All of the warring voices in the four walls of my skull have agreed to a holiday ceasefire, presumably sitting around a campfire, listening (semi-ironically) to the Psychedelic Furs as I stand quietly behind the starting line of a 350 mile bike race. The race director’s voice drones on as the corral grows fuller and I begin feeling increasingly veal-like. The new-wave kumbaya holding my anxiety at bay is quieted by the voice above, “blah blah blah… can you believe that they paid for this, folks… wah blah wah mud blah rain blah paint stick blah”.
A previously empty bluebird sky surreptitiously becomes flooded with darkness and a crack of thunder rings out, prying nervous laughter from seemingly every human for miles. Accidentally unshaven hairs that remain on my legs stand up. Those will probably cost me a watt or two. So be it, my weapon of choice for the ensuing battle only has one cog and the only metric through which I’m measuring my performance is how hard I’m breathing. I adorn my great grandpa’s flannel, sans sleeves, and my favorite pair of GoLite running shorts. An intentionally obtuse decision? Absolutely. Under the guise of pragmatism, but actually a rebellion to the Lycra-obsessed populous standing beside me in this makeshift cage? Absolutely. A glaring mistake that I will undoubtedly pay for with a greatly inflamed undercarriage? Without a doubt.
Contemplation of virtuous mistakes aside, a patriotic moment requires that we remove our helmets and caps. And I swear, a swarm of flag-wearing, gun-toting bald eagles leads us out of town, on the coattails of a haunting rendition of the American anthem. You’ll just have to take my word for it, the coverage of the XL was quite lacking. And, we’re off. A slow rolling neutral start takes us to the gravel, and I look around. Regrettably, my company appears mostly to be a collection of curmudgeonly, old roadies with definitive wedgies. Ah, yes, spandex diapers: the untoward culprit. I smirk and turn to a particularly serious looking fella on my left and reference the police officer spinning along with us out of town on a stealthy, black hybrid Schwinn. “How many watts you think the cop is pushing?”. Gratefully, he greets me with a blank stare and a dagger-shaped, “What the fuck are you talking about?” in return. I distinctly remember passing this gentle soul the following morning, as he attended confessional with his decapitated derailleur in hand. A shame, nobody was there to hear him. It was only Saturday, after all.
No stranger to a few Hail Mary’s myself, I slog through the first 75 mile portion. Victim to a violent resumption of my brain’s self-imposed guerilla warfare. Fortunately, no other option presents itself for me other than continuous forward motion. In the words of my new compatriot and lone tenant of the otherwise empty non-binary category in the XL, Arb, “The move is to come out here solo so you have no bailout. You have to finish.” The cancerously kind, painstakingly polite part of myself shudders at the thought of asking any of my friends in town for a ride and thus, I found myself uns’ported.
I arrive to the first Casey’s stop to find scattered bikes and candy wrapper shrapnel along the pavement. Instantly, it’s summer of yesteryear and I run through a rogue sprinkler to rinse myself of superfluous sugar stains, on a friends’ parents’ similarly decorated lawn. Back to the present, my Casey’s Cherry (trademark, copyright) is rightfully demolished by two slices of surprisingly delightful Za, a pint of ice cream compliments of my favorite Vermont-based dessertrepeneurs, and the carbonated spirit of a winged, cinnabar steer. The latter of which is typically found in my blood at such high quantities that the Red Cross would likely refuse my donations under the grounds that “Red Bull” is not a valid blood type. I chat and eat with fellow single-cogger, Spencer, who has done the Atlas Mountain Race multiple times but later agreed at the finish line, that he found this experience to be shockingly heinous. We finish our Michelle Obama approved meals, as a fella (whose Lycra was more honestly wearing him) tried pawning off an uneaten turkey sub to anybody and everybody that rolled in. Luckily, nobody took it.
Lighting systems felt moot as the sun came to pass and an eerily full moon took its place. I wouldn’t see Spencer until stop no.2, after a tremendous night shift and our first 4-mile grifter with the almond butter mud. Inadvertently, he provides a moment of greatest levity amongst a solemn troupe. Belly-aching laughter spreads through all of us, as we notice him conked, with a piece of pizza in hand and a lump of the same in his right cheek. A change in tone has become discernible though. Fewer bikes lay out front of the 24-hr station and “scratched” began appearing next to a few well-known names on Trackleaders. I seize this moment to cruise into an anti-climactic sunrise whose pink tinges are just enough to render my dynamo’s beam unnecessary on a long stretch of sharp doubletrack.
A nontrivial headwind rolls up, over, and down my hunched spine [imagine multiple water-filled humps, not much different from a camel] as I spent a staggering-to-me total of nine hours with my forearms glued to my handlebars. S’aero. With it, the shifting morning air brings a squall of serendipity in the form of the Avalanches’ “Oh the sunn!”, chortling a bright and triumphant rally cry against an unnamed oppressor. “Love is our song, it’s what we’ve known all along… big, big beautiful lights”. I feel an infinite source of lightness extend forth from just beneath my sternum, a location I typically feel bound with knots of anxiety. Somehow, in spite of myself, have I become… no, don’t say it’s true… unbound? Pardon me, while I retch.
That is until the sun fully enters frame and the expansive Kansas landscape in its entirety is unveiled and the reality of our situation becomes apparent. While I feel free of the bondage that normal life places upon me, I feel that the middle-American sun has similarly and painstakingly taken the same liberties. The glowing progenitor of UV proudly displays no self-restraint as we begin to encounter, GASP, the 200 milers. A fast bunch, I can’t quite hang on but suck some wheel and take a pitiful pull or two. A collective sigh covers the green desert we find ourselves in… it’s freakin hot out. And despite already seeing, nay, traversing the consequences of such, we begin to plead for wetness.
Within minutes, something wicked this way came, you’d think the big fella upstairs was playing a game: an ouroboros, darkly obese pastures of liquid love [water, I swear], heaving directly above. Sorry, that’s it for the rhymes.
Spilling their guts out, the clouds bathe us and create a rawness that remains for the following nine hour stretch home. Feet become entrenched. Saddles, sore. Hands, blistered. And of course, because physical abrasions beget mental ones: spirits, tender. Delirium, darkness, and one last section of hiking round out the 28th hour. Washboards in the road keep me awake but sear into my filleted, non-Wagyu skin. No position provides solace, and I am reminded of the pig-headed decisions I made that ensured maximal exposure to my surplus of endogenous capsaicin. My dynamo begins to dim, coated in a veneer of clay, and my brake levers pull flush with the handlebars. I yawn, attempting to produce a tear, and wonder if my steed has had enough. I phone a friend. Luckily, she is unsympathetic and tells me to move my ass. So, I continue to descend haphazardly, half-hoping that the darkness will swallow me and extinguish the tiny embers burning the entire surface area of my living corpse. Half-heartedly, I curse the fact that I’ve somehow built such a bombproof rig – my hand-doodled Flaanimal 5.0 with a White Ind. and Endless Bikes Co. drivetrain, Paul Klampers placed around carbon rodeo hoops (one built by their very own ace wrench, Pancho) adorned with max-chonk Rene Herse rubber boots. I wonder, if only my [nonexistent] derailleur burst into flames like two-thirds of the fields’, maybe I could be spared the pins and needles in every single one of my touch points.
Frustration and disdain at having entered the second night, something I had previously deemed unacceptable, began to settle in. I begin labeling this effort an arbitrary venture and realize that my constant conflation of pissing contests, sorry, ultra-endurance events with my self-esteem has proven a tremendous blunder. A consequence of an addictive biology, endurance sport had of course become the lone lens through which I measured my worth. Teeth-gritting events and training that requires constant failure helped establish self-flagellation as my bread and butter (no pun intended), epitomized by Sisyphus-like cycles of intensely disordered eating and post-haste purging. I call my pops (never a good idea at this late, hallucinatory hour). I attempt to apologize for repeatedly failing to just let go of the proverbial rock. Even though it has admittedly never truly felt like a choice. I continue to wrestle with my “why”, as much as I wrestle my pedals forward. The answer becomes obvious to me, as the voices of several former romantic partners drone in and crescendo: “textbook narcissist”, “male manipulator”, “obsessive and probably bipolar”. Duh, this was simply my egotistical masterpiece. Embarrassed and ashamed, my sunburnt cheeks blush and I wonder if the laughably bright wheel of cheese in the sky allowed passersby to see.
As an attentive reader may discern, all sides in the aforementioned “civil war de noggin” were quickly hemorrhaging losses at this junction. I enshroud myself in self-pity, which does little to clean my body of the shattered glass that coats me. Slowly, I rolled towards main st. 340. 341. 342. I feel and hear my chain retch and groan, almost as loudly as I do. Shouting innumerable expletives, I cry for pulls into town or at the minimum, conversation to dissociate from the feeling of hundreds of little branding irons in my shoes. 345. 346. 347. Nobody answers my beckon call as I cross city limits and into Sunday, where my soon-to-be bronze single-speed and I are welcomed to what I had been assured was Midwestern Valhalla. 350.
Devoid of blindingly beautiful Valkyries, I found only the metallic rattling of one cowbell, four to five gentle golf claps, and an understandably disgruntled teenage volunteer handing me a portly glass mug, In lieu of a 3rd place plaque. coupled with centimeter deep lacerations adjacent my crotch and bone bruises on my palms, this empty finish line reminds me of why these efforts are quintessential to [my] growth. My micron-thick glass ego has been completely shattered and the center of my chest overflows with an incandescent light incapable of quelling. No longer do I feel captivated by fear, but instead, a sense of trust takes its place as a profound silence blankets me. The militias in my frontal lobe lie down their weapons, once more, but likely not for good.
I look over at an unsuspecting local and say,
“I can definitely go sub-30 next year, don’t ya think?”