Tuesday, November 24, 2015

El Tour -- Chapter Thirty One

According to my heart rate monitor, my beats-per-minute totaled 172. That meant I was ten BPM over my maximum. It likely also pointed to my imminent demise should I keep it up.

Oh well... I guess you have to expire from something, and this was as good a cause as any.

I was serving as a domestique for Kim Sooter, a cycling phenom looking to earn platinum in her first year riding the El Tour de Tucson. To do so, she would have to average well over 21 mph for 104 miles.

No problem for her, but it was going to be a problem for me. Good thing it was about time to hand her off to the next domestiques. We were serving as a kind of booster rocket to cut the wind so she could save energy and ride longer and faster, not that she really needed it.

For the last hour and some, I had been weaving in and out of packs of cyclists for the first 25 miles of the ride. The pace had been hot. The traffic chaotic. Crashes too common.

And I was really out of my league. I wasn't well trained and am getting a bit old for this level of riding. But you know how that goes. Kim marked every surge and stuck to my wheel like Velcro.

Eric Streeter was helping too. As a six-foot three teen-ager, he cut a mean swath through the wind. He too was smokin' along with the big dogs. To my eye, he didn't seem to be suffering as much as I was. But then he came alongside and announced that his heart-rate was over 200.

OK, at least we're both earning our keep, I thought.

When the road began to turn up, after about 24 miles, I had to ease off the gas.

Kim found her connections and took off with them like the rocket she was.

Eric and I settled in for a long, hard, good day on the bike. We had already burned a bunch of matches, and needed to drink, eat, and take it easy. The legs still had eighty miles of road to cover. The climbs were just beginning. It was time to cruise and soak up some scenery.

As we rolled along I got to talk a bit with Nelson Vails, "Nelly," and hear from him about his days as an Olympic track cyclist. Spectators rang bells and encouraged us to keep it up, yelling "good job," and other magic spells that somehow worked to give my heart a boost.

Watching Eric, I thought of his father, now gone, and the El Tours we did together. We suffered too. In his gallows humor about his melanoma he once told me he could "keep an eye" on some cooking pots as he extracted his prosthetic eye and moved to set it on the lid of the boiling pot. Very funny.

Eric's brother, Mark, had also ridden El Tour. Once with Team Colleen, a group that helped cancer survivors and family meet cycling goals, and once on his own. I remember seeing him in the front group, sitting up, his head much higher than everyone else's, flying by at 23 mph. He just looked at me and waved.

This El Tour, was now just Eric and myself. We settled in to the task and to the lessons of the day. We stayed together, supported each other, stopped when we needed to. We immersed ourselves in the pain that accompanies any hard effort and kept moving.

We took communion at the altar of shared endeavor and worked at finding the humor on the other side of a desire to complain. We had invited this physical challenge because we wanted to test ourselves, both physically and mentally.

El Tour serves as a harsh and inescapable yardstick of conditioning. You cannot hide or draw on strength that is not there. The body can only perform with what it has in the tank. El Tour is also mirror of the psyche. When you suffer, you see what you are made of, what depth of character you can draw from to keep going. Limitations rise in the mind. They dare you to step past them. As soon as you pass one, another pops up, and another. The urge to quit is constant nattering, and it takes practice to ignore the whiny voices, to smile, or grimace and push through.

Will knew this. He taught this to his sons. They are now learning it the hard way, through lived contact with the choice to persevere or pull out.

And there are times to eat, to drink, to take on fuel. Failing to do so spells disaster and breakdown. That's another lesson. No one answer works for all situations. Thinking in one track is the path of the fanatic and the idiot.

Eric, wiser than I am, made the call to pee, eat, drink, and stretch before the final push into downtown Tucson, 25 miles distant.

His dad and I had stopped at the same sag station five years ago. In adjacent Porta-Potties, we were relieving ourselves when he asked me, though the plastic walls, "Hey Erec, my pee is black. Does that mean anything?" "Nah," I replied. "It's just weakness leaving the body."

He, like Eric and I now, turned into the wind and rode to the finish. Eric and I took the same roads that Will had traveled the year he died. Eric and I marshaled the will to finish, to push ahead. We followed the examples set by generations of nut cases who set out to test themselves. All comfort gone, will stepped up to direct the effort. Just keep going I thought. And we did. We crossed the line together, as Will and I had, years before, relieved, grateful.


  1. Really beautifully written. I almost felt like I was there, and wish I had been. I have been curious about your connection to the Streeter kids, I thought there was something deep akin to blood there. Now I have a glimpse of that history. Much love and admiration!

  2. Brings back many great memories, Erec, of the times I rode the El Tour with you years ago. Thanks!

  3. I love when you share these stories, the emotions that are ever present but not always seen come to the surface in your writing. Such special moments to get to ride with each of them and their father as well.