It’s better to challenge yourself and come in last than it is to sandbag your way to victory. That said, I didn’t come in last in the Fat Tire 40 at McDowell Mountain.
But I was definitely bringing up the rear.
This event, put on by Swiss American Racing, brought a fast crowd of folks. Lots of people with lots of leg and lung power, for sure. Some had sketchy handling skills, especially at the Tech Loop drop-off and the T-Bone Hill climb. But most made up for it by motoring in the flatter sections. Me? Decent in the tricky climbs, good in the downhills, a lazy sod in the false flats.
As I mentioned in my earlier recap of the race, though, I had a tremendous time. And I hit a bit of a turning point.
Here’s the deal: So far in 2011, I’ve done four mountain races. Among them was a solo 12-hour effort and 24-hour race as part of a duo. My results have been unspectacular.
But I’m getting out there, and it’s paying off.
I finally achieved something that sent me home from a race feeling good: At about 25 miles into the race, I caught up with a guy. He was riding a shiny Santa Cruz Tallboy that made my 6-year-old Gary Fisher look like Fred Sanford’s jalopy. Which it pretty much is with its chainsuck-battered chainstays and leaky rear shock.
I passed him and thought I’d seen the last of him.
But he caught me about five miles later at a feed zone. I stopped to refill my bottles. He jettisoned his empty and grabbed a new one. I didn’t have time to drop an electrolyte tablet into my bottles without letting him get too far away. Instead, I wolfed down a banana one of the volunteers offered me.
So I chased his fancy-bike-riding butt. I caught him at The Ledge as he was pushing his bike over the obstacle. I went around him and got slightly tangled in a palo verde tree, but I kept going. I was feeling good, good enough to laugh and yell "no, don’t crash into the palo verde!" He panted a reply I couldn’t understand.
I thought for sure I’d left him behind. I was soon up on the South Ridge and putting on some distance. This was about three miles past the feed zone.
That’s when I hit The Wall – that horrible place where the easy becomes epic and your body no longer obeys your commands.
I had trouble steering in a straight line, much less breezing over obstacles like I had for the past 35 miles. I could feel heat building in my quadriceps. Oh, salt and potassium, how I needed thee! But there was just no time to fish a Nuun tablet out of my pack, unscrew a water bottle lid, screw it back on, wait for the tablet to dissolve and start guzzling.
It was just five miles to the finish.
I just had to hold this persistent, rising-from-the-grave jerk at bay for five miles (why won’t he give up and let me enjoy the rest of the race, already?!). I had the advantage. I’d already passed him twice. He was panting like a dog both times. He was in worse shape, right?
So I kept pedaling, kept descending.
Then my bike made a horrible noise. It reverberated through the frame. It sounded like the stable platform valve in the rear shock finally giving way. I still haven’t figured it out. But it made me more tentative in every descent.
But I kept riding. Sometimes, I heard my nemesis scratching along the ground behind me.
Finally, I got to the start/finish area. That meant I just had three miles left to go. Riding the Sport Loop backward was all that stood in my way.
Just a few hundred feet from the start of the Sport Loop, I looked behind me. He couldn’t have been 10 feet back.
I kept pedaling. Straight into the twisty singletrack. Climb a little, descend a little. Just focus on every little stretch of trail. The heat was building in my legs again. Keep in the low gears, just keep spinning the pedals. High RPMs. Ride smart.
But damn, my legs hurt. I just wanted to take a few seconds to stretch. But I kept hearing him. No. Just keep going as long as I can. If I blow up, I blow up.
Finally. Finally. Finally. I reached the bit where I could count on some easy descending. Keep spinning the pedals.
But wait. There were two hills on-tap. On every Sport Loop, they come moments from the start as two steep drops. Riding backward, that means my hammered legs had to go UP them! I reached the first and scaled my way up.
I got to the second. I got halfway up, hop off the bike and push us both up. I crest the hill as the other rider gets to the bottom.
I’m back on my bike in a flash. I spun the pedals like a madman. I tried to be smooth, controlled, confident. It’s all downhill from here.
I crossed the line. It takes more than a minute for my former antagonist to cross the line. That’s a gap I opened in less than a mile. I can live with that.
That guy made me suffer. He worked me like a dog.
And I’m glad he was there. He made me ride better than I could without him. He gave me some motivation. I’d like to think I did the same for him. I believe we made each other better, that we wrung the absolute best out of each other.
We weren’t the fast guys in this race. Both of us probably eat way too much cheese and chocolate to be as fast as the others.
But we rolled up to the line with the fast people anyway. And we both gave it everything we had to give on that Sunday.