The first Drop
I made it about 72 miles in 10ish hours to the 2nd checkpoint at Melgeorges and dropped out. I never thought it would play out that way, but I suppose no one thinks they are going to drop. During the race, the decision was drawn out and torturous. I almost think mentally it would have been less taxing to just have finished.
From a systems perspective- food, water, strength, cramps, layers, staying warm- everything was going great. It was empowering to see everything coming together after the hours and hours of prep and training and testing. It would have been an easier decision to drop if something acute went wrong. But no, this was deeper. Something wasn't right.
Sitting comfortably at home now, digitally watching the last of the racers come in on Wednesday, my mind is finally clearing and able to reflect upon at everything that unfolded in this years Arrowhead 135. I've been on antibiotics for 24 hours now. I got the flu.
Below I have written an account of the race from my perspective. It is long and I am not the best writer, so continue onward with that in mind. These words are here to help me remember as the past erases too much, especially when it comes to the powerful lessons provided by failure.
Sunday night after the pre-race meeting I hitched a ride back to the hotel and finished putting my rig back together. And I ordered a medium pizza and ate it all. Throughout the day this cough I had was getting worse, but I brushed it off, thinking about all the rides I'd done in the past with a cough. With my bike ready and all my gear staged for tomorrow I relaxed, read, and eventually went to bed.
Sleeping didn't work well as the cough grew into a never ending assault that made me riddled with guilt thinking about the racers in the rooms next to me. My head started pounding and I started to swing between freezing and sweating. 5 am couldn't come soon enough. Ibuprofen seemed to help a bit, so while I was bummed about this development I was not worried.
The alarm finally announced go time. Coffee going and morning business taken care of, but I couldn't get myself to eat. Maybe it was the whole pizza I ate? I was able to keep taking in fluids as I got dressed and ready. I was burning up though. Turned the AC unit on and that helped. With the bike loaded with the last bits and my non-race gear packed I headed down to the lobby. Another racer volunteered to bring my duffel in their car to the starting point. I headed out at about 6:10 on my bike, a short mile ride to the start.
Immediately my knees hurt. What! I'm not even at the start yet! My mind raced, or rather bounced all over, as I tried to interpret this. I'd spent the last year addressing the knee issues that arose after last year's Arrowhead and Tuscobia. I'd worked with a physical therapist, gotten a bike fitting, and in all the riding I'd done leading up to this my knees hadn't hurt a single bit! During those long training rides I had mentally practiced the thought processes I would use when different obstacles would arise. But this, the unexpected arrival of both knees being punks, was not a hurdle I had anticipated. My mind immediately descended into a dark place. I hadn't even reached the start.
When in doubt and safety isn't a concern, default to no thinking. This is a valuable mind tool from the climbing world- just keep going and tell your mind to shut up. I checked in at the start, grabbed my duffel from one car and put it in another that would be waiting at the finish line. As I waited for 7 am I alternated between standing outside in the cold (-8 I think) and inside the building where we checked in. Too hot, too cold, not dressed to be standing around- I just wanted to get started. My mind seemed to be getting cloudy, but I hoped that the pumping of my heart once we started rolling would bring distraction and clarity.
7 am start with fireworks and cheers and energy. Last year I took it out hard and paid for it later. This year my strategy was to play it conservative, not worrying about time as it is meaningless when the weather and trail dictates everything. And, going unsupported this year means I would have no warmth to retreat to should I need to recover. No recovery, just consistently, smartly moving forward. With hope I'd have extra energy to spend during the last miles of the race.
The cold air soothed my throat, but the cough maintained itself proudly and my head pounded onward dutifully. My knees hurt, but the pain was manageable. My mind was distracted as I tucked in with five others and pedaled forward. I focused on what I saw around me and not what I felt inside me.
9 miles in at the first turn to the East. The trail was packed well, but I felt like I was working too hard. I decided to stop and add some air to my back tire. The rubbed gasket on the pump that creates a seal around the valve had become inflexible in the cold and wouldn't create an airtight junction. Nearly all the air in the back tire escaped as I fiddled with it. Finally I was able to get it sealed on tight and pumped and pumped and pumped. Back on the bike, my average speed bumped up by over 1 mph. This was a positive change.
The Arrowhead give you many things. One of them is time to think. Sometimes this is a wonderful gift. Sometimes it is the end of you. Time slowly ticked away and it became harder for me to not think about what was coming. You can think of the AH135 as 4 sections. The first is fairly flat. The second section from the Gateway checkpoint to the halfway checkpoint at Melgeorges is the rollers. The rollers are taxing, with a few super steep hills that demand walking and pushing your bike thrown in for good measure. The third section to the Surly checkpoint is the hills. This is the most challenging section. Hill after hill. Push your bike up, swing your leg over, roll down, dismount, and repeat. For hours. The last section is mostly flat and mind-numbingly straight, with a slight upward grade that wears you down.
As the first checkpoint approached I found myself asking the forbidden question. I frame it that way because if you never ask the question then you don't have to answer it. But I asked it, and so the battle began. I argued back and forth silently as my legs kept spinning and the snow kept crunching under my tires. I stuck to my schedule of eating and drinking, promising that I wouldn't let my mental darkness sabotage itself. Eventually I arrived at the conclusion that I was doing well enough to continue onward to Melgeorges. The rollers between Gateway and there would answer the question for me. Gateway arrived. I rode around the cone and back onto the trail, never putting a foot down, never giving myself a chance to think anything else.
|Just after the first checkpoint|
The rollers began. I find the rollers to be deceptive. They look so mellow and nonthreatening. But their length makes them zappers of energy. The snow was weird today. While it looked packed down, it seemed sticky- even on the gentle downhills I wasn't able to get much of a roll going. Chatting with other racers as we played leapfrog, it was agreed that the trail was in a weird state.
It was the steep hills that stuck it to me. Both knees started to scream as I dismounted and pushed my bike up. What was more alarming was my inability to make it up these hills without feeling deeply drained. I would take a few steps and have to stop. Not to catch my breath, but just to build up energy. I remember feeling this way last year just before the Surly checkpoint, much further into the race and the depths of exhaustion. But to feel this way now? Why? More importantly, what does this mean? Ibuprofen did nothing to help.
I wasn't ready to answer the question yet. Just keep moving forward. Execute the plan you've prepared, as you have to get to the checkpoint no matter what you decide. As planned, I stopped at about 3 pm at the 3-sided snowmobile shelter 12 miles before Melgeorges. My plan was to melt snow to restock my 40 oz themos and eat warm food (ramen!) before darkness arrived. This would set me up well to make it though the hills after Melgeorges, as I had another 3 liters of water on my back so I wouldn't have to stop in the darkness. It felt good to stop and rest after 8 hours of moving. My legs felt strong and the hot noodles went down easily. I shared the shelter with Steve and his positivity was a wonderful distraction. At about 3:45 I rolled on, with full water and stomach, ready to tackle the 3rd section in good form. Maybe I had just needed some rest!
Almost immediately there after leaving a huge hill presented itself. It destroyed me as I struggled to push my bike up it. My knees screamed with each step and my body simply wanted to lay down in exhaustion. It wasn't my legs, but my body. This confused me. Why would I be so deeply exhausted after just 8 hours? Why do my legs feel strong, but the fuel isn't getting to them so they can carry out their strength? My mind reeled as I swung my leg back over the bike and rolled forward. I reflected on how the day had progressed, and it was clear that my state was only getting worse. The sun began to set and I found myself enjoying the beautiful landscape as it glowed brightly. I stopped and snapped a picture about 5 miles from the checkpoint and looked to the full moon that would soon be casting a much different light on this snowy landscape.
Elephant Lake finally appeared and the crossing to Melgeorges unfolded in front of me as I rode alone across the iced up lake under the darkening sky. The last two hours and 12 miles had answered the question for me. I would drop. There was too much happening inside me that I did not understand. I wish it had been a clear, decisive moment where the answer magically popped into my head and I felt relieved by it. But no. I wrestled. Thoughts swirled like sparks from a fire that has been provoked too much. Questions of worth and character and strength and implications flooded. I was crushed and torn and frustrated and beat down.
I wrestled with it even as I laid my bike down and walked up the steps into the cabin to check in. I opened the door and quietly provided my number. Seeing the bright yellow ribbon pinned to my number the volunteer respectfully asked if I was giving up my unsupported status, and I replied "No, I'm dropping." He read the situation well, and kindly offered to ask me again in 20 minutes once I'd had a chance to rest a bit in the warmth of the cabin. But no, I was done.
I sat there for a long time, mostly silent, listening and watching the other racers, trying to find ways to reconcile the madness in my mind. Three other racers dropped around me, which, though it seems shallow, provided some comfort in knowing that I wasn't alone in this moment. The longer I sat, the more comfortable I became with the decision as I noticed that even in the warmth of the cabin my throat, head, and exhaustion were continuing to worsen.
I eventually made it back to Fortune Bay. I turned in my satellite tracker, which it turns out never worked (frustrating), and headed to Virginia to collect my duffel, where I slept for a few hours at Bryan's house and then headed home, feeling whatever sickness continue to grow stronger. I made it back in time to see everyone off to school and work, then finally slept.
At the clinic it was confirmed that I had the flu. Reflecting back, I had sworn I'd gotten a flu shot in the Fall when I took my kids to get theirs. Nope. That was dumb. The pain in my knees receded to almost nonexistence in 24 hours, making me wonder if this was tied to the flu?
Remotely watching riders arrive at the finish line and hearing accounts of the brutally cold night temps (between -20 and -30) I find myself coming to terms with my decision to drop. Yes, it was the right decision. Yes, it would have been stupid to have continued into the difficult hill section through the depths of such a cold night with no easy way to retreat. It was smart to drop.
No, I'm not happy about it. I'm frustrated and disappointed. Owning a DNF (Did Not Finish) is going to hang over me and mess with my head for awhile. These aren't bad things I suppose. They are fuel.