Zen On Dirt

Self-supported, self-reliant 100 miles in the Gila

7 Comments

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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)?

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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.

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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. 

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Stopped to say ‘Hi’ to my favorite saguaro…

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…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.

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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.

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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.

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7 thoughts on “Self-supported, self-reliant 100 miles in the Gila

  1. Well put. I’ve never considered the difference between self-supported and self-reliant before. Although I have always chosen to go completely self-reliant in my events. It is a very conscious decision I make to NOT carry a cellphone. It is far too easy to get help, feel connected, get advice, look up the hours of that gas station up ahead, or receive a motivational boosts from family and friends. These are all things that, in my opinion, that should be overcome on your own, or should have been considered before embarking on whatever the adventure is. Always a good read. Thanks Eszter.

  2. Not that this blog doesn’t reach an immense readership (after all, I read it religiously), but this particular post needs wider exposure. And not that the subject doesn’t get regular mention (as every June it’s broached on bikepacking.net’s coverage of the TD), but it should be given more gravitas. At the very least racers with your cache should remind us all, regularly. If enough participants buy in to the “purist” elements of this form of racing the outliers will be shamed into irrelevance and quit participating. I think (hope) a similar phenomenon is occurring with doping, and to some extent can be seen in Pro racers’ ignoring of UCI/USAC requirements for sanctioning of grassroots racing.

    Even though you, like Matthew Lee, are no longer racing, (I give the future odds of that ZERO), your visiting this issue carries a lot of weight. Thank you for your well written thoughts.

  3. Extremely well said Eszter. Especially profound coming from one of the greatest ever to play this game.

    This essay should be required reading for anybody participating in a self-supported event.

  4. EZ,

    Erik here. It was great to ride with you and thanks for the photos of me on your blog page. First of all I completely agree with you that when you decide to undertake a challenging event such as this you should know your limits and be prepared for unknown circumstances. That being said I hope you will take what I am about to say at face value and not resent me for having a differing point of view about what I think you are most likely referring to. I was with the individual who decided to use his SPOT to be rescued. We are good friends and we ride together a lot. This person was having a serious case of dehydration when I found him and he needed a way to get out. I have never, I mean never, seen him like that before. I did everything I could to get him to go a little farther, including pushing his bike along for him. He began vomiting and his legs were cramping. He simply couldn’t go any further, and since neither of us were prepared to spend a night out there he chose to be rescued and pushed the SOS button. I stayed with him until help came, then rode out under my own power to my truck where he was waiting for me. I knew what my limits were and had planned ahead of time to stop at Freeman Rd. Maybe he overestimated his readiness for this event, maybe not. We all have off days. Things go wrong. Fortunately for him there was a way for him to make it back safely, which is what really matters. I heard there was another person who called for help, and maybe that individual was more deserving of criticism. I wasn’t there so I withhold judgement.

    For another poster to compare this person’s misfortune to doping and then call them an outlier and hope they are shamed into not participating in an AES event again really says a lot about their character.

    Bottom line is not everyone is in the same league and that doesn’t mean they are any less deserving of your respect for attempting to complete such a grueling event and not being able to finish for whatever reason.

    I appreciate the opportunity to offer my account of what happened and hope to see you at another AES event in the near future.

    • Erik,

      YIKES! I’m not sure how you construed my post to mean I was equating whatever happened in the Gila 100 to doping. Please. I was drawing a hopeful comparison between a mechanism for internal regulation of competitive cycling. I do not, and after going back and rereading my post did not say being rescued in an endurance race is the same thing as doping. My point was that fellow competitors’ pressure, in the form of shame or disgrace, will likely be more effective than a governing body’s enforcement attempts at ensuring adherence to the rules and spirit of a competition.

      I know nothing of the specifics of the Gila 100 and therefore kept my comments strictly generic and made no mention of you or your friend’s race. You should not, and can not, take the comments personally. Furthermore, now that I do know some of the details it sounds like pushing the SOS button was absolutely the right thing to do. I took EZ’s comments to be directed at what may have led to the need to seek help, not the actual receiving of it. I’m guessing EZ is now feeling some remorse about her post, as I now am of mine, since someone took it so personally. I am sorry for that.

  5. Mike,

    It’s all good. I did take it a little personally at first since I was with the guy who needed help. But your follow up post cleared that up. I appreciate it. No hard feelings.

    • Erik,
      My goal was not to criticize or to judge either incident, as I wasn’t at either situation and don’t know the finer details of what was happening out there and what led up to the need for rescue.

      I do appreciate you following up, as we knew very few of the details about either situation immediately following, just that law enforcement and SAR were involved.

      My goal was to try to summarize lessons learned so that we, as a community of people who like to ride bikes long distances, can avoid things like this in the future.

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