“Laura Marshall just had TWINS!” hollered the instructor. Whoops erupted from around the room. But in the dark, cultish spinning studio in Marin County, I couldn’t see who this woman was, or why I should care. At that point I much preferred it just be me, my ragged breathing, and the glowing EXIT sign. That Laura Marshall seemed to be in the front row dominating my first SoulCycle class soon after popping out a couple babies did not help me feel less exhausted or more fit. The instructor’s voice thundered on through her microphone. Maybe we should consider being more like Ms. New Mother, she suggested—stronger, even, since the rest of us hadn’t just given birth. “Raise. Your. Standards,” our waifish leader repeated to the beat of hammering pedals. I think I was supposed to be impressed, or possibly motivated.
But I am not the Laura Marshall in the front row. I am neither the Lycra-clad Energizer Bunny who bounced about in front of me nor the agro she-man who grunted beside me. There in the back row last April, on bike fifty-two, elbows bumping sweat-slicked neighbors’ arms, I was the wheezing newbie thirty-something who wore bike shorts. (No one wears bike shorts to SoulCycle. It’s a cycling class, but you don’t actually use the seat.) I looked lame. I was just trying to find a way to pretend I was pedaling hard and out of my saddle without actually lifting my butt off the seat.
In the end, I survived, if survival can be defined as panting for 45 minutes afterward in front of a tall iced coffee and a chicken salad sandwich my arms were too tired to hold. As I waited for my heart rate to come down, I weighed my options. Sign-ups for the Gourmet Century, a 100-kilometer bike ride-slash-eating-experience that winds its way through the hills outside Portland, Oregon each July, were the next week. I needed to decide whether I really wanted to do it. On one hand, I had started training. I could congratulate myself for getting back into road biking, even though my experience to date that winter had consisted only of riding my bicycle on a trainer (a little gadget that goes under the back wheel and allows you to pretend-ride in place without actually moving). If I signed up, I could sleep a little better knowing I’d already started pedaling. I could participate in a theoretically fun ride with my husband and some of our more cycling-savvy friends—a ride predicated on the theory that the only thing better than cycling is cycling with consistent gourmet food provisioning all day long and a big dinner and lots of wine at the end. But if I signed up, I’d also have to train more. A lot more. I’d have to ride up real, live hills, instead of gliding along peacefully in the relative safety of the garage. If I didn’t sign up, I could probably avoid thinking about Laura Marshall again, but I couldn’t think of any other good reason not to ride. On April 1st, when the registration page opened, I pressed “submit.”
I’m not one of these people with an illustrious athletic history. I flailed in gymnastics as a child, thrilled for the floor routine music but too uncoordinated and inflexible for the rest. I stunk at ski racing. I limped through college crew. As an adult, marathons and triathlons never interested me. But none of these things had been paired with a daylong eating schedule, complete with mobile espresso machines and fancy Portland chefs. For the first time, I felt engaged in a training schedule. I was interested. As the spring rolled along, I began riding two and three days a week—something I’d never done before. I rode at my own leisurely pace, but still, I was moving, often next to Tracy, my friend and unofficial coach. I became Tracy’s Padawan cyclist, following her around to learn things I thought I already knew: how to yell at offensive vehicle drivers, how to open a packet of energy gel blocks while riding, how to relieve numb or cramping hands. When I bought the wrong new bike seat (which, I learned the hard way, is referred to only and always as a “saddle”), she sent me to a special physical therapist who specializes in bike fitting and injuries. (It’s not a place that makes a person who’s broken both collar bones in bike wrecks feel comfortable about deciding to ride more.) I bought a very white, very hard saddle—an experience that required a very awkward young man to propose that perhaps I needed a different seat because my pelvis and its associated parts have widened since childbirth—and wrapped my bars in white tape to match, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
When June hit, I’d survived a 28-mile ride (with hills!) with Tracy. I rode 37 miles with my husband in the rain without screaming at him or myself. And once I’d passed what I considered the halfway point—the point at which I’d ridden half of the distance required on Gourmet Century day, July 18th—I started talking a big game. I told everyone who would listen that I was training for a Big Ride, and that it was going to be Type 2 Fun, at least. And that my goal is to finish without crying. (If you’re not aware of the classifications, they’re easy: Type 1 Fun applies to an activity that is fun both in reality and retrospect. Type 2 Fun may require suffering in the moment, but is enjoyable when you look back on it. Type 3 Fun—the type that, truth be told, applies to much of my athletic history thus far—describes an experience that is neither fun in the present nor when you think about it in the past.)
“Wait,” said a friend. “I don’t get it. Are you eating or riding or both?”
Her confusion was understandable; when I explain the Gourmet Century, I usually get flustered and hopscotch between my reservations about the riding and my excitement about the eating. I’ve been training for both, focusing on eating while training to make sure my body is up for the combination. But stomaching anything halfway through a workout has never been my issue. Surviving the workout itself is another story. I started attending a spinning class more regularly. (The instructor, Tommy, always seemed to look directly at me when, after big pretend hills on our stationary bikes, he’d bellow, “This is not a working recovery period. This is work.”)
My friend Sarah and I hyphenated a hilly 40-miler with brunch and lemon drop shots (her idea) at mile 25. Two weeks ago, I rode 52 miles with the editor of A Year Right Here–the full story of the ride will be a chapter in that book–complete with stops for bacon-cheddar-avocado breakfast sandwiches and copious quantities of caffeine. I’ve learned that I can keep a decent tempo on a decent hill if I sing Anna Kendrick’s cups song from Pitch Perfect a gazillion times in a row under my breath. (Try it. It’s annoying but it works.)
I’m told some who sign up for the Gourmet Century are intimidated by the variety and quantity of food the organizers expect one to consume along the way. The pre-event email, which I received earlier this week, read like an ode to all of Portlandia, and it didn’t even include the dinner plan:
At mile 19, you will have the chance to refill water and snack on a selection of small morning offerings. Lunch will take place in the field at Sun Gold Farm, 33 miles into the ride. Rick Gencarelli of Lardo and Grassa will be putting a delectable spin on his farm-fresh approach to lunch […] 56 miles in, riders will find themselves at Chris King‘s barn for an afternoon serving of delicious charcuterie and small sandwiches by Chris Carriker of 23 Hoyt. Salt and Straw ice cream will be on location to cool everyone off, and there will be a barista to give you a quick caffeine fix.
A wave of satisfaction flooded over me when I read that email. Finally, someone understands how I want to exercise.
But in that same email, one thing got me: instead of 62 miles, which is the technical equivalent of 100 kilometers (and the distance I’d trained for), the email reminded riders that we’ll be going 68 miles. And in the days before the event, the six-mile differential has started to intimidate me terribly. Suddenly, I can’t imagine my legs lasting that long. How will I garner the strength for 68, when 52 felt like a thousand million miles already? The last six seem like they’ll be my personal equivalent of NASA’s trip to Pluto–achievable, perhaps, but never-ending. Eating seems like the obvious solution, but I instinctively assumed the carb-loading habits of my youth are no longer applicable. Yesterday, I wrote my coach.
“Fat and protein,” texted Tracy. “And hydrate. Carbs not needed until day of.”
I wrote my uber-athlete friend Lindsay, who will be running 100 miles in Vermont the same day I’m riding them in Oregon, to ask the same. “Eat your face off with carbs from lunch Thursday to lunch Friday,” she countered. “Then normal easy-to-digest dinner Friday and regular breakfast Saturday.
And so last night, at T-minus three days before the event begins, in addition to being plain old nervous, I found myself in the awkward, unfamiliar position of not knowing what to eat. Feeling paralyzed, I thought that instead of thinking about what might show up on a nutrition label, I should eat for my foods’ personalities. In a tangle, a salad came together right on my cutting board: I chose robust radicchio for toughness, spicy peppers for spunk, and preserved lemon for surprise, because I’m sure I’ll need to find all those things inside during the ride on Saturday. I added chicken for sustenance, then handfuls of the arugula and parsley from my little front garden–they refuse to stop growing, which seemed appropriate–and tossed it all together into a big, kick-ass salad I’ll probably make six more times before the ride. (I’d call it Rad Chicken Salad if I could keep a straight face while doing so, but I can’t. And on a bike, laughing makes me swerve, so it seems like bad luck.)
My only regret now is that I can’t serve it to the enigmatic Laura Marshall. I never saw her face, but from the back, she didn’t look like the kind that eats. Perhaps the next time I visit Marin County, I should go back to SoulCycle with a rad chicken salad, just so I can share it with her afterward. “Raise. Your Standards,” I’d say.
And then I’d tell her how I survived a 100-kilometer bike ride without crying, and ate exorbitant amounts of really delicious food along the way, and that it was a much, much more enjoyable way to exercise.
I could eat this salad for a century—or more, if the parsley that perches on every edge of my little raised bed garden was still growing well. It combines big chunks of chicken with leafy, colorful greens, preserved lemon, and a spunky vinaigrette, for a lunch that eats somewhere between a salad and a sandwich. If you prefer, throw in a handful of toasted walnuts and a little bleu cheese, and balance a hunk of good bread on the edge of your plate.
To use the preserved lemon, cut a whole one in half, then cut it in half again. (They’re squishy in the center.) Using a small, sharp knife, cut the flesh of the quarter lemon away and discard. Then, with the peel flat on the cutting board, make cuts parallel to the cutting board to shave away any additional flesh and pith that remains on the peel, until only the yellow zest remains. That yellow zest is what you want sliced into thin strips for your salad.
Note that this is a recipe for one meal (in my stomach, anyway). Double or quadruple it as needed. For a crowd, you could plate the greens right around a roasted chicken, for something a little fancier.
1 tablespoon finely chopped Mama Lil’s Peppers (or similar spicy pickled peppers)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup leftover cubed chicken (about one breast, cut into 3/4-inch cubes)
1/2 small (1/3-pound) head radicchio, cut into 1-inch hunks
1/4 cup Italian parsley leaves
1/2 cup baby arugula
Julienned zest of 1/4 preserved lemon
In the bottom of a big bowl, whisk together the chopped peppers, vinegar, mustard, and salt. Whisk in the olive oil until blended, then add the remaining ingredients and toss until all the leaves are coated with the dressing. Serve immediately, right out of the bowl or piled onto a plate.