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Reflections on the Death Ride

By Marty Kaplan

I finally determined that all failures were from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel.” —  Francis Willard, a turn of the century women’s rights activist who learned to ride a bicycle at age 50

It’s no wonder the Death Ride has become such A Big Thing. Everything about it is larger than life – the long, steep climbs and blazing fast descents, the gorgeous panoramas, the lung-sucking altitude at which you’re riding, the sometimes scorching heat, the volume of riders coming at you in both directions, and the powerful thoughts and feelings that get triggered by all this. The Death Ride - no matter who you are - is never a neutral experience. And if you complete all five mountain passes and receive the coveted, 25 cent Finishers Pin, even the most jaded among us will feel a rush of pride. I know I do. 

But it’s a capital S Slog if ever there was one, made more fun by the people and characters that come out to cheer you on. I like the ladies of Ebbet’s Pass, this year decked out as lithe jungle girls, urging us riders to get crazy as we climb. And sure enough, just around the corner from their mountain den, the ascent gets crazy steep, and as my will wobbles I’m overcome with a barrage of distressing thoughts: I wonder how I’ll muster up the desire, much less the strength and focus, to endure another 80 miles of this. In the next instant I am convinced I’m done. Finished. Revealed finally as the fraud I am. Ugh. 

And then I remember I’ve been here before - many times actually - and that each time I’ve found my way through it. I begin by telling myself to relax my arms and shoulders, to take a few deep breaths, to get centered on the bike, and to keep pedaling, for god’s sake, just keep pedaling. I remind myself that all that matters is this moment, and that the ones coming up will somehow take care of themselves as long I take care of this one…and to just keep pedaling. I look around, take in the beauty, and feel gratitude for how fortunate indeed I am to be here now. And did I mention I keep pedaling? 

There is a Buddhist saying that “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” On the Death Ride if you let negative thoughts get the better of you, they indeed will - the lunch stop, at least by the time I get there, appears filled with defeated riders. I’ve found it useful to greet bad thoughts as I would grumpy, old friends, whom I quickly shoo away once they’ve worn out their welcome. Because this much is for sure; they will come knocking on the Death Ride. 

The last climb, 14 miles to Carson Pass and to the best ice cream sandwich in the world, is always the toughest for me. By this time in the ride I’ve pretty much had it. And to add insult to injury riders now share the road with cars in high speed traffic, on a steep climb, with a headwind, narrow shoulders, and fellow riders who are starting to look a little wobbly. The first 6 mile stretch to Pickett Junction, the final, blessed cutoff, is just plain mean. 

Once past the junction, however, the wind dies down, the road levels out and opens into a stunningly beautiful valley, with snow-capped mountains on either side of verdant, lush expanses. My breath is taken away, but this time for entirely different reasons. The air is moist, and I can hardly believe the exhilaration I feel. How is it possible, I wonder, that just moments ago I was so miserable and now I’m this elated? 

Renewed and yes, seemingly re-born, I make the slow, final ascent to the summit where I find myself in the company of other elated, ice-cream devouring souls. It feels heavenly up here, as does the fast, luxurious descent to the finish. It hadn’t occurred to me that I had started this ride with a question, but an answer seems to have found its way to me– I do this ride because it reminds me what I’m capable of if I allow my thoughts of desperation to flow through me like the air I’m breathing and if I keep moving forward one pedal stroke at a time. Life is good, sometimes even capital G good.