Happy 2011! Been feeling a bit quiet, and haven't really had much time to write. Fun New Year's dancing with Elaine, and been getting my near daily skis in in the morning. Working on a little project to make the morning runs a little less shrapnel-woods-survival-esque and more open. Working lots, rediscovering the lost art of pine-tarring skis. Something my dad used to do when I was a kid before we'd go out exploring the trails outside Oslo, Norway on our nordic skis. The smell of it is simply wonderful.
I've got blue collar hands these days. Little nicks and cuts, a few edge splinters, calluses and a distinct smell of base cleaner and pine tar. Elaine likes it, and so do I. It's good to work with your hands and it's even better to figure stuff out. I still make mistakes, but I find I can minimize these as long as I keep thinking. It's when I go into auto-mode that I mess up. I like this job. I've gotten in the habit of changing the music for the skis I'm working on. I don't know many of the people, but I can visualize well. Somebody from Ned-town? Maybe a little reggae to mount their Riva bindings on their skinny tele's. A guy with some Icelantic D'Nollies? Hip hop all the way. An older couple on a pair of Asnes skis? Beethoven's 9th sympony makes it's way onto the stereo. NTN mount on a pair of Voile Chargers? Punk rock of course. It's a little trick that helps me focus and think.
Big ski week coming up. Dawn patrol session (followed by some professional lounging) tomorrow, work on the project hill Tuesday and Wednesday and then Elaine and I are heading up to Eiseman land for a hut trip. Should be good.
Elaine's computer crashed the other night, so I hooked her up with my old one until we can afford to purchase her a new machine. I was looking through my old writing and found this. It's about Montezuma's Revenge, an event I did seven or so times before it ended four or five years ago. Brings back some good memories. I recently signed up for the Leadville Silver Rush 50. I enjoyed something of a biking rennaisssance this past fall, and am psyched to have something on the calendar to prep for. It's not the revenge, but it's a nice foray back into the world of endurance mountain biking.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story!
Montezuma’s Revenge: A 24 Hour Odyssey
Montezuma’s Revenge is so brutal and unrelenting that it can make a scree field at 13,000 feet look like a feather bed to an exhausted mind. It tweaks judgement to such extremes that riding a titanium mountain bike above timberline in a deadly lightning storm seems like a good idea.
To understand the difficulty of this race, held above the haunted mining town of Montezuma, Colorado, one simply needs to take a look at the course map. In a 24-hour time span, Revenge contestants ride more than 200 miles and gain 34,000 feet in elevation. The course elevation profile looks like a Richter meter during a massive earthquake.
The race consists of 13-loops that ascend out of Montezuma. Nobody has ever completed all 13-loops in the allotted 24 hours – the most anyone has done is 11 in 1999. One of the loops climbs to the top of 14,270-foot Grey’s Peak – the 12th highest peak in the lower 48. The course never drops below 9,000 feet.
At some point during the race, every Montezuma’s Revenge competitor faces a moment of truth – continue up another mountain or drop out. This year, because of raging summer lightning storms that pummeled the course, that decision had much higher consequences.
August 8, 2:35 p.m. Mountain Standard Time
As I pull my beat up truck into Main Street Montezuma, a cold, steelish rain beats down on the windshield. The peaks that surround the town are totally shrouded by misty and moisture. Wonderful conditions for a 24-hour mountain bike race.
Despite the rain, being at the race site is a major relief. An event like Montezuma’s Revenge takes months to prepare for. In addition to long hours in the saddle, the Revenge requires expedition-like preparation. Without a solid game plan for food, clothing, rest stops and equipment concerns a competitor is doomed to failure, no matter how strong they might be.
Because of this, I was somewhat alarmed by the scope of the crews of other racers, which resembled a military entourage preparing to overtake some unsuspecting city. Without exception, my competitors had crewmembers for pacing, feeding, bike repair and massage. I on the other hand, had my girlfriend and myself. Between the two of us, we would hopefully cover all the bases and compete with the big boys. And not die in the process.
August 8, 3:50 p.m.
Montezuma, Colorado – at 10,450 feet above sea level – feels like the center of the galaxy as I warm up in the steady rain. Montezuma is an eclectic mountain mining town – basically the last habitation before the narrow dirt road moseying up here climbs into the highest mountains in North America. The towns 51 permanent residents are quintessential mountain rats. In the winter they carve up the backcountry near A-Basin on telemark skis. In the summer, they mountain bike. When not pedaling or dropping into some snowy chute, Montezuma residents hang out in a place called the Soul House coffee shop, trading war stories of the days activities in the peaks that surround the town over a cup of Chai. A number of Montezuma residents compete in the Revenge – without exception they are some of the strongest riders in the event.
August 8, 4:00 p.m.
The Revenge begins with a bang – literally. A 25-pound stick of dynamite is exploded to start the race, reverberating off the mountains and through the bodies of spectators and competitors alike. Immediately riders take off in a full sprint. I linger in the middle of the pack – it seems a bit presumptuous to go for the hole shot in a 24 hour race. After a quick descent, the pack of 35 riders dismount, run over an ancient mining shaft, and blast through the roaring crowd in Montezuma. For some racers, this will be the last they see of the leaders until the event concludes 24 hours later.
The Montezuma’s Revenge course is a series of loops that climb out of the town into the surrounding backcountry. The first three – called the S&M loops (spectator and media) – are a tease for what awaits competitors. The S&M loops are relatively short: One, eight and five miles long respectably. After the S&M loops comes loops four, which begins to reveal the true insanity of the Revenge. Loop four is 83 miles long, and climbs over 8,000 vertical feet. Most racers begin loop four at about five in the afternoon. The leaders won’t complete it until one o’clock the following morning. For mere mortals, loop four can be an all night ordeal along the spine of the Continental Divide.
I finish the first three laps in relatively good standing – somewhere in the top ten. After a quick pit stop to eat some food and check my lighting equipment, I head west and up out of town. For the next three hours, there will be no crew support. If something should go wrong, I’ll be on my own.
August 8, 6:12 p.m.
The course – which is completely unmarked – climbs to 12,000 feet on a trail appropriately named Radical Hill. To call it a trail, however, is being generous. Basically, it’s a vertical jeep road, covered with volleyball-sized boulders and small snowfields. Like much of the Revenge course, the trail is so steep that even the strongest riders are forced to dismount and hike. It’s a brutal effort, and by the time I reach the top I’m hitting my first wall of the event. I’m in a semi-bonk, and the race is barely two hours old.
Such highs and lows are common in a race as long as Montezuma’s Revenge. If you start looking ahead, realizing that you’ve got an insane amount of riding ahead, you’re bumming. On the other hand, if you focus on the moment, you’ll be able to break down the task. For every low there is an insane high – it’s the reason people get into endurance races. The key is sticking through moments when the hotel room seems like a hell of a lot better option then the rocky ass jeep road you’re currently riding.
At the top of the climb, I delve into my pack, grab some sort of stale energy bar, engulf it, and pedal into the quickly descending Colorado night.
August 8, 8:00 p.m.
The descent from Radical Hill to Breckenridge is a 20-mile session of riding a jackhammer. Like pretty much every trail in Colorado, it’s so rocky that my arms are totally pumped by the time I reach the bottom. While a flat tire is not the end of the world in a 24-hour race, it can use up important energy and take you out of your rhythm. I carefully pick my way through the maze of rocks, and blast into Breckenridge sitting in 8th place overall.
This is a good moment, and like a surfboard trying to clean the set at Swami’s, I want to ride it as long as possible. Onto the Peaks Trail, and a fun, twisty singletrack section to the town of Frisco. This is sweet terrain – swooping, rolling and fast.
By the time I arrive in Frisco the reddish hew of a sunset sky has given way to pitch black. I reluctantly turn on my lights. Battery conservation is a key factor in a race like Montezuma’s Revenge. A halogen-powered light can last about five hours. Unfortunately, the night lasts seven hours. This makes it crucial that lights are turned off during the non-technical road section.
Last year I mismanaged my lights, and had my batteries die as I was descending a steep goat trail with a 300-foot drop off to the right. Instant blackness. After grabbing a fat handful of brake, I blindly dragged myself to bottom of the trail.
In theory, lights sho
uld be a piece of cake this year. The race promoter mercifully scheduled this year’s Revenge during a full moon. Pulling out of the Frisco checkpoint, however, rain begins to fall and the moon is nowhere in sight.
August 8, 10:37 p.m.
I reach the summit of 12,000-foot Loveland Pass. We are now about 60 miles into the event, and I’m holding steady in 7th place. For the past 35 miles, the Revenge has essentially been a road race, winding through the night on paved bike paths and roads. Racers switch wheels during this stretch, trading in the knobby tires for fast, road friendly slicks. Without this simple yet key equipment change a rider would be off-the-back ASAP.
Despite being on the road, the climb up Loveland Pass is surreal. The moon finally breaks out, lighting up the entire Continental Divide in a ghostish, glimmering light. Cresting the summit, I grab a quick cup of coffee – a key to surviving the Revenge – toss on a layer of Gore-Tex, and head down the pass.
During the descent, I pass by fellow racers, distinguished only by their headlights. As our paths cross in the lonely night we shout encouragement to each other. Anything to break up the loneliness and monotony of the long night ahead.
While I’m pleased to get over Loveland Pass in good standing, there is a definite twinge of nervousness running through me. Ahead lies the toughest part of Montezuma’s Revenge.
August 8, 10:54 p.m.
Taking it to a higher level, literally. The endless odyssey continues on, up to the top of Arapaho Basin, which also happens to be the highest ski area in North America. Last year on this section of the course, I had a major physical breakdown. About halfway up I decided that the cold rock of the ski slope looked appealing, so I got off my bike and took a 45-minute nap. Not exactly tactic number one if you’re trying to win a race, but it was one of the better naps I’ve ever taken.
This year things went much smoother. The climb up to the 3,000–foot summit was cake, and I reached the summit in a relative state of comprehension. A good thing too, because the upcoming singletrack descent – the Lenawee Trail – required spot on coordination and balance.
The Lenawee Trail is a rocky, jagged, tundra surrounded singletrack with a 1000-foot drop off to the right. It’s a sketchy, but beautiful ride during daylight. When the sun goes down and the Rockies are engulfed in darkness, Lenawee Trail becomes a careful tightrope act of faith.
In all honesty, sections like the Lenawee Trail worry me less than an endless stretch of boring dirt road. One of the main reasons for participating in an event like the Revenge is to intentionally put yourself in dire situations – and see how the mind, body and spirit handles the challenge. Our society tends to discourage such self-abuse in favor of more mundane activities like sightseeing, shopping and eating. Fun things to do, of course, in the right time and place, but do they really let you know that your heart is beating – that you are indeed alive?
The mountain spirits are evidently in a good mood this year, as the clouds disappear revealing a disco-ball sky full of stars and a spotlight moon. Perhaps I’m becoming a bit delirious from the long hours in the saddle, but the atmosphere seems perfect for some singing. Taking the cue, I begin to croon the lyrics of some obscure trance song into the lonely, crystal clear Rocky Mountain evening, as my bike and I dance for 45 minutes down the Lenawee Trail and into the faint amber glow of the Montezuma check station.
August 9, 2:48 a.m.
Montezuma’s Revenge is not your typical mountain bike race. This becomes clearly evident on Loop 5 – a.k.a. "The Grays Loop." A short spin out of the creature comforts of Montezuma takes each competitor to the base of Grays Peak, a 14,270-foot peak that is the highest mountain on the North American Continental Divide. (Author’s note – there are higher mountains in North America, but, oddly enough, none of them lie directly on the divide.)
It’s impossible to ride to the top of Gray’s Peak – a faint, steep jeep road that penetrates the lower slopes of the summit quickly gives way to a 45-degree scree/snow field that rises 2,200-feet to the summit.
At the transition point between biking and hiking my tiny crew plays a big role. They feed me pasta and chai tea, strap my bike to a frame pack, and offer encouragement for the trek up Grays. I’ll have a crewmember pacing me to the top of the mountain – pretty much a necessity at this point in time in the race. While I’ll have to carry my bike to the top of the mountain, the pacer can carry extra clothing, food and water that will undoubtedly be needed to make a successful and speedy trip to the summit.
After 30 minutes and two ice-cold river crossings we come to an old dilapidated miners cabin nestled on the shoulder of Grays Peak. It doesn't take much to envision the place as some sort of raucous party house less than 100 years ago. The people who lived here were likely in good spirits. They were digging in the dirt to fulfill some sort of personal destiny. Moreover, they were working in the mountains in one of the most beautiful places on earth. It's easy to picture these men (and possibly women) laughing and drinking in the main room, strumming on the guitar after an endorphin filled day of mining at high altitude. The good life indeed.
On this night, the cabin serves as little more than the beginning of the extremely steep section of the Gray’s Peak ascent. Things get infinitesimally more difficult – we now move in five-minute intervals followed by 30-second rest stops. The terrain is a loose mixture of rock and snow. For every two steps forward, I slide a step backwards. Things get steeper yet, until I can touch the ground in front of me when I stand vertical. We are forced to cross a snowfield – a treacherous endeavor. One slip and I’d go careening 1,000-feet down into a jagged scree field.
Despite the tough going, I begin to notice that we are passing people. Taking a minute to look back down the mountain I see about a dozen glowing headlamps slowly making there way up Gray’s Peak, almost an hour behind me. Of course, looking up the mountain I also see a few headlights already at the summit – at least an hour a head of me.
Enough resting – we continue to plod upward and onward. As we reach a saddle at 14,000 feet, a fireball sun begins to rise over the Great Plains 50 miles to the east, turning the sky and surrounding peaks a cornucopia of purple, orange and pink. We continue up until the stone cold rock is no more. We’re at the top of the world.
August 9, 6:13 a.m.
Outdoor Life Network, who is covering the event for a late night cable special four months down the line, has sent some poor bastard reporter to the top of Grays Peak to interview racers as they struggle up the 14,270 foot summit. As a 40-mile an hour, frigid wind blasts us at the summit, the TV reporter asks perhaps the least creative question in journalism history: "So how does it feel to reach the top."
"Umm, feels pretty good," I stammer back to the reporter, in perhaps the least creative answer in journalism history.
After a few minutes rest, we leave the summit and the lonely, freezing reporter behind and begin the descent down the eastern slope of Grays Peak.
August 9, 8:06 a.m.
After another brutally rocky descent, I come flying into the Montezuma check station, high on adrenaline from a success
fully completed Grays Peak Loop. The race official tells me I’m now in 5th place.
This bit of information gets me even more fired up to keep going. For the first time, I start to feel quite confident about the race, even cocky. This is a dangerous mindset – it’s much better to be humble when dealing with the mountain forces that make up Montezuma’s Revenge. Thus far the mountain had given me a great ride. Yet the next eight hours could bring a host of obstacles – heat, altitude, steep climbs, rough downhills and – the number one threat to any mountain adventurer – thunderstorms.
I head out on loop six after barely taking in any food, too excited, young and stupid to realize that there is still a lot of racing to be done.
August 9, 9:15 a.m.
Off the bike, hiking. I should be riding this section of mild climbing, but the BONK has set in. As the sun begins to heat up searing my skin, I start to look down the hill for people catching up to me as opposed to looking forward at the task at hand. My ass hurts, my feet hurt and I want the race to be over.
Every racer reaches this point sometime during Montezuma’s Revenge. I try to divert my mind from the task at hand and focus on other, more pleasant things – surfing in California, Italian women, the chances that the Boston Red Sox will ever win another World Series. None of these thoughts really do the trick, however. After a painfully long two-hour climb I reach the top of loop six where a herd of mountain sheep are grazing on the arctic tundra. I give in to the massive fatigue for a minute, plop down on the ground, grab an apple from my pack, and enjoy a high altitude lunch with the sheep.
August 9, noon
By Loop 7, Montezuma has taken its revenge on me. I’m totally fried, off the bike, sitting next to a creek drowned in self-pity. My lack of eating and drinking for the past six hours has taken its toll, but more than anything, the mind sabotages the spirit and body. I watch helplessly as racers – with urging from their pacers – drive past me. I seriously consider dropping out of the event, but this goes against every fiber of my existence.
"You entered this race because it was hard, dammit. Get your ass off the ground and move," I scream at my lackadaisical body.
The body responds. I continue up the hill – not exactly at the pace of a Russian race horse – but moving none the less. In my mind I break the race down into a series of mini goals: take twenty pedal strokes, go to the next switchback. After what seems like an eternity, I reach the ridge top. Just a few short climbs to go and I’ll be back on the descent to Montezuma where I can fuel up before continuing onward.
As I pedal across the ridge, a wind mixed with raindrops begins to pelt my tired body. Looking ahead, the sunny skies have given way to a multitude of blackish, towering thunderheads.
August 9, 1:11 p.m.
When the thunderstorm hits, I’m in the worst possible place – on a ridge, above timberline at 12,000 feet above sea level, sitting on a titanium lightning rod. Survival immediately takes precedence over racing. I drop my bike and do my best Carl Lewis impersonation, B-lining away from my metal bike. With lightning bursts cracking less than a football field length away, I drop to my stomach and lie as flat as possible, trying to get beneath the tiny shrubs that are scattered about the high altitude tundra.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t scared. Perhaps it was the extreme fatigue of racing for 22 hours, but I actually felt rather relaxed in my completely exposed position. I figured getting struck by lightning would be a quick, relatively painless way to die – certainly more comfortable than continuing up the endless climb that stretched before me. Much better – I reasoned – to croak on the flanks of the Continental Divide, surrounded by Columbines and Marmot scat. With thunder blasts echoing in my ears and the smell of sulfur penetrating the air I closed my eyes and took a catnap.
August 9, 1:22 p.m.
It was a short nap. As is usually the case in the Rocky Mountains, the storm came and went quickly. I got up – shivering from cold rain – picked up my bike and continued riding across the endless ridgeline.
As I rode into the Loop seven checkpoint, perched on the very top of the loop, I was informed that the race had been cancelled because of the dangerous thunderstorm. The two women manning the checkpoint received a major scare during the storm – their Jeep was struck by lightning, killing the battery and knocking out all radio communications. Nonetheless, they were exceptionally helpful, offering me a blanket and hot tea to combat the early stages of hypothermia that were beginning to swamp my body.
Warmed to a slight shiver, I left the comforts of the incapacitated Jeep and bounced 2,000 vertical feet back down to the town of Montezuma. Upon arriving in town, I was informed that the race had not been cancelled, and that I was still sitting in the top ten despite my incredibly slow pace for the past four hours.
In yet another emotional twist of Montezuma’s Revenge, I felt prideful surge of energy. After 23 hours of racing, and twelve months of training that consisted of epic mountain bike rides, weight training and backcountry skiing, I was not prepared to quit before the 24 hour mark had passed.
After engulfing a pint-sized container of SPAM, I left a drizzly Montezuma and cheering crowd behind and began yet another steep climb up Loop Numero 8.
August 9, 4:00 p.m.
A dynamite blast signals the end of the 24 hour odyssey. Within 20 minutes I’ve completed my descent back to town, where a roaring mountain rat crowd and announcer greet me. 145 total miles, 18,260 vertical feet and 10th place overall – a decent days work all in all.
The scene repeats itself over and over as riders descend from the high mountains into a rainy but electrified Montezuma. On the porch of the Soul House – under a sign that boldly states "You Ain’t Shit Till You’ve Had the Revenge" – racers, volunteers, crew members and fans hug, cheer and drink beer celebrating a perfect 24 hours in the Rocky Mountains.