Friday, October 23, 2009

The Outlasters (part 2 of 3)

At that point, after a lap of one hour and eighteen minutes, Sarah was eight minutes behind and tied for second with two other racers—Eszter Horanyi and Jari Kirkland. Eszter was a newcomer, but Jari had been in this position before.

“The hardest part is really the first hour as far as mentally keeping it your own race,” she told me.

Jari had a plan for this weekend. She wanted to defend her crown, beat most if not all of the men, and ride farther on this course than she's ever ridden before.

“I put the pressure on myself because I would like to do well. I just have to keep telling myself that I've trained my best and that I've done everything that I could possibly do.”

In years past, she certainly has done everything within her power to excel. An adventure racer based in Colorado, Jari devotes large parts of her life to extreme sports and to extreme challenges during those sports. In one particular race, she was stung by a bee, which in itself is not particularly high on the list of problems that can take down an outlaster.

Except that Jari is allergic to bees.

And she got stung while riding her third lap, with twenty hours left in the race.

“It got really cold, but my body temperature escalated so much [from racing]. I'm kind of stupid to keep riding, but if I really go into Anaphylactic Shock, there will be someone out there to help me.”

She laughed.

When I asked her why she continues to go through the difficulty of racing for this length of time, bee stings and all, she said, “It's insane. But once you get a taste of it you just want to do better.”

I understand the kind of obsession that leads to possibly unhealthy attempts at the same challenge (I've written this sentence nine times), but I'm curious, too, about her word 'insane.' It's a word that's been bandied about a lot in my conversations with solo riders.

Before the race started, I asked Jari to expand on her insanity plea, to tell me one more time her rationale for riding.

“Why would I want to do this race? To exorcise the demons," she said. "You get a lot of time to think out there and I really think that you come out a better person. Sometimes the best growing parts are painful.”

I've noticed that often when people try to describe intense, even insane experiences, they come very close to revealing intimate details about themselves, but then move back toward safe platitudes. Jari was no exception. Sure, pain is a character-building event, but what of this exorcism? I'd like to hear more about that.

She wasn't forthcoming.

If she'd told me what her demons were, though, I guess I'd have less reason to indulge my curiosity about the inner workings of these racers, about what they're really facing when they look out into their short beam of light at 4 a.m. and see only a band of earth advancing back at them. If she'd told me, I'd know and then there'd be no reason to speculate.

I thank The Man Upstairs for half-answered questions; turns out Jari sometimes gets spiritual too.

“I'm pretty religious and there are times when I have pretty good conversations with God,” she said, describing tactics she uses to push through late-night laps. Others make deals with themselves to keep them going, or they imagine the potential shame of quitting, or they get angry at the world. Jari talks.

During an activity as distressing as 24-hour racing, it is good, I think, to recognize the authority of a higher power.

“After you experience [a race] once," she continued, "It's almost like an addiction. The first time, I got third and I thought 'Omigosh, I'm the shit.' Even though I wasn't the fastest, it was the single most important day of my life.”

That startled me, this suggestion that a bike race was Jari's crowning day. And it made me wonder why attempting the hard thing is so important to us.

Do we do these wild, agonizing things to validate who we are? I overcome, therefore I am? Or is there a sense that we need to punish ourselves, that we don't yet deserve our good lot and so need to scrap for it?

Punishment is always at play during a 24-hour race. On the way to the course, I stopped at a small town post-office to send a card and encountered a Wilfred Brimley-esque man who asked me what I was doing in Utah. I told him about the race and he replied, “Hang out with masochists a lot, do ya?”

I laughed, but he was right.

Jari understated the punishment when she told me that “24 hours is a long time to put your body under duress and have nothing go wrong.”

In fact, here's a list of things that notably go wrong during a race, from least to most dire (subjectively judged by me):



Blurry vision.

Buzzing of the ears.


Muscle pain.

Bee sting (as we've seen).



Joint pain.

Number 11: Much worse chafing. (Whatever your gender, please imagine the evil machinations of a bike seat working on your body for an entire day, and how much that might make you want to never ride, or sit, or ponder your genitals, ever again). 1

But please don't forget about:

Muscle sear.


A mix of six or seven of the above. (Go ahead and choose. It's a fun exercise!)

Blood poisoning.

Joint break.

Kidney failure.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.

“There was one race that I dropped out of,” Sarah recalled to me. “I was a wreck. I couldn't stand up, I couldn't walk. I definitely couldn't pedal my bike. Throwing up. Not in a good way at all.”

“You have to fight your normal biology,” said Chris Eatough, the most celebrated male 24-hour solo racer. “You're doing something totally foreign to what your body is normally set up for, and you have to fight your way through it.”

Since they know that these strains are inevitable, I'm amazed that so many outlasters still attempt these rides. Self-validation through punishment, I think. And an assertion of rebellious freedom: many of them seem to have the same attitude as the neighborhood kid who'd eat a spider just to let everyone know she was not to be pinned down, not to be defined, not to be told that she couldn't do what she wanted, and even what she didn't want, to do.

We attempt the hard thing because some shadowy other, most likely a less courageous part of our self, says that we shouldn't. Dr. Jekyll urges, “Ride an easy lap, then rest.” Mr. Hyde says, “Up yours, Jekyll. I'm doin' this.”

A lot of it's mental and, as Jari said before she started, “If I say I can, then probably I will.”

On her second lap at Moab, after months of intensive training, Jari suffered a knee injury and had to pull out of the race. She would not repeat as champion and those demons of hers would have to wait another day to be exorcised.

* * *

After two laps, Sarah had found her riding rhythm. Though she was sixteen minutes behind, she was doing well physically and held onto a tie for second place.

To hear it from the Public Address announcer at the course, though, you'd have thought it was a one woman contest.

“Pua Sawicki has this race firmly in hand with 21 hours to go,” he said, laughably.

To him, Sarah and Eszter were merely “other racers.” And thus continued what the pit-crew and I called "Pua-stroking."

It's hard to write about Women's 24-hour mountain biking without heaping praise on Monique “Pua” Sawicki. She wins races by hours, appears indestructible, and seems to be backed by the entire machinery of corporate sponsorship that cycling has to offer.

She is primarily helped by Ellsworth, maker of handcrafted bikes. But she also enjoys--for everything from gloves to pedals--the patronage of (deep breath): Byekyle, Ergon, DT Swiss, ControlTech, Genuine Innovations, NiteRider, Magura, Hutchinson, Shimano, Lake, Lazer, Nomad, Park City RV Resort, WTB, i.e.bikes, Okole Stuff, Squadra, PureFit, Pedro's, FuelFactor, MaxMuscle, Crankbrothers, Wobblenaught, and HeadSweats.

(I like to think about the meeting the Sawicki people had with the Wobblenaught people).

Essentially, Pua is the Tiger Woods, the Roger Federer of this sport. That clearly holds true for number of endorsements, but she's also just about as dominant as those guys. And as targeted. The general atmosphere around the Moab race was cordial, but when there's a king of the hill, as Pua is, people get shove-y: the palpable sense was that Pua needed to be taken down.

Since the gates opened, we'd heard it up to here about Pua. She was trying to set a world record, she had a film crew following her, Wasn't it great that she had decided to come defend her title?, Could we all give her another round of applause?, she has the race in hand, she can't be stopped.

Besides all this, there was her entourage, which amused us by shouting very seriously at each other about some food they hoped she would eat.

“We need another banana!”
"Go, GO."
“This one's broken. She needs a different banana.”

If you've ever been around roadies, you've seen what these guys were like. If you haven't I'll describe both groups for you: overzealous, and lacking in perspective, these black-clad key-luggers treat whatever they're doing like it's the Yalta Conference. They have a slight disdain for everyone else, all while being pretty decent guys. Above all, they're ultra-competent and ultra-confident.

In the minds of the entourage, there was no doubt that Pua would dominate. And to make sure of this, they'd rented ATVs so that they could be at her beck and call on the course.

We all hated them. (And, no, it didn't have anything to do with jealousy. Of all the ideas!)

To make matters worse, there was a big picture of Pua's face on Sarah's giant sack of Infinit energy powder, watching us all the time. Sarah is sponsored by Infinit. Guess who else is?

(Portions of this blogpost have been brought to you by Infinit. When the blood gets tired. Infinit.)

Rob and I started getting into the rivalry. If Team Pua had ATVs to go out and bring their outlaster food, couldn't we hike out there and do the same for ours?

Most of the 15-mile course was unreachable for us, but there was one place, about a three mile walk, that, because of the way the trail doubled back on itself, was both mile seven and mile twelve for the riders.

If we got ourselves out there, Sarah would have two extra pit stops per lap, two extra chances to grab water or communicate what she needed. As night fell, we embarked. It was 62 degrees and would be 38 within the hour. Rob and I were going to weather the night in the Utah desert.

We were seven hours into the race. Jari was out. Pua led by a third of a lap. This Eszter was hanging tough.

But our Sarah was still in the race, still pumping at sunset. All we could do was hunker down and see what dawn would bring.

1 Jari: “The general consensus is that girls are a little more complicated down there than men in some aspects, so rubbing and chafing, yeah.” Jari: “I've felt like my butt hurts so bad, if I hit another bump I just might burst into tears.” Danielle: “The most miserable time I ever had in a twenty four hour race—all of the skin on my butt had worn off. And my crew put chamois cream with menthol on me. It felt like a hot iron searing on my skin.” Sarah (directly, as always): “There's the crotch issue.”


Megan said...

I would prefer muscle sear to that footnote any day.

Sonja Strong said...

I cannot imagine how much money I would pay NOT to risk the list of troubles...

yet, I am waiting for installment 3 of 3!