Wednesday, February 23, 2022

24 Hours of Old Pueblo or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dark

I've known about 24 Hours of Old Pueblo for a while, and it was always a race I wanted to do. This year, it seemed a strong possibility, but registration was closed by the time I looked into it. I was in limbo for a week or two as I waited to see if I could get a spot, because if I couldn't, I was still maybe going to head out and be the pit crew for some friends who were doing it. Luckily, Rob Kulik from Flow Formulas came in clutch like he always does and got me a spot in the race. As soon as I found out I was in the race, I was beyond excited and could not wait to get out to the desert to rip it for 24 hours straight! Will was also going out to do it, so it was going to an awesome trip.

Some foreshadowing. Hint: Gordon beat me.

After a few weeks of getting some fun long rides in with Will, it was time to fly out to the race. I had some last minute bike issues (blown out fork, broken spoke the day before we flew out, etc), and I wasn't sure what bike I was even going to race. Eventually I decided on racing my full suspension Specialized Epic, and I put 34x18 gearing on it. Hard gearing, but I heard it was a flat course.

The night before we flew out, I finished up packing, loaded my bike into the bag, and then Will came over and we loaded up his bike as well. Next morning... wake up super early for the flight, get to Phoenix, and then rent a U-Haul van. Then we drove 2 hours to the race venue to pick up our packets and discuss some pit crew plans with our support team. After that, we headed to the hotel, got some dinner, and built up the bikes in the hotel room. We also stopped at Walmart to buy an insane amount of food. Surprisingly, we actually got to bed early and got a really good night's sleep.

Race morning came around, and it was show-time. We drove back to the race venue and got all our supplies set up at our pit station. We got super lucky to have such an amazing pit crew: Rob Griffin and his wife Steffi were the best support you could ask for. Our pit area was directly next to Taylor Lideen, and his wife Mary also offered to help us out during the race. Then, directly across from our pit area was Gordon Wadsworth. It was fun to be pitting right across from the fastest singlespeeder in the country (in the world?), and his humor lightened the mood a little before the race.

After everything was set, Will and I went back to our U-Haul to take it easy. The U-Haul had a metal mesh screen between the back and the cab area, so when Will laid down in the back to rest, it was like he was a captured stray dog or something in a dog-catcher van.

Finally, it was go-time. We racked our bikes at the start line (it was a Le Mans start, which means running to your bikes to start the race), checked in, and walked down the dirt road to where we'd start the 1/2 mile or so run.

We got to the start area for the run and I sat down on the edge of the dirt road. There was a clock counting down the time to the official start. I think it was about 25 minutes to go when I sat down. I'm normally a very calm person, but sitting in the desert run watching a clock count down the minutes to a 24 hour race is pretty crazy. People were having a good time - there was an overweight man wearing only a small green thong, a man dressed as a chicken, and Gordon kissing Kaolen Cummen's bicep tattoo that said "24 Hours".

After what seemed like an eternity, the gun went off and we started running. It was hectic; hundreds of people in cycling shoes sprinting down a dirt road - shoulder to shoulder and dust everywhere. When I got to the bikes, I couldn't find mine. There were so many people that I must've ran past my bike, so I turned around and started running back maybe 100 feet. Finally, after a couple minutes of frantically searching, I heard Rob Griffin yelling out my name and holding my bike. I hopped on, he gave me a good push and some encouragement, and I was on my way.

I was way at the back of the pack, so I pretty much sprinted balls out for the whole first lap, passing as many people as I could. I knew immediately that the heat was going to be a problem. Within minutes of starting, I already felt dehydrated. I finished the first lap and blew right past the pit station; I had two bottles on my bike and did not want to waste any time stopping after the first lap.

On the second lap, I was riding just as hard to try and make up time that I lost at the start. I didn't wear a heart rate monitor, but I guarantee I was in zone 4/5 the entirety of the first two laps. About halfway through the second lap, I burped my tire (meaning I lost air between the bead and the rim) and had to stop to add air. Unfortunately, my CO2 inflator was busted, so I could only add a tiny bit of air. Also, while I was fixing that issue, I kicked a cactus and a needle went through my shoe into the side of my foot.

I rode the rest of the lap completely full throttle, with a low back tire, and with a needle jabbing my foot. When I got the pit station, I chugged a bottle of water and crushed a piece of pizza, and I told Rob my rear tire was low. As I quickly ate and drank, he pumped up my tire for me and lubed up my chain. I hopped back on my bike and set off for lap three.

On this lap, I started to settle into a rhythm a little more. I was still feeling dehydrated, and it was hard to eat anything, but I felt calmer at least. Although, the thought of riding 22 more hours when I was already feeling pretty smoked was definitely a little daunting. I was regretting going out so hard for the first two hours.

The next lap, I met up with Rob Kevwitch (another solo SS'er) and we rode together for the second half of the lap. I've raced him before and I knew he was fast, so I was a little worried when his pace felt pretty tough for me. We each headed to our pit stations after that lap, and that was the last I saw of him the rest of the race. For a while he was staying almost exactly 10 minutes behind me.

The desert sun was excruciating, and even though it was only 80 degrees, the sun made it feel like 100. There were times when it seemed impossible that I could keep riding my bike for another 19 hours. But, as I've learned, it's best to just not question it and keep pedaling. Seriously, that has became one of my main mottos when it gets hard: don't question why you're doing it, just keep doing it. You made a decision to start it, so don't change your mind once you begin.

Also, it always gets better. That's another important thing I remember. I knew nightfall would be coming soon (aren't those lyrics to a song?), and I could not wait for the sun to go down and the air to get cooler. 

Soon enough, the sun started to set, and immediately my energy went up. I was able to eat and drink better, and I heard I was now in 2nd place sinqlespeed, so I was feeling pretty good all around. My new headlight - an Exposure Six Pack - was perfect, and it gave me a lot of confidence at night. Also, watching the moonrise was absolutely incredible. It was an orange glow just over the mountainous horizon, and it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Ok, maybe not quite that, but almost.

The first few night laps were pretty uneventful. I was just riding along, having a good time, and trying to stay on top of eating and drinking. By around midnight, I was feeling pretty tired, but I knew from experience that there are always highs and lows. That, I hoped, was just a temporary low.

After another lap of feeling pretty bad, I decided I needed to do something about it. I rolled into the pit station probably around 2am and was feeling really bad. I probably wasn't talking very clearly, but Rob and Steffi understood what I needed. Taylor Lideen, who unfortunately crashed out of the race, put a chair next to the fire for me and told me to sit down and warm up for a minute while I drank my coke. I only sat for maybe two minutes, but it was enough to drink a coke, some apple juice, eat some mini cherry pies, and crush a 200mg caffeine pill.

Now, maybe the caffeine pill was just masking my tiredness, but that next lap, I felt amazing. I remember flying down some twisty desert singletrack and singing Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" at the top of my lungs. I was so unbelievably happy, and the whole experience could not get any better for me. If anyone heard me, they probably thought I was crazy as I yelled "Can you tell a green field, from a cold steel rail!"

When I got back to the pit station that time, I saw Will's bike leaning against the tent. I thought he must've lapped me, but then I saw him sitting in a chair under the tent. He looked completely smoked, a shell of the usual energetic racer he is. Rob told me he completely blew up from not eating or drinking enough, and also from going out so hot chasing Keegan Swenson and Taylor. I tried to say something encouraging to Will, but I had to keep moving to stay in 2nd place, so I rolled out. Gordon already had a comfortable lead over me, so he sat down next to Will for a couple minutes to eat a burrito. Like I said, I think Gordon really is a nice person, even in the middle of a race.

The next lap I did was pretty rough again. It was probably the caffeine wearing off, but I also learned that at least for me, when I had a very good lap, the next lap was normally pretty bad, and vice versa. At that point, though, I was still loving the night, and I didn't want the sun to rise any time soon.

I kept chugging along in the night, dodging the dead mice all over the trail which had sadly been hit by racers. There were a lot of them, poor fellas. There were also some cows and horses along the trail, and I made sure to avoid them also. I was still pretty excited about the night riding until about 4:30am or so. By then, I was ready for it to get light out. Steffi told me I would start seeing some light just after 6am, so I got some motivation from that.
Finally, there was a faint red glow over the mountains, and it steadily got lighter. I got back to the pit station just after sunrise and I noticed Will's bike was no longer leaning on the tent. I asked Rob if Will took his bike, and what I meant was, if he took his bike back to our U-Haul where I thought he was sleeping.

Rob replied, "yeah", and I sort of went about my business quickly eating and drinking. Then he said, "He's actually in 5th place still".

I was confused, but then I realized he meant Will had taken his bike back out on the course to do more laps. I was super happy to hear that, and it gave me a little extra energy the next lap.

I knew I only had a few laps left before the race ended, and my lead over 3rd place was still quite small. Hunter Keeting, in 3rd, was only 20 minutes behind me. Every lap, I asked Rob and Steffi how big my gap was. Sometime around 9am, I met up with Gordon near the end of a lap, and we were going at a pretty good pace, which meant I ended up building up my lead on 3rd a little bit. 

I was constantly doing math in my head figuring out how many more laps I would get in. I knew I would probably finish my 17th lap right around noon, and to be honest, I was so tired that I was hoping I wouldn't need to go out for another lap.

Finally, I was down to only 2 laps to go. It was almost exactly 9am, which means I had just about 3 hours to do 2 laps. My second to last lap wasn't too bad. My knees were starting to hurt, and I was really tired, but I managed. I got to the pit after that lap, got some quick food, then pushed out for my last lap.

That last lap was probably the most painful riding I've ever done. For some reason, my knees had sharp pain everywhere, and my Achilles were super tight. I didn't really care about injuring myself, though, I just wanted to finish strong and keep 2nd place. The lap seemed to take forever, and the sun was getting hot again.

I remember going up the final climb and genuinely being unsure if I could even physically finish the lap or not. Finally, I crested the hill and descended down to the finish. Luckily, Rob and Steffi were there to stop me by the tent and make me wait until noon to cross the line (I got there at 11:59am). As Gordon unfortunately learned, your last lap has to end after noon, or else you are disqualified (Gordon had to do a 19th lap because of that reason).
As the clock hit noon, I rolled down to the finish line, where was there was a line of people waiting to cross. I crossed the line, completely exhausted, and made my way back up to our tent. I set my bike down and then laid down in the dirt. Taylor's wife Mary offered me a mini cheesecake cupcake, which I gladly accepted, and someone gave me some licorice. Both were greatly appreciated.

As I sat around in the tent, Gordon sat down near me and there was a discussion about something I didn't understand yet. As I listened, I heard that Gordon crossed the line before noon, so he was going to have to go out for another lap in order to secure his win. Now, it might not seem like that much to do one more 16 mile lap, but I can assure you, doing an extra lap after thinking you were done would be my worst nightmare. Gordon took it in stride, though, and went out for his extra lap to finish the race strong. Not to mention, his 19th lap tied the singlespeed course record set by Timon Fish a few years ago. Absolute beast.

About 15 minutes past noon, Will came ripping down past the tent and crossed the line in 5th place open. We were all really happy, especially considering he was so destroyed in the middle of the night and he went back out to get more laps in and win a podium spot.

We hung around for a while, then got the podium pictures and collected our awards. We each got a really cool stone drink coaster as a trophy, and we each got a Maxxis tire plus a hat. It was such a great event, and I was left with so many feelings of happiness and fulfillment.

After awards, we packed up and we started driving back to Phoenix. We stopped at a McDonald's in Florence, AZ, which was actually the same McDonald's we stopped at while bikepacking there last month. Funny coincidence.

Then, we drove the rest of the way toward Phoenix, where we got a sketchy Motel 6 in Tempe. We decided to wait until the morning to put our bikes in the bags, so we just ordered some Chinese for dinner then went to bed early. I felt pretty sickly in the hotel room; I was super cold even though it was warm. I think my body was just completely exhausted. 

The next morning, we packed our luggage and bikes, dropped off the U-Haul, headed to the airport, and flew home to Pittsburgh. All in all, it was one of my favorite experiences my life.

And that's really just the beginning. The race gave me some of the craziest and most powerful emotions I've ever had. I'm writing this Tuesday night, and ever since the race ended, I've sort of been overcome by strong feelings of gratefulness and happiness. It really is a lot to think about, and it's hard to put down in words, but I'll try. For some reason, this race in particular had a much stronger effect on me than any other race or ride I've ever done.

The main thing this race really highlighted for me is all the people that make events like this possible and fun for me. First, there are the obvious, like Rob Kulik at Flow Formulas getting me a spot in the race. Then, there's the Syndicate team with all of their support. It's a genuine appreciation, and I'm not just saying it because I feel obligated to.

Then, I was beyond thankful to the people who supported me and Will at the race. Rob and Steffi Griffin were total all-stars, and they were there for us at the pit station every single lap. I remember coming in to the pit station at one point and saying my tire was low, so as I was quickly drinking a Coke, Rob hurried to add air into my tire, lube my chain, and then give me a shove as I rode away from the pit station. At times, I would roll in and just ask for something like a cold Coke or a cold water, and Steffi would immediately go searching for what I needed. To me, the support was as important mentally as it was physically. It was a huge motivation booster to roll into the pit station and hear their words of support. The fact that two people, Rob and Steffi, who barely knew me and Will, were willing to stay up for 24 hours to help us means so much. There is so much to be grateful for in the biking community.

Everyone in the pit station amazing. Taylor Lideen was ripping it up until his crash, and after his crash, he was sitting around the pit station and was giving out advice and encouragement. I remember rolling into the pit around 1am and being a little cold. I was probably somewhat delirious, and Taylor quickly put a chair next to the fire for me and told me to sit down. The fire warmed me up, and I asked him a couple strategy questions, which boosted my confidence. Taylor's wife Mary was also incredibly helpful. She helped out Will a lot during the night, and other people around the pit area who's names I did not know were also important. Basically, just the fact that people who barely knew me and Will were willing to put so much effort in to help us meant a lot to me. It really gave me even more determination to keep riding strong, because all these people were dedicating their time and effort to help me.

I was also glad to be pitting across from Gordon. Even though he handily beat me, seeing his constant positive attitude and humor really put things in perspective for me. It made me realize that no matter how much I was hurting, I was still fortunate to be riding my bike in the desert in Arizona, and for that, I should be happy. So, no matter how much I was suffering, I always tried to stay positive and happy, because being miserable wouldn't do anything to help the situation. I don't think I ever saw Gordon without a smile during the race, and I'd think to think no-one saw me without a smile as well.

I also feel grateful that I'm friends with Will, because traveling out to a race with him is many times more fun than a solo trip. I also think that if I didn't know Will, I might not have ever done a 24 hour race last year, and I might not have signed up for Old Pueblo. Obviously, that's a lot of speculation, and many paths in life can lead to the same place, but it wasn't until after I started riding with Will that I ever considered racing my bike for so long. Either way, I'm thankful to have someone to do long rides with and keep the fun factor high when things seem so difficult.

I'm also very thankful to my parents for not only some financial support for these races, but also having confidence in me to travel out to Arizona and race my bike for 24 hours. I'm sure my mom doesn't sleep very well when I'm racing my bike all night, but I'm glad she still supports me. It's also nice that my brother does so much biking as well, so he understands what it's like to do hard races and rides.

The bottom line is, my experience from that race was far from over when I crossed the line. For some reason this race really impacted me more than others and made me think a lot about biking, why I do it, and the people who are important to me in the cycling world and life in general.

I'll certainly be back for Old Pueblo next year. It was an amazing experience and it got me super excited for more big things on the horizon. In the end, I just like riding my bike. It's as simple as that.

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