Saturday, September 19, 2009

Much to do about nothing...Part II of the Seven Oaks Saga

Hemingway (an honorary DBD member) is attributed to have said something like,”there are really only three REAL sports; bull fighting, car racing, and mountain climbing, all the rest are just games.” Of course the implication being that real sports can get ya killed as a routine manner of participation. Mountaineers get killed all the time. The literal interpretation is that he was looking at degrees of personal commitment as a primary factor in assessing or comparing modern sports—Bull fighting where many involved (I include the bull) are brutally killed as compared to golf where one risks an irksome blister. Yet, he may also have been expounding upon the extraordinary thrill one gets from having achieved the goals associated with these three “real” sports. I'll ask him to clarify next time I see him on the DBD yacht where he is known to frequent and to drink copious amounts of ten year old Stranahan Whiskey with Mallory, Tilman, and Hillary as they regale the old dayz and mock the present sad state of affairs.

I have engaged in a multitude of "games" all my life including football, wrestling, track, rugby, skiing, cycling, and several more but none of these activities (many of which are reserved only for the tough-minded and physically fit) ever gave me the kind of adrenaline rush that is comparable to the "sporting" endeavor of attempting to climb a lonely far-flung, steep-sided, icy mountain with a small group of friends. That is until I started competing in these new ultra-endurance cycling events, especially the ones that emphasize self-reliance. It is hard to convey the anticipatory lead up, the excitement and fluidity during, and the sense of relief when it is finally over to those that have not yet experienced it, but the whole 24 hour mountain bike race phenomenon (or other long long distance cycling events as well), in my opinion, is about as close as you can get to a “real sport” without killing or being killed by a bull, climbing K2, or racing a formula one in Monaco. I can only imagine what it must be like to plan and compete in the Great Divide Race or the Alaskan Invitational (I plan to find out someday). I was so pumped for the 24 Hours @ Seven Oaks that I could think of nothing else for a week out from the start. This is of course a dangerous mindset because it led me to continually mess around with my bike and various other important considerations.

Dangerous, because I have enough experience in these matters to have developed a system that works for me and inevitably if I start messing with this basic system problems arise. Case-in-point, I made several spur-of-the-moment nutritional and/or ”pharmaceutical” decisions at the beginning of this May’s Trans-Iowa that ultimately led to my near complete collapse relatively early into that event. I tell myself, “Go with what works,” but I am of the sort that constantly over-thinks and overcompensates. Initially, I was fairly committed to trying to race Seven-Oaks using a single speed, but thankfully I had the where-with-all to contact a most talented single-speeder from Decorah Iowa, Ben Shockey, for advice. His honest and detailed assessment allowed me to ditch that idea and to instead focus on getting the right 1x9 set-up. Based on his descriptions of the course I logically decided to go with a 32 X 11-34 gearing. Yet by mid-week leading up to the race, I had analyzed, then rationalized, and finally justified going with a 34 tooth ring in the front. Then on that Friday before, as I packed the car, in what seemed to me to be a last minute Divine revelation (that Iowa was just flat farm country and that Mr. Shockey’s description of a very hilly course was contextual and those tempered by his environment), I hastily replaced the 34 ring with a 36 ring, and of course for my abilities the 32 would have been the best as the course was just as Shockey had described and after the initial hours during the race, I found myself really struggling with the 36 X 11-34 on several of the hills. So it goes…

Also, due to past experiences with damaged hands and wrists from riding 24 hour races with a fully rigid set-up I jumped at the generous offer by my good friend Scotty Kylander-Johnson to loan me a front suspension fork. It worked as prescribed and yet I am still of the opinion that for most races (even the majority of the WEMS twelve hour events) one is not significantly penalized by going with a rigid fork, especially with the advent of the Ergon grips. Although, the suspension fork I used at Seven-Oaks had a fully-functional lock-out that was easy to activate and thus I was spared that “bouncy feel” that I associate suspension forks with when climbing or riding out of the saddle (It was of the FOX brand).

Regarding the race from a personal perspective, there is not much more to report as I covered the most memorable aspects in Part I of the recap. I do remember being impressed with this fellow they call, “Squirrel.” Clearly a charismatic character, “Squirrel” is festooned with tattoos that celebrate his obvious affection for cycling. But apart from his obvious flamboyance, he is clearly a top-notch rider. I figured he was going to win it, so I was surprised (and somewhat selfishly buoyed) when I realized rather late night or early morning that he was not riding anymore. The young man that did win won easily with Squirrel pulling out. The winner’s name is Stephen Carney, a young amiable guy in his early twenties, who was riding so fast that early on I figured that he was racing the twelve hour event. Note: his older brother, Andrew Carney, won the race in 2008, now lives in Colorado, and is part of the top echelon of endurance racers in the country. His younger brother is not far behind. The Brothers Carney are blessed with two very nice and friendly parents who I had the pleasure of meeting after the race. Of course, as the race progressed it became clear that, barring any catastrophic equipment breakdown, Carney was going to win. Yet, these catastrophic equipment breakdowns do occur and racers in 24 hour events do fall apart near the end and so I soldiered on…

Ultimately and impressively, the young Carney, who has a cheerful disposition, rode 20 laps while I was able to limp in for 18 laps and a lucky second place finish. Mine was not a stellar performance by any stretch of the word. I walked a lot, engaged in dramatic self-loathing, and even took two “naps” on the trail in a forlorn effort at physical and mental revival. I remember being utterly demoralized on lap fourteen, in tears planning my retreat which included fantasying about finishing the lap, packing it in, and driving to a motel for a shower and a soft bed. The third place guy, another young strapping lad, rode 17 laps (Note: late night/early morning he made the youthful mistake of laying down in his tent for just a momentary respite and you can guess what happened), but had he known the advanced stages of devolution that I was in, he could have easily beaten me.

Toward the end with but a couple hours left, the way these things usually play out is that the top guy sorta waits around to see if he needs to keep doing laps based on what the second, third, fourth guyz are up to. By mid-morning (or ~twenty-one+ hours into it), Carney had put up twenty laps which represented a clear victory, but for me, upon completion of my seventeenth, since I was on the same lap as the guy directly behind me, I was faced with the decision to either stay put and see if the guy(s) behind me went on (which would mean that I would have to essentially race him on the last lap for second place), or trudge on and put one more lap up which would probably secure second place or at least force the ball into his court. Now sitting here typing this or as you read along, the decision seems quite obvious. But Dear Reader, you must consider that I was a mere shell of a man at that point. After seventeen laps and twenty-one hours, I had pretty much played all my cards and thus I had resolved that I would wait (and really by waiting...decided that I was done, done, done). At the race-table, I asked one of the organizers about how the third place guy looked, how he was riding, etc. His response was heartening as he said that he was about in the same shape as I was in and then he added, “You should try to do one more lap, you know that second place pays $500…don’t you?” Suddenly, my mind cleared…and I rode off to get that final lap…So it goes………….


  1. charlie...congrats again on your finish. hard to explain to people the difficulty of a 7oaks as a 24 hour race course. i think what sets it apart is the high percentage of single track and constant elevation change. you may not climb for a half hour solid but you rarely feel like you're riding flat, just up, down and back up. best of luck with heck of the north this weekend!

  2. That sounds like a butt kicker. I so will change careers for next year so I can come ride with you guys. I have been really looking foward to some changes.

  3. Charlie...Congrats on 2nd. Great write up and account of the event. It was a tough day as I recall and got even tougher for me. Yes, laying down was a great rookie mistake. Third place was far better than I had expected for a first timer. Nice job!

  4. It's not just a 24 race either, you guys are awake for so much longer --more like 30 hours so that during that 22nd hour of race time you've been awake for over 24 hours.

    I can't believe how ya'll handle it. It was gruesome watching the race, listening to the bikes in the woods, etc.

    Good job to you all for competing (and for Squirrel's gang for letting me, Mike's cheerleader, use their fire pit!).