Knobby All Night

24-hour hour racing redefines sleep cycles

Mens Journal (7/7/2003)

Brion's comments:
'Another, shorter look at the mad, mad, mad world of 24-hour mountain bike racing. This piece was originally done for Men's Journal magazine.'

Feature article:

At about 5:30 in the morning, after my fifth lap at the 24 Hours of New England mountain bike race, I was finished. Fried. Physically and emotionally. This brutal affair, held at the Jiminy Peak ski resort on the western Massachusetts border, had completely broken my spirit. Covered in mud, with a throbbing shoulder, I stumbled back to our condo. The room looked more like a post-party frat house, with dishes of overcooked pasta piling up in the sink, bodies and filthy clothes strewn everywhere. I announced solemnly, and with absolute conviction, that I wasn’t going back. Ninety minutes later, my teammate Dan Murphy woke me from a deep, dream-filled slumber with a sharp slap on my feet and a simple, "You’re up." And I went.

That's reality in the twisted world of endurance mountain bike racing. Halfway into my second lap, the pounding in my temples overrode any chance of clear thought. I had just finished a grueling, mind-bending climb and was prepping for a tricky singletrack descent when my front wheel augured into a depression and stuck, throwing me over the handlebars and driving my shoulder into the dirt.

"And the fatigue begins to set in," whispered another racer as he deftly passed my prone body.

Ah yes, 24-hour off-road racing, where adding insult to ignominy is not only commonplace, it’s a tactical weapon. The sport seems to thrive on the Hunter S. Thompson credo "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." I prefer another time-honored expression - "That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger." This is the soul of the sport, coming to grips with your limits and surpassing them. Imagine, racing straight out over eight miles of nasty singletrack and dirt roads crisscrossing a ski resort. You arrive at the finish line filthy and winded. The good news? You’re still in one piece. The bad news? You’ve got to do it again in three hours. And keep at it, again and again, until you and your three teammates, passing off a baton like a crazed relay team, have completed a solid day of riding through muddy bogs, steep climbs and sleep deprivation. To win, your team simply needs to complete more laps than anyone else.

These races are taking mountain bike racing to an entirely different level. After sprouting from the fertile cranium of promoter Laird Knight in 1992, the 24-hour format has mushroomed in the past two years. From Glen, New Hampshire, to Moab, Utah, to Monterey, California, thousands of hardy souls, experts and neophytes alike, are queuing up at the starting line. The granddaddy of them all, Knight's 24 Hours of Canaan in West Virginia, typically books solid – more than 2,000 racers – months before the race. It’s success has spawned an entire cottage industry of endurance fests, such as the Leadville 100 in Colorado and the Iditabike in Alaska.

I chose to test my mettle at the 24 Hours of New England. The course featured steep, loose, unrelenting climbs followed by white-knuckle, slick singletrack descents. Scary stuff. No room for recovery. A quick scan of the other teams – Mudsluts, 24 Hour Johnson, and Hematoma and – told me our group, the Old Men of Essex County Velo, was in good company. There were men and women, young and old, die-hard racers and weekend warriors.

Going into battle, you want good soldiers beside you, and I had three – Jim Black, who had finished two Canaans and was still crazy enough to sign on, the aforementioned Mr. Murphy and Randy Werner, who’s idea of a leisurely road ride is about 250 miles. I had asked another 24-hour veteran, but his response mirrored the bumper sticker on the back of his pickup: "Canaan, Rhymes with Insane."

And, of course, it’s true. About midnight you realize this is not the domain of rationally thinking people. Do I keep pedaling, or get off and walk? Do I eat, or sleep? Eat? Sleep? Gives an entire new meaning to the phrase "sleep cycles." Chances are you’re exhausted, chasing after a small beam of light as it cuts through the misty night air. It’s here that you begin to see God, or at least listen for his response after you ask repeatedly for the strength to keep pushing. Murphy swears he saw tiny furry creatures hopping alongside the trail in the early evening, but hasn’t been able to get confirmation. And that was only Murphy's first act in this theater of the absurd.

About 2 a.m., he had to go. Bad. With his bladder ready to burst, his body tired and spent, Murphy took his only sane option. He turned off the trail, turned off his night lights, and, in the pitched darkness, began to relieve himself. Within moments, the lights of an oncoming racer illuminated a bizarre scene – Murphy’s stream was bolting off at a right angle and he realized, much to his dismay, he was hosing down his own bike. All he could do was laugh.

During my sixth and final lap, the one I swore I wouldn't do, I also felt an uncontrollable giggle tickling my parched throat. I feared it was the telltale signs of full-blown lunacy. Instead, I came to realize it was just my Inner Child, relishing the opportunity to stick it to Father Time.

"You would have been kicking yourself for the next year if you didn’t ride that last lap," said Black after I got back. It was Jim that got this endurance race idea in my head in the first place, with tales of riding through the woods of Canaan as Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar licks drew him into the finish area. The only song I remember was the one playing from the loudspeakers as I left for my last lap, James Taylor’s "Walking Man." It was, I hope, just a cruel coincidence.

But I finished. The cheap champagne we brought to celebrate tasted like vintage Veuve Clicquot. And despite my team’s handicap -- me -- the Old Men of Essex County Velo completed 25 laps, a respectable 20th place out of 62 teams. On the long ride home, fighting cramps, I spied a bumper sticker that captured the weekend perfectly: "PAIN IS TEMPORARY, PRIDE LASTS FOREVER." That evening, pulling into my driveway, I almost had tears in my eyes -- my wife and infant daughter greeted me with a sign across the garage door, "Yeah, Enduro-Dad!"

Note: This article was originally printed in Men's Journal.

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