Back when Patrick, my first tri coach, asked me what I wanted to accomplish this year, I included the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred. Sitting in a coffee shop a few days later looking over my event “wish list,” he asked what distance I wanted to ride, to which I meekly answered, “I’d like to do the full hundred if possible.” I was surprised when he said it seemed doable. As we packed up the truck to head for Wichita Falls this last Friday, it occurred to me that I’ve spent more hard-focused time on consistently training for this event than I have preparing for any single thing in my life other than college — and that doesn’t count the three years of general fitness work prior to January or the three months of tri-specific group training Audra and I did before I started working with my coach.

It also occurred to me that one way or the other, I’d find out the value of that training the next day.

Pre-Ride

I’ve been excited about this year’s Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred for some time. So not surprisingly, I arranged my schedule to arrive nice and early. Mitch, Audra, and I caravanned into Wichita Falls Friday afternoon in time to pick up our packets at the Multi-Purpose Event Center, Wichita Falls’ one conference building. Nine of every ten cars we saw on the road carried bikes, and when we arrived cyclists already filled the MPEC parking lot. Incredibly, packet pickup was still easy — no small feat for an event with over 10,000 participants, many from out of town.

Every car coming and going in Wichita Falls had one or more bikes on the back.

Every car coming and going in Wichita Falls had one or more bikes on the back.

Folks check out the course map in the packet pickup room.

Folks check out the path of their ride in the packet pickup room.

We also took a little time to check out the event’s expo, where pretty much every bike shop in North Texas displayed their wares for sale. Audra scored a cycling jersey and a couple other items of clothing. I bought a packet of orange-flavored Skratch (my second favorite after raspberry), some HHH100 socks (damn I love event socks), and (of course) one of the official HHH100 short-sleeve jerseys.

The expo is as massive as the ride.

The expo is as massive as the ride.

Audra picks just the right tech shirt.

Audra picks just the right tech shirt.

Afterward we headed to my mother’s house in Burkburnett where we met up with Teri, made some dinner, and got as much sleep as possible.

Four o’clock came around early Saturday morning, but it was still fun waking up and foraging for breakfast with everyone. After our standard oatmeal, egg whites, and banana, we loaded up the bikes and gear and headed to the MPEC. Incredibly, parking was quite easy. I said goodbye to Audra, wishing her a good ride, then met up with Mitch and shortly later with Teri, where we all headed to the start.

The Ride

With 10,000+ riders waiting to hit the road, the HHH’s start is staggered, taking up about six or eight downtown city blocks. Up front are the people participating in the USAC 100-mile race; they start at 6:45 a.m., about 20 minutes before they release the first of the “endurance ride” group (read: the rest of us). Behind the racers, a block or two is dedicated to “scorchers” — people registered for the 100-mile endurance ride with a predicted finishing time of less than six hours. Next come the “keepers,” or 100-milers predicting a six-to-eight-hour finish. Then “hopefuls,” who predict an 8+ hour 100-mile finish. Behind that are corrals for each mileage group: 100k, 50 mile, and 25 mile.

L to R: Me, Teri, Mitch. As you can see, I'm still asleep.

L to R: Me, Teri, Mitch. As you can see, I’m still asleep.

Teri, Mitch, and I all started in the “keepers” corral, which was pretty full by 6:30 a.m. In reality, there’s no one checking bibs to prevent anyone from starting pretty much wherever they like (outside the race group), and indeed some people start farther forward than their group’s specified area. (Later we saw quite a few people turning off on the 25 and 50-mile splits, indicating that they’d started ahead of us.)

"Keepers" (of Hell's Gate) relax in pre-dawn calm before the start.

“Keepers” (of Hell’s Gate) relax in pre-dawn calm before the start.

Most local events, even in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, are lucky to draw a few hundred participants. Around 1,000 started the Red River Rally, for example. But these numbers pale compared to the mass that queues up downtown in Wichita Falls. It’s incredible. There’s an electric charge in the air. Everyone knows they’re doing something special.

The crowd thickens as the sun rises and streetlights dim.

The crowd thickens as the sun rises and streetlights dim.

In between each starting group is a truck parked in the middle of an intersection. Each truck tows a trailer, tied to which is a huge inflatable cylinder with a label indicating a starting group. As each group starts — about 5 to 20 minutes after the last of the preceding group’s corral empties onto the course — the truck in front of them pulls away to a side road. Even then, a few minutes pass between the time the truck moves and the time the people around you in the corral move. There are just that many people. The cannon fired (literally, with a “BOOM”) right on schedule at 7:05 a.m., and we were underway just after 7:15.

Looking back toward the "hopefuls," which begin just behind the red traffic light.

Looking back toward the “hopefuls,” which begin just behind the red traffic light.

With so many people on the road, the HHH start can be notoriously dicey. Some slower folks start up front, and some faster folks start farther back, resulting in a whole lot of passing in the first 10 miles or so. Thankfully, the roads at the start are pretty much completely closed off to traffic in either direction, so there’s lots of room for everyone to do crazy things like pass on the right (at huge closing speeds), ride three four or five abreast with the whole family, or dive for the sides of the road on a whim. This year wasn’t as bad as others, though, and we had a relatively clean start.

Photo courtesy of event staff/Kerry.

A sea of cyclists, each starting his or her own adventure. Photo courtesy of event staff/Kerry.

We skipped the first rest stop, and soon after we started to see accidents, including a couple bad enough to stop the entire ride group temporarily. We ran into the first of these about 45 minutes and 11 miles in. A rider had crashed hard, and the resulting emergency staff blocked the road completely. Maybe it’s just the communications geek in me; I was fascinated watching the ginormous group of riders pass information back and forth. The automobile traffic patterns we experience in rush hour are opportunistic, with each driver looking to take advantage of any gap offered by others, no matter the reason for the gap. The HHH cyclists’ behavior was the polar opposite: as we approached the accident, cries of “accident on right!” repeated backwards through the group, and we all edged toward the left of the road. Then as an ambulance approached from the rear, “ambulance back left!” echoed forward, and the peloton quickly morphed and compressed left, making a hole for the life-saving crew.

With the ambulance treating the injured rider, we wait for the crew to clear a hole for us.

With the ambulance treating the injured rider, we wait for the crew to clear a hole for us.

We enjoyed the renewed huge draft from the riders all in close proximity after the accident, but soon we were back on our own, picking up some speed in our own little three-person paceline for the first time of the day. I sure hope everyone was okay after that first accident.

Riding with good friends in the cool morning air. A happy moment in life.

Riding with good friends in the cool morning air. A happy moment in life.

A little easy riding later we rolled into our first stop, where Kerry headed off in search of sunscreen — he’d forgotten his, but they keep a supply at each rest stop’s medical tent — while Mitch and I sought out water refills. When you think “rest stop,” you might envision a small shelter with a couple of people and a cooler. HHH rest stops — especially the early ones shared by the 50-mile, 100k, and 100-mile routes — are more like temporary cities where hundreds of people congregate seeking food, water, and help with innumerable problems ranging from a hankering for a cookie to life-threatening injuries (and everything in between). Bikes are everywhere.

This crowd continues across a 180-degree field of view. You only see part of it here!

This crowd continues across a 180-degree field of view. You only see part of it!

Each year different businesses from around Wichita Falls volunteer to provide material for and operate rest stops, and they take a lot of pride in their work. This stop offered water, sports drink, ice (in quantity), at least six different kinds of cookies, energy bars, bananas, chilled citrus fruits, and watermelon. Despite the crowds, lines were short. I waited about 5 minutes to get full refills of ice water — the longest I waited all day.

The rest stop smorgasbord. Also: probably a wizard, no need for bikes.

A rest stop smorgasbord. Also: probably a wizard, no need for bikes.

As I waited behind a couple of riders to get some water later in the day, a little girl (maybe six or eight years old) asked over and over again for her mother to let her take the pitcher and refill our bottles. When I stepped up, the mother finally gave in, and the girl very, very carefully filled my bottle with just the right mix of water and ice. I thanked her, and she flashed a huge smile. Then she posed with the bottle and her mother took a picture. It was awesome. The whole day felt like that, everyone enjoying being a part of something great.

L to R, Kerry's Tarmac and my Orbea, conveniently leaned on a state highway sign.

L to R, Kerry’s Tarmac and my Orbea, conveniently leaned on a state highway sign.

Bikes are leaned against everything at stops -- including other bikes.

Bikes are leaned against everything at stops — including other bikes.

Back on the road, Kerry, Mitch, and I spread out a bit from time to time, but mostly retained our little pace line. Pointing out that I had the most time to put into training, Kerry and Mitch volunteered me to pull. (I was happy to do it. One or the other of them has pulled me through life often.) I could tell we had a bit of a tailwind because it was easy to talk back and forth down the line.

Mitch rides off the front for a bit. Still lots of riders on the road around us.

Still lots of riders on the road around us.

We stopped next in the small town of Electra. As we passed the city limits sign, I commented to Kerry that though I’d heard the town’s name many times, I didn’t remember ever actually visiting it. He suggested that we probably had at some point, but just didn’t know it. I bet he’s right, too. These small towns all play football or other sports together, and as band geeks we had probably interacted with them sometime.

They picked a great spot for the rest stop. This was a photo op for everyone. Nice Cervelo, too.

They picked a great spot for the rest stop. This was a photo op for everyone. Nice Cervélo, too.

Electra is officially "stop 3." Later in the course the numbers don't exactly line up with each ride.

Electra is officially “stop 3.” Later in the course the numbers don’t exactly line up with each ride distance.

This stop served as a great example of how the HHH brings together a number of different cultures which normally remain painfully separate. Growing up in North Texas, I didn’t feel any overabundance of bike culture. We had a couple of bike shops, and as kids, we had bikes. But I didn’t meet anyone who used a bike as primary transportation until college in Florida, and then it was just one guy — who most people thought was a little weird because of it. Health and nutrition — which often accompanies cycling, as it’s important to anyone whose joys involve exercising regularly — isn’t something you hear much about in rural Texas, either. Look at the data, and you can see how southern comfort food standards affect all of Texas, with the CDC reporting 65.9% of adult Texans overweight and 31.1% obese. Without the big-town population to support minority groups’ desires for healthy food and activity, options in places like Wichita Falls (or Burkburnett, Electra, etc.) are limited. Bike culture, whether bike commuting or performance group rides and events, is, in my experience, more of an urban than rural phenomenon, at least among everyday folks.

But at the same time I don’t remember as a kid and young adult feeling the same level of hate directed toward cyclists in rural Texas that we experience at home in the Dallas area. I suspect this may have more to do with the lack of heavy traffic (and resulting road rage) than with specific cycling-friendliness. Devoid of daily back-ups and accidents, natural tendencies override the urban perceived need to hold one’s ground and fight for every inch of pavement. In rural areas, those tendencies are to help other people out if you can, and (hey!) to not hit things with your vehicle, especially people. So you get this weird exercise-hostile yet bike-friendly mashup vibe.

No matter what distance you ride at the HHH, be it 25 miles or 100, you see every kind of rider imaginable, from high-performance badasses to grandpas on flat-pedaled mountain bikes. It’s a wild mix, and it’s another reason the HHH is so unique.

Cultures collide.

Cultures collide.

Leaving Electra, Kerry let Mitch and I know that he intended to take a shorter route to the finish and that we should go ahead and drop him whenever we felt like it. As we approached the next rest stop (about 50 miles into the ride), Mitch and I had pulled about a quarter mile ahead of Kerry, and we decided to skip the stop. It was cool out, and we had plenty of water. Plus, we wanted to make up a little of the time we’d spent taking extra-long early stops.

The HHH 100-mile route (according to my Garmin 800).

The HHH 100-mile route (according to my Garmin 800).

You always have to be very careful traversing the rest stop areas, especially if you don’t plan to stop. With hundreds or even thousands of people mounting and dismounting, it’s best to slow down and take your time to avoid collisions and other weirdness. That’s just what we did, and we cleared the stop cleanly.

However, a couple hundred yards past the stop I felt a twitch in my bike, corrected, and turned around just in time to see Mitch go down hard. (Later we figured out that he looked back at the rest stop and veered over, clipping my rear wheel.) He took the fall incredibly well, rolling over onto his back as he unclipped from the pedals. Still, it was a massive crash. He immediately stood up and headed back to the rest stop. I dismounted and walked both bikes back.

The medial staff — including six doctors — at the aid station took good care of Mitch, helping him out of his jersey and cleaning/dressing his wounds. With no one else seeking help at that moment, the team descended on him, working on him from all angles. Honestly, it looked like a Nascar pit stop.

The doctors said most of their business Saturday was abrasions, with a few broken bones.

The doctors said most of their business Saturday was abrasions, with a few broken bones.

Doctors clean and wrap Mitch's road rash.

Doctors clean and wrap Mitch’s road rash.

While they cleaned Mitch up, Kerry and I took a look at his bike — the same old 1980s Giant I rode in my last two HHH adventures. Surprisingly, it took little damage. I bent the handlebar straight, and Kerry straightened the STI shift/brake lever. Kerry held the bike off the ground and pedaled while I shifted through the gears. That tank of a bike didn’t even require adjustment.

The doctors cleared Mitch to continue if he wished, and though his quads, hamstrings, and calves cramped whenever he pushed hard, he decided to soldier on. After some easy spinning they started to loosen up, though, and he was riding strong — if hurting.

By this time I was concerned that if I spent as much time at the next few rest stops as I did at the first three, I might miss the Hell’s Gate closure at 12:30; plus the temperature was already starting to creep up beyond the weatherman’s prediction, suggesting they might close the Gate early. So once I saw that Mitch was OK (and especially considering that Kerry planned to ride with him since Kerry wanted a slower, easier ride as well) I headed off on my own. I reached the next stop — just outside of Burkburnett — not long after that, and made a quick stop for water.

Many of the HHH rest stops are themed. This one came with palm trees and trucked-in sand.

Many of the HHH rest stops are themed. This one came with palm trees and trucked-in sand.

You can see the palm trees off in the distance.

You can see the palm trees off in the distance.

As I clipped in to leave, I saw Mitch and Kerry ride in amongst a large group. I hollered to them, but they couldn’t hear me.

Entering my hometown.

Entering my hometown.

Some of my HHH ride so far (after the first 10-20 miles) was unique to the 100-mile route and was therefore entirely new to me, but it turned out that the 100-mile ride took me right into the back side of Burkburnett and down main street just like last year’s 100k ride. Right as we rode into town, I introduced myself to a group of riders who’d driven up from San Antonio for the day. Together we rode into “downtown.”

I remember some friends from high school lived along this road.

I remember some friends from high school lived along this road. This group all planned to return to San Antonio Saturday night after the ride.

One of the guys in the San Antonio group had a tiny Bose boombox strapped to a pannier mount on the back of his bike. Connected to an iPod, it blared out tunes for the group and anyone lucky enough to ride nearby. As we blew down main street, the Bose blasted out “Sweet Home Alabama.” It seemed oddly appropriate.

This was a strange moment for me. I’m generally a pretty high-stress guy, and I deal with a lot of anxiety issues. For various reasons, I can’t relax or sleep right until everything is in its rightful place and on track. I work mostly as a contract project manager, and my worrying makes me good at what I do. But projects rarely work smoothly. People take different tacks, think differently, and butt heads. Clients expect the impossible and holler a lot sometimes, and contract team members get angry about working conditions. My job is to heat-sink the frustration from all sides, taking it out of the equation and keeping things productive. But being good at my job gives me nightmares. A confrontation between team members, even when settled, leaves me unsettled. When that pent-up frustration releases in my personal life, it leads to everything from depression to panic attacks.

I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, but for a brief moment I actually teared up a bit riding into my old hometown. For a few minutes as I rode swiftly along with the group listening to the tune and remembering times from childhood, I forgot about the angry clients and team members, the money problems I’m working to fix, and the difficulties posed by my own inadequacies, past and present. The feeling of my strong legs under me, pushing me along at 20+ MPH at well past the 50-mile point in the ride, the cool air — everything about the moment just pushed that mess from my mind, and I felt an unearthly freedom.

In hindsight, I think there was a lot of symbolism in the experience of that moment. No matter where we grow up or in what situation, we all harbor some fond memories of youth. We find joy, it seems, wherever we can. “Sweet Home Alabama” tries, like so many Southerners do, to reconcile those happy memories of youth with the horrifying reality of Southern racism and ugliness we see in the mirror of time. Likewise, I rode through a place loaded with some happy and so many difficult memories, yet I rode with a group of people that were as foreign to the place (and those past experiences) as people could possibly be. The bright colors of our kit stood out in relief from the drab, run-down buildings in the same way my new life stands out from my old one.

In past years riding the HHH, I was scared — worried that I might not finish. I was right to worry; without proper training leading up to the event, it’s a crap shoot whether you’ll finish. By the time I got to Burk previously, I was hurting. Finishing became a feat of overreaching and suffering, not fitness. I suffer this same kind of fear that I’ll lose the happiness I’ve found in recent years — that my own ineptitude will destroy my health, lose my new friends, and leave me alone and directionless again. But the strong legs underneath me reminded me that I wasn’t afraid this day. I was prepared. The similarity to my life wasn’t lost on me. Like my recent discovery that endurance is mine for the training, I realized that a permanent new, higher-quality life is mine, assuming I’m willing to be patient and do the work required to build it.

"Downtown" Burkburnett.

“Downtown” Burkburnett.

Downtown was telling, too. Most small towns have a “main street” drag where 30-40 years ago you’d find stores, banks, and hardware shops. When Walmart moved into rural areas in the 1980s, the budding super-store offered a much cleaner and well-organized shopping experience than family-run local shops — and lower prices, too. Nudged along by the savvy Walmart team, which scheduled parking lot concerts at and hosted community bulletin boards in the lobbies of their rural facilities, neighbors soon congregated around the Walmart rather than downtown. The locals simply couldn’t compete, and most of them closed.

Ironically, almost the same thing happened in larger towns like Wichita Falls. Though we started the HHH in the “center” of Wichita Falls surrounded by a few multi-story buildings, most of those buildings were vacant, and the area around them was filled with boarded-up windows and low-budget car sales lots. The real center of Wichita Falls isn’t the once-bustling downtown, but rather the more modern — and much more popular — shopping mall.

It's nice to see someone cleaning up a store front and making a go of it. Yay for Sofia's! I hope they do well.

It’s nice to see someone cleaning up a store front and making a go of it. Yay for Sofia’s! I hope they do well.

Our ride continued out of “downtown” along a small rural road past the church where I attended Lutheran confirmation classes, past a KOA campground, past the dirt-floored storage unit my father put our stuff in after the tornado in ’79, and, ironically, finally past the deserted building that used to be the Walmart. After opening stores in almost every small community (rumor had it that Sam Walton himself flew over small communities in a corporate King Air to pick the locations), Walmart chose to close its rural locations in the 2000s in favor of more centrally-located mega-Walmarts that sold not only household goods, but also groceries and furniture. With local shops long shuttered, communities like the ones we rode through on the HHH now have no choice but to drive into Wichita Falls for those supplies.

Back out onto the I-44 access road we turned south — had we turned north, we’d have gone less than 5 miles before entering Oklahoma — and approached the Clif-sponsored rest stop complete with lots of branding and folks pounding down free Clif products.

Who sponsored this stop? I'm not sure.

Who sponsored this stop? I’m not sure.

Right after passing under the Clif archway, the group I picked up started giving each other and me funny looks and backing off. At first I thought they were concerned I was sucking wheel, though I’d been careful to ride 10-15 feet back most of the time. (I really just wanted to listen to the music.) I noted their speed, hopped in front, and maintained that speed for a bit to show I was willing to pull, but a few minutes later they blew by me. I just let them go. (I looked up their finishing time just now and discovered that I finished 15 minutes before them.)

Right after that, I passed Hell’s Gate. For the uninitiated, Hell’s Gate is located approximately 60 miles into the course and serves as a way for the ride organizers to collect folks who’re trying to do the 100-mile route but just aren’t going to make it in any reasonable time or without hurting themselves. The Gate closes at 12:30 p.m. — or earlier, if the day gets especially hot — and anyone not through by closing time gets shunted onto a shorter 75-mile route to the finish. Thankfully, even with the long stops early on in the ride, I passed through the Gate at 11:30 a.m.

"Pyro Pete" stands guard over the Gate in the Braums parking lot. I wonder if he takes ice cream breaks.

“Pyro Pete” stands guard over the Gate in the Braums parking lot. I wonder if he takes ice cream breaks.

When I was a kid, I had a single-gear banana-seat bike I rode to school. I complained that it wasn’t fast because it was geared too low, so my dad stuck a tiny little gear on the back, resulting in a bike that you could barely pedal on flat surfaces. It may have sucked most of the time, but I remember pushing it up the side of the overpass we turned under right after Hell’s Gate, then riding screaming fast down the steep far side and pedaling slowly — at what seemed like 35 MPH, but was probably a hell of a lot less — all the way home. Thankfully I never got run over speeding through the crosswalk with no way to stop.

Breakin' the rules (years ago).

Breakin’ the rules (years ago).

One thing you see at the HHH — and don’t see at almost any other non-professional rally — is people on the sides of the road cheering. It really does make you feel like you’re a rider in the Tour de France or something. In many spots along the route, people sat on their front lawns or congregated on corners waving signs and shouting encouragement. Some people even had coolers with a couple of bottles of water they’d bought to share with riders. It was really touching. I made it a point to take the time to wave at everyone who came out, and to wave specifically to the kids.

At one spot along the road leaving Burk, we passed a guy wearing a black T-shirt, black shorts, and a gargantuan beard standing alone in a shop’s gravel parking lot beside his van. An extension cord ran from the shop to a home stereo rig sitting haphazardly on top of a massive (and obviously home-built) speaker, which pounded out some serious metal as the guy calmly devil-horned the passing riders. I’d have snapped a pic, but fuck it — I was too busy throwing him the sign ‘o horns back. Without boombox guy nearby, I missed the tunes. And van guy’s metal hit the spot.

My favorite cheering spot of the day. The awesome lady in the had and purple dress jumped up and down as we passed.

My favorite cheering spot of the day. The awesome lady in the sun hat and purple dress (w/2 signs) jumped up and down as we passed.

Mid-way between Burk and Sheppard Air Force Base — I was born, incidentally, at SAFB, and Audra had passed through SAFB on her 50-mile ride to cheers of hundreds of airmen earlier in the day — our 100-mile route turned left past Burkburnett’s golf course (yep, Burk has a golf course, and I briefly attended Cub Scout camp behind it once), eventually heading us back out into farmland.

This is what rural texas looks like. Pretty much most of it.

This is what rural Texas looks like. Pretty much all of it.

The HHH doesn’t feature steep grades that riders climb into the sky, harrowing descents that test the limits of fear, or even crazy gravel stretches that could tumble an unwary cyclist (but make for great stories later). The HHH’s longest available ride is just a hundred miles, too, not 186+ like Sweden’s Vätternrundan, or over 1,000 miles like the 1001 Miglia Italia. The HHH is a standard, open-to-the-public century that winds through flat, rural areas pretty much interchangeable with many other flat, rural areas in North Texas. Yet there’s something special about the ride that lands it on the “bucket list” of cyclists across the country.

One difference between the HHH and most other rides is that as the largest century in the USA, the HHH rarely leaves you riding completely alone, no matter how far out into BFE your route takes you. There are always at least one or two other riders chugging along, even if they’re way out on the horizon.

This guy had his cell out calling for the SAG wagon.

This guy had his cell out calling for the SAG wagon.

It’s also literally hotter than hell. I’m not sure whether it was just the roads and landscape reflecting heat better or whether the day actually got hotter, but the Garmin showed a peak in temperature of around 110 degrees F along the next stretch. Without a pace line, I still made good time, but my water consumption shot up to emptying both bottles between stops. The stops get closer together toward this point in the ride, so I was probably drinking around three bottles an hour.

The temperature graph from my Garmin 800.

The temperature graph from my Garmin 800.

Not long before the temperature topped out, I passed through a rest stop located under what seemed like the largest stand of trees in all of North Texas. (If you asked most North Texans to draw a tree, they’d draw a mesquite the size of a bush.) It provided an oasis from the heat, and I could feel the relief of the riders huddling in the shade eating chilled fruit and resting their legs. After a short refill of liquids, I headed back out.

The riders' cumulative fatigue was palpable.

The riders’ cumulative fatigue was palpable.

This point in the ride represented the longest time I rode on my own, and it gave me a lot of time to think. As I followed the clearly-marked route, I thought back to all the times I looked so carefully for my short-route turnoffs, inwardly wishing that I could follow the arrows for the longest ride. I always imagined that the long ride was for the elite, the people who “knew what they’re doing.” This ride brought some clarity to those fantasies: while the long ride is populated by many, many people who have no idea what they’re doing — exemplified by the folks choking down BBQ and hot dogs at some of the rest stops (and probably puking it back up later) — the ride is everything I’d hoped it would be. Maybe it’s ego, but it was satisfying following those signs.

Finally my route.

Finally my route.

Actually, by this point it was the only route.

Actually, by this point it was the only route.

At the next rest stop (sponsored by Home Depot and located in a welding shop parking lot), I ran into Brian, a friend from the Plano Bicycle Association. We’d ridden together on PBA rides a couple of times before, including my last 72-mile taper ride, and recognized each other (though neither of us were good with names). He was riding by himself, too, so we rode together from that point on, mostly side-by-side, shooting the bull. It was great to share the rest of the ride with him.

Brian heading into the last rest stop.

Brian, not long before our last rest stop.

Keeping good speed between the two of us, we passed through one more rest stop — featuring a 5-foot-wide cattle water trough filled with ice, which we later heard someone jumped in on a dare — and soon re-entered Wichita Falls, passing lots of nice folks on the side of the road, including one group of local firefighters who operated an “unofficial” rest stop, handing out free water to riders. As we climbed an overpass, the tall buildings that surrounded us at our dawn start rolled again into view.

The Wichita Falls skyline.

The Wichita Falls skyline.

Over the overpass and through a small series of side roads, we entered downtown and rode strong to the finish.

Brian, right before we each went our own way to experience the finish for ourselves.

Brian, right before we each went our own way to experience the finish for ourselves.

Crossing the finish line this year felt different than it has before, and different than any event that I’ve participated in to date. After six months of training — and a good, relaxed race plan that kept me from burning myself out early — I was able to see the finish less with utter relief and more as an experience. When we rolled around the corner to see the finish arch, excitement built.

Wearing an uncontrollable grin approaching the finish.

Wearing an uncontrollable grin approaching the finish.

I thought about sprinting through the finish, but then I saw Audra and Teri in the grass along the finish chute cheering and I just raised my hands high. It was awesome.

I can't express how much this meant to me.

I can’t express how much this meant to me.

Then I put my hands down and rode firmly across the timing bumps because I didn’t want to make an ass of myself by dumping the bike at the finish. (Seriously, Kerry later told me that just a few minutes earlier a guy did some bunny-hop move at the finish, ejecting both his water bottles. The announcer never let him live it down.)

Careful, but still grinning.

Careful, but still grinning.

What made this year so different than before wasn’t just the training, but what came with it. Since January I’ve overcome numerous fears. I’ve gone from too afraid to wear a swimsuit in public to not worrying about people swimming over the top of me in open water, from being too afraid to run (and instead making excuses about foot injuries or back pain) to running regularly in hard workouts, and from being too afraid to ride with anyone because they’d all see what a loser I am to riding a hundred miles without suffering — and remaining able to ride more if I wanted. Every time I dismiss one of these fears, I become more me, and I think it shows in my interactions, because to be a friend to others, I first have to be a friend to myself. 

Along with big fitness changes, this year has brought many new and rekindled friendships. Where in previous years Kerry and I rode alone, crossed the line, drove home, and fell asleep before driving back to Dallas early in the a.m., on and off throughout this year’s ride I met people I knew. When I didn’t know people, I introduced myself. And I crossed the finish line to the cheers of friends and family. Right after the finish a volunteer handed me a finisher’s medal, and Kerry was there with congratulations and a smile. I invited him to stand with me in my finisher’s photo. He’s shared this journey with me, even when job and responsibilities kept him distant — sometimes on the other side of the planet.

Just awesome.

Just awesome. I’m smiling now remembering it.

After the finish, Kerry and I walked back to where Audra and Teri were waiting, and we all sat on the grass, just relaxing and chatting in a warm haze of fun. I felt so comfortable and relaxed that a couple of times I just dozed off, surrounded by friends.

It doesn't get any better than this.

It doesn’t get any better than this.

Post Race

For those following along, Teri finished the 100-mile route dead-on her planned average speed of 15 MPH, about 35 minutes ahead of me. Mitch rode along with Kerry through Hell’s Gate, both of them reaching the Gate before it closed. Kerry took the shunt for a 75-mile ride, which he later said was absolutely perfect for him, offering a challenge but leaving him awake and mobile to enjoy the rest of the weekend. Mitch, despite having to stop and spend some time in the medical tents of the last few rest stops due to his earlier injuries, completed the full hundred miles in just over nine hours, happy to put his first century under his belt. Audra, who’d set out to do the 50-mile ride, completed it handily, returning with a phone full of pictures and stories (which I’ll let her share).

On the way home from the ride, Teri, Audra, Kerry, and I stopped by the town’s single Starbucks for frozen coffee drinks. Relaxing and telling stories, we mused about how immersed in cycling we felt in Wichita Falls during the HHH.

During this one weekend, cyclists and bikes are welcome everywhere.

During this one weekend, cyclists and bikes are welcome everywhere.

It's not unusual to see $10,000 worth of bikes anywhere you look. Note power meter worth more than my bike.

It’s not unusual to see $10,000 worth of bikes anywhere you look. Note power meter worth more than my bike.

After our coffee, Teri headed back to the metroplex while Audra and I headed back out to my mother’s place in Burk where we kicked back, had snacks, and shared ride tales with Mitch, who also headed home later that night. Sunday morning we met Kerry back in Wichita Falls to watch our first criterium, a short-course bike race.

The leader of the CAT 4 crit, passing in front of the building where we picked up our HHH packets.

The leader of the CAT 4 crit, passing in front of the building where we picked up our HHH packets.

The pack follows close behind.

The pack follows close behind.

Audra noticed that one of the USAC officials was our friend Stearns, a local bike mechanic who’s about as immersed in cycling as anyone we’ve ever known. He rode “sweep” on the back of the main peloton in the crit, making sure people didn’t sneak breaks (or do anything else against the rules) on the part of the course not visible from the start/finish).

Stearns, at home any place people ride on two wheels.

Stearns, at home any place people ride on two wheels.

Looking Forward

Thinking back on that early goal-based conversation with my first tri coach, I realize now that as humans, our ability to tackle difficult tasks isn’t innate. Despite what I thought at the time, Patrick wasn’t sizing me up to see if my “potential” included the possibility of a hundred mile ride; he was simply trying to judge whether I was willing to do the work that would take me there — and whether I had enough time before the event to get that work done. Athletic training — especially the endurance training cycle of work, recovery, and adaptation — can’t be rushed.

Recognizing this is more of a breakthrough than you might think. It means that the only limits to how high I set my goals are the limits of my willingness to work and the time I have left in my life. I finally understand why we constantly hear triathletes from Chrissie Wellington to 70-year-old age groupers repeat the mantra “we can do so much more than we think we can.”

All of last weekend was just incredible, and it’s a little hard leaving behind the joy of thinking only of riding to dive back into the world. I never imagined I’d ride the 100-mile HHH, but I had even less inkling that I’d do it with so many great friends. Heading into the upcoming year, I face some pretty big hills to climb overcoming the nasty messes I’ve built in my life. It’s going to be a difficult time, and I’m not sure how I’ll fare. I’m scared, but deep down I’m optimistic. No matter how far I have to back up to pick up the pieces, at least I’ll have friends to help me along the way, and I’m determined to keep working to become more myself, too, no matter what the cost.

Thank you so much to everyone who’s shared in my journey along the way, but especially to Audra, Mitch, Teri, Mom, and Patrick — as well as the many friendly faces in the various Tri Shop and PBA groups that I’ve ridden with this year.