Tears welled in my eyes as I neared the second checkpoint signaling two more miles to go on my ninth and final lap at the 24 Hours of Adrenalin mountain bike race in Conyers, Georgia. It was around noon on Sunday, September 17, 2000, and 24 hours earlier I had begun this race as one of only two solo women riders. Although I realized fully at this point that I would not win this race since my competitor already had one more lap than me, my tears had nothing to do with sorrow. You see, five and a half years ago, on April 9, 1995, I rode my very first bicycle. I was 33 years old, and had always been a horsewoman. However, after losing my horse to a broken leg, my then boyfriend (now husband) convinced me to try biking as a new alternative to a sport that had dominated my entire life to that point. I was afraid at first - a middle aged woman learning to ride a bike? But with his patience and my determination, I was able to figure out the brakes, gears, etc. Now, five years later, here I was, not only competing in, but finishing the ominous solo category of a 24 hour endurance bike race. I had always seen the Ironman Triathlon documentaries on television, and watched with utter amazement as grown men and women fell to their knees and sobbed after completing the race, even though they were near last place in their categories. Today, however, I understood completely what they felt, despite the fact that I am speechless to explain it to someone else. I did somehow manage to clear my vision sufficiently to cross the finish line and even get to my pit area before collapsing into my husband/support crew/mechanic/best friend's arms, sobbing like a child.
I'm not really sure what prompted me to even want to do this race. Although I had shown horses for many years, I never considered myself to be a very competitive person, and being such a novice in the bike world, not to mention fearful of nearly every obstacle one finds on the trail, bike racing in general is a terrifying prospect for me. I did race some, though, and surprisingly placed fairly well on many occasions. In the horse world, women are quite numerous, so competition is very tough. What I found in biking, especially mountain biking, though, is that there really aren't that many women my age out there at all, much less racing. Maybe it's because mountain bikes as a whole are a relatively new concept compared to, say, horses or even road bikes, and when women my age were kids, there simply weren't any mountain bikes. What this translates into is that the field for my category is just not that big, so placing in a race is pretty easy much of the time. Still, being the perfectionist that I am, I always gave everything I had at every race, even if I was the only competitor or only one of a few.
Then in 1998, my husband joined a team and competed in the 24 Hours of Canaan. The weather was miserable, cold and wet, but we went anyway, and I provided support for him. Despite the poor conditions, the idea of such an endurance event intrigued me. I shied away from the team idea, though, fearing that no matter who was on it, I would be the weakest link. It may be a female thing, or just something in my own mind, but being the "slow one" and/or getting in the way is one of the biggest fears I face in my riding, so I always avoided joining any groups who might want to do one of those races.
However, in November of 1998, I finally got a chance to try my hand at an endurance event, without the fear of causing others to fail. A local promoter was putting on 12 hour mountain bike races, and the course was only about an hour and a half away from my home. My husband, Steve, formed a team while I decided to go it alone, and race the solo category and provide my own support. I fully expected to just get a couple of laps completed on the 4.3 mile technical course, but ended up surprising myself and everyone else who knew me by completing ten laps. I continued to participate in these races, despite having to compete with the men (no other women ever signed up, and the promoter would not make a separate category for just one rider), mainly because they were the only races of this type near my home that I knew about. To my amazement, I continued to do well, placing exactly in the middle of the men each time. I competed in this series of races a total of five times.
Then, in June of this year, I heard about the 24 Hours of Adrenalin series. According to their website, they chose courses that were designed more for the average rider than the brutal courses that attempt to chew you up and spit you out. "I wonder if I could do this", I thought, and just thinking it made me decide to sign up. Of course, as soon as the credit card charge went through, I became horrified - what had I just done? Here I am, nearly 40 years old, ten pounds heavier than I should be, with no knowledge of race training, and I'm going to try to ride a 24 hour race?
So I went to work. I bought some books on training, learned how to use my heart rate monitor, dug out my free weights, and wrote out as good a training schedule as an amateur going it alone could do. For the most part, I stuck with it. However, the weather became quite uncooperative, raining unbelievably more than usual for the summer months, which meant I had to rely more on my road bike. So road bike I did. I worked on sprinting, something called cruise intervals, and just putting miles on the saddle. I rode my mountain bike when I could, and worked on my free weights sporadically - something I'm going to work harder on this coming season - and kept my fingers crossed that this would be enough during the three short months I had to get ready for the "big race".
It seemed like no time at all before Steve, our two dogs and I arrived at the Georgia International Horse Park on Friday afternoon before the race. Luckily, the weather was perfect, highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s, the entire weekend. Steve prerode the course for me, realizing that I would see it plenty enough over the approaching 24 hours. According to him, it was difficult with many short steep climbs, but doable enough.
Finally, it was Saturday morning. I, along with the other solo woman and the 12 solo men as well as the team captains, attended the mandatory captain's meeting, then went back to the campsite to dress for the first lap. I have always loved leopardskin print, even as a child, so to make light of not feeling like I was a very good rider, I had my bike painted leopardskin to match the Shebeest clothing that I wore during most of my earlier races. Somehow making biking fun made it seem less scary and competitive to me, and let me relax and just have fun. So anyway, when we were called to the start line to begin the Lemans start, I was in full attire with a leopard jersey, helmet cover complete with bow ears, and black tights with leopard print down the sides of the legs. After running what seemed like 100 miles to my non-running self, I finally arrived at the bike rack, where I jumped on my leopardskin painted bike and rode off on my first lap.
While technical is probably not what most of the better riders out there would call this course, it most certainly was to an intermediate rider like myself. My first lap, I worked out many fear issues about the dropoffs, steep downhills and lung-busting climbs. I quickly managed to master the downhills and dropoffs, thanks to my diminutive (I'm 5'2") full-suspension Titus bikes (at my age, four and five inches of travel is a necessity, not a luxury), but decided to simply walk most of the hills, as I soon discovered I had not developed the strength I needed to climb these efficiently, especially not for a 24 hour period repeatedly. After I passed our campsite, I found out that I hadn't seen the difficult section yet! Steep downhill switchbacks, incredible huge granite slickrock, creek crossings and even the obligatory log, as well as even more steep climbs awaited me on the second half of the 7 or 8 mile course. I managed to conquer most of these as well, although once again walked the really scary switchbacks and the uphills.
At last I crossed the finish for the first time, after what seemed like an eternity. Kerry, the other solo female, for the most part led our category, and I realized the first time she passed me on one of the climbs that she was far stronger than I was. But I was determined to not let myself get defeated mentally, especially not this early in the race. Besides, I had so many fabulous outfits to wear! So after each lap, I changed clothes. I wore leopardskin, snowcat, velvet, velour, and hologram patterns, changing constantly throughout the race. I know it took some extra time, but I also knew that the course, and Kerry, were tougher than I expected, and if I couldn't be remembered for winning, then I would be remembered for my appearance. I was feeling very good about the race, and thinking I might even be able to catch Kerry, as she was frequently on the same lap as I was. Then dusk arrived.
Steve had strapped my lights onto my second bike for me, and I headed out into the night. Suddenly the course was very different. I found myself walking even the few and far between flat stretches, missing lines, washing out in ruts. I knew I needed rest, so stopped after my sixth lap for a quick nap, which turned into an hour and a half. Shortly after midnight, I headed back out again, and learned that I was definitely not rested enough; I was cold, tired, disoriented on the trail, and having a hard time riding at all. So I stopped again at the campsite for another quick rest, this one turning into four and a half hours.
As daybreak spread across the sky, I leaped off the sleeping bag. What time was it? 6:45??? No, it can't be that late! I threw on some clothes and raced out to my bike, hurrying out onto the course without stopping to eat this time. As I sprinted through the finish line yet again and ran back to the camper for the next change of clothes, I realized that in my earlier dressing frenzy, I had put on the wrong tights, the ones with no chamois; well, at least that explained why the course felt so much rougher. Luckily, I had bought a new saddle right before the race, and I must admit the Terry Butterfly certainly did its job. At this point, I was told that as of the 2:00 a.m. posting, I was in the lead for the solo women! I was pumped, ready to ride, and so went out for what would later turn out to be my final lap. I was hanging tough, feeling good about things, and then learned that Kerry had gotten out onto the course before me, and was now a lap ahead of me. This news came at around 10:30 a.m., and I knew then I was not going to win. I think this must have been the lowest point for me. All the negative voices in my head began their usual ruckus - whatever made you think you could do this, you're too old, too fat, too weak, too scared, etc. - and then I realized why I was here competing in this race right now. It was for everyone who has ever been told "you can't do that", "it's too difficult", "you'll fail and look stupid", the list goes on and on. So I sucked it up, and walked up that last tough climb, I think in Georgia they call it "Olympic Hill", proudly, knowing that no, I wasn't going to win this race, but that I wasn't going to lose, either. I was going to finish it. And not only that, but I was going to finish it in style. Yes, I weigh more than I should, and no, a chubby woman maybe shouldn't wear leopard print or snowcat and silver, yes shiny, sparkly silver, short-shorts to finish a race, but that's exactly what I did. I did it because I could, and because I had earned it. This race was the hardest thing I've ever done, but I did it, and if you're wondering if maybe you could do it too, the answer is "Yes, you can".
I felt so much support and encouragement during this race, both from the other competitors and the support people (including the Trilife staff), and even though I wanted it to be over so badly early Sunday morning, that finish line reading 24:13:19 was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen at that moment, and I'm already considering doing it again next year. Maybe I'll see you out there, too!