Tuesday, February 20, 2007

First 24 Solo


NOTE: This post is from a Word document I wrote back in '07 about my race, first solo 24. It is unedited from this point:

Around the clock racing is a gas. Night riding is fun, but racing at night is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. I first saw the light on a 4-man sport team at the 2001 24 Hours of Moab. Anybody who’s been to a 24 hour race knows that the whole atmosphere is kind of like a weekend tent revival in the Church of the Rotating Knobby. There are fanatics wandering around at all hours, performing the rituals of our religion. It’s a rockin’ good time mixing it up on the course with the whole spectrum of racing mountain bikers from struggling newbie to hotshot professional, with the flash and flicker of headlamps and the sounds of effort and obstacle.

Riding in the desert of the American southwest is one of my favorite things. I live in the mountains of Colorado, and the trails in my back yard are great. But the desert is where I first rode a mountain bike, and I am constantly drawn back.

Twenty-four hour racing in the desert is like warm cherry pie with vanilla ice cream on top. The 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo in the vicinity of Tucson, Arizona is a desert all-nighter I have been meaning to do for years. It has a reputation for being a great time. The 15-mile course is rich with fast singletrack. There is some climbing, but not too much, and none that would force most riders to dismount. The real obstacle is thorny. Tires that aren’t made of steel will pick up thorns, period. But if you can keep air in them, you can roll ‘em!

The 8th running of the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo was scheduled for February 17, 2007. I decided to really throw down for this race and enter as solo. It would be my first solo effort. In early January I became a weather refugee, seeking asylum in southern Arizona from the worst Colorado winter in recent memory.

After knocking around the Tucson area for a week or two I wandered up to camp at the race venue for a while. I found a high desert paradise there. Race HQ is in a broad, sweeping landscape complete with singing coyotes, lots of gnarly cactus, and a handful of kindred souls buffing the race course, riding, and appreciating sunsets. I stayed for the month leading to the race, riding the course and on long explorations of the empty dirt roads and gas lines that roll from horizon to horizon.

As race day approached believers began to make their way to the little patch of desert that becomes 24 Hour Town. My excitement and apprehension, and camp filled up with riders, support staff, and race infrastructure.

The peace and silence of the desert was replaced with the sounds of camp setup. The vibe was incredible--friendly and cooperative. People were greeting old friends, and introducing themselves to new friends. There are a few camp boundary disputes since 24 Hour Town real estate is somewhat scarce. Over 3000 people occupy perhaps 35 acres broken up with rock outcroppings, cactus patches, and sandy washes. But it all gets resolved, and then beers are passed around and neighbors join each other around campfires.

Saturday morning came, and suddenly I felt utterly unprepared. Hours passed like minutes. I talked on the cell phone to friends coming in to race duo after flying in and renting a van. I talked to my little sister who was driving in to support me from San Diego after working a whole day Friday. I lubed the chain and did final checks on my race bike. I replaced tires on my backup bike. I found and set aside warm clothes so I wouldn’t have to search for them when night fell. I put a final charge on two light systems. I went to the race meeting, then ran back to my trailer and put on my monkey suit. Then it was time to go. I stuffed food into my mouth even though I was too nervous to be hungry.

The good advice I had gotten was ringing in my head: Don’t race until after midnight. Walk, do not run the lemans start. My friend Shawn’s advice repeated over and over: Don’t win the warm-up.

I knew it was going to be difficult to avoid going fast in the first few laps. Race fever is contagious. Most of the riders around me would be on teams, and they would be able to spend hours recovering after each lap. I needed to establish a conservative pace off the bat, and not burn up precious energy early. But it’s really hard to avoid the temptation to let your fresh legs push you to speed, railing those fun cactus slalom turns.

I was a good boy on my first lap. I stayed off the throttle. I followed riders I could have passed. I chatted with other solos. And what an interesting bunch of solos I met! We had been given little license plates, and some had made their own indicators so that people passing might understand that we were not really loafing. Many of the folks I met were first-time solos like me. We talked to each other about our goals and expectations.

I was really pleased to see a high number of female competitors, in solo and all other categories. In general, I can’t remember ever seeing such a diverse group of racers, in terms of age, gender, and race. It was impressive and encouraging, a very positive reflection on the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo and the cycling culture of Arizona.

During my second lap I caught myself doing the wrong thing several times. I scolded myself, but then forgot strategy. I was listening to my inner good-time Charlie. After a stop at camp to reload fluids, I checked in and started my third. After stopping to answer nature’s call, Tinker Juarez passed. I shouted out “Go Tinker, you da man!” or something similarly profound. He shouted back something I couldn’t understand, but he was rolling at speed, smooth as a ghost. I thought to myself, dang, Tinker just lapped me 5 minutes into my third lap! I laughed out loud and said, “OK, pressure is off now, I can just take it easy!”

I got four laps in before needing to mount lights. I was already feeling mortal by the time the first night-time lap started, even after spending half an hour off the bike. Thankfully, it never really got cold. I was prepared for temperature in the 40’s, maybe even colder. I had seen normal night temperature around 40, so it was remarkable that it never got much colder than the mid-50’s. What a break! I got more tired and creaky with every lap, but never uncomfortably cold. And for most of the night, the stars were showing in a clear sky. It was the new moon, so there would be no moonlight, and the weather was supposed to be stable through some time Sunday.

After two night laps, I hit my first low point. My food strategy was not working well, the borrowed light system that I hoped to get 3 laps from had run dry, and I just felt beat. I spent a while in my pit, drank lots of water and ate as I mounted my good light system. Back out on the course around 10 pm, the elation that comes with good night racing picked me back up. I had better light, I was feeling good again, and the dance of fast singletrack at night got me groovin’. I turned a fast lap, then barely stopped in the pit before starting number 7.

As I finished that lap, half my goal of 14, I hit my next low. I finished it before the 12 hour mark, which meant that I was still on track to make my goal, but I wondered about keeping that pace for the second 12 hours. My knees and torso ached. Demon doubt stared me in the face. Sister Meg was a godsend, fetching me things and rubbing the knots out of my back.

Getting back on the bike after spending any amount of time stopped was becoming difficult. I decided that I would keep plugging at those night laps. If I was going to give up on my goal, it would happen after daylight came. I stopped in camp after every lap before checking in at the start/finish tent. But I was hesitant to stay in the pit for long or sit down. Even five minutes off the bike would cause me to groan with pain and stiffness when it was time to wind back up and ride again.

Early in lap 10 I cleared my nose and started a nosebleed. The light on my bar had been showing me dust in the air since night fell. Now my sinus was fighting back. I rode with blood falling onto my top tube for 10 minutes or so, then stopped at one of the EMT stations and got a paper towel to clean my face and plug the offending nostril. 

Just before 5 am I hit camp, trying to be brief. Just as I was getting ready to leave, my nose started dripping blood again. Then it became a gusher. I had no choice but to sit in a chair with my head back to get it to stop. Sitting felt so good, but I knew I would pay dearly when it was time to go. It took almost 20 minutes to get my nose to stop bleeding, but I knew that I had to get that under control or the whole thing would fall apart.

When I finally started that final darkness lap, I was in pretty hard shape. I was racked with doubt, and part of my brain was building a case for quitting. I have faced emotional difficulty in endurance racing and riding before, but this was like a multiple personality disorder. The quitter personality was gathering evidence to support his case for letting go of the goal. The success-at-all-costs personality was rigidly defending the goal, and creating a scenario for completing the 14 laps. This scenario did not imply being done by noon. That was already clearly impossible. I would be able to complete the 13th lap before noon, then would start the final lap, probably finishing between 1 and 2 PM.

About halfway through that 11th lap I hit the lowest emotional place of my race. It was triggered by the warning from my light system that my time was almost up. This came more than half an hour before twilight was due. I was so beat, and the quitter grabbed the imminent light failure as evidence that the goal was out of reach. If I needed to spend half an hour stopped, waiting for enough daylight to ride, or riding slowly and hoping not to bump into a cactus in the dark, how could I get the 13th lap done before noon? Wouldn’t it be nice to just let go of the goal, and lay down for a while back in camp, then do one more lap maybe? The low battery warning indicator would go back to green, and it would look like the light was going to make it to dawn. But moments later it would cry wolf. This messed with my mind, and I kept chanting to myself “fourteen”. Cactus began to shape shift. Some looked like people, or bears watching me from the dark. Still I turned the cranks, grinding along.

Dim light began to reveal the now overcast sky. Still too dark to ride singletrack without light, but twilight was coming. As I turned onto double-track about 2/3 of the way through that lap, my light shut itself off. The twilight was still very dim, but I could see the dirt road. And after so many trips around this circle, I knew where I was. I looked ahead at the eastern horizon and saw the first rose color of sunrise.

When I got to singletrack again, it was light enough to ride. I no longer needed my spent light system. I had never needed to stop or slow down. Quitter had been wrong.

As I slowly wound along on the singletrack, I caught up with a woman who asked me if I wanted to pass. I sounded like Eeyore when I responded that it didn’t matter, telling her I was a solo who was shelled.

“Are you solo?” I asked. 
“No, I’m just slow and out of shape. We’ll ride in to finish this lap together.” Turns out she was also from Colorado, and she was sharing camp with a 32-year-old solo woman who had suffered a stroke earlier in the year. I asked how this solo woman was doing, and she told me she was doing great. 

Talking with this companion really helped, along with the daylight. My sanity seemed to be returning. 

As I rode I decided I would stop in camp and make some hot scrambled eggs. It would take some time, but that no longer seemed to matter. If I was going to keep going, I should eat what I wanted. And I wanted hot eggs with bacon rolled up in a tortilla--with plenty of salt, and mayonnaise.

So I did it, I stopped in camp and Meg made hot breakfast for me. I was in camp for nearly 40 minutes. I sat down with no guilt. Then I left to do one more lap. That would be fine. I creaked and groaned, staggered through the start/finish, and then wound myself up for one more lap as the morning light washed over everything. 

That food went to work on me. I got the most incredible boost, and soon I was railing singletrack almost as fast as I had been 15 hours earlier. I looked at my watch and realized that all I needed to do was two laps in less than 4 hours, then I could still do a final one starting just before noon. Fourteen. 

The idea excited me, and I rode like I was fresh. I was full of confidence and pride. I had ridden through the night, and I would make my goal.

As I neared the end of the lap, rather than riding into camp I shouted to Meg, “Hey, I’m going for it, fourteen. I’m not going to take a pit stop now. Can you bring some provisions to the start finish in about 90 minutes?” 

She said of course she would, and “Go for it!” I rode to the start/finish like a champion, checked in, and then took off to ride number 13.

I made a key mistake right at the beginning of the 13th lap. When I hit the first hard climb, I didn’t shift down into a low gear soon enough. I stood and tried to hammer up. My left knee complained, and sent a shock of pain up into my dazzled and frazzled brain. I tried to shift down, but wound up getting off and pushing. After I remounted the pain in that knee became well-established. It took the excitement out of me, and set me back to the slogging pace that I’d kept through most of the night.

Right at the place where my lights had shut off on the previous lap, I ran into my friend June. “How many do you have?” she asked. 

“This is thirteen, but I think I’m going to do one more.”

“Good for you!” she shouted after me.

As I continued, a strong rider came alongside me, standing on his pedals. 

“Hey, so you’re riding solo?” 

“Yeah”, I said, “it’s my first time. Have you ever done a solo before?” I asked, assuming he was a team rider since he was looking so strong. 

“Yeah, I’ve done a few.”

“The night is so long when you ride through the whole thing!” I said. 

“It really was long, wasn’t it?” 

“So you’re solo too? How many laps do you have?”

“Eighteen. I’m in second place right now. I can’t sit down anymore.” He was shooting nervous looks over his shoulder. “The number three guy is somewhere pretty close behind me right now.”

“Damn! Congratulations! So Tinker is first?”

“Yeah, that guy is unbeatable. He was having some equipment problems during the middle of the night so I had some hope, but then he got his bike straightened out and took off. He’s so good…”

“Well good luck to you!” I shouted, “And congratulations!”

He said thanks and good luck, shot a glance over his shoulder and rode on. It was an inspiration to have someone at his level take the time to ride at my pace to talk with me when clearly he had no time to spare. Turns out it was Dave Harris, and he did take 2nd Men’s Solo.

Even with that kind of inspiration, the reality of my situation became clear as I mounted the climb to the course high point in the last few miles of the lap. Even staying in a low gear, my left knee was shooting pain with every pedal stroke. I had time to get to the start/finish by noon, it was just a little after 11:30, but I started worrying about whether I was in danger of permanently damaging my knee. 
I’m no spring chicken--but I would like to get at least a few more decades out of these old knees. Sanity and clarity began to ring in my tired brain. 

“This is your first 24 hour race. You have learned some good lessons, you know what to expect if you do another one, and you’ve raced a fine race. Furthermore, if you stop you can eat and drink lots of things, and you can have some ibuprofren! And perhaps you can actually witness the awards ceremony rather than riding until mid-afternoon on a sore knee.”

So this is what I did. I stopped riding just before noon. I went into my trailer and got some pain relievers, ate some food, drank some gatoraide, then rolled my race bike down to the start/finish and clocked out my final, 13th lap just after noon. Then I walked my bike back to the trailer and ate some more food. Meg brought me ice for my knees. Then I laid down for just a moment, and slept through the awards ceremony. 

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