Years ago, I’d set a rule for myself that I’d never do the same race twice. And then one September, I discovered the Widow Maker, and I instantly fell in love — with its mercurial weather, its relentlessly unforgiving and often puzzling gradients, its capricious traction, its pristine alpine air, and most of all with the adventure of ascending a 3,100-foot mountain in 70 minutes or less. So I scratched my rule and replaced it with a commitment to come back to the Widow Maker for as long as the race exists.
Well, life changes, and in 2014, I had an obligation to my daughter that far outweighed any rashly made promises I’d made in the blind heat of racing passion. When i realized I wouldn’t be able to make it to my favorite race, I looked around on the calendar for something else.
As it turned out, there was one other hill climb that used the same course — with a slight variation. I’d still get to climb to monolithic Hidden Peak, 11,000 feet above sea level, but first, I’d have to climb from the valley to the ski hill, a climb of 3,300 feet in 9.5 miles. If you’re doing your math, you know that means this would turn out to be about 6,400 feet in 15 miles.
I figured I’d take it casually and simply participate instead of racing it. When the race started, I moseyed along, casually chatting with the racers around me.
“Hey man,” one of them said, clearly annoyed my garrulousness, “you’re not going hard enough if you can talk.”
What can I say? Exertion makes me talkative. Chocolate makes me talkative. Being within a five-minute radius of another human being makes me talkative! But I didn’t want to throw off his groove, so I quieted down. When he decided to attack the pack as we hit the climb, I went with him. And when he saw I was on his wheel, he turned and said, “You wanna work together?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’m game.”
It came time for me to take my pull, so I got out of the saddle and went to the front. But when I turned around to see who we’d dropped … he was nowhere to be seen. Whoops.
So instead, I soldiered on ahead by myself, and every time I got out of the saddle, I caught and/or dropped someone else. Working my way up the climb, I found rider after rider who’d gone out too hard or whatever, and one by one, they dropped behind me.
As I rounded Taylor’s Flat, with about a mile to go, I eased up, knowing I’d need to save some juice for the mountain bike climb. And at that point, a couple of guys got away from me. But when I came to the transition, I told my wife I was having a journal day. I grabbed my mountain bike and my Camelbak, and I was off.
As I rounded the initial switchbacks, I caught up to some girl who I’d seen ahead on the road climb, and she commented that she probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with me. I told her I’d never done that particular race before and I hadn’t even ridden much longer than an hour all year, so I probably wasn’t much of a threat.
Just moments later, we got to a steep climb, and as I gripped my handlebars, they twisted slightly with the torque. Handlebars, in case you’re not aware, are not supposed to do that. I quietly hoped I was just hallucinating, but as I came to the big switchback that signals the start of Peruvian Gulch, they twisted again. “Oh no,” I thought. “I knew I should’ve packed a multitool.”
My handlebars started wiggling out of place, and my magical fitness quickly faded. Racers started catching and dropping me just as I’d done only a half hour before. I’d been pedaling uphill almost nonstop for two hours when my bars finally came completely free of the stem, and when that happened, I had no choice but to walk. The heat of the day was starting to microwave the trail beneath me as the peak loomed tauntingly above. I threw my bike over my shoulder as I fumbled through loose rock on a steep switchback.
Behind me, another racer approached, and this time he looked oddly familiar.
“I think I’ve seen you in a YouTube video,” I told him. “Isn’t your name Brett Hawke or something?”
“You really have seen me in a YouTube video, haven’t you?”
We exchanged a few pleasantries, but ultimately, I learned he didn’t have a multitool either, so the conversation ended pretty quickly.
After a few more passersby, an older gentleman came riding up the switchback beneath me.
“You got a multitool on ya?” I plied.
“A multitool — do you have one?”
After about the third time, I thought he was just having obnoxious fun at my expense, but then he reached into his jersey pocket and then handed me a fairly robust multitool. “I don’t want to have to slow down to give it to you,” he said snarkily.
“Thanks!” I called as he pedaled off. “I’ll give it to you at the top.”
Despite the odd exchange, I was elated. I tightened the hex bolts on my stem, threw a leg over my seat and got back to pedaling what was left of my sorry carcass up the mountain. I easily cleaned the last few switchbacks, crossed the finish line and tracked down my good Samaritan. Minutes later, my wife and sister got off the tram and found me crumpled over my bike.
I’d produced one of the worst race results I’ve ever had for the Ultra, but on the flip side, I’d had a great ride on the road hill climb, enough for a 6th place in my age group. I’d flirted with my limits and perhaps even pushed them a little.
When the date for the Widow Maker rolled around, I was with my daughter, where I needed to be. But little did I know that, hundreds of miles away, it was snowing on Hidden Peak, and there was a race organizer telling a group of mountain bikers to head back to their cars.
The Widow Maker had been postponed …