What compelled me onto the trail at 7:40 in the evening on Saturday? Rain had been falling all afternoon as I waited for the first two riders on my three-woman relay team to complete their legs. Wendy was still out on the trail when 6 p.m. rolled around, the earliest time I'd anticipated she may have arrived at the Devil's Creek trailhead. I did pre-race preparations: checking and double-checking my Camelbak for water level and supplies; pulling on my knickers, shoes and shoe covers. Deciding which gloves to wear. Which jacket?
Jon readied my bike, adjusting my tire pressure, clipping on the fenders and covering the saddle with a bag so it wouldn't be wet when I started. I stood near the turnaround point watching rider after rider emerge from the forest, mud-splattered and sometimes feeling the early stages of hypothermia. I unbuckled the helmet for a solo rider whose fingers had stopped working. Talked with another who was contemplating returning to the trail though he was in no condition to do so. He did tell me, though, that he'd seen Wendy and she appeared to be struggling. That it would be a while before we saw her.
When Mark Davis, the dad of my teammate Petra, came in he still looked energetic and was helped for mere minutes before heading back out. As he re-entered the trail, he stopped, looked at me and said "it's the worst mud I've ever seen. You're gonna have fun!" My spirits rose, though I realize now that it was a mad look of a person who was in his own world. His own deranged, muddy world...
Petra encouraged me to put tights on and keep myself warm until Wendy came in. She had biked the first leg of the race, a 44-mile long slog of "bottomless puddles." She'd warned us about the slipperiness of the trail; not to take chances on the descents. As I waited and the clock read 7:00, Petra told me that nobody would think less of me if I didn't ride my leg. I appreciated her support and thought about it as I sat fidgeting in the truck unable to read a newspaper or the book I had brought. If she's not here by 8, I thought...
Near 7:30, a report came in that Wendy had cut her leg and was afraid to look at it. She'd been riding injured since mile 7 or 8 of the 27-mile leg. That was it. I was tired of waiting and feeling cooped up. I just wanted to ride! I decided to scratch the race and ride out to meet her and make sure she made it safely to the trailhead. Then I'd call it a day. I didn't know how far away she was, but I didn't want to leave her out there riding by herself. Jon handed me my bike and I took off down the hill. I felt great.
Wendy: ready to start. I have no after photo, but
she told me she does have photos of the six-inch wound.
she told me she does have photos of the six-inch wound.
Not quite a third of a mile down the trail, I saw a mud-soaked rider climbing toward me. "Is that Wendy?" She was making her way up the final punishing grade of trail. We stopped and I asked how she was. Her leg hurt but she was okay. "Wendy, should I do it?" I needed to know. "Oh, yeah!" she answered. The look on her face told me: there’s something you will experience up there that is so satisfying, you won’t want to miss it. Again, it was that touch of madness in her face that pulled me into the experience. I couldn't not do it. I had to know what it was...
We rode together for a few seconds, then she told me to go up the trail ahead of her and get ready. I was ready.
When I got back to the trailhead, I called out that Wendy was right behind me. I told the timers that I wasn't going to scratch; I would do it. Janice asked if I wanted company and I said something about Jon riding up to meet me from the Hope side. I looked at Jon as he held my bike. Something like surprise, wonder and pride crossed his face. No turning back after this. I had to do this for the team. I took off again, down the rain-soaked trail. All my pent-up energy from the day propelled me forward, riding faster than I normally would in the conditions. It felt so right to be riding in the rain, in the mud down the trail.
As I began to climb, my heart rate went up; I was aware of my breathing, aware that this was what it felt like to push myself. A few racers went by on their way to the trailhead. A solo rider going my direction was ahead. He stopped. I greeted him, not sure if he knew who I was. I imagined that Allen and I would be leap-frogging all the way to Hope. I'd have company. I picked up my pace and made my first creek crossing at the base of a waterfall. As I left the drainage, I looked back and didn't see him.
At times, the conditions were brutal, though riding through standing water that came almost to the hubs was easier than pedaling through the soupy, slimey mud holes. A pair of hikers cheered me on, then I met Pat, one of two sweeps who was riding from Cooper Landing to Devil's. Maybe that was at mile 7. I didn't want to focus on my mileage, but I was almost at the last rock field. I told him that if he saw Jon, to tell him I was having a great time. Soon I saw Pierre, the other sweep. He was the last person I would see until I met Jon on the other side of Resurrection Pass.
Alone on the trail, but not feeling alone, I noticed little things: a heart-shaped stone on the side of the trail; a teaser of blue sky when I looked back toward the trailhead. I was riding well, smiling, trying to go fast while also being careful. There was one racer behind me, plus a sweep, just in case.* While that gave me a certain amount of comfort, I was looking forward to meeting Jon at Caribou Creek. I knew that after I met him, the rest would be easy.
Once in the high country out of the rock gardens and nearing the first pass, the toughest climbing was over. This is my favorite section of trail. Past the trail marker (where the water neared my hubs), then riding above Devil's Pass Lake, I wondered which I'd rather do: push my bike through the snowfields as we did in early July or pedal through the water-covered trail as rain continued to fall... I pushed past the cabin to avoid using too much energy trying to get traction on a steep, slimy section, then kept climbing to the second pass. Just over 24 miles to go. I was two hours into my ride and had covered a dozen miles.
I heard the calls of ground squirrels as I rode by on my way to the high point of the ride, where the stone surface of the trail was hard and fast so I could ride down and coast half way up to the next prominence. I was ready for the long descent. Then I started singing: "I hear that train a-comin' it's rollin' round the bend. And I ain't seen the sunshine since, I don't know when!" How can I feel joy in such miserable conditions? Is this a part of what endurance racers feel when they break through that barrier that lies between the voice that says stop and the once that tells them to keep pushing on? If so, it didn't take me long to get there...
Riding along the ridges, the trail near the edge, drainage dips made me fear that I would slide off the edge, through the trees and into the abyss. I imagined falling all the way to the creek and floating my way to Hope. Too much rear brake sent the bike sliding; the front brake got weaker. Roots across the trail dammed the water's flow creating inches-deep ponds. I was trying to eat every hour but didn't feel like eating. I felt fast and strong. "One o' these days these boots are gonna walk all over you!" The soundtrack of my ride was unpredictable.
It was getting dark. Stumps alongside the trail inspired conversation: "Hey blackened stump, why do you look so much like a bear?" I had bear spray but tried to ignore thoughts of bears; steering my thoughts away from ursus americanus and its larger cousin, horribilis. Darkness had been falling for some time and I decided to put my light on my helmet when I entered the first creek drainage, East Creek. The drainages are darker than the ridges and the trails are carved into the sides of the steep slopes. Even with the light, I took my time.
I didn't know when I would see Jon. The earliest I expected to see him was at Caribou Creek. I'd already decided that if things got too rough, I'd leave my bike in the middle of the trail and go to one of the public use cabins to warm up. I passed the East Creek Cabin, still feeling good, then climbed back out of the drainage. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, as is Jon. Neither of us can remember if he met me before I made it to Fox Creek or after...
I saw a headlamp blurred by the rain and fog. Then it disappeared. A hopeful illusion? It came back again. "Jon?" I called out. "Is that you?" I stopped. Fumbled with the zipper on the chest pocket of my rain jacket. He helped pull out my energy gel and a partially-eaten nut bar. I took one bite and couldn't eat more. I squatted alongside the trail, thinking: I'm not drinking enough. I didn't want to drink or eat. I just wanted to get to Hope. And I was happy to have Jon's company. It was 11:45. From Fox Creek, we would have roughly 15 more miles. My computer had stopped ticking off the miles, probably due to mud.
Jon rode behind me, his headlamp adding to mine, though in the fog, it was much like driving a car with high beams in similar conditions, with light reflecting off the moisture back at us, not projecting very far forward. "His name was Rico!" I could see Jon's light shining into the forest on either side of the trail. Sometimes his light wouldn't be there. I figured he was giving me a little room since I don't like to have someone right on my wheel.**
I walked up a few hills, stretching my legs. I pounded my fists on my calf and thigh muscles when they tightened in painful cramps. Tricking the muscles, my Pilates teacher, Kristin, would say. If I can just keep them from hurting, I can keep going. Some rocky sections I normally would have biked were so slimy with mud that I pushed. Tunnels of pushki also sent me walking. For a split second, the scent of coffee penetrated my brain. I smiled at the thought of a hot mug.
At Caribou Creek, I asked Jon if that was really where we were. He stopped and looked at the sign as I rode across the bridge. Yep. I brightened. The big bridge was next, then in my mind I was counting the climbs that remained: a little one ahead; the big, killer hill; one on the road. When I got to one I'd forgotten I asked: Where did you come from, climb. How long are you? Aren't you done yet? If Jon heard me, he was ignoring my conversations.
Then I was riding and screaming "Aaiii! aiaiaiaiai Aaiiii!" And the Talking Heads were in my head and then it was "Raining men, halelujah!" Where does this stuff come from? I was laughing at myself, slowing just in time to not go off the trail before another tiny bridge, making up my own song: "I've got the wheel-suckin' keeps-rainin' ridin' the Resurrection blu-ues! Uh-huh!" Finally, we were at the killer climb. I walked and at the top took a nibble of the nut bar and was nearly sick. Almost out of water but we were descending. All I wanted was to lay on my back in the grass. I could even see it and feel it, wet grass and a campfire.
Crossing the bridge at the trailhead, I let out a cheer. Five miles to go. One more hill on the gravel road, then Jon called out: "Big ring, Rose!" Oh yeah! I shifted my gears and started cranking. As we pedaled past two trucks parked on either side of the road, a group of people cheered as we flew by. We passed the cabin where we were staying, and the airstrip. "Two more miles," Jon said. "That's the distance from Airstrip Trailhead to our house!" I shouted. (An easy distance, it's an encouraging gauge for long rides. I can always go just two more miles.) Onto the paved highway then a turn near Tito's, past the cabin where we'd seen a bear the night before, then a campfire in a yard with more cheers and onto the main street. The dark street. My tunnel vision took me and as I neared the Seaview: "Where do I stop? Where's the finish?"
"Right here." There was Carlos (the race organizer), others I couldn't make out as I climbed off, someone took my bike to be rinsed. Cameras flashed. "What do you need?" Just a tiny bit of water and a beer. With someone's help, removed helmet & Camelbak and walked to the fire. A guitar and a voice singing. I sat down. Laid on my back. The sky was clearing; I could see stars above. Questions. Are they talking to me? Did you see Al? Where was he; how was he. How was it? I don't remember all the questions; my two- and three-word answers. Three miles. He seemed okay. Don't know. Nobody behind me. Awesome. It was awesome!
I finally saw the musician: "Is that Paul?" Paul is a friend of some friends; he was riding the same leg as I. "Did you ride it?" He had. And now he was entertaining volunteers and the handful of other racers gathered in the early morning, waiting for the final racer to arrive.
*The next day I learned that I had been very much on my own: Allen had holed up in the cabin at mile 10 and there was no sweep.
**Later I learned Jon was stopping to pick boletus mushrooms which were prolific along the wet trail.
Folsom Prison Blues - by Johnny Cash
These Boots were Made for Walkin' - Nancy Sinatra
Copacabana - Barry Manilow
Pyscho Killer - The Talking Heads
It's Raining Men - The Weather Girls