Today we share part 2 of 3 from sponsored rider Tim Ek's story, Where Eagles Fly. Click here to read Part 1. -Kid
The hike-a-bike to Granite Peak was arduous to say the least. I pushed my bike up impossible inclines while stumbling and twisting over loose scree. My shin smashed into the pedal time and time again. Pain shooting through my whole body became something of the norm. I accepted that one step in front of the other would eventually get me to the top, to the "high point". Switchback after switchback left me frustrated and wondering if I was making any progress at all. Soon I was reduced to taking ten steps at a time, pausing, and repeating. I decided to try to carry my bike. I grasped my downtube and hoisted the machine, but it didn't move. I tried again, nothing. I squared my feet under me, positioning myself as if I were about to lift a 100-pound object, and only then was I able to raise the bicycle from its grip with the trail. My weakness troubled me as I became acutely aware that I was into the upper reaches of this race. The air was thin and I was operating on reserves I didn't even know I had. I vowed to take a rest once at the top to try to absorb the expansiveness that lay before me.
The path to Granite Peak...
Sunrise broke through the distant peaks as I made the final ascent. Leaning my bike against a boulder I noticed a pounding in my ears. Whuuump...Whuuump...Whuuump. My heart was pounding with an intensity I had not known. It desperately did whatever it could to deliver blood and oxygen to my already starving muscles. I needed to get off this mountain fast. All those months of imagining what it would be like up there, picturing me reveling in its beauty, feeling as if I'd conquered something bigger than myself, disappeared in a flurry of heartbeats...all I wanted was OFF THAT MOUNTAIN. I snapped a few pictures and began the treacherous descent down from Granite Peak.
My partner who I'd been riding with earlier was leaving the summit as I arrived. He called back to me that he wanted to get started on the descent, as it was very dangerous. I called out as he rode away, "Be careful!” and he responded in kind. I marveled at him traversing the mountain. He looked skilled and complete, as he and his bike appeared to be at one. I knew I wouldn't look that good.
My partner riding beginning the descent off Granite Peak...
The smell of my pads melting against the discs was the first thing I noticed during the descent. The second was my brake levers collapsing deeper into the grips as the fluid in my lines and calipers began to cook. I hung on the edge of control as I hit the stepdowns with too much speed. "Keep your butt back!” I yelled to myself as the front end began to pogo stick around the trail. "Loosen the hands!” was the next command I demanded from myself. "That's just too much, dismount, it's too dangerous!"
Nine hours into the event and I needed my brain to be operating in maximum attention mode, despite the wispy thin air. I just needed to make it to tree line. Somehow I reasoned that everything would be better once I was below tree line. I wanted off the ominous rocky moonscape.
Soon the slope of the singletrack decreased and developed more flow. I decided to let my brakes cool, which meant not touching them. At this stage of the game my tires and I became the best of friends. Glued to the corners I railed through the 20-mile section, hands off the brakes, feet in coasting mode. Imagine riding 20 miles of possibly the best singletrack in the country and not having to pedal. My shocks were working overtime as I smashed through rough sections, bike clattering, and skipped over obstacles. The constant sounds of tires against loose rock, chain slap, wind noise, and a number plate that wouldn't shut up, and then sudden and complete silence as my bike and I would leave terra firma floating through space in complete and utter bliss for one, maybe two seconds, then touch down and back to the chaotic sounds of man and mountain bike traveling at 20mph down a mountain. The smile on my face was permanent, but I still needed to be careful. The descent went on and on to the point where I had to just sit down on the seat as my calves were burning from being in a half-crouched position for nearly 45 minutes. Would it ever end? All this down had to mean more up. Worry about the impending climb crept in. I knew I'd see the top of the Continental Divide again, but when?
The Descent of the Gods ended at Checkpoint 2 or what is more affectionately called the "Wiens Aid Station". This aid station is run by world famous mountain biker Dave Wiens, and his family. I'll admit that I had secret plans for this aid station. I wanted to talk to Dave, introduce myself, tell him I was a big fan, and who knows maybe get my picture taken with him. However, when I pulled in, I was so shelled that all I wanted was a minute off the bike. As I pulled in a man was approaching me amidst the cheers. It was Dave himself greeting me. "Right here, right here", he said as he directed me where to put my rig. "Want me to lube your chain?” he asked. "Sure, that would be nice, thank you", were the words that came out of me, as if I were on some kind of autopilot. He burned through a list of directions for me that all made me feel better.
I liked Mr. Wiens very much at this point. His family was just as great. They fed me pancakes and sausage while I regaled them with stories of my ascent of Granite Peak and my descent to their humble aid station. Wide-eyed they listen to me while the kids poked at the fire. I shoved breakfast into my face between sentences and I went on with intensity that I usually only display around my closest of friends. Right now the Wiens family was just that. In fact, they were the only friends I had and I felt like I'd known them for years. The news that I was from Duluth, Minnesota had them rallying behind me. My spirits soared, I wanted to stay in their warm embrace, but I needed to move on. Dave's mother finished topping off my hydration pack and sent me on my way as if she was sending one of her own off to the first day of school. I thanked them all and reviewed the upcoming route one more time with them. "So, down the road, into the valley, then up Old Monarch Pass for a nine-mile climb. Is that right?" I asked. "Yeah, but you've got hills in Duluth, right?” Dave's brother asked. "Yes, but they aren't nine-miles long", I said. They all laughed and wished me good luck. I clicked in and was off.
The climb up Old Monarch Pass...
8AM and I'd been on my bike for a while now at high altitude. I was flat-out tired. Deep yawns were now the norm for me. My queasy, nervous stomach was still there. I gave up thinking that it was because of the jitters and accepted that it was because of the altitude and effort. The problem was that this stomach issue was keeping me from much-needed calories. Eating food just didn't appeal to me, and I was fading fast. The sun climbed much faster than I and beat down on me at 11,000 feet. I felt the skin on my arms and neck burning as I ground up the gravel road switchbacks of the pass. One after another the sweeping turns came, but the pitch never changed. My energy stores were long since gone; I was turning over the pedals on desperation alone at this point. Then it happened, I slowed, wobbled, and came to a complete stop. Literally sick and tired my legs said "NO MORE!” My eyes filled with tears as the pain and disappointment washed over me. This stop marked a turning point for me. Had I opened the floodgates to failure by stopping? Would I have to quit this race?
All things must end and that included this climb. Reaching the summit of Old Monarch Pass I was blessed with a short gravel downhill stretch, and then singletrack leading to Aid Station 3. A small group of recreational riders hovered around the entrance to this piece of trail. They immediately noticed my number plate, or perhaps my battered and broken being. They broke into a round of cheers and clapping. I felt bad, because I was negotiating a sketchy turn as I passed them and in a second they were behind me. "You didn't even thank them", the negative voice in my head said. "I bet they think you're a jerk", it went on. I tried to shove the negative guy out of my mind, convincing myself that they understood that I was wasted tired and couldn't afford the extra energy.
The short, snappy climbs of the trail put a deep hurt into my legs. The pulling on the bars lit up my middle finger joint every ten seconds or so. The pain became so intense that I would sometimes miss a breath because of it. I needed to hit checkpoint 3 to dump my heavy pack. I'd be better once I got to the aid station. Suddenly, the sound of cars moving at high speed came to my ears. This was it! Tom warned us in the pre-race meeting of a highway at Monarch Pass that the trail dumped into. I had done it! Had I done it? It was a highway to be sure, but I didn't see any aid station. I double-checked for traffic and gingerly crossed. My GPS sent me down the road. I was confused, as I doubted that they would route us onto such a busy road. I rode down to the rest area, which turned out to be Aid Station 3. An aid worker approached and looked me up and down. The look on his face told me that I was a sight to behold. Like a savior he dedicated himself to me, stripping my bike of lights, dumping unneeded gear from my frame bag, while I sat on the blacktop fumbling with my shoes in an effort to change my socks. His name was Michael and he was very thorough with me. Michael understood my state. He understood bike racing. He ran for any type of food I requested and relayed critical course information to my clouded mind.
Close to rolling out, unsure if I could ride one more mile, the thought of quitting cascading through my mind, I dared to ask him, "How many miles to the finish?" Michael hesitated and gently stated, "50 miles to the finish." Completely and utterly dumbfounded I stared at him vacantly, snapped the chest strap of my Camelback, clipped in and headed toward the singletrack. My eyes dropped to my handlebar and that's when I saw it for the first time throughout the entire event; written upon a piece of athletic tape, the words "Nitty Gritty". I had put the tape on the bar before the race in a nervous gesture, thinking I just might need a reminder as to who I am as a rider. I'll never be the fastest rider. I'll never be the most skilled, but I will always be the one who is dirty, wounded, but determined. I will always be the one who will never quit!
"...I will always be the one who is dirty, wounded, but determined. I will always be the one who will never quit!"
The Monarch Crest Trail, the gem of the Vapor Trail and some would argue the gem of the Rocky Mountains, was my next section. I would traverse toward aid station 4 at 11,000 feet, well above the tree line, enjoying some of the most spectacular views my eyes have ever seen. Sweeping expanses of endless valleys, bordered by peaks that shot straight up to the heavens were all around me. I was riding along the spine of our country, I was in the middle of it all, and I was going to finish this thing. At least that's what I thought.
----END OF PART TWO - THE STORY CONCLUDES FRIDAY
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Tim (Eki) Ek
Tim Ek was born and raised in Duluth, Minn., and still calls it home. He’s always had a passion for competition and seeking his own extremes. Tim's true love is the woods: Out in the wild is where he clears his head and finds his peace, and he prefers getting there by bike. Tim Ek: The Eki Chronicles, ekichronicles2.kinetic-fitness.com