The weekend after Double Dare, I was back at Cove Creek Campground for Swank 65. There were a whole lot of excuses I could have used for not racing that day, but I showed up anyway. In retrospect it might have been smarter to use one of those excuses, but in the moment I couldn't turn away. The main excuse I had, but was not using, was the pain I was in following the crash during Double Dare. I had bruised one rib pretty significantly, which made coughing, laughing, and deep breathing hurt. Coupled with the lingering problems from pneumonia, breathing properly would be the crux of my race.
At Cove Creek for a civilized 10am start time. The women's field included a number of people I had never raced against, a couple I knew slightly, and Carey. Unless Carey's bike fell apart or something, she had the women's win pretty well in hand. Carey's bike doesn't really fall apart too often so I knew I was racing for second place.
This was the third time I have raced Swank and like previous years anticipated a bottleneck in the beginning of the race as everyone funneled into the uphill singletrack. Either I am getting better at starting this race, or Todd's reworking of the LeMans start did some good, because the bottleneck never materialized. A fine start way up in the red zone and I realized I was feeling kinda beat. Carey came around me after a mile or so, and all was right with the world as I was no longer leading the women's field. I settled into a steady pace and wondered if I could hold onto second for the rest of the day.
Up the gravel and then onto Daniel. I felt great ripping down the steep rocky upper section, but felt the rib pain pretty seriously as my 80mm of travel bumped each root on the lower section. I blew through the first aid station to start the climb up to Butter Gap. By the turnoff at Gloucester I was feeling pretty lousy and wondering if I was going to be able to hold onto second place much longer.
Butter went fast, and I rode up the Tunnel of Terror at a moderate pace with some nice conversational dudes who were enjoying themselves. It was good to chill a bit and not beat myself up over my lousy prep. Seems like fairly frequently I show up to a race poorly rested, injured, or underprepared, then spend most of the race killing myself trying to race as if that wasn't the case. By the end of Swank it would be quite clear to me that much of my race performance comes from a simple willingness to hurt on race day.
Started up the long climb to the top of Farlow Gap with two fresh bottles from the aid station. I was definitely slowing down and again grumbling to myself about how poorly I'm climbing lately. The rib was hurting with every breath, and the breathing was still not great to begin with. By the top I was also starting to feel some twinges of cramps in my quads, from the heat and the unwelcome effort. I was glad to have some downhill time ahead to give my body a break.
Picked my way down the steepest upper part, feeling tired and stressed. My spirits were raised when I started to hear Jonathon et al whooping and hollering from their prime spectator spot midway down the techy rock garden. I stopped to chat for a second and they urged me to shut up and keep racing. When I got back on the bike my quads were cramping and I stopped for a second to shake them out.
Right as I was getting back on my bike the third place woman passed me. Oh! I didn't know her but between the Sycamore Cycles kit and the pink Industry Nine race wheels I surmised she was not joking around here. I figured I had been fading and she must have closed the gap when I slowed down so much on the Farlow climb. When she stopped to walk a log drop I went back around her and then rode a section she did not ride, then rode some kind of sketchy stuff pretty fast to widen the gap. She got back on my tail as I pushed the uphill part but I opened up a gap again on each of the downhills. At my previous Swanks the women's race had gotten blown apart early on for me but damn, for the first time I was actually RACING on Farlow.
At the wooden stairs she was right behind me and we chatted for a second. In my head I expected we would ride together to the bottom of Farlow/Daniel, and then once back out on the gravel she would turn on the heat and drop me. I told her I was climbing really slow, so we didn't need to duke it out too much in the singletrack as she could catch me on the gravel. I mentioned Double Dare and she in turn said she had just run the Shut-In Ridge Run and was hurting too.
Game On, then.
I was still just in front of her as we rode the moderate trail on the lower sections of Farlow. We turned onto the rocky side of Daniel Ridge and I decided to give it all I could. I cleaned the rock gardens all the way down without checking behind me to see whether she was following my lines. I passed a couple guys and breathed a bit easier knowing she was not right on my tail any more. I hit the last rock outcrop and without pause shifted up and big-ringed down the old logging grade. I finally glanced behind and she was nowhere to be seen. I was still on the verge of cramping and completely out of fluids so I knew I needed to stop at the aid station at the bottom of Daniel.
I skidded to a stop and saw Jimi from The Hub manning the aid. I gave him my empty bottles and tried engage in some friendly chatting as he filled them. Then I just broke down and said, "I'm trying to be all casual and relaxed but I am just a few seconds in front of the third place woman right now and kind of freakin out." A guy who had rolled in right behind me heard me, and said not to worry as she'd stopped at one of the rock garden sections. He said I might have a minute on her. Arg, a minute? Why didn't she just pass me and put me out of my misery? I got the full bottles back and hightailed it out of there before I saw sight of those pink wheels again.
I hung it out there on the Davidson River trail hoping to increase the gap a bit before the climbing. I really thought holding onto second was a lost cause, as the last gravel section is just such a killer. As I turned onto the first, steep section of the climb, I decided even though it was going to hurt like hell I was going to give it every shred of strength I had.
Sometimes it seems like that's just what it comes down to. Just get down there in the pain cave and wait it out until the finish line. Get comfortable, it's gonna be a while. It's just about tolerating pain, and tolerating the boredom of pain. Just be in that excruciating place and appreciate the experience as one more part of life.
Every switchback up, I looked back down and did not see her. I was veering toward total implosion but managed to stay on the edge by forcing down food and liquid. I made it to Cove Creek trail for the final descent having passed several guys and not seen my pursuer behind. I hit that trail full speed and felt like I was riding well despite how tired I was. Scrambled over the bridges and railed the turns for the final stretches of trail. I couldn't believe I had done it. I rolled over the finish line in second place, with third less than a minute behind me.
As soon as I finished all the pain caught up to me. My rib was killing me and my entire shoulder area hurt. My breathing was awful, and if it hadn't been for the pain from the injured rib I would have been hacking and coughing non-stop. I was bonking out and freezing cold, and the partly healed road rash from the week before had reopened from all the hard effort. It had been pretty reckless to race with such abandon, especially for a Sunday race when I had work the next morning. Even hours later I was still not breathing right, alternately hyperventilating and coughing. Luckily I still had the inhaler they had given me when I had been diagnosed with pneumonia, so I took a couple shots from that and felt like my breathing was calmer but still shallow. I was afraid to take any real pain med on top of the inhaler and was hurting all night, but still got up at 5am to make it to work on time. It took days for my breathing to feel normal again, and the rib and shoulder still hurt.
In the end, what did I learn from Swank? It was a chance to succumb to the passion of racing and just commit to a course of action outside of all logic. As I lay on the ground at the finish, still really and truly hurting in a number of ways, I told about my race and a friend said, "but you loved it, didn't you?" And I had to smile. Yeah. It's all pain and it's all redemption.
How in the world would we know we were really alive, were it not for such days?