A Thousand Words

NEWS&GUIDE PHOTO / TRAVIS J. GARNER
NEWS&GUIDE PHOTO / TRAVIS J. GARNER

Years ago, a newspaper photographer snapped this photo of me making my way up the road to the summit of Rendezvous Mountain, the peak of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. They say a picture speaks a thousand words. Sometimes, it speaks in ways or languages that don’t make sense with mere words.

For me, this photo is a memory of an absolutely surreal moment. My daughter, the one who got stuck with more of my genetic material than any of my other kids, had kept me up for most of the night before. Finally, at about 7 a.m., my wife and I had what is still today the most awful argument of our marriage. We were exhausted and drained, emotionally, physically — every way imaginable.

Rendezvous Mountain had been on my bucket list for a lot of years. Sure, I’d done plenty of road bike hill climbs before, but I’d never done a mountain bike hill climb. I always wanted to give this one a shot. So when I looked up at the clock and realized there was still time to make the race, I looked back at my wife and said, “Can we go?”

For reasons beyond my comprehension, she said yes.

Now, a little background: I’d been having trouble with my position on the bike. Really, I’d just been swindled by some goofball on the internet who talked me into messing around with my clipless pedal setup. So I’d decided, “Forget it — I’m just going with platform pedals for this one.” If you’re not a cyclist, that probably doesn’t sound like a big deal. If you know anything about climbing steep gradients on a mountain bike, you understand that was a mistake of epic proportions.

But a few hours later, we arrived at the event. It was a hot day with a bright, blue sky. I paid my $20, collected my number and went to warm up … as if anyone needs to warm up when it’s already 90 degrees out. At some point in my warm up, my front tire skidded out from under me and I went down hard on my knee. It was bloodied and sore, but I’d just drug my wife and children on a two-hour drive and paid the $20 to enter the event, so I wasn’t about to abandon.

I lined up with the other racers — the smallest field I’ve ever seen at a cycling race. The race organizers told us to go, and I worked my way up the group. I caught one gal just as the trail got steep, and suddenly, my rear wheel slid out from underneath me. I was walking.

I threw my leg over the saddle, rode past some trees, and there was a wall of radiating dirt in front of me — the steepest quarter-mile pitch of fire road I’d ever set eyes on.

“It’s not possible to ride a bicycle up that,” I thought to myself … just as I watched the rest of the pack ride up it … and then disappear around a switchback.

I pushed and hiked just as another cyclist came up behind me — the only one left. He and I chatted for a minute. Because of work, he hadn’t ridden a bicycle more than once in the past few months, but his wife was in the race, so he felt obligated to do it — but just for fun.

I climbed back on and rode away from him. Eventually, I got to where I could see another rider up ahead of me. Again and again, I’d reach a hot, dusty switchback, lose traction, get off, and start hiking. I’d remount and go again. Switchback after switchback.

By the time I reached the photographer, I was in a state of utter delirium — microwaved from above by the sun and below from the reflection off the bright mountain soil. I managed to keep the pedals turning as the photog caught me in a moment of barefaced agony. Before I got out of sight, I was walking again.

Toward the summit, I finally remounted just in time to ride past my wife as my daughter ran out to see me — and then tripped and fell on her face. But instead of crying, she just stood up, stopped and stared, listening to my fragile breathing.

As I looked closely at her dirtied face, I thought of all of the jerk things I’d said to her mother. And I regretted them, soulfully — viscerally. This little girl deserved better, I told myself.

“I love you,” I said, looking deeply into her eyes as I rode past and meaning it more than I’d ever meant it before.

Moments later, I crossed the finish line. Jill Damman, the racer I’d been chasing, who was just ahead of me, and whose husband I’d ridden with at the beginning of the race, would go on to win the women’s division of LOTOJA just weeks later. The picture at the top of this post, which I requested from the photographer, would end up on the front page of the sports section in the Jackson Hole News & Guide. And although one rider finished behind me, I would be listed as the race’s “maglia nera” or “lantern rouge” — the last finisher — the only time I’ve ever had that distinction, ever.

But for me, when I look at that picture, I think of how deeply I’d scraped and clawed into my soul that day. I think of the version of me who was completely exposed on that mountain that day, the me who loves his wife and daughters so much that he’ll do anything to be better for them. And I think that maybe the person on that bicycle on that mountain telling his daughter he loves her — the person in that picture — was the real, genuine me.

GTR Part 2 (take 2): “an out-of-body experience”

In case you missed it, here’s Part 1

What they don’t tell you about these relay events is that the actual sequence of events goes something like this:

• Assemble 12 enthusiastic people to do the race with you

• Procrastinate training

• Get injured in a last-minute attempt at proving to yourself that you can do it

• Find someone new to take the place of the injured or convince injured people to run anyway

• Show up at the race and either re-injure yourself or injure yourself for the first time

• Hobble over the finish line as a bunch of pathetic gimps

Come to think of it, “Team Gimp” could be a good team name next year.

Anyway, when we met up with Van 1, we learned our team had suffered its first in-race casualty. Jason, the last guy to join the race (who’d replaced someone else who was probably injured), had taken an uneven step on some road and injured his hip. He’d later learn that he actually sprained his hip abductor— who knew that was even possible, right?!

Todd wearing girly shorts
See what I mean? At least he didn’t have to worry about not being seen.

The first runner from Van 2 to take the baton would be our very own Guatemalan cheerleader, Melissa. When Todd, from Van 1, finally came jogging up the road, he had a bit of beard growth on his face and a pair of very feminine neon women’s shorts on his hairy man legs — yikes! But we cheered for him anyway, albeit with confused looks on our faces and the word “awkward” on our lips.

Melissa, it should be noted, had a few disks out of place in her spine and therefore could potentially be in a heckuvalotta pain after just a little bit of running. So we worked out a plan to check with her every couple of miles to see how she was holding up. But when we checked and she pulled her earphones out to communicate with us, she only asked for stuff from the cooler.

“Ice,” she’d say, and we’d get her ice.

“Propel,” she’d ask, and out came the Propel.

“Pineapple,” and out came the pineapple.

“Ham sandwich on rye with a pickle on the side and a small chocolate shake” … okay, not really.

By the time we reached the transition, the heat from the afternoon sun was oppressive. So instead of wearing a shirt, I donned a triathlon top thinking it would keep me cool. And moments after Melissa handed me the bracelet, I did what I always seem to do with my triathlon top: I pealed it off and let it hang around my waist like a skirt. (So much for making fun of Todd’s girly shorts.)

I took off at a pretty good clip and started passing folks within my first flat, two-mile, dirt-road section. As I caught up to this young guy who was dressed like he was going to play a game of church basketball, I invited him to come run in the shade with me.

“I’ve never done a relay race before,” he said, and I instantly regretted inviting him to run with me. Clearly, the kid was feeling a little insecure about having an older, uglier guy outrun him.

“Me neither. I usually ride a bicycle.”

“Well, but that at least works your legs.”

Here I was encouraging the kid, and he wanted to make me feel guilty because I actually RAN before race. Well, excuse me!

Just then, we passed his truck, and his teammates started heckling him.

“What’s a sandbagger?” he asked me.

“Someone who lies about how fast they are.”

Elevation chart for Leg 8
Here’s a look at the elevation on my first leg

And just like that, the road tilted upward for the first little climb, and the conversation ended. When I crested, I was relieved to find I’d opened a gap on him. And as I started the next climb, I passed his truck out supporting him.

“Don’t make fun of him,” I said with a smile, “he’s doing really good.”

At mile 3.5, my truck was waiting with water. I tried to sip, but, as I always do, I just wound up choking on it and spitting it all out. It was nice just to feel something moist and cool on my mouth.

“You’re doing awesome!” they told me. “This one’s brutal.”

But from there, the climb only got harder — rising steeper and harder, and curving around switchbacks and blind corners — as the sun seemed to burn even hotter than before. Eventually, I caught sight of a girl in an orange singlet and a white hat who’d stopped to walk. I paused for a second as well, and then I got going again and caught up to her.

“My name’s Mike,” I said between gasps as we mashed the steep gradient beneath our feet like grapes in a winepress.

“Melissa.”

“Run with me, Melissa.”

“Okay.”

I’d finally found a running buddy who was willing to work with me. Together, we caught sight of a girl dressed in black up ahead. “Who in her right mind would wear black on an afternoon like this?” I found myself thinking. And that’s about when I realized I was losing Melissa.

“Okay, quick walk,” I coached, and we slowed to a hike. “Ready to go again?”

And we got up and running again, digging deep to keep up the rhythmic trance that is uphill running. The act itself had been reduced to mere mechanics — pumping quadriceps taking on the feel of pistons beneath me.

Then I had the weirdest thought, and I couldn’t help but share it: “I don’t know about you,” I said, my shallow breaths interrupting every second word, “but I’m having an out-of-body experience.”

We caught up with the girl in black right around the “1 mile to go” marker, and that’s about when Melissa started to lose contact. She’d gone to the well, and it was starting to dry up.

“Stick with me, Melissa,” I coaxed as she dropped back. But even as I left her behind, I knew she didn’t have far left to go.

I rounded a corner and told myself I could slow to a brief walk, and as I did, the finish line came in view. I’d broken the cardinal rule of relay racing: Never let your team or anyone else see you walking! Whoops.

As I mustered a finishing kick and handed the baton to Antonio, an odd thing happened: the spectators, most of whom were from other teams, cheered for me. All I could give back was a thumbs-up, but I think they understood.

Me drinking water after running Leg 8
THIS PHOTO HAS BEEN CROPPED FOR YOUR PROTECTION (trust me – the original is NOT pretty)

I cheered for the girl in black and then Melissa before I realized I was standing around without a shirt on — with my nasty chest hair flowing in the wind.

As I was inhaling water before we left to catch up with Antonio, another runner finished and approached me, “Hey, I saw you, and I said, ‘I’m going to catch that guy.’ But you just disappeared up the road.”

“Really?” I said. “I even walked some of it.”

“I wish I’d known that. That would’ve given me some confidence.”

And that was our first encounter with the Pirates of the Black Toenail — little did we know how big a part they would play in our race over the next 24 hours …

GTR Part 1: “What leg are you running?”

I have this theory about endurance racing: I think adults have to make up excuses to be social with other adults. And if you don’t frequent bars, you can imagine what your socializing options are: church, bowling, work parties, and endurance events. So I’m starting to think running, cycling and triathlon races are really just an excuse to get together and have fun with people who have similar interests, and to feel less guilty about eating that bowl of recovery ice cream afterward.

Case in point: running relay races. Why are these so popular? Sure, there’s a competitive element. Sure, you get to show off in front of friends or coworkers or whoever you’re teamed up with. Sure, they’re addictive — you finish one and you’re left going, “We could’ve done that better if only we’d …” and next thing you know, you’re a regular. But if you think it’s about being competitive, think about this: most of these people don’t even enjoy running. They’re really just there for the fun. Why else would you enter an event that gives medals to all finishers and nothing extra to first, second or third place?

So that’s why I piled into a truck with four people I only sorta knew from work, and one I didn’t know at all, and drove into the middle of nowhere with little more than a few pairs of running shorts and shoes, and a bunch of tech t-shirts to go running through bear-inhabited forests in the middle of the night.

Hey GTR, if you don't want me to use your map, just say so, and I'll delete it.
Hey GTR, if you don’t want me to use your map, just say so, and I’ll delete it.

In the Grand Teton Relay, a team of 12 runners splits into two vehicles, Van 1 and Van 2 that alternate sections of this enormous 180-mile course that winds through the Greater Yellowstone wilderness of Southeast Idaho, past the Tetons and into Wyoming. Van 1 gets some rolling to flat terrain at mostly normal hours of the day. Van 2 gets three 1,000-foot+ climbs, two 1,000-foot+ descents, and they get the night shift from midnight to 4:30 a.m.

In other words, Van 2 is the running equivalent of Seal Team 6.

I was, of course, in Van 2, along with the following runners (picture camouflage, M-16s and tattoos to get that Seal effect):

Chuck — one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, a natural leader and a GTR veteran, Chuck is also a solid athlete

• Antonio — though he looks like he could be a linebacker for the Seahawks, Antonio ran the race the year before and came back with a vengeance … more on that in a minute

Kenny — young guy with indestructible joints and an imaginary girlfriend (whom he claims is real) who can tap out a 43-minute 10k without using performance-enhancing drugs

Melissa — the most enthusiastic, hysterically funny Guatemalan cheerleader you’ll ever have build your website

Taylor — the coworker’s wife’s coworker’s cousin’s nephew’s next-door neighbor’s … the guy nobody really knew before the race who volunteered his truck when all of our stuff couldn’t fit in my minivan (to paraphrase my wife, “What do you mean they couldn’t fit? How much stuff did they bring?!”) — Taylor is a super-nice, soft-spoken veteran relay racer, though it would be his first time doing the GTR as well

So we threw all of our stuff in Taylor’s truck bed and sardine-crammed into the cab for the trip up to the safety briefing in Ashton. I somehow wound up being the guy jammed into the front middle seat between the passenger the driver (the seat that can almost comfortably fit an undersized third-grader — hazard of being a 130-pound shrimp, I s’pose), and we were off.

Along the way, Antonio kept making comments about Teton Pass, which, although it’s split into three legs, was supposed to mostly be my leg as Runner 9, I thought. I kept shrugging the comments off thinking maybe he was mixed up about it.

Then when we arrived for our safety briefing, the safety guy asked, “Who’s running up Teton Pass?” And both Antonio and I put up our hands. Hmmm, I thought, He’s running the lower leg of Teton Pass — maybe he’s just confused.

So we got into the truck and started driving to the first leg, zipping past some gorgeous views of the Teton Mountain Range, going down to warm river and skipping over stunning Mesa Falls. The runners we passed were wilting in the heat, and it was only noon!

Decent scenery for a running race
Decent scenery for a running race

When we finally found our Van 1 runner, Jake, he was gutting it out, but he was beet red and had sweat pouring off his face. We jumped out of the truck so Melissa could cheer for him, and Chuck ran over to him with a bottle of water — Propel water — which Jake requested be poured over his head.

“Hey that’s …” someone tried to warn him, but it was too late. Chuck dumped it over Jake’s head, and I’m sure it felt refreshingly cold. And sticky.

We piled back into the truck, laughing about the Propel and chatting about the heat. And as we did, Antonio said something else about being Runner 9. Finally, I felt like it was probably time to sort the situation out.

“Aren’t you Runner 8?”

“No, I’m Runner 9,” he replied smiling and with a slightly jocular tone.

“Relax, guys,” someone else said, “we’ll figure it out as it gets closer.”

“Hey, but seriously,” I said, realizing leg 8 was maybe an hour away at most, “what first leg are you running?”

“Nine.” This time, something in the tone of Antonio’s voice told me, “Dude, I’m serious — I want this leg!”

“Okay,” I said as it sunk in that I was no longer running any of the legs I’d thought I was running — not just Teton Pass — and that I had no idea what I was up against in my legs, the first of which was getting pretty darn close.

“Uh, can I see the race book for a minute?”

[To be continued …]

The Great American Epic

“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.

Aftermath
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.

Throwing the Switch

Just as the clouds parted and the arrowhead of Rendezvous Peak came into view this past Saturday, I knew I’d had it. I wasn’t going all out, and I wasn’t giving it all I had. I couldn’t. My legs were toast. My hip flexors were long since gone, I had a persistent pain in my left calf, and I was pretty sure my neck would even be sore from the Camelbak I’d already hauled up nearly 4,000 feet in the previous 80 minutes. Thing is, I’d crawled up that trail feeling smashed before. I always feel smashed on that trail.

What in the heck was I doing up there, on foot, with no bicycle between my legs? Let me explain:

I started this year out with the intention of rebuilding my road bike attack strength. I knew how to get it, but I also knew that if I overdid it, I’d completely lose any desire to ride a bicycle.

Well, the season started out according to plan. I was climbing well in April and May, and I was psyched to get started at the Snowbird Hillclimb in August. I got on the podium at the Spring Sprint, and then, figuring I’d have a little running fitness left over, I decided to check another race off my wishlist: the Targhee Hill Climb … a mountain running race.

This year, two-thirds of the race would be brand-spanking new—a course unlike the one used in previous years. I figured it’d be a fun opportunity to try out something different.

How do you dress for a running race in 90-degree heat that goes up the side of a ski hill? I didn’t know, so I gambled and tried to do Targhee in my triathlon duds—spandex, that is. I felt ridiculous.

How do you pace yourself in a running race in 90-degree heat that goes up the side of a ski hill when you’ve hardly done any running? I didn’t know the answer to that one either, so I leapt off the line like it was a 5k … which it was … with 1,840 feet of uphill mixed in.

I blew myself up in the first mile, just as the trail narrowed to singletrack. The course necessitated hiking anyway: It took us up the spine of the mountain—this narrow ridge within full view of Grand Teton and Table Mountain littered with loose, jagged rocks and weaving in and out of the neighboring trees. I knew I was having an off day, so I picked a random racer to pace myself off of, a lady named Dawn. I figured if I could just stick with Dawn, I’d be okay, so when she pulled over and told me to pass at one point, I responded, “No, you’re doing great,” and pushed her back onto the trail.

Eventually, the trail reached a steep chin-scraper section and Dawn made a slight wrong turn. I pointed the trail out to her, and she got back after it, but the damage was done, and I hiked away. I jogged up the last little bit of the trail and crossed the finish line after less than 45 minutes. I met a few really nice people, took a terrifying ride down on the ski lift, drove home and … resumed training as a bike racer.

Well, in case you don’t know, my first road bike hill climb of the year got delayed by six weeks and moved to mid-September. So I had to do some reorganizing. I’d just move my focus, I thought, to the next road bike race on the schedule—the Powder Mountain Hill Climb on August 24th.

If you’ve been reading here long, you know how I felt about Powder Mountain: I loved racing there each time I went. So it should’ve been a no-brainer. But, for some ethereal reason, I felt conflicted about it this time. I couldn’t bring myself to make the drive down there. I just couldn’t do it. I looked at the race calendar and I picked another race that was on my wishlist—the Rendezvous Mountain Hillclimb … the running version.

So, this past Saturday, instead of driving to Utah, I took a little trip to Jackson Hole Resort.

A cloudy Saturday in Jackson Hole
A cloudy Saturday in Jackson Hole
When I drove over the top of Teton Pass, the valley was completely obscured by cloud. And as I got closer, the fog only got thicker. On Moose-Wilson road, I couldn’t see the 4,000-foot mountains to my left, even though they were less than a mile away.

I got to the ski hill and signed up for the race, worrying that I’d, again, chosen the wrong outfit for the occasion—this time not bringing enough clothing. I still couldn’t see the mountain, and the tram was even delayed because of “inclement weather.” I asked the race director what the temperature at the summit was, guessing it was around 35, and she responded, “No, it’s sunny up there. It’s actually [pulls out smartphone to check the temps] … 35.”

Walking around the resort before the start, I bumped into a couple of guys who were going to start a hike on the Teton Crest Trail that day. We chatted about the hike for a bit, and I told them I was jealous. Then, they asked me what I thought was a funny question: “So what did you do to train for this race?”

“That’s the thing,” I said, “I didn’t really train for it.”

I then explained that I wasn’t sure I could run 7.4 miles of flat road, to say nothing of 7.4 miles mingled with 4,139 feet of uphill. But I’d ridden a mountain bike up the road, I don’t know, four times. So I knew the route. And to be honest, it was a little comforting that I couldn’t even see the mountain from where I was.

When the race started, I deliberately held back. I tried to keep my pace as modest as possible, but I soon found myself at the head of a group of about five or six runners—at least three of whom were women. (“I’ve never been chased by so many girls!” joked a guy named Keith behind me.) We’d already been gapped by the lead group, but I was enjoying the singletrack trail so much that I just kept going, leading most of the way to the junction with the service road.

When we spilled out onto the road, the runners who’d gotten ahead of me slowed a bit, and I managed to work my way into no-man’s land (aka the place I ALWAYS find myself in hill climbs). But no matter how far ahead of the racers behind me I got, two of the younger girls from our group just seemed to get farther ahead.

Finally, with about two miles left to go, an older racer caught up to me. We chatted as we reached the second water station and then the trail steepened again. And I dropped him. Yes, he caught me again later, but I realized that the steeper the trail, the better I seemed to do.

A few minutes later, two other racers, including Keith, caught up to me. “Hi guys,” I said before explaining that I hadn’t done much running and had already spent everything. “I’ve already gotten what I wanted out of this race,” I told them—and it was true.

“Did you do the Targhee Hillclimb?” the woman asked.

“Yeah—are you Dawn?” I replied.

It was Dawn, and once again, I found myself running with her. She, Keith and I jogged our way to the summit, chatting most of the way, and I put in a last-minute trot to finish just a second behind them.

I’d never felt welcome among the Jackson Hole cyclists. They always seemed to have an air of superiority—”You’re not a European,” they seemed to say down their noses. But the Jackson Hole running crowd was nothing like that. The older fellas were all very friendly, the young recent-college-grads made for great conversation, and Dawn and Keith and I seemed to have become instant buddies. The women’s winner (who was one of the girls I’d paced through the opening singletrack) even asked me about my daughters and my family as we talked at length.

After hanging out with the running crowd (the awards didn’t start until more than an hour after we got down off the mountain), I snapped one last photo and left for home.

Rendezvous Mountain once the clouds had cleared.
Rendezvous Mountain once the clouds had cleared.
I hadn’t placed in my age group—not even close—but I’d enjoyed doing something new and different. And I told Dawn that next year, I’d actually train and try to pace her to a sub-40 at Targhee.

Driving up the 2,286-foot Teton Pass, though, I passed a cyclist making his way up the long, steep section that makes that climb so brutal. I rolled my window down and yelled out to him to get up out of his saddle. And as I watched out of my rearview mirror and he rose over his handlebars, I couldn’t help but think about all the bicycling fitness I’d built up, and what I might do with it.

The short end of it

Blah blah blah—those are my excuses for not writing blogs lately. I’ve been busy, okay? If someone’s still looking forward to my blog posts, I apologize. If not, then I take it back.

I’ve had a hard time writing about the sprint triathlon I did last month because I’m not sure how to write about it without venting. My wife made us really late in the morning through a combination of taking her sweet time and closing out of the google directions I’d looked up on my phone. When we arrived at the race, they very nearly turned us away because we were so late.

After a brief eternity, we lined up for the time trial-style race start as my grumpy mood began to give way to some race excitement. They’d divided everyone into a bunch of subjective categories for the swim (1 = swim team fast, 2 = masters fast, 3 = regular joe fast, 4 = slow, 5 = walking the swim), so I found a spot right in between two categories. When I started the swim, the 50m pool felt spectacular, and I comfortably crawled through the laps. My swim time, like usual, was only so-so, but I did pass a few people.

Yes, this is what comfortable looks like.
Yes, this is what “comfortable” looks like.

I nearly mounted my bike before leaving the transition area, which would’ve gotten me DQ’ed, I’m sure. But once I got out there, the bike felt just right. I took the first hill feeling great and passed my wife and her sister. When I crested, I had two riders in front of me for the descent, one of which I caught quickly. I didn’t close in on the second until we got back to (nearly) level ground. But when we got there, I realized he had a fairly nice triathlon bike. I gave him a thumbs-up as I went by, and he gave me a blank stare that said, “How are you doing that?”

The second hill went even more magnificently, with one exception: the course had obviously changed from 2010, and when I got to the top of the hill, there was an unfamiliar section. Instead of going straight to the main road, we were suddenly taking a twisting, turning, diagonal side road to the main road. I lost some time going the wrong direction and getting mixed up, but I quickly got on the right path.

Back on the flats, I found myself trading passes with a gal named Brittany, who was cranking out the watts on her tri bike. (No, I didn’t draft.) I got back to transition just ahead of her and we took off on the run together—though I quickly dropped her. I was slowly reeling a guy in on the run, so I thought it was going okay. Turns out, I was having one of my slower triathlon runs.

See? It even LOOKS like I'm running fast right? I'm not.
See? It even LOOKS like I’m running fast right? I’m not.
I caught the guy just before we entered the Olympic Oval, and as I did, the female winner (who I’d passed easily on the second hill of the bike) caught up to me. The three of us crossed the finish line a stride apart and quickly started the game of waiting to see how we did.

It appeared at first that I’d missed third place by, get this, 27 seconds—seven MORE seconds than last year. So I quickly moved from elation to “not again!” My sister-in-law had handily won her age group (owing partially to the fact that it consisted of her and only one other girl) so we stuck around for the awards. And then, oddly, they called out my name for third place in my age group—the AG winner had bumped up because he came in third overall. So, as it turned out, I really did take third place in the AG competition.

My wife also had a good time at the race, but not exactly how she expected. She’d anticipated having a fast swim, a mediocre bike and an even less impressive run. Well, her sister dragged her up to the front group of the swim, so right out of the gate, she got passed by a couple of lanky guys who were impersonating Michael Phelps. She then cranked out an unexpectedly decent bike ride before having exactly the miserable run she’d anticipated. In the end, she was just glad to finish. And I was glad for her.

The Upside of Lance’s Confession

A lot of folks are (appropriately) pretty frustrated about this whole Lance Armstrong confession deal. I know that a lot of people were holding out hope that Lance really was clean. If you’re one of those people, I have to say that I feel for you. It stinks to have your sports heroes admit being dirtbags, and it would’ve been nice if Lance—cancer survivor, father, activist, etc.—could’ve been the exception.

But the truth is, some of us have been trying to explain this to the rest of you for a long time. It took me a half a decade to reach the conclusion that Lance was doping, and after that, I willingly told anyone who asked what I thought about the subject. The internet was different. If you bashed Lance there, you got hammered and flamed.

So, amid this “truth will set you free” rhetoric, I want to point out just a couple of the silver linings, the reasons why Lance admitting that he doped is a very, very, very good thing. There are more reasons than what you’ll see here. These are just what’s on my mind right now:

1. We can all stop trying to figure out how he did it.
Lance’s success never made any sense. He wasn’t built like a climber, and he was never an overwhelmingly good time trialist before 1998 or ’99. He didn’t have the strongest legs, the highest VO2 max, the largest heart or any other particularly outstanding physical characteristic that would make sense out of his victories. So it must’ve been his training, right? Everyone wanted to know what the secret session was, what the winning training protocol was. Well, now we know: it was EPO, cortisone, HGH, testosterone and a cocktail of other junk—actovegin, etc.

That’s a really good thing to know. We no longer need to have the argument “well, Lance does it, so it must be right” about how we ride our bicycles. Whatever the secret session is, Lance couldn’t have done it without the dope either.

2. We can give Greg Lemond his respect back.
With Lance’s admission, a whole host of people can have their credibility back: Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Stephen Swart, Prentice Steffen, and yes, even Greg Lemond.

Years ago, I wrote a post entitled Why Isn’t Greg Lemond More Popular. In the end, I concluded that it was because Lance told us not to like him. Same goes for all of those folks. Lance told us not to like them, and we, like lemmings, said, “Okay, we won’t.”

I remember hearing photographer Graham Watson describe Greg Lemond not as a jealous, bitter old man, but as an “outrageous character.” He was fun, he was a phenomenal athlete, and, in my opinion, he likely won the Tour de France clean. He was the real deal, and the greatest American cyclist in history.

3. We can all be friends again.
Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve been pretty convinced about Lance’s PED usage for the last three or four years. I can’t remember exactly when I realized it, but I think it came down to physics: how does a rider go from being an average time trialist and a lousy climber to dominating all of the time trials and the climbs? Unless Lance had just never trained before, there was only one way.

But I quickly learned that if I shared my opinion online, the Lance faithful would rip me to shreds with senseless arguments and lines right out of Lance’s PR strategy. Well, the conflict’s over now. Lance did it, there’s no reason to believe otherwise, and there’s no reason to keep the argument aflame. You can now go back to arguing about other arcane topics like whether weightlifting helps you be a better climber.

Trouble is, some folks don’t know the argument’s over. They want to keep it alive with statements like “it was a level playing field,” “everyone was doing it,” or “he would’ve won seven Tours anyway.” Doping does not create a level playing field, everyone was not doing it, and the idea that Lance would’ve won anyway is patently ridiculous. As Kathy Lemond said after Lance told her and Greg that he was going to win the Tour, “How could he think he was going to win the Tour when he only finished once? He just wasn’t a Tour rider.”

4. Hero worship aside, cycling is still fun.
The one other benefit of Lance’s admission that I’ll mention here is that we can all get back to riding our bicycles because we enjoy it. Cycling is fun. Racing a bicycle is fun too, even when you don’t win. You get to meet cool people, enjoy the outdoors, exert yourself, break a sweat and feel like a kid again. Cool, right?