Waking up in the cabin, the not quite right curtains played both curse and blessing. Not keeping the beams of the three quarters full moon at bay as you roll away yearning for another 30 winks, while at the same time allowing a glimpse of the South Dakota night sky. Unencumbered by the lights of the city nor the heavy humidity of home, the stars, all one million, four hundred ninety six thousand, three hundred and eighteen of them are on full display.
Prone to procrastination, it is easy to leave the bike or hockey sized duffel bag full of post race clothing and calories in the cabin the night before a race. Sleep had been less productive than hoped. A small window air conditioner, typically unnecessary during the cool summer evenings in this part of South Dakota, had either frozen up or had a screw come loose. I’d chosen an irritating clangity clang, clickity clack, letting her run through the night over a sweaty stick to the sleeping bag night in the small wooden cabin.
Gear for the race was well organized and lay neatly in the empty bottom bunk next to me. All else, bag, bike and cooler were all ready to go ... in the truck. Clicking on my headlamp, preferable to the slap in the senses fluorescent light allowed for a much more Jack Johnson “Wake Up Slow” start to the morning. Before putting on race bibs, long sleeve white shirt that would serve as protector from the sun, socks, shoes or even brushing of the teeth I took a moment to simply sit still, feet resting comfortably on the floor as I sat up in bed, to be grateful.
I have a theory and a practice of making sure each and every day I “win” the first five minutes. It’s during this time that I give thanks for as many things as possible. “I’m alive!” That’s a great start and one that someday will not be the case. Being aware of our mortality reminds us to live each day to the fullest. “I get to go ride my bike today!” How many people are not able to do so? Much later in the day this thought would buoy me when the bad people (the negative voices in my head) paid a visit. Giving my phone a quick glance, there were no text messages of friends or family that were in any trouble or suddenly ill. This, also, will not always be the case. Continuing down the gratitude checklist, making sure to smile throughout the exercise, the last item ... “Sure am happy I packed all the rest of my shit for once the night before” ... was checked.
The first 5 minutes of the day had been won. Mind right, spirit right, body right. From this stable base, no matter the challenges faced, perspective was mine. “I’m happy and healthy, my friends and family are all healthy, and I get to go ride my bike.” Whatever life threw at me the rest of the day, it really didn’t much matter. Or as my friend, mentor and retired Navy Seal Brad Nagel would say much more succinctly, “If it can’t kill me, my family or my friends, it ain’t a problem.”
Comfortable. Too comfortable for 4 am. Temperatures were in the upper sixties, maybe even 70. Great for the short term. I dispose being even the least bit chilly. I knew what it meant long term though.
Cris’ Campground, a favorite of us Iowans who travel to Spearfish to race our bikes sits high above the city and the 3-4 miles down highway into town to the city park, where we’d start and finish the race, allowed for a nice quiet drive.
Proper planning allowed for two very important final details to be tended to. Ice and poop. One a luxury, the other, any racer will tell you an absolute pre race necessity. Unrushed ... even better.
At 4:13 in the morning, walking into the 24 hour convenience store, there was no line for either. Headlamps and taillights. Both were required. Clear skies and a sun, seemingly in a hurry not to miss the race start hurriedly made its way towards the horizon. A soft welcoming glow, neither headlight nor tail light actually necessary, had fallen onto the valley.
Perry Jewitt, Race Director, dropped some final nuggets of wisdom and enthusiasm on us before leading us out on a 5 mile “no racing” roll out through the city streets. Well wishes, high fives and hugs were shared between racers. A mutual respect lives in the endurance community. Fast or slow, those are words with much more meaning outside these groups. Inside, it is recognized that the real battle, the real test is in the journey, the mental hurdles all will have to clear, that no one is immune to, regardless of mph. I LOVE that.
Not far ahead, as the asphalt gave way to the gravel, Perry, our two wheeled, human powered pace car pulled off track right and enthusiastically cut his racers loose, hooting and hollering at us all, wishing us well and hoping to welcome all back safely 202 miles later.
The cool canyon walls rising high above on both sides and imposing forest covered hillsides rising even higher in the distance hid a foreboding truth. Higher than average temps and headwinds would suck dry the life of some who enthusiastically rolled away from Perry, his positive sentiments drifting imperceptibility away as we rolled into the South Dakota country side. Not all would see the finish line later that day, evening or into the early morning hours of the next.
“The person who eats first and drinks first wins.” It is a mantra I remind myself every race. Each sip, each calorie, early on is a deposit in the bank. Invest often and wisely and hopefully you’ll avoid any overdrafts or worse, physical or mental bankruptcy...better known as a DNF.
The first section was 50 plus miles, all up, to the first checkpoint, a convenience store where each racer signs in, refuels and makes for the next check some 60 miles away that would not enjoy the sheltering walls of the canyon nor the sun shielding canopy of the forest. Section two is where the Mother of Nature lay in wait. Those who had not fueled wisely through the 4-6 hours of climbing in the comforts of the low country would be found making withdrawals much too early in section two. Like dealing with a loan shark, catching up on “payments” at this stage is near impossible.
Far from the front, but happily on my fat bike, not too terribly far, I was pleased with my pace into the first checkpoint and even more pleased that my first order of business entering the store was to the bathroom to pee...a very good sign. Doing my best to leave the checkpoint as close to the same shape as I’d started the race, I made sure to drink more than it felt like I needed and eat as much as I felt I could keep down. All this was done with one eye on the clock because not only was I going to battle Mother Nature on this day, but Father Time also lurked. 21 hours, or 10 miles an hour was the time needed to make an “official” finish. The Garmin, upon my leaving let me know I was at 9.8. Section one seemed from the course profile to be the most challenging and the final 36 miles were nearly all downhill. There was not much fat on the bone but if I was able to maintain the current effort, I’d get home.
The course profile however, had not shared that the decrease in climbing would be met with an increase in exposure. Heat and headwinds became a constant companion for most of the next 120 miles.
It was becoming evident, some 30 miles into section two that the heat and headwinds would indeed be a factor...and the altitude, the race would remain between 6 and 7000 feet now until the final 36 mile downhill rush back to the Spearfish City park from where we had departed. Higher altitude also meant the need for more fluids...on top of the more fluids the heat would necessitate.
The initial climbing of section one claimed at least one competitor, who, already behind the eight ball realized heading back out into 60 plus more miles before the next respite was not in the cards.
Some 40 miles into the second section, early signs of a mental revolt were showing themselves for me as well. (See part one of this blog). Hills that were supposed to (at least in my mind) relent were not and downhills (at least in my mind that were to be here any moment) were all too short in both their distance and frequency. All of this a result of a body being taxed, unable to keep pace with an insatiable hydration need which in turn makes calories tougher to ingest which then puts the brain on notice to “stop this madness before someone gets hurt.” And that’s when the bad people come.
20 miles remained to the next check point. Water and mental reserves both were nearing the red. Neither would last 2 more hours. Each little turn off passed, I have a good luck down the lane. An abandoned cabin, a primitive campground, anything that might offer a source of water, my radar was up. Could I make it two more hours? Good chance, yeah. But at what price? Mentally, I’d begun to suffer. Over the last twenty miles I’d passed a few others showing signs of where I was headed soon...the stress of the day’s conditions evident in both their cadence and demeanor.
The cue sheets signaled a left turn, the Garmin confirmed. A large sign just before the left, right side of the road, indicated a lodge as well. “What?!?” Like a sled dog, instantly alive at the prospect of the upcoming feeding, I was at the alert. Not a vehicle of any kind, not so much as an ATV or any other sign of activity made no difference. I didn’t need humans, I needed water. Anything available to all racers is fair game on course. No way was I passing this place by without a thorough once or twice over to find a spicket.
It wasn’t easy to find. In fact an initial lap around the place offered no sign of relief. No matter. Sometimes ya gotta dig a bit for the treasure. Getting off the bike, tying off my horse at the entrance, I walked onto the abandoned porch. Why it was not in operation seemed odd, based on season and it’s well kept condition seemed odd but not worthy of any real thought. I was of single mind and purpose at that moment. Water.
And then, behind the grill that sat about three quarters down the long narrow porch I saw it. Hastily rolling it out of the way a quick “lefty loosey” and as if it hadn’t missed a day of operation, cool, clear water flowed freely into my waiting, cupped hands, immediately thrown into and over the top of my no longer overheated noggin.
Water bottles be damned, at least for now, like an old ranch hand that might have long ago and still based on the cattle whe ranged free here, call this place home I guzzled, spicket to hands until I risked it all coming right back up and out of me.
Perhaps 120 miles still lay in front of me but there on the steps of that for who knows why, closed lodge, sun held at bay by the roof overhead, I’d just finished the race.
The bad people were vanquished back to whence they had come. Their departure as quick as their arrival. My core temperature dropped, my appetite rose.
Figuratively in trons my trusty steed from the outside of the saloon I signaled in a couple other cowpokes too long on the trail. The relief on their faces, once told of the liquid gold found here was evident.
Time stops for no man and at just over 10mph for my moving average there was no time for small talk. Wishing them well, I threw a leg over the old girl and off towards the sunset we rode.
In the distance I could hear Perry calling. Just barely, but I could hear it. As the day gave way to evening and evening gave way to morning his voice and word of encouragement grew ever stronger, eventually echoing crystal clear off the walls of Spearfish Canyon. The Stars morning prior now audience to a return rather than a morning depart from a cabin, destination both unknown and unsure. Long ago the traffic of this beautifully downhill, effortlessly now pedaled highway gone, I was Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”
Fully present, aware of all things, seen and unseen around me, I was reminded again of the “Why.”
That to live, we have to be willing to die just a little bit. That to taste victory we have to court failure and that there are valuable lessons to learn in both.
1:33 in the morning. 20 Hours. 33 minutes.