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Oregon 24: Still Bike Racing

My bike. At the finish. I don't know where I am.
I think this is my 3rd attempt to explain that I really am still racing my bike. I've written enough about racing that it just didn't seem important to talk about it any more. But I got thinking about how much I enjoyed Chainbreaker, Sister's Stampede, and Alsea Falls and I thought that warranted some comment.

Sister's Stampede was especially memorable. I've always had a love/hate relationship with that one. Some years I do great. Other years I can't get into the groove and the first half's uphill rock gardens just kill me. This year started rough but I found some rhythm and actually finished a few minutes faster than a couple years ago. I also came down a technical section and passed a bunch of novice riders who'd finished the short course and they all did the wave for me as I went by. That's never happened to me before. It was the nicest thing. One of those rare selfless tribal gestures that our often vapid, self-absorbed culture managed to produce all on its own. It would be a better world if everyone got the wave just once in their lives.

Alsea Falls was miles of miserable climbing followed by the most fun trails you could imagine. Six miles of flow. It's hard to describe. When I was a kid we used to build sled runs in the winter that came close to the feeling I got riding those trails. I also ran into one of Brian Hart's daughters. He and I raced together and shared the podium a few times gosh maybe five years ago. Sharon was just a kid then. She's pretty much an adult now. It was nice she remembered me. I also ran into my friend Ellene who I hadn't seen in a couple years. She's married now and teetering on the brink of being an upstanding citizen. I suspect her nasty cyclocross habit will keep her safely on the outer margins of acceptable society which is where she really thrives anyway.

I had a pretty good post covering this in more detail. Then last weekend I did the Oregon 24 for the 3rd time. It was, without a doubt, the toughest race I've ever done.

That's saying something because I've made a cottage industry out of having hard races. There was the Test of Endurance back in 2010 when I missed the cut and got pulled from the race. That was hard. There was the first Fat 55 when I finished dead last in monsoon rains. That was hard and wet too. There was the same race two years later when it took me 9 hours to finish. That was so bad I still can't think of anything funny to say about it. I think that was the record until last weekend.

The Oregon 24 took more out of my physically than any of those. I got behind in my hydration on the 3rd lap as the temperature got close to 90 degrees. I started cramping and stayed that way until lap 7. At night when the temperature dropped to the upper 30's, I was too cold to eat so I got behind in nutrition. I walked every hill on the 7th lap between 11 and 1 in the morning. I got two more laps in before 10am. I was slow. The woman staged across the course from us lapped me during the night. I've never done a race where I never overtook anyone until this past weekend. By the time I finished I had lost 6lbs. It's taken a week to get back to something approaching normal.

But here's the thing: this was the toughest race I've done but it wasn't the worst. It was probably the best. A week later and I'm still trying to sort out why. I suppose part of it was the clarity of purpose and because I kept going. I had to stop a few times but as soon as I felt rested enough, I got up in the middle of the night and put laps in despite the cramps, fatigue and cold. I didn't need to. Every lap I was back at camp with food, drink, a sleeping bag and most importantly, my wife (who prudently slept through most it). I remember going out on the 4 am lap and thinking "well this sucks" and how hard it would be to explain the appeal of that moment to anyone.

There was something else. I think those other hard races - to borrow a quote from one of my favorite bands "a long list of tepid disappointments"- weren't just physical collapse; they represented dashed expectations. I was still young enough to think I could excel or at least do better than the previous year. Missing a time cut, or blowing up before the finish was emotionally painful and it made me doubt myself. Riding around in the cold and dark I realized I don't have those expectations any longer. Learning that was the other part of what made this race great. The only expectation I had was that I would have the experience of the race to carry with me, whatever that experience was. So it meant more to see an old friend, or have some strangers do the wave for me, or have Carolyn waiting at the finish with a hug and a beer.

Part of the experience was also rolling out in the cold at 4am because if I didn't I wouldn't be there to see the sun start to come up at 5:30. I wouldn't know that riding trails in the dark, even with good lighting, is really hard for me. I wouldn't feel the warm relief of daylight giving dimension and color to things that had looked like the set for a found footage horror movie for the last 8 hours. And maybe that all sounds terrible and it kind of was but I can't imagine a life without those moments. I really can't.

At the end of my second lap, when I was still pretty fresh, a guy rode by and fist bumped me. That's never happened before. My father was a philosophy professor. I'm one of those old white guys who has almost no physical vocabulary for interacting with other men. I make even a simple handshake look like a mistake. He had no idea the risk he was taking and was lucky I didn't accidentally punch him off his bike. Nevertheless, we executed a perfect fist bump as he rode by and I said "beautiful day!" and he said "fuck yeah!" and rode on. 12 hours later as I was walking a hill I easily rode earlier in the day, a rider passing me said "keep it alive". I didn't really think about the journey between those two moments at the time but I suppose that was my race. And I did keep it alive. And it was a beautiful day.

There is this thing we carry when we race. They knew it. I know it. I don't quite know what it is. I like tying on the number plate and chasing people and I will always be fascinated by what my physical limits are. It's a ridiculous thing to do. Racing turns any decent physical activity into something selfish. But it matters, at least to me. It frames self. Without it, I would just be a shell looking for approval.

Carolyn just pointed out I still have an "S" on my left calf. It identified me as a solo racer. I can't see it so I keep forgetting to scrub it off. Saturday it rained all day. The summer is over. I'm happy I got a race in before the weather turned. I don't know. Maybe I'll leave the "S" there for one more day.


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