Morning. Early. Wet grass.
A PA system.
Whiffs of disinfectant.
Twenty blue boxes about the size of a fridge.
We line up - tense people in tight shorts hopping from foot to foot
Plastic doors open and slam shut again - occupied - vacant - occupied.
We take one step forward each time.
There is no pharmacological laxative as effective as the impending start of a mountain bike race. Go-Time is approaching and everybody has to poop.
The urge to unload is the physical manifestation of the nerves and the worry over . . . everything. Should I have had more for breakfast? Should I have had less for breakfast? Am I hydrated? Have I ridden enough hills? Should I carry my rain jacket? Am I going to be too hot? Am I going to be too cold? What direction is the wind from? Who else is here? Water bottles or Camel-Bak? Two bottles or three? Dark lenses or clear? What tire pressure? Did I lube the chain, yet? Yes. Twice. Don’t do it again! Start hard, or finish hard? Can I do this? Am I ready? So many questions - so much to fret over.
As competitions go, a mountain bike race is a pretty friendly venue, but I never forget that the people in line with me are my competitors. With all of the adrenaline and anxiety, it is remarkable how politely we wait our turn, because in about twenty minutes, we’ll be much less accommodating toward each other.
Conversation is of the challenges we’re about to face: the notorious climbs, the dangerous descents. We speculate: how deep the creek crossings, how loose the sand, how slippery the mud. We remark on the urgency to finish before the afternoon storms, and how we’re going to roast when the sun gets higher in the sky. Nobody talks about how easy it is going to be, because it’s not.
Most mountain bikers are modest and casual, but a few skinny, fit, cocky guys are talking a little too loud . . . broadcasting their training effort and their recent epic rides and dropping the first names of The Celebrity Fast Guys, as if they’re in the same league. For an introvert like me, the bold talk and the brashness are a little intimidating. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that a lot of them are posers - just regular guys with loud mouths who might have a good race or a bad race and some of them will beat me and others will wilt like yesterday’s lettuce.
Every racer in every race ends the day with a story to tell, and as we wait for our turn in the little blue boxes, each of us already knows what we want our story to be, and most of us have worked hard to ensure that our story plays out exactly as we wish. Even casual participants like me have invested a selfish amount of time preparing our bodies, our minds, and our bikes. The more serious the racer, the tighter they control their training, their nutrition, and their equipment.
But so much is out of our control, and that’s why there’s all this tension. I have no control over the weather or the condition of the course or the other racers. Honestly, I don’t even have control over that mysterious piece of internal magic which determines whether I’m going to feel strong or sluggish today. It is an involuntary decision that is made - somewhere - inside me.
So here in the queue for kaibo, I, we, all of us, desperately wish for the ability to see into the next four hours. We long to know exactly what is going to happen as the miles play out. How strong we will ride and how good we will feel. But the thing is, we can’t see into the next four hours, and none of us knows what is going to happen until it happens. But it’s about to happen. Therefore, all the pooping.
Here’s what I know is going to happen: I’m gonna ride my bike as hard as I can over some challenging terrain for the next few hours and so are all of these other people, and the goal is to finish in front of as many of them as possible. The day holds equal possibility for personal triumph and crushing defeat, and that’s why we’re all here in line with our muscles twitching and our guts percolating.
Even among those of us who do this “just for fun”, nobody wants to be late to the finish line. Nobody wants to arrive after everyone else has already rinsed off the dirt and changed their clothes. Or, even worse, nobody wants to arrive to an empty parking lot - the food and beer vendors long gone, the race director pacing around looking at their watch - the party over.
It is true that no racer works harder than the last one in - the one who limps across the finish line exhausted and ill from the effort of an epic struggle. There’s an admirable nobility in that kind of perseverance through a breakdown that may have been mechanical, physical, or emotional. But that’s a nobility I don’t need today. I don’t want to break my bike, or my body, or my spirit.
So as the doors open and slam, and the occupied - vacant - occupied cycle plays out, and I step, step, step closer to the front of the line, I pre-roll today’s story in my head. It looks a lot like a Red Bull commercial. There’s me, skillfully doing dangerous things in colorful clothes that somehow never get dirty. I’m courageous and precise and athletic and occasionally I look right into the camera and wink while the background blurs into slowmo and the soundtrack swells.
My story won’t be anything like that, of course. I’ll be filthy and sweaty with snot all over my face and the soundtrack will be me huffing like an old locomotive while others yell “on your left, on your right.” But a guy can dream, can’t he? Those positive mental pictures are what get us to the finish line . . .
Or at least to the front of this line.