On Saturday, September 10, I participated in a cycling race for 203 miles, from Logan, UT to Jackson Hole, WY. But it’s not just any 203 miles. The route goes over three mountain passes for a total elevation gain of over 8,000 feet of climbing. People come from all over the country to compete in it. This was my fifth year and was a milestone for a couple reasons. By finishing five times in the event, I’ve now qualified for the 1,000 mile club award.
The real story behind this year’s race for me is the test of character that happens. Yes, there is the training all year long to prepare; the thousands of miles of bike riding, Trizon Racing team training rides, strength training, proper diet, watching my weight, etc. Forget all of that! Forget the race strategy; forget that I showed up to the event right at my start time (7:03 am) and as my group was rolling across the start line (the race officials were kind to allow me to start with my group—I was only milliseconds behind, really.) Forget that it was a chilly 38 degrees in Logan when we started. And forget that I was the race leader for about 10 minutes climbing up the first mountain pass—that was a surprise. Yeah, forget all of that!
This year is a milestone for me because it also marks (next month) five years since my first wife passed away from colon cancer. Five years ago she was very ill, at home and on hospice support. It was my first year to race from Logan to Jackson aka LOTOJA, and I had made a goal to keep doing it—at least to earn the 1,000 mile award.
This year training was going well. I had a close friend and neighbor, Matt, who was planning to race in the same group as me. We were training throughout the summer and he was as strong as ever. But then in July, he was diagnosed with, yes, colon cancer. He is one of the nicest guys you will meet. And he was also one of the healthiest I know. Everyone who knows him has been just shocked!
So another friend, Javier, that we both know, said he would take Matt’s spot in LOTOJA. Javier had this last minute cool idea to get a tee shirt printed that said, “I ride for Matt.” And a quote, “We are not placed on this earth to walk alone.” By Thomas S Monson. Javier wore that shirt over his cycling jersey in support for our friend. Javier’s family was also wearing the tee shirt as they supported Javier throughout the day.
Javier and his family made a sacrifice to race this year. He had planned a family vacation but instead decided to race in LOTOJA for Matt. This year, he was taking a sabbatical from LOTOJA and hadn’t trained as hard as he would have.
Rolling out of Logan…
As we rode out of Logan, Javier said, “read my shirt.” I had no idea he had that shirt—since it was a last minute thing. That brought on some emotions. We decided we were going to stick together and ride all 203 miles— together. It was going to be a fun day.
With that, Javier and I were both feeling strong. We were riding with the leaders in our group. While we ended up being dropped by some faster riders in our group we still had a fast pace and were not far behind. We came into the first feed zone in Montpelier, ID. We had just gone over the first mountain pass (called Strawberry pass at 7,424 ft) and covered 80 miles in just under 4 hours.
Javier is a strong rider, this was his 14th year racing LOTOJA. If you aren’t familiar with road cycling, there are categories for the competitive sport. The categories start with “Cat” 5 for more recreational riders, then you have competitive cyclists and finally “Cat” 1 riders for professionals. Javier is a Cat 3. I am a Cat 5.
We left Montpelier, feeling good, Javier had brought some extra food, so he asked me to pace him as we started toward the next mountain pass (Geneva pass at 6,923 ft.). We were doing great; we were passing others and working with some other riders as well.
When you are cycling you are always pushing the air in front of you. So there is some “wind” resistance. Drafting becomes a huge benefit because it can save 30-40% of effort. By working together with others you can have a faster pace. Riding over 200 miles, drafting is one of the keys to saving energy and maintaining endurance.
Two more mountain passes to go…
As we were half way up Geneva pass we watched the Cat 1,2,3 women’s team just fly by us which was about mile 95 at this point. We have some training friends who were in that group. They left Logan just after us at 7:09. So it tells you we were really moving along at a quick pace.
As we climbed over Geneva, Javier was about 40 yards ahead of me, so he slowed down as we crested the top so we could regroup and take the descent together. Descents are fast paced at 40+ mph on a tire patch the size of nickel. At this point we were still feeling good, two of the three mountain passes behind us! Only one more to go—Salt Creek at 7,630 feet, the course’s highest point.
We were moving along pretty good as we rode along the Salt Creek River that flows below Salt Creek pass. Along the river we were riding shoulder to shoulder, talking and enjoying the company and enjoying a much welcomed tail wind. Salt Creek pass isn’t that long, but it makes up for it in elevation and grade. This pass has an 11 mile grade of 7% plus. At this point, it was almost 1pm, about six hours since we started. The road faces west. So the noon sun was just beating down on us. We were cranking our way up this thing with our eyes focused on the top. The event organizers have a well-placed neutral feed zone there.
With about two miles to the top Javier mentioned he had developed some indigestion— that started out of Montpelier. It can happen on long events like this. Some call LOTOJA an eating contest. Cyclists burn over 5,000 calories over the 200 miles. With some short breaths, I told Javier, “let’s not kill it… we are still making great time… as long as we are going fast enough that my bike computer doesn’t pause, we are good!” Trying to use humor to ease the pain of the climb. A few minutes later we rolled up on top together. Third pass down!
All downhill from here…
Whew! The hard, slow grinding part is over! We descended off Salt Creek with several other fast cyclists. On this descent riders can reach speeds of over 50 mph. The course drops into Star Valley Wyoming. Our next feed zone is about 10 miles away in Afton, Wyoming. And we were still making good time when we arrived in Afton. We were on pace at this point to finish with a very respectable time of 10 hours and 15 minutes.
We spend less than 2 minutes in these feed zones—Montpelier, Afton and Alpine. Our families meet us at these stops to check in with us; they’re our support crew. We stop to exchange water bottles, nutrition items and tell our support thanks for being there, that we love them, and then we’re off again. Only 34 miles to the town of Alpine, Wyoming. Less than an hour and half of riding away.
A few miles after Afton, Javier asks me, “is my rear tire going flat?” I looked down and I couldn’t see that it was that low. Road bike tires are thin and it can be hard to see that there has been a drop in tire pressure, especially when moving. So I said, “yeah, maybe a little.” But we kept going; we had a fast group that we were working with. We also had a head wind that wasn’t helping us, so working with a group helped us draft. We continued this for a while. But I noticed Javier was starting to struggle a bit.
We stopped about 10 miles south of Alpine, Wyoming when we found an official race support vehicle helping another rider with a flat tire. We borrowed their pump. When Javier put the pump on the tire, the tire gauge read, 30 psi. We race with 110-120 psi. He had been riding at a 23-26 mph pace on 30 psi in his rear tire for the last 25 miles! Unfortunately, he was spent!
The real suffering begins…
After we discovered just how bad Javier’s rear tire was, he was already starting to suffer and we both knew it. He started talking to me about our good pace and riding on. He was saying, “keep going, you’ll put in a good time,” “don’t worry about me,” and “don’t let me hold you back.” I softly reminded him, we had decided that we were finishing together. We had decided in Logan to ride the course together. And that is what I intended to do. I reminded him of the quote he had put on the shirt for Matt, “We are not placed on this earth to walk alone.” I said, “Javier, today my friend, we are going to live your shirt! I am sticking with you. I will work with you and you can draft behind me to the finish.”
Alpine is the last support feed zone where riders get support from their support crew. It is about 50 miles from the finish line. And sits on the edge of the Snake River that flows out of Jackson, Wyoming. We made our final stop. Checked Javier’s tire and rolled on out of Alpine. We were on pace to still put in a great time of 10 hours 30 minutes. We had lost only 15 minutes off our pace.
The last 50 miles of the course is the most beautiful by far! Just east of Alpine you enter a canyon that the Snake River carved out of the mountain range that is basically south and a part of the Grand Teton range. On the bike you can look over the edge of the road down to the Snake River. You can see people running the river and guys in fishing boats. The water is clear and you can see the bottom in the shallow spots.
We had only gone a few miles beyond Alpine when Javier gave me his whistle which meant slow the pace a bit. Remember, we had agreed to work together. He stopped! He said, “I almost fainted back there. I am feeling a little light headed and weak.” Both his family and mine had just passed us in their vehicles, ringing the cow bells. We were in the canyon and no cell phone signal. We had two other friends roll on by us. They asked if we were ok. We nodded yes and waved them on.
I said, “Javier, it’s an honor to ride with you. Just take some time, catch your breath and we’ll go when you’re ready.” He was talking about having to heave. I said “It might be good to get that out of your system. Do whatever works, cause I am riding with you.” He was more worried about the after taste if he did heave. I was grateful to have him take Matt’s spot and to have a friend to ride with, but I also wanted to help Javier. I’ve been in his condition before and know what it is like when you’re racing and you can’t perform like your friends because you’re having an off day. Sometimes, you do get dropped. It happens. Cycling is a competitive sport.
Putting in a great time is fun. It’s a challenge to see just how fast you can complete the LOTOJA course. But, today it was different. It was more about the endurance of character building than about physical endurance. It wasn’t about the competitive times. I had already done that. My best time was 10 hours and 4 minutes (10:04) Not too shabby, and a good time; fast but not real fast. I’m not getting younger. So it wasn’t like I was going to be any faster than that, not today anyway. The Cat 1 and other top competitors complete it in around 9 hours. The course record is around 8:45. But, today, the race wasn’t a race of physical or mental endurance, it was a race of friendship! Support for a friend, neighbor and the selfless acts of kindness to stand by one another and help them. It was the deeper meaning of what human relationships are about. It was about returning acts of kindness done to me.
Javier said, “dude, don’t wait for me, go on, you can still get in a good time around 10:30.” I told him, “nope we are going to live your shirt today! We are not placed on this earth to walk alone.” He took a minute or two, caught is breath and then climbed back on his bike and we were rolling again watching the river and a few other riders passing us.
Gummy bears and coke…
LOTOJA has one final neutral feed zone on the east side of the Snake River canyon. It is just outside a little town called Hoback Junction. Hoback is a place where two main roads in this region of Wyoming come together and feed into the town of Jackson. One is the road we were on, the other comes up from I-80 at Rock Springs.
At the Hoback neutral, we pulled in as Javier was hoping to sit in one of those “soft” camp chairs. I on the other hand, was looking for one of those outhouses to take a nature break. Sure enough, I found Javier sitting in a camp chair. I went right to work! I found some gummy bears that he was craving and a coke. We shared both. I took a picture of him, then sent it and a text to notify his family and let them know that we were ok, but we would to be slower than what we had planned on being. We only had 27 miles to go!!!
By the time I sent the text, Javier was on his bike, saying, “let’s go!” I grabbed my bike and we were off. We rode over the new Hoback Junction bridge that spans the Snake River and through the new round-about in the center of town. It has to be the most desolate round-about in the country! The next little bit of road has no shoulder at all! Riders have no choice but to obstruct traffic. Javier managed through that and we continued on.
We caught up to and drafted behind two couples on tandom bikes all the way to South Park Road at the south end of Jackson. The course turns left there on to South Park and takes us off the main highway. This is an inspiring part of the course because all of sudden you look up and see the Grand Tetons. We had what for me was a comfortable pace at 17 mph; Javier was just trying to survive to the finish. We picked up too older guys who were also struggling. They welcomed our draft as we continued north into a headwind. I mentioned to them, read Javier’s shirt. They were grateful we were pulling them along.
Javier asked me to check his tire again. I looked but it appeared fine. I asked him if he wanted to stop and check it. I told him let’s find a good place where we can pull off the road. I had a Co2 cartridge that we had discussed that we should have used earlier south of Alpine. Now, I wasn’t going to hesitate to use it!
We came upon some grass that lined the street with some townhomes set back off the street. Javier said, “Let’s stop here!” Some women were sitting in chairs cheering on cyclists. We stopped several yards past them. Javier got off his bike and laid down on the grass. The women stood up, alarmed. “Is he ok? Can we do anything? Do you need anything?” I smiled and told them thanks and that we were ok and that I was just checking his tire. It was pretty much full, but I put in some air just in case.
We only had less than 10 miles to go at this point—after completing 193 miles!! Javier was so tired and spent! He said, “Mike, I have never felt this bad, I have never suffered on a bike like this.” Javier had bonked hard. Bonking, is a term cyclists and runner use when they do not have any energy to go on. It’s hard to explain the feeling, really. But you know what it means when it happens to you. I guess it would be like when your car runs out of gas, and it is still rolling, but the motor is off. Sort of like that. At our pace, I call it, “bonk speed.”
We had the Grand Tetons in full view, the sun had gone behind the Teton Range to the west of us and we were in the shade. We rode on the new bike/pedestrian bridge over the Snake River and saw a large white crane out on one of islands in the river fishing for food. The water was a darker blue with some white cap ripples. It was a gorgeous view to the north of the Jackson Hole valley.
We reconnected with the main road that leads to the Teton Village and Jackson Hole ski resort. The finish line was only 7 miles away. I gradually stepped up the pace to about 19.5 mph. I kept looking back to make sure I didn’t drop Javier. He was glued to my rear wheel. He was giving it all he had. We passed several people who were riding at a slower pace. We could see the finish line in view and event signs on the road side indicating 5 kilometers, then 4, then 3. We looked down and compared times on our bike computers. I had mine set to display the rolling time, which was about 10:45. Javier’s reported 11:30 because his was total time—the total time is the time that really matters for the event. It had been 11 hours 30 minutes since the time we left Logan. He said, “Mike, you don’t know how much this means to me to have your help today. You could have finished with a respectable time at 10:30.” I said, “yeah, but it meant way more to finish with you and live the quote on your shirt—“we were not placed on this earth to walk alone.” It was an honor show support for our friend Matt and his family and we were relieved to have completed another year racing LOTOJA.
A big thank you goes to the Trizon Racing team and its sponsors for their support. You can read more about LOTOJA here