This story does not end the way it was supposed to. I do not finish the ride. I do not make it over the Janeville Grade conquering my fear of long, fast descents. I do not ride into the sunrise on Friday morning, tired but satisfied in the knowledge that I can make it through a challenging 1200km.
I did start the Gold Rush with 74 other riders, and as predicted, I was on my own after the first 2 to 3 minutes on the road. Seriously. The second turn is 1.2 miles into the ride. When I made that left turn on Route 29, I could see tail lights way up ahead as the pack flew over the highway overpass. And then nothing. I was on my own. Ok, so even though I had told myself that I would not freak out when that happened, it was disconcerting to watch it happen so quickly. And I was maintaining a pace of 13-16 mph so wasn’t lollygagging my way down the road.
It did feel good to be riding after all of the nervous waiting around. Chatter about dealing with hot foot, saddle sores, the rain, and the hills had filled the pre-start air as each rider handled his or her nervous thoughts about the upcoming challenges. Just before 6pm, Dan Shadoan offered a short informational speech and then asked riders to line up on the road and then, with cowbells and cheers, we were on our way.
From 6pm until it got dark, I could see large open spaces around me as we passed cattle farms, orchards, sunflower fields, and corn. On one 15-mile stretch, there was an irrigation canal to my right. Lots of birds were engaged in a bit of water play, so I got to listen in on their chatter as they floated up and down on the air currents near the water. I felt lucky to be having this experience…the light was fading, and the birds were goofing around nearby but I was otherwise on my own. Open space, lots of it. And a big quiet.
The ride support was tremendous so that even for the first 60 miles, there was a volunteer waiting in a car at each major turn to make sure that I didn’t miss it. I was making good time for me even though I was off the back of the pack; at the first control, I had 2 hours in the bank. But I wasn’t feeling well. I’d had a sore shoulder since the morning after arriving in Davis but assumed it was due to sleeping badly in a not-so-soft bed so I tried to ignore it. I hoped that once the ride started, I would start to breathe better, loosen up, and the pain would disappear. Unfortunately that did not happen. My left shoulder became stiffer and more painful, and by the time I reached the Oroville control, I could not get back onto the bike seat after a stop sign without serious pain. Clearly I would not be able to stand up out the seat for climbs, nor would I be able to hang onto the brakes with both hands for descents.
The prospects for a successful finish seemed nil, and continuing past Oroville, into the hills and rain, seemed dangerous. I arrived in Oroville with 2 1/2 hours to spare but a left shoulder and arm that were painful and useless. I’d already tried several doses of ibuprofen and tylenol to no avail. I’d also tried deep breathing and talking myself through the pain but it kept getting worse. So this was it then… I’d prepared for this ride. I’d packed ointments, tape, and medicines in my drop bags to to handle the various pains and aches that develop when riding such a distance, but I did not have a way around whatever was going on with my shoulder.
After informing the volunteers that I was bagging the ride, and then verifying that two of them would be returning to Davis after they had a nap, there was nothing to do but try to rest for a bit. I lay down on a cot but really could not get the shoulder comfortable so didn’t sleep very much.
By 7:30am on Tuesday, just a little over 12 hours after the start of the ride, I was back at our hotel.
I’ve had the shoulder treated and while it might still be that I have a rotator cuff tear, it seems more likely (because it is somewhat better and I can sort of use my arm again) that I had a calcium deposit that broke loose and caused the intense pain. Obviously I could not prepare or plan for this possibility but, of course, I’ve spent a fair amount of time wondering if I could have done something differently.
I don’t think so. Mental and physical toughness is a requirement for this sport, but willfully putting oneself in danger and relying on volunteers to extract one from such a situation seems reckless and thoughtless to me.
I don’t quite have a handle on how to label this experience. I am glad that I started the ride, and I was happy to discover that my preparations were allowing me to move efficiently along the course. But the experience was over before the ride really got started. Another rider with a broken rear derailleur was also forced to DNF at Oroville, and a rider all the way from Japan fell and broke a hip just before reaching this control. We all hoped to finish the ride, so that unfulfilled aspiration will likely nag for a time. I need to make peace with not finishing the Gold Rush, and I am working on that.