Knowledge carries weight.
And weight — in cycling — can be the crushing difference between a breakthrough or a breakdown.
To say I was weighted down this past Sunday is an understatement. About 14 hours before the race started I was informed innocently of some news that yanked the carpet out from under me. Down I went. Hard. "IT" was the kind of info that stirs an immediate need to respond in your own defense but that opportunity was gone months ago. So when I stepped out of my tent Sunday at 4:30am with that weight firmly upon my shoulders I knew it was going to be a horrible day and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. Through sleep-deprived eyes I watched the eggs fry, the coffee steep and the dawn lighten. I had cleaned up my dishes before the 5am wakeup bullhorn siren came screaming through the woods. Then I sat and waited, wondering how I could leave the weight there and not take "IT" on the 100 mile course. I found no solution so with me it went. Also with me came my cough, congested lungs and sore throat. I was sick, run down and exhausted from the previous weeks of travel and work in Alaska but that was no surprise.
We lined up and I was unusually calm. Ready for the suffering to start and eager to see how the legs would work. It didn't take long before we were rolling down that first sketchy dirt road out of the camp onto the pavement. I saw a group of 30-40 racers breaking off the front and pushed to bridge, bringing fellow GFK racer and good friend David Olsen with me. We made the jump and settled into the top 30 with another 520-some riders behind. It was cool and wet, slippery and foggy. The pace was furious but I was still calm. We rode the first mountain and hit the road again, pace-lining past the first water stop and towards the second big climb - considered by many the hardest of the race. I felt ok but the weight started to grow. My mind drifted from the race into a search for resolution where it would stumble down different dead end paths.
Then my race came to an abrupt halt. I dismounted to walk a tight, uphill switchback and my legs locked in a ferocious and violent cramp. Quads, hamstrings and calves joined in the melee so I knew right away this was an internal issue - not a singular muscle failure. I have cramped on this course before but never so early! I was in awe at the thought of how much still lay ahead. I didn't want to suffer for another 7 hours. What the HELL - I was FIT, having raced almost every weekend all year. "IT" let me know without a doubt, my race was over. I could barely walk and we were only 20 miles in. Riders began to pass when I didn't mount the bike again. I kept stumbling forward wondering why but knowing damn well why. Too much baggage. Too little sleep. No solution. No setting the record straight. No self defense. I couldn't stop thinking of the wrong thing. Imagine being in the ring with a guy who wants to kill you and you're attempting to sort out a calculous word problem. If there's any truth in quantum mechanics I was a case study.
When I arrived at checkpoint 2 I had every intention of pulling the plug. I didn't even feel guilty - instead I felt horribly blown up, cracked and polluted from my mind to my legs. I had asked so much of my body all year and it finally answered, "No."
Fair enough I thought. I've never quit a race in my life but if you race long enough, it's inevitable. So it was my day to quit. I made the decision. And then fate pinched my ass.
He had started slow and caught me from behind, so to speak. I told him of my plan and he would have no part of it.
"Jason - after all you rode through in BC, you know you can do this. Just spin with me for a bit. You'll be fine!"
So I went. I didn't want to but I did. In my mind the day was over but I'd be a good sport and ride with Poz till he dropped me, then I planned to pedal back to the camp site where I could wallow. But Poz didn't drop me for a long time. He rode beside me with words of encouragement, each one reducing the weight I carried with me. By the time he disappeared up the trail I was so far up Hanky Mountain I figured I'd complete the climb, rip the downhill and quit at Aid 3. Which is what I did.
Arriving to aid 3 with legs in violent spasms I knew it was over. But I was ok - even smiling a bit as I coughed up what looked like pieces of lung. Olsen's wife Grace saw my legs and didn't know what to say so she hid behind her camera. Sue Haywood saw my legs convulsing and pointed at them, "Jason - that's not healthy! You really look bad. Just call it a day! You've had an amazing year, you don't have to prove anything, it's just a race..." I smiled and said, "Yup. I'm done." She was so cool about giving me the painless way out. I stood there looking kinda dumbfounded, not sure what would happen next. Chris Eatough rolled by going the other direction, leading the race. He later said he was worried about how bad I looked - I must have had a neon sign on my helmet... "CRACKED AND FRIED" It was like getting punched by reality, hard. You know when the ref jumps in and gives a standing 8-count to some chump fighter who got his bell wrung? But before the ref called the fight Wayne Stone rolled up.
Wayne is one of these guys you just can't help but like. He's got a quiet-cool about him and he's also a solid rider from the hills of North Carolina. He was having a hard day as well and when he asked me to join him for a bit on the road I just couldn't say no. I didn't want to go but I also didn't want to stay there. Wayne pedaled out onto the road and looked back for me. I grabbed my bike and followed, even if just to chat for a bit. I thought maybe I could help him pass the time for a few miles before I turned into a cramped ball of defeat so away I went. It was however, Wayne who helped me pass the time. With his encouragement and support I slowly pedaled up the road, over another mountain, down the ripping Brailey's decent into checkpoint 4 (where I first thought maybe I wouldn't quit) then on through 20 miles of mind-numbing fire road climbing up to checkpoint 5. Also along the way Ken Bell rolled up and joined us. It was here that the weight left me tho the knowledge remained. I couldn't do a damn thing about "IT" and maybe after that fact finally made it's way to every cell of my body, my legs could accept the liquids and food I had been stuffing in from the start of the race. Who knows what happened or why? I don't. But I know I felt the weight replaced by a small flame of confidence relit by the support of such good friends.
After the false summit at aid 5 I started to surge again, passed a number of riders before the trail finally pitched South and I rolled the 7 miles of Chestnut Ridge downhill like a hood ornament on a freight train. The bike was on rails and the brakes didn't exist. The tires somehow stayed inflated as I bashed them over every rock, root and rut in the trail. I wasn't riding pretty but I was riding faster than I've ever gone. My bike computer was reaching well over 30mph in the buffed singletrack sections and I thought "This is why I'm here"
I crashed like a champ when I hit the stream near checkpoint 6. Full-on starfish into the 2 feet of cool water. God that felt great. I think someone got a photo of it too. I pushed slowly towards the finish, over one more mountain fighting cramps, dropping my beloved Oakley's somewhere and gaining a few spots to finish 100th. I was only 30 minutes over my best time with 10:08. Now that I think about it, I haven't had a bad mechanical or a single flat tire all year? Amazing.
In the end I look back and realize there's no way I would have finished without my friends. So thank you,
Barry O'Melin who talked me into my first SM100 back in 1999
Chris Beck who has four 4th place finishes at this race
Chris Eatough - friend, father, hero
Chris Scott who puts on this amazing race and this year raced it
Dietrich, fellow GFK crew who didn't let a lack of training keep him from pain and glory
Chris and Al, GFK nutrition consultants
Eric and Kate - both fast and liberal
Hamid, shoulder popping adventurer
Joel Gwadz - best bike blogger in DC
David Olsen - GFK captain, friend, mentor
David and wife Grace - thanks for half of these photos Grace!
Jon Posner - the guy who picked up my pieces and put 'em back on the bike
Jeff Schalk - BC Waterslide King
Steve Hoover - Trek East Coast Manager, friend and constant supporter href="http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_r6VcBRttvXI/SL7JHGklquI/AAAAAAAAAco/_FEq0QTxtBw/s1600-h/Steve.jpg">
Tracy Posner - the girl you want your friend to marry
Last and most important - Wayne and Jen who, in the short time we had to visit & ride together, did more to help me than they will ever know.
And thank you for reading.