For as long as I can remember, I’ve longed to be a bad ass lady cyclist.
As a kiddo, I’d see the streams of riders traveling single file along the rolling hills at the base of the cascades where I lived. Clad in their bright colored spandex, I knew they were settled in for long, beautiful rides. I wondered what they’d see… how far they’d go.
As a young adult, I’d stand at the tennis courts at Cal Anderson Park (where I’ve never seen even a single sole with a tennis ball). Fingers clutched through the chain link fence, nose pressed through the gaps, I’d watch the bike polo players as they chased the ball on their fix gear rides. Impeccable balance, CRAZY finite control skills and creative street fashion, I loved every single thing about them. Sometimes I’d move over to the bleachers and just spend a warm summer evening alone under the glow of the park’s night lights just enjoying the game. Wondering if I could ever move a bike half as well.
But learning something new is scary. Especially something you DESPERATELY want to be good at.
Tolerating failure didn’t come very naturally to me. I hated looking unskilled. I was afraid to ask newbie questions. I never wanted anyone to see me do poorly at anything. My pursuits were safe. They were calculated. They were mostly things I could learn in private.
I had started to get over this set of fears when I began CrossFit in 2011. After all, no one could possibly expect me – a non athletic, ultra tall string bean – to be good at Olympic lifting. It was SO far outside my experience, I felt pretty ok admitting I had no idea what I was doing.
One day, when I reached far beyond my ability for an overhead squat PR, I fell under the weight of the bar. Mortified, my face flushed red. The voice in my head told me right away I’d done wrong and should be ashamed for even trying such a thing. And I was listening. But just a half second later, a louder voice quickly overpowered it. My coach, Evan, bellowed from across the room, “Fuck yeah, Karla!!! Way to go for it!” And right there, as I lay splayed out on the gym floor with my barbell bouncing behind me, it clicked: Failure is how you get better at things.
For the next 4 years I was too obsessed with weight lifting and CrossFit to think about any other athletic pursuit. I sort of forgot about cycling.
And then…. I got sick.
When I suddenly lost my hearing and developed a vestibular disorder in October 2014, basic movement became hard. Staircases were the scariest thing I’d encounter. Bending over to clip leashes on my dogs took all my effort and energy. And the day’s hard work was often a hiking pole aided walk to the end of my driveway and back.
Many months into my illness – even after my vestibular system and hearing recovered – overwhelming fatigue, a failing thyroid, plantar fascia inflammation, joint pain, muscle spasms, aching knots, tremors, and more kept me from much activity. It’d take me ages to walk even the very short distance from my new city apartment to my office. I stopped for rest often. Sometimes I’d have to get on the bus. There were a lot of tears during this time. I felt just desperate, broken, scared and alone.
In short, nothing very athletic was even on my mind. Every day I simply strove to survive. To keep air in my lungs long enough to see another day. To hope I’d find answers, to hope I’d find treatment, to hope I’d find progress. To hope I’d even find hope.
Eventually, answers came. In July, 2015, after 9 months of shifting forms of serious disability, I tested positive for late stage Lyme disease. I was clinically diagnosed with Bartonella. I began antibiotic treatment. I cleaned up my diet. I tried to reduce my stress. I did my emotional housekeeping. And I just… plugged… away.
4 or so months in, I started to see progress. The nose bleeds stopped first. Then some of the pain. My eyesight got a little more consistent. I started to have a little more energy. I began to sleep through the night. Month after month, I tracked my progress. And my symptom lists got shorter.
In the Spring of 2016, I was well enough to try my hand at dating for a bit. And the boy I fell for… was a cyclist. All of a sudden all the things I’d longed to love were up close in my life thanks to him. In May and June, we went for a handful of short bike rides together… my first since I was a kid. I’d ACHE for days afterward, but my heart was flying.
Shortly into the season, he was biking distances I couldn’t have even hoped to try, and I got off my bike and became a cheerleader. In July 2016, the morning of the Seattle to Portland bike ride, I filled his belly and kissed him goodbye at my doorstep around 5am. I met him at the finish line about 16 hours later. I cried and cried when he crossed. I felt alive, electric, and full of love for everything surrounding me that day. Sometimes I wonder if maybe that day meant even more to me than it did him.
You see, I wondered more than once, standing at that finish line, whether I might be able to accomplish such a feat someday.
Just a few weeks later, he and I parted ways… his dream of biological children was just too high on his wishlist for him to part with, and he arrived at my doorstep one morning to tell me I “wasn’t worth the sacrifice”.
That was the last time I was in love.
In my aching heart, I realized that much of what I missed (besides partnership and love in general) was bicycles! But the season had me moving into a cold, dark winter. And I was distracted with house shopping. I resolved that, as soon as life – and my body – would let me, I’d learn to be a bad ass lady cyclist.
Well. You all know how well the whole house thing worked out for me. After two and a half weeks in my beloved South Park townhouse, I fled it forever to escape toxic mold. I left all my belongings behind. Every. Single. Thing. And the only one that made me cry that day… was the loss of my bike, which I left in what felt like a pile of shattered dreams.
After a few months of couch surfing and toiling over how I might save my home, I realized the pursuit was fruitless. I resettled in a vintage apartment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. I moved into my new place with a single set of fresh, uncontaminates clothes, a sleeping bag, and a Christmas tree.
8 days later, I bought a bike.
I started out with a couple of easy rides. One alone on the Burke Gilman trail. “Bonding with bae,” I called it on Strava. Another was a Tinder date with a very patient Russian. And in February… rainy, cold February… I started riding with Cascade Bicycle Club in their Getting Ready to Ride series.
High on the excitement of having finished my very first GR2R series ride, I ambitiously and excitedly signed up for the Cascade Training Series – a 13 week training program that would begin immediately following GR2R in April. With maybe 40 aggregate miles under my belt as an adult, I was reaching right for the program that would take me to my first century.
The rides that I went on with Cascade Getting Ready to Ride series were all over the map. Every single week was my longest, hardest, scariest ride. I went my first 15 miles, then 20 and finally 25. I climbed my first hills. I tackled my first switchbacks. I stretched for the faster pace group. I got left behind. I learned to change a flat tire. I cried. I laughed. I made new friends. I wondered whether I’d be fit enough and fast enough and have enough endurance to actually participate in the Cascade Training Series. My ride leaders kept telling me, “you’re ready” in spite of my still pretty slow pace and very shaky self confidence.
April 8, 2017, I arrived at Cascade Bicycle Club for our first CTS ride. I tied my yellow ribbon to my helmet and nervously made my way through the bustling crowd to my self selected pace group, Yellow 7. I reminded myself over and over that it was ok to get dropped to Yellow 8. It was ok to get left behind completely. It was ok to quit this series altogether if I needed to. I had tried. My faith in my body, it seemed, was in no way restored.
I rode 25 miles with my new group that day. I rode at the front of the group. I even climbed the steep switchbacks among the fastest of them. And at the end of that long afternoon, I loaded my bicycle onto the back of my car smiling ear to ear. I was doing it!!
I went home that night, and I registered for the 2017 Seattle to Portland ride. “I have no idea if I’ll make it to that ride,” I reassured myself, “but I have a spot saved if I decide to try.” A few weeks later, after and inspirational speech by a woman who climbed Everest, I booked my hotel at the finish line and my train ticket home. Little by little, my confidence was building.
I’m 4 weeks into my Cascade Training Series now. I am in the saddle 3, sometimes 4 days a week. Just last week I rode 97 miles in total. This week, I’ll do my first half century.
Every ride is still my longest, hardest, scariest ride. I’m nervous every single time I get geared up. I spend hours out on the Burke Gilman trail practicing the skills everyone else long ago mastered: Taking my hands off the handlebars, signaling, stopping, dismounting, starting again. I ride hills on loops, giving those baby cyclist muscles the care and feeding they need to grow. Every day I wake up and, one way or another, I support my goal.
I still don’t know whether I’ll finish the Cascade Training Series, if I’ll make it to the STP, or if I’ll cross that finish line. But I know I’m at the start of something really great here.
And if I do cross that finish line on Sunday, July 16, 2017 – on what will be my 2 year anniversary of treating late stage Lyme disease – well, I’ll consider this body of mine reclaimed.
And I just might finally call myself… a bad ass lady cyclist.