The day before the start, it snowed. A few inches of fine fluff coated the previously hardpacked trail, and before the first volunteers set out Sunday morning on snowmachines, nearly all of the course was still untracked. A single bike traveling in these conditions would only experience increased resistance while powering through the powder. But add a few dozen bikers, skiers, volunteers on snowmachines, and their accompanying erratic tracks, and you have a rutted, somewhat technical trail. For the most part these ruts are unpredictable. They grab front wheels and induce loss of control, wild swerving, and often crashing. "Snow angel" is the common term for bike-shaped holes just off the trail, and these became increasingly more frequent in the early miles of the race.
The first forty miles of trail traverse rolling foothills, a series of climbs and descents. I tried to take advantage of gravity any time the trail sloped downhill. In the process, I made several of my own snow angels — a humorous experience but also a lot of work to get out from underneath. There was also a lot of effort involved in wrestling the Fatback through ruts at higher speeds. It was like taking an angry bull by the horns and trying to stop it from bucking me into the snow. One guy commented that the downhills were more strenuous than the climbs, and I agreed.
During the long descent into Beaver Creek, I was shadowing another cyclist when he began to coast away from me. Just as I was searching for the courage to release the brakes, his bike bucked violently and tossed him into the air. I watched his rag-doll silhouette arc over the handlebars and lawn-dart into a snow bank. I slowed as I passed to ask if he was okay. He giggled but his laugh sounded a little like a whimper. "That was a good one." The deep snowpack is forgiving in most crashes, but I couldn't help but think about what would happen if I crashed like that in just the wrong spot or the wrong tree. I resolved to take the descents slow.
This was my ongoing obsession during the first forty miles — the condition of the trail. When it was bad I would ride hard just to maintain forward motion, and when it was better I would ride hard to catch up on my perceived loss of progress. Despite my claims otherwise, I did want to improve on my 2011 time, and I was quickly falling behind the pace. The sun emerged from the clouds for a brief few miles and the open hillsides felt as hot as a sandy desert. The air told a different story though, as I sucked it into my lungs. Cold air burns, and this effect is amplified like windchill when I'm breathing hard. My lungs already felt ragged and raw. I was working what I might call my 50K race pace, an effort I can maintain for five to eight hours although not comfortably. I pedaled along that uncomfortable edge for six hours just to reach checkpoint two, a cabin at mile 39 of the loop. My original plan was just to blast through the first two checkpoints and only collect water. But my higher-than-usual effort level made it difficult to take in any calories on the trail. I decided sit down for 15 minutes and eat a baked potato with cheese, then somehow "take it easy" and "recover" during the 2,000-foot, eleven mile climb to the Cache Mountain Divide.
Luckily the first miles of the climb were on good trail. The course entered the deeper woods where less new snow covered trail. A film crew on two snowmachines had been through recently, loosening the powder but at least evening out the ruts. I was able to zone out for a while and just climb, a favorite activity that helped reduce my stress level and brought my heart rate down. The heart of the White Mountains loomed in a distance that I was steadily drawing closer. I hoped to catch glimpse of the peaks shimmering in the sunlight. Instead, the clouds closed in around me, and it started to snow again.
I did spend some time wishing I had trained more mindfully — ran some intervals or something, just to increase my cardiovascular capabilities. I gulped down wind-whipped shards of snow and pulled my balaclava half over my mouth, trying to strike a balance between inevitable sweat from the hard effort, a lack of insulating layers because I was sweating, and the bitter cold. I didn't feel so good. I thought I could feel my heart racing toward overdrive, and this mental image was concerning enough that I stopped often to catch my breath even though doing so let in a frigid chill. Bracing myself against the wind and gasping for air was tough dose of reality for me — a realization that I was doing all I could, but my fitness just wasn't up to snuff. Could be overtraining, could be undertraining, could just be a bad day in the saddle. The reasons don't really matter in the midst of a blizzard fifty miles from nowhere. There was never any drama involved because I was part of the White Mountains 100 and help was always nearby. But when I was a small dot alone in the white intensity of the Cache Mountain Divide, I could let myself believe what I come to these frozen landscapes to believe — that forward progress isn't a choice, it's a necessity. It doesn't matter how bad I feel; my body can keep going indefinitely if it has to. As always, this is an empowering realization.
... to be continued.