“Do you think you’ll keep doing these rides or are you done?” asked Bryan as he, Bob, and I sat together in a booth at a Burger King after completing my first 200 kilometer bike ride, the Tar Heel 200 whose out and back route snakes through southeastern North Carolina between Benson and the crossroads town of Tar Heel in Bladen County.
“I could do this again” came my nonchalant, guarded reply. While I did not tip my hand to Bryan or Bob, thoughts of Randonneurs USA’s (RUSA’s) R-12 award had begun infiltrating my mind. The R-12 is earned by riding a 200 kilometer (200K) route each month for twelve consecutive months.
The disparity between my cycling accomplishments and those of Bryan and Bob fueled my sense of caution. They had completed 1200 kilometer Gran Brevets and had earned some of the most prestigious RUSA decorations including the K-Hound and Mondial awards.
“If you stay active, you’re going to have to get used to riding at night,” Bryan cautioned. “It’s unavoidable at the longer distances and can happen, like tonight, on the 200Ks.”
Bryan’s advice came from the trepidation I expressed about rolling through the heart of Dunn and Erwin after dark on a busy Saturday night and would prove prophetic the very next month as my group would finish the 210K Warrenton & Egypt Mountain permanent 1.5 hours past nightfall after being buffeted by fierce headwinds for much of the route.
Martin, our ride leader and another extremely accomplished randonneur, insisted we maintain a tight formation and match the pace of the slowest rider to maximize the visibility of our reflective vests and lights to motorists in those pitch black conditions. “Safety etiquette,” he explained.
I would not get over my aversion to being on the road past dark until late April when Bob and I completed a 300K after midnight with the final 50 miles being ridden under the pale gaze of a waxing crescent moon.
I was stoked about riding my first 300K in February on an out and back route that began in Lumberton and turned around in Maple Hill, but a lack of other participants convinced me to scale back my plans and do the 200K with Bob, Martin, and Harvey, who was also new to randonneuring, that began in Lumberton but turned around in Delway. Dropping back to the 200K proved a good decision even if it meant getting up at 3am to make the 5:30am check-in as I knew little about that part of North Carolina, we were once again barraged by strong sustained headwinds, and I experienced chest discomfort in Roseboro about 40 miles into the route. The discomfort eased off about the time we reached Garland, but returned with a vengeance the following weekend prompting me to seek medical attention.
My cardiologist put me through a regimen of tests which led to exploratory surgery (a heart catheterization procedure). While surgery revealed no urgent issues requiring immediate attention, changes were made to my medication array; I was scheduled for a cardiac MRI, and was told no cycling for 10 days to allow the incision point to heal. Fortunately, a 205K I could ride had been scheduled in late March allowing me to continue my quest for the R-12 award. I was an R-3 at that point.
I arrived at 6:30am in Raleigh for check-in of the 205K Road to Hicksboro event with Martin reprising his role as ride leader. He pulled me aside and questioned my participation, suggesting someone with a heart issue might be well-advised to limit himself to 100K or even 50 mile routes. I told him I felt great and was ready to continue my R series. Then came a pregnant pause finally broken by Martin’s acerbic riposte. “There’s no dying on my rides. You remember that. No dying.” Ironically, a few minutes later, Martin nearly backed over me moving his car. I considered saying “If I’m not allowed to die, you’re not allowed to kill me,” but thought better of it given his serious mood.
The longer March days helped us finish the Road to Hicksboro before dark, and my attention turned to the start of the North Carolina Brevet Series in April. I completed the 200K rout on April 8th followed by the 300K route on April 29th. Both routes began and ended in Morrisville with respective turn arounds in Siler City and Seagrove. Martin and Bob rode with me on both occasions with Harvey joining us for the 300K. Harvey proved to be a glib conversationalist and a quick wit making him valuable company on these rides where any diversion is a welcome once your mileage reaches triple digits.
Sadly, Harvey and Martin experienced significant mechanical problems that were beyond our ability to repair by the time we reached Seagrove and took Did Not Finish (DNFs) on the 300K. I shot Bob a concerned look wondering if I might be on my own for the return trip to Morrisville, but I need not have worried as Bob is as a steady a rider as you will find, and while his speech patterns tend toward the taciturn, his resolve is damn near unshakeable.
My grumbling and poor decision-making on the way back would force Bob outside of his comfort zone and into a coaching role where he found ways to encourage me and to kick me in the ass about my stubborn refusal to shift out of the big ring while we were navigating through the hills of Randolph County , which was accomplishing nothing except to slow us down. After twice suggesting I go into the small ring, he finally stopped and told me I had a choice. I could either shift down and finish my first 300K or continue to be hardheaded and risk tearing a quad or creating some other totally unnecessary circumstance that would cause me to DNF. I shifted down, and we finished the ride. The 300K medal I earned that day partially belongs to Bob.
Innocuously named Badgett Sisters Parkway, the 208K route began and ended in Durham and went through the rugged terrain of and adjoining the Caswell County Game Lands area before turning around in Yanceyville. The fun started in the small municipality of Corbett with about 21 miles of strenuous climbing to our lunch control in western Yanceyville followed by another 21 miles of even more strenuous climbing back to Corbett. Temperatures topped out around 90 that day with humidity that made the mercury feel closer to 100. I staggered back into the Corbett convenience store control and bought multiple bottles of water – some to consume and some just to pour over my head and down my back. I felt my heart beating in a way that seemed not normal, a scary sensation I had never experienced before or since that hot, miserable day. I would finish the ride 7 minutes behind Bob and about 30 minutes in front of my disqualification time, which to this day remains the closest I have come to DNFing a RUSA ride. I was an R-6, but just barely.
June did not start well as I had my Cardiac MRI and received an urgent call from my cardiologist’s office two days later. The test results were BAD. So bad I had been scheduled for an immediate consultation with an implant cardiologist as a prelude to surgery. “Don’t worry Mr. Richardson. We’re not going to let you die,” were the chilling words spoken by the physician assistant at the end of that call. Of course, I did worry and stayed off the bike as this new cardiologist wanted to implant an ICD, a type of defibrillator, inside my chest as soon as possible because I was at elevated risk of experiencing cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest goes by another name – Sudden Death Syndrome – and obviously, it’s an extremely serious condition. We decided on June 22nd as the date for the procedure, and I thought my quest for the R-12 had reached an unsuccessful conclusion.
But about a week before surgery, I received a message from Bob. He asked about my plans for completing a 200K ride in June saying he had already done his but would be willing to ride another one if I wanted company. Unfortunately, his schedule did not permit him to be back on the bike until June 22nd. I told him about the medical issue and said with a sigh that my R series appeared to be over as no further 200Ks were scheduled prior to my procedure.
“I have a 200K route you could do,” Bob offered, “But I’m out of town and can’t meet you until the 21st to give you the RUSA control card and have you sign the waiver. Would that work?”
I ran a mental timeline and realized that all the pre-op requirements would be completed the day before the procedure so the question became do I risk doing a long bike ride hours before having an ICD wired into my chest.
An imaginary comical dialogue began with two figures appearing to help me make this decision. On my left shoulder sat Fear while Hubris carved out a perch on my right shoulder. A short humorous debate ensued:
Fear – “What if you get out there and DIE from cardiac arrest the day before life saving surgery? That’s just stupid! STOO-PID!”
Hubris – “The legend. Daniel Richardson. Rode his bike 128 miles and then reported to the hospital for heart surgery.”
It was not a hard decision. “Sure Bob. That works great!” I said, mentally high fiving Hubris before he disappeared in a metaphorical puff of smoke.
By the end of June 21st, I was an R-7 with my first solo 200K, the North of Burlington permanent, in the books. About 10 hours later, a scalpel sliced open my chest.
Surgery went well, but a projected six to eight week recovery period conspired to scuttle my R-12 quest just past its halfway point. I insisted to the implant cardiologist I felt fine at my ten day follow-up and asked for permission to get back on the bike.
“Can you guarantee me you won’t crash?” he asked.
“Of course not,” I said.
“Well then, limit yourself to the stationary bike until mid-August because if you crash or get jostled hard by a pothole or other road hazard we could be back in the OR doing this procedure all over again.”
I stayed silent, but shot a surreptitious wink toward Hubris over in the corner.
July 30th saw me making another early morning drive to meet Bob for the 201K Lookin’ Out My Back Door permanent, which began and ended in Garner with a turn around in Cedar Creek. I had ridden only once since June 21st, an easier 100K route, so I was unsure of my conditioning and worried I might take a tumble out on the road.
Lookin’ Out My Back Door was not my best ride as we had a strong headwind to contend with coming back as well as a lengthy detour to avoid new bridge construction, but I did keep the bike upright and finished the day as an R-8.
My R-9 came with a repeat of the North Carolina 200K Brevet route, which was largely unremarkable except for being my second solo outing and having to contend with August heat and humidity that rivaled what I encountered on the Badgett Sisters Parkway ride back in May. A convenience store control patron even commented at the 50 mile mark it was too hot to be out on a bike, but I stayed hydrated and finished without issue.
Bob and I spent our Labor Day riding his 202K North of Burlington permanent, a hybrid out and back/loop route which began and ended in Graham with a turn around in Semora, a small town near the Virginia border, and a western salient encircling McLeansville. I quipped that Caswell County hunters were giving us a 21 gun salute as we were subjected to a constant barrage of shotgun fire after entering the county. Labor Day, of course, marks the opening of dove season.
I rode North of Burlington solo in October and finished after dark for the first time since the 300K brevet in April. Bob and his delightful wife met me at the finish, and I joked with them about the differences between historic West Burlington and Graham and the industriousness of Graham’s drug dealers who I observed peddling their wares at various street corners that Sunday evening.
I found myself back at the Burger King in Benson on November 18th where my quest had begun 11 months earlier. Bob and Martin, who I had not ridden with since May, joined me in the doing the Tar Heel 200 for the second time. My ride nearly ended before it began as a large dog rushed our peloton and brushed my front wheel just outside of Benson. His owner called him back into her yard, and we kept pedaling towards Dunn in the cold early morning temperatures. A stiff headwind delayed our arrival in Tar Heel, but after lunch, the mercury climbed to a pleasant range and the now brisk tailwind propelled us back the way we came.
We achieved an impressive negative split by the time we reached the last control about 13.5 miles from Benson. I had pondered the possibility that Bob and Martin might do something to mark the occasion – hand shakes, back slaps, pictures, dousing me with Gator Ade, etc – and when they approached me outside that convenience store, I silently went back over what I had planned to say.
But oh no. Ever the teacher, Martin chose the moment to remind me that my sprint/glide pedaling technique slows me down and that I succeed in spite of it not because of it. He invited me to imagine a future where I engage in constant pedaling, significantly increase my average speed, and have many more people with whom I can ride without getting dropped. He went on to say that he and Bob were going to help get started as soon as we left the control by dropping behind and watching my feet. Each time I reverted to my old pattern he would call out or Bob would blow the air horn he uses to discourage canine pursuit to help this new cadence pattern become second nature. Thank God they stopped this aggravation after about 10 miles, but truth be told I did pedal constantly almost the entire time.
McDonald’s replaced Burger King, and Martin occupied Bryan’s booth seat, but otherwise, I experienced a perfect déjà vu when the questions came about my future plans. Have you re-upped with RUSA for 2018? What’s your next step as a presumptive R-12? Will you continue to ride 200Ks? Before I could answer, Bob interjected that I had not done my last 200K, and now as an R-13 after finishing the Lake Gaston 208K, he has been proven right.
I have extended my membership with RUSA through 2018, and I am in the process of formulating my cycling goals for the coming year. Will I go for the R-24 designation? Will I commit to attempting a Super Randonneur series in which you ride a 200/300/400/600k in a single calendar year? Will I strive to put myself in position to earn a qualifying spot in the 2019 Paris-Brest-Paris Gran Brevet, the most prestigious randonneuring event in the world? Will I set my most ambitious annual mileage goal ever?
I am not certain just yet other than knowing I want to continue being an inspiration to other heart patients in staying active and to people in general about finding ways to be your best self even during life’s dark moments. As I first heard during a motivational seminar, what life does to you does not matter nearly as much as how you respond to those events
The future is not set. The man of tomorrow is forged by his battles today. An idea on which diverse charcters such as John Connor and Lex Luthor can agree. While I do not know what will happen to me in 2018 and beyond, I do know that cycling will be part of my life as long as I am able to stay upright on a bike. See you on the road.