Sipping my second cappuccino of the sitting, I stood next to the fireplace casually as I entertained questions from the gaggle of attractive women gathered around me. I spoke of experience and regret. Motivation and the lament of not seeing more while traveling. About relationships and maturing. Sometimes I laughed, other times coyly avoiding eye contact, we all were simply strangers in this setting, yet, I felt exposed and vulnerable.
The fire was warm, its heat radiating out from its hearth, as you would expect possibly in a cozy cafe high in the Alps of Switzerland. Next to me on the mantle was an empty bowl of split pea soup, and a still warm cup of hot chocolate. Occasionally I'd use the large spoon to scrape the sides of the bowl, hoping for more.
The women, dressed finely if not sporty, were out for a Friday of sport recreating and watching. Smartly dressed men, likely their husbands or suitors, gathered just behind the ladies, their attention, too, alerted to my presence. I felt under dressed, unsure of my "look" in this setting. Was there something on my face? How was my hair? Maybe the soup left something, unknowingly, between my teeth, for all to see and attempt to pretend not to notice.
Beneath me...a large puddle of muddy water, leaking from my cycling shoes. Clumps of mud gathered in the pooling brown water as feeling returned to my hands and moderate brain function returned.
I was in a cafe, conveniently, directly adjacent to check point 3 of the Absa Cape Epic's stage 5. We'd been soaked to the bone with 50 degree rain since 7am, covered in mud, sand, clay, and organic material. Every moment of drying had been undone by repeated and intense rain showers. Not the kind of rain that mists from directly above, but the sort of rain that blows in from a cold grey sea...sort of like those that had just rolled in from the Southern Atlantic sea, which is within eyesight of today's route.
Thirty minutes prior, I'd advised, against his will, my partner Justin Lindine to go. Just go. I'm dead, leave me behind. Save yourself.
This wasn't a Simpson and Yates situation, I was completely hypothermic and had been for well over an hour. I knew the inevitable had arrived, I could not continue in this state. My vision was getting worse, the limbs, non-functional. Heart rate was in the basement and motor skills were so bad that no medical professional would have given me a pass to continue. Justin had be patient with me on the previous climb, even as he grew cold in the intense downpour, he nurtured my feeble climbing pace, encouraging us to keep moving in an attempt to regain placings after we flatted, once again, from the head of the race.
That was early on, and as we changed the flat in the pouring rain, my core temp began to drop. Some days you can handle cold rain. The body keeps its fire stoked, the engine stays warm. Maybe you're cold, maybe the hands need a little slapping around, but that's about as bad as it gets. Today was a downward spiral, with a perpetuating cycle of being too cold to eat, then becoming worse off for lack of calories, and then getting colder. Wetter.
Standing there in the cafe, having to talk to strangers who were buying me food and drinks, I struggled to come to terms with this choice. Was I really quitting? Physically I couldn't continue when I stopped. But here, with a little warmth, some food and beverage, fielding questions about my partner, why we were here, and how the race had been going..I knew I had to put that muddy vest back on, fasten the buckle on that cold and wet helmet, squeeze the water out of the mtb gloves and walk back outside into the rain.
I couldn't destroy Justin's hard earned finishing opportunity at the Epic from him. To make him ride as an "Outcast" and have an asterisk next to every answer he has to give about his experience here in South Africa.
Why, just because it was raining, was I going to quit? It wasn't like they'd taken me off to the hospital.
We fashioned a hat out of a plastic bag for inside the helmet, stuffed another grocery bag beneath my jersey, and I walked out into the storm, clipped in, and rode the last hour of muddy and actually quite fun single track to the finish line.
Thanks, Justin, for getting me back out there, and you, too, Niki, for the soup and coffee.
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