This past weekend, I represented Team Alchemist at the 24 hours of Colorado Springs. This was the first time the 24 hour National Championship was held in the Springs, the previous few years having been held at the venerable 24 hours of Moab.
Drew talked about doing the race, and so I figured, why not? Well, there were lots of reasons. I’ve never raced anything longer than 10 hours. I shut it down 6 weeks ago after the Breck Epic, so I haven’t trained a lick since then. I’m also not particularly functional at night, which my staff, and sometimes my patients, can attest to. But what the hell? How bad could it be? I entered the men’s solo single speed category at the last hour on the last day. The Bontrager was already set up easy (34×20), so I just needed to lube the chain, and I’d be good to go. I didn’t feel like checking the tire sealant, so there wasn’t much more to do except charge the batteries on my Amoeba light.
BTW, if you are in the market for a great light, check out the Amoeba. They are made locally by Jay Buthman. Tiny, powerful, and less spendy than the big brands. Jay is a master light builder and a super guy.
I pulled into Solo Alley at Palmer Park on Saturday morning and immediately started to feel intimidated. Champions like Josh Tostado and Pua Mata were all around, and they looked strong and focused as they prepared for the battle ahead. Josh is the 2 time reigning 24 hour Solo National Champion, and he knows how to get it done. He had about 5 crew members setting up his staging area. Camper, canopy, stove, hydration, nutrition, lights, etc . . .
At least a half dozen other people asked me where my crew was. I didn’t know I was supposed to have one. I had planned to just feed out of the back of my truck and use the aid available on the course (turned out to be an unmanned water jug). I brought a lawn chair to sit on, but I didn’t want to set up a tent or canopy because I was afraid I wouldn’t have the energy to break it down after the race. I had two water bottles, some potato chips, a jar of pickles, Nutter Butters, and a few sandwiches made from last week’s leftover taco meat.
The weather was sunny and gorgeous as we toed the line for the LeMans start. I took my rightful place in the back of the pack next to a couple guys wearing trucker shirts with their team name “Back of the Pack” printed on them. After the gun, we ran about 200 yards to our bikes at the other end of the field. I had planned to walk the length, but with all the spectators cheering and ringing their bells, I felt like I should at least pretend to run. So I trotted at a pedestrian pace, and tried not to burn myself up in the first 30 seconds of the race. My only strategy was to go slow, since I didn’t know how long I could go.
Things were going as planned for the first few miles. I soft pedaled the hills, walked the grunty sections and didn’t try to pass anyone. But then my back wheel started feeling squishy. I looked down to see that I had lost most of the air, and a quick squeeze confirmed that I was almost flat. No big deal, I just filled it back up with the quick air. An ominous hissing sound didn’t make me feel confident it would hold. I found the puncture and tried to hold it toward the ground so that the sealant would plug it up. No dice. No big deal, just put in a new tube. The Bontrager is an old steel bike with traditional vertical drop-outs. In order to run it single speed without a chain tensioner, I use a White Industries Eno Eccentric hub, which bolts on. Well, I had tightened the bolts with a large allen wrench, and I couldn’t generate enough torque with the little multi tool I had with me. By the time I had figured this out, the last of the racers had passed me and were long gone. I stood there contemplating whether I should walk back to the start or walk forward in hopes of finding someone with tools. Just then, Steve, walked up. He was a volunteer, and though he didn’t have an allen wrench, he did have a big-ass plumber’s wrench back in his truck. Surprisingly, it gripped the multi-tool well enough that we were able to loosen the bolts and get the wheel off. As it turns out, the inside was bone dry. The only sealant in the tire was balled up in a solid latex clump. Perhaps I should’ve checked the sealant beforehand. Hmm.
When all was said and done, I had lost about 20 minutes and was in dead last place by at least 10 minutes. But it is a 24 hour race, so I did my best to not try to make up all that lost time on the first lap. I walked the steep kickers, and just rode a slow pace. Each time I came back to the car, I ate some chips or Nutter Butters, or a cold taco sandwich.
I had never ridden at Palmer Park before the race, so I didn’t know what it would be like. I didn’t have time to go down and pre ride, but I figured I had ample opportunity to acquaint myself with it during the race. The course laps were 13 miles long, utilizing almost every patch of dirt available in the area. At points, you could almost reach out and high-five the riders going the other direction on a different section of the course. All the locals I talked to pretty much couldn’t figure out why they were holding the race at Palmer Park when there was world-class riding all around Colorado Springs. I really didn’t think it was that bad, considering that Boulder has such limited good mountain biking. But had I known how technical much of it is, I might have thought harder about signing up to ride 24 hours in it. The course is tight in many places, sandy in others, and 2 foot drop-offs were as common as the patches of cactus lining the trail. All ridable, even on a single speed, but over 24 hours, it was tough to concentrate that hard for that long. It was also hard on the body. My legs felt pretty good, all things considered, but my neck, back, feet and shoulders were on fire. In fact, those are the only sore parts of my body right now. Having to constantly work the bike over and around rocks, roots and turns took its toll. By lap 4, I had more aches than fatigue, though I knew that was coming too. One thing that astonishingly wasn’t sore at all was my taint. I put the new Alchemist BLACKBOXX kits to the test, and they were flawless.
Drew, who in the end, decided he shouldn’t race this race as well as 24 hours of Moab next week, came down anyway to shoot night photos. I saw him on the course as daylight was slipping away, then again, once it was dark. He posted the photo from above on Facebook. You can also see his photos on cyclingnews.com. It was good to see him, so I stopped, and we chatted for while.
Each pit stop got longer and longer. I was spending 10-15 minutes in between laps sitting in the lawn chair. Sometimes I would see Josh pass me on the course, and sometimes I would see him in the staging area. On one lap, I had been sitting for about 10 minutes when he rolled in. I sat there with my water bottle in one hand, a Nutter Butter in the other, and a jar of pickles between my legs. I watched in awe as his crew sprang into action. One person to feed and hydrate him. One person to help him get warm clothes on. One person to get his lights on. There was a buzz of action whenever he came though. He stood the whole time. I don’t think he ever sat down during the entire race unless it was on his bike. Amazing. He and his team were in the zone, and they operated with surgical precision. Josh was a machine. No rest, no sleep. It was go-time from start to finish. After the race, he and Kelly, his girlfriend, pulled a couple chairs into the shade where I was set up. I was going to introduce myself and say hello, but within seconds, Josh was slumped in his chair, passed out from exhaustion, so I let him be. He was finally able to be human again, so I didn’t want to spoil it. After about 5 minutes, he perked up and turned to me and asked, “So how’d it go for you?”
I really didn’t know. It’s hard to keep track of anything. I started in last place, and I don’t remember passing any single speeders, so I figured I finished in last place. I would come through the race area and hear the familiar voice of race MC, Larry Grossman belt out, “And here comes Jeff Wu again. Solo single speeder. Let’s give it up for Jeff! Slow and steady wins the race, buddy.” I was too tired to point out that in my case, slow and steady gets lapped. But I appreciated the encouragement.
Of course in a 24 hour race, it’s hard not to have a couple snafus. Aside from my tire going flat, I had battery issues. I had assumed that a neutral charging station would be available. I guess not. So to conserve battery, I would turn off my Amoeba, and use my commuter LED light on the non-technical areas. On one of the night laps, I went out with an old battery. I was too tired to have remembered to bring the spare battery, or a spare light. So about half a mile in, my light started to fade, then it pretty much died. I had given away my commuter light to another racer who was stranded with a dead battery on the previous lap, so I had nothing up front. I took the red blinking tail light off my seat post, stuck it on my handlebar, and set it to constant. If I pointed the light almost straight down, I could get a little patch of red light to show me a faint area of dirt, about one foot in diameter, directly in front of my wheel. More than anything, it gave me the sense that I wasn’t completely in the dark, but it didn’t provide any meaningful visibility. Since I didn’t know how long the battery would last, I actually turned it off when I was pretty sure the trail was fairly smooth or when I walked the steep and technical sections. The moon was only a thin crescent, so no help there. But the sand contrasted enough with the brush that I could make out a vague ribbon of trail to follow. I inched along the rest of the lap, and miraculously made it back in one piece. I got back to the staging area around 2:30am, at which point I was whipped and freezing my ass off. Though I had planned to try to ride all night, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I crawled into the passenger seat and closed my eyes. I think I only snoozed for about 30 minutes, but I did feel better. At least well enough to go back out for another lap.
During the night, a fellow from across the way asked me how I was doing. He was one of the people who noticed that I had no crew. His name was John, and his timing was good. He was supporting his buddy, Nick, and they were well prepared. He had a camper and a generator, and he was like a glowing angel of mercy. I told him about my battery situation, and he got me plugged in right away. During my rest stops, he offered up cokes, pizza, grapes, and other goodies. Noticing I was having a hard time thinking for myself, he would come over with chain lube and check on my bike to make sure things were okay.
The break of dawn was a welcome site. The sun meant light and warmth. I had lost track of my laps some time earlier (I thought I had done 9, but turns out I had done 10), and around 8am I pulled into camp and sat down. The sun felt nice, and the chair felt even better. John came over to put away my lights and see how I was doing. I told him I was ready to pack it in. He wasn’t going to let me off that easy. He reminded me that I would regret it tomorrow if I quit now. Of course he was right, but it was hard to fathom going out for another lap. It just hurt too much. I told him that Paul, one of the nurses in the ER and a ridiculous endurance freak, gave me a very pragmatic approach to the race last week when I told him about my plan to sleep most of the night. “Hey, you paid for 24 hours.” Low blow, Paul. Hit me where it hurts, won’t ya?
So with John’s encouragement, I got back on my bike, calculating that I could get two more laps in before the noon cut-off. I remember almost nothing about those last few hours except that when I came back to the car in between laps, I didn’t sit down because I was afraid I wouldn’t get back up. I opened the back of the Xterra, looked at the pickles, and almost tossed my cookies. I shut the door without taking anything, and headed back out for the final lap.
Coming through Solo Alley for the last time, I stopped to grab some cash so that I could buy a brat at the “Bite Me” food stand in race headquarters. I had been eyeing the brats the whole time, but I never remembered to bring any money. This time, I would not be denied.
I stopped by the scoring tent later on to see how bad the carnage was, but I couldn’t find my name. I was too tired to try to figure out the format of the groupings, so I just looked at the bottom of each list of results. No “Jeff Wu”. I finally found the men’s solo SS grouping, and looked down that list. To my astonishment, it turned out that I somehow made my way up from last place to 5th place, coming in ahead of studs like Jake Kirkpatrick and Deejay Birch, guys who normally crush me. Out of the 15 solo single speeders, I somehow passed a fair number of them without ever passing them on the course.
Afterward, I sat in my chair in the shade and chatted with Josh. He is a remarkably nice and humble guy. You can add him to my list of awkward man-crushes (Dave Wiens, I’m talkin’ to you, mister!) He had just won his third national championship in a row, but you’d never know it. He talked about it like it was just one of those things. When I found out I wasn’t last place, I was ready to get a tattoo! Check out the Cyclingnews.com race report for quotes from Josh and other racers. Also some great pics from Drew.
One thing all racers have in common was that we all suffer like dogs. That steely look of concentration Josh had while his team got him retooled for the next lap was, as it turns out, often that same glazed look of pain and agony that I had while I languished in my lawn chair. It’s a flat affect of exhaustion, in which the only face that you can muster is an expression devoid of emotion. In traditional races, pros suffer just like Joes. But their suffering ends a lot sooner. At Leadville, the leader hurts for a little over 6 hours. The last guy to get a buckle is out there toiling away for almost twice that. In a 24 hour race, the pros and schmos hurt together, for the same amount of time.
Why do we do it at all? Not sure I know why. I suppose when you lead a life of relative comfort, it’s good to know what discomfort feels like, to remind yourself that living without pain is something you shouldn’t take for granted. Or maybe it’s like playing lousy golf. You shank one left, and you shank one right. But that one moment when it all clicks and you send one straight down the middle feels like heaven, and it keeps you coming back for more. Perhaps it’s so we can test and push the limits of our abilities. To do something we couldn’t imagine was possible. Or maybe it is, in it’s own twisted way, just kinda fun. Maybe it’s all of it.
Do it again? Don’t ask me now. But I have a short memory. And after I’ve forgotten what it felt like to suffer, I might be up for another go.