I started The Casual Cyclist not just to reflect on what cycling means to me but as a way to grow my cycling community. I feel one way I can do that is allow other fellow cyclists a platform to share meaningful events in their cycling lives. Everyone remembers their first Gravel Century. Moments of self doubt, pain and frustration. Also though the exhilaration, friendships formed and that moment you realize you’re actually gonna make it. Finally that feeling of relief, accomplishment and pride as you roll toward the Finish Line. My friend Jaffar Agha experienced that feeling this past weekend at The LandRun 100. Here is his story in his own words. Enjoy.
– The Casual Cyclist
As I sit here typing, with my feet in a bucket of ice, I wanted to capture in words what I learned from my first gravel century ride. I have plenty of experience writing… but since this isn’t a police report, let’s see how the experience translates.
I think long distance cyclists are a very introspective people. I can’t help but retreat deep into my thoughts to dull the pain in my legs and the numbness in my hands. I think if I were to ever achieve Enlightenment it will be with my feet clipped in and wearing tight shorts.
We gathered in front of the Iron Monk Brewery in Stillwater to listen to Bobby Wintle in preparation for the 2016 Land Run 100. For three years I have traveled down south to attempt to complete the Land Run. It was the very first race I attempted back in 2014. Maybe I bit off more than I could chew. Maybe I neglected to take the red dirt hills of Oklahoma as serious as I should have in training and preparation. Either way, I barely made it over 40 miles before calling it quits. It wasn’t so much the lack of fitness which took me out. It was getting in my head after the first hill I had to dismount and walk up. It was telling myself “you aren’t ready for this”.
Maybe the introspection isn’t always a good thing. The mind can be a very dark place. As soon as I decided I could not, I would have never been able to finish that race.
I couldn’t help but resonate with Bobby as he hyped us for the race. He spoke of his endless quest to unlearn pavement. How we find ourselves lost in our minds as our bodies focus only on the next pedal stroke. On getting over the next hill. I’ll be honest, I felt so inspired I was ready to leave right then and there.
Following a nice dinner with fellow Emporians hosted by our DK drew, my wife and I retired to the hotel room for last minute prep. Having consulted with the Casual Cyclist himself, I decided to follow his game plan and throw some skinny tires on my wheels. I was going to go light. Usually I carry plenty of extra water and food. But you know what? Usually I don’t finish races, either. So I was going to carry just enough water and food to get me to the halfway point. Fortune favors the bold, right?
I wake up hours before dawn. It’s our first night away from the kids since my daughter was born last year so those of you with kids can imagine how wonderful the sleep was. A familiar thought runs through my head: what kind of person would be up this early putting on skintight clothes to purposely put their bodies through hours and hours of suffering? The best kind of people! I was about to share the day with almost 800 likeminded folk who share my love. I was still hyped up from the night before. And yeah, it had rained the night before and things looked to be shaping up like 2015. But the rain couldn’t dampen my spirits.
I love the energy given off by the crowds who see us off and welcome us back. So to the sound of cowbells and hollering, I began my journey. Just as much as the race organizers and volunteers, you people who come out to cheer us make these events what they are!
I started my ride with Uncle Dudley and Emporia’s Angela Spellman. They dropped me at the second or third hill. I always seem to cramp up within the first 5 miles of a race. It went away after I warmed up but I had lost my friends. So what’s your friendly neighborhood cop do? I make new friends. Now forgive me but I have forgotten all of your names. I’ll remember your bikes next year as my 2015 friend, “Erikson Titanium frame she got for an engagement ring” can attest. Riding with others makes the pain hurt a little less. Walking through mud with others makes the suck suck a little less. So it’s a good thing I met “Co-Motion tandem couple” and “wild single speed dude”. They helped make the transition to mud a little more fun. But alas, I had places to be and the food and water wouldn’t last forever. So I stepped on a little faster and left my new friends behind
The mud took hours to walk through, but wasn’t nearly as bad as last year. It wasn’t long until we were riding again. Then walking again. Then riding again! But hey, last year there was no riding between puddles. I finally came upon the skeleton of a cow we saw in the course preview pictures. That meant it was time to dismount and climb down the ravine to the creek. Or at least I would have had I not already dismounted thirty minutes ago. Maybe it’s the natural cop in me but I thought I would stick around and help others down into the creek bed. I saw a few people stumble and fall and there was no reason to let anyone get hurt.
After washing my bike in the creek, I climbed up the staircase (leaving behind one of the coolest features of the course) and the whole atmosphere of the day changed for me. I was starting to get a little bummed out from the walking. My average speed was dipped well below where I wanted to be. But as we traversed that forest path, the smell of fresh pine reinvigorating my spirits, I left all those worries behind and just focused on the next mile.
As soon as we were able to ride again, I found myself caught back up with Uncle Dudley. Now that is a man who can enjoy himself. Even through the grimace of exertion and hill climbing, I think I could make a smile out on his face the entire time. I was having a good time but I used almost half my water keeping mud off my rear derailleur. Between that and, you know…drinking it, I was almost out of water. And we still had almost 20 miles to Perry. So you can imagine my pure elation at seeing a surprise Oasis over the next hill. A man with a West African accent filled my bottles and my spirits. Not long after was the split for the 50 and 100 riders. I heard some grumbling from some 100 riders thinking about dropping half the course. The thought never crossed my mind. I had something to prove to myself and those that doubted me (my squad was taking bets on me dropping out). But I was determined to finish and I would show them how deep my resolve ran.
The last few miles before Perry was dry and fast hard pack. It was nice to kick it in gear and scream up some hills. I rolled in and found my ever loving wife waiting for me. Quick wash down of my bike and refill on food and water. It had been about 7 hours since the start of the race. I had hoped they would be forgiving in the cutoff time. When Carlie told me “if you have it in you, you can keep going” I quipped back with “oh I’m going”.
The second half of the course was a different beast. The elevation had taken a chill pill but the sun and wind had come out finally. I slowly watched my average speed tick up as I worked to catch up to my friends who left Perry before I had. My longest ride before this was somewhere above 70 miles doing the Law Enforcement Torch Ride for Kansas Special Olympics. That was a road ride with plenty of stops and rest periods. So soon after Perry I was finding myself crossing my own personal record for distance, though I had long left behind a personal record for exertion. I had the biggest smile on my face as I realized I wasn’t really that tired. Feeling a little lonely though. Every Jeep I came across was telling me I was creeping ever closer to Dudley. Somewhere around mile 85 there was another Oasis. The sun was long set so I was taken by surprise when I found them. I took some water and some motivation. They told me I was so close to getting back to Stillwater and the mugs upon mugs of free beer. I told them, sadly, I had to be back on duty at 6am and we have an 8 hour before shift no alcohol policy. Considering the time (and daylight savings stealing another hour from me) I wasn’t going to be able to imbibe. Well that sweet sweet man at the oasis poured me a beer from who knows where. Usually I am not a fan of bitter IPAs. Having sucked down nothing but sugary Gu for the last 10 hours, the bitterness was a welcome change. They also told me I missed Dudley and Angela by less than 5 minutes.
With the Iron Monk brew in my belly, I raced off as fast as I could. At mile 96 I caught back up to my friends. When my Garmin showed I had crossed that 100 mile mark, even though I was still miles from the finish, I raised a fist in the air in victory. When I finally crossed the finish line and finally, after three years, got my hug from Bobby, I was filled with such overwhelming happiness. I told Bobby that I had more fun out there than any single day of my life. He said he had remembered me from years past and remembered that I had never got a finish until today. It made me happy that he remembered who I was even though out interactions had been quite limited before. Promoters like him who really connect to the individuals make these events worth every painful pedal stroke.
I walked away from this race having learned so much. This race solidified my resolve as a person, as a cyclist, and as an athlete. I went in knowing your mental state is the deciding factor for endurance events such as this. However, the reinforcement of this assertion through fleeting moments of weakness and subsequent determination will carry me through the dark times ahead. I have trained to fight through pain when my life is on the line. Trained to take a face full of pepper spray and still finish the fight; to simulate the loss of an arm by firing and reloading a weapon one handed with my non dominant hand. It is certainly different when the stakes are lower such as bruised pride. Each race teaches me a lesson but this one changed how I think. I like to think perhaps this is the spirit of unlearning pavement. I hope those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to go down there make it one day. I have nothing but great things to say about that event. If you do, I’ll see you down there next year.
– Jaffar Agha