Somewhere early in the climb I started dwelling on what a terrible idea this was shaping up to be.
I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spent any substantial time biking uphill on singletrack. Having never really subscribed to the “earning the descent” mentality, I had been shuttling uphill sections with a car or riding a lift the last few years. I’d covered hundreds of miles of technical downhill all around Oregon, but couldn’t think of more than two or three consecutive miles of uphill that I had ridden at a time. It was a revelation that would have been far more practical a few hours earlier, before I decided to jump into a 17-mile race. And now there I was at the bottom of a roughly 1,300-foot singletrack climb.
It looked good on paper: Some good old-fashioned immersive journalism.
And that’s where participating in last week’s Swan River Rampage, part of the Summit Mountain Challenge racing series, started to take shape. I’d been curious about what it takes to race. What better way to find out than to enter one. And when race organizer Jeff Westcott told me the day before that the July 10 race was going to be on one of the best downhill sections of the Colorado Trail, that was it. (Reporter’s note: It’s not your fault, Jeff. The idea was there long before I heard the course description.)
After hanging up the phone, I started thinking. Hindsight shows some serious flaws in the logic that followed.
I focused on two things: “It’s on everybody’s must-do ride list,” as Westcott said, and it had a descent on the Colorado Trail that was two and a half times the length of the climb.
But besides that, I’m in good shape, I thought. It’s a 17-mile course with a long downhill. I’ve been kayaking a lot. I’m a solid downhill rider. I’d been out riding some, mostly downhill or with little elevation gain. I’d spent the winter skiing a ton and the spring biking, running and hiking.
Similar logic had led to a 4 hour, 20 minute marathon finish in 2011. This was just 17 miles on a bike. My hubris had grown substantially through that logic.
As the climb continued, the number of people passing me became more and more sporadic. I was the last in line.
I started to imagine my name on the race results page, with a DNF (did not finish) next to it. At the start of the big climb a knife-like cramp shot into my leg.
A justifiable excuse to quit? I’d already considered other outs, starting with the increasing lack of response from my shifters, which were in dire need of new cables.
Still, the idea of the DNF loomed as unacceptable. I pushed on, sometimes quite literally next to my bike.
The roots and rocks started to look bigger. Whether or not it was my imagination, I still can’t say. As the climb continued I started looking over my shoulder, expecting the course marshalls to catch up at any minute.
Then I focused on other mistakes: should have eaten better, should have had my pre-race Gatorade. Why in the world didn’t I pack a Clif Bar or three? The list went on, as my spirits dipped and my frustration mounted. I started eyeing trees ahead that I could stop and lean on for a quick breather.
I imagined the gap between those in front of me increasing. Then at one point I heard the vague sound of the race announcer drift its way up the valley to where I was. Were people finishing? Maybe I should have done the short course.
I wasn’t yet nearing the blurred vision or hallucinations that some riders speak of when they ride too hard or don’t adequately fuel, but I started to wonder how far off that might be. I remembered a time, on a 22-mile ride, that I got light-headed from not eating enough beforehand. Luckily I had granola bars with me on that one.
Then it happened, as I stopped, seated on my bike, the course marshals rounded a corner pedaling with far more vigor than I could hope to muster. It was official — last place. But I pushed on, knowing the top of West Ridge was near. Behind me the two riders chatted.
“This is much faster than last year,” one said to the other.
I couldn’t help but to think they were making that up as a morale boost.
Then finally the long-awaited descent began, finally my strong suit. The marshals backed off out of site. Maybe they took a break to give me some room. As I gained speed, I started to wonder if they’d ever been there at all.
By now the wear and tear from the assent, and my now abundantly clear lack of uphill conditioning, had taken its toll. I could tell my A-game was no longer there, but I threw caution to the wind.
At one point, as the late-evening sky started to approach, I couldn’t tell if it was the sun in the corner of my eye or if my vision was starting to work against me.
I disregarded it and charged on downhill.
Then suddenly I came up on a rider working on his bike. When I asked, he said he was OK, so I pushed on. No longer last, I smiled, somewhat guiltily. I was recharged, but it was short lived. Overcome by excitement, I hit the next switchback too fast and was promptly brought back to earth with an over-the-handlebars dismount.
Unscathed, I laughed at the apparent karmic retribution.
The rest of the way down I was so focused on the trail ahead that I barely noticed the forest open up to a large meadow with a sprawling view into the valley. All I could think was that the sun was about to fall behind the mountains off in the distance and I still had trail to ride.
I started to imagine finishing when everyone else had already packed up and left. My imagination wasn’t far off.
Dusk was upon me when I reached the final stretch of singletrack along Tiger Road. Cars with bikes on them passed on their way back to Breckenridge.
Exhausted, I pushed on the final stretch. Then I came around a bend to find myself face to face with a moose, who apparently thought the race was already over. Clearly as startled as I was, he jumped back to a position that completely blocked the trail. When he finally decided the grass off in the bushes tasted better, I jumped back on my bike and pedaled past. I noticed he was not alone. I saw he had a friend farther into the bushes.
After covering a little more ground, I could finally see the finish. Two hours and 57 minutes after I started, a full 30 minutes behind the last finisher, I crossed the lines satisfied there would be no DNF next to my name.
The few spectators who remained gave me a cheer.
At the finish line Wescott looked at me. “Mechanical trouble?”
“Nope, more of a physical issue, conditioning related.”
We laughed. Still, I was satisfied. I’d made it. “I think I’ll stick to covering them and not racing in them,” I told Westcott, as I gathered the last of my energy to make my way back to my Jeep.
The next morning there was a message in my inbox: “Hey, Sebastian, just checking-in to see how you’re doing today. That was a big ride. I feel badly for nudging you toward the Big course… Jeff”
No worries, Jeff. It was fun.