USARA Nationals: Part 3
I think Ed is winning for the longest piece to be published at one time on this website but he does tell the story a heck of lot better than I would so settle in and enjoy.
chapter 3: the bike
(Note: This is a long one, so get comfy, maybe grab…a latté.)
The bike is my strength, my comfort zone, my time to shine. I felt so comfortable going into this part of the race, knowing that I wouldn’t struggle as long as we were actually biking.
While we ran to our bikes, we took the opportunity to eat. It seems obvious now, but it’s very difficult to eat or drink while you are paddling a canoe. Needless to say, we were all very hungry and thirsty by this point, so made sure to get lots of fluids and nutrition in.
Our bikes were exactly as we left them, lying on their side at the top of a field in the front yard of this beautiful big home overlooking the valley. The lawn looked like it was manicured for a golf fairway. We clipped in our bike shoes, tied our running shoes and hats to our bags (oh yeah, we have to carry those) and threw on our helmets. The first 5 minutes was downhill, which was a welcome relief from the mile run up to the bikes.
I thought it would be obvious to just follow the team we could see ahead of us to the first checkpoint. I mean, it’s the first one and it was all on road. How could you screw that up? It must have been my inexperience, but our rule was to never just follow another team. You have no idea which checkpoint they are going to, or if they are lost. This early in the race, they wouldn’t tell you even if they were. So, we stopped, often, to double check the maps and make sure we were on the right course. This was a habit that would serve us well at night… but more for later.
This is the part of the race that gets a little blurry for me. I can’t really recall where we were as I wasn’t looking at maps, and time of day mixes between places and memories. I do know that eventually, we had a river crossing to traverse. There was a bottleneck at this checkpoint, and we had to line up with other teams to cross in single file. There was a rope spanning the river for us to hang on to in case we fell, which we most definitely would. The bike shoes I wore had hard plastic soles which made walking over the slimy rock bottom nearly impossible without falling. Brad and I struggled ahead, tripping every few steps on the hidden rocks at our feet. I got across the river first, then looked back to see Jess struggling to hold up her bike. We had switched bikes before crossing because mine was much lighter, but with all of the equipment and water we had strapped to our bikes, they were still quite heavy. I ran back out into the river to take the bike from her and help her the rest of the way. We stumbled together up the river bank and checked to make sure nothing fell off in the water. All good.
We had reached our next checkpoint, at the Pocono bike shop in the town of Jim Thorpe. We double checked our bikes and gear before heading off on the “King of the Mountains” section of the bike course. Our departure time was 2:39pm and we would supposedly get a time at the top of the climb, some several miles away at a lookout called 100-mile view. I wanted to try to get the fastest time for this section, so I suggested that I ride close to Jess and push her with my hand on her back. EDITORS NOTE: I am fortunate to be on a team with some super strong mountain bikers and I am the weakest climber of the three. Having someone to give a boost evens out the energy for the whole team. Another option, which many other teams go for, is towing. It worked surprisingly well and we caught and passed 4 or 5 other teams on the first section of the climb. Near the top I started to run out of steam and I couldn’t push anymore. It was all I had just to keep up to Jess and Brad now. They were pulling away and my legs felt like they were on fire, burning with lactic acid. Every breath was a gasp. The climb kept getting steeper, up a dirt drive now. I could barely turn over my pedals it was so steep (it didn’t help that I was riding a single). The last 100 meters flattened out and we finally made it to the top. 3:14pm. We had finished the climb in 35 minutes, but there was no one at the top recording are time (*internal screaming*). The view was stunning out over the valley, but I was so frustrated for pushing so hard on the climb, for no reward, that I didn’t really stop to appreciate the top. I stamped our passport at the checkpoint, taking extra care to not stamp the wrong spot in my exhaustion, and continued down the rocky trail along the top of the 1800ft ridge.
We coasted back down along the trail for about 10 kilometers, collecting more CP’s along the way. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. We were making great progress, but suddenly my bike started to feel funny when I pedalled. I look down to see my front chain-ring barely attached to my crank and wobbling back and forth on the bolts as I pedalled. I panicked for fear I lost a chain-ring bolt—I didn’t have any spares to repair this. I threw my bike to the shoulder of the road we were now on and checked the bolts. All four were there, but they were almost completely unthreaded. Two of them I was able to tighten easily with Jess’s multi-tool, but the other two were seized. I couldn’t figure out how to hold the back of the bolt, and my fingers were raw from all of the paddling we had done before. I took out my folding knife and used it to pry the back of the bolt as I twisted the other side with the Allen key. It worked! Thank god! I fixed the last bolt and we got back to pedaling. Sixteen down, many to go.
We had a few miles of easy pedaling on paved road before the next trail. This time, however, the trail was too steep to bike up. It was almost too steep to walk up. Switch-backs, boulders and rocks to the top of the next 500-foot ridge to CP 17. After 30 minutes of hike-a-bike (as they call it) there was another incredible view. The sun was starting to get low and the sky had this beautiful yellow-orange hue with white wisps of cloud floating in the distance. I wish we were allowed our phones to just take pictures. That’s all I wanted.
With every climb, there is a descent. This one was straight down the other side. My brakes just squealed the entire way down, and my back tire would lock up on every soft patch of dirt. It was a rush! Riding the edge of losing control. At the bottom, there was a water fountain, which was badly needed. We hadn’t been able to fill our bags since we set out on the bike and we were all empty. We filled up and set out on another trail.
“STOP!” Jess yelled, “Somethings wrong with my chain.” EDITORS NOTE: #highmaintenance Shivers went down my spine. I knew the issue before I even saw it, and nightmares of broken chains and spokes flashed through my mind. Her chain had fallen between her cassette and the spokes of her rear wheel. This usually ends with a broken chain or broken spokes and incredible frustration. If that happened to us, our race would likely be over. I worked as gently as I could to free the chain, and amazingly, one link at a time was able to free it. A sigh of relief. I adjusted Jess’s derailleur to make sure that would never happen again, but I should know to never say never.
The trail went on, and on… and on… and on. Most of it was so rocky, or steep, that we had to walk and push our bikes ahead of us. My toes hurt from being jammed in the front of my shoes that were not meant for walking. As the trail went on, we were more and more discouraged. After about an hour we reached a dead end and had to scale the ravine to get back to the right trail. At least this time it was below is. 20 minutes turned into an hour, into two hours. The sun was starting to set, and the trees turned orange in the light. If we had to keep walking like this, we could be on this trail for hours.
At 7pm we finally rode out to the end. I remember Jess claiming that she wanted to kiss the pavement she was so happy to be off the trail and back on road. But that attitude turned around quickly as the road aimed up, and up. Another ridge. The climb felt like it was at least 10% grade, and wouldn’t give at all. After the first kilometer, I stopped at a trailhead and let Brad and Jess go by. My motivation was fading quickly, and I wanted to do anything but keep biking up this mountain. Another kilometer up, we caught another team and finally stopped because they were confused about where the next checkpoint was; number 20. They didn’t believe us that it was changed on the map, and the race directors had told us at the athlete meeting the night before. They swore and cursed and claimed they weren’t told that the location of CP 20 had changed, and they had spent over an hour looking for it. And even worse, when we looked back at the map we saw that it was at the trail I had stopped at, 1 kilometer back down the mountain… F#@$!
We coasted back into the dusk and turned into the parking lot containing the trailhead. There were several other teams now discussing their plans, and it seemed as though no one was able to find the trail. Were we in the wrong spot? It had to be here. Brad consulted the map again, and once the other teams had left, we parked our bikes at the very edge of the opening where the trailhead revealed itself; a rocky path along a cliff edge that meandered up the ridge.
We had two options: hike up and get the CP leaving our bikes behind, then hike down to retrieve our bikes and continue by road; or we could carry our bikes up the trail and continue up the ridge to try to connect with the next CP. We chose to leave our bikes and come back, because we had no idea what the trail would be like, and none of us wanted to walk with our bike again. 750 meters up, 750 meters back down. The sun had set now, and we had to turn on our bike lights. Off we went, pedalling into the night.
At CP 21 we were welcomed by water and electrolyte drinks from the race volunteers. It was a much-needed rest before we started the next section. I refilled mine and Jess’s water bladders and ate a few coffee crisp bars. These rest stops were as much mental as physical. Before, I wanted to stop biking out of frustration, but after a drink and some food I found this new excitement, from nowhere it seemed like.
I was feeling good now and back in the lead position, Brad following closely with the maps, and Jess on his wheel. The road from here on was gravel, but not normal gravel, more like tennis-ball-sized rocks that were left behind to mark two tire tracks with tall grass and bushes lining the edges of the road. It was anything but smooth on a hardtail bike. But at least we could bike. We followed the road for some time before the next CP, where we had to leave the road behind for some more downhill single track. Just like before with the adrenaline of the downhill, except this time it was dark and I could only see a few meters ahead. What a blast! I could have done that run over and over again. Hopping boulders, dodging trees—I was too tired to worry about what would happen if I made a wrong move.
At the bottom, I waited for Brad and Jess. I suddenly had this feeling of regret for going so fast down the hill. Jess was struggling with the steep sections and I was worried that going ahead would slowly wear at their patience. We were, after all, supposed to stick together as a team. We regrouped and continued on rail trail to the next CP. I felt surprisingly good for, now, 12 hours of racing. Anything beyond this point was uncharted territory for me. EDITORS NOTE: Ed is downplaying what an incredible rider he is. I was scared to kill myself and he was riding the steep sections without a thought. There was no impatience, more just feelings of “How is he doing this?”
The trail forked at a river and we stopped to look for the CP. This one wasn’t on the trail like the rest, so we set our bikes down in search of the orange flag. It took nearly 20 minutes to find it, hidden at the top of a small tree near a massive overhanging rock. I climbed up to stamp the passport and hurried back. Brad was already studying the map to figure out where we had to go next. He said we had to leave the rail-trail and go uphill again. We saw headlamps of what we thought were other teams up ahead, but they seemed to almost be floating in the sky, in the darkness, 200 meters above us.
The trail we had to take was a nightmare. When we finally found it, I wasn’t convinced it was a trail at all. It was so steep I had to ratchet myself up using my bike; I would push it ahead, then grab the brakes and use the bike to pull myself up. Push, pull. One meter at a time. The ground was soft with turned up topsoil from what must have been the teams ahead. Looking ahead with my light, I couldn’t see an end, just a black void that my light vanished into between the trees. Up and up. I wanted to cry. My legs were burning. I looked back and there were others following us. I got to a fallen tree that blocked the path and used all my strength to toss my bike over. Then myself one leg at a time. I waited for Jess to help her with her bike. Brad was up ahead now. Another 20 minutes and we finally reached a reasonable grade, and the ground turned to grass. The lights we saw floating in the sky were now in front of us, the next CP. It was a small cabin overlooking the amazing ravine we just came up. Three men were sitting on the deck to greet us, they were the owners. I wanted so badly to ask for one of their beers, they looked so refreshing. And their fold-up lawn chairs. I could quit right here and be ok with it.
But no, I didn’t. If this was an individual event, the story might have progressed differently. We found the next road and followed it to the shooting range where we were to find our next trail. An opening to the right appeared, and we took it. There were lights ahead in the distance, so we thought this must be it. Up and up to a grassy field that was home to a small wooden house carried on stilts nearly 15 feet off the ground. It was a hunting blind. We went past, but the trail ended. We circled the perimeter of the opening, but the only trail leading away was the one we came from. F#@$! The trail we had to get to must have been only 500 meters ahead of us, but there was no trail connecting. Brad said we must have missed it, so we turned back to the road and continued further.
Another trail led off to the right. We took it without question. Again, up and up until we reached another blind. F#@$! The trail ended again! How the hell are we supposed to get across? Back to the road and further…until we hit a gate. A big sign read “No Trespassing”, and behind, the road continued into dark forest with the tree canopy blocking any light from the stars. We turned around. There must be a trail we just didn’t see. We passed another team who had the same frustration as us. They followed us back toward the cabin.
Just before, a trail opened to the side. This must be it, it has to be. I convinced both teams to follow me and we headed down. I was so happy we were finally coasting, I didn’t even consider that this could be the wrong one, we had suffered enough. The trail continued down and down, going much further than the other two. Brad stopped. Something isn’t right. We are supposed to be going north, but this trail heads east. And we are also supposed to be going up, not down. I felt panic, anger, frustration, and sadness all at once. I led us 2 kilometres down the wrong way and I was starting to believe we would never find the trail. We turned around and walked our bikes back up. Yes, walked. It was too steep to pedal.
Off in the woods, there were headlamps moving our way, but they weren’t on any trail. We waited at their bearing and asked what they were doing. They said they were ignoring the trails and just hiking on the bearing to get up the ridge. That seemed treacherous. The forest was so steep and rocky, and according to their altimeter we were at 1100ft and the trail we were trying to find was at 1700ft. They pushed through with their plan, and we decided to follow. There was nothing else to do but hope that we would eventually find it if we trusted our map and compass.
I was deflated, there was nothing left. The climb to the cabin completely removed any motivation I had to climbanymoree. My bike weighed a ton, and I tripped every other step on rocks hidden below the blanket of leaves. I wanted to quit. I wanted to go back to the cabin and just wait until morning. I couldn’t do this anymore.
I followed Brad with my head hanging. I didn’t want to look up anymore because I didn’t want to know how far it was. I just focused on my feet. I could see my breath in the light cast from Jess’s bike behind me. I rested on every fallen tree I could, using smaller trees as grips to pull myself up with. My feet ached, my clothes were sweaty, and I could smell my shirt for the first time. It was exactly what you’d expect it to smell like. Nothing about this moment was worth cherishing. Everything sucked. All 45 minutes of it.
The team ahead let out a cheer as they reached the path. I looked up and they were standing on flat ground. Ten more steps and I was with them. I sat down at the edge of the trail and looked back. Jess was 20 meters behind and pushing with all her might to fight an entangled tree. I my heart felt for her. I smiled. Not because she was struggling, but because I was feeling so horrible, yet I had the light bike and Jess was pushing a much heavier bike up the same hill without complaining once. I admire her incredible strength. I got up and ran down to grab her bike for her. She quietly thanked me and we climbed the rest together. We biked a few hundred meters to a fork in the trail and I stopped. I needed to change.
It felt like I was shedding a layer of damp skin and putting on the softest driest shirt I’ve ever worn. Of course it wasn’t, but to me it was everything to change shirts and put the memories of those trails with my shirt, behind us at the bottom of my bag. My gloves also stunk to high heaven, so they got packed away too. I gave Jess some of my water and we started pedaling again.
This trail system was a big loop with 6 CP’s to get. We made good progress, picking off one every ten or fifteen minutes. One of them was off the trail, so we stopped and Brad volunteered to take the passport. I was happy to give up the duty of actually getting the CP’s and took the chance to sit with Jess and let Brad get this one, which was legal to do. We made makeshift loungers from our bags and whatever rocks and leaves were around us. I grabbed my bag of trail mix and put my head back to look at the stars through the opening of the trees above us. They were amazingly bright and peaceful. For the first time, I heard silence. We could hear the faint snap of a branch. That must have been Brad off in the forest. I decided we needed some music, so I pulled out from my bag my grandfather’s harmonica. I jokingly told them I was going to pack it for when we need a pick-me-up, but I don’t think they thought I’d actually do it. I played a few notes and the natural harmonies lit a small fire in my chest. I was so warm suddenly and my aching muscles began to relax. Jess just rested quietly and listened, staring up at the night sky. All questions of doubt slowly faded. We discussed our philosophies on life and racing, and what races we wanted to do next. We are incredibly similar we realized, and both enjoy racing for the comradery, the fitness, and the joy of endurance sport. HA! I almost made myself laugh saying that I was doing this—racing through the night bush-whacking my way up mountain sides and through the forest—for fun. Most people would think that I should be admitted.
A twig snapped right beside my ear. Brad was back with the passport stamped. We got up and I actually felt excited to keep going. After such a horrible several hours, we were finally making significant progress and the trail was quite nice to bike on. We completed the loop and started back down the ridge on the trail east (or was it west?). Down and down we zipped with our lights illuminating the dewy grass ahead. As we flew by trees and branches, our lights would cast sharp shadows, tricking me into seeing things that weren’t there. My heart jumped several times when I swear I was looking at a bear, or deer.
At the end of the long decent, we reached another welcome party. More water and snacks (I say snacks instead of nutrition because nothing I was eating anymore was very nutritious. I couldn’t stop stealing Brad’s goldfish). It was well after midnight. We continued on to buttery smooth pavement. I didn’t realize how much my butt hurt until now. I could feel the blisters starting to grow, and I knew it was only going to get worse.
Now, I don’t exactly remember when we left the road, but I do remember biking by a house with the owner standing on the front porch watching the three of us bike by at 1 am. I heard him yell frustratingly “what are you doing?” as if we had ruined his quiet evening. All I could answer as we flew by was “we’re racing!”.
It wasn’t too much longer before we were back on a rail-trail. I’m not sure how many rail trails there are, but I don’t think this was the same one as before. I remembered from our mapping the previous morning (when the race started) that we would have a river crossing soon. I stupidly thought we would be able to make it here before dark…stupidly.
There was one more CP, though, before the river. It was actually in a really cool spot. Just beside the trail was a 100-year-old lock, that was completely dried up. The flag was at the bottom, but you could get in from the very end. It must have been 100 meters long and at least three stories tall on each side. The forest had done a good job of reclaiming it, and most of the stones had roots splitting them apart, and moss covering the rest. The sound of the river flowing beside echoed inside, making it sound as though the water was all around you when you closed your eyes. We stamped the passport and continued pedalling to the river.
It was getting louder. It didn’t sound like the river we crossed before, more like rapids, big ones. Down a steep 10-foot ditch from the trail, was the river-crossing CP, and a volunteer to give us instructions. We were told we could either cross the river here and continue on the trail to transition, or we could bike around adding about 16 kilometers. We had already made the choice to cross, but the other team that was there at the same time decided to stick to the road. We could see which was faster if we saw them again.
The river was indeed more rapids than a river. There was a rope across that we had to hold on to otherwise the current was sure to take us away into the dark. I didn’t even think about it when I started to cross. It was only waist deep, but the current was so strong it was hard just to hang onto the rope, let alone the bike. Every step was incredibly careful, reaching for the next step trying to find a flat rock. One slip and I would definitely go down, and I didn’t know how I could get back up with letting go of either my bike or the rope. My light flickered and went out, perfect.
Brad made it across first, then me just behind him, and Jess a few steps behind me. Jess’s battery had also died, so we changed them out with the spares we brought. I was worried mine went out because of the water, but when I put in the new battery the light came back to life. The volunteer on this side told us we had to just follow the path lit with glow sticks until they run out, then go up the hill to the train tracks. Of course, up. On the path illuminated by fluorescent green sticks, like something from Avatar, we passed another team resting in the mud. We got to the up part, which was more of a 10-foot wall of dirt, just like the one Brad had slid down to get to the river on the other side. I tried to get up but I couldn’t with my bike. I just kept sliding down and sinking into the mud. Brad went ahead and towed his bike, grabbing onto trees to pull himself. I then passed him my bike, then Jess’s, then Jess, then he pulled me up. He really is an adventurer. No obstacle seems too big to stop him.
At the train tracks, we had two trail heads: Hickory or Sand Vine. These weren’t on the map, but the transition area we had to get to was in Hickory park, and the trail looked like it was going the right way, so we took it.
It was smooth and flowing, and relatively flat. The shadows danced through the woods and made silhouettes of deer, except that one had eyes. AH! A deer jumped from the trail in front of me and I almost sh!t myself. There were two more beside us, watching as three white headlights floated by them. My senses were suddenly heightened, and I became hyper aware of every movement and sound. I hadn’t seen any wildlife yet, so I wasn’t expecting any, but clearly, they were out there. The park I guess got its name from the hickory bushes, which were everywhere. They almost looked tropical, and sometimes would turn the trail into a tunnel under the thick brush. I joked that it felt like a scene from Jurassic Park…*gulp.
We closed in on transition as we got back to the paved road in Hickory park. There was one last climb to make, and there was a group half-way up ahead of us. We closed the gap pretty quickly and when I caught them I recognized them immediately. They were the team that decided to go the long way around the river, and we were much faster bikers than them. Brad let out “I guess the other way was faster…” and laughed it off. It was kind of funny, but the kind of funny you need to laugh at so you don’t get angry and throw things kind of funny.
Legs dead, butt blistered, and toes jammed, we reached transition. There was a fire blazing and a huge pile of left-behind bikes from the team ahead of us. I didn’t care about our position anymore, I was just happy to be done the bike. My feet had been soaked since we first ran into the lake with our canoe, and my shorts needed to be changed. I also needed salt so badly that I ate my entire bag of Jerky. I didn’t care if I would throw it up after, it tasted so good. I sat by the fire to warm up. It was 2:15am on Saturday, and we still had more than 12 hours of racing left. I just stared at the flames and ignored everything. I just needed a few minutes to eat my Jerky and dry my feet.
Check back next Monday for the next edition. Spoiler alert – this wasn’t even the part of the race where I had started to suck yet… #havemercy