This year’s 24 hours of Rapelje was what I considered highly anticipated. The TNR community as well as most everyone I knew were talking about it. But I must have missed the memo saying that no one was going to show up. Team Muleterro showed up in bigger numbers then ever before. Norman, Lydia, and Katie showed up to represent team TNR. But looking out across the field that used to be completely packed I wondered where everyone else was. According to the towns folk, the most awesome race promoters ever, the rains were keeping the phone lines busy. They were assuring everyone that the race was on no matter what. They even re-routed the course which I can say was super awesome. So even with a not so stellar turn out I did run into some competition and learned something about myself in the process.
Norman asked me what my goals were before the race. I thought about it for 4 minutes and blurted out that I wanted to learn more. Learn more and just try to go with my usual game plan. Every 24 hour race I seem to learn so much more. More about my body and it capabilities. More about myself as a person. And more about life in general. I also wanted to see if I could go a full 24 hours on nothing but Carbo Rocket 333. But mostly … just learning.
I learned that I am a super grouch before a race. I want things my way and feel like since I am a big hot shot solo rider should garner special attention. When someone pokes fun or pushes in on my plans I snap back and mumble around like a old fart pissed off at kids in his yard. Weirdly enough I didn’t believe I was a hot shot 24 hour racer. I have always felt that I didn’t have what it took to really race a 24. Maybe this is why I was grouchy, because I was so freaking nervous some dude would show up and school me on my home turf.
Friday I managed to do the same and was prepping MY area for battle the next day. In reality it wasn’t MY area and in fact I had set up shop under Paul’s tent. And to make things worse he brought his family. So there I was hording in on his area unknowingly. We had set up tents so fast we didn’t pay attention until it was too late. The pit row collection of tents were to elaborate to re-arrange so it appeared I had to move my operation. So I pouted, gathered my stuff, and ran like a little baby to bed in the back of Norman’s truck (thought I forgot to bring tent poles). I tossed and turned all night.
In the morning things got sorted out and I was welcome to use the tent. I felt pretty bad about the night before but was to busy getting ready to make proper amends. Next thing I know the canon went off to start the race. I started out walking, then slowly jogging to my bike. My goal was to start casual and keep my heart rate low. This was my race to learn how to do that. You know, that thing called pacing yourself. And I started out pretty well. 5 minutes later I lost control and started working my way to the front of the field.
As I worked my way up through the field I came upon Rich and asked him where we stood. He told me that there were a couple mules ahead and that he would see me when I came around to lap him. I assured him I was going to lay off the gas once I reached who ever was leading the solo race. As I surged ahead and let him know that a guy was a late arrival.
“Does he look like a threat?”
“I think so, I mean he looked like a real serious mountain biker”, I didn’t follow up with my next thought. That he looked a awful lot like Chris Eatough. Maybe the dude came out of retirement for a taste of glory. If that was the case I was in for tough 24 hours. I didn’t think I was up for it. I nervously rode away while waiting for the late comer to catch up to me.
I passed a couple more Muleterro riders and neared the front of the pack. There was two guys way out front so I set my sights on them and kept on the gas. Soon I realized it was another solo mule in second. And the guy was riding pretty quickly. I caught up to him and asked if he was planning on blowing up. He seemed to be planning to ride hard and rest often. I laughed, sounded like fun.
I tried to win the first lap without blowing a gasket. But as I blazed through the pits in hot pursuit I could only muster second. I ripped through the timing tent like a crazed madman and tore out after that first place team rider but he was no where in sight. What a show off!
Slowly I brought my heart rate back to a reasonable rate and started to let all the irritated team riders pass. Surely a solo rider can’t beat multiple riders, each resting between laps. But I kept an eye out for the hundred series plates, the solo series, and that mysterious guy.
As the laps wore on that guy became a legend in my head. Hunting me like wounded prey. Following my bleeding wounds from the initial laps until he could finally catch me from behind and sink his teeth into my jugular. Possibly end my Rapelje domination and expose me for the solo poser I was. I waited for my fate. And waited.
I knew this mysterious dude was still behind me but somehow I started convincing myself it was nothing, just a paranoid thought gone awry. Who knows, maybe I didn’t even need to keep riding strong. At the pits everyone was telling me I was “in the clear” and had “nothing to worry about”. And I started to believe it in a small way. As I passed Rich he assure me that he would never catch second place because the guy was really riding strong. The thing was if I was a lap up on Rich and this guy in second was a hour in front of him, then that put him right behind me like 20 minutes back. Then the storms hit.
Nothing will take your mind of competition like the will to survive. And nothing will put you in survival mode like a thunderstorm dumping cold rain on you while snapping you out of hypothermia with large lightening bolts. It was like riding through a waterfall at times as my light system lit up a wall of water in front of me. I am not saying it surprised me, I mean, this is Rapelje. It is expected. But expecting a heart attack doesn’t make you any more prepared.
I did two laps in the storm, the first one just a prelude to the second. The first lap was nothing but a pre-soaking for the main event. As I headed up one of the climbs mid course the rain started to fall for the second time. This one was a much larger dumping and I assumed even back in the pits they were running around trying to batten down the hatches. I expected full disarray when I arrived back.
At first the rain was gentle but with every mile it became harder and harder. The sky lit up occasionally with lightning and I could see the landscape running with water. Something felt squishy and I realized the trail was becoming too greasy to ride. Like riding your bike down a water slide greased with vaseline. And in some places like peanut butter that would stick to your tires and roll up the prairie floor like a rug. That is until your bike would just roll no more. I hopped from sage brush to sage brush to avoid touching the ground. Amazingly my Turner mountain bike was very proficient at sage brush hopping. I literally was riding at times over sage brush to knock the mud off the tires. It kind of worked well except it soaked (pardon the pun) up a lot of energy.
But that is Rapelje … right? It is.
Just like we have been doing for the last couple years I took extra time in the pits to de-gumbo the drive train and try to find my Carbo Rocket buried under tarps. The pit area looked like it had been hit by a hurricane and every one standing around looked a little tattered. I reached out to my friend and received a huge hug. A hug that said everything was alright and it somehow warmed my hypothermic inner core. Soon I was on my way again and back out in the dark. I posted my Marcy photo and took some time to reflect out on the far reaches of the course. Then things started to spiral downward in terms of attitude and strength.
First the thoughts. Why? What is the purpose? Why cant I just lay down a go to sleep? Then the body started to jump ship. Dizziness set in and I had to hover close to the bars to keep from toppling over. I got nauseous and wanted to just barf. Most of all I wanted to crash. Any excuse to get closer to that ground so I could rest. Sleep. I walked every hill and the laps started to become never ending. I couldn’t bear it any more and stepped of the bike at around 5 AM to watch distant lightening strikes.
“I am done riding. I quit. This is so fucking stupid. I am going to walk my bike in and go to bed. I don’t need this pain”, I whispered to the empty expanses around me.
I haven’t felt so alone in a long time and wanted to weep. All alone. This insignificant grain of worthless human in the large universe spread out before me. Lightening struck again and the blue prairie expanses made me feel even more alone. I looked up and saw a star here and there but nothing recognizable. No big dipper … nothing but my coward heart beat slowing, steadily, steadily. I wouldn’t of minded if it stopped entirely. Suddenly a rider came bursting into my headlamps. Surely it was a team rider going so fast this late in the game.
“Hi Bill, how are you doing?”
“Um, … I, … watching the lightening. that’s all. Just bored, kind of. Um …”, I was embarrassed to be found looking so weak. I really didn’t know what to say. I saw his number plate, 1 something … a solo. And just like that he was down the other side of the ridge and really going fast when he disappeared into a gully.
Suddenly something took over my head and body. I was kicked out of my own host. Condemned for being so weak and vulnerable. Something strong and fierce booted me out and left me to die. To parish out on that prairie. The beast leapt onto the bike and started riding away.
The solo rider that was up ahead could of just taken the lead. He WAS the mystery rider, the one that has been stocking that weak, lazy excuse of a racer giving up on the ridge. I am in charge now and there is no way this competitor will ride away from me.
The beast swooped upon Zach Guy of Bozeman so fast he almost ran him over. Zach could not out run him and desperately sprinted at every opportunity to shake the daemon. Rolling into pit row the shadow swung into my pit area and stood waiting … watching.
It was the sunrise lap and the headlamps no longer needed. Zach was hard to recognize in the early morning light mostly because for the first time he was no longer the mystery rider. He was on the same lap as the leader of the race now. And he had a glimmer of hope that if he stayed strong he could catch up to the leader and win the race. He set out on another lap. His style is remarkable. He rides strong and his standing stride a majestic dance on the pedals. He was riding now as strong as ever and was pulling off the perfect plan. Just as he hit the initial single track the shadow swooped in and attached himself to his rear tire. Again he couldn’t shake him.
Numerous attempts at freeing himself from the shadow failed and approaching the last bit of roller coaster hills to the pits he started talking to himself. He seemed to be unraveling and a inner dialog was taking place. Alas he was realizing that he couldn’t shake the predator on his wheel. Reality is hard to accept sometimes. For every lap that he rode with the shadow it was a failed lap at opportunity. If he couldn’t shake him and make the attack stick he would finish a lap behind.
Another lap started and again the shadow followed. The daemon had endless power and nothing that Zach did could shake him. Finally cracks in the young riders performance started to show. When a mis-handled rock section sent him into a mud pit the shadow passed over him and disappeared over the ridge. Finally free of his pursuer he got up to collect himself.
The sun was definitely up when I reached the spot I wanted to stop and enjoy the new day. It was beautiful. The expansive prairie made up of a spring time green littered with sage brush and wild flowers. The sun golden, warm, and blinding suddenly put down it’s light onto the naked valley. I stopped for a moment to reflect. This is a special time for me just as the lap where I post a tribute to my dog Marcy. This lap was one to remember a dear friend. A sorely missed friend. I reached out and was hoping somewhere in another part of the country someone was enjoying the same sunrise. I heard a chain rattle against a chain stay.
Another rider was coming and I had to get going. I was a lap ahead and needed to stay out in front. I didn’t want young Zack to get any kind of confidence. I plunged down and across the Hailstone Valley and started the climb up the other side.
The rider turned out to be my team mate Sten and I rode the last part of the lap with him. I was feeling pretty strong and I had a good handle on Zach who was still behind me in a mud pit somewhere. I felt that I needed one more lap to take the win. With 1 more Zach would have to pass me again and then be back before the 11 AM cut off time to put in another lap. Even then I would win by finishing the 15th lap before him.
My friend Lydia stepped up to the task when I announced I needed someone to ride with for my final lap. I was happy with that and excited to reach last years mileage mark with her. She was headed out for another lap for the TNR three person team. Who by the way went on to take second place.
Out on the course her pace was so fast I couldn’t hang on. I found myself slipping away again. Dizziness, weakness, and soon enough I was off the bike starring into the distant prairie with a million mile stare. The laps were long so I did a mixture of walking and coasting with one butt cheek on the saddle at a time. My body-to-bike interfaces could no longer stand the torture.
I was around 5 miles out and walking up a hill when my friend Chad from Helena rolled up.
“Hey, are you ok? You need anything?”
“Um, … I, … just taking a break, passing time. that’s all. Just bored, kind of. Um”
“Will you ride with me”
“Sure, I can do that, thanks”
I jumped on my bike and finally got the pedals to turn again. Chad rode me back to the finish line. I announced that that was my last lap. We crunched the numbers and indeed I would win the race. I changed out of my wet 20 hour plus rags into a fresh kit for the finish line photo. I had six shots of espresso combined with coco and a chocolate muffin to celebrate my efforts. I had been dreaming of chocolaty goodness all morning. In the meantime Lydia and Norman prepared my bike for battle. Wishful thinking I told them. No way was I going to ride another lap. Norman wanted me to ride a victory lap with him but I declined. My hands and ass were just to painful.
Suddenly a cheer erupted from the small crowd gathered at the timing tent.
“Go Zach, Go, you can do it”
I looked over and to my astonishment this kid was ripping out on another lap. I looked at the clock but my brain couldn’t do the math. If he came in and did it before the cut off time he could actually put in a lap and win the race. That is what my panicked braid told me anyway.
“Imposable”, I thought to myself as I watched Zach and about two other teammates pace line the road out of town.
Just then someone brushed by me so hard I fell to the ground. I looked up to see the man in black dawn my bike and ride after Zach. He looked like me. Even wore a Muleterro kit. But this guy was relentless and strong. He could not be beaten today. The shadow.
“Poor Zach”, someone in the crowd said as I entered another line on the time sheet. “Bill Martin 10:00”.
Zach kept looking at his watch. His mates were pulling him down the road at 30 miles an hour and when they got to the single track he was barely hanging on. Again he glanced at his watch. Then again. It was obvious he was doing logistics in his head but it didn’t look good. He would have to pull out a sub hour lap to set out on a winning lap. Suddenly as the sagebrush opened up into a grassy meadow atop a ridge the beast blasted past him.
“This lap will be a new record for me”, he grumbled as he raced away from the struggling riders.
“Whoaa”, Zach responded and relaxed on the pedals. He knew the chances of the win were over.
At 11:09 AM I hoisted my bike at the line to celebrate a victory as my team mates cheered on the ritual. The last lap was just minutes off the initial and fastest laps of the race. Zach rolled in a bit later to cheers from the crowd, a great performance and fan favorite. Another great race with a competitor who helped bring out the best in me … or not.
I did learn that I do have the ability to do amazing things. In the past I have doubted my abilities as a 24 hour racer. I left that person back on the ridge broken and dead.