Saturday, June 26, 2010

Western States

It was my first day off in Missoula. The sun was hot and high, the sky was mostly clear, I had a brand new shiny race bike finally put together and waiting to embark on its first big adventure ... and I could not tear myself away from the computer. I was watching tweets, blogs, checkpoint updates ... pretty much every snippet of information I could get about the Western States 100, specifically about Juneau runner Geoff Roes.

For those who weren't reading my blog a year ago, I'll expand on the connection. Geoff's my ex, but we've stayed friends in the aftermath of the relationship. I still follow his running career with great excitement, because I take full credit for the fact that he became a ultrarunner in the first place. We were both relatively inactive, considerably more bland individuals when we first moved to Alaska in late 2005. I wanted to take up a winter hobby, and inexplicably latched onto an endurance snow bike race called the Susitna 100. As I started training, Geoff got a little of what my friends call FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and decided he would enter the Little Su 50K on foot. He ran with the Syracuse university cross-country team for one year sometime in the mid-90s, but hadn't run competitively since. (And I had never competed in a race of any kind, not since grade school at least, but for some reason thought 100 miles on snow sounded fun.) We both managed to limp through the February 2006 races; Geoff won the 50K in a little less than four hours, but not without considerable suffering. He also discovered that he loved running long distances, and was pretty good at it, too. The rest is history. He won all seven of the 100-mile races he's competed in (including the Susitna 100 in '07), and in 2009 was named Ultrarunner of the Year.

Western States 100 was by far his most competitive race ever. It's unofficially regarded as the ultrarunning world championship, so fast guys come out of the woodwork to race it. Geoff had worked hard to prepare, but admitted to me when I talked to him on Thursday that he was feeling a little lousy. ("I think I'm coming down with something.") So I was thrilled Saturday morning as I watched him hold onto the lead with two other runners. Around mile 48, he drifted a few minutes back, and at mile 53, a few minutes more. Still, he was solidly in third place. I couldn't tear myself away, but it was already 3:30, and I really wanted to take the Element out for a long ride.

This is the Rocky Mountain Element 90 that I am going to be riding in TransRockies. It's a full-suspension, 26-inch-wheel, super-light race rig. It is an insanely nice bike. It's also not mine. I'm just borrowing it. But my TransRockies partner was so kind as to let me haul it home from Banff, so I could get a feel for it in the weeks leading up to the race. And, as is my custom, I wanted to get more than just a feel for it. I wanted to take it out on an hours-long backcountry Montana adventure. So I tore myself away from the Western States race results just has Geoff was starting to drift back into a more distant third place, and pedaled in the 87-degree heat toward Rattlesnake Canyon.

I spent a brief period of time riding the trails off the main Rattlesnake trailhead, but it was a beautiful day and the area was fairly crowded. I rolled back down the road and tried the Woods Gulch trailhead, which a friend had recommended, and started up the Sheep Mountain singletrack. As is Montana's custom, it just went up and up and up, and pretty soon I was pedaling along a narrow, tree-lined ridge far above the valley below.

About 45 minutes up the trail, I sucked the last drop of water out of my bladder. I couldn't believe it, because I had started the day with three liters of liquid, and not even two hours had passed when I ran out. I pulled out the bladder and discovered that the hose had slipped off the stem, and much of my water had dribbled out. I hadn't even noticed because I was sweating so profusely, I didn't feel the water soaking my back. I was bummed, because I had already climbed out of the canyon, and I didn't think I stood a very good chance of finding a water source. It was a hot day and I knew I wouldn't make it far without hydration, but I decided to pedal uphill for another 10 minutes, just in case. I came across a tiny trickle of clear water gurgling down the trail, and about 100 yards higher, discovered the spring that generated it. The spring was no larger than a cereal bowl, gurgling up from a mossy, muddy hole. I began the laborious process of dipping my bladder in the tiny basin and scooping up a few teaspoons of water at a time. A lot of gunk flowed in with the water, but I didn't really care. I managed to collect nearly 70 ounces, dropped in several iodine tablets, and spent the rest of the afternoon drinking large clumps of dirt and the occasional stick.

I worked my way up to a nondescript "peak" at 7,100 feet and faced a choice: I could descend 3,000 feet of singletrack I had just climbed, or I could see what lay ahead on the other side of the mountain. A faint jeep trail rippled down the ridge, and I convinced myself it connected to the switchbacking roads I could see far down in the valley. I had my GPS with me just in case I got lost, so I settled on rocky jeep trail adventure over a fun, smooth descent into terrain I had already seen.

At about 5,900 feet elevation, the jeep trail petered out, but by then I could see a power line several hundred feet below. I stepped off my bike and skittered down the steep, loose dirt. The race bike performed beautifully - it was so much easier to hoist over endless deadfall logs than my heavy Karate Monkey. The Element and I arrived at a grass-carpeted road that descended into an entirely new drainage. Where did it go? I wanted to find out!

The road skirted around a mountain my GPS told me is named Woody Mountain. Just as I was coming around a corner, I saw a big brown butt that I initially assumed belonged to a cow. But then the animal whirled around, and I realized I was no more than 100 feet from an enormous cinnamon-colored black bear, standing right on the road. The black bear blinked at me and I yelped a little, and then squeaked, "Hey bear." This is the part where I admit I wasn't carrying bear spray, because I'm in Montana, not Alaska, and there aren't any bears in Montana. Oh, wait ... yes there are. But regardless, I had left my bear spray at home, and was feeling especially vulnerable. Luckily, the bear wanted just as little to do with me, and took off down the steep slope. As its big brown butt disappeared in the woods, I started yelling louder. "That's right bear, run away, you big fat bear!" And, having established myself as the dominant species on the road, I cranked up my favorite descending music, Jimmy Eat World - so I could sing extra loud for all the bears - and launched into the screaming descent singing at the top of my lungs.

I emerged in an open valley and started pedaling toward I-90. My proximity to Missoula wasn't immediately clear, but GPS told me I needed to turn north to go home. I followed a gravel road and came to the wrong side of a locked fence. I was trapped! It took some strenuous maneuvering to get both the Element and myself through the narrow opening, but I managed to gain my freedom. I found the frontage road and a sign that said "Missoula 7 miles," and bounced the gorgeous full-suspension bike home, supremely satisfied with my successful excursion into the unknown. And the bike ... the bike is pretty awesome, too.

When I returned to my apartment, I had ridden 38 miles with 5,179 feet of climbing. It was 9:20 p.m. I pushed the Element inside, walked to my computer and hit the refresh button on the Western States site. Geoff was right at the top. He had won the race a mere 13 minutes earlier, with a course-record time of 15 hours, 7 minutes and 4 seconds. Wait, what? Just six hours earlier, he was fading fairly quickly. I scrolled through five hours worth of tweets and discovered that he had indeed ramped it up and pulled into the lead, in an exciting last half that I had completely missed during my afternoon bike adventure. I actually felt guilty.

It's tough being a sports fan, sometimes. But I'm really happy for him. This is a big deal.