No Easy Day
I fancy myself an adventurer and somewhat athletic. But more and more I have the unfortunate habit of running into people who really are. Months ago, friends suggested I volunteer to ride as “sweep” for the 36-mile rocky, winding, single-track Mountain Bike race in our town of Pinetop, Arizona. Asking myself the same question every delusional person does before doing something stupid, “How hard can it really be?”
After all, I looked the part …. my new ultra-light carbon fiber bike with 29 inch wheels defined me as a ‘weight weenie’ – someone obsessed with reducing the weight of their bicycle (it’s a lot easier to pedal a lighter bike folks!). And wearing those unflattering, padded black cycling shorts that are the only protection between your tush and your hard (but light!) bike seat. I may have looked the part, but I know my place in this hierarchy of awesomeness and it was last…. not just as a figure of speech – but officially last. Being a “sweep” is all about being last; escorting and calling in for pickup of stragglers and helping with equipment malfunctions – what can be so hard about that?
As long as I don’t “biff” on the more technical parts of the single-track. Or go “endo” on the steep downhill or rocky portions of the trail if I have my weight too far forward or apply my brakes too suddenly. But I was pretty sure no matter what else happened that I would “bonk” (carb depletion) during the 36 mile single-track mountain bike race starting in the next few minutes. Straddling my bicycle and waiting for the starting shot way at the back of the pack… behind the hundreds of super-buff mountain bikers, I ask myself again, “how hard can it really be?”
Very hard. For someone like me who used to think riding a mountain bike was hopping on my bike for a ride to yoga, or a mosey around the neighborhood, let me right now draw the distinction between the act of riding a mountain bike and the sport of mountain biking. Riding a mountain bike is easy. Mountain bikes are evolutionary improvements on the bikes of my youth – stable, beefy, and ideal for such outdoor sports as going to the store or returning a borrowed spice to a friend.
But riding up, down and around a mountain on a bike is a difficult thing. Mountains that look simple, solid and inspiring from afar look way different up close and personal. The narrow tracks that wind through the forest just wider than your handle bars are daunting and mined with rocks, roots, loose scree and ruts. The good news is that on a single-track mountain bike race, your tiny world becomes very focused and you can eat as much as you want.
Hours later as I claw my way up the narrow winding single-track well behind the pack, I tell myself, “I am doing my duty back here”. I extend words of encouragement to stragglers telling them not to overextend themselves; no shame in walking. Then I realize at this speed I might as well be. My bike must be an engineering marvel to be able to stay upright at a shuffling pace. Then, just as I am about to totter over from my glacial speed, the trail makes a steep drop over rocks and I hang on for dear life. Although my mountain biking skills are not to be counted on, my bicycle is capable of saving my sorry self all on its own and bounds ahead over the toughest obstacles and rocks. I literally study the ground ahead. In theory the autumn leaves and forest views are awesome on this trail, if only I could risk tearing my gaze from the rock-strewn path in front of me. I am also on the lookout to make way for the serious front contenders I meet head on, returning hours ahead of the stragglers. MAKE WAY! Trails like this are the domain of muscled thigh guys with tattoos that read ‘ANIMAL’.
After climbing and dropping through the narrow trails for six hours, I get a call from the race organizer. “We hear you are encountering problems out there. Time to bring the stragglers back.” Inwardly rejoicing, I describe my position and the organizer tells me, “There’s a trail right ahead that’ll take you to the bottom. It is about the same distance, but will take you off the side of the mountain and onto the forest road.” I’m all over that piece of wisdom. I grab my “stragglers” and break the news that since the awards were given out two hours ago, no harm – no foul in taking the easy way back. Quiet cheers of relief from all concerned.
After seven hours in the saddle, my husband Glen and our friends are waiting for me as we cross the finish line. Everyone else finished hours earlier, and they are relieved to know they won’t have to search the forest for our bodies.
Like everyone who narrowly skirts disaster and lives to tell of it, I only realize what fun I’ve had at the end, while eating large quantities of Fig Newtons. I would try to convey this happiness to my husband, but he is already talking about course and training improvements for the next year. “Next year”? I ask with my mouth full of cookies. But then I lean back on the grass next to my bike, content in the knowledge that I have accomplished something worthy. Next year is far off. And after all, “How hard can it really be?”