Chasing the Ghost
The beginning was innocuous enough. I wasn't looking for adventure, a new life. It was looking for me. Have you ever experienced something like that? Some part of yourself, maybe your higher self, that aspect of you that knows the things you wish you knew. It knows something is coming, a storm; it knows your life needs shaken out. You haven't a clue. And then it hits.
"Shit," you exclaim.
"Duh," your higher self says.
I lost my job after twelve years. Out of the blue. "No fault," they said.
"Shit," I exclaimed. You already know what my higher self said.
It wasn't a great job, working as a counselor for a non-profit mental health center. I had been excited when I started, but it had soured. We weren't really helping people, and I wasn't happy doing less than my best. But it paid the bills and for my cycling.
I was depressed. I didn't really want to ride, but Shawn had insisted. Shawn and Drew doing what they could to help-hammering me. What good friends do when your thirty years old. Trying to make me feel better by kicking my ass.
We had done some racing together on the same team, knew we were never going to race the Tour, but hadn't quite admitted that we weren't likely to amount to much, but that was what you did when you were forty. Right?
Drew was on the front, single file with a slight cross to tail, just kinda warming up as he liked to say. Drew was the bigger of the three, the "rouleur." It was flat here-Crow Road near Eugene, just before you turn onto Wolf Creek Road, and hit the climb over the coastal range. I looked at my computer. We were slightly over 20 mph, still warming up, when we saw this guy moving steadily, and not too far ahead.
I knew what Drew was thinking: "Let's catch him."
"Drew," said Shawn who was the climber of the group.
I said: "Shit," and we hit 22, then 23, then Drew clicked up a gear and then a steady 25. And yet we couldn't quite latch on. We hit the little hill just before the school, and chased him downhill, just catching him as we hit the flat again.
He was dressed all in black, lean and fit. One of those guys who just looked good on a bike. He stayed steady at 25 mph. Amazing. And he looked old for what little I could see of his face, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses.
"Can we sit on?" Drew asked. He was having trouble getting his breath. The guy didn't say anything. He just raised on gloved hand as if to say: "Your funeral." I was gasping, and Shawn had dropped off a full bike length.
Then I heard what I'll remember for the rest of my life. Click. The guy shifted up another gear, and without the slightest strain raised the pace. Shawn was gone. Drew hung on. I was near my max. We hit the school area, I don't know 27-28 mph. I couldn't see my computer. I was going blind.
Then the unthinkable. Click. He was up another gear. Here I had been worried about a job. Now I was going to die.
The saving grace, I thought, was the turn onto Wolf Creek, the end of the flat. And so it seemed. Just before the climb he slowed, and shifted down. Between gasps I got a look at the guy. He was fit, that's for sure, average height, long legs, riding some kind of titanium bike with no brand name. He wasn't even breathing hard, and looked us over through dark shades. He was old, no doubt, fifties, sixties, I don't know. I couldn't think straight. He said nothing. It was unnerving. I couldn't see his eyes. He just looked, and raised that one hand again. Shawn caught back on as he started the climb, slowly, steadily at first.
"Let's see if he can climb," I thought, and as if he could ready my mind I heard it again. Click.
Drew dropped off the back without a try. Shawn was out of the saddle on the guy's wheel, but I knew he was struggling. I was on Shawn's, and struggling did not adequately describe what I was doing. I was pushing one gear higher than usual, my head down listening to my rasping breath, the slight creak of Shawn's front wheel, and the click that never came, just that steady, relentless pace even through the steeper sections, like a metronome. Tick, Tick. I just hung on never imagining that I'd make it.
But I did. The first hill flattened and we all shifted up a couple of gears. Over the top the three of us. The old guy, Shawn and me. Down the other side with the old guy still on the front, laying aero on his handlebars, pushing the pace as we crossed the valley, just following that relentless pace.
Just before we hit the second climb Shawn fell back wwith a gesture of acceptance. Now it was just me and the old guy. I thought I saw just the slightest of smiles as he looked at me, the slightest hint of pleasure just before he plunged the dagger to the hilt. The guy was an assasin.
The second climb was a repeat. Same monotonous gear, same relentless, deadly pace. I knew I was at my max. Hell, I was past it, my breath singing my lungs. I knew I was about to die, and yet I couldn't let go of that wheel. I didn't know who this guy was, some god of two wheels, a demonic beast in lycra. I would rather have died than drop back.
There's no flattening of the second climb, just 5-6% all the way to the top. Not usually hard, but at this pace deadly. They used to call it "Kill Hill" in the old Tour of Willamette. I'd been up it maybe a hundred times, now I knew why they called it that.
My legs were rubber, sweat ran in my eyes untill I couldn't see. The old guy just the same as the climb before, like it didn't even faze him. And just when I didn't think I could go on, we hit the top, stuck it in a big gear, and down the other side.
Just before we hit the cork screw, the old guy looked at me and said: "Friday morning 8, Darimart on Amazon," and he was gone.
"Who the hell was that guy?" asked Shawn as he and Drew caught back on.
"Christ, he's a ghost," Drew said, and that was what he would forever be know as. At least around these parts.
I was just at that time in my life where you wonder if this is all there is. I'd been to college, studied for a time for a masters degree, didn't get it. I'd been married once, it didn't work. I'd tried bike racing, but couldn't find my niche. I'd worked twelve years as a counselor in mental health, and at times thought this is what makes me feel alive. Those rare occasions when someone who has been to the very bottom tells you that they couldn't have made it back without you. That mattered.
Then it was over. Without the details, just over. I went home one of the lost. As I thought about what I would do, the anxiety welled up, threatened to overwhelm me. The answer was I didn't know. But if I had learned one thing in all those years of counseling it was to just be with the feeling, don't force anything.
"Maybe I don't have to do anything right now," I thought, "Just take your time, choose your own path. Maybe I can do something I've always wanted to do, like ride the Race Across America." Then: "What. Where did that come from?"
The wonders of thought, a scheme when one is desperate, dreams freed by the turning upside down of one's life. The idea of it. Three thousand miles through desert, over the rockies, the hot humid flatlands of the midwest, the Applachians. Christ. I couldn't do it. And yet.
I wore myself out thinking about what my life could be, and realized that every shattering leaves you with an opportunity for reshaping. I slept on it, and woke to the sound of the phone ringing, Drew and the hammerfest, the meeting with the ghost, the invitation for Friday. Should I go? What did it mean? Should I invite Drew and Shawn? Well that one was clear. If the ghost had wanted them he would have invited them. He didn't. He invited me.
Thursday rolled around, and I found myself cleaning the bike. I hadn't made up my mind, but my higher self had. I was going. I filled water bottles and laid out my kit, and slept like I hadn't slept in days. I hadn't been looking for adventure, but it had found me. I couldn't define it yet, but I accepted it.
Friday morning I was up early, dressed and ready by 7:30. A short ride to the Darimart and there he was, rolling through the parking lost, not a word, just the motioning of the gloved hand. We headed down Amazon to the turn onto Fox Hollow road.
Eugene sits at the southern end of the Willamette Valley, a wide valley that narrows between the Coburg Hills to the east, and numerous buttes that taper into what locals call the south hills. Fox Hollow road is the pass over these hills, dropping then into the Lorane Valley. It's a great climb to about 1500 feet, first through shaded areas of nice homes still in the city, then into open areas with views of the mountains further to the east. While it is generally an easy climb, about 5% average grade, there are two sections that add up, bottom and near the top.
I was looking the ghost over as we started the climb. He wasn't dressed to kill today, white jersey, non-descript, still the eyes hidden behind dark glasses. I let him lead, expecting him to gear up and ride me off his wheel at any moment. Surprisingly he didn't. Neither did he stay seated and grind me up as he had done the other day, instead alternating seated and standing, always though with the rhythm of a metronome, just Tick, Tick, Tick.
He did not speak, as most of us would inevitably do, but did surprise me near the top with a quick flick of the arm motioning me to the front. I felt my pulse quicken, my heart in my throat as took the lead. I tried to maintain a steady pace, but found myself obsessively critiquing my rhythm, which must have been more like tick, ta ta, tick, ta, tick. Christ the guy was intimidating.
We crested the top, and dropped through the chute of trees on McBeth road, the ghost sitting on my wheel as we descended. I tried to stay focused, I'd been down this a hundred times, but found myself braking too often, and in all the wrong places, all the time painfully aware that he was right there.
We hit the bottom, and made the turn for the 15 miles of flat across the valley. I didn't know when he expected me to ask him to pull through, but he would when I would flick my arm. But only for a minute, then he would gesture me to the front again where I'd sit for ten minutes wondering how long I should pull. This was weird. Shawn, Drew and I had this down, rotating through repeatedly, but the ghost made me feel as though I had never been on a bike before.
Once we hit the climbs over Wolf Creek, and the rollers into Lorane, I began to relax, and actually enjoy the ride. I was again surprised that the ghost took it easy on me rather than grind me to dust, which left me feeling fresh as we stopped at the store in Lorane to fill our bottles.
"You have questions," the ghost finally broke the silence. It was more of a statement than a question.
"Who are you?" I asked not quite knowing where to begin.
"Michael Huber," he said, "Do you need more?"
"I am a teacher, mostly of spiritual matters. I was born in Germany, did some pro racing in Spain. I did a couple of years with one of the Spanish teams. When I was 26, I was hired by one of the bigger French teams to help their leader in the Tour. I went to their training camp. It was the early days of EPO. I wouldn't do it. I've always been intuitive, and knew the consequences. I didn't make their Tour team, and that dropped me several years later. I did one more year in Spain, then moved here."
"Have you raced here?"
"Not professionally. I regained my amateur status, did some of California's early doubles, won an early version of Furnace Creek and was all set to do the Race Across America before I butted heads with the director. I haven't raced since, just the occasional double."
"I have one question for you," he said.
"What do you want?"
"What do you mean?" I asked defensively.
"You obviously sought me out."
"How do you know that?" I was looking at his face now that his glasses were removed. Early fifties was still my guess, though he didn't really look old. He was deeply tanned, not bad for early May in Oregon, with few wrinkles. What was most impressive were those steel gray eyes, kind yet as intense as his riding style. There was no bull shitting this guy.
"I know things," he said simply as he looked right into me, pulling the answer from me as a coon dog might pull a rabbit from a hole.
"I want to do RAAM," I said, not knowing exactly why, "Is that irrational?"
"Maybe on irrational," he responded, "But probably stupid. You want my help."
He looked at me for a minute not giving his consent, nor denying it. I didn't yet know if it was really what I wanted.
"We shoudl go Paul" he said finally. To this day I don't know how he knew my name. I am sure that I had not told him.
It was two weeks before I saw the Ghost, or Michael again. It seemed that he knew that I had some thinking to do, and thinking I did. Mostly I thought that I had never committed to anything, and finished it. Not school, work, relationships, nothing. My mother had said that I couldn't make commitments, and it appeared that she was right.
It seemed that cycling was the one thing that I came close to. It was the one thing I could do not matter how much my life was in the crapper. And yet. I was almost as good a climber as Shawn, almost as good on the flats as Drew, a combination that should have produced results. It didn't. Instead, I ended up working for one or the other, depending on the terrain. I'd never won a race.
I'd considered doing some ultra endurance things over the years. It seemed that the longer, harder the race, the more my skills would begin to give me an advantage. I'd just never gotten around to it. Didn't have a clue how to train for it.
Then I saw the picture of the lone RAAM rider, with the road running ahead across the desert to the horizon which seemed to go on forever. There was something about it. The solitude. Riders seperated by hours, even days, yet racing clear across the country. The quiet suffering, the hallucinations, the pain. And then there was the joy, the sense of accomplishment, crossing the country on a bike in 10 days or less. I sensed that completing it might be the knot that tied my life together. It seemed so big.
I think it took all of ten minutes to decide that I would do it once I started to consider it, then two weeks to see if I could talk myself out of it. I did some research, and realized that it would take all of my resources, physical and financial to do it. And yes, I also decided I needed Michael to help me.
I called him, and rather than ask him to ride, I asked him to coffee. I wanted to be able to talk with him. We met on a Sunday afternoon. He was, of course, waiting when I arrived, and I received the same gesture as the gloved hand, to sit. I seemed no matter what you did, you were always joining him. I mentioned this to him.
"A master is always at home," he said.
"What kind of master?" I asked.
"If i said Shaolin, it would be close," he replied, "but not quite accurate."
"Wow," I said stupidly impressed, "that must be exciting."
"I tried to run away from cycling once," he said, "to study with a master. The second thing he did was give the ti bike I ride. He gave me back to cycling."
"He sad it was my bliss, and my bliss needed me."
"What was the first thing that he did?"
"He told me that I knew nothing."
I somehow knew that he was telling me the same thing.
"So what's up?" he asked.
I began to tell him, suddenly aware that it seemed he already knew what I was telling him-the failures, college, marriage, work, the inability to commit. The job dismissal, the decision to do RAAM.
He listened attentively, his eyes registering my input. He tossed in the right number of "ummm's" and "aaah's." When I mentioned that my ex-wife left suddenly and without warning he said: "That hurt you deeply," as if it was just what it did only I had never acknowledged it.
When it was clear that I was done, he summed it all up, in his own words, but perhaps more accurately than I had stated it. It was like he was opening doors for me, new ways of looking at it that I had not seen.
"Before we go on," he said, "let me ask you something."
"If you have had so much trouble committing to something, how can you convince me that you can commit to RAAM?"
I stammered something about life long dreams, and this being very different. I was unconvincing to myself.
"Well, you really can't," he said, "and actually you don't have to."
There was a period of silence as those gray eyes looked into what felt like my soul. And then.
"That is what you are going to find out. I only need to know that you will commit to the finding out.
"There is one more thing," he went on, "I have been shown things by great masters, things that will help you immensely. You must agree to use them honorably, and fairly. I will stop teaching you if you do not."
"RAAM or any endurance event is an impeccable warrior, to quote Don Juan. I will look for any way to break you, for any weakness, any lapse in thinking, or slip in confidence. Any change in the environment will only amplify this. You think you can climb, but when you are bone tired, hills that you climb easily will fill you with dread. You think you can ride the flats, but three days of wind will reduce you to tears. And the worst is the heat, the fatigue and the hallucinations.."
"So is it unreasonable?"
"I said before not unreasonable, just stupid."
"If it's stupid, why do I want to do it?"
"Another question to be answered. Now if we are to have you win RAAM in two years, we must get you ready to ride it first next year."
"Wait a minute," I said surprised, "I was just thinking about finishing."
"You may do that," he said with a glare, "But you would not need me for that."
A long pause, and the grey eyes, followed by a gentler approach.
"You have the ability to win. You must not set your aspirations too low. You would not thenembrace your full being. I do not measure watts, but if you can ride with me now, with the right training you can win."
"Now, we will need to qualifty this year. It is too late to get your ready for the Race Across Oregon, but Hoodoo is a qualifier in the fall. It'll have to be a crash course till then. If it is too much we will move the schedule back a year. You have time."
"So this is the plan. It is too late this year to start aerobic training, that will have to wait till spring, but you should be fit. We will start with Tempo rides which will increase aerobic fitness some, then move to intervals. We're going to have to get your endurance up fast, so probably a series of long rides working toward an event. We'll have to plan as we go.
We met for a second planning session a few days later. Surprisingly Michael arrived later than me, and explained that a master, meaning teacher, could be late and still feel at home.
"I've been thinking," he began, " what we might have you do is a 12 hour time trial in three weeks, then do RAO as a team in July with you trying to ride 24 hours. If we could get on longer ride in August or even back to back doubles, we could probably have your ready for Hoodoo in September. It's a big jump, but I think you can do it."
"It seems a little overwhelming," I said.
"We have these built in parameters, more like blinders that we use to determine whether something is possible. They are built around two notions, one of what we have already experience, and what we expect to experience. We say something is not possible even though we are not experts.
"My master had me bury him alive for seven day, without food or water, or as far as I could tell, enough air. We placed a box around his head, then dirt, so that he had what must have been a temporary air pocket. After seven days, I was sure that I would find him dead. Instead he popped out like he'd just had a good night's sleep. I asked him what the purpose was. He said it was to show me that I was not the expert on what was possible."
"You're not going to bury me are you?" I asked half seriously.
The ghost laughed a good natured, hearty laugh, and said: "Only if necessary."
We went on to talk about learning to ride on aero bars. I objected saying that I didn't like them, and that the bike was perfect the way it was. He agreed but also suggested that aero bars were essential for ultra riding, the only position that could be maintained for extended, not indefinite periods.
"You will learn to appreciate them," he went on, "eventually we will get you set up on two bikes. Your bike, the carbon bike, will serve as a climbing bike. We will need to then set you up on a time-trial bike. Light, but not super-light, aero bars. I will have my master make another frame. You know, it's funny. I still don't know how he makes them. He's not a cyclist, and as far as I know, not an experienced frame builder. He told me I didn't need to know everything.
"Now, eventually we need to maximize your cruising speed, but for now we need to turn you into a long distance rider. The body is in no way prepared for the long hours sitting on what will beging to seem like a torture device, and in a position that seems not right for anything, including cycling. Every part of you will beging to ache, and it is not possible to predicty in what order. Your arms will hurt, your shoulders and neck cramp up, you may no longer be able to sit. It will be torture.
"We may eventually have to change your position on the bike, for now a bike fit will have to do, beginning with moving your cleats farther back on your shoes, off the ball of the foot. This will eliminate circulation probles to some degree. And to get you fit from the core out we will have to begin yoga as soon as possible."
"Oh, that doesn't sound good."
"Don't worry, it will be the easiest part of this.
Yoga was not easy. Starting in Child's Pose; moving to Downward Facing Dog; into Plank; the to Warrior's Pose; I found myself breathing hard, and shaking, the exertion really taxing me. Michael told me not to worry, that we didn't have time to really stress me. I asked what the purpose was. He said to strengthen my core, which is not exactly the center of the body, but rather the deeper fibers of the muscles, particularly in the abdomen and lower back. He said I would know the difference when I could ride on aero bars or resting my forearms on the handlebars for long periods of time without stiffening.
Michael also began to teach me meditation, not simply as relaxation, which would prove to be of great value, but also to awaken my chakras as a means of becoming aware of energy systems, the movement of energy within the body, and access to it way beyond what we normally perceive. I was not better at meditation than yoga, but slowly I began to improve. Michael assured me that RAAM would test body, mind and spirit, and that each needed to be strengthened.
We also did a bike fit, finding that I was turned slightly to the left, which was likely the cause of some persistent knee pain. I couldn't believe that I was that far out of alignment. Michael was able to fix that with a washer on the right pedal spindle which moved my right foot slightly away from the frame, and turned me back into alignment. At first it seemed uncomfortable, but I adapted quickly. The knee pain went away as did a tendency for my shoulders to cramp after a couple of hours.
The time trial bike would not be ready for a couple of months, so we alternated rides with aero on the Lemond, and without on the carbon bike. I was still not convinced with the aero bars, but it was also apparent that I was able to increase speeds on the flats with not additional effort. In addition while I couldn't spend unlimited time stretched aero, I found the time increasing, and when I did move out of aero, I was able to move back in a fairly short period of time.
The training was difficult at first as I began with what Michael called tempo rides, a staple of European teams for decades. At first he had me start at 15 minutes, riding a gear higher at a steady pace. He said it would strengthen the legs, and build some aerobic fitness. I would do this every other day, increasing until I was over an hour. He then had me move on to near all out intervals beginning with a minute, the to 2-3 and finally five minutes. He said this was not ideal, but that I should see improvement.
To build endurance we started with 140 miles as Shawn and I had done 125 three weeks prior. Each Friday was my long ride of the week, alternating climbing and aero bike, each week a little further. The Ghost would often ride with me, sometimes just encouraging me, other times putting me on his wheel, and running me through his grinder. While I was often exhausted by these rides, the intervals, the yoga; there was no question I was improving. Our usual ride, the trip to Lorane and back, with over 6000 feet of climbing, extended to 165 miles, I could now do in under 10 hours.
Toward the end of May, Michael suggested that I was ready to ride a 12 hour time trial, not necessarily to win but to be competitive.
* * * * * * * *
The ride that we chose was the Lewis and Clark ultra or LACultra. It was part of the Ultra Marathon Cycling Association's schedule, a tough ride along the Columbia gorge with one pass and 5500 feet of climbing, comparable to my training rides. Our game plan was to do the 140 mile day loop at a steady pace, then see hou the night loop went, doing as many as I felt able. Low key, no stress. I would hope to be competitive, but this was really just a test.
A week prior, we began to talk strategy. The plan was to ride both bikes, the carbon climbing bike on the day loop with most of the climbing, the titanium bike with aero bars on the night loop. Michael decided that the pace should be time trial pace, resisting from the start any desire to push harder untill the last two hours.
"Pace is an interesting element of endurance racing," Michael said, "While you know that the pace of road racing, particularly never slows down, pretty much balls to the wall from the start; in ultra everybody slows down eventually. Nobody rides faster after 24 or so hours. I call it the 'Death March' pace. You can't train for it. You can train aerobic threshold, cruising speed; you can't train for when the body cannot take in enough nutrition to match the expenditure, but you can eat for it. That is why I have had you eat only carbs when training, and increase fat intake otherwise.
"Take RAAM as an example. Each year there are three, maybe four riders actually capable of winning. Usually one or two have some kind of issue, like respiratory problems with the cold of the mountains following the heat of the desert, and absolute perfect recipe for pneumonia. The rest of the field is looking to just finish. They will be riding a more conservative pace, sleeping sooner, and more.
"Of the potential winners, only one or two will be able to ride the first 36 to 48 hours without sleep, the Haldeman tactic.
He was here referring to Lon Haldeman who won the first two RAAMs by riding virtually two days without sleeping, and putting a distance between himself and other riders that could not be closed. It is a risky tactic as hallucinations are quick to appear, and potentially overwhelming. It is also something few can do.
"By this point there will be wide gaps between riders, and often the race, even though there is still over 2,000 miles to go, is decided. The leaders will sleep, and the begins the death march. You are now struggling to take in more calories than you are expending. You have to slow down. Eventually even the leaders will begin to have bad days, days when your legs just can't pedal a speed that at first was so easy. This can last a day or two or longer. Then sometimes you wake up, and just feel better, or the wind is in your face for two day, and then you get a tailwind, or it's unbearably hot, then you wake up and it's cooler. Even the leader will slow down. The best know that it will happen. They also know that the chasers will slow down as well.
"So what we're trying to build toward, on race day, whether it is 12 hours, or ten days, i cruising speed, how fast you can ride, at a hard pace, for the longest pssible time, without blowing up.
"We'll do this starting next year by pushing aerobic threshold to a lower heart rate. If, say, you can do 20mph at 150 BPM for X amount of time; with the proper training we can raise the pace to 22mph at the same HR. Your body will adapt, work more efficiently.
Finally the day arrived, Memorial Day weekend. I felt ready, and only a little nervous. I was able to ride the night loop the night before, and earlier we drove part of the day loop. It was mostly rolling hills. We didn't get a chance to see the climb of Old Man's Pass, but at close to 4000 feet it was a fairly typical Washington climb, not steep, but long. The forecast was for sunny and warm, so there was no worry about what to wear. We had made no changes to nutrition on the bike simply a drink mix and gels.