I had wanted to step up my 24-hour racing anyway. Before this race I had done seventeen (yes 17!) 24-hour races, most of them as part of a five-person coed team and a couple with four-person teams. It was time to ratchet up the challenge just on principle. Also I’ve been curious for a while now how I’d do at a longer endurance event, a 100-mile race or something similar, and this fit the bill as an intermediate step.
Only problem was, I hadn’t done much riding. I spent most of April with a sinus infection and most of May with a pinched nerve in my back, so my usual commuting miles had dropped to a new low, and my mountain bikes were only seeing short rides in the local park. I did get in a few good rides in exotic locales thanks to traveling to Sea Otter and other spots for work, but those three or four good rides in two months hardly counted as training. Oh well – this would be a good way to jumpstart the summer season and make up for lost time, hopefully without hurting myself too much.
Oh yes, and there was a particularly hairy deadline the week before the race. Add to that some sleep deprivation in that same week, kicked off by caffeine-containing energy candy that screwed up my sleep schedule in a big way, and I was all set. (Training tip: don’t eat a whole package of Black Cherry flavor Clif Shot Bloks at 8pm, at least until the 24-hour event has actually started.)
The gang here packed up the van and left on Friday to set up the booth and get in on a good camping spot. I decided to go down to Big Bear on Saturday morning, in order to unwind and get ready on Friday. My partner Ron had to take his grandmom to the airport on Saturday morning, from a hundred miles away in Johnstown, so I volunteered to walk the dogs before leaving. While out in the park with the hounds I got a panicked call: the car Ron was to take had a flat tire. Drama and decisions and dirty, sweaty car repair ensued, but Ron made it off with moments to spare and so did I – just enough left at the end of the journey to get out of the car, take my bike off the roof, get dressed, go to the start/finish tent and sign in before Eric came in from the first lap of our effort. Maurice had the best excuse for me: “A wizard is neither early nor late.”
The Big Bear course is a lot of fun. There were some large mud puddles in the first few miles remaining from torrential rains earlier in the week, but they were pretty well rideable, true to Eric’s few rushed words of advice while handing over the baton. The weather was hot and sunny but not as much as back in the Burgh. Adrenaline still pumping from my effort of just getting to the venue, I went out hard and fast, falling in with a couple guys and a gal who all were a hair above me in ability level (perfect strategy for pushing it in a race). The beginning had some great narrow but fast and flowing sections that begged for speed. The last four miles of the course were brutal, though, with rock gardens and climbs and rock garden climbs. The hot and sweaty car-centric morning caught up with me and I began to wobble and flounder. I came back to the start/finish tent totally out of breath and feeling a little shriveled, but with a decent lap time, fast enough that Eric wasn’t there yet to meet me.
Going into the race I hadn’t really thought we’d be competitive, and in fact I made sure it was cool with Eric if I ended up feeling crappy and being a leaky cylinder in our two-cylinder engine. When Bruce, Granny’s tirelessly cheerful announcer, gave me a welcome over the speakers as a “Duo Pro,” I corrected that to “Duo Not-So-Pro.” Mistakes ensued on the next three laps: not eating enough, not using the suspension seatpost I’d brought to soften up my carbon-fiber hardtail race rig early enough, talking on the phone too long and missing a transition. I didn’t even bother to look at the standings until after my fourth lap, sometime around 2 a.m. Lo and behold – holy crap! We were in second place! Behind none other than Dirt Rag’s back-in-the-day Fiend Racer, Gunnar Shogren! Well then, time to pay attention and not lose our 45-minute gap on the third place team.
I had asked Eric if he thought he could handle doubling up on the next laps, to allow me to catch a few Z’s and come out stronger in the morning, and he agreed. One flaw in that strategy (obvious now, of course) is that Eric didn’t have the time between laps to fix things and eat and rest himself. When I dragged myself up at the carefully calculated end of nap-time and went back to the start/finish tent, I found out that Eric had only left on his second lap an hour before, and when we made the transition, the third placers had crept up to within five minutes of us. Hoo boy, the race was on.
By the time I was done with my fifth lap, which seemed like an epic, hours-long battle, the time difference had increased barely a minute. Our competitors had realized what was up by this time and went out after Eric hard, passing him early in his last lap. Unknown to me, while I kept fighting just to keep my eyes open even while chatting with folks in the tent, he battled back on the uphills, and had a slightly panicked look coming in for the switch, apparently moments ahead of our rivals. “Get him on the hills!” was all I heard from his rushed advice.
I went out feeling like a zombie. The initial slightly rocky section felt like it took hours, and I wasn’t sure if the usual rush from negotiating the fun-n-fast course was going to revive me this time. Sure enough, while still within earshot of the tent, I heard the announcer say the number of our rivals, and moments later, a way-too-fresh rider in a blue jersey with the dreaded number zoomed past, doing a couple gratuitous jumps off of rocks just ahead of me. Total dejection ensued. A minute later I spotted Carol out on her last lap, in the lead for the solo women’s race, along with Maurice keeping her company. I said something like, “I just got passed for second place,” and not sure if I was hallucinating, I heard Maurice ask in response what music they should listen to. “Led Zeppelin!” was all I could bring to mind (the last thing we had listened to back at camp).
It was then that I had a change of mental state. I realized I could just go on being defeated already, barely a mile into the last 13-mile lap, or I could hang on, think positively, and hope for a mechanical, bonk, or some other such fate for the rider in blue ahead of me (barring any permanent bodily harm, of course). Eric’s advice came back, and I began to think that perhaps if I just hung on and rode as smoothly as I could, then threw it all out there on the uphills, I could catch him. I began to think of the recent Stanley Cup playoffs, in which our Pittsburgh Penguins had lost a tough battle in the finals against the Detroit Red Wings. What would Gary Roberts do? Give up with almost a whole game left in the series? Hell no.
So I hung on. I concentrated on being smooth – flow like water, flow like water, flow like water – since there was still quite a lot of water on the course and joining with it rather than fighting it seemed like the best strategy. I still fell into a mud puddle that was deeper than it looked, but enjoyed the cooling effects rather than getting mad. I survived the nasty, long downhill section without crashing and got another mental boost from that victory. Next were the uphills, and the race series never had a more appropriate name to me, as I made full use of the granny gear to get up without burning out too quickly. I thought I spotted the rival rider in blue and fought up an incline I had walked on all my previous laps, only to find an unknown rider in a jersey of a slightly different shade. It gave me confidence, though, since this same guy had also passed me early in the lap – maybe my rival, too, was running out of gas. All kinds of calculations and scenarios churned through my head and seemed to aid my legs in churning on the cranks.
Sure enough, there he was – trudging up a slope that wasn’t all that steep, head down. I’m not sure if he saw me as I passed, standing on the pedals and fighting to keep traction. I was afraid to look back until I had put a few hundred yards behind the hill and by then he was out of sight. Yeah! A new rush of adrenaline kept me cranking hard up the last remaining hills, which seemed even longer than the other five times up, but for once I was glad for that. I was still afraid he’d catch up with superior skills on the flat but technical ending sections. I had visions of an elbow-flinging duel in the final turn into the tent, one I would surely lose. But no – the tent came into sight and I was in! Second place was ours, and the sweetest second place I’ve ever had.
Thanks to Granny Gear for putting on another great race, and to Team Czech Made for being great rivals.