The kids were doing the math, and the numbers weren’t coming up in Ben’s favor.
It was Sunday morning, around 9:30, and the fact that these 15-year-olds were able to do math at all was impressive. For most of the past 24 hours they’d been racing their mountain bikes at the appropriately named Dark Mountain near Wilkesboro, site of the 10th Annual Burn 24 Hour Challenge, a mountain bike race that began at noon Saturday and ran, straight through, until noon Sunday. During the past 12 1/2 hours, one of the 15-year-olds had thrown up twice during her middle-of-the-night shift-in-the saddle. One had severe stomach cramps early on after finishing a 7.4-mile lap on the hilly foothills course. One kept falling asleep in a camp chair and had to be awoken, for the third time, less than 10 minutes before his last lap. Yet at 9:30, working on maybe three hours sleep per person, their brains were working away.
“Let’s see,” said Pierce, “Luke’s out right now. “If he does a 38 or 39 [minute lap] he should be back around 10:25.”
“Or 10:15,” Sophie suggested. Luke’s laps were getting progressively faster, a contradiction for a 24-hour race, and the joke was that if they raced long enough he’d be registering times only achievable in a time warp.
“So he gets in around 10:25,” Pierce continued, Sophie, you’d get back about 11:10, then it’s my lap and I should be back by … “
I glanced at Ben, who sat spent in a canvas camp chair, his eyes closed. He’d just finished his seventh lap, which he and everyone else assumed had been his last. He’d pushed it hard, given it everything he’d had, crossed the finish in a sprint, then made a bee-line for the camp chair. He’d been absent from the discussion, but he’d been monitoring it closely. Before Pierce finished his sentence a small moan emanated from Ben.
“… by 11:50, 11:55,” Pierce continued. “That would let us get one more lap in.”
According to the rules of 24-hour racing, you may begin your last lap up until 23:59:59, a last lap that, having already raced for 23:59:59, most people would gladly pass on. But these were four 15-year-old kids, and there was a chance that if they put in that one last lap they could move up in the standings, from sixth to fifth. This lap — this lap that, according to the rotation, fell to Ben — could mean something.
Fifth place wouldn’t mean a podium finish. But these four kids, the Flaming Marshmellows, couldn’t care less. They weren’t competing against other junior racers, they were in the adult co-ed category, competing against 20 other teams, some with impressive sponsorships — Topeak, Cycles de Oro, Sycamore Cycles. These four kids were sponsored by their dads (and in Ben’s case, me, his stepdad). They were out to prove what had become obvious over the past 21 1/2 hours: That they could race with anyone.
I empathized with Ben’s groan. Six years earlier, at the last 24 Hours of Snowshoe, my five-person coed team was likewise running the numbers. Three members of the team had announced they were done earlier that morning, leaving Branson and I to split the remaining laps. I finished what I assumed was my last lap at 10:33 a.m. only to be met by a surprisingly fresh Branson, who took off like a jackrabbit. “Don’t hurry!” I yelled as he disappeared up the trail. But he did, turning his second fastest lap and returning at 11:54, six minutes before the cutoff.
I looked at Ben and wanted to tell him that, yes, he was dead tired, and yes, he had already ridden more than 50 miles of grueling singletrack in the last 23 1/2 hours, and yes, he’d done it on maybe three hours sleep. I wanted to tell him that no, he certainly didn’t have to go out on that last lap, that everyone would understand (and they would — his three teammates had all announced they wouldn’t go back out). But I also wanted to tell him what that last lap at Snowshoe had done for me. After talking with Branson and my teammates for five minutes and watching the clock count down to 11:59, after coming up with a million reasons against riding that last lap and not one for it, after being perfectly willing to accept, nay, embrace, my wimpiness, for whatever reason I clipped in and headed out. Immediately, I knew it was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. As I left the transition area, the announcer bellowed, “Team TIO is going out for one last lap with just a minute to go — and they’re in the Just For Fun category!” The 8-mile course, which was a quagmire due to torrential rains at the start, was now in near perfect shape. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, I cleared sections I had to walk before, and for the first time in the race I passed other riders. It was, perhaps, the best ride I’ve ever had, and I returned to a hero’s welcome. Most importantly, though, is the lingering effect of that last lap. Whenever I’m in what appears to be an impossible situation, I think back to that sunlit lap that almost wasn’t.
I wanted to share my experience with Ben, but when it comes down to it you need to make the big decisions on your own. You need the clarity to look within; Chicken Soup anecdotes are only a distraction. You need to know you reached the decision on your own.
“I’ll ride,” Ben said, and he slowly detached from the camp chair and began preparing for his second last lap. When he crossed the finish after turning one his faster laps, I knew that look on his tired but ecstatic face. I knew that last lap would stay with him for the rest of his life.
Photo: A quick handlebar nap before heading out on the second final lap.