(Photos of me stolen without permission from the Contagious Mountain Biking photo site.)
It was lap 10, or maybe it was lap 11, that I pushed my hardest. I had just overcome a six-kilometer walk and a broken chain, finally eaten a real meal, contained most of the blood seeping out of my right knee, guzzled a large box of some strange Canadian banana drink, and set out strong toward the orange light hovering over the horizon. It was probably after midnight. I hammered up the hills and weaved gracefully through the trees. I had learned the length of all the slopes, their gradients, their crests, and their inevitable drops into tight and twisting trails. I had practiced and perfected, and finally felt strong enough to execute my perfect lap. Even as the wavy distortion of a long day of intense focus began to cloud my vision, I knew I had reached peak physical form. "This is it!" I thought. "My 50-minute lap!" All day I had dodged the questions that this lap might answer - "Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this? Out here by yourself? Racing against yourself? Why?" I wished I could describe how I felt, the intensity of my emotions and thoughts when I am in the midst of the extremes of my physical ability; the thrill of endorphins pumping fire in my blood stream; the surrealness of even the most mundane aspects of this eight-mile loop when the delirium has set in but fatigue hasn't taken over. I've thought about telling people it feels like being on crack and shrooms at the same time, although I have never done either to really know.
The 24 Hours of Light began at noon Saturday in a light, drizzling rain that seemed to scare off most of the spectators. As team riders huddled in tents the first wave embarked into the howling wind, launching right out of the gate into a brutal climb that never let up. Most of the descents were so tight and root-choked that they made the climbs feel like a break. In the eight-mile loop, my GPS measured about 1,100 feet of elevation gain. My brakes got more mileage than my pedals. But I took the pace easy and didn't take any risks. I still had a bloody sore knee and bruises up and down my legs. I felt stiff and cold, but I expected that to fade as the real pain set in. All in a 24-hour day's work in this type of race. I was amazed how normal this is starting to feel.
I'd like to believe that I always compete against myself and only compete against myself, but it was hard not to have any close competition. The solo boys were laying down 40-minute laps from the beginning. Everyone said the local heroes would never sustain, but I knew Jeff Oatley could. I had no chance of the big win, and the female win was in the bag. It was just me out there, seeing what I could do, but somehow, already knowing that I could do it - that, and so much more. So why was I out there? I needed that carrot hanging from a stick. I set into every lap in search of it. What was it? The fleeting moments of clarity? The cheers from my friends who were smart enough to enjoy the party? The as-yet-unsubstantiated promise of prizes? In my worst moments, I reminded myself that everything I was doing was only a fraction of what Geoff was at that moment trying to do on the Great Divide. And in my best moments, I celebrated the fact that this is what I can do now, this is my life, and it doesn't even feel hard anymore.
I never set my watch at the beginning of lap 10 - or was it 11? - but I was certain I was going to come in around 50 minutes. I launched into the woods with new-found confidence and hard-earned abilities, shimmying my handlebars and even attempting to bunny-hop the larger roots (it's true - to this day, I still can't execute a good bunny-hop.) I came around a corner and heard a loud crack. The bike wheeled around and I lurched forward, far ahead, into a cloud of dust. I had hooked a tree.
Dumb mistake. Another dumb mistake. I allowed myself to sit in the dirt stunned for a while, because no one was around to witness my crash and there was no reason to bounce back up right away. The minutes ticked by. The hours grew smaller. The light dipped lower and shadows began to engulf the woods. I realized I hadn't even seen that tree; it was in fact becoming harder to see anything. The 24 Hours of Light has plenty of hours of dusk; the hours that most sleep; the hours I really was alone. I dusted off my bike and returned to the start, another hourlong lap behind me, an unknown number ahead.
The next two laps were increasingly frustrating. The race has what I assume is a tongue-in-cheek rule of "No Lights Allowed," but I obeyed it and didn't bring lights. The darkening shadows tricked me. I no longer knew the course inside and out. I was starting to see phantom coyotes and bears. I moved slower and slower to compensate for my increasing fear. And all that time, it grew colder. Finally around 2 a.m. I decided I was going to wait out the dusk. I ate another good-sized meal - stupidly caving to cravings and eating a piece of cold pizza, which was a bad, bad idea - and sat at the staging area as my friends snoozed in tents. The chill set in. It grew stronger. Then it turned into shivering, which turned into chattering, which turned into real concern. I had left my sleeping bag locked in Alex's car, thinking I didn't want an excuse to use it, and he was fast asleep in his tent. I didn't want to wake him. But after a half hour, I knew I had to take some kind of action. I wheeled my bike back to the timing tent and announced that I was going to freeze to death if I didn't start moving. My shivering had become so pronounced that I couldn't complete the sentence. It came out something more like "I .... need ... start ... moving ... too .... cold." I must have appeared frozen and frazzled, because the timer looked genuinely alarmed. "Are you going to be OK?" she asked, and without waiting for me to answer started looking around. "Is she going to be OK?" Dennis, the owner of the bike shop in Juneau, stood up for me. "She'll be fine," he said. The timer nodded reluctantly and waved me through.
The piece of pizza sat like a rock in my stomach as I shivered up the climb. I was nearly halfway through the lap before any semblance of heat returned, only to have it whisked away on the seemingly endless cruel downhills. I was still shivering when I moved through the staging area again, so I ripped open my duffel bag and put on every piece of clothing inside. But I had packed thinking I was riding a hard-effort bike race in June, and didn't have adequate layers. Frosty condensation coated my water bottle. The temperature was just a few degrees above freezing.
Over the next two laps, my condition didn't improve much, and the fatigue and grump set in strong as I struggled to maintain my body temperature. By the time I finally decided I had no choice, I was all but barking at Alex to get out of his tent and give me his keys. I told myself I was just going to crawl into my sleeping bag for 10 minutes until I warmed up. I knew deep down I was going to fall asleep. I was out before I even zipped up the bag.
Around 8 a.m., I stumbled out of the car with the full light of morning on my face. It was cloudy, and still deeply cold. I saw Jeff Oatley walking through the parking lot. He had the win in the bag and was going to get an early start on his drive to Fairbanks. It occurred to me at the time that if I had actually stayed in the race, I might have been the one to keep him on the course. But as it was at 8 a.m., only with an amazing comeback rally did I even stand a small chance of matching my 14 laps to his out-the-door 18. I decided on free coffee and breakfast instead.
As the morning settled in, I realized that I didn't feel too bad. My butt was a bit sore, my knee was a bit stiff, and I could have definitely used more sleep - but my physical state was not too far displaced from a normal morning. That feeling of semi-normalcy was a far cry from how I felt after nearly every long ride I did in 2006, and a good indicator to me of how far I've come in two years. I enjoyed my first hours in the actual party that is the 24 Hours of Light mountain bike festival, and pedaled one more victory lap, a final lap with the be-winged girls of the Fairy, Fairy Fast team.
I thought about Geoff often out on the course. I knew he had been struggling in Colorado. I knew he was thinking about quitting. At my duskiest moments, I thought I might be vicariously experiencing the inner turmoil he was fighting, but I knew, even through my delirium, that my moments were small drops in a dark ocean. I tried to send him positive thoughts, but there were too many thousands of miles between us. I knew it had ended, and I knew that was OK, but it made me feel even more lonely in the dusk of my tiny eight-mile trail somewhere in the Yukon. So when a song came on my iPod that made me think of Geoff, maybe one of the Rusted Root songs we listened to 100 times on the few mixed tapes we had on our cross-country drive in 2001, or some old-school Pink Floyd, I sang ... "How I wish, how I wish you were here. We're just two lost souls living in a fish bowl, year after year. Running over the same old ground - what have we found? Same old fears. Wish you were here."