I stood quietly at the back of the 500 rider start line and took a deep breath. The 2005 24 Hours of Moab was just moments away. The anticipation was thick in the air. People’s faces reflected their emotions. Some had wide smiles stretched across their already sandy faces. Others looked focused, their eyes looking ahead at nothing in particular, mostly oblivious to the chaos surrounding them. And yet others, namely the guy in nothing but his shoes, helmet and a thong, looked…well, ridiculous. This was the 24 Hours of Moab. A gigantic mixture of the fast and the farcical. I took another deep breath as I glanced at my watch. I heard Laird Knight on his megaphone announce that the race would begin in 15 seconds. The adrenalin started to flow, and just as the cannon blasted the start of the race, a big smile spread across my face.
The 2005 edition was my 4th 24 Hours of Moab. My 3rd as a racer, and my 2nd as a solo rider. This race is late in the race season, and for most people it becomes a grand finale as we all celebrate the close to another long hot summer of mountain bike racing. Moab is a perfect setting for such an event, and as such, the event itself has reached a sort of legendary status, becoming the Mecca for a late season pilgrimage of hungry mountain bike souls looking for fulfillment, adventure, or just plain old fun.
Within moments of the cannon blast, the air was thick with dust. The sea of colorful jerseys, helmets and kicking heels was muted by the rising sand as 500 people stampeded toward the hapless bush that has become the turn-around point for the world’s largest le-mans style run. I took the run at a moderate pace. This chaotic spectacle was only the beginning of what became a long sojourn in the desert.
The first lap of the 24 Hours of Moab is a both a bike race, and an exercise in futility. Unless you run the le-mans sprint with Carl Lewis-esque speed you will find yourself stuck in a peleton that makes the Tour de France look like a Wednesday night group ride. The mile of dirt road only lasts so long before we crammed ourselves onto the rocky, technical climb. There was a lot of carnage at this point. People were falling over, and taking victims to the ground with them as they fell. Handlebars were getting tangled, pedals were finding the spokes of other wheels, chains were slipping and sucking. There were expletives. Many opted to walk their bikes through this slog. I stayed on mine, and took an outside line and tried to get past the bottleneck. Eventually I came though the worst of it and settled in to a good rhythm.
Over the next few hours I kept a good steady pace. I was hitting the lap times that I had planned on, my legs were feeling good, and I was having a great time on the bike. I set out on lap number 4 with the plan of getting a nice quick turn around before sunset. About 6 miles into it Nat Ross came riding up from behind. I scolded him for lapping me so early in the race. I paced him for as long as I could. We talked briefly about how we were feeling and about the distinct advantages of 29inch wheels on this course. As Nat tried to clear a very tough technical section, he crashed. I picked his bike up off him, and couldn’t help but feel reassured that even the best riders in the world still had trouble on this grueling course. Before I was done with the thought however, he was back in the saddle and spinning as if nothing had ever happened. Moments later he was out of sight.
I finished lap 4 feeling very strong, and very optimistic about heading into the night. I reached the pit area, got the lights hooked up, grabbed fresh bottles and a bite of something to eat and set off. Up to this point in the race I had been hovering around 20th place. I was happy about that. I knew that in the dark I could make up ground on several riders. I was confident that over the course of the night I could move up anywhere between 5 and 10 places. After all, the night is where these races are won and lost.
I switched my lights on at the top of the long sandy hike-a-bike about 4 miles into the lap. The sun was gone, and the night had arrived. This 200 yard hill is steep. The abundance of rain this year washed all the sand at the top of the hill to the bottom. So the lower half was ankle deep sand, whereas the upper half was dusty slick rock, and easily ridden. That is easily ridden for most people. Up to this point I think I had ridden it on my first two laps, but opted to hike it from that point on. The sand hill is both a blessing and a curse for a solo rider. It is a chance to get off the bike and stretch the legs and get some feeling back into your toes. It is a change of pace, a diversion. But also, it is a very difficult climb. So with the diversion comes a lung burning push. I like to use the top of the climb as a spot to take a good drink, and a deep breath before clipping in and continuing on. The sand hill also is a good omen because it is only a short distance beyond it to the summit of the course, and the long relaxing descent into nosedive hill.
During lap 5 I started to feel the first real discomfort in my stomach. I rode into the pits and took a few minutes to eat some dinner. Dinner during a solo race is a bit different from what dinner would be on a regular evening. For me, the night’s menu included instant soup and slim fast. After several races using slim fast, I am determined that it is the best endurance racing food on the planet. But others may differ on that opinion. I ate slowly, taking some time to catch my breath before heading into the first real night lap of the race. My stomach was still not feeling real well, but I hoped that the soup and slim fast would help settle it as I rode on.
Lap 6…this will be an often revisited, and ill-remembered time in the race. I set off at a normal pace, feeling good about the upcoming night. But in the back of my mind, and in the pit of my stomach I knew that something was awry. Soon enough the problem manifested itself in the form of vomiting. I pulled off the course and sent a chocolaty mixture of noodles and chopped carrots into the sagebrush. 3 times I heaved into the darkness as riders tread carefully by, hoping not to have get involved. Not that I blame them. As I continued around the loop, I was forced to pull over twice more with emergency visits to the sidelines. At one point I just stayed on the bike, dry heaving down the course until I was to dizzy to ride anymore. I had to pull over only a mile from the pit area and rest my head on my handlebars while my surroundings worked back into focus.
What was happening? Why was this happening? What had gone wrong? Later in the pits these questions were plaguing me as I watched light after light speed by. It was killing me to not be out on the course. My stomach at this point was feeling the worst it had all night. I started to shiver. It was a warm night, I shouldn’t have been cold. Neither a wool blanket, nor the fire could stop me from shivering. Vomiting. Shivering.
I was dehydrated. My crew went to work, their first concern being to get me back on the course. Once they realized that was not going to happen quickly, they turned their focus on getting me re-hydrated. They forced Powerbar Recovery down me, along with hot chicken broth. It helped, but I was nowhere near ready to continue on. I became a sort of zombie at this point. I was in a state of disbelief, and couldn’t do anything about it. Eventually I elected to change out of my race clothes and crawl into the tent. It was over. I asked my team to wake me at sunrise, and drifted off to sleep with disappointment and regret clouding my thoughts.
Suddenly I heard my name. I was being woken up. It was sunrise. I slowly rolled over, hoping that my stomach was still in revolt. In the first moments of waking I really didn’t want to go back out on the course. A strange feeling of embarrassment and fatigue dominated my thoughts. I unzipped the tent and was greeted by a wonderful morning. I watched momentarily, and with a twinge of guilt as riders continued to pour down the road. Somewhere in the next few minutes I seemed to snap awake. I quickly donned fresh cycling clothes, and was back out on the course. I had a new goal as I spun out into the desert. 9 laps was now the target. I was on the clock now at number 7. I knew 9 was reachable. I sped up the trail with a new sense of purpose.
Shortly before 1 PM I rolled into the finish tent after my 9th and final lap. It wasn’t the 13 I had planned for, but it was better than the 6 I had conceded to complete during the dark night. I finished the race feeling good about getting back out there, but still disappointed at what had transpired. I still feel disappointed at the result. But I know that under the circumstances I did the best that I could have done. That was what I had set out to do.
To Dennis and Jenna, and everyone else from Mad Dog Cycles, thank you for all your help. There was never a shortage of people who were ready and willing to help me as I came in after each lap. When the vomiting ensued, you guys were there to get me back on track and I appreciate that very much. To Stacy and the other cooks, all I can say is bravo! Thank you again for taking the time and effort to cook meals for 50 people. This year we had 6 teams and 1 solo operating out of the Mad Dog camp and everything went perfectly. To Mark and the Saturn crew, the tent is amazing, and we would be helpless without it.
A word to the other solo racers. I wanted to be out there with you guys in the dead of the night. It was killing me to be sidelined. I admire and commend your solid efforts on a very demanding course. This year we saw an amazing race unfold, and I was proud to be a part of it.
So, that is that. The race is over. My stomach is still not totally back to normal. I still have questions going through my head about what I should have done differently. I still find myself asking “what if”. But then I wonder, “what if” I had never gone at all? These races are a test of every aspect of the human experience. They tax your mind, your body, and your emotions.
As I sat quietly in the car on the way home I found myself thinking about all that happened in the last 24 hours. I remembered the rider in front of me on lap 1 who went over the bars, and then I remembered my own over the bars tumble on lap 2. I remembered Cameron Chambers excitedly telling me about the way 29ers roll through the sand, I remember feeling strong, and confident as the sun sank behind prostitute butte. My thoughts turned to the night, and the puking, and the pain and the disappointment. I took a deep breath and let the entire race sink in, and a big smile spread wide across my face.