I remember two years ago when I had just met Rich Staley, I asked him why endurance athletes do what they do. I really expected something profound like: "we're finding a mode of expression that doesn't otherwise exist in every day-to-day life." Instead, his answer surprised me: "They do long races and undertake these somewhat insane challenges simply because they are there."
The answer disappointed me at the time mostly, I think, because it didn't strike me as an interesting enough reason to write about. Personal angst, striving for agency, recognition, overcoming loss or addiction: those were the ingredients of a compelling narrative, I thought. The nonchalant and less vigorous "why not?" makes for a less interesting blog post, to say nothing of a book.
Two years later, though, I wonder about my initial reaction to wanting to do something simply because it is there. After all, there are plenty of things that exist in the world (ice cream, puppies, fancy cars) and yet, I'm among a group of people who, instead of choosing to invest time or interest in any of those things, I prefer long, uncomfortable races and find a peculiar kind of solace there.
Last year, I competed in the Silver State 508-- a 508-mile cycling race across Nevada via highway 50 (with a brief foray onto highway 722) as a two-person team. (You can read my race report here.)
This year, four Renoites decided to break the mold of super-long distance to form a four-person team called Great Basin Ichthyosaur. This meant that each cyclist would complete around 125 miles and only two stages of the eight stage race. My teammates would be Rich Staley of Great Basin Bicycles, his long-time 508 partner and recent Leadville 100 finisher Jami Horner, Fritz Fleishmann, a Reno Wheelman racer and long-time road, Crit and time trialer and myself, a newly-minted roadie with aspirations to become better.
Although we all call Reno home, we formed an eclectic group. Our ages ranged from 34 to 61 and we were the only "true" mixed team (all others were predominately male.) Each of us brought unique strengths to the team, and in some ways, I think the only thing we all had in common is that we had no idea what to expect with four racers who would also act as crew (well, that and an admiration for late '80s and early '90s hip-hop classics.)
Did we all compete in the 508 this year simply because it was there? Well, yes and no. With my limited experience I have more appreciation for Rich's words. Long distance athletes tend to be the types of people who seek out and grab challenges with both hands.
Why they do that-- the mechanics of the heart and mind-- well, that's the inarticulable part of it. I get glimpses, especially in a race like this when I'm not only participating on the road, but as a support crew member. But, honestly, I'm not sure I fully understand it yet.
Maybe I never will.
All four of us would call a white Sport Mobile (a.k.a. a "Stalker Van" or its proper name "Skiz") home. In addition to a mini-fridge, we had a cooler devoted to ice and another cooler which held bottles of Ensure, Cokes, V-8s, Starbucks Refreshers and other odds and ends (everyone has their own preferences.) Our bikes would be stored on a rack off the back of the van with an extra bike for parts and miscellany (which we would, surprisingly, need).
Our race began at 7:00 am on Saturday morning. The solo riders started two hours earlier. I was grateful for the extra hours of sleep. Rich and I completed the Triple Crown Stage Race (and a few other double centuries) and have woken much earlier for several of those rides to start in the dark and cold. One, in fact, the week before (the White Mountain Double.) I loved the luxury of sleeping in our own bed and not the car.
Despite our extra sleep, we ended up forgetting several key items at home. Some (like my earbuds) were negligible. Others, like the ingredients I had brought for sandwiches (I need solid food between efforts) were more of a big deal.
The morning of the race, near the start, set the tone of the race for me, which would become something of a test of character, rather than of strength. I asked Rich if I could run home for my earbuds twenty minutes from the start. We live three minutes away, so I know I would have been cutting it close, but when he said "No," I shrugged, but felt slightly hurt.
My pre-race jitters were also killing me. My stomach, in knots, churned around the coffee I'd consumed and the thought of no music. I'm always jumpy before a race, and when I have a late start, I have to force myself to settle down, to breathe and no to think too deeply into how I feel in the moment. I really don't want to let anyone down.
As soon as Jami, our first rider, begins the first stage with the other riders, we pile into the van. Fritz drives and Rich is in the passenger seat. I'm in the back, lying down on the bed. I try to close my eyes, and I do, but I don't sleep. We stop for ice. We watch other teams fumble around with bikes, waiting for their riders. The GPS tracker (which we can reach on our phones) loses Jami's signal, and it looks like she stopped on the climb up Geiger (which she didn't.)
My stomach is in knots.
She will be the second fastest girl for the first stage, flying down Six Mile and into her aerobars for the stretch along highway 50 when Fritz turns the radio to a station of retro hip-hop.
Pump, pump it UP...
Skiz (the van) is rocking the shoulder of highway 50. I test out facebook's "Live" feature, and take a silly video of us somewhat-dancing to the retro hip-hop. Outside, Jami rides the first (46-mile) stage of the race.
The morning is quiet and crisp, the sun slowly rises in the blue sky. Jami gets to Silver Springs (the first exchange point) quickly. So quickly, in fact, that I don't have time to wait in the bathroom line when Rich, our rider for the second stage of the race, takes off for a 31 mile time trial.
Rich Staley, a long time racer, means business on the bike. He passes rider after rider, and makes it look easy. The stage (which is mostly flat) takes the riders from Silver Springs to Fallon, through Fallon and to a little gas station before Fallon turns into an alkali flat and the true "lonely desert" of Nevada.
Rich burns rubber on the road as Jami drives and Fritz, our rider for stage 3, gets ready for his race in the back. I man the navigator's seat, which becomes my de facto spot for the race when I'm not riding.
He makes it look easy-- like the 25.7 mph average is effortless, that cycling is effortless, that there is no gravity on Earth and that I really shouldn't have to pee as much as I do.
As we drive through Fallon, a rider from another team flats. Although he has the tools to change his tire, he doesn't want to take the time. We offer him our extra wheel, which he takes, as Rich whizzes by us on the shoulder of the road.
Harmon Junction, which is on the very East side of Fallon, the next exchange point. We recoup our wheel from the grateful rider who completed his stage. Rich makes the exchange to Fritz who begins his 112 mile stage from Fallon to Austin.
The race starts to heat up.
When Fritz takes the lead, the cool "Fall" feeling of the course vanished. The alkali flats start to bake with heat shimmers in an oven. Fritz holds a constant pace, covering the miles in his aerobars as Rich, who just raced, sleeps in the back of the van, Jami drives and I man the navigator's seat.
The temperature climbs, and we begin to hand Fritz bottles of water, bottles of electrolytes and water, mini-bottles of Ensure to Fritz as he continues to ride. He is like a metronome; no change in cadence, steady and solid. Across the desert, he rides.
As "crew", we do a continual Chinese Fire Drill" around Skiz, the white van. At one moment, Jami drives. At another, I drive. Rich wakes and moves up front. The only constant is Fritz, who rides the miles between Fallon and Austin as the sun climbs in the sky along with the temperatures.
He doesn't want to stop, and so we do what we can: handing him water, nutrition and (sometimes) ice as we go. At one point, I volunteer my Jane Austin Socks (tall socks with depictions of Jane Austin on them given to me by a dear friend and intended to help me through the cold night) as an ice sock as Fritz climbs Carroll Summit in the hottest part of the day.
Fritz is brave. Fritz is constant. He keeps the same cadence, and the same speed.
As a four-person team, there really isn't a lot of fluff on board. We are racers. We are crew. We are also photographers, and we capture the images of each other doing the extraordinary things we don't do in every day life. We are doing it because we can. We are doing it because we are good at it.
Beyond that, though, the beauty of Carroll Summit with her burnt trees and blooming late wildflowers gets to me: we do it because we love this life, this life, this life, this life; the bicycle tires revolve and we have all chosen this revolution. It is beautiful. It is strength. It is whatever each of us is, in the world, turning those cranks, this moment, chooses to challenge. Subtle, quiet, strong.
Fritz is still going. He never stopped for his longest stage except to take off an extra pair of socks.
We left my food at home, we find, about thirty minutes from my stage. I'd really like a sandwich but the turkey, avocado and cheese are in a refrigerator in Reno. I feel like I turn into this huge bitch and I rummage around, thinking something along the lines of "*&#$" but mumble that I can just eat a bar and be fine, really.
Remember, that this is all happening as one of our athletes is really suffering out in the heat, climbing Carroll Summit. I pull it together. Rich, he told me later, felt terrible, and asked a rival team for turkey since we (basically) supported their rider, as well as our own, on the climb up Carroll Summit.
Armed with sandwich meat framed by dijon mustard and sourdough, I tell myself I'm ready. I won't be, of course: Fritz would arrive too soon. But, that's the nature of racing.
Austin to Eureka.
The handoff between Fritz and I occurs on an uphill in front of a gas station in Austin. I know there is a team roughly five minutes in front of us, and I do my best to catch them on the climb out of Austin (which means I just feel awful as the stage begins.)
It's a beautiful time of day: a low sun, little wind and an open road. I try to ride a steady pace, and I think I do: I feel as though I move too much on the bike, and am much too slow. I crouch low on the bike on a long downhill. I only reach 45 mph and my heart sinks. I'm going to let everyone down, I thought.
The reason why I love to eat sandwiches surfaces on this ride: I'm not hungry, and I don't need to stop. There's a "sandwich nugget" in my gut, and it keeps me full as I ride and ride. I realize this would be a disastrous idea for an event which included running like Ironman-- but for cycling, I love my sandwiches and my potatoes.
The dusk and sunset are beautiful. I'm pointed in the wrong direction to watch the sun set, but I watch the desert fade into lovely rose and violets. I smell the bitterbrush and sage. I see Venus, then the stars, appear one-by one. The moon, that night, rises large and full (so full I thought it was the lights of Eurkea at first.) I have never seen a moon so large. It's one of those moments in life that you don't expect, but it defines you. That stage was magical, even if my legs were about to fall off by the time I reached Eureka.
When I stopped at the aid station, Rich took my bike. Jami, the next rider was nowhere in sight. I tried to tell him not to touch the Garmin-- but as Jami rode off into the night, I collapsed in the back in the van. I had 30 minutes to sleep. A little later, I learn Rich had (unintentionally) deleted my stage. I wonder if my team thinks I don't matter.
I settle in the back, and I try to sleep. I can't. My heart is beating in my ears. This is the night shift.
We take our stations.
The Night Train.
Jami takes the first stage back, riding Eurkea to Austin. I rode that stage last year, and remembered it as something of a suffer fest because of the way you can't tell where you are (because it is dark and night) and the way that the stage includes both Bob Scott and Austin Summits which (as I remember them) seem to go on forever.
I'm supposed to sleep, but I can't. Frtiz drives. Rich sits navigator for a while and I stare out the back window at the millions of stars visible in the quiet, dark desert. At one point, Rich curls up and sleeps next to me while Fritz plays a pandora station of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. Ethereal, other-worldly and world-wise, I'm sad to hear it's not an album or anything tangible (or anything I could ever listen to again.
Outside, in the dark and cold, Jami rides.
Rich falls asleep and I take my spot in the passenger seat. I hand Jami nutrition and water, as she needs it. Fritz tells me about his past races. Rich snores.
As Jami nears Austin Summit, she approaches a male rider. Fritz yells at her not to pass because a semi is coming in the opposite direction, and we will not be able to follow her. I don't know if she heard him or not.
Defiantly, strongly, confidently, she slides by the man who can't stand to be passed by a woman, but who has nothing left in him to prevent it. Rich, in the back of the van, is ready to ride 112 miles in the middle of the night. At the gas station in Austin, We are the only team in that sleepy, dark town.
Rich begins without a cheer or fanfare. Jami curls into the back of the van to sleep. I remain by Fritz and we drive into the dark night watching Rich, as he steadily conquers mile after mile.
It's darkest before the light.
What happens for the next six hours might be up for debate. I sit in the navigator's seat next to Fritz and then, when Fritz is tired, I sit next to Jami. I hand off bottles of Ensure, water-- I give whatever's asked of me out the passenger side window.
More than one time, I pull my arm back in the van and think "damn, that's cold!" and I can't imagine how it feels to be out there, in it, riding a bike at around 21 mph. I know I sleep here and there because when Fritz or Jami says "he needs XXX" I jump and have to orient myself before I can comply with the request.
The night is so dark despite the full moon. Rich rides a constant pace, never wavering and always steady.
Dawn arrives just outside Fallon, and Rich seems to react to the sunlight. We pass a farm whose chickens are loose near the road, and he swoops to grab one. Inside Skiz, I laugh: I was thinking the same thing (more little babies for home!!)
We rush ahead to Fallon to take care of ourselves at the nearest gas station. Fritz is preparing to ride his final stage. Rich nearly misses us at the time station stop-- we call him back, ready to finish our epic journey.
Facing a headwind.
I have no idea how Fritz performed on his final stage. As soon as Rich came back, I made myself another sandwich, and then tried to sleep for an hour before the final stage, my stage.
To say I was "out of it" would be putting it mildly-- I had no idea where we stood in the race in regards to other teams. My concern, for the previous ten hours, was handing nutrition out the passenger side window to our rider. I was tired, and honestly, I was not looking forward to riding.
Fritz, though, rode: battled a headwind and per his previous ride, never stopped. My rest was short; Fritz covered that 28.8 miles quickly and I, no matter how I felt , would have to give it my all on the final stage.
Doin' it and doin' it and doin' it....
When I take the GPS tracker from Fritz at Silver Springs, I tell myself not to give up, not to be a coward no matter what the wind is doing. Down hwy 50, I am riding right into it, and I don't even look to see how slow I'm going. Nine miles into the stage, I start to climb Six Mile, and I feel so unbelievably slow.
I don't see Skiz for quite some time, and I wonder if they--my team--- have all given up on me. I run out of water, and I still don't see them as I meander up the canyon under the cottonwood trees and the still air. It's only when I feel a tingle on my shoulder that I look back, and see Skiz there.
I think I am going so slow. Rich later will tell me I climbed well-- but for me, I was embarrassed and tried not to ask for anything else before the finish life.
Only later would I hear the race-drama: how we were neck-and-neck with team Coconut Crab. How I reeled their rider in (although to be fair, he'd ridden twice as many miles as I had.) How the finish line was a contested destination and Reno stoplights (poorly timed, always) made for an extra-dramatic finish.
Why do we do what we do?
Is it simply because it is there? And if so, is that such a "bad" reason?
Team Great Basin Ichthyosaur crossed the line, shattering the old course record for a 4x mixed team by exactly two hours. I had worried about letting my team down. I hope I didn't.
Over the course of the miles, I'm not sure I experienced anything which would lead me to believe Rich's statement was inaccurate-- although I do think the reasons why miles and dark deserts appeal to a person are more personal than their simple existence. The reasons for that are complicated and myriad because life, as it is, is messy, and I have no desire or capacity to judge those reasons.
To me, the desert reflected light and music, suggested possibility and tested what reserves I have learned to store in my muscles and in my heart. The call to adventure-- it sounded the moment the race ended.
I know I-- and we-- will be back. How -- that's the beauty and the mystery of it.