth about the Mulholland Challenge is that this was to be the first time I went up and down practically ALL of them on the same day. I planned to be in the saddle for at least 9 hours, probably more.
The first couple hours were brutally cold. Within minutes of rolling out, my hands were so numb they felt as though they were freezing solid. Applying the brakes became a task to which I was forced to give increased attention. My toes, despite the neoprene toe warmers wrapping my shoes, were also beginning to freeze, allowing me to experience a twinge of frostbitten pain with each and every pedal stroke. The valley, that’s home to Malibu Creek state park, was white with frost, and my breath came through my kerchief like the exhalation of a smoker, having just lit up the first fag in a fresh box of Kools. All in all, not your typical southern California Saturday. The air was so cold, in fact, that it sent one of our teammates into a bout that seemed damn near hypothermic. As he was shaking violently and uncontrollably, we suddenly had a situation which could only be remedied with a solid “man-wich”, formed by two other athletes transforming icicle-boy into a piece of lunchmeat for a few minutes until a modicum of warmth returned to his frozen flesh. (Remind me to discuss weather reports and base layers at a later time)
Freezing temperatures eventually gave way to a persistent annoying chill that lasted the day. After descending a frigid Malibu Canyon we cruised south on the PCH for awhile, past the rows of homes on stilts that stand over the sand and water. We passed the Reel Inn, stimulating fond memories of fish tacos and beer on summer training days. We veered left onto Topanga Canyon Road and began to climb again. At the middle of Topanga Canyon Village, we turned onto Old Topanga Road, and proceeded up another pretty intense climb. I took notice of the properties for sale, the quiet rural nature of this part of the city, and imagined owning a home here. Rays of light coming through the trees, the sounds of spring birds in the woods, the warmth of the sun delicately mashed together with a sinfully chilling breeze penetrating my layers of clothing. Not a bad place to raise 2.5 children and a dog.
Descending Old Topanga was thrilling. I passed Ariel toward the top and maintained pace with Ryan down to the intersection of Mulholland. We took a left and headed up again. Less than a mile from the turn was the first checkpoint.
The Mulholland challenge meanders it’s way around a relatively small piece of the Santa Monica mountains, and repeats several stretches of road in it’s confounded this-way-and-that manner. At various points throughout the event, the rider passes check points whereat he receives a colored dot stuck to his bib. The rider must collect all five colored dots in order to receive a valid finishing time from the race officials. Failure to pass through all five checkpoints, and return with all five dots, will result in a DNF (Did Not Finish).
The first dot received, water bottles filled, bladders emptied, we were back on our way up Mulholland to our next goal, the Peter Strauss Ranch. Ten rolling miles with one solid climb through Malibu Creek Park and we arrived. The Peter Strauss Ranch has an interesting history, from which I will spare you in this particular essay, but it is now a lovely piece of land owned by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and home to oak, chaparral, hiking trails, babbling brooks, and apparently, our first fully stocked aid station. It was food.
There is nothing more delicious than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich after 40 miles of riding and before 72 more. We needed to eat…the Rock Store climb was next.
The establishment know as the Rock Store is one of those road side motorcycle diners where everyone with a Harley or a Ducati stops on a nice weekend day to drink coffee and compare tatoos, V-twins, and custom paint. To the cyclist “Rock Store” is the stretch of the Mulholland Highway that goes up and over a mountain pass just to the north of the diner. Rock Store and I have a similar love-hate relationship to the one I hold with New York City. I love to visit from time to time, but it just can’t be a part of my everyday life anymore. I love to summit Rock Store, but I hate it halfway through… Much like I love visiting the Big Apple, but am inevitably reminded, half way through my visit, why I left in the first place. I’m working on increasing the love…but the climb always throws me a curveball. That said, the views of the west valley are fantastic… all spread out below, gleaming in it’s greens and browns…soft fields of grass and wildflowers, against hills with large boulders and jagged cliffs…simply breathtaking.
A thousand feet off the valley floor, we regrouped at the summit of Rock Store, and continued on Mulholland. Our next stop was the checkpoint on the way to Yerba Buena road and our second dot.
Apparently, according to Genius, Yerba, is spanish for “herb”. Seems like there’s nothing wrong with riding a road that translates literally to “good herb”? Am I right? However, unlike it’s name suggests, this road sucks. I tell you, a strongly worded letter will be sent to the “road people”. It’s time to pave some good herb, mm’kay? Not only was it just a tad more jarring than clamping my head in a paint mixer, I’m quite convinced that had I had the ingredients for one in my individual pockets, I would have ended up, at the PCH, with a perfectly blended Margarita. I nearly lost control, and my lunch, several times on this descent. Profanity spewed so loud from my mouth, I think I insulted wildlife. Descents are supposed to be fun, but dammit…this one was not. Finally back on the PCH, we proceeded south toward Decker Road.
Now, Decker road is exhausting to drive up, let alone ride a bike. It’s only slightly less steep than a 50 foot brick wall, and just a tad bit harder to climb on a road bike, than it is to climb the south side of the Empire State Building on a beach cruiser. The first few hundreds yards of this climb are the worst. Out of the saddle, in the lowest gear possible, and I’m standing, plowing as hard as I can into the slowly moving cranks, on the verge of toppling over from lack of momentum, legs burning, eyes watering, praying for a break, or a priest, or a tiny gust of wind to give me a little push. It was steep, it was brutal, it was 4 miles long. “Livin the dream, brother,” I replied to a cyclist who had inquired about my well being along the slow ascent. And I certainly was. Reaching the top was an endorphin rush like you could never imagine. I was higher than Barak Obama in the acid years. The third dot received at the top of Decker was like pure gold.
A down hill here would be nice, and Encinal provided…for a minute…then up, up and away again to Mulholland and back to Peter Strauss, which, after climbing up Encinal Canyon road, was only a fast descent down Rock Store. Upon arrival at Peter Strauss I received my 4th, and what would turn out to be my final Dot, one shy of what I was required.
My best friend and training partner Kelly and I were both feeling the same way at this point…tired… an understatement, but a fair description, nonetheless. We were waffling about bailing out, but wanting to continue on to finish the ride. We had our first opportunity to bail out when we reached Cornell road. From here it was a short jaunt back to the start. Instead, I convinced Kelly that we could do it, that we had it in us to finish, and we continued on. The real struggle in my head began here. I knew that I was close to the end of my day, and I had major doubts that I would be able to push through the final loop on the course. It’s a climb I’ve done many times, but never after 80 miles of hard riding. Standing at the corner of Mulholland and Cornell I battled back the demons and pointed my bike ahead, rather than back, with a determination I truly knew to be slightly shallow. Doubt is a very powerful thing, especially when it questions one’s perseverance and will. We continued on.
Climbing back up over the hills of Malibu Creek Park we headed to Stunt road. We crossed Las Virgines, and the small climbs, that have seemed so innocuous in the past, began to feel like the rocky mountains. My body began to shiver from the cold breeze blowing through the valley. The clouds had shrouded the sun, and the afternoon air began it’s frosty bite again. I focused on the view, attempting to regain some strength from the beauty of the Calabasas woodlands. Though only rollers now, each ascent began to eat away at my spirit and while the daylight changed slowly, the darkness in my mind began to rapidly take over. Am I beaten if I don’t finish? How will I feel if I bail out now? What will I see when I find myself standing alone in my apartment, looking for reason on the face in the reflection in the bathroom mirror? What will my eyes divine? Does almost count this time, Dad?
It was about a half mile from the intersection when I called out to Kelly. This was it…it was time to bail.
It was a good idea, and Kelly agreed without hesitation. She had been ready to bail earlier. She said she didn’t want to leave by herself, but in truth, I think, in her unfailingly selfless nature, she saw my determination to reach the finish, and wanted to keep an eye out for me, to help me up, should I falter. I’m happy she stayed…allowing me the company of a friend as the battle continued to rage in my head for the half dozen miles home. We proceeded back via Agoura Road, a route itself littered with a few more rolling climbs…small hills that felt like huge obstacles in the 95th, 96th, and 97th miles of our pilgrimage. We completed the last stretch and up the driveway to the finish line having only made four of the five checkpoints. My garmin satellite watch read 98.1 miles, with 12,251 feet of elevation gain. An incomplete, but successful day, nonetheless.
We met briefly with our coach who had, amazingly, come out to greet us at the finish, and then proceeded inside to check ourselves back in. I gave my name, my dots were examined, and a DNF was written by my name. My first DNF. This choked me up a bit, but I was warm, I was with friends, and I was headed to eat an enormous sandwich.
In the last few miles of the ride, I began to think about what my Dad used to say. “Almost doesn’t count, except in horse shoes and hand grenades.” Looking back on my day a few things dawned on me, like so many important lessons. For one, I am not yet the cyclist I want to be. I didn’t have it in me this time to make it all the way, start to finish… only as far as “almost.” But when I remind myself that this is not the only finish line, not the only major challenge I will meet in life, not the only loss I will feel, not the only doubt I will face, I am somewhat comforted. This is a stepping stone on the journey of becoming not only the cyclist I want to be, but the athlete I want to be, the man I want to be. With the right dedication, all will come, in time, but more importantly I will experience that journey with my mind, my eyes, and my heart open.
I also learned once again to step back and see the forest for the trees, the big picture. My coach, who with one turn of phrase, showed me why he’s undoubtedly the right guide for my journey, said this to me when I rolled in with only 98 miles completed, a sense of disappointment somewhere behind my eyes…
“It was never about finishing, David. It was about starting.”
Whoa. Pause. Sink in. Read it again. Repeat as many times as necessary to comprehend.
It was always about starting… It was about knowing the brutal challenge that lay ahead, and still committing myself to showing up on this day and toeing that line, no matter what the outcome. It was about making the decision to put myself here, now, on a freezing morning in April and setting out with a single stroke of the pedals, allowing whatever was to happen, happen. It was about squeezing out my very last drop of blood and sweat and giving everything I had in the quest of a single, possibly unattainable goal. This is what Ironman is about. This is what life is about.
My challenges are so unbelievably insignificant in the grand scheme of things. As I sit down to write this essay, I do not fear the bombs and guns of war in my streets, nor do I fear the threat of oppression, my human rights being taken from me. Nuclear catastrophe is not knocking on my doorstep, my home and family have not been swallowed by the ocean, and the earth is not shaking violently beneath my feet…yet.
However, the challenges I choose to face are real, and still carry a weight that sometimes feels too heavy to bear. And, even though I may look longingly over my shoulder at the choice to stop and turn back with a lingering “what if”, the story of this race will always end in the reminder that I almost made it.
So I’m sorry, Dad. I’m gonna have to disagree with you this time. At 98 miles, around 12,000 feet of climbing, and 9 and a half hours in the saddle, “almost” certainly counts…
…at least in horse shoes, hand grenades, and century bike races.