Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hell of the North

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

-Robert Frost

Dante's Inferno chronicles one worldview of hell, and indeed the prominent worldview in medieval times, as a place of physical torment for those who made decisions in their earthly life that were contrary to the will of God. Of note is that while the concept of hell as a place of physical punishment is often and even in holy writ referred to as a lake of fire and brimstone, in Dante's epic poem, the damned occupying the ninth circle of hell--that place reserved for the likes of Satan and Judas Iscariot--are entrapped in ice.

Other, perhaps more modern or enlightened, notions of hell suggest that it is a state not of physical punishment but of perpetual regret wherein the condemned are left to suffer in the most simple but poignant knowledge that had they chosen a different path, paradise could have been achieved rather than the less-desirable state wherein they find themselves.

Regardless of which, if either, is correct, I got a taste of both on Saturday.

The story begins on Friday. I had skied some light, delicious powder that morning, and it continued snowing all day. Rick sent an email out in the afternoon inquiring as to whether anyone wanted to do a longer tour on Saturday morning.

I had been planning for weeks to do the Hell of the North bike race, Utah's miniature version of the spring classic sharing the same nickname. Conditions were going to be awful. Or epic, depending on how you look at it. I wavered with indecision for the rest of the day, even going so far as to prepare my "B" bike the night before AND set out all my clothing and gear for skiing.

Finally when I went to bed and set my alarm, I more or less made a decision. My rationale was thus: I've skied 40+ times this year, 25 of them powder days. The wind is blowing, skies are cloudy. Tomorrow could go either way. Hell of the North is one day a year and a chance to race with my brother, which I always enjoy.

At 4:30, I awoke with my phone chiming, alerting me of a text message. I got up and looked at it. Dug: Not gonna make it. At this point, I could have gone and checked the weather--looked at what the wind was doing and what the overnight snowfall was. Instead, I just responded: Me neither.

I got back up at 6:00 and put on my cycling kit. The wind and snow were beating against the walls of my house. Then I got another text, this time from Sam, saying he wasn't going to race because conditions were too bad. Great. Sam called me Friday afternoon and gave just enough encouragement to race that it was probably what tipped the scales in that direction. Oh well. Sam not showing means I'm automatically one place higher than I would have been.

Steve and I got to the course and were relieved to find the winds much calmer and no snow falling. For the moment. We rode a warm up lap, and the course, which includes nearly 2 miles per lap of dirt road, was wet, but probably not as bad as it could have been. We got back to the car, took our jackets off and headed to the start.

I realized about a mile down the road to the start that I hadn't used my inhaler and didn't have it with me. I also had left my water bottle in the car, so I turned around. And quickly realized I wouldn't make it back in time. So I raced with no inhaler and no water. It was only 25 miles, so I figured I'd be OK.

A couple of guys tried to break for it right from the starting gun. Everyone else let them go, and by halfway through the first lap, we had caught them and spit one of them out the back. I also noticed at that point that Steve was nowhere to be seen. I wouldn't see him again all race.

Onto the dirt, and I was feeling OK. My glasses got dirty, and I was getting wet, but once on the pavement again, I just wiped my glasses off (I'm in the red vest and white and blue helmet below).

On lap two, I figured out that the strategy was going to be to accelerate out of the corners and push it as hard as possible on the dirt, with hopes of dropping riders little by little. It worked. After two laps, the lead group was down to 15 or 20 riders, and after three laps, it was down to 11.

At this point the snow was falling fairly hard, my drivetrain was so gummed up that it was about 15 seconds from when I shifted until the chain moved cogs, and my feet were numb. My glasses were sitting down on my nose like an old lady, useless to see through, but still a somewhat valuable shield from the splatter coming up and into my eyes.

When the bell rang as we completed the fourth lap, it was one of the sweetest sounds I have ever heard. I was just ready to be done. My feet were so numb at this point that they just felt like stumps from the ankles down. I knew the pace would be harder on this lap as riders wanted to thin the field before the bunch sprint, but it was only five miles.

We may have dropped one or two on the last lap, but I'm not sure. We passed quite a few Cat 4s, who started four minutes ahead of us. I didn't have a computer, so I can only describe the speed as somewhere between fast and painful.

The 1Km to go sign is on the dirt road, shortly before rounding the corner to the pavement. The pace went up again, and I knew the sprint would start as soon as the pavement did. I also knew that even though I was holding on, I had only been on a bike four times since November, and I could do no sprinting.

Phatty Pat got a nice leadout from the first guy to make a move and held on for the W. I gave it what little I was worth to finish at the tail end of the lead bunch, somewhere around 10th.

Steve had flatted in the first mile and ridden solo for the duration. The downside to that is he got no benefit from drafting. The upside was that he stayed remarkably clean.

Aside from being as cold as I have ever been in my entire life, I actually felt pretty good about the race and about my efforts. And it got me one step closer to the Cat. 4 upgrade, so that was good. The physical suffering was very real and intense, but by the time I'd had some hot chocolate, taken a shower, and gotten the mud out of my eyes with only minor lacerations on my eyeballs, it was over.

The regret and mental anguish, however were only beginning. For starters, I forgot the bike was on the roof rack when I pulled into the garage. Thankfully it wasn't my "A" bike. The car is fine, the garage is fine. The bike is not. At the very least it needs a new fork. We'll see what else.

Then I decided to take the kids to Solitude for the afternoon. Which was a good thing--my son skied his first blue run, right under the lift, and got plenty of cheers from above as he did so. The first time down, he followed in my tracks, but after a couple laps, he was hitting it all by himself. Unfortunately, being up there, I was left to look around at all the untouched backcountry lines just begging for someone to ski them.

While there, I made the mistake of texting the Wonder Twins to see how the skiing was. Rob said "Incredible--wish you woulda come." Rick said "Some of the best snow of my life. Super light and over the shoulder deep." My pleas to Dug to go out on dusk patrol went unheeded.

Once home, I found that the Samurai, who is a skinny ski guy, was on 110 waisted skis and even then wondered if it was too deep. Dustin and his crew were gasping for air between turns. Oh to suffer from asphyxiation in such manner.

Even if my legacy for the day is a smashed-up bike, I shouldn't complain. It's not like my life sucks. It's just that in hindsight, Saturday could have sucked a lot less than it did.

A huge thank you to my brother Josh for braving the elements in nothing but a sweatshirt to get these fantastic photos. Thanks mom and dad for coming to cheer us on--encouragement from the crowd makes a difference.


  1. EPIC. I really enjoyed this post! Your mud splattered face reminds me of photos I've seen of the Koppenburg Cross race. Here's a quick link, although I've seen better photos:

  2. Nice effort. I'm actually quite jealous as it wasn't until my 3rd attempt at HON that I was able to finish with the pack. To do that with only 4 rides in your legs is crazy. AT seems to be pretty good bike training.

    Snowbasin was fun but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't bummed about missing what some are calling one of the deepest days they've ever ridden. With temperatures hitting 50 in the Cottonwoods the first of this week I'm thinking the time may have come to hang up the skis.

  3. 331, conditions were bad enough that even some of the cross racers bailed.

    UTRider, don't hang up the skis just yet. There's still going to be at least one more storm worth getting out for. Snowbird may be the only place open for it, though.

  4. You look good in mud, though usually you'd be riding a mountain bike. Crazy race. Are you wondering if the Cat 4 upgrade is worth it? :-)

  5. we chose . . . poorly.

    we deserve to have our faces melted off for that.

  6. Kris, the cat 4 upgrade is just a matter of getting enough starts. It will happen whether or not I had done this race. For some dumb reason, I just chose to race over skiing.

    To Dug's point, I deserve to have my face melted off for having done so. I am now a penitent man.

  7. I wish I coulda been out in that powder. Unbelievable. I wonder what the fallout would have been at home had I blown off my sons birthday party?

    Probably worse than having my face melted off.

  8. No offense, guys, but you definitely made the wrong choice. It was deep out there, and conditions permitted skiing the steeps. Not to rub it in, but it was a day to remember.