Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Surviving Iron Cross IV

This is my story of surviving the Iron Cross, or “America’s Longest Cyclo-Cross Race”

As I lay here slowly recovering from an epic weekend of racing, I am constantly reminded of Sunday’s race every time I move and feel one of the myriad of cuts and bruises covering my battered body.

Saturday’s race, the Iron Cross Lite, was uneventful in retrospect. At the time, I felt good about having raced strong, finishing in 5th place after battling back and forth with the women on that day’s course. Everyone out there raced well, and it was tough to pass anyone and put a gap on them, as everyone kept fighting again and again. I was able to attack repeatedly though, and got stronger as the race went on. For this, I am happy.

Sunday’s race however, the infamous Iron Cross, eventually eclipsed any of this, as a concoction of dirt, rocks, blood, adrenaline, and fear became my reality for the 6 hours and 45 minutes of pain that was the race.

At our starting time of 9 am, it was 25 degrees in Michaux State Park. We went off after the men, and I began passing a good number of riders as I got into a rhythm. A couple of women passed me on a road section, and I jumped on their wheel. They slowed quite a bit as we changed terrain onto a gravel road covered with fallen leaves, and I passed them, wanting to keep the pace they had set before. This road gave way to a section of deep sand, and I was grateful to be on my own there as it was near impossible to keep a straight line, and the bike kept trying to lay horizontal. I kept a pretty good clip, caught up to a very tall lanky woman on a mountain bike, and as I passed her on a double track section, she caught on to my wheel. We eventually hit a really steep gravel downhill, and I bombed down, made a quick left turn, and followed the gravel until we hit the first long road section. It felt good to be on smooth terrain, and I again found a nice rhythm for myself. After a few rollers, I passed the tall woman on the mountain bike again. I was perplexed since I never saw her pass me after I first saw her, but let it go and regained my focus as the road continued.

At a left turn back into the woods, a man yelled that I was “like in fifth place”, so I felt pretty good and decided to definitely keep up my pace. We hit a really technical, pure Michaux rocky section, and I wished I had my mountain bike as we started to negotiate the first rocky descent. I was having trouble with my rear brake, and lost control of my bike for the first time, endo-ing on a large log and landing on my right side, still attached to the pedals. The rider behind me pulled up my bike, helping me unclip, a stream of curses came from my mouth, and I quickly got up to continue. It was mostly downhill out of this section, so having lost trust in myself and my bike, I shouldered the bike, and ran over the rocks until I could ride again. During the time that I fell and started running, a small group of women passed me, and as I was determined to catch them, I began an unrelenting chase. For the next few hours, I rode as hard as I could, not stopping at check-points, and passing a few women on the way.

We eventually hit a “run-up” so steep that all of us were forced to move up at snail’s pace, bikes on our backs, using our free hand to help hold ourselves onto a dirt and rock face that would already be difficult to ascend bike-free and wearing hiking boots rather than mountain bike shoes. I am not sure how long it took to clear this seemingly vertical wall of pain, but it certainly was not a “run-up” and it took what felt like an eternity. I think that in my agony I may have even cried for mercy. Reaching the top rewarded us with a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, and in my feverish chase, I enjoyed it for all of a second as I jumped on my bike and began a downhill through deep sand that gave way to another grueling “run-up”. This was thankfully not as steep as the previous one, but relentless as well with its rocks, gravel, and sand that made it demanding to even find purchase on its uneven surface. Miles later of steep ascents and crazy descents, and we hit a climb so long that I thought I would be sick. But I again found a rhythm, slow as it was, and managed to pass quite a few riders during the struggle up.

The climb eventually gave way to a descent so sickeningly steep that I yearned for the climb, and on this screaming gravel dive through the landscape, my rear brakes got harder and harder to squeeze, until I lost control of my bike yet again, going down in a frenzy of scattered gravel and f-bombs.

This time, I was really shaken up since I was rolling rather fast when I fell, and I managed to rake the entire left side of my body along the gravel and thankfully, a bit of grass. I took stock of where I might be injured as I got up, but couldn’t feel much with the adrenaline streaming through my blood. I looked down at my bike and saw that the stem and brake hoods were crooked from the impact of the crash. I tried to straighten them but couldn’t do so without the help of my multi tool. Even so, I could only straighten the stem, and in my exhaustion couldn’t remember where the screws for the brake levers were. I started running down, and thankfully a bearded Wissahickon rider stopped and forced the brakes back to position. As I hyperventilated from the emotion, and thanked him between gulps of air, he rode off, and I was faced with miles more of the steepest descents I’d ever ridden. My confidence was shot, and although I tried to talk myself into riding down again, it was useless, and I ran the rest of the way down, afraid of losing control yet again. I had been lucky thus far, but did not want to fall again and hurt myself worse. We continued through varied terrain as my push to finish well was shattered. Survival became more significant, and at the last check-point, I decided to stop and refuel. I inhaled a cookie and drowned my disappointment with two cups of potassium drink, and trudged on.

After several stream crossings, while negotiating through some technical rocky single track, my bike eventually decided that it had had enough and promptly self destructed. It gave me warning in the manner of the entire drive train freezing on me for no apparent reason, and just when I thought I could remount and pedal, the rear derailleur launched itself forward, wrapping the chain around the frame and wedging itself into my wheel. The derailleur hanger had snapped and a link on the chain had burst. I couldn’t even roll the bike. The only glimpse of light I can see in this as I look back is that my bike gave up before I did. And all this at about 6 miles from the finish in a 60 plus mile race.

So I shouldered the bike again and made my way up a steep rock-laden hill until I found myself in a sunny landscape completely foreign to its surroundings with its dry sand and rock. It suddenly felt a bit like desert, and I decided to stop and make the most of this warm light in the way of fixing my steed. I first cut my chain with the tool I borrowed from Tim, having forgotten my own chain tool. I then loosened the derailleur and zip-tied it to the frame. I then spent maybe half an hour, 45 min, or an hour- I have no idea- trying to find the “magic” gear to make a single speed out of this bike. A very kind racer, Nick, stopped to help, but neither one of us could manage to close the chain in our nutrient-deprived, dehydrated, just plain exhausted states. I jammed the lifeless chain bits in my back pocket and started up the next climb, discouraged, crying-laughing, as Nick made small talk with me, and kindly tried to get my mind off my failing bike. At the top of the hill, he went off, and I began running the last 6 miles of the race. These last few miles were a hilarious combination of walk/running while pushing my chainless excuse for a bike, and coasting down hills on said bike.

I made it back to the last barriers at the finish line at the same time as two people on a tandem, and we laughed as we sprinted across the line. I am not sure who won, but I didn’t really care, and as a girl handed me my finishing socks, the announcer said something about my chainless bike, and people congratulated me for finishing without a chain. I was just happy to finish.


At 9:47 AM, Blogger Harlan said...

And of course you want to do it again. Conquer and destroy. Shock and awe!

At 10:38 PM, Anonymous alicia parr said...

I crashed on the same descent but must have been further down. I just rode my brakes down the rest of the way, wonky handle bars and all. A guy at the next rest stop fixed the bike up in a jiffy.


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