So I rode the Gila 100 this past Saturday. I won’t say that I “raced” it, because really, I’m enjoying being retired from racing for 2014, and since I was the only gal dumb enough to get on the magic school bus for the 3:30 am shuttle from Tiger Mine Road to Picket Post, I didn’t really have any one to race, because I don’t race boys. Company policy.
Magic School Bus
All in all, a lovely ride backwards on the last 100 miles of the AZT300 course, some of my favorite trails, none of which I’d had the opportunity, no, none of which I’ve made the effort to ride, without bikepacking gear. When I rolled up to the finish, Scott, Jeff and Nancy were there to greet me. It was circa 9:45 pm and they seemed almost more relieved to see me than anything else. Like, it was good that I survived. This surprised me because finishing times for this thing range in the 12.5 hour range for the fastest of boys to overnighters with bikepacking gear for others. I thought a 9:45 arrival time was downright reasonable for a motivated-pace ride.
High in the Gila at sunrise with Erik
Turned out, there’s been some ‘drama’ out on course. People making questionable decisions, not in the realm of self-support, but in self-reliance. And frankly, sitting there in the dark parking lot eating a slice of pizza and hearing the stories of the day, which were still concluding as people were returning to their cars, I got a little angry.
Yeah. They built a trail here. A most excellent idea.
I’d been thinking about the spirit of ‘self-supported’ racing in the past few days in the vein of ‘If you were going to make a movie on a self-supported race, how would you do it without affecting the outcome.’ Schrodinger’s cat-style. And the answer is, you can’t; you can just control to what level you’re affecting it. On one end, there’s what everyone would consider completely inappropriate for this, or any, I guess, style of racing – blatant support. Then there’s a situation where a film crew follows an event, not necessarily a specific person or group. Eddie Clark on the Divide-style. You can’t count on Eddie’s red truck to be anywhere near you, but it’s always a welcome sight. Somewhere in the middle is Ride the Divide-style, which clearly influences what happened out there, but had a fair chance of influencing nearly everybody’s race, for better or for worse (at least when the Divide only had 10 people racing it).
We go there.
But the reason that having film crews, or professional photographers, or girlfriends/boyfriends/husbands/wives out taking pictures or film on an event like this bothers me is far more subtle: It influences decision making. It brings up the fine difference between self-support and self-reliance.
Poppies! In January! By the Gila!
If you’re out in the middle of the desert and racing, and you know that there’s going to be a crew somewhere in the next six hours or at the next road crossing, do you gamble on skipping a 10-minute detour to go get water, knowing that if the shit really hits the fan, they’ll be there to bail you out? That you won’t die in the desert if you screw up. If you knew you were going to truly be alone out there, with no cell reception, would you skip the water stop to save on weight or time? Would you go light on food? In the same vein, if you have a SPOT on you and know that hitting the 911 button will get you a free helicopter ride out (as long as you bought the insurance), would you gamble on not bringing all the tools needed to fix your bike or not having enough calories to make it to the finish comfortably (or uncomfortably)?
If I were a cactus, I’d grow like this too.
But more importantly from a ‘racing’ aspect, having a bailout, be it a film crew, significant other, willingness to push a SPOT 911 or call the sheriff, makes it safer to push yourself physically farther than you would on your own. When you’re out there in the frigid cold of AK (and without a SPOT), you’re acutely aware that a mistake – crash on ice and break a bone, knock ourself out on the ice, take a wrong turn and get lost – can have severely dire consequences, so you sleep when you have to in order to prevent poor judgement and carry a -40 degree bag. If you’re in the desert during the AZT300 and it’s 100 degrees down by the Gila, you’re acutely aware that if you ride too hard, your stomach will turn south and if you end up vomiting and dehydrated, no one’s going to come looking for you because your SPOT has stopped tracking for a few hours. If a film crew sees that an individual they’re following has stopped moving, chances are, they’re going to go look for them. And there’s a safety in that thought and a willingness to push up against the physical limits of these races a little more.
I think the raw self-reliance is what draws a lot of us to the sport. That it’s not all about power-to-weight, or gear, or technical skills. There’s a huge element to keeping your body and mind happy, regardless of what happens out there, and that’s something that’s not necessarily controlled by genetics or time to train.
At the same time though, part of the reason that we build such strong friendships with the people we race against in these things is because we do rely on each other out there for safety. Shit happens. People run out of food in the middle of remote sections of the trail, so we share our food. People find themselves exhausted at 12,000 feet without a bivy or warm clothes in the middle of the night, so we escort them down to safety. People get hit by cars, so we hit our SPOT 911s. Each bikepacking race gets sent off with the sentiment of ‘This is self-supported, but take care of each other out there.’ When there are outside influences, this dynamic changes rapidly, and in my opinion, for the worse.
Water caches are the best-est thing ever. Especially when someone drops two gummy bears in the dirt for you to find, and eat.
Self-supported, underground racing, erm, I mean group rides, have been successful for this long because people haven’t really distinguished between self-support and self-reliance. It seemed implied. Many of these ‘adventure rides for time’ are so huge that they take considerable time and investment, and commitment, to prepare for. They’re scary, so you prepare for contingencies. You ‘race’ to finish. With the smaller events, you can show up without the months of planning that a Tour Divide or a CTR take. This is a good thing because it gives people who can’t take weeks/months off of work to train and ride across the country for a month the chance to do really amazing races. But it also, at least in this case, seemed to cause a situation where people got in far over their heads, and in my mind, made questionable decisions on how to get out. Disclaimer: I don’t know the fine details of the situations out on the trail, but it seems like excessive force was used to overcome them. We all have different perceptions of critical situations and I respect that.
Stopped to say ‘Hi’ to my favorite saguaro…
…and then had to keep riding this trail.
I’m not against SPOTs. I’m not against calling for help when the situation is dangerous, dire, or you’re completely immobilized. I’m not against getting in over your head, goodness knows I specialized in it. But I do believe in doing everything in your power to get yourself out of the situation on your own, or with the help of other racers (that means asking for help when you need it). And I believe in making good decisions so you don’t end up in that situation in the first place. Like bringing enough food and water and riding in a sustainable manner. And if you do run out (of food, water, or energy), not panicking.
I’m not against making movies of events. I think Ride the Divide did more for the sport than it ever thought it would. The execution of it definitely rubbed some people the wrong way, but overall, I think the positive to come out of that film far outweighed the negative. I hope more films are made that emphasize the beauty and togetherness (is that cheesy? Community? Culture? I’m struggling for a word here…) that these events create, and not necessarily the ‘I want to go out there and win and break a record’-ness of them.
We came from up there
The Gila course gave me a good, solid, honest beat-down. It’s brutal, beautiful trail from start to finish. Water is scarce, but reliable. It’s the remote desert, and it’s unforgiving. And while there are easy bail-outs in specific spots, once you commit to a section, you’re finishing the damn thing. I had a beautiful ride that started under moonlight and ended under the stars and I couldn’t have asked for anything better. It was exactly what I was hoping for approaching it as a long ride rather than a race.
Goodbye Sun. See you in the morning.
But the take home message from this post, I guess: Make good decisions. If you’ve made a bad decision, do everything in your power to remedy the situation before resorting to calling for outside help. We walk a fine line with un-permitted group rides/races and it would be a crying shame to have Tour Divide, CTR, AZTR, Stagecoach, TNGA, AES, COES, etc cracked down on because of the decisions of a few.