I’m home, the legs are recovered, I got to spend a great weekend camping with some of my favorite people out in the woods of western New Mexico, with a little bit of sweet singletrack riding thrown in. What could be better? Well, although I can take some credit for eight new national champion’s jerseys, the one I wanted to keep for myself eluded me. They say that a good day is one in which your gratitude outweighs your expectations, and I have so many things for which to be thankful… but here’s the story about what happened with those darn expectations.
In spite of the stress of putting together three 4-person junior teams and two teams of coaches, friends, teammates, and Get Out! alumni, prepping bikes and gear and food and clothing to get me through what I had hoped to be at least 14 laps, recruiting a mechanic and additional pit help, continuing to get everything done at work and doing the odds and ends involved in running a junior team, coordinating the camping trip and pre-rides, and whatever else I had to do before I could get to Gallup, I arrived at the race rested, optimistic, and ready to go. Bikes were working perfectly and Gu Energy Labs had sent me plenty of Roctane so that I could have a bottle per lap, which worked out so well last year. That stuff is amazing; I can always get it down, it tastes awesome, and I can really tell a difference in my legs when I stay on it. Pre-rides went well; the course was dusty but in good shape, none of the juniors flatted (thank you Stan’s NoTubes!), and another coach generously offered to take care of some tire changes and other mechanical things some of the kids needed on Friday. My brother Chuck was there to feed me during the race, and Kenny managed to get time off work so that he could be my mechanical support while our team manager was busy with a new baby.
The only worry I had about my body was a wrist issue that I’d been having for a couple of months. Shannon made short work of that when she arrived at camp, and put the finishing touches on my race-night meal with some chocolate cake that I had to tear myself away from. I slept like a champ and socked away about 10 hours, was up on time to get the entire breakfast down and was energized enough that I didn’t feel like I had to finish my coffee. We talked about how the wind was expected to kick up, which made me happy because wind never bothers me on my mountain bike. The race started and my plan to improve on last year by going much slower at the start worked out great; I was keeping the heart rate low but still had plenty of people to ride with. As a bonus, on the first lap I got to ride for a while in between a dude in an Air Force kit with extremely well-shaved legs and a guy from Wyoming with the biggest mustache I have ever seen. Me, Air Force One, and Wyatt Earp. We were clipping along at a solid but sustainable pace. I made it to the pit and headed out for lap two with a surprisingly comfortable lead that increased over the next few laps. Things were going well; my pit crew was taking good care of my bikes and I was eating and drinking plenty. My legs felt strong. I had a couple impressively long pee stops and had just a little bit of stiffness in my neck and shoulders that started to work themselves out when I switched to the Scalpel. I remembered to stop and shake it out every now and then. Chuck didn’t forget to put food in my pockets this time. It’s painful now to recall just how well things were going. My hands and wrist were completely comfortable for what may have been the first time this season.
The wind had indeed kicked up and there was a lot of dust in the air, but I could breathe fine and the breeze provided some welcome cooling. However, at about five laps in I had a little spot of blurriness in my right eye. I told myself it was fine, it would probably go away once the wind died down. Instead it spread so that on the first night lap I started to lose my depth perception. On the second night lap I crashed into a rock that everyone had been easily riding over; I couldn’t tell that I had come up on it. Luckily I was going slow already, so it just scraped me a little. When I came through the transition area I couldn’t tell where the trail was, and crashed into someone’s camp off to the right. I told myself I was merely disoriented because I had turned my lights off, but my left eye was starting to get a little blurry. The third night lap was bad. I could climb fine, but I was scared on the mellow downhill. I went slow. I was having a hard time seeing any of the rocks on the trail. When I came in, I felt like I should stop at the pit. I wasn’t sure what could be done, though, so since there weren’t too many more night laps I told myself to keep going. I’d be able to see when the sun came out, surely. I told Kenny I couldn’t see out of my right eye. He laughed slightly uncomfortably.
I got on my bike without my lights on and screamed when I was pushed into the darkness, which was actually a nice moonlit evening. I turned on my lights but things weren’t much better; in spite of 4,000 lumens of Light & Motion power, which usually turns night into day, I could see about six feet in front of my front wheel. I closed my right eye and noticed the fog was only slightly better out of the left. I felt a momentary panic and swallowed it. I made it to that rock again and in spite of my best attempt to predict its location, I failed. I was off the bike making excuses to the sweet and chatty solo guy that had been riding behind me and insisting on not passing me. He was cheerful and I really enjoyed his company in my state of suppressed terror, but I was embarrassed to bungle him up on that rock. A woman came by and asked if we were all right. She continued past us and I saw her kit was blue, so I figured I was getting passed by second place. I caught up to her again on the climb, where blindness wasn’t such a handicap, and I wondered if I should pass her. I did so only because I was fearful that my lights would go out if I had to walk all of the downhills. I needed to save time so that I could get home again. I wasn’t dressed for sleeping in the woods.
On the twistier part of the trail at the top I started getting suckered by every swath of dirt that intersected the trail, and I didn’t have to go off trail too many times before she caught me again. She said something about cat and mouse and was gone. It made me think of the mountain lions that were surely out there. I plodded on. Thoughts of being in second place occurred to me, but were superseded by a desire to just get home in one piece. How quickly one goes from race mode to survival mode. The downhill trail was terrifying. I was clinging to the brakes and to a short shaft of light that seemed to extend only inches in front of me. Everything was blurry. I couldn’t tell when people were coming up behind me until there was a brief flash of light as they passed. I took to exiting the trail quickly to the right whenever I heard anything, which sometimes enabled me to stay upright and sometimes sent me into a tree or onto the ground. I still had three miles to go when my lights gave the blink that signals the end of battery life. I had an extra in my pocket, but I just wanted to get home. I was shivering from riding so slow.
Somehow I made it back to the NoTubes tent; one of my lights had gone out but the other still worked, although I couldn’t tell as I rode. Someone had improved the trail markings through the venue, for which I was thankful, but there appeared to be a curtain of dark water over our pit area so that it was just a red dimly-lit smear in the dark. I gave them my bike and sat down. I was cold, and needed help taking off my shoes and socks. I felt sad, but I couldn’t get back on the bike. I went to bed; it was only an hour before sunrise, and they put some saline in my eyes and told me they’d come see if I wanted to ride when the sun came up. I heard someone speak to me and took my eyeshades off my face, but all I could see was a bright yellow blur of the inside of my tent. I closed my right eye. Same blur out of the left. I wanted to cry but instead just said no, I couldn’t see and probably wasn’t going to ride my bike. Chuck then went and asked Daniel and Shannon if he should do something to make me come out, but they both told him that if it were possible for me to ride, I would. I had a brief thought that maybe I’d never see again; maybe I had sacrificed my perfect 20/15 eyesight to a silly bike race. I joked to myself about what crappy seeing-eye dogs my malamutes would make, and I went to sleep. When I woke up again, the juniors were bringing me coconut water and asking if I was OK. This time my eyes were slightly better when I opened them, but when I went outside I couldn’t always tell who was speaking to me. I squinted at the clock and felt like I was having the dream where you show up at the race and it’s already over. I asked someone what time it was, and it was only 8:30. I could have at least done one morning lap if only I could have gotten on that bike. Instead I ate some pineapple.
There was all kinds of good news when the race was over and the laps were tallied. One of the junior boys’ teams had won the 4-person Junior 24-hour National Championship, and the other took 2nd. My junior girls had also triumphed. Shannon’s team won the 5-person category. Jessie logged the fastest junior girl’s lap, and Taylor logged the fastest by a junior boy. No flats by anyone (thanks Stan’s NoTubes!) except Jerry, who took a corner too hot and crashed early in the race (he’s fine, and it didn’t cost Shannon’s team the win). Our friends on the New Mexico All-Stars team had won the jerseys for the 4-person open category, and another New Mexican, Stefanie Kyser, won the singlespeed women’s solo jersey. Somehow in spite of quitting at hour 17, I still managed to squeak onto the podium in 3rd place and got to congratulate Tracy and Laureen on a job well done. I wish I could have been a more worthy contender for them, but I was happy to stand in the company of two great athletes who were able to endure the vicissitudes of 24-hour racing and keep going strong to the end. And today I am recovered, my eyesight is good, and I’m going out to go out and crush some intervals tonight. Life is alright. Props to all the tough women on bicycles who participated over the weekend, and I look forward to hearing more stories about what happened in the Enchanted Forest last Saturday night.