The eighth 12 hour race of the Wisconsin Mountain Bike Series would be attended by myself and my lovely wife while we enjoyed an eleven day vacation through the great state. You see, going on vacation to relax just doesn’t fit our life style so we try to pack as much adventure in as possible. This trip would consist of bookends made up of competition. First off, Amy’s half marathon in Madison, Wi. at the home of her alma mater, The University of Wisconsin, Go Badgers (whatever, I’m a Minnesota boy). The end of the trip would be marked by the 12 Hours of Pitch Black Single Track. This is where I come in. This race is the first of it’s kind in the WEMS series. A total night time 12 hour race starting at 8:00 p.m. and ending at 8:00 a.m. Now, the series standings have me in a pretty close fight for the overall lead, but alas I’m resigned to 2nd place at the start of this race.
Amy and I arrived in the small town of Rockdale, Wi hours early as we’ve been living out of our car for several days now and moving from camp ground to camp ground so timing the start of the race was not an issue. However, being “travel lagged” and on my feet all the time, not to mention living outside was taking it’s toll on me. I felt tired all the time and wondered how that would effect the outcome of these strange racing conditions (i.e. over night). The usual set up in the pit area with some nerves as I’ve never raced mt. bike in night conditions before. I scouted the competition and didn’t see too many familiar faces and wondered what my chances would be at a possible victory. While lined up awaiting the “GO” a polite youngster in what appeared to be his twenties introduced himself and asked if I was racing solo. I replied “yep” and he then asked if he could sit on my wheel for a few laps, going on to say something about his inexperience. His name was Neil. I said “sure”, but wasn’t absolutely certain that it would all play out like that. Nevertheless, I was determined to ride my own race and do my usual thing. I would go out with the leaders, ride hard as possible for the first two hours then settle in and assess the situation, getting ready for the night. However, all well laid plans are made to go BAD!
When the voice over the microphone screamed “GOOOO!” we began the impossibly long run to our bikes. I was about the 5th one to mount up and get underway. Neil was ahead of me, but I had my eye on him. Now, I figure I can ride a mt. bike at a fairly good clip and staying out in the front of these races off the start has been obtainable for me this year, but apparently they have some fast boys down in southern Wisconsin, because I was going flat out, chin on the bars and definitely over riding the lights while I watched at least eight guys simply pull away from me. I couldn’t believe how fast they were navigating the single track in the dark. These were not all 12 hour riders. Some were 3 and 6 hour riders, while others were on teams of 2 or 4, but still, they were flying. I tried to keep telling myself that I didn’t know the trail yet and to be careful, but the idea of watching them ride away was sickening so I kept pushing the envelope of control until it happened (and I knew it would). As I flew into a brush covered right hander, over a small berm I caught the left two inches of a plank that played the roll of a bridge over about a five foot deep ditch. It took my breath away when I thought about how bad it could have been at the speed we were going if I would have missed that “bridge”. As my adrenaline peaked from the near miss I was thrust into another right hander on moist grass that the 29′ers just couldn’t hold. The bike began to sketch out from under me and I was in a full two wheel drift heading toward a small tree (about the thickness of your thigh). It was all happening so fast, but at the same time it was like slow motion as I tried to minimize the damage that was about to unfold. The first thing to hit the tree was my left fist which was wrapped around the ergon so tight I thought I’d never release it. The second thing to hit the tree was the left side of my chest and left shin. The tree won this time as it didn’t move and I went flat down on my back like I just ran the ball up the gut to an awaiting NFL line backer. Tangled in the weeds and the bike twisted around me I surveyed the Gary Fisher for damage and found none. Out loud I told myself, “time to slow down and don’t kill yourself, it’s like 8:20 p.m.”. The impact did loosen the light I had mounted to the top of my helmet which plays a crucial role as it tracks with my eyes. I couldn’t have it pointing up at the tree tops, so a pit after this first lap was inevitable. I completed the lap safely, but was separated from Neil and his buddies.
I poured sweat onto Amy as we both fumbled with the light trying to tighten it to my helmet. I was frantic as I knew that with every second my chances of hanging onto the leader was dwindling away. Finally, a stern “I’ll hold the helmet and you tighten down the light” from Amy I was able to get the stupid thing fixed. I was off and determined to somehow calm down and shake out the nerves.
Things were going smoothly as I adjusted to the night riding and the inability to see around the turns. This redefined split second decisions while riding the single track, but I was getting the hang of it and turning in some o.k. lap times. Suddenly, I began to notice I was getting warning blinks from my light system that told me the battery power was waning. I wondered why this would be happening after only and hour and a half of riding. “This can’t be, this system is supposed hold a charge forever, what’s going on?”, I asked myself. Then, it dawned on me. We’d been on vacation for several days and the batteries had not been charging, instead, they’d been trickling out precious juice. I was already behind the eight ball. I pulled in to the pit area at and asked the best support crew ever to see if she could find a convenience store and grab me a bunch of triple A’s for my helmet light in order to ensure that I had some light if the charge/use turnover was happening too fast. I was running off of two battery packs for the bike lights, one charging (power strips were provided by the race directors) and one was on my bike. Without a proper charge duration the life of the battery while in use, could end up being very short. In order to combat this dilemma I decided to swap out into my second battery and let the first one charge for as long as possible (I was thinking 4 hours), enough to get me to the middle of the race at least. This was a good plan until I got the “warning blink” from the second battery. “No worries”, I thought, I know you get about a half a dozen blinks before it’s a serious problem. Well, the next blink happened about 15 minutes later and it never blinked back on. It was like I was riding in a black hole. No lights on the handlebars at all, just a little triple A commuting light on my helmet while traveling through gnarly log hopping, chain ring grabbing rocky terrain. “OH NO”, I muttered as I accepted the situation. I pushed through the remaining four miles of the lap in this precarious lighting situation. My solution would be to run low power with only one “head” (of two) turned on for the rest of the race. I made the best of a bad situation.
The night wore on with team riders flying by me with what appeared to be the sun itself mounted on the front of their bikes. I couldn’t believe how effective some of the lighting systems were. Again, I began to adapt as I continued to turn decent lap times, but was forced to pit much more often than in a usual race. As I hit the halfway point of the race I stopped for my main pit stop to refit and refuel. I changed batteries in the helmet light, got a bunch of food and changed out the bike’s battery. I decided to ask what position I was in, but I knew they were going to say 2nd place, it was just a matter of how far back I was. The answer floored me, “You’re in 3rd and you’re 35 minutes in back of 2nd place”. I was stunned. I asked her to look at it again, it couldn’t be. She confirmed that this was my situation. Completely demoralized I left for another lap. Negative thoughts swarmed my head as I envisioned losing another position, blaming faulty equipment all the while. I got all my calories on board while I wallowed in self pity. As the lap ended I noticed that the calories were taking hold and I was feeling like I just received a shot of human growth hormone. I circled the wagons and decided that I didn’t drive all that way to just settle for third. I would make a bid for what I felt was rightfully mine, 2nd place (I knew Neil was off the front, one full lap up on me and really flying).
At 3:00 a.m. I started to focus on speed and consistency while trying to stay as clean as possible through the techy sections. Soon I had pinned about four fast laps and surprisingly was still feeling good. Not sure if making up 35 minutes was possible I was determined not to lose third position. It is during these times that one is often left to his or her own mental demons and it’s a matter of how they are managed that will determine the outcome. Now, speaking of demons there was a section of trail that I personally named “Hell”. I kept repeating, “just get to ‘Hell’ and you’ll get a lift”. “Hell” was the half way point of the lap and I didn’t name it that because it was super hard, but because that’s exactly what I thought of every time I passed through this ghoul filled section. Some insanely drunk college kids had lined the trail with skulls, skeletons and hanging lights. Rob Zombie, Danzig and other ultra hard core metal mania types echoed through the forest from a home stereo system that had been hauled out and was being powered by a generator. A pick up truck’s bed held a cattle trough full of ice and beer. A short distance away a fire raged with about a dozen Tour de France behaving fans screaming in your ear from about six inches away while you rode past feeling quite energized. I loved this part so much! Not to mention every time I went through they seemed to be playing one of my favorite songs.
As I turned this series of laps it was eerily quiet in the start/finish area. There was one timing volunteer who almost seemed to sense what I was intent on doing. He looked me in the eye every time I passed through and called to him, “number 10”. He’d respond stoically, “I got ya 10”. On the third lap of my all or nothing campaign he simply looked at me as I passed through, smiled and said, “Nice Ridin’”. I told myself as I rode away from my only friend, “He knows what I’m doing”.
Soon the sky began to brighten and I thought to myself, “could it be, is the sun going to come up today?” As I popped out of a single track section and onto a farmer’s field it was like someone hit the light switch, it was day light. My heart soared as I ratcheted up a gear and jumped out of the saddle. I COULD SEE! I told myself, “now do what you know how to do”. I began to try to rip up the single track as best as I could considering the fatigue I was feeling. The 29′er was really hanging onto the corners and I felt solid.
At 7:00 a.m. I was approaching the completion of my 15th lap of this 6 mile course. When I looked across the river I could see the start finish area and Amy standing there among the mostly still sleeping support crews. She was the only one who clapped for me or was up for that matter as I pulled in. I stopped and asked if she knew my situation regarding placing, she was unsure so we decided to check in with the timers. They informed us that not only had I moved into 2nd place, but I now had over 30 minutes on the previous owner. I was elated, energized and relieved knowing now that the 12 Hours of Pitch Black Single Track was in the books.
A special thanks to Evomo, Motor Tabs, Ergon and Action Wipes. You guys always make it feel better.