A few days have passed since my last update. Time to suck it up and write up Saturday's Fat Tire Festival. I woke at 5:50 AM with the alarm, nervous, but excited. I had readied my gear so that I wouldn't have to think ahead of our 7AM departure for Hayward. I ate a small breakfast, some Golden Grahams, a bit of coffee, some Cytomax, and a Clif Bar. I paced around, double checked my gear, my Camelback – my water supply and backpack that would hold my tube, tools, patches, and my nutrition: 5 Hammer Gels, a Clif Bar, some Gu Chomps for electrolytes and a packet of Gu drink powder in case things really went awry. My Jamis Dakota hard-tail was already tweaked and ready.
Lee, John and I headed over to the cabin that Steve, Bob, Jim and Chris Hammer were sharing. They were readying their bikes and I snuck a piece of bacon off the pan, hoping nobody noticed. Bob loaded up with us as the others were grabbing road bikes for their warm-up. I'd planned on doing a road ride with them, packed the Cherry on the back of Chris' SUV, but after my pre-ride I realized that time on the road would only hurt me. My position is different on the road and I was worried enough about my hamstrings that the thought of switching from 170 to 175 mm cranks had me thinking one scary word: cramp.
Lee took us over to Hayward where we parked and set up our bicycles. The Fat Tire Festival has the riders put their bicycles in a staging area hours well ahead of the 10AM start. We flipped our bikes over leaving the saddles and bars on the ground with the wheels rolling slowly in the air. Lee and John both warned me of the difficulty in finding the bikes even with care given to finding points of reference. Once flipped, I could see their point, and when 1700 bicycles were all in a mass of black tires, it would be chaos.
With that done, we walked to the Norse Nook for breakfast where a waitress named Heidi waited patiently on us. Worried about my stomach I passed the cranberry-stuffed french toast for scrambled eggs and wheat toast. As we told stories and I tried to keep my nerves in check, I realized something in my pocket was wet. I reached my hand into my pocket to find the gift Lee had given me earlier: a banana, now squashed from sitting on it. Ugh. The waitresses did get me a washcloth and I commented to a girl from Saris that I hoped that it would be the worst thing that would happen that day. She laughed. I hoped I was right.
After breakfast we had enough time to change into our clothes, make a final stop at the restroom, and head to the bikes. Amazingly we found them right away, and better still, we found Kim and John Mahr! The tandem had a new fork and they were ready to roll. We flipped up the bikes and stood for the national anthem that was sung live. After that, we mounted up, wished one another good luck, and John gave a few last tips of advice. The sun was shining and it was anticipated to near 80 – warm for this time of year.
I have raced at least 150 races over the last 15 years, with probably a ratio of 147 road : 3 mtb. Mass start racing is not something I'm a rookie at, but I can't describe and hopefully will be able to link a few photos what it is like when 1700 mountain bikes leave for the 4 mile roll-out to Rosie's Field. At least 12 wide we negotiated the turns as riders looked for small gaps to move forward in the absolute mass that was hurtling forward with one goal: Telemark. 40 miles separated us. The knobby tires hummed on the pavement as we sped down the road at over 20 mph. Gaps formed and were closed. Riders were moving up and going backward. I stayed with Lee as John showed that he hasn't lost a thing not doing as much road racing – he picked his way forward – setting off on what would earn him top spot in our team finishes. I felt pretty good on this stretch. Got the legs going, stuck with Lee, and remembered “don't take the first turn, but stay to the left”.
I don't know how to describe the first few minutes. If one word could describe the hoard hurtling across the field, it would be terrifying. Scattered in the field were myriad water bottles, just waiting for an unsuspecting wheel. The first casualties were already strewn through the field, the wounded trying to repair their bikes and continue. It was a sight that would continue until nearly the finish. Man and machine, broken, at the side of the trail.
As the trail narrowed, Lee passed and I yelled some encouragement. I knew that it was the last I'd see of him until the finish and that was ok. I was racing my race. I had one lofty goal: finish. If I happened to finish in under 4 hours, so much the better. As we shot through the woods, I took one glance at my heart rate: 190 beats per minute. This is not a sustainable number for me and I hoped for mercy. Then we came to a complete halt. A long sandy section of trail caused a complete shut down and we ground to a halt. My heart dropped to normal racing speed (about 160 bpm) and for the remainder of the day, I'd go nowhere close to max. The legs were going to be the limit – not the fitness of the heart.
At this point, my memory of the race grows a bit dim I must say. We blasted a section of the Birkie trail and I tried to follow John's advice of taking every possible risk going down to make it easier going up. I picked my way down a rocky descent a bit to slowly, coming to a halt and having a girl yell at me. It was deserved, but I was just proving I was not a skilled mountain bike rider. Everybody had told me that I should make County Rd. OO in about an hour. I didn't believe this, and it was well that I didn't because it took me 1 hour 25 minutes to arrive. However, my bike was still running smoothly and I was more importantly, still atop it. That said, if you asked me at that moment in time, I hated cycling. I hated everything about bicycles. I was getting passed and passed and passed. Look, I've never been a great bike racer. I've won one training race and a couple of citizen-race Top 5's are my only palmares. Even for me, however, this was humbling. I wished I'd never seen the Tour de France and Paris Roubaix on TV in the 80's. I wished I'd never heard of Greg LeMond.
I was in a fog of pain. At two hours, I knew that this day had pushed Luz Ardiden and the 95 degree heat of the French Pyrenees into a pleasant memory of rotisserie chicken and fun with my friend Bryn. It made the rain, flat tire, false flat and misery of the 2001 stage to Pla d'adet seem like a childhood ride. I was certain this day had surely eclipsed the first day of RAGBRAI 1998 when the temp on the pavement was 125 degrees in Iowa and Gatorade was measured in gallons consumed. The course is a blur to me now as I reminisce. Only fragments survive, my mind at the time consumed not with remembering the details of the course or the beauty of the gorgeous Wisconsin North Woods.
Around Mile 20 I recall pirates – it was International Talk Like a Pirate Day – Arrrh – and they were passing in shots of rum. Had I not seen them at breakfast I would now believe I had hallucinated this memory. Somewhere around the same place a sign indicated “Flying Monkeys Ahead” - I heard their theme music from the Wizard of Oz in my head and barrelled toward them – only to never find Flying Monkeys. I was profoundly disappointed. Perhaps they had already carted off the lead riders to the Wicked Witch of the West.
Mile 17 (to go) was my turning point. I knew that the climb to the Fire Tower was long and so I subtracted a mile off the distances from this point, knowing that if only I reached the Fire Tower I would finish this race. I also knew at some point there was a 2 hour 45 minute cut-off. Only I had no idea where that occurred on the course, but I only hoped I would make it. I began mentally riding mile to mile. Ticking them off to my magic number of 11 that would symbolize the base of the Tower climb that I knew I would walk. I had 6 miles to go. If I could just go 10 miles per hour I would have less than 40 minutes of suffering now before I knew the course. I relaxed and rode my bike. I rode the gravel sections under control, pacing my efforts, guaging my legs for cramps, sucking at Gu packets. At about Mile 13 I saw Jim at the feed station. I took some water, more Gu, and probably crammed a banana in my mouth. Jim and Heather ran the Lake Owen Resort, our home base, and he asked how I was doing. I replied that I'd much rather be at his place. I wasn't really joking, but now I was starting to get in a rhythm. 27 miles of racing and I was finally coming around.
The base of the Fire Tower began the death march. My back ached, but I knew when I reached that top I knew the way down. At each step a sign announced, “Thank you sir, may I have another?” 4 signs stood by, insulting us as we pushed pulled and prodded our bikes and bodies up trying to stay out of the way of the brave few who attempted the assault riding the climb. Minutes passed and finally I reached the summit. I stood for a moment, taking it all in. There was a group at the top, PBR's in hand, cheering the brave riders, and having a party. I believe beer was offered to the riders. I enjoyed the party, waited for a break in the riders and commenced my descent. I flew down the next two miles, trying to not be afraid of the rocks and let the bike do its job.
At Mile 8 I grabbed some additional water and hit the last two miles of the Birkie, heeding again John's advice to bomb the descents and fly up the hills. It worked as best it could and though I bailed out occasion and crawled, I never walked this stretch. Riders were beginning to come unglued around me and I offered encouragement, knowing this brutality so late in the race would only last 2 miles. A rider asked how I knew, I just told him, “I know, man. Nearly home.”
A feed right out of the Birkie saw me top off my bottle of Cyto was Gu's drink. I was offered donut holes, and I gladly took the sweet sugar, a bit worried about my stomach, but I could smell the barn. I hit the final gravel road and pushed as best as I could push. An earlier twitch to my right quad near my knee had me a bit worried, but the body held on. Finally we entered the woods again at about Mile 2 or so. I knew that I'd walk at least one hill back here. The ascent was just a bit rocky for me to keep planted and I didn't mind. I ended up pushing up the final two hills, but I was going to do it. A quick glance at the HRM told me I was going to make it in under 4 hours. I came out onto the grass, could see the barriers, hear the cheering fans, and could see Telemark. I cruised in for 3 hours 50 miles and 42 seconds. Under 4 hours, with several stops. Sweet.
I looked around for my friends. A minute later I head Bob Meinig's name announced. We'd been within a minute of eachother on the course. Wow. Lee and Trevor appeared and I drank water and munched on more donut holes. Eventually the rest of the group appeared and I was able to get back to Steve Pippen's car and change out of my sweaty race clothes. Some beers were drunk. Stories told. Chris pipped Lee literally in a photo finish. Our oldest WFR rider, John Wrycza turned in the fastest time, arriving 1 hour 10 minutes ahead of me. Wow. I ate corn-nuts, drank gatorade. John and Kim on their repaired tandem came in shortly after me, amazing that they were able to get the bike fixed and not have too much trouble on the course.
Eventually it was time to send guys to fetch the trucks from Hayward, rather than wait, John W and I rode back to Lake Owen. My hands ached, my butt, sore. It was misery, but beat waiting. After we arrived, John headed for the lake, I headed for a shower to clean off the grime. We told more stories, ate cheese and sausage. We were in Wisconsin after all and John and I are both natives. My nativity may be tenous after 36 years of forced relocation in Illinois, but I still like cheese, sausage, curds, and friday night fish fry, and John helped me expand my fish repetoir to walleye! Lee arrived; more stories told.
Dinner on Saturday was a cookout at John Mahr & Trevor's. Burgers were grilled, beers were consumed, and we relaxed, mostly staying seated, our legs tired. A campfire ended a beautiful night under Wisconsin stars, as shooting stars fell from the black sky. For all of the pain and misery, it ended amongst friends and cool wood-smoked air.
I began these posts recalling fondly my March 1986 Bicycling magazine, wanting to “ride with death”. After 40 miles of racing at the hugest event I've ever done on American soil, I feel I accomplished that goal. I have never suffered so profoundly mentally and physically on a bicycle, so hated my life's passion. As I rolled down that final hill and heard the announcer shout, “From Downers Grove Illinois, Kevin Butler!” I knew that no matter what success or failure awaits me in this crazy sport I love, I will still line up and try again. Somewhere down the line this day in September will get pushed down the list as another day in the saddle brings more horror. If you asked me on Saturday afternoon if I'd do it again. I was noncommital at best, but as the memory brightens, of time with friends doing what we love, I will now say, yes, I will probably go back to Chequamegon and do it all over again.