Casting a Spell - 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest

As Nick often says, a 24 hour race does not really start until midnight. The first hours are important, but once darkness has lingered for a few laps, the mental aspect of the race begins. And if things were a little hot earlier, the cracks can begin to show. For our first time in the Enchanted Forest of the Zuni Mountains, Nick and I rode smart, rode strong and stuck to the plan. We didn't allow the other teams to dictate terms or pace, dealt with the little issues that always come up over 24 hours and kept rolling. At noon Sunday, "Slowly-Faster" took the top step, with 18 laps at 11:42. Defending Co-Ed Duo champions, Allan and Karen Rishel of Stan's NoTubes Endurance Racing placed second, completing 17 laps at 11:47. Third place went to another Colorado based duo, Leslie Handy and Jill Hueckman from Trek Store Boulder/BandWagon Racing, finishing 16 laps at 11:33. It was a great weekend - a camping trip with a very well organized bike race in the middle of it. Zia Rides did an awesome job with the race and I'm very happy we finally made the trip to the forest. I have no photos from the weekend though - too busy riding our bikes!

Saturday - as the sun rose, the temperature climbed steadily higher. Nick and I waited with the Back of the Pack amid the chair forest in the shade of the pop-ups. We had everything done - the bikes were numbered, front and back, tires checked and food ready. Even our lights were ready for darkness. With the new Exposure lights, we were even able to mount the small bracket for the bar lights the night before, so positioning was dialed for some fast night laps. We knew it was going to be a hot day - hot and dusty. The track through the staging venue was thick with the fine, powered sugar like dust that pervaded everything. The dust would settle slightly out of camp, but it was much worse then we'd imagined. Nothing to do but wait until noon - wait and stay hydrated in the dry desert heat. There were several strong teams cuing up in the co-ed class, so it was going to be very competitive race. But we were confident in our plan and just like every other 24 hour race, we would be competing against ourselves and sticking to the plan.

As usual, Nick started. There was no Le Mans start at this race - just line up like a cross country event and gun it for the half mile through camp for the hole shot into singletrack. Off into the forest they rode, the air filling with a cloud of dust. I felt sorry for Nick - not only was it brutally hot, but that dust cloud was horrible. I couldn't even see the riders coming through near the end of the race. It was going to be a hard first lap for Nick. We were already off the plan a little since the first lap was the same as the rest of the race - not shorter  with a long dirt road section like in prior years. But he still had a solid first lap - coming through just out of the top ten in 11th overall. As we exchanged the timing chip, Alan R from the Stan's NoTubes team rode through and stared - watching us closely. We weren't super smooth with that exchange, so lost a little time. It would get faster through the race as we got dialed with the hand off.

Finally - time to ride my bike! I pointed my Fate up the dusty hill and quickly caught back up to the Stan's rider. His wife was waiting for him at the top of the hill. I made little acceleration to ensure that she wouldn't be on my wheel when I entered the single track and dropped in. It would be single track for the rest of the lap. This was such a different course then we're used to riding in Colorado - no long sustained mountain climbs, swooping turns through huge trees, a few short steep little hills, several long false flats and a screaming fast descent with some monster kickers that could shake things up - or send you flying. The first mile was rolling, with a few little rock garden sections. I wasn't as smooth as I wanted to be - smacking my rear wheel hard on the rock slab. Remember - smooth is fast and fast is smooth - I repeated the mantra through out the race. After the rock gardens, it was a gradual climb with a few steeper sections and some rolling descents. A brief respite the climbing just before mile four, then another false flat, rocky climb for two more miles. Between six and eight was meandering, with bermed corners and flowing single track. After mile eight, the trail turned level but rocky - very rocky. And the fine dust would hide the worst of the rocks until nightfall. The three steep grunter climbs snuck up on the trail between miles nine and 11. Then time for the descent - three miles of no pedaling required, superhero fast descending. Unfortunately, the last two miles were a smack in the face with another sustained climb back into camp. Thru the timing tent and the exchange tent - but we could exchange anywhere after that tent. Nick and I (like most of the racers) just handed off at the camper. It really made the waiting nice - we could sit down in chair, wrapped in a blanket with anything else we needed and watch the race go by. I rode hard on that first lap - attacking some of the shorter climbs, but being careful on the descent. I wasn't jumping the kickers, that's for sure! Four riders passed me - all of them on four man or single speed teams. About four minutes faster then I'd anticipated and I was cruising back to the turtle.

Another sloppy hand off and Nick was out for his second lap. I gave my bike a quick clean, cheered on some of the riders in the Enchanted Land Race, gave the Back of the Pack guys some shit and sat down to wait. I missed seeing the second and third co-ed duos ride through so I didn't know what the gap was. But it was too early to worry about that. I was ready when Nick came in - he'd needed to back off a little because of the heat. Alan was right beside him and once again stared at us as we made the hand off.  A much smoother exchange and I was off, with Nick telling me as I rode away "Don't let her get on your wheel... Do the work now!" Okay. That I could do. I climbed the dusty double track standing up and caught up to them just as she started riding. One click down on my cassette and I was around before the start of the singletrack. I kept the pressure high in the first miles, but there was no sign of her on some of the switchbacks. Time to settle and ride smart. A little more fun on the descent, catching some air on the smaller kickers and I was headed for home. I passed a few of the Enchanted Land Riders on the last mile and made the final climb back up to the camper.

This time, I was cleaning my bike when Karen from NoTubes rode by - we had about three minutes on them after four laps. The question would be which one of the guys would crack first.... But that wasn't something to worry about then. I had a good system by the end of the race - finish my lap, let Nick take the timing chip, hang my bike and run into the camper to get the split on the race watch. Then to clean my bike. It took about ten minutes to get the white layer of dust off the bike and get the drive train clean. Next was filling the camelbak - the course was rough enough and twisty enough that I was using just the camelbak. I'd mixed up my concentrate of GU and GU Brew the day before and just had to add water. I underestimated how hot it was on the first two laps and had only taken about 30 ounces. I'd run out of water about mile 14-15 both times. After that, a quick baby-wipe cleaning and changing clothes for the next lap. Once all my chores were done - including getting some things ready for Nick, I had about 30 minutes to recover, eat and maybe sleep. There were a few laps in the middle of the night that I didn't eat so had a little more time to recover, but it was never a lot. Having help would be nice, but we've been running all of our 24 hour races unsupported and have a really good system down.

I sat down in the Back of the Pack living room to wait, munching on chocolate covered cookies and marshmallows. One of them asked how we were doing and I shrugged. "First I think, but its going to be interesting which end of the elastic snapped." And then I saw Nick riding up the hill and it was time to go. But this time, he was alone - no sign of the other rider. Had the question been answered? It was still too early to find out. But it was early enough for all the volunteers to be out and enthusiastic. I have never seen a group of volunteers so happy to be out on the trail. At mile 4, there was the Hawaiian themed station, complete with hula skirts and tropical adult beverages. I hear the rum was really tasty, but never stopped to find out. Just before mile eight, a siesta station had been set up - and those boys were really happy to be there. Chips, guac, salsa and some excellent tequila as well. Unfortunately, they closed down in the middle of the night. Next up came the beer and bacon station at mile 11. Those guys were up all night, offering all kinds of liquid refreshment and greasy rocket fuel. I did take three pieces of bacon to go on my eighth lap - he ran along side with the plate. And it was good... There was one more manned aid station on the course, but I don't remember if it had a theme or not - it was just before mile 15 and I was just focusing on being done at that point. All of the volunteers on the course were cheering and awake all night - even the SARS teams scattered around the trail. 

Six laps done - and a whole bunch more to go. Nick headed out with his Diablo mounted, just in case. I would have the true Sunset lap. I opted to start out with one of my Diablos on my helmet and the Toro on my bars. Since we'd had the brackets mounted since the day before, it was a simple click-click and I was ready to rock the night laps. I didn't need the lights until mile three, but as the forest grew darker and shadows filled the sky, it quickly became night. The lights easily illuminated the dusty rocks and bumpy trail. With my bar lights (Toro for two laps and Maxx-D for two laps) set on high and my Diablo on medium or low, I had no problems maintaining my speed even on the screaming descent. The Exposure lights were awesome. It was almost like riding during the day - with the exception of the darkness around. And the forest came alive at night. I saw a deer, many bats, heard an owl and saw some eyes glowing back at me from a distance. Not sure what that was... But while the forest came alive, the riders seemed to all go to bed. It was a quiet night, with the only evidence of other riders the occasional dust clouds coming off the tires. I think the heat of the day and the dust had taken a toll on a number of racers. It was also a very warm night. I never needed more then arm warmers and knee warmers - and even that was a bit much at times. Nick and I kept rolling efficiently through the night, keeping moving as the course kept getting lonelier and rougher. We didn't know where we were, but neither of us had been passed by the NoTubes team. That's all we knew. We were also both getting tired and slowing down a little on every lap.

By lap 12, I was getting pretty beat up on the Fate. The bigger wheels do roll over things better and smooth out the ride - but after that many hours I was ready for a smoother ride. Time to break out the full squish for my last night lap! My Era was on the bike rack, waiting. I checked the tires - made sure everything was good and got ready to go. Nick told me the course was getting really loose with the dust and to just ride steady and smart. That's what I was planning on doing, but I didn't think I would slow down that much. Then off into the darkness. It felt so nice to have suspension. The bike floated over the little bumps and I was able to sit and spin up the rough climbs. But just after mile four, something felt wrong. The dust wasn't that deep that my rear wheel should be sliding like it was. I stopped. The rear wheel was soft - very soft, but not flat. Odd. It had been fine in camp. I quickly but calmly checked the wheel - no obvious leaks or tears. Pumped it up with my hand pump, checked again. Nothing. Time to ride again. I'd lost a few minutes, but knew I wasn't gonna be able to make up the time. Not worth wiping out just to reclaim a few minutes. It seemed like everything was good for the next few miles. But just before the Tequila aid station, the tire felt soft again. Time to stop again - and maybe put a tube in . At least there was a floor pump there... I decided to fill the tire all the way up with the floor pump, just to see if I could find the leak in the dust. And this time, I found it. A small sidewall tear - about a quarter of an inch long, perpendicular to the rim. The Stan's was sputtering and oozing from the tear. I quickly turned the wheel on the side and started shaking it a little - saying "Please seal, please seal..." The guy who'd stopped to see if I needed help just stared. But it seemed to work. The hissing and sputtering was gone and the tire seemed to be holding air. I pumped it up a little more, said a prayer to the MTB and 24 hour gods and headed back onto the trail. The last thing I wanted to try to do was change a tire in dark and in the dust! And it held - I didn't take any chances on the last half of the lap - just rode as smooth as I could. Surprisingly, I didn't loose that much time with the tire incident - coming in about 5 minutes off where Nick told me to ride and about 10 minutes off what I'd planned on riding.

So much for my plush ride for the rest of the race. I told the Judd from Back of the Pack it was all their fault - cursing my 26" full suspension and geared bike with their 29er, rigid single speed mojo. Back to the Fate for my last three laps. Nick had taken the time to give her a good cleaning while I was out that time, so the HT was ready to rock. And I would be treated to the sunrise lap. It was perfect sunrise lap, with the darkness gradually withdrawing from the trees, revealing the greens and browns of the forest. The stars fading into the sky as it went from black to deep purple to a smoky blue tinged with pinks and oranges to the east. The mountains and trees surrounding the trail kept the full power of the sun at bay. There weren't many riders out on course - I only saw three other racers that entire lap. As the volunteers started stirring, I changed my greeting to "good morning," and most of the them responded back with an equally enthusiastic good morning. Because it was - and we only had six hours left to ride. The Enchanted Land racers were starting to wake up as well and the little kids were back on the course. It was really cute to see - all the little kids on bikes of all kinds, usually with a parent following. They turned shorter laps (about 5 miles for most of them) from 12:15-8:00 and again from 7:00-12:00. A good way to introduce the 24 hour racing and make it fun for all ages.

And now we knew the answer to the question so many hours ago. By riding smart and sticking to our plan instead of allowing someone else to dictate the pace, we'd pulled away through the night. We were a lap up on second and within 20 minutes of lapping them. But even with just five hours left, a lot could happen. We'd gotten really lucky with the sidewall issue I'd had - a crash or something else could wipe out the cushion we had really easily. Nick threw down another really speedy lap - he took advantage of the cool morning air to knock out one of his faster laps. I wasn't able to match as well, but still had strong pace up the hills. I was hoping to drop back down to the 1:20 laps I'd been doing Saturday. I didn't know who was on course for the NoTubes team, but every white and red jersey in the distance gave me hope. I wanted to lap them, knew we were close to lapping them. But I wanted it to be a pass - not a mechanical. So when I saw him on the side of the trail, fixing something, I didn't gloat - there but the grace of god was I. I slowed just a little and asked if he needed anything. And got the usual answer "No," along with a glare. Fine. I would enjoy the rest of the descent and get ready for my 9th lap. By now, I had a little more confidence on the the kickers and was able to jump a few of them. I was still rolling most of them though. Cruised into pit, told Nick about the NoTubes rider and sent him off for his last lap. I know we worked hard when he wrote on the plan in all caps "I am Blown!"

I had an hour and forty minutes to finish the 18th lap. I had to finish by noon for that lap to count. I didn't think it would be an issue, but didn't want to cut it close so kept cranking as hard as I could on the hills and false flat before mile 8. I was passed by two guys - both with similar numbers in quick succession. I think they were in the same category and the racing was coming down to the wire for them. I had a lot of fun that lap. I was tired, but the implosion from Sage and Old Pueblo hadn't happened. My lap times had slowed, but it wasn't the huge jump like at the last two races. I also didn't have the stomach issues - I was eating well and when I was hungry. I stayed sharp on the technical sections, learning the lines and taking a few fun chances later in the race. I was even able to drop one of the guys on a four person team on that last descent! So much fun when I can do that... Especial at the end of the race! I caught a few of the Enchanted land riders, as well as Tim from Back of the Pack - riding his last lap with his kids. I cruised through the finish line at 11:42 - 18 minutes to spare. Stan's NoTubes finished about 5 minutes behind me, but still one lap down. Dropped off the timing chip and went to find Nick chilling in the chair forest with the Back of the Pack. He'd already indulged in his recovery beer and was very happy to be off the bike. My turn to get clean and try to get the dust off my legs! It was only partly successful, but felt so good. Just enough to get presentable for the awards ceremony. And this is one of the best awards we've gotten! Huge mugs, engraved with the race logo, date, class and place. Too bad all the root beer was gone already - I'd have taken advantage of the new mug for a nice big glass otherwise....
Man, that mug is heavy! Co-Ed Duo Podium
Les Handy/Jill Heuckman third, Alan and Karen Rishel second, Nick and I first.
Photo - Judd Rohwer

Next year, 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest will host the USAC 24 Hours National Championships. Judging by how well they handled the race this year, including the last minute venue change ordered by the Forest Service, I think it will be a huge success for Zia Rides. I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the event and thought the course was good. It had some challenges, but nothing really scary. Harder then Old Pueblo, on par with Sage, and easier the 24 Hours of COS. Nick and I will be back for Nationals - but a change in class might be in the wind...


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