By David Ward –
I think maybe I have graduated. Before this year, I had schooled myself by placing my mortal frame at the starting line of the LOTOJA on 25 separate occasions, each time intent on riding 206 miles the finish. 22 times I succeeded. Twice I had to drop out due to illness, and once because I felt like crap and knew it was only going to get worse. Now, I think maybe I have graduated.
For several years now, my wife, Karma, who was my support during all but three of those LOTOJAs (and by virtue thereof probably holds an unofficial record for having driven support more than any other person), has been alternately trying to convince me that enough is enough, or to ride the LOTOJA as part of a relay team.
In 2013, I rode the LOTOJA just three months after hip replacement surgery. The hip felt great, but my conditioning was clearly lacking. I remember dreading the start and, during the 80-120 mile stretch (Montpelier, Idaho to Afton, Wyoming), wondering if I could even make it. I actually felt better by the time I reached Alpine Junction, and had a good finish. But overall, it was a very painful ride, both physically and mentally.
Long story short, as a result of that experience, my wife finally prevailed. For this year’s LOTOJA, I organized a 4-man relay team consisting of a mountain goat, Elliot Morris, and two flatlanders – my brother, Nick, and my nephew, Ace Call. Drawing on our relative strengths, I assigned Elliot the stretch between Preston and Montpelier with its 3500 feet of climbing. Nick was given the finishing stretch from Alpine Junction to Grand Targhee Resort, and Ace took the two flattest legs, the first from Logan to Preston, and the penultimate from Afton to Alpine Junction. I took the less strenuous mountain stage from Montpelier to Afton (2500 feet of climbing).
We had a blast. Ace got us off to a good start with a strong ride on the first leg. As expected, Elliot had an impressive ride on the long haul up and over Strawberry Summit and on to Montpelier. I was the weak link, but managed a decent ride over the two shorter mountain passes, Geneva Summit and Salt River Pass.
Ace took over again and practically flew to Alpine Junction, skidding to a stop in order to pass the baton (actually, timing chip) to Nick. Ace had so much adrenaline pumping, he was ready to keep going. Nick delivered our team effort to the finish line in excellent fashion, bringing us in at 11th place out of the 90 teams that started the 3-5 man relay.
Being part of a team and contributing to a joint goal is always satisfying. And for three old men (me at 63, Elliot at 61 and Nick at 54) with only one youngster to carry us (Ace is a mere 34, in the midst of his cycling prime), we did all right. And we had a great time.
But I probably enjoyed it more than anyone. There are several reasons for that. At the top of my list is the fact that I was not constantly thinking and worrying, beginning in March and ending on race day in September, about training for the LOTOJA. I am not demeaning that and, in fact, understand both the desire and satisfaction in so doing. But my summer, riding and otherwise, was more relaxed, varied and, frankly, enjoyable.
Additionally, I did not have to plan any meals on the bike. Usually, I spend a considerable amount of time determining and outlining for Karma what I want at each of the three feed zones where she is allowed to hand up food, and how I am going to get by in between. Not this year. I just needed to be fueled and ready to go in Montpelier. Between there and Afton, I only needed my two large water bottles and a few energy boosting treats.
Probably the nicest treat was having Montpelier as my starting point rather than a way station between the 3500 foot slog over Strawberry Summit and the two climbs over Geneva Summit and Salt River Pass. It’s a long slog over Strawberry, and you are at 80 miles by the time you get to Montpelier. Geneva Summit isn’t extremely bad, but those last two miles up Salt River Pass, with its summit at mile 110 for the solo racers, are enough to make you swear you’ll never do this again.
But when you start your race in Montpelier, its an entirely different story. You’re just hitting your stride when you tackle Geneva Summit and, while Salt River Pass is still hard, its just a challenge, not a death march. After the race, I was asked by some if, while riding my leg, I found myself wishing I were doing the whole race. I’ll admit, I had some of those thoughts, but not during my leg. It was so sweet to feel fresh and strong over that stretch that people were probably wondering why I had this stupid grin on my face.
Karma probably enjoyed this year more than I did. She didn’t have to prepare hand-ups for me, worry about getting to the feed zones on time or fighting with traffic. Indeed, there was always a teammate to shuttle to the next transition point so she didn’t have to drive at all. Plus, everyone took care of their own food. So she spent the whole day visiting and enjoying the sights. Best LOTOJA she’s ever experienced.
Seriously, though, it is for the solo racers that the LOTOJA exists. That is its reason for being. For me, few cycling experiences have brought a greater sense of satisfaction and accomplishment than crossing the LOTOJA’s finish line after 7500 feet of climbing, three very serious summits and 206 miles of grueling effort,.
Have I truly graduated? I don’t know. There is still that yearning to keep doing it solo as long as I am able. On the other had, we had a great time.. I had a great time. It was not the same sense of accomplishment as riding it solo, but it sure was fun. And since I am the one who decides whether or not to award the diploma, I determine if I have graduated. Since registration for the LOTOJA is not till April, I’ll wait a few months to decide.
But whatever I decide, I will be there next year. It’ll be great. It’s the LOTOJA.