- Chris Bagg
I don’t know about you, but for me—and for many I know—2015 got off to a rough start. On January 1st, at around 1:45 in the afternoon, Amy (my wife) and I slid off an icy I-84 Westbound at around 70 mph, careened into two jersey barriers, and finally came to rest in the left lane, whiplashed but otherwise untouched in a scarily totaled 2005 Scion.
How could it get any worse? Well, it didn’t get worse than a high-speed car crash, but it didn’t get a whole lot better, either. Cyclocross Nationals, in Austin, Texas, turned out to be a major bummer (short answer: it was postponed, then cancelled, then just postponed again due to mud; that’s right, mud). A few days later I seriously sprained an ankle running on a wet trail. Then I closed out the month with a violent case of food poisoning. Januaries, although often bleak in terms of weather, are supposed to offer renewal and at least the hope that things will improve. This particular one, coupled with the greater darkness in the world, a holdover from 2014, seemed only to offer cynicism and despair. What did I need to bust out of the funk? I needed an ejection seat.
The February weather in Portland usually offers little respite from hopelessness, so I circled the weekend of February 14-15 (yes, Valentine’s Day) and wrote “Bend” inside the circle. Bend always provides an escape from the clouds—literal and figurative—of Western Oregon, with the additional carrot of training friends and partners. I arrived Friday night to Sean “Wattie” Watkins and Heather Jackson’s home on the west side of Bend, ate a quick burrito, and headed for bed, knowing that I’d need some sleep to get through the weekend.
And, Oh! What a weekend! Heather was away for Saturday, celebrating her sister’s approaching wedding, and would return on Sunday to run, but I joined in with the local Saturday swim group, where you’re likely to bump into Matt Lieto, Jesse Thomas, or Lindsey Corbin on any given morning. The day began with about 1200 meters of easy swimming and drilling, before the group’s leader called us to a halt. “OK,” he said, smiling faintly. “Here’s the set: twelve by 250 in four groups of three. We’ll swim two 50s after each group of three.” I did some quick calculating: a 3400-meter main set. OK, that was strong, but doable. One of my lane-mates turned to me. “Hey man, the bulkhead is in so that the other side is 25 yards, so each length today is 27 meters, not 25, just so you know.” Hmmm. OK. So that made each 250 actually 270, which equates to roughly 300 yards for each interval. It’d be a tight set, given the send-offs our leader proposed.
I arrived back home ready for a nap, the entire workout totaling 5400 meters, but Wattie was dressed and ready to ride. I told him I’d need at least an hour, ate a gigantic egg sandwich, and got ready to roll. We left the house at 11:30, planning to ride just under 100 miles, hoping our fitness was such that we’d get home before dark.
The Prineville Loop, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, is really any loop from Bend that incorporates its smaller, neighboring town to the northeast. There are many ways to get there, but most versions get you at least 80 miles, and all the good versions involve riding south from Prineville along the Crooked River Highway, a road that parallels (yes, you got it) the Crooked River, a shallow, quick-flowing stream that invites in the summer months and induces shivers in the winter ones. Palisades rise from its banks, and pine, juniper, and sage cover the ground in all directions. Few cars pass. We rode in silence for periods, and then talked for a while, marveling at our February luck and wondering if we should have brought sunblock. The stretch of road culminates in a short climb up to one of the dams on the Prineville Reservoir, an appetizer before a longer, more grueling climb to the highlands above the body of water. As you top out on the climb you can see all the way back to Bend, the surrounding volcanoes rising above the town like parapets.
I wish I could say it’s an easy ride home, downhill as it appears, but the route back to town drives directly into the prevailing winds. You feel like you’re done, but in reality you’ve often got 90 minutes of head-down, blown-out work to do before you can call it a day. Wattie kept getting texts from Heather, saying that she was jealous of our ride and couldn’t wait to come home and run the next day. Great, I thought. A fresh and motivated Heather Jackson, a day after my two hardest workouts of this year thus far. Wattie and I limped home, each devoured another burrito, and went to sleep by nine.
Sunday morning I went for a beautiful, subdued spin to loosen up my legs while Wattie went to the airport to pick up HJ. The clouds were high enough so as to appear motionless, and a Sunday hush seemed to lie over even the passing cars, as if everyone were nervous to disturb the lucky weather. It was colder, but it was also early, and Bend is like most mountain towns: what feels chill in the morning becomes welcoming, even close, in the afternoon. I beat Wattie and HJ home, although not by much, and tried to get my game face ready. HJ had been through one of those travel fiascos during which you tell yourself “This will make a great story.” One flight had been cancelled late the prior evening. She’d rebooked, but out of Oakland, instead of SFO. She hustled across town, found a hotel at two in the morning, collapsed for three hours, refueled the rental car, returned it, and got on a six AM flight back to Seattle and then Redmond. She arrived tired, but with energy and frustration to burn. I was nervous, certainly—HJ had taken me on runs before. On one of them I ended up walking home, completely wrecked.
But it wasn’t to be that way, today. I had three four-mile repeats on my schedule, courtesy of our shared coach, Cliff English, and we rolled through them, not easily, certainly, but working well together, the conversation quieting and then going silent as we pushed into each interval. I could hear my breath, Heather’s, and the freewheel of Wattie’s mountain bike behind us, ticking off the distance. We finished the third four-mile piece exultant, each happily accusing the other of pushing the pace, ecstatic not only to have the run behind us, but to have executed it perfectly.
Jogging home, we passed the new construction encircling Summit High School, silent on a Sunday. The roads were so newly paved they were black in the bright sun. We ran to their house and sat in the still light of their kitchen, reprising the workout in that timeless manner particular to athletes of every age—when it went well, when it was a struggle. It’s an act of celebration, going back over the details, wondering how you survived something so difficult, adding to your chest of success, so as to get you through the next set of challenges. - CB