Things got progressively weirder as the 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 knew 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 was flustering me. I was just pleased that the creatures stopped and waited at the side of the trail for me to pass before they moved on. For a moment, as I passed and rode on up toward the crest of the hill, I was consumed by the thought that they might have turned onto the same 15 mile long trail that me, and several hundred other riders had been riding loops on for over 12 hours, and consciously hoped that they were going counterclockwise like the rest of us. I reasoned that if they did, in fact, get on the trail, they just might at least have my back. And while that shouldn’t have necessarily given me comfort, it did. Upon coming to that realization, I felt a rush of new energy come into my legs and the rest of that first climb was almost pleasant. I never saw the four pseudo-amphibians again before the race ended the following noon. Even today, ten years later, I do find myself wondering from time to time, how many laps they made, if they did, in fact, make any.
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, my body fatigue had not been able to completely overwhelm my self-preservation instinct and I didn’t attempt to ride across the creek bottom with it’s big and awkward rocks, ruts and drop-offs. But, the downhill that followed the climb up from the creek was a different story.
I had already successfully ridden down the long, sandy, four-wheel drive backroad known as the “sandy descent after the gully” on previous laps. But on each successive one, the mix of foot deep sand and bowling ball sized rocks had become trickier to negotiate. I like to think that if I’d been thinking clearly, I would have 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 I’d experienced on my last ride down it, 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 probably 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 were 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 I could feel the deep sand grab my front wheel. For a moment, all was well, if not involuntarily so, until my downhill progress was abruptly stopped by another big rock, this one buried and mostly out of sight.
The rock acted as a brake and my bike came to a complete stop, although I didn’t. Luckily, my feet did come free 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 on off 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 it unfolded, but it did. I had gone off the edge, but at a place that was steep, but not fatally so, and was covered by all sorts of small trees and shrubs. A gnarly, scraggly and 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 me. My bike light was still shining and was lighting up another scrub cedar tree, just above the crash site. I was sure there must be blood or that I was injured somewhere. But, I felt nothing except 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 the descent was flawless and once down, I rode out and 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 once again picked up my speed, this time for logical reason, since the road was stable, wide and had no big drop-offs. But, with the increasing speed, the cold night 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 I had. As I stood there, digging through my pack for anything that might provide more insulation, I began to shiver almost uncontrollably. I hurried to get riding again, although I knew that for the most part, 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 and down below.
Just as the sight came into view, the numbness went away, full feeling returned to my hands and I stopped shivering. It was inexplicable. It was 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 some degree of sanity.
Within minutes, I was leaving the staging area and began riding up the long hill, as I began another lap. For a moment, the chill returned, but I welcomed the climb and the body heat it’d create and began to wonder about what sort of weirdness lurked up ahead.