Things got progressively weirder as the Utah mountain bike race, known as the 24 Hours of Moab, continued. It was an event where riders, in teams ranging in size from individuals to up to 8, rode as many laps as possible within 24 hours. I was doing it solo, which among other things, created some intriguing late-night moments. At some point in the middle of the night, two tandem bikes with riders dressed as frogs rode in from a direction that had nothing to do with the race-course. During the previous lap, I’d been concerned when another racer didn’t correctly yield the trail on a long climb. But by the time the frog thing happened, nothing of that sort was bothering me any longer. I was just pleased that they were stopped and waiting off to the side of the trail for me to pass before continuing. From that moment on, as I rode up toward the crest of that hill each time, I kept looking for the frog riders and continued to be concerned that they might be riding that same section of trail. I hoped that if so, they’d at least be going in the same counterclockwise direction as the rest of us.
In my riding stupor, I reasoned that if they were indeed riding on the trail, but behind me, at least they’d have my back, for whatever that was worth. And while that thought, concept, or whatever it was shouldn’t have provided me any comfort, it did. As I visualized the frogs riding behind me each time, I felt a strange rush of power come into my legs, and the rest of that first climb was almost pleasant.
But, throughout the rest of the race, I never saw the four pseudo-amphibians again. Still today, more than ten years later, I find myself wondering from time to time how many laps they made or if they even made any. The thought that they might not have completed even one at first leaves me with an empty feeling. But that emptiness is inevitably filled by some sort of positive energy that seems to take control and propel me forward. It’s just like what the sight of them did during that chilly race night in Utah.
After the first hill, the trail dropped sharply down into a dry creek, crossed it, and then climbed steeply up on the far side before beginning another descent. Thankfully, body fatigue and a strong self-preservation instinct had kept me from trying to ride across the creek bottom with its big and awkward rocks, ruts, and drop-offs on my first few times around. But the downhill that followed the climb up from the creek was a different story.
I’d successfully ridden down that long, sandy, four-wheel-drive backroad known as the “sandy descent after the gully” on several previous laps. But on each successive one, as the mix of foot deep sand and bowling ball-sized rocks that littered it got more stirred up, it became trickier to negotiate. Most likely, had I been thinking clearly on this fifth lap, I would’ve made the rational decision to “walk it.” But instead, I sped up and tried to ride it even faster than I had the other times. Neither the late hour, fatigue, realization of how lucky I’d been on my previous descents, or the significant drop-off along the edge entered into my decision to “go for it.”
Earlier, in the afternoon, there’d been spectators scattered out at various locations along the descent, some of them likely waiting to see a little carnage. But, with the cold and remoteness that came with the late hour, I was virtually alone as I started down. The first twenty feet went as expected. I was not in full control, but it was manageable. But then, a big rock blocked my line, forcing me to somehow swerve to the uphill side. I over-corrected after the near-miss and could feel the deep sand grab my front wheel. For a brief moment, all was well. But suddenly, it wasn’t, as my downhill progress came to an abrupt stop, thanks to another big rock, that was completely buried and out of sight.
The rock acted like a brake, and my bike came to an instant stop, although I did not. Luckily, my feet came unclipped from the pedals, which allowed me to hit the sand without being attached to the bike. The last thing I would’ve needed as I rolled off of the drop-off side of the trail was anything else connected to the system. Things were out of my control. Strangely, my prevailing thought as it was happening was a sort of strange guilt.
I’m not all that sure how the crash episode unfolded. I did fall off the edge, that’s a fact. But thankfully, it occurred at a spot that was steep, but not fatally so, and covered with all sorts of small trees and shrubs. Ultimately, a partly dead cedar tree ended up coming to my rescue and stopped my fall before it could get any more out of hand.
Once I came to a stop, I just lay there a moment. I kept thinking about the frog riders who were somewhere back behind, and the thought of them gave me confidence that all was okay. And then I looked more intently at my surroundings. A bright moon illuminated the high desert around me, and I could see parts of my bike sticking up above the sand on the trail above. My bike light was still shining and was lighting up another scrub cedar tree, just above the crash site. I was sure that there must’ve been blood or that I was injured somehow. But I felt nothing, physically or mentally, except for the need to get up and get going. And so, without any pondering or speculation, that’s what I did.
Amazingly, all was well with my bike and body as I rode on. The rest of that particular descent was without incident, and once down, I rode onto a hard-packed backroad. From previous laps, I knew that the road wound its way for several miles through the area known as Behind the Rocks. I eventually increased my speed, this time for a logical reason. The road was stable, wide, and had no significant drop-offs. But the combination of speed, cold night air, and my sweat-soaked body conspired to make me increasingly chilled.
The cold finally became overwhelming, and I stopped to put on the rest of the warm clothes that I had with me. As I stood there, digging through my pack for anything that might provide additional insulation, I began to shiver almost uncontrollably. I hurried to get up on my bike and start riding again, although I knew that the road went mostly downhill and that riding on it would only make me colder. The cold soon went beyond simple shivering, and my hands began to lose feeling. I was beginning to speculate about alternatives when I came over a rise and saw the temporary city of lights of the start/finish area a few miles off in the distance.
Just as the sight came into view, the numbness went away, full feeling returned to my hands, and I stopped shivering. It was inexplicable and downright strange. While I’d become accustomed to the unexpected, the sudden lack of cold had me confounded. Was the heat from all of the campfires somehow rising out of the valley? Was the big heater blowing in the start/finish tent heating up more than just the tent? Did the moon give off heat? I had questions but never concluded anything. I just rode on down, feeling warmer as I rode into the spectacle of fire, light, people, and at least some degree of sanity.
Within minutes, I rode out of the staging area and began riding up the long hill, as I started another lap. At first, the chill returned, and I welcomed the climb and body heat it would create. And then, I started anxiously anticipating the frog riders, the return of the high desert moonglow, and whatever else awaited.