The sweat started developing on my palms as i looked down the trail. It sure was steep, and right at the bottom there was a big rock on the left hand side. My bare sweaty hands tightly clutched the grips, making them feel extra squishy. The nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach only became worse as two older riders pulled up on their new bikes, contemplated the descent, and between them decided to “wait for another time to try and ride it”. They pedaled away as I decided to stare at it for just a little longer.
It had been a while since I had gotten my first mountain bike and I tried to ride it alone as much as possible so that no one could see how terrible I was at it. A humble bike it was, heavy by any standard with low end components and no suspension. Mountain biking had become popular overnight in Queens, where I had noticed Thule and Yakima racks appearing as status symbols on cars before I ever owned a mountain bike. I recall sitting in my friends VW as he handed me a Specialized bike magazine of that model years’ bikes. When showed the one that he was going to buy I wondered to myself how I would get the money to afford something similar. Other kids in the neighborhood already owned expensive bikes; and of particular envy was one Team Edition Volvo-Cannondale bike.
I had already begun cursing my luck the day before I flew out to race the Butte 100 in Montana. It had been a priority to get new seals for my suspension fork since it had been pouring oil since the last race, but the parts had not arrived in time. Unfortunately the race would have to be ridden on a fully rigid bike. From what I knew of the race besides it being 100 miles was that it would climb and descend almost 18,000 feet, far more than any race or ride I had ever done. This elevation gain was so absurd to me I questioned if it could be fit into 100 miles. Tinker Juarez, who once rode for the Volvo-Cannondale Team, called it his favorite and the hardest race he had ever done. These words carried weight since they came from an accomplished racer.
In the pre-sunrise light of the early morning I lined up at the start of the Butte 100. Trying not to think of the 100 miles before me, my gloves that had somehow disappeared (I later found out our friend’s two year old had taken them) and the lack of suspension on my bike I looked around and saw Tinker. A smile came across my face as the thought came across my mind. “Never did I imagine that I would one day line up against the mountain bike racers in the magazines of my youth.” The smile turned to focus as the call came out; “15 seconds till start”. I checked to make sure that I was in the right gear, and that both water bottles were there. “10 seconds” I felt my heart start going a little faster, took a deep breath and swallowed. “3, 2, 1, Go!” the early morning spectators clapped and cheered and we rolled through the start line.
I worked myself into fifth position going at a comfortable pace, knowing that no one wins a 100 mile race in the first couple of miles. Dead ahead was Tinker, flanked by two other riders surely trying to test the defending champion. We entered the first downhill section and I followed the fourth place rider. Thinking he was going too slowly so I went for the pass. Soon after going for the pass I realized the reason for the reduced speed. I washed out full speed in 6 inches of sand trying to make a right hand turn. As I slid across the sand dragging my leg and knuckles I was relieved that there were no rocks and that it really didn’t hurt that much. A couple of thoughts went through my mind 1) bad way to start a 100 and 2) this is really going to hurt. A rider passed me from behind as I tried wiping the sand off my hands. I was now in 6th place and my hands already hurt.
It took me about 20 minutes of descending to figure out how to corner, but after trading positions on the uphill and downhill I realized that the rigid bike was naturally slower on the descents, despite my efforts to the contrary. Not helping the situation was that I had never seen any part of the course.
It was early in the race, where the first rays of the sun were beginning to peek through the trees. Feeling the comfortable temperature I knew we would be in for a hot one. I reached down to drink and saw that I lost a water bottle during the crash – I had one left but it was half empty. “Stick it out till the next aid station”, I thought to myself, emptying the contents of the water bottle into my mouth.
Passing the next checkpoint I was between two Montana riders on the same team, sitting in 5th place. My bottle was now full, and I fished into my pocket to eat some food. As I did the guy behind me sped around and bridged up to the rider in front. I let them go, deciding that eating was more important at this moment. I am still not sure if it was a mistake, but I only realized after I rode them that the next 20 miles or so were perfect terrain to trade turns drafting and conserving energy. I would ride the rest of the race alone.
Somewhere around mile 60 I saw our blue rental car with Melissa in it. This was the first time I had seen her all race as she had been looking for gloves for the past 5 hours. She drove ahead up the road and waited for me. Once outside the car she pulled out gloves and filled my water bottles. My hands felt instant relief from the beating that they had taken over the previous miles. I sped to the next checkpoint with renewed energy. “I’ll see you at mile 70!” she yelled after me.
Going into the checkpoint at mile 70 I was 30 minutes down on Tinker. Melissa was waiting there to fill my empty water bottles. Right after leaving the checkpoint I encountered a steep uphill section. No big deal I thought, just pace it like you have been. Yet the single track continued on and on, as did the steep climbing. What I encountered for the next twenty miles was the most difficult ride or race I have ever been a part of. I still don’t know how I didn’t cramp, because fluids and food were becoming less and less palatable. I was so focused on finishing I had to place the worries of a bike mechanical or crashing out of my mind. There was a very good possibility that if I did either I would have to walk out, or more likely, someone would have to carry me out.
As the miles dragged on my speed dropped significantly; and the climb continued with pain and mental fatigue slowly letting itself in. More than once did I look down at the soggy bottom headset cap on my bike; last years’ 100 miler trophy and 1) wished my friend were there and 2) reminded myself that everyone else was suffering the same as me. Strange what goes through one’s mind during epically long races, mostly to soothe the despair of late miles when the body begins to protest the mind’s commands.
Mile marker 90 came around and it was the last checkpoint. I was on my last legs – dehydrated with no desire to drink and hungry without any desire to eat. The end of my rope had come. Yet the final climb was still ahead and somehow the first two miles felt relatively easy. Maybe it was the feel that the finish was so close or more likely it was the last desperate effort from a body that could no longer go. Whatever it was, as the climb continued the energy began to ebb from my body. I no longer had any power behind the pedal strokes; 90 plus miles and over 17,000 feet of vertical had taken their toll. Cresting over the last hill I somehow rolled to the finish line holding onto sixth place.
It was difficult to get into the car following the race; my body felt cold and my extremities began to tingle. I could see the muscles twitching in my legs, but I couldn’t feel their movements. I was trying to ingest fluids but the nausea kept protesting. I knew that if I threw up it would be a hospital visit for iv fluids. Rolling down the window to get some fresh air gave me temporary relief.
Somehow holding onto the contents of my stomach we arrived back at the cabin we were staying at. I needed to be flanked on either side to exit the car into the house. Like one with broken legs I was helped into the bathtub. My body temperature had dropped; I needed heat, food and fluid. Pouring Epsom salt into the running bath I stepped in. Maybe after some minutes or maybe an hour the salt and water began to hydrate my skin and life began to return to my body. I ate a Graham cracker and washed it down with water. I was going to be ok.
Somehow around mile 80 I remembered what it was like to be scared of descending on a mountain bike; looking down the trail with my palms pouring sweat and my heart racing. It had been hidden away in memory for 15 years, locked up with life’s other awkward moments we would sometimes rather forget.
Memories come up that retroactively act like barometers of our own life’s weather patterns. They are tools of measurement, to see how far winds and weather have carried you and just maybe, during a moment of clarity you realize how far you have come with the work you have put in. Sometimes taking a step back and eliminating noise makes one realize how good they have become at something, not just in cycling but anything in life. It is easiest for me to think of such things when I have the menial task of pedaling in little circles and getting up that next hill.
I wish that only words could share the elation and pride that I felt at mile 80; yet as is often the case during any long excursion I had the most beautiful thought come to mind only to have it leave as easily as it came in. As I write these words realizing they are unjust to the thoughts I was having, as I have butchered them once again. Like trying to make a moment last forever I still clutch for it as it rapidly slips away.
Somewhere there at mile 80 a boy finally rode down the steep trail, even if it was only in my mind. We had come a long way together, growing and learning. It was the old me and the young me, meeting again for the first time on some dusty trail high on the Montana continental divide, embracing the past, present and future, knowing that our road together had come too far to let those last 20 miles stop us.