Monday, August 27, 2007

Memories from the Hotter'n'Hell 100: 98 degrees, humidity; swolen knees, humility.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the Razorback Hydration Station at mile 98 that I became certain that I was going to finish the 2007 HH100. I had plenty of fluids to get me to the finish line, but when I turned past the rusting tin automobile garage, past the woman waving a beer bottle shouting “free beer”, and past a second bystander who also yelled “free beer”, I just had to pull a U-turn. “You serious?” I asked, not certain if this oasis was real or a fantastical mirage, a projection of my deepest desires. “Heck yeah—it’s cold too,” said the grey haired, mutton-chopped, pot-bellied man who’d just flagged me down, “you’re the first one to stop today!” This fact gave me great pleasure; I was the fittest person to need a beer, out of the nearly 12,000 participants in this year’s Hotter’n’Hell 100 mile bicycle ride. I reached the old garage, and gladly accepted red plastic cup from a squirrelly-looking old guy with a full beard, and took a large sip of pure foam. Yum. A quick scan told me that, visually, I was a stark contrast to the rest of the people inside the garage. I was all sweaty and lycra-clad, while almost everyone else was wearing cowboy boots. The one thing we all had in common was a red plastic cup filled with foam. Inside the garage, several other older, bearded men sat in front of large industrial fans that kept the interior of the garage cool. I could see a large grill clearly cooking something unhealthy and delicious. Along the walls were stacked piles and piles of old rusty tools, and high above our heads, a beautifully restored 1940’s Desoto, a turquoise one, sat on a lift. Enjoying myself, but at the same time fearing that one beer might turn into seven, and, perhaps, realizing that I was still competing in a USCF sanctioned bicycle race, I decided it was time to go. I posed for a picture with my beer cup, signed the official Razorback Hydration Station guest log, finished my drink, and got back on my bike.


The race was over. There were fifteen people up the road–how they got up there is anyone's guess–and the "field" of twenty or so that Nick and I were riding in had given up completely. Nobody wanted to pull-through, but everyone was willing to chase: negative racing at it's worst. I'd already gone through seven bottles of water (the four that I started with, and three I picked up in feed zones), but I was still thirsty, and there was still 25 miles left in the race. My knee was starting to stiffen up, now that the adrenaline had worn off, but at least I'd stopped cramping. This heat! How in the world were any of these guys still going hard? I was so blown I could hardly see straight. Our stupid group kept doing stupid things: opening up gaps for no reasons, attacking the paceline, refusing to pull through yet insisting upon riding near the front–and the breakaway's gap kept increasing. We passed by one of the many aid stations we'd seen along the way. The large circus style tent beckoned to me, and then formed eyes and a mouth. "I've got cold drinks and cookies," it said, "you look tired, why don't you come grab a seat in the shade, cool off in front of one of the giant fans". Surprised, I rubbed my eyes, but the face on the side of the tent was still there.
"I can't stop, I'm in the middle of a race! Can you save me a cookie for later?" I asked the tent.
"Nope–stop now, or no cookies for you," the circus tent teased.
Ten minutes later, I clipped back into my pedals. My belly was full of Gatorade and cookies (and perhaps my pride); my body temperature was about 5 degrees cooler; my face had been wiped clean with wet towel; and I was quite pronouncedly out of the race, but thank heavens, that face on the side of the tent had stopped talking to me.


“Awh fuck no, this ain’t happening,” I thought to myself, as the racer directly in front of me went skidding across the road on his side—but oh yes, it was happening alright. I slowed down quite a bit, but couldn’t avoid hitting the unfortunate fellow on the ground, and thus, hitting the ground myself. I wasn’t hurt bad, but it took me a few seconds to slam my displaced shifter back into position, and get my chain back on. For the next half-hour, I chased my brains out with the help of one other unlucky racer. My chase companion was bleeding from his hand, and turned his bar-tape on the right side a really hardcore, yet pretty shade of pink. At long last the field slowed down; either a break got established, the field got tired, or both, and we were able to make contact with the peloton. On the list of things that suck a lot--crashing and then having to chase for miles is solidly inside the top ten.


Nick and I woke up as late as we could: 5:30 AM for a 6:30 start. We quickly shoveled down some food and put on our spandex. We grabbed our bikes and headed out the door, out of the air conditioning and into a hot, humid, pitch black Witchita Falls morning. The five mile ride from the hotel to the race was enough to make us start sweating profusely, and the sun wasn't even up yet. We arrived at the very back of the staging area--a massive 4 lane boulevard completely blocked off to vehicular traffic, and jam packed with cyclists for at least ten blocks. After borrowing a pump to top off our tires, we began the tedious (and dangerous) process of weaving our way through over 12,000 cyclists to the staging area for the men's pro/1/2 staging area.