A few days after Frog Hollow, I was finding myself searching for my next mountain bike race online. After a summer of burning myself out on running, without losing the desire to get out on the trails as much as possible, I’ve re-discovered mountain biking. When Jeanni asked if I wanted to join a 5-person team to do Frog Hollow sometime last spring, I hadn’t ridden my mountain bike a single time in over a year, but I figured why not? It’s an excuse to take a trip to the desert, hang out with friends, maybe ride a bit, and if it didn’t go well, there would be four other people to pick up the slack. The lap is 13 miles, and at worst, I could just do one. In the last few months, I have gone on a few rides to prepare for this. The most recent one involved a minor crash in which I landed 100% on my face. Luckily, I wasn’t going very fast, but it did remind me of why helmets should be reasonably tight…
After 10 hours of driving, Sean and I made it to Hurricane, UT, around 4:30PM. We planned to do a lap that evening to check it out, and somehow it ended up being 5:30 by the time we got started, so we were racing the sun to finish before dark. No one really brought lights, but we did bring Boris, who was dying to get some running in, but needs to take breaks and drink water occasionally since he can’t coast like we can. I have a bit of a history of pushing dogs too hard, so I figured I could take my chances with getting stuck out in the dark for the sake of not killing my dog. Mark and Sean went ahead, and Jeanni stayed with me and Boris for the rest of the lap. The trail begins with a climb up a fire road, which is pretty rolling and not too steep, and nontechnical. Then, there’s a rolling, swoopy downhill section of non-technical singletrack, which is really fun. The last two or so miles- which I grew to hate immensely- involve big, flat rocks sticking out of the trail to varying degrees, most of which was rideable for me but occasional sections were not. Parts of this are also along a canyon edge, but not in a dangerous way. I considered this the most technical section of the trail, and yet I somehow ended up riding it in the dark, without proper lights, twice.
When we got back to camp, it was fully dark out, the rest of the team had arrived, and the dome was being assembled. The geodesic dome was originally built by Mark and Danny for Burning Man, but has since made an appearance at several of their camping trips. I feel like this picture does not capture the true scale of the enormous dome. It was an amazing and memorable basecamp, providing much-needed shade from the desert sun as well as provoking stares and envy from the other campers.
The race kicked off Saturday morning at 10AM, which immediately became 9AM as we set our clocks back to “Frog Time” to take advantage of daylight savings time a few hours early. Brian took the first lap, and finished with the fast kids at 9:55. Then he shared a story that I heard countless times over the course of the race: he was on track for a 50-minute lap, but then there was someone with a flat tire who brought no spares or tools, and stopped to help, left him some tools, etc., and thus lost a few minutes. There were a lot of competitors who apparently thought they could save some weight by carrying nothing, and then would have to be bailed out by other racers.
Sean was up next, also bringing in a sub-hour lap, and then Jeanni with a fast 1:15. I was fourth, with plenty of time for a full daylight lap. I was a bit nervous to be out in a race, on singletrack, knowing that people were doing such fast laps and that my lap the night before had been somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 hours (including the water stops for Boris and riding in darkness, but still). I did get passed a lot, that’s for sure, but the trail flowed much more smoothly the second time around. I tried to ride more of the sections I had pushed, including a steep downhill which reminded me of coming over the corner on a steep ski run. You know how sometimes you can’t see the slope below you until you actually drop in? This section was like that, and as I pulled over to take a look, another racer shot by me yelling “You can dooooo iiiiiiiittt…” as he raced into the distance. He was right. There is something to be said for riding the same lap multiple times. I finished this lap in 1:26, and Mark took off for his lap.
The nice thing about racing on a team of five is that there’s plenty of time in between laps to take the dogs for a nice off-leash walk through the desert, where they can chase each other around and find bones to chew on, making the many hours of driving worth it for everyone. Boris and Tele did some zooming and then got to pass out in the dome again until it was time for their next walk. By the end of the trip, they were both completely red-brown from running through the desert and lying in the dust.
The other nice thing about a team of five is that no one is pushing their limits in terms of endurance, and because of that, and the fact that the race goes through the night, many of the team members decided to start doing double laps. Jeanni kicked it off with a double at sunset, and was even hardcore enough to ride her singlespeed for the first of the two laps! She finished around 8, and I took off for my first night lap. This was my first experience riding at night (on purpose, anyway), and I had borrowed a 900-lumen bike light as well as attaching my 150-lumen headlamp to my helmet as a backup. There was definitely some trepidation on my part, but I took off and immediately felt great. I started up the climb, noticed my chain making some awful noises, ignored it, and kept going. Riding at night felt very zen to me, with the focus entirely on my light’s spot on the trail ahead, no distractions. I felt very alone, despite the fact that there were probably still as many people out as there had been during the day. I only saw them when they passed me occasionally, and otherwise it was all quiet.
The first major malfunction happened just a few miles in, during the fire road climb, when I dropped my chain. Losing a chain is pretty routine for someone like me who is very neglectful of bike maintenance, so I pulled over to put it back on without too much concern. It turned out that it was stuck in between the frame and crank arm, and I mean really stuck. I yanked, jiggled, and flexed it, all to no avail. During this time, every single person who passed asked if I needed help, but there was really nothing they could have done. Finally, I managed to get the pedals to turn a bit, then more, and then I was slowly able to work it free. The whole process took about 15 minutes, and probably involved shaving some metal off the frame to get it loose, but I was just happy to be able to ride again. Soon after that, my front derailleur stopped working. Luckily, this was near the end of the climb, so I could just put it in the bigger gear and forget about it. I returned to cruising along, immersed in the darkness and stars and silence.
As soon as the trail started going down, another issue manifested itself: my bike light wasn’t on tight enough, and kept falling down. It was held in place basically by a rubber band that wasn’t adjustable, so I had to reposition it every time I hit a bump, which nearly resulted in a few crashes from taking a hand off while simultaneously not being able to see where I was going. During the night, though, there were some race volunteers out with bonfires, and I stopped at one for help, hoping for some duct tape to keep the light in place. The volunteer took one look at my light, made some very inappropriate jokes about Chinese manufacturing, and stuck an empty Gu packet under the rubber band, which actually held it in place quite well. Then, when I was about two miles from the finish- just as the rocky, technical section was beginning- my light went out. I was glad to have a headlamp, which gave me enough light to walk the bike but not really to ride, and began the long walk to the end. I did manage to slowly ride a few very smooth sections, but since I could never really see what was coming, I would jump off the bike at the slightest hint of a rock and walk again. The end finally came, and Mark started the next lap while I went back to camp for a hot bowl of chili and bed.
Despite all the gear issues, the night lap was a blast. Being out in the desert at night, alone, on a bike, was exactly what I needed. It reminded me of college trips to Joshua Tree, where we would drive out at midnight on a Friday night, snag a campsite, and go scramble around on the rocks in the dark. Whenever I arrived at JTree, I was immediately in my happy place- away from the city and the stresses of work, and in the desert, at peace. That was always what felt real to me, and the human constructs of everyday life were what felt unnatural and confining. This is what I seek out when I go into the wilderness. I don’t think I had realized until then that the Frog Hollow base camp, for all its comforts that I was appreciative of, felt too much like civilization, with its crowds of people, generators, and RVs. The night lap was the real vacation from civilization.
Because the rest of the team was planning on riding double laps through the night, I got a full night’s sleep and rose at sunrise for my morning lap. Jeanni had taken the sunrise lap, and on her return at 8, I still had plenty of time to ride a lap and get Mark out the door before the 10AM cutoff for a final lap for the team. After a bit of oil to my chain and derailleurs, my bike worked flawlessly for the final lap, and my legs, though a little tired, worked pretty well too. It was cool to re-visit the same loop again, in the daylight, and once again ride more of it than any of the laps before. I rode for a while with a guy who was on lap #21 for him, a solo rider, and was in 2nd place. He had not taken any breaks to sleep or eat much, but was determined to catch the guy ahead of him, also on lap #21. I hope he did! I finished by 9:30, and enjoyed some delicious eggs that had been made for breakfast while Mark rode the final lap. Sometimes, civilization is good. Awesome teammates are always good.
We checked our stats at the end- we came in 9th out of 10 teams- so, not last! More importantly, the 50 miles I rode over the weekend probably doubled the number of miles I’d put on my bike in the last year, and got me excited to do some longer rides (just in time for the snow…). Then we packed up, and Sean, Boris, and I headed out for the real endurance event that was the 10-hour drive home.