“We’re almost there, about 3K to go,” a lean Australian man in lycra called out to me as I slowly rolled by him. He was standing on the side of the road next to his bike, leaning on the saddle to stretch his calf muscles.
Oh good, I selfishly thought. I’m not the only one who’s cramping.
I managed a weak smile. “Thank you,” I exhaled, barely able to reply.
We locked eyes for a moment, and there was an unspoken connection between us—two strangers from opposite sides of the world, crossing paths for mere seconds, yet sharing a very deep, mutual understanding of suffering.
He gave me an I-know-how-you-feel laugh and yelled out lightheartedly, “Why do we do this to ourselves!?”
With no energy to call back, I just threw my hands up in the air to gesture that I had no clue.
As I crawled slowly up the road alone, I took a minute to really think about that question. Every single fiber of every single muscle in my body ached, my pulse throbbed through my veins, my breath stabbed at my lungs, and in that moment, I thought: I really have no freaking idea why we do this sh*t.
This sh*t was exercise. And in this situation, it was riding a bicycle over four massive mountain passes in the Swiss-Italian Alps in two days. (Full disclosure: I was invited to do this as part of an incredible press trip—this is definitely not my normal life.)
For a cyclist, this experience is like a runner’s marathon, a climber’s Mt. Everest, a yogi’s retreat to India—it’s a kind of bucket list item you’d be lucky to do before you die. The climbs we were tackling—the Stelvio, Umbrail, Mortirolo, and Gavia—were made famous by the Giro D’Italia, Italy’s version of the Tour de France, which is another way of saying: This wasn’t exactly the place for an amateur like me.
The truth is, I ride my bike a lot, and I’ve done some pretty grueling rides in the past few years. But this—I have never done anything like this before. Two days, 120+ miles, and more than 20,000 feet of climbing. For the uninitiated, that’s hard. Really hard.
My exchange with the Aussie happened on the first day of our cycling adventure. The plan was to climb two high mountain passes, crossing from Italy into Switzerland and back again. (Crazy, I know.) These climbs are epic. To give you a better idea, at one point, a butterfly landed on someone’s saddle, and the whole group freaked out to swat it away because that meant there was extra weight on the bike you had to tow up the mountain. A butterfly. I can’t make this stuff up.
The Stelvio pass was unlike any road I had ever ridden: With its famous 48 switchbacks, it snakes back and forth up the mountain like an asphalt shoelace. Once I settled into the grade, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it didn’t feel so bad. Climbing is hard, but pacing is harder. And admittedly, I got a little excited on this first climb.
I stayed on the front of the group, and near the top, I felt the familiar threat of my quads starting to cramp. But I was close—so I pushed it out of my mind, shoveled a sleeve of energy Bloks in my mouth, and kept going. It wasn’t a race, but I was the first female to the top, and it secretly felt like my own personal polka dot jersey. I was no longer anxious; I felt unstoppable.
When you are on the side of a damn mountain, 3K from the top, with shattered legs and a broken spirit, it’s not anyone else that gets you to the top.
We hit the valley and rode into Switzerland. I felt the pace pick up, which caused my legs to burn in a way they shouldn’t when I still had another mountain to climb. I tried to push the pain and the doubt out of my head, but deep down, I knew I was in trouble.
We hit the second mountain and weren’t climbing for very long when I went from feeling OK to not good to terrible, really fast. I don’t run a bike computer so I didn’t know how far we had left to go (sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse). Ashley, a cheerful cyclist who floated up these mountains like a gazelle, was alongside me. In the few days prior to this ride, we went from strangers to fast friends, and I wondered if she sensed I was struggling when she asked how I was doing. The muscles in my legs felt torn to shreds, and my back ached deeper than I thought possible. I considered lying, but I told the truth.
“I’m really not doing too good,” I said. (Which was still a lie, I was doing horribly.)
“Well, we only have seven miles left to go!” she said, as chipper as if she were delivering the weather on a sunny day. She flashed a genuine smile as she danced on up the road like a ballerina on a bike. I know she meant well, but when you feel like King Kong on the side of the Empire State Building, just barely hanging on, finding out you have seven more miles (which can mean anywhere from an hour to 90 more minutes of pain) is the kind of thing that can break your spirit.
I lightened up on the gas pedal and watched my group fade into dots in the distance. I had officially bonked, hit a wall, cracked—whatever you want to call it when your body runs out of the energy and fuel it needs to keep performing—and I was going to need to finish this climb alone.
There’s a saying in cycling made famous by a former pro Jens Voigt: “Shut up, legs.” Yeah, the legs are a problem, but at that point, it’s more like “Shut up, brain.” Now alone on this mountain, all I could do was think.
I’ve done some hard physical stuff in my life, especially on a bike, but this was a new low. The doubt crept in. You can’t do it. Suddenly, my thoughts oscillated between I can’t go forward another inch to JK, I’m unstoppable to I can’t possibly go on to I’m going to do it —I’m talking legitimate straitjacket stuff. I felt like I had split personalities, one being my body; the other, my mind.
So I employed one of the mental strategies I use during endurance events: Dedicate each mile (or minute or whatever marker) to someone you love to keep your mind busy. I’d practiced this a lot, thinking of the faces of my family and friends who had always supported me through whatever insane athletic endeavors I had gotten myself into.
It reminds me how much they believe in me so that I can believe in myself. I thought about my parents and my siblings, my boyfriend and my friends. I thought about how proud they’d all be if I finished this thing, how I couldn’t wait to tell them about getting to the top, and how I couldn’t bear to tell them if I didn’t.
But let me just shoot you straight here: When you are on the side of a damn mountain, 3K from the top, with shattered legs and a broken spirit, it is not your loving parents or your boyfriend or your friends or your kids or your group or anyone else that gets you to the top. It is you and only you. I tried to do it for them, but in the end, I had to do it for myself. No one else.
As my bike swerved slowly back and forth, I searched frantically for the top, but I couldn’t see it anywhere. I stopped to stretch my legs several times, and I thought about giving up, but it wasn’t an option for me. I had made it so far. I just kept willing my legs to turn the pedals over, going so slow I could barely keep the bike upright. But somehow it kept moving forward until I finally turned a corner, and I saw the team van. The van! OMG the van was there with the rest of the group at the top! And I’d be lying if I said the sight of that stupid van didn’t make me want to ugly cry.
I have no idea how long it took me to finish that final 3K—somewhere between 30 minutes and forever—but I know that someone gave me a hug at the top. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I had never been more grateful that I was wearing sunglasses so that no one would see. I walked behind the van to a garbage can and had myself a good, silent, ugly cry. Not because it was hard (it was) or because it hurt (it did) or because I was tired (I was). Those tears were not sad. They were little drops of glory that washed over me, drowning me in a feeling so deep and all-consuming, I can only describe it as utter and complete pride.
When I look back at my time on that never-ending, winding road, it was a physical challenge, yes, but that road was not unlike the other struggles we face in life: My actual mountain is literally everyone’s metaphorical mountain—trying to lose that last 5 pounds, a terrible breakup, mile 25 of a marathon, losing a loved one, less sugar, more salad, every HIIT interval ever, losing your dream job, finding the motivation to exercise, waking up early. With all these struggles, it’s often your brain, not your body, you have to override.
These things suck. The road often involves unexpected turns and brutally steep pitches, no end in sight. But when you can make your “why” about you and not simply a means to an end, you push on—one second, one step, one day, one decision, one pedal stroke at a time.
“Why do we do this to ourselves?” I really didn’t know then, but I know now: We don’t do it to ourselves. We do it for ourselves. To prove that we can keep going. Every damn time, in moments big and small, we can.
Special thanks to CLIF Bar & Company for hosting us on this epic experience. Dedicated in loving memory to Lyle Skolnick, who taught me that we all can and we have to #keepgoing.
All photos: Ashley and Jered Gruber / Gruber Images