Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Outlasters (Part 4 of 3)

Meanwhile, back at base camp, Dave was so hopped up on coffee that he was threatening to bite off our fingers. Usually cool and almost pulseless, Dave exuded excitement about his sister's possible victory. He'd been her support crew for quite a few races and this was the closest she'd ever come to a National Championship.

There was ample reason to worry, though, about Sarah's status in the race and about her health.

Unbeknownst to Rob and me, her stomach problems had gotten worse. During her most recent pit stop, she'd had to go out behind the tent to relieve herself, and she was medicating with anti-diarrheals as well. (Though there were porta-potties 200 yards away, Sarah's legs were not land-worthy at that point and so she'd had to make-do).

Dave was beating himself up about her nutrition problems.

“We started the fruit too early.”
“Maybe,” I said, solemnly.
“Or maybe people shouldn't ride their bikes for 24 hours,” he said.

I remembered Sarah's travails the year before when she'd finished third. And what she said about her biggest challenge as a top-tier outlaster.

“Nutrition is the biggest thing. It's the hardest thing to manage once you get tired. You're eating drink mixes and gels. Your stomach usually turns into a mess.”

That, unfortunately, had come to pass. After about 5000 calories of intake and 15 hours of riding, her basic physiology was beginning to break down. To make matters worse, her light faltered on lap 11 and she began to, in her words, “crash around the course.”

I tried to get unnumb around the campfire. When I'm cold I pace, and when I'm tired I pace, so I was double-timing it around the tent, achy and ornery. I couldn't give my pain much respect, though, especially when all around our pit, riders were giving in, packing up, and going home.

They'd been felled by the roughness of the course, the difficult technical sections of the first half, the beach-like sand of the middle, the curves and shock-rattling rocks of the end. One of our neighbors, Sterling Ford—bearded and on some kind of spirit quest—had fallen asleep half-way into his first 24-hour attempt.

And our other neighbor, Steve, who had claimed that he would actually be the sun at 1 a.m., was turning to stone as well.

At 4, I was standing with Bryce, Sarah's boyfriend and an all-around sweet guy. He claimed he'd never been up for 24 hours, and it was showing. Despite all the excitement of only a short time before, we now felt like we were playing out the string. Bryce had internalized Sarah's ultra-competitive streak, though, and we were both trying to will her to a win.

In a flash, Steve pedaled up and said, “Is Sarah in first place?” We perked, desperate for word of our racer. Even hearsay-victory tasted so sweet.

We all liked Steve.

“Pua's on the side of the trail, crying," he said. "Her crew's trying to tell her she can catch up but she's saying she can't.”

I felt so good, then so ambiguous, then so bad. I moved from an “Oh how the mighty have fallen” kind of schadenfreude to a pretty deep pity for Pua in about five seconds. I was a Sarah-partisan all the way, but it's hard to route for someone else's demise. In order for Sarah to win, Pua had to crumble—hard.

When Steve gave us the news, we shared some applause. Three seemed an appropriate amount of claps. Anything more would be a celebration of someone else's suffering. Some supporters and friends, though, had long since brushed past my watery morals. Someone had to win, and they were thrilled for Sarah. I think I counted sixteen hearty claps. Maybe I was in on some of them, but for each one I was conflicted, I promise.

There was a new focus in the pit. When Sarah came in, she was a triage case, but she'd been heartened by passing Pua—a feat that outlasters dream about all race, all season.

“This race was billed as a fight between Jari and Pua,” Sarah said right then. “And Eszter and I have basically dispatched of them both.” This was uttered in the heat of the race and, after all was settled, Sarah did evince a deep respect for her competitors. At the time, though, her remark seemed super-bad-ass, coming as it did from a five-foot-tall woman, who, to use some boxing lingo, could barely answer the bell for the twelfth round at this point.

I was caught up in it and made anxious by it at the same time. I can't, I suppose, be quite that cutthroat.

Earlier Sarah'd told me that she likes all of her rivals, to a certain extent: “I would consider the women I race against friends. I don't like to get super close to them, though. It's a weird feeling when you're out there trying to crush somebody. You don't want to be that close to them.”

(Portions of this blogpost have been brought to you by Orange Crush. When blood needs bubbles. Orange Crush).

She didn't seem in a state to crush anyone, but we sent her out for another lap with the promise that the sun would rise by the time she came around again. With her experience—this was her tenth race—it seemed like she was going to pull this one out.

When she finally came around again at 6 a.m., her digestive situation had not improved, she was dehydrated, exhausted, and, worst of all to her, 25 minutes behind. Eszter, who'd come out of nowhere to be the steadiest rider on the course, now led by a wide margin with only six hours left.

Dave held a sleeping bag around his big sister. He was giving her advice with the voice dads use with small daughters. Just be yourself at school and you'll make friends. Just keep pedaling and it'll all be over soon.

Her swollen legs looked like comically-oversized whiffle ball bats.

Bryce rubbed her feet. Rob and I were somber.

“Every time you go to take a sip of water, take two sips,” said Dave.

“No,” countered Sarah before giggling. We all started giggling. It seemed like she had reverted to childhood. She was the bravest toddler we'd ever met, but I wondered if the bike was starting to play tricks with her mind.

“Once I was hallucinating flying squirrels at the end,” she told me about a previous race. “They just seem to be around. And I've taken naps on the side of the trail and I can't remember making that decision to do it.”

She set off unsteadily. Stay awake, I thought. And look out for airborne rodentia.

I thought about punishment again, and the idea that these racers were trying to stretch the limits of what they could do. Is the race really about achievement, though? Or is the whole ordeal about building up tolerance, about people brashly declaring “nothing can hurt me more than this.”

A feeling of self-reliance is the prize for finishing the brutal therapy, I think. And in the meantime, riders move past distraction to an essential kind of selfhood. They outlast themselves.

“It's like a drug,” Sarah told me. “You just can't help it.”

Compulsion drove Sarah through the last hours of darkness, but new light offered nothing but a phony hope. As the sun poked over the La Sal Mountains, she pitted for the last time and seemed ready to shut it down. Eszter had extended her lead, and Sarah's coordination had completely abandoned her. Because she'd done one more lap than the other racers, Sarah seemed to be comfortably in second; there was an outside chance that she might be caught, though, so she weighed her options.

Stay in and risk falling to third or go out again for another two hours to grab that silver medal. Second in a marathon like this must be the most bittersweet sports accomplishment.

She cracked for a moment and Dave with her. I couldn't tell if they were mirthlessly laughing or exhaustedly crying, but the difference at that point was meaningless. I gave Dave a one-arm man-squeeze.

After twenty minutes, she decided on her own to go out for one final lap. We got her seated, got her equipped, and ran along for the first fifty yards. Her opening lap had taken an hour and eighteen minutes. This one lasted two hours and thirty-five. There would be no photo finish.


Sometime during the early morning, some vandals stole Pua Sawicki's tent. For the great champion, it had been a discouraging weekend. She finished fifth, but didn't come to the podium. She'd vanished from the premises like a mirage, turned from invincible to invisible in the course of an hour.

Eszter took first overall and made back her $400 entry fee. In her first 24-hour race, she claimed the National Championship. “This is so stupid,” she yelled defiantly as she started her final lap, but, by the end, she was elated.

Sarah won $300, or $12.50 for every hour of riding. But it's definitely not about the money; for the outlasters, for Sarah, the race is a kind of purification.

“The fact that you can experience panic, elation, fear, pain—which I guess is an emotion. The fact that you will experience every emotion in the spectrum in 24 hours. It's cleansing.”

And so Sarah Collins, cleaned out, finished the race intact. Finishing is what's important, they say, and we all agreed. Then, mere hours after shouting “never again,” strengthened by a beer and a bratwurst, Sarah started planning for one more race, that next fix.


Sonja Strong said...

Thanks, Dave. Through your words, I feel like I have been on a bike race as well as in a pit crew. i will never do either, but in my imagination, I feel like I have done both! Thank you for saving me lots and lots and lots of grief!

Anonymous said...

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