HALEAKALA, Hawaii — It's not getting any closer, I thought to myself, gazing at the 30-mile-wide mound of ancient lava in the distance. Nearly an hour into my ride I was pounding the pedals heading up the north slope of Maui's Haleakala, one of the world's largest dormant volcanoes. For the record, geologists say the crater is actually an "erosional depression" caused by two valleys merging together.
No matter, this was no molehill, and my destination was as elusive as ever. Two miles high, with a cavity big enough to accommodate Manhattan, Haleakala is so vast it's easy to lose perspective. The summit was still almost 30 miles away.
It was on my 50th birthday nearly four years ago that I got the crazy idea to conquer what Mark Twain once called a "colossus." Watching the packs of tourists cruising down, I wondered if I could actually "bike the volcano," as those ubiquitous fliers proclaimed.
Not that I wasn't in good shape — I'd been cycling since my late teens, and over the last decade had bagged a handful of 3,500-foot climbs. But scaling Haleakala would be different. First, I'd have to endure the various microclimates — from searing sun to chilling rains to blinding fog. Plus, I'd be grinding thousands of feet up a relentless 5% to 6% uphill grade for 37 miles — the last few through seriously thin air.
Fortunately, I was in no huge rush so there'd be plenty of time to prepare. Alas, the universe had other plans. In November 2011, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. So now I was forced to focus my energy on defeating a tiny but growing mass, millimeters from my bike seat.
Obviously, biking and prostate issues are a dubious mix. And my triple-whammy treatment — three procedures seemingly conceived by the Marquis de Sade — didn't exactly help. Just before New Year's 2012, I received my first installment of hormone "therapy" — a shot that knocked out my testosterone, giving me symptoms of female menopause with, well, hot flashes.
In February, I began a five-week round of radiation that sapped my energy and my appetite. But it was the 80 radioactive seeds implanted directly into the offending area in April that made mounting a bike seat a form of torture. I couldn't cycle again until August 2012.
Even so, those were mere physical annoyances. It's the "what if" thinking that was my most formidable opponent. No doubt, I fired a few neurons down that path early on, but for the most part, I remained positive, determined to confront Mt. Cancer with as much strength and grace as I could muster.
This mindset also proved invaluable in braving the athletic challenge of my life. Yes, I trained like a madman with routine assaults on the mountain behind my house in Santa Barbara and a little 4,600-foot jaunt up to the ski lifts at Mt. Baldy. But equanimity and persistence ended up being my strongest ally.
And what better to foster these qualities than the return of my testosterone by late autumn, followed by two successful post-cancer screenings. I don't know whether it was the hormones or the psychological boost of beating cancer, but something pushed me toward a feat I might never have attempted.
So it's only fitting that I was drawn to a sacred site, Haleakala, or "House of the Sun." According to legend, after the demi-God Maui entrapped the sun, it agreed to cross the sky more slowly in exchange for its release.
Old sol was certainly cooperating this August when I made my ascent — the day dawned so clear that the often-hidden titan presented itself in full glory. "Maui" was clearly looking out for me. And so, after two bowls of cereal and bananas, my "support team" (actually just my partner, Chris) loaded my rented Trek into the back of our convertible, and soon I was dipping my toe into the turquoise waters at Baldwin Park, just outside the town of Paia.
"Remember to enjoy it," Chris had told me before I left, certainly the best advice anyone offered. Soon I was pedaling past fields of meandering cows and beneath a canopy of draping, flowering plants whose scent offered a sweet contrast to the rigors that lay ahead.
At the 4-mile mark, as the view of the cloud-free crest opened up, I spotted another cyclist on a far shorter excursion — to the next town. "There's no air at 10,000 feet!" he said. Not exactly the encouragement I was hoping for, but by the time I arrived at Makawao three miles later, I'd forgotten his comment. Here I continued onto the short but steep Olinda Road before taking that critical right onto Hanamu Road — an asphalt roller coaster just past mile 8. (Miss it and you'll climb an extra 1,700 feet.)
Adequately warmed up, I cycled furiously (despite the speed bumps) enjoying the only real descents of my entire trek. Then after reaching the aptly named Haleakala Highway I was ascending again. Here I encountered the first of many downhillers who must've been thinking, What is this guy doing?
Indeed, 45 minutes later, I was contemplating the 2,500-foot elevation marker with mixed feelings. Only 7,500 feet to go, I thought to myself. But within a mile I was enjoying my first rest at the Kula Lodge —the last place to get real food.
Back in the saddle, after 15 minutes I spotted the brown and white Haleakala National Park sign engraved with three frightful words: "Crater 22 miles." This signaled my final turn onto Crater Road. (Non-bikers might want to continue on to the Kula Botanical Garden 21/2 miles ahead.)
From here, you can't avoid tracking your progress, with the elevation etched into the pavement in 500-foot increments all the way to the park entrance at 6,850 feet. But of greater value to me was the word "breathe" that started appearing on the asphalt about 3,500 feet — a crucial reminder to focus on my gentle panting rather than my far-off target.
It's here that the ride unfolds with a seismograph of switchbacks — some almost half a mile long —through rolling grasslands. Fortunately, thanks to my skinny frame I was soon passing 5,000 feet, the halfway point.
The air was cooler, though the showers and fog typical of this altitude didn't materialize. Within 60 minutes I was reaching into my bike bag for the obligatory $5 park entry fee. (Yes, even cyclists must pay.)
I didn't want my 20-minute rest to end, but nearly four hours had already passed. So with the all-time record for the uphill ride (2:32 by Ryder Hesjedal) flashing in my brain, I felt compelled to step things up. But around the next bend, just past the 7,000-foot sign, the white line I'd been meditating on seemed to grow fuzzy. Was the altitude hitting me? Would failure be my punishment for all that pre-ride blabbing about biking to the stratosphere?
I'm not sure whether it was "Maui" or Cytomax, but I somehow recovered and was soon plodding past 7,500 feet, where Chris met up with me. Sprawled in the front seat of the car, I could barely touch the food he'd brought, but I eagerly drank in the sub-alpine panorama surrounding us.
Once I was back on the bike, my calves felt like lead weights and my heart pounded, yet the fast-moving clouds drifting below gave me the sensation of flying. And when I finally spotted the "summit 2 miles" sign just past 9,000 feet, only then was I sure I would make it. But not before that punishing last stretch — a 300-foot climb up a cruel 12% grade. Nearly six hours after I began, the interminable white line came to an end, and I was gripping the 10,000-foot elevation sign.
I must've been high on endorphins, because all I could think of at that moment was figuring out my next conquest. And though I'd contemplated many things since pedaling away from the sand, somehow the "Big C" never crossed my mind. That was behind me now.