Atlas Mountain Race: The Makeover
Continued from First post:
(Disclaimer: I’m wrapping up writing this on Friday evening before the race. I have 1 hour to get my iPad in my bag on the truck or I have to carry it with me on the whole truck, so this could end up being less polished than I’d like).
After I submitted my late application to Atlas Mountain Race I waited. Having not previously been remotely interested in these sorts of events it was quite the about face for me to all of a sudden submit an application, a process that itself was very different from anything I had experienced. Registration had already closed for the race and I had asked to be put on the wait list. I received a reply: They would allow me to be on the wait list but I needed to fill out the same application that everyone else had.
Applying meant reading a thirty-some-odd page race manual, the official source of all information about Atlas Mountain Race (AMR) so far. The manual contained a long list of disclaimers and warnings about how the event was VERY ABSOLUTELY SELF SUPPORTED and that IN THE EVENT OF AN EMERGENCY RESCUE COULD NOT BE GUARANTEED. Sobering stuff. Also contained within were route notes, descriptions of environmental conditions, lists of resupply points, medical exam requirements, insurance policy requirements, etc etc. I think the manual was almost designed to scare away the casually interested prospective racer. I’m sure it worked on a lot of people. I had to submit the application on the same day that I received the manual so I jammed my reading and my question / answer form into the final thirty minutes of an otherwise normal work day at the office. I mostly skimmed like a bad college student who hasn’t studied for the test. I only needed to answer the questions well enough to get into the race. I didn’t actually need to commit any of the information to memory, right? The questions on the exam were somewhat chilly: What is the longest you’ve been without a cell phone and unable to communicate with the outside world in the last few years? If you were stranded with a race-ending but not life threatening emergency fifty kilometers from the nearest Moroccan village how would you handle the situation? If you found yourself in freezing weather, wet, shivering, and wanting to give up, what would you do?
These questions gave me a bit of anxiety. Imagine being in a remote desert in Africa with a broken bike and no cell service! What DO you do? I made up an answer. The answer did not include helicopters, Uber, or waking up from a bad dream. Evidently my answers were good enough because the race organizers told me to hold tight and that they would have a response for me within a couple of weeks.
A couple of weeks is the perfect amount of time to familiarize yourself with an idea that is bigger than your ability to comprehend it. A couple of weeks is the perfect amount of time to slowly say yes to something that you don’t know that you have the courage to do.
Slowly saying yes to AMR reminded me of slowly saying yes to starting Rodeo Labs. If someone had asked me if in 2014 I would be willing to put my career on hold, mortgage my house, and start a bike company I would have said absolutely no! I had no experience starting a company. I had no business making bikes. The idea would have required too much risk and courage. Courage that I did not possess. But I was never asked to make that decision all at once. Rodeo started out as the decision to ride bikes with friends and only over the course of the first year did it slowly turn grow into the idea of building a company with all the risk that building a company entailed.
The beauty of asking to be on the waiting list for Atlas Mountain Race was that by applying I didn’t need to to be courageous right away, I had time to visualize what it might look like to be accepted into the race. I was able to come to grips with my immediate fear of the undertaking before I had even fully committed to it. Time was a gift. It couldn’t have happened any other way for me.
I started talking to my friends about the idea.
“Yes I’ve applied for a bikepacking race in Morocco. I have no idea what I’m doing. But I’m not that worried about it because I don’t even know if I’ll be accepted. I would say that then pause to gauge their reactions. Some friends thought it would be awesome. Some friends could barely hide their skepticism that I was capable of participating and finishing. Some friends went straight to the danger factor and told me very sternly to be careful, like concerned parents lecturing their children.
Other friends were the friends that helped me prepare. Nick, Bryan, Greg, David, and others spent many hours with me out in the plains and mountains around Denver. Taking on a big endeavor like like this felt a lot less overwhelming with friends by my side.
I have in fact never bikepacked. I’ve never ridden anywhere self supported for any more than a single day. I’ve never spent the night alone under the stars. What business did I have just jumping into this genre at all? I guess the answer is that I have no business doing this sort of event if experience is denomination of merit. But I like and even love that the willingness to take on the endeavor is even more important than prior experience. The race organizers weighed my answers to the questions on the application and they found me at least minimally capable of making it to the starting line. No doubt after the starting lineall bets are off!
I had another challenge that stood between me and the race. I needed to ask my wife if it was okay with her if I did it. Amazingly to my wife Sarah the danger factor of an event like this is not her primary consideration and I’m almost positive that she doesn’t spend much time pondering it. I asked her about that on the way to the airport today and she told me this.
“I trust you Stephen. I know that you make decisions carefully. It isn’t that I don’t know that this could be dangerous, but this sort of thing has always been a part of who you are and I’m comfortable with that.”
Sarah’s response made me very happy. She gets me. She doesn’t give me carte blanche to routinely disappear on long adventure escapades but she does recognize that adventures are a necessary part of who I am. These adventures do not come without a cost. Every minute spent away from her and away from the kids is a resource spent like money, but one that is infinitely more finite than money. Her trust and support are incredible but they are also very delicate and cannot be taken advantage of. The moment that Sarah detects that bikes or Rodeo have surpassed her and the kids and taken first position in my hierarchy of passion her support instantly evaporates and she becomes quite rightfully jealous for her and the kid’s place at the center of my gaze.
I would bet that any dad, husband, partner is familiar with this paradox. Cycling requires time. Endurance cycling requires very large sums of time. Even just preparing to become an endurance cyclist is so time consuming that it feels overwhelming. Cycling is potentially one of the most selfish of sports. I think about that constantly. We spend so much time investing in ourselves that we short change those who we love and those who surround us as we do it.
This was at the forefront of my mind as I asked Sarah about this trip. She had already endured six years of the entrepreneurial life as I traded in our previous comfortable lifestyle for one of complete unknown and complete exhaustion. Sarah had already given me the biggest pass in my life in letting me start Rodeo. Why should she say yes to me disappearing entirely for three months while I dove deeper down the rabbit hole of solo endurance sports?
I had an idea. What if I could make this trip not just about me? What if I could invite Sarah along on the adventure as well? I’m not talking about having her enter and ride the Atlas Mountain Race, but as soon as I decided to apply for this event I knew that Sarah had to come with me for at least part of the trip. I couldn’t go to Africa and bank lifetime memories on my own. It was decided that Sarah would join me after the race and for a week or so we would experience Morocco together. Sarah and I haven’t taken a trip together since Rodeo started. We’re long overdue. More so than the finish line of the race itself, some painfully overdue downtime with my best friend and biggest supporter is what I will ride towards as I ride across Morocco.
In early November I got the email that I was now hoping for: I was accepted into the race. All lights shown green. I had three and a half months to become something resembling a bikepacker.
Not since 2014/15 have I seen anything that I would consider peak fitness. Back in those days I was a very focused, very dedicated road bike racer who put in big miles and ticked off some occasional solid results. Rodeo sort of derailed that side of me. As I slowly lost interest in formal bike racing I also lost the ability to train and compete at the level that I once had. Part of me felt sadness about this and part of me didn’t miss that life at all. Adventure riding had almost completely replaced my drive to compete. Why rush at all? Why not slow down and explore? Why not appreciate the view? Why not take some photos along the way.
In the last year or so I’ve wondered if I could ever get that bike racer fire back. I’m 41 now so maybe that’s a mid life crisis sort of thing? I grapple with the significance of middle age. Does it mean that the best chapters have been written? Does it mean that it is my turn to trend towards irrelevance and wind down my athletic ambitions just as the complexity of parenting and life wind up in other ways? In some ways I think it does. I’m not Cat 3 crit racer Stephen anymore. I guess I could try to go get that fire back but it is okay to be honest with myself that I don’t want to. I have a suspicion though that a part of an person that doesn’t fade as quickly or as absolutely as youth is the innate adventurous side. That’s the side that Sarah described on our drive to the airport. That part of me shows no signs of fading and is in fact growing stronger. The world is massive, beautiful, and unknown to me. I feel an ever deepening drive to continue exploring it for as long as I am able – preferably by bike!
My principal goal for Atlas Mountain Race is simply to finish. I don’t have ambitions to be the fastest person out there. I have ambitions to soak up the country, the experience, the culture, and the community that I am diving into. But even just to finish a self supported 720 mile bikepacking race requires a massive amount of physical fitness. How much fitness is required exactly? I couldn’t tell you! But I knew when I was accepted into the race that I had an immense amount of training and preparation ahead of me. It was time to get to work.
Preparation for Atlas Mountain Race had some ground rules. Preparation also needed some boundaries. Technically speaking I was running at 100% capacity in life even before I signed up for this event. I needed to find ways to trim fat from my life and work preparation in to any available margin. I had some honest talks with Sarah about what was in store. On the weekends I would be allowed one bike ride and it would be a big bike ride. I would have to start early, around 6am, maybe 7. This would not be easy as Colorado temperatures began to dip far below freezing for the fall and winter seasons. “Easy” an early casualty of this adventure. “Hard” became a new normal. If I could be back from those rides in the early afternoon then weekends wouldn’t be a total casualty of this race. I would still have a good amount of time to be a normal husband and dad, going to basketball games, playing legos, making pancakes, and fixing things around the house. Sometimes I nailed the weekend schedule. Sometimes I came home late. This caused strain. This wasn’t easy. Sarah was a major trooper but I knew that she was looking at February just as much as I was knowing that this phase of life wasn’t permanent. This was a temporary adjustment to our family that had a firm finish line that we just needed to make it to. It was in fact quite merciful that AMR was merely 3.5 months away. Had it been six or nine months the strain would have been too much to ask of the family.
I also found more margins of time with which to train on my way to and from work every morning. My 10 mile one way commutes became 20 or 30 whenever possible. Every single mile felt like it mattered. Fear is a great motivator. The idea of February 15th arriving and not being ready was enough to scare me into shape.
Life upset the flow whenever possible. I would fight to push the fitness up for a couple of weeks then a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas would get in the way. Two steps forward, one step back.
I slow started acquiring gear. I tool lists from Al Meder and Greg Besaw and combined them into a single list. I went on small shopping binges for ridiculous things like ultralight sleeping mats, Viole straps, and drybags. Everything went into a pile, a pile that I didn’t understand but that I knew that I needed to master sometime before race day.
The discipline of training and preparing for the race on such tight margins had an unexpected effect on me: I became more disciplined in other areas of life that I wanted to improve in. I started going to bed earlier so that I could stay sharp enough to make it through each intense day. I got up earlier and spent more focused quiet time with the kids before they went to school. I brushed my teeth in the shower instead of at the sink in order to save time. Finding ways to optimize time became therapeutic,like a game.
Beyond just cycling long miles I also knew that I needed to strengthen my core and upper body which have historically been disastrously week. I joined the Y and did weights and Body Pump classes with my wife which was bit hilarious because I was clearly weaker than many women in those classes who were in their mid sixties.
I once did a self discipline assessment with my wife. She scored a 90 and I scored a 10 out of 100. I have a very difficult time making myself do things that I don’t enjoy or want to do. I don’t like “training”, but somehow to my surprise things worked out. In early November I made a goal to hit a relative fitness score of 100 using Strava’s fitness measuring algorithm. Early in the training it was easy to bump the number up quickly but the higher the number got the slower it continued to move. I felt my time and momentum running out, but with a few bigger weekend efforts closer to my departure day I exactly hit triple digits. And then I exhaled a massive sigh of relief. I know that at least physically I was ready to head to Morocco.
No matter what happens in this race, success, failure, a mechanical, or a life changingly sublime ride I know that I’ve done the work. I am still not in fact a bikepacker. I still haven’t spent a single night outdoors on my own with my bike. We’ll know in a week whether or not I’ve earned that badge. But even before boarding the plane to Morocco I knew that this race had changed me. I think I’ve rediscovered a feeling that I had lost that I could get sharp again, or feel like an athlete again. I’ve also gained confidence in pushing towards the unknown, towards things scare me but pull at me regardless.
In 14 hours this race will start. Maybe by the time anyone reads this it will all be over. I couldn’t be more excited. I couldn’t be more grateful that in a way Rodeo has all added up to this point for me. It’s been one constant adventure after another and Atlas Mountain Race will be the biggest yet.