Monday, October 31, 2011

Feeling the 24-hour stoke

Looking a little shell-shocked after the 2006 24 Hours of Kincaid.
In my last blog post, I mentioned that I've been working on a book that is partially exploring my unlikely path into endurance sports during the winter of 2006. I'm specifically writing about snow biking, but there's an epilogue to the story that's directly related to my race this coming weekend. As winter melted into spring and dirt started to emerge from beneath the snow, I shifted my newfound passion to mountain biking. Before I moved to Alaska, I was not a mountain biker. I owned a mountain bike (a 2003 Gary Fisher Sugar), but I only used it occasionally and considered myself a complete beginner. Riding a bike on snow required a mountain bike, and it only made sense to continue using it during the summertime.

Lacking experience and thus any sense of propriety, I chose for my first mountain bike race (and second race ever) what was then and probably still is considered the pinnacle of endurance mountain bike racing, the 24-hour-solo. I signed up for the 24 Hours of Kincaid, a now-defunct race in Anchorage, Alaska, held the first weekend after the summer solstice. The dirt and minimal trails around my home in Homer didn't melt out until mid-May. So I had about five weeks to train, and even then most of my accessible terrain were gravel roads. But I wasn't all that worried about Kincaid. It had taken me 25 hours to complete the 2006 Susitna 100; how different could this be?

Le Mans start. This may technically count as my first foot race.
My plan for the race was simple. My then-boyfriend Geoff agreed to serve as my pit crew. After every lap, he would make me a half of a peanut butter sandwich and a bottle of whatever horrible electrolyte drink we were experimenting with in those days, and remain "on call" in case I needed bike repairs. My job was simply to continue riding my bike for 24 hours straight. Easy peasy.

Only, discouragingly, it was not easy. I forgot where I left my bicycle before the Le Mans start and waited until nearly every other bike had been collected before I started way off the back. I lost the course markings within the first mile of singletrack and backtracked, twice. After about three miles the course became technical, with thick roots braided across the singletrack and steep, muddy drops laced with wet rocks. I slid and laid the bike down at mile four, and did a slow endo into some devil's club less than a mile later. After six miles of struggling, I decided I had no choice but to walk — walk — my bike along the more rugged sections. It was humiliating.

This is how I once raced a world-class elite ultrarunner.
I finished the first 10.5-mile, 1,100-feet-of-climbing lap in one hour and sixteen minutes. Geoff assured me this was not terrible as he dutifully recorded my time in his training notebook, fed me a half a sandwich and a swig of horrible awful sport drink, and ushered me into lap two. My riding and my outlook continued to improve until lap four, when my stomach randomly decided it no longer wanted to remain in my gut and started jostling all over the place. I only just made it to an outhouse and stumbled into my pit utterly strung out. "I'm sick," I gasped to Geoff and proceeded to lay on my back on the grass for nearly half an hour. Geoff plied me with food and drink but I couldn't ingest anything. "My stomach is churning," I whined. "And my back hurts. And my arms hurt."

Geoff, who was looking to get a run in anyway, tried to coax me back out by offering to "race" me for a lap — with him on foot and me on my bike. That sounded like an awfully unfair race to me, so after he suited up and headed out I continued to lay in the grass for another five minutes or so before reluctantly remounting my bike. I passed Geoff shortly before the technical section, and he passed me again as I was walking my bike through the roots (He snapped the picture above.) That was the last I saw of him. He beat me solidly; he wouldn't even tell me by how much.

I was completely demoralized. How was I so bad at mountain biking that even my stupid trail runner of a boyfriend was faster than me, on foot? (*note: Now that there's more evidence about just how fast he really is, I don't feel nearly as bad about that defeat. Still, would it have been so bad for him to let me win?) Twenty-four-hour racing was stupid. I just wanted to crawl into my tent and go to sleep even though it was only 7 or 8 p.m. But the northern summer sun was still high in the sky, and I knew it was too early to give up.

One of the things I love about 24-hour racing is the way familiar landscapes develop a surreal quality, as though everything was happening in a dream. As midnight approached and the sun sank below the horizon, the sky filled with iridescent pink light. Spruce needles turned purple and the roots and rocks disappeared beneath the deepening shadows. As my fatigue grew, so did my confidence, and I found myself riding more of the technical sections I had previously walked. I bounced over roots, leaned into tight corners and steamrolled up the steeps with previously untapped bursts of power. In my memory, I was fully awesome, a mountain biker without limits. Who knows, maybe I was. I was a still a beginner. I didn't yet know what I couldn't do.

Porcupines sauntered through my peripheral vision. Just before sunrise (which happens about four hours after sunset in Anchorage in June), a bull moose decided to bed down near a blind curve in the trail. The first time I came across his massive brown haunch, I nearly laid the bike down out of a knee-jerk conviction that I was about to launch off a grizzly bear. But a bull moose is nearly as scary, and I slammed on the brakes before I passed him. I froze in fear as he regarded me with droopy-eyed disinterest, completely bored and yet undeterred by my or the other 75-plus cyclists' presence on the trail. He remained in that exact spot for another two hours, until the morning sun was high in the sky.

That was about the time I lost nearly all fear. Instead of slowing down to appraise the current mood of the moose, I accelerated around corners occupied by him and other unpredictable animals (porcupines). I launched into root-clogged descents at blind speed — according to my odometer upwards of 30 miles per hour — just so I wouldn't have to pedal as much when the trail shot back up the equally steep other side. Riding the same trails over and over again made me almost proficient at their specific obstacles, and I began to feel invincible. My lap times were becoming steadily faster instead of slower, although my pit times were much longer. Geoff was snoozing at this point and I felt justified in taking ten or fifteen minutes to nibble on one of the sandwiches he left in the cooler as I laid down in the cool grass and watched the wheels of team racers zoom by.

My second big low point came during lap sixteen. After more than 160 miles of body-jarring roots, my arms and hands hurt so badly that I could no longer grip the handlebars. During one super-steep root descent, my finger joints locked up and I actually had roll the bike to a stop on the ascent so I could pry them slowly, painfully off the grips. I haven't admitted this before, but I was so discouraged by thoughts of even having to use my hands to push my bike back to the finish that I cried a little bit, making sure to adjust my sunglasses so the team racers couldn't see my tears. I stumbled into the pit just before 11 a.m., cheeks still stained with tears, as Geoff urged me to go out for another lap. "You can get third place!" he said. "Third place! You just need one more."

As it turned out, this wasn't true. Another guy was already out for his 17th lap and the best I could have done was fourth. But it didn't matter. I was done, so done. I laid back down in the grass, and stayed that way through the awards where the guy with 17 laps stood on the podium. I finished with 16 laps in fifth place. I was the first solo woman. I had ridden my mountain bike 168 miles with 17,600 feet of climbing. That 168 miles remains the longest distance I have ridden in a single 24-hour period to this day. Even laying horizontal in the grass with my hands frozen in a painful hook, nothing could wipe the smile off my face. I was irrevocably hooked.

After I wrote about it on my blog, a guy named Brian left this comment. His final sentence sums up the sensation perfectly — the reason I'm so excited to return to 24 (well, 25)-hour solo mountain bike racing five years and a seeming lifetime of changes and new experiences later:

"Congratulations, Jill! I attended the last 3/4ths of the event in support capacity for a group of my friends and co-workers who were participating, and saw how amazingly well you did! Not only the fact that you kept rolling, nearly non-stop, the entire 24 hours, but also in that you seemed to be genuinely enjoying yourself and the challenge of the event! Each time I happened to see you go through the gate, you had a grin on your face that only certain endurance-junkies can appreciate — a mix of satisfaction, amazement and a pinch of wry incredulity. ;)"