Fires burned through the tobacco fields, in my imagination. The smell was like the hand-rolled cigarettes my uncle used to smoke. I could feel the tar building up on my lungs, coating them, blackening them, leaving them the consistency of putrid yogurt. A bee sting on my inner thigh snapped me from my reverie, but the smell of damp, growing tobacco, something I had never seen before, lingered in the air. With scarcely more than two laps completed, I continued pedaling.
The course was bland, lacking any articulation. There were no hills and the countryside of North Carolina lacked drama of the West or the hallucinating monotony of the Midwest. A copse of trees, a few fields of strangely dead corn, some soybeans, a road named “Swamp,” a motocross track, and those odd-looking, odd-smelling tobacco plants were all that punctuated the muted greenness — nothing but ellipses.
We started racing at 7am, as the sun had just started about its morning task of erasing any lingering patches of fog. With no drafting in the race, everyone hunkered down for the long day ahead. I spent the first lap trying to shake 14 hours of driving and only five hours of sleep out of my legs. A few riders were ahead of me, but I kept them in sight, while one, Alvin Maxwell, shot by and I was happy to see him go, knowing I couldn’t hold that pace and falsely believing that he couldn’t either.
Along with the wind, my legs picked up for the second lap. I could still see some riders ahead of me, so I knew I wasn’t slipping too far behind. Unfortunately, I was completely drenched in sweat by this early phase of the race. The coastal humidity was putting my cooling system into overdrive. While I made sure to drink a little extra water, eventually I was going to fall behind on hydration. There was simply no way to keep up. My ability to sweat profusely works well at allowing me to ride in the desert heat, but something about the air wasn’t cooperating, even though the temperature never really crawled above 85 degrees.
I maintained a strong pace of about 22mph for the first three laps. My goal was to ride around 250 miles for the first 12 hours and 230 miles through the night to hit 480 miles. The wind continued to grow stronger as the sun slid across the sky. The first eight miles of each lap was straight into this wind. Despite the course being a loop, there was almost never a moment to hide from the headwind, much less feel a tailwind of similar strength. On the fourth lap, I felt myself starting to weaken far more than I expected for having been riding less than 100 miles. I was still passing many riders scattered about the course — a century ride started an hour after we did — but nagging thoughts started slipping into my mind.
Around 90 miles or so, my toes started really hurting. During a couple wet winter rides, the leather in my shoes warped such that they stab my big toes. Over the course of the year, calloused grooves have formed on my toes where the leather prods them. I squirmed my toes around trying to find a magic spot, but riding with curled up toes all day wasn’t an answer. I contemplated stopping and wrapping my toes in electrical tape at the end of the lap. And then the pain dwindled. I haven’t figured out what causes the cyclical nature of the toe stabbing, but it’ll be fixed next year, as I’ll be buying new shoes over the winter.
However, the issue with my toes popped open the nagging doubts that had been lingering in my head. I cracked. My head slipped out of racing and started stressing about a looming deadline. Why was I here riding in circles when this deadline was going to slip by? What am I doing out here? I should just bail. Stop now. Head home. Less than five hours into the 24-hour race and I was mentally done.
I kept pedaling. I battled my thoughts and turned to why I was really out there. I always say that doing well in the races is fun, but isn’t the reason that I do them. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be doing well in this race. To quit so soon would be letting myself down, but, I felt, also disrespecting the race organizers, and I’d dragged one of my best friends out and didn’t want to quit after only five hours.
And there was the word. Quit. Going into the race, I’d been reading The Part-Empty Box about Steve Born’s RAAM ’91 race. At some point, when he bottomed out and could barely ride walking speed, he almost quit. After a long pause, he got back on his bike and started pedaling, telling his crew chief and dad, “You didn’t raise a quitter.” In a similar thought, I knew that though I don’t always succeed — that’s the not the most important thing in life — I always work hard. I take pride in the effort I put into the things I choose to do.
Over the next few laps, I set about adapting my mindset to the reality of my current condition. At the start of the race, I’d hoped to ride 480 miles. After four laps, I had been on-pace, but wasn’t feeling great. I couldn’t stay on top of my hydration, and my stomach was a bit unsettled. I knew 480 was out. Eventually, I decided to ride enough full laps for 400 miles. I’ve only done three 24-hour races and never done fewer than 400 miles. 400 miles is a significant number, so I decided that would always be my bare minimum for any race. If things go wrong and I can still do 400 miles, I can think of it as a reasonable day.
Mission 400 (or 416 since the laps were 26 miles) began somewhere around the seventh lap. I’d talked a bit with Ryan and he was struggling too. He’d slept even less than me, and he and Val had arrived late to the race. We commiserated about the conditions and then I headed out. Coming in from that lap, there was Ryan? He’d taken a nap. I started a bit behind him and chased him for almost 22 miles before finally catching him. That helped up the pace a bit, and we both enjoyed the chase.
After 200 miles, I got off the bike and laid on the ground for a bit with an ice pack on my head. I decided I would stop after 312 miles again for a bit. I kept pedaling on, grabbing the nice icy bottles Matt had prepared — for future races, the ice cold bottles were great — and plugging into the wind. I chatted with Val for a bit at some point, while slogging into the wind. I talked with Scott Luikart for a little while as well. Otherwise, I tried to stay away from the dogs that roamed the course, and as is my motto, Never Stop Pedaling.
A few riders had follow vehicles during the night. I used their flashing lights as motivation and would try to flee them or keep up when they rode by. At some point, I stopped on the side of the road to “hit the reset button”, jamming a gloved hand down my throat to try and chase out the gremlins. I felt a bit better afterwards.
With 26-mile laps and few racers plugging away through the night, the dark was long. Having consigned myself to 400 miles, I kept riding. I put in a couple strong laps after stopping for almost 20 minutes. I was chasing Scott Luikart or running from him, I don’t remember which. And then I was back to plugging away for those last 52 miles. Anyone can ride an agonizingly flat 52 miles, right?
I finally rolled out for the last lap. The wind had died when the sun had gone to bed. I was yawning, which was unusual. I’ve never had issues staying awake before. Around mile 17, I stopped on the side of the road to pee for only the third time of the day. I decided to commemorate the first evacuation that had happened some 18 hours earlier. At that point, I realized the oddity of the situation I was in and oddity of the sport in general. It’s 5am. I’m half-asleep on some backcountry road in a state I’d never before been in, and I’m taking a leak. I chuckled a bit, while sitting on my top tube and staring skyward at the stars. Then I clipped in and tapped out those last miles.
I arrived at the checkpoint sometime around 5:30am — I wasn’t keeping track. I saw a pizza box by the race organizers and was done. That slice of cold, sitting-all-night pizza was the only thing on my mind. Matt, Ryan, and Val were all chatting when I rolled up. Matt said something along the lines of 5:30am, so one more lap? But I’d checked out so long ago that I couldn’t muster the will to creep along that circuit again, past the church sign reading, “It’s not about a donkey. It’s not about an elephant. It’s about the lamb.” Or the other church sign, “Be a fountain, not a drain.” Or the swamp road, the train tracks, the left turn at the tall corn, vomit corner, or the various other landmarks I’d ingrained in my head as I repeatedly wandered the countryside.
After cleaning up, Matt and I rolled out, straight to the closest Waffle House, a restaurant of legend that I had never succeeded in visiting, thanks to not living south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I had five eggs, a 10-oz steak, a double order of hash browns, a glass of milk, and three cups of coffee. I was still hungry. After the rough day, the niceness of the waitress was much appreciated. I think I gave her a 25 or 30% tip. She deserved it for being nice even though I was a complete wreck.
I dropped Matt off at the train station in Washington D.C. and made only make it to the Washington Parkway before pulling off into a parking lot to sleep for an hour or two. I made it to Maryland before another power nap and Red Bull, and finally stopped at Mile 91 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I spoiled myself with a Holiday Inn Express that was newly built. I sprawled on the comfortable king bed and watched some terrible NFL preseason game before drifting to sleep. I finished up the remaining five hours of driving the next morning and that was the end of my race season.
Looking back, I regret not doing that last lap. 442 miles certainly has a nicer ring than 416. I always say that you should never leave miles on the course, though that’s exactly what I did. When I pulled into the mostly empty parking lot after the 16th lap — strangely most everyone left quite early — I didn’t think I could ride one more. Now I know what leaving miles on the course feels like, terrible. Those last 26 miles might not have been pleasant, but knowing you rode hard to the end and didn’t quit is more important than a temporary easing of pain.
In the end, I tied for third with two other people. Alvin Maxwell rode an incredible 505 miles and Chris Hopkinson rode 472 miles. Those were both impressive numbers and based on the speed at which they passed me during the night, they were flying. Congratulations to both of them.
Thanks to Matt for coming down to help out with the crewing. We hadn’t met up since Christmas, so catching up is always great. Plus, he managed to eat some good East Carolina BBQ for dinner while I was riding, so that wasn’t too bad.
Thanks to Maxine Maxwell and all the race volunteers for putting on the race. We don’t get to go out and make ourselves elated, miserable, and all feelings in-between if they aren’t there.