the bad place

the bad place

Friday, October 15, 2021

PMBAR: Back to Playing the Crying Game

My butthole was destroyed.

Nearing a paltry seven hours of constant riding, hiking, pushing, fording, falling, and carrying, with too many more to come, I was already raw. And outside of the rivers and creeks and wet trails, the uncommon fall humidity was ensuring that my kit, particularly my bibs, never dry. So that all of the spandex-filtered trail detritus, grit, and salt I'd been slowly accruing in there was now colluding with that moisture to sand down all my sensitive bits. And I was becoming hyper aware of all the places I'd missed during my application of chamois creme. Places outside the normal purview. Enough so that by the time we finished however many hours from now, some blood stains in my post-race boxer briefs were a given.

So you can imagine my mood. 

Versigtig, ek's nog steeds fokken giftig.

Yes. I realize that it's been almost two years since I've written a thing here. Or anywhere, really. What can I say? My spark went out. Or rather... I let it. For the past few years, like all too many of us, I've just been sleep walking through the days, and through increasingly destructive patterns of intentional isolation, too much work, not enough travel, an excess of empty bottles, and very sporadic pockets of any real quality time on the bike. All of which leads to a decided lack of spirit, much less any feelings of creativity. And the process of crawling back has been a bit like trying to start a fire with so much wet wood. Doable, but difficult. And yet, well... here I am... watching the exhausted Moleskine notepad I just lit with a match burn in a pile of relatively dry kindling. Who knows? Maybe something will catch.

For the first time in too many weeks, things were actually falling into place. The Van of Constant Sorrow was not only drivable, but capably so. Oil leaks were fixed, wiring issues were solved, wheel noise was gone. (I even had fancy new bumpers and a legitimate hitch rack. Like a big boy.) I had full coverage at the shop for the weekend. Childcare was handled. My bike was ready. And I was getting out of town at a reasonable time. What? The? Shit?

Arriving just prior to dusk, I met up with my other life-partner Rich and we secured our usual primo camping spots at the start/finish. Then we rode to the HUB to pick up our numbers, and missing the beer cut-off, headed on over to Oscar Blues Brewing in the pleasant chill of a mountain evening. Even the shit show of a college homecoming and multitude of drunk white yuppies (yuppies are still a thing, right?) and the cringingly loud band covering Steve Miller's "The Joker" that greeted us couldn't dampen my relatively dry spirits. 


"The Face of Chaos"and Dr. Mike. And me.

We drank too much. That's a given. But less in that sad way we've all been drinking too much lately, and more in a pleasant spirit of muted and cautious camaraderie, a thing I've simply not been a part of for a bit. So it felt, if not triumphant, then... totally fine. 

The next morning brought only mild headaches and plenty of time to sip coffee and gather our gear for the 8:30 start. Shuffling around in a state of decadent unpreparedness among what seemed to be too many fully kitted racers all ready to go. At which point Rich informed me that he was wrong, and that we actually had less than 15 minutes to get ready. Not 45. Which, if you've ever seen me before any race start, just meant that I was now completely in my element. Let rapid entropy commence. 

Five checkpoints, three of them mandatory. A few rules regarding off limit roads and glamour paths, but otherwise, bag them however you see fit. Once again, I left navigation completely up to Rich. Not only does he relish such things, but I just have no clue. I should. But I don't. It's like a mental block with Pisgah. Directionally it's less of a nautical star to me and more of a möbius strip. I can no more point north when I'm there than I can tell you which trail is Buckbeak and which one is Bearbutt. (Pretty sure it's the one with the wet, off-camber roots. Wait...)

After a cursory look at the map and some vocalizing of intent to the ether, (or to me, for all the good it does) Rich folded it away and said "Let's go." And thus began an eleven and a half hour day of occasionally riding, often pushing, sometimes descending, but always struggling. During a podcast one time, I erroneously stated that typical PMBAR mileage is in the range of thirty. I was apparently on crack when I said this. We were looking at a minimum of seventy five, and that included teleportation. 

How to Train Your Butthole.

It had rained for over a week in the mountains, so everything was wet. Even the gravel roads had a spicy element of hot, sexy, drag. Soft spots that made you work harder than you wanted to move forward at a snail's pace. Parts of trails were drying, but the roots were still ice-slick with humidity, and staying clipped in and upright on some bench-cuts was proving difficult. For me, anyway. A multitude of micro-crashes and stumbles was getting in my head. During one fast gravel descent, while trying to shove a food in my mouth with one hand, the other slipped off my handlebar. I somehow managed to catch myself and steer my bike into a ditch, thus turning a day-ending and possibly life-changing crash into a minor skirmish. But it did a number. Cuts and bruises on my hip and elbow. My ass. My confidence. And my ego.

"Aren't you, like... @thegravelassassin or something?" Rich asked. 

"No. I say you he dead."

Somewhere near hour nine, Rich broke the news to me: ten hours probably wasn't in the cards. "Do you think we'll make it in before dark?" "Hopefully?" he shrugged, offering me a handful of gummy bears. But by now, I was done with gummies, even if I was out of food. I'd gagged twice on the last handful. I think one of the things that makes PMBAR so difficult comparative to other races is nutrition. It seems to be harder to eat and drink in ways that make sense. I don't know. Maybe some of that is the singlespeed. Those times when you can settle in and spin (and eat) just don't exist. Climbs that on a geared bike would be a great place to soft pedal and root around in pockets or open packets are, instead, full body endeavors:  Out of the saddle exercises in strength and leverage. Flat sections? They don't exist. This is Pisgah. And descents? Don't do it. (See above). And some of it is just stubbornness. We call it "packless PMBAR" and it basically means carrying as little as possible based entirely on our hubris of self-expectation. For example: Lights? If they hadn't been mandatory, I wouldn't have carried them. And I'd have been a very sad boy for the last hour of riding. 

I can't even tell you where we went, save that all of it was familiar. "The wheelchair ramp." The Butthole. Pilot. Clawhammer. Squirrel. Bennet. Some of it was glorious. Some of it terrible. All of it was beautiful. I may not know where we were, but Rich does. And I'm thankful for that. And I'm thankful for him dragging me along when what I want to do is sit in a creek and make cry-y faces. I seriously don't know where he gets his energy. It's not from food, because from a nutrition standpoint, I absolutely consumed more calories than he did, and I was STILL falling apart. I think Pisgah is just one of his happy places. I'm still looking for mine.  

Endurance racing is, in too many ways, just a mirror. And mirrors, for all their simplicity, are complicated things. Because you never know what you're going to get, even if it's all just a spectrum of the same fucking thing. There are those days where the angles align, and some trick of good light presents a you that seems, if not close to, then at least pointing in the direction of the who and what and where you want to be. And there are others, where every grizzled line, shadow, and blemish staring back at you are just another sobering reminder that beneath a veneer of time spent on self-improvement and growth, you are still the shit show you expected.

PMBAR, for whatever reason, has always been the equivalent of me in a gas station bathroom, illuminated by dim but glaring fluorescent overheads, and staring in dismay at my increasingly scabrous face. A juxtaposition of simultaneous gaunt and bloat. In that all of the positive habits and actions I try to cultivate in my life vanish in the face of adversity and I'm laid bare. Pouty, it turns out, rather than pensive. Melodramatic, rather than melancholy. Unstable... rather than stoic. I felt useless, because I had nothing to offer. No wisdom regarding route or pacing. No amazing fitness to carry us through. No sagacity regarding nutrition and hydration. I was Rich's old, fat, temperamental dog who he mistakenly thought would be fun to bring on a ride. And currently I was lying in a manure filled mud puddle refusing to budge. 

Strong boy.

Somewhere on Maxwell, I realized we were done. The final climb before the descent down Black to the finish, I'd been here many times before. Though now Rich was fading. I suspect most of that was the dawning dread that we were finishing after dark. And the emotional exhaustion of having to haul me around for a day. Even with lights that wouldn't stay in place, (because poor planning) the descent down the new Black was a damned treat. A buff and fast bench cut where there used to be a rutted out chute of rooty horror. I approve. And then we were there, crossing the line to a smattering of applause.

"Fourth," Eric told us. Meh... it didn't matter. We were done. Wait, what? Fourth overall? Second singlespeed? Alright, we accept. A minor victory in the face of our decrepitude, especially considering we had rolled across the line assuming that everyone had already finished. A cursory (and very painful) wet-wipe and bottle water clean up next to my van. Podium shots in the dark. Then drinking lots of Crank Arm beer and eating the simplest, but most delicious post-race burritos in the business. Swapping stories of woe with the mud encrusted husks of people crossing the line over the next few hours. 

John Haddock is a bucket.

"Ow. My butthole."

Apparently only 25% of the field finished this year. On a beautiful, clear day in October. That says something. There are longer day-races, to be sure. And harder ones. But not many. And we weren't even "racing." In that while yes, we did ride consistently, we were never in the fight or flight mode that comes from actual competition. Even when we knew that Jarz and Haddock were probably only a few minutes ahead of us. Meanwhile, I've aggressively chased Rich up and down these very same hills in races like the 111k that we're pitted against each other and felt fresher. So I can't quite put my finger on what it is about PMBAR that makes it so challenging. Fuck. I guess I better come back next year to figure it out. 

Incidentally, I tried to snap a few pictures of my butthole in the port-a-potty that night so that I could see the extent of the damage, and I even considered including them here. But they were honestly so visually disturbing that I just couldn't. Imagine taking a close up of your 45 year old butthole on a good day. Now, imagine its worst day ever. Imagine it.

Hey... have a great weekend!

I am awaited in Valhalla!


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