Thursday, January 6, 2011

LOTOJA Blog 2010: Chapter 5

The Final Leg: Hoback Junction WY to Teton Village WY (25 miles/40km)

"Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."
~ T.S. Elliot

Back on my bike I notice that Capo and one other Mens licensed Cat 5 5300 rider are still in the Hoback Junction feed zone. I didn't remember passing them so perhaps they are taking an extra long break before the final push. I can't bring myself to stop for any longer than it takes to fill my water bottles and discover that my own waterworks appear to no longer be under conscious control, that or my body has begun holding on to every extra ounce of fluid. If the former is true it will make for an interesting drive home tomorrow.

The town, if that's what you call Hoback Junction, is actually a crossroads of highway 26 and 189, a gas station and a bridge over the Snake river. The downhill was nice until we arrive at a construction zone complete with crane and heavy equipment that has pulverized the road into chuck holes and loose asphalt. Traffic was bumper to bumper and over the bridge there was just enough room for a single- file line of cyclists. Every Tuesday morning commute over Suncrest and onto the Alpine highway involved traffic and spotty pavement, so I wasn't phased by this, especially at the now greatly reduced pace I've accepted for myself. I have to wonder though how the Cat 1 riders, those thoroughbreds on their $10,000 bikes that basically sprint the entire 206 miles, did crossing this bridge? It could have been really ugly if conditions were even remotely like this..

Snake River Arch Bridge, Hoback Junction, Wyoming

Crossing the Snake River bridge you can see the valley stretch out northward, but still no sign of a Teton-esque peak. By my Garmin I only have another twenty five miles to go, where are the Tetons? The road follows the bend of the valley, still climbing slightly and I'm still hoping to clear the next grade in the road and find a 10 mile downhill that will allow me to coast to the finish. I'm moving at about 15-16mph and unable to go faster, even if I wanted to and I would only want to because it would mean getting off this bike sooner. My mouth is dry, my lips feel chapped to the point of splitting. I realize I have only myself to blame for not eating and drinking more and more regularly. I've let my level of hydration and nutrition get away from me and my efforts now to make up for it are tantamount to a deathbed confession, it's too little and eternally too late. My fate has been sealed and now all that's left is to see if what's still in the tank is enough to get me across the finish line. There is sweat dried and crystallized with road dust and sunscreen on every bit of exposed skin and the pain in my chest is back, this time in chorus with pain between the ribs in my back. I assume it's from being hunched over my handlebars for the last 11 hours. Whatever the cause, the pain is making it difficult to take even shallow breaths, breathing deeply causes convulsive, spasmodic pain throughout my chest wall, so I continue with shallow breathing and hope I don't have occasion to exert myself in these last 20 miles.

I climb the north side of what I'll call the Hoback Junction Valley and instead of the hoped for extended downhill I see three miles of flat highway and then what appears to be a mountain pass, but is actually a minor to moderate hill climb. I remember discussing the route with Rodney earlier in the week and telling him "Once you get out of Snake River Canyon I think you're home free." To which he responded "Are you sure? I think I remember a really steep hill before you get to Jackson Hole, one you need chains for if it's snowing." I was counting on the chatty cyclist with the squeaky seat post to be right and Rodney to be messing with me (as he is wont to do). This was the most distressing turn of events in a day that's had plenty of distressing moments. I was told there were no more hills! I want to say the lie hurt as much as the imminent climb, but this climb was going to hurt, possibly finish me off once and for all. One of the problems with a cross country ride into the wilderness is that every road you see is a road you have to ride. If you can see 20 miles of road ahead of you, those are your twenty miles of road. If the route dips and climbs again there is not a detour/bypass option, you're going to dip and climb too. As I stared down this particular road I felt ill, see-sick as it were, from seeing too much (a la Winnie the Pooh). The nausea was all too real and I could tell I needed fluids but anything more than a sip of water made my stomach revolt. The hill I was slowly approaching would certainly make me push my exertion level into the red. If I started sucking wind I was pretty certain the muscles between my ribs would lock up and I would tumble down the shoulder of the road till I settled in the gully at the bottom, gulping for air and struggling to breathe like a fish on dry land. I thought to myself "I've done enough for me, 190 miles is enough, whatever I needed to prove to myself has been proved to my satisfaction." But what kept me pedaling was this thought: "How can I go home and tell my kids that I didn't finish?" As far as I can remember it was the first time I had thought of them all day but now the image of my kids greeting me as I arrived home, unsuccessful, seemed too much to bear. I have to finish for my kids. Not for Jenn or Nigel or Briski whose condo we were staying in that night or all the people at work who would ask me about my race on Monday, I have to do this for my kids I don't know why but I just have to. I looked at the hill again, thought of my kids, said a silent prayer and began climbing this incredibly inconvenient hill. As I pedaled into what my Garmin identified as a 5% grade, an odd thing happened, the road became flat, or so it felt. I continued at an even 15mph and the climb felt effortless, like I was riding a 20mph tailwind. I looked at the trees and roadside foliage for some explanation but the air was vacuum still. As the road leveled visually my effort remained the same, still 15mph, still breathing shallow and short, still upright. If there are minor miracles I believed I had just witnessed one. As my sun-baked mind processed that fact I felt at once, self-indulgent, incredibly humble and profoundly grateful.

I followed highway 189 north for a few more miles when the race course takes a detour through Wilson. A female rider I've been following for miles who is wearing biking shorts with the word Sissel embossed on her flanks misses the turn off, or so it seems until I see her meet up with a man in a car. Perhaps she's calling it a day? She seemed to still be riding strong. Doesn't bode well for me and the remaining 15 miles. Fifteen miles, a more than manageable distance but I can only think of it as time left in the saddle and at my current pace that means one more hour. An hour more after 11 have been logged, it's too much to take in, I put it out of my mind and try to figure out why the Navy Blue-bibbed cyclist in front of me that just made the turn into Wilson looks so familiar.

It's been so long since I've tried to pick dregger out from among riders out in front of me that when I finally pull along side him I have to do a double take to convince myself it's him. I think to myself that he's just been Aesop's fabled, not due to any over confident, frivolous race management on his part but because my current pace is definitely tortoise-like. He's moving slow and pedaling with one leg, his right, and forcing his left leg through the revolution by pushing it with his left hand. I wonder to myself how long he's been doing this and more importantly how much longer he can continue to do it. I comment on the cruel placement of what I refer to as the 185 mile hill, more to confirm that I didn't imagine its existence rather than as a complaint. He tells me the knee that's been bothering him for the last couple of hours seized up on him on that hill and he had to walk his bike to the top. At the moment he's contemplating how long it will take him to walk his bike to the finish line and realizing he'll never make it before dark. I try to lighten things up by asking him if he knows the translation of Le Grand Téton and wonder to him out loud how, in our politically correct and socially sensitive society we're still getting away with calling the local mountains that. He gives me a look like he wants to punch me in the mouth, a look I assume he is really directing toward his traitorous knee. I ride with him for a few hundred yards and he insists that I go on without him and let Lisa know where he is and what's happening.

The road where we part ways is tree-lined and runs through fallow farmland and horse property. It's shady, cool and the perfect road for a bike ride if you hadn't already been riding for what feels like a week. As I pedal through shadow and sunlight without another rider in sight thinking of dregger struggling behind me I'm reminded of the bible verse of the race not always going to the swift or the battle to the strong ... or favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all. I think about time and chance and how the odds in a 206 mile bike race are stacked heavily in their favor. Chance took down dregger's knee, my race is against time and dehydration. Any attempt to drink now causes my stomach to recoil. Fourteen miles left, 56 minutes and I feel like a shell, a dried up husk on a bike. I can't imagine how I can make it feeling this way. My legs keep making circles on the bike cranks because that's what they've done for eleven hours and I assume it's easier and more natural to continue at this point than to stop. Whatever you call what my legs are doing, muscle memory, habit , inertia; they are getting their instructions from somewhere outside the central command that is under conscious control, perhaps even from somewhere in the periphery of the nervous system. A strict evolutionist would probably try to identify some vestigial pre-amphibious nodal tissue that pushed our aquatic forebears to swim or die. Whatever the case, my legs continue to pedal on and I accept my role as passenger to whomever or whatever is furnishing the propulsion.

As the road reaches the Teton range it takes a sharp right turn, directly north and in the shade of the mountains. I'm still wearing my (Rx) sunglasses because I forgot to get my regular glasses from Jennifer. The result is a world that is bathed in shades of midnight blue and purple. I feel like I'm floating rather than riding, continuing at the same robotic pace ... I'm reminded of a poem by Hughes Mearns:

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away...

I'm the man who wasn't there, a ghost on a bike, floating in a state of limbo and oh how I wish all of this would go away. I would give my BYU season football tickets to get off this bike and never, ever ride again. I remember thinking that my darkest moment came on Geneva Summit, what I'm feeling now makes that seem like the Teddy Bear's picnic in comparison. I try to dig deep, to find the proverbial inner strength but the deeper I dig the more vast the void I discover. I'm far past deficit nutrient consumption and now I feel that what I'm borrowing against isn't energy but time, as if I'm literally burning days off my life, instead of calories. There is no way to adequately express how absolutely empty I feel. People ask how you could not finish when you've come so far. A better question is how you continue to ride when you've used up everything you've stored and mortgaged your future as well.

I see the occasional recreational cyclist out for an early fall ride on a shady lane. They are smiling and I want to yell at them, "You think this is fun? This isn't fun, this is the worst thing that's ever happened, this is the end of the world! (am I really the only person who saw the pale cyclist of the apocalypse?)" A blogger I read wrote that at the finish line he offered to sell his bike to the first person that was willing to buy it, at any price. At this moment I'm willing to give my bike to anybody that will remove it from under me. I remember that it's actually Jenn's bike that I'm riding, so maybe I'll have to wait till I get home to give my bike away, if I ever get home, if this race ever ends. The time it takes to cover a mile could be easily tracked with a calendar, or so it seems. I glide through a barricaded intersection outside Teton Village and the traffic cop yells "Twelve more miles!" I check to confirm there are no other riders, if I am a ghost at least I'm not invisible, yet, and I do the math: 12 miles = 48 minutes, it may as well be 48 years.

The route takes us onto a dreaded bike/jogging path, closed to dogs on or off leashes I hope. The trail cuts back under and then onto highway 189 as I merge back onto the side of the highway a suspiciously cheerful female cyclist (maybe a relay rider only covering 50 miles for the day?) calls out: "Ten miles left, just a commute to work!" Thank you for the sentiment lady cyclist, but if I felt like this I would call in sick, I certainly wouldn't be on my bike.

I ride west on 189 into the setting sun and see the the road forks ahead and unlike every other intersection in the last 198 miles I see no signs and no helpful event staff. I go right and north just because it seems more likely. Several riders follow me and I figure if we're wrong we'll ride together another 8 miles and declare ourselves finished wherever that takes us. I wonder again why the race organizers chose 206 miles. When you tell people about the race they invariably round the last six miles off which I knew would bother me when I was actually suffering through those last miserable 10 km. I look at my Garmin and see that we're at 198 miles and I think, it could be over in 2 miles, 8 minutes. What's the point of 206? I still haven't received a satisfactory answer to that question.

At mile 200 the sun dips behind the mountains for the final time and the ambient temperature drops 20 degress f in a matter of minutes and I become keenly aware of the fact that I'm covered in sweat, at least the wind's not blowing, that's been a blessing all day. The pain in my chest has grown in volume, I'm afraid to try to sit up and stretch my back because as long as I don't know I can't do it I won't feel as much like I have to do it or so I tell myself but I'm not terribly convincing. In addition to the chest pain that's been with me pretty much all week, there is now a band squeezing my chest. With every breath I can feel it contracting tighter and tighter, I wonder to myself if I'm having a heart attack and grab at my sternum only to discover I do have a band around my chest, it's the Garmin connected heart monitor I've been wearing all day. Somewhere in the personality that used to be my conscious state I know this is funny but I can't reach past the mental numbness to access homour.

I see the 5km sign ahead and as I pass it my GPS signals low battery. I smile to myself and think, 5 km in 15 minutes or all evidence of what you've done today will disappear into the ether ... I actually care about that emotionally but am unable to alter my pace to demonstrate it. At 4km 'Capo' and the other Licensed mens Cat 5 5300 rider pass me for the final time. I couldn't care less at this point, I've been my only opponent in this race for at least the last 20 miles, just get me to the 3 km mark and I'll worry about the rest when I get there.

At the 2km sign I see a flashing amber light so far to the north it must be in Montana, no way it can be the finish line, it's probably a traffic detour to keep cars away from the finish line, which has to be much, much closer than that. I pass the 1km sign and realize the flashing light in Montana is the finish line. I start seeing family and spectators on he roadside. No cheers from them though. If they've been here all day they've already watched this happen 799 times and they are now conserving their energy too. I pass the 200 meter point and hear the voice on the PA call out Steven Larsen! like he's announcing my return to the world of the living. I hear a smattering of cheers in the distance, I scan the crowd for a familiar face and spy Jennifer pointing her camera at me. I had practiced 'no-hands' riding in preparation for this moment. I had grand plans of raising both arms in the air victoriously and bellowing something triumphant, a war cry perhaps. What I manage is a one armed, wobbly salute and the first smile I've been able to muster since I last saw Jennifer at the mouth of Snake River Canyon, last week.

I roll down the finish chute and am told by event staff to "Prepare to stop." I think "Great! I've kind of been doing that for for the last 50 miles, let's see if I'm ready."

I remember to unclip before I hit the brakes and I come to a final and glorious halt. Another event staff members says "Congratulations, can I take your timing chip?" My timing chip? Oh, the ankle bracelet, sure, take it, take whatever you want, I'm as helpless as a newborn at this point and about as stable on my feet as a toddler.

I walk my bike out of the chute and onto the path. Jenn is there with congratulations and apologies: "You did it! twelve hours, one minute and 18 seconds! "I forgot your flip flops and your glasses!" "But my jacket? (I don't care as much about my time as I do the fact I feel really, really cold) Did you bring that? (it feels like it's dropped another 10 degrees f now that I'm not pedaling any longer)" Jenn tells me she forgot that too, but she has a hug which combined with not pedaling any longer feels better than all those other things combined. Jenn looks me in the eye and asks "Do you still wish I could do this with you?" (I had mentioned as much to her three days earlier, when I was swept up in the pre-race excitement, she responded with "Well I wish you could bear children." Touché.) I tell Jenn I would never let anybody that I loved do what I just did, and I mean it sincerely. I'm having a tough time staying upright and holding my bike so Jenn takes the bike directs me to an empty folding chair, next to a spectator who happily obliges me. Sitting in a church surplus, metal folding chair has never felt so glorious, it could have been the British throne and I wouldn't have been happier. Nigel comes over and tells me "Good job, dude. I'll spare you the pain and just tell you that Air Force beat BYU 35-14." I'm amused by the fact that Nigel believes I still have the capacity to feel pain, or anything. The fact that he still does (feel) provides my first thread back to reality. At some point my vision blurs a bit and I begin shaking from the cold, Nigel points out that "Dude, I think you're going into shock." And he pulls off his Cal sweatshirt and puts it on me. Jenn hands me a water bottle from my bike but I still can't make myself drink. Warming up and sitting still helps though and the world slips back into focus. Nigel comments that I look gaunt and hollowed out, like I've dropped another ten pounds during the race. He doesn't know that half an hour ago I was a ghost. It's my first time (as a ghost) I imagine it takes a while for the flesh to return completely.

Nigel asks if I've seen dregger. dregger! He's the reason I kept pedaling those last ten miles (somewhere on that tree lined country road the need to tell dregger's story supplanted the need to finish for my kid's sake). I get up and make my way shakily back to the finish line and Lisa. I give her the news and she looks alarmed and pale. I would give her a hug, but I'm with it enough now to realize that getting close to me is unlikely to appeal to anybody not related by blood or marital contract.

I make my way back to the bike path and Nigel/Jennifer and ...? We wait to see if dregger makes it in. He does, about 12 minutes after me which means he covered 20 miles on a bike with one functioning leg, that after riding the first 185 miles in 10 1/2 hours. It's an heroic performance, worthy of applause but I don't have that kind of energy. I go over and give him a hug, the one person in our group that might be sweatier and smellier than me.

I'm amazed at how much stronger than me dregger looks, I still feel like chaff that's been sifted from the wheat and is just waiting for a stiff wind to blow it away, he looks like he could do another 50 miles if his knee would cooperate.

We wander down the path (dregger on his cycling shoes, me in my socks, neither of us making particularly good time) and I realize the last LOTOJA cruelty (in a race that's featured so many I've lost count) is this 1/2 mile walk down the bike path to the parking lot.

We get to our cars and everybody has plans to Join Dr Ivey and his crew at a restaurant, we were supposed to havebeen finished for a while now, apparently. Jenn has long ago decided she would have to go home right after the race. One by one our options for someone to watch the kids have disappeared and they have ended up babysitting themselves for the last 17 hours. I held out some hope that forced by emotional exhaustion and road weariness, Jenn would opt to stay the night and leave early the next morning. When Raechel accepted an assignment to speak in church, I knew Jenn wouldn't stay. I'm too wrecked to be trusted walking by myself, let alone operating heavy machinery, so I'm staying, no question. Everyone is getting antsy about leaving and I'm forced in a rush to say goodbye to Jennifer. Did I say the eternal walk to the parking lot was the last cruelty? This moment trumps them all. I think of all the hours we've spent together: Spin cycling classes all winter, Saturday morning valley bike rides in the spring, canyon rides and hill climbs that we did together instead of dates or anniversary celebrations. We've been working together for this day pretty much since last November and now it ends with a cursory "Good Bye, drive safe" in this muddy parking lot? The reality is too much for me and I'm clinging to emotional control by my fingernails. Nigel, standing close by and listening in, looks at me and says "You're going to cry, it's going to happen now." His tone is not one of surprise or mockery but strict reporting, like a play by play announcer providing information to the radio audience that's not able to see what's happening. Before I can respond to Nigel, Jenn tells me "No, you're not allowed to do that." And then she does start crying, then Briski laughed*, he's such a trooper. (*Briski didn't laugh).

I ride off to the restaurant with Nigel, Briski, Ian and Hillary for an insipid dinner that's at least hot. In the interim between finishing the race and walking to the car my appetite has returned, not for food necessarily, but for warmth and nutrition. Nothing sounded delicious I just needed calories. My body needed heat and fuel, didn't matter what it was. Jenn starts the second and solitary leg of her trek, the 300 mile drive back to West Jordan, and both of us feel emotionally bereft. Jenn compares it to going through a nine month pregnancy, a protracted and painful but in the end successful labor and then having your baby taken away from you before you get a chance to hold it. I'll have to take her word for that. I know it doesn't feel right. It feels unfair and Jenn can tell you that I long ago accepted the basic unfairness of life but this is a particularly unsatisfying resolution, like finding out a movie or TV series into which you've invested emotional and intellectual interest, that has you hooked because there are so many question that demand answering, so many loose ends that need tying up, turns out to actually just be a dream and the writer doesn't have to resolve anything to your satisfaction because in dreams you don't have to. The way I feel has that same hollow "seriously? that's it?" feel. In my (now no longer fighting hypothermia and exhaustion) mind I begin to think something needs to be done. So many things about today could have been better, for both Jennifer and me. I'm left with a need to make this right for me, for both of us. (cont--epilogue)

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