Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fade to Light

Wilderness 101 Gone Horribly Almost Right-From a while back...

It’s black. Completely black. Slowly, I’m starting to see some light on the periphery of my vision and then some very cloudy images are coming into focus. The darkness is fading into a bright white light. Grandma! Is that you? No it’s some guy in spandex. OH NO! I’m going the wrong way. The big guy upstairs has to know that the “two nuns walk into a bar” thing was just a joke. Someone has sucked all the oxygen out of the air. I’m sucking at the air, clawing for a breath and nothing is happening. Weird sounds are coming from my mouth. Sounds that I’m not controlling, a gurgling slurping sound. A flounder on the dock, dying for one more breath sound. “Dude! Holy $hit are you ok?” My gurgled response makes no sense. Then the PAIN starts.

Coming out of checkpoint # 3 at mile 60, I’m kicking A$$. OK, kicking a$$ is a bit of a stretch for 42 year old with mediocre athletic abilities. 60 miles, just over 4 hours. Pretty damn fast in the woods for me. I’ve got a solid groove going. For 2 years, hardly a day has passed that I haven’t thought of the Wilderness 101, (a 101 mile mountain bike race with over 10,000 feet of elevation gain up and over the ridges of Rothrock and Bald Eagle State Forests just East of State College PA) where despite my best efforts I came within 5 minutes of reaching the magical 10 hour mark in 2006. Lot’s of places to make up 5 minutes during 10 hours of riding covering 101 miles. But not for me in 06.

Four riders involuntarily work as my carrots coming out of checkpoint # 3. I’m chasing them like they are dangling from sticks out in front of me. They have a couple minutes on me climbing the impossibly steep, technical, tortuous 1500 vertical feet up over the next 3.5 miles. I catch glimpses of them every once in a while between the blueberry bushes and it seems like I’m reeling them in. A short fast decent leads to another good climb. YES I’m gaining on them! They are going down. A quick single track section dumps us out onto a dirt road and I’m picking them off. 1,2,3. The forth beats me to the next section of single track. But he’s mine. This section of trail is a tight, twisty, gnarl of wicked tombstone sized rocks, tossed at improbable angles. Some of the most challenging trail in the race. I hang back 10 feet or so waiting for a chance to pass the last of the group with the other 3 hot on my heels. The trail takes a hard left and we are presented with an 18-20” rock ledge that you must bunny hop up and ride over or dismount and run. My prey comes up short and I try a stupid move and accelerate hard to wiggle around him on the right side of the rock ledge, oblivious to the obvious lack of a line. The blackness comes quickly and without warning.

I’m being crushed! Suddenly I’m suspended between two knife’s edge shaped rocks about 18” high supporting my rib cage on the right side and the outside of my right quad. In short, choppy, gasping, hyperventilated, slurps, I’m squeezing air back into my lungs. As I’m gaining perspective, I tell the four riders to go on. Someone else will be thru in a couple minutes if I need help. As I try to stand, I realize the clamping pressure on my ribs is not my only problem. My thigh has taken a major hit as well. I can’t support my weight on my right leg. Oh God…my race is over. I try to lift my bike and have to contort my body to exert enough force to get it rubber side down. The good news, I’m at the top of the ridge and only have 7-8 miles to the next checkpoint. If I can get there, I can get medical attention and a lift back to camp, maybe a hospital? The bad news is that the checkpoint is in the valley and I have to negotiate those miles on a sketchy, rocky, bone jarring downhill. Not easy when I can barely reach the handle bars with my right hand or apply any pressure to the pedals with my right leg.

I waver into checkpoint 4 having to concentrate to keep the bike upright. I decline the food & water the volunteers are offering me and instead beg profusely for ice packs and ibuprofen like a crack whore looking to score. Gingerly I lay myself down in the dirt under the bridge and access the damage. I can’t take a full breath. My thigh is throbbing. Some medics come over and look me over. Their advanced medical training pays big dividends. “Jeez, might have broke a rib there. No way to tell without an x-ray.” Thanks Socrates! Very helpful. Glad I didn’t pony up my co-pay for that visit! So I lay in the dirt for 10-15 minutes contemplating my options. #1 Get an ambulance and go to the hospital-Nah too dramatic. #2 Hitch a ride back to camp, ice up, have a beer and reassess-now this has some promise. Or #3 I could try. If I can make the climb out of the valley, maybe I can limp in to the finish??? It’ll be a hard 25 + miles. If I can’t make the climb, I can always coast back to checkpoint 4 and revert back to plan # 2. A damn good backup plan I must say.

So # 3 wins. I waddle over to my rig and throw my leg over my bike from the left side. The fact that it’s the left side is important cause over the last 15 minutes I’ve really stiffened up. I can no longer reach the handle bar at ALL with my right hand while sitting on my bike. I dismount and try from the other side. I can make it by cheating with my hand already on the bar and throwing my left leg over the seat. The stretch back to my seat feels more like soft tissue tearing, kind of like tearing a piece of cantaloupe in half. It hurts, but I can reach. The climb up the ridge ain’t fun. My leg is screaming with each pedal stroke. Pain shoots across my chest when my lungs expand from breathing too deeply or at the smallest jolt radiating up from the wheels as I pass over any tiny bump in the road or trail. Damn hard tail.

The next 20 miles are a confusing combination of measuring my efforts to control my breathing on the uphills and wishing I had a bullet to bite during the kidney-splitting downhills. I catch a glimpse of my watch around mile 90 and it dawns on me that I still have an outside chance of breaking the 10-hour mark. Elapsed time: 8 hours forty minutes. Eleven miles left. 1 significant climb. I buckle down and focus on just turning the pedals. Somehow I cross the line at 9 hours and 51 minutes. I am too spent to ring the celebratory gong at the finish line, a small joy that has brought many tired horses back to the barn in these races. I collapse just pass the finish line and I’m immediately struck by a blanket of pain. Pain that 15 minutes ago was present but distant is suddenly in my face demanding attention. My ribs are on fire! My thigh is pulsing! I’m half sit/ kneel/ squat/ on the ground, kind of twisted because my ribs hurt too much to lie all the way down and my leg throbbing too much to stand back up. I gratefully accept a handful of ibuprofen from Regan and a beer from Doug. The self-medication has begun. In a couple hours, after some of the edge is off, I actually ask, when’s the 101 next year?


  1. Our continued athletic endeavors are made possible by our lack of long term memory!
    I wish I had said that...!

  2. Mike, I am glad it is you out there and not me. After chucking up carrots did you have noticable sight loss?