Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Pretty Good Shepherd

Tishomingo State Park, September 25, 3:32 am

I'm sitting in the RAAMinator, listening to the low clicking hum of crickets, cicadae, or some other form of insectoid life, punctuated by infrequent raindrops that meander down from the laden leaves of the trees above, to clunk hollowly upon the roof. It is a rare calm at the eye of a randonneuring maelstrom.

I am waiting for the next batch of riders to come in to this overnight control. About 25 cyclists are enjoying fitful snorey sleep in the cabins around me. Maybe half a dozen - the fastest and least sleep-dependent of them - have moved on up the road, seeking the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway and the final control beyond. Some may already be there ... their 1000K ride complete.

But here, in the damp pre-dawn hum outside of Tishomingo State Park, only I am truly awake and on duty. I am RandoBoy ... and I rule the night.

Even the other volunteers are asleep. They are exhausted -- we all are. They, like I, have been shepherding these riders along on this 650-mile journey. It has been hot for the past two days, with 90+ degrees and headwinds most of the way south. Winds that died about the time most riders reached the bottom and began working their way back. Winds that will return from the north in the morning, as these cyclists return to the hills of Tennessee, past Hohenwald and Leiper's Fork, to their reward in Nashville.

For the cyclists, these have been long hot days. Sweat-soaked shorts on hard bicycle seats over ragged chip-seal pavement. Bottles of tepid gatorade that sours in the stomach, so you can't eat so much as an energy gel without wanting to vomit by the roadside. Steamy gritty roadside humidity.

It is balanced by the sheer beauty of a road that was old before Columbus "discovered" the continent, although not much of the original game trail remains. It is now a manicured ribbon of pavement, gently tumbling over the tired foothills rolling towards the Tennessee River, bumbling over pseudo-hillocks through dark woods and lazy bogs, to dissipate exhaustedly almost within sight of the mighty mighty Mississippi.

A rider comes in. I see his headlight, and he is past me before I can get out of the car. It is Dion Dyer from San Diego, CA. He is making an invictorious lap around the loop of cabins, trying to determine where he needs to be. I guide him to the main volunteer cabin, log him in, sign his card, and offer him food and drink; he declines both. He had a major bonk earlier, and ate a hamburger 45 miles back in Tupelo. Birthplace of Elvis Aron Presley. The King.

Thank you very much.

Dion tells me about a long conversation he had with a Park Ranger at Pharr Mounds, nearly 20 miles south. He wasn't sure if the ranger was worried about him, or was just bored and wanted to talk. They discussed bicycling, but Dion was in a hurry and wanted to get moving. You can't waste a lot of time on a brevet, since it costs you sleep, or means you will need to ride much harder later to make up for it. As with life, we race through it, trying to enjoy the view while we work much too hard.

Eventually, I get Dion into a cabin where he can take a shower and try to sleep. It will be a heavy, restless sleep. Your legs continue to turn ghost pedals, since that is what they have been doing for the past two days. You jerk back to semi-consciousness from your sleep ride as you think that you are about to doze off and crash. It is strange that you should have nightmares about sleeping. But it is so.

This episode with Dion is pretty much what the past two days have been like for me. Encounter a rider. Offer him/her help. Usually, they accept. Often, on the road, they just need ice ... a colder drink to lower that core body temperature back to tolerable levels, so that they can restore basic bodily functions again and return to pushing the edge of their endurance. Things rarely shut down completely, but they do stutter. For most, it's just an upset stomach. Nausea, and maybe diarrhea. For others, they dehydrate and stop sweating. Their skin is slightly red, with goose pimples. All of the riders by now have eyes that are bloodshot, bleary, and puffy. Their shoulders sag. Feet shuffle. On the bike, a once-perfect stroke develops a hitch, or a twitch to the knee, or an ass cocked cattywonkus on the saddle to relieve a spot that just gets worse and worse and worse with every turn of the crank.

Out on the road Coke is popular, of course. Cold blessed sugary fizz that cuts the grit of protein-packed powdered drink mix, hitting the back of the throat with a glorious banging chill on the hard palate, eventually putting that last unprohibited performance-enhancer, caffeine, into the blood to get things moving in the right direction again. Or any direction at all.

Sometimes riders just need to talk. They need to vent about the heat, or the hills, or the traffic. The RV that came too close. The deer that ran right out in front of them on a fast descent -- the rider's lives flashing before their eyes like a bouncy white tail, perky, fluffy, and creepily erect.

For some riders, when you offer them things from your car, they just wave and grin. Don't bother me. I'm getting there on my own steam. I will do this.

At controls, the word comes into play over and over: Shepherd. Tap them on the fanny with your crooked stick, keeping them going towards food, or bed, or a shower. Ultimately, we urge them back to the bike. Once dressed again to ride, with bottles full of cold water and jersey pockets stuffed with food and papers and electrolyte tablets, they walk their bikes to the road. They check their tires, and think of something else that they might need, returning to the control. They get whatever it was that they wanted, and then they move things around -- from bike bag to pocket, or back. They put on a jacket, and remove it. They don't want to go, but they do want to go. They must go. This is when the job of the volunteer is hardest, because we have to nudge them on, like reluctant kindergartners. Bye-bye, now. Bon route.

Be careful out there.

Tishomingo State Park. Saturday morning, 4:40. The sun will turn the sky gun-metal gray in about an hour. The rain has stopped, and two of the 600K riders roll out. I get their names, so I can update our lists. We need to know who is out there, and maybe where. Ultimately, though, they are on their own.

This is a brevet, and so it is self-supported. But if that is so, then why am I here?

Because I am RandoBoy. And I rule the night.

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