Monday, September 22, 2014

Green Mountain Trails and The Fourth Lap

Coolest. Medal. Evar.
It happened in an instant.  My wandering mind had led to a wandering front tire and the rain soaked bridge was offering no quarter and no forgiveness.  In the blink of an eye I was over the handlebars- hurtling face first into the abyss.  I could only close my eyes and pray for a soft landing.  But I deserved no mercy.  After all, this was all my own doing.  Despite my exhaustion, the pouring rain, the chilly September air and the mud seeping into every crevasse of my clothes and bike-- I had chosen to do another lap.  My fourth lap.  And I had to earn it.

Imagine for a moment the muddiest that you've ever been in your life.  Now, rub some in your eyes, pot a dollop in your hair, and drop a few handfuls down your bike shorts for good measure.  That gives you a rough idea of the condition I found myself in part way through my fourth lap of the Peak MTB6 race at Green Mountain Trails in Pittsfield, VT.  I was soaked, exhausted, and about to get a face full of bridge.  It was a long way from the start, or even the first two rain-free laps of singletrack bliss I was enjoying just hours earlier.

It had started as a cool and cloudy Saturday morning when I set out from my uncle's farm in South Royalton.  His dog had brought an unceremonious end to my restive sleep on the couch with a few well placed licks to the face.  A bowl of oatmeal, a bagel and some coffee and I was in the car and headed to my second endurance race in less than a month.

Given that I (thought) I knew what to expect, I was less nervous than my first race.  And Gered had decided at the last minute to race, so I had some company as I readied my bike and gear for the day ahead.  The chill in the air and forecast for rain later in the day had scared away all but the hardiest competitors and volunteers.  As we lined up at the start, I chatted up a few fellow riders, confident that the day's planned 48 mile ride would be easier than the 60 that I had done in New Hampshire.

I was wrong.

The start was a mad dash down the trail Barn Dance to a shallow river crossing that would have been easily navigable had there not been a few dozen people fighting for the same narrow crossing lanes.  Like some deranged beach landing scene in a bike riding version of Saving Private Ryan, riders stumbled through the water, and scrambled up the beach on the other side. Although I had managed to ride all the way across, my feet were soaked as I climbed up to the single track just above the riverbank.

Our ascent up the mountain started immediately as we rolled through a seemingly endless series of switchbacks.  We climbed almost non-stop up The Stairs, River Run, Crazie Mazie, Noodles Revenge, Overlook, and Stonewall. We were about three miles into the climb when I began to realize that this was not going to be anything like the Hampshire 100, which had some short steep sections but was mostly held on rolling terrain.  This thought was hammered home on a long and steep road section that split the first two long sections of switchbacks.  The course actually crossed it twice each lap, meaning that we would have to ride it eight times that day.  EIGHT.  EIGHT!! (fist raised)

As I rolled through the first aid station,  a couple young volunteers handed out water to the racers and I spied some homemade rice/peanut butter/chocolate/jelly cakes that would later be my lifeblood.  Having just started I rolled through the first aid station and continued upwards on Green, until I reached what would become one of my favorite sections: Zedebee.  This trail wound around on rolling terrain close to the summit, until entering a dark wooded section and eventually crossing the rocky peak above.

As I rolled up onto the summit surrounded by beautiful views there were a few people milling about a small stone cabin and a boom-box blaring rock music.  But it was only a brief party at the top before rolling off the other side and back into the woods.

The descent off the summit was steep, with a few off-camber rock sections that made things interesting all day long.  The next section, Labyrinth, was easily the most challenging section of the course, with an abundance of roots and rocks in a dark, low-canopy, evergreen forest.  Later, when the rain arrived, this was a minefield of slippery root clusters.  The descending began to open-up with Warman and the brand new Rabbit Hole, but just as you thought you were headed back to the river there was another set of switchbacks climbing upward on Luvin It.  This brought us to a fast and flowy descent down Fusters, Escalator, Middle Ravine, and eventually the Jeep Trail back to the river.

I had gone into the race somewhat underestimating the climbing,  but I had far underestimated the descents.  I was thinking I could  relax and essentially sit back and mentally recharge while descending.  And while there were sections of zen inspiring smooth bermed turns, there were also an abundance of rocky and rooty sections.   But given the speed and technicality of the descents I found myself more "engaged" and working harder while descending- especially racing along the bench cuts like Escalator and Middle Ravine.

This led to an odd sensation when I finally passed the feed station/lap marker at the bottom of the course: I was looking forward to the switchback climb ahead.  Truth be told, while the climbing was nearly constant- it was, in the words of another rider, "forgiving".

I settled in behind one of the women for the long climb on lap two.  She set a blistering pace up the mountain. As I huffed along behind her I shared my surprise about the difficult descent, and she quickly pointed out she was riding a rigid hardtail.  I wasn't going to find any sympathy from her as I floated along on my full suspension rig.  At some point, I stopped to give a biker my spare tube and then found myself climbing alone.  I came across another biker near the Zedebee who had burped his front tire and needed a pump.  I lent out my CO2 pump and enjoyed a short rest and chat.  I followed him through Labyrinth, but he totally left me in his dust on the descent down Fusters.

I stopped at the abandoned riverside aid station for one of the homemade rice treats I had spied earlier.  Up to this point the rain had held off and the singletrack had been pure bliss.  This was my first time at Green Mountain Trails and I was impressed.   The banked corners reminded me of sections at Blueberry Lake, while other portions were raw, untamed and challenging.  Just one of the twelve-mile loops was a decent day's ride.  I tried not to think too much about the effort it would take to finish the last two laps ahead.

I set out on my third lap and eventually caught the guy who had borrowed my CO2 pump, and we settled into the long switchback climb.  At some point, I pushed ahead, and out onto my own, conscious that in order to start a fourth lap I would have to pass the riverside aid station again by three o'clock.

From that point on I was essentially by myself.  Only briefly, at the very top of the course did I see Gered who lapped me in the Labyrinth.  I mustered a "Woo hoo!" as he rushed by me and disappeared down the trail.  The sight of another person (and one going so fast) lifted my spirits and I thundered down Fusters.  I realized that I was going to just barely make the three o'clock cutoff- and could do a fourth lap.   Somewhere on the descent during that third lap it started to rain in earnest.  Another rider passed me just as I reached the riverside aid station and another couple riders set out for their last lap.

A new sign had appeared pointing to the finish.  I was fifteen minutes before the three o'clock cutoff and I could easily roll back to the finish line with three hard earned laps.  It was decision time.  And it was raining.  And it was cold.  I was already pretty tired, and there were already enough riders ahead of me that there was no way I was going to finish on the podium (or anywhere near it).  There was no glory on the line, and given my phone had already died, no Strava bragging rights.

The last lap would have to be for me and me alone.  I had come to do four laps, and I'll be damned if I wasn't going to get my money's worth!

I devoured another rice cake, and set out onto the merciless set of switchbacks.

The rain seemed to pick up, and the canopy no longer provided protection from the steady pour.  I was wearing a thin baselayer under my bike jersey, but I could feel a chill.    As I climbed up the switchbacks, the high canopy provided broad views of the trails around me- and there was nobody else.  I was wholly and completely alone.

Cold, wet, and alone in the fading light the thoughts started creeping in, "Just turn around and head back in."  "Why are you doing this last lap anyway?"  "You're going to freeze to death!"

Endurance racers will often talk about visiting that "dark place" somewhere during a race, where the constant dull pain of exertion leads to self-doubt, helplessness, and the "oh shit, what am I doing?" moment.

Apparently for me, this place also includes the Disney soundtrack of my two year old's favorite movie.  So as I struggled with my demons a Disney princess sang loudly in my head.  And there was nothing I could do about it. "The cold never bothered me anyway...." taunted me in a repeating loop.  Was I hypothermic?  Was I hallucinating?  What the hell was going on?

It was in that dark moment, with my mind meandering, that I let the front tire wander.  It slipped and turned sideways, throwing me over the bike and off of what was (thankfully) a short bridge.  I landed to the side, having miraculously avoided doing any permanent damage.   I collected my bike, laughed at my absurd condition, and continued the climb upward.

The summit was completely abandoned, save that weatherproof boom-box blaring  music into the stormy mist.  Somehow this made it seem even more abandoned and downright desolate.  But, I was almost home.

I started cutting the last lap down into segments in my head: Just get past the summit.  Just get past Labyrinth.  Just get past that road climb.  Just get past that last set of switchbacks.

My solitary journey was broken only briefly when I came across another rider standing to the side of the trail.  As I passed I asked, "You have everything you need?  You okay?"  He looked at me, "I'm just trying to...  Just finish."  He looked lucid enough and it was all downhill from that spot, so I rolled onward mostly confident he wasn't going to die.

I finally reached the lap point and forded the river.   I rolled up onto Barn Dance, and climbed back up to the finish line, crossing just over seven hours after I started the race.

Liz Allen: Winner of the women's open race.
One of the volunteers walked up, handed me a medal, and with that my race was done.

I was completely spent, but I had gotten what I came for.

I had my fourth lap.

Keep an eye on the folks at Green Mountain Trails.  They are constantly improving and expanding their network of trails and there are plans for three races next year:  a six hour race, a traditional race, and an enduro. But don't wait until next year to check them out.  Pick up a map at the Pittsfield General Store and bring a bowl in case you catch one of the "soup rides" that happen in the Fall.

*All photos courtesy of Matt Baatz

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