Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Twenty two hours

Why would you want to ride your bike around in circles for 25 hours? I mean really, why is that fun? Or satisfying?

The truth is, I adore 24-hour mountain bike racing, because the experience can be anything you want it to be. If you want to get a bunch of your friends together and knock out some laps while you eat pizza and drink beer, you're welcome. If you want to don fairy wings and a tutu and race solo on a 37-pound fat bike, you're welcome. If you're a numbers geek who wants to test a well-crafted strategy, you're welcome. If you simply want to ride your bike a lot and feed your endorphine addiction, you're welcome. And if you want to race until your eyes bleed, you're welcome. I appreciate this democratic, free-spirited approach. The 24-hour race entices a full spectrum of enjoyable characters in a bike binging festival complete with live music, fire jumping and baked goods. Really, what's not to like?

The 25 Hours of Frog Hollow is touted as "the world's longest one-day mountain bike race," because it takes place over the fall-back portion of Daylight Savings Time, when there actually are 25 hours in a day. The race is held on a rolling desert mesa just outside Zion National Park on a 13-mile loop consisting of jeep roads, swooping singletrack, and a few miles of mildly technical chunk just to keep everybody honest. Now in its third year, the late-season race boasted more than 200 sign-ups, with an impressive 50-plus people in the solo category. The list included a few friends and several more people who I've wanted to meet for a while. And the course is fantastic, with jaw-dropping scenery around every corner and an amusement park-worthy descent that I could ride a hundred times and never grow tired of that trail.

Still, I didn't plan to sign up for the race this year for several reasons. First and foremost, my big event of the year — Racing the Planet Nepal — fell only two weeks later, and I was concerned about recovery. Not only that, but training for a self-sufficient stage race on foot really couldn't be more different than training for a 25-hour mountain bike race, and I wasn't about to cut into my Nepal preparations. Third, I felt my base was precarious at best, thanks to severe reduction in my bike mileage this year, the result of an uptick in running, travel and injuries. Fourth, if I crashed my bike or otherwise injured myself in a way that prevented me from participating in Racing the Planet Nepal, I would never, never forgive myself.

But my good friend from Montana, Bill Martin, was planning to return to Frog Hollow and never gave up on trying to convince me to join him. As began to plan logistics for traveling to Utah for my sister's wedding, I realized I wouldn't even have to necessarily go out of my way to make the trip. Then, to complicate matters, Beat — who has finished a couple of Racing the Planet events and knows exactly how tough they are — encouraged this inadvisable mountain bike diversion and even went so far as to sign me up in the solo women's category without my direct consent. Perhaps it was meant to be.

Photo by Dave Nice
But I have never been one to take the most reasonable route, even within my own questionable endeavor. I showed up in Utah with a single duffle bag of supplies, including a day's worth of "nutrition" that I scavenged from the scraps in my cupboard. Most of the rest of the gear was warm clothing, which I brought because the forecast was calling for overnight temperatures in the low 20s, about 50 degrees colder than anything I've become accustomed too since I moved to California. Because bike transport is so spendy, I rented a race bike from Over the Edge Sports, a Niner R.I.P. 9 with loads of travel — and a lot weight. What kind of idiot rides a completely untested bike in a 25-hour solo race? Yeah, that was me. I didn't even remember to bring my own saddle. But I have to say, the Niner was a sweet ride. I like the big bikes.

Bill and his girlfriend, Mo, picked me up at my parents' house in Draper, and the three of us made our way to the southwestern corner of the state. Bill, who was sponsored in this race, set up an elaborate staging area in the cold rain. My staging area is that backpacker tent in the background. Happily for me, Bill said I could huddle under his canopy and even ask his pit crew, Mo, for favors. But I resolved to be as self-sufficient as possible.

The weather did not improve on Saturday morning, when we awoke to cold rain that became a driving sleet during the pre-race meeting. I felt nervous about the conditions but tried to improve my outlook by telling myself that horrible weather was a good thing, and might even give me a competitive edge I might not otherwise have. But despite my confidence that I could gut out the horrors of a cold, wet morass — deep down I was not looking forward to the suffering that entailed.

Luckily, the weather broke and the sky started to clear just before the 10 a.m. start of the race. In Frog Hollow tradition, the clock instantly set back to 9 a.m. and the group set out for 25 hours desert bliss.

There was fresh snow on the surrounding bluffs, almost down to the higher elevations on the trail. A stiff, frigid headwind greeted us on the climb, which I purposely started off the very back so I could stop and shoot photos without causing a disruption. I'm always most enthusiastic about taking pictures at the beginning of races, and I never regret taking the time to do so. Sure, it causes me to put in my slowest times when I have the most energy, but usually by hour twelve I am so steeped in a schizophrenic wave of bliss, self-loathing and apathy that I don't even bother to shoot glazed-eye self portraits in the dark. And yet after the pain has ended and the glory subsides, these images remain, and they bring back memories of the good hours.

Ah, the good hours. Thanks to that cold wind, it never felt particularly warm, even though temperatures probably climbed all the way into the mid-40s. I slowly moved up through the pack and chatted with fellow characters at the back, the guys wearing tutus and other last-minute, in-over-their-heads entrants such as myself.

I genuinely enjoyed the initial jeep road ascent — after all, steady climbing is something I am good at. The climb was also the only part of the course where I was even remotely "fast." I was riding for "Team Self Preservation," which meant I was so overcautious about injuring myself that I didn't take even the slightest chances, and purposefully walked around several obstacles that I could normally ride, but didn't want to test the consequences of my slim margin of error. So the rockier parts of the course became a tedious chore, and the climb was physically taxing, but there was always a reward on the horizon — the Jem Trail.

The Jem Trail is actually the first piece of singletrack I ever rode on a mountain bike, on a borrowed Cannondale 12-speed way back in 2002. The trail is still every bit as thrilling and fun to me as it was back then. It flows across the plateau like a ribbon in the sand, contouring the rolling landscape with banked turns and a smooth surface that promotes high speeds. I could ride it fifteen times in a row happily, and ambitiously hoped to log this many descents.

In juxtaposition to the fast and flowing Jem Trail was several miles along the rim of the Virgin River, a trail that Bill refers to in a hushed and hateful tone as "those rocks." I would add "soul-destroying" as an adjective. The problem with the rocks was that there wasn't anything terribly difficult about them — most were broad and flat, and piled in such a way that the magic line wasn't hard to find. But unless you were fully alert and paying attention, it was all too easy to slide off a ledge and slam into the side of another rock or overcorrect and veer off the trail. I had two near misses on the rocks before I decided I would add them to my list of walking sections. This earned me more slowness and also a mounting frustration with the section, because the rocks weren't that easy to push, either.

Meanwhile Bill was motoring along, lapping me once every three or so laps, which means I had plenty of chances to say hello. He told me he had broken himself in an effort to hold off a guy who went out fast and ended up burning out anyway. Every time he passed, he looked like he was nearing that bleeding edge, and still he stopped to ask me how I was doing. "Bill, I'm fine," I said as though that answer should be obvious. After all, I'm me. Thanks to my mindset and the way I train, I really only have one speed, and it's not usually that painful to hold it indefinitely — surely not in as little as 25 hours. At the same time, my cruise control mentality can and has put me on top of several races. Slow and steady. The tortoise and the hare.

Slow and steady. Soak in the scenery. Get unexpectedly blissed out on the random inclusion of a Lady Gaga song in my iPod playlist. Climb hard until my head spins and heart vibrates with raw energy. Launch into the Jem Trail with the cold air burning my cheeks. Sprint down the fireroad. Curse and stumble on the rocks. Vow to quit early. Obsess about the peanut butter sandwich I'm going to make after this lap. Plan a strategy for quicker pit stops. Forget it. Stumble some more on the rocks. Curse some more. Bribe myself with the promise of a nap. Arrive at rocking timing tent to fresh banana bread. Forget why I was so mad. Repeat.

The problem with an all-day race in November is that it includes a lot of night riding— more than 13 hours worth. Added to the extended darkness was the already cool weather and clearing skies that turned the desert to an icebox. It didn't take long for the temperature to drop below freezing. My Camelback valve froze, and I had to chew on the hose to loosen the ice. I got caught out on my first night lap underdressed, and shivered in my pit as I pulled on extra layers, mittens and vapor barrier socks. Racers with thermometers told me it was 25 degrees, possible as low as 20 degrees in the lower washes. But my winter layers allowed me to pedal in equilibrium. I made significantly fewer stops and continued to crank out laps in the frost-tinted darkness.

I had finished my first lap in last place in the solo women's category, and slowly worked my way up to fourth place by evening. After soon as darkness fell, Mo informed me that I had moved up to third place, and then second. By early morning I was in first position, ahead of several sponsored racers who I assumed were unable or unwilling to deal with the cold. I knew if I just kept motoring along, I could likely hold on to the lead to the end. I was well on pace for fifteen laps, which had been my no-freaking-way outside goal. I had weird mixed feelings about possibly winning this race, one I didn't feel I deserved to win. "No one races to be the best at cold tolerance, except for me," I thought.

It's possible this strange psychological reaction contributed to what happened next, although I'll never really know. But during lap thirteen, my race went from nearly effortless to unbelievably painful, in a single heartbeat. What happened is that I had been severely craving salt for a while, but didn't really have anything salty to eat (I know, poor race nutrition planning, I know.) I did have a can of tuna in my after-race camp food, so I pried it open and started gulping it down. The tuna was quite possibly the driest substance I have ever ingested, like eating chunks of sand. I'm not sure what about my body chemistry made the tuna taste so dry, but I guzzled at least a liter of water and some Diet Pepsi to get it down.

I felt a huge burst of energy afterward and motored up the climb at full intensity, which was in all fairness about the same intensity I was holding at the beginning of the race. But by the time I hit the top of the final steep climb, I had become incredibly dizzy, to the point where I had to put my foot down and force deep breaths to collect my senses. I launched into the Jem Trail as nausea took over. I stopped pedaling and tried to coast but the bike seemed to slow to a stop, forcing me to pedal, as though the Jem Trail suddenly became a climb. A gradually downhill fireroad also forced what felt like maximum effort. By the time I reached the trailhead to the soul-crushing rocks, I was vomiting tuna and water everywhere. Instead of feeling better afterward, vomiting made me feel even worse. I relented to walking the three-mile rock section extremely slowly as most of the field passed me, asking me if I was okay. I said yes, but I was a mess.

I stumbled back to the pit at 7 a.m. and collapsed in Bill's camp chair while crying to Mo that I was so sick and couldn't even muster the wherewithal to stand up. She told me she had a bad feeling about the tuna and I acknowledged that her judgement was probably sounder than my own after 22 hours of riding. But regardless of any poor decisions I had made, it was too late to do anything about it now. I knew I had plenty of time for one more lap, but I was convinced I felt so bad that I would probably have to walk anything that wasn't solidly downhill, and there wasn't much of that on the entire course. Thirteen miles of slow pushing was going to take me ... well, it was going to take me a long time. And I unfortunately possess the mindset that 24-hour racing is supposed to be fun. When it stops being fun, my motivation withers entirely, even with a potential win on the horizon.

I went to lay down in my tent to see if that made me feel any better. Mo informed me when my chaser had passed through the timing tent and went out for lap fourteen. I felt this wave of relief, because even though it meant I had a real decision to make, it also signaled to me that any potential undeserved win had become impossible, because there was no way I was going to successfully chase down anyone. Not in my condition. Still, I was disappointed in myself, because I had encountered a real test, an extreme low point. Challenges like these are fundamental in my "me against me" racing motivation, and overcoming these challenges has proven to be my largest personal reward. This time, I chose not to battle my low point. Instead, I writhed in my tent and waited for 10 a.m.

After 10 a.m. came and went, my thirteen laps at 22:00 put me in second place behind Bec Bale, who won with fourteen laps and the new women's solo course record at 24:55. If I had gone out again, it's likely she still would have beat me; I was moving that slow at the time. After four hours of fasting I was able to take in some Nuun (electrolyte-laced water), and after another hour or so I started on the simple carb route to recovery. Based on the way I was feeling the following day, I concluded my severe nausea was a result of poor food planning that created an electrolyte imbalance. But who really knows? Maybe I had a bad can of tuna and genuine food poisoning. There can really be so many reasons for this type of reaction. All that really matters is how we confront the challenges that come our way.

Still, I am happy with the overall result of the race. I didn't think I'd actually get on the podium, let alone have a real shot at the win. And except for that last hour, I had so much fun. Bill ended up winning the men's solo race, in a rather incredible come-from-behind effort against fellow snow bike racer Dave Byers, who is one of the competitors I was looking forward to meeting. There's a good story there if Bill ever finds the time to blog about it.

Thank you to race director Cimarron and all the volunteers — an awesome group that included Fixie Dave Nice and Bill and Kathi Merchant — for sitting out all night in the icebox to make Frog Hollow the fantastic event that it is.