There have been four 24 Hours of Moabs, and each one has figured prominently in my Fall schedule. Three of them by participation, and the last one present by its absence on my calendar, which, I think, signals a return to sanity. Because the 24 Hours of Moab generally causes nothing but pain. I donâ€™t care if youâ€™re racing Open (5 racers, at least one woman), Sport, Expert, or Pro (4 men or women), or even Solo (yes, solo is as insanely difficult and monumentally stupid as it sounds), this race is all about pain.
Sure, everything starts out rosy enough. The gun goes off, and about a million racers run about a million yards around a distant juniper bush in the desert, find their bikes, and ride off in a cloud of dust, all while a very large crowd whoops it up, grateful that they donâ€™t have to ride the first lap. Since, for most teams, that would mean riding the most night laps, which are fun once, and thereafter, like the rest of the race, nothing but pain.
But this is the story of how I became a recovering 24 hour race addict. Back in the summer of 1995, when I was still only a few years into my mountain biking obsession, we were just hanging out at the shop one day when someone mentioned that those Granny Gear guys were going to be bringing a version of the 24 Hours of Canaan to Moab. And, as if someone had just handed us our first hit of Crack for free, we were instantly hooked. Stuart, who owned the shop at the time, Jeremy, who wrenched for Stuart, Noel, who looked good behind the counter for Stuart, Todd, a fellow biker, and me. We thought, whatâ€™s the big deal? We take turns riding, itâ€™s all about just having fun, you get hours between laps, weâ€™ll sleep in Stuartâ€™s tent trailer. And it all happens in Moab, practically our back yard, only 3 hours down the road from Provo, Utah. Sign us up.
Oh, the naivete.
We established a batting order, unanimously (excepting, of course, Jeremy) ordering Jeremy to go first, because he was youngest (and fastest). And we had a general understanding that each of us would go all-out for one lap, and spend the rest of the race enjoying ourselves. The rules of the race dictate that to finish, each member of an Open team must spend at least 3 hours on the course, which could mean as few as 2 laps for slow people (or people suffering disaster) or as many as 4, 5, or even 6 laps for really fast people.
Jeremy returned in 1:21, which for that first year was not half bad. I headed out with the crowds considerably thinned out, and went into anaerobic hell almost immediately. About 5 miles in, while riding down a series of steep, rocky ledges, I caught my front wheel on a lipped ledge, and went over the top. As I rolled to a stop, I saw a professional photographer snapping pictures. Angered at the thought that someone was entertaining themselves with my pain, I sarcastically snapped â€œdid you get a good shot of that?â€ â€œYes,â€ he shouted as I rode away. â€œYouâ€™re on roll 25.â€ Oh, I thought. That ought to look pretty cool. And it does.
I finished my first lap in 1:21, and like Christopher Walken says in True Romance, â€œThatâ€™s as good as it gets, and itâ€™ll never get that good again.â€ Although, it seemed to be going well when the rest of the crew slowed the pace a bit, and I didnâ€™t have to go out again until around 11:00 that night. And thatâ€™s when the wheels came off. Because about 5 miles in (again), I went over the bars. Again. But this time, when I remounted, I noticed a bit of a bob and weave in the front of my Bridgestone MB1. A close inspection revealed that the left leg of my rigid Ritchey fork was severed just below the crown. Bummer. I had 3 options: 1. I could ride on until the other leg went, and I augered in on my face. 2. I could run the last 8 or 9 miles. And 3. I could run/ride back to camp, cancel my lap, and send the next shmuck out to suffer. Since augering in on your face sucks, and running sucks, I chose curtain number 3, much to the chagrin of Stuart, who happened to be next up.
My next turn didnâ€™t come until 6:00 in the morning. In the meantime, a freak storm had blown in, temperatures had dropped to about 20 degrees, and the course was enveloped in a small blizzard. Since my own bike was inoperable, I borrowed a friendâ€™s Pro-Flex, hoping for a comfy ride. About 5 miles in (of course), I was trying to climb a very steep, sandy ledge when I was cut off by a fellow racer. I lost my balance, and fell over backwards, landing awkwardly on my back. I took a quick inventory, and everything seemed in order, so I continued. However, after another mile or so, I started to feel an intense chill all over my body. Chalking the chill up to the sub-freezing temperature, I plodded on, not dawdling, but certainly no longer racing. But after another mile, I could no longer ignore the cold. Another inventory revealed a very uncomfortable problem: When I fell over backwards, I had unwittingly landed directly on my Camelback, which had burst at the seam, spilling cold water down my back, legs, and into my shoes, which were now soaked.
I sat down in a small pile of snow, and pondered. But the pondering was of little use, because, of course, I couldnâ€™t quit; I was only halfway around the loop, and to shortcut the course back to camp (which was actually visible in the early morning fog, a few miles below the ridge I was on) meant disqualification for the entire team. So I continued. As I came to the point in the course where you have to turn sharply right and ride around a large formation called Prostitute Butte, I could see, just fifty yards away, riders who had already completed the 4 mile portion of trail that winds around behind the butte. I stopped and gazed longingly at the short jeep road that led to the return route. Because from the point I could see just over the rocks, the trail was all downhill, all the way back to the finish line. And I could no longer feel my feet.
But I couldnâ€™t let the team down, so I finished the damn lap, and as I handed the baton to the next contestant, I admonished, in as polite a way as I could muster, that if he rode at such a speed that I had to complete another lap, I would dismantle his bike and distribute the parts over all of Southern Utah. We managed something like 15 laps that year, and finished squarely in the middle of the Open pack. And Iâ€™m pretty sure we all vowed never to do the race again. Which is probably why it took so long for us to get a team together for the race in 1996.
1996 was the year of good form (for Sport class shleps like us), and as the season progressed, 24 Hours of Moab took on new meaning. Me, Brad, Jeremy, and Doug (a different doug) were riding so well we decided to reneg on our vow of no-24-hours-of-moab, and try to actually win the damn thing. And though weâ€™re all pretty easy going folks who normally avoid that racer-guy mentality, we succeeded.
We sent Brad out for the parade lap, and he came back in 1:15, to us an astoundingly fast time. The other doug went second, and came back in something like 1:09. Hmm. I went third, and came back in 1:08. The form was good. Jeremy came back in 1:06. Things were humming. In fact, if youâ€™re looking for the tragedy of 1996, waiting for the moment when the wheels come off, this isnâ€™t the year. I really have almost nothing to say about the â€˜96 race, except that we went very fast, had no mechanicals, nobody overslept, nobody bonked, the weather was absolutely perfect, the course was fast as hell, and we won the Sport class by 45 minutes over second place. Indeed, we completed 19 laps at 12:15, a time that would have made us 10th in Expert and 16th overall. The hardest part of this yearâ€™s race was driving home afterward.
But forget about 1996, because Epic Rides are all about pain, and this year went so well that I donâ€™t think it really qualifies, except as a sort of measuring stick for how much the other years sucked. And boy, did they ever.
Because 1996 went so well, we got a little ahead of ourselves. From the get go, we knew that, due to our kick-ass performance in 1996, we would have to move up to the Expert class in 1997. So we did. We all rode even more in 1997 than ever before, some friends got together a separate team and raced Open, another friend even got some freelance from the local segment of NPR to do a radio piece on the race. But we were, as I said, a bit ahead of ourselves.
Things started out inauspiciously. The day before the race we rode some Slickrock, hung out at Eddie McStiffs, and generally whooped it up. We were on fire and shooting for top 5. But Saturday dawned gray, and by the Noon start time, the clouds had filled out, and a light rain was falling. Not that a light rain is so bad, but the forecast was for lots of rain, even snow. Our first laps were perfect, under 1:10 for all of us. Jeremy even opened with a 1:05. (He claims he also broke and fixed his chain on this lap, but that stretches the limits of believability.) By 10:30 that night we had 9 laps, we were in 6th place, and everything was looking great.
Thatâ€™s when I went out for my 10:30 lap, my second night lap. By about the 5 mile mark (well duh, where else?) I was racing in a blizzard. I had to turn off one of my lights because of the reflected glare. When I finally made the turn around Prostitute Butte and started down the backside, snow had accumulated enough to make seeing certain obstacles difficult. Flashing down a steep, sandy, and bouldery hill, I caught my front tire on a baby head rock, and flipped over the bars and onto my head. I must have laid on my back in the peaceful snowfall for at least 5 minutes before moving. My left arm was numb, and my head was buzzing. Earlier in 1997 I had been hit by a delivery truck and herniated a disk in my neck. This felt like an exact re-injury of that, and I was afraid to move.
When I finally got myself back on my bike and moving again, I couldnâ€™t feel my fingers from the cold. Somehow I managed to get up the final 2 mile climb and start the last downhill back to camp. But before I made it halfway down, all my lights went black, and I had to slow to a crawl, and try to piggy-back on passing racers, who, for once in the race, seemed few and far between. When I finally stumbled into the finish area, I knew I was done. I almost cried, because the weight of racing as a team in a relay race is infinitely greater than that of normal racing where you have only yourself to let down. But when I told Brad, who was waiting his turn in camp, that I was done, it became clear that the guys werenâ€™t nearly as put out at dropping out of contention as they were by the idea of having to cover my laps for 12 more hours. I thought Brad was going to throw up when I told him.
The rest of the night I suffered terrible guilt every time one of the guys would come out of the snowy hurricane and into the reasonably warm and dry tent, knowing they had to ride a lap I couldnâ€™t. By the time my turn came around again (around 4:00 am), we had clearly fallen out of any sort of contention for top 10, so we began to examine our options. We could continue racing a 3 man rotation for the duration, we could drop out, or, since we no longer posed a danger to any other team prize-wise, we could let members of our support crew take turns riding my remaining laps under my name. What the hell, they would go slower than I would have, we werenâ€™t hurting anyone, and, for crying out loud, weâ€™d each paid something like $90 (plus camping and porta-potty fees) for the privilege of suffering horrible pain.
So Stuart went out for my 4:00 am lap, and after having a delightfully casual ride, came back in something like 1:40. Iâ€™m pretty sure he shocked other racers on the course by stopping for tea and pastries around 5 miles in. Meanwhile, Brad, Jeremy, and the other Doug had slowed their averages down considerably. The rain and snow continued, but the mood lightened as we all gradually lost our â€œracer-guyâ€ mentalities. Our friends on the Open team remained congenial, although they also suffered their share of race pain. Rick, for example, in the middle of the night failed to realize that a particularly steep and technical descent was, in fact, the infamous Nose Dive Hill. He flailed early, and tumbled most of the drop, sheering off a brake lever and knocking both wheels and his head out of true. By the time he returned to camp, his lights had gone dark, and he had had to piggy back almost half the course.
A little equipment note here. We all use VistaLites, but during the 24 Hours of Moab, NiteRider provides far better support. Sometimes I would drop off a battery pack to get recharged, come back 3 hours later, and my battery hadnâ€™t moved from its spot on the table. The VistaLite guys were overwhelmed by the volume, and while I hesitate to call them incompetent, the NiteRider guys seemed to handle it just fine. Iâ€™ve since tried some of the new NiteRider lights, and they rock. Iâ€™m dumping VistaLite and going with NiteRider.
Anyway, by the end of the race, we had completed 18 laps, good enough for something like 18th place in Expert, almost exactly middle of the pack. However, and hereâ€™s a serious complaint about the race, Laird Knight, the promoter, allowed teams to quit racing anytime after around 10:00 or 11:00 am because of adverse weather. So really, this was more like the 22 Hours of Moab. Did he do this in Canaan when it rained for a whole week? I hope not. Either this race is about pain and suffering or itâ€™s not. Letting teams quit early and still qualify as official finishers seems to violate the spirit of endurance racing. In fact, it violates the letter of 24 Hour Racing, as laid out in the rules. I donâ€™t like it. Despite the fact that I violated those same rules myself when I let others race in my place. So I contradict myself. Sue me.
Of course, after the race, we made the usual promises to never do the damn thing again. Until Stuart started talking about how good he felt mid-summer, 1998. Normally Stuart canâ€™t talk about anything except how much his adenoids hurt, or his latest bike gadget. Itâ€™s hard to have a conversation with Stuart, because either heâ€™s droning on and on about his latest malady, or heâ€™s constantly being distracted by something shiny. But this summer, Stuart could talk about nothing but doing 24 Hours of Moab 1998. So Brad, Jeremy, and I agreed weâ€™d do it with him. But as Fall approached, forking over the new, improved entry fee of $100, and driving to Moab only to race the same, 14 mile loop over and over again began to lose some of its luster. Not to mention Stuartâ€™s adenoids were acting up again. So we bailed.
We didnâ€™t bail on Moab. We all agreed to spend the same amount of time in Moab that we would have if we had been racing, but we would do the rides we wanted, when we wanted, and at the pace we wanted. For free. We spent hours on Amasa Back, trying the good moves over and over again. Then we went out to Slickrock and did nothing but look for difficult, technical moves off the trail. But, just to stay in touch with the suffering of the race, we went out to the Behind the Rocks area late Saturday night, after eating a huge meal at the Moab Brewery. Some of us even made a pretense of going out on the course for a bit to assuage our guilt at not racing. But as we dropped into the valley behind the rocks in Stuartâ€™s Suburban, the dust the racers were kicking up enveloped everything, including all breathing apparatus. No one seemed quite so interested in riding.
As we walked around the base camp, and observed the poor saps entering and leaving the start/finish tent, we began to feel a certain euphoria at our situation. We knew the pain that lay behind those hollow, sunken eyes, the hopelessness that accompanies a racer into the start area at 2:00 am when the temperature hovers around 30 degrees, and the dust is so thick you have to clean your chain before youâ€™ve even ridden. So we gathered around the bonfire provided by the Power Gel folks, and periodically swiped delicious Tropical Fruit packets from the sample baskets, sipping hot chocolate while delirious racers milled around the light recharging stations, wondering why their batteries werenâ€™t ready. Some racers even stood alone in the darkness, sobbing silently. Really.
We made our way to the Cannondale area, where the support crew for our friend, Matt Ohran, occupied themselves cleaning Mattâ€™s spare bike, and steeling themselves for the very mean things Matt would inevitably say when he returned from the hell that was his latest lap. Because Matt was racing Pro Solo. One lap after another, from Noon to Noon, until the gun goes off or you collapse from exhaustion. Solo riders are absolute idiots. Cut from a different cloth (which is not found in the world of the sane), Solo riders suffer a level of pain unimaginable to the rest of us. But we sure got a good look at that pain the two times we watched Matt come in from his laps, first around 11:00 pm, and again around 1:30 am. He-man Matt was reduced to soft, whimpering tears of agony. So we left him there, and went back to town, and slept the sleep of the guys-who-are-not-doing-that-stupid-race-this-year.
Next year? No way in hell.