Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Rapha Festive 500 :: 2014 Edition

--Today we interrupt the way overdue series of posts from our trip to Ireland with a slightly more timely post about the 2014 edition of the Rapha Festive 500. But don't fret, I will finish the photo essay from Ireland, and next month I should even get the Oregon photos posted. ---

It's a slippery slope. You are used to being strong and fit and then you get injured. When you come back, you have memories of being strong and fit, but the legs and lungs seem to have forgotten. You get dropped. You are alone. It hurts. You get discouraged.

What do you do? Do you give up? It's a vicious circle. You want to get back to your old self. But you can't go fast or it hurts to go hard. So you ride slower. It hurts more. You ride slower still. And you are all alone. 

You feel like no one else has ever faced the challenges you now face. It's so easy for them. They are able to just come back. Why can't you?

Somehow you have to get back. Somehow you have to suppress those memories of how easy it used to be to go fast up this hill, how you could push through the pain, how much you enjoyed a long bike ride. 

Well let me tell you this: you are not alone. This does happen to others. But the Primrose Path will not take you back to the Garden of Eden or where-ever paradise is for you. Instead the journey back while ultimately rewarding, will be steep and thorny.

It's all too easy to fall into the pattern of going out too hard, too soon, with too many expectations and then getting discouraged. 

I've been battling this demon for a year and a half now. When I first got back on a bike after losing 6 months, due to that inattentive driver, I did take it easy. But I was impatient to get back to my old normal, and tried to ramp things up too fast. I got dropped. I was sad. 

Fortunately most of my friends enjoy my company enough to just chill and hang out with me since having company on a bike ride is always more fun that going it alone. And I will have to make Fear Rothar a little trophy for being the best-husband-ever. He was more than patient and encouraging. And he repeatedly suggested riding the tandem. Of course one is always guaranteed company when riding a tandem, but it has also allowed me go faster and push harder and this has really helped me to get stronger in the process.

007 tandem

Now I've always bristled when folks suggest that a stoker is getting a free ride on the tandem. So you'll still find yourself on my sh*t list if you say I've gotten a free ride, but I will absolutely admit that the tandem has given me an extra boost. And because I've been able to get out and enjoy the rides, I've kept at it. I have not gotten discouraged and I have managed to get some semblance of fitness back. 

I've worked really hard to come back from what could have been a truly devastating injury. And not just on the bike. I've walked and walked and walked. I've also been doing all sorts of strength training in PT and at home to try and rebuild a core that was never that strong to begin with, but really withered away while I was confined to the back brace. I've done stretches and weights and super-fun stuff like climbing and descending the steps at Harvard Stadium.

I also did what I said I never would do: I bought an indoor trainer. I spent a mind-numbing 25 hours pedaling my fixed gear bike on a CycleOps trainer for last year's Festive 500. It was bitter cold outside and I sympathized with John as he bundled up and went out to brave the cold and snow, while I wore just shorts and a crop top while using a fan in the uninsulated garage to prevent excessive over-heating. In spite of the frigid temperatures, at least John had company on his rides and interesting things to see. I just had a few murders to solve and some irreverent comedies to keep me company. It's good that my memory is so poor as I re-watched quite a few old DVDs. But my memory is still good enough that this fall that after I had surgery to remove the hardware that was so critical in my healing last year, but so irritated all the surrounding muscles that I had an almost constant spasm and persistent pain... Yep, my memory of last year's trainer sessions was good enough that I absolutely vowed not to repeat that particular feat.

quarter is for perspective. no actual money was removed during surgery

After trying everything else to relieve the pain, surgery was my last resort. The muscles lying atop the rods and screws were just not happy about sharing the space. I've really got no meat on my bones, and the screw heads were quite noticeable to the touch. With the bones all healed and the fusion quite stable, the hardware was no longer required, so I borrowed a line or two from Lady MacBeth:
Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!—One; two: why, then 'tis time to do't.—Hell is murky.
I scheduled the surgery for a time of year when I thought it would reasonable to have some down time. This autumn, we took two big trips as my last hurrahs before the surgery: the so-far undocumented trip to Oregon and the half-documented trip to Ireland. Then it was into the hospital for the titanium-ectomy. I also decided to have my collarbone hardware taken out at the same time. I figured if I was going to take time off for recovery, it just made sense to get two for one. Interestingly, it was the collarbone hardware that delayed my return to the bike. It turns out the plate that holds the collarbone in place while it heals, actually weakens the bone underneath.  So once it's out, it is much easier to break that bone (until the bone gets strong again).

weight-bearing to strengthen the shoulder

So I left the hospital in mid-November with these simple instructions: "Do not fall".

I also came home with some pretty good drugs and a new type of pain. The new pain was no longer the result of foreign objects in my body, but the fact that I had been sliced open and had muscles pushed out of the way so the surgeon could get his screwdriver in and remove those giant screws. Knowing how expensive titanium is, I asked to keep the parts, with hopes of making some piece of art someday. I must say I was shocked when I saw the size. No wonder it hurt! But compared to what I'd been living with for the last year, the surgical pain should be temporary. I'd just need to have some patience, admittedly not something I'm really known for having!

Anyway, thanks to the strong pain drugs, I spent a week being nauseated, until the misery of nausea so offset the pain that I moved to milder drugs that didn't make me want to puke all the time. I quickly got back into my routine of walking 5-10 miles a day, and even returned to the stadium. Fear Rothar set up my fixie on the trainer, and I reacquainted myself with the reason I own warm jackets and fenders. Riding indoors is seriously hard work and not what I call fun!

A little time passed and emails started showing up in my inbox from Rapha about their Women's Braver than the Elements ride as well as the Festive 500.

Oh right, when I picked mid-November as a good time for surgery, I hadn't thought much about Festive 500. I'm not sure why it slipped my mind, since it has been such a tradition in our home since 2011.

But I had doctor's orders of "Do not fall" and I was still having a lot of pain.  Yet those silly Rapha roundels are a strong motivator for me. However I knew there was simply no way that I'd put myself through the torture of sweating up a storm in the basement while re-watching Father Ted and Coupling, both infinity entertaining, but not even the likes of The Man with Too Many Legs could get me on an indoor bike for 25 hours over the holiday again.

Enter Fear Rothar and the tandem - and some amazingly unseasonable weather.

taking inspiration from hardy Vikings

The day before BTTE, we decided to go for a test ride on the road. I'd coped so far on the trainer, so we'd just see how I'd fare on the tandem. Fortuitously, the roads were dry with no snow in the forecast. There is just no way I would have risked icy or slippery conditions. I am simply not braver the those elements this year! We bundled up much warmer than usual, hoping to keep my battered muscles warm. We gingerly headed out on familiar roads over to Ride Studio Café, and surprised a few folks there when we showed up with the tandem. After a positive experience on the test ride, I asked for dispensation to bring a man-and-tandem on the woman's ride the next day.

Fortunately all the base miles prior to the surgery and the walking and stair climbing afterwards left me enough fitness that I could tolerate an all day ride on the tandem. At the end of the BTTE ride, Roger handed me my roundel and when I got home, I threw it onto the pile with other roundels from other challenges. But then I had a second look at them and thought about how many of these challenges have served as a special motivator. So I started thinking more about keeping my streak going and collecting a fourth Rapha Festive 500 patch.

So we did it! 

The weather cooperated perfectly. Some may even say that we had it easy this year. It was certainly milder here (for most of the week) than the previous 3 years, but after three really brutal editions, we kind of deserved a reprieve. Besides, we did have 3 days with a non-insubstantial amount of rain and the final two days were seasonably cold. Mild - It's all relative!

Yep, that's snow.

Aside from the less than epic weather, the other thing that made the Festive 500 truly enjoyable this year was the great community at Ride Studio Café. I've posted before about what a great job Rob and Patria have done fostering a real community spirit at what is clearly not your ordinary bike shop. I don't want to get too sappy, but we are truly lucky to have found Ride Studio Café, where friendship and support are just part of the deal. 

Our history with the Festive 500 goes back to 2011.  Inspired by the Ride to Redemption title of the challenge, we put together a series of Redemption themed rides, with many starting at RSC. We had company on a few of these rides, including a very memorable first ride with Henry Van den Broek, who claimed to be a cycling novice at the time. He braved bitter cold and proved to be a demon descender, drafting the tandem off of Mt Wachusett. I suppose we must thank Rapha and RSC for introducing us to such a great friend and awesome rider. 

The next year, in 2012, Fear Rothar and I led a series of rides from RSC every day, except Christmas Day, when instead Chez Blayley served as surrogate coffee shop.

In 2013, RSC hosted rides everyday and provided some very nice prizes and incentives. John joined most of these rides. I rode in the garage!

Then this year, RSC upped the ante by offering the incentive of donations to Lexington Nature Trust, MassBike and NEMBA for each rider who took part in a Festive 500 ride from the Studio.  And if that wasn't enough, RSC offered a special edition jersey for riders who took part in 6 of the 7 rides hosted by the shop. They know the lengths that some people will go to just to get a cool jersey!

Thanks to the various incentives, camaraderie and mild weather, there were as many as 50 or 60 riders on a some of the rides. Every day the Studio was packed with folks discussing how many more kilometers they had to reach the 500 goal. Maybe misery loves company! Except it wasn't misery. Having lots of folks out riding in sometimes tough winter conditions has been awesome. Thanks to RSC for being so supportive of this challenge, both in hosting rides, serving up great coffee and soup, and adding such nice incentives to the pot. Close to 30 riders successfully completed the whole challenge through RSC!

How it unfolded for us: 

The day before Christmas we hopped on the tandem and headed out early to pedal over to RSC. John had to work that day, but had arranged for a late start, so we could do at least half the ride.  The temperature was mild, although rain threatened to spoil the fun in the afternoon. Fortunately the really heavy showers held off until everyone got home.

It rained overnight threatening to short out the electronics in new elf-made Santa drones, being deployed for the first time this year to deliver gifts to good boys and girls. Reports are that the drone mission was successful. The skies cleared mid-morning on Thursday and John and I decided to repeat our original Christmas ride to Brimstone. But it was mild enough the Fire and Brimstone simply weren't needed this year. 

Weight-training. Note presence of actual train!

Friday, AKA the day to return unwanted gifts, Boxing Day, or St Stephens Day, was another unseasonably mild one, RSC was packed and 4 waves of cyclists headed out to explore roads on the north shore. We somehow got into a group of folks wearing shorts with PTHD emblazoned across their backsides. After a while John took in the subliminal message to Put The Hammer Down, and the hammer went down emphatically. I have to admit that it was freakin' fun to ride so fast. I could have eaten a banana sideways - well right up until I totally bonked because not only had I not eaten a banana sideways, I hadn't eaten anything other than a handful of nuts. My lower back was also screaming reminding me in no uncertain terms that it was less than 6 weeks from surgery, and pain signals were being delivered loud and clear.

Fortunately my pharmacist had provided me with some great drugs. And there was no anti-doping control.

After taking just one photo on Friday, we decided to make up for it on Saturday on our ride out to Harvard. Luckily our riding companions were also growing tired and humored our many photo-stops.

Sunday was the Snowflake Century. It seems that Rob had designed this route specifically to raise the value of Garmin shares. The map looks like a snowflake, with 6 branches and a gazillion turns. One quickly learns how to use a GPS on this route, or stick with someone who knows what they are doing.  We never got more than 8 miles from Lexington and there was a chance a refuel at RSC after each of the 6 legs. The motivation to get such a cool looking Strava track was strong, and despite the fact that my drugs weren't working so well after 4 legs, I was determined to complete the whole route. 

Monday was back to work for John. It was also the beginning of the end of mild conditions. I decided that despite being tired and ... oh did I mention that I was DONE? I had hit 500km on the second of six branches of the snowflake on Sunday, so I really was DONE and didn't need to ride any more kilometers. But silly me, I want that jersey, not just a roundel.

I remembered that my Seven needed some work after our trip to Ireland, so I pulled out my Honey and pumped the tires up to 50 pounds and just decided to see how far I could go, steering a bike myself. The route headed out to Ryers in North Reading, so along with the official route, I loaded one of my own that headed in that general direction but was much shorter. Freed from tandem duties, John pulled his fixed gear out of the moth-balls and we rode the 10ish miles together over to RSC. John needed to get back for work, so he just joined the group for the first few miles. I managed to hang on for 15 miles before crossing paths with my shortcut. It was about 14 miles farther than I'd thought I be able stay with the group! So needless to say, I was very happy. 

I see when they are open. But when are they closed?

The Tuesday ride was practically coming past our house. The temperature had finally turned seasonable, with a 20F start to the day, and the high was not even supposed to break freezing. We again rode over to RSC on single bikes, with me on my super comfy fat tired Honey and John on his fixie. This route was seriously urban and I was pleasantly surprised to see so many folks show up for this type of ride. Again I really didn't think I'd be able to hang with the group for more than a mile, so I had plotted various bailouts. However everyone seemed to be tired and feeling social and the group stayed together. John and I enticed a subset of the group to go astray past a cool mural in Watertown before cutting through paths and alleys to get back on the official route. 

With work waiting impatiently, John again had to head back early. I had just planned to ride as far as the Bellevue Water tower, which I believe is the highest point within the Boston City limits. However, I found myself with a nice group rolling along socially, so I kept going. I knew I was pushing my pain threshold, so when we reached a familiar spot in Readville, I finally left the group and headed back up to Bellevue for a photo. I quickly discovered what I had thought was fitness had actually in fact just been a favorable wind. I was now facing a lazy wind - the type that goes right through you rather than taking the path around. The problem with riding into a lazy wind in 24F temps and aiming for the highest point in Boston before descending our house, which at times seems as if it's in death valley, i.e. below sea level, is that I ended up a frozen little pixie when I reached home. Fortunately hot soup and cat cuddles helped thaw me. 

We had one more ride on New Year's Eve and the Rapha Festive 500 would be done for 2014. Thanks to the mild conditions and the motivation to ride everyday, John and I both managed to be overachievers, surpassing 500km emphatically.

Shane, emphasising the "festive" aspect of the Festive 500.

So thank you Rapha, Ride Studio Cafe and especially Fear Rothar for helping me to get back on the bike again. It's New Year's Day and I'm am pleasantly exhausted. I feel a level of fitness is returning and the pain is the good kind. Last year the new year brought a sense of relief that 2013 was over. 2014 brought new and different challenges and I'm looking forward to an even better 2015. 

And I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of another roundel for my collection! And a super cool jersey to wear with great pride!




  1. How great to have that kind of community where people will actually ride together!

    1. It is pretty awesome to have supportive folks on group rides

  2. Congratulations, Pamela! Wishing you a brilliant 2015.

  3. Fantastic accomplishment and that is some impressive hardware you had removed. Is it anodized surgical stainless?!
    Stoking on our tandems has increased my fitness considerably. It is a lot of fun for me to ride in the A+ group when we are on the bike together. We really enjoy riding together as we bridge the gap in our degree of fitness.

    1. The shiny silver piece was surgical stainless - it was for the collarbone. The anodized stuff was all titanium. Someday I have to ask the surgeon about the colors!

  4. Congratulations on recovering so well. And for being so brave to endure the physio, the surgeries, the scars. I know it seems impossible and endless but you've done amazingly well Having a tandem and someone you can ride with was such good fortune. The injuries may change you permanently in some ways, and have to accept it. I certainly endure alot of pain, especially in winter. For years after the accident I was just putting in commuting miles and minimal riding. Then I was inspired to seriously ride again but suffered for the past few years with illness and surgery that kept cycling to a minimum. I finally got "it" back this summer, gloriously happy even changing my body so much I got endless comments, which wasn't they goal, although I am certainly happy to have the high level of fitness back I was so long accustomed to.
    This does make me a bit wishful that my broken collar bone had been fixed properly, or that there would be an excuse to repair it properly now.

  5. I love reading this stuff - great style! Congrats on your recovery and attaining a level of fitness I hope I achieve by May ;-)

  6. man that is an epic adventure!