3.14.2020 Santa Clara, UT
Race Description: Mostly rocky/technical single track broken up into 2, 44-mile laps. Total Course: 88 miles. 9,812’ Elevation Gain.
A Race in the Year of the Corona
Pre-race road trips run ragged the radio dial. High-energy electronic music, classic rock jams, wheels-spinnin’ early 200’s hip hop, and some “three little birds chillin’ on the doorstep” from Mr. Marley. Each tune met with an embarrassingly, off-key holler from your’s truly. The 9-hour drive from Denver to the deepest corner of Utah requires stamina of the eyes and mind. Loud music. That’s the secret. That is, unless…. Unless it’s early 2020 and the hysteria surrounding the current events evolve at the same pace of I-70’s dotted lines. Keeping up is a full time listen. No, Aerosmith and 50 Cent lose the dial to NPR and ESPN.
NPR in a pandemic. Not exactly the “jack me up” vibe heading into an Epic race.
Thursday, March 12th, brought the first large-scale dents in our country’s bold attitude. The NBA shut down, major sports leagues followed suit, Wilson’s fire-making buddy tested positive, and the nation began taking stock of the wildfire effect this virus enjoyed. Exchanging messages with both my wife and Uncle Mental challenged the reality of this race. Events began tumbling off of calendars and yet I continued West. Little had I realized that staying the course guaranteed that True Grit moved from last-minute-add-on to defining-event of early 2020. By the time we ultimately crossed the finish line on Saturday, we learned that this event was the final stop on the year’s race log. For now…
In UT and More Bad News
Rain. Torrential, blowing, relentless rain. The desert, a brilliantly simple climate, means an excess of evaporation over precipitation. Excepting of a few blooms here and there, it looks the same throughout the year. However, when precipitation comes as felines and pooches, the equation loses balance. The desert becomes a puddle with no escape for water.
The stage now set for a canceled event. World-ending virus and rampant rain. Go home XC race nerds.
Fortunately, neither COVID-19 nor Zeus can hold the ring against True Grit race organizer Cimarron Chacon. She says, “it shall go on”, and go on it shall. Briefly, at 2 PM on Friday, the rain broke and Uncle Mental and I got out for a quick pavement spin. Yeah, Derrick is here. He’s pursuing a Master’s Title in the 2020 NUE (National Ultra Endurance) Series. Its been just 4 months since we crossed Costa Rica together, in the rain mind you, enjoying La Ruta together as competitors, as family, as friends. You simply can’t keep this band apart.
Hoping for the best, communicating with local authorities, and keeping the racer’s best interests at top-of-mind, Cimarron kicked off the 2020 True Grit Epic as planned. A short delay at the start aside, when the race began not a single racer lost sight of the moment at hand. Current events distilled to the spinning of our legs, the fueling of our muscles, and the camaraderie of a controlled roll out of town behind 5 police vehicles.
Wait, didn’t you do this race in 2019?
Sure did. I also admitted that I wouldn’t be back. This race ate me for lunch last year. Like Derrick, I had hopes of an NUE Title in 2019. 20 minutes into that race, after being blown out the back of the bus by the top racers, my goals fell to doing well, and then to simply finishing. I wanted to quit more than at any other race-hole (it’s a real place, do a painfully long race and you’ll find it some time) in my career. I didn’t quit. I finished. 16th. But I didn’t perform. I left discouraged.
2020 True Grit Epic
Unattached to the NUE Series, the points awarded at this event, or its importance on my 2020 race calendar, I came to True Grit for two reasons: 1) share time with Uncle Mental as that madman scheduled 10, 100-mile races for 2020. 2) perform this event, and perform it with a smile. Frankly…win. I brought the singlespeed both as penance for last year’s negativity and to help remove the brain from the machine. SS riders don’t think. We just pedal.
From the start, I found each of the racers in the SS Category. I cataloged their jerseys and set my sights on the rider out front. Once onto the initial dirt road climb I watched his cadence. I saw his giant calves drive his bike up the hill with ease and wondered if I had made the right decision in dropping 12 pounds over the last 4 months. Watts per kilo right?! Entering the first set of rolling hills I scooted right on by Adonis with a friendly “Have a great race!”. In 1st place and my mission, that I’ve chosen to accept, begins.
Soul-sucking, drivetrain destroying, wheel-stopping mud. The type of mud seen only in Indiana Jones movies. The type of mud you avoid regardless of the length of the detour. This mud ate racers up. Stopped dead in their tracks, most racers spent much of the first hour walking their bikes. Singlespeed to the rescue! No drivetrain here! Simple. No thinking.
A great golfer I am not. I can, however, hit a bladed 4-iron, 4 feet off the ground, for 70 yards onto a green, through two trees, over a sprinkler head, around a fence post, and 2 inches from the cup. I can do this because I suck at golf and have learned to improvise. Likewise, I can ride mud. I can ride in the shit. I can do this because I’ve learned to stay the course when all signs point backward. Stubbornness brought mules to Oregon and stubbornness kept me at the front of this race. Bidding farewell to riders behind me, I kicked the mud from my shoes, clipped in, and headed out to Zen Trail: the sweetest 6 miles of trail in St. George, UT.
Smiling through the aid station both in and out of Zen Trail set me to the backside of the course. Swigging a bottle of Beta-Red for that hyper-charged feeling of maximum blood flow, I charged up the fire road climb that saw me whimpering last year. Against all forecasts, as a smile parted my lips so too did the sun part the clouds. Ahh…the desert triumphs. Climbing through bear claw poppies a disturbing sound from beneath me challenged my good vibes. With each forceful pedal stoke, my chain screamed in pain. Uh-oh. The Indiana Jones mud stripped every bit of lubricant from my chain and if the screaming lost pitch, that is the chain failed, my 1st place position risked going along with it. For the next 30 minutes, I bounced between pedaling uphill and running uphill alongside my tormented bike. When the chain reached a groan that pierced my soul, I ran. I knew there was an aid station coming but like most desert mirages it appeared just over the next rise, and then the next one, and the next.
Fortunately, just as I ran my bike up another incredibly steep pitch, my mountaintop sadhu sat waiting with chain lube! Hero! Having satisfied my dehydrated chain, I felt unstoppable once again. A speedy descent led me to Barrel Roll, a challenging loop up and over rock ledges, technically twists and turns, and bone-jarring rock. In 2019 I came out of Barrel Roll with a ragged grip and Popeye forearms. Leaving Barrel Roll this year, I simply asked the aid station for a PB&J wedge to enjoy on the speedy descent into Lap 2!
Lap 2. The lap that would never be. For all the effort Cimarron gave in starting our race, the mud defined the day. Lap 2 wouldn’t happen. Climbing back to the initial fire road I was pointed back to town. The race was nearly over. Happy? Maybe the 2019 me. Last year I had prayed that I was turned back, but that was last year. No, I wanted that second lap! But alas, smart is smart, and that mud was dumb. I turned toward town and jammed that 34×19 gear as hard as my still-fresh legs could go. I crossed the finish line first in the Singlespeed category and 9th in the entire field. 2020 just ate 2019 for lunch. I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Uncle Mental goes to the Podium
Cleaned up, hungry, and phone-in-hand I waited for Derrick to finish True Grit. Behind me, I saw the awards stage being set up and the giant trophy that kept me charging hard glinting in the sun. I saw his yellow helmet before I recognized his “No Ride Around” cycling kit. There he was! Crossing the finish line as 5th Place Men’s Masters. Goal accomplished! The tour can go on.
Post-Event Reality Check
Caribbean food trucks, live music, and racers chatting each other up added to the sun-filled charm of downtown Santa Clara. For the previous 4-7 hours, we thought only about clearing mud from our shoes, enjoying the dry bits of trail, and welcoming one another across the finish line. We paid no attention to the storm happening all around us. COVID-19 would lay claim to 100’s of scheduled events in the next 72 hours. USAC would effectively shut down racing for months in a responsible response to this pandemic. Unknowingly we enjoyed the last post-race festivities we can count on. A bro-hug to Uncle Mental after a brief car wash mud detox to both ourselves and our bikes, and I was on my way back to Denver armed with 30 oz of cold brew coffee. That trophy now sat on my passenger side floorboard and that smile hadn’t left my face. 2020 True Grit: Mission Accomplished.
2020 Race Season? 2020 Work Season? 2020 Friendship Season? Hell, it’s all in flux. We can’t bro-hug. We hardly say hi. As I drove away that Saturday night I had the thought of staying in UT. The sun was staged to do its job for the next week. There are trails begging to be enjoyed. Had I known that within 72 hours my business would temporarily close, my future would suspend, and we would self-quarantine without a defined endpoint, maybe I would have stayed. Maybe I would have had Abbe meet me with the dogs and we’d disappear in that wonderful desert for a few days or weeks. Maybe.
If we all relied on “maybe’s” we’d never find our “absolutely’s”. I absolutely cured my 2019 True Grit negativity. I absolutely championed another race with Uncle Mental. I absolutely found what is possible when the wheel keeps pointing forward. Not unlike an endurance race, I absolutely believe the 2020 COVID-19 challenge we face today simply sets us up for the turnaround that proves our worth tomorrow. Pedal on.
Race Results: 1st Place Singlespeed Open. 4:30:48