Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The whys of racing

By Friday morning, racing a mountain bike around a dusty desert loop was about the farthest thing from my mind. The polished titanium Snoots, still speckled with red dirt, was propped against the nearby wall as I scoured the Internet for ideas. Is it possible to ride a bicycle on Baffin Island? I've long wondered if this land of wind-swept snow crusts, gravel bars and frozen fjords could potentially offer fat-bike friendly travel in the early spring. I'd envision granite cliffs higher and sheerer than any in Yosemite, towering over wide, white valleys, and dwarfing a solo bicycle tourist that was me in my dreams. Can fantasies like that come true? I Googled and pondered.

Then, without warning, it was time to pick Beat and Liehann up from the airport. Car packing, lunch, five-hour drive to Southwestern Utah, grocery buying, venue searching, race check-in, camp establishment, tossing open bags of food and bike parts around a Subaru Outback and calling this mess our "pit." We ate stale bagels with sliced cheese for dinner, and just like that it was time for sleep.

I laid awake in my sleeping bag for hours, thinking about Alaska. What explorations await up there? The Iditarod Trail, McGrath, maybe Nome, what else? I crawled out of the tent to crisp, near-freezing air and a sky splattered with stars, more stars than I had seen in many months. I gazed up at the Milky Way and wondered about the secret, untrammeled places of the world. Places with night skies so deep that they appear as a portal into outer space, places so inhospitable remote that they might was well be outer space. I looked around at the other pits of the race venue — elaborate canopies, trailers, RVs. The vast sky above the Virgin Rim had lulled me into dreams of distant exploration. But I was still locked in a pulse of civilization: A 25-hour mountain bike race, the temporary home of hundreds of riders and supporters, engaged in what one might consider the opposite of exploration — calculated lap racing.

Why do I race? This question has been on my mind lately, filling in the gaps in between thoughts about how to focus my career efforts and wonderings about future adventures. I questioned racing specifically because just two months ago I very much wanted to quit racing cold turkey, and even when I changed my mind about that, I could only muster passing enthusiasm for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. It's a fun course that I (mostly) enjoy riding, and friends from Montana, Canada, and Colorado were going to be there — a fantastic reunion. But beyond that, what was I even doing here? I don't race to try to beat people, only because I gain such minimal pleasure from that (personality thing, perhaps, Type B through and through.) I enjoy improving on my own results, but I'd ridden 13 laps here two years in a row and wasn't sure I wanted to ride more than that, because more time on the course would mean less time visiting with friends who live thousands of miles away. Thirteen laps is still 169 miles of difficult dirt riding, with a hefty climb in the first five miles of each 13-mile lap, five miles of relatively happy rolling descents, and three mildly technical miles that I've taken to calling "The Slabs of Despair."

"I will ride easy," I thought, "and see what happens." I vowed to spend some time hanging out with Keith and Leslie, but the outside goal was 14 laps.

Beat and I started out riding together and largely stuck together for the entire race. He was riding a singlespeed and would ride away on the dusty climb, but then I'd catch him on the Jem Trail descent, often in the exact same spot. We made up our own hike-a-bike sections when the energy surges required to power over the Slabs of Despair became too much to muster, and joked about how much more we enjoyed the walking at this point. I lamented my relative lack of bike conditioning — a former iron butt that's gone soft and sore, and painful pins-and-needles sensations in my arm from death-gripping the handlebars. I started to become upset about the pain in my arms, only because my legs felt fine and my energy levels were good. I was climbing well and not even all that tired, especially since we started making 30-minute stops in Keith and Leslie's warm trailer once night fell. They cooked baked potatoes, coffee, and quesadillas, and we chatted about their road trip across the American West and all the miserable parts of the course that we hated while defending what a fun race Frog Hollow is — in other words, wasting clock time and soaking up lots of fun energy before we returned to our sad pit at the cold, dark, utterly disorganized Subaru.

Beat and Liehann were becoming more demotivated about the laps and I began to join in their sentiments. One more round; what's the point? At the same time, I was slipping into a happy endurance daze, daydreaming again about Alaska and Baffin Island, and giggling about nothing at all. But the dust in the air was becoming scratchy and bothersome, and my arms hurt a lot. Every hateful slab brought the sensation of being stabbed by dozens of needles. Beat and I talked about stopping after ten laps. Mountain bike racing just isn't Beat's thing and he couldn't muster the enthusiasm. I understood, and I was on board. Still, I quietly determined that 14 laps were still a mathematical possibility, and I wondered if the boys would be mad if I snuck out after the required ten were done.

Lap ten came and I was in a daze again, thousands of miles away and lost in an expanse of sheer cliffs and snow. I was climbing slower than before, and Beat was long out of sight when the jeep road veered downward into a small drainage. My mind snapped back to reality just in time to see my front wheel land in a deep rut, but it was already too late. The bike jack-knifed and slapped me into the dirt, sending streaks of pain through my left shoulder and elbow, accompanied by the burning sensation of dirt tearing the surface layer of skin off my left leg. Amid the shock of impact I didn't even realize that I'd planted my right knee into a platform pedal until I was back on my bike and pedaling gingerly up the hill, and felt warm blood soak through my sock.

My left side was stiff and incredibly sore, blood was gushing out of what looked like a deep gash on the inside of my right knee, and I was demoralized by my stupid crash. I'm just so tired of nursing blunt force injuries. People give me all sorts of well-meaning advice about how I can improve my balance, increase my skills, become less of a hopeless klutz. But sometimes I wonder why we have to fight so hard against our own natures. I am daydreamy and my mind and body aren't always on the same wavelength. Grace and coordination are not talents of mine, but I do try to work on my skills, honestly. Still, I'm a crasher. I'll probably always be a crasher. This is becoming more problematic as I get older.

I effectively walked the last three miles of lap ten, because I wanted no more beatings from the Slabs of Despair. By the time I reached the timing tent, my right leg looked like something out of a cheap horror flick, so I went to the medical truck. The EMT who mopped me up probed the gash and said I would need stitches, but it was 3 a.m. and the nearest hospital was in St. George, 40 minutes away. When I elected to opt out of the E.R. trip, she warned me that pedaling would cause the wound to continually reopen and fill with dust, complicating the possibility of infection right next to my joint. Not worth the risk, no doubt. I was out. Lap ten. 130 miles. And I hadn't even figured out the reasoning behind all of it yet.

But it was fun. The 25 Hours of Frog Hollow is always fun, and I'm grateful that I had the chance spend that time with my friends and still get in a really long, mostly enjoyable ride. Now, three days later, I'm still more sore than I have been in a long while, including after the PTL. My elbow is still stiff and the range of motion seems low, but there's no swelling, so I'm not too worried about that. My sister, who is a nurse, helped assess my wound and it still appears to be free of infection; thanks to past crashes, I've become an expert on keeping a deep wound clean.

I concede that it's been a rough year of racing for me. Neither of my Alaska races went as well as I'd hoped, I had shin splints during my first 50-miler in May, the Bryce 100 was an altitude-induced sick march, I DNF'd the Laurel Highlands 70 one week later, then fell on my face at the San Lorenzo 50K and coped with a knee injury for the better part of six weeks. Then came the PTL, the race that wounded my spirit. With the exception of what will likely be a couple more training 50Ks next month, Frog Hollow was the last race of 2013. Not my lucky year.

But I have much to ponder in the coming weeks as 2014 plans begin to take shape. And in the meantime, I'll keep dreaming about adventure.