One of my favorite aspects of triathlon is the bike. It is not necessarily my strongest sport of the three (I can’t figure out which is), but I think I look forward to it the most. When I started my training in 2008, I fell in love with early mornings on Masonboro Sound road as the sun trickled through the trees. I was thrilled at the fact that in the time it took to run four miles, I could actually bike nine. I think it was one of those mornings that I thought up my new favorite phrase: triathlon is like being a kid again – only faster.
Growing up, we lived for our bikes. We imagined them as horses. My sister Anna and I – alongside our neighbors Leanne and Stacie – would race up and down the street and around the block on our pretend mares. We would cut branches from the weeping willow behind our house to use as whips. We named them Flicka and the Black and Beauty and characters from Little House on the Prairie.
Now that I’ve stepped up my training to longer distances, I live for rides that take me places much farther away than nine miles. In the time it takes me to run a half marathon, Lola [yes, I still name my bike] and I can bike 35 miles! My new love is a summer morning out in the country. I like the idea of exploring roads I’ve never even been in a car. I like the idea of riding before most yard-salers get out on a Saturday morning. I am thrilled by gardens and corn fields and stables and even country creatures: I’ve seen foxes and ospreys and turtles and snakes and a skunk. I’m also happy that I am faster than most of them.
A few Sundays ago, a group of riders took off at the crack of dawn from Highway 421 near the Pender County line. My training plan called an hour and 45 minutes in zone two. A few miles into it, Nicole and I dropped to the back of the pack and used the time to catch up on a zillion different things – writing, relationships, etc. As you may know, my heart-rate dictates my pace and soon we fell off the peloton and found ourselves zipping along the highway alone. We followed the B2B bike course towards Moore’s Creek battleground and into Pender County. It was a classic Southern morning. Cicadas were humming, dogs were barking, roosters crowing, horseflies were chasing us and the smell in the air was a mixture of earth and smoke and dew. At the fifteen mile-mark, I still had ten minutes left until the turn-around.
Nicole is always up for an adventure, so we decided to have a little fun and take a detour on a road less traveled. It was called Battleground Road and I expected it to take us into Moore’s creek. Instead, it bumped along the old entrance to the battleground park and became Old Slocum Road. We passed the original entrance, marked by two white brick columns and cordoned off by a fence. We passed a yard full of dogs - also cordoned off by a fence. We nervously passed broken beer bottles in the middle of the road – twice.
We finally hit a straight-away and picked up some speed. As we’re cruising along for the final minutes before the turn-around, we passed a few trailer homes on our left surrounded by a huge ditch. Little did we know that there was a sentry standing guard of his castle and moat. A brown, heavy-set small dog – we’ll call him Scout Slocum - at the corner of the lot spotted us and noisily alerted the entire countryside that we were about to pass. He immediately started running with us. For a few seconds, we were sure we were safe. He was to our left and a little behind us and we were separated by a very wide-but-empty ditch. That thought was fleeting. With a late surge, we all three reached the plank board bridge that connected Scout to the mailbox and the rest of his kingdom at the exact same time.
With Scout at our heels and my heart in my throat, I’m sure I yelled GOOOO or NOOOO or something that woke up the rest of the countryside. My mind is thinking, pedal, pedal, pedal for the entire time Scout is chasing us up the road. About 50 yards from his house, we lose him. Nicole and I laugh and thank our lucky stars and laugh again.
And then: my alarm sounds on my watch indicating two things: my heart rate is waaaay out of Zone 2 (160bpm) and we have now reached the turn-around. We have to race back through the gauntlet. Nicole and I look at each other and quickly develop our own battle plan. We figure that we’ll gain an advantage by picking up speed before we pass the house. I unclip my right foot from the pedal in case I have to gently push Scout out of the path of my wheel. (I said, gently.) We gained more speed.
As we reached the house at 21 mph, we size up the situation and instantly see that Scout – for the moment – isn’t even paying attention to the four wheels coming up the road. He’s staring up at the front door of the house and is already past the plank board bridge. Victory! We have a head start! Defeat! He spots us and accelerates from zero-to-20 in one instant. Victory! He skips the bridge and is running parallel to us – and again we’re protected by the moat. Defeat! In a move that defies physics, we witness Scout accelerate, jump into the air, stretch his little legs and soar across the five-foot-wide ditch and onto the asphalt. He didn’t even skid. He kept his momentum and for a moment he was close enough to my right foot that I could have tapped his mustard-colored head with my toe. I was too scared to stop pedaling. I switched into a power gear and in the last second, we flew past him. Victory!?
We breathe a sigh of relief, pass the broken bottles, the old Moore’s Creek entrance and the fenced-in dogs and turn back onto to the main road. We cover 35 miles in just over two hours and meet back up with the other riders. We laugh when we tell the story and brag a little because we out-smarted and out-rode that little brown dog in the country. I joke that I have one more thing on my list that makes my heart-rate soar.
My bet is that old Scout is sitting on his front porch telling all the other dogs how he chased those four-wheel machines from the big city right out of his country and back home where they belong. He’s bragging that he’s not spring pup, but he’s still got it after all these years. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks, but you can make the old tricks better, he’s saying. It has never felt so good to run so fast and jump so high.
Like I said, triathlon is like being a kid - only faster.