Circles in the Desert - 2012 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo

Nick and I came to 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo with a plan and a goal, and the knowledge that proper execution of one would achieve the other. We were also hoping to climb that final step on podium this year. We came prepared for anything after the AZ Hurricane of 2011, but the weather did not prove a factor in the race. And while we successfully executed our plan, completing a very solid 19 laps, Nat Ross and Rebecca Rusch – the King and Queen of Pain ruled the day. I can’t really say we were competing against them – they could have finished 20 laps easily. Nick did a great job of keeping the pressure on Nat, but I wasn’t even close to Rebecca! The race between the top three teams stayed fairly tight until darkness. Every duo on the podium did awesome against some really tough competion this year

As usual, Nick did the start lap. I have no desire to endure that kind of chaos – holding Nick’s bike was tough enough! It felt like there were more bikes and more spectators crowding the road this year. Then in a cloud of dust, the running for the bikes commenced and the herd of racers descended on upon the waiting steeds. Nick had a good start and was off into the desert. The first exchange is nuts with the riders jammed into the tent, waiting. I got to the tent to watch the first riders flying in hot. Nat and Rebecca exchanged just three minutes ahead of us – but that was the closest we got to them. Nick had a solid lap, doing what he always does – getting me out ahead of the craziness and minimizing the passing.

On the bike and everything clicked – riding was smooth and fast. I was holding my speed well up and down the bitches, ticking over the pedals through the cholla forest on Corral Trail, the rolling climbs up on Rattlesnake, the twists and turns and dips of His and Hers, up the steadily deceptive climb on Junebug and finally the ascent up Highpoint and the awesome fun drop back to camp. It all seemed so fast and easy this year. I turned my fastest lap time ever – a 1:11:01, knocking three minutes off my prior best.

Sitting in the exchange tent nine times led to some interesting sights. The usual assortment of solo riders – going from fresh to tired to zombies as the hours dragged on. There were teams that had the baton handoff dialed without a second lost. The inevitable late teammate – with the waiting rider was standing in the middle of the tent, on his cell phone, attempting to get hold of the next rider! The camelback emptying search for the baton with clothes and gear and tools strewn about the tent floor. People dropping bikes and tripping over wheels in their haste to reach the volunteers – I’m amazed that there hasn’t been bike damage yet with how careless some people are. The general ebb and flow of riders from nothing to a tent full of frantic teams. Nick and I did really well this year – smooth exchanges the whole time and no one late.

My second lap went by quickly, with another fast lap time. The second lap also marked the start of the passing. Perfect weather combined with a record field meant crowded trails. It was a constant state of sprinting and recovering – calling a pass, then stepping on the gas to make the pass, then catching my breath to do it all over again. I was also starting to get passed by the faster guys on the 4/5 person teams at that point. I really didn’t have many issues with passing – most riders moved when it was safe. I started viewing the times I had to wait as a bit of a respite – a recovery from the steady effort. Rolling the option, cruising into the tent, I handed off to Nick.

Jeremy was able to give my bike some attention so I could focus on me. The extra few minutes of recovery each lap because he was able to help was so awesome – a real treat compared to prior years. I had the sunset lap this year – nothing like starting out with blazing sun and finishing under the lights! Time to start thinking about night-time and the coming darkness. Careening down the bitches into the unrelenting glare of the setting sun, the lengthening shadows of the cacti forest playing tricks on the trail and then the pitch darkness of the new moon night. Sunset is a hard lap - there are still 18 hours left, mostly in darkness.

I was running Amoeba lights on both helmet and bars this year and looking forward to the quiet the darkness brings. The new moon meant no competition for my lights – drawing attention to the trail and leaving the rest of the desert in total blackness. There was plenty of competition from the other riders this year – as I rounded the u-turn on High Point trail, the desert danced with dots of white, the entire trail illuminated by other riders. This year marked another first – my first time riding the Option in the dark. I had planned on taking the bypass, but caught up with a slower rider just before the junction. She went right… I took a breath and went left, through the rock gardens then confidently rolling the rock slab under the illumination of my lights.

Three laps ridden, six for the team. Judging by the differences in lap times, I figured we’d be lapped on our 12th lap. So it was time to focus on executing the plan and staying smart on the trail. My next two laps were a blur – head to the tent, get on my bike, dodge the other riders and the cacti, give the baton to Nick and return to the camper. Filled my camelback, ate some food and rested for as long as I could. Jeremy was so much help, cleaning my bike every time. Then back to tent to wait for Nick and repeat the cycle all over again. It was perfect riding weather and racers crowded the normally quiet trails. I was constantly calling rider back then accelerating to pass or easing off to let a faster rider around then picking up speed. I was starting to get tired and was looking forward to the planned break after my fifth lap. The idea was for Nick to go out for two so I could sleep and recover for the sunrise push.

At least that was the plan. Before I went out for my fifth lap I realized we were flirting with 20 laps. Nick was riding strong and consistently and we were nearly 30 minutes ahead of the plan. Close to the 11:59 departure we would need to get 20 laps. And while I was riding, Nick saw it too. We needed to keep the pressure on – he was doing great and I was right at my estimated times. But we couldn’t afford to have Nick slow to ride two laps. No break. I wasn’t happy – I honestly debated sending Jeremy down. Nick’s note said he was prepared to ride two laps. But I didn’t bail. The allure of 20 laps was too strong.

My sixth lap was the quietest of the race. It was perfect temperature and no wind. Many other racers had gone to bed, battling the 2:00 AM Demons that plague the darkness in 24 hour racing. I was tired, but still moving. A clean run through the bitches, along Corral and up over Rattlesnake. Slowed a little on His and Hers but able to regain momentum on Junebug and up the climb of Highpoint. Dropping the option for the final time in the darkness, I felt like we’d conquered the demons this year. I rolled into the tent with another solid lap time – six laps, all within 10 minutes.

Jeremy cleaned my bike – I told him the fork was stiff again and not giving on the little bumps. My arms and back were taking a beating. While Jeremy worked on my bike, I retreated to KOA Dave’s camper for soup. Normally chicken soup at 5:00am isn’t appealing. But this is 24 hour racing and Dave makes kick-ass chicken noodle soup – huge chunks of chicken, tender noodles and slurp worthy broth. Feeling a little energized after soup and a nap, it was time to face the sunrise lap. I made an odd choice – helmet light and dark sunglasses – and got some weird looks in the tent. It was a smart move – the sun was lurking below the horizon, slowly bringing light back to the desert. And when the sun burst forth, I was happy to have sunglasses. I couldn’t keep my eyes on the trail even with my sunglasses. Head down, trying not to get blinded, I knew this was gonna be a slow lap. We also got lapped this time. Nat caught me just after the Bitches – he was heading out on their 15th lap and I was starting our 14th lap.

I needed to get my motor back and start knocking down some speed if we were going to have a shot at 20 laps. But when I started that 8th lap, everything hurt – my legs, my hands, wrists, my back. It was clear that my get up and gone had gotten up and left – without me. I was physically tired – and frustrated because mentally I wanted to ride faster. On the flats and fun little descents and singletrack, I was still moving well. But every little climb knocked me flat and the accelerations for passing were really hard. A few times, I just waited because the energy lost to passing couldn’t be reclaimed for later. I was slowly imploding. I just had nothing left. I was disappointed in myself when I rolled into the transition – we weren’t gonna get 20 laps because I was falling apart.

But it would be mission accomplished – 19 laps. All I had to do was ride my last lap and ride it smart and we would get 19 laps. I got to the tent for our 18th lap at the same time Rebecca was waiting to start their 19th lap. She was pretty excited, saying it was her last lap and asked me if it was my last lap. I shrugged and said I didn’t know – we were hoping to get an 11:55 departure and 20 laps. There was still a very slim chance we could pull it off. She stared at me, then Nat came in. A short conversation I didn’t hear and she was off into the desert. A few minutes later, Nick rolled in. It was clear we wouldn’t make the 11:59 cut off, so he told me to just ride my pace and be safe. And that’s what I did. No heroics, no crazy passes. A really good ride, but super slow compared to my other laps. I had fun and enjoyed the single track. After nine laps, I’d had nine really good drops from the ridge into camp, had ridden the technical Option on all of my laps – even the night laps. So while I had completely imploded and used everything in my engine over the last 24 hours, the progress from prior years was clear.

I handed off to Nick for his last lap and headed to the camper. I was planning on cleaning up and then taking pictures of Nick on the option. That didn’t happen, I racked my bike and laid down on the back couch of the camper. And proceeded to fall sound asleep, still in my cycling kit until Nick rolled up, done with the race. I musta have been tired! We’d met our goal and faced a powerhouse team in the process. The changes we’d made to our race plan and our pre-race prep helped, giving us the time we needed to ride 19 laps. Finishing second to that duo was almost as good as winning….


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