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Sunday, March 10, 2024

24 Hours In The Old Pueblo - Race Report

You go back, Jack, do it again
Wheel turnin' 'round and 'round
You go back, Jack, do it again
Do It Again, Walter Becker & Donald Began

Sunrise at 24 Hour Town on race day at Two Four HOP.
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The 24 Hours In The Old Pueblo ("Two Four HOP") is an iconic 24 hour mountain bike race in a patch of remote desert somewhere north of Tucson, Arizona. Way back in 2003, I raced it on a Duo Team with friend Dan Cook. For some reason, I now decide to return to race it solo. 24 HOP-Back At It

It's a hoot. It's a holler. I'm not going to wait another 21 years to go back.

Sunrise waking up 24 Hour Town on race day.

My modest solo campsite on race day.

Shortly before noon on a bright Saturday in February, I stand in the middle of a milling mass of excited, maybe a bit nervous, cyclists bracing for the start of this 24 hour mountain bike race. As if that isn't hard enough, before starting the first lap, racers must run about 800 meters down a dirt road just to reach their bikes. My knees hurt thinking about it.

Most all of the 2000+ cyclists race as part of a relay team of 2, 4, 5, or 6-10 members. However, 165 intrepid souls race solo. For the first time, I'm one of them. And I'm doing it self-supported, i.e., without a support crew. But I'm certainly not alone. This is one big, friendly group of enthusiastic cyclists and crews.

Crowd gathers for the LeMans start, an (unreasonably long!) dirt road run to the start of the bike race.
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Lead runners of the LeMans start approach their bikes.
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Another view of the start, showing the big white transition tent and orange finishing arch.
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My plan is to ride each lap in a way to give myself a chance to ride the next lap. For me, that means to work to maintain bike, sustain body, and don't dig such an energy hole that I can't recover to ride the next lap. Yes, that's a compressed version of the mindset for my successful through-ride of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in 2021, where I rode each day in a way to give myself a chance to ride the next day. The Great Divide - Give Yourself A Chance.

To be an Official Finisher of this 24 hour race, one must finish the last lap after noon on Sunday. There is no minimum number of laps or maximum length of time for breaks. My goal to ride as many laps as I can, taking the breaks I need, to pedal through that Finish Line after noon on Sunday.

A lap is 16.7 miles of relatively fast single track and some double track that I rode, on average, 1:30/lap for 7 laps on my Duo Team in 2003. At my moderated solo pace 21 years later, I expect more like 2-2.5 hours per lap. After each lap, I plan to return to my camp site to take whatever break I need to be able to complete the next lap. Change clothes, add/subtract layers, eat, drink, check bike, and, finally, get off my feet for a bit. Go back out there when I can successfully ride another lap.

Visualizing the race beforehand, I think that 2 Saturday afternoon laps, 2 night laps, and 2 Sunday morning laps would be a solid result for me at this time. That would make 6 laps total and right at 100 miles of mountain bike racing in one long day. If all went really well, maybe 3 night laps, which would make 7 laps and 117 miles total. A shoot-for-the-moon target would be 4 night laps to make 8 laps and 134 miles total.

But those are just numbers. For me, this event is about riding as many laps as I can while having fun, managing effort and recovery, and riding across that Finish Line after noon on Sunday. Take care of that, and the number of laps will take care of itself. Well, that's the plan, anyhow.

Ultra trail runner extraordinaire Kristen Schindler cheers at the start, while crewing for husband Colin.
(image by Colin Schindler)

A shot gun blast jolts me back to the start. The packed herd of anxious cyclists streaks down a rough dirt road to their waiting bikes somewhere in the unseen distance. The leaders sprint for glory and prizes, while everyone else settles into a sustainable rhythm, much like what's necessary for the long bike race ahead. 

I find myself trotting among an ever-changing mix of characters, including an eclectic assortment of people in costume. Yes, in costume. A full body panda outfit, with a 3 foot diameter head (like a sports team mascot). A Roman Legionnaire in full battle regalia, waving a plastic sword and riding a stick horse. An otherwise conventional looking kit accessorized with a flashing neon tutu, which I later learn was passed from teammate to teammate like a relay baton. Many more. And more face paint than I can recount. All a bit nuts.

As runners approach their bikes, the frenzied horde of teammates and crew leans into the road, waving signs, screaming encouragement, and clanging noise makers of all kinds. The accumulated craziness elevates the energy of everyone and everything. Even the cactus seem to be moving.

I eventually find my bike and weave through the madness, relieved to be pedaling with knees intact.

Attacking a short pitch on Lap 1.
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The first lap flies by, in a never-ending series of passing and being passed on fast, twisty single track snaking between various species of heavily armed plants with bad intent. Seemingly every desert plant out here has the means and intent to inflict pain. Fortunately, only one cholla impales me on that first lap.

Rounding out that first lap at a modest 1:58, I stick to the plan and veer off to my campsite. I add sunscreen and gloves, chug a bottle of Recoverite, snarf a Snickers bar and some peanut butter crackers, and plop down into my comfy lounge chair for a moment. Solid first lap. Recovery according to plan. After about 20 minutes total, I hop back on the bike for another lap. Nice start.

Charging up a short hill on Lap 2. (I didn't change clothes, but added gloves).
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Dancing with the cactus on Lap 2.
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Somewhere up there must be the finish of Lap 2.
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Lap 2 smoothly settles into a good rhythm, with racers more spread out and the edginess of the start sanded off a bit. Bright sunshine boosts temperatures into a comfortable mid-70's with little breeze. For this South Dakotan, there's nothing quite like racing a mountain bike in mid-February while wearing shorts and short sleeves.

I spin through Lap 2 in 2:08 feeling pretty good or, more accurately, feeling "normal tired." With upcoming Lap 3 extending through sunset, I stop at camp to add lights, eat, drink, and be merry. I learned last night how quickly temperatures drop in the desert when the sun disappears, so I also add arm warmers, heavier gloves, tights, and a light jacket. After 4 hours of pedaling, that comfy camp chair feels even more comfy. My second break extends to 1:25 before I finally feel recovered enough to start Lap 3. 

Sunset on Lap 3. I just had to stop for this picture.

The first half of the 16.7 mile course is relatively non-technical and generally trends downhill. So, it's easy to think you're feeling good covering those miles. And, early on Lap 3, I did feel good.

The second half turns more uphill and more rocky. At about Mile 14, when you've had about enough of this lap, the course climbs steadily for about 2 miles, then drops through a more techy rock garden for the final half mile to the Finish. It's a jarring end to what has been a smooth ride.

Accumulated fatigue manifests in more labored effort about half way through Lap 3, as the sun finally sets and some harsh reality sets in. I'm losing steam, and a long night lies ahead.

Coasting into camp after a 2:14 Lap 3, I methodically work through my routine, but at a noticeably slower pace. Everything simply takes longer alone in the chill dark. I cook some substantial hot food and take a substantial break. I'm slowing down, even in camp, but work to stay on the recovery plan. So, I fret not as time slips away. After almost 2 hours (1:55), I finally spin into the deepening darkness for another lap.

A menacing cholla forest around midnight on Lap 4.

Once pedaling out on Lap 4, I am rejuvenated, at least emotionally. Boisterous banter fills the air, as many team relay racers enthusiastically crank out their first night lap. Passing and being passed on twisty single track through cactus forests at night requires a higher level of communication and cooperation. Somehow, it all seems to work and it helps the miles pass.

Lap 4 flows, in a deliberate, unstoppable way, like hot fudge over ice cream. I'm tired and pedaling hard, but relaxed at a sustainable pace. This is good. This is fun. I feel like I could do this all night, at least after another break.

I cruise into camp after a 2:23 Lap 4 and, again, focus on my routine to recover and return to riding. It's now past midnight with temperatures dropping into the 40's. I eat some hot food, add more layers, including a down puffy jacket, and head out after a 1:39 break. I'm still diligently working the plan.

"Son, your ego's writing checks your body can't cash."
Sometime after 2 am on Lap 5.
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With 4 laps in the books shortly after midnight, I feed a fleeting thought of finishing 8 laps. Adrenalin and ambition boost my effort through the easier first half of Lap 5. Bad idea. I push far too hard. With diminished focus and control, I overcook a sweeping turn and T-bone a big cholla. The rougher terrain in the second half empties my reserves. On the final 2 mile climb, I plummet into survival mode. The plan teeters on the edge. 

Barely soft-pedaling into camp after a 2:30 Lap 5, I am zoned out. It's now 4:42 am and a breezy 40 degrees. I desperately need to change into dry clothes, re-hydrate, and eat a big pile of hot, hearty food. I do none of the above. Instead, I plop in that comfy camp chair for, you know, just a minute. A chill breeze prompts me to grab a sleeping bag.

Hopping on the night train halfway around Lap 5, with 24 Hour Town in sight.

Big mistake. The next thing I hear is the sound of a truck pumping out some nearby porta-potties. What? The sun is up and it's 7:30! I'm still in those sweaty clothes and have not done anything since riding into camp. My carefully constructed race plan, so well managed for so long, lies shattered on the desert floor.

Just like that, I lose an entire lap. I start to stand up, but my legs scream. Over the last 2 and a half hours of sleeping in a camp chair, my body somehow gets the message that my big race is over. Nothing wants to move. Everything hurts when I do. Legs, in particular, are toast. Soggy, burnt toast.

Right now, I don't know if I can even get on the bike. My race may well be over. Under Two Four HOP rules, I would still be an Official Finisher by simply finishing that Lap 5 after noon. That is, I could stay at my camp, drink coffee, clean up, socialize with neighbors, even go back to sleep, as long as I return to the course and finish the last hundred meters of Lap 5 after noon. That sounds sensible. 

I recognize that this decision at this moment will define my race.

OK. Back to the basics. Give yourself a chance.

How do I give myself a chance to ride another lap?

I start with a short prayer of praise and thanks for the opportunity and ability to be here for this experience. Then I force myself to change clothes, then brew a big pot of coffee, then cook some oatmeal, then ready my bike, and then stretch a bit. Each little task makes the next task less difficult, both to start and to perform. To loosen things up a little more, I gingerly walk around and talk with some neighbors, most of whom are already packing up to leave. Finally, at about 8:30 am (about an hour after waking up and 4 hours after riding into camp), I convince myself that I'm bound to feel better once back on the bike. I decide to pedal out for a Lap 6 and somehow get around that course, however slow, however challenging.

Oh, but Lap 6 was hard.
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I do feel better. Not strong, not fast, not even close to normal. I'm far too spent for that. Just better than I was back at camp and better than expected. I realize that I'm back riding, where I belong.

I settle into a sustainable rhythm. Slow, mind you. But steady, and moving, and sustainable, at least for the next 16.7 miles. I chug around the now familiar course, looking forward to the Finish. It's a long, long lap.

Eventually dropping down the final descent to record a surprisingly steady 2:20 Lap 6, I realize I have another decision to make. That lap was hard, I'm barely moving, and it's well after 11:00 am. I could pull off course now, wait a little until noon, then cross the line to be an Official Finisher with 6 laps. Or, I could cross that Finish line now and go out for a Lap 7.

Friendly sprint to the top of the climb on Lap 6.
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Paying for that sprint on Lap 6. 😎
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No hesitation. I'm back. If I can turn pedals, I'm going to turn pedals. 

But first, I stop by my camp site to ditch a few layers. The morning sun long ago burned off the overnight cold and I'm still wearing some of those heavy clothes. I switch back to shorts and short sleeves, and then add sun screen and lip balm. Following the sage counsel of renowned endurance cyclist Paul Brasby, I chug an ice cold bottle of fully leaded COKE and tuck another one in a cage. Let's roll.

It's almost 11:30 am Sunday when I head out for Lap 7. Very few racers are still on the course. Now, they tend to be either crazy fast pushing hard for placement or very deliberately riding to finish. Many, many teams must have decided that they'd had enough fun and were waiting at their camp sites for noon.

Back out for a Lap 7 in the gnawing fatigue and building heat.
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Where did everyone go? Not many out there after noon.
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This is it. If I finish this lap, I cannot go out for another. The race is over. If I don't finish this lap for any reason, I'm not an Official Finisher. The race is over. So, this is it, no matter what.

Now, there's no reason to leave anything in the tank. I push the pace right from the start. The first half flies by, as I attack the twisty flats and sprint up the short pitches. No, 24 hours into the race, I'm not suddenly fast. I'm just focused on finishing strong, knowing that not a single pedal stroke awaits after crossing the Finish Line. Every bit of this effort hurts, but at least the course here is relatively friendly.

As I hit the rougher, more uphill second half in the building heat, Lap 7 morphs from hard to brutal. Every little uphill drops my gears a bit lower, along with my spirits. I struggle to control the occasional descents, bouncing all over. I keep pushing, knowing that this is finally the final lap, but the bear is on my back. It's a slugfest.

Looking up the final climb, I drop to my lowest gear, drop my head, and just spin. I'm all in. Just 2 miles to the top. Just 2 miles. Keep pedaling. At long last, the High Point sign appears. Big exhale and big shake of head. Too whupped to whoop. Now, a half mile rocky drop to the finish. Just don't biff here. It all passes in a slow motion, foggy blur.

I finish Lap 7 in 2:08. Wow. Only my first lap was faster. I stagger through the transition tent, grab a spot in the shade, and collapse. Elation. Relief. Fatigue. I'm done.

There's the train home to 24 Hour Town in the distance. Same spot as the Night Train image above.

Over an hour later, I pull myself up and drag my bike back to my campsite. Every few, small steps I have to stop to collect myself, like pushing up Trail #1 on the BackBone Grande. I also wander a bit, as the landscape has changed and I can't seem to spot my camp site. Well over half the entire 24 Hour Town is gone. I eventually stumble toward that white popup tent to find all my neighbors gone. 

Back at camp, I drink yet another bottle of Recoverite, change into casual clothes, climb into my tent, and fall asleep. Maybe I'll just stay here another night. 

One happy camper at the end of Lap 7.
(image by unknown willing bystander)

Weathered bib after 117 miles of racing in the desert.

Craig Groseth (G-Man), sponsored by

Official Finisher of the 2024 24 Hours In The Old Pueblo
7 laps at 1:36 pm, 55th Solo Men (out of 113 starters)

16.7 miles/lap x 7 laps
Total distance = 116.9 miles

1,150 feet of elevation gain/lap x 7 laps
Total elevation gain = 8,050 feet

Lap times:  1:58 / 2:08 / 2:14 / 2:23 / 2:30 / 2:20 / 2:08
Total riding time = 15 hours, 41 minutes
Average Lap = 2:14

Non-riding times:  0:05 (Le Mans start) / 0:25 / 1:25 / 1:55 / 1:39 / 4:06 / 0:20
Total non-riding time = 9 hours, 50 minutes

Do It Again, Steely Dan (1972).

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