I’d been asleep for 15 hours straight, only rising to crawl to the bathroom before clocking in another solid effort on what felt like my deathbed. I was enveloped by a bouquet of tingly smells from various creams and ointments—relying on them was the only way I could quell my aches and pains and move without cringing back into a big ball of spasming pain. The vapors wafted off my back and hand, but whatever evil lurked inside my nasal passages revolted, all but shutting down my ability to breathe without coughing up what was surely chunks of lung.
Even with a clean bill of health, racing the 12 Hours of Mesa Verde would’ve been a challenge for a 200-pound rider who rarely pedals for more than a couple of hours a day. Sure, I have decades of mountain bike racing experience, but any event lasting more than a few minutes at a time would feel like an ultra-marathon to me. Regardless, I was in the midst of a debilitating reaction to mold, of all things, as well as suffering from injuries to my back and hand, and it would be a stretch for Dr. Bornstein to give me the OK to chamois up three days from this horrible point in my couch’s history of otherwise unabashed comfort.
I should have just said no. Not only was the race just a few days away, but it was also a seven-hour drive to the venue. Held every May in Cortez, Colorado, the 12 Hours of Mesa Verde stages at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds and puts solo racers and teams of two, three and four through continuous loops on 16 miles of the trails at neaby Phil’s World just on the other side of the highway. Fun, yes, but not when you can barely get off the couch.
Emma, my girlfriend and usual partner-in-crime for these sorts of deep-end jumps, signed up as the other half of my co-ed duo team. Usually, we make for a pretty evenly matched team—which was all the more reason to seriously think about tapping out. She’d raced Mesa Verde last year and ended up on the podium in the co-ed duo class, so the idea of attempting to bang out miserable death march laps just to say I tried turned even darker with the thought of dragging her abilities into my abyss of aches and ailments.
“Let’s just go. If you’re up for a lap or two, great. If not, Mesa Verde is more about the vibe in the pits than the race, so you can hang out and I’ll just do a few laps for fun,” she said. “I’ll even drive.”
We made the long trip down to Cortez, with only 15-minutes to spare before race registration closed. Then we drove our van to the designated camping area, marvelling at the seemingly limitless types of different mobile housing people had set up: With over 800 racers signed up for the 2017 event, the makeshift city in the fairgrounds’ free parking lot has an impressively organized feel to it. Some introverted types opted to park away from the nucleus, but most of us clustered together in the name of a fun evening together the night before the race. Emma spent a little bit of the evening visiting friends she hadn’t seen since last year’s race, while I tried—and failed—to stay awake long enough to say goodnight to her.
Partially because of my ailments, but mostly because I’m not a runner in any way, shape or form, Emma would line up for the start of our race. It entailed a Le Mans-style run to a rodeo arena filled with bikes, immediately followed by a massive bottleneck at the culvert used to connect the venue to the trails across the highway. I felt selfishly pleased to miss such a rowdy start. I watched the mayhem, then strolled back over to the van to get kitted up for my inevitable lap of tortuous failure.
Race volunteers kept track of a swarm of amped up racers in the start/finish area, and refereed who was correctly handing off their race pin to the next relay team member, and who was a solo racer tallying up another lap. It was impressive to watch. Emma came in with a respectable time on her first 18-mile lap. But I hadn’t even thrown a leg over a bike in almost a week, and suddenly there I was trying to find a race pace with a handful of other racers flanking me.
Somehow, Emma’s and my first lap times were within seconds of each other. I felt better than miserable, which was 500-percent better than how I’d felt just a couple of days beforehand, but it was only a matter of time before my body would call BS on my mind. Though the initial plan was to grab the camera and try to shoot as much of the race as possible while Emma was out on her laps, it seemed best to just lie down.
Heading out on my second lap, and finally submitting to the faster racer paces around me, I settled into a sustainable spin. At first, I flushed with embarrassment at my Sunday-stroll pace. But, short of a relatively small percentage of serious racers, I woke up to the fact that there was an abundance of riders out on course in tutus and tiaras. I was in excellent company to simply settle into a pace low in BPMs. It was refreshing to just be out on the bike, riding the fun and flowy trails of Phil’s World. As a longtime racer, however, it was still crushing to watch riders I’d dropped on the short descents disappear from sight on any and every little climb.
One detail Emma and I didn’t consider was the lack of communication we’d have between us during the 12-hour race. As much of a team as we were, we’d only see each other in the brief passing of our little bright orange painted clothesline pin at the start/finish. On the third lap, she gave me a big kiss and pedaled off, and I limped back to the van with every intention of sleeping as much as possible. Sleep, however, would have to hold off for a few glorious moments, as Emma had cooked up some bacon she left at the van along with a tub of embrocation cream for my seizing back. She also left a note telling me how her lap went along with a few encouraging words for me.
Though not by design at all, our lap times were playing out in a way that’d have Emma finish her fourth lap just past the 6 p.m. cutoff time for racers to do a final lap. That meant my third lap would be my last. Honestly, my third lap was my final lap, regardless of what any math or clocks were equating to. I’d told Emma I was finished before we were officially done, and I curled up like a dying centipede for about an hour before hobbling over to the finish line to watch her come in from her fourth lap.
A few dozen other racers waited alongside me in staging as the official race clock ticked down the final minutes. It would be counterintuitive for a race where the rider with the fastest time wins, but here getting in one more lap factors in the distance part of the race equation. The excitement for some teams who’d snuck in just under the wire was palpable, as was the disappointment of those teammates who’d missed the mark by minutes, if not just seconds. Then, there was me.
In those last few minutes before the cutoff time, standing there in flip flops, I felt awful that I would let Emma down after she put in such a solid effort that day—she logged 72-miles so far out of our 126 total miles. She would have to cowgirl up and knock out another 18-miles on her own. Once the official race clock hit 6 p.m., a huge wave of relief rushed across my otherwise lifeless body. I knew that we could both call it a day.
Mostly thanks to Emma’s pace, we ended up in the top third of our class, which we hadn’t expected by any means. Our official result was nothing to write home about, but at the end of the day, racing is about personal efforts and goals—if not about the social aspect of great events like 12 Hours of Mesa Verde. We set our goals low. We simply wanted to show up and hang out at the event, and that made our otherwise personally subpar efforts seem totally worthwhile in the end. And, the bonus of such a dismal performance on my behalf is that it should be relatively easy to improve upon this year’s performance, next year. I’ll start tapering now.