Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Transformation

Date: Dec. 5
Mileage: 11.7
Hours: 1:15
December mileage: 89.9
Temperature upon departure: 13

I just read Mike Curiak’s blog post about how he got his start in endurance winter cycling. I began to wonder just how I found my way into this sport. I still have a hard time pinpointing the exact moment when I decided, “Hey, riding a bike through the snow for a long time in extreme cold ... that sounds fun!” It shouldn’t be a hard time to remember. It was only two years ago. I blogged the entire thing; I have a record of the whole process right here in the sidebar. But I still can’t make sense of it. It all happened so quickly, and quietly, sometime in November 2005. One day, I was a former Utahn recently transplanted in Alaska with a seldom-used mountain bike, a passing interest in winter sports and absolutely zero racing experience ... endurance, cross-country, Thanksgiving Turkey Trot or otherwise. Then something happened ... maybe a bolt of lightning, or a lucid dream, or maybe just a hiccup in life’s slow creep. But something happened, and I changed. The next day, I was an aspiring ultra-endurance cyclist with little talent but a lot of enthusiasm. Life is strange like that.

Choosing to enter the 2006 Susitna 100 was a huge leap of faith for me. It’s almost comical to think back on my inexperience heading into that race. I had never ridden a bicycle for more than six straight hours, and had no idea if I could last longer than that. I had never spent more than a few hours outside in the winter, and had no idea if I could survive longer than that. I showed up on the worst kind of newb bike for a snow race ... a full-suspension 26’er with studded tires (heavy and nearly useless on packed snow.) Then, when the race finally started, I struggled and dawdled just long enough to become caught in the worst kind of snowbiking weather ... 40 degrees with wind and rain.

I remember stopping at the last checkpoint, 75 miles into the race. I settled in to eat some food and wring out my clothing. I peeled off my top layer, which was soaked, to find my next layer soaked, and my base layer soaked, and, in fact, everything I had with me was soaked ... as soaked as if I had jumped directly into a cold lake. The melting, rain-pocked snow had rendered the trail into an unrideable slop for the likes of my newb bike, and I had to walk beside it for most of the last seven miles into the checkpoint. I had 25 more to go, and no idea if I’d be able to ride any of it. I remember thinking that I’d pay $100, $1,000 to get myself out of that situation. I spent an hour considering it, quite seriously. But then something happened ... a bolt of determination, or a lucid daydream, or maybe just a hiccup in the race’s slow creep. Something happened, and I changed my mind. I slithered back into my sopping wet clothing and set out into the dark and stormy night, on foot. Racing is strange like that.

It took me the better part of nine hours to finish the last 25 miles of that race, almost entirely by hoofing through a deteriorating trail of heavy slush. I walked just fast enough to stave off the creeping wet chill that was scarier than any sensation of cold I have felt before or since. When I finished the race on the slow side of 25 hours, I was supremely disappointed. It took me another year of endurance racing and dedicated cycling to realize that I couldn’t have asked for a greater challenge. I have technically won a race or two since then, but just finishing the 2006 Susitna 100 remains the best performance of my short “career.”

The 2008 Iditarod Invitational is no less of a leap of faith than the Susitna 100 was in 2006. The intense challenge, along with the fear, anxiety and hard lessons it brings, are much of what draws me to the event. Time will tell how it will play out, but I know this: I will take my comically inexperienced body and latest newb bike, and I will wring out everything they have to give. If I slog into McGrath several days after I expected to finish, coughing up the last fumes of my energy and more willing to kill myself than pedal another stroke, I’ll know - eventually - that I couldn’t have asked for a more valuable experience.