Sunday, August 02, 2009

Scratched at mile 90

I did not have a good feeling about the Soggy Bottom 100(+) from the get-go. For starters, I haven't been able to complete a ride longer than 35 miles since the Tour Divide ended. During the few rides I tried, I've ended up with quite a bit of pain in my heel, weak ankles and an overall lethargic fatigue. I signed up for the Anchorage race in a moment of cubicle-induced spontaneity during a tough day at work. I knew I wasn't ready for a long race. I guess I just hoped my Divide-strengthened mental fortitude would get me through (because pretty much everything else about me was left weakened by the Divide.)

Things started out badly when I missed my flight out of Juneau after waiting in the baggage line for 45 minutes (I showed up an hour and 15 minutes before my flight, and Juneau's airport is tiny. But Alaska Airlines refused to check my bag because I was "too late" and I had too much necessary gear to just leave it behind.) The next available flight was five hours later. I had to call and cancel plans with a few friends in Anchorage, which really bummed me out because the Anchorage visit surrounding the race was really the main reason I was going. I burned up what was becoming a beautiful day by taking a scenic drive out to the end of the road and mulling whether I should cancel the whole trip.

I let my uncertainties linger, and without ever making an assured decision about it, I ended up on the plane flying north. My friend Amity and her baby, Josie, met me at the airport and we went to Speedway Cycles to pick up a bike that a man named Danny, who I've never even met, was letting me borrow. I was expecting something pretty basic or even a beater, but the mechanics presented me with a freshly tuned full-suspension Specialized S-Works Epic. A real race bike. I handed my camera to Amity and told her to take a picture of me at the start, because it was probably going to be one of the nicest bikes I ever had even short-term possession of. The photo turned out blurry, but you get the picture.

It rained in camp the night before but by morning it was bright and beautiful. Nearly 40 people showed up at the race start. I had slept pretty well despite sharing a tent with a 9-month-old baby in close proximity to a dozen other racers. I had a good stock of Sour Patch Kids, chocolate covered coffee beans and tuna. I felt pretty good. "It's possible I can really do this," I thought as well took off up the long, 3,000(+)-foot climb to a summit that we would have to crest three times.

The Resurrection Pass trail on the Kenai Peninsula has to be the best bike trail in all of Alaska. It's 40 miles uninterrupted of singletrack from point-to-point; it was built for walkers but is nearly 100 percent rideable, even for people of my skill set, and offers really quick access to some amazingly scenic Alaska backcountry. I love this trail, and I never get a chance to ride it because I live all the way in Juneau, which is for all practical purposes in a different country than Anchorage. I knew when I crested into the alpine tundra that the scenery alone was worth the price and hassle of the plane trip.

However, by the time I started descending toward Cooper Landing, I knew I was in big trouble. I had taken a couple of falls on some root-clogged sections making silly mistakes that I usually only make when I'm really fatigued. My energy level was dropping rapidly despite the chocolate coffee beans, and both of my heels were on fire. I'd suspected that the Divide left me with achilles tendonitis, and the searing pain seemed to confirm my fears. It took me more than five hours to reach Cooper Landing, mile 45. I lingered around the trailhead for about 20 minutes, drinking water and mulling my situation. I was pretty certain at that point that a scratch was inevitable. But Amity wasn't at the trailhead and I didn't feel like begging a ride, so I decided I should try to get myself back to the start. I had traveled too far to not at least give it my best shot.

The ride back up to Res Pass was borderline agonizing. My heels screamed with pain every time I pushed hard to power up a hill, but walking hurt almost as much, so on anything steep I just stepped off the bike and gimped slowly. The pain was annoying but I questioned whether it was really unworkable. After all, I was in for at least 90 miles of the race. I might as well do all 110 and finish the thing. But the 20-mile Devil's Pass spur included another 2,000-foot drop and climb. And I kept thinking about the 2007 Susitna 100, when I started experiencing knee pain three miles into the race and continued to push through it for 20 more hours. I ended up with advanced chondromalacia an couldn't ride my bike for three months afterward, and still struggle with occasional "angry knee" to this day. I still view the 2007 Susitna 100 as "the race I should have quit." And I started to wonder if it was really worth risking the rest of Juneau's short hiking season just to finish a silly race. Plus, I was moving slow enough at that point that finishing may have taken 15 hours or more, which would put me back in Hope late and potentially without a ride back to Anchorage. The 2009 Soggy Bottom was definitely becoming "a race that I should quit."

And as soon as I made that decision, I felt great about it. I passed the Devil's Pass cutoff and continued riding straight without a tinge of regret. Shortly after the cutoff, I slashed the sidewall of the rear tire of my borrowed bike. The tear also destroyed the tube. I spent 30 minutes patching a hole in an old 26" tube that I was carrying as a spare, figuring out how to work the new pump I had just purchased in Anchorage, fixing an old piece of tire rubber to the rip and praying that the haphazard repair would hold, knowing that any other major tire problem would leave me with a 20(+)-mile gimpy walk back to Hope. After that, I took all my weight off the seat on all of the rooty sections, which was murder on my heels, but I wanted to preserve the tire as best as I could. That little mishap only further reinforced my decision to quit the race.

I ended up back in Hope in time for the post-race festvities, with cold Coke and freshly grilled brats. I caught a ride home with Pete B., who actually managed to finish the Soggy Bottom in under 10 hours despite being hit head-on by a truck just over a month ago. It was interesting to talk with him about that day on the Divide out of Summitville, Colo., and piece together the string of events surrounding the accident from our different perspectives while driving around the Turnagain Arm. I can't believe he's already racing again. He's definitely a tougher person than I.

He was also nice enough to drive me to the airport at 6 a.m. this morning. The trip over the glacier-capped Chugach/Wrangells was spectacular as it always is on a clear day - one of those rare occasions where the flight itself is nearly worth the agony of the race that coaxed me north in the first place.