The dirt feels cool and moist against my cheek. Iím lying face down in a freshly cut swath of singletrack trail atop Jiminy Peak ski resort, tangled in my mountain bike, trying to remember what brought me to this remote mountain in western Massachusetts.
It's difficult to decipher whether the jack-hammer rhythm inside my helmet is my heart, clearly maxed out after the long climb up the face of the mountain, or the throbbing of my shoulder. The divot I hit appeared from nowhere. I saw it at the last instant, but couldn't prevent my front wheel from digging in, sending me over the handlebars.
I slowly extricate myself from my bike, checking to make sure all my faculties are intact and making a mental note of this hidden rut. I'll be seeing it again. Other competitors here at the 24 Hours of New England mountain bike race gingerly pass, most offering quiet words of encouragement.
"I have to find a different hobby," I mutter as I pick my muddy self up, toss a leg over the saddle and rejoin the race. It is only the second lap in what will be a long, long day in the life of a middle-age mountain biker.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
My presence at the 24 Hours of New England was the result of an enticing tale and a subtle dare -- my "I'll try anything once" nature haunting me once again. As a mountain biker on the cusp of 40, I probably should have realized I was getting in over my head. I became a father just the year before, and my priorities experienced a San Andreas Fault-like shift. Though I was delighted to add "dad" to my personal resume, my new responsibilities dramatically curtailed my riding and racing regimen. Now I was adding a child to the mix of full-time job, husband, yard work, housework, house payments, car payments, etc. etc.
I always admired friends who somehow managed that fine-line balancing act -- job, children, play time, serious training. One friend, Jim Black, juggles these responsibilities with the dexterity of a circus performer. His idea of the perfect Saturday afternoon is taking his three sons to a favorite wooded area here on Boston's North Shore and repairing or building trails. The kids love being outdoors, he says, and the local mountain bikers, hikers, equestrians and trail runners also benefit.
Not one to idly pass the time, Black makes the most of every opportunity to hop on his bike and spin. "Hey, even if it's only 10 minutes," he says, smiling. "Ten minutes riding is better than 10 minutes not riding."
A typical ride with Black, if he's in a patient mood, goes something like this -- you chase Jim, admiring his skill at guiding his bike through the tricky contours of trails he's probably helped build, you lose sight of Jim, admiring his fitness, Jim waits, you catch up, you both ride off. If Jim is on a training ride, omit the catching up part. Instead, you agree on a post-ride meeting spot, and look for him there.
Knowing this, I still allowed myself to be taken in by Jim's darkly alluring tales of the 24 Hours of Canaan. Canaan Valley, West Virginia, is the birthplace of the 24-hour race. The race format is a fiendishly simple recipe for misery -- four racers form a relay team, each riding a lap before handing a baton off to the next racer, with the team repeating this sequence for a full 24 hours, starting at noon, ending at noon. Toss in a top-notch race course, full of thigh-burning climbs and twitchy, narrow ribbons of trail -- choice singletrack -- and let simmer for a day.
Jim's done the Canaan race twice. He swore, after the second, that he wasn't going back for a third. Listening to his stories, though, I got swept up in the romance of these endurance events. My favorite anecdote is this: Jim is alone, nearing the finish an early morning lap, about an hour before sunrise. There is a medium-weight mist hanging in the air, giving the beam of his night lights a conical, rope-like appearance that he can almost latch onto. "I'm getting my second wind at this point, feeling pretty good, and I hear the guitar licks of Stevie Ray Vaughan," he says with a mischievous grin. "I realize the music is coming from the start area. Here I am -- wet, muddy, spent -- and I feel like that edgy, bluesy guitar of Stevie Ray Vaughn is just pulling me in. It was just amazing."
Almost salivating, I tell him: "Man, I'd love to try my hand at a 24-hour race."
"I'd give it some serious thought," cautions Jim, clearly suggesting it might not be such a hot idea.
But rather than heed the warnings that flashed in my head, I followed my reckless Irish heart. And to convince myself that this really is the pursuit of sane people, I became the ringleader, cajoling other riding partners to enlist in my Don Quixote quest. "If not now, when?" was my logic-challenged mantra. My wife, Lauri, just rolled her eyes. My friends shook their heads, especially those I asked to join in this folly. Others laughed nervously, as if to ask: "You're not really serious, are you?"
Then, in a rare burst of clarity, the realization gripped me -- I'll never have enough time to prepare. Three-quarters of the racing season has already passed, and I haven't made it to the starting line once. Whatever possessed me to think I could handle a 24-hour race? To hedge my bet, I make a Faustian pact -- I'll follow through only if I can cobble together a team from my cycling club, Essex County Velo. Three of the half-dozen riders I've solicited say they're in. I'm racing.
I've assembled a team of stout riders, the Old Men of Essex County Velo. All four men, including Jim Black and myself, are well past their 35th birthday and all are proud members of the graying-around-the-temples-but-still-glad-they-got-it club. In racing parlance, due to our advanced age, we are considered "veterans." I had no idea how well that moniker would suit us.
Even if Mother Nature had smiled on the inaugural 24 Hours of New England, I knew it would be an uphill battle. One of my teammates, Dan Murphy, and I arrive the day before to inspect the new course, built specifically for this race. From the resort's main lodge, we watch as riders creep up a series of switchbacks. Competitive mountain bikers develop an eye for terrain and the exertion required to ride over it. I know those cyclists are suffering. Soon, they'll have more company.
Murph and I quickly change into our cycling gear, give our bikes a once-over, get rough directions on the course, and head out. The trail turns into the mountain and begins to tilt upwards almost immediately. Our mood turns sour.
It's a truism of mountain bike racing, or any ride that requires a sustained, intense effort, that the first 20 or 30 minutes is the most difficult. It's as if your heart is trying to force you to come to your senses and convince you to stop. Eventually, your heart relents, realizing that you've abandoned all common sense, and starts to get up to speed.
On the Jiminy Peak course, there's precious little time for a warm-up. I grit my teeth and try to find a steady pace, pushing one leg, then the next, reminding myself to pedal in nice, smooth circles. I adhere to the breathing techniques learned in my wife's birthing class -- a forceful exhalation, followed by an almost involuntary inhalation. Except for a few ridgelines and a handful of quick drops, the climb is relentless, through muddy bogs, over slick grass, crooked roots and loose gravel.
We pass one of the resort's chairlifts, a nasty reminder that there are easier ways to reach a mountaintop. I'm panting like a leash-bound Labrador retriever, but manage to stay on Murph's wheel.
"This is gonna be tough," he says matter-of-factly.
I try to respond, but the words stick to the dry lining of my throat. I just nod.
We get a brief respite at the top of the hill, following a gentle, winding route that is, above all else, flat. But just as my heart rate begins to recover, two quick straight-aways drop us into a hair-raising, off-camber singletrack. Brand new stuff. And tough. White-knuckle tough.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
We finally punch out into the lower section of the course, onto an old access road that leads to one last, torturous climb and one last mud bog. At the finish area, Murph and I meet up with race organizer Reese Brown, of Lowrider Promotions, and Mike Morris, former president of the Eastern Fat Tire Association and lead designer of the Jiminy Peak course.
"What you think of the course?" Brown asks.
"Brutal," I reply, the lactic acid burning my thighs dashing any thoughts of diplomacy. "This was designed as a 24-hour course, right?"
Morris just smiles a wicked smile.
That night brings torrential rains and too-close-for-comfort bolts of lightning as Murph and I drive into town to find a bite to eat. It does not bode well for race day. If the cycling gods are trying to warn me of my folly, I turn a deaf ear. I am committed.
I don't consider myself the rebellious type. I don't go around spoiling for a fight -- the last serious schoolyard brawl I got into was, well, grade school. Rather, it's an innate sense of playfulness and curiosity with new pursuits that leads me to run afoul of the status quo. My sports of choice always seem to be a bit out of the mainstream, and not always appreciated by those firmly entrenched there.
I bought my first windsurfer in the mid-1980s, as soon as my meager salary as a newspaper reporter permitted. It wasn't long before I learned how limited access to the open waters of the ocean and lakes would be.
Next, at the urging of one of my younger brothers, I took up snowboarding. It was winter's natural complement to windsurfing, with many of the same body mechanics, using your edges, finessing the turns. And it came with the same taboos. At the time, numerous ski resorts limited the number of trails snowboarders could use, or banned the boards altogether.
Finally, I discovered mountain biking in the late '80s. It was love at first crash. So enamored was I with this sport that when wedding bells finally rang, my older brother and best man, Sean, whisked me off to Mount Snow and a steamy weekend of World Cup racing for my bachelor party. Yep, while most American males spend this rite of passage seeking out tawdry entertainment in bars you don't tell your mother about, my friends and I relished the sight of world-class athletes -- women and men -- suffering mightily on the tricky, technical trails that lace that ski resort.
We also brought our bikes along, and rode into the hills of southern Vermont to sample new terrain. It was here, on one slow, agonizing climb, that my brother Chris uttered the memorable phrase: "You know, if we did this for a living, we'd all be complaining about what lousy jobs we had." Of course, once we crested the ridge and headed downhill, no one hollered louder and grinned more broadly than Chris.
That, for me, is mountain biking's appeal in a nutshell. The sport speaks to the rough and tumble youngster in all of us. But like many outdoor pursuits, mountain biking reserves its greatest rewards for those who invest the greatest effort. Racing was just the next step in my evolution, a chance to push the envelope a bit further.
In deference to his experience and ability, Jim Black is elected to race the first lap for the Old Men of ECV. The race starts at noon with the first wave of riders dashing off in a LeMans-style sprint to their bikes. Jim, a former cross-country racer, looks right at home in this crowd. The next three slots on our team are decided by drawing straws, and I get the short one. I'm following Jim.
The adrenaline starts pumping well before the legs do. I pace nervously in the start/finish area. In less than an hour, Black rounds the corner and shouts my name. The baton passes hands, I push it up inside my black Lycra shorts, and I'm in the saddle, attacking the hill. My legs quickly remind me that I pushed them a little too hard during our trial run. I do my best to ignore them, settling into that peculiar rhythm particular to climbing on a mountain bike -- not quite comfortable, chest pressing toward the handlebars, thighs grazing my stomach, breathing becoming labored, mind wandering. I try to find a song to match my tempo -- a nice ska beat, like "Tears of a Clown" by the English Beat -- but to no avail.
I reach the mountaintop in a respectable time, albeit on wobbly legs. The steep singletrack grows more and more treacherous, as the rain from the night before and hundreds of riders combine to expose slippery rocks and roots tailor-made to take out the unsuspecting. I push ahead.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The first lap takes me 57 minutes. After two laps, I'm seeing stars, and the sun won't be setting for another two hours. On the singletrack from hell I again get tossed over my bike's front end -- a classic endo -- and find that my legs have come down with a sudden case of the shakes.
Luckily, I manage to dodge one bullet. Shortly after I finish the second lap, the skies open again, and Murph and the fourth member of our squad, Randy Werner, are forced to slog through the downpour. I head in for some cold pasta and a hot shower.
My enthusiasm for mountain biking hasn't waned a bit since I bought my first rig, despite the ongoing access issues that threaten the sport. Once again, it seems, I'm on the wrong side of the fence, aligning myself with "the new kids on the block," adventure seekers who enjoyed the outdoors but used a different vehicle to explore it. The inescapable irony is that when I first joined the Appalachian Mountain Club, while still in college and dirt poor, I thought I was divorcing myself from the conventional. I'd pack up my post-teen angst and march off into the woods to sort it all out. No responsibilities, no worries, no cares.
Now, more than 15 years later, I'm defending a sport that some outdoor enthusiasts consider akin to devil worship. I understand that. There is a beauty and a grace in mountain biking, but admittedly it is our definition of those attributes. When I fly along a loamy singletrack, slaloming through hardwoods and pines, chasing the filtering rays of sunlight, joyfully howling like a wolf, I feel remarkably connected to the landscape. Hikers, on the other hand, might see to soil being tossed from the tread on my wheels and immediately think of trail erosion. My howls? Noise pollution.
Yet, over the years, after meeting hundreds of mountain bikers, I'm convinced we have a great deal in common with the hiking fraternity that we're often odds with. We practice conservation by repairing trails and building bridges and waterbars, preach the gospel of "riding light" (see related story). Though it's nearly impossible to quantify, I'm willing to bet that most riders abide by the International Mountain Biking Association's code of conduct: leave no trace, control your bicycle, always yield the trail to horses and hikers, and never spook animals. Hardly the stuff to foment open hostilities.
My lap times gradually drop off the chart, to well over an hour. Any hiker who believes the great outdoors should be the sole reserve for those who travel by foot should stop by a 24-hour mountain bike race -- they'll see plenty of walking.
Hiking is obviously not the fastest way around this course, but well into my fourth lap I have no choice. My legs and my mind are plotting serious revolt. My night lights clear a bright path in front, but I keep losing focus. I tell myself walking is the safest route, and I recall promising my wife that I wouldn't do anything reckless. A giddy laugh escapes as I remember an old adage, about knowing you've reached middle age "when you realize that caution is the only thing you care to exercise." At least my sense of humor still seems intact. It helps assuage my wounded pride.
Near the end of my fifth lap, close to 5:30 in the morning, I'm done. Toast. Washed up. My shoulder feels like its been pressed through a meat grinder. Delirium sets in. There are no Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar licks drawing me to the finish line. I've bottomed out on the clock, coming in at 1 hour, 26 minutes. Just one problem -- there's still more than six hours left in the race. I want to quit, just put an end to my misery. My teammates have other ideas. With about four hours before noontime, they shake me out of a deep, like-a-baby-in-my-mother's-arms sleep. This race was my idea, and they're not letting me off the hook.
Jim Black turns the corner of the finish area, looking remarkably fresh, and, with more than just a hint of doubt, calls out "Brion?"
"Right here, Jim," I shout back, trying not to sound too dejected.
"Awright," he yells, a bit too enthusiastically. It's clear he wasn't counting on seeing me out of bed.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
And somehow, it all falls into place. No, I don't set any records. I don't fly up or down the mountain. But I did manage to post my third best lap of the day. My heart, mind and legs decide, at long last, to work in unison. The early morning mist tingles against my skin as I pedal -- and walk -- up the mountain one last time. "This isn't so bad," I think, realizing it's the endorphins talking.
I enter a Zen-like state that's reserved for the mentally and physically drained. My bike, which has held up much better than I have, moves nimbly and securely under me, weaving through the last of the downhill trails. Again I'm forced to hoof it up the final foothill, but it's the last foothill. Emotions -- could it be euphoria? -- consume me. I nearly catch my teammate, Randy, off guard as I roll into the finish area. Guess he wasn't expecting me so soon. I pass off the baton for the last time, and drop down next to my bike, intentionally this time.
I smile, knowing there isn't enough time left in the race to force me to ride another lap. Done for the day. I've cheated Father Time once again. Filthy, drenched, exhausted, I start to giggle, almost unconsciously, like a five-year-old giggles. It's that happy-go-lucky inner child giggling, the same one my wife says she loves, the one she wants our daughters to know, the one mountain biking helps me connect with.