Riding slowly down the trail and looking to our left for signs of life, there was a collective sinking feeling.
The checkpoint wasn't there.
And while I couldn't tell you where "there" even was... Mills River, maybe.... I knew one thing for certain. The checkpoint most certainly was not.
So we backtracked for a minute, panic-meandered down a different trail, then stopped while Rich checked and rechecked the map against the passport. And then he broke the news that I already knew.
This wasn't the right place.
To which I nodded, shrugged, and grunted.... and proceeded to ride in the direction he pointed.
Same as it ever was.
"Well, the good news is..." he said as we half-wheeled each other down what I assumed was now the right way, proceeding to think out loud about things I had already zoned out on.
If the rule of a hypothetical drinking game for the day was to take a swig every time Rich said those words over the next however many hours ... I'd be finishing PMBAR in very rough shape.
In most of my life, I would be considered a "top," whether I deserve to be or not. Not strong or dominant, necessarily, but still somehow the captain steering or at the very least barking the orders to steer the wreckage of my life into whatever abysmal crevices I desire. Torpedoes be damned.
But in the case of PMBAR, I admit... I'm a "bottom." Rich's bottom as it happens. Which is particularly funny because as both of us age in our own ways, myself sighing in dismay at the growing bags under my eyes and casting wary glances at my softening pecs and wondering if I'll perhaps need a bra in my golden years...
Rich's bottom is simply disappearing. To ride behind him these days, is to ask "how did this wiry 90 year old woman get in front of me?"
So much like Ren's pecs... I am Rich's bottom. Perhaps we could broker a trade?
(Yes, I just made a Top/Bottom reference to me and Rich. You're welcome.)
The real point is... that even if I suddenly moved to Pisgah and rode those trails every day and understood them intimately... I would still probably just shrug and grunt and ride in whatever direction Rich told me to at PMBAR. Because that's the nature of our relationship there.
I was on the road driving west by 1pm on Friday. I can count on one finger how many times that's happened in my many years of trying to arrive in Pisgah before dark. Torrential rains made for slow going, but it all passed fairly painlessly. And by the time I arrived at The Hub, not only had the rain stopped, but the sun was shining gloriously on my pale neck and arms and shitty DIY mullet...
and on whatever it is Rich is doing with his hair these days.
|I seriously don't know.|
After much debating between Mexican food and expensive burgers, we agreed to drive to Oscar Blues Brewery rather than ride. Which made me a little sad; something something about rituals, smart or not... But also turned out to be a great decision, as the moment we arrived, the sky opened up. Once finally huddled under the massive patio roof, we saw many a people we knew and supped and drank and laughed and questioned the meaning of double rainbows and live music at a brewery. (Seriously... why?)
Then we headed to the start/finish at Smoker's Cove, just because, and drank a little more. And then we turned in early. Or not. I don't actually know, save that our consumption for the evening for once felt, if not tame, then... manageable?
|What does it mean?|
Race morning followed suit. Having awoken at 4am from an anxious dream about malfunctioning ATM's, improper bike sizing, and other people's wives, and never really returning to sleep, the 6am alarm I'd set was a breeze. Coffee. Eggs. Bowel movement number one and the realization that we still had over an hour to start. More coffee. Bowel movement number two. So that by the time the race meeting started I was actually 100% ready to start the race.
That never happens. Which begged the question, "what the fuck is about to happen?"
A quick refresher on the format of PMBAR. Five checkpoints in the woods, the locations of which are given to you at race start in the form of a small paper"passport," along with various rules and off limits roads and trails. Get them in whatever order you choose.
A far cry from the crowded mass-start of most races, PMBAR tends to begin with everyone sprawled out in a field looking at maps, and then rolling out sporadically and in no particular order.
"Well, the good news is...."
In the same way that some people pepper their every sentence with some form of "um" or "so" or "you know what I'm saying"... Rich was beginning to stutter. To repeat himself in ways that were losing meaning. Because the good news always seemed just around the corner of another potentially bad decision. And we'd made a few. Which didn't matter much, as I was less worried about our place than I was about our duration. The expectation of podium is meaningless at this race. Anything can and will happen. But the expectation of time spent riding... can crush you. For instance, if you were banking on nine hours, in most cases, that's your "fuck it" point. In that you WILL stop making good decisions past that. Consuming food. Drinking water. Trying. Caring. Which makes the possibility (probability) of two to three more hours less and less palatable.
One of the more discombobulating things to me about PMBAR has always been that even after three hours of constant riding and pushing, rarely do we have even one of the five checkpoints under our belt. And let's be honest... three hours is pretty much the maximum amount of ride-time I'm able to squeeze in these days. And while the hope is that the checkpoints will come in quick succession after that, rarely does that happen. Which is how five checkpoints located approximately ten miles apart as the crow flies, easily turns into a 15 hour day.
As has happened before, our navigational mishap put us behind a train of riders who, by rights, we probably should have been ahead of. And also landed us in direct contact with three other singlespeed teams on pretty much the exact same course. And gearing. Which meant that now, instead of existing in a blissful no-man's land of ignorance and slogging through Pisgah on our own. We were "racing."
God, I fucking hate racing. I hate that feeling of pushing hard only to turn around and see the rider you "dropped" dangling 20 feet behind you. I hate the back and forth of passing and being passed. It does nothing to stimulate my fight or flight reflexes and just makes me want to stop and sit and let everyone ride ahead so that I can be back in the no man's land of a long quiet day.
But the one thing I will say about racing, PMBAR or otherwise... letting those moments define the day is always a mistake. Because if given half a chance, people will explode. For all kinds of reasons. Nutrition. Mechanicals. Fatigue. Will to live. So that while it feels like this jockeying back and forth will last forever... mile 40 is a very different animal than mile 70. Give it time.
Slowly but surely, we pulled away from the other three teams until we were once again in blissful Pisgah limbo. With no idea of proximity to other racers. For all we know, they'd found a better route and were minutes ahead of us. Or not.
Before I really knew it, we were finishing Clawhammer and beginning the final climb on Pressley (I think these are the right words). I had sprained and possibly fractured my wrist over a month ago helping my mom move the world's heaviest and last remaining cathode-ray-tube television and was in a rough place descending Black to the finish line... but we made it. And rolled across the finish line in Second place. Behind Chris Joice and his teammate, which we'd pretty much expected. While once upon a time, Chris was a solid competitor, but I could usually count on finishing ahead of him... these days I audibly curse when I see his name on the start list. And he knows it. Fucker.
|Yeah, yeah... laugh it up.|
Scott Smith and his partner finished behind us, having made the same epic mistake we had very nearly made ourselves... blindly hiking up Laurel to snag the mandatory checkpoint. Mistake, because outside of no actual mandatory checkpoints this year, there also was no checkpoint on Laurel. Even though there's always a checkpoint on Laurel.
The lesson being: read the passport.
I don't remember the order we ended up snagging all the checkpoints in. Or the name of most of the trails and roads, even though I've been on all of them. But I do remember that mistakes aside, this was one of the most enjoyable PMBAR's I've ever had. My fitness still felt lacking and I failed to eat the way I intended to. But I was never in the hole. Never 50 yards behind Rich barely able to turn my legs over. Never feeling like crying as we pushed our bike up yet another unridable mountain.
So much of my perception of Pisgah is based on riding events, with a capital "E." Hard events. Really hard events. So that rarely is riding there a pleasure. There's often the satisfaction at the end of a long day of "being done" and "doing well" (or not.) But the day itself is often spent hunting or hurting or holding on for dear life. It seems like I'm constantly grinding up the same soul-crushing hills or bouncing down the same brutal rutted trails... and never really touching "the fun stuff." Because I know it exists.
While there was still a shit ton of terrible (Bradley Creek cough cough) we actually rode some legitimately fun trails. Squirrel, Spencer. Trace Ridge. The New Black. (I think we rode these trails?) And I felt, if not an affinity, then an affection for Pisgah, for the first time in a long while.
So, the good news is... that next year is going to be absolutely soul-crushing. Watch.