After four weeks on the road, I found myself back in Prescott for a few days before heading straight back toward Tucson for what has become the largest 24-hour mountain bike race in the country, the 24 Hours In The Old Pueblo (OP). I had a lot on my plate for that short stay - my very own house needed to be moved into, I had to pull all my stuff out of storage, and there was seemingly endless prep work for OP.
The amount of effort that goes into getting ready for a 24-hour race boggles my mind. Bikes need to be cleaned and tuned, tires swapped out, food needs to be planned, back-up wheels/bikes ready, food needs to bought, sufficient lighting and batteries, food needs to be baked/cooked, camping and cooking gear needs to be gathered, food needs to be tested, friends needed to be recruited and bribed to crew, and everything needs to be packed into a rather small vehicle. I liked the I-just-need-to-swap-out-some-cogs-and-chainrings-the-night-before-the-race approach I’d been able to use for Singlespeed AZ, but that wasn’t going to cut it here.
OP took Kaitlyn and I the better part of three days to get ready. We finally rolled out of town, surprisingly exhausted from the effort and very relieved to be on the road. After dark, we bounced in the rough road to 24-Hour Town, in a daze from the drive and amazed at how many RVs were packed into such a small area, and that far in advance of the race. We arrived two nights before the start, and already, we struggled to find a spot remotely near the course to set up our little camp.
"Camp." We had a dirtbag setup, working out of the back of an old pickup and off a folding plastic table. We had a canvas tarp strung over a few wooden poles I had pulled from my scrap pile at home, there were two chairs for four people, and our tiny tent barely fit between our table and the next camp over. We were surrounded by large RVs. The guy next to us swept a path through the dirt from his door to the course. Swept…as in with a broom. He had two generators running much of the time. Every other camp seemed to have an EZ Up. Beside us, another tiny tent had been set up to reserve space for someone's car. Little did they know that everyone gets parked in by a dozen or more cars come race day.
We liked our little camp. We weren't so excited about everything packed in around us.
The race started with an impressively chaotic Le Mans start, with all first-lap riders running a half-mile to their bikes. Once there, everyone insisted on trying to run-grab-bike-mount-bike-pedal in the same space. Kaitlyn jumped out of the seething, yelling crowd and got my bike in my hands. Then there was just the taste of dust in my mouth, the sound of tires crunching quickly through gravel in my ears, and the rapid exchange of hot air in my lungs.
Lap 1 As usual, the first lap was a test of will power to limit the expenditure of nervous, excited energy…a test of restraint. I settled into a hard pace and watched the lead group disappear into the cactus-lined distance. I dripped with sweat and my legs questioned the pace. Under an hour for 17 miles? So much for restraint.
Lap 2 I passed the baton to Kaitlyn in the raucous tent. I don't think I even smiled.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Zander...
Lap 3 I ran out of the tent, trying to calculate the time of Kaitlyn's fast first lap. I thought it was fast, but I couldn't be sure. Salt accumulated on my gloves in the unseasonable afternoon heat. I hit the climbs hard and paid for it toward the end of the lap.
Lap 4 Kaitlyn trotted into the tent and grinned. Focused again, I'm not sure if I even said anything back.
Lap 5 I wondered what place we were in. I drank as much as I could down without clipping a prickly pear or one of those barrel cacti perched in the apex of a turn. I got bored. And I got uncomfortably hot. The prospect of my fourth lap, the hardest for me, also had me worried.
Lap 6 Light mounted atop her helmet, Kaitlyn headed out ready for dark. "Have fun," I said. Back at camp, Cecil and Lisa had cooked up an impressive coconut sweet potato veggie soup.
Photo courtesy of Vernie Aikins...
Lap 7 Living up to my lowly expectations, my fourth lap tried to bring me to my knees. I slyly rode the first half of the course relatively easily and still had sore, exhausted legs by the last quarter lap. Passing so many other riders each lap was becoming more and more tiresome.
Lap 8 At the exchange, Kaitlyn was waiting for me, a big smile across her face. I headed back to camp for coconut sweet potato soup as Kaitlyn turned in another fast lap. We debated on a notepad at camp whether or not to double up on any laps.
Lap 9 My exceedingly bright lights cut through the blackness, and I rode as well as I ever do at night. The course was becoming familiar, and night riding in the Sonoran Desert is such a beautiful thing.
Lap 10 The next exchange left no impact on my memory apparently. Mental fatigue began to set in, my stomach went south, and the simple thought of food became entirely unappetizing. Our crew ladies said I was acting like a petulant child. I probably was.
Lap 11 It was dark.
Lap 12 One of our crew ladies realized that if Kaitlyn and I rode an equal number of laps, she'd end up riding something like 90 more minutes of riding, equivalent to more than a full lap. Via notepad, somehow I agreed to do a double lap and let Kaitlyn sleep. I whined to the crew ladies as they tried to stuff food down my throat.
Lap 13 It was still dark. I paced myself for a pair of laps, lazily slaloming around the prickly pear as so many other racers were sleeping.
Lap 14 I went straight through the exchange tent to continue my rather enjoyable ride on the quiet course.
Lap 15 Kaitlyn rested in a sleeping bag on the ground for 40 minutes, got cold, and then had her slowest and most painful lap of the race. I think she disliked my double lap more than I did. Meanwhile, I got myself into trouble with Lisa as she was so kindly trying to help me eat. "Kurt, I'm done playing games with you!" she scolded as she forced me to eat some banana with cashew butter. I nearly threw up right there.
Lap 16 The sunrise lap, my favorite! I was also growing tired of riding in the dark. With my light’s batteries dying, I eagerly awaited the first glimpse of the sun and drawing on its energy. And energize me it did...
Lap 17 By now, Kaitlyn's stomach had also turned on her. She was living off canned peaches, and I could only choke down some sweet potato chips as I sat in the chair in between laps and stared off into space.
Lap 18 By now we had opened up a solid lead in our category.
Lap 19 Kaitlyn charged off on what she thought would be her final lap as I ate some chicken soup that Kaitlyn had scavenged from Aaron Gulley's (my race partner from last year) camp. I managed to get it all down, and it seemed to calm my stomach a bit.
Then, in the exchange tent, I watched the race clock as I waited for Kaitlyn to come in. She trotted in at 10:50 a.m. after crushing her "last" lap. I eagerly ran up to her. "If I can ride under 1:10, you can do another lap!" I exclaimed.
"Oh, fuck," she replied as her face dropped.
Lap 20 I launched back onto the course for my final lap, pushing hard for the first five miles. Then muscles throughout my body began threatening to cramp. The last thing I wanted was to be reduced to walking, so I backed off and gave up the notion of finishing before the last-lap cutoff at noon.
By the time I reached the final climb, my legs began to put up a serious protest, so I backed off even further. All sense of urgency was gone.
Somehow, though, to my amazement, I crested the final climb at 11:56 a.m. I knew that the descent back to the exchange usually took me just shy of four minutes. I stood up, cranked hard over the top, and railed. I unfortunately made a few rather rude passes, yelling something incoherent about trying to make it back by noon.
When the exchange tent came into view, I could hear everyone counting down.
At five seconds I ran into the tent.
At four I fumbled to pull the baton from my pocket.
At one I handed the baton to Kaitlyn.
And as the clock struck noon, Kaitlyn strode out of the tent.
Lap 21 Kaitlyn's victory lap. She had decided she would only ride a 21st lap if she could "Skip the Bitches" and spin the entire time. So she rode the longer, scenic, singletrack option, befriended an exhausted solo racer also on a victory/recovery lap, drank Gatorade with volunteers, and didn't shift out of her small chainring.
And at 1:43 p.m., they rode into the tent just in time for the awards.
Photo courtesy of Devon Orme...
We were both rather blown away by how everything played out. Our seemingly optimistic goal was 20 laps, and we managed to set a new course record for coed duo.
By the time we finished packing up the truck, the chaos of 24-Hour Town had evaporated. Almost everyone was gone. It was quiet. Scattered about were overflowing dumpsters and crushed cholla. And we were exhausted.
We made it 15 minutes down the road before having to switch drivers. After that, we both nearly fell asleep at the wheel, so we finally broke down and got a motel in Apache Junction after wandering the aisles of Fry's looking for food that sounded good. We fell asleep with the light on and didn't stir until well after most folks were already at work the next day.
Thank you Cecil and Lisa for the amazing and tolerant support!
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After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous west. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country, enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. When driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity. www.krefs.blogspot.com