Friday, September 17, 2010

The Tahoe Sierra 100 Mountain Bike Race-- So F'n Easy

“This is gonna be so f*(#ing easy!” Jimmy says.
It’s just before 6:30 am and we are straddling our mountain bikes behind a couple hundred spandex-clad ultraracers. Me, my husband Jimmy, and our friend A-ron. (Thus named because I’m Erin and he’s Aaron and it gets confusing.)
The sun hasn’t come up over Soda Springs, CA, a tiny ski-town northeast of Lake Tahoe just off of the I-80. My numb hands ache as we wait for the countdown to the start of Tahoe Sierra, a 100-mile mountain bike race with a reported 13,000 feet of climbing that shares part of its route with the Western States 100 ultramarathon.
Somewhere up ahead is my friend Holly, the silent killer. She’s tiny. She’s unassuming. And she’ll kick your ass. If she weren’t so dedicated to performing surgery on mice as part of her graduate mechanical engineering research at Stanford, she’d probably be pro. I am not racing Holly.
The race director, Jimmyboy, mentions something about the race being hard. Something about bears and mountain lions. Then something about loggers and hunters.
“This is gonna be so so f*(#ing easy!” Jimmy repeats the motto he adopted from an adventure race he ran with his college buddies.
“Ha!” grunts the guy next to him.
“Five! Four! Three!” Jimmyboy counts down. “Two! One!” And we’re off, rolling down double track through the twilight. The dust glitters in a cloud that engulfs my face and immediately latches onto my nose.
I re-discovered pink zinc just before the race and thought it would be the perfect nose-cheek protector for an all-day adventure. It smells like a coconutty beach, just like it did in the ‘80s. But after 10 minutes of riding through “moon dust” in a fat-tired peloton, my coconutty pink nose has become a dirt trap.
This must be how healthy, non-smokers get lung cancer, I think as I look at the dude next to me. He’s wearing a surgical mask. The guy just ahead of me has a bandana covering his mouth. I try to hold my breath, but that doesn’t last very long.
We turn a corner to face a short, steep sandy section. People are falling left and right. A few men tiptoe their bikes around the carnage while I ski down on my feet. When I get to the bottom, A-ron and Jimmy are already out of sight.
I’ve only been riding 15 minutes and my legs are sore. I know the boys are infinitely better riders than I am, but I don’t want to be out there alone—something about bears, remember?

I don’t remember what possessed us to sign up for this race. The rationalization looked something like this: Each of us had, in the past, completed multiple Ironman triathlons. Each of us liked mountain biking. So each of us should be able to mountain bike 100 miles relatively easily. Right? It can take less than six hours to ride 100 miles on the road, so double that (to be safe) and this should only take around 12 hours, getting us back in time for a dip in Donner Lake, dinner, and bad reality TV.
The 14-hour cut-off seemed generous.


I turn a corner onto a rocky dirt road and see Jimmy waiting for me.
“This is so f*(#ing easy!” he says before bombing down the road on his new-used Ellsworth Truth. If he weren’t going to be useful for conversation, at least he’d be a good bear diversion.
The first 25 miles end with a rocky road climb to an aid station. Not too steep. Not too dusty. Riders all around—many of them peeing on the side of the trail, making no effort to conceal themselves behind a tree or rock.
Now the real race begins.
“Fill ‘er up here,” says the Red Star Ridge aid station guy. “This is the longest section without an aid station.”
Whatever, I think. I didn’t really drink anything yet—my Camelbak is full. I decide I won’t look at my watch for the entire race. I have no bike computer either. I am going to eat and drink based on feel, not time, and now is not really the time. A-ron was chilling for a while waiting for me, so I down an Oreo and a piece of watermelon and off we go.
The 50-mile racers peel off to the right and the hundos pedal up their first hard-core single track of the day. Within a few minutes, we reach a wilderness scene few people will ever experience—remote and beautiful and creepy at the same time. It seems like everyone decided to do the 50-mile race; Jimmy, A-ron and I are the only people on the trail as far as we can see.
The sun blazes through a cloudless sky and warms my core and I feel like I am in a Disney movie. If a butterfly lands on my shoulder, we will both burst out in song. I hear the musical intro. The violins hum, the piano crescendos and—
“Frickinshitballsfugginfreak.” I look up the hill just in time to see A-ron take his bike overhead and throw it into a bush.  Apparently this is the exact the moment he begins to feel the altitude.
Jimmy and A-ron stay a few minutes ahead of me. It is better that they can’t see me ski-bike down the steep dirt sections. Breaking is useless. I let Qee (my ’08 Specialized Era) slide wherever she wants like a feisty horse. Somehow, she doesn’t buck me off.
Just when I think we are seriously and unconditionally as far out into the middle of nowhere we could possibly be, we pop out onto a paved road—a welcome respite from the pounding and mental punishment of sandy single-track.
Those five minutes of joint-sparing bliss are quickly replaced by rocktastic double track.
And gunshots.


“Is someone shooting at us?” I ask as we trudge up steep, technical terrain.
“I wish someone would shoot me, then this would be over,” Aaron says.
“That’s one less bear to worry about,” Jimmy says.
We climb in silence. When the road turns vertical, we dismount and shove our full-suspension rigs upward. Nobody wants to talk. This is our fate. We probably look like easy prey for the bear that got away. Or for the hunter that can’t tell the difference between black spandex and fur.
“This is so f*(#ing easy!” Jimmy says.
I kick dirt at him.
Just when the road becomes manageable to ride, POP! TSssss. A-ron rolls right over a thorn. I watch his back tire deflate instantly.
Brain-fried and pissed off, A-ron dumps his bike in front of Jimmy so Jimmy can work on the flat.
“You know the aid station is just around the corner?” Jimmy says in a miraculous return to the English language, saying something other than his favorite five-word phrase.
Flat fixed, we ride on. Then a sign pops up on the right side of the road.
“Got tacos?”
Then another one: “Smell the…” and another: “Bacon!”
“Shit. Bacon? That sounds disgusting,” A-ron says.
Turns out the bacon-taco aid station is a full-service pit stop. Upon arrival, volunteers grab our bikes, ask us if we want oil or wax lube, anything out of our drop bag, and food. I opt for part of a Pop-Tart. And a peanut butter cookie. And part of a pb&j. And peanut m&ms. And another part of a Pop-Tart.
The sandy single track ate one of my toe warmers, so I dump the other one along with my leg warmers and hat into A-ron’s drop bag, then start up a 5-mile dirt road climb with A-ron. Jimmy will catch up.
“How does Jimmy have so much energy?” A-ron asks.
“I dunno.”
After that heart-to-heart, A-ron takes off and Jimmy joins me.
“How’s A-ron doing?” Jimmy asks.
“He wants to know how you have so much energy.”
“I’m just trying to stay positive.”
“OK,” I say. We pedal up a steeper section. “You know that guy in the red kit that just passed us is on his second loop? That means he’s 25 miles ahead of us.”
“Not positive.”
Then, more single track. A lot more. Gnarly, sandy, steep, technical singletrack. I bounce down it without a thought. My brain glazes over and Qee and my body swoosh through ruts and fly over rocks. It is the best I’ve ever been at technical mountain biking—I’m too tired to second-guess myself or leap off the bike. Too bad it took a painful 45-mile warm-up to get here.
When we get to the next aid station—the head of a six-mile out-and-back section—the volunteers tell us something that makes me want to hurl:
“You know, you’re cutting it pretty close to the cut-off.”


Cut off? CUT  OFF? What cut off? I don’t suck that bad do I? I’ve ridden most of the course. I’ve only stopped long enough to stuff my face full of sugary goodness or squat behind a rock. Now, in addition to worrying about becoming animal food—I am the weakest link in our clan—I also have to worry about not getting to wear the hoodie I got at sign-in? I can’t wear it if I don’t officially finish; I’ll look like a tool.
I down the last handful of peanut M&Ms in the bowl in protest. Just before I take off, I see Holly coming through the other way. That puts her 6 miles and at least an hour ahead of me. Holly is a cycling goddess. If she’s only an hour ahead of me, and I’m only an hour ahead of the cut-off, this course was not designed for weekend warriors.
A-ron takes off. I fix my Camelbak that is now soaking wet after an over-eager aid-station volunteer—who probably felt sorry for me—offered to fill it up, then screwed the cap on funky, letting the water dump all over my warm clothes.
Screw you, cut-off.
Jimmy and I fly down fun single track. Rolling, not too technical. Through the trees. There’s nobody out there.
By the time we get back to that aid station, I refuse to stop and start up a steep, dusty logging road climb. Then I hear cowbells.
People! The next aid station! I think. Yea! Someone’s cheering for us!
Five more minutes pass. I’m still alone. Then I realize something terrible: the cowbells are on cows. It’s just me and the cows out here. A-ron is up ahead. Jimmy is behind somewhere, probably eaten by a cow. And I’m alone.
Then, I see a sign: “Got Bacon?”
“Shit. That sounds disgusting.” A-ron mumbles ahead of me.
We’re back at the aid station red-spandex man scrambled through several hours ago. And this time, instead of being a bustling epicenter of clothing changes and athlete feeding, A-ron, Jimmy and I are the only bikers around. The aid station people ask the same questions. Lube? What can I get you? But this time, it seems like they’re doing it out of pity. Am I going nuts? Is that lady giving me salt pills because I look like I’m gonna die or because it’s the nice thing to do? We’re like 65 miles into this. We’re still an hour ahead of the aid-station cut off. We’re fine. Right? RIGHT?
I stuff two tender, barely-baked brownies into my mouth and shove off.
I have to make the cut off.


A-ron rides ahead, back up the climb we did some 20 miles earlier. Jimmy rides behind me, trying to look like the group straggler so animals will eat him, not me. Somehow, I don’t think it works that way. They can smell weakness, can’t they? Jimmy is the strongest link. A-ron is pissed off. I’m fine, just slow, apparently.
We continue on up a hill. At the next aid station, the volunteers tell us we must take our lights, because it’s going to get dark before we finish because it’s already 4:30 p.m.
That’s the first time I’ve heard the time all day: 4:30 p.m. We’ve been riding for 10 hours.
I tell A-ron and Jimmy I have to keep going. I’m not going back to work to tell everyone I didn’t officially finish. I can’t.
A-ron has a mental crisis. “I can’t do this anymore,” he says to Jimmy. “My stomach is jacked.”
Jimmy relays the information.
“I’m f^(#ing finishing,” I say.
We’re on a dirt road that rolls along a mountain crest. To the left are rocky cliff drop offs. To the right are vistas Ansel Adams would’ve loved—no sign of civilization for hundreds of miles. Except we’re not paying attention to the scenery anymore. Jimmy is convinced he’s sprained his wrist. My right kneecap hurts so bad I can only pedal with my left leg, until the knee cap goes numb.
Then A-ron comes up from behind. He decided it would take forever to get picked up out here and re-joins the battle.
We take a hard left into the second-to-last time station.
“How’re we doing?” Jimmy asks the time-station volunteer.
“Well, you’re pretty much dead last,” he says.
Now is not the time for honesty. My mind is fragile. Tell me I’m awesome. Tell me there’s somebody to chase up ahead. Tell me we’re still an hour ahead of the cut off. Tell me I’m super-cute with a dirty brown nose. Tell me anything but the truth.
I stuff some more peanut M&Ms down my throat and look at a young man in a Cal Poly jersey who’s sitting in a folding chair behind the food.
“I really like that hoodie,” I say to Jimmy. “I want to wear it!”
“I guess I’ll only wear three-quarters of mine,” Cal Poly says, his head slumped.
“What’s next?” Jimmy asks the evil volunteer.
“Well, you got a 2-mile uphill, then an 8-mile downhill to the next aid station,” he says. Then he turns to another volunteer as we roll out, “Hey, I think we can shut down early!”
Evil scumbag, I think. Then I fantasize about the long downhill.
Immediately, the road turns down. But then we round a corner and begin a climb. A long, never-ending climb. Not only was second-to-last-aid-station man a mental tormentor, he was also a big fat liar.
“This is so f*(#ing easy!” Jimmy says.
My right knee screams at me. A-ron and Jimmy’s stomachs quit. They can’t eat food. We know there’s a long climb after the last aid station, and it’s nowhere in sight. The sun is also going down. It’s mountain lion hunting time. I can’t return a failure, but darkness is closing in on me, and time is vanishing with the scenery.


The final aid station. It exists. And people are still there. People including the race director’s daughter, Andrea.
“How much time do we got?” Jimmy asks.
“You’ve got about 10 miles left and about an hour and a half.”
“I’m going to sit here for 15 minutes,” Jimmy says, “to get my brain ready for the final climb.”
We mount our lights on our helmets. I stuff 5 cookies in my mouth.
“You want a towel to wipe off your face?” a cute boy who’s playing the movie game with Andrea asks. They’re on “E.”
“No. I don’t care. I don’t have to look at me,” I say.
“What’s a movie that starts with E?” Andrea asks.
“Erin Brockovitch!” I say. Then I go. We can’t hang out if we’re going to make the cut off.
We pedal in our lowest gears up a dirt road. Twilight surrounds us. Everything appears in double. It’s hard to see but I don’t want to turn on my light just yet. I swear I see paw prints in the dirt. Everywhere. Jimmy and A-ron ride up ahead.
Maybe it was just the heel of someone’s bike shoe, I think. But if I can ride this, who ahead of me would’ve walked? There are paw prints in the sand. For sure.
When I turn my light on, I realize I mounted it so it points way to the right.
“Want me to fix it?” Jimmy asks.
“We don’t have time!” I say.
“This is so f*(#ing easy!”
“Shut up!” A-ron and I reply. I point my face to the left and ride on with the help of A-ron and Jimmy’s lights.
When we get to the double track turnoff at the top of the road, A-ron consults his Garmin. We have two miles to go and 20 minutes to ride them.
We run up the sandy chute that took out so many riders almost 14 hours ago, then hammer the rollers the best we can. A-ron and Jimmy ride ahead, kicking up dust that looks like snow in my headlamp. Then, with a mile to go, we come upon another rider.
The three of us blow by him and continue on.
“We’re finishing together,” A-ron says.
We could see lights in the trees, but they were just homes—not the finish. It wasn’t coming. It’s not there.
Then I hear voices. Faintly through the trees.
Then I see the finish line.
“Sprint! Sprint!” people shout.
I spin out my smallest gear and we roll onto pavement and under the finish line banner—at 8:25pm. Seven minutes to spare.
We immediately fling our bikes to the ground and stand, dazed and dirty, in the middle of the finish chute. Maybe eight people are there cheering. The field full of bike-rack capped cars is empty, except for our rented gold minivan. It’s dark and cold and someone is cooking burgers under a lantern.
The race director tries to cut through our mental fog with easy conversation.
“So how was it?” he asks.
“Oh, that was so f*(#ing easy,” Jimmy says.
Me, post-race.


  1. Best. Post. Ever! The picture truly is worth a thousand words... ; )

    Glad you had fun. I trust you signed up for next year's race?

  2. you are crazy and wonderful and I am so glad to be your aunt (well sort of your aunt).
    all i did today was sit at work and use a computer and talk to people. You saw (and ate and breathed) nature and pushed the limits of life itself! Your story was great...Brenda

  3. Haha. Thanks Mike! I think it's going to take half a year to forget how painful that was then sign up again!

  4. And thank you Brenda! Most days I'm also behind a desk. THe race was a nice change of pace:)

  5. Great write up. Sounds totally brutal. I did (well, started) Leadville last year and bailed after sixty miles only a few minutes ahead of the cut off. Was a bit gutting as I'd travelled from the UK! But at least I was never far from civilisation. Post race pic awesome.

  6. Thanks, Rob! There's absolutely no shame in bailing--it just gives you something to shoot for next year. There's a race I DNF'd at in the summer of 2009 that I'm plotting my revenge against. You must come back!

  7. I will! Def want to have another go. Also, Colorado was fantastic fun. Due to moving and a new job I have not done so much cycling this year and have focussed on running instead (on the basis it theoretically takes less time). I have my first ultra run in two weeks. 35 miles. It's in Yorkshire rather than Leadville so altitude won't be an issue. Am hoping my preparation has been better this year.


  8. Kick butt at your ultra run! I've never done one and would love to read your race report :)

  9. Thanks! I shall write a race report and post it somewhere (or send it). I'll be thinking this is so f'n easy the whole way round.

  10. That was a grrrrreat write up of a most awesome day in the high sierra. I shared the race day with you but now have a whole new set of imagery to go with my memories, thanks! Congrats on your finish, way to tough it.
    Matt Z

  11. Thank you Matt! Congratulations to you too!

  12. Congratulations on finishing. Great riding and way to persevere. You neglected to mention some of the single track was on the edge of a cliff! No Leadville time trialing at this race. Hope to see you there next year.

  13. Thank you! It was!? I must have been completely zonked by then.

  14. The footprints were mine... You forgot about the 50 milers in front of you.

    - Booker C. Bense

  15. Hi Erin

    I posted a comment a while back and said I would send a race report on my first ultra.

    Here it is;

    It was a great race and I was delighted with the result.