“You drove all the way from Idaho for this race?” he asked in a tone of incredulity.
The absurdity was not lost on me. This year was the fifth time I’d made the four-hour drive down (and followed it by a four-hour drive back up) for my favorite bicycle event—the Widow Maker Hill Climb. In those previous four years, my wife had never come to watch, I’d scored a race medal only two times, and I’d even ridden the year we finished the race’s final 30+ percent gradients in six inches of snow.
But I was talking to someone I thought understood why I loved the race—a fellow competitor. It was only at this point that I realized the locals view this—my favorite event of the year, the most epic short racecourse I know, the ultimate combination of fitness and skill—as the mountain bike equivalent of the local 5k. For me, it’s, obviously, much more.
Call Me Ishmael
Have you ever read Moby-Dick? I haven’t. Lit teachers in Canada don’t make you read it in high school. But for 45 minutes on my trip down to Utah, I listened to one expert’s opinion on why I should read it. That tells you how boring that drive can be when your kids have busted your car’s CD player and you don’t have an MP3 port to plug into. But yes, he convinced me. I’m now looking for a copy of Moby-Dick, even though I know I don’t have time to read it.
I’d worked a long hard week at work, and I wasn’t even sure I could make the trip. But I got on the road and started driving—half-expecting my work cell phone to go off at any moment. To my surprise, it never did.
At one point, I passed a white minivan with Ironman® triathlon bumper stickers all over it. It took me a moment, but I realized I knew this van. Sure enough, as I drove up along next to it, I recognized BJ Christensen—a top Ironman amateur who’s clocked some near-pro times at the notorious Ironman Hawaii. I waved, but I knew that even if he looked my way, it was pretty unlikely he’d remember me from the sprint triathlon I’d met him at years ago. But just seeing him—driving a minivan with his young son (presumably) sitting in the passenger seat—gave me a hint of hope. Maybe you CAN have a family and improve as an athlete.
When I got to the campsite I planned to stay at, the sun had already set, and the site was (like usual) full. I think I may have a heart attack and die from un-surprise! Fortunately, this year, I had a backup plan. My brother now lives in Utah somewhere, so I drove to his place. After yapping with him about his personal life until midnight, I dozed off on his floor underneath my coat and actually slept pretty soundly. Life of a parent, I guess.
In the morning, I got to the resort just as the race organizers got there—i.e. too early. My brother needed to go to work, and I had nothing to do. So I wandered around the resort until some folks showed up I could chat with. Among the first competitors to arrive was Jessica—who shows up frequently in this blog because she does the same races I do and she kicks my butt pretty regularly. This year, I knew, Jessica was in better shape than ever before. She’d raced Powder Mountain five minutes faster than she did the year we rode together—and almost as fast as the pros! She dropped a time at Snowbird that I could only dream of.
I did my warmup the way I’d done it last year: I rode gorgeous singletrack and had fun doing it. I kept it pretty easy and trusted that this year’s running fitness would pay off. I met a handful of first-timers and dished out plenty of unsolicited advice, most of which went unheeded: “Don’t bother carrying more than one water bottle,” “Don’t overdress; you’ll get hot,” etc.
The Real Surprise
When the race started, a couple of guys (including Mike J., one of my perennial buddies at the race) took off up the road like the race was one mile long. I hung back with Jessica, taking the initial switchbacks conservatively, but I felt extraordinarily good. Besides, I knew that after an hour, I’d be turning into a pumpkin, since I rarely train much longer than that. So I picked up the pace a little. I passed Mike J. pretty quickly and was left with two riders ahead of me.
As I watched the second-placed guy reel in the early leader, it sunk in how comfortable I was feeling. Instead of gasping for air, I was rhythmically turning the pedals over and even using the middle ring on the lesser gradients. Behind me, Jessica had only lost 10 or 15 yards and was also pretty comfy.
Just as we reached the big switchback to Peruvian Gulch, I rounded the turn and bounced a rock with my front wheel. So in the middle of having the race of my life, I’d been forced to start walking because of a silly technical mistake (or so it seemed). Fortunately, the guy in front of me had to walk as well, but Jessica had no such troubles and passed us both. I realized pretty quickly that I’d made a second, more damaging mistake: walking instead of just remounting. Where’s my inner Ned Overend when I need him?
So the next time I got knocked off my saddle, I took maybe three steps before I remounted and started pedaling—right past the second-placed guy. I managed to ride most of Peruvian Gulch with Jessica in sight … until I got to the closing switchbacks.
I’ve already mentioned how I fully expected to turn into a pumpkin on the final hairpins, and that’s more or less what happened. At one point, I asked a pole-using hiker ahead of me if I could use the line she was on, and as she moved out of the way, she responded, “I thought walkers had right of way.” I tried to explain that I was in a race, and that she would have the right of way in any other circumstances—and then I gave up trying to explain and simply said, “I do appreciate you moving for me.”
When I came up to the final corner, Jessica was coming down for a warm-up. I’d lost traction a few more times, so she’d managed to extend her gap in the final mile. She said something to cheer me on, and I replied, “Thanks, Jessica. You’re awesome.”
After I crossed the line, I looked around and couldn’t see the first-placed guy. He and Jessica had been the only ones who’d beaten me. Getting on the overall podium was a new experience this year, even though I knew it was just because a lot of fast guys had stayed home. But that said, the winner had crossed in under an hour—a fairly speedy time—and I’d kept him in sight right up until that one big switchback I referred to earlier. I rode the race on the lightest bike I could slap together, but it was still at least 21 pounds. It left me wondering what would’ve happened if I hadn’t been bucked off so many times.
The Widow Maker attracts some really cool people. Sure, I’ve met my share of egomaniacs there in years past, but I’ve also met some really awesome folks—Jessica, pro rider Heather Holmes, Mike J., Lance W., Brian B., Justin and Joe G., etc. After the race this year, I added at least four of them to my Facebook friends list (though I still can’t find Mike J. for whatever reason). I invariably find myself chatting with people long after we’ve crossed the finish line. Even the year of the snow, Jessica and I yapped the whole way down the mountain in the tram.
So when Brian B. asked me why I come down all the way from Idaho, it was like Starbuck questioning Ahab about his obsession (this coming from someone who hasn’t yet read the book and isn’t certain his analogy works). It was as if the idea of staying home hadn’t occurred to me. I didn’t have a very good explanation—I know of only three or four other MTB hill climbs in the United States, and they’re all very far away—but I still intended to come back by the end of the conversation.
I’d love to say it’s because the race relaxes me or puts life in perspective or something. But the truth is that I’ve taken that race too seriously before (2010) and come away feeling smashed and angry at the world. I’ve been completely overwhelmed by it (2011) even when I didn’t take it too seriously. But for the most part, I’ve really enjoyed it for whatever reason. I’ve never ridden the course except on race day. Every year, there’s a section of the course that makes me go, “I completely forgot that was there.” And every year, I’m left feeling like, “If I just tweaked this, I could go faster.” And even if I know I’m not in good shape, I still want to show up and do it.
If the Widow Maker is my white whale, then I guess part of the attraction is knowing I’ll never really catch it—and being okay with that.