Labor Day September 4, 2017
An instinct kicked in the moment Stephen replied. This is going to take me to the edge of my ability. This wasn't going to be easy, Mt. Wilson never is. I wasn't in good climbing condition so I couldn't rely on strong physical ability. I had to go deep to make it, my mind would have to push me when my body failed me. I was going to venture far outside of my comfort zone. I was going outside the walls.
But First, Coffee
Riding a road bike often leads to peripheral interests such as a thirst for IPA's and coffee snobbery. My favorite coffee shop was down the street and I wanted to get an espresso in me before we took on Mt. Wilson. Anthony and Stephen were strong riders and I was going to need all the help I could get. From Highlight Coffee we went up Verdugo road and started the first segment of a 6,000 foot elevation climb.
The climb up Verdugo was casual. A cyclists lifeblood is his cadence on the pedals. A cadence of 70-80 is normal on the flats but on a climb that reduces significantly. Maintaining a cadence of 60 was my goal, never dipping below 50. A cadence below 50 means that your forward momentum is compromised and you begin to drift side to side to keep balance. A cadence of below 40 was death, I was determined not to die.
The Angeles Crest Highway
The weather had been unbearably hot. The recent fires in La Tuna and Burbank meant that the air quality in the Verdugo mountains was poor. Fortunately we had decent cloud coverage for a portion of the climb but when the sun came out it was punishing. Both water bottles were filled and I drank often to remain hydrated. Once we entered Highway 2 the pitch increased significantly. I fell off the back right away and was working on maintaining a constant yet slow pace.
Endurance sports are all about staving off fatigue for as long as possible. If you don't have a solid aerobic engine then you reach the point of fatigue sooner than someone aerobically fit. Weight is another big issue. If you are lighter than the energy pulling you backwards from moment to moment is less of an issue. When you are heavy you have to be stronger to put forth the same effort on the climb.
The road was one lane and we stayed on the right side to let motorists pass. We had to look out for rocks on the side of the road and be alert for motorcycles passing us quickly on the left. The slog was relentless, arduous. My legs still had life to them by the time we reached the top where the clouds met the road.
Clear Creek To Redbox
After a short break at Clear Creek station it was time to transcend the physical and get into the mental reserves. From Clear Creek to Redbox was where you left cell phone reception and entered the wilderness of Angeles National Forest.
It was only three miles to Redbox but the three miles were notorious. The gradient increased to 10% at times and the switchbacks were soul-crushing. Casual riders did not venture past this point. It was where you had to be some level of beast in order to make it to the end. For me, a cramp was already starting to develop in my right quadricep. I had both water bottles filled and was drinking often but all the water seemed to be coming out of my pores and onto the top tube of my frame.
I was no longer riding for pleasure. I was suffering. This was the purifying moment between order and chaos and I had to constantly decide not to allow myself to quit.
Stephen said, "I haven't seen that face for a long time!" He would know, I met him on this ride in 2014 when I first discovered the purifying pain of road cycling. We rode together ever since and even though he was better than me, I made myself attempt to rise to his level. What he saw was the face of suffering.
I made it a point to never complain. Never. I will go slow, I will take rests, but I will never inconvenience another person I'm riding with the fact that I'm tired or deconditioned. No one cares, if you can't handle the ride then don't clip in.
Stephen gave me half of his Cliff bar as I forgot to bring food and I continued. My cadence was dipping below 50. I forced the bike forward favoring my left leg. This wasn't just fatigue, this was pain. This is where the vast majority quit. To go further means that you must dive deep and push beyond what you thought you could.
Sweat pouring, my head was down staring into my stem. My hands were on the tops of the handlebars and all of my focus was on my legs. Keep turning the pedals, Phil.
Like an apparition from a mirage Redbox station appeared between two rock formations. This is where you go into the rare territory.
Mount Wilson Ascent
The mountain demands a sacrifice. If your sacrifice is worthy than you may ascend it. It will not hand over it's prize, it must be earned.
Just because you earned it a time before it doesn't mean that you will earn it at this juncture. It is never easy and it is only nominally easier every time you improve.
Like Sisyphus and the rock, you will push and it will be unreasonably difficult. You will pay with your blood. You will take yourself to a place of suffering so real and sobering that you transcend the physical realm. You will find a place within you that few have accessed.
By mile 2 of this climb I know what will happen if I stop. If I stop then the cramp in my right leg will recoil the muscle and render me useless on the bike. My partners who have pulled way ahead of me offer a stop and a respite. I turn them down, I cannot stop.
The pedals keep turning. I think about LOGOS, about sacrifice, about the nature of man in modern society. Early man understood that sacrifice pleased the Gods. They would sacrifice children, virgins to their pagan Gods. Modern man feels no need to sacrifice anything. The pain in my legs is too real. I picture my pain as meaning something. Something that would satisfy some mad pagan God who would find some sadistic pleasure in my suffering.
I feel my right quad as real as a foreign invader to my body. I feel where it attaches to my knee and comes into contact with my femur. I grin like a madman, a part of me feels like it is going mad. A part of me I am abandoning on the side of the mountain like a worn husk. Weakness is leaving me. I am only a central nervous system, an unbreakable spine and two legs that refuse to stop.
The climb relents halfway through and the gradient evens out. My legs are begging to stop turning the pedals but I know what that means. I keep spinning out my legs. I can't stop now.
Stephen and Anthony have pulled far ahead. I'm glad because they can't hear my incantations. I am letting the mountain know that I hope my sacrifice is worthy and that my pain will not be lost in the fog of the clouds surrounding its peak. I am on the verge of tears. I make a promise to the mountain. I will not stop until the end and in exchange it will burn away parts of my persona. The parts of me that are selfish, weak and ignorant. Burn that part of me away so that nothing remains of it . Burn it until it is ash polluting the valley below it.
I don't know how much more I can handle.
If not for meeting up with my compatriots at the peak I would have collapsed in a heap. I had nothing left.
Once we reach the final peak at Cosmic Cafe I unclip my right leg is ready to serve me a double portion of dull red pain.
DULL RED PAIN
Top five worst pains in my life, easy. The cramp extracts it toll and my right leg seizes up. I contemplate screaming at the top of my lungs but barely contain myself. I'm not a cryer by nature but if I was then the guests at Cosmic Cafe would have been treated to the sight of a grown man in spandex weeping like a child.
I shake out my legs and eventually the cramp goes away. We grab lunch and take pictures.
4 hours up, 30 minutes down. We didn't take this video but this is what it's like riding a bike down a mountain.
You must keep your wits about you. You have to be clear headed and conscious. Safe yet relaxed. Delicate and controlled with the brakes. It's a feeling unlike any other that I know of and it's difficult to translate unless you've done it. Your wheels spin wildly fast and you have to trust in your equipment. Cheap is very expensive on a 40 mph descent.
I had no legs when we got to the bottom. I couldn't even keep up on the straight downhill.
As I sit and write this my legs are sore and compensating for the trauma I put them through.
The Walled City
This is the place you and I live the vast majority of our lives. I'm writing this on a laptop far more advanced than anyone could imagine fifty years ago. I'm sitting in a building that won't catch fire with lights that won't fall on my head. I am surrounded by polite civilized people with no intent to murder me. Modern society has years and years of institutional structures in place to guarantee safety and security to the members of its society.
If you are reading this then the chances are that you sit in the pinnacle of privilege in first world society. This is the utopian dream of our predecessors despite all of modernity's shortcomings. The problem is that the walls can be breached. It happens when tragedy strikes, when structures fail and people suffer.
It's not a question of if, but when.
If you are not durable enough to withstand the breach, life will chew you up and spit you out. Suffering is a given in life. If suffering catches you off guard and you are thrown into a stressful situation you can fall apart to the point of trauma. If a little suffering is voluntary than a whole other physiological process occurs. You become stronger, more durable and competent. You become the person that people look to when chaos ensues, not the one who hides.
I recently read a book called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. This quote stuck with me:
Maybe I do these crazy bike rides because I spent so much of my life pampered. Kept in a delicate bubble and handled with kids gloves for so long. I never joined the military and served my country. I never did anything that would be considered exceptionally brave and selfless.
If I ever pushed myself in years past it was only temporary and banal. What have I really sacrificed?
I have been trying to venture outside the walls from time to time. To go outside of this walled city to catch a glimpse of the chaos that lies outside. To find out what I am truly capable of and see where the limits are. To test my mettle.
A good life will always be a life which requires sacrifice
You can always test your capabilities
For the mountain will always be steep