Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Monday, April 7, 2014

To race or to ride? 2014 White Mountains 100

I got my first sunburn of the year last week during the White Mountains 100.

Here is a video of the start taken by an NSA drone. They've been tracking me around 
since I told my high-school counselor that I wanted to learn Arabic.

The day was gorgeous, the trail was blazing fast, and I had three Little Debbie oatmeal cream pies in my pocket (along with about a pound of candy, a quart of pretzels, a pouch of my bowel buster bars, and three dark chocolate Ensures). Within 20 minutes of the start, Josh Chelf, Tyson Flaharty and myself had pulled away from the main group. All three of us were feeling great or at least pretending to feel great. We were chatting, Josh was taking pictures with his iPhone, and we were averaging 15 miles per hour.

Chelf took this pic from the hip. Paceline on the snow.

Tyson had the record times from previous years taped to his handlebar. Compared to how I felt last year, I figured we were going about the same pace and not working as hard. I almost spit out my gummy bears when Tyson announced at the first checkpoint that we were half an hour ahead of the fastest time. The trails were firm and our fat tires were just gobbling up the miles. When we got to Cache Cabin we caught Jason and the other snowmachines that were dropping off supplies for the race.

The course elevation profile.

My plan had been to stay near the front until after checkpoint 2 (CP#2) and then make my move on the 2,000 foot climb over the divide. I'm lighter than Josh and Tyson (Josh's thighs are as big around as my waist) and had been pulling ahead on the smaller climbs, so I felt good about the strategy. A few miles past CP#2 Josh kicked it up a couple of gears and started to pull away. Tyson looked over at me and grinned, "I guess the race just started." As I shifted my chain dropped onto my bottom bracket and Tyson and Josh disappeared around the corner while I slipped it back on. "You're the lightest guy but you're on the heaviest bike," I consoled myself as I tried to catch up. I was happy to pass Tyson near the top and stopped at the divide to ask Russ when Josh had passed. After I heard he had ten minutes on us I waited for Tyson--we'd have to work together to close a gap like that. The rest of the race was a Chelf chase.

A "Chelfie" as Josh said goodby to Tyson and I.

The descent down the divide was snowbiking at its finest. My favorite moment of the whole race was when Tyson and I hit the Ice Lakes--a mile long section where a spring fills the valley from wall to wall with overflow ice. Unless you have studded tires, going out on glare ice is kind of like pushing off into space. If you try to speed up, slow down, or turn, your tires are likely to sweep out from under you. The Ice Lakes form on a slant, so on top of not being able to turn, you slowly gain speed as you shoot down the valley (whether you are on your bike or on your side). It's like a mix of Zen meditation and introductory physics; you focus on staying loose and try to will your bike around the pits and pimples on the ice in front of you. You also realize how loud your tires had been in the snow when suddenly you can only hear the wind and your freehub. I could see Tyson out of the corner of my eye; twenty yards to my left, committed to a parallel trajectory. We swooped down the ice in silent formation. I felt like we were ravens on our way to a moose kill.

Our little raven pack after the ice.

Chelf still had 8 minutes on us when we got to CP#3. Tyson choked down meatballs, I slurped up rice broth and we jumped back on our spacebikes to pursue our speedy ex-friend. Fifteen minutes later I was starting to get sleepy. My legs felt fine, nothing hurt, but the late nights working on my dissertation were making me feel hollow and droopy. When it was Tyson's turn to pull, I couldn't maintain speed and dropped off the back. As he pulled away I shouted, "Go get him!" but he didn't hear me or look back. I felt empty enough I wasn't sure I would even hold my position in third (you never know how close the guy behind you is until you see him). I started getting serious about eating and worked my way through some moose jerky and strawberry licorice. I saw Tyson on the only big climb on that section and we were together again by CP#4.

When Josh still had 12 minutes on us at Borealis I realized that, unless he had a breakdown, Tyson and I were battling for silver and bronze. I decided that I would keep Tyson in sight and then attack at the top of the Wickersham Wall--a mile-long section of trail that climbs 600 feet. Thanks to the miracle of metabolism (here body, turn this junk food into kinetic energy) I was feeling great again. We pedaled up the whole wall, me 30 seconds behind Tyson. As we powered up the almost-vertical hill, it felt like that scene from the Princess Bride when they are climbing the Cliffs of Insanity. I got to the top a minute after Tyson, but it turns out he had the same plan as I did because he had cut the rope and was gone. He was in sight most of the last six miles but he held me off and finished two minutes ahead.

Tyson and I give each other a fistbump of consolation while Josh looks on
(we aren't intentionally crushing the Chelf child's face I promise) Photo by Tupper.

So here's where I wax philosophical. I have always had a hard time pushing myself to the limit in races. I settle too easily and when the pace passes my comfort zone I say to myself, "Everybody who is out here is a winner! I'll just enjoy the ride today!" and I totally mean it. When I finish a race feeling fine (like last week) I often feel bad, because I know I could have pushed harder. This year I've been trying to develop the ability to take my body to the edge, to really push my physical and mental limits. A big part of this is a matter of desire. You have to want the win if you're going to be motivated to almost make yourself puke and burn your legs for hours on end.

I've had some success with this and have won a few races this year, but I wonder if there is a danger, or at least a tradeoff, in cultivating that competitiveness. I got into biking for two reasons. 1. You see a heck of a lot when you're out on a bike. You can cover large distances but you're going slow enough to hear, smell, and notice things around you. 2. It is the most efficient mode of transportation ever devised (more efficient than walking, mules, barges, trains, the space shuttle, or bike-powered helicopters), and is therefore the most ecologically sound (and cheapest) way of getting around.

Racing doesn't maximize either of these values. You don't see much besides the trail in front of you and the people you are chasing or being chased by. Racing usually involves considerable fossil fuel consumption driving to the start, supplying checkpoints etc. Finally, racing can be intensely materialistic with a lot of focus on expensive gear. Fancy bike stuff is exciting (if you're going to splurge it might as well be on this awesome sport/mode of transportation) but it leaves me feeling extravagant and icky. I'm reminded of Jacob's words, "Wherefore do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labors on that which cannot satisfy" 2 Nephi 9:51.

Don't get me wrong, I love racing. There is something deeply childlike and playful about seeing how fast you can go and trying to go pass your friends. I love how signing up for a race makes you make time to ride even when you are busy, and I love the community aspect of moving together across long distances.

As I think about the race, while it was exciting to be at the front battling with the giant from Anchorage for first, my favorite section was the Ice Lakes where I was riding with someone instead of against them. My favorite rides have been those I've done with my family and friends, not miles or minutes ahead of them. I do want to have the self discipline and rigor to give it my all, but I don't want to be sucked into having to win or even feeling bad when I don't.

Happy non-competitive Ben thinking about the amazing 100 mile ride he just finished.

Enraged competitive Ben about to punch Tyson's glasses from his face to see if he is human or part cyborg.

I don't know the best route forward but I am grateful to have been able to ride this past week. Thanks to Rachel for supporting my racing habit this winter, Becker Design for making my awesome poagies and framebag, Martin and Archana for driving me to the start, Joseph and friends for the ride home, Tyson and Josh for making me ride harder, Jeff for betting on me (sorry you lost), and all the organizers and volunteers at Endurance North. If you get a chance to race (or just ride) any of their events you won't regret it. They put on the best races around. 

Oh yeah, all our claims to toughness were invalidated when Elliott finished the course on a unicycle.

p.s. None of these pictures are mine. Thanks to those I stole them from (most are from the White Mountains 100 FB page).


  1. i love love love these posts. hopefully you keep racing (or riding in races) so we can keep reading about them. also, did someone actually ride that race on a unicycle?!

    1. He did the whole race! You can see him in the start video, he comes in from the bottom of the frame at second 46.

  2. It's always a blast seeing you front runners blast through the checkpoint; my only regret is never getting to hear more about your race. Thanks for sharing your reflections and perspective.

  3. As you know, I'm of the ride rather than the race persuasion.
    Sent off a copy of the book yesterday, regular and not book mail.

  4. bomb.com post Benny. Did you burst into first place at the start? That means you won that part of it. Also, the most props to the unicycle guy. That is unreal.