Thursday, November 08, 2012

Hollowed out

I cling to the perception that I'm a hopeless endurance junkie, but it's revealing that I spent my favorite hour of the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow unconscious. It was the darkest, coldest hour of them all, the one right before dawn. I'd managed to keep my internal diesel engine humming through the night, but as I climbed up Gooseberry Base for the twelfth time, even that began to sputter. Lactic acid flooded into my legs, and then the dizzy spells returned. By the time I hit the slabs, my body felt as spent as it did way back during lap two, and my sense of coordination was even worse, if that's possible. The bike lurched over ledges and I slammed my front wheel into boulder after boulder, utterly lacking the power to lift up my handlebars. Even when I relented to the push, I stumbled and hit my shins on my pedals. I hated the slabs, hated them with the piercing chill of a thousand desert winters. This icy hate is what now filled my heart at the end of every Frog Hollow lap.

Back at the pit, I fumbled through my procrastination routine of nibbling on a nearly-frozen vegetarian burrito, washing it down with a mini Snickers Bar, switching my lights, adjusting my layers, fiddling with my shock, checking my tires, and staring hatefully at the half moon. A chill crept in as Beat made coffee, and we joked about heating up the interior of the car and drinking our coffee inside. Then it became less of a joke. And before I even fully acknowledged the decision, I was slumped in the passenger seat with an empty titanium cup in one hand and my helmet in the other. "Just fifteen minutes," I mumbled. "Maybe I'll feel better after a little nap."

A lead blanket of drowsiness settled over my aching joints, and I accepted it with the shifty guilt of a child nibbling the edges of a forbidden cookie. In a single-day race, sleep isn't justified, or even needed. Sleep was indulgence, simple and plain, and yet I couldn't remember ever feeling such divine relief. Sleep swept me away from the ink-colored sky, the creepy canyons, the jeep road climb that somehow grew progressively longer with every lap, the flickering lights, and the slabs. Oh the hateful slabs. Benevolent sleep took all of my icy abhorrence, my aches, my feelings of inadequacy, and flushed them into a beautiful void. I was out cold.

Liehann, Beat, and I display our cutthroat competitiveness at the race start. Photo by Trang Pham
That I had even ridden double-digit laps was more than I expected. Given how I've felt on the bike and in general for the past month, how spotty my fitness seems right now, and how few miles I've ridden in total since June, I wasn't expecting the performance of my life. It was worth going because Frog Hollow is a good course — a 13-mile loop with 5.5 miles of jeep road, 7.5 miles of singletrack, and equal parts of challenge, fun, and humbling reality checks — and the event is full of great people and good humor. Months ago, Beat and I made plans to race solo along with our friend Liehann, and expected to see other friends at the venue as well. It was a vacation. I know I've taken a lot of those, and yet my appreciation of the opportunities I have to engage in adventures never wears off no matter how tired my body feels. So I was going to race, and my strategy was to start out slow, and then slow down.

Photo by Trang Pham
About four miles in, I realized that even this race strategy wasn't going to work. I'd purposely started near the back and my climbing pace wasn't just slow, it was glacial. And yet I felt horrible — lactic acid legs, sore shoulders, and dizziness. What was with this dizziness? I launched into the Jem Trail, a flowing piece of smooth singletrack, and could barely keep my wheels from veering into the bushes. I was riding like a drunken beginner, worse than that, because race guilt was creeping in and I wasn't even halfway through the first lap. I burned way too many matches powering over the mini steps at the bottom of Jem. By the time I hit the Virgin Rim jeep road, I was so fried that I coasted the gradually descending slope at about 8 mph, just so I could recover. Then I came face to face with the slabs. First lap meant I needed to at least try to ride this section, but doing so just made a mockery of mountain bikers everywhere. I dabbed so many times that my bike might as well have been a velocipede, and still I managed to slam into bushes. The Virgin Rim trail is rocky but doesn't require advanced technical skills by any stretch of the imagination. I was just riding poorly, because my head was spinning and my legs had no power. The first lap ended with the unsettling anxiety that I might not even have the stamina to finish a second.

Beat had decided to wait for me at the pit, and we set out together for lap two. Beat was riding Frog Hollow with a cracked rib from a mountain bike crash two weeks earlier, and on top of that he was riding a singlespeed, which demands a lot more core strength than granny-geared bikes to power up climbs. I thought he was in for a world of hurt, but he claimed his rib wasn't giving him too much trouble — he was just experiencing the usual pains that crop up when one doesn't train on bikes, such as sore butt and knees. I complained about my lactic acid fatigue and dizzy spells, and lamented that "I used to be so much better at mountain biking." "You were never that good at mountain biking," Beat replied matter-of-factly. Which is true ... I admit I've fumbled through a lot of miles while avoiding the mastery of technical skills and cultivating a growing fear of speed ... but it's still disheartening to have that truth pointed out to me at the beginning of a long mountain bike race. I'd rather just hold onto the delusion that I used to be able to dance over the slabs and that maybe, just maybe, I'd find my way back to the grace and poise that I never actually had. (I should mention that Beat also pointed out my supreme slogging abilities, so his statement wasn't as harsh as it sounds.)

But the vistas surrounding the Frog Hollow course are stunning, and the flowing Jem Trail is and will forever be near-effortless fun. So I kept pounding out miles with the hope that somehow, somewhere, I'd find something. That something came during lap four, which was more than fifty miles into the race. I reached the top of the Gooseberry Base and realized I couldn't remember anything about the climb. The malaise and fatigue that had shadowed me for three laps finally faded away. It was as though my body finally resigned itself — "Fine, we see that this is how it's going to be" — and fired up the trusty old diesel generator that it saves for tough times. For a long time after that, nothing was as hard as it had been. I was still moving relatively slowly, but at least it didn't feel so bad.

The return of the ol' diesel engine after five hours of struggle brought my thoughts back to the book I've been reading that I wrote about last week, "Flow." In one section, the author wrote about the assumption that "extreme" athletes, such as climbers, engage in risky behaviors because they have a pathological need to experience danger, that they are exorcising deep-seated fears, or are simply reckless sensation seekers. He argues that, actually, the whole point of climbing is to avoid danger as much as possible by developing the skills and knowledge to overcome risk. "Enjoyment derives not from the danger itself, but from their ability to minimize it. So rather than a pathological thrill that comes from courting disaster, the positive emotion they enjoy is being able to control potentially dangerous forces."

This sense of control also applies to suffering, I believe. I seek out physically grueling challenges not because I have a psychological misfire that leads me to believe I actually enjoy suffering, but because by confronting suffering, I teach myself how to control it. I derive a lot of pleasure from rejecting physical discomfort and mastering my emotions amid hard struggles. And once I push over that seemingly impossible wall, there's real joy in the realization that I've freed myself from my own suffering, and I could probably just keep going, as long as I want to keep going.

After lap two, Beat and I largely stuck together. He always climbed faster than me, so he waited at the top of the Jem Trail. With the aid of my big ring, I usually stayed ahead on the descents, but he caught back up in the heart of the slabs, where we could struggle and commiserate together. Beat compared the pains of the 25-hour race to a hundred-mile ultramarathon, noting that, "In running, if you're hurting, at least you can slow down and walk for a while. But on a bike, you just have to take the beating." Another aspect of the bike race we commiserated about was the constant barrage of team racers — you know, the guys riding four- and five-person relays, pounding out 45-minute laps with fierce aggressiveness. The majority were nice, announced their presence, and snuck past gently. But there were a handful of jerks that barreled past regardless of how little room there was on the trail, and I was shoulder-checked once and twice nearly knocked off my saddle. But courtesy aside, it was disheartening to have to constantly listen over my shoulder, waiting to pull over so I could let someone pass. It broke my flow in the best of situations, and in the worst left me rattled and upset. I realize that relay teams are a staple of 24-hour racing, but it's difficult to share a course with something that is effectively a different race. I'm sure they don't like having to pass the slow soloists any more than we like being passed.

After lap eight, Beat decided he was well on track to hit his target of ten laps, and wanted to sleep for a while. It was still before midnight, and I was hoping for a little more relative solitude as some of the teams and solo racers decided to call it a night. I continued through my pleasant daze, diesel engine humming, surprised by how okay I felt, still. Because of my "slow down" strategy, I always spent a long time in my pit, savoring my burritos and making sure everything on my bike was adjusted just right. Sometimes I would just stand there looking at the stars until the chill set in, and then I'd launch into a new loop having little concept of how many miles had passed, or what time it was. It was a beautiful sort of perpetual motion, interrupted only by my extreme disdain of the slabs.

Photo by Trang Pham
As I was setting out for my twelfth lap, Beat and Liehann rustled out of their tents. Liehann had decided to take a short nap as well after his shock busted and would no longer compress, leaving him with severe hand pain. But Liehann is a little competitive and wanted to muster at least more laps than me, so we all set out together. It was just after 3 a.m. Something about that lap broke my endurance spell, and I was back to feeling dizzy, achy, and now because of the late hour, sleepy. After struggling through lap twelve, it didn't take much to convince myself a fifteen-minute nap in the car was a great idea, which turned to thirty minutes, and then an hour. The sky was washed in pink light when Beat and I finally emerged, agreeing I could bust out one more lap so I could at least match what I rode last year, which is thirteen laps and 169 miles.

Photo by Dave Nice
Liehann, Beat, and I stayed together for the sunrise lap, taking it slow, stopping at vistas, and chatting with volunteers along the way. We called it our "victory lap," acknowledging that while we had energy to ride it faster and time to ride another, we didn't really want to. The most difficult part of 24-hour racing is finding motivation, especially if you're not particularly competitive with other people. One my goals were achieved — to come to Southwestern Utah and ride lots and see friends and have fun — it was difficult to ignore how much my butt really did hurt and how my legs were still so sore.

Beat got his ten laps and Liehann netted fourteen. We finished the victory lap at 9 a.m. sharp (24:00), which was good enough for me to finish fourth among female soloists. Riding a fourteenth lap that finished after 25:00 wouldn't have lifted me any higher in the standings. If I wanted to podium, my only option would have been to skip the nap and wedge in a fifteenth lap. Even if I had known that's where I stood in the rankings, I doubt a third place standing would have been motivation enough to skip that wonderful nap. Still, fifteen laps has always been my goal at Frog Hollow. Despite my shortcomings, it was definitely achievable this year and I can't help but wonder if I might have motivated toward it had I gone into the race with a clearer goal. Maybe someday, when the reality of just how many times I've ridden that loop has faded from my memory, I'll feel motivated to go back and try.

Still, any day that includes nearly 170 miles of mountain biking, and homemade banana bread, and a nap, can hardly be regarded as bad day. In fact, it was a great day. I'm not sure I love mountain bike racing, but I am a hopeless junkie for a long ride with friends.


  1. OUCH ! But I luv'd 'reading' about it. maybe 15 laps next year or the year after, for you that is, as always, can't wait to read about it.
    Now it's time for my ride in the dark cold morning to something that was fun now I just don't know...called work.

  2. Beautiful looking trail. Picture of you and Beat by Dave Nice is a great one!

    Nice ride.

  3. Well I finally get it now, that part about suffering was so well written. Though I don't want to get there, I guess I kind of have a couple of times in marathons. Thanks for the insight.

  4. Nice post. I had to chuckle when Beat told you you were never that good at mountain biking, his blunt honesty, the sting, I get it, my husband is the same way with different things and it's not meant as cruel, just honest and straight forward. I think it comes with being analytical minded and male. :)
    Long rides with friends always trump any kind of race.

  5. Looks like a blast. I was curious to know what the trail looked like after reading about it in one of your posts before. Do you have anymore pictures of the trail? That part of Utah is so beautiful. SO painfully beautiful.
    Congrats on your 13 laps. Just incredible!!

  6. "I derive a lot of pleasure from rejecting physical discomfort and mastering my emotions amid hard struggles."

    Wait, what ?!. This is Jill we're talking about here right ?. I guess if you can call walking into the woods and biting yourself on the arm "mastering your emotions" I can see what you're saying, LOL.

    It's always fun to watch you overindulge, burn yourself out, and be totally unprepared to do a race, and yet do it anyway.

  7. Anon: I'm trying to interpret your criticism and honestly can't figure out what any of those statements mean. Biting myself in the arm? Now I'm just so curious. Care to expand?

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  11. Jill,

    I haven't been reading your blog for the last few months ever since I injured my back in august. Reading it now has helped me deal with my own pains and given me hope that one day I will be able to work through the pain and complete something epic like you.

    I have always found inspiration in you ability to push to your limits and then go two steps further.

    Thank you!


  12. "....a 33-year-old woman squatting behind a tree with her pants down, rocking back and forth, clutching her forehead, and biting her own arm to prevent a real, screaming, crying temper tantrum."

    Was this an example of mastering your emotions ?. LOL !.

    P.S. Dizziness and fatigue can be signs of anemia.

  13. first shot has quite the pallet of colors


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