Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Heat Exhaustion: An Unpleasant Welcome

Day 1 - July 21, 2016 - Philly > York, PA
Most touring cyclists like to start early to make their lives easier.  After waking up, showering, getting a much appreciated coffee and donut delivery from Travis, making some final gear checks, and saying my goodbyes, it was already past 10am.  That was fine, though.  I knew it wouldn't be the hottest part of the day for another hour or so, and it would only stay scorchingly hot out for another ten hours or so.  I had everything under control.

That front wheel no longer exists.  We are as impermanent as that wheel.
After a slow start in the blazing sun, I moved into an ever slower afternoon, followed by a somehow still slower evening.  Apparently, I had forgotten how heavy my fully loaded bike was.  It didn't help that my food bag was extremely full, with extra food provided by my mom before I took off.  She can't control whether or not I get run over by cars, but she can control whether or not I die of starvation.  Anyway, the bike was heavy, the heat was hot, and by the time I reached York, I had been on my saddle for over 10 hours, having covered 103.8 miles and climbed 3,634 feet of elevation gain (according to Strava).  I was too tired and sweaty to want to go to the campground, so I found a cheap hotel near a Sheetz (already thinking about breakfast) and called it a night.

I had overestimated my abilities and really wore myself out on that first day, and for that, my punishment was a dent in my camping budget and extreme exhaustion.  Looking over my daily stats, I quickly saw that I had gained over 1000' more than Google had estimated, which if Google remained 70% off for the rest of the ride, meant I'd climb over 40,000' before reaching Asheville.  Only 37,000' more to go...  But on a less disheartening note, I had knocked out a century, and of that, I was proud.  Being able to cover that much distance told me that long distance riding is just mind over matter, because I in no way adequately prepared myself physically for this tour.

Day 2 - July 22, 2016 - York > Killiansburg Cave Campground Hagerstown, MD
Fortunately for me, day two was going to be 16 miles shorter.  That would be three less five-mile segments for me to mentally check-off while counting down to the end.  Piece of cake.  If anything, I assumed I would be stronger on the second day, having now reminded my body what it's like to be on tour.  Obviously muscle memory would kick in and I'd probably hold a pace even faster than the 10.1 from the day prior.  That's how muscle memory works, right?  Your muscles can think back to when they were at performing optimally and bring themselves right back to that level?  Yeah, that's a thing.

The day started out nice enough.  I didn't seem to have as many aches and pains as I'd gone to bed with, which is really all you can hope for after the age of 30.  I'm not saying 30 is old, I'm just saying that the body's ability to heal slows down a bit by then.  In any case, I was 35, not 30, so no aches after 100 miles was great.  On top of that, while it was in the 90's, I seemed to be doing a good job of staying hydrated.  That may have had something to do with the reminder I received just west of York:

Yeah, it's that kind of blog.
It turned out to be a very important reminder, because both the temperature and the humidity went through the roof that day (high 90's in both cases).  The last thing you want is to be unable to cool yourself down on the road, so it's imperative to drink enough water to keep your sweat glands pumping.  And while Peepytown is often the butt of the jokes the other roads and avenues make, you can be certain that it's always well hydrated.  Peepytown will surely have the last laugh on a hot day.

About halfway into the day, though, I started to run into a real problem.  While I was properly hydrated (pee test), I was starting to feel pretty lousy.  Specifically, I was feeling the type of lousy you feel from being dehydrated from working outside in the sweltering sun all day.  As I was already drinking plenty of water, the only thing I could do was take more breaks, and take more breaks I did.  Every 15 minutes (or less in some cases), I'd find a small patch of shade and hide in it for a few minutes.  In some really lucky cases, I'd stumble upon a lonely gas station oasis and hide in its AC drinking Powerade (always on sale) for more than a few minutes.  The breaks were killing my pace, though, so by mile 50, I knew that there was no way I was reaching Killiansburg.  That night I pulled into a Motel 6 in Hagerstown, MD after only 77.7 miles.  I fell ten miles short of what I thought was a very attainable goal, one with less than 3,000' of climbing.

That night I did some online research of the symptoms I'd had during the day (light-headed, nauseous, unable to concentrate, shaky, weak, exhausted) and it turned out my problem probably wasn't my lack of water, but lack of electrolytes.  I'd sweat out so much salt (my arms looked like they'd been dipped in a bucket of wet kosher salt) that my body was out of balance.  Seemed easy enough to fix.  I was just going to need to eat a lot more of the Nuun eloctrolyte tabs I'd brought with me.  Problem solved.

Day 3 - July 23, 2016 - Hagerstown > Elizabeth Furnace Recreational Area Winchester, VA
With my abbreviated Day 2, there was no way Day 3 was going to end at the Chimneys, which was a problem since I had already paid for a stay at Chimneys that night (they said they may be able to move my reservation, but couldn't make promises).  I normally don't book stays in advance, but I've been burned before on Summer weekends at touristy parks.  Since Chimneys was out, my hope was that there was a smaller, Chiminea option slightly closer.  While there was no Chiminea, I did find a furnace.  Elizabeth Furnace Recreational Area was only 73.2 miles away, and a day that was four miles shorter than the one I just finished seemed a reasonable proposition, even with the now extreme heat and humidity I had been blessed with.

Anyone who's ever lived on the East Coast knows that summers are saunas (it's not the heat, it's the humidity...).  I've lived in or around Philly for most of my life, and none of my previous summers had prepared me for what I was riding in.  This was humidity that made all the humidity I'd ever felt before feel like amateur humidity.  If my life was a Ford Truck commercial, they'd have been calling it professional grade humidity and then dropping a load of bricks through the air only to watch them float a few feet off the ground in a dense, soupy layer of humidity.  A humidity bisque with brick croutons.

As soon as I got on the road, every exposed part of my skin became coated in a thin layer of moisture.  The air was so humid that my sweat no longer evaporated, stuck in a liquid equilibrium it instead pooled on my flesh creating a second skin held together by hydrostatic tension and an inherent desire to watch me suffer.

Even with the increased electrolyte intake and constant hydration, the effects I'd felt the day before set in more rapidly.  After only 20 miles, I felt like I was going to die, this time with a headache to boot.  There was no way I was going another 50 miles, and beyond that, I had no idea how I was going to get to Asheville.  Riding into Bardane, WV, I was fairly certain my body was just about ready to shut down when I unexpectedly came upon the spirit-saving Black Dog Coffee Company.  I'd have said life-saving, but I'm pretty sure the only thing that really was on verge of death was my will to continue.  Every inch I rode was only making more agitated and ready to give up, and what I needed more than anything was to take break and regroup in an air conditioned cafe with ice cold water, and apparently Bardane knew that.  The girl at the counter agreed with Bardane, letting me know that I needed to be careful, or I was going to get myself hurt out there.  So I took her advice and drank as much cold water as I could, as well as one of the artisan sodas from their fridge of fancy drinks.

While I sat there sipping away, I tried to think of what to do next.  I couldn't keep up this pattern of riding steadily decreasing distances in miserable conditions.  If I kept shortening my ride length every day, not only would I never reach Asheville, I'd eventually get to zero miles per day and end up living in a trailer in backwoods Appalachia.  Maybe I could do some homesteading.  Was there still homesteading in the lower 48?  It looked as though I'd be finding out soon enough.

Aside from my longer term goal of reaching Jackson, the most pressing matter at hand was finding an end point for the day.  I pulled up Google Maps and did some searching for a cheap hotel for the night.  Cheap hotels were not nearly as easy to come by in Appalachia as they had been in Ohio a few years prior.  Ohio is littered with $29.99 roach motels, whereas Virginia charges considerably more temporary rent for their hovels.  After some searching, it looked like my best bet was going to be the Motel 6 in Winchester, VA.  The price was good enough and more importantly it was only 31 miles away.  Even at the snails pace I was currently maintaining, I figured I could reach it before I died of heat stroke.

I did, in fact, reach Motel 6 without getting heat stroke.  After miles of rolling hills, some wooded, some not, and after constant break taking due to the repeated overwhelming feeling one has before they're about to vomit and then pass-out in their own vomit, I finally reached Winchester.  By the time I reached the town, the sun was down and the scorching heat had died, but the evening air was mostly moisture, as nights seemed to bring a dramatic humidty increase.  I never understood how that worked exactly, but even when the humidty level already seemed to be at 99%, once the sun set, it seemed to bump up another 10-20%.  That's not mathematically possibly, only hyperbolically.  Walking into that lobby was a relief I desperately needed.  Think about that for a second.  I was overwhelmingly relieved to be in the lobby of a Motel 6.  Where does a person have to be in their life for that to happen?

While booking my room, I found out that I would be staying on the second floor and that there would be no elevator.  At this point, I didn't care.  The finish line was in site, and carrying my 80lb bicycle up a flight of stairs seemed a small price to pay for that air conditioned room.  At least that was what I was thinking then.  Now that I'm sitting on a comfortable couch in a comfortable climate, I feel like I should've gotten a discount of some sort for my troubles.  That's one of the problems with large chain hotels.  Typically, employess don't care if the hotel books out fully, so discounts are difficult to find.  A mom n' pop motel will usually be receptive to discount discussions as they are directly impacted by empty rooms, so a lack of an elevator can shave $5 to $10 from the bill.  Oh, this is unrelated, but I'll say it anyway because I can't say this often enough, never stay at a Super 8.  Just don't.

Anyway, by the time I got to my room, after lugging Bionic Tibor and all of his panniers up the stairs, all I had the energy to do was crank the AC and flop on the bed.  I didn't even have the energy to rinse off before laying on the bed.  We all know the top sheet on a motel bed is disgusting, but on that night, I'm not sure who was getting the short and of the stick, me or the bed.  Probably the bed.  This was the third day that'd I'd finished riding looking like I had just finished a long day working in a salt mine.  I was a salty cyclist.  A briny biker.  A pickled pedaler.

Having finally built up the energy (and will) to shower and eat, I couldn't put off thinking about the future of my ride any longer.  I still had at least five days of riding before I'd reach Asheville, and that was only if I got my ass in gear and started doing some real riding.  But I wasn't sure how I could knock out 80-mile days in this heat and humidty.  Then the lightbulb turned on.  There was, in fact, no way I could ride that far in the heat and humidity, so I'd have to get rid of one of them.  I couldn't control the humidty, but I could control the heat.  I was going to have to ride at night.  Problem solved, I would just start my ride at 10pm, go through the night, and then stay at a hotel in the day (camping having been ruled out by the intense daytime heat).  Motels were going to put a real dent in my budget, but it was the only real option I could think of.  AirBnB and Warmshowers would be difficult in this part of the country, let alone the fact that I'd be using them at very odd hours.  With that plan in place, I went back to the lobby to book a second day at the motel.  I couldn't ride anymore tonight, so I'd pick up the following evening.  My first extended stop of the tour was not going to be illustrious Asheville, NC; no, it was going to be lusterless Winchester, VA.

I will not say anything bad of Winchester, but I will describe a few people I saw while there.  First, just as I'd reached town, while riding in the far right side of the right-hand lane, a beat up PT Cruiser blew past in the left lane (an entire car lane separating us) honking its horn while a woman's arm (looking more like a oversized ham with a hand on the end) hung out the driver's side window giving me the finger.  I was nowhere near her car, but I was on a bicycle, so that kind of made me a piece of shit.  The only other places I've ever been given the finger while riding are in the sticks of Ohio, just west of Cuyahoga State Park, and Wasilla, Alaska, home of the Palins.  Now I'm not saying Winchester is full of white trash, I'm just saying that Winchester may have some residents that behave like the people that live in white trash towns.

Shortly after that interaction, I got to the Motel 6.  While I waited for the person ahead of me finish checking in, three young girls (the oldest two being 10 and 11, by my guess) walked into reception (well, two walked while the third, an infant, was carried in by the oldest) and poured themselves two cups of complimentary coffee and sat down.  Like they were adults.  Maybe they were adults in that they seemed to be taking care of themselves (and a child), but it was well into the night by this point, past the point when child-aged people need stimulants (do they ever?), past the point when kids should be out and about by themselves at cheap motels full of the type of people that stay at cheap motels.  I know I sound judgy, but seriously?  A small girl with coffee in one hand and an infant in another?  That's not a thing that should be happening.  I hope their parent was at least considerate enough to bring them back some smokes from the liquor run they were probably on.

Then, later that night, in that same lobby, I'm pretty sure I saw one of the creepiest prostitution interactions I've ever seen in my life.  After I had decided to extend my stay and only ride at night, I headed back out to the lobby to book my second day in the room.  When I walked in, there was a group of three people ahead of me, and they would be ahead of me for the next fifteen minutes attempting to complete a check-in process that normally takes two to five minutes.  There was a man and woman in their twenties that were trying to get a room for two, and they were accompanied by a rough and ragged woman in her 50's that, while clearly with them, was not planning on staying in the room with them.  I know this because the lobby was not large and they were not whispering.  I sat there for a while listening in on their inebriatedly loud conversation and really tried to put together the pieces of how this group of three ended up in the lobby together and why booking a room was so difficult.  While I wasn't sure exactly what was going on, here are my theories based on what I overheard of their loud conversation:
  • Theory 1: The older woman was the younger woman's pimp, and the man was going to take the younger woman to a room while her pimp waited downstairs in the parking lot.

  • Theory 2: The man was the older woman's drug dealer, and she was pimping out her daughter (the younger woman) for drugs.  The rest of that theory is the same as Theory 1.

  • Theory 3: The older woman was the drug dealer and she was going to sell drugs to the two once they got in the room, and then she was going to leave while the other two had drug-addled sex.  In this case, I still think the younger woman was a prostitute.
In any case, the older woman had serious drug mouth and really could've been anywhere from 40-70 years old, the younger woman had the attire and swagger of a hooker, and the younger man while dressed nicely and well kept, was engrossed in his conversation with drug-mouth, meaning these were his people.  I wish I had written down what they were jabbering about because I remember it was entertaining in a way that left me wanting to know more (as an outsider, not a participant).  I should've introduced myself.

Once that shit show finally gave the concierge a credit card that worked and left the front desk, I was in and out in about two minutes and had the room for an extra day.  There wasn't much in Winchester that I wanted to see, so my plan was to sleep as much as I could between reruns of Law & Order.

Intermission - July 24th - Motel 6, Winchester
And sleep I did.  A whole lot.  When I wasn't sleeping, I was drinking as much water as I possibly could in the hopes that it would make my still pounding headache go away.  In between the sleeping and watering, I managed to fit in time for canned chili and granola bars.  Daytime riding had really done a number on me, and I was starting to play with the idea of turning around, heading back to Philly, and driving my car down to Mississippi.  If this switch to riding at night didn't solve my problem, I wasn't above bagging the trip, but I really hoped it wouldn't come to that.

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