When I saw that the US 24-hour National Mountain Bike Championships were going to be in New Mexico, my very first thought was “Cool! Maybe we can put together a NoTubes team… Maybe I will have enough energy to organize a couple of Get Out! junior teams to get out there and kick some butt… It’s great that my home state is having a national championship, and maybe it will even fit into my schedule…”
So at some point those thoughts morphed into quite a different idea, and I found myself sitting at the kitchen table at our host house in Austin, TX at the end of February, asking Shannon if I could get our champ mechanic Chris George to drive down to support me if I did the race solo. Suddenly I had mid-June plans to go for a very, very, very long ride.
Training and racing proceeded all spring, and during a break in the action in May I started going for some long rides (long for a cross-country racer, anyway) and assembling my auxiliary support team (my brother Chuck, whose job it is to take care of the mechanic to keep him going all night, and my brother Jack, whose job is to stay calm and hand me bottles, food, and batteries). At that point I was afraid I might succumb to boredom and loneliness during the night, so I also tried to assemble as many teams as possible so that I’d always have someone I know on the course. With the help of the Get Out! team and coaches, we put together three junior co-ed championship teams, a duo team, a four-person team, a five-person team, and one more soloist. Some of the Get Out! superparents, Marlene and John Squillaci, Holly Womack, and Joe and Nancy Fortin, got to work organizing what would become the most massive, well-fed, well-arranged campsite ever before witnessed at any 24-hour race in the history of time.
I have soloed 24-hour races in the past; more recently I raced as a duo and on four-person teams, and I’ve learned that 24-hour racing breaks down into some fairly simple rules that become harder to adhere to over the span of 24 hours. The main rule is to pace yourself. Pace your food intake, pace your clothing changes (clean chamois is a fast chamois!), pace your hydration, and pace your pace. 24 hours is not long enough to recover from burying yourself on lap one. The second most important rule is always have enough battery power at night. So from the outset my strategy was (1) pace myself, (2) have my equipment dialed and inform my support crew of what that means for bike and lights, and (3) generate as much positive energy as possible out on the trail by enjoying the company of every rider I meet, and if I can’t enjoy their company, I can at least provide them with some entertainment as they go by.
Number three is the best rule. On my fifth lap I met one of the juniors that was in contention in the tight contest between my Get Out! junior team and the fast AZ junior teams. His name was Nick. When I told him my name was Nina, he said “NENA?? NO WAY! Like 99 Red Balloons??” I was surprised to realize I still knew all the words, so I belted out a verse or two while we cruised down the Berma Trail. We had a good time together tearing down the trail. Before I sent him on his way once the trail started climbing again, I told him he couldn’t kick that much butt on a mountain bike and still call himself a roadie. He was pretty badass.
An afternoon thunderstorm buffed out the trail nicely, and there were a couple of beautiful laps after it passed by, and at sunset it began to drizzle a bit, which made for some very beautiful and silent cruising through the woods. My lights plied through the murky twilight to create a little tunnel where time slowed, the trail flattened, and pine boughs and water droplets interacted to make strange sparkly shadows gleaming in the corners of the light beams. Next lap I stopped in at the tent, asked if it was going to clear up, was told “no,” and the rain answered by speeding up a little. I thought, “well, if it’s going to keep raining, I’ll just suck it up and keep riding.”
I did not remember to grab a new headlight battery, which I realized a few hundred yards down the trail. A little while later I realized I might end up walking in the dark, so I shut off the headlight and put the handlebar one on low. On an impulse, I had just swapped out my old 1400-lumen light head for a new Light Motion Seca 1700, and on low the thing cast enough light to make me feel comfortable keeping a decent pace in spite of the rainy darkness of the evening. The last section of Berma had become an impassable mess of wet clay that stuck all over my bike. The front wheel still turned (thanks, Lefty!), but it had to drag an immobilized rear wheel down the trail with it, so occasionally I’d find myself in a random slide down the side of the trail and into the bushes. I was trying to stay positive by thinking at least I wasn’t cold, and my light seemed to still have some juice, but I was a little worried about destroying my bike so when I could ride, I went pretty gingerly down the trail. The lap felt like it was taking forever, and I was afraid that if my pace was 3 hours (it was actually more like 2:15, but I had lost all sense of time) I would definitely end up walking without any light for the last two or three miles. Other people were having a terrible time, with bikes that were broken or just too muddy to move. When I finally made it to the end of the lap, I passed a woman who was cheerfully running her bike in… and apparently she had been running for six miles! Now that’s tough. She even managed to laugh when I told her I’d buy her a free beer.
I crossed the line and one of the officials told me that the course was closed, the race was on hold, and there would be a meeting at 2 am or 4 am or some other strange hour to tell us if the race would resume. Ryan White from Light Motion was standing there with some beer and told me my brother was looking for me. Chuck was waiting with some ham-n-jam sandwiches, and Hailey had just come in from her mud lap as well and was even muddier than me; she told me that there was a hot shower they were saving for me in their RV. I had the ridiculous luxury of handing over my filthy bike to Chris while I made my way to a steaming hot, mud-removing shower from heaven, and then ate a hot meal of rice with chicken, veggies, and Gu chomps (watermelon flavor) before crawling into my tent for a four-hour nap.
The racer meeting was postponed, but they did re-start the race at 6:30 am. When I rolled up on my immaculately clean bike with its smooth and silent drivetrain, dressed in a fresh white cycling kit and clean, dry shoes, I felt a little bit like an a-hole. Many of the self-supported soloists had been forced to drop out of the race: there were no power washers to use, quite a few bikes had been destroyed by that terrible clay mud, and most people were just too tired after 12+ hours of racing to have to get everything sorted out in the dark and the rain and the cold. The gun went off, though, and all there was to do was race. I started with Daniel, the Get Out! coach who was on a mission to make up some time for his duo team to get them onto the podium, and Kaden, who was the guest ringer on Taylor, Hailey, and Ian’s Get Out! team, and Kricket, the founder of Get Out!, who was racing on a five-person team. Kaden and Taylor planned to take turns on the morning laps to get within reach of the AZ Devo team, which had a ten minute lead on them at the end of the previous day’s racing.
My goal was to ride with people who would push me a little, to go a little harder than I felt like I could, and not to call anyone by the wrong name. I felt reasonably good, but could tell I had done some riding the day before… 151.5 miles with 11,999 feet of climbing, to be exact. I managed to stay out front of my field without bungling things up for the fast dudes, but I failed miserably at goal 3 by calling Kaden “Keegan” a few times, and Garrett “Eric” for pretty much the whole lap while I followed in close enough range to groove on the Oakenfold emanating from the boom box in his pocket. After three laps on super buff and fast trails, on a slightly shortened course since Berma was still a sticky mess, my race was over, I was called over to pee in a cup for USADA, and then went to wait for podium. After 30 minutes of being helped by a sixteen-year-old to do some math, the officials determined that Taylor’s Get Out! team had won the junior 4-person coed division over AZ Devo and El Grupo (Nick’s team). This result was a little unexpected but definitely not undeserved; those kids had their act together throughout the race. They stepped it up for each other, kept themselves organized, stayed on top of the myriad details of 24-hour racing, stuck to their strategy, and then changed their strategy on the fly to accomodate the unexpected events that unfolded over 24 hours. I am so impressed with what they did out there. I won the jersey in the solo category, too, which felt almost as good. My hat is off to the women that do these races all the time. Soloing 24 hours is tough, even when it’s only for 16 hours.