Then came 2010 and my invitation, well more like strong arm twisting, to join a team for my former boss in a 24 hour mountain bike race. Ok, it was a friendly invitation, and I decided what the heck. The only problem was I had little to no, zip, nada mountain bike experience. All I had was a 1987 Trek Antelope tank and a 1992 Motiv Stonegrinder from Costco for bikes. Both were heavy and not really something I wanted to race on. Fortunately, my dad let me borrow his Klein Pulse Comp bike and I started "training". This amounted to two and a half weeks of riding fire roads in the Naneum State Forest. That doesn't exactly prepare you for a race of this nature (at least not me) which includes gravel roads, single track riding with a variety of obstacles - including what appears to the novice as boulders strategically placed in the middle of the path. Whose bright idea was that?
The 2010 race went well enough that I was convinced I had to do it again. I'm too competitive and always have to improve on my results - or at least try to. So, in June of last year I sold the only road bike I had purchased new and replaced it with my own Klein mountain bike - a 1996 Pulse II. Significantly, lighter than my dad's I was excited to do more off road cycling.
Fast forward to 2011 and my second attempt at the race. I had about a month of riding in the Naneum to prepare and was really looking forward to the weekend. My 15 year old, Galen, and I packed the car and headed to Spokane on Friday morning. Even though it was a leisurely drive, I was impatiently anticipating the race and the chance to compare how my Klein would stack up to my dad's.
We arrived at the camp site to some light rain and set up the tent around 2:30 pm and then got ready to preview the course as there were some changes due to flooding of a lower portion. This would be Galen's first significant ride on a mountain bike. Twenty minutes into the ride the skies opened up and we were drenched - right before 5 Minute Hill. That hill is enough of a grind in normal conditions. Throw in some hard rain and it sucked, especially waiting for Galen to finish walking up the last part of the hill that peaks at 15% gradient. Eventually the rain stopped and we made it through the course having dried out but completely muddy.
The remainder of the team began arriving on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. There were two new members, Katie and Justin. Last minute additions who had also ridden the course the year before they were excited to being able to get a shot again this year. All told we ended up with six riders from the initial plan of seven. We were riding in the Corporate division - up to 10 riders per team. This year saw 855 registered riders - up 100 or so from the prior year. I would think at some point they will need to limit the number due to a the lack of camping space.
The team discussed our running order and I volunteered for the third spot again this year. Matt would be starting and Justin would run second. The start of the race is a Lemans style - all starting riders run a 600 yard course and then jump on their bikes. The run is designed to eliminate issues like mass pile ups at the start and space out the riders a little.
We were running the gamut for the first three laps - Matt on a cyclocross bike, Justin on a 29er and me on the Klein with 26" wheels. Surprisingly we all finished within 6 minutes of each other.
One of the best parts of the race is the run in to the finish. A nice long straight piece of road with campers on both sides cheering you on. It definitely helps the brain block pain and make you push a little harder. You can't let those people see you suffering.
I felt fantastic at the start of my first lap. I had the normal nervous stomach while waiting for Justin to arrive but it was primarily because I was really ready to get on the bike and start hammering away. Justin arrived with a time of 1:07 and passed the scoring transponder to me which I struggled to get attached snugly to my small wrist. I finally got it and jumped on the bike with adrenaline coursing through my body. Riders can get a little spread out initially thanks to the first hill 100 yards from the start line. At the top is a jeep trail that transitions quickly into single track. The course felt fast with the rain from the prior afternoon packing the dirt down. I found myself gaining on, and passing, riders on single track. That never happened last year and I was getting excited and more confident.
I followed another rider through the first tough rock garden - one I seriously struggled with the year before - and sprinted through the forests looking forward to the long hill climb that was coming up. There were 8-10 riders on the hill when I got to the bottom and I shifted down to keep the pedal cadence up and started plowing my way up to the top. I caught all but two of the riders and slowed a little at the top to recover briefly from the effort and then prepared to take off on the upcoming gravel road where you can really open up the speeds before the next section of single track.
Once past the first checkpoint, one with a beautiful view of the city and sunrise, I couldn't help but start thinking of Devil's Up and Devil's Down. The uphill portion of this got me every lap the prior year as I had to dismount and walk/run the bike up to the top of the first portion. This portion of the course had me so frustrated the year before I was determined not to let it happen again.
As I approached the roughest part of the hill I could see the primary path was to the right. I geared down lower than the year before and started making my way up. The gradient is easily 15% here so it's a slow crawl. Suddenly I found myself at the top and wanted to let out a loud yell in jubilation. I had finally conquered that piece of the course. But, I couldn't rest on my laurels for long because IT was fast approaching. IT was Devil's Down - a rough, steep downhill that I had navigated last year - albeit nervously each time. This downhill was in my brain - like food scalded to the bottom of a cooking pot - it was difficult to get out of my head. It intimidated and threatened me. Calling my name tauntingly and daring me to attempt a clean pass.
I slowly rolled over the top and took a deep, lingering breath. Here goes nothing. You start to the left and then cross to the right and finish on the left again as you come around the corner at the bottom. I wasn't on the brakes as hard as the year before. I'm not a confident downhill rider so I wasn't letting myself completely go as the top riders do down the hill. I made it through as a photographer took my picture, breathed a sigh of relief and started my sprint across the 'strawberry fields' section of the course. From here the upper loop is close to complete and there's a little over 5 miles to go.
I was feeling strong, fast and fresh as I started the next section of single track along the Spokane River. Last year my legs were burning at this point. I think the primary difference is I've learned to work with the bike on the trails rather than fight it. This keeps the body more relaxed and results in less sudden braking and, then, hard accelerations to get back up to speed. I passed several more riders on the next two uphill portions and also on the paved section of Centennial trail we were diverted to.
The last significant rock garden is on a slight downhill that banks to the left with trees on each side. I was three quarters the way through when the front wheel stopped abruptly. Physics dictates that momentum still exists when there is an abrupt stop like this. That momentum is the back end of the bike (and the rider) continuing up and over the handlebars. I stopped the fall with my hands and quickly picked up the bike all the while hearing a "what the ##*@&$$(&@$$& was that" in my head. The adrenaline was flowing again. I took off hard, determined not to let this happen again. I passed several more riders on the last hill and prepared for the run in to the finish. My time approaching the last hill was 57 minutes and I knew I needed to get moving. I had one gear left on the sprint to the finish and the legs were burning but my bike computer read just over 1 hr 3 minutes when I dismounted for finish. Elation reigned - I had beat last years first lap by over three minutes.
Now it was time to relax a little and prepare for the next lap - night time, in the dark, using a headlight and praying for the best. Last year I suffered a flat tire in the night which had ruined a decent run - I was on pace for 1 hr 20 minutes or so.
I decided to take the Klein for the night ride until I found that the seat post was too big for the tail light clamp. I moved to the second option, a friend's 1993 Scott Comp Racing bike. The frame is a little shorter but it's a quick nimble bike. I didn't have a light yet and had to borrow one. The light projected forward well enough but as I started my lap I found that I "outran" the beam fairly easily, especially on downhills. A little more forward projection might have prevented this but the light was clamped on the bar and there wasn't much I could do.
I was taking it conservative but also felt pretty good on the ride. I pulled over a few times to let faster riders go around me and then prepared for Devil's Up and Down again. I made it up the hill for the second straight time. Relief. I got to the top of Devil's Down and prepared myself as a rider behind me stopped to let me go first. I made it over the first big obstacles and then, without warning, about three quarters the way down I found myself airborne over the handlebars again. I still don't know what happened. I could feel the bike coming over me - still clipped to my feet. I caught myself with my hands but, again, physics took over and my body continued down until I heard the light crack of my helmet hitting a rock. I got up quickly and heard "are you alright?" from above. I yelled, "yes, just a second", threw the bike over my shoulder and ran down to a wide spot in the trail and then turned and yelled to the other rider that it was ok for him to go. Once he was past I had a little time to check the bike and then get on and start riding. I was pretty shook up and realized my neck and back were hurting badly - but I had to finish.
I crossed the strawberry fields section and made it down the next hill and crossed the lower section. Descending the last hill here I suddenly found the bike shooting out from beneath me to the left. I realized I had stuck just a little too far to the left in this "gully" descent and the front tire had been caught in the thick loose gravel and lost all traction. Needless to say I was fuming. Adrenaline was again running hard through my veins. The chain was jammed and it took a minute or so to fix it. Fortunately, the rest of the lap was uneventful but I had had enough. One hour and twenty six minutes. Another year where I had screwed up a decent lap time at night. Katie asked how my ride was when I handed of the transponder. My response - "crappy!" and I marched back to camp. So, here I should apologize to her for being so short. I was just too mad at myself.
To cut a long story short, the third lap was uneventful and approximately an hour and ten minutes in length. I didn't attempt Devil's Down, instead electing to use the longer off shoot to the right. My only vindication was catching a guy, who had been riding in front of me for several miles on the lower single track, on the last hill and then sprinting away from him at the finish.
Our team finished 22 out of 32 - much better than the year before. Great new friendships were formed. I ended up with a significant neck/back strain - made better with Vicodin. Katie injured her hand and hip after introducing herself to a tree on her night run. But, overall we had a blast and I'm sure are all ready to go at it again on Memorial Day weekend 2012.