Looking down at my GPS I could see that we had just crested 12,500 feet on our quest to make it to the mandatory 3 PM checkpoint. Trying to do math when your heart rate is maxed out and your lungs are dying for air is nearly impossible. I knew at the start of the race how far we needed to go and how fast we needed to travel in order to hit the checkpoint, but at this point in the race those numbers just rolled around inside my brain with no semblance of making any sense whatsoever.
My GPS was showing an average rate of speed that I thought was close to what we needed and I knew approximately how many more miles we had to cover. As we got closer to the cutoff time and continued to lose speed and gain elevation the demons in my head started to get louder and louder, shouting that we were going to miss the cut off. We stopped several times to try and catch our breath and grab some food. During those brief breaks the only words that were muttered to each other were motivational; Forward motion. We have to continue. We can’t stop. Breathe. Pedal. Breathe. Pedal.
To my surprise, the demons forced me to push harder and climb faster, and they created a race between me and the average rate of speed displayed before me. At that point nothing else mattered but getting that miles per hour to read faster than it had the mile before. I began to regain some hope that we would make it. Just then, I looked back and realized that Brian was falling off the back and that mentally his demons were getting the better of him. To complicate the matter even more, this particular race was done in two-person teams. Racers were not allowed to be more than 100 meters apart from their teammates at any given time.
The reality of the situation started to set in; beating your own personal demons is one thing, but helping your teammate beat theirs is an entirely unique complication.
I stopped along the side of the road to grab some air and wait for Brian. As he rode closer I heard him yell out, “Do you think we are going to make it?” My mind immediately went back to the numbers that were rolling around in my head, I looked down once again at the GPS and as I looked up to answer the only thing that came out of my mouth was a heart shattering, “No.” The numbers didn’t add up right, the speed was not there, and the distance to the checkpoint seemed too far. It was ten minutes to 3 PM, and if we don’t hit the checkpoint in time we would be pulled from the race.
I put my head down in disbelief. I was done and my mind went to some bad places. I was still staring at the ground barely pedaling when I heard Brian say, “Dude, check it out!” I looked up and saw he was pointing to the crest of the hill. There I saw a white pop-up tent and a few parked vehicles, and to our relief an individual holding a clipboard waiting for us.
We both knew what we had to do. Heads down, lungs gasping for air, we took off. We hit the checkpoint with two minutes to spare. We would be the last team allowed to continue on that day.
We wanted to stop for a minute to catch our breath and celebrate our small victory, but we were told to move on. There were other teams coming that hadn’t made the cutoff, and it would not be good for us to be there when they were told their race was over. In front of us was El Moro, the final push to 14,000 feet before we hit the decent (or what we thought would be a decent) into the finish of day one.
The Vuelta al Cotopaxi, a two-day race around the world’s highest active volcano, was going to prove to be a much bigger adventure than we’d originally thought.
Watch for more stories from Benton and Brian's trip to Ecuador in the February 2015 issue of Mountain Flyer magazine.
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I have been passionate about bikes since I was old enough to skid the plastic tires on my Big Wheel. I purchased my first mountain bike when I was 13, and I never looked back. I have a healthy respect for all forms of cycling, but most of the time you will find me riding singletrack, often on my Fargo.