Archive for June, 2009
My greatest day of skiing I didn’t win a race. I didn’t even compete. It was a bluebird day in Vail, March 1993 with leftover snow from February’s powder, and I skied with my Middlebury teammates who were in town for the NCAA championships at Steamboat. One year after I graduated and four years after my accident, I skied as a peer for the first time. Part of the reason that I raced was so I could ski the whole mountain – so I could keep up. That day I did. This past week I broke the handcycle record for the White Rim Trail, and it felt a lot like that day in Vail. I could keep up. I could ride with my friends and others could, too.
It’s still dark when the alarm on my phone goes off, but I’m already awake. When I competed, I rarely needed the alarm. I don’t need it now either. I dress from the pile of clothes that I put out last night. The temperature will reach into the 90s today, but at this hour it’s chilly enough for another layer.
Tent down, bags packed, I realize I haven’t heard Dave Penney yet. He’s always up first – making coffee, rustling around. No one is up. That’s when I realize that my phone jumped an hour. Without service in Dead Horse Canyon, 30-plus miles outside of Moab, Utah, I’d risen at 4 a.m. instead of the predetermined 5 a.m. for a 6 o’clock departure.
At the top of Mineral Basin Road, light fills the sky, but the sun has yet to poke over the horizon. Misplaced car keys cost us 20 minutes. At 6:20, I start on the pavement that connects the two rims of the White Rim Trail. Rich green brush and grasses contrast with the red sand and rocks. The landscape will fade to monochrome in a matter of weeks, but for the moment, the low-angled sun runs its fingers over the rich color texture.
I aim to break the handcycle record of six days for the 103-mile White Rim Trail, and I plan to film it. We’ve brought a full crew with two cameras, producer/director, sound and support. My race to the finish will be punctuated with interviews and brief breaks to allow the crew to set up for the next shot. Part of me feels that this is a race, meaning that I should go as fast as I possibly can, but the more rational part understands that this is a long journey and that telling the story is as important as the ride itself.
I mark the passing of the first mile telling Dave, “That’s one of 103.” My comment seemed innocuous enough until “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” got stuck in my head. After eight miles on the pavement, we turn onto Shafer Trail, my old friend. It had only been a year since my first introduction to the White Rim. That day I climbed Shafer trail in three hours. It was excruciating – hot, dusty, pitted and pocked, steep and long. That day I reached the rim of the canyon was one that I never thought would come. Now, as I start down that same trail, I know that I’ve made friends here. I’ve done the climb numerous times, lowering my time to a personal record one hour 11 minutes. Turning onto Shafer Trail represents the start of our journey, and it represents just how far I – we – have come in a year’s time.
I drop in hoping to average about 10 mph for the first 12 or so miles. Dave said he thought it would take me about seven hours to finish the 37 miles for that day. I hoped for about five hours. A 7-mph average would yield a five-hour finish, while 5 mph would bring a seven-hour finish. I pondered these numbers as I rode, amazed that 2 miles per hour could make such a huge time difference. The beginning of the trip emboldened me. Cruising along the pavement and down Shafer, I think, we could complete the White Rim in three days instead of four, though there’s still the issue of our campsites. Tonight, we will sleep at Gooseberry campsite. The next night at the top of Murphy’s Hogback, just 15 miles further. I can’t make it out from the Murphy’s camp in one day so I hope to find a Ranger and that there is a cancellation at Potato Bottom. From there I could make it out in one day – though I’ve just started on this journey and I have no idea what’s in store.
Clicking past Mile 21, I tell Dave that we’ve now gone further than I ever gone in one day. We still have another 16 miles to go to Gooseberry. I feel good, but at mile 28 I start to bonk. I’ve been eating bars and drinking water all the way along, but it’s hot and long. The support vehicle comes up with some Gatorade. I feel instantly better. We’ve made stops along the way at Musselman Arch and other points of interest, but I feel that I will need to wait for the video. Occasionally, I look around, but much of my vision is on the dirt below me. My neck is the most sore part of my body – as I pedal I drop my head then pick up to inspect the trail, then drop it again, over and over each minute. It’s the only part of my body that really hurts. I vow to return for a scenic tour.
I see our white trucks miles in the distance, already at camp. They’re just out of reach, but I force myself to stay patient. From the very first moment that morning I fought the urge to go fast – to just get it done. I crawl into camp with seven hours of total time and 5:45 of riding time. It’s 2 p.m. – time for lunch and ice for my sore right shoulder.
We sleep well that night waiting for Dave to start the morning. I sleep solidly as I’ve ever have on the ground. Completely refreshed, I still start slowly, conscious to warm my sore shoulder. Soft sand poses the biggest challenge. Unlike a big climb, it just drains energy. At one point I go from 14 mph to zero in the span of a few feet. My only choice is to shift down and move slowly – hoping to float over the sand. Pushing a big gear digs holes in the sand, making the going much more difficult. Patience – my greatest foe.
Murphy’s Hogback looms somewhere on the horizon, at the very end of the day. The steep, loose climb leads straight to the finish. It’s only about 400 feet of vertical, but I feel vaguely like the Tour de France racers I watch on TV – grinding to the top of something that seems impossibly steep. I climb quickly. On the bottom section I need to sprint – sprinting helps me maintain momentum over technical, loose terrain. I sprint and then I stop – my chest and stomach heaving for air. At the top, the trail kicks up to the steepest point. Our second cameraman stands on the rim above filming down. While I’d like to take a break somewhere along the way, the camera is rolling so I climb to the top. The sun is getting hot, but it’s only been a little more than three hours and just short of 17 miles. I’m not used to my day being over so early. We head to the shade tent for lunch. Everyone hangs around and maybe there was just too much hanging. The crew is caught in conversation. Something’s going on.
“They want to know if you will go again later?” Dave asks.
“Sure.” I start thinking there’s a chance to make it in three days, plus this trek is designed to be training. Adding a second workout just makes sense. At 5 p.m. we head out, starting down the other side of Murphy’s Hogback. Dave plans to go to Candlestick campground about 10 miles away. I target Potato Bottom about 21 miles away. If I make it to Potato Bottom, I feel like I have a great chance to finish in three days. I race the sun. We have three hours. The terrain is the most rolling that I’ve seen, making it difficult to match my shifting to the undulations. Still, my goal is Potato Bottom. We get a fair amount of downhill, still some soft sand. We pass Candlestick and I keep going, but the sun is dropping. At 14 miles, it’s time to stop. We’re still seven miles from Potato Bottom.
I wonder how realistic it will be to make it to the finish with an additional seven miles – an hour’s riding time. If we had made it to Potato Bottom then I could have started on the Hardscrabble climb. Going to sleep, I know that Monday, our third day, will be the hottest so far. Temperatures could reach 96 in Moab and probably more down in the valley floor. We decide to start early again, but this time it will start with a drive (far more taxing than riding) from the Murphy’s campsite to last night’s stopping place. Last night I bounced around like popcorn in the truck.
At about 7 a.m. I start next to the small stone pyramid marker that we’d built the night before. I make it to Potato Bottom in about an hour. Other campers are just waking or starting their breakfast as we pass. Now I’m on ground that I know. A few weeks prior I’d done the leg from here to Labyrinth and the one up Horse Thief Canyon and along the road above. It feels manageable because it is familiar now and because I did 37 miles the first day, but there’s a difference. On the first day I lost about 2000 feet of altitude going down Shafer Trail. Today I will gain about that same altitude climbing back to the rim, not to mention the ascent of Hardscrabble and traversing the “sand pit” just before Labyrinth.
During this part of the trip I feel a bit like I’m in “The Princess Bride,“ though instead of swordsmen, giants, rodents of unusual size, random fire, etc. I have climbs like Hardscrabble and Murphy’s, the “sand pit” and the heat. I have checked off a few, but there are many more to come. Hardscrabble proves less challenging than the first time I did it. That first time I’d climbed the far side first. Descending the side that I now climb, I didn’t think I’d be able to make it. A group gathers on the ledge overlooking the final, most steep and loosest pitch. The last time I’d done it I took the pitch in two sections, this time, with the audience, I feel that I need to really put on a good show. I do it all at once, amazed at how the vehicle powers through the terrain making my job much easier. At the top I nod to an older woman who’d watched from the ledge. She gives me a look of annoyance like I’d delayed her progress. Oh well, sorry about that. We descend from the top. It doesn’t go downhill as quickly as I remembered, instead rolls down and then back up. I really need a downhill at the moment.
The “sand pit” is next. I can’t remember how long it’s been since the last time I did it because it’s so different than anything else that I’ve done – it doesn’t fit into my continuum of space and time. I’m sure that it is shorter than I remember, but I try not to let myself think like that. To me it’s a living, breathing thing, and if I underestimate its power, it will make me pay. I shift into low-gear and pedal in the most consistent motion that I can. I search for a hard surface on which to put one of my drive wheels. Mostly, I just try to float across the sand. It seems to work. As I pull onto hard ground I feel like I’ve conquered the last really difficult obstacle, but there might well be that, “You’ve been mostly dead all day” moment, again from “The Princess Bride,“ still to come.
We break for lunch and shade at Labyrinth. When to get started again is the next question. In the heat of the shade tent I sweat on my sleeping pad to the point that if I sit up and lie back down I’m chilled. Still there is the draw of being finished – a margarita, a shower and a soft bed. Dave calculates that we can make it in five hours. I think three.
I fly along by the river, easily the fastest non-downhill section for me. I cruise at about 8 mph, pushing my big gear but still conversational. Two miles short of the bottom of Horse Thief I pass the spot where I’d stopped a couple of weeks earlier. That day I’d climbed back and forth over Hardscrabble. Upon reaching the van Dave said, “Why don’t you do five more?” I was already done, but not capable of saying so. That day I weaved my way down the road for my final five miles. Today I cruise that five along the river, but know that I will reach that point of exhaustion again.
I’m fresh at the bottom of Horse Thief and aim to make it to the top in less than 45 minutes. The heat really starts to beat down. I aim for the first bit of shade, where I rest and take on fluids. I’m pushing a big gear, the one that I pushed the last time, but I know that’s not really a good idea. I shift down to my smallest gear – sometimes rational thought has to overcome my desire to grind quickly. I use every shade, three or four of them, along the way. The rim seems so close and so far away. In my mind it can’t come quickly enough. Often when I’m going well I surprise myself with my upward progress. At this point, I fight for every foot, hoping that this is the last hard part.
I climb out above the rim and keep going up the road. It’s been two hours since we left Labyrinth. I think I can do the long tedious road out in an hour and a half. I want to make it to the top of the first hill before I take a drink. From there I think I can make some real time. I had done the first four miles or so before and felt like I’d gone much faster than I’d expected. Now I hope to average around 8 mph. It goes well for those first four miles, but then the road refuses to roll. It seemingly goes from flat to up.
It’s a slog – all I can do to keep moving. Quitting would be so much easier, but this is what I wanted. In a way, I’m looking for a spiritual journey – one that only comes in the depths of pain and despair. My intellectual brain attempts to find some greater truth, but really it’s moving to slowly to grasp much of anything. Dave and I have a metaphysical exchange while I ate a couple of bars. I say, “If I’m not moving, I’m not getting any closer.” Dave nods in agreement. In our fatigue, beaten by the sun, we mistake the obvious for genius. Maybe that’s the heart of our spiritual journey – lessons in the obvious. Armed with my newfound genius I plod toward the finish hoping to keep moving, hoping to get closer to the finish.
Midway through the slog I stop our support vehicle. “You need to radio those guys. This is what they want to see.” The camera crew had moved to the finish. I might have spoiled them along the way. While the trip was difficult, I was never in serious pain or difficulty. I never thought that I wouldn’t make it on any given day. Now, pain creases my face. Each uphill poses a personal affront. They need to see it, because this is what they wanted the whole time.
Mike’s the first to reach me. He says, “It’s seven more miles.” I’d been putting up a good fight, trying to measure myself to the finish, which I figured could be as short as 19 miles total for the afternoon session though I tried to convince myself that 20 was more likely. At this point, I’d rather be surprised by it being shorter than longer. In my mind, I played a game with myself. Mike’s “seven miles” meant a total of 22 for the afternoon – two more than I’d considered for the outer limit. I didn’t know how I would make it to my envisioned end, and I had no idea how I could make it two miles more. My speed had slipped severely. I’d hoped to average 8 mph. Now, I could barely muster between 2-4 mph. At this speed, two additional miles could mean another hour of riding time. I hope that Mike lied – okay, over estimated the distance – but resolve myself to continue. Continuing is all that my mind can handle at the moment. That saying, “Pain is temporary. Pride lasts forever,” loops in my brain. Whoever thought of that saying must have been sitting in an easy chair drinking a beer, I think.
The light begins to soften. The harsh overhead sun has slipped close to the edge. We crest a hill and Dave says something about a stop sign. I verge on delirium. Stop sign sounds like a mirage because it means the finish. I won’t let myself believe and then I see the parking lot and the crew. The sun is just about to turn soft orange off to our left – to the west. It seems appropriate that we should end with the day. I’m almost too tired to be happy, just relieved that there isn’t another hill for me to climb. Driving home the next day the sight of stepped hills on the highway causes mental anguish even though I have the benefit of a combustion engine.
I’d be lying if I said that the record wasn’t important to me. I’m competitive, though I know that records are meant to be broken. Someone will break my record by a large margin. It might even be me. There’s fat on this record. We took a lot of time to shoot and interview along the way. But, the record isn’t the most important part. Finishing in three days was the social victory that I’d hoped for. I pushed my limits on the last day, but otherwise it was physically manageable. It means that I could do a tour like the White Rim with my able-bodied friends as a peer, like I’d been with my Middlebury teammates that day in Vail. Hell, even Dave Penney said that he was tired at the end of the last day.
I don’t think that my record on the White Rim represents a great athletic feat as much as it does a new opportunity. When I broke my back more than 20 years ago I thought that I’d never return to the trails. Now, I think it’s a possibility for me and for so many others who accepted that same limitation. We can return to the woods and the trails and we can go with our friends as equals.
The Record Part II
Breaking the record gave me an even greater appreciation for the feat of Mark Wellman, Bob Vogel and Steve Ackerman, who were the first handcyclists to complete the White Rim Trail. I watched their efforts in “Crank It Up,” and I don’t think I could have done what they did. I might have gone faster, but I’m sure that I didn’t have to fight as hard. Thank you three for showing the rest of us that it could be done.3 comments