Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Monday, February 29, 2016

Festive 500 - 2015

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, one definition of déjà vu is "something overly or unpleasantly familiar."

I have really struggled to write about my recent Festive 500 experience, in part because I keep coming back to this idea of déjà vu.

Something overly or unpleasantly familiar, eh? 

Why does it seem like I've written this before? Is there a new twist? Is this really a different post? 

We did our first Festive 500 challenge in 2011. Since then, the annual quest to ride 500km between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve has become a Blayley household tradition. Looking back, the first few years were almost too easy. While we had some bitterly cold days that first year, we didn't have much snow to contend with and I was healthy and unbroken. Because John and I have ridden year-round for many years, we have all the clothes and equipment for a variety of severe conditions. So the first couple of times we took on the challenge, it was more fun than a proper challenge.

For the 2013 edition, though, I faced what I thought at the time was my biggest challenge. In September of that year, I was out for a bike ride when I was hit from behind by an inattentive driver. But, and you may be surprised to see me say this, luck was on my side. Despite crushing my T11 vertebra and fracturing several others and most of my ribs, I didn't suffer any brain damage or break a leg or hip. I had a little tear in my liver, but no other internal organs were impacted. And possibly more importantly, the crash happened near a major trauma center where a great orthopedic surgeon put me back together with a few titanium rods and a lot of screws. Coincidentally, this same doctor had been out riding the same road earlier that morning. Luckily for me, his ride was uneventful, since he could fix me, but I wouldn't have been much help to him.

I spent months in a back brace with restricted activity. However, since my legs and hips were unaffected, I was able to walk a lot to maintain my sanity and some residual fitness. Then, just before Christmas, I was given permission to ride a bike. But the roads were icy, and PTSD may have played some role in my less than enthusiastic response to my new lack of restrictions. I just wasn't ready to hear trucks approaching from behind or to risk falling on slippery roads, doing further damage to my now fragile back. Instead, I added a major mental aspect to the physical challenge, by setting up my fixed gear bike on an indoor trainer, and I proceeded to pump out a mind numbing 500km indoors in 8 days. John logged his 500km the proper way on those sometimes icy roads with studded tires, warm clothing and lots of good company. Then he'd rush home and join me for walks outside to keep me from going completely insane.

In the months that followed, I continued to walk and snow-shoe.  Slowly, I gained confidence to ride outside. However, despite working so hard to rebuild strength through PT and cycling, my back pain continued. The doctor suggested that the hardware, which had been so critical to my healing, was now irritating the overlying muscles. So, in November, I went back under the knife for a titanium-ectomy. The hope was that, no longer having to share the same limited space, my muscles should cease to be in a constant state of spasm. Immediately after the surgery, I resumed doing long walks. Then, in December, I hopped on the back on the tandem for my first post-surgery ride. With the memory of those long hours on the trainer from the previous year still fresh in my mind, I was determined to complete the Festive 500 outside. But my fitness had taken a big hit over the previous 15 months. Now the physical challenge was real. I'll admit to accepting some assistance, as John and I did several of the RSC rides on the tandem. I've always considered the tandem as a fun way for us to ride together, as opposed to a performance enhancing drug. But I don't think I could have ridden so much, so soon without it! I did manage to get out on my single bike a few times as well, and again felt inspired after this intense week of riding that I would be back to normal soon.

Then the next two months were perhaps the snowiest I've ever experienced, and my bike sat idle while my cross-country skis got used every day in February. However, the winter that was so great for skiing was not so great for our house. In 2015, we learned way more than we ever wanted to know about ice dams. Almost a month passed without the temperature rising above freezing. At the same time we had several feet of snow on our roof. Sadly the insulation in our attic proved woefully inadequate and as heat escaped through the attic and rose through the roof, the pile of snow repeatedly melted from below and refroze. At some point, a wall of ice built up at the edge of the roof. Massive icicles hung from our gutters, giving clues that something was amiss. The freeze-thaw cycles continued, but the water was now trapped by the ice and, instead of running off the edge of the roof, it backed up through the shingles and into the house, where it ran along the studs and soaked the insulation, ceiling and walls. By the time we saw the first stains on the ceiling, the damage had been done. We did our best to get snow and ice off the roof, but the design of the house and proximity of the neighbor's house made that task difficult. John did he best to try and rake our roof from our neighbor's upstairs bathroom window, returning the favor by doing theirs from our house!

We spent hours researching and doing what we could to limit the damage, filling up the attic with fans to try and cool the roof as well as dry out insulation. We were surprised that one tip was to poke holes in the ceiling where drips started to stop the progression of water across the room. We had buckets everywhere catching these drips. Finally the sun came out and temperatures rose and the snow slowly disappeared from the roof.  

Fortunately the master insurance covered the costs of repairs but not the inconvenience. (Lesson learned: Be sure your insurance also covers temporary housing for things like ice dams.)

So many people in the area had damage that long waiting lists formed for contractors to do repairs. Workers came in from all around the country to help out. We were lucky, at least, to find a reputable company to start the remediation quickly, using a crew from Missouri. They pulled out our walls, ceiling and floors in our master bedroom, kitchen and dining room. All the wet insulation was removed, and industrial dehumidifiers were brought in to dry out what remained. They put up sheets of plastic to serve as containment walls to help keep down deconstruction dust as well aid in drying things out, and to keep the rest of the house a bit warmer, since the exterior walls were now exposed and had no insulation. Most of our kitchen cupboards had to be taken down to access the walls. Since we were told that it would be months before we could get contractors come back to do repairs, we had to sacrifice the counter top so we could still have a functioning kitchen sink in the interim. Once the walls and ceilings were dry, we had them take down the plastic containment walls in the kitchen and reconnect our appliances, so we could at least cook and eat at home.
With so much damage to our hardwood floors and an open floor plan, it soon became obvious that we'd actually have to move out to get the floors replaced and refinished. So at some point, we decided that if we had to go to the trouble of packing up and moving out, we might as well move.

I use the phrase, at some point, but I remember the date of that discussion quite vividly. It was the night before I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Regular blog readers know all this so I won't repeat too much more. If you are a new reader or have a short memory and want all the details, just click back through the blog entries from 2015. The reader's digest condensed version is that I was lucky enough to get a *curable* cancer. I started chemotherapy right away. We found and moved into a new house in western Massachusetts. We now have truly amazing riding right out the door. Repairs started on the old house the day after we moved out. Once the repairs were complete, we put that house on the market. I had a bilateral mastectomy in September, two years to the day after I broke my back. The old house sold in the autumn. I have continued to receive a targeted hormone therapy every three weeks and look forward to the conclusion of those treatments on March 3. And I rode and walked and kept active through it all. I even biked to chemotherapy treatments and walked 4 miles to the hospital the morning of my surgery. I did have to take some time off the bike after surgery, but once allowed back on the bike, I was right back at it, training, if you will, for the Festive 500 in December.

So, for those of you still with me, here's the déjà vu part. Here it is, yet another year where the Festive 500 is part of recovery from major trauma. Yet another year where the long rides are a proper physical challenge and yet another year where I can hope that doing all this riding over the holidays will serve as a spring board for me to return to a normal life and my former level of fitness.

We started out on Christmas Eve with amazingly mild temperatures. After John finished work in the morning, we hopped on our single bikes and climbed up to Warwick and Wendell, stopping numerous times to take off more layers! This was in stark contrast to that first Christmas Eve ride in 2011

Summer shoes in December!

Our friend, Pete, joined us on Christmas Day, as we made our way down to Northampton taking in lots of dirt roads along the way. Dunkin Donuts was a hopping spot on this day, to stop for coffee and snacks and a great Festive Christmas dinner!

Christmas window in Williamsburg

Pete and I at Poland Gate
Pete doing some festive descending

On Saturday, we joined Todd, Sean, and Caroline for a flat ride starting in Northampton and heading up to Montague for lunch. The temps had been falling steadily each day of the challenge and I was bundled up in warm clothing. Caroline, OTOH, seemed impervious to cold as she was in shorts and long sleeves. 

Sunday came with much less festive weather including lots of cold rain. Not to be deterred we took in some muddy roads as we headed up into southern Vermont.

The weather turned cooler and damper

A festive swing bridge!

Monday, John was back to work, so I climbed up to Ashfield on my own for lunch before a freezing descent back home. John got out after dark to take in some dirt roads up towards Leyden. One of my goals for the challenge was to cover lots of ground in our new neighborhood. We didn't do a bad job. This is a heat map from the last 10 days of December.

Of course, to make it a proper challenge, winter came roaring in on Tuesday with an ice storm and, sadly, our shoveling couldn't be Strava'd and therefore wouldn't count toward the challenge. On top of this, we then had the privilege of driving to Boston in this weather for more cancer treatments. We'd originally hoped to do the RSC ride on Wednesday, but the roads were still quite icy that morning and the studded tires were on bikes back in Greenfield.

So, we waited for the roads to clear a bit and then John and I headed out in the afternoon for a ride to RSC so I could knock off my final kilometers to get the 500km. We were also finally able to take a proper Festive 500 picture with some snow!

Summer in the warm sunny South, eh?

Then on Thursday, I headed into Cambridge for my every three week Herceptin infusion while John joined the folks at RSC for his final ride of the year and to complete his 500km. 

For the 2015 Festive 500, it seems like we had 4 seasons in one week, or at least three, as we started with unseasonably warm weather and finished off with cold and ice. The Festive 500 proved again to be a proper challenge, but has also provided a great kick start to a new year that will hopefully be far less drama-filled that recent years. 

This post has been sitting on my computer for ages. Mild weather has meant I've ignored the computer in favor of riding. We've had a few cold snaps and a little snow, which I've used as cross-training opportunities, getting out with my hiking boots and snowshoes - more excuses to ignore the computer. My final treatment is this Thursday and I am really looking forward to an empty calendar in coming months. I may be too superstitious to call myself a cancer-survivor, but I will say I survived treatment. And now it's time to look forward and take my renewed fitness and the kick-start from the Festive 500 into the 2016 season. Here's hoping for less drama and more stories of fun-filled, sunny, tailwind-enhanced bike rides.


  1. Way to go, RR! Happy new year!!!!

  2. Happy things have settled down for you. Perhaps I'll get up and share one of your rides soon. The variety of routes is a treasure.

  3. Considering what you've been through in the last 2 years, your upbeat and positive attitude is really inspirational! Good luck with the recovery.