Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mountain bike event chance to answer questions

Published: August 27, 2010

I don't remember the moment I first heard about the Shenandoah Mountain 100. It might have been 2008, maybe the year before, but something about it burrowed into my brain and hasn't let go since.

I wrote about the 100-mile mountain bike race around this time last year. I quoted one Richmond-area finisher who saw it as a "rite of passage" for mountain bikers on the East Coast. Another said "you have to love a lot of pain." One told me that while discomfort is a constant companion, toward the end "your mind becomes a little numb."

I knew I wasn't ready for last year's race. I didn't have the miles on my legs. But I inexplicably called myself out in print for this year's event, which takes place Sept. 5. "SM100 here I come," I wrote in the final line.

With a full year between me and possibly 14 hours of mind-numbing pain, my subconscious must have felt confident in those words. "There's plenty of time to train," I probably figured. Well, now the race is a little more than a week away and confidence is in short supply.

The simple fact about a race such as this is that you can't really know what you've gotten yourself into until you're into it. I've spent countless hours on the bike, taken trips to the mountains to ride sections of the course, focused all my athletic energy on this race since the ground thawed in the spring, and still it doesn't feel like enough. I guess nothing would.

We're talking about more than 13,000 feet of total elevation gain (and loss) over 100 miles. Last year's winner, Harrisonburg-based pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop, set the course record in 6:50:27. The last person to cross the finish line did so in 15:20:27. I'm going to be a lot closer to that guy than I will the Bishops of the world.

The race starts at 6:30 a.m., and it may very well be dark by the time I finish. I sincerely hope not, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. Heck, I shouldn't even assume I'm going to finish. In 2008, 115 out of the 500 starters didn't.

All of this begs some questions that I now sit here pondering as race day draws near. It's one asked by almost everyone I mention this to.

Why? Why do people do this to themselves? What about this race, this challenge, stuck in my head years back, convincing me it was a good idea?

I know why I like being on a mountain bike, especially in the mountains. Training rides in the national forest outside Staunton have yielded spectacular views, innumerable wildlife sightings (bear, deer, turkey and a coyote) and blessedly humidity-free days. But then one doesn't need to pedal 100 miles to acquire those experiences.

Why so much pain?

Eric Rohnacher, a Richmonder I recently wrote about who was one of just 19 finishers at the deviously multidisciplinary "Vermont Death Race," was asked that constantly before his event.

His answer?

"I'm doing it because this is a challenge I think I'm capable of overcoming, and I just want to prove to myself that I can do it. When people say they wouldn't do it themselves, I kind of grin a little bit thinking maybe that's something cool I have over other people."

Whether they realize it or not, I think the kinds of people drawn to these races are looking for a truly extraordinary experience, something their comfortable, everyday life doesn't provide. In a world of 6 billion people, I certainly see the value in doing something that sets apart a person.

Of course, there are lots of niche pastimes that don't require this much agony. Some of the reactions I've gotten have suggested I'm suffering from a kind of low-grade functional insanity.

"I don't think I'm a crazy person," Rohancher said. "I think if someone met me on the street, they'd say I'm pretty clean cut."

I don't consider myself crazy either, though I may be rethinking that a week or so from now.

Here's one thing I know: Hard things change your perspective. I never thought I could run 10 miles before I started training for a marathon. Then I did 26.2. I liked the feeling when it was over. My sense of what was hard, my definition of the word, was fundamentally different after that.

And then there's this: I mountain bike most days anyway. Sometimes I ride for an hour, sometimes three. I want to see what happens -- to me, to my legs, to my brain, to my sense of perspective -- when I just keep riding.

Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe I want to be different. Maybe I like riding a mountain bike. Maybe I want to test myself. Maybe it's all of those, or just some.

Right now, I have a lot of questions and few answers. In a week's time, whether I like it or not, I'll know a lot more about myself.


jackie said...


Jim Rosen said...

I have been preparing for this race ever since my double knee surgery last December. It has been the carrot in front of the cart so to speak. It is going to be a blast I am sure. Painful maybe but fun none the less. I wish you all were going.