You are capable of more than you think. I know you have heard this saying before, but it really is true. I did not believe it until last weekend when I rode my mountain bike for 12 hours solo, at the 24/12 Hours of Conyers Mountain Bike Race in Georgia. I was in peak fitness, after just finishing the Chainbuster Southeastern Endurance Cup, where I finished 5 out of the 7 races. I finished the series with consistency and placed 3rd overall in the Masters Men category. So why not register for a race double the distance and time? You never know until you try right?
My race season was really fun. The Chainbuster Series was really good for me this year and I learned so much about endurance racing. One of the best lessons that really sunk in this year was to go for it, even if success is highly improbable and failure a likely scenario. An example of this experience happened when I had 52 minutes left on the race clock and I went for an extra 6th lap. In six hour races, you have to finish all laps in exactly six hours. If you are even one second over, the lap does not count. My fastest lap time previously was 53 minutes and I had put in other lap times between 54-59 minutes, so the last hour in a six hour race was probably not the best time to do my fastest lap and make it to the finish in time. My wife Shannon and our friend Shona McHone, who was helping crew for me and her husband Steve McHone that day, both urged me on, and they kept encouraging me to not stop. They kept saying I could do it, and to just go for it. I was doubting everything in my mind and honestly did not want to keep going. I kept saying I did not think I could do it. They just said GO! Sometimes a friendly, encouraging voice is all it takes to kick you in motion. So in a crazy moment of hesitation and action, I started to pedal again and charged forward. About a mile in, I almost turned around and stopped, but then something clicked. I started to hammer and really pedal. I put it all out on the course and literally pushed myself as hard as I could in the moment. I was floating on the pedals and my split times at check points were going down each time I asked race volunteers for the time on course. At the last check point, I had 10 minutes left. I had done the previous section 5 minutes faster and I was thinking I might just make it. I was pedaling hard and pushing my body to places I have never been before. There was no pain anymore, it was all just beautiful motion and flow. I rounded the last bend and the crowd was going nuts cheering me on. I went across the finish line and looked at the clock with a wishful intent. 4:00:20. No!! I didn’t make it. Unfortunately, I went over the clock by 20 seconds with a time of 6 hours and 20 seconds, and I did not get credit for that extra lap. I was laughing and cursing out loud at the same time. It was so close, but it was just not in the cards for that day. That was a tough pill to swallow, and in the moment it was really hard to see the lesson. That experience though, taught me more about the mental aspects of endurance cycling than any previous race experience I have ever had. I learned that you always have to go for it. If you do, it becomes easier to go for it again, and maybe next time you will make it. Life can surprise you, but the answer now for me is always to go for it. How many times could that life lesson be applied in other areas? Everyday, probably. Once again, you are capable of more than you think.
So back to the 12 hour race at Conyers. This race was one of the best experiences I have had in racing all these years. I went into the race with good fitness after having finished the six hour series a few weeks prior, so at the last minute, I decided to sign up. I have been reading a book called The Pursuit of Endurance by Jennifer Pharr Davis, about running the Appalachian Trail and the mental aspects of endurance athletes. It got me thinking, why not go for something bigger than I have ever done before? You do not know until you try right? I talked with my friend Steve McHone, who is a local bike packing hero, and a true ultra endurance crazy. He has finished the Trans North Georgia, the Tour Divide, and countless other long haul races. He is also who I spend a good bit of time chasing up mountains in North Carolina and one of my principle training partners.
He of course said I should do it and gave me lots of tips for nutrition and pacing. I also talked with Liz Sampey, another ultra endurance legend, and she gave my lots of great tips too like eat real food, and the best was her mantra, “Go big, or go home.” After talking with her, I bit the bullet and signed up. It was official.
I decided I would go into the race with no pressure on myself. I was going to see what it was about, see if I was capable of finishing, and back off my pace tremendously and just have fun and explore the endurance world. Right from the start, my plan was to take breaks and eat as much as I could and not really push to the redline. After all, 12 hours is a big day in the saddle. When the race started, I was reminded by so many people chatting that it was better to start off slow and save yourself for later. Right away, I was impressed by this group of riders in the race. Everyone was just chatting away and it was like we were all on a friendly, social group ride on any given weekend. Was this really a race? Everyone seemed to have done this a few times, and the atmosphere was ultra casual, with no one anxiously trying to pass, or freak out if we were going too slow. Wow, this was so cool!! I even chatted with the overall 24 hour solo woman winner and she was the best. She was so happy and casual, even though she was a sponsored pro rider. I loved that aspect of the race right away. I felt like we were all on this shared journey and there was no pressure. Weekend warriors, teenagers, masters riders, and elite riders all together on a shared mission to keep the pedals turning. You would come around to the pit area and people were drinking beer, eating, chatting, and sitting by the fire. Really it was just a casual group ride with a race title. I liked what I was seeing.
The day was a beautiful Fall day. The temperature got up to 62 degrees and it was perfect. The Fall colors still blanketed the trees in Northern Georgia, and the vibrant colors were awash all through the forest. I wore short sleeves all day and never felt too hot or cold. It was perfect. I would ride a lap, stop for a short time, and either eat a bar, grab a new bottle, drink a Coke, lube up my chain, eat a banana, or eat some other snack, and then I would get back on the bike and crank out another lap. I was in the flow. It was all so casual and I felt good the entire day. Only on my second to last lap, did I feel a little drained. I scarfed down a Turkey wrap and all was remedied. The trick I later discovered was actually taking the time to eat real food and to actually eat all of it. So many times in races, I would be trying to get food in really quick and would end up dropping part of a bar, or just eating a few bites of a sandwich and move on. I discovered food was the major trick. Also, drinking something every 15 minutes, either water or my bottles filled with Infinit electrolyte mix was key. My nutrition was dialed in all day and I had sustained energy the entire time.
Another factor that helped tremendously was that I made an intention early on to keep moving and to focus on the moment. In a race this long, you can drive yourself nuts thinking too far ahead. Ten hours to go? How can I possibly make it for that long? Anytime my mind would wander too far ahead, I would immediately focus back in on the moment. That was the key to success. Be here now. Right now was where I was and I knew I was moving forward in that moment. That was all that mattered, not later. Now is when I was doing it and I just kept focusing on the immediate task at hand, which was keep pedaling, eat, rest, repeat. The hours just kept going by and I was still feeling good.
Later, it started to get dark and I put on my arm warmers for the sunset lap. The colors were spectacular. I came around to the pit area again and saw an amazing sunset with deep oranges and pink and blue blurring together into the trees and clouds. I was entering a real sense of peace and tranquility while I sat in my camp chair watching the sun and clouds merge together and change to darkness. It was time for the lights to come out. That was when the racing really got fun. Racing at night is so surreal. You are basically in a cone of white light moving through a vortex of trail and darkness. Occasionally, you see the lights of another rider off in the distance, but for the most part you are in a bubble of solitude and quietness with only you and your breath and the hum of the chain and cranks moving rhythmically together. The hum of the cog. At night an amazing thing happens as well. You get a second wind. It got a lot colder really fast and I put on leg warmers, warmer gloves and a vest. Better to be warm than to try to get warm after I had started to chill. The cold temperatures give you a new sense of energy and get up and go. I really got into it. I even started to pass a few riders. Really, 10 hours in and I was passing people? Before I knew it, I was approaching my last lap. I finished 12 laps for a total of 78 miles in a little over 11 hours. I even got third place in open men. That distance was close to my longest ride ever on a mountain bike at 80 miles. Once again, you are capable of more than you think.
I finished and sat down for awhile, drank a beer and changed clothes. I got to cheer on and support Steve for a little after the awards ceremony. He was going for 24 hours solo and was in a tight battle with the first place guy. He looked so solid and that was very inspiring. He just had this determined look on his face and was just cranking miles out like a man possessed. I could see the experience written all over his face and how laser focused he was in the moment out there. It was 11pm and he looked fresh and determined. It was really cool seeing your friend push through and keep it going. I was absorbing it all in and dreaming big in my head. What else was I capable of doing? Seeing Steve do this like a walk in the park was making its mark on my soul and feeding me. The long haul bug is a unique beast in the world of biking and everything I was seeing was pretty rad. I never once wanted to stop and I was amazed at how easy it all seemed. When you set an intention in your head it is so much easier to follow through. I was learning so much this day and was so psyched I decided to attempt this challenge. Take it from me, if you ever have doubt about anything in life remember the saying which I will repeat once again, you are capable of more than you think.