I was about a mile out from the third checkpoint when it finally hit me. I found my self so tired, so frustrated, so mentally worn down that for a brief minute all I wanted to do was get off my bike, sit down in the snow and cry.
That's about the best way I have to describe what Arrowhead was for me this year. The temps were uncharacteristically mild and while this has been a bad year for snow, the trails were in decent shape. Physically the effort was draining, but once I got to a base level of fatigue I found I was able to maintain my effort despite some mild knee pain. The problem wasn't any of that. I was just unprepared for how mentally difficult Arrowhead would prove to be for me.
I had just left the first checkpoint when I first hit my dark place. Not a problem usually, I've done enough long rides and races that I've been there and come back a few times. It's never taken more than an hour or so before. This time it was three, and it was the first of many. It was 10:30 when I rode into the second checkpoint with two others, and I was already shot. I poured myself into a chair as Deb and the volunteers brought be food and drink. Others in the cabin didn't look any better and some had already pulled out. I don't usually hang around checkpoints all that long, but I realized I needed to try to get some sleep if I was going to make it through the race. I eventually made my way upstairs and sprawled out in the only remaining bed for a few restless hours.
I woke up around 2am when the the first runner came through the cabin. Already!?! Equal parts of humiliation and stubbornness finally got me to roll out of bed and I mechanically prepared myself for the second half of my crucible. I ate another grilled cheese sandwich and headed out the door to a snow covered bike. I rolled back out on the trail, back out on the hills. I plodded along passing the runner and another biker. At 6am I came up to a shelter that had a couple other cyclist sleeping in it. I was already tired again, and after reviewing my milage I decided to bivy for a couple more hours. Two turned into two+ and at 8:30 I willed myself out of my bag and started packing up. I made the grim realization before heading back off again that I had miscalculated my distance and was 10 miles farther back than I thought. Such is a tired mind.
The next few hours were lost to the aether and I don't remember much about them, other than joining up with a couple other cyclists (Thom and Erv). Together we rode, chatted, watched for landmarks that would give an indication of where we were and how far we had yet to go. When we were getting close to the third checkpoint we started counting the remaining hills. I estimated six, and we counted off each one as we crested it. We came over the sixth hill, but instead of being greeted with the long decent into the third checkpoint that I thought we had, there was instead another hill. I felt like I had been kicked. When we came over the seventh, I was again in a bad place, but I held hope that we were just a decent away from the checkpoint. We weren't. The long decent as it looked on paper was instead a short descent followed by what felt like a forever slog through the swamp. I was back in a bad place.
I remember reading a quote once, and I think of it often in these situations.
No matter how good you feel or how bad you feel, it won't last.
This, along with encouragement from Thom kept me moving and eventually we hit that final checkpoint. I was so happy to see it and was immediately in a better mood. I had a cup of hot chocolate and enjoyed the laughs when I pulled a day old cheeseburger out of my bag and took a couple hearty bites. After 10 minutes of rest and conversation with the volunteers, Thom and I were again on our way. A short ride had us at the base of Wakemup Hill, the last and one of the steepest. Up, over, on our way and I finally felt good. We rolled another couple miles and made a detour at the Crescent Bar for some dinner. It was just before dark. The pasta was overpriced, but delicious all the same.
At a little after six, we were all on our way again. Erv had decided to go off on his own and Thom and I rode out ahead of a fourth cyclist we ate with. We were only 18 miles from the finish and yet despite the rest, the end of the hills and my full stomach, I found myself slipping back into my dark place. The snow was better here and we were able to hold a faster pace, but every ten or fifteen minutes I would need to pull over and spend a couple minutes collecting myself. Thom knew I was in a bad place and did his best to keep talking and keep my mind off of it, but the best I could muster up were monosyllabic grunts and the occasional whininess. And so it went until we came up to the last road crossing before the finish. I stopped to call Deb and let her know I was two miles from the finish and Thom opted to keep going. This close to the end, I suddenly felt good again. The last two miles were a blur and soon enough I was riding up the final little kick towards the finish line. A little over 39 hours after starting, I was finished.
Deb has a tradition of telling me at the start of a race that this is the best I'll feel in days, but there's really not a lot that feels better than the relief of riding across the finish line of a grueling race. Yeah, I took a long time and I got a little whiny but I'm still proud of the fact that I could go so deep into such a dark place and still keep going. So many people have told me I'm crazy and don't understand why I do these things to myself, but when you can challenge yourself to such an extent and still come out of it... Well, it just does a lot to show you what you're really capable of.