Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Outlasters (Part 1 of 3)

Sarah Collins staggered into her pit-stop and sat down gingerly.

She'd been sick to her stomach for the last three laps and, because of that, she'd had to stop twice out in the desert to steady herself. Though she was wrapped in a sleeping bag, and though she'd been straining physically for hours, she was cold and shivering. It was 3:30 a.m., and passing out seemed to be her only healthy option.

And then she rode her bike fifty more miles, five more hours, three more laps. “This is so bad,” she said. “Harder than it's supposed to be,” she said. And then she rode her bike fifteen more miles, two more hours, one more lap. As she neared the end, her brother Dave and I held out a makeshift finish line. She broke it (barely); she was done.

24-hour solo mountain bike racing is questionable at best, idiotic at worst. Doctors advise against it. Supporters shake their heads at the pain of the racers with an equal mix of admiration and contempt.

Racers themselves say “never again,” say “this is so stupid,” say “I can't go on.”

Staying upright becomes the paramount challenge. They transform from racers to outlasters, winning only by attrition as others fail to outlast. Riders drop by the dusty wayside in tears and frustration after two or eight or nineteen hours of riding. And someone else wins.

For those who finish, or come close to it, much has been lost: fluids first and foremost, but also balance and sanity. It will take them a month to recover fully. They will have dropped ten pounds. Some will hallucinate.

Has the outlay of energy been worth it?, they wonder, as they stand wobbling at dawn, too exhausted to wipe their crusty faces. Their legs circle on phantom pedals, and they confront again the phantom visions of nighttime riding.

Why did I do this?, they think.

Ignoring the part of themselves that said 'stop,' they have ridden their bikes—over steep buttes and through soft sand, over uneven rocks and through stinging sagebrush—for 24 hours.

Having never done anything, let alone exercise, for 24 hours straight, I came to Utah to witness this fiasco at the Behind the Rocks Trail in Moab.

I'd been in Wisconsin the previous year—at 24-hours of 9-mile in Wausau—and I'd recognized the compelling breakdown that outlasters endure. I had theories. About our common attraction to pain. About addiction and competition. About how personalities vanish so easily in the face of extended adversity.

I'd seen the way the riders start out intact and then begin their slow dissolve into pain, need, insolence. This descent spoke to me about something beyond sports. Look what we can do, I thought. Look what we encounter, and look what we become.

* * *

The Moab race began at noon as a gaggle of perfectly fit people ran toward their bikes like a proverbial horde of lemmings, attracted to their own demise. Cowbells rang. Pump-up music blared from the loudspeakers. Dozens of spectators scurried to snap the quintessential photograph—the one that would capture the chaos and promise of the beginning of a 24-hour race.

The festivities begin this way to ensure a staggered start. Those who are riding as part of a team sprint out and begin their lap first. The solo riders tend to come next. This time, an immediate crash slowed the works. Eventually, though, everyone was off, a mass of cyclists followed by their support crews, all of them shouting instructions at each other.

In a race like this, the excitement level for the onlookers peaks so quickly, and then falls off. Sarah was there, a flash of yellow jersey, and then she was on her bike and gone for the next hour and a half. But it had begun.

Dave and I, with our friend Rob, hunkered down in her pit—an easy-up tent stocked with food, tools, and firewood. It was time for predictions and a recap of the pre-race jitters.

Though none of us are particularly knowledgeable about cycling, and though none of us follow Sarah's brutal training day-to-day or even month-to-month, we felt like immediate aficianados.

“She's going to win this race,” I said, and we all agreed.

“Nutrition's key,” Dave added. Oh, of course.

“She just needs to take in 300 calories an hour,” I said. Yep, yep.

“And race her race,” said Dave.

“And race her race,” we choired back.

Rob chewed sunflower seeds and spat. We were like farmers at a country store who'd just glanced the almanac and so were experts on tomorrow's weather; but we were know-nothings, too, just trying to catch ourselves up in the glow of these excellently foolish athletes doing what we all thought was a heroic thing.

The racers take it all very seriously—detailed training regimens, guru-ish coaches, color-coded meal charts—and so we did too, handicapping the race and jotting what we thought might be helpful notes.

Before the starting gun, there'd been a feeling of militaristic drill.

Sarah's water needed to be prepared with the proper amount of energy powder (“three scoops, three scoops!”). Both her bikes needed to be tuned and re-tuned. The food she might consume had to be laid out in carefully-aligned paper cups. Someone, dear God, someone had to find out whether she could wear an Ipod (turned out she couldn't).

(A portion of this blogpost has been brought to you by Infinit Energy Powder. Infinit. For tired blood.)

There was an air of espionage around our tent, too. Sarah would approach us with a surreptitious “There's Jari,” referring to the defending champion of this race, Jari Kirkland. “Watch out for Monalee,” said another racer through a cupped hand. The static of walky-talkies and the slang of cycling heightened the spy-thriller mood. I pulled on my ear lobe.

The Ipod question emerged again as one of our neighbors indulged in a conspiracy about secret speakers through which pit-crews could illegally communicate with their racers. Another wondered about Inspector-Gadgety water bottles that might afford an unfair advantage of some kind. The cock flew at midnight. And the code on everyone's tongue was “Pua,” “Pua,” “Pua.”

It stood for Pua Sawicki, four-time national champion and all-around superstar. Oh Pua. Say it loud and there's music playing. Say it soft and it's almost like praying. More on Pua later. Watch out for Pua.

We were all tense. Sarah was in a trance, trying to drown out all the hype about Jari and Pua (especially Pua) with repeated mental mantras. She was like a pitcher carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning and none of us wanted to approach her and jinx it.

We circled her like rookie matadors. Like altar boys during consecration. Like emasculated newlyweds looking over the shoulder of a grudgingly-hired plumber.

She needed to focus, but we were relying on her. We'd come all this way and we, too, were about to stay up for 24 hours. We wanted some assurance that she was going to go all the way with this race and make it worthwhile for us. So I asked her how she felt.

“Honestly I'm just kind of dreading this,” she said. “But no. It's going to be great.”


While we small-talked about whether the sun would be too hot, our next door neighbor, a solo racer named Steve, chirped in:

“At about 1 a.m., I'll think I am the sun.” We all liked Steve.

Sarah's laughter, though, didn't hide the strange mix of dread and optimism that exudes from the endurance cycling crowd. Before the race, they seem to consider the pain and the joy of it all, and then they quickly blend the two. Pain is pleasure sort of thing.

Danielle Musto, a solo racer who finished second at last year's nationals, told me that “no one wants to ride a bike for 24 hours. But crossing the finish line is such a good feeling. You just forget the pain very quickly. During the race the highs are so much better than the lows.”

I was skeptical.

But then Jari Kirkland, of “There's Jari” fame, told me that she likes to “encourage people when they're out there. No matter how bad it is, when you finish it's a ten-times-better feeling than how lousy you're feeling right now.”

I will not linger on the obvious comparison to childbirth that these remarks elicit. I do question, though, whether cessation of pain at the end of doing something is a valid reason for doing it. The accomplishment is one thing, but relief seems to be at the front of everyone's mind during a 24-hour bike race. And the consensus is that the easiest path to that relief is to not do a 24-hour bike race. Ever.

Outlasters don't listen to this advice.

The attitude of the women I spoke to also reminded me of a debate I often have about going on adventures for the sake of having the story to tell. Is 24-hour racing an investment for which the future return is a crisp little narrative? Do they do it for the glory and the story?

People will go through a lot for the warm feeling they get when they can finally utter the words, “Did I ever tell you about the time I. . .”

An associate of mine once smoked crack with the justification that he had to go to the edge and live to share the tale with others who would not go there. What edge he was talking about, I'm not sure, but I, too, always find myself saying, “At the very least, it'll be a story.” This mitigates hassle and frustration for me. I get a good yarn no matter what happens.

I wonder, though, about our instinct to be living out stories in order to tell them later.

In some ways, what could be better? It's like reminding ourselves to be interesting all the time, every freaking day. Of course, on the other hand, it also leads to a devaluation of the present, to falsification, to crack-smoking, to 24-hour bike racing.

I think the outlasters want more than a relief from pain, though, want more than to have done the thing and have a story. They all tackle the race, in Sir Edmund Hilary's words, “Because it's there.”

But it seems to me they compete—against themselves and others—because, after the worst of the fatigue has set in, when the legs and the head are set to automatic, there's nothing to distract them from being fully in the present.

And then Sarah'd finished her first lap and we were all up trying to change the back-pack which carried her water (she'd hucked the old one at my feet), and trying to ask her about the course, and how she was doing—“it's hard out there”—to get her food, get her pills, get out of her way, all while feeling none of the anxiety—and this is the key—that we'd felt in the four minutes before when all we could do was anticipate, because this was now and need was need and there's no room for self-consciousness and

She'd started pedaling again. We were a few yards into lap two.

No comments: