This is not my story, although my story is the really only one I can tell. My story is of no real consequence; I was just the person on the periphery, riding a bicycle through my childhood playground, punctuating the warm air of the day and deep chill of the night with yelps of glee and occasional cries of frustration. The real story lies with the mountain bike veteran and the mountain bike virgin, converging at a 25-hour endurance race that neither of them wanted or expected to compete in, until it came time to compete. And when the time came, both dug deep and emerged with performances both surprising and inspiring. This is their story, as told from my limited perspective.
The mountain bike veteran is my friend Bill, a Missoula resident who has been racing mountain bikes since the early 90s. He's always been a top performer, often placing high even when stacked up against heavily sponsored pros. When he mapped out his 2010 season, the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow was never a part of it. Frog Hollow was the idea of a new friend of his, and Bill agreed to it because he wanted the opportunity to get to know her better. They registered as a coed duo team, but at the last minute, the entire plan fell through. Instead of feeling devastated and giving up, he re-registered as a solo racer. "Now I start the process of tucking all my feelings back into racing and morphing back into a solo machine," he wrote before the race. It was symbolic, but only to Bill. To the rest of the field, he was just a random guy from Montana who signed up at the last minute.
The mountain bike virgin is my boyfriend, Beat - and yes, we have bestowed on each other that kind of title now. Beat has a deep base of ultraendurance but has almost literally never ridden a mountain bike. His mountain biking hours in his entire adult life still number in the low double digits, and nearly half of those have been on my bikes. The 25 Hours of Frog Hollow came about because we're still in the stage where we're still testing the water, dipping our toes in each other's lives and almost daring the other to take the full plunge. We wanted to participate in a race together. For the rather unconventional weekend of Nov. 4-5, it came down to a 50K running race in California, or a 25-hour mountain bike race in Hurricane, Utah. We picked the mountain bike race, almost like tossing a coin, and signed up as a duo coed team. We called our team "Swiss Miss." To Beat it was meaningful, a journey of discovery in our quest to merge two different worlds. But to the rest of the field, he was the random guy from California who signed up at the last minute.
We met in Salt Lake City and drove together to the eerily warm, alien landscape of southwestern Utah. We didn't have much of a race plan - only that we would loosely trade off laps with plenty of easy-going breaks in between. I didn't know how Beat would fare on the rocky desert terrain, and secretly assumed he would only get in one or two good laps before back pain or saddle sores or a crash forced him into the pain cave, followed by one or two agonizing laps that he would only force himself through because he is stubborn like that. He was buzzing with nervous excitement as we purchased food and prepped for the long (extra long thanks to the time change) day ahead. I agreed to take the first lap. When he found out about the Le Mans start, he was disappointed.
"You mean there's running in this race?" he said with a tinge of envy.
"Yes, but it's only about a quarter mile," I replied. "Still," he said. "That part, I understand."
We set up our support pit next to Bill's, because part of my job as an only part-time racer was to man Bill's pit and do my best to ensure he had an adequate supply of Carborocket, lube his chain, warm up coffee and soup, and do anything I could to make his solo journey of pain just a little more comfortable. Bill came to Utah reluctantly prepared for fierce competition, but openly expressed hope that no one would challenge him, so he could coast to a win and get on with his life. Bill's pit was next to the pit of solo racer Ben Welnak, an accountant from Denver with a baby on the way, who recently joined a sponsored team. Ben was a young go-getter with something to prove. Bill was a seasoned veteran with nothing to lose. To each other, they provided a formidable adversary that was all but invisible in the smiling, Halloween candy-saturated boundary of the race pit.
My first lap was rather uneventful. I purposely jogged the first half mile in order to start off the back and ended up passing a lot of people on the initial 900-foot climb. I stopped and let a few pass me near the top so I could ride the Jem Trail singletrack at my own pace. The Jem Trail was essentially my own first-ever mountain bike ride, back in 2002 when I borrowed a 1980s rigid Cannondale 12-speed mountain bike to "ride Saint George" with friends. When I returned to the same spot in 2010, I instantly remembered the rush of joy and exhilaration that swept over me the first time I guided a bicycle down the swooping trail. The feeling hadn't changed one bit even after eight years of firmly establishing myself as a cyclist. For a few blissful moments, I was a mountain bike virgin again, filled with all the energy and wonder of my first ride.
Despite the joyful descent, I managed to really botch the second half of the 13-mile course. I was unfamiliar with the obstacles and sometimes technical rocky terrain that filled the later trails, and caught in the midst of a large pack that forced me forward even when I couldn't really see the best line. I dropped too hard off small ledges and caught unintentional air off unexpected dips. I stopped hard on rocks and smashed my shins against the pedals. I tried to veer off the trail to let racers pass and nearly took a tumble over a sagebrush bush. I was riding like the worst kind of mountain bike novice, one who thought they could do things even when they couldn't. But thanks to my strong start, I still finished the lap in 1:14, which I was satisfied enough with. An insistent volunteer in the timing tent sent Beat rushing off before I could say "Good luck."
I expected a decent break. I lounged around the pit, ate a bagel sandwich and talked with Ben's pregnant wife. She planned to stay up all night to support Ben, and I admired her devotion. After a half hour, Bill came through the pit, having already put in a couple of sub-hour laps. He was pouring sweat and merely threw an empty bottle toward me before holding up his hand. I handed him a full bottle of Carborocket, and he continued on his way without even taking his feet off the pedals. Ben rolled in mere seconds later, equally in a hurry.
I sauntered over to the timing tent to watch more racers come in. I was shocked when Beat came through after an hour and 13 minutes, having taken one less minute to complete the loop than I did. "How did it go?" I asked as he checked in. "How much of it did you have to run?"
"I didn't run any of it," he said. "I rode most of it, and only walked a few places." He had a wide grin and a large patch of red dust on his face. He was pouring sweat where I wrapped my arm around him to walk back to the pit. "Holy cow, you rocked it," I said.
"I was way out of my comfort zone, but I survived!" he replied excitedly.
My second lap went much better, and I cleaned a lot more of the obstacles that I had botched before. By my third lap I only had to dab a few times, and even managed to ride the entire Virgin River Rim rock-garden by simply following the vague line of a guy right in front of me. I was coursing adrenaline and satisfaction with myself by the time I returned. "Holy cow, mountain biking is the funnest thing ever!" I gushed as Beat slowly gathered up his helmet and backpack, and took even more time readying his bike for another lap. His bib shorts were ripped and he had numerous cuts and bruises from phantom sources. "Am I going to die now?" he asked in his way that only partially sounds like joking.
"Doubtful," I said, "but you really don't have to ride if you don't want to. This race is just for fun, remember?"
"It's OK," he said. "I can do at least one more lap."
As I waited, I watched Bill come through again. I couldn't even really track how many laps he had completed, although I knew it was at least eight compared to my and Beat's five. He stopped briefly and inhaled a banana before I even saw him ingest it. (Bill races solely on Carborocket, and tries to minimize his intake of solid food.) His face was pale and he said he felt sun-baked. I dug up my Endurolytes and gave him four. He later told me that exchange was an uncharacteristic admission of weakness within sight of his adversary's pit crew. He asked me how far back Ben was. I had no idea, but Amy was gracious enough to share that information - about 45 minutes. "Great. Gotta go," he said, and took off before I could hand him another bottle of Carborocket. I'd hoped he grabbed his own.
The sun went down on my fourth lap. I was absolutely wrapped up in the beauty of it, snapping photos and soaking up scenery with no regard to my time - not that I really minded what my time was either way. Fifty-one miles is a long way to ride a mountain bike, but in the scope of my surroundings it already felt trivial. Bill was already pounding out triple digits, and Beat was keeping up with me without the benefit of experience. But what really mattered is that we were all out there, generating our own experiences in this beautiful region, and racing alone, racing each other, in a paradoxical quest for togetherness.
Darkness fell early, before 6 p.m., and I found my world narrowed to the tiny range of my headlight. The trail that was already familiar turned alien again. Mice darted in and out of the beam. Later I would see many of these mice flattened dead on the course, casualties of the unnatural act of racing mountain bikes through the night. I never hit one myself, but in the somber atmosphere of the moonless sky, I found myself mourning for every one of them.
Beat excitedly embarked on his first night lap at 5:54 p.m., but returned with new bruises and a somber look on his face. "I was really uncomfortable," he admitted. "You don't have to ride everything," I said. "You can walk what you don't feel comfortable with. Or you can walk all of it. I think you'd be surprised how many obstacles I end up skipping because I'm just not feeling it."
"I'll think about it," he said of doing another night lap. I didn't know whether to break it to him that night was going to last another 12 hours.
Beat did go for one more night lap, right around the 12-hour mark. I cooked up a thermos full of coffee, and then heated up Carrot Ginger soup for Bill, who rolled in with a sallow look on his face. "What time is it?" he asked.
"About 10:30," I said.
"How much longer will it be dark?"
"Kind of a long time," I replied. "How many laps have you done?"
He shook his head. "Kind of a lot. I don't know. Do I have to go back out there?"
"No," I said. "Well, you can, but only if you're having fun."
A strange smile swept over his face. "You know, I am," he said, and with that sprinted off into the strange night. Ben came in a few minutes later. He had been officially lapped, and then some. "Did Bill already leave?" he asked.
"Yes," Amy and I both replied at the same time. He let out a long, probably unintended sigh. Later, Bill told me that Ben caught up to him and attacked throughout the night, launching up hills and sprinting the singletrack. It was all Bill could do to keep up, but Bill did keep up because that is what Bill does. Bill races, even when it hurts so bad that every other good thing in life is sucked into a vacuum of pain. Bill races, even when it the meaning of it all is completely hidden from view. Bill races, and often Bill wins. To me, it was symbolic. The race as a metaphor for life. They usually are, and that's why we do it.
Beat returned from his second night lap, his fifth total, with a similarly struck look in his eyes. He didn't have many words to describe how he was feeling. But neither of us did. We had both ridden a lot of miles, on little specific training (him startlingly little.) We had stamina and willpower, but not necessarily the complete motivation to see it through. After all, we were already getting to know each other well, and this race that we conceived as a fun co-adventure was doing little more than keeping us apart. We couldn't ride together because we were on a relay team and doing so would be a waste of effort. Beat was risking a bad crash for little gain, and I didn't blame him for not wanting to ride his rental bike, although I admitted that I really did enjoy the riding. I agreed to take a double lap and let him sleep. I blazed through the pit without stopping on the second lap and quietly stopped for water and a peanut butter cup on the third. The dark night grew long, and I felt great, exploring my tiny headlamp-beam-sized world from every angle. I secretly hoped I could just keep riding without stopping, to the end of the race, but Beat caught me at the end of the third lap and said he wanted to go out again. I wasn't really sure if he actually wanted to ride or simply thought I needed a break, but I didn't want to deny him a lap. After all, we were a team.
Beat did promise the lap was going to take him quite a while. I ate a snack, chatted with Amy, and fell into a bit of a sugar coma. I decided to bundle up in the warmth of the tent and send Facebook updates on Beat's phone, which led to me unintentionally dozing off. I try not to nap during single-day races, no matter what, because napping always backfires on me, and I wake up feeling much worse than I did before I went to sleep. Forty five minutes later, Beat roused me. I felt extremely nauseated and almost had to rush from the tent to vomit. I composed myself, though, and lingered for a long time, debating whether to go back out or go back to sleep. A pressing urge to either stand up or throw up coaxed me out of the tent, and I decided as long as I was out there, I might as well ride.
I left at 5:30 a.m., embarking on what turned out to be the sunrise lap. I did not regain my stamina. The nausea stayed, and sucked away my formerly vast reserves of energy. I struggled up the climbs and opted to walk nearly everything I had managed to finally master just a lap earlier. As the sun came up, I stopped - at the bottom of a long descent - to take what felt like a necessary break. I looked back toward the emerging sun and saw a long line of headlights making their way down the Jem Trail, like a procession of fireflies into the golden light. The scene was so beautiful, and the fatigue so overwhelming, that I actually teared up. I couldn't look away. I didn't even want to face the rest of the lap, but I knew I had to.
I didn't even pick my way through the mile-long rock-garden. I just walked it, and grumbled about my heavy awkward bike. As the sun fully emerged over a distant plateau, I pulled off the trail to take a picture. I heard a faint grunt and turned to see a hunched figure making his way up a line of chunky stones. His posture betrayed an epic struggle, even amid the relatively easy climb. As he approached, I realized it was Bill. In all of the times Bill had lapped my team, he only passed me on the course twice - once during the sunset lap, and again right at sunrise. Both times were in the midst of a rock garden drenched in pink light. I snapped his photo and said, "Wow, Bill, you're doing awesome."
He squinted as though he couldn't see me, even though it was almost completely light. "Jill?"
"Hey," I said. "So what lap is this now? 19?" Bill just shrugged. Nineteen laps meant he had already ridden 240 miles. Comparing my nine laps and 117 miles to that seemed startlingly trivial.
"Man, biking sucks," he said. I grinned. Then Bill cracked his own small smile. "What are you doing on Wednesday?" he asked.
I shook my head. "What do you mean, what am I doing on Wednesday?"
"Do you want to go for a ride?" he asked. I broke out laughing. Only Bill, the Bill I know, the Bill who enjoys five-hour rides through the snow after work, would say something like that 240 miles into a race. The Bill that Bill seems to know, the cold, calculating racer, would not only not say that during a race, but wouldn't even stop long enough to say it.
As we chatted, Ben rode up from behind. He looked startled, then replaced that look with a mixture of suspicion and confusion. "What's up?" he asked in a long, drawn breath. "What's going on?"
"We're watching the sunrise," Bill said, and then giggled.
"Oh," Ben said, with an unbroken tone of confusion. "Man, I feel like crap," he added, and without another word, pedaled around us and over the hill. Bill just continued to stand with me, watching Ben ride away.
"There goes my lap," Bill said without a hint of emotion.
"He doesn't have enough time to catch you," I said, without really doing the mental math to determine whether or not that was true. "As long as you keep riding, he won't catch you."
"Yeah," Bill said, with more of a resigned sigh. We continued to stand in place and stare off into the eastern horizon. After a long pause, Bill said, "Hey, do you want to ride the last lap with me?"
I didn't have the heart to tell Bill that not only was I plodding extremely slowly, even for me, but that he probably had time to ride two more laps, and that if he rode only one more, there was a small chance that Ben could really kick up the gas and pass him again. And if Ben passed Bill again, Bill would have to chase him to the painful end of a sprint finish. I was sure Bill knew that, but he probably also could see how much Ben was struggling at this point in the race. Their sub-hour laps had turned to 1:30 and even 1:40 laps, and Ben seemed even less inclined than Bill to sprint to the finish. Plus, Ben didn't know about Bill's fire, stoked from years of pain-soaked racing. Bill would chase him to the bitter end, until they both resembled the flattened mice on the trail, and even then he would go farther and faster. But racers with Bill's fire wouldn't stop mid-race and giggle at the sunrise, and I wondered if Ben would attack all the same.
I agreed to ride with him the last lap, my 10th and his 20th. My nausea faded a bit but I still had no power; even still, I put unintentional gaps on Bill during most of the climbs - the same Bill I had watched float up headwalls that I felt I could barely walk up. He was cooked, but still smiling, and we finished just after 9 a.m. with a 1:37 lap. The race was set to end at 10 a.m., which meant we both could still do another lap, since rules only required a lap to start before 10 a.m. Beat was waiting for us at the timing tent, raring to go again, but had a provision - he wanted someone to ride with him. I considered it, but I was grumpy from two laps of feeling like crap. Bill collapsed in his camp chair. We knew it was over.
Ben never passed Bill again. Bill won the solo division with 20 laps and 256 miles at 9:04 a.m. Ben rolled into the finish with 20 laps about an hour and 15 minutes later to take second place. Team Swiss Miss finished second of three teams in the duo coed division with 16 laps and 206 miles. Beat rode six laps and 77 miles; I rode 10 laps and 129 miles. The winning team rode 20 laps, the third-place team nine, so there was never any contest. The winner of the solo female division only rode 12 laps, which led me to make assuming declarations that "I could have won!" Not that it mattered. It was so much more fun to witness Beat push his boundaries and challenge his fears through his impressive performance in his first mountain bike race, and also to add a small amount of support to Bill's solo vision quest in the desert. The 25 Hours of Frog Hollow organizers and volunteers put on an amazing race, and the stories it generated are only the beginning.