50 Miles of Single Speed Racing and Standing on the ‘cancer podium’

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The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic is a road race that starts in Durango, Colorado and ends in the historic mining town of Silverton. It’s no small endeavor, there is 5,700 feet of elevation gain and two mountain passes at 10,000 feet. I signed up for the 2018 race but tore my ACL so I was determined to get there in 2019.

I don’t have a road bike, I ride a Surly Cross-Check because I’m usually on gravel, or my favorite – riding my fat bike on single track. A week before the race I switched the drop bars on my cross check to moloko bars but I didn’t like where the shifter ended up. So, in a burst of inspiration I converted the bike to a single speed.

Probably not the brightest move because I hadn’t trained much that spring. And a few weeks before the race came a life changing blow – I was diagnosed with breast cancer. There were so many emotions I was dealing with, mostly I was terrified. I was also sleep deprived and exhausted from worry.

So why on earth would I still do the race and make it harder by going single speed? In part because doing the race is just what I needed for my mental health. I was looking forward to some down time with my partner and to meeting up with some friends whom I’d never met in person in Durango, the Back of the Pack Racing crew.

Besides the pesky shifter, changing my bike to single speed sounded fun and I’d always wanted to try it. I’m not big on road riding and it seemed like a good way to make it more interesting. Finishing a 50 mile race that I hadn’t trained for didn’t seem very plausible, even with gears, so my goal was to ride as far as I could. I think of myself as an “accidental athlete” – as a mom of two busy teenagers plus my full time job – I squeeze in bursts of training when I can.

I had time for only one pre-race ride on my newly converted machine and I was literally giggling the moment I began pedaling. It was like throwing your cell phone out the window of a moving car – simplicity at a time when I needed it. Symbolic as well — because as I found out in 2019 we are really not in control of our lives, but we do the best we can – pace ourselves and keep pedaling.

Jesus Saves in Jeffrey City, WY. It was Memorial Day weekend and we drove through a snowstorm to get to Durango, Colorado.

Sometimes you can’t clearly see the road ahead.

All the best local bike shops have a best friend.

Typical of any race I do, I wanted to cry during the first 10 miles but once I got to the base of the first pass (mile 19?) I hit my stride. Truthfully, I didn’t think I’d make it that far. I had a rush of adrenaline and was ready to climb. Bring it on!!! It was hard, possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically. But I paced myself and enjoyed the scenery. The key is to not worry about who is in front of you or who is behind you. Not worry about how fast or how far, just keep going. One mile at a time.

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At the top of Molas Pass. I was overcome with tears of joy, gratitude, and utter surprise – surprise that I made it – and lots of other emotions I can’t explain. This is the second and last pass before it’s all downhill to Silverton.

Studd Pyles doing what he does, ‘racing’ in style.

Funny enough, at the top of the last pass a woman congratulated me and said, “wow, you did the race on flats!” Yep, the flats – that’s what made it so challenging…

Back of the Pack crew, putting on an amazing feed!

The day after the 50 mile road race I did the women’s mountain bike race on my cross check. The course was super fun, especially on my skinny tires! Judd’s pre-race advice ‘remember there are three speeds to a single speed – sitting, standing and walking.’

After-party and watching racers ride through the brewery. It was such a blast meeting the Back of the Pack Racing dudes and dudettes in person. Good humans all of them! I’m a dork, I wore my medal 24/7 and also to my lumpectomy the following week.

Looking back over the past year, all I can say is Fuck??! It was hard, but getting myself in the saddle whenever I could saved me.

When I first received the cancer diagnosis and before I received my staging, my main concern was for my two children. Did I wait too many years in between mammograms? How far advanced was it? Would I be here for my son’s graduation in four years? I don’t think any of us, cancer or not — can answer those questions.

A vision came to me the night before the Iron Horse race, one that sustained me throughout the hard months of battling cancer. I pictured myself standing at the top of a podium with Laura and Ben on either side of me, the three of us holding hands – our arms held high above our heads in victory. It wasn’t a race podium, it was the cancer podium. I dared to hope and pray.

The race was such a bright spot in my summer and just what I needed before treatment. I wore my medal a lot – enough to embarrass my kids. I wore it to my lumpectomy the week after the race and I wore it sometimes around the house when I was scared. It was a reminder that with a little bit of faith and a whole lot of support from my tribe, I could dig deep and keep going the next mile.

It is now eights months since my diagnosis – which was stage 2B. I had a lumpectomy followed by a mastectomy, an infection, four trips to the ER, a broken foot, a biopsy on my ‘good’ side, radiation, crazy-ass mood swings from medication, depression, and nerve damage. When I broke my foot it was too painful to use crutches on my mastectomy side so sometimes I crawled around the house using my bike kneepads and sometimes I used a wheelchair.

It was a low point. I didn’t want to get out of bed and I didn’t want to go to radiation anymore. I was in tears all the time and just plain done. Some of my depression, sadness and anger were due to the situation but also due to the estrogen-suppressing drugs prescribed to prevent the cancer from recurring. I was on a fast track through menopause. Wave after wave of hot flashes kept me awake all night.

A close friend recognized that I had fallen into a deep, dark hole so she made an appointment for me with my primary doctor. I’ve battled depression on and off over the years but this time I felt depressed and crazy. Taking antidepressants was a turning point and I’m so thankful for my friend, and sorry too if I scared her.

Living in a rural state is hard when you have a serious medical issue. I drove from Lander, Wyoming to Colorado each week for the entire summer and part of the fall for treatment at the Anschutz Cancer Hospital in Denver. Six hours each way – not counting the hours stuck in traffic. Sometimes while driving I was in so much pain I’d cry while holding my arm over my head to lessen the nerve pain. The nerve pain had become debilitating and finally a doctor prescribed Gabapentin, which helped tremendously.

Many times my partner, family member, or friend drove me. Thank goodness because it helped to load up on pain meds.

Today I am feeling well, the nerve pain has subsided and I’m continuing to heal. I made it to the podium. I know it could have been much worse and I am eternally grateful. I did not have to go through chemo, I have good insurance and mine was caught early. My heart goes out to all the women that are fighting battles much bigger than mine.

I am also grateful beyond words to my amazing children, my partner, my family and my friends for their support. Grateful, thankful, lucky, blessed, fortunate – just doesn’t cover it. But boy howdy, I’m ready to ring in 2020 and a new decade.

So there you have it. Happy New Years my friends. Live life, hold on to the moments in between the challenging ones and squeeze your loved ones tight. Do what you love. And go ride your bike.

Hiking in the foothills near our home in the spring, waiting on my diagnosis.
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