Mount Lemmon

A quick pic at Windy Point before we continue our way down.

Way back in 2008, when I was still freelancing quite a bit, I attended a triathlon camp in Tucson for a story. Most of the participants seemed to be long-distance triathletes. While I was swimming and biking and running at the time, I also was two years out from giving birth—Amelia was 5, Ben was 2—and I was very much mothering.

My memories of the camp are spotty at best. I definitely remember arriving via taxi to the hotel, then walking to the grocery store for my snacks for the week. I surely bought a pound of M&M’s—that’s how they used to sell them, kids—and some granola bars and maybe some apples and bananas. Minimal protein and/or calories because that’s how I rolled in those days.

I also definitely remember feeling like a poser. Everybody else seemed faster, more athletic, more passionate, more sure of themselves. I felt like a wannabe who had clamped aerobars on a road bike and was just hanging on.

I don’t remember any workout, except for one that my friend Merle consistently reminds me of via email. Merle and her friend Lola, who are both from Estonia, were the highlight of the camp. They called me Dimsi, kept me laughing, and kept my mind off myself.  They continue to attend Tucson camp annually, and always ask if I am going again. The answer is always thanks, but no.

Anyway, the assigned workout was to climb Mount Lemmon for 90 minutes, getting as far as you could go. “I still remember how I was 10-15 meters behind you the entire way,” Merle wrote to me recently, “I want a redo.”

Mount Lemmon

No camp, no pressure. Just me taking selfies while Grant readies our bikes.

Back to March 2023, I am going for a redo, albeit one of a very different fashion. No swimming or running bookending these workouts; just one simple climb to the actual top of Mount Lemmon. On this redo, I know what I need to eat before, during, and after and I feel much more confident in my athletic identity, although that will soon be challenged by the sleek pros in bright colors racing up the mountain.

As we cover the 13 hour drive from Denver to Tucson, Grant sets out his expectations for the day. “If we climb for 3 hours, that will be plenty,” he says. That feels too nebulous to me. We’re on a mountain. I want to get to the top. (Unless, of course, I’m on Everest.)

So I do some Internet recon on Lemmon: if you go to the very top, you’ll ride 28.8 miles and climb over 7,000 feet. That said, most riders either ride just short of 21 miles to the official Strava top, or go a little farther and make their goal a cookie in Summerhaven. The cookie was my goal—(I thought) I didn’t care how long it took us to get there.

We pull into the Safeway parking lot—if you’re a cyclist in Tucson you know this lot—and park our car. The nearby McDonald’s transports me back immediately to camp: I downed an ice cream come and a Coke in roughly 20 seconds after my first time on Lemmon.

Mount Lemmon

My cycling concierge, carrying a backpack with water and our extra gear. Heart him.

We set off. Grant, my lovely cycling concierge, is right in front of me. His pack holds extra water for us, and the extra layers we need for the descent. Under a clear blue sky, the climb starts off surrounded by forests of Saguaro cacti. Amazing. I pretty much thought the whole day would stay that way.

Except for one minor thing: One website offered up advice on how to pace your effort. The first 5 miles means nothing, they warned. “Literally…don’t blow up.”

I don’t exactly blow up on the first five miles, but I don’t exactly rein it in, either. I am keeping up with Grant, who has been faithfully training this winter. To be clear: He does not tell me to keep up with him, and would happily ride behind me, but I—or my ego, actually—vetoed that.

As you may know, I have not be faithfully training. I fractured my ankle/foot at the end of December, so I have only really had six-ish weeks out of the boot and on the bike. (I won’t call it training; it was just getting back into a consistent cycling groove.)

Trained or not, I know what easy feels like. I also know it’s really hard to go easy on climbs, especially climbs that go on and on and on. But I do my best to support myself. I eat something every 25 minutes (thank you, COROS, for the prompts!), and I drink pretty regularly, too. My brain is definitely not clicking in confidence mode, but I try to drown out the negatives by I telling myself, “Just sit and spin, Dimity, sit and spin.”

Still, nothing is easy. My beloved GU Stroopwafels are too dry. I drop my water bottle once. It rolls, I stop to get it, then I have to get rolling again—a big momentum shift on a steep grade. The shaded spots make me feel too chilly, and the sunny spots make sweat-laced sunscreen drip into my eyes. At one stop, I take out my phone to take a selfie, and see a text from Merle, who had to cancel her camp this year because of serious health issues. I don’t want to read it because I know she thinks I’m going to the top. And I know I’m not going to get there today.

Mount Lemmon is very well marked with both mileage and elevation signs, so I know we’re close to 7,000 feet elevation when I pull over for what I am sure is the last time. “You finish this,” I tell Grant,”I’m done. Today is just not my day.” He looks at his watch, and suggests we climb for 20 more minutes. “Let’s get to San Pedro lookout,” he say, “That’s about 3 hours, and my plan all along.”

And like that, the very rational goal he set out less than 24 hours ago becomes the top of the mountain. No cookie, but I’m in. My legs shake as I clip one pedal in, then wobble along to get the other in. I tick off the minutes as we spin at 6 mph.

And we get to San Pedro, Grant’s goal all along. We layer on gloves, windbreakers, and a hat for me, and head on down. Back in the parking lot, Grant gives me a hug when I get a little teary while feelings of pride and disappointment swirl around in me.

Skipping McDonald’s, we join the cyclist crowd in Le Buzz for a proper refuel. I open up my phone to read my texts. “I so wish I was there with you enjoying the beauty of the desert while going through the tough challenge,” Merle wrote. “One day we will be riding together.” Heart emoji, hug emoji, bike emoji, kapow emoji.

Yep. I think I have one more redo in me, Merle. And when we get to the top, the cookie will be on me, friend.