I was soaking wet and I couldn’t really feel my toes—and that was before the thunderstorm started. And it was my birthday.
Perhaps I should back up a bit…
A few weeks ago, I turned 50 years old. I’d spent the last year see-sawing between thinking of something big, symbolic, and significant—like a 50-mile mountain bike race—and listening to my more mature self telling me that I was beyond such things and riding was about so much more than such a literal “celebration.” In fact, it seemed as if it was the latter that was winning. But in the days before “the big day,” as my wife and daughter asked what I actually wanted to do for my birthday, I found myself telling them that I’d like to go out and do 50 miles on the local rail trail. My reasoning was that this offered the safety of no cars, and enough efficiency that I could complete the miles in a somewhat reasonable amount of time. After all, I still had to sing and eat cake and open presents and such.
The weather forecasters all agreed that it would rain in the morning, but that by the time I planned to start—after breakfast with the girls—it should clear up, and the temperature would climb as high as 61 degrees F. In December! Fate seemed to be smiling on my plan. And the rain did seem to be slowing down as I headed out the door to begin. In fact, though I was a little damp from the leftover rain on the trail, it seemed to have stopped raining completely when I reached the southern end of the path and turned around at about mile 7. But then the clouds started to get darker, rather than lighter. That seemed odd, but I assumed they’d just pass over.
That’s when I saw the lightning. As usually happens, I questioned whether I’d truly seen it until I heard the thunder. And that seemed relatively far off—at first. But before I knew it, I was scrambling to get on my rain jacket and riding through puddle after puddle, soaking everything from my waist down. This definitely wasn’t part of my plan.
I stopped at the Topsfield fairgrounds—and their overhanging shelter—around mile 10 to regroup, suck down a GU packet, and consider my options. Wrung out my gloves to get out as much of the water as I could. At least the storm seemed to have passed. But was I crazy to continue this foolish Sisyphean challenge? Maybe, but I’d already arranged my day to allow time for this, and was a decent ways from home. So I might as well continue on for a bit and see if things changed.
One issue I couldn’t really think my way around, though, was the fact that our packed gravel rail trail was no longer damp, but now soaked. Inches of water that could hardly be called “puddles” and more closely resembled flooding. If I was going to complete this thing—and I had one chance, because this day wouldn’t happen again in my lifetime—then I needed to come up with an alternate plan on the fly. Despite the water, the trail wasn’t softening yet, but surely it would soon transform into tire-sucking mud. Despite my off-road preferences, I knew pavement would give me my best chance of getting it done under the circumstances. But I still didn’t feel like tempting fate out in traffic for the next 5 hours. So I decided to ride to the far end of the trail, then head for the state park about 5 miles from there. It has a closed and paved road through its centre, and maybe some of the trails there might be “dry” enough to make a suitable loop I could repeat again and again.
When I got to Bradley Palmer state park, I thought I’d switch to the dry gloves I’d packed in my bag, and perhaps stow away the rain jacket again. Also, the outer shorts I’d put on over my tights were now absolutely soaked and approximated muddy sandpaper. But I was in for yet another surprise. The backup gloves I’d put in my canvas saddlebag (with about 99% more forethought than every other ride in 2021) were as soaked as the ones on my hands. But at least they were thinner, so I hoped they’d dry faster. And I soon realized the rain jacket was as muddy as the shorts. So quickly visiting a porta-potty, I shed the shorts, and luckily, found a cavity underneath some charity’s collection box where I could stow away my filthy cache. Now I was slightly colder, but a bit drier, and hoped the wind and the motion would work together to warm me up and dry me off. Otherwise, this ride was likely going to be shorter than I’d anticipated. And since my family was off rounding up yummy birthday treats to celebrate Dad’s ridiculous accomplishment, it wasn’t as if they could simply come and rescue me, either.
But as I travelled up the road through the park, I felt cautiously optimistic. Well, until I got to the doubletrack trail I’d hoped had resisted the recent rain enough to form my loop. Instead, the field it passes through had seemingly soaked up every bit of the water that had fallen, and was offering up far too much rolling resistance to be feasible. I managed to make it around the loop I’d hoped to use, but it was clear that it wasn’t going to work the way I’d hoped. Thankfully, there’s more than one option in this park, and as I travelled the paved section again, I came up with a second loop. There’s a horse farm at the Eastern edge of the park, and a dirt road that has plenty of potholes, but is compacted enough by cars that it might just work as an alternate loop.
It certainly wasn’t the most efficient line I’d ever chosen—I’d had enough of soaking myself in puddles—but I was happy to discover I’d guessed correctly about the road’s surface. Between this quiet farm road, the multi-use gravel path that follows the river that forms the northern border of the park, and the aforementioned asphalt road, I just might just be able to do this!
Around this point, I hit mile 25, which was strangely encouraging. I was halfway, and though I was running a little behind schedule, that was to be expected and hopefully I’d speed up now that I’d established a relatively dry loop, and surely the rising wind meant that the promised spring-like temperatures were on their way. One thing that seemed to have worked wonderfully was the shedding of the soaked outer layers I’d worn to protect me from the rain. Now I was mostly dry, the effort of riding was keeping me suitably warm—although my wet feet were still slightly concerning—and my gloves had dried off just like I’d hoped. Let’s do this thing!
And so I did my best to switch off my brain, put my head down, and churn out the miles. I rode around my loop a few times. I did a bit of a figure 8 by going the other direction and looping around the opposite side of the park. I even visited the brightly-coloured Methodist summer camp I once worked in and have been unconsciously avoiding for years. It was nice to see the place again, and it provided my mind with enough of a novelty that I was glad I’d returned. Since it was December and the cabins aren’t insulated, it was of course empty. And so the miles passed by. I even managed to use some familiar trails to cut through the park. I’ve often looked at the road from the trail, but this was the first time I’d seen things from the other side, and I was glad I managed include at least some actual mountain biking in the ride.
I must have been successful in finding some sort of brain-neutral flow state, because sooner than I’d expected, I was nearing 40 miles, and needed to start planning how I’d head towards home. From prior experience, I knew the park was something like 10 miles from my condo, a warm shower, dry clothes, and who knows what sorts of birthday fun and frivolity. I was the proverbial horse that smells the barn and it really did give me a burst of renewed energy.
But my mind must’ve been a little addled by the day’s effort, because when I got back to my town, I was still only at 42 miles. And when I continued down the bike path and thought I’d calculated the exact distance out and back I’d need to “head for the stables,” I got home at 48. I was in front of my own door, now, but couldn’t go in. I started riding slowly around the neighbourhood, circled back around to the house, and I was barely at 49. So I headed out in the direction I’d started in the morning, down the main street of our town. Turned right in the centre, and past the middle school my daughter used to attend. By this point my fingers hurt every time I squeezed the brake levers, and every bump sent an electric jolt of pain through my wrists. I made my way back home and pulled out my phone for what would hopefully be the last time. 50.3! I’d done it. And more importantly, I’d never need to do it again. Certainly not in the second week of December. And as I stumbled up the stairs and into our apartment, smelled the fresh cookies, saw the wrapped presents, and accepted congratulations from my wife and daughter, I realized my toes were still numb.
Words and pictures – Rob Kristoff