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Am I Still Breathing?



My vision began to narrow. Just keep pedaling, Amy—just stay on his wheel, I told myself.



Realization Point Trailhead (Boulder, CO)


I could not have known at the time. I could not have fully understood, or even accepted the magnitude of the situation, or the symbolism of the sign that I was leaning against. As I stood, bent over my bike, heaving, my bodily functions not within my immediate control, I peered at the sign with my vision just coming back. It said: Realization Point Trailhead.


Sixteen minutes and three seconds had separated me from the bottom of Flagstaff Road where I had begun the ascent, riding immediately behind my coach’s wheel. He had warned me that the ride was going to be difficult. How could 16 minutes hurt that much? I wondered. I can do anything for 16 minutes.


The objectives were clear. My coach knew that I was a decent climber, and he wanted to test my desire and my drive. I had the arbitrary goal of reaching the top of one of Boulder’s most well-known climbs in under 16 minutes—breaking the ‘known’ existing female record.. Achieving this goal would serve as an indication that I could be considered one of the best female climbers in a highly competitive town of world class cyclists.


Jeff’s instructions were also clear:“I’m going to pace you to the top of the climb. Stay right on my wheel. I will have you above your threshold, so this is going to hurt. Just stay on my wheel.”


Following his directions, the first three minutes flew by and pedaling actually felt easy. The town of Boulder quickly appeared below the road and our perspective of the city increased as the grade of the road steepened. I was intimately familiar with the stages of my heart rate increases from previous athletic endeavors.


I looked down at my bike computer, and we were already five minutes into the climb. Passing a few other cyclists on the road, I muttered a grunt that came out as less than a hello. My breathing shifted to fast panting, and I could no longer speak. Nine minutes had now passed. At that point, my heartrate was in the mid-160s.


It started to feel uncomfortable. I wanted to back off the pedals, just slightly, to ease the discomfort building in my legs and my lungs. My Garmin now tells me that 12 minutes have ticked by. Uh-oh, the familiar little cough has started—a cough that I can’t control. I heard its desperate sound—a warning—and knew, without looking, that my heart rate had reached the 180s. Uh-oh, it’s all over soon, I thought. I hope it’s the top of the hill that puts this to an end and not my body.

I knew my mind wouldn’t give up … that I would keep pedaling until I passed out. Of course, I hoped that the top would come first. I looked down and saw 15 minutes on the Garmin. OMG, I was losing my senses. The pain in my heart, legs, lungs, and head was indescribable. I couldn’t say what was hurting, but I knew the lights would be turning out for me soon. My vision began to narrow. Just keep pedaling, Amy—just stay on his wheel, I told myself.


The familiar wheezing had begun, the high-pitched sound that I couldn’t replicate unless I was in that state of fighting for breath. My heart rate was now in the 190s. I knew I was down to the final seconds before my body would stop.


I made it to the top and couldn’t speak. I couldn’t stand upright. I lost control of bodily functions. “Did I do it?” I finally asked, feebly. “Did I break the record for fastest women’s time up Flagstaff?”


“I think you might have been three seconds off the record. Don’t worry, we’ll get you there,” Jeff responded cautiously, understanding how badly I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I was one of the best female climbers in the state.


As I stood at Realization Point Trailhead, having completed one of the most challenging physical efforts of my life, the subtle realization dawned on me. Nothing about achieving my cycling goals would come easy. In a training session, I experienced a deeper level of suffering than I had previously known—I had just been categorically and unquestionably on the wrong side of comfortable, and still had not achieved my immediate goal of riding to the top in under 16 minutes.


As I stood over my bike, leaning against the trailhead sign, heaving, sweating, shivering, I realized that I was embarking on a journey that I never could have imagined. Somehow, even at that moment, I realized I was on the right path. My passion for cycling, my curiosity of where I could take my cycling career, and my drive to be a world class competitor outweighed everything.


MENTAL STATE: This already hurts and I’ve only just begun.

Exerpt cont.
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