PART I: TRAINING DAY
In another six days, I will be participating in a 6-hour mountain bike endurance race at Wolfe’s Pond Park in Staten Island. I am excited about this race for several reasons. I’ve been a runner for most of my life and I’ve run tons of road races, so this race will be novel for me since I never competed in a mountain biking race before. I am a seasoned long-distance runner, so I am very curious to see how my body can handle going the distance atop a mountain bike. Also, I never participated in a timed race before; it was always a distance-based race. I want to test my limits of physical endurance to see how long my body can last riding for six hours on the trails. For me, this will be a marathon on wheels.
In preparation for the race, today I did a 3-hour training ride on the trails at Wolfe’s Pond Park. The bad part of this training was that it was raining all morning, so the trails were muddy and slippery. This proved to be very dangerous for me. The Wolfe’s Pond trails have a lot of exposed tree roots and I learned very quickly the right and wrong way to deal with these roots. I fell off my bike several times; in one very nasty fall, my bike stopped in its tracks and I flew off the seat and my head crashed onto the ground, then my bike fell on top of me (very similar to the photo above). After seeing that no bones were broken, I continued on with my ride.
When my watch counted down from 3 hours to zero, my training was over. I was able to cover 15 miles at an average pace of 5 miles per hour; not bad considering the wet and dangerous conditions of the trails. I also burned over 3,000 calories in the process.
I am glad that I had the chance today to train, for it made me come up a bunch of safety and racing hints and techniques to help make the actual race easier to bear. Here is a checklist of things that I will do on Race Day:
- Wear protective eyewear. Overgrown foliage can poke you in the eyes while riding.
- Wear a long-sleeved technical shirt to protect my arms against overgrown thorn bushes.
- When encountering exposed roots, ride across them in a perpendicular fashion, NOT parallel.
- Apply wet lubricant to the bike chain to waterproof it (there will be a water challenge or two).
- Wear bike gloves.
- Bring 2-3 inner tubes in case you get a flat along the way.
- Fatigue will start setting in after riding for a few hours. When this happens, I should attempt any trail challenges very carefully so as not to hurt myself.
- If you are wearing a gps watch during the race, have it set to ‘Bike’ mode and set it so it will have a 6-hour countdown. That way, at any point in the race, you will know exactly how much time you have left for the end of the race.
I think I am ready for this race. Now all I can do is wait.
PART II: RACE DAY
Saturday, May 21, 2011
It’s race day and I arrive early at Wolfe’s Pond Park, the place that I will soon get to know very intimately. One of the first people I meet there is my friend Steve, who will be volunteering for this race. Steve will be manually tabulating all the laps that each cyclist completes as they pass by him through Base Camp. Once I get my bike and supply bag out of the car, I walk into the woods towards Base Camp. Base Camp is the start and finish of the race. It is where the digital countdown clock will be to remind all the riders how much time they have left to the end of the race. Base Camp is where we’ll all be passing by each time we finish yet another 2.61-mile loop. It’s also the place for all riders to recharge, refuel, catch their breath, pray and fix any bike issues such as flat tires and loose chains.
When I reached the main tent, Matt Lebow, the mastermind behind this race, greeted me with a big ear-to-ear grin as he does with everyone. That grin is not just a grin from a man with a great positive attitude about life; that grin told me what I was in store for today, for Matt seems to enjoy watching participants suffer through punishing challenges in his races. That grin was a masochistic one and it was a sign of things to come. Since I arrived early and had some time on my hands, I checked out the various “skills park” challenges that were set up the night before, for this was not simply a bike trail race through the woods, but rather a race to see how well one can control and manipulate one’s bike without getting killed in the process. This was a technical race. There were two huge teeter-totters along the course. Upon finishing a lap, one had to ride up, then down each teeter-totter. The first teeter-totter was easy; the second one was built much higher and narrower; every time I did a test run on it, I almost killed myself. This is when I decided that my racing strategy would be to not kill myself, for my daughter’s 11th birthday party was the next day and she would be let down if her party was cancelled due to me dying.
It had rained incessantly over the past several days and I knew that this could only be a bad omen for today’s race. The thought of riding through tons of mud out there on the course was constantly bearing down on my mind, for a mountain bike rider has to exert a LOT more energy just to keep their bike moving ever-so-slowly through the mud, and I would have to do this for six hours! My mind already switched into Survival Mode and thought about the options on how I can obtain the energy needed for the ordeal that was about to unfold. I found out later that Matt went to great lengths over the past several days to sweep, rake away, and cover up with leaves as much water and mud as possible along the race route.
It was 10:00AM and the race was officially ready to begin. 3… 2…. 1…., and we’re off! All the bikers begin riding, the clock begins it’s countdown, and we all start entering the trails. As soon as we make our first left turn, there’s already the first man-made challenge: the mini-mountain obstacle. This apparatus consisted of a steep wooden ramp that went up several feet at a 45-degree angle, then back down. All the bikers had to generate enough momentum with their bikes in order to gain the speed necessary to scale this ramp. Otherwise your bike would fall back down backwards. I made it up this challenge successfully, but the thought of having to repeat this challenge many more times over 6 hours was a little bothersome to me, especially as fatigue set in. We also had to ride our bikes along wooden bridges; any false move on those bridges, we would fall into the rocky stream below.
MUD, MUD, MUD (AND MORE MUD)
Bearing in mind all the days of rain in the proceeding several days, it was inevitable to find mud along this course, even with Matt’s help in cleaning it up. It’s just that MUCH of the course had mud throughout. I soon realized that today’s race was going to be a totally different animal; it was going to be a mud race; a race of Man vs. Mud, and I was going to beat the crap out of this mud, or so I thought.
If today’s race were a Kevin Costner film, it would be called “Mudworld: The Search For Dry Land”, for dry land was hard to come by today. Regardless, I was still able to finish the first 2.61-mile loop in 24:10. At this rate, I was going to keep to my original goal of 5 miles per hour, or 30 miles by the end of the race. So far, so good.
FLATS ‘R US
After completing two laps in 59 minutes and thus keeping to my pacing goal of 5 miles per hour, I began to get cocky. This was a perfect time for a little humbleness and humility to set in, which was given to me on a silver platter via a flat tire. Only I got the flat a mile away from Base Camp in the middle of the woods. I decided to run with my bike, for running was my forte, plus I wouldn’t have to change a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. As I was running while pushing my bike, I ran right by two CERT volunteers. They were part of a group of volunteers strategically planted throughout the course to help the mountain bikers with anything from a boo-boo on their legs, an amputation, a flat tire, or anything in between. Running by two CERT volunteers along the trail, they asked me if everything was okay and I told them, “It’s just a flat tire”. I decided to continue running until I reached Base Camp where I can have access to the tools and personnel necessary to fix the flat. Seeing me running into Base Camp while pushing my bike must have been an interesting sight to see.
POETRY IN MOTION
Besides the man-made challenges such as the teeter-totter and mini-mountain, there were also a ton of natural challenges. On several parts of the course, we had to ride our bikes straight through rocky streams. This proved to be very nerve-wracking for me, for the combination of scattered stones and water made riding through this mixture very scary and unpredictable. In one stream, my front tire got wedged in a bunch of rocks, then the rear end of the bike flew up into the air, and my body and bike fell directly on top of a bunch of rocks in the stream. The photo below only caught the beginnings of this event; you will have to use your imagination to picture how it all looked moments later.
Additionally, Matt warned us all about a part of the course by Acme Lake. There were a few parts of this course that came dangerously close to the edge of the lake; Matt warned us to be very careful with a caveat that there were no water rescue teams here today to save us in case we fall in. Here is one of those areas:
FLAT TIRE: PARTS II, III, AND IV
Just when the mud became a major distraction during this race, a more sinister hindrance made itself known and showed me no mercy: another flat tire! Getting a flat tire during a bike race was even more upsetting than dealing with the mud, for at least my bike was moving during my mud-capades. Getting a flat in the middle of the woods was annoying on many levels; you were stuck, and just standing there wasn’t going to help get anything done. First, you had to make sure that you were not blocking the course, for much of it was single-track and out of respect for the other riders, you wanted to make sure you were not in their way. So sometimes, I had to run with my bike to an area wide enough for bikers to get by. Once that was done, I immediately removed my tire with a quick-release lever, unscrewed the air cap and the screw that held the punctured tube onto the rim, then remove the old tube from the tire. Then, and most importantly, I had to very carefully scan the entire inside of the tire with my fingers feeling around for the culprit that was responsible for puncturing my tire. If I didn’t remove this culprit, I would immediately get another flat, so it was essential that I succeed in this step. For most of the flats in today’s race, the culprits seemed to be thorns. This was to happen several more times throughout the race, and I had to change these tires with caked-on mud no less.
THE FINAL LOOP (OR SO I THOUGHT)
I was now 4 hours and 18 minutes into the race and I had just completed 18.27 miles. By now, three bikers competing with me in the solo category couldn’t take it anymore and quit. While I felt bad for them, I now had three less competitors to worry about, which renewed my excitement for the rest of this mudventure. I now had completed seven loops. My original plan was to ride non-stop throughout this race, but in reality, every time I completed yet another loop and entered Base Camp, I was so tired from my latest Mud Run that I had to take a 5-10-minute rest. My friends Steve and Amy were there to support me, which really made a big difference for my psyche and well-being. Every time I entered Base Camp after completing another lap, Steve and Amy were my pit-stop crew, serving me water, power gels, energy drinks, and even a hamburger that came straight off the grill. I once asked Amy for aspirin which she gladly bought at a nearby store and gave it to me at the completion of my next lap. I was so exhausted, yet so determined to push myself to the very end. I became a ravenous animal and devoured whatever was given to me, for I remembered the 3,000 calories that I burned last week when I trained on these trails for three hours. Since today’s race was twice as long, I am guessing that I burned at least 6,000 calories.
I began my eighth lap with a plan of completing two more after that. Little did I know that this lap would be my longest and most physically and mentally agonizing lap of the whole race. I am a runner for over 27 years and runners primarily use their calf muscles more than their quadriceps. The reverse is true for bikers. Prior to this race, my quads had only a handful of training rides, and never did I ever ride a bike for a full six hours. Throughout this race so far, I have been pushing my quads to their limits, especially when I had to pedal through the mud and up steep hills. Halfway through my eighth lap, the most painful thing that I ever experienced in my life happened to me: EXTREME lactic acid buildup in my quads, also known as cramps. Lactic acid is a by-product of non-stop working out without rest. Some kind of naturally-occurring acid in the body builds up in pockets around the muscles and if the activity level is not decreased at this time, localized pain flares up in those areas where the acid is. Up to this point, my mind was so focused on getting the miles in as quickly as possible, I treated my body as if it were a machine. The pain in my quads was so unbearable, I jumped off my bike, threw it on the ground and tightly wrapped my hands around a tree. I punched and squeezed my legs hoping that this would help dissipate the lactic acid that filled them up to a boiling point. The sensation in both my quads was that of two bombs about to explode and intense pressure in my legs made it feel like they both were literally about to explode. After standing there for about 5 minutes or so, the pain subsided to a low enough point for me to continue riding. But I could no longer ride fast, for the lactic acid levels in both my legs were still very high. I had to ride slow enough to prevent another flare up, which happened to me a few more times during this lap. Just when my legs felt good enough to use again, Flat #5 reared it’s ugly head. Luckily, I got this flat at a clearing where two CERT volunteers were ready, willing and able to help me. One was a man; he was joking around with me trying to lighten up my situation. He kept on begging me to bring him a hamburger during my next loop around, which I thought was funny. The other volunteer was a middle-aged woman who helped find me a bunch of napkins so that I can clean all the mud that was caked around my flat tire. She was a godsend, for her motivating conversation while I was struggling to change my tire helped me get through this ordeal. After about a dozen minutes of tire-changing hell, I was off to complete this loop, still making sure that I controlled my speed to avoid any further lactic acid flare-ups. Finally, I got back to Base Camp feeling as though I’ve been to Hell and back. I completed this lap at the 5 hour and 19-minute mark. This agonizing lap took me over an hour to complete!!!
I was so spent both mentally and physically at this point that when I saw Steve and Amy, I told them that it was over for me regardless of how much time was still left to the race.
THE TERMINATOR: I’LL BE BACK!!!
I now had eight laps under my belt, or a total of 20.88 miles. After that last Lap From Hell, I was ready to call it a day. As far as I was concerned, it was over. I asked Steve, who was tabulating the laps, how much of a distance I was from 3rd to 4th place, for if I was way ahead of the 4th place biker, it wouldn’t make much sense for me to continue biking in my condition. But when Steve checked the lap table, he noticed that I was neck-and-neck with the 3rd place guy. We both had 20.88 miles under our belts. At this moment, I switched myself into Terminator Mode. I said to myself that I must do another lap no matter what it takes to make sure that I finish in 3rd place. I threw all my feelings about my leg cramps, flat tires and mud out the window and I was now bent on finishing one more lap even if I had to run it. I was now the freakin’ Terminator and I was ready to tell them, “I’ll be back!!!”. This was no longer a 6-hour endurance race for me; it now became a 2.61-mile race to the finish and I was programmed to finish it by the end of the sixth hour no matter what.
After I told Steve and Amy my plans, she told me, “You really are a bad ass!”. I guess I am living up to the name of this race, for a renewed sense of vigor took control of me and I was hell-bent on getting the job done. My strategy for this final lap was simple: when I was on top of a hill, take advantage of gravity and ride down it like a bat out of hell. When I came to level land, pedal slowly to avoid lactic acid flare-ups and when I came to an uphill, run with my bike up that hill. Using this strategy paid off; I completed this final lap with the clock reading 5:52 and only eight minutes left to the end of the race.
When everything was said and done, I ended up earning the third place medal at the awards ceremony. The race started with seven men competing in the solo category. Three men dropped out halfway through the race. I ended up completing 23.4 miles going an average of 3.9 miles per hour with the ordeal of having five flat tires throughout the race. I was tired, hurt, muddy, cut up, beat up and in need of a serious hot shower. I didn’t get to sleep until midnight that night due to all the energy drinks I consumed that day. And I finished the race alive. My daughter will not get mad at me now knowing that her birthday party would be in full-swing the next day.
I am now an official card-carrying Bad Ass.