Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Outlasters (Part 3 of 3)

Edward Abbey, the naturalist and veritable poet laureate of Southeastern Utah, loved the land surrounding Beyond the Rocks Trail. “This is the most beautiful place on earth,” he wrote to begin his book, Desert Solitaire. “The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky—all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.”

Rob and I saw what Abbey meant as we hiked out to support Sarah, and we saw that the arid dusk was a sort of reflection of the inner landscape of the riders—on fire, as they were, with thirst, solitary as the faded sky.

People were burning juniper for campfires and the riders had switched on their bike lights. We could smell the fires, then, and look out at the baby cacti and feel a sense of the primal.

But we could also scope the hundreds of lights hopping over the horizon; we could look out over the dune-ish, hardscrabble hills to imagine ourselves in a sort of lunarscape.

I felt like we'd gone backward and forward in time, to the mesozoic and to Mars.

There is an atavism about the event: outlasters seem to rely on ancient instincts to keep them running, and they revert to our basic characteristic—desire. They can only speak in the language of need: need for water, food, rest. After many hours, they are bare-bones human.

Conversely, there's something futuristic about dozens of muscle machines--on strictly calibrated contraptions, donning head lamps, riding through a fine powder of red dust toward a lit-up tent city--who are fueled primarily by energy gels and Excedrin.

It all took me out of time.

Until, that is, Sarah'd pedal up and we'd all key in to the here and now. When she set out again, we'd wander again.


I'd been telling Rob about last year's race, about how a few outposts out on the track were bound to be teeming with supporters. At Wausau, there'd been tiki parties, meat roasts, and whooping.

As I hiked on, I looked forward to that sort of scene, to the frat party of the fit. We'd have an all-night Bike-hanalia!

We reached the spot. We dropped our gear. But Bacchus was nowhere to be found.

For some reason, Rob and I were the only ones who'd decided to tromp out there. Our only company would be Randolph and Lawrence, the seemingly stoned Medical Service guys. They were a couple of characters out of Beckett. Always awaiting the imminent arrival of their boss Todd, a sort of medically-trained Godot, they argued hilariously about proper procedure and whether or not they were allowed to sit in their truck during the race.

This point became moot after we heard the following from Lawrence:

“Dude, press unlock, dude, fuck.” They'd shut themselves out. But no matter. Todd would be by soon with the key.

The outlasters, it seemed, were in shaky hands. We heard that some riders—facing injuries at evocatively named trailmarks like “Nose Dive” and “The Ledge,”—had been waiting for three hours for treatment. Others, though, pulled into the checkpoint with cramps and sprains and, thanks to Randy and Larry, things went smoothly.

The race was also going smoothly for Sarah, who kept riding steady laps into the night. We saw her at 8:20 and she had no complaints, didn't need the paper cup of sweet potatoes we'd hauled out there, didn't need anything at all. This was a breeze, we thought. She was only going to get stronger and we were, we told ourselves, an essential part of that. Team Sarah was on the move.

Prematurely, Rob and I shared an echo-y high-five. We'd had a purpose for those four seconds of delightful panic.

But then there was blankness.

(photo by Rob Strong. For more excellent visual documentation of this race and other things, please visit BlogStrong).

It was a no-wind night, and because a bike came by with its light every twenty seconds or so, our eyes never adjusted to the dark. We got cold. We paced. We discussed the habit-forming properties of Chap Stick (I'd never needed the stuff more than when I was in Moab).

Three times a minute, the hard-breathing, bouncing-light presence of an outlaster.

Punch-drunkenness is contagious and so, after watching riders struggle past us for an hour or so, we got silly. Each person, we decided, needed a specific yelp of encouragement.

“Go, go, go,” I began.

“Marry me,” shouted Rob to a shocked competitor (we weren't really sure who was a man and who was a woman, but he went for it anyway).

“Looking good, looking good,” I'd say.

“Do it for the first person you ever kissed,” Rob would add.

Most seemed buoyed by this. For hours, we kept it up, partially to help the riders and partially to warm ourselves. They began to expect it and so we tried to oblige.

“You're my favorite guys to see,” one said. “I love to see you guys, cause it means it's all downhill from here,” said another. Lest you think I'm praising myself by including their responses, I should say that their incommensurate gratitude for any distraction we offered speaks to the torture of the event. They would have appreciated a tree with glasses at that point.

“You're an animal,” shouted Rob at a rider and I thought it was an apt description.

“You're a machine,” he told the next, and I agreed with that too. I was learning quite a bit by seeing what became of each rider out in the night, alone.

At a slow spot, we both laid down and, motionless, tried to Zen ourselves out of being freezing. I thought I might fall asleep, but I'd pledged that I would stay up as long as Sarah did, and that meant all race, till noon the next day, forever. It was 10 p.m.

She doesn't need you, said sleep-coaxing me to responsible me. Responsible me ate a ham sandwich to keep alert. She can do it on her own, said sleep-coaxing me.

But then she was there and, suffering, cried for her vitamin box and dried fruit, having disintegrated noticeably in the last hour, in obvious stomach pain, drawing on years of hard rides to keep on going—filthy, breathless, soul-struck.

“Tell the pit I need my Useless Shit box,” she told us, referring to her most unuseless shit, her supplements and medications (because outlasters do need to medicate during the race).

(A portion of this blogpost is brought to you by Excedrin. When your blood hurts. Excedrin).

“We'll see you in five miles,” we said urgently.

“Do you need sweet potatoes?
“Half a banana?”

We'd clearly become like Pua's people with our tone of emergency. Maybe they weren't so bad, after all. At 10:30 p.m., it seemed, we all cared a whole helluva lot.

We got on our phone (somehow there was service in the desert) and reported in to camp. She was in trouble, and not even halfway through. But there was nothing else we could do.

Rob proposed marriage to a few more riders and I fashioned a turban out of a blanket we'd brought. Sarah, we realized, had to go it alone. I counted her laps on my fingers. She'd lost eight minutes to Pua in each of the first three so, now that she'd gone through seven, we could expect that she was 56 minutes behind, if not more. Things seemed bleak. We made plans to head back in for the rest of the night.

And then I got a phone call from a number in Southeastern Ohio, where I'm from.

“Who's this?” I asked.
“Who is this?”
“You called me, bro.”
“Yeah, well where's Bronc at?”

I didn't know a Bronc.

“I don't know a Bronc.”

A pause.

“C'mon, man, go get Bronc.”
“Alright, that's it. Goodnight dude.”

It seems certain to me that a guy from SE Ohio who's unwilling to identify himself and is desperately in search of a shadowy character named Bronc probably has a vested interest in Crystal Methamphetamine.

This story has little bearing on cycling, but, though it's a sad reflection of a place I love, it cheered me. And the strangeness of it seemed in keeping with the adventure of the bike-racing night. Where's Bronc at? indeed. It became my rallying cry.

Heartened by Bronc and his friends (and by another necessary ham sandwich), I started to think we could stay out there all night. At least a few more laps. Rob agreed.

By midnight, we were able to shout to the riders that they were halfway through. Some seemed encouraged, others incredulous. Sarah loved it, started riding faster when we told her, demanded caffeine for the decisive push. She'd had a fourth wind and, as far as we could tell, was steadily in third place.

She took a blueberry juice from me, drank, and hucked it into the scrub. We are in the presence of greatness, I thought. I only hoped that greatness wouldn't be lapped by the irrepressible Pua, whom we hadn't been able to track.

Between 12 and 2, a thick crescent moon appeared in the northeastern sky, a dismal rider had to reassemble his bike right in front of us, and the cold attacked from all sides.

Dave had promised us bratwurst and soup upon our return, and the thought of the food heating over a campfire lured us home. This would be our final lap. We'd hiked miles to bring our rider a cup of dried fruit, and now we were headed back.

On the hour-long journey in, I surveyed the area again, this moonlit Mars. The land, crusted and soft, snatched my heels. I imagined what traveling that ground must have been like for the tiring riders.

And I thought about walking by a window at night, the fear that can bring. Essentially, the riders were all encountering that fear for twelve consecutive hours, from sundown to sun-up. I picked up my pace.

From a mile off, we could see the tent city and its thousands of people settled in for the night. It was inspiring that so many people had collectively decided to buy into this nomadic peculiarity. We cut off the trail and straight for it.

“I feel like I'm approaching a moon base,” Rob said. It reminded me of Dagobah from Star Wars, and I only wished we had a land cruiser.

When we finally made it, we went straight for the Results Tent. The standings were available on computers there and we wanted to see how far behind Sarah was. An hour? Two?

At 3:30 a.m., two full work days after the riders began, the lead had shrunk to a mere 25 minutes!

Where's Bronc At?!

The “Other Racers” were advancing unstoppably, like dawn, on grey-eyed Pua.

P.S. Stay tuned. There will be a part 4 of 3. This is a long-distance blogpost.

No comments: