Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Like A Weight Off My Neck

Part One

The Inner Challenge

The week leading up to the Ultimate Challenge doesn't lend itself to the best training regiment. I've often said before a big race, "It's not what you do the day before, or the week before, a competition that brings positive results, it's what you did a year, five years, ago that really matters."
And this yearly race tests that statement. The Ultimate Challenge comes at the end of the week of the Tour of Utah. Training suffers with my attention split between my event and the experience of the week long pro race. Having to spend days in hotels, and at friends and family's houses, nutrition deteriorates as well. I have to have confidence that my previous training is strong enough to overcome a minor dip right before the race. Those are known problems that can be worked around. 
Other episodes can't. 
It hit on Friday. Nine days before the event. 
And it came with fury. 
Clinical Depression doesn't have a schedule and can care less about yours. 
The difference between being depressed (feeling sad) and suffering from Clinical Depression is like racing on a BMC Time Machine and switching to a Huffy. If you've never had the pain or pleasure of riding either then understand it's like night and day. 
The depression affects all aspects of my being; from personality, to mental capacity, to physical capabilities. I had been training for this race for a year, and looking forward to the pro race for as long. They're interconnected. And as if a switch had been flicked in my brain, almost immediately I didn't want to go, I didn't care if we went, I couldn't justify going. 
Due to the traumatic brain injuries that have caused the depression, I have trouble having conversations so I retreat from people. I understand what is being said, I know how I'm supposed to reply but the words become trapped between thought and sound. And so my M.O. is to hide, or ride away from the frustration. 
At the Tour of Utah I would have to face hundreds of people who don't understand Aphasia. 
And the depression brought another debilitating factor: I couldn't hold down any liquid and very little solid food. Over the course of eight days I dwindled from 68kg (149lbs) to 63.5kg (139lbs). I knew I couldn't put my body under the stress of the toughest one day amateur race in America if I couldn't drink or eat during it. 
There are many times when I'm riding up a steep mountain that I repeat over and over- just one more pedal and you can quit...Ok, just one more pedal and you can quit 
And so it is with depression,  just one more battle and you can go hide in your bike room... 
Bambi is a master at encouraging when I have no desire. And so she coaxed me into the car, north to Cedar City, a little farther to Panguitch, held my hand up to Lehi, Ogden, Layton, Salt Lake City... until we were unloading my bike at Rice Eccles Stadium. 
An hour before launch I didn't know if I was going to race. 
When the crowd started building, I was certain I wouldn't. 


Part Two

Uphill All The Way

One last set of instructions to Bambi: 
See you in 6 hours and 45 minutes 
&
I'll text you at the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Understood between us is that "6 hours 45 minutes" is how long I've projected the race to take me. I've ridden most of this route before and analyzed all the data I could attain and have predicted it will take me 7 hours. I've subtracted 15 minutes for her so she'll be looking for me early. We've decided that I'll text a heads-up text from the bottom of the last climb that will give her ample warning, but it's understood anything that resembles a text like I'm trying to say I'm at the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon will suffice. I'll be tired and riding so I'm hoping to get out something that resembles "LCC".
I push off toward the starting line looking for a place to hide from the 400 other cyclists arriving in waves. 
I've set my bike up the night before. Race wheels covered with matching race tires. The tires are front and rear wheel specific, designed to work together to produce the optimum speed, maneuverability and power. Inside are matching inner tubes built specifically to work with the tires and wheels. 
Tucked in the bottle cages on the frame is 40 ounces of fluid: 20 ounces of water in the front bottle, 20 ounces of a mixture of Diet Pepsi, sodium, potassium, and magnesium in the rear bottle. I'll only stop once to refill the water. 60 ounces of fluid for 7 hours of strenuous exercise in the Utah high altitude summer sun. 
I'm smart enough to know the difference between thirst and dehydration. I'm wise enough to see through the myth of "8 cups of water a day" that the bottled watered business has pushed on the American public.
Absent on my bike will be a saddle bag, placed under the back of the seat to carry extra gear in. I wouldn't be caught dead in public wearing a fanny-pack, I wouldn't ask my loyal steed to wear one either. I'll carry everything I need in the three pockets on the back of my jersey. My phone, covered in two baggies (in anticipation of the crazies waiting on Tanner's Flat), 2 extra tubes, 3 air cartridges, a pump head, and one tire lever. Although I'll burn 8,000+ calories today I'll only carry 900 calories in the form of simple glucose. The body can only digest a maximum of 100 calories an hour under this level of duress. I'll pack a little extra than needed to appease Bambi, knowing I'm carrying 200 extra calories as dead weight in trade for a smile of relief from her. 
My shoes are white and red, my sock are black, they match the color scheme of my bike. My helmet is silver and orange; my sunglasses are white and gray to match the colors of my jersey and shorts. It's planned out for aesthetic purposes. Everything below the seat matches and flows, everything above the seat must match and flow. The two levels can clash between each other but everything above and below must match. Etiquette demands you look good and proper in order to not ruin other people's photos. 
Around my neck is the familiar chain that holds two dog tags. The older of the two is a reminder from when I crashed out of this race 4 years ago. I've worn it, without fail, every time I've sat on my bike. It haunts me to never quit, never give an inch, never look back. It's been with me for 80,000kms (50,000 miles) since. 
The other tag is a medal from crossing the finish line first, three years ago. 
It haunts me just the same.
As the clock ticks towards the start time, the confusion and excitement building around me begins to overload my systems. I contemplate riding home to Vegas. It's only 450 miles, give or take. And mostly downhill. 
My defense mechanism drapes a curtain around my senses. I can see everything, hear everything, feel everything but I become numb to those surroundings. It begins to close in on me.
I feel tight.
It physically hurts.
The ringing in my ears gets louder.
I need to get on my bike, ride away from everything. 
I look down at my bike computer and plead for it to read 6:00am

Part Three 

The Ghost Called "George"

The race starts off with a left hand turn out of the stadium parking lot and begins with an immediate 19 kilometer (12 mile) climb through Emmigration Canyon up to the summit called Little Mountain. In the dark of the west side of the Wasatch Mountains before sunrise we'll miss the view of some local iconic restaurants, the Hogle Zoo, and the "This Is The Place" monument but the solitude of  pre-dawn will bring my mind some enjoyable peace. 
I've made this climb before, a year ago. Back then it was in a race that included one of the greatest cyclists of our time. And in the dark of this new day my mind's eye removes the commotion of the real cyclists around me and replaces them with the memory of that race last year when I held my own against a legend. For the next 30 minutes I'm no longer racing in The Ultimate Challenge, I'm chasing a ghost called George Hincapie and trying to hang on to the shadow of his wheel. 
A struggle brews inside me between trying to duplicate a day that a pro was trying to drop me and I found out exactly what 100% effort feels like, and knowing this is the easiest of the four major climbs of this day- cook myself on this mountain and I don't see the next three summits.
At the end of that race last year I asked George for an autograph to which he added "Eric, you covered my a**"
I think he would have wrote the same thing this morning.
Over these first 19 kilometers we've gained about 396 meters (1,300 feet) in ascension. Not the most difficult climb, but the shock of having to do it at the beginning of a 172 kilometer race, coupled with the high pace, and the peloton that was 400+ strong 34 minutes ago has dwindled to around 30.
As we crest the summit of Little Mountain there's a quick reprieve from the pain of pushing the pedals against gravity but no real time to rest. The group breaks the compactness it held up the mountain and fans out some for safety as the speed  increases from 18 mph to over 35mph. At my weight I have to use all my technique and form to keep up. 
As someone once commented about me "You can't expect to go down like a bowling ball, when you go up like a feather."
But as the sun begins to reveal the high mountain scenery around us my eyes are focused on what's quickly approaching.
This year's course traverses road I've never been on. It's called Big Mountain. The local cycling community calls it "Kill Hill".
I concur.
It looks brutal at first sight.
At second glance it looks just as brutal.
I look down and focus on my bike computer to distract my fear.
Slipping to the back of the group I begin sizing up the other cyclists. It starts to intimidate me just as much as the climb growing ahead. These guys are mountain goats! They all look slimmer than me from the neck down to the knee and bigger than me from the top of the calf to the ankle. These Utah boys are bred for climbing.
I don't belong here. I'm already tired. I can't do this for 100 more miles.
I have to remind myself: We're all tired. None of us belong here. There are actually a little less than 100 miles left.
I'll use their knowledge and strength to my advantage. I ease my way into the middle of the group and ride nonchalantly, as if this is where I'm supposed to be.
One hour and 16 minutes of climbing , 29 kms (18 miles) into the ride and we've summited the second of four categorized climbs. As I crest "Kill Hill" I reach into my pocket and pull out some food. 100 calories every hour, a sip of fluid every 12 minutes. 
I've been in my easiest gear for most of the ride, my legs feel tiny but my confidence is growing. 

Part Four

A Perfect Day For A Bike Ride

Big Mountain is an unusual mountain for cyclist in one main aspect. Especially in the western United States. Most mountains have a long grueling side contrasted with a shorter steeper side. It's basic geology. Big Mountain is strikingly equivalent. The recognized climb on both sides is listed at 5.3 miles with an average 5% grade. The 5.3 mile climb took just over 34 minutes, the 5.3 mile descent off the back side will take 10 minutes.
The reason we struggle to get to the top of the mountain is so we can fly down it.
As we reach the bottom of the descent and begin to fall into a regular speed, regular cadence, regular rhythm I take some time to assess how I'm doing and draw a more accurate prediction of a finishing time. The weather can only be described as ideal. It's not even 70 degrees yet, and clouds to the east are keeping the sun's rays at bay. My pace to this point is faster  than I'd predicted. It's a little past 7:30am. My average speed is higher than I had guessed but because of the cooler temperatures I've consumed far less fluid than planned. I begin to recalculate my supplies and start wondering if I can save a couple minutes by not stopping to replenish my water.
The weather couldn't be better for being on a bike. Unfortunately, that will come back to haunt me down the road, as we start passing cyclists not in the race, but just out enjoying the nice weekend weather.
My bike computer is constantly scrolling through 40 different points of information concerning my the bike and my health. Over the next 50 tedious miles I'll engulf myself in the flow of data and continually readjust my speed, energy output and food intake accordingly. My focus is on the ever-changing numbers although my senses are mindful of the other bikes, cars and other obstacles around me. I become immune to the unnecessary scenery winding past me and barely notice that we pass to the left of Echo Reservoir, the right of East Canyon Reservoir, the right of Rockport Reservoir and through, no less than, four photogenic small Utah ranch towns. Except I do notice that one small town that smells like a Zombie cow ate a dead cow and belched immediately afterwards.
I'm a "numbers guy". I relish in all the numbers that are flowing through my mind. I can't always rely on my brain to give me an honest opinion on how I am doing but give me my heart rate and cadence and I know exactly how it's going.
Over the full race my heart rate will average 151 beats per minute and top out at over 200bpm's. I'll rotate my pedals 34,472 times. I'll reach a top speed of 62mph and pass a car hindered by the maximum regulatory speed of the road and at one point slow to a crawl of 4.2mph and seriously wonder if it would be faster to  get off my bike and push.
Through this stretch of the race my "total distance" passes 53 miles and I reach back into my jersey pocket to retrieve my phone. Bambi and I have agreed that I wouldn't text until I got to the bottom of the final climb but I figured I could text her here and let her know I was at the midpoint. Riding without hands, I pull the phone out of the two baggies and push the button to power it up.
Horror and fear follow.
The phone battery is dead. Not only can't I text Bambi now but she won't be receiving the agreed upon text.
We have a saying to cover this possibility and now I pray she'll trust it. "No news is good news."
If she doesn't get a call from a random hospital, it must mean that I'm still right side up!
I've been on the bike 3 hours and 35 minutes and that was all just to get to this point. It's all about to get real.
At 62 miles we make a hard right-hand turn on to Brown's Canyon Road.
There's a debate about where the climb up to Guardsman Pass begins: right before Park City, right after park City, on Marsac Ave?
I believe it starts here, at Brown's Canyon Rd.
The pain will last over 2 hours, the struggle will end 20 miles later.

Your legs are never the same after Guardsman Pass.

Part Five

Deja Vu

I'm not a big fan of the road between Brown's Canyon and the top of Guardsman Pass. While it's a beautiful area full of rivers, picturesque ski resort towns and mountain scenery it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. 
It's nothing but bad memories.
Last year it was over this 21 mile stretch that I suffered a complete bike meltdown that included 8 punctures and finally forced me to abandon the race. I wasn't looking forward to riding through it again, even though this section of race seems designed for me. It begins with a long gradual climb to Park City where it pitches up through the town and ends with one of the most challenging climbs in Utah. But my focus was on my bike, not the course.
Every strange sound that originated from underneath me alerted my heightened senses.
And then just after the 12km climb through the canyon a new sound emerged that gained the attention of all my senses which were frantically trying to decipher the noise and feel coming from beneath me. A metal on metal sound is never good with any working machine. 
Click, click, click, click, click...
I fell away from the rest of the cyclists and began a visual survey of my bike: pedals, chain-ring, chain, cassette, brakes, everything metal. Nothing immediately noticed as I continued to roll along. 
The clicking persisted.
I stood up on my pedals and coasted. The sound continued, which was a good sign. That meant it most likely wasn't coming from the drive train. I reached down and pulled the levers on the brakes that opened them wider. Nothing there. 
And then sheer disbelief!
As I slowed down to make the hard right turn out of the canyon and onto the road that would take us to Park City, I slowed down.
No!
No, no, no, no, no.
The clicking slowed with my speed. 
Tire!
The noise was coming from the tire.
I came to a stop as fast as I could, and before I had completely stropped I was dismounting the bike to remove the weight and pressure.
Not here! Not now! Not again!
Sticking out of the rubber from my tire was half a safety pin. The other half was hidden inside.
I started in horror. 
Anywhere but here!
I pushed on the tire. It was still holding air. In fact, it seemed like it hadn't lost any.
But I couldn't continue riding with a safety pin embedded my rear tire.It would have to come out, and I was losing precious time. I pulled on the pin as if I was holding a hand grenade.
The sound that followed was shocking.
Nothing.
It should have sounded exactly like air rushing out of a pin hole powered by 119 pounds per square inch.
Instead it sounded exactly like nothing.
My race wheel set-up had stood up to the test.
Not knowing how long it would last, I jumped back on my bike and started chasing lost time.
As buildings and signs began announcing the arrival of Park City I made a calculated decision: I was going to have to stop for water. Racing this course and this distance on just 40 ounces of fluid was a silly pipe-dream2 hours ago. The sun was out now, the temperatures rising and the course was getting tougher.
Guardsman Pass was looming.
And then I could sense a car crowding into me. It wakes you up in a hurry. But almost immediately it was apparent the driver was trying to match my speed.
"Need water?" The passenger yelled out of the window.
"Yeah!" I said in relief.
A hand extended out of the window holding a bottle of Heaven.
So much for stopping. I smiled as the anonymous car sped forward.


Part Six

What Goes Up


Guardsman's Pass.
8.2 miles and 3000 feet of elevation change
Hors Categorie (Beyond category)
I wouldn't drive my car up this thing.
1 hour, 10 minutes of your legs constantly screaming to stop with every rotation.
Deer Valley Road turns into Marsac Avenue turns into a goat path somehow passed off as Guardsman Road.
613 commandments can be found in the Bible. I'm pretty sure I've broken 572 of them on this climb, including 9 of the Big Ten.
I'd describe the scenery on this mountain but all I've seen is my shoes, pedals, handlebars and asphalt. 
Oh, and the jaws of Hell.
Over the next hour+ I'll live at 186 heartbeats per minute or higher. Each and every pedal stroke is a battle to get to the next rotation. A battle with your lungs screaming for more oxygen. A battle with your body for more carbs. A battle with your mind, with empty promises of great rewards if you just quit. The sight of other cyclists stopped, off their bikes, looking defeated adds to your minds argument that just two minutes of rest will help. The smell of burning brake pads is a constant reminder of the gradient. 
The death suffered on each of the 5,040 pedal strokes is reborn as Gravity lets lose her grip as the summit rolls under your transformed legs. 
You haven't won the race, but you've defeated your doubts.
The reward is a 13.1 mile, 3,500 foot drop at speeds reaching 58 mph back into the Salt Lake Valley. 
Unfortunately the perfect day for a ride would throw a wrench into the fun 1 mile into the descent.
This is not a closed race course.
As I came around the first sharp turn of the slope I came upon a couple cyclists, not involved in the race, just out enjoying the great weather. Equally unfortunate was that they'd stop to take some photos of the view.
No time to stop.
Instinct and experience took over as I intentionally  laid my bike down in a controlled slide for my safety and theirs. 
Road rash and a damaged saddle seemed to be the stock of the initial inventory. My iPhone had broken my fall, and looked broken in the fall.
I was alive and the bike seemed intact.
I stood up to mount it.
Pain shot down my leg. I couldn't put any pressure on it.
No worries, I wouldn't need them for the next 12 miles. I'd coast to the bottom of Big Cottonwood Canyon and go from there. 
After all, "Time heals all wounds..."


Part Seven

Catching The C-train

Big Cottonwood Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon are separated by about 4 miles. It's quite possibly the most demoralizing stretch of the entire race. As you slow down at the bottom of the descent off Big Cottonwood your mind invariably starts thinking about the climb up Little Cottonwood, but you've still got to get there, and these next four miles makes it tough. There are 7 and 8% pitches and the entire stretch probably averages 3%, no easy ride, especially after 99.5 miles.
I had noticed that as long as I was on the bike, my injured hip wasn't bothering me. It only hurt when I was standing on it. The rest of my body sure hurt. I was spent, no way around it. I was about 15 minutes ahead of my projected pace and that included lost time checking my tire and hitting the tarmac. I was excited but concerned that I'd pushed too hard.
But every once and a while, life tosses you a preserver.
As I slowed at the light at the bottom of the canyon and started making the right hand turn onto Wasatch Blvd the Cannondale Cycling Team was heading up out of the valley and making a right hand turn onto the boulevard. I timed the turn perfectly and swooped in behind the big green bus headed for the finish line. Safely tucked behind it, I veered to the left just enough to make eye contact with the driver through his rear-view mirror. It was all he needed to see. A quick gesture of his hand and I dropped back behind his bumper.
Drafting behind a bike or two can save 12% of your energy, that's magnified greatly behind a Greyhound-size bus. For the next two miles I had as free of a ride as you can get, saving what I would guess was 30% or more energy by sitting 18 inches of the back of a bus driving through the Salt lake Valley. Not for the faint of heart.
As the line of cars stacked up behind us, the driver finally had to get back up to the speed limit and began pulling away. Not only was it one of the funnest things I'd ever done in my long history of this race but it also got my mind off the inevitable.
I was now about one mile from Little Cottonwood Canyon.
I knew there was a neutral aid station at the foot of the climb and I knew I better get some more water.
The neutral aid stations in this race are above any I've ever seen. The people manning these stations are enthusiastic and helpful beyond expectations. I only needed fluid and I knew I wouldn't have to stop. The volunteers would be standing alongside the road handing it off. I grabbed a water as I went by.
It was here.
I'd made it.
The only reason I'd traveled to Utah.
To stare down this climb.
In races I place a piece of Blue Painter's Tape to my top tube. It's a "cheat sheet" for the course. Usually it contains distances to climbs, aid stations, and other important information that I can access with a quick glance down.
Today it simply read:
Make it to Little Cottonwood  Canyon The Put The Beast To Sleep!

Part Eight

The Beast Called "LCC"

Little Cottonwood Canyon, or "LCC" is located on the south end of the Salt Lake Valley. It's mainly used as a route to get to Snowbird Ski Resort. With an average gradient of 6% it is, by no means, the toughest climb of the Wasatch Mountains. I can easily name five other climbs in the area that I would list as harder. It does contain stretches at the top of 16% and 14% but those type of grades are nothing for a road in Utah to brag about. 
But after more than 160 kilometers on a bike, at race pace, you have very little left in your legs or mind to tackle something like this. 
I have this road commited to memory. Each pitch and bend visiting my dreams on a regular basis. I know after the aid station at the mouth of the canyon I have 6.4 miles to the finish line. About a half mile away from the aid station I look down at my computer as it reports the "Distance Traveled".
104 miles.
I look up to get my bearings.
I look back down.
104 miles.
I reevaluate my location.
I try to do the math.
It continues to add up to 110.1 miles total.
I was promised 107.5!
I'd made a fatal calculation flaw before the race. The pros will race 107.5 miles but that is after a 2.6 mile neutral "roll-out". The amateur begins at the stadium and will not contain a "roll-out". Throughout the day I'd taken my "Distance Traveled" and subtracted it from 107.5. Now I'd have to add 2.6 miles to my total at a place I didn't know if I could give that much more.
My legs started to protest.
The Beast called "LCC" had just won a serious mind game.
I wanted to cry.
It's going to take just under an hour to do these last 6 miles. a mile up LCC I'm out of gears, my jersey is unzipped trying to cool my body, I'm deciding how to ration my water. And immediately a battle begins to rage inside me just to survive the next pedal rotation. Each pedal stroke is a new battle between body and mind. There will be times over this next hour that I'll slow to 4 miles an hour which will justify the nagging suggestion from the legs to just get off the bike and rest, just stop for 2 minutes. 
The mind knows from experience that the odds of getting back on, after succumbing on  difficult terrain like this after almost 6 hours is close to zero. There's nothing positive 2 minutes off the bike can give you.
You trick yourself to keep going with empty promises as much as your body tries to bribe you to quit with the same.
Just get to the next bend.
Then, just get to the next sign.
Then, just get to that rock in the road.
And then when it seems like I can't find anything close enough to coax my body too, it happens.
The higher up you travel, the more people appear camped along the road. They're there to watch the pros and are staking the best viewing spots, but now, here, they're my fans.
The cheers belong to me.
The applause is mine.
The cowbells ringing.
The cowbells pull you up The Beast.
And when you reach them, there's more up the road.
Just make it to the next cowbell!
There's no need to stop on this climb, on this day. No need to ration fluid. If the fans aren't holding cowbells they're holding fluid; water, Gatorade, whatever you desire. 
Someone hands me a Diet Pepsi. Liquid Manna.
And then the sign beckons me. The sign I've been looking for all day long. In the belly of The Beast is Tanner's Flat. For an amateur cyclist in America there is no other experience like Tanner's Flat in The Ultimate Challenge. 
It's The Tour of Utah's version of "Dutch Corner" (Google Dutch Corner Alpe d'Huez)
The craziest fans of the week have been camped here over night in anticipation of seeing the pros suffer here. But they treat the amateurs the same. For the next 4 minutes I'll feel like the pros on the Alps during the Tour de France. It's the half mile that makes the other 109 worth it.
I've prepped for this. Everything that needs protected is covered. It begins as soon as you make the left hand swoop onto the stretch of road, and there's nothing flat about Tanner's Flat. The cowbells are deafening. The people crowd the road and make it so only two bikes can ride next to each other. You're squeezed through a maze of insanity. People are dumping ice water on me. Offering me fluid of all kinds. I have to tell a few, "no thanks I don't drink", as alcohol is thrust into my limited view. Superman offers to push me. I decline, I'm going to finish this under my own power. A gorilla offers me a banana. I've always assumed that if a gorilla offers you a banana you take it so as to not offend said gorilla. I guy in a Ghillie suit offers me cash to quit. A giant fly encourages me to fly. That seems logical. 
Two years ago I was so tired, and shaking so bad, I could hardly stay on my bike at this point. This year I'm ready for this. I've planned it out. I've trained for it. 
Halfway up Tanner's Flat I get out of the saddle and begin powering my way through the climb. The fans cheer appreciatively. 
Ten seconds later I realize it's the dumbest thing I've ever done on a bike. But now I'm stuck standing. To sit down will bring more jeers and mocking than standing brought cheers. 
At the top of Tanner's Flat my legs are shot. Stupid move. My heart rate is over 200bpm. My breathing is labored. I'm dizzy. I don't need the myriad of warnings beeping from my computer to tell me anything. It's bad and I know it. In cycling lingo "I've cooked myself."

With a mile left in the race I have to accept that I might not make it.


Part Nine

Like A Weight Off MyNeck


I'll set a Personal Record on the climb up "LCC" and crush my best time through Tanner's Flat. Over the last six and a half hours I've pretty much rewrote my personal record book over the areas I've rode in the past. I'd projected a 107.5 mile time of 7 hours. I'll beat that by over a half hour and finish the 110 mile race 22 minutes faster than 7 hours. I'll average over 16mph over the course. I'll spend less than 5 minutes off the bike.
But none of those accomplishments mean anything right now.
The only thing that matters are the signs on each side of the road that I'm passing.
                                          1 KM to FINISH
1000 meters left.
I remind myself that I really only have 500 meters to go. The final 500 meters drops downhill into the Snowbird parking lot. If I give all I have for these next 500 meters my dead body will roll the rest of the way down to the finish line.
But first things first.
There's a proper way to cross a finish line. I pour the the last of my water on my head and toss the two bottles to some kids watching. Everything comes out of my jersey side pockets. The middle pocket holding only a tube, lever and canister of Co2. Sunglasses come off the eyes and are placed upside down in the air vents of the helmet. I sit up and zip the jersey to the top. Check to make sure my socks are at even height. 
I drop down into the final chute and zero in on the Kill Zone; the last 200 meters of a race. Although I'm by myself and the race has been decided already, I'll sprint through it to cut time.
At 300 meters I spot Bambi. She is in charge of the finish line, directing racers to the post-race tent, food and other needs. But her back is turned, she's not expecting me for at least 20 more minutes. She might miss my finish.
200 meters left.
And then it happens!
I hear a pop around my neck.
Then the sound of metal hitting the asphalt below and bouncing behind me. Something has fallen off.
I look down, searching for what's come loose just in time to see the second of my two dog tags falling to the ground. I reach for it but miss. Inexplicably my necklace has snapped!
For a brief time I panic and weigh their importance verse the finish line. 
They've been around my neck for the last 80,000km of my life. One for a near fatal crash in this race; one for a victory in this race.
They've driven every pedal toward a quest for the, unattainable, perfect race.
A haunting reminder of the constant nightmares that winning, and losing this race brings.
I'll neither win or lose today. 
That thought brings a peace to my soul.
I look back up. Bambi has turned around and is screaming. Her smile as wide as the finish line.

Let them go...


Thank You For Riding Along With Me

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

LoToJa

LoToJa 2013

Enjoy The Day


Part One

Out of the Ashes


100 miles into a 113 mile race and it was over. Not A race. Not THE race. But MY race. The one I train for daily. The one I brag about always. The one I dream about nightly.
13 miles from the finish line, and I had carried my bike six of the last seven miles to get to this spot. Carrying my bike, running up an 11% gradient hill in desperation. Hoping, beyond hope, there was help at the top. I passed a few riders still pedaling on their bikes. Desperation is a big motivator. I was carrying my bike because I'd suffered my sixth puncture of the race. To my immediate relief, there was help at the summit where neutral support put a new tube in and sent me on my way. I'd lost touch with the leaders, and mid-pack riders, and a lot slower riders than that, but I fought on. 
Less than a mile off the summit, and receiving a new tube, there I sat.
100 miles into a 113 mile race and it was over. Not A race. not THE race. But MY race. My bike underneath me with its 7th flat tire of the day.
And with it the rest of my season. 
LoToJa, scheduled in one month, would have to wait another season. I couldn't trust my bike. Couldn't risk racing on it.
So there I sat, watching other riders go by, enjoying the day. 
My Demons dancing a victory dance around a bonfire. 

But sometimes, sometimes, out of the ashes...
A week passed.
I never looked at my bike.
An entire week.
Usually after every race, and ride, every time I get off my bike, I go over it with a fine-tooth comb.
Not this time. I pushed it into the bike room and closed the door. And a week passed. Seven days of inaction. 
Then action.
I began to get vocal. The flaw was in the bike, not my training. It has to be the bike. No one gets 7 flat tires in 100 miles. People started coming to my aid. Bambi started calling everyone involved with the bike being moved from the factory to my bike room. No one in that line wanted to accept responsibility. A friend started scouring the threads of different websites looking for problems with the bike. And there it was: a flaw in the construction of the wheels. But no one had put the pieces together. My bike shop got involved. A discussion arose. And in the famous words of Sherlock Holmes "Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth." There was a big flaw, and we were uncovering it. 
We got more vocal. 
And out of the ashes of a lost race we started kindling our own fire.

"You have a Direct Message." Came over my phone notifications. It was from the Director of Marketing. 
"How can we fix the problem? And if we do will you stop with the assault?"
The next day a new, better wheel set was on its way.
But two weeks had passed. No training, no bike, no diet, no structure.

LoToJa would have to wait another season. 

Part Two

Training To Lose


The wheels were nice. Real nice. The hub was probably the nicest single piece of bike equipment I'd owned. The next morning I crawled out of bed after a two week hiatus and pointed the bike, with the new wheels, up Potosi. I climbed, and climbed and didn't want to stop. The old wheels had always been flawed and I felt it immediately on these new ones. The whole season had been raced on bad equipment. I felt free. I wanted back in. Back in the game. Back in the pack of riders bunched 2 inches away from each other. Back in LoToJa. 
When I signed up, I knew there was never a chance to win, or stand on the podium of a race like LoToJa. It's not built to my strength. It's not a focus of my season. It's an afterthought. 
But it's the biggest race in America. And I had gained entry into it. 

"You know I can't win this." 
"Win what?" Bambi questioned, at dinner. 
"LoToJa." I answered.
A big grin on her face. "I don't want you to win. I want you to enjoy the day."
"I don't know how to do that on a bike." I replied. 
"I remember when you did."

It's not what you do the morning of the race. It's not what you do the day before the race. It's not what you do the week before the race. 

It's what you did two years ago. 

And two years ago I rode every day. 75+ miles a day. Rode hard. Won races. Controlled a season. The last two weeks would have little affect on me. I could train hard enough with two weeks left before LoToJa to get through it. I wanted to finish the season the right way. And so I carried on as if I'd not missed a day. Every morning up at 4am to ride at 5am. Every day studying the course route. I'd never been on those roads, didn't know the minor details. I'd have to rely on the course outline in the Race Bible. And train accordingly. And so I memorized the outlay. And my mind began to dissect it. I stopped looking at it as a 200 mile race. In simplest terms it was two 100 mile races: one with three moderately tough climbs and the other a very flat course. I could do two 100 mile races no problem. Even without training. But I did have a concern with this approach. More often than not after 75 miles into a ride or race I cramp up. It's nothing to panic about. Nothing detrimental. Nothing that lasts more than a few kilometers. Just something that has to be fought through. But now I was going to have two races in one day and the possibility of cramping more than once.  
Every morning up before sunrise, before other cyclists, to ride. Every day studying the course, tearing it apart, mile by mile. Every night studying the true causes of muscle cramps, not the wives tales or myths told by the supplement manufacturers. Every chance, reading about past LoToJa races, the tricks, the thoughts, the history of the race. 
And very quickly I became obsessed. The morning rides became extremely intense. The course became my every thought. I became an expert on potassium and how it's stored and used in the body. 
I couldn't get the miles back from the two weeks I'd been off the bike so I took a different approach; I would work on my power instead of my endurance. I would work on my pedal stroke instead of my RPMs. 
Every chance I got I was studying GoogleMaps and the roads of the route. I was looking at the map and course profile supplied by the organizers. I knew the turns, the climbs, the descents, the flats, all through technology. I'd decided to take a friend's advice and ride at a body weight 5lbs heavier than I normally do. This wasn't a climber's race so my lightweight frame wasn't as important as my other races, and it allowed me to fuel my body with the extra potassium and magnesium I was overloading my body with. 
The intense workouts were making it difficult to keep weight on, much less add weight. The added minerals to my diet was also making the workouts difficult. The kidneys don't take kindly to processing a lot of potassium at once. But knowing this allowed me to understand where the pain was and train through it. I'd studied the times from the previous 5 years and was seeing patterns emerge. My mind, my systems, were becoming LoToJa veterans without ever being at the starting gate. 
I was gaining confidence. It was time to lay out the goals.

Maybe, maybe, I can compete. Stranger things had happened. I could put myself in a position to compete.
"I don't want you to win, I want you to enjoy the day."
The struggle. 

Cycling isn't a winning sport. In honesty, I knew I couldn't win this. But I'd never entered a contest where I didn't think I could win. Where I didn't expect to win. 
"...I want you to enjoy the day"
To enjoy it, I'd have to teach myself how to lose it. 

"I don't know how to do that on a bike."

The average finishing time of LoToJa between the years 2005-2012 was approximately 11 hours and 22 minutes.
I wrote down 11 hours 8 minutes on a piece of paper. 
201 miles went next to it. 
I did a few bike calculations in my head and wrote down another number: 18.14 mph
And then I nearly puked. 
Over 18 miles per hour, for over 200 miles on a bike. 
I wanted those 2 lost weeks back. 
I began dissecting the race even more. Eventually I broke it down into 6 segments and started looking at the race profile and how much time I could spend inside each of those sections and reach my 11 hour 8 minute goal. The six different sections would also allow me to check other aspects of myself as I raced. Over the next few days I added time to certain sections and subtracted time from others then compared those times to what I knew about the course. It seemed daunting, and at the same time extremely attainable. In my head the day was becoming less of a 200 mile race and more and more a day of 6 races, each between 20 and 50 miles long. A stage race taking place all on one day. 200 miles is a long ways on a bike: 50 miles is barely time to warm up. The times I had designated for each of the six segments would allow me to pedal at a very calm 86rpm's when usually I race at 92-100rpm's. This lower than normal rpm rate would keep my heart rate low for the long day and also help alleviate leg cramps. I was also eating with the sole purpose in my mind of stopping, or delaying, those cramps.
Everything I consumed was high in potassium and magnesium and low in sodium. Although sodium is important for muscle contraction, I knew that a high potassium/low sodium diet helped control blood pressure and I felt that was as important in a long day like this. I live in America- I knew I'd get enough sodium in my diet. If it contained a 3/1 potassium/sodium ratio, I ate it. 

Two days before the race I handed Bambi a sheet of paper with 6 landmarks, distances between, and time to (plus total time):

Preston 30 miles 1:15
Strawberry summit 26 miles 1:45 (3 hours)
Montpelier 20 miles 1:00 (4 hours)
Afton 47 miles 2:30 (6:30)
Alpine 34 miles 2:15 (8:45)
Finish Line 36 miles. 2:20 (11:05)

The winner would cross the finish line with a time somewhere around 9 hours. I'd just decided on a time 2 hours longer. 



Part Three

Biketown, USA


The day before the race was going to be as long as the race. We planned on leaving Las Vegas at 9:30am Nevada time and getting to Logan at 6:45pm Utah time. It was that precise. Checkin at the start line shut off at 7pm and they had made it clear they were sticklers to the schedule. We didn't have time to sightsee. 
The last two weeks had been difficult, mentally, for Bambi and I. Her sister was dealing with health problems. Bambi was actually going to stay in Salt Lake City after the race to help the family through this. Going to the race was a financial crimp that was making it hard to justify racing with the worry she wouldn't have the financial means to stay with her sister through a more important event than just another race. A few people stepped up and made it possible to continue with the race; some I know, some I don't know. When we headed out of the garage I was feeling overwhelmed. I understand when people want to attach themselves to me in races I'm competitive in, I couldn't grasp why people would want to help in this one, with nothing to gain from it. 
BMC bikes have a very distinct frame and are easily recognized. It's always fun to have one strapped to the back of a car. It seems like every time you stop for gas or food someone has to make a comment about it's looks. And it does look fast. But the casual conversation always quickly turns to "are you heading to a race?"
This trip eyes got big when the answer was "LoToJa." 
Gas stations were approached in the spirit of an Indy 500 pit stop, no time to waste, no time to lose. We have it down in the same precision. Bambi heads to the store for fresh drinks, I take care of the vehicle. No communication needed. 
This trip, with the clock ticking toward the close of check-in the food stops were taken just as seriously. I didn't want to throw away the last two weeks of proper nutrition so the choices were a little more tight than normal, but Bambi does so much before, during and after these races that she deserves some enjoyment, so it became a balancing act between my nutrition needs and her enjoying "human food". 
The miles and hours ticked away. I know it's got to be tough to drive to a race with me: sometimes I want it quiet, sometimes I want conversation. I don't know when I'll want each, so no one else can know. Somehow it seems like Bambi does and she's good at keeping the tension at an even level. 
Eight hours passed and we were pulling into Logan, Utah with 22 minutes to spare. Grins, snickers and looks of awe resonated from both of us. The hotels leading into town were full, each parking spot filled with a vehicle with a bike rack attached to it. Every restaurant packed the same way. Cars driving up and down the streets adorned with bikes. 
"Is this heaven?"
"No... It's Logan." 
"I could have sworn this was heaven."

Somehow we found a parking spot within half a block of the check-in/festivities. LoToJa is a slick operation. Walking into a check-in there's always that apprehension of where to go, who to see. Not here. Signs pointed the way where one person would grab you, take care of step one and hand you off to someone else for the next step. In less than 10 minutes of getting out of our car I had been processed. A bracelet and stamp on my right arm and a timing chip for my left ankle to prevent cheating. Bib number for my kit and race plate for my bike. A swag bag handed to Bambi. I know the pecking order here. She rummages through it and gets what she wants, and I get the crumbs left. 
We wandered through the festivities for a while but we had an hour trip back to a bed waiting for us. 
The rain was falling as we headed to our room, my bike in my hand to go over the equipment one more time. 
I couldn't believe it. My back tire was flat. Not just flat, but flat flat. Future generation's cliché level flat. "How flat was that?" "As flat as Eric's back tire the night before LoToJa." "Wow that's flat!"
 Surely I must have left the valve open. But it was closed. I started pumping it back up. Air was escaping as fast as I could pump. A very ominous sign: I'd suffered my first puncture of LoToJa 11 hours before the race. A quick change of tubes, a check of the rest of the bike and I fell asleep concerned that I was doomed already. 


Part Four

"The Chaos Before The Calm"


As my body slowly came into consciousness I could hear the patter of rain outside on the cement. A grin crept onto my face. I love riding in the rain. I crawled out of bed and looked outside. It looked like it had come down hard here through the night but it was just a sprinkle now. Being an hour's drive from the start I has no idea what it had done there. As the drops rolled down the window in the glare of the street lights I thought back to past years at LoToJa with some crazy weather. They don't cancel this race. They'd raced in the snow before. Rain or not we were riding, you could embrace it or hate it. I love riding in the rain. 
The ritual has become natural. I probably don't need to wake up at 4am on a race day because my systems would just start taking care of everything until I did: Diet Pepsi, vitamins, food (3 hours before start time), shave (don't tell the Velomenati that I shave on race day: big no-no), shower, go over my kit, starting from the helmet down to the shoes, and check my race bib one more time (Bambi is the master of pinning the number on in a way it doesn't create drag). Then move onto the equipment that I'll carry. A miniature pump and two Co2 cartridges, a tube, 1000 calories of food, two water bidons; one with water, one with liquid calories, my sunglasses are cleaned off; right lens first then the left. I carry the bike and equipment to the car. 
With a few minutes left before we leave I go over with Bambi what I'll need from her and when. There will be only 3 Feed Zones where she'll be able to legally hand me things. With so many riders in the race they will not allow things to be passed from a moving car. In anticipation of this, Bambi has made 3 drop bags that she can hand me with what I have pre-assigned for each feed zone. It'll speed the exchange up more than stopping and deciding what needs refilled/replaced. I'll simply discard everything I have before the feed zone and grab the bag. 
At 4:50am we head off toward Logan. Usually I like showing up an hour before the start but this morning I'm breaking from that schedule. I've got a friend launching 30 minutes before me and want to see him off. 
It was still dark when we pulled into town and found a spot to park. Work lights dotted the parking lot as cyclists were busy prepping themselves and their bikes. I decided to get my bike ready before we headed to the start gate and when I started going over it my heart nearly stops. The rear tire is flat again. I'd just changed it and checked it last night. It hadn't touched the ground. I was in complete panic mode. This couldn't be happening. Two flat tires before the race even started. Before I'd even straddled the bike. There was nothing to do but change it again. As I did Bambi ran to the bike shop. Luckily it was open. She got two more tubes to replace the ones we'd used. What she couldn't replace was my confidence. It was sinking, and sinking fast. 
Once the tube was replaced and bike was checked we hurried to the start. 
LoToJa is actually two events combined into one. The first is the competitive race sanctioned by USA Cycling as the longest one day race in America. The other is a non-competitive fun ride. 
A 200 mile "fun" ride. 
Then the sanctioned race is actually 3 races in one. There's the race for overall winner, then you are racing against others in your licensed category. But because of the amount of cyclists entered some of the categories have to be split up and you then are racing against only those that start with you. 
Dave was starting 30 minutes before me and we got to the line just as his group was placed in the corral behind the gate. He looked ready for a good day in the saddle as the starter got them off and he disappeared around the first corner with his group.
I turned and got back at the task at hand. I had 30 minutes before I was off. I ran the bike through it's gears, checked the brakes, double, triple, quadruple checked the rear tire. It was fine but my confidence was still low. With 200 miles in front of me there was no real reason to warm up. I stayed on the bike just to waste the time. 
Anyone that's rode with me knows that I always have a "cheat sheet" made out of blue painter's tape attached to my top tube with bits of info I want to make sure to remember. At the bottom is always the one thing I want in my head. It's Jens Voigt's famous quote "SHUT UP LEGS". Today's cheat sheet was the six landmarks I'd given Bambi for time checks but on mine were the amount of calories I wanted to consume before each of those places. But at the last minute, instead of writing SHUT UP LEGS, I wrote 
"ENJOY THE DAY"
Groups of around 50 were being launched every 3 minutes alternating between the racers and the riders. I started inching my way toward the starting corral. The clock said I had about 4 more groups before mine. I wanted my familiar spot at the start: 18 feet off the line and on the inside of the first hard corner. The amount of cyclists waiting for their time was amazing. I felt at such ease. In amongst bikes is about the only place I feel a part of. As I slipped forward with the waves of bikes I heard an "Eric!"
It went unanswered at first. There were 3000 cyclists which meant there were probably 2998 Erics.
again "Eric!"
"Eric!"
"Hey Bonk Breaker Eric!"
I turned around. There running through the mass of bikes was Steve Miller. I didn't know he was in this but it took all the tension off. A smiling friendly face. We joked quickly, he was riding in the non competitive ride and leaving right before me. Bambi snapped a picture and I went back to focusing on the race. It was hard to do when you're questioning why the owner of The Utah Jazz felt he needed to say "hi", minutes before the start.
7:18am Cool and cloudy. It smelled like rain. No wind. The Bike Gods were with us. 
7:19am, the call for my group to enter the corral behind the starting line. 
It was sheer confusion trying to funnel in through the back. I didn't get my normal place. Instead I was as close to dead center as possible. I looked down at my bike, unnerved.
"ENJOY THE DAY"
"I'm Eric." I extended my hand to the racer to my right. Quick intros and well wished were exchanged. I turned to my left with the same intent. Then back, over, and anywhere I could reach. I'd never done that before at the start. I usually bury myself in my handlebars and ignore the confusion around me.
7:20am Race instructions about not crossing the center line, no public urination, No moving hand-ups. Obey the race official in the car and motorcycle.
I found Bambi in the crowd one more time, "See you in 4 hours" I mouthed.
She would have to take a different route to our first exchange at Feed Zone 3 and mile 76. There was no support vehicles allowed on the course until then. 

Part Five

Saturday Morning Group Ride


Saturday, September 7, 7:21am MST 
"GO!"
We pushed off. Even at this level there are nerves and someone in the front missed clipping into their pedal and fell on their bike. There was a little pause as everyone behind worked their way around. Immediately after that a hard left turn started us down a long straight stretch. We were moving smoothly now. 50 bikes bunched together moving toward a common goal in the cool, cloudy morning.
The feel of the air swooshing in, out, under, over and through you and your bike. The heightened awareness of being able to touch, at minimum, 6 other cyclists as we roll at 20+mph. The flashing lights of the police escort 50 meters ahead. Bunches of people scattered along the roadside. Cowbells ringing in the dawn's light. Seeing, but not really seeing all of it. Feeling it. Feeling the cowbells ring, the spectators, the other cyclists. Most of all feeling the wind dance around you and your bike. 
This was a real race. Sanctioned. A police escort was leading us. There was a 4 mile neutral zone: No attacks. We'd ride as a group until then. I looked around. I was about 10th, with cyclists in front, to the sides and back of me. A good spot. 
"You ever do LoToJa before?" The wheels next to me asked. 
"First time." I responded. 
"Second time for me."
I started picking his brain. Average speed, course info, nutrition... I looked down at my bike.

ENJOY THE DAY

I shifted the conversation to personable info. Where he was from, how long he'd rode, how he liked his bike, who was here supporting him. And I listened. A couple others around us joined in the conversation. The police car leading the way, stopping traffic, letting us roll through red lights, keeping the pace. This was our day. Better than a parade. 
You do things moving on a bike that later amazes me. Just little things. Within 10 minutes I'd shaken hands with 8 or more other riders. We were moving at 23+mph. 
At 10 minutes I reached back into my pocket and grabbed some food. Normally I wait an hour before eating but I didn't want to be playing "calorie-catch up" 6 hours from now. The first self-diagnostic check point was the town of Preston, 30 miles away. The speed that we were doing as a peloton would get us there in less than 90 minutes. The conversation continued from cyclist to cyclist as the peloton rolled through Logan behind the neutral pace. It was agreed upon that this speed was good and we would hold it through Preston. As the police escort pulled over at the edge of town a group of 8 guys from 3 different teams took control of the front and rotated through to keep the pace. I sat about 15th back and let them pull me along. A guy from Salt Lake City pulled a bottle out of his back middle pocket and took a sip. When he went to replace it he couldn't find his pocket. I pulled up alongside, grabbed it from him and replaced it in his pocket as we sped along. Neither one of us had our hands on our handlebars as we worked through this task. 
Then it happened. A very distinct sound. The sound of a tire expanding and popping as a tube explodes. Bikes behind me scattered. It had obviously came from my bike. My heart sank but it was time for action. I swerved out of the peloton in case I lost control. I looked down and saw something I didn't expect: My tire was still inflated. Another cyclist pulled out alongside me. 
"Was that your tire?"
"I thought so." I replied.
He leaned down and took a good look as we moved along. 
"It looks a little low but it's still holding air."
We shook our heads in disbelief and pulled back into our spots. About a mile down the road he asked if I wanted him to check again. I shook my head and we pulled out of the group as he checked. It was still holding air. 
The guys holding the pace up front were doing a great job but I'd seen enough. As they started rotating through I kept my spot and worked up the line. When I was about fourth in line the lead pulled off and started drifting back. He noticed my unfamiliar jersey in the rotation. "We got this, no need to do anything."
"I hate taking free rides."
"Cool," he said, "Thanks for the help."
These eight were obviously veterans of multiple LoToJas. As The lead cyclists pulled off and my spot worked closer to the front I double checked my speedometer. They were taking about 3-4 minute "pulls" at about 24mph. The one thing I didn't want to do was be that guy that slowed the pace. 
I was number two, I switched my eyes back and forth from what was ahead in the road and his back tire. Then the hand signal showing he was pulling off to the left and dropping back.
I slid my hands down into the drops, or lower hooks of my handlebars. And boom, the wall of wind. No more protection hiding behind another cyclist. No more free speed. I was now responsible for pulling 40 guys in my wake. It felt good. It felt fun. I was leading the race and helping 40 other guys ease along. 94 rotations per minute. 24 miles an hour. Don't change either. Don't surge, Don't slow down. 
Don't crash.
Above all, don't crash.
I counted my leg RPMs in 15 second intervals: 23.5, no more, no less. 
3 minutes 45 seconds. 
1.5 miles.
I dropped my hand and pointed to the ground, the signal that I was moving over, pulled to the left and dropped my speed by 1mph. The train moved on to my right. Multiple compliments on a nice pull as I fell back. I've sarcastically waited for the day when someone says "pathetic pull you Oaf!" After about 12 riders I pointed in toward the line of riders. I wasn't going to fall farther back than this. A space was made and we rolled on. 
We continued on, a line of cyclists less than 8 inches between front and back wheels of opposite bikes. At mile 27.5 my rotation had me on the lead and Preston was getting close.
Same thing: no surges, no slowing down, work for everyone else.
I dropped off the lead at mile 28.8 and checked my fuel as we wound our way through Preston. I'd taken in 400 calories, exactly what I had planned on. The cool, cloudy weather had meant I didn't need as much water. My bidon was nearly full. I took a couple sips to get some in. 
The racers and non-competitive riders had taken different routes up to this point but at the far edge of Preston the two groups would merge and take the same route the rest of the way to Jackson. As we came to the junction and could see groups of riders on the other road someone in the peloton mentioned "Here's were it gets real boys."
I looked back, the peloton was still about 30 strong. I looked down at my computer. It read 1 hour 18 minutes. The paper I'd given Bambi for a time check read 1 hour 15 minutes. 
30 miles down; 176 to go.
The first big climb was in view. 


3 minutes was nothing.


Part Six

Halfway Done


Strawberry Summit was 26 miles ahead. There was a quick steep climb and descent before a steady 22 mile climb to the summit. The pace had slowed a little but gotten harder because of the pitch upwards. I looked around and guessed about 15 riders. The eight that had set the pace and some other strong riders. The rotation at the front were becoming shorter with each guy pulling between 1-2 minutes. As the gradient increased I found myself at the front taking my pull.
All I'm thinking about when I'm at the front is "Don't be the guy that can't keep the pace." I slipped my hands down into the drops and focused on my speedometer. 
"Don't be the guy that slows us down, Eric." I kept repeating to myself in my mind. 
At 90 seconds I dipped my head underneath my right armpit to get a view of how it was going behind me.
It wasn't going well.
I couldn't see anyone. No cyclist, no bike, not even a tire. 
I cocked my head backwards.
The group I was supposed to be pulling was 100 meters back. 
There's two things you can do at this point:
1) sit up and let them catch back up. Whereas you're the guy in the group who couldn't keep the pace
2) Keep pedaling until they catch up.
Right. 
You guessed it. 
There's only one thing you can really do. 
I upped the RPM's and kept climbing. At the top of the first short climb I was 200 meters ahead. I summited and shifted into the heaviest gear and pushed on. It was a fast descent but sadly "You can't expect to go down like a bowling ball when you go up like a feather."
By the time the terrain leveled off they'd caught me. I counted 11. Some had fallen off the pace. As they went by I latched onto the back feeling a little more confident. A nice steady 22 mile climb lay ahead. 
Our group had been catching and passing cyclists since the routes converged. It was a confidence booster to catch numbers lower than the one on your back. The groups were launched at the start in numerical sequences. 100's followed by 200's and so forth. We were catching 1200's, launched 6 minutes before us along with stragglers from 1100's, 900's and a few 700's. I tried to talk to and encourage every one.
"ENJOY THE DAY"
I met cyclists from all over the country and all walks of life. Each now with only a common goal of finishing. 
As the length of the climb continued, the steepness increased. It shattered what was left of our group. As some pulled away from me I struggled with the decision to go with them or ride my pace. All I could do, not knowing what lay ahead, was keep my pace. Some pressed on, some fell behind. The mix of the different groups continued. I made it a goal to talk to everyone who passed me and encourage everyone I passed. 
About a mile from the summit was the first Neutral Feed Zone (the first one the racers could use) We were 55 miles into the race. It was still cool and cloudy. Most of my pure water was gone, only a few sips were left. I still had enough fuel to get me to Feed Zone 3 where Bambi was waiting to replenish me. I can't stop going uphill. I don't understand why you'd want to kill your momentum. I'd made the decision along time ago that I'd only stop in dire emergency. I pressed up the hill. Shortly after the feed zone I passed a guy who had to weigh twice my weight. we were half a mile from the summit.
"I bet you catch me on the descent." I said as I went by.
"I probably will, but you'll pass me on the next climb." he laughed.
As I crest the summit I looked down at my altimeter. It read 4,054 feet of ascension. The Race Bible stated there was a total of 7,950 feet of climbing. 56 miles into a 200 mile race and in my mind I was half done. Only 3,900 feet of climbing left.
I shifted back into the big gears and hammered over the top. I'd passed a lot of cyclists going up, I knew a lot of them would catch me on the downhill. The last 8 miles into Montpelier was nice and flat. I was able to catch on with most of the group that I started the climb with. Our numbers grew as we passed cyclists who latched onto us. We were about 20 strong as we rolled into town and the first feed zone that we could take stuff from our support teams.
We took a hard right turn into Feed Zone 3. As with everything about LoToJa, the feed zones are slick operations. They're broken into 10 sections each numbered. It's suggested to use the last digit of your bib number to lessen the congestion. I locked onto section 7 and saw Bambi standing there waiting. Our eyes met. She was holding the orange drop bag. The Feed Zone reminded me of an Indy 500 pit lane as racers peeled off into their pre-chosen section. I'd anticipated just grabbing the drop bag on the fly but when I saw everyone else stopping I figured this was safer and easier. Big mistake. As I unclipped my left foot out of the pedal I felt it twinge, a precursor of a cramp. I pulled my bottles out of the cages and grabbed the full ones out of the bags. Grabbed the solid food and placed it in my jersey pockets. 
"I don't know how I'm going to continue." I mumbled to Bambi.
"Why?" concern in her voice.
"I'm cramping."
"Fight through it." She nearly demanded. "You know you can."
"I know," I said. "I'm just saying."
It had taken 3 hours 50 minutes to get to Feed Zone 3. The time check paper I'd given Bambi said 4 hours.
I was 10 minutes ahead of pace. But my legs were in the process of cramping.
"Give me a little longer than what I've written down to get to the next stop." I hollered back as I rolled out of the feed zone.
The drop bag had worked to perfection. I'd spent less than a minute replenishing my supplies. I was the first one out of the feed zone.
The next 47 miles included the last two of the three significant climbs. I was looking forward to it.

If only my legs would cooperate.



Part Seven

Squire of the Mountain


A couple rotations around the chain and thoughts of cramps were forgotten. I made my way out of the chaos of cyclists and support teams alone. I was feeling about how I planned I would be feeling at mile 76. Warmed up and ready. Not knowing the subtleties of the route I could only generalize what lay ahead. Two good climbs. A short moderate one followed by The King of The Mountain Climb. This would be the segment I'd spend the most time in and, in my mind, the one that could make or break seeing the finish line. Nobody in this race hadn't tackled climbs like these. They weren't very tough. But becoming preoccupied with them could lead you to forget there would be 85 miles left after them and slip on nutrition or energy. I had planned on eating more in the next 47 miles than I usually do in a 100 mile race. I started right away with some condensed liquid calories- basically real thick sugar water. The road started climbing almost immediately out of the zone and I adjusted my gears, cadence and focus. There was now a steady stream of cyclists, mostly in single file, all fighting gravity and fatigue. I passed some cyclists with great stories, and tried to listen to them all. A lady from Oregon who had just finished a 500 mile race across that state to qualify for Race Across America. We talked about the commitment of doing that and laughed at each other for wanting to do it. Another lady who was riding the leg for her husband because their car had been rear-ended driving to LoToJa. The problem was his bike was strapped to the back of the car and it had been shattered. He was in the process of getting a new bike and she was riding in his place until he could get fitted and back on the road. Before I knew it I was at the top of Geneva Summit and screaming down a steep decline. I shook my head and tried to imagine Lonnie Moreno attacking this stretch at break-neck speeds. 
"Welcome To Wyoming"  It was a welcome sign indeed as I crossed into the third and final state of the day. I pedaled on. A sprinkling of rain, threatening to make a mess of the afternoon, landed on my sunglasses. Not long after the descent I caught up to a guy and lady, had a brief chat and moved on. As I pedaled on I could sense I was no loner alone. A quick look back confirmed that they'd grabbed my wheel and were tagging along. I pushed on and soon realized they had no intention of sharing the work. It started to annoy me until I realized that if they were there or not I'd still be working this hard so I pushed on. 
We pedaled on, passing individual riders as we went. 
"What happened to the King of The Mountain?" The guy asked me from behind.
It woke me up, I had fazed out and forgot there was another climb ahead. I looked up at the horizon and the mountain range looming shortly ahead. 
"Oh, it's still ahead. We just haven't got there yet."
"Oh..." was the reply.
I don't think he was as excited as I was for it to get here.
A quick look back and there was a group of cyclists on the horizon behind me. They weren't there the last time. That meant only one thing: they were gaining. I pedaled for another minute with my two shadows behind me and looked back again.
Yep, closer.
I hate getting caught. 
There was no need looking back again, it was just a matter of time.
One, two, three, four... no more. Jump now!
I grabbed the draft of the fourth and final in the group and immediately felt the relief.
It caught my shadows by surprise and they quickly fell into the background. It was my turn to suck someone's wheel for a while. The difference was that I asked these guys' permission to hang on and get my legs back. 
It wasn't the nicest thing I did. Not long up the road we went around a bend and was staring at a "KOM 1km". My legs were fresh from resting in the draft, The four were obviously friends and they began discussing whether they were going to give the King of the Mountain a "go".
I didn't wait to hear the answer. As the "KOM Starts Now" sign came into view I stood up and went around them. I don't know if they gave it a go or not, I never saw them again. 
I'd stared at this 4 mile section more than any other part of the course. I'd looked at the times. I'd looked at the gradient. It seemed like I could give it a "go". I'd planned on it. 
A kilometer in and I knew it wasn't. I just didn't have it in my legs. It quickly changed from "attack this mountain" to "get over this and the hard part is over." I reached for a water bottle and took a nice big swig. 
17 minutes later I was at the top of the Salt River Pass. 

Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you. 

At the top of the summit was a neutral feed zone. I had plenty of water and fuel. 17 miles of downhill and Bambi would be holding my second drop bag.
As the town of Afton came into view a scene unfolded before me that I didn't want to see. There were people standing in the road and cars alongside the road with doors open. As the scene got closer it was confirmed: bikes all over the road and cyclists on the ground with people leaning over them. Some cyclists just sitting in the street, next to their bikes, shaking their heads. And before long flashing lights heading toward me from the little town ahead. There's a street at the edge of Afton called "Hospital Lane". It couldn't have been in a better spot. Emergency crews were minutes away.
The congestion had allowed me to catch a group of cyclists and I rolled into the feed zone with a big group  and the controlled chaos began again. I replaced empty bottles with full one and empty pockets with calories. But I had a request. 
"I want solid real food at the next stop."
We had discussed this possibility the night before.
"What?"
"I don't know, just something easy like a PB&J" I said as I pulled out.

Here's another in a long line of reasons that make cycling beautiful: before I'd cleared the feed zone Bambi had asked if anyone knew where she could get stuff to make a sandwich. People were too busy giving her ones they'd prepared for their riders to answer her question.

I looked at my time. I'd been on the bike 6 hours 40 minutes. 122 miles. I was 10 minutes off my predicted pace. I felt confident that I'd make it up before the next Feed Zone 33 miles ahead. The numbers just didn't make sense.


Part Eight

"The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul"


Afton, Wy to Alpine, Wy: 33 miles, mostly downhill and flat. 
The numbers just didn't make sense. I looked at this section more than even the mountainous section over the past two weeks. I couldn't grasp it in my mind. Over the last 8 years everyone's numbers dropped here. Speed, cadence, power, everything important. It looked set up for a "HammerFest". Put the nose on the wheel and hands in the drops and get through it. But everyone's numbers dropped here, from the winners to the last place rider. It had to be a lull. People were tired, the motivation had dropped, nutrition had suffered over the mountains. I was going to change that. Out of respect for the numbers I'd written down 2 hours 10 minutes for the section. But no way I was going to go that slow. This was where I made up huge amounts of time. Heck, it was the only section where Bambi would be driving on the same roads as I was racing. By the time she got the car out of the congestion and confusion of the Afton feed zone, I might already be in Alpine. Maybe I'd just take a nap and wait for her. Nah, I was craving real food. I'd buy a BBQ, assemble it, make a burger and then maybe she'd be there. 

First Rule of Cycling: You never have a tailwind, it's either a headwind or you're having a good day.

Actually there are worse things than a headwind. For example: Afton, Wy to Alpine, Wy: 33 miles mostly downhill and flat... with a crosswind.
And I was tackling it alone. 
I'm not really built for a crosswind. 
Luckily it wasn't a bad wind. Less than 10mph but after 125 miles in the saddle a sneeze might blow me off my bike. 
I looked down at my speedometer. 
Dang.
I reminded myself not to look at my speedometer anymore. 
If this kept up, I'd traverse the mountainous section at a faster average than this flat section. 
At least there was real food waiting for me at the end. I hoped it didn't go bad before I got there. 
About 8 miles out of town Bambi went by. It was the first time I'd seen her on the route. She couldn't hand me stuff, couldn't slow down to encourage me, couldn't stop, but just the sight of her on the route was uplifting. She's does so much and puts up with my crap. I just love seeing her when I'm riding. Plus it gave me something cute to chase. 
Speaking about something cute to chase there was something ahead of me. Undeniable. I knew it was but I has to get closer to see. Then I could laugh. I was reeling in John's "rabbit" from Rockwell. I'd chatted with her at a check point in that race and said hi as I went by. She recognized me and we talked for about a mile about her cycling season. But John couldn't quite reel her in during Rockwell, I wasn't going to fall prey to it here. On a slight incline I stood up and took off. Now I had something to run from. And like I always say "You can ride faster scared than you can mad."
I couldn't seem to quite catch on with a group, or, for that matter, even a solo cyclist. Either their pace was faster or slower than I felt comfortable at. I would pass a line of single riders stretched out and couldn't get any to jump on and join me and then I would get passed by a group that I just couldn't hang with. And the wind kept chipping away at my average speed little by little. And my legs were getting bored. I looked at my altimeter and there was less than 1,000 feet of climbing left. Most of it would be just over the rolling terrain. I began regretting my decision to ride an easy pace up the KOM climb. 
The farther we progressed in the race the more friendly other cyclists became. It's usually the opposite way around, everyone wants to talk at the start but no one wants to chat toward the end. The more people I passed and passed me the more they began initiating the conversations instead of me. But this segment was a solo ride in every sense of the term. It was me, on my bike, riding to escape. The bike computer's constant chatter my main companion. It was becoming harder and harder to maintain my optimum heart rate. My computer sending constant warnings that my heart rate was too low. It seems to happen right around a hundred miles and I don't know if it's me or if it's common in cycling. My power, cadence and speed stay the same but my heart rate drops. Being a numbers guy you think it would excite me to ride a hundred miles and have a heart rate beeping at less than 110bpm's but the contrary happens, I become increasingly concerned. Am I really pushing as hard as I can, is there something wrong with my systems? I play a game of trying to get the computer to shut up by getting my heart over the 110 threshold. It usually only takes a moderate hill to get it over but I always question myself. My other numbers were looking good. My cadence was still at about 85, my speed was still over an 18mph average, and the course was looking flatter and flatter the more it rolled on. Less that 800 feet of climbing lay ahead. 
I looked up and saw the Grand Teton Mountains on the horizon. That shocked me. I usually don't see stuff around me when I ride. I looked down at my computer. There at the bottom of my view ENJOY THE DAY. 
I sat up and looked. This was pretty country. The Tetons were indeed "grand"; the clouds still blanketing the sky framed their ominous height. The race would end at the base of them. I'd like to come back and ride across them someday. 
As I saw the edge of the town of Alpine come into view my mind replayed the layout of the town and where the Feed Zone was. I'd consumed less than half the calories I'd packed from Afton. I'd only need to exchange bottles and roll on but I was planning on stopping. The only reason I wasn't going to stop was if I'd hung onto the front leaders of my race group, and they'd slipped away a long time ago. I wanted to sink my teeth into "human food", I'd had enough of condensed calories and liquid fuel. The support crew parking lot came into view about a mile out, I knew it would be a hard right turn and the feed zone would be immediately there. The first two supported zones had the crews on the left so as I rolled around the turn I faded to that side and was caught by surprise as this one was on the right. A quick adjustment and I was in section 7 with Bambi waiting. I dropped my bottles and replaced them.

"It's all downhill from here, right?" I asked, trying to confirm what I knew wasn't correct.
"I think that's what you said." Was her voice's reply. 
Her eyes replied, "You've lost it haven't you?"

 In her hand was one of the two PB&J sandwiches that people had given her. I looked at it and couldn't put it in my mouth. The thought of solid food at this point was gut tightening. My blood was busy keeping my muscles moving, it didn't have time to wait around in the stomach. There wasn't enough blood in my stomach to digest the solid, yummy looking sandwiches and my systems knew it. I felt bad because I figured she'd gone to a lot of work getting them (later I'd learn worse, that people had offered her their prepared food and I'd wasted their rider's opportunity to eat it.) 
"How are you doing?" she asked during this exchange.
"The Teton's are gorgeous"
It was as if she'd seen a ghost. "You saw mountains?"
A grin and three words, "Enjoy the day."

Back to the task at hand - fueling me - without question she asked if I wanted something else. Of course I did, I wanted a diet Pepsi and there was a convenience store right across the street. She started walking over. I looked at the store, I looked down the road, at the store, down the road...  
"You're taking too long." I hollered across the street as I clipped back into my pedals
Hey, if you're going to be a jerk, be the best jerk you can be.  
I had 47 miles left with my calculations, but as I hit the end of the feed zone a volunteer yelled that there was 45 miles left. I wanted to argue but 45 sounded a lot better. 
A quick check of my bike computer showed that I was right on pace to my pre-race time check. 8 hours 40 minutes. 
I could do this. 45 miles. I do that every morning. Let's get this done...



Part Nine

11 Hours 3 minutes 35 seconds



Bambi had been looking at the Race Bible all day long. In it was the race profile. The profile of the final section looked uphill all the way. But I had two things on my side. One: My altimeter was saying there was less than 800 feet of ascension left. Two: I'd looked at, then rode enough race profiles to understand you had to stretch the 8 inch paper profile out to 45 miles in your mind. It was more uphill than downhill because we would be looming in the shadow of the Teton Range very shortly but it was a flat 45 miles at best. 
I'd left each of the support feed zones alone. I had obviously outsmarted people there and even as a rookie in the race was better prepared and organized than most. My goal is to ride any race without stopping. I don't understand long breaks. 
As I left this feed zone, the longest I'd ever stopped in my career, I looked back and saw someone catching me with ease. It was unnerving. It was also a low down, dirty trick. One I'd fell prey to numerous times throughout the day. Inside the race of individual riders was two types of relay races. One with two member, the other with a team of five members. What was gaining on me was the fifth member of a 5 man relay team. He was fresh and looking to hammer it home for his team. As he came up on me he asked if I was part of a relay or if I'd done the race by myself.
"Just me." I replied.
"Wow, you're looking strong." He complimented. 
It was a comment that lifted my spirits. If I wasn't feeling strong at least I was looking strong.
"Why don't we see if we can catch some people." He offered.
Two bikes are always stronger than one.
"I don't know if I can keep up," I answered honestly. "I'm not feeling as strong as I look."
"I'll pull for a while."
It was an offer I couldn't refuse. 
I sat behind him as he gradually upped the pace.
Moments after leaving the town we were skirting alongside the Snake River. Sitting behind him allowed me to take in the view.
"This is gorgeous." I commented.
When my mechanic at my bike shop had learned that I had decided to get back into LoToJa all he said was that riding along the Snake River at the end was worth everything. He wasn't lying. 
There were rafters, fishermen and campers through the canyon floor and a string of cyclists along the edge. It was as strong an argument for the outdoors spirit as you could make, without a word spoken.
"Where you from?" He asked.
"Vegas." I said, then waved my arms around. "So yeah."
"It's a different type of pretty up here for sure."
He wasn't kidding.
"Where you from." I asked. It was my turn to learn a little about him
"35 miles that way." he pointed out in front of him. "I live in Jackson. My wife dropped me off last night. I'm just riding home."
That just wasn't fair. I had a 10 hour drive home after this. He was headed for his couch.
I looked down at my computer. 25 miles an hour. 92RPM's 
160 miles into the day and I was going as fast as I had the first 10 miles. 
It didn't last long. 
Try as I might, I just couldn't hold the pace and little by little his back wheel slipped away. But it had bought me a lot of time. His draft and willingness to work for a complete stranger had made the final section a lot easier. I pushed on, constantly doing minute calculations adjusting my final time on the fly. Speed, RPM's, heart rate, wattage spurring me on, trying hard to remember my promise to "enjoy the day" as the Snake River turned toward a different path and disappeared from view.
At the top of a little grade was the final neutral feed zone. At the end of it was a sign.
Albert Einstein was a cyclist. Indeed All Things Are Relative. 
The sign read: 26 MILES TO GO.
Just a marathon left, was my only thought. 178 miles behind me, just a marathon ahead. It's our view of our position that determines our attitude.
The amount of volunteers for an event of this magnitude is astounding. Every turn, every change of direction, every intersection, every stop sign and stop light there was someone there pointing the way, stopping traffic, driving us forward. Not only was I bent on encouraging every cyclist I came into contact with but either vocally, or with a gesture when I was too tired to speak, I think I thanked every volunteer for their time, effort and energy. 
We snaked through a couple more towns, I have no idea what they were called and hung a left onto a stunning end for any ride or race. A nice long country lane straight out of a story book. Farm houses and ranch building in the field. Lining both sides of the unlined lane were tall shade trees. The ever present Tetons watching guard in the background.
At the end of the lane was one more small town. The route led onto a bike path and under the highway before merging back onto the road. On one side a volunteer warning of the almost right angle turn and cheering on that there was only 10 miles left. Emerging under the tunnel there was another volunteer cheering that there was only 9 miles left. I think I'm pretty fast guys, but one of you is lying to me. 
The route turned onto one final road that pointed the way to Jackson Hole's Teton Village. Small groups of supporters and onlookers were starting to pop up, cowbells in hands. I'd written on Bambi's time check paper: 11 hours 5 minutes. The constant calculations running through my head were saying it was going to be close.
A sign appeared alongside the road. As it got closer it became more inviting: 
5km TO GO
There was a time where I had to do the calculation consciously to convert kilometers to miles. Then the conversion became natural like a second language. Now it's different. I don't think in miles anymore. I only convert them for your convenience. I looked at the sign. It didn't mean 3 miles 188.07 yards left. It merely meant I had 5km to go.
As is more superstition than anything, it's part of my ritual to not cross the line with my water bottles. I jettisoned them just after the sign and pushed with what I had left in my legs.
4km TO GO
I thought about the many people who had made the day possible when it looked like it was doomed to go undone. I thought about my friends who had taken time to think about me, send me messages, and pray for my safety. I thought they'd all be proud to have been a part of it. I'd ridden differently than I had ever raced. I'd ridden to pay them back for their kindness.
3km TO GO. 
A fitting end to an unpredictable season. A new respect for the different types of cyclists, I'd stepped out of my comfort zone and entered races not suited to my specialty. I'd raced sprinters in stage races, grinders in flat course routes, speed demons in time trials and cyclists that were better climbers than me.
2km TO GO
I thought about three guys who made 31 hours some of the best hours on a bike. 
One who had started and finished before me, I couldn't wait to see his time, I knew because I hadn't caught him that it was a personal best. 

One who had trained long and hard for this day and in the end made the smart choice for his health and his family to sit it out. After riding the course I know he'd had done better than he thought he would have. 

One who was hanging on the small morsels of info he could get about his two former teammates racing the longest one day sanctioned race in America and cheering them on in spirit. 

Spectators and supporters were lining the course, cowbells echoing in the distance announcing the next sign would be a red one signifying "1km TO GO", and beyond that the first view of the Finish Arch, and just beyond that, hidden in the crowd, would be Bambi's smile.
I put my head down and listened- felt- the music of the cowbells and looked at my bike...


..."ENJOY THE DAY"...