I thought he was gone.
I really did. After Chattanooga last weekend I thought, "Well, racing season is over. Max Watzz can hibernate for a few months. He may start nagging me to go lift weights in December, but at least I won't have to hear him second guess me every time I eat a candy bar."
And he was gone, too. I went out on the tandem with RandoGirl on the club's Tuesday and Thursday night rides, and never heard Max's whiney voice telling me to go harder up a hill or chase somebody down. Instead, I just heard RandoGirl saying, "Hey, this is fun! Look at all of these people we're pulling! Let's go a little faster!" And then the people behind us would say, "Ugh! No! Please!" Or, I think that's what they were saying. Their voices sounded funny, like they were fading away, and when I looked back there was nobody there.
And RandoGirl would laugh then ... a strange, cruel laugh that I had never heard before.
I should have seen the signs then, but can you blame me for ignoring them? For trying not to see someone that I had loved for so many years take on a cruel bent – a sadistic, self-centered worldview that I had only seen on one other loathesome creature before. The monster we know as Max Watzz.
So I pretended it was nothing. I avoided the problem ... until it was too late.
Saturday morning, we loaded the tandem onto the back of Fredia Barry’s car, and RandoGirl and I went up to Clarkesville, TN, with Fredia and Jeff Bauer. Our plan was to do the very flat Clarkesville century, swapping off pulls with Jeff and Fredia on Jeff’s tandem, and try to finish in less than five hours.
Now, for my non-cyclist readers out there (Hi, Mom!), the “sub-five-hour century” is kind of a rite of passage for your fast recreational rider. It’s obviously not easy – I mean, do the math. You have to average over 20 mph for the four hours and whatever minutes it takes. If you need to stop for anything during the ride – refill water bottles, grab some food, rest your legs, or even to pee – then you’d better plan on averaging at least 22 mph. If you’ve never averaged 22 mph before on a bicycle for any length of time, let me give you a revelation: It’s hard work.
Last year, RandoGirl and I did our fastest tandem century in October, finishing the Sequatchie Valley Century in 5:38. We worked hard, and that was a pretty good finishing time. Although Clarkesville is a little flatter than the new Sequatchie course, we knew that we were in for five hours of pain.
Everything went very well as we got the tandem out, loaded up, and headed to the starting line. The official ride starts at 7 am, but the folks who run the ride have allowed an "elite peloton" of racers go off for the past few years at 6:45. These are the guys that are trying to finish the century in less than four hours -- a truly prodigious feat. The record for the elite peloton is 3:44:55.
Once the racers rolled out, the officials had arranged to let a bunch of tandems roll out early. They set us loose at 6:55 am, which allowed us to get down the road before the single bikes. This is very helpful. Not that I have anything against singles, mind you! Some of them know how to ride with tandems ... but most don't. So, when you get a bunch of singles in a peloton of tandems, they tend to get between the tandems and throw off the rhythm and generally make a mess of it.
Unencumbered by a flock of wheel-sucking Freds, the tandem group started pretty hot. Somehow, RandoGirl and I were at the front of it, pushing the pace for the first few miles. We were doing over 25 mph for one very long pull ... much faster than we needed, but for some reason I could not ease off and slow down. It was if some other force was pushing my legs, making me dig deeper, as the first 10 miles flew by.
The pace was too hot for most of the other tandems, and it was soon down to just Jeff, Fredia, RandoGirl, and me. Fortunately, Jeff and I have ridden together so much that we anticipate one another's moves and can sense when we need to pull through, so we were working very well together. I tried to back the speed down to 22 mph or so, but again some force was still driving me to spin harder.
This is when I first began to suspect that demonic possession was at work.
About mile 30, we turned into a tough headwind, and I tried again to back the speed off. I moved deeper in the drops and downshifted, and the speed on the bike computer fell below 20 for the first time that day. Then, suddenly, our cadence increased and the speed came back up. I thought to myself, "Max? Are you there?"
No reply ... but we did not slow down.
After 60 miles we stopped for the first time that ride to get some water and take a nature break. We pulled right up to the Pora-Potty at the rest stop, and RandoGirl was back on the bike in less than two minutes. I was tired from almost three hours of incessant spinning, and I tried to stretch out my aching quadriceps and hamstrings. We rode over to the table of food, where a bunch of volunteers were pushing sustenance on the riders. I wanted to eat something ... maybe sit down. Sleep.
"Let's get going!" RandoGirl yelled, climbing back on the bike.
Suddenly, I realized what had been going on. It was not just Max Watzz inside of me pushing us onward, harder than I really wanted to ride. Somehow, all of the training this year, all of the time that I had allowed Max to control me, had transformed my loving, peaceful wife into ...
The Bride of Max Watzz!
I won't bore you (at least, no more than usual) with the rest of the story. Suffice it to say that, about mile 80, my legs were cooked. Pounded into flank steak, soaked in a marinade for three days, and baked, dipped in tempura batter, flash-fried, and coated with confectioner's sugar. About mile 90 they were eaten by the ravenous hell-hounds that had been let slip by the mad demoness ... Maxine Watzz.
Were it up to me, we would have crawled to an ignoble stop and fallen over, like a two-headed Artie Johnson.
But the other head was not done. Maxine kept turning the cranks over, refusing to let my weakness ruin her sub-five-hour century. We slowed, yes (but not by much), and spent a lot of time getting pulled by Jeff and Fredia. But Maxine would not let the pace fall by much, and so -- four hours and 46 minutes after we started -- we finished.
I managed to lean the bike against something before I lay down in the parking lot. My legs had never been more sore, and they remained so for the next two days. But we met our goal, and RandoGirl now has a sub-five-hour century.
She's been RandoGirl ever since, by the way, just as sweet as ever. There are no obvious leftover effects of her demonic possession, although at times I still think I see a glint of fire deep in her eyes, a strange set to the jaw, and a quiver in her quadriceps whenever another cyclist rides by.
Once it has tasted freedom, the beast will forever more prowl in its cage, sniffing the bars for weakness and searching the corners for an escape. It will hunt -- and it will feed -- again.