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Shades of fun

For a much better written post about this race, check out Jill’s blog post.

Friday, 11/5/2010. Over the Edge Sports

I shake Dave “Fixie” Nice’s hand.

“You can rent a bike with the small wheels or a 29er”.
“Um, what would you recommend?”
“I’d take the 29er”

I’m taking it for a 1 minute spin. It’s a Rocky Mountain Altitude. Feels ok I presume. I’ve barely ridden a 26er, never a 29er. I get back into the shop. “Feels great!”.


The bed’s a mess. Our race gear is spread out, and mine doesn’t look pretty. I am packing a random assortment of stuff, lots of IcyHot gel, patches, bandages, even some hand braces one would usually use for office related repetitive strain issues. I was so focused on my anticipated back, butt and hand pain that I forgot armies, anything for the head, my windblock baselayer … all those bike clothes I do have. At home.

hotel mess

Fortunately Jill got distracted shortly after this shot and forgot to break up with me over my poor organization. Close call!

Jill, on the other hand, has everything under control. She’s in her element.
Our food selection, however, shows a shared tendency for chaotic spur-of-the moment planning – five bags of sour gummies, candy bars, goldfish, peanut butter, bagels with salami and cheese, baked chips (yeah because we’re healthy eaters) and (thank god) some fruit. Everything is assorted in a few plastic grocery bags. We’re not totally naive or ignorant – when you’re doing very long ultras, you tend to get a variety of food that actually tastes good rather than stuff engineered for performance that makes you throw up after eating it for two days …

Undoubtedly I am annoying Jill with my pre-race jitters, but she stays sweet and upbeat as always. She’s a little excited herself, due to no “real” training for a few months (apart from 5 hour after-work rides …) – but of course she can do this off the couch in her sleep. I on the other hand feel a strange muted panic – what I am about to try is so unknown to me I have a hard time being specifically scared, but I do have a somewhat vague knot in my stomach and my excitement is growing. Having Jill there significantly reduces my fears though, although by design she won’t be able to actually help me out on the course – we will be alternating laps. “You’ll probably dump me after this!” she jokes. I laugh, “Really YOU are trying to get rid of me. Murder attempt #3.” I reply, referring to our previous adventures “but you won’t succeed that easily!”. I hope.

Saturday, 11/6/2010, Race venue

We park next to Bill’s car and unpack. I know Bill is very competitive and very good, but he’s really low key and fun, nothing obvious hints at the aggressive will to win inside. People walk around with very expensive looking bikes. Everyone looks way fitter than me, and this time, I can be certain of it, too … I feel very out of place, an impostor. Jill and I have matching Google outfits, and we go under the team name of “Swiss Miss” which I shamelessly stole

Race venue at sunset

from my friend Roger (with his blessing though). Ben, Bill’s strongest competitor, has his station set up next to us – it looks like a pro aid station. His highly pregnant wife is supporting him much to all of our amazement – she’s really nice and supplies us with even more candy during the race. Bill’s setup is more low-key but very well thought through. It reminds me of my own running setup which I tuned over many races, although even there I tend to chaos, which always costs me probably 20 minutes in each race as I search for stuff (then again drop bags are a bit harder to organize).
I walk with Jill to the start of the race … it’s a running start, a few hundred yards to the bikes, to disperse the field somewhat. Some racers are moaning about the distance, which amuses me a bit as I grasp for any straw of confidence I can find. I joke I should do the start, and I almost consider it seriously, just so the wait is over. The RD announces the start … everyone runs for their bikes. The race has started, but it is strangely anti-climactic for me, as I have to wait for another hour or so for Jill. I feel very insecure, I don’t even know how the handoff is supposed to work, and I have no idea if the course is marked in an obvious way. I presume I’ll find out. Everyone tells me the course is very easy, and not to worry. But easy by whose standards?

I have a good chat with Ben’s wife and the time goes by very quickly, as do the fast riders. I am for now merely a spectator, outside all of this. As I get ready to go to the timing tent I panic – I can’t find my bike gloves!  Flustered, I grab my alternates … I am in a state of heightened fear now. I later find them in the pocket of my backpack … I push my bike over to the timing tent and wait for Jill. She comes in after an hour and 15 minutes, a bit earlier than she thought, with a big smile on her face. “The Virgin Rim trail is quite rocky, you probably want to walk your bike there. But it’s only 2 miles, otherwise it’s really fun”. The timing person says I can go … I say quickly goodbye, go to my bike, and start pedaling, caught up in race mode.

The climb

The course has three distinct (in my mind) sections – the climb, the singletrack descent on the Jem trail, and the Virgin Rim rock disaster. The climb is almost all road and fairly easy – some steeper sections, but nothing that would tax even my limited abilities (at least on fresh legs). In some ways it is the part of the course I can relax and I am looking forward to it, as opposed to almost everyone else except for Jill. The section has a few little descents on which I gain some confidence in the bike and its suspension. Only at one part I hit an unexpectedly deep little rut at the bottom of a descent and I feel a bit out of control due to my failure to pull up the bike, a harsh reminder that I really don’t know how to ride at all. Otherwise I have the opportunity to lose myself admiring the majestic rock formations and scenery. I catch up to another rider (admittedly a solo rider on his second lap), who points out the start of the singletrack. It looks innocent enough.

The Jem trail

My excuse for being a total wuss. Another scar on the other side ... two operations, plates and screws. Cycling is fun!

“You go ahead” I tell him, “I’ll be slow”. Indeed, as soon as we hit the singletrack he pulls away. It’s pretty easy flowing stuff. Still, I lack confidence in my ability to turn and clear obstacles, so I tend to go only as fast as I can scan ahead instead of dealing with stuff as it comes. After about half a mile the trail seems to disappear at an edge – I slow down and roll towards a fairly steep (for me) drop. To be clear, things that are scary to me are at best fun for an experienced biker – I like to blame a compound fracture of my arm I got in a bike accident when I was 15, but really I am just a chicken. In previous training rides I would have probably walked it, especially as there was a little rock drop-off in the middle, but I am so afraid of other riders seeing me (and crashing into me) that I keep going. I start down the trail and experience a wave of fear at the unfamiliar angle – fortunately I learned previously that the front brake tends to be a sure way to catapult yourself over the handlebars so I locked my rear wheel for a few yards and then let go – the bike smoothly went over the rocky drop-off and I had ample time to reduce my speed again at the bottom. Ironically it would probably feel a lot easier if I would go faster … I feel a mixture of exhilaration and fear – I made it, but I’ll have to make it many more times! I ride on, and after a short distance the trail disappears again on a ledge – this time even sharper. It really looks like there is a cliff … I roll slowly towards it and there is a rock step, maybe 6 inches high, followed by a steepening descent ending in a turn. I am terrified, and for a moment ponder if I should stop – but in a race I always tend to take more risks than otherwise, mostly because it feels like you’re supposed to do this and thus it should be safe, and again – I don’t want anyone to crash into me. Ignoring the fact that mountain biking indeed has lots of technique and that you really can crash if you don’t do things right, I simply roll off the edge. Fortunately for me this drop is indeed easily doable in this fashion, and as soon as both wheels are on the ground I lock the rear and skid down towards another small rock step before I let go and speed down … The same feeling of exhilaration and fear overcomes me, just much stronger, and I almost feel a bit reckless and guilty. The final obstacle in this section is preceded with a mandatory dismount, and I run it happily, despite almost smacking the bike in my back – clearly I could not have ridden it, with a few hairpins and rather rocky steepness. After that, the trail becomes flowing, fast and fun, and I gain speed, still being overtaken quite a bit – I try to move actively aside as to not hold back my co-riders, even if it means I almost fall over bushes and off-trail rocks. Despite my relative slowness I feel a pleasant rush of speed, and even have time to admire the incredible setting of the southern Utah desert with its impressive colors, and I almost forget I am racing. But as opposed to running I can’t really get lost in thoughts too much, as things happen fast … with a twinge of regret I keep focused on the trail.

Rocky disaster

Eventually I get to the Virgin Dam trail – the section Jill has warned me of. It contains a long rock garden and various technical up and down – I manage to ride all the down, often skidding down rocky steps with the rear locked or braking, tensely gripping my handlebars, almost all of the ups (with great effort, I presume the 29ers help in some ways but definitely feel somewhat less nimble in picking a line, not that I’m any good at it anyways) short of two or three steps, and the whole flat rock garden section (just barely). Things are much more twisty and technical but it’s slow, so I can enjoy the fun of trying to keep going – at least when I’m not looking at a nearby cliff, which invariably evokes images of me tumbling down into the gorge followed by my bike, even though we never get really close to any drop-offs. It is also exhausting, and even Bill later concedes this is a strenuous section (well, especially when riding it 20 times …). Fear, adrenaline, beautiful scenery, frustration, strain, fun and focus all mix together to a fantastic and intense experience … Finally I see the timing tent which fills me with relief and disappointment at the same time, and find myself extremely pleased with a 1:12 lap – the same speed as Jill! Just as I walk into the tent she comes running in, expecting me later … “I survived!!” I say with glee and child-like excitement “I rode almost all of it! But I was way out of my comfort zone.”. “You rocked it, I didn’t expect you back so fast. Awesome.” she replies with a huge smile. We walk together out of the tent and I feel regret that she has to leave. Although the lap was strenuous, I barely feel it physically, but the mental effort and impact is huge – and I feel a slight twinge of racing spirit creep up, I ponder how I can do better, what I can improve, how to be faster on the next lap. I look around, at the wonderful desert, with new appreciation. Life is good.

Lap 2

The wait between laps is not long enough to take a nap nor short enough to not get sleepy … but soon enough, Jill emerges from her second lap with an even bigger grin on her face. She finally gets the hang of the course … “I love biking” she tells me excitedly! This time I stay a bit with her, since we’re here for fun after all. After a few minutes though I take off … my legs are a bit tired on the climb, but not terribly so, and I am able to keep up with some riders and overtake others. The descent on the Jem trail feels much faster as I know what’s coming, although the two obstacles seem just as disconcerting as the first time around … still, I speed up and feel good! I almost lose control at a very shallow drop into a wash, sort of inexplicably, and Jill tells me later she almost crashed in the same spot. Otherwise I’m going strong, and even on the rock garden I do okay, although disappointingly my new confidence seems to translate in a less carefully picked line and thus in more occasions where I need to put my feet down. Still, when I get to the timing tent, Jill is not there and only meets me as I push my bike out. “You were flying!”. I think she humors me a bit with her encouragement, but still it feels good.

Beautiful views ...

Lap 3

This lap teaches me a lesson … getting tired has two distinct effects, just like in running. If you’re not afraid, you get looser and sometimes better, especially on downhills. But if you’re afraid, you can get really insecure and shaky. Especially on the Virgin Dam trail I felt less capable and more shaky especially on somewhat exposed sections. And in biking, as you slow down, things actually get more difficult – yet although I would have the strength I am unable to get past my mental barriers. On the rock garden section there’s a photographer and it takes all my strength to get over the trail without stopping, although I must have surely looked like the bloody beginner I am, with my “line” resembling the path I would take on foot after half a bottle of single malt whiskey. This after only three laps – not good. In addition the cloud cover put a gloomy atmosphere over the desert in the late afternoon, and for a while I miscalculate and assume I might end up getting to the timing tent in the dark, but fortunately I realized my mistake soon enough. I end up in the tent somewhat less upbeat.

Sunset over the Hurricane cliffs

Lap 4

I love running at night. I learned doing so during my first 100 miler, I gathered almost everything I needed to know in the first 30 minutes of my run, and it’s been my favorite running environment ever since. I have two night biking experiences, one rather scary one going down technical trail using only a running headlamp, and one fun one with proper state of the art lights on easier trails, and given I know the course I am excited about my first night lap – this should be fun! I can go slower without feeling bad, and it’ll be a wholly new trail! This holds mostly true for the first two sections of the trail … although I find out that the other riders don’t slow down nearly as much as I thought and I keep having to get out of the way. The dam trail proves to be a formidable challenge for me. My slow speed makes the rocky descents feel much more rocky and dangerous, and on the rock garden I keep missing the line and losing contact with my platform pedals, leading to occasionally painful near-castration scenarios, bruises on my shins and knees, and I even manage somehow to tear a hole in my bib. Frustration and fear wash a wave of discontent over my mood, and I wonder what I am doing here, and why the hell I bought a mountain bike … I reach the timing tent dissatisfied and beaten. My time is not as terrible as I thought, and Jill is giving me encouragement before she takes off on her lap. “You don’t have to go out again if you don’t want to, it’s just for fun! You already did awesome.” But I feel like I have something to prove. While mentally I am very exhausted, physically I feel fine – tired yes, but I know exactly that I can maintain this state for a very long time – a discrepancy which only adds to my frustration. All my math adds up to me doing a lot of night laps if we keep alternating, which doesn’t sound good to me at all, and I am planning on letting Jill take a few double turns.

Lap 5

Jill returns from her night lap excited like a little child. “Biking is sooo much fuuun!”. I am tense and linger around before I finally leave. The climb now seems harder but still doable, however my back is hurting quite quickly (due to some bad discs and insufficient core muscles I am prone to some exquisite back pain – usually most of my lower back goes numb on the surface and radiates dull pain inside – especially on climbs and when it’s cold) and my hands are tired from gripping the bars and breaks in fear. Still, surprisingly this lap goes better than the previous one – mostly because I finally resign myself to two things: a) it’s ok for me to be the weakest technical rider in the whole race. Who cares? and b) “Fuck this. I’m walking” – makes for a much more fun (and sometimes faster) strategy than to keep trying … I end the lap in a better mood, but due to tiredness I feel that I am becoming dangerously unsafe given this course feels so at the edge of my abilities. When I get back, Jill tells me to take a nap and she’ll do two laps. In the cool night, I get deeply chilled very quickly once inactive, and I set up in our tent but have a hard time actually sleeping and am more dozing – my mind wanders around the course, I have a hard time warming up, and I keep hearing voices and wonder if it’s Jill already returning.

Lap 6

After dozing for a while I wake up more rested and toasty warm and for what seems like an eternity ponder if I can get myself out in the cold and face another lap, and I am on the edge of turning around and going back to sleep. With great mental effort I get out to find Jill, who quietly let me sleep and has done three laps. She’s in an extraordinarily good mood. “I should really do a lap, huh?”. “You really don’t have to. I’m having fun. You really don’t need to do any more laps if you don’t want to. “. Still I know I would feel very bad about myself if I didn’t try. “I’ll go out, and I’ll take a very long time, you should get some rest!”. Starting up after sleeping is tough – my legs feel more sore and I am even more shaky throughout the lap – but with my newly acquired strategy I am doing ok. When I get back, I find Jill snoozing in the tent, and I crawl in. At this point our second place is guaranteed, so I suggest we just snooze for a while, but after a short time she slowly wakes up, feeling nauseated from all the candy we ate as race food. I feel bad for making her go out again, but I feel done – I did three day laps and three night laps, and while I have a lot of physical energy left, mentally I am ready to concede – after all I’ve got a lot of races coming up soon, and I really can’t hurt myself, and I want to give Jill the opportunity to finish 10 laps, and …

Jill finishes 10 laps, the last one with Bill. We have another hour to spare, and I try to talk them into going out for a final lap with me, but Bill is shattered from an aggressive battle with Ben, and Jill never really recovered from her nausea (although you couldn’t tell) and we decided we were all done. I quickly ponder running one lap but reject the idea to avoid putting the bikers (and myself) in danger, although it would have been great fun (and I think I wouldn’t have needed much more than 2 hours).

Monday, 11/8/2010: Rancho San Antonio park, California

It’s 7:30pm, dark, and I am running my usual short 12 mile round in the park, with about 2500ft of climbing in 4 miles. My legs feel strangely stiff and tired, and my knee is pretty sore which makes me think it was good to stick with 6 laps, but it’s getting better as I run on. My mind wanders, trying to synthesize the experience of Frog Hollow, reconcile my mental accomplishment with the lack of the physical drama I had expected, feeling inadequate and not quite happy with what I had done and how little I had challenged myself. Jill keeps telling me I did great, but I think she is just being nice, and secretly expected more – after all I had done insane running feats this year, many orders of magnitude harder, both physically and mentally. Still, I find myself missing biking, the technical challenge, the rush and the fun as I slog up the steep hillside. I try to find parallels between running and biking, running equivalents to the “commit” of taking a technical downhill, most akin to steep muddy hillside running which I love so much. Running allows you to enjoy the lack of control, slipping and sliding at the edge and beyond, and I wonder if I will ever feel like this biking. I feel slow and stiff, and on my way up I can’t feel but disappointed by the lack of excitement when running, even though it allows you to reflect and lose yourself in thoughts, and briefly I regret the loss of excitement in my favorite activity … but as soon as I hit the top, I start flying down the trail, dancing, tethering at the edge of my maximal cadence. I come to the realization that both biking and running are simply different shades of fun, and I just opened a whole new world of experience and wonder, and I figure I just doubled my enjoyment of life and nature. When I get back, I see with satisfaction that I was as fast as ever, with no apparent slowdown from the weekend activity. Good news. Good news indeed.

Many thanks to Dave Nice (who raced the course on a fixed gear bike – with the only concession to sanity being a front brake. I cannot even begin to fathom how one can ride a fixie over this terrain!!!) and Bill Martin (the animal!) for helping me, encouraging me and showing me a generally awesome time. And of course infinite thanks to Jill for putting up with me!

5 comments to Shades of fun

  • Nice post Beat. I like how you describe Jill as she gets more and more excited the more she rides. I realize by reading this just what a challenge it was for you. You really did well and I am very impressed with you first ever mountain bike race. When is the next one 🙂 ???

  • So impressed with your 1st mtn bike race! glad to help with the bike… Your always welcome this way for another ride and or hike… Great to meet yah!

  • Danni

    You are really hard on yourself I think.

  • Ed S

    Great post, Beat! Loved getting an endurance runner’s perspective. I did my first 24-hr MTB this year (3 Man Team) and could relate to much of what you said. What Danni said: you did great! Well done…Ed (met you in Rattlesnake on your one training ride)…

  • I was just talking about this with a friend today, I couldn’t agree more with some of your points. I would like to add your feed to my biker website but cannot find it, do you have one available? I will check back later for your reply. Thanks a million!