Centuries are for the Birds
I rode 100 centuries this year. Does that make me a cuckoo?
In the (Almost) Beginning
Some ideas arrive on small and dainty platters surrounded by fragrant floral sprays and adorned with sweet bows. They’ll be presented to your brain—or by your brain, I’ve never figured that out—with a polite curtsey before proceeding to slather you with the promise of success, adoration, and 100% soul satiation. Your ears will prick up. Pure of heart, and honest in intent, you will believe that their manifest destiny is to loll about in the warm mouth of your celebrated achievements long after they are completed.
Those are small platter ideas.
This idea—to ride 100 centuries in 2022—was not one of them.
Instead of a ceremonial presentational flourish, this idea swooped in uninvited from some far-off perch. Upon arrival, it zeroed in to seize upon my defenseless field mouse of a brain, determined to carry off my sanity to its eagle’s nest of whoa. Screeching and piping, and with all the swagger of an overconfident and underqualified idiot, the eagle gleefully ripped my small platter dainties from out of my soft hands.
“Those ideas are for normos!” it shrieked.
A bit dramatic, I thought, gazing at the small platter wreckage. Here lies my plan to amass 500,000 ft of elevation gain in 2022. There goes my one-century-per-week dream. I pick up the shards of the final one—to end the year with a mileage total of 10,000 miles—and examine it.
“What’s wrong with these ideas, idea eagle?” I ask, feeling the soft touch of its wing upon my shoulder and a talon nudge at my elbow.
“Small platters are only good for little vittles. Hors d’oeuvre play, if you like. You need to think bigger.”
There was a pause. I could feel the heat radiating off its trunk-like chest.
“Wouldn’t it be fun, for example,” said the eagle, “if you smashed those platters together? Wouldn’t it be fun if those 10,000 miles were all made from centuries?”
“Fun?” I said, attempting to pry an overfamiliar talon from my forearm.
“That sounds awful.”
“But one hundred one hundreds, Janeen! I think it sounds just like something you’d do!”
Eagle had a point. I turned my head to look along the curve of its wise beak and gaze straight into its shimmering eye.
“Make McCrae Cray Again! Make McCrae Cray Again!” the eagle chanted.
At this point, Shit’ll-Buff-Out Janeen stepped forward from a dark corner of my brain, shoving Make Good Choices Janeen to the side.
“Your old goal originally had you on the hook for 52 centuries, right?” she said. “What difference would 48 more make? I mean, how tough could that be?”
It was nearing the end of April. Almost three months had already passed and I was barely keeping up with the one-century-a-week goal. A bit late to switch horses, or eagles, or birds, don’t ya think? Make Good Choices Janeen booted up the spreadsheet to demonstrate that shit would definitely NOT buff out if I attempted this goal.
I took a look.
“See how idiotic this is,” I said, showing the eagle the terrifying spreadsheet of ride days for the next eight months. “I mean I’d need to do at least two centuries a week—three would be better—and with the weather being a wildcard and the threat of COVID tipping the cart contents into the street at any time, I mean, this eagle idea is balanced precariously on the knife edge of failure, amirite?!”
I looked at the eagle, hoping to be talked out of it. We locked eyes and for a brief and glorious moment, I became hypnotized and prey-drunk. What must it be like to fly, to soar, to land upon cliffs and gaze down upon wild landscapes and open vistas, ruling over a dominion and flush with the ability to simply pluck away life at will?
Only one way to find out.
“Eagle,” I said, closing the spreadsheet and feeling emboldened by this bird’s aromatic digestion breath. “In honor of all my favorite eagles—the wedgetail, the bald, and even the legal—I will obey my instinctual purpose. I will activate the hunter within. I will be all aggression and grace. I will grip this mission with the talons of a lunatic. Or, to put it in terms every you can understand: I will rip the head off this defenseless goal!”
Because where eagles dare, there is no care.
I don’t know what that means exactly, but by god, eagles are cool are they not?
With gentle fear planted firmly in the soil of my consciousness, I endeavor to hit the sky flying. Manic with an unidentifiable panic, the words behind behind behind are flapping about in my brain, but I care not. What’s the point of that? My heart is all aflutter with this new goal—this is gonna be ace!
I will baby bird throw myself from the nest of try.
I will glide upon the draft of my own potential.
But first, logistics. Nut out the logistics, Janeen. It’s clear that you want to do a flock-load of centuries, but what will these centuries look like? Pretty and light, whispering like long eyelashes against a warm cheek? Or hard and sharp like a brutalist building?
Make Good Choices Janeen cleared her throat and put a finger in the air to attract attention.
“Why don’t you,” she said, “Why don’t you keep doing that Sunrise Century you were doing so much last year? The one where you’d zip up to Half Moon Bay and back, starting in the pre-dawn crack of a sparrow’s fart while keeping the elevation relatively low for the Santa Cruz area. That sounds good, dunit?”
Shit’ll-Buff-Out Janeen audibly guffawed.
“Lame! It’s not enough that there’s a lot of centuries,” she said. “Not enough! You don’t just want them to be centuries, you want them to be HARD centuries. Like kick you in the lady balls and shout in your face while you’re writhing on the ground in lactic acid agony HARD. You feel me?”
Just between you and me, I hate Shit’ll-Buff-Out Janeen, but I also kind of love her. I did feel her. You must go big with something like this. And secretly I liked the sound of HARD centuries. I liked the ringing sound they made in my ear. Like tinnitus for overachievers.
Point of fact: The sunrise part of the Sunrise Century had always been an issue on weekdays when I had to work. Up and riding the bike by 4:30 AM takes a toll, particularly if you’re trying to write or be creative in the afternoon. It just had a habit of just WRECKING me for the afternoon. If I switched to HARD centuries, the Sunrise Century could very quickly lead to the complete annihilation of my ability to function as a human. A double wreckage situation would be almost guaranteed.
This is some how-the-sausage-got-made insight into my boring thought process, by the way, but I’m filling you in as a lead-out train to the strategy of what became my new route and a new edition amendment to Janeen’s Centuries Operational Handbook.
Let’s talk about the main weekday route (and feel free to skip this part the second you feel a yawn coming on.) The HARD century route I came up with was gleefully front-loaded with climbing, slathering around 4,300 ft of elevation gain in the first 31 miles upon the willing flesh of my legs. Delicious!
With Mountain Charlie Road as the main climb of the day, it continued its elevation gaining way by twisting up and up and along Skyline, all the way over to Castle Rock, which I considered “the top.” Once that was out of the way, I’d meander along the rest of Skyline over to Alpine Road for the best descent of the ride, followed by a short climb up Pescadero Road and out to the coast via Bean Hollow to the true genius of the route—the tailwind section (crossed fingers every time)—for the ride back down Highway 1 to Santa Cruz.
As a precaution, I chanted the ancient Chant of the Tailwind, calling to the favorable gust gods with all the hope and innocence of a child at Christmas.
Tailwind! Lay your guiding hands upon my pliant back.
Tailwind! Reveal to me your wailing ways to sing me to my rest.
Tailwind! May you bluster in from the North at least 85-90% of the time to deliver to me miles and miles of bliss face.
The second operational change was to switch from Sunrise Centuries to Sunset Centuries on weekdays, which I hoped would help me balance the work and recovery scales. By toiling at the computer in the morning and heading out to ride at 1 or 2 PM, I’d knock off 4-5 hours of freelance or personal writing early, get home around 8 PM to eat my century-completing face off, then go straight to bed to let my sleeping hours tackle the recovery while I was busy sawing logs and dreaming my sweet dreams.
With the guts and the gizzards of the plan inspected and dissected, I submitted my flight manifest and the revised Janeen’s Centuries Operational Handbook to the relevant authorities, and once approved, it was on. Flight marshals on deck, guide wands out—let’s go!
Launching into this routine with unrelenting vim and vigor, I switched things up on weekends to include other routes, just to keep it interesting, but stuck primarily to the big HARD loop.
I was excitable and unstoppable. Nothing could swerve me off my goal.
When they started roadwork on Mountain Charlie Road, I switched over to Zayante to kick off the HARD loop there instead. When they closed Skyline for repaving, I descended to Boulder Creek and up the brutal 9 in the heat of the day to get back on track. In the early blush of a goal not yet considered failed, I was undaunted. My cadence was high, and my spirits even higher. Motivation never tasted so sweet and trust me, I try to eat as much motivation as possible, and I know good motivation when I taste it. I am practically a Motivation Sommelier.
It got hot, I played shade hopscotch up Zayante and soaked my sun sleeves in water to keep the air flowing. When I repeatedly got poison oak peppered on my legs from riding through slashed grass debris thrown by road crews shaving the roadsides, I persisted with irritated obsession. By this time in the proceedings, I’d graduated to three centuries a week as a padding strategy to account for rain delays or COVID bouts (my biggest fear for torpedoing the goal) and was still doing the occasional social ride for Dawnut Patrol and weekend sorties.
Everything was manageable. everything was humming along. Everything was amazing.
Fueled by an endless supply of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream—I figured I was burning enough calories to enjoy a pint here and there, so felt no guilt—I was on cruise control. Energy seemed limitless, the days were long and saturated with the melt of orange sunsets over the Pacific. Burned with the fire of delight and purpose, I burst at the seams with the sweet intensity of belief in myself and my abilities.
Flutterflutterflutter. I am a thumb-sized marauder at the lip of life’s birdfeeder, stealing all the nectar.
Flutterflutterflutter. My heart is a motor and I’m a freaking jetpack.
One by one, the bicycles die, but the rider rides on, cobbling together spares to continue building her house of yes.
It started with the Ruby, Blurple, a victim of love (Eagles anyone?). And by love, I mean overriding it to within an inch of its life. With a chain ticking over to 12,000 miles and gears skipping like a small and joyful child, I had ordered new drivetrain components but then let it sit in a corner for months. Blurple was out of the running before the year even started.
Next to fall was the Diverge, Bruiser 2.0, who succumbed to its injuries before the—let’s call it a “stretch goal”—ever materialized. The steering had become quite crunchy in that “Mmm, that doesn’t feel right” kinda way. Steering it was like wrestling a binky from a toddler. I had no choice but to send it to its room in March to think about what it had done.
But all was not lost. Enter from stage left ye olde Amira, the Black Mamba, sagging under the weight of two years’ worth of cobwebs acquired while being parked on a rarely used trainer. After releasing her from her monotonous prison I installed new brake pads, and tires, and gave her a spit-an-shine. In a matter of hours, we were out on the road and flying.
Rim brakes are fire! OMG! The Mamba feels like air in my hands! OMG! This bike is amazing! OMG! Why would I have doomed this beauty to a trainer!? It’s okay, Mamba, you’re free now. A few rides in and we had the makings of an unstoppable team (but that might’ve been the rim brakes, BOOM TISH!). I fell back in love with the goal, with the bike, with the world, and with life. But in that mix was something else. A niggling awareness of reality. A truth bomb that would occasionally drop on my consciousness and explode my confidence.
One hundred centuries is a lot.
“You’re probably not going to succeed at this goal.”
It’s alarming how often I would say this to myself and I think it was a sort of defense mechanism. A way to give my mind an out in case I got behind as if to say: “Well of course you didn’t succeed and it’s fine. It was a ludicrous goal right from the get-go!” Luckily for me, while the mind was thinking this the body kept on going. Slowly the numbers crept up. Twenty-five. Thirty. Thirty-five. Forty. One hundred centuries still didn’t seem like reality—“You’re probably not going to succeed at this goal”—but I kept on kicking.
It did become clear that something had to change if completion were to be a possibility, so I revisited the goal blueprints (Janeen’s Centuries Operational Guide), and mediated on some adjustments to keep the structure of the goal on solid ground.
First head on the chopping block—useless miles. Any miles that did not contribute to the goal would have to go. I began to call these Junk Miles, much to everyone’s disgust. Junk Miles as a term is offensive to just about everyone who gets out and rides any distance at all. But hey, I was not put on this planet to make people feel good about their 60-mile “Longest ride ever!” rides. (But good for you! I love it!)
My sole focus if I were to finish this goal had to be on building the perfect mileage house from my perfect mileage plan, and if you got showered in sawdust and tree debris while I was doing that then suck it up and ride your own ride. Selfish gets things done!
But it didn’t end there. I knew there was one more thing that had to change because even while I was hammering along in earnest, an ugly coffee-ring stain had begun to appear on my blueprints. It had the odor of ennui.
And so the second chopping block casualty was the big loop itself. I got bored with it. Not the climbing stuff, not the redwoods, and not the Alpine descent glory—that was still the highlight of the ride—but the 35-40 miles of straight road blasting down the coast to the finish. My tolerance level for riding on the shoulder of Highway 1 with the glory and majesty of the Pacific on my right side and the complete and utter bummer of looky-loo traffic on my left, faded fast. The final nail came when roadwork started between Davenport and Santa Cruz and it became a rough cone-dodging situation for many MANY miles. I mean, come on!
Consulting with Make Good Choices Janeen about the situation, I ditched my beloved loop for a weird hodgepodge of a Eureka Canyon route.
With junk miles cut, and a new route established, it wasn’t long before I hit fifty centuries, then fifty-one, and finally fifty-two centuries—the original goal. It was like something flipped in me at fifty-two and from that point on I NEVER uttered the words, “You’re probably not going to succeed in this goal” again. The finish line had entered the chat and as I uploaded it to Strava in the back of my mind I heard Make Good Choices Janeen finally come over to The Darkside.
“Oh,” she said, rubbing her greedy little mitts together. “It’s ON now!”
Did I mention I was wearing my bikes down at an incredible rate? I still hadn’t succeeded in getting the crank off Blurple (in the end it had to be drilled out, but that’s a whole ‘nother story), and even though I’d ordered new headset bearings for both the Diverge and Ruby because they were rusted in that ‘snap to attention’ way—I hadn’t fixed them either.
The Black Mamba began to buckle under the strain. Fortunately, I had a new route to distract me and headphones to drown out the noise of a moaning drivetrain and a clicking bottom bracket. The route, if you’re curious, shot me out to Corralitos and on to do a couple of loops around Green Valley with some Hazel Dell action (before and after), then straight up the glory of Eureka, over to Schulties for a small swatch of dirt, followed by a loop of Lexington Dam (depending on the heat), then back over to Eureka by sunset and a fast zip zip home.
The pecking continued. With the new plan firmly in play and having given myself a mental reset with new territory to explore, I continued racking up the hundos. Around the sixty-five century mark, I felt the blink of a warning light going off in the back of my brain, but there was no audible alarm with it so I ignored it, thinking it was probably just a faulty check engine light.
The goal is all! Nothing but the goal!
Each ride becomes routine. I peck. I roll around for hours and accumulate miles. I peck. My legs hurt one day and not the next. I peck. Sometimes I eat every hour, sometimes I don’t. I peck. Sometimes I drink four bottles, sometimes I forget to drink at all. One day I get home and realize that in my mind-numbing forgetfulness, I’ve drunk exactly 1/3 of a bottle of water for the whole ride. Instead of being disgusted with myself and endeavoring to do better, I think, “Oh well, I guess you’ve adapted to the workflow now?”
In ornithological terms, the eagle and hummingbird are long gone, and only the woodpecker remains.
Peck peck peck. It feels bad to say it, but riding a century becomes routine. While deep in the moment, I don’t think much about the ride and where I am in it. Half of the time, if I’m being honest, I simply don’t think at all. It’s just tap tap tap, pedal stroke after pedal stroke. My feet spin beneath me at a regulated tempo. On angry days when I can’t even stand to look at the stunning scenery around me with its oh, look at me! redwoods, bubbling brooks, and vibrant roadside banana slugs, I stare at my front wheel, watching as the road gets sucked under and miles are spat out the back far behind me. The odometer clicks over like a dripping tap into the sink of me.
This little woodpecker hammers its beak into the hardwood, ignoring the rattle, focused on its goal. Its brain shakes and its bones vibrate to this natural and necessary violence. The goal is the goal, and it must be worn away and worked at, relentlessly and without fear of injury.
With sweat running down my face in the late afternoon heat on Highland Way, I stop and look out at the far-off position of Santa Cruz on the horizon, sighing about how I still have 20 miles to go and nothing to eat when I get home. The radiant and bright red poison oak sweats quietly at the roadside, watching me, watching it.
“Maybe my friends are right?” I think.
“Maybe, just maybe, I am the textbook definition of a masochist?”
It’s not the centuries that get you. It’s the recovery.
“Geez,” I think to myself one day pedaling along on Eureka. “Was it only a few months ago that I felt like I was the fittest I ever have been in my whole life?”
Once I felt fit, now all I felt was fatigued.
Centuries seventy to around eighty-five are a slog. My legs work but with no enthusiasm for the task at hand. They are just turning over in that ‘let’s just get this over with’ fashion, hour after hour. My excitement had evaporated, and my joy expired. A hot pain appeared in the middle of my back between my shoulder blades at the same point on almost every ride—mile seventy. Its savagery is brutal. Mentally, it’s as though my very motivation had been clubbed to death, plucked of its feathers, and turned into some kind of cautionary stew.
Worst of all, I knew that if I looked down I’d see the club in my own hand.
But there was no chance I was stopping. I was too dumb for that.
My mind was so numb to it all that even though I knew it was stupid to keep going and that I needed to take a break, I just kept on getting up, putting on a kit, pumping up tires, and riding straight back into the open arms of this bad relationship.
My evolution toward pure zombie was progressing at pace, extinguishing all instinct to save myself from the pain. No fight or flight here, just slog and suffer. It’s awful. Officially the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, turning me into a not-fun, tired sad sack of a human being. Oh, to ride something less than a century. To just go out and ride for a short happy while and be home before dark. What a concept!
A side effect of piling century upon century was the gradual loss of speed. I watch my average mph decrease over time, down down down, and it’s demoralizing but I get it. At this point in the proceedings, it’s not about speed anymore. It’s not about fitness and looking fast on a bike. It’s 100% about surviving each ride, taking it as it comes, and living to ride another day.
As I decline, so does the Amira. Beginning to have trouble with even the most basic of functions, I decide it needs new parts if I’m to continue riding it. Am I out of bikes? Standing in the garage, I spy a bike that for years I’m been telling myself to sell. My procrastination has paid off and Pumpkin Butter, my 2015 Crux Evo, is called to the front lines. There is instantly a new spark in my heart, for now, I can adjust the route to add some fire road dirt, up and over and through Nisene.
That’ll snuff out some monotony. Perhaps I’m not dead yet?
Alas, even with the new route and bike I’m still close to expiration. My left knee, which has never hurt before, begins to make itself known and I believe the Crux to be the culprit. Old fit, new Janeen. Whatever it is, I cannot continue to ignore the writing on the wall: it’s time to resurrect everything—bikes, Janeen, and the goal—to snatch defeat from the jaws of extinction.
On a lovely fall day, I go to visit my friend Santi and we spend a Saturday fixing both the Diverge and the Ruby, replacing drivetrains and crunchy headset bearings, plus upgrading the cranks on Blurple to some sexy climbing gears to help alleviate the wear and tear on my joints. From that moment on, my knee weeps with pure joy on every ride, and the enthusiastic pursuit of my goal becomes fun again. With a glimmer of hope cracking the curtain of my confidence, I return to my old route for the final push to the finish line.
I kick the dead dodo off the road into the glistening phalanx of poison oak. Extinction gets smaller in my rearview.
And in the End
In the mornings and the evenings, in the cold chill and warm winds, the pain and the power and the glory will breathe into your lungs and be expressed through the tingle of your spine, the weight of your hands on bars, and the sound of chains lubed and excited.
This is the music of our lives.
With ten centuries left to go, I cautiously sent out an invite for people to join me on November 12th for my last ride. Three people accepted. Three takers! I was overcome. What would I wear? Where would we go? What would we eat? Do I even remember how to talk to people? What if I’m really slow? What if I get dropped on the first climb? What if I surge all the time because I’ve forgotten all group ride etiquette,? What if, what if, what if…?!
All this anxiety. All because up until this point, almost all of my centuries (bar one) had been solo. Yes, that’s ninety-eight centuries in the company of myself. Ninety-eight centuries listening to the complaints of one voice, succumbing to the whims of one rider. Ninety-eight centuries alone, just me and the two Make Good Choices and Shit’ll Buff Out Janeen’s. The thought of riding with other people made my heart go boom-boom. Real conversation! The ability to draft off people! Stopping for snacks and photo opportunities with things other than my bike in the photo! Santa is that you!?
As luck would have it, my friend Rob (who lives in Germany) was in town and was stoked to join. Jon Takao, who you may recall from other dumb rides, said he was going to drive 6 hours just for the honor. Rounding out the group was Backus, my regular Dawnut Patrol teamie who had also ridden the only non-solo century of the year with me.
We were a gang of four.
When planning the final route, I considered creating one that would allow people who, I dunno, maybe hadn’t been riding three centuries a week a chance to bail early. But then I thought, “This is the last one, Janeen. There can be no better route than the one that started it all—the big loop. Let the fitness cards of your friends fall where they may.“
It can be hard to explain to non-cycling folks what an ALL-TIME ride is, but this was one of them. It can be hard to explain the joy of someone riding at your shoulder, shooting the shit as the whirr of chains and hum of wheels orchestrates the moment. The sound of cheerful conversations chattering up ahead. The squeal of brakes on a corner as you follow the wheel of a friend you trust with your life down a steep mountain road.
All day long, the joy flowed freely. The songs of laughter, teasing, and a never-ending refrain of stupid conversations rise effortlessly into the air, friendship birds taking flight. We climbed through avenues of winding redwoods and descended at speed, faces frozen in impossible grins, the cold tears streaming from our eyes. Sunshine became the MVP of the day.
In Pescadero, famished and dotted with salt, we pooled resources (though I had conveniently lost my wallet) to procure a fine spread of deli meats, cheeses, and a loaf of artichoke bread. Rob proceeded to fashion the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten and we lolled about in the sun behind Pescadero grocery store, telling tales and grinning like loons, declaring Coke to be the best thing ever, and this to be the best day too.
All time. All time.
Down the street, we hit a shot of espresso before heading toward Cloverdale road—the back way—and out to Highway 1 to wrap this thing up.
I can’t describe the size of my heart as I ride these final miles with these people, my friends, as we talk about the past, the now, and the future. Rob, who I rarely see, Jon, who is doing an off-the-couch century because he does stuff like that, and Backus, my always laughing, always keen to ride comrade in miles. My heart, my heart—it is dangerously close to being too big for my rib cage.
And then, as if to confirm the all-time status of the final century of my one hundred one hundreds, we are gifted with the most epic of tailwinds to push us all home. I am safe in the orchestral pit of this symphony, the sound of voices, the whirr of drivetrains, and the whooping throb of wheels on pavement hitting all the right love notes. And there, to punctuate, I listen for the call of home, calling and calling, a safe siren to the eventual mooring of our souls to the dock of us.
Hear me sing this song of love. Hear me sing with full voice for my friends, for my success, and for my beautiful stupidity which led me to this moment. Hear me warble, hear me croon, hear me serenade the world with new, unencumbered love.
A century is like a perfect song. It has a rhythm and a tempo. The verses come and go, while the chorus seems to kick in at just the right time to lift our spirits to the rafters. To finish a century, you don’t need to know the lyrics, just the tune, and it doesn’t matter if the notes are right or wrong. You can always make your own exquisite melody.
To finish one hundred centuries, well that’s just an album. A long play album filled with many songs, each lyrically different, each an adventure composed by this never-had-a-lesson-in-my-life idiot. Hear my anthem. Feel it swell. I have played it with confidence and having played it, moved on.
This bird can sing. This bird can fly. This bird can soar across the sky.
Centuries. Centuries are for me.
Bonus fact: If you’re curious how many centuries I completed in a 365-day period (November 16th, 2021 to November 15th, 2022 (aka birthday to birthday) it was 112 hundos. That’s what’s called a #NotSoHumbleBrag
I don’t know why this blog is in my RSS feed, but wow what a great story. Yes you are completely nuts, but in the best possible way. You’ve done more centuries in a fortnight than I’ve done in my entire life.
Amaze balls. Mind blown.
Thanks, Lance! It was a doozy of a year – and goal – for sure.
Janeen! I’ve had this tab open and I finally got out of my own way and read the dang thing. It’s so special. By golly you sure do put the Cray in JJ-McCraeCray. Thanks for sharing your stories. Love reading your words, and sure do miss riding miles with you. Love you, JJ!