On the eastern side of a western time zone, the sun and I get up early. For an hour and half I enjoy the darkness and the quiet and the occasional lightning flashes outside until breakfast is served at 6. I’m the second guest in the dining room. The coffee is surprisingly good for a budget motel, and the industrial eggs are OK with me. For a few minutes I eat sausages as fast as the attendant can heat them up, then adjourn to the covered patio for some fresh air and to watch the hills become something other than black. Spearfish, South Dakota, USA.
The day promises to be warm and breezy and this morning’s passing shower will be good for the dusty conditions on the trail. I’m excited to ride in a new place with an old friend.
It has been several years since I’ve ridden a mountain bike in real mountain terrain and it has also been some time since I’ve ridden with John, a guy who was instrumental in getting me into the sport and who functioned as my unofficial mentor as I learned how to set goals, work hard and explore higher levels of self-confidence. We’ve met here in South Dakota to take part in the Dakota Five-O - a mountain bike race of approximately 50 miles.
John and I had a couple of days before the race to pre-ride short sections of the course. We chose sections that weren’t too long, were easily accessible, and where we felt least likely to get lost. He was on the rebound from an illness that had knocked out a big chunk of his summer riding season, and I was feeling good. It was exciting to be riding in bigger terrain and the forests of pine and aspen energized me. This would be the second race for my new bike and I loved the way it felt on the trail.
When we weren’t riding in the mornings or visiting local attractions in the afternoons, I was studying the map and elevation profile of the race course. There was no way to really know the whole course without riding it, and I felt like I had done my best to understand what I would be faced with on Sunday. The weather forecast looked good. I felt good. I set time goals for each of the four aid stations and told John and MSL that I wanted to finish under six hours (but to myself I said five and a half). Because of his health, John hedged a bit and said seven hours was more realistic for him. I went into the race with optimism and confidence and our 7:20 a.m. start time couldn’t come soon enough.
And then I got my ass kicked. I don’t think I’ve ever used so much profanity in the space of six hours, before.
Right at the start, the long gravel road climb out of town that we spun up so easily in our pre-ride, exhausted me. I worked harder than I should have to put more riders behind me because I had been riding so well this week and I didn’t want to be stuck behind slower riders when the trail narrowed. But by the time we were funneled into the singletrack at about mile five, I was gasping for air and my heart was pounding hard in my ears. My bike-handling was sloppy. I couldn’t seem to do anything right. I was a rolling roadblock on the trail. All those people I passed on the gravel road were breathing down my back wheel, waiting for their chance to get around. Six hours? Top half? Who do you think you are, you weak and skinny little man?
The first half of the Dakota Five-O is generally uphill. It tops out at the second aid station about 26 miles into the race. I had hoped to be there in three hours … it took four and a quarter. One two-mile stretch of rocky and sometimes steep climbing took an hour of it’s own. I used to be good at this low-speed, technical climbing, but not today. I was moving slower and slower all the time - even stopping to rest occasionally as my body’s core muscles didn’t seem to have the strength to support me anymore.
I can’t say if John was competing with me, but I was with him. It has never mattered that he is 20 years older than me - he’s always been stronger. But after our prerides, I had talked myself into the possibility - no, the probability - of finishing ahead of him. I was expecting it. Heck, it was in the bag. I rode away from him on the gravel road after the start and just assumed that as we continued climbing, I was putting more distance between us.
Well, they don’t call him Iron John for nothing. And even with an illness that has screwed up his summer riding, he has amazing reserves of strength and stamina.
The summit, at aid station 2 was a pleasant place to stop for a bit. I would have been happy to just sit down and enjoy the rest of the day. The breeze was light the sun was warm and two guys - a guitarist with a huge harmonica and a dude with an accordion were doing justice to Neil Young tunes. I was exhausted and ready to abandon the race and soft-pedal a smooth gravel road back to town, but went through the motions of refilling my water bottles like I was going to go on. Just about the time I was wondering how much of a cushion I had over John, he came rolling into the aid station. Aw shit. He said, “Chris, what are you doing here?”. “Suffering”, I said, and reluctantly got back on my bike.
I got out of aid station 2 ahead of John, but he got around me at an obstacle that was tying up riders a short way down the trail. I was riding the descents well - maybe the best I ever have - but was unable to ride the flats or climbs with any power or speed. We passed each other a couple more times and he beat me to aid station 3. I got out of station 3 first while he fiddled with a loose water bottle cage and somehow managed to stay ahead through station 4. I was feeling so beat up that downhills were also getting hard. My shoulders and triceps just aren’t used to this kind of extended pounding from long, rough descents. I stopped for just a moment at station 4 (they were handing out bacon!) and when I looked back, John was coming hard up the trail. I got away from station 4 and the next three miles of trail were some of the sweetest, best flowing downhill singletrack I have ever ridden, and on any other day would have been pure joy. But I was in trouble - my energy depleted and my body beat up from the pounding. I knew there were a couple of short, steep climbs yet to come and that I would be walking up them. The next time John caught me I would be unable to defend my position.
And so it happened, on the next climb, a loose, dusty vertical cliff, John called out to me from behind. It may have been Christian charity in his heart, but he claimed to be ready to call a truce to this battle and ride in to the finish line together. It was music to my ears. We had twelve or thirteen miles to go and I had no more race left in me. With the intensity turned down a bit, it was possible to actually look forward without panic. A sub-six hour finish was no longer possible, but we’d still beat seven. We made our way through the remaining singletrack with my upper body screaming for relief, and then the five-mile gravel coast to the finish line, which we crossed, together, at about 6:35.
John was the oldest finisher and 5th in his 60+ age group. I was 35th of 59 finishers in my age group. My deepest gratitude to MSL who had two lawn chairs and cold water ready for us at the finish line. It was one of the hardest days I have ever had on a bike and that includes the Leadville Trail 100, death marches with Mike Johnson, the hypothermic adventure in the Utah snowfield, and getting hit by two cars. I don’t ever recall being so happy to finish a ride.
This race takes a kind of fitness that is hard to acquire in Iowa. Long bumpy descents were crushing on my triceps and shoulders, as the upper arms push back on the handlebars and try to maintain control. Long technical climbs took my body’s core to the breaking point. At home, on our short, flat, spaghetti networks of trails, I can work on basic bike handling, and on our gravel roads I can get long miles building endurance in my legs, but there’s more to mountain biking in the mountains than that. These are just excuses, of course, because other Iowans here finished much better than I did - two of them in the top twenty overall, 3 hours faster than me.
I’m still excited about racing a bit more next summer, but I’ll probably not come back to Dakota Five O. It’s a good event and I love the Black Hills. There’s more to see and do here and maybe we’ll just vacation here someday, but I don’t have to do this race again. As I look at how I’m likely to train and ride, my legs and lungs and heart may be up to the task, but without major life changes that I’m unwilling to make, the upper body strength that I need to have a good result here will always be lacking.
If I’m going to accept the truth, I’m just not that strong, and there’s a limit to how hard I will train to get strong. This is my identity crisis coming home to roost. While I might be a stronger rider than most of the Sunday spinners out on the local rail-trails, there’s a world of difference between me and real racers who do this every Sunday and who actually have training programs and coaches. I’m just a guy who rides a lot and occasionally pays an entry fee and lines up to start.
I love the experience of doing hard things and accepting challenges and figuring out how to stay mentally strong while getting physically pounded. In the end, I had an awesome time in the Black Hills, back in the mountain biking world that has taught me so much, and the time hanging out and reconnecting with a great friend was priceless.