The documentary about Team CSC’s difficult assault on the Tour de France, 2004, is called “Overcoming.” I’ve long thought that is the truest name one could give any story about bike racing. Good hard racing strips you down to your essence, makes you question and examine yourself, and scores you - in a couple meanings of that word - on the other side. It is a graded essay test, in which style, effort and results all count, and riders are graded on a curve with those of higher potential graded more strictly than those who have to make do with less. There is only one question on the test: did you, or did you not, overcome?
The Baker’s Dozen in Leesburg is a classic mountain bike endurance race. Unlike the usual 12 hour or 24 hour tilt, it is 13 hours (hence the name) and is spectacularly popular, with BikeReg registration usually closing out in under 10 minutes. In the past the course was a very non-technical 7+ mile loop, a test of legs and lungs. Significant changes made it moderately technical, and increased the length of each lap to over 9 miles, a test of legs, lungs, handling skills, fortitude, and mental discipline. The added technical sections reward those who can maintain concentration despite being short on oxygen, tired, and emotionally drained; and they punish those who lose focus for a second.
After missing last year’s edition while recovering from a herniated disc, this year’s version was at the top of my priority race list, up there with the mountain and cross bike races at Granogue, DCCX, Charm City Cross, and a couple other local gems. I originally signed up for the solo 13 while at the movie theater watching True Grit (‘Droid phone be praised) while my teammate Mike entered me, provisionally, on a three man 40+ team. We agreed on this arrangement because Mike was registering 4 three man teams with no certainty of getting everybody registered, and I was not going to get shut out again this year. I eventually sold my solo entry and prepared to ride this year’s event with Mike’s neighbor and hard riding buddy, Chad.
One of the nice things about Baker’s, like a lot of 12 hour races, is you can camp there. This usually entails drinking a beer the night before the race, socializing with friends, getting a great night’s sleep, and waking up at 6:30 or so with the dawn, to eat a leisurely breakfast and amble to the start. It’s usually fun to camp out before the events, a real upper.
This time around, however, we had heavy storms the day before the race. If not biblical, the rains were at least church missal heavy. After driving west to Leesburg through a downpour, I was happy when it let up a bit as I put the tent up and chatted with a couple of the crew Mike was bringing. Even minimal vehicle traffic in the cowfield where we were camping was leaving deep muddy ruts, and it was clear that conditions were going to be extremely muddy the next day. With a forecast in the mid-40’s, it would be cold too because the exhaustion from the race seems to subtract 15 to 20 degrees from whatever the actual temperature is. Mike’s pals asked what I thought race day would be like, and I was blunt: “Get ready to buckle down. We’re going to suffer like pigs tomorrow, but if we’re bloody minded enough and just keep going, we’ll get good results because other people are going to quit because they are soft.” They gave me a funny look and one of them, Tom, later admitted that he thought I was a buzzkill, but realized during the day I’d actually helped get his mind right for the race.
I said hello to a few friends who rolled into camp, then hooked up with The Seibold Experience as they set up their camper, and we enjoyed a beer and some heavy rainfall. Snoop’s Daddy came out and released Snoop Dogg – an Australian Cattle Dog – much to the consternation of the bulls in the next pasture, all of whom came over to the fence, and lined up as if Snoop was practicing some sort of Jedi mind trick on them. Pizza at Fireworks in Leesburg, a quick stop at WalMart for a 2 liter soda (to make fenders if I needed them) and it was off to sleep, in the rain. The night before the race is usually a festive social event, but with the rain most folks didn’t come out at all and those who did hunkered down. One could hear voices around the field – but only hushed, subdued voices from inside buttoned down tents and campers.
I slept okay in the rain. It woke me up a few times in the night, and the combination of dampness and cold was absolutely penetrating, and I woke up shivering cold a few times. It wasn’t a bad thing when 6:30 rolled around and the sound of voices woke me up, with the promise of breakfast, getting moving and getting warm. A quick breakfast of pancakes and bacon and espresso, and I was ready to roll. We worked out our rotation order (Mike, Chad, me) and got ready to ride through the slop.
Then it was waiting. After about an hour, Mike rolled in, dotted with mud. We did a quick change of the ankle timing chip, and Chad was off. Mike said it was sloppy but drying, and he’d benefitted from a great start, killing himself to get a near holeshot to avoid the huge confusion that occurs when 200 people get crammed onto a piece of narrow, twisting, and newly technical single track. Roots were apparently going to be a problem; log crossings were slimy and also a problem; and rock faces were muddy and another problem. I decided to roll the rigid single with Patapsco gearing, 32-20, which is awfully low for a place as flat as Plum Grove Farm, but in the mud I figured it would be about right.
The fastest riders rolled in around 45 minutes – in contrast to the old, dry laps which had the fastest riders blowing in around 32 minutes.
When Brad rolled in about 60 minutes after he departed, he said it was getting sticky. I blew out of the encampment (Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hogleg), sprinted up the sloppy muddy hill, got onto the single track past the start/finish, and found myself on a 9 mile peanut butter track. The mud wasn’t really flying up; it was just sticking to the tires and on the sides of the tires, making it very hard to pedal, as if the ground was half-dried Superglue. There was little traction on the steeper uphills; that was the one place the mud wasn’t sticky, and standing climbing wasn’t an option so everything was a slippery grind upwards. The false flat ups – grades I can pound up at speed when dry – were like quicksand and it felt as if I was pulling a sled up the mud into the rocks. Downhills did not offer relief – any easing of pressure on the pedals slowed the bike to a walk immediately, and even steeper downhills weren’t much use. This made each lap a one hour threshold level effort, with ragged breathing, aching back, and spasming legs.
It wasn’t all grim, however. Cross racing and snow MTB riding have honed my ability to ride in the slippery places, and pretty much every corner was slippery, so I didn’t have to use the brakes much. That way my pads were preserved (a single mud race can easily destroy a set of brake pads) and I was able to capitalize on what little momentum I had. I enjoyed many little pleasurable moments when my improving handling skills allowed me to smile a bit through the hurt.
There were problems though, too. There were a lot of off-camber roots on the hills and in the turns, and plenty of roots that ran north/south, with the direction of the trail. This led to a lot of quick track changes – the bike would suddenly slide a foot to the right or left. No big deal, it didn’t cause me any crashes, but it did take a lot of upper body horsing the bike around to keep upright and moving forward rather than slewing into the trees like a drunk driver. Logs were trouble too; they were slimy and a number of them had off-angle approaches, so I walked several of them on the first lap. Mel Svenstrom had warned me about a big double log crossing where a guy went down and apparently broke his wrist in front of her, so I was extra careful and dismounted there.
How hard was I going? Hard enough that my breathing was ragged and hands numb the entire lap, and I couldn’t think about anything except for turning the pedals and picking lines. Toward the two thirds point, I was catching up to a guy in a blue jersey on a geared Trek. I was trying to keep my momentum up so I eased it off just a tick, to 9/10ths for about 15 seconds, so that I would catch him and pass him right at a wide point, on a turn, about 30 yards up the trail. As he climbed a little rise he missed a shift, and his bike made a grinding and clunking noise. “Going to break that chain,” I thought. A few pedal strokes later he reached again for another lower gear, missed that shift, and snapped the derailer off. “Stop, derailer broke off” I hollered as I passed. An hour later I found out the unfortunate soul was one of the guys I’d eaten breakfast with and hung out with for a couple hours that morning; from the back of the pain cave, I couldn’t see out far enough into the woods to recognize him. *That* is how hard I was riding; buried, dug in, deep in the cave.
The only real relief was the last three miles. At that point, the trail (after a long stairstep) deposited me in a field, where I charged up a hill, and had a long downhill/false flat into the piney woods adjacent to Route 15. This was wet but not sticky, with a lot of sand in the ground it was a little slimy but that is no problem when you’ve been grinding out every pedal stroke for the last 45 minutes. I floored it, charged over the little ups and downs, slogged up a last muddy stretch into the last bit of pine forest, and handed off the timing chip off to Schiavo after a 5 second anklet change by Chad.
After that it was refueling time – a turkey sandwich with olive oil mayo, a banana, a pickle, a bottle of Gatorade and a bottle of water. I struggled to get that down, the effort had made me nauseous; but I managed. In just about two hours even, I was getting back on the bike with a pit in my stomach, a dry jersey on my back, and a little more optimism about trail conditions.
The optimism was misplaced. If anything, the trail was stickier than it was before, and it was harder to turn the pedals over. I took the geared bike hoping to be able to spin it out on the downhills and flats to make up some time, but that didn’t work out because the downhills were just as sticky as every other place. The gears did allow me to ease off slightly on the uphills, in the hope of preserving some legs for areas where I could motor a bit. “Easing off” is relative; on the single, I’d be going all out to get over some of the muddy hills, completely straining at maybe 250% of threshold. On the geared bike, I was maybe at 150% of threshold power going up the hills, still a redlining effort, but not burning matches quite as fast. So it was still damned hard but I wasn’t dooming my efforts later in the day by burning all my matches early. Now that I was familiar with the course, it also rode smoother; I cleaned all the rocks except for the vertical rock face (upward) and I cleaned all the logs except for the double log and one particularly craptacular log pile that had softball-sized lumps of mud on it. As St. Marc of Vettori puts it, “when it doubt, walk it out.” I recall approaching the pile, seeing the mud, thinking, “this would be a bad place to break a wrist, and this is *exactly* the place to do it, and I eased off to cyclocross dismount and run it, and to let a hard charging rider pass me. He took the log pile straight on, had good form, got the front wheel over it, and then it slipped out to the right side on the downhill slope of the pile. He ate shit, went ass-over teakettle, and went down hard. I ran past him and don’t recall seeing him again on that lap (though he may have passed me back, I wasn’t too observant of anything outside the JimBubble at this point).
I got back into the pits coughing hard, having blown a lot of effort on the last three miles, really laying down power and taking advantage of the one area where I could build some speed. It made for a 60 minute lap again. I followed the same food routine. I felt crampy – my own damn fault for not bringing the Hammer Perpetuum.
So it went through the day; I kept reminding Chad and Mike to hang in, there would be huge attrition from the difficult trail conditions. I discovered this the hard way on my third lap. It was around dinner time and the woods were starting to get a little dark. Down past the river, I lost track of time and where I was. You know that state you get in on very long drives, where you’re not fully conscious, but you somehow get to your destination safely, ticking off the miles but not really being cognizant of it? That was how lap 3 was for me, only I wasn’t doing it safely or efficiently and was definitely not traveling fast. For maybe 15 minutes, I was in this never-never land, totally unconscious of what I was doing, not going very fast, just grinding along. It was like a bonk, only worse because I didn’t realize I was in it. It was some other, not purely physical depth that I was plumbing. I don’t recall anything that happened along the river, up until the end of the swoon. That occurred when I reached a rock face I had to go up, then down over the crest of a little kicker. I picked a bad line, got over the top, and found myself at a spot where the face just dropped off a couple feet. The angle was all wrong and although I got my ass over my back wheel, I found myself riding a nose wheelie for several feet in the mud. As I got to the left hand sweeper just past the rocks, my rear end dropped, a huge shot of adrenalin hit me in the gut like a karate kick, and my mind came back to the present.
I struggled through the rest of that lap and got in with a 63.
I was in trouble though, clear bonk territory. I know from the Powertap that an hour at threshold or near threshold makes me burn up to 1400 calories, and I was on a mountain bike getting in a lot of upper body work along with the leg workout. I just couldn’t put that much fuel back into my body. Not with turkey sandwiches and pickles anyhow. So I did the responsible thing, and hit the pan of big, moist brownies. I ate 5 of them. Then I went to Seibold’s camp and stole a couple huge oatmeal raisin cookies. Then I came back and at some chips and pretzels and God knows what else, basically anything I could get my hands on and if I stole something from your tent, I apologize. I will plead non compos mentis; I was out of my freaking mind at this point and needed calories.
Chad and I also had a heart-to-heart. Mike had crashed earlier and was losing time. If we were going to have anybody do a 5th lap it was probably going to have to be Chad. I told him straight up before he left, “look, no bullshit here – you need to think about how you feel. If you’re up for a 5th lap, I’ll ride my balls off for you, like a starfish, stomach coming out of my mouth, to get in before the time limit to get you out for another lap. If not, no big deal.” He nodded, Schiavo rolled in, I put the chip on him, and pushed him out of the pits at a sprint. He left, and I got my lights rigged, stood around shivering violently, and resigned myself to putting my wet gloves and helmet back on one more time. Like an asshole, I left the extension cord for my helmet-mounted light home, so I packed a Petzl light in my back pocket as a backup. There was nothing to do but wait.
Chad got back about an hour later. We did the fast chip switch, and I asked if he was able to go one more lap. “No way.” Fair enough. Schiavo said, “okay, it’s a parade lap, ride safe.” I boogied up through the camping / pit area, and out onto the single track. The new lights worked great, and I managed to negotiate around pretty smoothly. I had to walk on three of the stiff uphill kickers; my legs just weren’t having any redzone efforts at that point and the mud, if anything, was even stickier. This was hell and I was in it.
I had a surreal moment out there. I passed this really good looking dark haired woman, helmet off, standing on the side of the trail, looking angry. “You need anything?” I asked as I rode by. “No!” she shouted at me, angry sounding. I am pretty sure that I did not imagine that but it’s one of those things, it was so weird that I have to wonder if I hallucinated it.
It got really hard at this point. My upper back was achy, and my triceps were cramping from all the bike horsing-around. It was pitch black; I looked up for the stars but saw only inky black darkness. The lights worked great but the trail was ueber sticky, so I rode with the presumption of traction. That only made the surprise shifts caused by roots and rocks that much more treacherous and unexpected. Parade lap my ass; I was trying to go easy but it wasn’t possible and soon I found myself breathing hard and going as hard as my legs would go, backing off to 8/10ths whenever the legs felt like they would blow. I started to get into that mental no man’s land again. My hands were achy. This was the dank, cold inside of the cave. I crawled in and decided to sit in the lawn chair and have a beer.
I was stripped down to my bare essence at this point. We can kid ourselves that things would be different, and often do. "I didn't train much this winter." "I need to lose some weight." "My skills aren't where I would like them to be." We say all this stuff to ourselves and our friends as if we actually aren't that untrained, fat, unskilled person. Thing is, maybe we weren't that person a few months ago, and maybe we won't be that person in a few months from now. But right now, at this moment, it's who we are. And the question that is answered when we race very hard, when we put it all out there and race right up to our limits, is who we are.
At that moment, there was nothing but me, the bike, the sticky mud, some rocks and logs, and pain. There were a lot of things I could have done better in the months or years or whole life prior to that moment; but none of those things were with me, inside the cave. Excuses don't matter in the cave because nobody is in there with you to hear them.
I kept trying to focus on riding smooth, reminding myself how much I love night riding, and thinking back to how much of it I’ve done this year with the TMR crew. That didn’t work. My body was falling apart, and I was desperate to just keep it together to finish the lap. I thought about how I should ride in a way that makes my kid proud of me and is consistent with my admonitions to do his best always. I thought about being more committed to training. I ached, my lungs burned and I was coughing up chunks. I thought that I should be grateful for being able to do this, grateful my wife is cool with my hobby and that my kid likes to join me in the woods… I even said a prayer thanking God for giving me the chance to do this, and asking Him to make me a better husband, father, and bike rider. My triceps ached, my arms threatened to fail, I was even riding with my hands reversed, trying to put the load on my shoulders or biceps…
And then my little personal corner of hell ended. It was through. I turned onto the stairsteps up into the field, did a standing effort up and over that little hill, shot down into the dimly lit farmhouse meadow and was soon off into the piney woods. Sweet mother of flow! It was three miles back to FOB Hogleg but it seemed like it only took a couple minutes. There were cheers when I passed the tents, hollers when I boogied up past Seibold’s tent and the AFC crew, and I swear I rode those noises like a gust of wind underneath a glider’s wings. I passed the Start/Finish line, and went to turn in my chip. With 12 laps, we should have finished around 12th; unless some hardcore people – who were behind us well into the evening – hung on and passed us some time after 10:00 PM. It wasn’t a bad finish for us, considering there were 30 or 32 teams in our field; and most of the names in front of us were really, really solid racers, and a lot of the people behind us were good racers too.
If I was a better man, more determined, stronger, I’d have just rolled the S/F line and done another lap. I’m not better though; wasn’t more determined, was not stronger. My teammates were shattered, and so was I. This is what we had in us. I could have struggled through; sure. But as I sit here typing with numb fingers, occasional cramps if I turn too quickly, and an overweening sense of weariness, I realize I made the right choice. I finished where I deserved to finish. That was what I, and my teammates, had in us yesterday. It was a solid effort, and a number of elite level riders managed – just – to complete the same number of laps each of us did yesterday. I’ve done short races that were harder; and I’ve done longer races that were hard; but I’ve never gone that hard for four hours, ever. I was destroyed. There was nothing left to give.
I’m proud of what we did, very proud of Mike and Chad. When you strip us down to the essence, Mike and Chad and I are workingman low level amateur racers, guys with jobs and families who focus on that rather than training. Even then, maybe we aren’t the most talented guys. But we worked really hard in very rough conditions yesterday, showed a hell of a lot of determination and out-toughed a lot of people, to pull off a finish that was a bit above our heads. The conditions on the course were terrible; it broke us down and if my teammates had a similar experience to mine, they were forced to look deep inside themselves, with each pedal stroke testing their resolve, each little rise questioning their willpower, every hiss of mud sucking at their tires telling them that they couldn’t do it. How bad do you want it? We wanted it. It makes me think that maybe I should expect more of myself; my old notion of how deep I could go was wrong. I can go further, and faster. It’s not easy, but it can be done. This gives me hope.
Some race only to win, but I race for the fight of it; and on the odd occasion where I've had good results or a podium, it's been a nice benefit but it doesn't compare to the sting of the fight. The struggle of racing is in beating other people, but to do that we must first beat ourselves, get past our current physical limits, get past the internal thoughts processes and superstitions that hold us back more effectively than any lack of natural talent or fitness could ever do. We only defeat others in a race by defeating our own weaknesses first. The desire to quit, to give in, to avoid the suffering, is stronger than the legs on our opponents. Beating the desire to give up, accepting the suffering, resolving to work through it, winning the inner battle first, is how we get ourselves in position to win the outer battle.
That is overcoming. It is why I race.