Slaying the dragon

I do not like to be a person who allows herself to be controlled by her fears. However, I often am controlled by my fears. And I have a great many fears. For one, I hate thunderstorms. I fear them so bad that I can’t even stand to listen to thunder or see lightning when I’m safe within the confines of my own house. That is because I don’t ever feel like I truly am safe from Mother Nature’s wrath. I’ve had a fear of a tornado wiping out my house for as long as I can remember. Storms are, needless to say, extremely unsettling to me.

I’m also afraid of heights. Yet, I’ve jumped out of what most people would describe as “perfectly good airplanes.” However, I’ve tried repelling and rock climbing and I can’t stand it. It’s not to say I’ll never try again–that’s a fear I have yet to conquer–but I’m definitely deathly afraid.

Even in my favorite activities–skiing and cycling–I’ve got a great deal of fear. With skiing, it’s always been doing a really challenging run (particularly the “black diamond” runs). With cycling, I’ve got a fear of reaching speeds above 40mph and, oddly enough, of trying to climb really tough hills. I hate this about myself–this fear–when doing an activity I absolutely love.

Over the last year, I’ve been working on conquering some of my fears as relating to skiing and cycling. I’ve been taking myself out of my comfort zone of mediocrity and pushing myself to do the things I fear the most. With skiing, this has involved going down a lot of slopes I had previously avoided. I have grown tired of accepting my self-imposed limitations. You don’t become a better skier or cyclist by allowing your fears to rule you. Recently I’ve decided that I want–really want–to be better at these sports. And I’ve not wanted to let my fears ruin my fun.

Last summer, I faced many new challenges in cycling: I rode across the entire state of Ohio–in pain on the second to last day, even; I completed the Fredericksburg Library Roll and, most importantly, the Fall N Leaf rides without walking a single hill; I climbed previously untried hills in the Cuyahoga Valley, mainly Hines Hill and Martin. I was really hitting new highs. As I started to successfully meet more challenges, I started to get braver. At the end of last year, I decided that sometime this year, I would climb the notorious–and, for me, most feared–hill in the valley: Oak Hill.

Today, I set out for a ride into the valley with my primary goal to making an attempt on Oak Hill.  I didn’t tell anyone this; I didn’t post it on Facebook or even utter the idea to a friend. I didn’t want the pressure of others knowing that I was going to attempt it so that if I wimped out, no one would have to know. I guess I could have taken the reverse strategy, telling everyone, so that I would feel pressure to do it to save face. (I am extremely susceptible to peer pressure, I freely admit it.) I wanted to face Oak Hill on my own terms. The only downside is that I had no witnesses.

For those of you who don’t live in the area, and don’t understand the mass that is Oak Hill, this road is notorious as the absolutely toughest hill in the Cuyahoga Valley. Many great cyclists gape at the mere suggestion of going up it and most have one or two stories about failed or successful attempts of it. I’ve cowered in fear of it ever since I’ve started riding the Valley, despite my growing love of hill climbing.

Oak Hill is approximately 11% grade over .3 miles with an elevation gain of 180′ feet. The climb begins right where the road itself begins off of Everett Road. I once had the misguided idea that I could assess the difficulty of this hill by going down it from the top. Unfamiliar with the valley back then–and only knowing of Oak Hill by reputation–I didn’t realize the road ends abruptly at Everett with a stop sign. Needless to say, Oak Hill is the only hill I’ve ever walked down in my entire cycling career. (Riding the brakes scared my cycling shorts right off of me–I had visions of burning out my brakes and speeding down the hill to crash into a car passing on Everett below.)

The photo below does not do Oak Hill justice. It doesn’t look as bad as it truly looks when you stand at the bottom of it.

The Dragon of Peninsula - Oak Hill Road

I would also point out that some of the other hills I’ve done have higher grades. Boston Mills West, for example, is 20% at its hardest. It has a 192 ft climb over .42 miles which technically makes it more challenging (and it’s often viewed as the hardest climb in the valley). Hines Hill is approximately 15% grade over .11 miles at its hardest. So I totally should not have been so intimidated by Oak Hill. Except for the fact that people I know who have done Hines Hill and Boston Mills West both have often hesitated at Oak Hill. Maybe it’s because you can see all of the hill from the bottom so you know what you’re getting yourself into, whereas on the other hills you’re already committed to the climb before you get to the hardest part?

Either way, I knew I had to slay this dragon. It had oppressed my growth as a cyclist long enough. So I decided today was the day. Except that I did everything in my power to avoid the damn hill. The first time I came upon it, I passed it up to continue up Everett–a climb I’ve done numerous times before and of which I have no fear. I told myself I was just making sure my legs were in climbing condition today. Yeah, right. It was downright avoidance.

When I came back down into the valley via Wheatley, I knew it was do or die. So when I came up to Oak Hill, I stood in front of it, across the street on Everett, and just stared at it. Other cyclists passed me by, watching me watch the hill, but saying nothing, probably understanding my need to balk. Motorcycles and vehicles went up Oak Hill, some came down, and I continued to stare the hill down. For over a half hour, I tried to talk myself into making the climb. I almost bailed and continued on down Everett back home in defeat. But I knew I’d just be pissed off with myself later.

So I gathered myself. I crossed the street and started a climb up. I panicked a little. I stopped again at the very foot of the hill, feeling already its steepness and acknowledging that I would have to start the climb immediately in my lowest gear with no gear to “rescue me” as the steepness increased. I reminded myself that it wasn’t that long to the top. If it got bad, my last resort was to stand in the pedals and just push, like I had had to do on Hines Hill last year.

I sighted a vertical reflector mounted on the side of the road about halfway up the hill. I told myself that if I could make it to that reflector, I was committed in the climb and could not–for any reason–remove my foot from the pedals and give up once I got there because I’d be nearly to the top. I did, however, leave room for myself to bail before the reflector.

I put my foot back in the pedals and started climbing again. My eyes were focused on the reflector–getting to it. My legs felt as if weights were being added to the sides, slowly, as I continued the climb. Though it felt difficult, and I surely wished I had one lower gear, I didn’t feel I was going so slow that I’d lose balance. I realized I could tough this one out without standing. I was actually kind of afraid to stand because once your butt is out of the seat on a hill, you can’t go back into the seat while the grade remains the same because the force of a standing push is stronger than that of a seated one; it would make it harder to push once seated again. (At least, that’s how it works for me.)

I made it to the reflector. I was starting to hurt now, but I was almost up the hardest part now so I couldn’t stop (and, seriously, I don’t think I’d want to be standing off-bike on that hill anyway). Slowly but surely, I continued to grind. My feet were still moving at roughly the same cadence as they had since I started the climb. I felt relieved as I realized I was totally stable. I was going to make it!

After I got up the main part of the hill, it seemed to ease a little, then there was that last little bump before turning the corner onto the “flat” part of the road (which was still a slight climb mostly to Major Road). To be honest, I was surprised with how… um, “easy” is not the word… less difficult the hill was than I’d anticipated. The reputation of Oak Hill was more intimidating than the actual climb. Not to understate the difficulty of this hill–it was hard and not for the faint of heart–but I think I’ve had the most difficulty climbing Hines Hill (which is also the hill that made me panic the most).

Anyway, I feel really relieved that I no longer have to fear Oak Hill. One more fear down in my laundry list of fears. Now I feel like more of a real cyclist since most of my cycling friends from ABC have done Oak Hill at least once. There are still a few hills in the valley that I’ve not yet climbed but I’m working on getting to them. Which should all feel a lot less daunting now that I’ve slayed the feared dragon. And, really, acknowledging to myself that I’ve done the three hills widely regarded as the toughest–Hines Hill, Boston Mills West, and Oak Hill–gives me a lot more confidence because I can use them as examples in my mind when I’m telling myself that I can do a tough climb.


11 thoughts on “Slaying the dragon

  1. These are lessons for life: pick a goal we don’t think we can meet; stay focused; stay in position … and keep pedaling. Thanks, Heidi, for this vivid description of the day you slayed your dragon!

  2. Great post! My wife and I used to ride across the Valley west to east on bike camping trips with 30-40 lbs. of gear strapped to our bikes. We didn’t have “granny gears” – we had 42/52 cranks with 14-28 chain wheels (as they were called back in the day before “cassettes” -same thing). The return home meant a climb up Everett with that load -but then we were in our 20’s. Now, at the age of 62, I am back into cycling more than then. I haven’t climbed Everest lately though. We live in Medina County, the bigger challenge is increasing traffic. I think I will try Everett this Sunday morning. Based on your narrative, I am going to save Oak Hill for after I have done Everett again. Thank you for a very nice blog.

  3. Wow, Rick! I think carrying 30-40lbs of gear would make Everett especially challenging! I haven’t done any bike touring yet, but I worry a lot about not being able to make climbs on heavier bikes with gear…

  4. Today, I rode Everett from the Indigo Lake parking lot and felt very good despite the 82 degree temps mid afternoon. My Trek 5200 (dated) has a low gear of 39/28 which was low enough for Everett. I would like to challenge Oak Hill but am going to do Everett a couple of more times. I should mention that I am a guy whose heart stopped during team tennis 13 months ago and I needed world class cpr (from 2 docs who just happened to be in the building) for over 12 minutes until a rescue squad arrived to shock me twice to restart my heart. To top it off, I had a x6 bypass surgery that started at midnight. Don’t assume that exercise alone is cardio protective. Adopt a vegan diet (not a pasta/bagel vegan diet) if youannat to guarantee avoiding what I went through.

    • Sorry, Rick. I love a good steak too much to ever be vegan. I’m not convinced animal product is BAD itself. Eating too much of anything is bad. I propse just cutting back on the amount of meat consumption, not having it with every meal. Buit we are omnivores and we are made to consume meat. My family does not have a history of heart problems. I think I’m good. There are lots of ways to die that you can’t control. I won’t spend my days obsessing about them. Sometimes shit happens no matter what you do.

  5. Please feel free to delete my prior comment and this one, too. For one thing, there is an inexcusable typo in yesterday’s comment. The second point is that I regret making it sound like I am preaching about my diet. My primary hobby over the last 12 or so years has been the science of diet and the evolutionary diet at that. Despite that knowledge, I still ended up dead -literally (for several minutes). My vegan approach is based on research and the coaching of a Cleveland Clinic doc who has radiographic documentation of disease reversal. Again, I apologize for inserting what sounded preachy in my exuberance over aggressively riding Everett after an event and surgery that keeps a lot of people sitting on the porch. Tomorrow, I’m gong back and I just might try Oak Hill. Thanks again for a very literate blog that highlights local biking!

    • I dont delete comments on my blog unless someone is inexcusably offensive. ;) Having a difference of opinion is allowed. ;) I’m easy-going. I guess I took the offensive because I’ve had other vegan friends who are convinced I need to adopt their lifestyle because they so enjoy it. I’ve noticed a tendency in vegans to evangelize their diet and it drives me crazy because I see no need to change my eating habits because other people think it improves their lifestyle. I can eat vegan food and go to vegan restaurants (with said friends). That’s all fine and good. I don’t think I need to eat meat with every meal and I don’t because I believe it’s healthy to eat meat so long as you do it in moderation. We’re omnivores, as I said, and our body is meant to eat both. I dont want to spend my life obsessing over additional vitamins and what foods I need to eat to make up for the lack of nutrients I’m not getting from not eating meat.

      I’m glad your diet works for you. I’m glad it’s improved your life style. I’ve got the same point of view with religion, though: If it works for you, great. But don’t try to convert everyone else. ;) We all find and apply what works best for us.

  6. Great story Hedi! I live where Bath road dead ends to the west so most of my rides drop down into the Valley. Just yesterday (Feb. 18, 2012, cold and windy) I took my buddy and his fancy new bike up Oak hill, the first time for him, I didn’t even give him any warning, I just said “hey let’s go this way”. Once we started up I had him scared that if he tried to bail and walk he would slide all the way back down to Everett. I have to admit for our first ride of the season Oak hill was a challenge but we both made it to the top, maybe huffing and puffing with some groaning thrown in but still glad to have done it.

    Funny how you mentioned Oak hills reputation, my personal nemisess has always been Ira road hill. The short story is after I bought my first road bike 25 years back thinking I was a stud in good shape I hit that hill and just blew up, to the point I had to sit on the guard rail for I time secretly praying an ambulance would come by and scoop me up, I ended up walking to the top. I have never walked up a hill since and do Ira several times a year but everytime I turn that way I get a little sick to my stomach.


  7. What a great article. Great job on taking on the big 3! I know exactly how you feel. Big climbs are intimidating. I’ve done Martin and Oak Hill on the same ride. Columbia is a good climb too. I’m going to try W. Boston Mills soon, I think, gulp, it sure is steep. Hines Hill looks even tougher, but like you I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t try. Keep up the good work!

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