back in the saddle
My heart beat 170 times in the last sixty seconds. I’m sweating a bit and out of breath, but don’t call anyone, this isn’t a medical episode … yet.
Right now, Saturday morning, August 12, about the time I usually post a new story here on the Upstairs Project, I’m in the middle of my first mountain bike race in almost two years. Ore to Shore is a 48-mile rip through the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We’re racing on mining roads, logging roads, snowmobile trails, a railroad right-of-way, and the access trail for a power line cut. Some of it is sandy, some of it is rocky, some of it is steep. If all goes well, I’ll finish in Marquette, on the shore of Lake Superior, before 2 o’clock this afternoon. Since I’m writing this ahead of time, I can’t tell you if it is hot or cold, rainy or dry, so let’s just assume the weather is fabulous and I’m having a great time.
My heart won't beat 170 times every minute for four hours - that would kill me - but it will be quite busy sending fuel to my brain and my muscles, and clearing out the garbage they produce as they work together to haul me around the course.
Ore to Shore is a good-sized race. Between the 48 and 28 mile routes, there will be about 2,500 riders involved. There’s nothing, and I mean nothing, like the start of a race with this many people. Lots of big races start this way - a somewhat-controlled rollout from the middle of town behind a motorcycle or ATV. With high spirits, buzzing tires, bumping handlebars, and whooping and hollering from the racers and the spectators, it’s a ton of fun to be in the pack. We jockey for position, and self-sort ourselves - the racy ones moving to the front and others drifting to the rear. After a mile or two, the moto will pull over, we’ll turn onto the dirt, and it’s ON!
At first, it’s crowded as we’re all feeling fresh and strong, and there are traffic jams at the choke-points. As time goes on, the strongest riders will pull away, the slowest will fall away to the rear, and after about half an hour the rest of us will be strung out over miles of the course.
Mountain bike racing is like marathon running, in that only the strongest are really competing for a spot on the podium. The rest of us are here for the personal challenge offered by the other riders and the course itself.
It is physically punishing - a whole-body pounding. My shoulders and triceps and back and butt will ache tomorrow. And mountain bike racing is a brain sport, too. If your experience with cycling is a moderate pedal on the local rail trail where you can let your mind wander to the thoughts of the day ... this is completely different. It takes complete concentration to keep going as fast as you can over an unpaved, unfamiliar trail. Your brain is always working a few seconds ahead of the bike to be proactive in attacking the different obstacles and traction situations, and you have to be ready to deal with whatever unseen surprises are around the next corner. You’re doing all this while also monitoring how your body feels, and dealing with the other racers around you.
A time will come in this race when I wonder why I’m doing this. My back will hurt, my fingers will be tingling. I’ll be hungry and just plain tired. I’ll still have a few miles to go and I’ll be exhausted. The racing spirit will have been wrung out of me and my strongest motivation to cross the finish line is that’s where the car is parked. There’s a low point like this in every single race I’ve ever done, and that’s OK. If I don’t have a low point, it would mean I haven’t been working hard enough.
And then I’ll get closer to the finish line and there will be crowds again. They’ll be some cheering and high fives and I’ll get some new energy from their encouragement. Maybe even crank it up again, and pick up a position or two.
Mountain bike racing is hard and it hurts and there a sense of relief and celebration in crossing the finish line. There’s a bit of masochism in play here. I don’t fully understand it, but somehow the triumph over suffering is a key piece of my mountain bike racing experience. It’s the intentional exploration of physical, mental, emotional and motivational limits, and learning, again, that those limits aren’t what I thought they were. Pain and exhaustion and confusion are places I’ve been - and come back from. The result is a confidence that I can carry into other areas of my life. Because I did this hard thing, I can face the next hard thing - whatever it is - with less fear.
I’ll give you my results next week.