02 March 2012

Just ... Horrible: Stage 6


Stage 6: In Which I Think About Going All-In … But Thankfully Don’t Have To
There I am, 5:30 in the morning, 6-1/2 hours to race, my next-closest competitor standing beside me ready to start his next stage, my bike upside-down on the ground next to me, front wheel off, ready to do some minor repairs …

… and I don’t have the right parts.

Anyone who knows me, knows I overpack. I’m the guy who, when it was 20 degrees colder than predicted at one road race many years ago, you could go to, to get an extra pair of knickers. I’m the guy who carries enough stuff to field-rebuild an entire bike at a 24-hour race. I’m the guy who has done it.

Not this time.

This time, instead of grabbing the small bag of Avid Elixir brake pads I have stashed in my basement workshop, I grabbed the small bag of Juicy pads.

Right brand, wrong model.

And they’re not compatible.

Shit.

Matt headed out, for all I knew just one hour behind me but one checkpoint up, with only an easy stage separating us. I scrambled, digging through my bin knowing I didn’t have the right stuff, before doing what I could to re-center the caliper and hoping that might help. At the very least, I could find out what was next, and make the call whether I would have to retire due to a mechanical.

In point of fact, I was relieved. I know Matt well enough to know I was in trouble if he was just an hour back: Depending on what Stage 6 had in store, making up a CP on him might just put me over the edge into oblivion, were he hot on my heels. A broken front brake was a legit excuse to retire from the race, and with everyone currently sacked out, I had no way to know whether anyone else had the right pads. I could check in, make the call, and jump in my sleeping bag if I didn’t think my bike or my body would survive. No dishonor in that: I made a mistake when I packed my gear, and better men than me had DNFed this Horrible thing anyway.

So I rolled across the bridge resigned to defeat, and I’m pretty sure Jonathan/Dennis was there to greet me. I was chilly, but not nearly as cold as I had been 2 hours before. I went over to the check-in table, turned in my Stage 5 card, and pulled the card for Stage 6.

And let it be known: There is benevolent mercy in the world. Even a Horrible one.

I couldn’t believe my eyes: There were six checkpoints listed, but only one – ONE! – was mandatory. And it didn’t matter which one. I had my pick, which meant I could be out for 90 minutes or I could be out for 6 hours. All of a sudden, things were looking up!

Ready for more? Thanks to Eric for the pic!
At this point Eric may or may not have been awake, and Jonathan may or may not have been joined by other cohorts. All I know is that I geared up for a long battle, coming up with an epic route that had me nabbing one CP early but taking me way up high before dropping down and coming at it another way. The sun was starting to break, warmth was indeed returning, and I figured I’d make the call on the trail: If my brake worked, I was all in. If not? Well, at least I could finish. Right?

477 > Buckhorn Gap Trail > Twin Falls (hike only, CP at the Falls) > Buckhorn Gap Trail > 477. Left on the table: CPs at Club Gap, Turkeypen Gap at Black, Long Branch at Halfway Road, Daniel Ridge at Farlow and Barnett Branch at Pink Beds.

I headed out and headed up. The climb from the bridge was mercifully short, and as I dropped in on Buckhorn it became immediately apparent: I was screwed. No amount of pulling on the brake lever would get it to engage, and I had to grab a fistful of rear to skid half-sideways into the first left-hander. Aw, well – it was worth a shot. At least I could get Twin Falls, and at least I could say I finished.

I picked my way along the banks of Avery Creek, another area I thankfully know well. I wimped out in the 20-degree, predawn air, and rather than blast my way through frigid mountain streams, I bailed out to the log bridges that dot the lowbottoms there. I sort of slip-slided my way along, admiring the beautiful ice crystals at the side of the trail and watching my line to make sure I didn’t fall over.

I finally made Twin Falls Trail, and stashed my bike in a rhodo. One of the cool things about the Salsa Spearfish in Green Machine livery is that it is exactly the brilliant shade of green we have in Pisgah – in fact, in midsummer, it can hide in plain sight for a good dose of trail banshee. So although I had a bit of reservation leaving my ride on the side of the trail, I figured there wasn’t too much risk at 6:30 on a Sunday morning.

I set out up the cove, one of the few places that close-in that I haven’t seen yet. The trail was longer than I expected, and I kept my ears open for any sign of Matt, making his way up behind me. I expected him to arrive at any time – with no real ability to control my bike, I figured he’d be making up time on me hand-over-fist between Sycamore Cove and Avery Creek. But I also figured I didn’t care – at least I would finish, at least I would have that. I was disappointed that I didn’t win, but I could hold my head high and come back again next year.

I still had my light on when I got to the falls, and I sat on a rock there to enjoy a trailside Coke. I ate an energy bar, snapped my photo, and started the walk back. The way in seemed to take forever, but strangely the way back only took a few minutes – time was warping along with my mind, and before I knew it, I was stashing my Coke bottle in my backpack and remounting my bike.

I did OK on the way back – as expected, I hit the stairs way too hot, so I put myself into the slope before I went ass-over-teakettle into the mudpit at the bottom. I walked where I needed to and grabbed every chance to keep my feet dry – I was almost done, but I was done. With my goal in sight, and 5 hours to travel only about 3 miles – most of which was downhill – my mind shut down and I started to stumble and bounce off of things I shouldn’t. I’ve been here before, long into a 24-hour race, and I knew I needed to just relax, concentrate when I could, and just. make. it. out.

Still, in the back of my head, I was worried. I kept expecting to see Matt coming up the trail, and was surprised that there was no sign of him. Maybe he had taken a different route? It didn’t make sense that he wouldn’t grab Twin Falls first, but then again, stranger things had happened during this race. Still, the lower I got, the more I expected to need to yield the trail, and I was shocked when I made 477 with no sign of him, and even more surprised when I made the bridge. But then all at once I realized that I was almost done, that I was about to finish, that just one mile separated me from my goal …

HOT DAMN!

I rolled into camp at 7:30, and Eric was there to greet me. He offered to let me borrow his front brake, and I was grateful to decline. It was all I could do to step off my bike and call it good: In that moment, I became only the third finisher ever of the Most Horrible Thing Ever, and the first person to complete all of Pisgah Productions’ and all of Blue Ridge Adventures’ races. As Eric put it, “I created something to break Brad Key, and you finished it. Thanks for playing the game.” Even if I didn’t win, I was still on the podium, and I still attained my dream, my goal.

But wait, where was Matt?

I had been gone just over 90 minutes, surely enough time for him to hit Sycamore and make his way back. But as 7:30 gave way to 8, we began to speculate: Maybe he was doing multiple laps? But wait, why would he? That would be a dangerous strategy, not knowing what Stage 6 had in store. Unless he saw the passport? Nah, that wouldn’t be in his nature, not in keeping with the vibe of the game. Oh, wait: He’s training for the Arizona Trail Race. Maybe he’s bivvyed up over on Thrift, as practice.

Where the heck was Matt?

Eric told us that last time he saw Matt, it was at the end of Stage 3. At that point, he had come in 3 hours behind me, but I spent an hour in camp, and he was geared up and ready to go – so he was only 2 hours back. Doing the math, that made it about 11:30, maybe midnight – about the time I was cresting Yellow Gap and rolling into North Mills River Campground. Matt had gotten the passport for Stage 4 – the long, long ride to Bent Creek Gap and over the Parkway – and Eric had warned him about how cold it was bound to be way up top. (Like, yeah – no kidding!) Eric had said to him, “Be sure to check in with me before you leave.” To which Matt replied, “Consider this my check-in.”

Which meant he’d been out for 8-1/2, 9, 9-1/2 hours.

Even if he lost 2 hours to me on Stage 1, Stage 4 was nowhere near as difficult. As long as you stayed focused, there was nothing technical about it – the scariest part might have been the rocky descent on SMR, early on in the stage. But then it hit me: His Stage 4 card wasn’t there. What if – a long shot, maybe, but with each passing minute it became more of a reality – when I saw him at 5:30, he was headed out on Stage 4, and wasn’t over on Sycamore after all? What if his comment about waiting for it to warm up applied to the 5,000 ft. elevation at the Mt. Pisgah Inn?

All of a sudden, we were having visions of Matt, lying prone on the side of a closed section of Parkway, exposed to the elements and fading from this earth. Tara was set to go on a trail run over on Sycamore, so she headed out with the express aim of running it backwards so she could find him. The rest of us set about breaking down camp, watching the clock and wondering when we’d need to launch a search party. Finally, about 10 or 10:30, we made the call: There was no way he was on Sycamore, the only explanation was that he had gone for the gravel grind, and we’d see him between 11:30 and noon. It was the only rational answer.

"So Clay, I think ... zzzzz." Thanks Eric!
So we did what we Pisgah folk always do: We (well, everyone else) drank beer, took pictures, hung out by the fire, and eventually hiked up to hide the gnome. I fell asleep, first standing up and almost falling into the fire, and then later mid-sentence while I talked to Clay. Our feelings of worry gave way to more euphoria with the warmth of the rising sun: Surely Matt was OK, and it was a fine day after all to celebrate a successful The Most Horrible Thing Ever!

I stayed with Patrick while everyone else climbed up the cove, so we were the only ones there to witness Matt’s spectacular return. For more than an hour, every bike we saw on 477 was him, but for more than an hour we were disappointed and still a little worried. Finally, though, at 11:15 on the nose, Matt came storming into camp and pulled an impressive skid, throwing rocks everywhere as he slid to a stop. He was smiling and happy, and despite only having 45 minutes to finish an hour loop, he checked in and checked out, and he was off for Stage 5 before we knew it!

That’s right, Stage 5 – which meant I won! I was pretty stoked, to say the least, though I was pretty wiped out and my celebration was pretty muted. Clay returned from the gnome excursion, and a few minutes later Eric and the rest of the crew came down. We were all relieved, and while we waited for the final finish, Eric snapped a few “podium shots” for Facebook and for posterity.
Podium shot! Thanks to Eric for dreaming up the Game! (and for the photo!)
Eventually, Kim and the kids came by, and we all welcomed Matt back just after noon. He may have been disappointed, but he sure didn’t show it – as always, he was laid back and good natured as he packed up his gear. Kate and I wandered around the campsite, and she pulled out her first massive endo on her Strider going across the bridge – unperturbed, though, she rolled around the rest of the campground and pulled off some drops for good measure!

Eventually we settled down for a quick picnic lunch, waving to the riders as they passed by. “Hey! There’s a Horsethief!” shouted one of them … he was mistaken, but still, it was pretty cool that he recognized my bike as a cousin to the bigger-hit HT. Finally the fatigue and the warm sun took their toll, and I was just done – it was time to head home. Kim let me sleep it off: I woke up after 2 hours for dinner with the family, but didn’t wake up again until 7:45 the next morning. And by then it was Monday, and time to go to work.

Which, come to think of it, wasn’t all that Horrible.

Race time at the end of Stage 6: 7:30

6 comments:

The Hoo said...

epic story! you're brave...and crazy.

Patrick said...

What a fantastic write up about the race. I enjoyed reading it. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I have the upmost respect for you. You are now another one of my epic adventure heros.

Chris Neubert said...

Excellent story Chris, I truly enjoyed the read. Congratulations on your win. Truly amazing!

dicky said...

Nuts.

No desire to ever do this Thing of which you speak. Tough-as-nails (after a trip to the salon).

1speed said...

Badass, Chris. And a great write-up -- would make a great article in any bike mag! Congrats on the win.

Dobovedo said...

Absolutely phenomenal, both the riding and the writing. Congrats and thanks for sharing your story.