Ah, it’s been almost a week, and I’m finally ready to write about the season finale.
I had shut it down after the Breck Epic in August, those 6 days of hard MTB racing being the annual culmination of a summer’s worth of racing and training. But Drew just wouldn’t let it go. I couldn’t see him without some mention of the 24 hr Championship. I was emphatically done for the season, so his words fell on deaf ears. Last year, I swore that I would never, ever race this race again. The course is twisty and technical, with dozens of 12-24″ drop offs and step ups. Over 24 hours, the technical features take their toll, and I wasn’t about to submit myself to that kind of hurt again. No f*cking way.
But somehow, just after dawn last Saturday, I found myself squinting into the early morning sun as I drove down 36 toward the Springs. It barely registered what I was doing. It just seemed like I didn’t really have a choice. 24 hour Nationals was practically in our backyard. I couldn’t not go. I threw some clothes into a bag and packed up the trusty Bontrager. I brought some extra gears, but I knew I wouldn’t be changing anything. The Bonty was geared as easy as she can go (34×22), and I had no intention of gearing it any harder.
Last year, I did this race as a complete newb. When I pulled up to solo alley, more than a few folks asked 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. I had a lawn chair, a jar of pickles, some leftover taco meat, and a man-size bag of chips. I filled up my bottle at the unmanned water jug on the course each lap. I didn’t set up a tent since I didn’t think I could break it down afterward.
At its purest, this seemed like the essence of endurance racing. Just you and your bike. Of course, it is also the script of absolute stupidity at its finest. This year, by comparison, was luxurious. Drew’s wife, Toni, who also expertly crewed us at the 12 hours of Snowmass, was supporting us for the race. We had a canopy, tent, glorious amounts of food, and even heat! Of course, no matter how good the support was, I still had to pedal my ass around the course, over and over again.
The weather was fantastic as we toed the starting line at noon. When the gun fired, I paused to let everyone else sprint by. I was planning to walk the Le Mans start, but with all the folks cheering, I thought it would be disrespectful to not at least give the impression that I was in a race. So I lightly jogged to my bike, and found myself exiting the infield in exactly last place. I lost even more ground on the brief road section, as I watched the last of the geared racers further distance themselves from me. I soft pedaled the first climb and managed to pass a 13 year old girl and a couple women, who, if not for their number plates, did not give me the impression that they were racing. I did my best to not put forth any wasted effort. Last year, all the drops and step-ups sent my neck, back, and arms into a smoldering ache by lap 4. I think I was too tense last year, so this year, I tried to ride like a wet noodle, absorbing as much of the terrain as possible, instead of fighting it.
It seemed to work, sort of. The trail seemed more ridable this year. The buffed sections seemed more buff. The tricky, hard climbs seemed more climbable. After the first couple laps, I had less pain in my upper body, but I felt tired. Not winded or tired in my legs. Just tired. It didn’t bode well. I was just a few hours into the race, and I felt like taking a nap. Coming through the start/finish going into lap 3, I could hear the distinctive baritone voice of Larry Grossman belting out the current standings. “Cameron Chambers taking the early lead with Tinker right on his heels.”
I called out to him, “And Jeff Wu in last place.” This was essentially my battle cry last year as well. Larry would offer words of encouragement each lap, “Here’s Jeff Wu. Slow and steady wins the race.” Larry, slow and steady gets lapped.
I started feeling a little better on Lap 3 until I decided I should be on higher ground while zipping through a sandy descent. My tires washed out on the off-camber dirt, and I skidded along on my helmet for long enough to think to myself, “I’m not having a lot of fun.” When I finally came to a stop, my right arm and hip were bloodied, and my bibs were shredded. But the helmet did it’s job.
Night descended while I was working on lap 5. I was better prepared this year with three batteries for the Amoeba, and a car charger to rejuice them when needed. Foregoing a headlamp, I used a single light on the handlebars, which was mostly sufficient except for the sharp turns and larger drops. I walked a technical climb, laid down my bike, and pee’d into the beam of light from the headlamp. Through the veil of steamy urine, I saw another light approach, stall at the top of the climb, and hike the rest. As he approached, he noticed that I was another single speeder.
“What lap are you on?”
I resisted the urge to say twelve. “Five. You on six?
Seriously? The guy was already lapping me for the second time? As if I needed to feel worse. Trudging on, I felt like going to bed, and just waiting until it was light again before riding. But each time I came into the tent, ready to pack it in, Toni would fuel me up with hot Ramen and coffee. When she began to sense that I was getting too cozy in the tent, she would usher me back out into the cold and dark for another lap. Drew and I met back at basecamp after my 8th lap, and his 10th. We were both frozen and tired. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I crawled into the sleeping bag, wet chamois and all, as he saddled back up for number 11.
I was too tired to keep my eyes open, but I was unable to fall asleep. Frustrated, I stared at the back of my eyelids for a while before finally dozing off. I didn’t bother to set an alarm. I’d planned to sleep until I woke up. I had no idea what time it was when my eyes suddenly opened, but Drew hadn’t come back yet, so I figured it was less than an hour. Or maybe he was already back out, so maybe it was way more than that. I stayed in the sleeping bag, without any sense of urgency. It was still dark, and there was no sign of dawn. Toni was asleep, and everything was quite and motionless. A cold breeze swept across the opening to the tent. I tried to will myself out of the sleeping bag, and even though I was damp and cold, it still felt better than being on the bike. At some point, I crawled out of the tent, wrestled my cold, gritty shoes back on, and got back on the bike for another lap. My Garmin was dead, but judging by my lap times, I lost about and hour and a half.
My teeth were chattering on the climb out of the transition area, and flashbacks of stage 2 at the Breck Epic crept in. But my legs and body felt surprisingly better. Amazing what an hour of sleep can do for you.
Coming in from lap 9, basecamp was still quite, so I grabbed a pickle and headed back out. When I came back in from lap 10, Drew was there. He had evidently come in while I was out, and gone to bed. We both sipped coffee in the tent as Toni heated up some Ramen. The sun was newly out, and it felt nice. We decided to ride the rest of the time together, which was the best idea we had of the whole event.
Shortly into lap 12, a singlespeeder passed me and asked the obligatory question, “What lap are you on?” Turned out we were both on lap 12. Bummer. I was hoping he would be well ahead or well behind because I didn’t feel like racing anymore. Drew and I had settled into a relatively enjoyable pace, and I wasn’t in the mood to turn it up. So I let him go. But he never disappeared from view. After a while, we were right back on him. I could see that he was starting to crack. My legs felt springy again, and we took it up a couple notches. I led most of the climbs, and Drew led through the flats, pulling me along in his draft. The last two laps were my fastest of the whole race. Eager to be done, we hammered the rest of the way home. I finished with 13 laps in the books, Drew with 14. My total distance was 175 miles.
Last year, I managed 12 laps on the same course, and I thought that was as much as I could possibly do. That was good enough for 5th last year. I knocked out an extra lap this year, and had to battle for the 5th and final podium spot. Not as big a turn out this year, but everyone, without exception, was strong. No pack fodder this year. Drew lost a couple places in the night with his nap, but took home an impressive 8th place in an open field of strong riders, including Cameron Chambers and Tinker Juarez. Don’t think I would have made it on the podium if not for riding with Drew. Somehow, hurting together is more fun than hurting alone.
Last year, I didn’t know 5th place was on the podium, so this year, I made sure to stick around to collect my medal. On the drive home, I pulled into the parking lot of a Taco Bell in Castle Rock, clutched my 5th place medal, and shut my eyes. It would be a while before I would feel human again, but somehow, the sun-baked asphalt of a ghetto-fabulous fast food joint seemed the perfect place to start.
Big thanks to Toni for her amazing support and photos. And thanks to Drew for coercing me into doing the race, which was decidedly worth the effort in the end, and was undeniably, terribly painful. And I swear it will absolutely be my last 24 hour race ever. EVER.