What I did for my 49th birthday, or how I got lost in Texas.
by Frank Colunga

All great stories of adventure start in vaguely similar fashions; "How high is that mountain?'  "How far does the ocean extend?"  "Where is the end of this river?"  Or, "Hold my beer and watch this."

This is a tale of the latter.

As is usual with adventurous activities throughout my life, most have involved laughter, miscalculation of inherent dangers, lack of talent, and a general disregard for the amount of pain involved if the effort were to fail.

So with that brief introduction I’d like to tell the tale of the 3rd Annual Gunny Ski Bike Ride.  This was started by an avid cyclist, Jim Mischel.  He and a friend, Craig Matteson, had ridden twice from Round Rock, Texas (north of Austin) to Harlingen, Texas (home of the Marine Military Academy and our alma mater) in order to raise money for a great man, former Marine, and mentor, Gunnery Sergeant Wisnoski.  A nice little 3-day ride of 335 miles.

As I vaguely recollect, I’d made an offhand comment after he’d told me about this great idea: "Yeah, I’d like to do that too.  But I live in Florida."   So it seems that within 30 seconds of returning to Texas last July I thought of riding the 6½-inch trip (as I saw it on the map).   OK, maybe it was 3 or 4 months after I moved and involved their statements questioning my masculinity and honesty.  Either way I thought about joining the adventure.

Something about the size and shape of Texas is funny.  When placed on a map it slops over the sides, sticks its head over the top and generally lets its belly extend onto several pages.  I thought to myself, “gee Indians and Spaniards used to ride horses with no paved roads over the entire state from one end to another.  How difficult could it be?”  We’d ride only halfway down the state (I assumed that meant downhill), on nicely paved interstate highways (smooth) and sailing along with late winter/early spring northerly breezes (tailwind).

These assumptions proved fatally wrong.  In fact they were like the assumption that "all was well" when the captain of the Titanic ignored that “silly little” scraping sound the iceberg and the hull of his ship made.

First of all, Texas has hills.  They all go up and from what I could gather, ascend continuously to “Mount Mexican Border” near our destination.  The elevation must be 50,000 feet, cause I never cruised downhill once over the entire ride.  Ever.

The pain started with some hill called "Robert E. Lee" in Austin, which runs for about ¾ of a mile at a 9% grade.  This was after I warmed up my knees by falling 5 times in Austin city traffic because I hadn’t learned to pull my feet out of the clips on my pedals (don’t ask).  To get an idea of what 9% grade on a hill means, go to the outside of your house and attach a rope to the roof, step back about 9 feet and that’s the path the “hill of pain” looked like to me as I pedaled 90 beats per minute, in the smallest gear and traveled only 4 miles an hour.  I resembled a hamster on amphetamines.

It only got better.  There were the little bitty “hurt my thigh” hills, the long upwardly sloping “make my lungs explode” hills and finally the fake you out, split level hills that go up like they're about to end but after you reach the top reveal another peak 2-3 miles up an incline to another peak that reveals, after you reach that peak, another hidden mountaintop 1-2 miles further away and further up the road.  I call those the "Oh My Gawd, Sweet Mother of Jesus, Make my eyes bleed and Kill me now" hills.

As for the "paved highways," this is a Texas myth.  I thought paved meant smooth.  It really means granulated chunks of rock placed in grooves in order to pull your wheels either into the path of an 18-wheeler or out into the side of the road occupied by armadillo carcasses and rattlesnakes. Sometimes the grooves are placed sideways and a really neat jackhammer effect develops with your elbows and shoulders pounded together so you look like a midget with 6 inch arms and saying things like, "I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I  c-c-c-ca-a-a-a-a-a-an’t-t-t-t-t-t   f-f-f-f-f-f-eeeeeeee-l-l-l-l my ha-haa-ha-ha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-nds."  After traveling for 8-10 hours with your hands pounding on the handlebars you looked like the "Lobster-boy" trying to grab things with no control of your fingers.  My hands were so numb I almost bit through my hand eating until my teeth hit my wedding ring.

Finally we come to the tailwind.  Weather is a rather fickle mistress.  Who would have thought that for 3 days we'd experience 30 mph winds with gusts into the 40s for the final day.  This incredible breeze made coasting impossible and dangerous.  We had an average speed with the wind of 128 mph and against the wind about 2 mph.  I do need to clarify that we had a tail wind for 5 miles of the trip and a headwind straight into our face for remaining 330 miles.

I can’t possibly describe the adjectives we used for the wind but I do believe they mostly started with the words "mother", "gawd" and "Jesus, Mary and Joseph".   With wind as a serious factor the experience of the lead cyclist was very important and we did something called, "drafting."  Which means you put your front wheel as close as possible to the other cyclist's rear wheel, put your head down and hope he doesn’t put on his brakes. Of course doing this risks becoming a human suppository if your brakes fail or the leader fails to mention something as silly as a stop sign or dead animal (don’t ask).   My entire visual "tour" of Texas can be described as, Jim’s rear end, asphalt and a bicycle tire.

After the first night I called Julie and gave her the cheerful update, "This is the single worst decision of my entire life and I will never ride a bike again.  Is our health insurance paid up?"  Followed by the second day update, "I think the swelling in my knee is going down and I’m going to try to ride tomorrow.  Did you know that Tylenol, Motrin, tuna fish and pickles make a great sandwich?"  Then finally on the evening of the last day when icepacks, Motrin, beer, and hot showers allowed a collective amnesia to develop, "That was kinda cool, I think I’ll try it again next year."

Here are some photos of the ride with captions.

Happy guys starting the ride

The support van -- SAG Wagon

My view of Austin - falling to the right

My view of Austin - falling to the left

Last morning ready for the final days ride joined by MMA riders

The "final half mile" smile

Last days ride and starting to think this was fun

 Gy Ski’s grandkids.  All's well that ends well.

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