The Fickle Desert of the True Grit

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By Sonya Looney — The feeling of Zen is an intimate level of pure focus between the body and mind where nothing but the present moment matters. It’s common in mountain biking. That feeling of focus is where each movement provides a specific action. Technical riding is far more than just a physical effort, it’s calculated, sometimes chaotic, and a true Zen state of mind. There are two states of mind when tackling a technical trail: where you think you might be able to ride something and the state of mind where you believe you will ride something. The difference seems minor, but identifying that difference in you is the fine line between attacking versus attempting something. Where you think “I might be able to” versus “I can and I will.” The same goes for ultra-endurance racing. There’s a state where your mind becomes a more powerful indicator of your physical state; where there is full commitment; that what it takes to compete in the True Grit 100.

Sonya Looney battled back from an earyly mechanical and overheating to finish 4th in the 100 miler in the 2017 True Grit Mountain Bike Race. Photo by CrawlingSpider.com, find your photo from the race.
Sonya Looney battled back from an earyly mechanical and overheating to finish 4th in the 100 miler in the 2017 True Grit Mountain Bike Race. Photo by CrawlingSpider.com, find your photo from the race.

Thoughts of excitement, curiosity, anxiety, and possibly even “what the hell am I getting myself into?” were swimming in the heads of the racers who lined up for the sold out NUE Opener, the True Grit Epic 100. For some, the 89 mile mountain bike race was just another day in the saddle. For others, it would be the hardest challenge of their lives. Under the soft light of dawn, the vast desert was waiting to offer adventure, challenges, and in some cases, defeat. Her curves were in the form of different size rock rolls, her demeanor temperamental. She can be unsympathetic with windy, fatiguing terrain. She’ll make you feel lonely and vulnerable. She can be short-tempered and uncompromisingly hot and barren should you push too hard and play with her fire. But if you’re lucky, she can be hospitable and hypnotize you into a state of trance where no climb is too hard, no rocky section unrideable. Over the course of 89 miles and 7+ hours exploring her frontiers, most racers see every side of her.

Mark Esplin rides through the incredible scenery that is everywhere in the True Grit Mountain Bike Race. Photo by CrawlingSpider.com, find your photo from the race.
Mark Esplin rides through the incredible scenery that is everywhere in the True Grit Mountain Bike Race. Photo by CrawlingSpider.com, find your photo from the race.

The True Grit’s tagline of “long, tough, and technical” began with a steep climb out of the modest town of St George, Utah. Winding tracks through gullies with brittle walls lead the way into the first loop. The course becomes increasingly more chunky, a real mountain bike race in its own right, with uphill rock faces requiring hard surges of power and stalky spiny barrel cacti. By the time you start to feel fatigued, the infamous waterfall descent taunts your dignity. The key is to trust your bike, stay off the front brake and look ahead.

Women's 100 Mile winner Joey Lythgoe in the True Grit Mountain Bike Race. Photo by CrawlingSpider.com, find your photo from the race.
Women's 100 Mile winner Joey Lythgoe in the True Grit Mountain Bike Race. Photo by CrawlingSpider.com, find your photo from the race.

My third True Grit was off to a great start. My previous visit was in 2015 where I had a smooth, drama-free win through the 2 laps of the race course. I was hoping to repeat that performance this year when my first challenge of the day struck just 6 miles into the race; bad mechanical. I watched my lead disappear and the entirety of the field come and go as I worked as quickly as I could to get my bike up and running again. The desert tried to test me with loneliness, but she didn’t win. I chased hard and after the desert’s first inhospitable gesture with the mechanical. I didn’t find the back of the race for nearly 15 minutes, but I was now feeling strong and at home and effortlessly ripping through the singletrack. The desert offered that zone of trance and pure focus, and I glady accepted it.

Taylor Lideen on his way to winning the 100 mile race at the 2017 True Grit Mountain Bike Race. Photo by CrawlingSpider.com, find your photo from the race.
Taylor Lideen on his way to winning the 100 mile race at the 2017 True Grit Mountain Bike Race. Photo by CrawlingSpider.com, find your photo from the race.

The Zen loop welcomed me with grippy rock and fun descents and it offered me what is in the name: focus and presence. Technical descending is my favorite part of mountain biking. By the time I got to the back section of the course, I had worked my way through the field back up to 4th and was closing in on the top three women. The bobsled singletrack was a blast and the headwind on the way to the latter part of the course didn’t even phase me. However, after I left Aid-3, the fickle desert showed another side of her mood; heat; 90 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact. Normally, I thrive in the heat but after a long, cold winter in Canada, the temperature was arduous. The last loop of the lap has been my favorite with expansive red and beige extra-terrestrial views on top of the plateau. This year, it was more challenging as the symptoms of heat exhaustion began to wear me down. No matter how much water I drank, it felt like my stomach was an undraining water bag. My pores refused to squeeze out cooling sweat and even goosebumps appeared. At first I thought they were from excitement until my pace slowed and I lost coordination. I went from trying to win the race to simply trying to finish. I wondered if I should quit because heat stroke can be serious, but I decided to keep going.

Now was my challenge – turn the experience around so that I could get something positive out of it. I hadn’t been in a dark place in a long time in a race. I wanted to prove to myself that I could beat it. I took it one mile at a time and tried to see how many colors I could see in the desert at any given time. Instead of thinking how far I had to go or how bad I felt, I tried to focus on each minute. When I saw other people, I tried to relish in a positive human connection and camaraderie.

When I finally made it to the gentle flat pavement back to the finish line, I could hear the band. It wasn’t pretty, but I got there and I had given it my best shot finishing 4th on the day to some talented, determined ladies. Racing would be boring if it always went to plan or if it wasn’t hard. Even though I was disappointed that things didn’t go as smooth as I had hoped, I was thankful for the lessons the desert offered me. And she knows I’ll be back.

Sonya Looney has raced her mountain bike in the Sahara Desert, Himalayas, tropical jungles, and mountain ranges all over the world. Her spirit for adventure, personal growth, and taking on new challenges has driven her to over 25 race wins in her career on just about every continent. For more of her writings, see sonyalooney.com

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