#2 Ready to start
It's safe to say I wasn't mentally prepared for what lay ahead of me at the "Thunderdown in the Underdown" 12 hour mountain bike race (WEMS). I typically try to get myself emotionally ready for what it takes to go through a 12 hour race, but as time has passed and I gain more experience with these races I tend to get more lazy in this department. I went into this race without much thought as to how difficult it could potentially be. Now, I know dear reader, you're thinking to yourself, "they're all hard, bla, bla, bla". You'd be right, they are all hard in their own way, but some just seem to hit you right between the eyes. This would be no exception.
One of my training partners, Jason Buffington, a.k.a. "Big Buff" would be attending this race as well. Thinking back to what he did to me on our last ride, I knew he'd be someone I'd have to contend with at some point during this race. However, I wasn't sure how much I had to worry given the fact that he had elected to do the race on his single speed, fully rigid. "What a fool", I thought. I'd later change that notion to, "What a master bike rider".
Amy resting up
The "Thunderdown" always gives away a sweet Red Eye Brewing Company jersey to the owner of the fastest lap and I wanted that jersey. I figured I'd go for the jersey right away on this huge 21 mile lap that single track guru Chris Schotz had created. Suffice it to say early on in the race I was riding near my limit and touching the "red zone" several times with an unknown team rider (part of a 4 man team involved in the 12 hour race) and 12 hour solo rider, Justin Lund pushing me to keep the pace high. I just couldn't completely shake these guys! Needless to say I finished the lap first with a time somewhere around 2:11, I hoped it would stand and I cursed myself for giving so much up so early. Fast forward to the end of the race. A kid who looked like he belonged in algebra class who was racing the 3 hour race scored a 2:09 and nabbed the jersey. Oh well, even if he was too young to have a beer at Red Eye at least he'd look good in that jersey.
Leading the race into the 2nd of what I'd calculated out to be a 4 lap race (there wouldn't be enough time to complete 5 laps - one must finish their race before 8:00 p.m.) I was already feeling the course deep in my legs. The first 30-40 minutes of the lap consisted of relentless climbing and it was taking a toll. My spirits lifted when I heard a familiar voice call out from behind, "We should have just went for a ride together in Duluth". It was Buff, he'd caught me and was looking fresh. I must admit I was somewhat demoralized by the way he cracked jokes and searched for small talk while I labored at the smallest of inclines. "Who is this guy? Is he human? Does he get tired? What's in his water bottles?", were questions I repeated over and over. We moved through the sections of the trail and what seemed like different biospheres as the lap was so big for some time before I heard the cyborg cry out, "Oh sh*t, stop!" I grabbed my breaks to see Buff inspecting his back wheel, "Have a good one", he wished me as he announced his predicament of a "burped" rear tire. I assured him I'd ride slow and that we'd see each other again.
Upon the completion of the 2nd lap the heat seemed to be all over me and I couldn't escape myself. I needed to break my cardinal rule and take a break in the pits. Taking a break is a debatable move in a 12 hour race as race director and top notch rider Chris Schotz once told me, "they're just not worth it, they don't do you any good anyway". He's right, but some times you just have to stop so your mind can find some balance. This was one of those times. I took off my helmet and plopped into my lawn chair when Buff pulled in, "I didn't know we took breaks in these races", he said. "This one we do", was my broken reply. Buff would later report that he'd never seen me look so bad. I was only half way through and I was completely wasted, it wasn't looking good or feeling good. Buff pulled away and I let him know that it was "his race to lose". He gave me a quizzical look as I wished him well while he mounted up. I couldn't see myself catching him.
The end of lap 3 saw Big Buff leaving the pits while I was pulling in. Somehow I had reeled him in. Volunteers had given me the information that the two of us were "off the front" and only separated by a couple of minutes. I knew this to be true now. I wrestled with the idea of forgoing my pit stop and taking off with my friend and training partner, but man did I need to take a bit of rest. This course was absolutely eating me alive! I told him I'd be a few minutes behind him as I watched him roll out for his final turn through the Underdown.
Approximately 5 minutes later I swung a leg over 'Big Mama' and asked her for one more, she bucked at the notion, but seemed eager nonetheless. I promised the two of us that I'd walk the tough climbs and I'd take it easy through the super techy sections in order to keep us safe. Riding in a totally calorie deprived state with temps that a northern Minnesota boy should never experience is not a good situation. I ricocheted of trees and plodded along through the trail. I put the miles and the sections behind me and tried to get excited by the pieces of trail that I truly loved, like an area called "Octoberfest". The section named for the celebration that comes with harvest time was a gorgeous plot of forest that reminded me of the area around our hunting cabin. The flow of the trail was perfect and I even enjoyed it's climb, one of the biggest of the whole course. I took time to look around while riding the area as you could see through the hardwoods for great distances due to the lack of underbrush. I may not have been smiling on the outside while riding this piece, but I was on the inside.
I picked my head up off my bars as I started a long slow grind up a grade that lead into "Octoberfest" and it was then that I saw Buff out ahead and looking as if he had a black cloud hanging over him with little lightning strikes shooting down at him. He was hurting and he was hurting bad. "Holy Crap! There he is. I'm still in the fight!" I watched him hang a hard left hander into the meat of the climb. I was rallying now and feeling good. I'd grab his rear wheel as fast as I could and stay quiet on the bike while doing so. I wasn't sure what my presence would do to his spirits and secretly I didn't want to revitalize him. Energy ebbs and flows in 12 hour races and I often refer to it as a light switch going off, then back on at different times. The Underdown had my light switch going like the days of my youth when I'd sit in my room flipping the switch as fast as I could to create a strobe effect. I hoped Big Buff's wouldn't switch back on when he saw me.
I hatched a plan over the course of this 2 minute climb. I'd sit on him to the top of this hill, then move past politely, but swiftly. I would then commence an all or nothing final bid for the win. I quick glance to the gps had me knowing I was 13 miles from the finish. I needed to show Buff that I was feeling good and get him thinking I was prepared to 'pin' the remainder of the lap as hard as I could to win the race. I felt smooth as I entered the single track that marked my favorite section and my spirits soared when I heard my friend call out, "Eki, you look like you're on your first lap!". I kept the gas pedal down hoping it would hold for as long as possible. I needed to put some distance between the two of us.
Soon my shot of adrenaline was all used up and I was scraping the bottom of the barrel again. I focused on keeping "Big Mama" safe and kept glancing over my shoulder only to find trees and the occasional elf or goblin that seemed to be in my peripheral for the last couple of hours - they came to be my friends.
The miles lingered and the minutes seemed to be hours. I had to stop looking at the damn gps, it became the bearer of bad news every time I looked to see if another mile had gone by. Then, without warning my right hamstring shrunk to the size of a golf ball. I winced as the pain coursed through my entire body. I was seven miles from the finish and unable to bend my right leg without total system failure. The situation would not correct itself. As I tried to stretch the maimed muscle the quad on the opposite side of the bone would respond in a similar fashion. "NO!!", I yelled out. I was all done in. I'd be caught and all I had done would be for nothing, somehow I had to keep moving. I had just reached the summit of a section called "Round Top" and I knew I had a nice twisty decent coming up so I kept my right leg locked in a straight fashion unclipped from the pedal and commenced to pedal with just my left leg, all the while hoping the cramps would subside as I forced fluids into my upset stomach. It worked, the hamstring succumbed to my efforts and began to function again as it should. I was back in business!
The author trying to stay on his feet
I was supported by 'team riders' as they passed me on their 2nd laps. It felt good to hear their compliments, but it didn't make the pain go away. It wasn't until I saw Amy standing at the end of a 200 meter logging road with the camera up to her eye that I accepted that it was over and I had done it. I sat up and put my hands in the air to signal to her that I had won the race, not sure if she knew my place or not. At the finish line with race creator and director Chris Schotz holding my bike I heard him respond to Amy after I informed her that I was in trouble and needed help, "It's a big deal!" referring to what I had just been through. After all, he knew just what it took to turn laps in the Underdown.