Two thousand seven hundred and eleven miles. Over two-hundred thousand feet of climbing. On a bike, on dirt. Now do it self-supported, as fast as you can, and you've got the Tour Divide, one of the new breed of Ultra Endurance Mountain Bike races.
I don't know when, or even why, the seed was planted, but this past spring I decided the time to race was now. Never mind that my hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colorado was in the midst of a record snow year, that they were still plowing the roads on May 10th, or that I had only 650 miles of spring riding in my legs. I had the time off from work, and more than a few people knew of my interest in the race. I was committed.
I've done a few 100 mile mountain bike races, some 24hr solos, and even several 500 mile road bike races, but nothing approaching 2700 miles. And all these other events had aid stations, pit areas, or even chase rigs, but the Tour Divide plays by different rules. The main rule is this: self supported means self supported. You carry everything you need, or think you'll need. You can buy food and supplies at any store or restaurant that other racers have equal access to, but you are not to ask for, or receive, any outside assistance. (For a full list of rules, and more about this unique bike race, go to www.tourdivide.org
You're on your own, on the single-track, dirt roads and by-ways of Canada and the US, from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico; which sits astride the US/Mexico border. The route roughly mirrors the Continental Divide, running down the spine of the Rocky Mountains. But, since much of the actual divide trail runs through wilderness areas, Tour Divide follows a route pioneered by the Adventure Cycling Association (www.adventurecycling.org
) and hops across the divide twenty-nine times, which is the source of all that evil climbing.
I arrived in Banff the day before the race woefully lacking in fitness and strength, but with a strange, contented state of mind. I didn't know if I “could” finish the race, but I had no question that I “would” finish the race. I decided my mantra would be “I'll take whatever the gods and my body give me.” I figured my body would give out each day before I could do myself much harm, i.e. my body wouldn't let my brain get me in trouble.
Sixteen of us toed the line in Banff the morning of June 13th
. Race organizer, and five time finisher of the Great Divide Race (www.greatdividerace.com
) Matthew Lee was competing, as was endurance specialist Mary Collier. The race’s international flair came courtesy of Brit Alan Goldsmith, German Dominik Scherer, and Adrian Stingaciu, a Romanian living in Los Angles. The rest of the motley crew covered the spectrum in terms of experience and expectations.
As we rolled out of Banff, I quickly found myself in the back of the pack. “One mile in, and already in last place,” I thought. It's hard to keep the competitive urges in check, but charging to the front, or attempting to match the pace of the stronger riders, is sheer idiocy, especially in a race of this length. There would be plenty of time to catch up.
Sure enough, seven or eight miles down the road I began reeling in fellow riders who'd come to their senses. Seventeen or eighteen miles in, the skies opened up with a taste of the day to come. Mixed rain and sun followed us the rest of the day. We even got a helping of hail and a few flakes of snow. Minutes before the only pizza joint in tiny Elkford, BC closed for the evening, Alan, Dominik and I sped up to the door. John, the proprietor, and Town Mayor, agreed to keep the ovens on and cooked up a fantastic pie for each of us. He was the first of many people along the route who gave me a feeling of hope for humanity.
The next morning, Alan and Dominik dropped me two minutes into our first climb, but I was OK with that. Alan had been training for the Tour Divide for over a year, and was clearly very fit and very strong. Besides, I had half of last night’s pizza to keep me company and one of my favorite Clint Eastwood quotes ... “A man's got to know his limitations.” I knew mine, and chasing them down would not be wise. Though the three of us played leapfrog for the next few days, I eventually settled into a pace that matched that of Karl. Karl was a former pro cyclist and Yosemite climbing rat who now taught Medieval Linguistics at a small college in Texas. He was also attempting the Tour Divide on a 1 x 9, a single front chainring with a 9 speed cassette in the rear. He'd ridden almost 4000 miles in training for the race and it was downright impressive to watch him power up climbs.
We rode together until Helena, MT when Karl dropped off the pace due to knee pain. It would be the last I saw of him, and the last I saw of a fellow rider until I met up with Alan, Dominik, and Adrian in New Mexico 14 days and 1600 miles later. I was about to experience a crash course in metaphysics.
The first few days had been a mental exercise in comparing ones self to others. Or more specifically – not. Tour Divide is much more a race of the mind, than of the body. A person of good overall condition, with even limited sport specific training can complete the race physically. But the mental games are only beginning at the start line.
Because of my fitness, I knew I wasn't going to set any records. I had to let people go, not care about how fast I was riding compared to other racers, or even what place I was in. I had to keep reminding myself that consistency in pace mattered more than speed. And it was hard getting passed, hard realizing that yes, you are weak, and maybe even that you suck. Harder still was keeping things in perspective when you felt like a dung beetle riding uphill with an elephant on your back. You've got to let go of the ego, let go of the comparisons, and keep plugging away.
The ride didn't teach me anything new per se, but it certainly reinforced a lot of beliefs I hold dear. One is the old adage that a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Some mornings, the first six or seven days of the race, were absolutely excruciating for me. It felt like a gaggle of epileptic midgets armed with pick axes were attacking the backs of my knee caps. It would take five or ten minutes before I could even sit down to peddle. Prior to that I was standing, a half pedal stroke at a time.
One particularly bad morning followed what had been a fantastic afternoon and evening. I had hit Lima, Montana for lunch and made my way to Lakeview in stunning evening light. Back lit grasses and distant mountains filled me with a hope for our natural environment. The feeling was similar to the way kindness and encouragement from strangers had made me rethink my perception of my fellow man. But that morning, as I struggled to wake, and the pain in my knees almost made me scream out loud, I had flitting thoughts of quitting the race. I was almost out of Montana, and I had heard if you get through Montana, your chances of success increase exponentially. So, I started to ride, and as my body began to move, it moved itself. Before the day was done, I'd finished riding through Montana, blasted through the northeast corner of Idaho, and was into Wyoming. Progress. It was right there, waiting to be achieved. Just keep moving.
Sometimes though, that was hard to do. Just outside of Jackson Wyoming, the Divide route sends you up Togwotee Pass. As I climbed to over 9,000 feet on the smooth asphalt of the road, all I saw was . . . snow. Just over the summit the Divide route angles left on to Forest Service road 515, which just so happened to be unplowed. What ensued was five miles of hike-a-bike. Pushing my bike through, at times, knee deep snow, separated by patches of unridable glue-like mud. By the end of the race we had pushed our bikes through over 15 miles of snow and mud. Frustrating to say the least, and slow.
The dreaded winds of the Great Basin in Wyoming , which can bring a rider to a standstill, were nothing but exhilarating for me. As I popped out of the draw sheltering Atlantic City, I was greeted by a formidable tail wind from a gathering storm. For the next six miles, I was pushed at 36 to 38 mph over almost level terrain without peddling once. The wind lessened over the day, but it always stayed at my back. The Basin, bane to other riders, had been my friend. I was through Wyoming with barely a hiccup in my progress. Except, that is, for Quincy.
Just before I hit the Colorado/Wyoming border I ran in to Quincy. His drunken, bloodshot eyes couldn't believe what he was seeing. There, on a dusty gravel road bisecting land populated by pronghorn antelope and sagebrush, was a guy riding a ten speed. That's what he called it anyway, and he was somewhat concerned for my well being. All he really wanted though was for me to sit down and have a drink. Quincy was behind the wheel of his '87 Toyota flatbed pickup with Crown Royal as his co-pilot. It took almost 45 minutes and four or five faux shots on my part to get Quincy moving down the road.
Thinking I'd dodged my “Deliverance” moment, I took the time to change jerseys before the setting sun and let Quincy get a few more miles ahead. I sped down one roller and up the next, only to find Quincy waiting for me. Two more faux shots, another ten minutes of attempting to use logic on a drunk, and I convinced him his new best friend would be OK out here in no mans land on his “ten speed.”
By now I was a little frustrated with having lost prime riding time, not to mention a little freaked. Five minutes up the road I saw a cloud of dust approaching. Dread flitted through my soul. It was Quincy again. I stopped and he pulled up next to me. Through alcohol laden lids he raised his eyes to me. “I've got moles,” he said.
A day later I rolled through Steamboat. Race rules prohibited me from going home, and fortunately my girlfriend and our dog were out of town, but I met about fifteen co-workers at a local bar. Wings, salad, deserts, beer, it all came my way for free. I could see genuine concern in the eyes of one who I thought incapable of true emotion. “Are you sure you've had enough to eat,” he kept asking. Another guessed I'd lost 25 pounds off my 180 pound frame. Although it was true that I could consume no where near the number of calories I needed each day, I didn't believe I'd lost that much weight.
I left Steamboat in a great frame of mind. I was excited, confident, and rejuvenated from seeing friends. It had been eight days since I'd had intelligent conversation, Quincy notwithstanding. A day later in Silverthorne, Colorado, I pulled out the last three maps of the route. Mentally I added up the mileage. “Only a thousand miles to go,” I thought. I had to chuckle. How many times has anyone used the words “only” and “one thousand miles” in the same sentence?
My elation was short lived, as southern Colorado handed me a beating. With six divide crossings at over ten thousand feet I received multiple daily drubbings. I was as weak as a kitten. Most climbs found me walking, cursing my pathetic power. But if the sun was up I was in motion. And day by day I crept closer to the Mexican border.
The emotional roller coaster continued the evening I reached Del Norte, Colorado. I had been rained on the past three afternoon-evenings in a row. A torrential rainstorm with lightning too close for comfort around Hartsel, Colorado. A grape sized hailstorm with lightning atop Marshal Pass outside of Salida, and now a downpour as I approached Del Norte. I was desperately in need of a good meal, a warm shower, and a place to spread out and dry my gear. Fortunately I found a little roach motel with attached restaurant; ate my fill and laid out gear over every available inch.
My voice was raspy as I called my girlfriend that night. I was tired to the bone and knew that a cold was lurking in my system. “Don't admit it. Don't give in,” I told myself. Quitting never crossed my mind, but I surely wanted the misery to end. But just like the concept that a body in motion stays in motion, so rings true the axiom that “nothing lasts forever.”
Now that can speak to both the positive and negative realms. The feeling of euphoria and God-like power I had climbing Boreas Pass outside of Breckenridge surely could not last. And, it hadn't. But likewise, the low I reached in Del Norte would not last either. Not only were the days bi-polar experiences, but so were the hours, and sometimes even minutes. The key was to retain some shred of objectivity and remember that energy is a constant; for every negative I might experience, there must be a positive.
Without a doubt, one of the highs for me was when I pulled into Abiquiu, New Mexico and saw Alan running out to greet me. I'd been seemingly four to eight hours behind he and Dominik since Montana, and now on day 20 of the race, almost 2000 miles from the start, I had caught up to them. I gorged myself at the Abiquiu Inn and Restaurant, and Alan offered me a spot on the floor of their room. I accepted without hesitation, rules be dammed. An hour or two later, Adrian knocked at the door. “Team U.N.” was beginning to take form.
Even though Alan was easily the strongest he offered up a gentleman's agreement. “If we are still together at 200 miles,” he proposed “let's finish together.” I was elated, honored actually, to be “offered” the opportunity to finish with riders who had put much more into preparation than I, and who were unequivocally stronger. My joy was short lived when the following morning, the three “Euros” dropped me hard five minutes into a massive climb. I was pissed, supremely disappointed, and dejected, but I soldiered on. Through another downpour I rode. This time with thunder and lightning all around I said “screw it”, and kept peddling. There was a good canopy above, for the most part, so I reasoned that lightning would strike a tree before a cyclist.
The McDonalds in Cuba, New Mexico was heaven to me. A cup of hot tea and thousands of calories. I cared not about the quality, I just needed as many as I could shovel into my face. And as I stepped outside, up rode Alan and Dominik. We gathered Adrian a few miles down the road and all our spirits lifted. Motivation is so much easier to come by when you have someone to chase, or someone chasing you. The end was near, the road smooth and fast, and we were gobbling up the miles.
We spent the evening of July 4th about 20 miles from Pie Town. Dominik built a small fire and we sat in the sand around it slowly eating whatever quickie-mart fare we could still stomach. Dreams of world famous pie danced through our heads, but for now, it was processed sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Alan and Dominik were vying to become the first ever vegetarians to finish the Tour Divide, or it's border to border counterpart, the Great Divide Race. Adrian had raised the bar even higher, attempting to do it as a raw food vegan. He'd fallen off the wagon, but only a few times; though he'd bristle when Alan would playfully reach for the “super vegan” sticker on his bike in an attempt to tear it off. Vegan or no, Pie Town was shuttered with no pie to be found when we arrived the next morning.
Still, we entered the Gila National Forest, south of Pie Town, gunning for a sub-24-day finish. It would be doable, but it would require some suffering. Our last day covered over 200 miles, with Dominik doing most of the suffering. While most racers had frame and/or large seat bags for their gear, Dominik had carried everything on his back. By now, almost 2700 miles later, his undercarriage had been rubbed raw. As we stopped by the side of state highway 81, which would take us to the finish in Antelope Wells, Alan and I tried to convince Dominik that a big ol' gob of chamois butter would make everything feel better “down there”.
As the chamois butter hit raw flesh, Dominik let out a muffled cry. Almost instantaneously an Arizona highway patrolman pulled up to see what was going on. In front of him were three men dressed in lycra, standing on the side of the road, watching another man with his hand down his pants hop around in a field. I think the patrolman's arrival saved Alan and I from getting punched by Dominik. I had no idea he had exposed flesh down there or I wouldn't have so strongly suggested the cream. Add that to the knowledge bank; no chamois butter on broken skin. Dominik, however, gritted his teeth and put the hammer down for another 40 miles.
Around 2 am we decided to sleep for a few hours before the morning push. We were perfectly positioned to finish in just under 24 days and in a 4-way tie for third place. Up before the sun, we rode for the border. Alan, as usual, was off the front, Adrian and I, a mile or two in arrears. At mile post 10 I arrived to find Alan and Dominik waiting. True gentleman. Adrian arrived a few minutes later and we began the last miles of an almost indescribable journey.
At the finish, Adrian's brother and brother-in-law were waiting there to scoop him up. He had to be back at work the next morning. My girlfriend arrived to pick up Alan, Dominik and I. We'd drop Alan off at the Greyhound Station the next morning and he'd be back at work a day after that. Dominik's plane didn't leave for a week, so we offered a week of camping and road tripping before he flew home. We spent the next five days sleeping, eating, reading, and attempting to believe what we'd accomplished. It was almost too surreal. A few days after we'd finished both of us said it felt like we hadn't even done it. But we had. Twenty-three days and twenty-two hours of eating, sleeping, and riding. The race gave me hope, as I said, both for our natural environment and for my fellow man.
All the “Team U.N.” riders commented on the support, compassion, and genuine goodness of people they ran into along the way. An older couple in Idaho fired up their restaurant grill just to cook me a single hamburger. A man who could only be described as morbidly obese, kept his mini-mart open a little longer because he saw me coming and figured I was a racer. He probably hadn't ridden a bike in decades, but he had remembered Matthew Lee from the year before and knew exactly when the other racers had come through before me. Our race brought cheer to his soul, and he reveled in our stories. An unlikely fan, he “bought” me my tea and RedBull. Small acts that meant a lot, especially when you're suffering. And as for Mother Nature, she'll always have the last say, but it was nice to see there's still a lot of beautiful, empty land left in this country. I only hope we can keep it that way until my grandchildren have had a chance to race the Tour Divide.