Me and El Tigre

20160508_075626Technically, it was a competitive race to the finish line, but for me the only competition was between myself and El Tigre. 

On May 7th, I rode in my first competitive cycling race called the Rosarito Ensenda in Baja, Mexico, about a 2-hour drive from my home.  Heralded as one of the world’s largest cycling events, it began in 1979 with a handful of cyclists and today enters nearly 4,000 riders who start a 50-mile journey in Rosarito Beach and follow the free road along the Pacific Coast of Baja, Mexico.  After a few miles along the gorgeous coastline, the event map shows a turn inland through the beautiful rural countryside, upward through the hills surrounding the Valle de Guadalupe wine country and then downward into the seaside town of Ensenada.  Waiting at the finish line is a huge celebration, basically a Mexican street-fest, with all kinds of Mexico’s favorite foods and standard fare such as tacos, paprika-sprinkled fruit cups, churros, empanadas, and of course cold beer… along with colorful vendors, live bands, open-air massages, and your cheering support team (if you have one).  This party often goes on well into the night. 

What the event map doesn’t show you is a huge hill between mile 24 and 27 called El Tigre (Spanish for ‘the Tiger’) which starts at almost sea level and climbs to over 800 feet.  The good news is, if you make it up El Tigre, it’s all downhill until you coast into Ensenada for the big finish-line fiesta. 

The night before the race I lay awake feeling nervous with my mind on overdrive… Could I finish 50 miles which would be my longest ride to date?  How strong and cold would the winds be?  How likely would I be to fall with 4000 riders swarming all around me?  More importantly, could I even make it up El Tigre? 

Tom had done this race many times before.  It was not his longest nor his hardest.  I knew he would wait for me at the sag stops but, because of our vastly different skill levels on the bikes, I knew I would ride alone for most of the three to four hours which I expected the race would take me to finish. 

Still a bit uneasy, the next morning we were off to a great start.  I had my cycling playlist setting the pace in my ears and plenty of caffeine setting the pace in my bloodstream.  I settled in pretty quickly and was feeling surprisingly good after the first 22 miles when suddenly the distant image of El Tigre came looming into view.  The weather was gloomy, overcast, and slightly foggy with a chilly wind that only added to the ominous feeling that I had as I watched hundreds of faster riders already scaling the mountain up ahead almost effortlessly while other riders all around me were pulling off to check their bikes, down a power bar, and hydrate in preparation for the climb.  Personally, I was afraid if I stopped, I might just turn around and head home.  So I set my jaw, focused at my handlebars, turned up the volume on my music and told myself that if 4000 other people could ride up this hill, so could I. 

On our two-way helmet headphones, Tom’s voice reassured me that I could totally do this and that he would see me at the top.  Before I could answer, he was around the bend, out of range, and no longer in my sights.  This was now between me and El Tigre, alone.
But, I was wrong… I wasn’t alone.  Not by a long shot.  Of all the unexpected surprises I experienced that morning, one of the best was something most cyclists who race already know.  On the challenging ascent up El Tigre, as I huffed and puffed and slowed to a crawl only slightly fast enough to keep me and my bike upright, every rider that passed me (which were far too many to count!) murmured, cajoled, or outright shouted to me some version of, “Good job! You’re doing awesome! Nice work! Keep it up! You’re almost there! Looking great!”  Every rider, every time they passed me, even the riders who were clearly in their 70’s or even 80’s, which would have been incredibly humiliating except … it felt so dang good.  Seriously, I think I smiled like a complete fool (between gasping for air) the entire ride up that mountain.  Those riders and their encouraging, quick words made me feel anything but alone.  They made me feel like I was a welcome part of a supportive community of athletes who did not care what place I was in, how fast I was going, or how ridiculous I looked while I was doing it.  They only cared that I knew in my effort to climb that mountain that I had their respect and their support and that this was more about all of us making it up to the top than any one of us winning the race. 

20160507_113826I’m happy to report that I did conquer El Tigre and finished the race in less than three hours.  Like most things in life, it was not nearly as hard as I had feared, and the pride and jubilation I felt cresting the top of that mountain as well as crossing the finish line to the cheers of a large crowd was exhilarating and addictive.  And, a cold beer never went down so easy or felt so immensely satisfying. 

This week, remember the power of verbalizing, however quickly or quietly, your support, admiration, and encouragement to those with whom you work, live, or socialize.  Almost nothing feels better to hear when you are pushing your way through a challenging day.  And, because what matters most is that we all eventually make it to the top, not that any one of us wins the whole thing.

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