By: Tim Ek
A smooth section of trail allowed me to dial the little knob on my brake lever back a few turns, drawing it closer to the grip, which gave me hope that I would somehow be able to apply some stopping power when needed. My hands were reduced to permanent fixtures of my handlebar. My index fingers barely could make the extension to the lever, not to mention apply the minimal squeezing power required with todays modern hydraulic brake systems. The base of my neck burned with fatigue, while my lower back protested with every out of the saddle move I made. Out loud I coaxed myself through the bouts of searing heat that coursed through the contact points my feet made with the pedal.
I had 79 miles behind me and was faced with some 19 more miles of gnarly singletrack in the Chequamegon Forest of Northwestern Wisconsin. Normally, I would have been smiling ear to ear as the trail I was on could easily go down as some of the most pure, pristine, beautiful singletrack I have ever ridden. Instead, I winced as I passed over every stick and rock, a pained expression permanently fixed upon my face as my decision making began to fail. “Don’t crash now, don’t crash, stay clean, flow, flow, flow” ran through my head. The gorgeous surroundings were nothing to me. All that mattered was the next rise of the trail.
A brand new job and a brand new chapter in my life has forced me to move my training to the back burner. I am not able to be concerned with the amount of hours per week I spend on my bike right now. I call it real life. Sometimes we just have to adjust our priorities. That’s not to say, knocking out 15 – 20 hour weeks won’t happen again, it just can’t right now. However, that doesn’t mean I won’t stop entering races. It’s always been about the fight for me, the fight of fatigue versus finishing. In fact, I don’t mind revisiting this place of wondering if I can do it. I have never let go of my early convictions of finishing what I start. If the tents have all been taken down, the timing people have left, and I’m still on course, I guess I’ll be the only one who knows I made it across that finish line, that’s ok with me.
As I listened to Tim Krueger give some last minute race instruction I couldn’t help but notice Jesse Lalonde resting comfortably on his top tube near me. I wondered why he wasn’t up in the front row, but then it donned on me that he probably wasn’t too concerned about it. Jesse is one of the best cyclists our great state of Minnesota has. He is cool, laid back, and unbelievably fast! I compared his kit to mine. He had nothing with him save two small water bottles on his bike and minimal supplies in his jersey pockets. I couldn’t even spot an extra tube. I was outfitted with on tall bottle on my bike, with 80 ounces of water on my back. A small tool kit, a seat bag, and a food storage bag on my top tube. After all these years I’m still taking too much stuff. I wondered how many hours Jesse would beat me by. I shook it off as I had more to worry about than how an elite cyclist’s race would play out.
Soon enough Tim rolled us out. I had no designs to chase the front group as I pedaled easy about midway back in the field. I’d resolved to play it safe through the first half of the race and if possible try to pick things up when and if I could later on.
Seven miles later and we were finally hitting the singletrack. I was twitchy and nervous as I navigated every obstacle. A bad crash a couple weeks ago had me gun shy. Every rock that looked damp found me extra cautious. This was a problem. Typically, I’d give myself a B+ when it comes to my skill set in the trail, but at this point I was easily scoring a D. My confidence was gone. I just didn’t want to get hurt again, I was being too careful. I grew comfortable playing it safe and found myself settling in behind riders that were riding much slower than I was capable of. They sensed it and often asked if I wanted to pass, but I would decline as I felt a blanket of security in their company. As I nestled into this new comfort zone I began to lose sight of the race and began to just ride. I was fine with the casual pace, because I knew this would be a long day, but the competitive little guy inside kept saying, “don’t forget, THIS IS A RACE!”
Unfortunately, I slogged along at a slower pace than I should have been riding. I cursed my mistakes and poor line choices. I was riding inefficiently. Hundreds of tiny mistakes were wasting energy. Too much front brake, pedal strikes, poor line choices, and dabs were sucking precious energy from my body. I needed to knock it off and start riding faster! I needed to stop being afraid of a crash, trusting my bike, my skills, and just let ‘er rip.
A chance to refill water came around mile 51 which also meant a chance to get off the bike for a few minutes. Surprisingly, a tiny break like a water stop can re-energize your body. As I pedaled away, I felt different – better. Oddly, the singletrack was unfolding before me in a different way, almost like a smooth ribbon being rolled out across the floor. I sensed a rider approaching from behind and sure enough it was the same strong singlespeeder who had been leap frogging with me for several hours. Throughout the day it was clear that he was riding stronger than I, but this time I thought I’d give it a shot in dropping him. I lifted my pace and started trusting the machine underneath me to do what it was designed to do. Suddenly, it clicked! No longer was I picking my way through rock gardens or carefully routing my way through root system, but instead just slamming over the top of them. I began holding my momentum as I feathered the rear brake through the turns, rather than scrubbing a bunch of speed in order to “play it safe”. I was back! With my mojo fully intact, I went with it. For the next 20 miles I rode just a smidge under the red zone, picking off riders one by one out in front of me. I felt good and wondered what things would have been like had I adopted this reckless abandon for the trail hours ago. The good feeling stayed as I seemed to be flushing the crash of two weeks ago from my head as well as the toxins of caution from my body. I surfed this wave all the way into the 71 mile aid station, which held my drop bag.
The last few miles into the aid station dragged on and on as the singletrack began to look the same around every corner. Finally, I popped out of the woods to the sound of voices and laughter. It reminded me of a picnic out in the middle of nowhere. A volunteer quickly fetched my drop bag for me, but I had a decision to make. I only needed to top off an energy drink for my bottle, but everything else was good to go. I began to ask myself if I would want to wait at the finish for my drop bag to eventually find it’s way to the finish line or simply just grab it now and take it with me? I hefted the oversized zip lock in my hand and figured it weighed about 3-4 pounds. Screw it! I shoved the bag into my camel back and resolved to haul the load the remaining 30 or so miles.
I rolled out of the “picnic area” into more endless singletrack. I longed for a gravel road section, just to break up the routine, as well as the full body, all day work out I was enduring. The miles rolled on and it began to occur to me that although I’ve mountain biked all over this country these trails rivaled some of the best I’ve ever been on. I wondered how I’d feel about if I were fresh. “Bliss” was the word that came to mind.
Up ahead was a break in the canopy – a road section. I looked to the heavens and gave a word of thanks. I was out of the woods and on an open road, but not without consequence. The road meant climbing as well as more consistent pedaling. The constant pedaling resulted in hot spots on the bottoms of my feet that became excruciating. The contact points felt as though a blow torch was aimed directly at them. I had no way to alleviate the pain other than exercising some mental gymnastics. I tried to enter a Zen like state and ignore the agony, but with little success.
A white tent ahead on the side of the road had me thinking there was only one trail section remaining in the race. I was some nine and a half hours into this beast at this point and I couldn’t imagine it would last much longer. Optimistically, I sought out confirmation from the volunteer working the station, “This is the last trail section right? This is Ojibwe right?” The Ojibwe Trail is always the last piece of singletrack in the Chequamegon 100. She looked me in the eye and didn’t speak. The silence was awkward as it appeared she had something to say, but the words wouldn’t come. Uncomfortably, I waited out the silence until she tried to explain it to me. Like a mother taking away a dangerous toy from a child she tried to politely tell me what lay ahead. My heart dropped as she described at least three trails in this final stretch. I stared through her while the gentle nature of her voice drifted away into a hollow echo. I snapped out of it as I heard my own voice reluctantly asking her how many miles remained. Apologetically, she replied “nineteen miles”. I put on a brave face and slammed down the can of lemonade she had offered. Thanking her I snapped my feet in and allowed the forest to swallow me whole, one more time.
My legs were made of wood as I begged them to perform. I’d rise from the saddle over the slightest of climbs only to get zero response from them. My thumb cramping now from the thousands of shifts I’d completed throughout the day, was a small problem barely worth consideration. Fat rain drops now splattered on the screen of my blank gps, it’s battery had given up the fight long ago. Despite these inconveniences I inched my way through the trail, telling myself that this would eventually end just like every race before. I’d find the finish line somehow, even if everyone had packed up and gone home. There were no longer other riders near me. I was now alone with the sound of the knobs of my tires catching the edges of rocks. I was alone with the sound of my rear hub whining with every pause of pedaling. I was alone with my forced positive thoughts, “This is a beautiful trail”, “You love riding your bike”, “This is bliss”.
The sign I passed said something about a parking lot. “A parking lot?” I thought. It had to mean I was coming to the end of the trail. I had to be close. Soon another sign about a parking lot. A road had to be near. Just then I looked down a ridge to my right and there it was, a beautiful gravel road. I cruised through the switchbacks, dropping off the ridgeline and out into the smooth gravel road home. A few riders were out ahead of me working through their own demons. Willing my fingers to complete the last couple shifts of the day I worked the bike up to a higher speed. The last arrow indicating a turn was up ahead. As I rounded that turn I saw the white tent with a timing mat, the finish line! They hadn’t left yet and in fact they seemed happy to see me, but not nearly as happy as I was to see them.
I leaned my bike against a bench and took a seat. As I hung my head staring at what was left of my legs, I could still feel the motion of my body flowing through the trail. I could still see the roots and rocks ahead of me, the sunlight through the trees, the birds flitting about. I could still see and feel the neverending trail to bliss.
Thank you Tim Krueger, Odia Krueger, and all your wonderful volunteers. Thank you to Charley Tri for his hospitality in allowing me to stay with him at his cabin. Thank you to Mountain Bike Radio, Rudy Project, and Schwalbe Tires for all your support. Most importantly thank you to my wife, Amy who was unable to come to the race. She was busy running another marathon. She has always been my number one fan and I hers.
Thanks for reading,
If you’re interested to find out more about Tim, head over to his site, The Eki Chronicles.
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