It was Saturday morning in San Rafael, and I was lost. I had left my motel room at the Marin Lodge at 6:30am on my bike, trying to make my way to the start area of the 2013 Marin Century at the Vallecito Elementary School. Google Maps had shown me the directions perfectly, but I was apparently too much in a morning daze to keep them in my head for the 2.5-mile ride. Eventually, after I made a right turn into a residential area that didn’t look right, I just asked the first cyclist who came by and followed them to the school.

There, it was a madhouse. Instead of fifth graders, hundreds of cyclists occupied the grounds, with a good chunk of them standing in lines at the school gym to retrieve their wristbands and bib numbers. Skin-tight spandex wherever I looked. A whole array of different jersey designs was on display from Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop to various triathlon clubs to the Death Ride. I had to queue for about ten minutes, which put me behind schedule already after the “getting lost” faux pas. I headed outside, mounted the bib number to the front of my bike, stuffed the map into one of my jersey pockets, and was finally on the course at 7.30am.

With about a dozen other riders who started around the same time, we quickly found ourselves heading northwest on Lucas Valley Road, which from San Rafael, gradually climbs toward the Nicasio Reservoir. At mile five, we had to conquer our first climb, a 1.5-mile and 430-foot climb to the Big Rock summit of Lucas Valley. This early in the ride with fresh legs, it didn’t seem much of a problem. Knowing, however, that we had to come back this way and doing this one again after eighty miles seemed like a different story.

Ignoring the first rest stop, I blew through Nicasio and towards Petaluma on Point Reyes Petaluma Road. This being such a popular event, there were always cyclists around me in a scenery with rolling, straw-colored hills and the occasional ranch or farm next to the road, accompanied by the distinct odor of cow patties. Before getting into Petaluma and rest stop number two, we had two more little bumps to conquer, which was the general theme of the ride. None of the ascents by itself was challenging, but just a lot of them were sprinkled along the course over a hundred miles. It always wears me out mentally when I enjoy a nice downhill only to find another climb on the other side. And then another. And another.

The volunteers at rest stop two sported a Hawaiian theme. “Hello sailor, welcome back to port,” we were greeted by a twenty-something male volunteer in a melodious voice, wearing a skirt made of coconut leaves over his shorts, pink-rimmed sunglasses, and a Hawaiian shirt. A children’s trumpet trio was, slightly out of tune, providing musical background to the scene of hundreds of cyclists munching on trail mix, brownies, chips, oranges, grapes, and bananas.

In the crowd, I found myself standing next to two older cyclists, one of them sporting a vintage jersey with the logo of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona on his left shoulder. “My wife got me this for my 50th birthday in 1993 when I did this ride for the first time”. He has done it about 15 times since. “From looking at us, you can tell that we are truly vintage,” his gray-bearded friend remarked.

Chileno Valley Road took the peloton out of Petaluma on relatively amazingly flat terrain and then on Fallon Road and Whittaker Bluff Road almost all the way to the coast. The wind chill had picked up, and I was glad I was still wearing arm warmers. The rolling hills theme more or less continued, with some slightly bigger and harder but short ascents sprinkled in between smaller climbs.

“Eww, that’s horrible,” an Asian woman in SF tri club attire complained about the taste of the Gatorade offered at rest stop 3. “You know what, I think it’s the water. It’s not that Hetch Hetchy quality”, her presumed friend (he was wearing the same jersey) offered his opinion. Snobs, I thought. Expressing my love for Nutella at the food table, one of the teenage girl volunteers behind the counter made an entire sandwich with only the hazelnut spread just for me.

“I am addicted to Nutella; what can I say” I confessed.

“Maybe you should just fill your water bottle with Nutella then!”

Two older women in their sixties watched me munching on my Nutella sandwich, and we quickly chatted. “A friend of ours crashed last Saturday, and she asked me if I would want her spot,” the older but fit and thin-as-a-stick-looking woman mentioned. “I said, of course. Otherwise, it would just go to waste.” She had done the double century last year. And right then, I had one of my “When I am 60, I want to be as fit as that person” moments.

Heading south from Valley Ford, we rode a brief section along Highway 1, just south of Tomales and along the eastern shore of Tomales Bay.

Then the Marshall Wall took me by surprise. A steep 700-foot stairstep climb up the Marshall-Petaluma Road relieved me of a good portion of the energy I had left after about 70 miles. Rest stop number 4, just after the descent on the east side of Marshall Road, could only do so much to refuel me.

The rest of the ride was a bit of a blur; I was exhausted from the constant uphill-downhill-uphill-downhill pattern I had not prepared for. I had only done a 73-mile ride as preparation for this century about two weeks earlier. And my body desperately wished that this one had been over after 75. Despite another can of Coke that I had downed at stop number 4, I felt tired, the caffeine not really doing much.

Back on Petaluma Road, I suffered through the climbs we had already done at the beginning of the ride coming north. The human body is an amazingly adaptable machine; I managed to find some energy (thank you, PROBAR Bolt) to make it up to the Big Rock Summit again. The rest was a gradual descent into San Rafael, culminating in the joy of seeing the start/finish banner at Vallecito High School.

Exercising for six and a half hours brings you back to basics. Food? Rest? Where? I dragged my tired body to the queue for food in the campus courtyard and sat by a table in the shade. This was the moment I fantasized about towards the end of the ride, finally being able to sit down, reflect, and be happy about my personal effort.

There are many times when there is space for competitive arguments between cyclists and bragging rights for doing the longest ride or snatching that KOM on Strava. But when I looked around, I saw people celebrating being active, out on the road with their friends and other like-minded folks who find joy in pushing themselves and conquering whatever distance it may be. No bickering or jealousy, just a celebration of cycling under a cloudless sky in Marin County.