You hear it all the time. The Crusher is so much more than a bike race/ride/adventure. What the hell is it anyway. We pay money to ride the most convoluted route through remote parts of the UP (often in or thru the night) taking selfies (which I hate) and all we get for our efforts is a green dot on a spreadsheet. Who does that? Why do we do that?
I know I am not the first person to ask these questions. And I am not the only one who finds it difficult to explain this odd choice to family who were not exactly athletic in the youth much less taking on ultra-events in their mid…fine upper 50’s. Being the youngest of seven and forever picked on, Fred and I’s all in on MTB and 906 events has made me an easy target. But behind the ribbing, and earnest questioning of sanity, is an admiration and wonder but I know my sibling just don’t get it. All except Buffy, my eldest sister in law, who was the only other athlete in the family. She was a tennis pro and avid road cyclist and she got it and loved hearing about our adventures. Yes, there is a reason I highlight Buffy, I’ll get there.
I sat down to write this “Crusher Report” and it became crystal clear that the Crusher doesn’t happen within the 12, 24 or 40 hours allotted. In truth, it begins when we sign up for the damn thing… last year. Too much happens in life that becomes part of the Crusher story to capture. But mine included ambitious categories, 175MS, reduced to realistic ones, 100EX, whose Labor Day scheduling impacted my Marji’s 100 also being reduced to 50. All good decisions made early. All things within my control. How I like things I can control.
We plan and prepare, and we train, and we want our progression to be a straight line. It is not. So much is out of our control. About a month out from my ride, things started getting shitty for me. Sorry guys… let’s talk menopause. That time in a woman’s life when all the estrogen that does so much work in the body, shuts off sending you into withdrawals that (I choose to believe) would put any man into a fetal position in the corner. The hot flashes were so intense I would have to stop riding and literally sit on the side of trail. It was the same intense hot flush you get when you smash your thumb with a hammer, and you don’t know if you’re going to pass out or throw up. As I sat on the side of trail fanning myself, not once a ride but three or four times a ride, I kept asking how the hell can I do the crusher like this?
If only that were the only menopausal symptom. A hot flash passes in minutes. The other symptoms mirror clinical depression. I know depression. I have chronic Bipolar Disorder and managing it is my full-time job. Depression hit and it was bad. Like write bad poetry bad… which I did. This is what it felt like.
Deep breath morphs into a groan
Just lay here
Coffee my only motivation
Melting into the shape of my chair
Eyes darting, thumbs scrolling
Just sit here
To break it’s hold
The invisible web so dense, so heavy
Stealing precious moments
So much gravity
Out the door
Starting is always the hardest part
They say anyway
They don’t know
All you got to do
Momentum is your friend
Pedal, pedal, pedal
The mantra in my head
Hit the trail
Amongst the trees
Root, rocks, unexpected drops
No choice now
In the moment
There’s the flow
The body knows
Pumping, leaning, pushing it
In the zone
Take that you brutal beast
The beast winks
We both know
As it slowly retakes the soul
Tomorrow is another day
Fighting fucking gravity.
And again, I was questioning how the hell was I going to do the Crusher in a few weeks feeling like that? The self-doubt and fear of failure were huge (and felt warranted). It was made worse by the plan to ride with friends, a couple. My training had suffered and was lacking (numbers don’t lie). The what ifs… What if I was lagging behind? What if I cramped up again (it happens to me… training, Polar Roll, Marji Camp)? What if I broke down and cried on the side of the trail (true story… more than once). I also have a dismal track record of actually making it to the starting line and if I make it to the line, I either don’t finish or finish badly. My friends think I am some bad ass… but I am not. I was worried. Fred was worried too.
A word or two about Fred. Fred, my husband and best friend, means everything to me. I owe him my life in every way. Fred works his ass off so I can live a full life despite a Bipolar diagnosis. He never let me get stuck living in my illness. He encouraged me to not just manage it but to thrive despite it. Hell, he got me a vintage plane so I could get a Sport Pilot’s License which doesn’t require a medical (I can’t pass) so I could literally (and figuratively) FLY! Together we have defied the odds. He knows me and he knows how badly my own mind and emotions can betray me at times. He grounds me when I am flighty and impulsive on the manic side and he keeps me from losing touch with the good and hope when things go dark. So, when I say Fred was worried too, it means my anxiety for once was warranted.
One of my Crusher friends came down with some respiratory crude and was concerned about recovering in time to ride Labor Day. Fred reassured me, if they didn’t do it, he would do it with me and we could do it unsupported. Fred knew how important getting this ride done was to me. That planted a seed. Doing it with Fred felt way safer to me. Fred would ride my ride. And if (when) I failed there would be no witnesses. It also means we could do it a week earlier giving me an extra week recovery before Marji. I had a conversation with my friend where, sadly, I latched onto her cold and not my depression (sorry friend) to justify the decision to do it a week early with Fred.
Sometimes other parts of life happen in the background. In Missouri, in my big messy family, we were worried about Buffy. She had quietly scheduled a Mastectomy for August 11. She and my brother didn’t want the attention or to worry us. I was in town visiting my mom when I found out about the surgery. I am the only sibling not living within an hour of our hometown so when I come to town we try to get together. This trip I was pleased all seven siblings and all but two sis in laws made it for happy hour. Buffy did not attend, surgery the next day. My brother minimized. Cut out the cancer and probably wouldn’t even need chemo or radiation. Then he was talking about the two new overstuffed lazy boys they had gotten for Buffy to recover in. It was funny because he is an architect and their home has always been more Architectural Digest. We didn’t talk about cancer. We tend towards avoidance and denial, so we laughed about Lazy Boys. The surgery went as planned. She was comfortable in her chair recovering at home.
That was a week before I made the change of the Crusher date. In fact, the day (August 19) I made the change, the family text chain lit up. Buffy was in the ER with pain and some weakness and they were running tests. She was admitted for more test over the weekend. Her auto-immune system was wreaking havoc. She was admitted to the ICU. We forget surgery is traumatic to the body. I was in touch with my sisters, I didn’t want to bother my brother or Buffy (I regret that now). Their Daughter flew in to help explain the medical stuff, she is a vet (different but she is pragmatic and speaks medical). All the while I am planning this unsupported ride while ready to drop it and head to Missouri. Tests showed stage 4 bone cancer in her legs, pelvis and vertebrae and a concern in her brain. Starting Chemo… no radiation first… Brain cancer confirmed. Oncology wing. Should I be there? No, I was told not yet. My daughter, who is closer, was going down for the weekend to cook and freeze meals for them. She would be there with my mom (94 and we are always worried about her) and she had enlisted two other cousins to help. The cousins would do the heavy lifting of support for the weekend while I did my ride. Because as they reminded me, it was what Buffy wanted me to do. So, I would ride “for Buffy”. I still was ready to bail if things changed. And being honest, I really wanted to bail.
Thursday, we left Holland in the afternoon. Setting myself up for success by getting up there early. On the drive another text update. The pain was awful. The treatment was brutal. They would talk to the doctor tomorrow for a more realistic plan. “It’s not good.” This from my brother, king of denial. Nothing to do but wait so we kept driving. Two hotels in St. Ignace, bed bugs (story for another time). Friday, we pick up beacons, had an early pre Crusher meal and got to our cabin. Another text update. Stopping treatment. Hospice coming in. Pain management then home mid-week. Bed going into the Livingroom in front of her favorite wall of windows. Shit. I call my daughter. Buffy would want you to do the ride. Nothing for you to do here. Give us all something to cheer for. Do it for Buffy. Come mid-week when she is home.
Saturday (after confirming no new updates) Fred got me to the start and we rode. We left just after 7 am. It was beautiful. I did my best to appreciate it. The sun rise muted by thick ground fog. The puddles that were the road. The wet shoes six miles in, one less thing to stress about. Dishno Road selfie, check mark. Feeling good, letting memories flit thorough my mind. My brother got stranded at her birthday party the night I was born. I have known Buffy my entire life. Poor Fred endured a quiet ride trying to read what was in on my mind. We crossed a small nothing bridge but heard rushing water. We stopped but couldn’t see anything through the overgrown brush. Fred took off. I did too but more slowly because I was distracted and wanted to see the water. There was a trail and I saw a foot bridge. I stopped Fred and was off my bike and down the trail before he could turn around. It is my nature to take off in odd directions… squirrel and away I go. The bridge led to a waterfall cascading down the rock just steps off the route. It was beautiful. Buffy would have loved it. How many people live life without going out of their way at all? How many Crushers intent on pedaling, passed this without knowing? I felt blessed and maybe a little superior in my find.
Eagle Mine was a nice stop. The guards offered fresh water and a bathroom. Guys don’t appreciate that as much as women, but it was huge. While there, Paul came through heading to finish his 225 ride. We did not realize it was his scouting we had to thank for the convoluted route. Probably best we didn’t know… Fred might have had something to say about the Trail of No Return from his 225 ride. A brief chat in the guard house and some laughs while I stretched on the floor. The guards have their own Crusher stories. I took advantage of the cell signal to check in with my daughter. She sent a pic of all the girls cooking in the kitchen cheering me on. My mom front and center. Buoyed by their support away we went.
Things beyond your control include your bodies reaction to hard things. My body has tended to cramp up in the past. About five hours in I felt a sharp pain, not in my legs but my gut. Not my stomach but lower, weird. I could hear my mom’s ever-present solution to any belly ache. You just need to poop. (You know your mom said it too) But I couldn’t. We kept riding. More discomfort. Some nausea. I stopped hoping to throw up and got distracted by a butterfly on a leaf. The nausea passed. The discomfort did not and then the doubts got really loud in my head. Versions of I can’t do this started bouncing in my head. I know the area along the route from scouting to support the 225. I know Peshekee Grade Rd would take me back down to 41 and to Koski Korner and my Jeep. It would be the only way to get myself back without having to call for a ride from our emergency contact. I kind of wanted to quit. If I rode back to the car from there it would still be my longest ride ever. This was hard. And I felt kind of guilty riding my bike while Buffy suffered. It is one thing to say you are riding for someone else or because someone else can’t. For me it was feeling kind of gross, selfish. Do you want to know what kept me going? A hawk swooped down and flew in front of me along the road. Okay, Mr. Hawk, I will keep going forward. The things we latch onto. Peshekee Grade Road came and went. The discomfort stopped, the doubts did not.
The Rock Cut was amazing. I was glad to see it. The Beaver Dam was annoying but beautiful. We decided to remove the shoes for that one and that meant fresh socks. Amazing how good fresh socks felt even in wet shoes. Little things take note. We walked a good bit of Mt. Arvon. I was very concerned I did not have the physical ability to finish this ride. My nutrition and hydration had taken a hit while my gut was acting up and I was being conservative. It felt like the strikes were adding up against me.
We made it to the top, a first for me on Mt Arvon and I was exhausted. It was pushing 5 pm. 60+ miles. Halfway. This was now officially my longest ride ever. I wanted to bask in it. We were all alone on top of Michigan… for a moment… then a car door slams and kids come running, laughing, full of energy up the hill. What the Fuck.
Since the moment had passed, I took advantage of what I knew to be the last cell signal until early morning. I called my daughter for an update and pep talk. I knew immediately when she answered it was not good news. Hospice had been very clear. Buffy was sedated and no longer in pain, but her body was shutting down and would not wake up. She would not make it through the night. Buffy was dying while I was riding my bike. Life is not fair.
My instinct was to get there. My daughter was firm. You can’t. It’s too late. They were asking everyone with travel plans to cancel them. Again… There is nothing you can do here but we are watching you mom. We are cheering you on. Buffy would be too… if she could. Numb. Shock. It happened so fast. Sixteen days from Buffy full of vitality and humor to dying. My mind tried to find a story that made it okay. She obviously had cancer for a while and didn’t know, what treatment horrors had she avoided? She was not in pain. But I was. I sat at the table at the top of Mt. Arvon knowing I had to keep going but only because I did not have any other options. Had we had support there I would have taken it. I would have gone back to the cabin and curl up into a ball and cry. Instead I ate a PB&J that was salty through my tears.
Bless Fred. When he doesn’t know what to say, he says nothing. He sits beside me and waits. When he senses it safe, he takes small steps in the direction we need to go. He quietly packed up his stuff. Numb, I did the same. He pointed his bike down the hill and I followed. Thank God for the long smooth downhill on Black Creek Road. Somewhere in my mind I knew at the bottom of that hill was easy access for a ride. I could quit. I wanted to quit. We kept going. Fred’s goal was the Bra Tree before dark. He needed to keep me moving. He filtered water at Erik’s bridge. I was pleased to have an outhouse. I splashed water on my face, and we kept riding.
I wish I could say I took the tragedy that was happening so far away and rode that ride with heart, grit, courage or even intent. I wish I rode in a way that Buffy would have been proud. I did not. I rode with guilt, shame, regret, and anger. That is what I was carrying with me. And it was a very heavy load.
Once we passed the Bra Tree and the sun set. It got dark and I got dark too. I wanted to quit. There was not a time that I did not know where the nearest, easiest out was. The next easy out was Triple A road. Pavement. But it is not easy to quit. It is embarrassing to quit. I so desperately wanted to be the person who finished what they started. To do epic hard shit. I am not. At one point I was trying to figure out how to have a mechanical but Fucking Fred can fix anything on that damn bike. The other out was injury and there were plenty of lose chunky down hills… it would be easy. RED FLAG. Self-harm bad. Physical pain will not erase an emotional one. I told you I got dark. We made the pavement of Triple A. It is all fucking up hill. And the wind was blowing out of the southwest… hard. I tried to tuck up behind Fred and I watched him get knocked by the wind to the point of not being able to ride a straight line. Soon we were granny gear and said screw it. We walked… on pavement… forever. Even Stoic Fred was pissed at the wind and yes… Fucking Todd. Only he could arrange a wind like that!
Yellow Dog. My last pair of dry socks on extremely pale, pruned feet. The sandy (thankfully wet fairly firm sand) side up Mosquito Gulch. Sucks. I thought I had a wrinkle in my sock. I did not. It was my own skin folded over itself. A large crease below the ball of my foot from one side to the other. What do you do with that? Chamois Butter. It is all we could think to do. It kept the sock from pulling. It did not hurt to pedal but it hurt to walk. We walked Mosquito Gulch around midnight. Good news. The mosquitos were sleeping.
Dead River. Deep and fast. I couldn’t get my bike up on my shoulder and the tires were pushing me sideways and my footing was unsteady. After a failed attempt to cross, I let Fred take the bike. 16 miles to go. I can do 16 miles. That is my typical ride to Upper Mac and back. My pace picked up (except on the up hills. Walked all of them). I was almost leaving Fred behind. I wanted it done. I was done. I could do that for a mile or so then coast to a stop even on the flats. Get off the bike and walk. Forward progress. Then repeat. It took three hours to do the last 16 miles.
We finished at 22 hours 26 minutes. 5:30ish in the morning. Fred was so happy and proud of me for finishing. I was numb but happy it was finally over. I checked my phone. There was a picture of Buffy sleeping and family surrounding her cheering me on time stamped around midnight. We went back to our cabin where I slept hard.
I was awoken at 11 Sunday morning by the call. Buffy, age 69, had passed.
I know this post is long. It has helped me to process. And maybe it can help others too. This ride will forever be intertwined with this loss. I can now see the guilt, shame and regret are all emotions I have experience with, and they are feelings I know. Sad to say, but I am comfortable with them. As heavy as they were, they were easier than the loss and grief they were protecting me from. As time has passed and I write it all out. I feel proud that I did not quit. Telling myself I had no choice kept me going but that was not true. My friends would have dropped everything and shone up. Hell, had I called Todd (maybe) he would have come to get me himself (let me believe it). I am proud I did not call. I am proud I proved myself wrong, because I did not believe I could do it. Not when we started and not along the way. Believing in myself has always been a challenge. But now I have this crazy accomplishment in my pocket. I can say this one time, I rode 128 miles in 22 + hours through the UP while grieving an inconceivable loss just because I could. If I can do that…maybe, just maybe, I am the type of person who can show up and do the hard shit.
Thanks for reading.