A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, July 6, 2012


photo credit: Heike Merkel

“I tightened your brakes,” said Adam.

I took me a moment to register that the mechanic was trying to give back my bike, because I was focused on cramming greasy, blackened chunks of grilled cheese sandwich into my mouth, while at the same time crouching down to rummage through my drop-bag for my supply of frosted Pop-Tarts. 

Besides, I was distracted by the lyrics of Karma Chameleon, which had been bopping around my head ever since I’d overheard a few strains at the previous checkpoint.

Every day is like survival… 

That might not be true of every day, but sixty-five miles into a hundred-mile trail-race that included roughly sixteen thousand feet of elevation gain (and loss), it seemed somewhat apropos.

“Umph…”  I swallowed, and tried again.  “Thanks so much!”

Adam was looking at me as if he thought I might injure myself, or the bike, or both – even while not riding it.  “You had nothing left.  The rear brake…”  He shook his head. 

Well…yeah.  I was sure he had no idea how hard I’d been riding those brakes.  Why would he?  Any half-way-competent mountain biker can pick a line through roots, ruts, bogs, puddles, and rocks without getting all white-knuckled about it. 

I, however, was not a half-way-competent mountain biker.

In fact, I wasn’t any sort of mountain biker.  I was a bike-commuter and kid-trailer-hauler.  My trail-riding experience was almost entirely limited to an occasional shortcut through the UAF campus.  I showed up for the Sluicebox 100 with no rear shocks, no padded bike shorts, no Camelbak, and no clue. 

…How to sell a contradiction… Karma karma karma chameleon…

If anything was a contradiction, it was me.  I’d known, when I registered for the race, that I wouldn’t have time to train properly.  So, why on earth had I signed up for this madness?

There was a short answer: because I like crazy challenges, even though I can never adequately prepare for them.  I’ve muddled my way through the Sourdough triathlon, the Susitna 100, and the White Mountains 100 despite a lamentable inability to swim, bike, run, or ski with finesse, grace, or speed. 

There was also, I suspected, a longer answer – but I hadn’t quite worked out yet what it was. All I knew was that I’d started this event with my usual handful of goals: don’t embarrass myself, don’t hurt myself, have some fun, play well with others… and finish the darned thing.

I grabbed another chunk of grilled cheese.  Seeing me do so, Andrea grinned and did the same. 

Andrea was my best friend.  That is to say, she was someone whom I’d never seen or heard of, ten hours previously – until we discovered the happy coincidence of our similar pacing.  Due to her willingness to tolerate my intermittent prattling, Andrea now knew all about my six-year-old twins, my research at UAF, and my pathetic lack of knowledge of the trails that we were navigating.   I, in turn, knew that she was a nurse (handy if I pitched over the handlebars); that she had a twin sister in Boise (I picked her brain for twin-raising wisdom); that the following day was her birthday; and that she’d covered much of the course in the past couple of months, with her boyfriend Ben, as well as Jay and many others – during the Thursday night rides that I’d so completely failed to attend.  On Thursday nights, I either stayed home with the kids, or attended meetings of my writers’ group while Jay did the childcare.  Neither activity did much to improve my mountain biking skills.

The margarine-saturated charred white bread and the cold, congealed cheese were like ambrosia.  I washed the sandwich down with a lemon-lime-mud-flavored swig from one of my water bottles.  Someone immediately rushed to refill it for me. 

Last year, I was that bottle-filling someone.  Last year, the kids and I spent seven hours at this checkpoint – and there wasn’t even a race going on.  The event was merely the test-ride (and test-run) of the course.  Even though the day was bone-chilling, torrential, and involved neck-deep mud, Jay’s excitement was ebullient.  Contagious.  Jealousy-inducing.  

Was that why I’d signed up?  Was I competing with my husband?  No, that was preposterous.  Jay actually knew how to mountain bike, and had done a lot of it in recent weeks, months, and years.  I figured he was probably hours ahead of me.  Almost done.  I thought slightly wistfully of my coworker Amy and her husband Cody, somewhere slightly ahead of me, biking this thing together. 

Meanwhile, I’d already flubbed the first of my goals: don’t embarrass myself.  A mere dozen miles into the race, Andrea and I had gotten lost at the Ester Dome single-track.  The single-track, for heaven’s sake!  One of the few trails I actually had done before – because on our tenth anniversary, Jay and I hired a twelve-year-old to watch the twins.  Nevertheless, Andrea and I clocked an extra thirty or forty minutes, and several unnecessary miles on our quads. There was no reasonable excuse for my idiocy, I thought -- because, yes, my own husband had flagged that part of the course and loaded the GPS for me.

I glanced at Andrea again.  Ben – whose own relay team had fallen through at the last minute – was seeing her off.   Time to get moving. Despite everything, I couldn’t help feeling a surge of optimism.  Ester Dome and Murphy Dome were behind me.  I hadn’t yet developed any bog-related foot ailments, even though my first drop bag – the dry-shoes one – had failed to show up at the far side of the Sheep Creek Slosh-and-Slog.  I was not yet begging anyone for Vaseline, despite the disapproval that Heike (cheerer extraordinaire of Checkpoint 2) had expressed about my unpadded posterior.  I wasn’t yet nauseous, either, notwithstanding my iffy culinary choices.  Thirty-five more miles. How bad could it be?

That is inevitably the sort of question not to ask oneself before spending eternity hauling a bicycle uphill through a mosquito-infested swamp.  How can a swamp also be a mountain?  In Fairbanks, it just can.

Moss and mud sucked at my ankles.  I was a picture of inelegance shoving my bike over logs… over tussocks… across O’Connor Creek… and then across the same creek again. Or was it a different one?  What was this trail, if not fickle, a chameleon?  You come and go… you come and go… You string along… you string along… Despite repeatedly sacrificing speed for sanity by stopping to douse myself – and Andrea – with bug spray, the whining little creatures persisted in feasting on my ankles, my neck, and my shoulders.  Perhaps this was because I sweated off the Picaridin in about ten minutes.  Wasn’t the weather supposed to cool down in the evening? 

What time was it, anyhow?  I looked at my watch.  Two hours had gone by.  It was with something akin to despair that Andrea and I finally made it to the next unmanned water station.  A small sign mutely rebuked us: Mile 72.  We’d covered only seven miles since the Ken Kunkel aid station.

“Is the next section easier?” I asked my savvy guide, trying not to sound as if I were pleading.

Andrea hesitated.  “Well… we ride along the pipeline…”

That sounded promising.  A gravel trail! 

“But…” Andrea hesitated, then broke it to me gently.

Down I went.  Over-using those brakes again.  And then, after staring at the impending Wall of Doom throughout my descent, I met an oh-so-helpful little sign: “Steep grade – use low gear.”  My bike doesn’t have a gear that low.  But, up I went.  Trudging. And sweating.

It didn’t help that through this entire section, we were being followed by a stray dog.  Miles from civilization, she trotted along happily, round little torso swaying, short legs pumping, ears perked.  She looked less athletic than the average guinea pig – but she beat me up the pipeline trail without losing the spring in her step.  I swear she was smiling at me condescendingly at the top.

Either that, or I was just getting a little loopy.  Several miles later, when the gloriously ridable trail that we were enjoying took a sudden left turn into the woods and tilted upwards like a rocket at Cape Canaveral, I found myself more amused than depressed.  “Well, no one rode this,” I said.  Not Jay.  Not even Heather, or Tyson, or Kevin.  So, Pedro Dome was sort of an equalizer, right?  An equalizer with more sweat pouring off my shoulders, and more mosquitoes flocking to my sticky, damp, carbon-dioxide-panting self.  Too bad the other side of the dome was a sadistic rumble-o-rama.  This is not even a trail I told myself.  It’s not!  But Andrea was still refraining from using even a single expletive, so I wobbled onward.

When we finally made it to Skiland, just ten miles from the finish line, it was after eleven and the sky was rosy.  Nothing seemed unexpected any more. When my family doctor plied me with brownies, I said, “Hi Corrine!” and took one, before remembering to ask how her husband Eric was faring. 

He was better now that he’d gotten some extra salt into him, she reported.  Then she sighed, and lamented not having signed up for the event herself.  I nodded.  I knew that feeling – and I’d seen the same look on Ben’s face, at every checkpoint.  “Next year,” I told them both.

Onwards.  Midnight sun.  It was gorgeous, in a losing-all-depth-perception kind of way.  Actually, given my monocularity, I never really have any depth perception -- but things get even more squirrelly in dim, flat light.  Nevertheless, I could still read my watch, and it said twelve.  Thus, I immediately started singing.

No, I didn’t sing Karma Chameleon.  I sang happy birthday to Andrea, of course.  It seemed perfectly normal at the time.

I lost ten minutes in the very last stretch of the race when my rear rack began slamming around like a demented percussionist.  It took me a while to figure out that I’d somehow blown a bolt.  It took me longer to find a single precious zip-tie in my little bag of gear, to thread it through the bolt-holes, and get everything ship-shape again.  But after more than 17 hours, what’s an extra few minutes?  I still managed to finish before one o’clock, with most --  if not all – of my original goals intact.  I was unhurt (assuming bruises and scratches don’t count), I was having fun, and I got pizza and camaraderie at the finish line.  It felt like a party.  It was a party.  Ben was congratulating Andrea.  Corrine was congratulating Eric.  Cody and Amy were congratulating each other. 

Jay had gone home hours ago, of course, to relieve the baby-sitter.  I figured he was already snoring.  I checked his finish time.  He’d done well. 

I gratefully accepted a ride home from Corrine and Eric.  Corrine expected, quite reasonably, that the racers would sack out during the drive.  But instead, we relived every rut and hummock, every joy and misery of this chameleon of a race.  We were much too jazzed for sleep. 

So, it seemed, was Jay.  When I finally got home, much to my surprise I found him still wide awake.  It seemed that he wanted to share all the details with me just as much as I wanted to share them with him.  He didn’t even torment me about my detour on the single-track. 

Every day is like survival…I’m your lover, not your rival…

“I told Jeff that you were doing amazingly well for someone with maybe 30 miles of mountain biking experience,” my husband enthused.  Jeff, a super-human biker himself, was out there supporting his super-human wife Heather.

“What did Jeff say?” I asked, feeling a little foolish, but at the same time silly-happy at the back-handed compliment.

Jay grinned.  “He kind of shrugged, and said, ‘Well, she has more experience now.’”

How to sell a contradiction… Karma karma karma chameleon.

I laughed.  Partly because I was so tired that everything was funny -- but also because I was just plain happy.  Jay was proud of me.  I was proud of him.  We hadn’t raced the same kind of race, but so what?  We were still a team.  Rivalry and solidarity, I realized, are not polar opposites.  In fact, they can be a heady blend.  I finally understood that although I’m never competing against Jay, and rarely competing alongside Jay, I’m definitely competing with Jay.  And if that’s what helps draw me into insane events like the Sluicebox – well, that’s not a bad thing.  Not a bad thing at all.

Next year, I’ll be out there again. I’ll still be hours behind the “real” competitors, including my husband.  I’ll still be riding the brakes.  But – maybe I won’t be riding them quite so hard.


  1. Fun read, Nancy! I didn't realize how little mountain biking experience you had. I'm impressed. (And glad I didn't get girled by an inexperienced mountain biker!) It was fun to chat with you during and after the race.

    However, I have one complaint. I hate the Culture Club!!!!!!!

    1. Thanks, Eric! I loved your piece in the NewsMiner -- a terrific read, although I hope you realize that a few of us females have set our sights on multiply "girling" you next year. It won't be an easy challenge, though.
      Note that I never said I LIKED the Culture Club -- just that the song got stuck (more like Crazy-glued) in my head...

  2. Bring on the motivation! And if you sing Culture Club songs, I'll have twice the motivation to keep ahead of you!

    1. Ha! My ability to sing while biking is limited, despite my feeble attempts at "Happy Birthday." You have to admit, though, that the mental image of a bunch of women imitating Boy George while chasing you over Pedro Dome is pretty funny. Or scary. Or both.