I wrote an article for my website on self-pity awhile back. In the article, I talked about the hardest workout day I ever had when I did a mountain bike race called the Bow 80 two years ago. The Bow 80 is an 80 km race over some of the most difficult terrain a person can mountain bike on. Two years ago I had mechanical problems that forced me to walk and push my bike over most of the distance. I felt very sorry for myself and at that time it was the hardest thing I had ever done physically — until September 20th of 2009.
I needed to go back and do the Bow 80 again. I felt that I had the fitness and skill level to do the race in under six hours (the pros can do it in four hours). A sub-six hour race would put me in the top third or quarter of all the riders competing. You have eight and a half hours to complete the race and not get a DNF (did not finish) on the race results sheet.
I'm not sure why I feel the need to go and punish my body this intensely. Why do people line up at the crack of dawn for an Ironman? I guess I am doing it to see if I can do it. I might also be trying to compare myself to others and evaluate how good I am. I am not a hundred percent sure, but at 7 AM I arrived with my two buddies Sean and Duey. It was pitch black and raining.
Duey was probably the most nervous about doing this race. Sean and I have done it before and knew what to expect. Duey kept getting horror stories from everyone, especially us. One of the best descriptions of the Bow 80 was from Chris, the owner of Pedalheads Mountain Bike Shop:
"It's like taking a cold shower and having someone kick you in the balls for 8 hours.”
We stepped out of the warm car and starting getting all our gear together. Within five minutes we were soaked. Duey had a great idea of passing on the race and just going for a hot breakfast. I told him we didn’t come all this way to not get on the start line. I should have listened to him as well.
The race started promptly at 7:30 AM. All the pros and fast riders took off hard to avoid the clog on the first hill climb. The ground was muddy and greasy so getting traction was difficult. On some of the descents my bike tire was fish tailing right off the trail. It was like trying to ride down an ice sheet covered in olive oil.
My plan was to settle in at a pace that was very comfortable to me. I wanted to ride the first two thirds of the race easy and then, if I felt good, ride the last third harder. Mentally, it's difficult for me to let riders go by and not chase them down. I like having a nice burn in my legs during a race — it confirms to me that I'm racing hard. I knew that any burn early in the race would have a consequence on my performance later in the race. I promised myself that I would ignore everyone else and just focus on getting through the slippery course without wiping out too much. My hands and toes were cold within the first 10 minutes.
I arrived at the first of two food stations in just over two hours. I took my riding gloves off and started blowing hot air onto my hands. I got lucky by placing an extra pair of socks in my food bag that the race organizers gave everyone. I was going to leave them behind but decided at the last minute to put them in my food bag as a memento for doing the race. I threw away my wet muddy pair of socks and put on the new pair. My toes felt so much better. I knew they were thawing out because the blood rushing back in started to make them hurt.
I ate two bananas, half a sandwich and took off. My rest break was around five to six minutes. Immediately after leaving the first food station I had to go down a steep muddy hill. My back tire slipped right out and I went down hard. My left butt cheek took a good hit. I decided to walk the rest of the way down, not risking any serious injury. Just before the major climbing was about to start I had to cross a creek. The water was ice cold. There goes the new warm pair of socks.
The Bow 80 has two major mountain climbs one after the other. This is what I was saving my legs for earlier in the race. Half way up the first climb the rain turned into snow.
“Well this can’t be good,” I thought as the snow hit the ground. I was right. It started snowing harder. My back bike tire was getting clogged up with pine needles, mud and snow. I had to stick my hands in between the frame and rubber to get rid of the mess so my tire would turn. My cold hands did not like this at all.
As I left the tree line, the exposure on the mountain unleashed a fierce wind blowing snow all over me and the other riders. The combination of being wet from the rain with the wind blowing snow on me was almost intolerable. I have never been so cold in my life. I was once in Winnipeg at minus 46 degrees but was not nearly as cold as I was on this day.
I was wearing bike bib shorts, arm warmers and a light bike jacket. I came across a couple of riders who were crouched down behind a big boulder trying to escape the blowing wind. I was thinking of joining them but thought if I stop now I will just get colder and it would be hard to come out into the wind again. The worst part was having to keep removing snow and grit from my bike tire.
Every few meters I had to stop and use my hands to remove the gunk preventing my tire from turning. My hands were so cold. I tried removing my riding gloves because they were wet and I thought with the blowing wind my hands were colder with the gloves on. I used my teeth to remove my right glove but it did not come off. I thought maybe it was frozen to my hand but then realized I was biting down on my finger and just could not feel it. I managed to get the gloves off and threw them away. I spent the next hour climbing the snow packed mountain pushing my bike. I stopped every few meters to unclog the back tire, blow hot air on my hands, and continue pushing.
I tried to get my mind off my discomfort by singing. There is a Billy Talent song I like that has a couple of lines I kept repeating over and over out loud to keep me pumped up and moving:
"Go on crush me like a flower in the rusted rain, I am nothing but a tin man don’t feel any pain, don’t feel any pain."
It didn’t work, I felt pain. I challenged Mother Nature and she kicked my butt badly. I became so distraught that a feeling came over me that I have never had before. I wanted to quit. In past races there have been many times where I wanted to quit because I was fatigued but I never did. This feeling was different. I seriously doubted if my body could finish the race, not because I was tired but because I couldn’t tolerate the pain and discomfort from the cold.
I was really disappointed with myself. I questioned my toughness and my will. The characteristics which I thought may separate me from some of the other riders were now weaknesses I never believed I had. I told myself that if I could get over the mountain and down the other side that I could quit at the second food station if I could not warm up. At that point there would still be 30 km to go. It was almost a certainty that I was going to quit but I did not have to make that decision.
When I arrived at the top of the second mountain climb the volunteers at checkpoint number 16 told me the race was being cancelled. It became too dangerous to allow any other riders up the mountain. I found out later that Duey and Sean were not allowed to leave the first food station. They were stopping riders from going up the mountain and started busing people back to the start. The volunteers told me to go down to check point #19 and they would have a warm bus waiting for all the riders. I asked them how far check point 19 was. They replied about eleven kilometers.
When I heard this I was stunned.
I'm not sure how I looked but I remember them staring at me in a weird way. I wanted them to feel sorry for me and come up with a plan to get me off the mountain in an easier fashion. Maybe by helicopter or something, I don’t know. I felt like telling them I couldn’t make it, but what could they do? They had to make sure every other rider came past them and make their way down. I didn’t say anything. I just started walking my bike down the mountain.
At one point I thought of just abandoning my bike. It was too hard to hold on to it because of my numb hands. My hands were frozen trying to get my back tire unclogged of snow. I told myself that I would regret the decision when the whole ordeal is over. Leaving my bike would have been a very expensive choice. Luckily I came to my senses and continued on.
I ran into who I thought was a park ranger. I remember he was wearing some sort of winter jacket with emblems. He was concerned that I did not have gloves on. I told him I threw them away because my hands were too cold. My comment caused him to look at me oddly. I explained that they were wet and I was trying to blow warm air on them, just in case he thought I lost my mind. He told me that he gave away any extra gloves he had to other riders in front of me so basically I was screwed, and just had to keep on moving.
Riders were coming down the mountain past me on their bikes. They asked me if I was okay and I told them I couldn’t hold onto my handlebars and brakes. Everyone replied with a similar statement, "Yeah my hands are freezing too."
I was thinking why were they able to hold onto their bikes and I couldn't? Did they have a second pair of dry gloves to change into? Did they have warmer gloves than I do? Am I just being a suck? Whatever the reason I decided to stop walking my bike and take time to warm up my hands. I blew on them and I stuck them between my legs. I repeated this process over and over until I could begin to feel them a bit. I jumped on the bike and started riding down. It felt good to go faster and get to check point 19. Unfortunately for me my hands started freezing again. My fingers slipped off the brakes. The only reason I knew this is that I started going so fast and couldn’t slow down. I thought I was still holding onto the brakes.
The terrain I was riding down was so steep that I had to hang my butt below the seat so I didn't topple over the handlebars. I lost control, hit a rock and was bounced off the trail like a drunken rowdy guy in a bar. I nearly lost my mind. Not only was I freezing, but now I was all scraped up. You really have no choice in a situation like this. Sitting down and giving up is not an option. The instinct for survival is so great. All you do is just keep doing was must be done.
I stopped for what seemed like the thousandth time to blow on and warm up my hands. I started to get a little nervous because now my body was shaking and trembling uncontrollably. I felt anger towards myself for allowing this to happen. I felt I should have been able to control it. Now I realize it was the beginning of a mild case of hypothermia.
I heard voices down below on the trail and assumed it was the next checkpoint. I made my way down and came upon a couple of race volunteers and paramedic. This was checkpoint number 18. They asked me how I was doing. Normally I always say "fine" even though I may not be, but this time I said "Not so great." I hate asking people for help or even have them feel concern for me — it makes me feel weak.
The situation was different this time; I have never felt this way before. The paramedic immediately came over to me and saw my body trembling. He told me to keep moving around while he retrieved some hot chocolate. I tried to keep moving but the shaking got so bad that my upper back started cramping from the increased muscle tension. I remember walking away from the volunteers so they could not see me trembling. The paramedic came back with the hot drink and gave it to me. That’s when it happened. I took the drink and I spilled most of it all over myself. My body was shaking so violently I had trouble taking a sip.
All of a sudden I started sobbing.
It came out of nowhere and I couldn’t stop it. I never cry in public but all of a sudden here I am sobbing in front of complete strangers. I tried to stop by hitting my leg. I don’t know why it happened; I wasn't hurt or too tired. I believe now that it was because I was not going to finish the race, for the first time in my life. I had about 6 km to go to checkpoint 19 and a bus ride back to the start. The volunteers gave me a pair of winter gloves and the paramedic walked me with his mountain bike down the trail. I now have a medical escort. I told him I did not want one but he insisted. About half way down my hands finally warmed up to the point I could ride my bike again. We both jumped on the bikes and rode down safe and controlled.
I climbed on the bus and saw a dozen or so riders already there. They looked dirty and tired but at least it was warm. I wondered about how their bodies felt going through the course. Did they suffer like I did? It was pretty quiet. Only a couple of people were chatting, the rest either sleeping or staring ahead blankly.
We sat on the bus for about two hours waiting for other riders to come down the mountain.
I tried to sleep but couldn’t. My body stiffened up. Getting off the bus was tough. I was cramping everywhere.
I arrived back at the start line to find Duey and Sean. They had been waiting for me for about four hours. I told them about my ordeal, but left the crying part out. They told me about 40 riders were able to get past checkpoint 19 before they cancelled the race and finished. This is so impressive. It is a testament to their fitness, skill and toughness.
I'm going back next year.