Update failure. I apologize for the lack of timely updates for the final third of the Cape Epic and while it’s easy to make excuses about why I didn’t get them done, the truth is that I really was using just about all the mental and physical energy I had to get through the race, and prepare myself for the next days racing. While that might not seem like a lot, as the days wore on, the hills got longer, and the racing just didn’t slow down, it was pretty much all I could do to get my bike in working order for the next day, shovel as much food as possible down the hatch and try to get some sleep.
After the brutal heat and length of stage 3 (147k) there was the hope for some respite, the hope that maybe the next day wouldn’t entail so much endless climbing through shadeless moonscapes where the sun just beats you down with no interruptions. No such luck. Stage 4 was in many ways harder then the previous. With mechanical troubles being our Achilles heel, and a ridiculous amount of climbing followed by the final 25k being on gravel and dirt road rollers into a 40mph headwind, the race was clearly out to crack the weak among us. This would be even further proven on stage 5 when lined up on the start line for our 7am start in the 45-degree rain…and then spent all day in it. The temps never clawed their way past the 55-degree mark and the conditions, while great for a one-hour cross race, were pretty atrocious for 119k mountain bike race. At one point as we reached the summit of yet another rocky and barren mountain, the wind was literally blowing the rain sideways with such force that I felt like I was being sprayed in the ear with a garden hose. The effects of hypothermia began to take their toll, and I parted ways with my teammate Jason Sager at the last checkpoint believing that he was going to have to pull out of the race and I would be relegated to finishing the event wearing one of the white and black “outcast” jerseys for UCI riders who had lost their teammates. From that checkpoint on I rode in a haze of desperation and hypothermia. I am unable to recount any details of the terrain I rode through or things I might have passed…I was singularly focused on the section of trail immediately in front of me, and the possibility of a hot shower at the finish. I had no brakes to speak of, having burnt the pads out an hour before, but luckily the mud was so deep that there was little need for them as you just picked the deepest ruts and hoped for the best in the corners. I was drooling I remember, and talking/shouting at myself intermittently. Basically I was a man on the ragged edge; I was going fast, but it was no longer about achieving any goal other then staying warm, it was strictly mind over matter. Fortunately, after about 45 minutes of warm beverage rehabilitation beside the fire at the last checkpoint, Jason was able to summon his own bit of mental fortitude and finish the end of the course. We would be able to continue…with the addition of an hour time penalty for being separated for more then the allotted one-minute. For a day that wasn’t supposed to be that hard, I had ridden for over 6 hours and our official finish time was 7 and change by the time Jason got in. On the upshot though, if you hadn’t come undone and thrown in the towel on this stage, you could probably make it through anything else the race was going to throw at you.
In actuality, the idea of mental “toughness” is what became the theme for my outlook on this race as a whole. While the physical difficulty of the race is indisputable, and the pace set by the leaders extraordinary, the real difficulty of the race is mental. The miles of endless climbing on double track, the sun, the steep punchy climbs up vineyard slopes only to go down and then back up again, the mechanicals, all of this makes for a race where the biggest battle is keeping yourself together. You have to accept the difficulty each day, accept the fact that you don’t really know how long the climbs are or how many their might be. You have to accept the fact that yes, you will climb one vineyard road, turn right and descend another, only to turn left and climb back up all over again, many, many times seemingly without reason. You have to accept the weather, and the stomach issues and the fact that you don’t want to eat anything by the 6th day. You have to accept that in all likelihood you will, eventually, get dropped by the leaders and that someone else- whether you are racing for 2nd or 32nd, will want to really race you for that spot in the results. And you have to accept the dynamics of the two-person team format because inevitably at some point in the race one of you will be feeling stronger then the other. In this there is a lesson in patience and in humility because while yesterday you might have been crushing it and having to look back for your teammate, today (for me stage 3 especially) it’s you who is on the rivet, trying to not disappoint, trying to live up to the expectations of your teammate. You might want to quit, you might want to soft pedal, you might not want to get up in the morning, but you always have someone else to answer too, and that fear of disappointing someone can be the most motivational force around.
For a race that had such tumultuous highs and lows for our team, it was incredibly rewarding to end our race on the final stage with a solid and error free result. The stage was short, and the pace was higher then usual from the get-go because of it. Treating the start as they would a World Cup, the leaders pinned it from the gun and the field was quickly blown into pieces with teams battling to hold their places in what evolved into a 2 and a half hour mountain bike TT. We hung with the leaders for as long as possible, but once we came off we settled into solid high-paced rhythm. Jason would lead up many of the climbs while I bit my tongue and tried to hang on, and I would motor through on the flats and rollers which kept us both on the hairy edge of blowing up and going as fast as we possibly could. At the end of the day we managed 9th on the stage and it was a pretty amazing feeling to come into the finish in Lournensford to a sea of spectators lining the fences- more then I have ever seen at a mountain bike race – and have the emotional high of knowing that we had a good ride, and that the race was finally over. The momentum of the week had finally come to rest.
That night I was more tired then I had been at any point during the event. It was as if my body, finally free from the need to mentally fortify itself against the coming days effort was finally conceding just how hard that had actually been. I sat in the camper and couldn’t move. Everything felt like a chore, and the act of packing the bike case and all my luggage took an unreasonably longer time then it should have…or maybe it just felt like it. There was less victory in the race being over then I might have hoped…more reservations about our luck and our performances. But there was and is still a pride that we made it through despite our setbacks. I am honored to have been at the pinnacle of the sport and toughed it out, and am excited both with the form that I’ll hopefully be able to bring out of this race (It was more or less 35 hours of really, really solid training), but also the mental edge of knowing that I really can’t do many things that can be any harder then some of the days of this race. I mean, I am signed up for a lot of 100 mile mountain bike races this year which will be really difficult in their own right; But the Cape Epic had multiple days that were basically that long, and with a world class field of the highest caliber. It was an amazing journey to a pretty far corner of the world…easily the farthest my bike has take me anyway. It was beautiful, and rugged, and extreme. It was the most difficult thing I have completed, and for one of the first times ever I can say, without the least sense of irony, that it was Epic.