More than 24 hours later I can still taste it and feel it, Grit. I spent an entire day cleaning up from it, Grit.
Early race season excitement had me chomping at the bit to start racing so I decided to head along with some teammates to check out the new race in St. George, Ut. I committed several weeks ago not knowing anything about the riding down in St. George. As the race approached I started to hear that it was going to be technically challenging. Not being a good technical rider I was a little concerned.
Teammate Les Handy and I departed on our 10 hour drive Friday morning. The weather here in Denver was beautiful to put it simply. Driving through Utah took us through some amazing sights and natural wonders I have never seen before. I wish there had been time to make stops, the landscape was breathtaking.
About two or three hours out from St. George we got hit by snow and rain and wind. Hmmmm.... not what we were expecting. Finally making it to St. George we found a storm had just rolled through leaving everything wet and fresh.
Eventually we met up with the rest of the team who had driven through the night and arrived earlier in the day. They had just checked out one of the hard sections of the race course, the Zen loop. The only comment about the trail that I remember came from Chris Baddick who said something along the lines of "I can see breaking a frame here", which I had just done the previous weekend taking a hard nasty fall on a training ride. In fact my new frame had only been ridden for about an hour total since I got it. As luck would have it things would work out in my favor in that regard, well sort of...
The rest of the team bailed on the original camping idea and found a Princess room someplace so they could have a proper porcelain throne to sit on and running hot showers. The two True Grit guys, Les and I, stuck with the camping plan which overall worked out well. With all the mud at the campsite having another five people around would have been a disaster. It was hard enough for the two of us to keep mud out of the tent. I was in bed and asleep by 9PM and had a good sleep until about 3 or 4 AM when I had to pee, but it was too cold to get up so I basically tossed and turned and curled up in the fetal position until the sun came up. But it never really came up....
We lined up for the race start at 8:30 AM under dark clouds and temps in the low 40s. There were about 170 something men and women racers comprising the categories of the Pros, young people, 35+, I think there was an older category, and people doing only the 1/2 race. The 9 AM bell had us off at a surprisingly comfortable pace. We had about 2 miles of road with a steep hill at the end before hitting dirt. I expected the throttle to go down on the hill but nothing happened and I stayed near the front of the race some place just off the back of the pro group. We hit the dirt and started climbing. I've had some sort of bug or something, and starting the previous Wednesday I had an ear ache which grew to include a sore throat on Friday. So the climbing at the start put some pressure on me right away even though it was not very hard climbing, I was concerned more about finishing than doing well at this point and knew if my health completely gave out too early I would have to bail on the race.
30 minutes into the race it started to rain, a good solid sprinkle, and it was only about 40 degrees out. We started to get to the technical sections, and the rain made conditions slippery on the slick rock, which in turn leveled the playing field greatly for me. After getting somewhat separated from my teammates on the first big drop-in I stuck to a couple local guys wheels. They said they rode the rocks almost every weekend. I let them lead and every time they slipped and toppled over I knew to dismount and run. It worked well, I never crashed or fell at all during the technical rocky stuff. I did however make a wrong turn and spent 15 minutes or so off course. This was just enough time for Les to catch back up to me and in the end it was good to have his company for the rest of the race.
Les and I came through the 2nd aid station together and left together. I felt a bit of fever going and settled into Les' pace on the climb to get a breather. The next part of the course had gentle climbs and fast motocross like pump track spots. For a short bit it seemed the rain stopped. Since I'm in better climbing shape than Les I decided to go ahead of him since he would probably catch me again on a technical section. As I raced along I saw someone to catch in front of me, and picked up the pace just a little to catch them. I caught close 5 or 6 racers. Then it started to rain, hard....
I had to dismount to get across a gate on the trail and slipped banging my knee so hard I saw stars, for those few minutes all I could hear was the rain pounding on my helmet like someone was hitting me with drumsticks. I got going again and the course took me to a fire road. The road was wet, with standing water and slippery mud. Every few hundered feet there were ditches that ran across the road and hitting those at speed had a g-out affect. Twice my front wheel went sideways in these, I'm lucky I didn't crash. Then I noticed a whole bunch of racers ahead of me, I also noticed I was cold.
I felt some excitement thinking I just caught up with one of the front groups again and I wondered if I was just riding really fast or if something happened to slow them. My question was answered in about 10 ft. That is all it took for 6 inch deep mud to take me from more than 20MPH to zero. I tried to keep pedaling but the mud stuck to the tires, eventually the mud clogged tires had so much mud they could not turn. I tried to push, I tried to carry, but the bike plus mud combined weight was impossible to lift. I stopped for a breather and Les caught back up to me.
Les did not look happy either. So I just sort of threw this out there to see if he would have a different perspective that would be encouraging enough to keep me going; "I think at the next opportunity I'm bailing, these are rediculous conditions and I'm getting really cold fast", and Les said "I'm with you". So all pressure for racing was off, now we kept together and plodded through the mud for what seemed like an hour. We could only push our bikes two or three feet before the wheels jammed with mud, then the weight of the mud made it impossible to lift the bike and carry it for more than 15 or 20 feet. Add to that coming to a complete stop after a hard physical effort in pouring rain was literally washing the heat away from our bodies.
We made it to an intersection with a course marshall. At this point I was beyond cold, I was shitty. I noticed that I had been riding with major chain suck from all the mud clogging the drivetrain. I could not operate my hands well and struggled to get the chain untangled. Rain was running down my neck into my jesery in steady streams, I could see my breath, I was shaking pretty hard and it made me laugh for some reason. If it wasn't for the fact others were in the same position I would have wondered if my cold bug had just nuked me. As we rolled toward the sag wagon pickup others followed us.
Getting out of the wet gear seemed to take forever. I could not work the zippers on the jersey and wind vest. Then I could not get my socks off. I had to take a break every few seconds to try to control my shivering long enough to steady my hands to work. After 20-30 minutes I was in dry clothes. We sat in my Touareg for a while with the heat on full blast and the seat heaters turned up as high as possible. It was more than an hour before my shivers got to a point of only occuring every few minutes. Good enough to hit the road home!
In the very end the race was called. 12 racers of the 170 finished with Alex Grant winning by a large margin. We did quite a bit of trail damage due to the wet. I probably burned two or three times the planned calories for the day due to the hypothermic episode. It would be a great time to ride the course in the dry, I'm a little uncertain if I'll be up for racing it again next year. I sure part of the uncertainty comes for the dreadful weather experience.
In the end this was a tough race trip, 20 hours of driving expecting warm and sunny skies to get cold rain and only about 4 hours of bike racing. It happens...
Video from Alex Grant of the Zen Trail