I have never suffered so much on a bike. I’m one of 15 women, 147 men attempting to ride 120-miles off-road, with ten-thousand feet of elevation gain through the Bald Eagle State Forest in Central Pennsylvania. This is my first gravel race. My saddle went askew at mile 50 and I’ve been on this borrowed cyclocross bike for nine hours straight — the last three of which I’ve ridden completely alone, hearing nothing but the wind through the trees and seeing miles of endless dirt climbs ahead on the hilliest stretch of the race. I have dirt in my nose, eyes, and ears. Maybe it’s the mental fatigue but the final aid station never appeared at mile 111. I stopped seeing any race support, directional arrows, or markings twenty miles ago. And I don’t have cell service or a GPS device. I’m exhausted, lost, and alone. I could pull over, stop, get off my bike, and give up.
I’m on a ski lift going up a mountain in Killington, Vermont. My Dad and little brother are smooshed beside me. The thin air is crisp and light snow is falling. I can see my breath but I’m too focused on visualizing my perfect lift dismount to feel the cold. I’m wearing a full one-piece, blue ski-suit, mittens, a scarf wrapped around my neck, and goggles that keep fogging up.
I’m 7-years-old and this is my fourth time ever skiing, my first time using ski poles and I’m pumped. I haven’t yet managed to dismount the chair lift without losing my balance backward, knees up, bum down on my skis, eyes on the sky, flinging off towards the trees out of control. But today, I sense, I will land what judges would deem a perfect 10.
My Dad grew up skiing in New Hampshire and he wants us to love the sport as he did. I mentally rehearse what he taught us: hands on our knees, knees bent, skis in a triangular pie shape; the “snowplow” position.
My younger brother tended to go straight down the slopes at alarming speeds for a four-year-old. So now, my Dad has him corralled between his legs. My older brother, his snowboard, my Mom, and her skis are on the lift before us.
The chair lift bar goes up. I take a deep breath, shimmy forward, tips up, knees bent, ski poles bundled in my right hand. I hoist myself off the chairlift, land with momentum. “Eyes up, see the trees,” I think. I’m determined to show my Dad that I can stick my landing and glide off the lift without falling.
The momentum from the lift sends me to the left. Swoop; I gulp air. I’m going way too fast but I feign confidence. To my surprise, I’m still upright. “I did it!” I whisper to myself. That had to be at least a 9.7. As soon as I can bring myself to a stop, I turn around expecting to see my Dad and my brother. They were just there. I do a 360-degree scan. “Baba?” I call out. My eyes seek their familiar silhouettes. I don’t recognize anyone or any of the names of the slopes.
My body goes heavy with fear and dread. My legs feel like they’re filled with cement. I keep scanning the sea of strangers expecting my family to appear from behind someone. But they don’t. I wait in the same spot; afraid to move and miss them. I stay still and shiver.
They’re gone. I’m alone. Panic grips me. I’m on a slope I’ve never seen. We were on green slopes the day before but now, all the signs I see are for blue and black runs.
My hands are so cold and numb they hurt. I’m shy and afraid of approaching anyone for help. Terror envelopes my body from my toes to the top of my head but the will in my chest to find my family is even greater.
I make my way to one of the slope signs and hold onto it to steady myself. Through my tears, I see a tall man wearing a gray jacket and red cap like my dad’s ski towards me. He asks if I’m okay. “I don’t know where…my parents are,” I stammer, “I got separated.” “Where are you staying?” he asks; his voice reassuring.
I close my eyes visualizing the outside of the beige condo where we’re staying on a snow-covered hill with trees along the left side and ski lifts at the bottom of the hill. All the condos look alike but if I was there, I could probably remember where ours is in relation to the hill, I tell him.
He directs me to a black diamond with moguls. I’ve never been on a black diamond before let alone a blue, but we have to take this way to get to the other mountain where he thinks the condo is located. I swallow my fear and inch down and around the moguls. My arms are shaking and I struggle to steady my breath as I place one ski pole at a time in a spot ahead of me and turn my body — left, right, left, right — around the pole.
The sun has set by the time we finally arrive at the snow-covered hill of condos. I see lights on in the unit that I think is ours.
Cheeks flushed, I stomp out the snow from my boots, crack open the door, and peek in to find my family gathered around a roaring fire. I was lost all day and here they are, all together drinking hot chocolate. “Were they worried about me? Did they care that I’d been lost all day?!”
“We knew you’d find your way back, honey,” my mom says. She wraps me in a blanket, sits me by the fire, and offers me a mug of hot chocolate. And I whisper to myself, “I did it.”