Up a (half) Mammoth, down a lymph node.

Mammoth Endurance Gravel had been on my radar all winter, so when Evan mentioned that he’d volunteered to sweep part of the course, I decided that would be my big spring ride. 140 miles and almost 15,000 feet of climbing — not the longest ride I’ve ever done, but the most elevation gain in a single ride. It was scary but exciting. Most of the course with the exception of about 10 miles would be all new for me. I decided to sign up and got Shannon and Garrett on board with me.

I had a loose plan for training that involved climbing as much as possible and trying to get a long ride in every weekend, gradually progressing to a century (Lu Lacka fit perfectly in the timeline). Weather this spring made it challenging to do all day rides — we had plenty of rain, snow, graupel, wind, you name it. I got a number of very climby 45-65 mile rides in, ensuring they were all above the “golden ratio” of 100 feet of climbing per mile, but I fell behind on getting in anything longer. I wouldn’t be as trained as I had wanted, but I still was going to give the 140 a shot.

A very graupel-y ride in early April.

Now that I look back on it, I didn’t feel really great on any of those longer rides this spring. I didn’t feel bad, I just didn’t feel as strong as I thought I should after a winter of plenty of fat biking and a few weeks of progressively longer gravel rides. I didn’t feel like I was recovering as well as I used to and my tolerance for doing back to back hard efforts was down. But I didn’t think much of it. I’d been pretty stressed out about work and figured that was making me feel a little run down. We were coming out of winter and maybe it was just taking me some time to adjust to the drastic swings in weather. And though I didn’t truly think it would amount to anything, the swollen lymph node I’d discovered in late February was in the back of my mind, adding to my worries. But I didn’t put two and two together and think that something was actually wrong with my body. If I had cancer, I’d feel a lot worse, right? I wouldn’t be able to still maintain 150-mile/15,000 feet of climbing weeks on the bike, right? Wrong, apparently.

I got diagnosed on April 20th, and ironically I felt better at Lu Lacka than I did on most of my other long rides. At the time, I had no timeline yet for when treatment would start, and I still entertained the idea of doing the Full Mammoth. But once everything got scheduled, I decided that might not be the best decision both for my physical and mental health. I would be getting a port placed below my right collarbone on April 29th, one week prior to the ride. I had no idea what that would be like, and doing what would likely be the hardest ride I’ve ever done that soon after surgery and having some foreign object inserted into me might not be that wise. Then I saw the weather, which at the time said rain all day Friday and into Saturday morning, and chilly, in the high 40s. This would likely be my last long ride in a while, possibly last group event in a while, and I just wanted to have fun. I decided that riding sweep with Evan on the second half of the ride would be more enjoyable than a 7am start in the rain. Shannon ended up deciding the same thing, and so did Garrett, at the last minute.

It poured the entire way to Wellsboro on Friday. Luckily, a friend had offered us her cottage at Hills Creek State Park that we could use instead of the tent site that we had reserved, which made the weekend a whole lot better. It had a little space heater and was really cozy, much better than trying to set up a tent in the pouring rain.

On Saturday morning, a late start meant a leisurely morning of coffee by the lake, where we ended up watching a beaver work on its lodge from a mere 15 feet away. We stood silently in the fog and drizzle as it repeatedly dived to the bottom of the lake to gather muck. It carried an armload of mud and debris in its mouth and front feet to the top of the lodge, where it carefully placed the materials on the roof. I’m not sure if it didn’t see us or it didn’t care, but we watched for probably close to a half hour before it swam off and disappeared. That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

It ended up being a lot drier on Saturday than predicted, though it was pretty chilly and windy in the parking lot when we were getting dressed to ride. I swapped out my short-sleeved woolie for my long-sleeved one at the last minute, a decision I later regretted. A group of 6 of us rolled out just after 1 pm. I had assumed this was going to be a pretty leisurely 70-mile ride as we’d likely run across 140-mile riders who were struggling and as sweep, we had to stay behind them. But with no riders in sight yet, we set a fast pace off the bat, a little faster than I was comfortable with, but I hung on.

The first 15 miles took us through rolling farmland and patches of forest before jumping on the Pine Creek Rail Trail near Asaph to travel southward for a few miles. I mostly rode alongside my new friend Jacky, who I’d started to get to know at our campsite at Lu Lacka a couple weeks ago. We didn’t end up riding together that day, so I was glad we got to today because she is one of those people I immediately felt comfortable around.

The 3-mile, gradual climb up to Colton Point State Park wound its way up the mountain to the top of the West Rim of the Pine Creek Gorge. I’d camped at Colton Point almost a year ago while scouting routes for my Public Lands Ride initiative, so had ridden a small portion of the route we’d ride today along West Rim Road. We got up to a vista in the park and there was a photographer for the event who snapped our picture, which turned out to be a gem.

We continued climbing slowly up long switchbacks to the top of the canyon. The gray day accentuated the bright spring green that was emerging on the trees and grass, and long stretches of gravel with only forest and mountains in sight offered stunning visuals. A gradual downhill and rolling flats had us moving fast and miles ticked by. Jacky and I were riding side by side when suddenly I heard the unmistakable “whoosh” of high pressure air releasing. We stopped and looked for the hole in her tire as Evan rolled up with his plug kit in hand. I noticed that the sidewall looked funny and upon closer inspection realized that the bead had delaminated. We put a tube in and continued on. Shannon, Garrett and Christina had been ahead and kept going, so it was now just me, Evan and Jacky. We’d run into the first 140-mile rider we’d seen, and he was just slightly ahead of us.

Partway up the next climb, we bumped into the event director James, and he offered us water and snacks. I’d been rationing my water because I wasn’t sure if the aid station would still be set up for us by the time we got there, so I was really grateful for a refill. I chugged the rest of my bottle and also grabbed a big cookie from the back of the SUV and shoved half of it in my mouth. But as soon as I started climbing again, I regretted drinking and eating so fast. I’d been feeling alright, but suddenly it felt like my legs couldn’t move. Evan and Jacky were soon around the bend and out of sight, and I settled in for a long pedal. My side was cramping from chugging water. I was way overdressed and extremely hot. I hiked my shirt up to my bra so that my torso was exposed, offering me some relief, but I still felt like my engine was overheating. Did I have a fever? No, you just dressed the way you would for the low 40s and it was at least 10 degrees warmer than that. I should have stuck with the short-sleeved woolie and arm warmers.

As tends to happen when I am not feeling good on the bike, my head started to go to dark places. A lot of my identity is wrapped up in being a strong cyclist, especially a good climber, and when I can’t perform to the standards I hold for myself or the ones that I think others have of me I start going down a road of doubt. You’re allowed to not feel 100%, you have cancer, I kept telling myself. This fact both comforted me and terrified me. The comfort because at least I had an explanation for why I didn’t feel really strong. I don’t know that it’s the reason, but it was a potential (and likely) explanation for why I hadn’t felt like I was able to reach my peak for months. I’d thought I’d just plateaued. But of course, the terror was also there, because I have cancer and I have no idea what is going to happen.

Evan and Jacky were waiting at the next intersection. I was ready to tell them to just go ahead, that I had the route and I would be fine on my own for the last 25 miles. But their smiles convinced me to keep my mouth shut. For the next unknown period of time, I’m going to be slower than most of my friends on a bike, but I don’t want to only ride alone. I needed to learn to be okay with “holding others up” and not self-deprecating myself for it.

They took off again but Evan hung back a little and I told him what I’d been thinking for the last couple miles. I need to take it down a notch, I can’t hold this pace. I just want to have fun and enjoy the day, not spend it being angry at my body.

I’ve been feeling a lot of that — anger at my body. I’ve tried hard to be healthy. I haven’t even had so much as a cold in a several years. How did this happen? Why? I know things just happen that we can’t explain. Healthy people get sick. Cells decide to go crazy. I don’t have a single one of the risk factors for Hodgkin’s except maybe I had been exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus at some point and I’m in my early 30’s, which is when a lot of people get diagnosed. It still feels like a betrayal.

Jacky was stopped at a vista halfway down the descent when we caught up to her. I’d finally stopped the tears and was feeling better after a pep talk from Evan. I was back to having fun. My side stitch wore off and I cooled down, and after another few miles of taking it easy I started to feel better again. We caught back up with Shannon for the last 15 miles and the sun even came out for the last 10. We finished before dark.

The next morning, we basked in the sun at the edge of the lake for a while, soaking up the last of a great weekend before driving home and back to reality.

On Monday, I had the swollen lymph node removed from my armpit for a biopsy to determine what subtype of Classical Hodgkin’s lymphoma I have, though it won’t make a huge difference for my course of treatment. Right now I am looking at likely 4 months of chemo with an infusion every 2 weeks. We’ll do 2 cycles (2 infusions per cycle, so basically 2 months) and then another PET scan. The results of that scan will determine how much longer I’ll need to be in treatment. My first session is tomorrow.

The nurse said that most people feel fine the day of treatment and the day after, then side effects start to hit after 48 hours, so Evan and I are picking up a DaVinci tandem on Saturday, which will hopefully help me continue to do longer rides with him and our usual crew even when I’m feeling more tired. If nothing else, it’s something to be excited about amidst a lot of anxiety and uncertainty.

It’s going to be a wild ride.

7 Replies to “Up a (half) Mammoth, down a lymph node.”

  1. You do a nasty hard ride with cancer and you get down on yourself? I do that with the sniffles! You are amazing! Be kind to your body. And your mind. I wish you all the best with your treatments. I’ll be thinking of you as I ride into the Rockies feeling sorry for myself as I wheeze up the hills.

    Like

  2. Helena, glad you were able to enjoy most of the Mammoth weekend. As always, nice write up; thanks for sharing.
    You may have a unique course to follow this summer, but you will navigate just fine. You and Evan are very creative and make the most of the OUTdoors. I like how you’ve already thought OuTside the box with the tandem idea. Go surprise yourself the next few months. You will emerge from this adversity, smiling on the inside about all the positives you walk (or ride) away with.
    One day at a time, Peace.

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