I took a wrong turn, not that it mattered. Until my technical ability rises above a garbage truck, I will never do well in gravel races. You can’t make it up, no matter how strong you are.
I know this, and I yell. Going through the turns, when my speed approaches blinding stupidity into a blind corner, I tell myself to sack up, to take my fingers off the brakes, but the gravel doesn’t care about my rage; it cares about my technique. I can get as angry as I want, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to corner better or stop checking my speed, more than likely, I’ll just get aggressive and do something stupid. I’m like the guy in a bar fight that leads with a haymaker when I don’t even know how to punch.
Driving to Gunnison wasn’t about the Gunni Grinder anyway; it was about renewing friendship. I came here to see my oldest friend, not for some bike race. That said, our friendship began and continues because of our mutual appreciation for physical insanity, so we need some event or physical challenge to justify spending time together. Neither of us would have turned up just for beers and conversation – we’re not that old.
We met up the night before, and I was late. I walked into the Sherpa Cafe in downtown Gunnison and saw a slight figure with rakish, unkempt hair bent over architectural papers on a small table. As I approached, his eyes lifted from the documents, and he greeted me like I was his next-door neighbor, not someone he hadn’t seen in ten months. Perfect.
He’d already eaten his way through one appetizer and supped water. I ordered a beer, which he declined, as I knew he would with some jealousy. We set about the work of reconstructing our lives for each other but neither of us strained to convince each other of anything. Hence, the conversation flowed easily and light. When he went off into his famous disjointed digressions, I ordered another beer and stared off into the horizon and felt the air chill and realized the trip had already been worth it and glad we had both bothered to rip ourselves away from our families so we could renew what’s worthwhile and rare.
Back at the hotel, we prepared for 118 miles of absurdity the next day. Before both of us had arrived, we’d texted back and forth, hedging on whether we’d actually race.
He’s been working ten to twelve hour days on his yard doing hard labor getting ready to pour the foundations for a deck, and he’s sent me screenshots of his weight which had precipitously dropped over the past month after his regular regime of ultra-endurance running had fallen to the wayside. 139.8 pounds, in his words, “before shitting in the morning.” He usually 155 pounds.
I was jealous. I’ve always wanted to be leaner, and I constantly battle my thicc Norwegian genes, but for me, breaking below 170 is a supreme victory. Here he was weighing as much as I did at twelve without even trying. I hated him for it, especially now, bloated with sodium-laced Tibetian food, breaking out of my elastic shorts.
But as much as I hated him for it, I loved the fuck out of him. Even if we’d told each other we might bail on the race, we both knew we’d do it without saying anything. Airik hadn’t ridden his bike for two weeks before the event, and his hands were so messed up after all the yard work from the past week that he’d been unable to sleep for a night or two.
But, without really discussing it, we both knew he was still going to send it, no matter how he felt, even if it was a sport he barely did because that’s who he was.
Airik’s wife once told my wife that she’d follow Airik’s lead anywhere because she felt like he could do anything. She’s right.
Airik has it. I mean, he’s undaunted. He’s passed through many physical trials, mostly self-imposed, holding himself to something only he can see. These many runs through endurance insanity have stripped away all the fat, dissembling, and hedging that larger, hollower voices traffic in, pretending at hardness.
But you only need to spend a few moments looking at his eyes to feel his limitless steel. He’s been to the edge and back and always had an answer for the abyss, and this is why I knew, despite his wrecked hands, despite his lack of sleep, despite his lack of training, despite his motivation, that not only would he start the race tomorrow, but he’d finish, and finish well, in some style.
Whenever you or I face a challenge, we almost always have a way out. If you’re out on a ride and you get tired, you can stop and call someone. If it’s at work, there’s almost always someone you can blame. No matter what the situation is, now, for most people, there’s always an option, an excuse, something so you don’t have to face the adversity dead on.
But for ultra shit, you don’t. You don’t have cell phone coverage. There’s no aid station. No one can come to pick you up on this goat trail. There’s nowhere to hide if the sky opens and dumps. It’s only you and the yawning distance between you and the finish; you, and only are, are what’s going to get you there. The miles don’t care about how you feel. They don’t care if you’re cold, or hungry, or tired. You can scream at the distance, but your rage won’t avail you; the emptiness will swallow it up. The only answer is to keep going.
Finish anything truly physically insane doesn’t only depend on your fitness, planning, or nutrition. Yes, those things matter, but not as much as people think.
The ethos behind all the careful planning that athletes put into Ultra events is that the event is so long and hard that you can’t plan for everything because there are too many variables. When planning unravels, you are all that remains.
That sounds so simple, but for most people, it’s the most terrifying thing they’ll ever do. In those moments of consciousness, of knowing where you are, how you feel, you feel, keenly, your profound vulnerability, your incredible fragility, the way your unearned confidence and carelessness rests entirely upon this intricate, vast infrastructure humanity has built to meet not just our needs, but whims, and when you’re outside of that just how useless and pitiful you are.
Airik has faced that terror many times and it changed him. He doesn’t just push through the pits of pain and misfortune, and he seems to welcome it.
If during the Gunni Grinder on zero fitness his back wheel exploded at the farthest edge of the course with zero support, he’d carry his bike on his back up goat trails, ride the rim down, charm some grouchy rancher into giving him a bike tube, install it wrong, and still finish the race out of principle even if offered a ride and then show up with at the finish with a smile on his face. That’s the sort of sick bastard he is.
I’m not there. I’m too data-driven to in love with the sweet certainty of performance if some numbers line up. I want things to make sense, so I rage impotently against the injustices of long gravel events like my two-year-old when they don’t.
The last 15 miles of Gunni I spent spitting hatred. The profile of the course lied. It looked easy, but the reality is that they stacked a heinous succession of steep, goat tracked, shit covered, root crossed, rocky nonsense that I spent every minute cursing out the organizers, loathing my lack of technical ability, bitching about my bike, dying for it to end, utterly disoriented and pissed. That’s how I knew I loved it.
Living in the suburbs, pressing buttons for a living, lusting over the landscaping innovations of my neighbors, agonizing over the subtleties of dinner, overthinking the development of my children, trying to deliver the correct hot takes to showcase my cleverness – I’m begging to get punched.
Gravel racing is that punch: The cruel way that can anyone that can barely steer pulls away from me on the downhills, lashing heat, absurd distances, humiliating crashes, dumb-steep climbs, mechanical failures, cutthroat competitors, a tortured gut, and brutal chafing – all of it an unwanted, but necessary baptism, a reminder that I’m wired for pain and the only way to access the deepest, elemental feelings are to pedal through absolute bullshit.
When I crossed the finish line, I thanked the organizers, and I meant it, despite condemning them and their family to hell for the previous 90 minutes. The sure sign of a good gravel race is that you hate it during significant sections of the race. In that regard, they nailed it.
I wasn’t crushed afterward – this wasn’t DK 200 – and the three miles I had to ride from the finish to our hotel didn’t trouble me. I left the door to our hotel room open, stripped naked, wolfed down old sea-food pasta leftovers, cracked a shower beer, and washed the residue of Gunnison county down the drain.
Forty minutes later, I drove to find Airik. I was worried about him. When I left him after going the wrong way, we weren’t even halfway, and I imagined him toiling somewhere on the nameless goat tracks, unable to pedal, out of food and drink, dying. I asked a marshall if he’d finished, and to my surprise, he had – only fifty-some minutes after me. Almost immediately, my phone lit up with his text message, and he reported that he was sipping beers at the after-party.
What a freaking legend.
I joined him and did my best to empty the keg while we sat and let the alcohol mingle with the afterburn of the effort.
Later we’d go out, hit a dive bar, and consume enough greasy food to clog a drain. Our conversation ventured from the political to the philosophical. Though it hurt to be away from my family, I appreciated the cold wind cutting into us as we sat outside at this bar in a tiny Colorado town with two dudes who once got into a fistfight at a soccer tournament for reasons neither of us can remember and drifted apart and came back together and stood up at each other’s weddings and try to be good dads and husbands.
And what holds us together through all those years? A shared, unspoken agreement not to stop, but to push. I don’t know when I’ll see him again, but I know I will. But now, I rush to get back to my family, sinking the Subaru pedal, eating up chunks of the highway with new resolve to live out the spirit of what brings us together.