Tuesday, March 29, 2005

TAKING THE LEAP

Nancy Reagan has been quoted as saying “A woman is like a tea bag -- only in hot water do you realize how strong she is.” Never was this truer in my own situation than back in June of 2004 when I decided, on a whim really, to participate in the National Off-road Bicycle Association (NORBA) Nationals inaugural Marathon mountain bike series. NORBA had decided this season to institute a Marathon bike race in their annual mountain bike series consisting of multiple events in various cities across the United States, to go along with the traditional fare of Cross Country, Downhill and Mountain Cross. Racers participating in the individual events would be vying for a year-end series award in addition to the medals offered at each specific venue. As an endurance bike racer for the past several years, I figured I would give the new Marathon a shot – I mean, after doing multiple solo 24 hour events, how tough could it be, right? Apparently I had forgotten how brutal and unforgiving the terrain of West Virginia can be, particularly during the infamous rainy season which is June in that region. Snowshoe Mountain is littered with loose slippery rocks, and there are large tree roots spiderwebbed all across the singletrack. The sections of the course consisting of doubletrack are severely steep and seemingly endless, reaching up to what appears to be infinity. However, I firmly believe, as Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing”, and so I signed up and decided to take the plunge.

Naturally, on arriving at the start line for the Marathon in the early morning hours on that early June Thursday morning, the skies were dark and threatening, and it had in fact been raining the entire week previously. There was only one other woman in my age group of 40+, and a total of only about 41 entrants altogether, roughly half of which were pros. On the start, I took my time and headed into the trail very close to the back of the pack. The course was immediately slick and treacherous, and I’m not a very technical rider anyway, so things were looking grim from the beginning. I loosened up a bit once I reached the doubletrack climb and settled into a nice rhythm. Unfortunately that was soon to change. After a couple of miles of climbing, the trail headed into the woods, where I was faced with mile after mile of slippery, rooty, rocky singletrack which I found virtually unrideable. So I dismounted, heaved my bike onto my shoulder and ran. A lot. I ran for what seemed like an eternity, and to make things worse, there were course markers indicating which way the trail actually went only very sporadically, so there were many times when I wasn’t even sure I was going the right way, until I would happen across a marker which fortunately indicated that I was traveling in the right direction. It seemed that the only sections of trail I could ride were the steep, exhausting, gravel-strewn fireroad climbs. I was discouraged, disappointed and disillusioned, wondering what on earth had possessed me to attempt something like this. Shortly after that, I was passed by a couple of cross country riders who were preriding for their race later in the weekend. With their shouts of encouragement reawakening my spirit, I pressed on. That is, until I came to a 25 foot wide creek criss-crossing the trail. I stopped, and noticed a course marshal sitting on the opposite bank, reading a book. I yelled across to ask if I was in the right place, to which he responded “Yep.” I asked if anyone had managed to ride across this body of water. “Nope – not even the lead motorcycle – everybody has had to walk it.” So I once again gathered up my bike and stepped into the water, which rapidly rose up to my hips! There were slick loose rocks in the bottom, and tiny fish snapping at my ankles and shins as I waded through. I struggled up through the deep sand on the opposite bank, then remounted and headed down the gravel road to the next creek crossing. This creek was shallower, so I rode slowly through. By this time, I was so tired that I tried to just stay on my bike and crawl very slowly through the singletrack where I could, and rode painfully slowly up the climbs. As I wound around the trail, I noticed a course marshal sitting on a ledge up above the trail, shouting encouragement to me, and asking if I needed any food or water. I had plenty, but asked how far in last place I was. He told me that nearly half the entrants (including half the pros!) had already resigned from the race, and taken a DNF (race term for “Did Not Finish”), so I was already in the top half by still hanging in there! At this point, I had been on the course for probably 5 hours, it was starting to rain, and I was exhausted. But I was determined to see this thing to the bitter end, so I pressed on.

I couldn’t believe how treacherous this trail became. There was one section in particular which struck sheer terror into my heart. After riding an off-camber ledge for a couple of miles, the trail suddenly dropped down into a giant hole, with a drop off to the left that looked like it fell into the gaping maw of hell itself. The only way through was to toss my bike up over an uprooted tree on the trail, and then grab the limbs and climb up. I was barely able to do this, being rather short, but somehow I managed to get both my bike and my body up and over this tree and continue on.

Upon rounding the next corner, I realized that I was probably still over 2 hours from the finish line, as I was just now passing the Silver Creek Lodge which is close to the bottom of Snowshoe Mountain, with the finish line at the very peak. I wanted to cry, but didn’t even have the energy to do that. I alternated between riding and pushing my bike until I got to the last section of singletrack. At this point, the course marshals told me I only had about one more mile to go. Liars! By my computer, the trail snaking its way up to the crest of the mountain was over 4 miles – a rocky, rooty, muddy, slimy, wet 4 miles – but I rode it. I rode every last inch of it. I had finally crossed out onto the last fireroad, but didn’t know how close I was to the finish, when a woman rode by me. She encouraged me to keep going, and told me I only had to round one last corner to finish, so as painful as it was, I kept pedaling. Then I saw it – the finish line. And I also saw the timing clock. It said 7 hours and 25 minutes, so I hurriedly set a mini goal for myself – to beat 7 and a half hours. I dug deep and found my will again. I stood up and pedaled as hard as I ever have, to cross the finish line at 7 hours and 29 minutes.

I was thrilled to have finished, but sad because I suspected I had finished last, as slowly as I had been muddling through the course. I asked the NORBA official when the results would be posted, and he told me that I had won for my age group! Amazingly, this race win put in me in first place for the series. I anxiously awaited the results for each successive Marathon series event, always assuming that my temporary title would be lost. However, as it turned out, this win at one of the most difficult venues I have ever raced was sufficient to give me the Overall Marathon Series Title for 2004 for the Women 40+ category. As inspirational author, Kobi Yamada, said “Sometimes you just have to take the leap, and build your wings on the way down.”

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