The closest experience I could compare it to was trying to climb Beech Mountain in North Carolina, hitting its base with all the excitement and anticipation of my cycling essence condensed to a simple focal point and goal — to see what it’s like to climb an iconic ascent.
The first time I drove up Beech Mountain I sat in the backseat of a convertible Thunderbird that was assigned as the official Press Vehicle for that stage of the Tour DuPont.
I watched just a few yards from us as a young Lance Armstrong and veteran Raul Alcala traded attack and counterattack time and time again, seeing cycling up-close-and-personal for the first time like a boxing match. I yearned to understand the depths of their challenge that they made look somewhat easy.
Ever so slowly Mother Nature wrung out my energy like an industrial strength janitorial mop strainer, eventually each pedal stroke becoming a major ordeal demanding every drop of what I had until, eventually, my pedals and bike just stopped dead and I nearly tumbled backward toward the base.
That’s what my life felt like every morning one fateful spring break. I would rise at 7 and start my pot of decaf coffee. I would log in and get to work at the kitchen table, writing, editing, researching, or whatever. By 9 my pot would be empty. By 11 my energy reservoir would be equally depleted.
I would simply stumble to my bed and collapse. I’d wake up again some 3, 4 or sometimes 5 hours later still completely spent, barely with enough energy to make and eat dinner before dropping back into bed.
Something was terribly wrong that 15 hours of sleep a day couldn’t cure, and I had no idea what. I needed answers.
Unfortunately, the doctors had none. Blood-work showed them nothing. None of it made sense to them; it certainly made no sense to me.
Two weeks of the toughest physical challenge of my life unfolded with me desperately seeking a resolution. What could it be?
It’s not mononucleosis.
Just a dozen or so days earlier I felt strong as ever! So fit that I decided to tweak my diet by discharging caffeine from my life, no longer in need of an artificial boost. I switched from full-strength coffee to decaf, continuing to drain a pot, sometimes more, each morning.
Seriously? Are you kidding me? Is this all just caffeine withdrawal?
Slowly I began to regain my strength. In another week or so, I returned to full strength — physically, that is. I stayed on decaf for a few more months, and eventually returned to my caffeinated ways.
So began my fascination with learning intimate knowledge of my body. Learning to listen to it — really understand and feel. What am I craving, and why am I craving it? What helps? What doesn’t?
I’ll go six months without a beer, then feel the impact of just one pint — quickly reminded alcohol is a depressant as I mentally beat myself up for interrupting a nice long streak of clarity.
I’ve eliminated sugar, meat, dairy and other foods at times to understand their influence on my fitness, my mental health and sleep.
For the next few years, I’d go on a bi-annual caffeine-free journey. Each time the withdrawal became easier and easier.
Finally, one year my wife asked me to join her. She would give it a shot. We went full decaf. In less than a week she surrendered. Not me. That was, oh, about 10, 12, maybe 15 years ago. I’m not sure.
You might wonder what brings this up. Well, my daughter Taylor just returned from a medical volunteering mission to Honduras. She bought me a pound of Honduran coffee.
“I got on the plane,” she explained, “and I thought, oh, no! Dad only drinks decaf!”
This morning as she shared tales of her grand adventure I indulged myself with a cup of full-throttle, caffeinated Honduran coffee. Oh, soooo smooth. Such a fine, nutty or cocoa finish to it. Pure bliss.
Then you could say I poured my heart into the experience. I could feel it racing. My stomach spun. I literally stood up, chuckling, and spit out, “I ca-ca-ca-ca-can feel the ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-caf-co-co-co-co-co WOW!”
Time to play my guitar. I ripped through a few songs. Then machine-gun spit out a story or two to Taylor. OK, time for Summer and I to go on a hike. But wait! First, I gotta get this experience down on paper, er, at least in my computer. This is a column, for sure. People need to know what caffeine can do to someone. No question. Gotta do it now. Cranked this out in 10 minutes!
Whew! I feel much better. Not any more relaxed, mind you. No. Time to get on that hike before I crash. Probably crash hard.
When the morning comes, well, we’ll cross that bridge when it comes time to brew coffee. Will I or won’t I?
Time to ride.