“I hope it’s cold and windy tomorrow. I hope it’s bad weather, but not bad enough for them to cancel the race.”
Those were my final thoughts laying down in my sleeping bag outside of Gallup, NM., at the 12 Hours of Dawn to Dusk venue this past weekend. The forecast was dire, high winds, snow after noon, and a trail system that did not take moisture well.
I’ve become a big advocate of threshold training, but not in the traditional sense of riding with my heart rate at 80% of my maximum. Instead, I believe in training my mental threshold to endure sub-stellar situations so when race day comes, I know that I’ve endured worse. I’m far more worried about my mental and emotional response to riding all day, every day for three weeks on the Divide than I am to how my body will hold up. Bodies can recover from excessive strain with a good night of sleep and a bacon cheese burger but minds and emotions are harder to bring back once they’ve crossed into the realm of gloom and doom.
I’m starting to believe that 90% of finishing the Divide is being able to wake up each morning excited to ride, regardless of the weather, the terrain, or what happened the previous day. I’ve come to the acceptance that not every day is going to start out with blue skies, brilliant sun, smooth roads, and a happy body. Thus, I’ve planned several events this spring to put myself in uncomfortable situations, not just to see how my body would react to them, but also to practice staying positive throughout them.
I had signed up for Dawn to Dusk more for the mental challenge than the physical. Sure, riding at race pace for 12 hours would be good physical training and forcing myself to ride 100% twisty and fun singletrack would definitely help my mountain bike riding skills (which have been severely lacking after taking a few months off of riding bikes on dirt) but what I really wanted out of the race was practicing being able to control my mind well enough to stay happy riding around the same course for 12 hours. The hardest part of solo lap racing is the mental part. Going into it, I figured I’d bank on around ten laps, and for someone who suffers from trail ADD, mentally staying in the game was going to be much more of a challenge than physically pedaling for 12 hours. I figured that bad weather would just up the ante: Could I pedal in circles for 12 hours in the cold and wind while keeping a smile on my face.
The snow started on the second lap of the race two hours in. From high on the desert plateau, I watched the storm move in accompanied by high winds. Light flakes at first and as I descended into the pit area, I seriously pondered heading out for my third lap without changing clothes figuring that if the snow got any harder, they would have to cancel the race. Then as the flakes rapidly got heavier, I thought of the prospect of riding the 13-mile lap soaked to the bone and then returning to the start-finish only to find that the race was going to continue. I employed one of the most important habits I’ve picked up while racing ultras: if there’s a problem, fix it. So I stopped in my pit, put on my winter shoes, a Gore-Tex jacket, accepted the few minutes of ‘wasted’ time, and set out on my third lap. The snow came down harder, the wind continued to gust, I laughed. This is exactly what I asked for.
Then at Mile 4, I got the sad, but expected, news. Race is cancelled. This is your last lap. The moisture had packed down the sand on 90% of the course, making my tires stick better than they had all day and I reveled in riding the snowy trail, being plenty warm with the extra clothing. Three and a half hours after starting the race, I pulled into the transition area for the last time. I took my wet clothes off, lost a couple of hairs off my head as strands that had frozen to my helmet were pulled off with the lid, and began the process of thawing my feet, which even with the winter mountain bike shoes, had turned the corner to numb. Well, that was fun. I think.
Afterwards, as we drove north toward warmer climates, I reflected on whether the trip down to central New Mexico and the three hours of racing was worth the trip. I asked the question that I’ve asked of all my experiences this year: How will that help me on the Divide? From a physical standpoint, I probably could have does a cross-country race or a long ride closer to home and achieved the same physical gains. But would I have had a chance to practice riding in a wet spring snowstorm with minimal gear? Probably not. Would I have put myself in a miserable situation and figured out a way to make the best of it? Probably not. Would I have gotten to experience the trails in Gallup, which happen to be stellar? Definitely not.
Luckily, I’ve been able to accumulate enough life experiences along the way to build up a pretty good repertoire of miserable situations throughout my years, so when something comes up, I’ve trained myself well to put my head down, know that the moment will pass, and keep up the incessant forward motion. I’d like to think this skill would help me out on the trail.
After all, it’s got to be a little bit stupid in order to be fun.