This wide and steep singletrack is the last notable climb of my fourth lap, and I’m guessing that it’s a little before 3am. Ahead I can see the wiggling cones of light and tail-flashers of a half dozen racers walking. I find the prone figure next to the trail mildly unnerving until a guy with a camera sitting next to him confirms that it’s no worse than a solo competitor napping. Right around then the stabbing pain of a cramp on the inside of my left leg suggests that I should join him. Instead, I try to stretch it out while turning the gears, and this causes a different cramp to shoot through my right hamstring. Standing up on the pedals to relieve that pain sets the left leg alight again.
If there’s a flaw in our race strategy, this is where it will be revealed, when the night crew has to endure. During this span, 10 to 4, Ryan and I are to alternate laps, riding at a steady pace. My three other teammates are getting six hours of sleep before they cycle through two early morning rotations while Ryan and I recover with six hours of delicious rest of our own. This worked last year, but, then again, I wasn’t on the night crew last year. I find that as long as both legs keep moving, neither cramp gets worse, but they don’t go away either. I call out to the rider in front of me, he graciously lets me by with encouraging words, I say “thank you,” and try mindlessly to repeat that drill. At midnight we had a 40-minute advantage over the team behind us. I don’t intend to squander that cushion, but things don’t always go as one intends.
The day had started well enough for us. Jon was conscripted into doing the first lap. This started with a half-k run to the bikes. We watched the runners stomping by with Jon near mid pack looking decidedly uncomfortable loping in his Sidi’s. I felt badly for him tangled up in the giddy throng trying to mount up in the start area, and feared that it was a mistake not have had someone else, not me, though, run. Then came a prologue around the field. Fears vanished as Jon rounded the red barn for the real start of the lap in 4th place. If he could turn a fast lap and come out of the woods among, say, the top 15, that would put Ryan in a great position to turn a fast lap without having to battle too much traffic.
The last riders disappeared into the woods, but there was no sense in leaving the starting line. Everyone milled about breathing in the festive vibe warmed by the hot summer sun. The camping area filled a valley ringed by trees and hills rolling into the distance. Hay bales, horses, and long white fences complete the postcard scenery. A little over forty minutes later, the race announcer started building up excitement with promises that the first racers would be appearing soon. We chewed our nails and watched the trail. Someone called out “here comes a rider!” and, as if by sorcery, a bike appeared. The voice in the speakers boomed, “And we have our first rider coming over the bridge, #239, The Underground Racing Team, riding in the 5 person co-ed class.” Holy shit, that’s us! Jon won the first lap! As Ryan rocketed off, we slapped Jon on the back and bellowed accolades. A 24-hour race probably doesn’t get won on the first circuit, but it’s a nice confidence boost when it goes well.
I was in the third slot, then Kathy, then Charley. Ryan, not surprisingly, turned in a blistering lap, fastest of the team for the event. Before I had time to get sufficiently nervous, then calm again, then nervous again, I find myself rolling. The course begins on a dirt road along the camping area and then comes back toward the start/finish line on a parallel singletrack. As I got into the woods, my heart rate monitor went quiet. I had it set to sound an alarm when I fall outside of a narrow range, to let me know if I’m working too hard or not hard enough, and it took all of 40 seconds to jump to 179. The trail rollercoasters along the kind of track where you’ll be bucked off your FS rig if you have the rebound on the shock set fast. I went into a corner too hot and locked up in a panic. Dust and my curses billowed everywhere, and the spectators, of which, alas, there were many that near the staging area, did not seem impressed.
The course is a mix of quintessential New England textures: slithering singletrack, logging roads, a mile of off-camber root chutes that is a nightmare when wet, and angular, rocky alleyways that seem like class III rapids without the river. The organizers had, however, contrived a surprisingly out-West race tempo in that the first five miles of the course were a demanding, difficult climb with the second half of the course constant descending. On the logging road I spun hard, felt light headed, blinked sweat out of my eyes, and passed a bunch of people. An Independent Fabrications racer passed me on a single speed straining out of the saddle and that was irritating. After thirty-five minutes, I topped out in a small clearing with folks giving out Gatorade. I reached for the handoff and misjudged it, so a geyser of the stuff exploded, covering the volunteer and me. Sheepishly I called out apologies as the trees swallowed me again. The next section demanded steady power through lumpy and folding technical contours. Soon enough the trail pointed down. I’m still passing people, clicking through cogs and launching rocks with the bike bucking and snarling, left hand a little numb. Minutes go by, I’m losing elevation faster than would seem fair given the effort of the climb. Not much of the course left, I know where I am, and the nastiest stuff is behind me. Suddenly, I can feel a racer catch up and I start scanning for places to let her or him by. I mumble loudly something to that effect and he yells, “just go!” I step on the gas and let it loose more wildly. We ride together for the rest of the loop, him seeming a touch impatient on the descends, me gapping him a little on the rises, neck and neck on the technical flat sections, both of us laying it down. Back near the scoring table, we check in, hand off to our teammates, I go up to him, he says “nice riding,” seems to mean it, as do I, and we share an enthusiastic handshake.
Kathy is on the course, and there is little doubt that she is motoring by people on the climb. We’ve all seen her drop the hammer on uphill time trials, and this course favors strong ascenders. Her new Lilliputian and feathery Superlight Juliana only exacerbates things for the competition and she does a screaming fast turn. (Gear geek interlude: In addition to Kathy’s Juliana, Jon rides a Kona Kikapu, Charley, a Trek Fuel, and Ryan and I round out the Santa Cruz trio on Blurs. All of us ride Stan’s with a variety of tread. I really like the Kenda Stick-E’s that I’m running for the even that wetter than usual conditions in the Northeast.) Kathy flies over the bridge at the finish line and Charley, our anchor, is off. Charley’s one of those guys who rides, oh, once or twice a week for a couple of months in the Spring and then smokes most everyone during the season. He’s going to turn a quick lap, too, and when he arrives back and Jon leaves again, the four of us left go over to the results tent to see what’s up. With one rotation under our belts, we’re in first place among co-ed teams and in third overall. We’re cautiously pleased, but with almost 20 more hours of racing ahead of us, celebration would be premature.
Much later, my first night lap went well in spite of temperatures low enough to see my breath and moisture clinging to everything to create slick lunacy. Ryan had handed off the baton shaking his head about conditions, eyes red-rimmed, an excellent time in his wake. Not bad, we’re holding steady with the folks rolling the fastest times. I grabbed the bike and hit the trail. I was struck by the quiet of the night exit from the start area. When all your teammates are asleep, the cheering of daytime starts and finishes gone, and the only active people are the ones on course right then, 24-hour races take on a lonelier and solipsistic feel. Across the first stream, I’m cold now but will be warm soon enough. Hitting singletrack, I make gentle suggestions to the front wheel about where it should go, but the bike is skating around with a mind of its own and I am more or less just holding on and applying pedal strokes, pushing myself. Ragged breathing jets in my ears, I guess it’s mine, and it’s apparently loud enough to warn folks on course that I’m coming up on them. “Don’t crack, don’t fall, don’t fall,” I’m saying to myself, and as I go by someone she looks at me funny. I begin to wonder whether I’ve been speaking aloud. Feeling good on the climb, I encourage people to keep rolling, they wish me well. There’s a brief flat section where during the day I took it easy to collect myself a bit, this time I punch it knowing that time will be made on this lap on the climbs because I’ll suck on the treacherous descent. I used to think of myself as a pretty able descender, but since I’ve been racing with Jon and Ryan I’ve come to the dispirited conclusion that, comparatively, I’m a roadie with expensive off-road gear. For all that, I survived that night lap, exhilarated by my 53-minute time. Ryan seems surprised that I was back so soon. Fair enough, as I was surprised myself. In the campground, there’s little activity. The time it will take Ryan to get around the course isn’t enough for me to settle in, so I eat and drink and wander next door where several members of The Dirty Girls and The Local Boys are awake and telling stories and stretching and eating salty snacks. Ryan comes through, he confesses feeling like dogshit, and I’m not all that keen on yet another turn.
Which brings me back to the lap where I’m cramping like crazy. These are just the latest aches in a catalog that includes a sore back, throbbing feet, and leaden forearms. I’m seriously hurting through a sobering contrast to that first night lap, was that me? At the top of this climb there’s another checkpoint. The volunteers cheer us on and they mean it with the best of kind intentions but I want to tell them to shut up, no, I’m not looking good, or riding strong, liars, and now I’m having trouble getting into the middle ring because my hand is weak and stupid. Somehow I make it down to the finish area, but not before lurching through a soupy bog like Swampman, my legs locked up and the bike flopping around as I pull it by the stem. Jon takes the baton looking cheerful and ready to ride fast and I want to smack him. But I’m too tired for that and I go to wrestle with my sleeping bag trying not to, you know, bend my leg or anything like that because it’s really painful. Later I find out that that lap took me 59 minutes.
I’m fast asleep when there’s a scuffle in the truck, startling me awake. Ryan is pulling on a fleece jacket saying, “oh, fuck, oh fuck,” and I’m groggily repeating, “what?” And there’s someone outside — Shaun, the local race director and course guru, friend of ours — offering in animated, urgent tones, “Kathy’s in the medical tent, hurt badly.” Turns out that she launched a superman over her handlebars on the cobbled path from hell up top and punctured. Her leg. So there’s this gash in her thigh running freely and her leg and sock are positively soaked — holy crap is that dirt or a bruise on your chest? — but she gutted out the lap, riding three miles of downhill plus the pipeline climb, completing the whole thing in 66 minutes. When I got back from my morning lap, Kathy is back in the pit area on crutches, her leg stitched up and with a fractured sternum. She’s apologizing for not being able to ride another lap, but if we really need one she might be able to struggle through one in an hour and half, she figures, and I’m laughing and telling her to go sit down, that she’s nuts.
Charley has made bacon and eggs for breakfast, and now he’s out on course, just too much in a fine mood. Ryan, Jon and I are doing calculations for our last laps and it looks an awful lot like I’ll have to ride again just before noon (the lap will count if it’s done by 1) unless something catastrophic happens. I’m not amused, but when the hour comes, no mishap leading to reprieve, I grind through the course taking it easy. Turning the cranks, everything seems more resigned, like someone pushed the mute button. The racer good humor and ebullience of yesterday has lapsed, but surely we can be forgive for that, it’s the last lap. We’re all exhausted. It rains for about ten minutes, but is no big deal. Just before the end the sun comes out again, and even our kind of tiredness, the kind of body and concentration fatigue all the racers are experiencing, can’t resist a happy gathering for podium presentations.
In the end we did 27 laps, good enough for first place. Had a great time.