I had an out of body experience while standing under the Construction Zone team tent a few weeks ago at an MBAA race. The team manager asked me if I wanted to join a four-woman Old Pueblo team at the last minute. Without hesitation, and with a great deal of enthusiasm in my voice, I said yes. As I was saying it the tent and my teammates started to swirl around me, and suddenly I was hovering above everyone and glaring down at a girl in a blue Patagonia dress and CZ Racing kit (my usual post-race attire) and shrieking “nooooooooooooooo!” at the top of my lungs. When the team manager nodded his head and said “awesome,” I realized the deal had been made, and I snapped back into myself with a sensation of excruciating pain welling up in my right hip, shooting down my leg, and settling in around my knee.
It was a super weird experience. But wanting to race a mountain bike in circles for 24 hours is also super weird. I had been proclaiming for a full year I was not going to race Old Pueblo again. Like a broken record, I had mumbled over and over racing Old Pueblo had ruined my 2017 season. So I understand why my split personality freaked out.
I have only six memories from last year’s solo race.
Memory 1: Crashing hard and landing on my right hip – in the pouring rain – with my friend George behind me. Luckily, he dodged a few rocks and a garden of cholla, somehow managing to not run me over. My brakes and shifters were all cattywampus from the crash, and I rolled back into the staging area shaking uncontrollably from the wet and the cold. My dad and Marlene put food in my grumpy face as I changed all of my clothes and adjusted the setup on my handlebars. I tried to explain to my dad a lot could happen in the next 20 hours. I could still make up the time I’d lost. Really, I was trying to convince myself I hadn’t just ruined my race less than 5 hours into it. That’s when the pain in my right hip set in.
Memory 2: Trying to eat one of the damn rice balls I’d made while riding in the rain. It slimed up my gloves and I couldn’t shift for an entire lap. My thumb repeatedly slipped off the trigger, and I had to reach over with my left hand to hold my thumb in place when I shifted. That’s when I gave up thinking I was ever going to make up the time from my crash and my lengthy, mildly hypothermic pit stop. At this point, I decided everything about the situation was ridiculous, and the best I could do was slog my way to the finish.
Memory 3: Marlene handing me five Ibuprofen when my hip started hurting so much I could barely pedal with my right leg. This was sometime in the middle of the night, and even with all Ibuprofen I’d consumed, I pedaled almost entirely with my left leg – my right leg hurt so bad I couldn’t even stand up on my pedals for the descents. My dad and Marlene had flown all the way out from Northern Michigan to support me in this race. For a million pathological reasons dating all the way back to my childhood, there was no way I could quit. My dad had been my running and Nordic skiing coach when I was a kid, and toward the end of my superstar preteen years, when winning wasn’t coming as easily as it used too, I dropped out of a lot of races with the excuse of stomach problems. My dad and I both wondered if really I was being a poor sport and an ungraceful looser. Now in my 30s, there was no chance in hell I was going to let my dad think I was a quitter. So even though it was the first mountain bike race I had ever sincerely wanted to drop out of, I kept pedaling. Oh, and I sucked down a caffeine pill along with the 5 Ibuprofen Marlene gave me. She looked shocked and concerned, and we both giggled in a moment of “this is nuts” solidarity.
Memory 4: A sunrise lap with my friend George, suddenly appearing 12 hours after I’d last seen him, to spread his usual stoke for life. He’s the kind of guy who is so athletic he makes movement – even in the form of 6 a.m. slogging – look fun. He kept getting flats on this lap, which meant he rode up behind me something like eight times in a tsunami of gusto and lay-your-mountain-bike-into-each-corner passion. At first, I faked I was happy to see him, but by the time we made it to the rock drop his enthusiasm had sucked me in, and I acknowledge for the first time since my crash I was actually having fun.
Memory 5: Three or four or five laps all rolled into what felt like one moment starting with Kurt Refsnider telling me I was somehow in the lead again, followed by my poor mountain bike struggling to shift, and culminating in me jumping on my spare bike convinced the seat was too high because pedaling it made my right hip feel like it was being pulled out of the socket with each pedal stroke. This memory is filed away in a haze of frantic sensations: excitement, frustration, pain, and dread. When I think about it, I can sort of make out a blurry image of Kurt walking over to our tent, and I can see my dad lubing the chain of the dirty black bike while I reach for the clean blue one instead. But intertwined with the blurry images and the confused sensations are three out-of-body snapshots, each from my final lap, pulsing with color. I can see myself bundled up in a bright orange rain jacket on the top of one of the bitches throwing my red backpack onto the ground, digging for my mini multitool, ripping my spare tube off my blue bike so I can get to the seat post adjuster, stripping the nut with each sloppy turn of my mini hex tool, and glancing wild-eyed over my shoulder knowing the second place woman was catching me. Then, again, on the back side of the course, throwing my bike down and racing behind a cactus to pee: bright red thighs, green ocotillo, bright blue bike lying in the dark brown dirt. It felt like I was squatting for eternity, and it took all my effort to stand up again. And one more time, only 20 minutes later, throwing my bike in the dirt so I can rip off my orange rain jacket and purple hat – and pee again. All the while looking frantically behind me knowing the second place woman was closing the gap.
Memory 6: Standing in the beer garden after awards with my dad and putting back IPA after IPA. This was fun, but I hadn’t eaten anything since finishing, and it sealed the deal for my shitty recovery following the race. It also turned my cognitive skills to putty. I remember a lengthy conversation with fellow Flagstaff mountain biker Chris Eaves who was pouring the beer – except I didn’t realize it was him, and I kept asking him where he was from.
My life took on the feeling of slogging through a 24 hour race in the weeks that followed Old Pueblo. Sunday night after the race, my dad, Marlene, Artec and I spent the night in 24 hour town. We were all exhausted, and my poor dad actually fell asleep and started snoring while we were sitting at the table in the camper eating dinner. We woke up at the butt crack of dawn and drove back to Flagstaff. I was on campus at NAU and teaching by 9 a.m! My dad and Marlene returned the camper and cleaned up all the water bottles, dirty dishes, and wet gear. I am so grateful for them. I wouldn’t have survived the week without their help, because Monday night I had to finish prepping for a conference I was presenting at later in the week, Tuesday night I had to do laundry and pack for the conference, and at 2 a.m. Wednesday morning I got in my van and drove down to Phoenix to catch a flight to Bozeman, Montana. I’d booked a super cheap motel in Bozeman, and the room smelled like cigarette smoke and dirty sex. There was fighting in the room next door until all hours of the night. I returned to Flagstaff feeling even less recovered than when I’d left. The conference put me behind at work, and I spiraled into a stressed out ball of gloom and doom for the rest of the spring.
But it’s a new year, and I learned a lot about recovery and managing stress last season. Even though I blamed much of my disappointment in the races that followed on the stress of racing Old Pueblo solo, I’m super excited to be out there again this weekend racing with four amazing women.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed Bender Dog doesn’t try to become Instagram famous again this year by chewing through his leash and making his rounds through 24 hour town. That’s probably my favorite story from last year’s race: my poor dad hustles back to the camper to refill water bottles and finds Bender’s leash tied to a tree without Bender attached to it. My dad, worried I’m going to be disqualified for having a dog unleashed running through camp, runs around 24 hour town looking for him. It turns out Bender spent some time hanging out with the El Grupo kids before being escorted to the exchange tent. Eventually, my dad hears Bender’s name announced over the loud speakers saying they have him at the finish line, but when he finally gets there he’s told one of the volunteers is taking “that cute dog” for walk. Meanwhile, my phone is blowing up with messages from friends saying they saw Bender in an Epic Rides Instagram post, and that they hope I’ve found him, and hopefully I’m having a good race too. Of course, I didn’t see any of these messages – or even know Bender had gone missing – until the next day when I was finished racing.