In April of 1995, when I rode my very first bicycle, I had no idea that 7 years later I would be chronicling my retirement from solo 24 hour endurance racing at the 24 Hours of Adrenalin in Conyers, Georgia. I also never dreamed that my paltry attempts at mountain bike competition would change my life in so many ways. In 2000, I entered my first 24 hour solo race - also at the 24 Hours of Adrenalin in Conyers. I was very afraid and intimidated, so to counter that, I donned full leopardskin apparel and rode a leopardskin painted bike, much the same way my own mother used to camouflage her insecurities by outward flamboyance (she had a VW beetle painted up like a ladybug, so I come by it honestly)! Completing that event was a life-altering experience for someone like me who is not by nature a competitive or even very athletic person, so I wrote a story about it and sent it to TriLife, the race promoters. Little did I know what an impact that simple action was going to have.
During the following two years, I competed in many mountain bike events, including cross-country, solo endurance, and downhill racing. I never really developed the competitive drive that winners have, so placed last most of the time. I had joined a team and obtained sponsors, and tried very hard to make it as a mountain bike racer, but in so doing, began to lose the joy of simply riding. I felt the pressures of not winning weighing heavily upon my team jersey-clad shoulders, and felt somewhat naked and exposed without my comforting outrageous animal print attire. I began to get very discouraged, only finding happiness in my riding when I either went out for recreational rides in total solitude, or could help teach beginners. Oddly enough, despite the fact that my own riding skills are minimal at best, I was able to teach others to do things that I myself could not - to the point that within weeks those same beginners could successfully compete at races and consistently place well above me. This, while very rewarding in some ways, was frustrating in others. Yet, I continued on attempting to race, yet never really developing into a real "competitor". I went everywhere and raced a jam-packed season in 2002, including 2 full downhill series (both of which I won overall despite placing last in all but 3 of the total events - sometimes quantity can overcome quality!), and 2 NORBA Nationals in both cross-country and downhill (where again I placed last, although at Vermont I was the sole competitor in my category, so that was a bittersweet "victory"). My final race of this season was to be my retirement from solo 24 hour endurance, and I felt it appropriate to be at the same venue where I first began, the 24 Hours of Adrenalin at Conyers, Georgia.
On my arrival to Conyers, I was still in the discouraged slump where I had spent most of the entire 2002 race season. However, that was all soon to change. For this, my swan song race, I decided to don once again my apparently now famous animal print bike clothes, complete with the helmet covers, ears and all. Before I even got lined up for the LeMans start, a delightful young man from Florida approached me, saying he wanted to meet the lady who inspired him to compete as a solo rider. His name was Jose, and as he had two fractured kneecaps and could not run, we decided to hold hands and walk the entire LeMans start. This was the beginning of the most amazing weekend of my life to this point. After feeling virtually invisible for two solid years (well, except for the fact that I had such an outstanding race record of roughly 95% last place finishes), I was astounded to discover how many people apparently knew who I was. I quickly lost count of how many people approached me, both on and off the course, to tell me how my internet "stories" had inspired them to attempt (and achieve) things they had never thought possible; how they had never thought they could compete in a 24 hour race until they read my 2000 account of this event. I was humbled, inspired, incredulous. I had no idea that simply putting my feelings to "paper" would have touched so many lives. All throughout the day and night, I was encouraged, cheered and supported by spectators and fellow racers calling out to me, not only with "Yay solo" or "Go number 7", but actually yelling my name. It was the most amazing thing I had ever experienced. I began to realize that I was apparently leaving behind a legacy that meant more to me than any race win ever could. The pain of so many last place finishes paled and I felt the sheer joy again of simply being on my bike, surrounded by so many others experiencing that same joy. I was slow, very slow, reduced to walking up nearly all the big climbs on the course after my first couple of laps, but that gave me the opportunity to meet and talk with many wonderful people.
I took the advice of a dear friend and my inspiration, Jacquie Phelan, who had told me earlier "I
hope nothing quashes your love of riding, pure and simple. I have noticed that racing beyond a certain point (different in all people) can slowly or suddenly quash it. Be aware of that glowing ember, let it glow." I paid attention to and cherished everything about riding - the sunlight peaking through the clouds, the soft cooling breeze, the moonlight and the way it threw shadows, the grass glistening with morning dew, the field mice scurrying across the trail, the smell of the dirt, the rustling leaves, the intricate patterns of the rock faces, the trees swaying and creaking, the rivulets of water streaming over the granite, the way the ruts in the trail shape-shifted after each rider crossed through, even the "squish" of the muddy moss. I listened to the sound of my own breathing, my heart beating, felt my muscles work through cramps and fatigue, and marveled at the capabilities of the human body. I was no longer "racing" - I was living, and it was glorious, painful, thrilling, overwhelming. I wanted to laugh, cry, scream - so I did. I giggled, I sang, I wept, I talked to myself and the chipmunk that darted into the woods beside me.
When the clock passed noon on Sunday, I didn't want the ride to stop. I was exhausted, but I had found whatever it was that made me start riding those seven years ago, that "ember" was once again glowing. I owe more than I can ever repay to every single person who has ever cheered for me, encouraged me, supported me, or even just smiled in my direction - you brought me back alive, and refreshed in me "the spirit of mountain biking".