Things got progressively weirder as the Utah mountain bike race/event known as the 24 Hours of Moab continued. At some point in the middle of the night, two tandem bikes with riders dressed as frogs rode in from a direction that I was certain had nothing to do with the race course. During the first lap, I’d been concerned when another racer didn’t correctly yield the trail to me on a long climb, but by the time the frog thing happened, nothing of that sort was bothering me. I was just pleased that the creatures stopped and were waiting off to the side of the trail for me to pass before continuing on. From that moment on, as I passed and rode on up toward the crest of the hill and far end of the race course each time, I was consumed by the thought that the frog riders might just turn onto the same 15 mile long trail that me and several hundred other riders were in the midst of riding. As I rode on, I hoped that if so, they’d at least go in the same counterclockwise direction as the rest of us.
In my riding stupor, I reasoned that if they were to actually get on the trail somewhere 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 simply did. As I visualized the frog group riding just behind me, I felt some sort of a rush of power come into my legs and the rest of that first climb was almost pleasant as I rode on toward the top.
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’d even made any. The thought that they might not have even completed one at first leaves me feeling kind of empty. But almost miraculously, that emptiness is always filled by a sort of positive energy that seeps in, takes control of the entire thought, and then propels me forward, just like 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 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, the mix of foot deep sand and bowling ball sized rocks that littered it made it trickier to negotiate. I like to think that if I’d 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. For whatever reason, neither the late hour, fatigue, realization of the obvious luck that I’d experienced on my last descent, or the big 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 almost 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 moment, all was well until my downhill progress was abruptly stopped by yet another big rock, this one buried and mostly out of sight.
The rock acted like a brake and my bike came to a sudden and complete 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. All I thought of as it was happening was a sort of strange guilt.
I’m not completely sure how the crash episode actually unfolded. I did fall off the edge, that’s a fact. But luckily it occurred at a spot that was steep, but not fatally so, and covered with all sorts of small trees and shrubs. Thankfully, 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. A bright moon lit up the high desert around me and I could see parts of my bike rising above the sand on the trail above. My bike light was still shining and was lighting up another scrub cedar tree which was just above the crash site. I was sure that there must be blood or that I was injured somewhere. But I felt nothing, physically or mentally, except for the need to get up and going. And without further ponderment or speculation, that’s what I did.
All was apparently well with my bike and body as I rode on. The rest of that particular descent was flawless and once down, I rode onto a hard-packed backroad. From previous laps, I knew that the road wound its way for several miles across and through what is known as Behind the Rocks. I eventually increased my speed, this time for logical reason. The road was stable, wide, and had no big drop-offs, but by going faster the cold night air and my sweat soaked body conspired to make me increasingly chilled.
The cold finally became overwhelming and I stopped in order 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 begin 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 below me and 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 down below somehow rising up out of the valley? Was the big heater blowing in the start/finish tent heating up more than just the tent? Did the moon actually give off heat? I had questions, but never came to a conclusion. I just rode on down, feeling warm 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 began another lap. For a moment, the chill returned and I welcomed the climb and the body heat it would create and began anxiously anticipating the return of the high desert moonglow and whatever weirdness lurked ahead.