Paris-Brest-Paris 2015: The Highs, The Lows and The Highs

If you were a new randonneur and asked me what’s the most important thing I’ve personally learned in my nearly three years of partaking in this endurance sport, I would answer: it’s the company you keep. Now there are randos who prefer to ride alone, some who will ride alone if need be — but I’d rather ride with friends. There’s the obvious reason — you’ll naturally have more fun along the way — but friends can also be your emotional lifeline when you hit that low on a brevet. And chances are, the longer the distance, the greater the chances are that you’ll have fall into what I call, “The Black Hole of Despair.” So for me, I’ve found rando camaraderie to be a key component of survival and entertainment during these ridiculously long rides.

I’d first met Ian Hands at last year’s Taste of Carolina ride, back when he was sporting a wild and woolly beard as he cruised along on his cherry red Moulton. More often than not, you can easily spot him in the crowd due to his colorful, tie-dyed Adrian Hands jersey and cap. He’s an unforgettable character who’s brimming with enthusiasm, a never-ending stream of jokes and plainly put, a real firecracker on wheels. Ian even helped me get my PBP get off on the right foot; just as I was snapping the following photo on Sunday, the first day of the event, he asked me, “Hey, what’s your start time?”

“5:30”.

“You better get in line! They’re already calling us.”

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Whoops! I thought I had at least another 10 minutes to kill, but I quickly grabbed my bike and jumped the line (sorry fellow riders) so I could join him and the other North Carolina Randonneurs. Several of them had signed up together and you can tell just by looking at them that there’s gonna be shenanigans. I hoped I could match their pace because if there’s anything I’m always up for while embarking on an unnaturally long distance — it’s shenanigans.

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Meet the Tarheel Party Posse (nickname acquired from a Massachusetts-rando, velomobile Bill): On the far left, wearing a light blue NC Rando kit with matching blue Ray Bans is the inimitable “Cap’n” John (he’d acquired that title during an epic flèche full of misadventures that he was leading); the tall gent sporting this year’s PBP RUSA jersey is Joel, whom I’d met at last year’s 3CR, followed by Ian; speaking of RUSA, Mike Dayton is currently serving as the organization’s president; he’s standing next to Luke, a fellow PBP virgin.

Hanging out with them in the holding area of the velodrome — with 300 other antsy randonneurs — was so relaxing that I forgot to be nervous, even when I heard the announcer counting down our start. After a quick kiss and high-five farewell to The Bearded One, we were off, ready to take on the 18th edition of the historic Paris-Brest-Paris grande randonnée. Ian was gunning for a Charly Miller time on his fixed gear, so he and Joel sped away as soon as we reached the main drag. I grouped up with John, Mike, Luke and Washington state rando Adam (who left us early on due to a flat.)

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Our group splintered in Châteauneuf-en-Thymerais since I was stuck in a hellishly long bathroom line at a local café, but John was still lingering over the baguettes and beverages sold by a roadside entrepreneur. He invited me to roll with him.

“I usually go slowly on Day 1, slower on Day 2, pick it up on Day 3, then slow again on Day 4.”

“Ha — what’s up with Day 3?”

“I’m not sure!” he replied with a laugh.

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Cap’n John is the human embodiment of a supercharged energy drink. Radiating boundless enthusiasm and pure joy, his “stoke meter”, as he’d say, was always off the charts. He could barely contain his excitement about riding his fourth Paris-Brest-Paris and told me more than once that he didn’t want it to end. “What if we just kept riding past the finish?”

We both took lots of photos as we motored along — he was expertly using a GoPro to shoot images — and chatted until we reunited with the gang at the optional control about 86 miles from the start, Mortagne-au-Perche, to have our first hot meal of the night (with Colorado RBA John Lee Ellis and Tim S.)

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Just like kids sitting around a fire at sleepaway camp, as soon as the sun went down — everyone would start swapping their best randonneur tales of adventure to pass the time. I’d heard someone randomly mention something about Cap’n John, kidney stones and PBP, so I knew I had to ask him about it. Now if you have the opportunity to hear his account firsthand, I highly recommend it. He’s a fine ranconteur, and if you have Mike injecting additional color commentary, even better. Otherwise, you’ll have to settle for reading his amazing narrative online. (It’s also a shining example — of which I’d heard many — of how the French locals rescued many delirious, weary riders and brought them back to health with a warm bed and home cooked meal.) Naturally we had to commemorate the heroic memory with a photo where it all transpired in the town of Dingé:

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Now I hate to say, “You had to be there,” but there’s no way I can convey all of the high jinks that transpired at night with the TPP. On the evening of the first day, it happened to be Luke’s birthday (and what better way to celebrate by riding PBP!) and so there were “serious” discussions about when it technically began and ended since we were in a different time zone. We sang happy birthday several times and gave him a pretend cake (which became an ongoing running joke.) We also heaped his electric blue leg warmers with tons of compliments. He’d forgotten to pack some in his bag, so he picked up a new pair in a bright, dazzling hue at a control (which matched the NC Rando kit perfectly). Combined with the glimmering strobe produced by his tail light’s red glow reflecting off of the spokes in his rear wheel — he was a dance party on wheels! Luke also had a second reason to celebrate: right before the ride, his wife told him that they were expecting their first child. When he later told Ian and his wife, they replied they had a little baguette in the oven as well. Stoke levels were high!

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As we pedaled along from control to control, they all began to blur together. (Another reason I take so many photos – and I took nearly 1200 on the trip, almost 1 per km! – is to help jog my memory.) I do recall Fougères being particularly lovely in the morning light. But we didn’t linger there very long and ventured over to a crêperie just on the outskirts of town. That was an extra bonus with tagging along with the North Carolina boys: they had just as much appreciation for the joys of fine dining as I did. Sure, we’d eat the controls — but the TPP always preferred to eat elsewhere.

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About 278 miles into the ride, we were greeted with much fanfare at the Loudéac control. It was around 5:30-ish or so, and this was where I had a drop bag and planned to sleep for a few hours (which seemed to be the general plan for everyone else, as it was teeming with other riders.) I offered the TPP the use of my hotel room to shower and nap, but they wisely decided to push on another 49 miles to Carhaix.


 
I’d try and reunite with them in Carhaix or elsewhere, and we exchanged numbers before parting ways. I received this thoughtful text just as I was bedding down in my hotel:

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Looking back, I should have done the same: shower and change in Loudéac, then continue onwards as well. After spending several futile hours tossing about in bed, trying to will myself to sleep, it was just too early and my body stubbornly refused to take a nap. I’d discussed leaving at midnight with David, another SF Rando, but decided to take off at 8:30pm.

Shortly before reaching the town of Saint-Martin-des-Prés, I came upon a group of riders standing in the middle of the road, urging me me to slow down. As I passed through the small crowd, I saw a cyclist lying on the ground with another pressing down repeatedly on his chest in a frantic effort to revive him with CPR. Pools of blood were everywhere. It was a tragic scene to witness and a haunting reminder about the dangers of our sport and riding at night.

The next stop was Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem, a secret control.


 

I caught my first glimpse of Zombie Randos in the wild: heads down on tables, snoring away despite the din of the lunchroom, or employing some inspired techniques to catch some shuteye.


 

I joined the wasted masses, leaning against a wall and propping my legs up on a chair. I didn’t set an alarm, recalling the advice of Rob, the RBA for my home club of the San Francisco Randonneurs. “You’ll be so uncomfortable that you’ll wake up naturally.” Sure enough, after a half-hour of fitful sleep, I woke up and dragged myself towards Carhaix. It was a disaster zone in full-on refugee camp mode, with bodies sprawled out in every available corner of the control.


 

As it was middle-of-the-night o’clock, I figured I should try and get more sleep. I asked one friendly randonneur how his floor nap went. “Eh, not so good. It’s too cold.” But he gifted me with his space blanket and I took his spot amongst the other zombies in the dining room. As I plopped down on the floor, I thought to myself, “Here we go — this is my initiation rite for becoming a real randonneur.” But my body was still too wound up with adrenaline from riding, so I just lay there in my Mylar cocoon, listening to the bizarre soundscape that one can only hear at a PBP control: the clinking of silverware on plates, low murmurs of conversation, the heavy breathing of riders deep in sleep.

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When I sat up, Eric, my SF Rando friend who’d ridden with us earlier in the day, was pointing his smartphone at me. He had no idea that it was me curled up in that tent of shiny foil and was snapping a photo for Instagram as an example of a “rando burrito.” We caught up for a bit, then I spotted the TPP sitting at another table. The timing had worked out where our schedules had synched up again, although I was now beginning the dreaded sleep deprivation spiral — whereas they’d managed to get some rest. Before departing, I had a chance to finally meet in person SIR Theo, who was already headed back to St. Quentin.

Dawn was just around the corner, and we were in for a treat: watching the sunrise at the summit of Roc’h Trevezel. Mike took this photo of us along with Jerry, another Tarheel I’d met on the Sunshine 1200k.

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More pastries fueled our journey to Brest, where Mike asked another rando to take our group photo with the stunning Pont de l’Iroise as our backdrop. He summarily posted it to Facebook with a simple, one-word caption: “Brest.” I teased him about the understated nature of his description — “We’re at the halfway point, man — that’s all you got?” — and he amended his original post:

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My initial impression of Mike was that he was a bit reserved, a more laconic counterpoint to Ian or the Cap’n. But then at some point early on during the ride, when his own level of stoke was peaking, he startled me by suddenly yelling out, “YEAH, BABY!” at the top of his lungs — a la Austin Powers. Coupled with Luke’s loud, booming laugh, Mike’s exclamations were pretty contagious and the rest of the gang would chime in. “YEAH, BABY!” became a regular expression of his feelings of PBP euphoria and perfectly encapsulated our own s†ates of being at various points along the route. I also relished his dry sense of humor, such as when I asked him, “So…what do you as RUSA President?” “I mostly write angry emails!” he said with a wicked grin. “IN ALL CAPS, I HOPE!” I replied.

I have to admit that arriving in Brest was a bit anti-climatic after soaking in the spectacular views of the bridge, although I was delighted to see how snazzy my brevet card was looking now that it had two full pages of stamps. Walking up and down the stairs to use the old-fashioned squat toilets was also an added bit of cross-training “fun”.


 

After chatting with SFR randos Ian and Gabe, we corralled the crew to make our way back east. We made two pit stops for food along the way: a pizza lunch in Brest and another stop at the beloved bakery in Sizun . As we approached Roc’h Trevezel again, Mike slowed down to ride alongside Santa Cruz Randonneurs‘ Lois Springsteen (on her 7th PBP!) and Peg from SFR.


 

Mike and I took turns snapping photos of each other at the summit, who dryly noted with a wry smile, “That backdrop isn’t going to make me look better.”

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Ian was restlessly waiting for us in Carhaix and had been messaging the guys via Facebook. “Hurry up and ride fast so we can go slow!” He’d abandoned his Charly Miller goal and had switched gears to Adrian Hands mode. One caveat about using the full time 90-hour time limit for PBP is that you don’t bank any time — so you have to ride at a decent pace between controls in order to take leisurely breaks and get some sleep. But more crucially, there’s no margin for error. I was feeling pretty ragged by the time we arrived, and as we’d hit this control at nighttime on the outbound leg — it took moment for me to realize we’d been here before.


 

I ambled over to Phil, another SFR Rando, who had just woken up from a nap in Zombie Meadow. I told him about how I was running on about a half-hour of sleep and he nodded and replied, “Sounds familiar.”

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But I still had some reserves of energy, and we made great time getting to Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem by jumping into some aggressively fast pacelines.


 

After a phenomenal dinner stop in Saint-Martin-des-Prés , we moseyed along back to Loudéac just as the sun was setting — picking up SFR’s Theresa along the way. Her ability to speak French was so convincing that the guys were surprised to learn she was from the Bay Area. She’d learned the language after being hit by a car on a previous trip and figured it would help in case of future emergencies.

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The TPP had been debating where to sleep and ultimately decided to slog another 52 miles to Tinténiac. I was torn as to whether to return to my hotel or keep going, but the siren song of my warm, clean bed was too strong (plus I’d left all of my stuff strewn about the room). I wasn’t sure how much time I’d need to try and regroup with them there, so I figured I could, at most, afford about two hours’ of sleep. After a long, hot shower, I crawled underneath the soft cotton duvet and passed out immediately.

My all-too brief, blissful sojourn was horribly interrupted by the piercing sound of my alarm going off. My head throbbed and burning eyes were aching from exhaustion. I lay there for a minute, toying with the appealing notion of DNF’ing, until a nagging voice in my head firmly said, “YOU DID NOT COME ALL THE WAY TO FRANCE TO LOUNGE AROUND IN BED. GET. UP. NOW.” I heaved a giant, soul-wrenching sigh and proceeded to pack up my things. Important hindsight realization #2: I should have slept an extra hour and skipped the rendezvous with the TPP in Tinténiac, but I was still operating under the notion that good company trumps any challenges that are thrown in your path. But I should have obeyed the other important rule: always ride your own ride. Another taunt from the rando gods arrived in the form of the a tantalizing breakfast buffet that had been set up in the dining room. I was too anxious about hitting the road, so I just grabbed one pain au chocolat to go. Under normal circumstances, I would have swan dived into the basket of baguettes and eaten plates of jambon until my stomach exploded from ecstasy.


 

As I blearily stumbled my way back to the parking area, I bumped into my friend Dick, a Canadian rando who’d also been in Florida on the Sunshine ride. He asked how I was doing and I shrugged and said, “Pretty rough.” A seasoned rando Jedi, Dick told me in his solemn Obi Wan Kenobi-esque voice, “It’s not supposed to be easy.” He placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder and sent me on my way. (I later found out that he managed to finished his ride, despite crashing and sustaining some broken bones and a concussion. He’s one tough cyclist.)

Now that I was mentally committed again to moving forward, I crammed a ton of energy bars down my gullet to power me through the rest of the night. I was lucky enough to group up with a Pennsylvania rando, Nigel, who I’d become acquainted with online through a helpful Facebook group he’d created to share tips, as well as Tim from Connecticut, who said he’d seen my posts on the national randonneur Google group. Talking with them as we pedaled through the cold night air helped propel us to the optional control of Quedillac. I made sure to steer clear of the warm fire, knowing that it would be too tempting to stay if I sat down even for a second; I’d have to make do with a hot bowl of soup and a banana instead. My lack of sleep was starting to addle my brain, however. John, another NC Rando, was also hoping to rendezvous with the TPP. He’d approached me in the dining tent and told me to wait for him. But outside, with the overwhelming number of white, middle-aged, male riders, I was having trouble discerning who was who. “John? Are you John?” “No, I’m Tim.” (Oh right, the guy I’d just been riding with for the past three hours.) “I’m so sorry. But all of you white guys look the same to me right now!”


 

The sun was just emerging on the horizon when we made it to Tinténiac with about two hours before the control closed. I was happy to have banked some time, but there was no sign of the TPP anywhere. I robotically attended to my necessary chores: get the brevet card stamped, eat some food, refill water bottles, use the bathroom. Some jerky guy had invaded the women’s restroom and was taking forever to use the sink. First, he painstakingly washed his hands, then his face — I was getting pretty pissed since he could see that I was waiting and made no offer to hurry the hell up — so just as he was about to rinse out his water bottles, I said in an icy voice, “Can I just PLEASE wash my hands? THANK YOU.” I angrily muttered a bunch of curse words while I stomped out, then went outside to close my eyes for a minute or two. But sleep is a fickle master, so I spent my time catching up with SFR Randos Peg, Kitty, Nancy and Eric instead. I also briefly said hello to another Sunshine veteran, Carey from Canada, who was taking a space blanket nap in one of the hallways.


 

The TPP finally appeared; apparently the volunteer had forgotten to wake them up, but Mike had fortunately set a backup alarm. They’d overslept by an hour (lucky bastards), but were now rarin’ to go.

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In his haste to hit the road, Ian unwittingly left his timing chip back at the control and had to head back to retrieve it. The rest of us stopped once again in Dingé for strawberry tarts.

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As we munched away on our breakfast desserts, another rider from North Carolina stopped to say chat. He’d been contending with a series of frustrating incidents up until that point — mechanicals, delays as well as sleep deprivation — and declined our invitation to join us since he felt he wouldn’t be able to keep up. He was rather grumpy and I rode with him a bit to try and pull him out of his low point, but I could tell after a bit that he preferred being alone. Cap’n had said to me earlier, “What happens on the ride, stays on the ride,” referring to the fact that these brevets can take a toll on one’s mood — thus you can say or do things you don’t mean or wouldn’t do under regular circumstances — so your friends shouldn’t take anything personally.

At the time, I didn’t realize this was foreshadowing for my own upcoming woes. I’d started to have some mild knee pain back in Brest and had taken some ibuprofen at our lunch stop. Then my time of the month decided to make an early appearance, which was a whole other vexing issue to contend with. As my left knee threatened to implode — maybe it was riding in the cold evenings, which I wasn’t used to, or that amped up paceline to St. Nic, or the impact of negotiating an infinite number of hills — whatever the reasons, I knew I had to break off from the gang at Fougères. I was sad to bid farewell to them as they headed off to get breakfast, but I was now more concerned about whether I’d be able to finish or not. But I had a brief boost of encouragement from Jerry (who’d ridden on ahead of the TPP) and SIR Vinnie, who I consider the “Philosopher King of Randonneuring”. The Cap’n seen Vinnie earlier in the ride, when he’d been struggling with severe back pain and contemplating DNF’ing. But a medic at one of the controls had miraculously fixed it with a healing massage followed by a prescription of an hour-long nap. So he was in fine spirits, and compassionately listened to my litany of sorrows. Vinnie’s the source of this axiom of rando wisdom: “If you’re feeling bad, don’t worry — it’ll pass eventually. And if you’re feeling good, don’t worry — you’ll feel worse soon enough!” So reminded me once again that, “Randonneuring is ever-changing. Just keep pedaling…”


 

Quite a few randonneurs materialized in this picturesque town of Ambrières les Vallées — SFR’s Alex, Eric, Gabe, Ian, Jack, Kitty, Metin, Nancy, Peg — as well as a rando from Maine named Christine and others that were snoozing in the plush grass of this scenic location. As Alex and I were both dealing with our various physical ailments, we paired up together, riding intermittently with the other SFR folks and stopping for baguettes in Charchigné.


 

Then a rather freakish mechanical occurred: right before a descent, Alex’s chain got sucked in between his rear wheel and cassette. Kitty enlisted the help of a local Frenchmen who lent him some tools and managed to get it free without any damage to the drivetrain; nothing like sleep deprivation and 600+ miles in the legs to make bike repair an exciting challenge.

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The Zombie Rando population continued to multiply as we continued our death march eastward. Every few miles I’d see another rider passed out on the side of the road, or bus bench, or any flat surface that was away from traffic. As much as I wanted to take a break, my concern about my knee goaded me to keep going. The 400mg of ibuprofen I took every few hours — I tried to space it out as much as I could — was helping, and as long as the pain was at bay, I was going to pedal. I didn’t have the wherewithal to rest or shower in Villaines-la-Juhel, although this was one of my favorite controls; I ended up just rummaging through my drop bag and replenishing my energy bar supply. But an impromptu pizza picnic with Gabe, Ian, Jack and Peg in the town of Sougé-le-Ganelon helped rejuvenate me and it was absolutely luxurious to kick off my shoes for a half-hour. SFR’s Kevin, who’d I’d seen sporadically throughout the ride, rolled in as we were getting ready to leave and was overjoyed to have some company for the next leg to Mortagne-au-Perche.


 

The next 51 miles was where my low point really began. Riding with Alex and Kevin helped keep my morale up as the rolling hills of Normandy now began to feel like an endless onslaught of mountains; we even toyed with the idea of listening to podcasts through Kevin’s speakers to while away the time. Fields of dying sunflowers nodded in the twilight of the yellowing farmlands. Conversation dropped away, and only the whoosh-whooshing sounds of passing Elliptigo riders, like a rhythmic metronome, broke the stillness. We all concentrated on forging ahead and didn’t have any mental bandwidth left to spare for idle conversation.


 

As night fell, I separated from Alex and Kevin. I believed I pulled ahead as the climbing increased, until I reached my breaking point and felt absolutely overwhelmed by the barrage of long, long hills. Riders zoomed past and I was in disbelief at how fast and fresh their legs were, whereas I felt like I was drowning in a tsunami of blackness. I hopped off my bike and walked for a bit while gnawing on a granola bar in the hopes that it’d help dispel my deepening sense of discouragement.


 

When I finally reached the control, I felt like complete and utter shit. The mile marker on the red carpet leading to the control volunteers — appropriately shaped like a tombstone — announced we still had about 87 miles to go. Ohhhhhhhh boy.


 

I wandered into the dining room, where I saw Kevin, but abruptly left when I realized my conversation with him was getting snippy since I was in such a terrible funk. NC Rando Jerry was at another table, and I plunked down in the seat across from him. He looked as fresh as a daisy and was busy posting an update on Facebook (all of the NC Randos were quite good at chronicling their progress on PBP. While I manage social media accounts on a professional basis, it’s hard for me to even send a text to my husband during a brevet, much less share anything online. I’m just too preoccupied.) Jerry gallantly offered to ride with me to Dreux, but I knew I’d be awful company so I said no. He said I wouldn’t have to say a word, but I knew I’d feel guilty about a) dragging him along at my sluggish pace and b) remaining mute the whole time when normally I’m a lively chatterbox — so I petulantly insisted I’d rather stay in my pain cave all by myself. I felt like an asshole but the monster of sleep deprivation was controlling me now.


 

Still, I managed to be courteous with SFR’s Bob and Tim, who warned me to save some juice in the legs for Dreux and the final stage to the finish. “Especially Rambouillet.” Ughhhh. But there’s nothing like hearing about someone else’s low point to make yours seem a little more bearable. SFR’s RBA, Rob Hawks, was also sitting at the same table (with another SFR guy, Ryan, napping at a nearby chair). Just as I was about to take his photo, he shook his finger at me and said, “No — let me tell you why.” Rob was suffering from what he thought were bedbug bites (which later turned out to be some sort of stress or heat-related rash.) He was covered in welts, including his face, and had been itching like crazy all day. Well, at least I had that going for me; while I wasn’t trying to scratch my skin off my body, my heels, of all things, were chafed by my shoes (which had never happened to me before); my legs were thrashed and I was so very goddamned tired. But I’d made it this far, and it was time to tackle that 48-mile stretch to Dreux.

I put on my iPod — which I deploy only when I’m extremely fatigued — and steeled myself for the next wave of undulating hills. With Coke in my water bottle, a baguette in my handlebar bag, I just let my mind focus on the music and repeated the following tasks: eat, drink, pedal. Eat, drink, pedal. I lip synched along silently to the tunes; even in my beleaguered state, I was too self-conscious to sing along with the music out loud. My legs went on auto-pilot and I fought the dizziness of sleep deprivation by opening my eyes as widely as possible, or shaking my arms to the beat of the songs, or eating more food. Whenever I’d see the tail lights of riders heading upwards in the night sky, my heart would sink, knowing that another series of hills lay before me — but then I knew the descents would soon follow, and I took some comfort in that.

At this late hour, the Zombie Rando body count had increased to ridiculous proportions. I’d pull off to the side of the road to pee, thinking I’d found a secluded spot, until my headlight revealed four or five riders sleeping in a ditch. Others would remain standing astride their bikes with their heads resting on their handlebars. It was as if aliens had used a powerful narcoleptic ray and zapped the entire peloton, causing them to instantly fall asleep, mid-action, without warning. Persistent smartphone alarms sounded off, summarily ignored by their slumbering owners.

Incredibly, there were volunteers stationed at key junctions on this portion of the route. An elderly French gentleman was directing riders to turn left at village crossroads and in my dazed stupor, I turned right. About a minute later, I noticed that I was alone — too alone. I paused for a minute, recalling some advice a seasoned rider had given me: “If you don’t see any lights ahead of or behind you, chances are you’re lost.” No one else arrived on that empty stretch of road, so I made a u-turn and returned to where I realized I’d made my mistake, guided once again by the illuminations from other riders. I almost made one other wrong turn, as did several others, but a considerate American rider had taken it upon himself to station himself at a dimly lit fork in the road to warn riders to go left. He’d missed the turn and figured others would, too.

A few late night roadside stands manned by benevolent locals flashed by as my solitary trek continued. More Zombies had sought refuge at bus stops and bank lobbies and doorways of homes. Should I stop? I was starting to feel horrendously woozy now and the absolute pain of trying to stay awake was daunting. But I didn’t want to lose time — I musn’t lose any time while my knee is still holding up, I thought to myself (and I was now on my 4th pill of ibuprofen, so who knew how long the medication would work.) I couldn’t believe I was still riding with just 2.5 hours of sleep in me; it didn’t seem possible, but my engine was being powered by a combination of agitation and adrenaline.

And then I entered a forested section that transported me into a trance-like state. As I looked up at the leaves on the trees, the shadows cast by my headlight transformed them into faces — animated faces. I was now a supporting character in a Miyazaki film and marveled at the sequence of expressions that morphed before my eyes: a wizened grandfather, a young girl, a horse and many more.

“Ohhhhh…” I thought to myself with wonder. “I’m hallucinating!” Part of me was thrilled that I didn’t have to be on any psychedelic drugs to experience this surreal display; I was conscious of the fact that I what I was seeing wasn’t real, but it still very much a magical scene. And it revitalized me; I kept thinking about those fantastical, dream-like images as I soldiered forth.

I didn’t have a computer on my bike, so I couldn’t keep track of my mileage. Whenever I’d reach a town, I think, “Surely this must be Dreux.” My hope evaporated after reading the fourth or fifth town limit sign and realizing, with morbid disappointment, that I hadn’t reached the control yet. When it finally appeared, I nearly cried with gratitude. I’d made it and with plenty of time to spare.


 

I shuffled into the main dining hall practically comatose, yet I still managed to locate some familiar SFR faces in the back of the room: Eric L., Metin and Theresa. Kevin was there, too (and I apologized to him for my earlier surliness) and hey, so were Vinnie and Ian! Unable to say much, I zoned out in a useless haze, until Metin said to me paternal fashion, “All right, Jenny. If you’re not eating, you should be sleeping. Don’t just sit there.” I was still too keyed up from riding to rest, so I said I was going to head to the bathroom. He nodded in approval and after I returned, I put my head down on the table — unable to eat or act like a human being. Ian encouraged me to join the TPP again, but I knew I didn’t have it in me to hang with them. But Eric L. took pity on me and said he, Metin and Theresa were going at a slow pace, so I was welcome to join them.

It was less than 40 miles to the finish, but they were, without a doubt, the hardest miles I’d ever ridden in my life. Eric was an excellent pace-setter, even asking me if he was going too slowly or too fast. I hung on to his steady wheel and tried to forget the fact that I was still riding my bicycle. At least the sun was now up and the morning was helping me return to some form of semi-sentience. We caught up to Drew Buck and admired his tenacity for completing several PBPs on vintage bicycles.


 

Then it began to rain — a gentle sprinkling at first, then it grew more insistent. And it was a wasn’t warm, soothing summer rain either. We’d all just removed some layers and now we had to put them right back on to ward off the freezing cold raindrops. Then we hit the dreaded, aforementioned section of Rambouillet. My heels were throbbing, I couldn’t put any pressure on my knee so I was stuck in the saddle (and so my ass was screaming with pain) and I just had nothing left in me to climb any more hills. Eric and Theresa went on ahead, but Metin stayed back with me on his fixed gear, a calm, reassuring presence through the final hellish miles. While I felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Metin kept talking to me, telling me we didn’t have far to go and had a good chunk of time in the bank — but that we still had to keep moving. Occasionally I’d stop and walk when I couldn’t take it any longer and he’d tell me, “It’s all right, do what you need to do.” I’d ask him, like a whiny child sitting in the back seat of a car during a long road trip, “How much further? Are there more hills?” It was so arduous and agonizing that I don’t think I could have finished without Metin urging me onwards to St. Quentin. About 4k from the finish, Ian flagged me down at the gate where a volunteer was directing riders onto a separate bike path. We had made it with two hours to spare, and he said, “Hey — come with us so we can cross the finish line together for Adrian Hands!” I turned to Metin and said, “I’m going to wait here a bit with them,” and thanked him, as best as I could, for his supreme act of mercy.

After we rounded up the rest of TPP and Theresa, who also wanted to join LSAH, we deliberated over where to spend the next hour. Someone had the brilliant suggestion of heading over to a nearby golf club where we were treated like royalty by the resident chef.

Then it was time to go. As we navigated the last 2.5 miles back to the velodrome, we saw several unlucky riders who were fixing flats on the side of the bike path. I was baffled by the fact that I hadn’t crashed, didn’t have any mechanicals, stayed awake and was still pedaling. Our group of six rolled over the chip reader at exactly 89 hours, 37 minutes — about three-and-a-half days had passed since we left St. Quentin. The Bearded One had already been waiting for me for several hours at the velodrome and filmed this video of our arrival:

The highs and lows and highs — my emotional roller coaster during PBP was an out-and-back journey, mirroring the ride itself. Mike said to Luke and I, as we waited in line to receive our final brevet stamps, “I don’t see how you guys are holding it together. I was in tears after finishing my first one.” I made a joke along the lines of, “Ah, you just can’t see them; they’re mixed in with the raindrops on my face.” But I think I was too overcome with a bewildering sense of relief to appreciate the significance of what I’d accomplished until later, when I had some time to process all that had transpired over this intense event.

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People are already asking if I’ll be back in 2019. I can’t say that I know for sure. There’s many other adventures I’d like to have (and share with my non-rando-but-cyclist husband), such as riding across the U.S., attending all of the L’Eroica events across the world, biking from London to Edinburgh — so we’ll see. But this was a truly life-changing experience and I’m indebted to all of the people I’ve ridden with over the years who helped me earn the monumental privilege of completing Paris-Brest-Paris.

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