April 24, 2007
My story of Lotoja has two heroes, and I’m not one of them. Lemme esplain. No, there is too much, lemme sum up.
It went like this:
1. I finished.
2. I finished faster than I expected to.
3. The weather was perfect.
4. If not for my brother in law, Rick S., I almost certainly would have quit half way.
5. Justin Jensen is the toughest cyclist I’ve ever met in my life.
Lotoja is a road race, 206 miles and almost 8,000 feet of climbing, from Logan, UT, to Jackson Hole, WY. The first 50 miles or so are mostly flat, the next 50 or so cover three mountain passes, one after the other, and the last 100 miles are constantly rolling, with no passes or significant climbs. I don’t know if that adds up to 206 miles, and I don’t care.
Of course, when I call Lotoja a race, that really only applies to about 10 guys. Just like at Leadville, or 24 Hours of Moab, the Boston Marathon, or whatever “race” you like to do, 90% of us are just riding to see what we can do. That goes double for Lotoja. As for me, I have a LifeList, a check list of things I want to do. Climbing Mt. Everest is NOT on the list. But Lotoja was. I have now crossed it off.
I ride a lot with my brother in law Rick S., and with Elden. All of us signed up for Lotoja. Elden bowed out last week in favor of doing an epic mountain bike ride with Brad and Kenny, and, not least, in favor of not hanging out with me and Rick and our wives for 3 days while we got all cuddly. He chose wisely, I’m thinking.
Rick rides with a bunch of other guys who live nearby, some of whom have done Lotoja before. In fact, Rick, Adam, and Tony all finished last year when half the field dropped out due to a freak snowstorm. Justin drove support for them, and John rode Lotoja the year before. All of us started together at 6:54 am in Logan. All of these guys are younger than me, and faster than me. I fully expected to ride most of the day alone.
I don’t want to go on and on (too late!), so I’ll break this down into 3 easy parts.
Part One: This Is Fun!
Lotoja starts a field of 1,000 racers, and we start in waves of 50 riders. The opening 35 miles run across table top flat farmland, shrouded in fog on back roads. Our group, the 5200s, started fast, and accelerated from there. On the other hand, when you’ve got 10 or 15 really antsy fast guys at the front of a 50 rider pack, sitting in is pleasant, and you feel invincible. We caught the wave ahead of us within half an hour, making our pack almost 100 strong, moving at a brisk 25-30 mph.
So here’s the lesson for Part One: It’s really really (really really) hard to re-catch a large group moving fast when you stop to pee. I mean, REALLY hard.
But it IS possible.
We pulled into the first feed zone at 32 miles feeling fresh, spry, confident. My feelings of dread I had been experiencing all week began to fade. So go ahead and cue the creepy, ominous music already.
Part Two: This Really (Really Really) Sucks
Somewhere around mile 40 the route began to roll, and roll up more than it rolled down. And sometime before the road really started pointing up, many of us stopped for another pee break. This time Justin and I got caught with a little too much liquid in us, and our proverbial, um, items in our proverbial hands, and the chase back was fairly intense. For a bit there, I thought I had seen the last of my friends. But Justin is a giant of a man (literally, he goes about 6’3” and easily over 200 lbs), and in the giant draft created by his slipstream, I managed to regain contact. Whew.
Unfortunately, I regained contact just as we started the longest climb of the race.
Now, I’ll be the first to say, I’m half the man I used to be, and I’m old and under-prepared. But all I do is climb. I live at 6,000 feet, every ride I do has by definition at least 1500 feet of climbing, usually more like 4,000.
But as soon as the road tilted hard up (I first used my lowest gear, and not just any low gear, but a 27, at mile 53), I felt like I was dragging a loaded dogsled behind me.
You would think during a race with a thousand participants in it, you could never be alone. Well, I climbed alone. Long stretches of not seeing anybody. And once I headed down the backside, I descended alone, and even rode about 5-10 miles of valley alone before I got swept up in a very large group, where I could finally get some shelter.
As I rolled into the feed station between the first and second climbs, where Kim was waiting for me with chicken-and-stars-ready-to-eat soup and V-8, I found Rick S. waiting for me. The S is for Saint. And Superman. I was grateful, and not for the last time. He had summited quite a ways ahead of the rest of the group, and let them roll on without him from the Montpelier feed station and waited for me. I’m getting all weepy just thinking about it.
Rick and I rode together over the second climb (not nearly as bad as the first, but still, kryptonite enough for me), and as we approached the third and final major climb, I realized that when Rick had described these climbs, he only talked about the final steep pitches. The climbs were really closer to 10-20 miles long, when you count the long, but relatively mild approaches. Telling me a 15-mile climb is really only 4 miles long, just because only the last 4 miles are over 8% is like that guy in Poltergeist who moves a cemetery, but only moves the headstones. Very bad things are bound to happen.
I’m pretty sure I was passed by over 50 people on the climb to Salt Creek Pass. And I’m also pretty sure the only two reasons I reached the summit alive are:
First: When Kim and Rachelle (Rick S’s wife) drove by me on the way to the top, Kim was hanging out of the passenger side window screaming encouragement. Remember that scene from The Sure Thing, when Daphne Zuniga gets a citation for driving with the load not properly tied down? It was like that. Thanks babe.
And second, yup, again, Rick S. was waiting for me at the top. Had he not been there, I am certain I would have ridden straight for the car and gotten in, leaving my bike in the road. I wanted out of the Tunnel of Pain. But how could I quit when Rick had let the group go ahead once again in order to shepherd me onward? (Not to mention Kim risking prosecution for her moving violation).
I was at mile 110 in a 206 mile race, completely cooked, and, coincidentally, already farther in one day than I had ever been on a road bike. Ever.
But the next 94 miles were flat or rolling. And with Superman pacing me, anything was possible. So, once more into the breach, dear friends, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
Part Three: Gonna Make It
So we did about 50 miles of very fast flat and rolling terrain, until we were finally maybe a mile or so from the final feed zone in Alpine Junction. All I’m thinking is that I have one more chance to suck down some ready to eat soup, another V-8, and load up on another raft of Shot Blocks. And suddenly, everything changed. We came upon the other four guys we started with on the side of the road, Justin bleeding badly from his elbow, someone holding his bike, on which one side of the handlebar was dangling from the bar tape at the bend.
Riding in a large fast group has its downside. The speed does not really remain constant, despite everyone’s best intentions, and so if you don’t pay attention, even for a second, and you touch wheels, um, well, that’s bad.
Earlier in the race, before the big climbing, on a slight uphill, someone in the front dropped their chain, and the resulting “chain” reaction was felt all the way to the back. I remember seeing one guy toward the back swerve sharply to the right to avoid the massive slowdown, and careen down the embankment and over the bars into a ditch. Life in the peloton.
Now it was our turn. The slowing in the front came just as Justin reached for a bottle, and he crossed wheels with Adam. Justin went down hard, breaking his collarbone and handlebar. Tony, riding on Justin’s wheel, ran right into Justin, and fell hard on him and his bike, but was miraculously uninjured.
Of course, Justin’s race was over, and he got in the car with his wife to meet us at the finish.
Oh, wait, nevermind, that’s not what happened. Justin put his bike in the small ring up front, hardest gear in back (since there was no way to shift while riding, what with the handlebar dangling by bar tape), mounted up, and away we went. Seriously. 45 miles to go.
Justin got two flat tires in Snake River Canyon, and we had to change his flats for him since his arm was hanging uselessly at his side. I tell you we changed his flats for him, not because it was a chore, but to underscore that HIS COLLARBONE WAS BROKEN IN TWO PLACES AND HE HAD NO SKIN ON HIS ELBOW.
The fact that I had lost (that loving feeling) every scrap of feeling in my taint and left hand became less and less important. The fact that every time the road tilted upward I struggled to remain in contact with the guy with the broken collarbone was simply spurious. I had spent the day riding with Superman (Rick S.), and now, apparently, Batman decided to make an appearance. I am a boy among men.
As we passed Jackson Hole and made our way across the 12 flat, easy miles to Teton Village and the finish line, I’m pretty sure Justin started going into shock. But after 11 hours in the saddle, and the finish line so close you could hear the crowds, there was no way in hell he wasn’t crossing with all of us together. He scrapped and clawed, and we all rode across the line together, in just over 11 hours.
Kim and Rachelle had arranged to have Dominos Pizza waiting for us. Kim, I love you babe. I now revise my count, FOUR heroes that day, You (Kim, that is), Rachelle, Rick S, and Justin.
Well, now I can cross Lotoja off my LifeList. Done and done.
You know, I am tired, but I am not beat up in the way a Leadville beats you up (with apologies to Justin and that guy who went down into the ditch). I can walk normally, I actually want to ride my bike this week.
One thing though. I love Shot Blocks and all, they probably saved my life. But I’m pretty sure this morning, I excreted an entire, whole Shot Block, intact. You’ll be happy to know I let sleeping dogs lie.