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  • Kevin Thonney

Race Report: "My Longest Ride"...24 hrs. Round the Clock


We are three days past my first solo attempt at the 24 hour mountain bike race, and I sit here still contemplating what to put onto paper. It isn’t the course that was difficult; no, the terrain was tame for mountain biking standards. How does one put onto paper the kind of mental battles that are created inside one’s self over the course of a 24 hour mountain ride? I have put my body through difficult physical tests many times, I know how to hurt on the bike, how to suffer through the pain and push on physically. I found this past weekend that the mind can be a much more difficult foe to overcome than the legs.

Day One, Saturday morning: Beginning the day with sun poking its way through the blue tent walls wishing sleep had not yet ended, I picked up my phone and checked the time, still not past 6 yet. I felt rested and would have rolled out of bed at that point to enjoy the sun coming up while enjoying a cup of coffee, but I knew there was no more rest to come once out of bed, so I laid back down and dozed on and off for the next couple hours until there was no more sleep to come. Kara and Korinne had already been up for a time when I came out of the tent and were ready for breakfast, so we made our coffee and a delicious breakfast burrito of eggs, potatoes, sausage, and cheese and enjoyed some relaxing morning time sitting under our shade. My bike had already been prepared, my kits hung, there were just a few more details to go over with Kara before things kicked off. I didn’t finish my cup of coffee before switching over to water and chasing down a few electrolyte pills as the day’s warmth made no doubt that it would be a hot afternoon. Kara and I went through our lights for the night, food and hydration instructions, and battery chargers, going through our plans on how to best get through a full 24 hours of racing. My final instruction was that no matter where I was in the standings, I did not want to know where I was placed until the sun was up on Sunday morning (I add this detail as it is crucial mid-way through the race) as I did not trust myself to stay within a pace I could withstand for the long haul if I knew I was just within reach of another competitor.

At 10:40 am, still dressed in sweats and t-shirt, I walked down to the pre-race captains meeting (a team of one rider doesn’t give you a lot of options for captain.) We sat and listened to instructions and rules to be followed during the course of the race before heading back for final race preparations at 11:15. Computers charged, light mounts installed and ready for lights when darkness fell, suited up with food in pockets, helmet and glasses on. It is time to go, but one last hug from everyone and a family photo before heading for the start line. I found a parking spot for my bike and went back and found shade to sit in with the family before lining up for the Le Mans style start. I hold onto Jenny, Lance, and Eleanor, knowing it would be a long while before I would hold them again. The Five minute warning, time to go, more hugs, a picture, walk to the start…

Noon, the start gun goes off and I’m more relaxed than I would have imagined. The 600 yard run is designed to spread out the riders before grabbing our bikes and heading for the trail, it works well. I do my run at hardly more than a walking pace, get my bike and start pedaling.

My first challenge: My legs feel good at the start, fresh and ready to ride, so it was hard to watch all the team riders take off full gas. I watched my heart-rate and kept it low. Today is all about pacing and not allowing myself to get carried away, not pushing it too hard and blowing up too early. Things settle down quickly and just a few minutes into the first lap I was surrounded by other Solo riders in the same boat as I. On 5 Minute hill I rode next to another solo rider and we struck up a conversation that carried on through much of the first lap. It’s a small world, he was originally from Walla Walla as well before moving to the west side! We ride on, up Devil’s Up, down Devil’s Down, through the Strawberry Patch to Little Vietnam, crossing the road and going up three more little climbs, then screaming down the hill to come back to the start/finish line. One mixed bottle down and exchanged, a few Shot Bloks swallowed, on to Lap 2! Laps 2 and 3 were much more of the same as the legs felt good, I kept my HR low, drank and ate, grabbing fresh bottles of OSMO mixed drinks on the go from Kara and never stopping.

After Lap 3 I did stop for to quickly replenish my food stores and OSMO before heading back out for #4. This is where the second challenge started, the combined heat and time riding were starting to cause fatigue. I made sure to keep eating and drinking as I needed to make sure to keep calories and hydration in check if I was going to make it through the race. “Keep pedaling, keep eating and drinking, keep the HR down, follow the rules of the body and I’ll be fine,” I told myself.

By this time, the faster teams were starting to lap me and I gained another motivation to keep pressing on. You may find it odd that being lapped would be motivating to a rider, but it’s true! Every rider that came around me was polite, and most gave a shout of encouragement “good job solo!” or “you’re crushing it solo, keep it up!” or some other variation of a verbal push!

Laps 5 and 6 were much of the same, lap times slowly climbing as fatigue clawed its way into my body and mind. I kept pushing on, and was pushed on by cheering from others lap after lap, rock garden after rock garden, hill after hill, turn after turn, just keep going, keep focused, don’t stop. At the end of lap six, my next challenge started, added on top of fatigue and much more difficult, at 8:05 pm the battle with my mind began.

As Lap 6 came to a close and I pulled into the pits for a refuel, my pit crew brought me a small burrito with eggs, sausage, potatoes and cheese, I stuffed it into my jersey pocket and changed out my drink bottle. All my helpers were there with me but one, I looked over and saw Lance sitting by the tent holding an Ice pack to his bloodied up face and my spirit sank. Jenny let me know that he was ok, and before I headed back out to the trail I called out to him “love you Lance!” As I hopped on my bike again he hollered back “Love you daddy!” and I was back on the trail. Through the start/finish I went to the cheers of spectators, swiping my wrist transponder and off again for lap 7. I rode through the camp with a heavy heart, and the first little hill taking my out of the tent city seemed extra tough. The combination of starting to get tired and seeing my little boy hurt was difficult to take, come on Kevin, ride, just ride! I rode on knowing that Jenny was perfectly capable and would have told me if he was hurt badly. Through the first section of course and onto 5 minute hill where I pulled out my breakfast burrito and ate. Pedal stroke after pedal stroke my legs continued to get heavier and my mind was wearing out, suddenly I realized I was tired. Push on, there is nothing to do now but push on. Up, down, up, down, turn, turn. Lap 7 never seemed to end and I needed a break, I needed to lay down and cuddle up with my kids, I wanted to be with my family. I pulled into the pits this time around planning to quit for a while, I thought I needed to, but my team proved me wrong.

I climbed off my bike and my pit crew was already changing my bottle for a fresh one, I laid down on the ground and they were lubing the chain on my bike. Jenny told me, “Come on babe! You’re sitting in first!” (Apparently I forgot to tell her I didn’t want to know before morning, and I’m glad because I needed to know.) At the same time Lance came running over and excitedly told me “Daddy! You need to pedal faster than those other guys so you can win and get a trophy!” He and Eleanor both gave me a bear hug and it got me going again, revived and spirits lifted by my family I was back on my feet, stuffed a banana and bar into my pocket, swung a leg over my bike and was rolling once again. It is amazing how much better you feel with some extra encouragement, motivation, and love!

I was still tired on lap 8 but was quickly realizing this was the new normal, and now with darkness falling and riding by headlights I knew it would be a struggle to reach dawn. Now don’t forget, there are no headphones in my ears for distraction, the riders are so spread out that you rarely see another soul to talk to and for the most part the only sound you can hear is your breathing and your tires rolling over the dirt and bouncing off rocks. My mind is wandering, listening to songs that aren’t there, recapping conversations, hearing voices of teammates and family cheering and telling me not to quit. I am feeling ok at this point and make it my goal to get through lap 10 before stopping to rest. Lap 8 finished and with bottle swapped I head back out into the darkness of 9. More of the same for now, listening to voices and following my headlights. Riding in darkness with nothing to see except the patch of light in front of you can be very mind numbing. There are no views to look around at, just a trail to concentrate on and it can wear a person down. I made it through 9 unscathed and headed onto 10 with a fresh bottle again.

I started lap ten feeling ok, not great, but “great” was a hard feeling to imagine at this point. I made it through the first section of the lap starting to feel sleepy and my eyes were wanting to shut….FOCUS!!! Onto 5 minute hill and my world was closing in on me, I, just, want, to, lay, down, so, so, sleepy. Thankfully, at this point Eric came around me and talked to me for a minute which helped me for the moment, but as soon as he was gone there I was in my own darkness again. My eyes were losing focus, I couldn’t see the trail, slapping my face didn’t help, although I tried. I knew I was in big trouble as I was less than halfway through the lap. I just needed to survive my way back to camp somehow and I could rest, but not here, not here, just keep going! I am getting frustrated now, unable to control my mind, my eyes, everything is spinning out of reality and out of my grasp. I stop in the middle of the trail and try to refocus for a moment before continuing on. Mile by mile I wade my way through the mental swamp that has become lap 10. Dodging rocks and trees in the trail that are not there and yelling at myself at the top of my lungs thinking that somehow I could break myself out of my fog. Somewhere in there the end of the lap appeared, I put down my bike and walked past Kara telling her I needed a break. I asked her to let me sleep for 15 minutes, changed into a fresh kit, and slipped into my sleeping bag. It took a few minutes for sleep to come, listening to riders go past, to distant cheers, until finally….

Cold, so very cold. Kara woke me and I was not ready. I practically pleaded with her to give me more time, she complied and reset her alarm. Her second attempt to wake me was worse, with chattering teeth, I asked again for more time and feeling I needed it, she again allowed it. On the third try she was able to wake me up and I actually felt refreshed this time. Pockets full of food I was back on the bike again. All said and done I was stopped for a total of about an hour during which I changed, slept, and caused Kara much stress about my health.

Lap 11 went well after I got the “sleepies” out of my legs. After receiving under 40 minutes’ worth of sleep my body thanked me by allowing my HR to return to a far more normal level. Before my stop my HR was steadily declining to a rate unheard of while riding. Still eating, still drinking, and still pedaling, but now with a more energetic approach. Not only had I received a little rest but I was also on the second half of the night shift and daylight was quickly coming. I finished Lap 11 back on pace and just as the sky began to show signs of dawn. Straight though the pits this time as I only drank a half bottle on that lap. I started Lap 12 at 5am and with the light returned my energy as well. We are in the final stretch and it is go time. No reason to conserve energy at this point with only 7 hours of riding to go. Keep following the rules of eating, drinking, and don’t blow yourself up, but don’t save anything for later at the same time. Through lap 12 and the temperature finally started to rise. Lap 12 was a good one and I actually surprised Kara and Korinne pulling into the pits before my expected arrival. They were just finishing cooking up another breakfast burrito and I grabbed it and another bottle before heading back out for 13. I was inspired now, being able to return my lap times back under an hour and a half made me smile. Every hill is painful now but I push on knowing it is almost over, and before I know it I’ve made it through 13. It is 8:01am now and Kara pulls off my arm warmers and I shed my vest while I receive a quick report that I’ve made up the time I lost while sleeping and am back to my previous position on the trail, this motivates me even more. Back out for lap 14 and the temperature is warming quickly making me happy that I had shed my extra layers minus my knee warmers. My mental state is improved, with the help of my team, and I have weathered the storm and am on the home stretch! I can throw my bike through the corners again, confidence returning to trust my tires and let the bike ride without touching the brakes. Through 14 and making a mental note to shed my knee warmers in the pits when I get there, however while coasting through my team is hollering to me to go and waiting with a bottle so I wouldn’t have to stop again, oops I forgot to take off the knee warmers.

At 9:27am I head out for my 15th lap, it’s all gas and go now baby! No time to save up on that energy stuff! On the way up 5 minute hill I realize how hot it is getting outside and pull my warmer below my knees to try cooling off somehow. I am pushing my pace as hard as I can now and on the second half of the lap found an ally in another rider who pushed me to go just a little bit faster still, helping me to finish lap 15 with another great time. At 10:50am I rolled through the pits for a final time. My crew lubed my chain and replaced my bottle as I quickly shed my warmers and got the update that I had a 15 minute lead on second place in my field so there was no reason to take chances on my final lap. I pushed it as hard as I could all the way though lap 16, only backing off when there was a rock garden or somewhat risky line. The last thing I wanted was to slice a tire while taking unnecessary risks. My feet are killing me at this point after nearly 24 hours of pushing the pedals I can’t wait to lay down again and take the weight off of them, but I keep pushing on, as the faster I go will also bring with it the relief of being done and able to relax! On the final straight leading into the finish I pass another solo rider and holler at him to finish strong, with ear to ear grins we sprint it out and finish together (we are on different laps at this point so were not competing, just having fun) and at 12:13pm I cross the line for the final time and surrender my timing chip before being handed my celebratory beer and hugging my family like there was no tomorrow!

Through it all I learned that I do not carry my own strength, it is my family, friends and loved ones who push me. I would have quit many times over without the push from others to keep going. I also learned that after 100 miles of mountain biking, your saddle is not your friend. However after 200 miles, it just doesn’t matter any more!

Thank you to my loving wife for her patience and pushing me to my best. Thanks to my kids for their love and cuteness that inspires me. Thanks to Kara, Korinne, and Jenny for being the best 24 hour pit crew I could ask for. Thanks to my team, my boss, and coworker for all the support in training and the time away for the event. Thanks to every rider who passed me and fan on the sideline who cheered me on, the comradery was amazing. And thank you all, for the fact that I always knew you would not be disappointed if I ever pulled out, but at the same time pushed me to do the best that I could do. Without all of you behind me, I would be constantly disappointed with my results, but you all keep me grounded and help me keep on level ground and the racing fun. Cheers, until the next painful adventure!

A few little tidbits.

24 hours of racing a mountain bike, zero mechanicals

16 laps, 245 miles

13 bottles of OSMO, 2 bottles of water, 2 bottles of fruit juice, 2 mini cans of Coke

4 bananas, 2 Clif Bars, 2 homemade energy bars, 2 breakfast burritos, 3 tubes of Clif Shot Bloks, 2 Hammer Espresso Shots, and 1 Hammer energy bar (to the best of my memory)

Temperature swing, high of 95/ Low of 39

Results:

1st Place in the U39 men’s solo

2nd overall for Solo Riders


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