It's 4:00 a.m. and I'm pedaling my bike through the desert, hoping that my lights will not run out of battery power. My I-phone has died so I no longer have music playing to distract me from the soreness in my hands and butt. My back is aching with a pain caused from a wreck that happened eight hours earlier. The pain has been steadily getting worse, a pain that I know is slowing me down every lap. I decide the silence is better because my senses are alive, keeping me in tune with the surroundings. To my left I hear a hidden bird call as I pedal into a wash. The air is colder in the washes and I wonder where the bird is hiding. My focus comes back to the bike as the deep sand in the wash almost causes my front tire to slide out beneath me. At this point, I have been on my bike for sixteen hours. I take it one mile at a time and tell myself that I can last eight more hours. I've got this.
Bike racing is a many faceted sport. You can race on road, dirt, or on snow for forty minutes to several days. For me, the 24 hour race remains on the top of my list embodying all of my favorite characteristics. These epic races bring many cyclists together from all ages and walks of life, creating a unique challenge.
One of the largest of these is held every February outside of Tucson, AZ. I first competed in The 24 Hours of Old Pueblo last year. With only about five bike races under me, I figured why not give the 24 hour solo epic a try. It was a difficult race for me due to a wreck at the beginning causing a flexor tendon injury that left me without the use of my right thumb. I also spent five hours in the medical tent attempting to get the sight back in my left eye. Difficulties aside, I still made it onto the podium to 4th place. Old Pueblo tested me to my limits and I'll never forget it.
Despite all the struggle, I yearned to go back this year and do even better. This time I didn't just want to finish..I wanted to win. Thanks to the coaching I have been receiving from Jim Capra, and my husband's excellent pit man skills, I figured I would do well this year. I remember driving up to the famous 24 Hour Town filled with confidence. I just felt it deep down; I was going to put on a great performance this year. That didn't mean that I knew I would win it. Quite the contrary; there are so many factors that go into a win at such a large mountain bike event, that I would never assume that I could control every little detail. Rather, I can only prepare myself and my equipment to the best of my ability, assuring that I reach my top potential. After that, I just try to ride my best race.
Most people choose to participate in these events as a member of a team, anywhere from two to five riders. I like the challenge of riding solo. There is something about that feeling that I get when I push myself beyond the normal parameters of exercise. I love the place I get to in my head when it's three in the morning and I have been riding non-stop for fifteen hours; a place of self reflection, a place where I can visit all my fears, doubts, loves and joys. I focus on my friends and family, the lessons they have taught me and the love that they show me. That feeling is one of the most profound I've ever experienced.
To begin the race at Old Pueblo, each rider runs at least a quarter of a mile to their bike. They jump on and the race begins. Riders continue all through the night and into the next morning. Each team or individual has a goal to get as many laps completed within the 24 hour time frame. The team or individual who completes the most laps is the winner.
At the start of the run I felt strong. I was in the lead until two of my opponents passed me. A wave of disappointment swept through me as they passed, but then I quickly realized that I had at least 23 hours to catch them. I caught both on my second lap. With each lap I continued to gain more time. I felt amazing, and my pace remained consistent with each passing hour.
My husband continued to play the part of my pit man to perfection; always having the right food available and giving my bike a quick scan when I rolled by. Each time I set out on another lap, a wave of love hit me for the man. He was doing a great job taking care of me.
It was on my sixth lap, around 7:00 PM when the wreck happened. I was almost done with the lap when a man called out "on your left." I quickly moved right to let him pass. Little did I know that there was another individual behind him. He did not make his presence known and also attempted to pass on my left. All I remember was him saying "Oh shit! I misjudged this." Instead of riding straight into a cactus, he swerved towards me hitting my handle bars forcefully. The force caused my front wheel to slip, and I fell hard onto the left side of my back. Moaning, I tried to get up, but felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me. The man who caused the wreck continued to apologize profusely as I moaned in pain. Another man who was behind us attempted to help me up as he stopped other approaching riders. They asked me if I was okay and if they needed to call the paramedics. I said no. The only thing I could think of was that I was 30 minutes in the lead and I wanted to win. I told them I had to keep going. So, I did.
With tears I made it back to my aid station and my husband. He asked if I needed to stop for a bit. I knew I didn't want to. "Just give me some Ibuprofen," I said. I took it, along with as much food as I could stuff in my mouth and continued. "Just put a smile back on, Ash" was all I could think as I rode away from my husband and into the exchange tent. I crossed, and waved to the crowd pretending that I was fine.
I continued riding for seven more laps, about 100 miles. With each lap, the pain continued to bother me, but Adrenalin and a desire to win kept me pedaling with fury. Over the next 7 laps, I gained another 30 minutes on second place.
It was after my 13th lap when I realized I had to stop. The sun had risen, my most cherished time in all 24 hour races. When the sun comes up, you feel almost revived and renewed. You made it through the most difficult night laps and now you just have to keep up the good work.
My eyes were starting to become blurry, a problem I have dealt with before in long races. This year I had some amazing sunglasses (made by Kask) that a new friend, Nat Ross, gave to me. They were great because I could tilt them down a bit to avoid getting foggy lenses. In the past, I have had to take off my glasses when they fog up, which resulted in grit getting under my contact. I spent the rest of one race with almost no vision in the left eye. Thankfully, I could keep my eyes protected this time. That said, I still needed to add eye drops to keep my vision from getting too blurry. I went to lay down so my husband could apply the drops when I felt a pop and the pain in my back became so excruciating that I almost vomited. I couldn't even get up without assistance. I knew I had to stop.
My husband and I walked slowly to the medical tent. The paramedics said I most likely had at least one broken rib and, no, I could not get back on the bike. You see, I was an hour ahead and I wanted to win! Sitting there in agonizing pain, I realized that this race just wasn't going to be mine. There was no use in pouting about it. There will be more to come, and one day the cards will fall my way
I stayed in 24 Hour Town until noon so that I could finish the race and not receive a DNF (Did Not Finish). At noon, I had someone help me walk my bike through the tent and finished in 6th place with 13 laps. I'm not ashamed of this result. I gave this race my best effort, and in that light, I did what came to do.
Before I end this blog, I just want to say thanks to everyone who helped me with this race. I could not have done it alone! First to the guys at Kokopelli Bike and Board. They always do a great job fixing and working on my bikes. They have been, and continue to be, a huge encouragement to me. Second to Nat Ross for treating me so kindly and giving me my amazing new Kask helmet and sunglasses, and thanks for his much needed advice. Third to my coach Jim Capra with Tyler Hamilton Training. My legs felt amazing during and after this race, a fact that I contribute to his training advice. Fourth, to Todd Sadow and the folks at Epic Rides. They put on some great events, and I am thankful for their hard work and dedication to mountain biking. And last, but not least to my husband,Ben, for showing me love in so many different ways.