My First Solo 24 Hours of Adrenaline Race – Part 1

This is the story of my most epic biking achievement to date. One post clearly will not do it justice, so I am breaking it up. I will aim for two or three parts, but at the current rate, we might be looking north of twenty. Just kidding….I will impose a limit of 3.

This past July I competed in my seventh 24 Hours of Adrenaline (24 HOA) race at the Canmore Nordic Centre, but it was my first time as a solo competitor. The 24HOA is a unique race where anyone can participate as a solo rider; as part of 2, 4, or 5-person teams; or as part of a corporate team (6-10 riders). This suits me great because “anyone” is the only appropriate descriptor of my eligibility for a mountain bike race.

The event starts at noon on a Saturday, with one person from each team lining up for a Le Mans style start. This means the crowd is treated to the comically rewarding site of a bunch of mountain bikers trying to run several hundred metres before retrieving and mounting their bikes to start the first lap.

Many bikers can spin the pedals over long distances, but if you make us run we will be huffing and puffing and develop shin splints, sore knees and cramps after ten strides, and may very likely cry, faint, or both, after twenty. Additionally, on the bottom of our mostly skinny legs (given the name of my blog, I am herein an obvious exception when skinny legs are referenced) are rigid soled shoes with a small protruding metal cleat that slips wildly off every loose piece of gravel. Our gangly limbs (again, exception) flail wildly hither and thither as we try to maintain balance in an unintentional dance to the music of ringing cowbells and cheering (maybe jeering?) fans.

The previous six times I had competed had been as part of 5-person teams. The first year we had a veteran adventure racer on our team who volunteered to do the Le Mans start. In subsequent years, due to the mysteriously high turnover of participants, there was always a 24HOA virgin who we could torment into doing it. Alas, as a solo rider, there was nobody for me to bully this year. I took my rightful place at the back of the corral and stood there quietly, rocking back and forth and trying not to quiver in too obvious of a way, silently pleading that those around me would not smell my fear and trample me in the chaos that was about to ensue.

It had drizzled all morning, and I knew the course was going to be muddy and wet. In past years, this would not have been too much of a problem, but I knew riding solo would not afford me the same opportunity to clean up or maintain my bike after finishing each lap. If I got wet and dirty as a solo rider, I knew I would stay wet and dirty. And the mud would increase the chances of a mechanical, or at least of a crash leading to a mechanical, and I was not a dedicated enough biker to have a spare bike with me.

Thanks to cycling, I was in the best shape I had been in many years and the lightest I had been since junior high, but I had only ridden my mountain bike twice that year, and only once for real. I’m not sure if it was nerves from this poor preparation or the weather that made my knees quake and my teeth chatter, but in hindsight, it really wasn’t that cold.

The speeches were made over the megaphone (including one on what to do when you run into a bear or cougar), the inspirational music was played, and the ceremonial gun was shot into the air. We were off. I focused steadfastly on the ground in front of me as I stumbled along, coming harrowingly close to rolling my ankle multiple times.

I would guess that the running course was only about 500 metres in length (it felt at least thirty-five times longer) but it was enough to make my calves tight and my quads sore before I ever got on my bike. It was a somewhat demoralising way to be starting a 24 hour effort, but it was quickly offset by the cheering of my family and friends who were lined up heading out along the course to support me.

My sister Leanne was there as my pit captain and support crew. She and her kids had made a poster for me and she had got everyone who came by our tent to sign it. I was smiling at all of them with earnest appreciation (and a little feigned valour) as I rode by on my way out for my first lap.

The essence of the race is, of course, to have fun, but the goal is to complete as many laps as possible within the 24 hour period. On multi-person teams, this is done relay style, with a small wooden baton handed off from one rider to the next between each lap. The laps are almost always between 17 and 20 km, and this year they were 17.34 km. This includes a fair amount of climbing (484 m per lap) and descending of both cart paths and single-track and a lot of the single-track winds through tight trees over very rooty and sometimes rocky terrain, so it can be quite challenging, especially at night.

In each of the past years, I had contributed three or four laps to my team’s totals, which ranged from 12 to 18 laps. One year during a rainy mud-fest, I had even completed two back to back in the middle of the night when everyone else refused to ride. For this first solo attempt I had set myself a modest (or so I thought) goal of completing 7-8 laps, fully aware that the winners often complete 19 or 20. I also decided there was only one way to go about it, low and slow (the same way I barbecue ribs! Just had some tonight. Mmmmmm….ribs), so I settled into a moderate pace in an easy gear near the back of the pack and tried to get comfortable.

Never having done the first lap before, I did not realise just how backed up it gets, with all riders trying to occupy the same space as the course bottlenecks at the first single track section. As soon as someone stepped off their bike because it got too steep or too slick or they couldn’t clear a root, the chain reaction caused all those behind them to dismount too. It was inevitable that all but those at the front ended up walking in one long panting procession. This could have been quite anti-climatic after the nerves of waiting for the race to start, but truthfully, I didn’t mind, as it fed right into my plan to take it really easy. How very considerate of all those riders in front of me to help me out like that!

Eventually we were able to get back on the bikes and pedal, but the pace continued to be slow. Rain at the start of a race is a miserable thing. That same rain subsiding soon after the start of the race is a really great thing. Except that in the short-term it means the sloppy mud turns into greasy sticky mud; the kind that clings stubbornly to your tire, fills in every void between every lug, and effectively turns your beefy knobby tires into great big fat smooth tires without grip. Really HEAVY great big fat smooth tires at that, with bits of gravel and sticks and other goodies embedded just for measure. Ugh. Despite my smiling for the camera (can’t help it), the race was off to a questionable start.

One of the early wet sections that the organisers call "the swamp".

To be continued….

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