15 August 2011

Learning to Walk Again

Read Part I here: Decision Point
Read Part II here: Wrath of God
Read Part III here: Gimme Shelter
Read Part IV here: Hunny

Things get a little fuzzy in my memory after that. Jeff and I rode together for a bit, until he declared that the pace on the gravel was a bit much for him -- he, too, was concentrating on riding his own race. Huge props here: Jeff was in his first-ever 24, building up to his goal race at the 24 Hours of DINO, the Indiana State Championship. Watch for him there in a few weeks -- this guy can hammer for a long, long time.

I had my crew keep tabs on him, though, not knowing him or his strengths and worried about where we stood, even with a lap between us. We might have done well to look a bit more forward, as Ron encountered chain trouble and I pulled back a bunch of time pretty quickly -- though, eventually, he pulled away again and ended up getting an extra lap at the end.

The restart was nasty, in every awesome sense of the word. There was hub-deep standing water everywhere; rocks and roots were slimy and crazy-slick; and the mud just kept on coming. My crud catcher worked wonders, keeping my eyes clear of debris, and my bike was up to the task -- that is, until I popped a spoke somewhere in the late afternoon, at the same time the axle nuts worked their way loose. I could feel the somewhat squishy rear end get even moreso, and I knew we needed to do something -- BIG thanks to Tim, who instead of sending me back out on my slick go-fast tire, offered up his own well-equipped rear wheel that thankfully dropped in with no adjustments needed ...

The course had been rerouted past the worst of it up by Checkpoint Charlie: The first five miles were exactly the same; the mile six marker came just as we entered very familiar singletrack; and mile seven now marked 1600 meters of hell. The Snowshoe trail had turned to peanut-buttery mush, and for nearly a mile we were forced to battle through and risk life, limb and body on a series of undulating up-and-overs that had us sliding sideways every time we thought we could go forward. It was crazy, and though I rode some of it here and there throughout the night, for the most part I concentrated on staying upright and walking what I needed to just to keep moving forward.

I was staying pretty calm and just enjoying the ride. The course firmed up (except for Snowshoe), and I was turning pretty consistent laps -- I may not be fast, but damn if I can't keep going the same speed for laps on end. We had a bit of an unanticipated snag with my lights when the close-in trees kept hitting the power button and changing the light to full brightness instead of my planned race power level -- thankfully, my second battery was ready to go and we had enough juice to last us more than the night. Eventually, I even started running at full brightness anyway -- after about 1 a.m. I got so tired that it was the only way I could stay awake as I slogged through the night.

And what a night it was. It never really got cold, though I rode with a vest once darkness hit. Instead, the upper-60s/low-70s produced the most amazing fog -- thanks to the reflection from the lights, it was as if we were riding with dirty glasses on, it was that close. I much prefered it to the incredible dust that has hung in the air in previous years, but all the same, it was very strange to see hoar frost forming and yet not feel chilled at all. Thankfully, Cody had gotten his generator running again after the storm, which formed a welcome oasis of light at the pits each lap.

I remember being really happy with Tim's rear tire. I remember rolling into the pits every lap, and seeing my Dad there, awake and alert. Every lap. For 24 hours. I remember seeing Tim at one point sprawled in a camp chair -- he snapped to immediately, but still it was a pretty funny sight to see. I remember telling them, "These things are harder than I remember." I remember that my knee didn't bother me beyond just a bit here and there -- but by that time, other things hurt worse. I know I failed to execute at the Sector 1 rock more often than not -- the best was probably the full-on stop that had me falling over sideways in front of a small crowd of people. I also slammed my left shoulder into a couple of trees. But I also cleaned the mile 3 rock garden over and over, and got faster that mile every lap.

I also remember that I never had any mechanicals, not one, except my wheel change. I owe a huge debt of thanks to Tim for keeping me rolling -- he was on it, all the time. This is also where I need to insert a huge product shout-out to ProGold Lubricants, and their new head of marketing, Bruce Dickman.

I first heard of ProGold about 4 years ago when they sponsored a very early World Bicycle Relief grassroots initiative called "All Sevens." Four friends -- three from St. Louis, one from Bath, UK -- rode 700 miles in 7 days from Basle, Switzerland, to the start of the Tour de France on 07/07/07. ProGold kicked them a box of lube, and I tried it on a trip to St. Louis to visit them -- and I was sold. I've used it religiously ever since.

Or rather, I did use it religiously until I got to Pisgah. The ProGold formulation is fantastic -- lightweight, easy to apply, clean and clean-running -- and worked great in the Midwest. Once I got here, though, there was a bit of a snag -- when every ride is wet, your lube tends to degrade pretty quickly. I still use ProGold on the road, but for mountain biking this spring I had moved to something a bit heavier. I wasn't as happy with it, but it didn't run off quite as quick.

Enter Bruce Dickman. Those in the Southeast know Bruce well -- "The Mouth of the South" has been announcing races for years, and has built quite a following here. This spring, he went legit and landed an industry job -- he is the new face of ProGold. It's a good fit for this Georgia company -- there are a lot of lubes out there, and if anyone can get you to listen to why this one is the best, it's Bruce.

Anyway, Bruce hit the ground running, and introduced us to Voyager -- ProGold with heavier carriers. He sent a bottle for us to try, and I figured Wausau would be a perfect test -- boy was I right, more than I had hoped. I got worried when the rains came, as I hadn't really tested it much to that point, but my worries were soon assuaged -- Voyager was up to the task, even through the standing water, the grit, the grime and the slime of 24 hours of racing, 17 of it in the wet. Tim was pretty liberal in his application of it at first, but by the early morning, pre-dawn hours, he was able to back off, as the lube was holding well and he didn't want to gum up the chain. In fact, despite the conditions, I think we managed to go the last 8 hours without re-applying -- including riding through a brief but drenching rainshower mid-morning on the backside of the course. It worked so well that I even felt confident keeping my chain on the bike once I got home, cleaned it up and re-lubed.

It was a welcome place to be to not have to worry about my bike, and to just keep things pointed forward. I got pretty bad acid stomach after about 2 a.m. -- one of my gluten-free bars didn't sit so well -- and so bringing in calories became the biggest challenge I had to face. Oddly, a bit of cold Coke mixed into too-warm oatmeal was just what my body craved, along with lap after lap of gluten-free PB&J sandwiches. This was a flip from previous years, when I focused on sugars early and didn't want sweet by the middle of the night -- but was also a major change from dealing with the gluten problems I now understand to have been manifesting themselves all these years. Huge thanks to my sister-in-law Kari, who whipped up a double batch of Allen Lim's rice cakes and got them to my dad before the race -- I didn't manage to eat them all, but they kept me going and kept me cramp-free for many, many hours.

Eventually dawn came, and true to form, I didn't have that great of a lap. I don't know what it is, but whereas other competitors speak longingly and lovingly of the "dawn lap," I dread it. It doesn't matter what I do to combat it, my body begins to shut down and I feel like I'm riding through molassas. It only lasts a lap, though, and once the sun begins to warm the land, I get back in the game mentally and physically. Which is a good thing, as Jeff closed the lap-plus gap to me just after dawn, when I was struggling, but I was able to hold him in check for a couple of laps to keep him right at that magic lap-down point with only a few to go. He confirmed that he was far enough up to close it out at 10, but even so I stayed with him when he caught back up after a short rest just to be sure.

I rolled through the pits about 7:25, turning pretty consistent 1:10 to 1:15 laps. I had been doing the math for hours in my head, lap after lap, trying to figure out whether I'd need to do 5 or 6, 4 or 5, 3 or 4 more to finish. Tim actually told me I'd need to slow down if I didn't want to do an "extra" lap at the end, and while I agreed intellectually and had been trying to ride slower, my body was in go mode, and I turned another 1:10 or 1:12 to come through with more than another 1 hour, 20 minutes until the official end. You don't finish until you cross the line after 10 a.m. ... and it was only 8:35.

So I shut it down. I rolled out on a parade lap, determined to take as long as I could to get around the course. Jeff powered by me, looking super-strong, on the mile 4 climb -- and boy was I ever glad I had managed to keep him at bay through the night. If he's able to do the same at DINO, watch out ... I walked all of mile 7 on Snowshoe, not wanting to kill myself in the last tough stuff; and as I rolled out on the mile 8 gravel section, it hit me: I finally put together a near-perfect race at Wausau, and my Mom wasn't here to hear about it.

One of the biggest logistical challenges for Wausau each year was that it is always held on the weekend between my brother's and Mom's birthdays. Three years ago, Nine Mile 2008, it actually fell on my Mom's birthday -- and in a super-surprise move, she joined us for a weekend in the woods, tucking herself out of the way, in the shade, in a camp chair, and stealing bacon from the hotel for my SRAM coworker's little dog on Sunday morning. In my 10 years of racing, she had only ever been to three cyclocross races -- such was her dislike for a sport that put me in the hospital on more than one occasion -- and so for her to be at Nine Mile for 24 hours of racing was huge. Sadly, I detonated in the middle of the night, and spent most of the early morning hours asleep on a cot set up across from the pit.

The next year, 2009, was even more difficult. My Dad was again in my pit, but on the drive to Wausau my Mom called to tell me that my Uncle Leo had died. My aunt told my Dad to stay and help, while my Mom flew to California -- we dedicated Kate's first 24 to my Uncle, and everyone who was there remembers what an emotional rollercoaster it was for me and Dad. I rode much of the pre-dawn hours with my World Bicycle Relief teammates, before my gut went bad and I needed to stop for a bit -- though we eventually regrouped and managed to put Brad into 4th and confirming his place in the national points race. I finished 5th and Todd 6th, but then the race management that year decided to only put three places on the podium. It was a harsh finish after previous podiums went five deep.

This year, as I rolled the gravel through mile 8 and into the singletrack of mile 9, I started to sing. I knew that even with my Mom not there, she was there, and I could tell she was with me in every glimpse of sunlight, every buzz of a bee, every bird I heard as the forest came alive that morning. I had done it, had put together a solid race, and while she is a million miles away, I feel like I finally found my place and can't you feel me growing
stronger? I'm pretty sure I cried my way to the mile 10 marker, and beyond, but then I made the right-left combo out of the woods and up the little hill, and I had timed it perfectly: it was 10 a.m., and I rolled across the line in 2nd place, relief and joy washing over me. Tim was there, my Dad was there, and deep down, I know my Mom was there too.

Jeff finished a few seconds ahead of me, but one lap down. Ron had blown through a dozen or so minutes before and had gone for one more -- finishing with 21 laps on one gear, the first person ever to win the overall on a single-speed. My Dad and I began the long process of packing -- Tim and Ryan helped my Dad get the car ready, while I focused on getting the bike cleaned up and packed for shipping back to North Carolina. We had the good fortune of a hotel room waiting for us, and while my Dad had planned to be there in the early afternoon, I had always been holding out hope for a podium appearance that would delay our departure from Nine Mile for a while. As the day heated up, we made our way to the awards ceremony, and it was pretty fantastic to be there, hanging out with my Dad, eating barbecue and telling and re-telling stories from the race and laughing about all the wild and weird stuff that can happen in 24 hours. And then it was my turn, and we kind of walked up together, so he could take pictures. And that's my enduring image from the Salsa 24 Hours of Wausau 2011: My Dad, camera to his eye, snapping my photo with a big smile on his face. We had finally done it, a team effort all the way around.

1 comment:

Ben Welnak said...

Nice race, good riding with you for that little while, and hell of a write up!

I'm sure we'll meet again.