Friday morning – it’s time to climb Palomar Mountain. The drive out is long, and shaky. Tim is driving the cargo van we have begun referring to as “Tantus Maximus”, a large white van resembling an armored car. Chris has created a web of wheels and frames as our five bikes are bungee-corded in the back of the van to the open holes where seats and windows should be. Tim is driving, Jennifer is co-piloting, and the rest of us are on the floor in the back hoping the bungee-cord system doesn’t fail and send 50 lbs of aluminum and carbon fiber rolling our way.
We arrived at Pala, an hour later and ready to ride. The first few miles are flat along roads line with citrus groves. We ride for about 15 minutes, slow and steady in a line. It is quiet. We all know what is ahead.
Palomar Mountain – over 12 ½ miles of climbing, gaining 4328 feet in elevation, with a peak elevation around 5200 feet. The average grade is 7.3 percent, with a peak grade of 12 percent. The road up the mountain has 21 switchbacks and has been likened to the notoriously epic Alp d’Huez.
Around 17 minutes into the ride, the riding gets harder and the pace slows. What once was a line of Tim, Chris, Adam, Jennifer, and myself becomes a long strung out line of five separate individuals. I realize the climb has begun. It would be every person for themselves and by themselves until the top.
What I enjoy most about an epic climb is the opportunity to find your own personal place of pain, and sit there for a long period of time. I knew it would take us at least 75 – 90 minutes to complete the climb. I look down and realized I had a long way to go, to simmer and suffer in my own personal place of pain. But this is where you need to go – you need to find a place like this and just immerse yourself in it getting finely attuned to the thoughts, the pains, the emotions you find in this place.
The first 30 minutes were awkward, hot, and hard. My body was fighting the climb with a high heart rate. The long sleeved shirt under my jersey was starting to feel like a wool blanket wrapped around my core. My breathing was loud and heavy. And the worst part was that I knew this would last for well over another hour.
But today I would last it out. The memory of quitting on the ascent of Mt. Lemmon was still fresh in my head. The memory of pulling over to the side of the road and collapsing into my aero bars was heavy on my mind. But today would be different. It was Liz versus the mountain and today the mountain would not win. No, no I would emerge victorious today at the top. It wasn’t even a choice.
Around 45 minutes into the climb, my body accepted the climb, and plateaued with pain. My breathing calmed down, my heart rate dropped, and my watts settled around a manageable average. There was nothing to do but grind the gears and climb.
I realized I had climbed through the first segment of the climb when I reached a flat section in the ascent. I knew it would last about one mile, so I cruised along comfortably. But one mile didn’t last nearly long enough and my legs were still screaming as the course veered left and the second stage began.
Up ahead, I noticed Tim. He was doing a move that has come to be known as the ‘vulture’, waiting for me and circling on his bike. He pulled up next to me and climbed.
“I’m bored,” he announced. Yes, I know you’re bored. Climbing like this is never exciting, nor interesting. You just climb and grind. The work is more in your head than your legs. You pass the time by talking to yourself, by pushing your mind along.
We ride together and he starts entertaining me with his quirky comments and jokes. I try talking with him but after awhile it seems best to conserve my air for the climb.
The switchbacks circle up and around the mountain. Motorcycles zip along the curves. Pine trees line the roads and every once in awhile a spectacular vista emerges from the valley.
Occasionally, we look up to see the road rising above us. We know we are headed there but it seems hard to imagine how. How we could ascend so far in such a short distance. The climbs get steeper as the distance drags on.
Around the mile 46 marker, the ascent steepens again. Tim starts to fall behind and shouts “the 12 – 23 has finally kicked my ass.” 12 – 23 is no gearing for this climb. I’m in 12 – 25 and still grinding out 70 rpm’s. But I knew this was my time. If ever I was to make a move, it had to be now. I stood out of the saddle, stomped up the climb, and surged ahead on a switchback.
4000 feet, with less than 1300 to go. I was on my own. The last 1000 feet were the steepest, were the hardest on my legs and my head. I was putting distance between Tim and I – but I wanted that distance to grow farther. Today, on this climb, I was competitive, fiercely so – this is the place to put that energy, this is the place to leave it. I let it all out, I stand and stomp, I push harder up the final miles.
With less than 100 feet to go, I see Chris – he has made it first to the top. He shouts at me “there’s my champ” and we climb the last 100 feet together. He smiles at me, and for a moment I feel like I have made him proud.
Chris and I stopped to wait for others when he said “this was harder than Mt. Lemmon.” Oddly enough, I didn’t agree. Mt. Lemmon was harder, much harder than this climb –it was a painful, wretched experience. It completely battered me, and left me bruised on the side of the road in my own pain and tears. But today – this climb here on Palomar was mine to own. It may have been steeper overall but Palomar wasn’t as hard as Mt. Lemmon because I decided ahead of time that the climb would be mine to own. I knew I would be in complete control. There would be no stopping on the side of the road.
And that’s when I realized that it’s not in the climb or the physical work ahead. It’s in your mind. It’s what you have in your mind when you arrive – how bad you want it and how much you’re willing to hurt to make it happen. I set out for Palomar Mountain with mountainous vengeance in my mind – to take on the climb and conquer it. It took 4328 feet, 12 ½ miles, 1 hour and 20 minutes, 70 rpm’s, and a hell of a lot of watts to make that happen. But that’s what I set out to do. And my mind would let nothing less happen. Not today. Not on this mountain.
We all have mountains in our lives; difficult situations, steep goals, switchbacks, and other sharp curves. And though it may seem impossible to climb and conquer them, it’s in all of us, in our minds – the decision to climb it, to overcome it, to keep pushing to the top. You just have to make up your mind to climb that mountain and stop at nothing until the top.