At the bottom of the well, you hope to find more water, but it’s not always there. You’ve been throwing your bucket down, hoisting up what you need all day. But at some point, the well runs dry. The well ran dry.
I knew going into our 65 mile gravel adventure that I would suffer. I’ve been around the sun enough time to know when I’m bike fit and when I’m not. I know when I haven’t ridden a spring’s worth of base miles. I can look around at my friends and see who is there and who is not.
In our group, they were, and I was not.
But my well of fitness and of experience is deep, and I have been one acquainted with the night. I can suffer. I know how. Basically, you sit and fucking take it, and you don’t stop moving.
The first half of our dusty boondoggle went reasonably well. I could tell we were running too hot (for me), but I was able to hang in and pedal my pedals and keep part of a smile on my face. When we arrived at the rest stop for refueling, I felt optimistic. It had arrived more quickly than I thought it would, and with some calories and fresh liquid on board I figured I’d make it through the back half of the course.
Which I did.
It was a mistake to pour the mini Coke on top of the iced mocha offered to me by my friend Marc, the man in charge of the rest stop. The bubbles floated over the dairy infusion, and within a few minutes of leaving the calorific oasis I had stomach cramps clamping down on my guts. My jolly crew was not having this experience. They were ebullient, all full of sugar and caffeine, and our pace was a spicy flavor of too much for me.
Being the ego-mangled fool I am, I raised only cursory alarms and devoted most of my effort to keeping up. This was my undoing. Sick as I felt, I was pedaling, and I thought that was probably enough. The problem, in retrospect (why is it always in retrospect), was that I stopped drinking and eating.
Yes. Yes. Too sick feeling to want to eat and drink, but too sick not to eat and drink. These are the vicious cycles of suffering into which we plunge ourselves. All my experience let me down in those three remaining hours of effort.
By mile 50 I was cooked, but still moving. This is what it means to endure, to be an endurance athlete. You’re done, conventionally, but you’re not done. The time to sit and take it has arrived.
My stomach cramps flared and died down. They became a secondary concern as I went back to the well of my fitness to raise me up a hill and spill me down the other side, over and over, eventually finding the well empty.
So there I was, down the bottom of myself with nothing but leg speed to carry me home. Ah well, I suspected I would reach this point. The trick when you reach the end like this is not to get it all over your companions. When you meet the man with the hammer, he can put you in a foul mood.
My friends were not oblivious to my condition. They had clearly begun to wonder how a human can go so slowly on a bike without falling over. I get it. I’ve been them, and they’ve been me. Nothing to get worked up about. Anytime one of them asked me how I was doing, I did my best to smile and laugh.
Be fucking cheerful. That’s one of the rules.
Here is the good news. At the bottom of the well, no one can hear you cry. Go ahead. Have a little blubber. I mean, smile. Keep your shit straight. But also let it out. Accept your defeat. Mourn your loss, such as it is. It’s ok. It’s fine. You’ve done everything you could do.
Mercifully, the last two miles lost more altitude than they gained. Eventually, we rolled back into town, back to the elementary school we’d left from, back to cold drinks and food and a shady place to collapse and laugh at ourselves. At myself.
That’s what you do at the bottom of the well. Laugh at your predicament. Rue the mistakes that brought you so low, but laugh too. You can’t change any of it now. You can only sit in that still, quiet place and try to figure out what to do next.