Alright, I’ve sat on the memories for some time now and am ready to write a bit about the Dirthead endurance race. The whole experience was one of learning, but I have to say the learning did not come from great success, as most learning doesn’t. Yes. Mixed results at best with some heavy cursing as a well-needed accompaniment / stress reliever.
The first bike loop was 10 miles and broke the pre-race anxiety. It started with a dirtroad downhill to get the blood flowing and shake off the morning fog; we hit about 28 miles per hour for a mile or so. The off-road loop began with some fun single track in shady forest and a few nice lines and low air sections. Fast-paced riding broke up the pack and spread everyone out quickly. Smiles. Game on.
The positivity lasted for about 8 of the 10 miles and ended with an unmarked section and a solid 15-minute or more detour. My instinct was to continue on the way I headed, but out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of some trail markers, so I beat it down that way, looked around, and found myself unsure, which is never a good thing when the adrenaline is flowing and the sweat is dripping of the rim of my helmet.
Pause. Stop. Deep breath. Map out. “Stay on the yellow, Jim,” I thought and hauled ass back to my original line, cursing the soft sand on the first uphill. Success but with a significant time delay. “Fuck,” I thought. “Already.”
Transition went well, since I planned for all things food, water, and efficiency. I’d put some riding socks over my running socks and already had on calf compression, so it was off with the socks and on with the running shoes. Energy bar down (homemade and vegan – it can be done). Water bottle in hand. Gels and energy bar in my pocket. Gone. No time lost. The only blunder was I forgot to eat a couple potatoes. Oh well. No problem at this point. I was feeling strong and well-fed, and I had a handful of trail mix to snack on for the first 1/2 mile.
The best of the race, by far. Beautiful temperature and trail conditions. Perfect 11-mile loop in the forest. No blunders. No trips and falls. And I found Devin – a guy from further south in Florida who happened upon me near the start of the run loop and who had my same pace. We found a comfortable all-day pace (“Long day ahead,” I kept reminding myself) and some interesting conversation about this and that. He reminded a lot of myself many years earlier, sans the endurance training. The highlight of the run was coming into a Deliverance-style-banjo-rattling-cypress-swamp (who says you can’t enjoy the scenery when racing). Peering as deep as I could into the swamp without finding my way into a root-induced header, I marveled at how a swamp can turn the entire ecosystem the eeriest hue of greens. The famed banjo melody in my mind and a chuckle in my gut accompanied me up a rooty incline and back to transition, helping my mind deviate from the beckons of my colon. More on that in T2.
Well, T2 did not go as smoothly – my plan interrupted by a trip to the Portable Shitter. Though not the best place in the world to be, I found peace with the plastic and filth and was able to, with some effort, calm down enough to get rid of what absolutely had to go before I got back on the bike. Good riddance and back to transition I went. Time loss again, but hey, my mantra for the event was “Racing to finish, hoping to do well.” With latter waning, the former became my focus. Finish Jim. Finish. With this new philosophy, I went back to my bike and cooler and took my time. I thought, “Fuck it. The short rest will help, and I can catch back up with fresher legs and extra nutrition and fluids.” I made sure to down all but a couple potatoes with extra sea salt, another energy bar, and a can of coconut water. I loaded my bike with my energy drink (a crazy concoction of coconut water, yerba mate tea, chia seeds, water, salt and lime juice – Gatorade sucks ass!), filled my hydration pack, made sure the gels attached to my top tube were secure, and hit the trail with a couple potatoes in hand to snack on before the first downhill.
The first section of the 22-mile second loop was awesome. It really raised my spirits, and I found a couple places to get both wheels off the ground. No more push and gurgle from below. Freshly hydrated and fed. “What could be a better way to spend a Sunday in the woods with my bike and my thoughts?” That thought was soon to end, and quickly. Not two miles in and “Fuck, where is the trail. Not this again.” Second detour, though luckily a quick one. Once back on course, all was well for a solid run of about ten or so miles of great riding (though this was the first time I’d ever chosen the “easier” ways through the system – I must go back for the “harder” routes one day).
Fatigue setting in, I found myself off-course again, though this time, I was not alone. Two other racers and I found ourselves following old race markers. We didn’t get too far off, but these situations, especially since it was my third time off course, really tap energy. For me, I hadn’t been off course in a race, so I did not really know how to keep my calm. Expletives aside, I can tell you I was not happy with the race organizers at this point. It did get better for another spell, but soon enough, I missed another turn and was off course again. This time it must of eaten a solid 20-30 minutes of map-reading and way-finding.
At this point in my mind, the race was now “over,” and it was time to just get back to the trailhead. My main problem was that I did not budget for this much time in the woods. I was just about out of water, and my food was long gone. At the last aid station, I even filled my bottle with Gatorade, can’t stand the shit, but I needed fuel, and I needed it bad. More cursing. Walking up hills. I finally granny-geared it back to the trailhead and clocked a very unimpressive 5:48:19 – 11th place out of 24.
From post-race trailhead chatter, I quickly found that I was not alone. Many, if not most, lost their way at some point to varying degrees. I clocked an extra 3 or more miles and the better part of an hour off course, and I talked with one guy who rode and extra 7 miles and another who rode more than 10 extra. Some reassurance but still quite frustrating. I hear about pros going off trail often in mountain races, but now I know from experience what it is like and will be much better prepared for next time. Save energy. Zen. Calm.
On the trail, I placed blame. But now that I’ve had some time to think about it from many perspectives, I can only focus on the fact that I did finish, and it was the most physically challenging day I’ve ever had. Main goal accomplished. The organizers did all they could with the little time and few volunteers they had to mark the trails. I guess effectively marking 10, 11, and 22-mile loops that cross-cross through a maze of various-use trails is a difficult, at best, task.
Thanks for the challenge. Thanks to my family for putting up with my obsessive training and somewhat unplanned financial burden. Thanks to my body for carrying me through. And, most importantly, thanks to the brewers of the beer that greeted me upon my return from the forest.