Ed. Note: Gleason’s Chris Schotz, a four-time 12-hour state champ, recently competed in the Wausau24, a 24-hour mountain bike race that can be attempted with a relay team, a duo or in the most-extreme case, solo. The race was formerly the national championship for 24-hour racing and is still one of the top events in the nation. Schotz candidly describes the ordeal that solo riders, even those at the front of the pack, endure.
It is not possible to race for 24 hours straight. Mental and physical survival is hard enough, so survive first and race later would be my strategy for this year’s Wausau24. 575 riders over all classes met at the Midwest’s endurance rendezvous with no chance of dangerous storms or oppressive heat in the forecast for a change.
I was back in the big boy race with a plan to finish for the first time since 2007, the year I was 24 solo freak champ. After that win I was convinced I was an immortal who could just go out and race guys hard all day and night.
Two collapses since then taught me otherwise. I had not gotten past 13 hours for five years. In 2008 a combination of apparent physical and digestive weakness took me out of the Wausau race, but in retrospect those problems were all mental. Most recently I abandoned the 2010 Afton (Alps in Minnesota) race with no explanation other than a broken will. That scared me. It took me two years to rebuild my nerve and change tactics.
In those failures I had raced first and survived later. After every single lap I would bother my pit crew to find out what place I was in and what the gaps were. I tried to hang with guys who were feeling strong at the moment. Half of those guys didn’t finish either, so if I would have just ridden my own race and taken care of myself I would have moved way up the standings. Instead, I mentally and physically burned myself out and abandoned at night while running in the top 10. This year I would not worry about other riders. They were beyond my control. I posted a sign at my pit that read, “Nobody tell me how I’m doing until 5 AM.” My crew stuck to that for 19 long laps.
For the sake of this story I should introduce some of the riders that I tried so hard to ignore for 19 hours. Back was Ron Stawicki, a guy so tough that he won the 2011 race after blowing the chain off his single speed twice that I saw personally. 2010 champ Joe Stephens was on the line as was 2011 runner-up Chris Strout, back home from North Carolina. I pitted with WEMS (Wis. Endurance Mountainbike Series) rival Randy Wegener and WEMS rookie Cameron Shave, both of Fond du Lac. I’m old enough to be his dad, so I had doubts about whether Shave could survive for 24 hours, but the 18-year-old was good natured and relaxed.
I should have given him a fighting chance.
We stood at the front an impressive herd, anticipating the quarter mile run to our bikes. I was nervous that I wouldn’t have it mentally, that I would give in to the pain and the hours, but I was confident that my strategy would get me through if I stuck to it. I ran that LeMans start as fast as my crooked little legs could carry me and reached the tangle of bikes with an 11-year-old girl who could run like the wind.
On the doubletrack (i.e. logging or fire road) lead-out, I found my riding legs and began passing the fast runners.
I saw Strout, and then went by Stephens who pointed out Stawicki, the man to beat, about 50 yards ahead. I resisted the urge to race to him. Just ride your pace the first lap. Gradually pick off riders on the double track. Hold a wheel and catch your breath on the single track. It is a long race.
The 9 Mile Forest course was actually a nice 10.75- mile mix of double and singletrack (narrow, twisting, rocky, rooty trails) that featured some noteworthy rock gardens. It was rather flat and fast with all substantial climbing right in the middle where riders climbed the long gravel road that skiers know by name, followed immediately by the rocky and steep Ho Chi (Minh) Hill. This is where a tough singlespeeder like Stawicki would usually have an advantage, so I was surprised to see him a mile later. I pulled beside him and used my 2×10 (geared) full suspension (bike) to my advantage on the fast doubletrack. I resisted the urge to sprint away on the first lap. Instead, I held a solid pace. Stawicki responded and found my wheel. He seemed to have an advantage on the flowing loose singletrack and long climbs, while I had the advantage on the tight, rocky singletrack and big (chain)ring (downhill and into the flat) sections.
We finished the lap together and took (energy drink) bottles on the fly. I kept up what I felt was a sustainable pace and eventually opened a gap that grew to two minutes by the end of the second lap. I had the encouraging idea that I was winning the race, but my pit crew wouldn’t tell. I resisted the urge to beg for worthless information about gaps and positions. At that stage of the race I could still enjoy the challenge of the rocks and roots. I often found a duo or team rider to pace with to close out a lap. Camaraderie can get you through.
Not only was I playing mental games with myself. I also had a food strategy that I had never used in 35 12-hour type races. In a race of 12 hours or less I can survive on a diet of GatorHeed, Perpetuem Solids, Cliff Bars, Hammer Gel, and geriatric energy shakes. I might add Endurolytes and water for high heat, but I can always make it to the finish with my stomach only on the brink of revolt. I decided that human food would be required for a 24 hour race. I would force myself to sit down and eat a sandwich, not my favorite meatball sub, but a nice neutral foot long turkey sub with some PB&J waiting in reserve. I ate six inches after lap eight and was relieved that my stomach was happy about it. By lap 14 I was feeling a bit overloaded with sugar and electrolyte so I finished the sandwich earlier than planned.
Night was falling and the dreaded hour 13 was upon me.
My stomach recovered, but my head went south. I couldn’t focus well, and the rocks kept bouncing me into trees. I craved a little doubletrack to restore my equilibrium. I recalled the words of a country song I find tolerable: “If you’re going through hell, keep on going.” I’ve often found that and my honey badger socks useful. By the end of the lap my balance was restored. Darkness had fallen completely and my eyes had grown accustomed to my bouncing beam.
I found a groove in the dark and my legs were good, but my wrists became the weakest link. As I grabbed a bottle on one lap, I asked my crew to get Allen wrenches ready. One lap later I had the Fond du Lac crew turn my Ergon grips up 20° while my familial crew helped with a long sleeve jersey. My wrists improved immediately. Several laps later the roots had taken their toll so I stopped on the trail to tilt the Ergons up to a radical 40° which kept the kinks and pain out of my wrists for the rest of the race, though it was murder on the palms.
I made it to 5 a.m. and was finally allowed to ask how the race was going. I ate a PB&J and learned that I was indeed in the lead, hovering about 10 minutes ahead of Strout. I was happy to hear that it was young Shave running third.
I had passed him a couple times, and he was smiling and chatty all the way. Wegener had succumbed to some pukey problems, and Stawicki and Stephens had problems of their own. My pit crew was feeling maternal and urged me to relax, but the sun got me feeling frisky and it was time to race and put things out of reach.
I stretched my lead about 10 minutes on each of the next four laps. My energy was waning as I finished lap 22 and rode into a little summit where the top-3 parental pit crews were arranging a truce. At the Wausau24 it is necessary to finish your last lap after the full 24 hours have expired so there are always a large number of riders waiting just shy of the finish line for the clock to hit 10 a.m. before they all walk across together. With none of the top-three on the same lap, it was safe to call it a day.
I took my time through lap 23 and even took a little walk up Ho Chi Hill, finding it no easier than riding. At the finish, I found Shave, and we hung out while waiting for 10 a.m.
Strout had missed the message and courageously begun his 23rd lap with 45 minutes to spare. I did the calculation and knew I was safe. A 24th lap was possible just for grins, but I was drained.
My crew noticed that my rear tire had a hernia that was bound to burst on the next sharp rock. 247 miles would have to be enough.
Duluth stalwart Jason Buffington pulled in with 22 laps for a substantial lead in the singlespeed class, third overall, two flats repaired. The clock turned over. Shave, Buffington and I crossed the line with many other great folks, finished.
(Second-place) Strout gamely finished his 23rd lap 33 minutes later. Fifth overall was female winner, durable Denise Coppock, a WEMS champion, with 21 laps. She survived an amazing battle with Andrea Metz who was herself sixth overall, just 35 minutes behind Coppock, who had survived some tough night laps to nip out an advantage in the morning hours.
Solo for 24 is indeed a game like no other. We were 24 hour survivors before 24 hour racers. We overcame obstacles. We endured hardship. We raced each other a little, and admired each other a lot. I’m grateful that the world still has days like that.
Addendum: Schotz also competed in the 300+-mile Trans-Iowa backroads race held in late April. The completely self-supported and self-navigated race traverses the state on gravel roads. He finished third overall, and termed it an ‘easier’ event than the Wausau24. A story on that event will be found at www.xxcmag.com in the near future. He is currently in first place in the WEMS 12-hour solo division, with a fifth title a win away.