To many (most? all?) being in the “friend zone” is a bad thing. It’s a sentiment of less-than or not-good-enough status. I’d like to rewrite that history, it can be quite a nice thing to be in the friend zone. Take a walk with me.
To be honest, I don’t remember when I met my friend Doug. I could probably go back through my emails and posts and digital ramblings and figure out when it was and then pretend I always remembered (which by the way is how I do a lot of my pseudo-remembering), but I just don’t. Doug just seems to have always been a friend I met through Team Fatty. And so when he asked me to go to Leadville and crew for him, I eagerly said yes. I wanted to do something awesome for a friend, and experience a real legendary event at the same time.
In the build up to this race, I loved knowing how seriously Doug was taking it. He hired a coach, he was riding an incredible amount, and seemed 100% dedicated to the task. At times he did silly things or you know, crashed into trees, and needed to be reminded that the rubber side stays down and that he better do nothing to jeopardize my trip. As we grew closer to Leadville, my admonishments grew increasingly fierce, and I can say without ruining any pre-denoument build, he took all my advice. As a good friend, not only have I taken on the burden of crewing, I am trying to make as much of this story about myself so Doug doesn’t feel embarrassed or overwhelmed with attention. It’s what I do.
I arrived in Colorado completely bereft of any knowledge of altitude. As a gal from the NYC area I can honestly say I have never once considered altitude. So of course I’d take a plane to Colorado, ignore acclimatizing entirely, and drive another couple thousand feet closer to the sun, to arrive in Leadville on Thursday night, just in time to head to the screen of Single Track High. We sat with Fatty and Lisa and got incredibly inspired watching the development of high school kids into mountain bike racers. I approached Austin McInerny, NICA’s executive director. Without going into too much detail, many of you (all both of my loyal readers) know I am a cycling instructor and training mentor. Austin’s vision for NICA and my established skillset may be a perfect partnership we agreed to discuss. I’m super excited for what may come of that conversation, but I digress…I need to get back to making Doug’s Leadville ride more about me.
Friday was filled with preparations and a tone of non-jinxation that I think I’ve never experienced. I felt the gravity of Doug’s effort and his deep need to stay calm and focused. I can be a bit of a chatterbox, it’s true. And I became increasingly aware of trying desperately not to say anything that might become a self-doubt inducing brain worm. I didn’t want to ask what-ifs, or make jokes about crashing/not finishing/anything even remotely bad. So Friday I took some time away and decided to enjoy some of Colorado, I would only in actuality be there long enough to crew and head home.
Get with a geologist and feel the bedrock
I stole that off a tshirt while I was studying geology at UB. Geology does in fact, rock. On my drive from Denver to Leadville I almost ran off the road more than a dozen times as I took in my first views of the bumpy-everywhere terrain. My geologist mind wandered to freeze/thaw cycles, geomorphology, and anticline and synclines as I tried to mentally predict where I’d start mining for gold. Where the heck is this story going? I really just wanted to say synclines.
On Friday my photography sojourn took me up a mountain, through some streams, and around part of the race course. I started to feel a growing desire to attempt this ridiculous herculean task, and told Doug he should repeatedly punch me in the throat if I should ever consider actually racing it. But in any case, the terrain was inspiring and unfairly beautiful.
Doug, his wife and two kids and I took a drive around to the crew stations, I tried desperately to remember where we were going, as my directionally-challenged oxygen-addled brain struggled with linking turns and landmarks en route to my responsibility for the day. My task on race day would be to crew at the first feed/aid zone with Doug’s 15-year old son. We’d be prepped with food, water, clothing choices, bike repair supplies, and spirit. Basically, Doug worked out his anticipated arrival time (I will never really understand how he was able to do this with such precision), and so Bailey and I would be there for him when he passed initially, and then 5 hours later when he came through on the out and back course.
Race morning was an exceptionally early endeavor. We all got up at 4:30ish, Doug was in his mental zone, and made pancakes, as any good Fatty should. With ice on my windshield, we headed to the start which was only 3 miles away from the cabin Doug rented.
The start area was buzzing with activity, preparations, and anxiety for some I’m sure. Doug was set. Mentally, physically, mechanically. Everyone lined up, and before too long, they were off. I could not believe how many riders there were, I had no idea it was 1500 people. But the sea of multicolored spandex and plastic soon rolled out, and off we were to get to our crew station before the massive onslaught of vehicles vying for real estate.
Bailey and I set up our station and he promptly returned to the car for the first of his extended naps. I loved the energy in the air- all of us standing around in the cold, set up with every accommodation needed for our Riders. I came to start referring to Doug simply as My Rider, a moniker I know will stick with him.
In an impossibly short amount of time, the first racers were upon us, strong, powerful, and seemingly physically huge. Seriously, they were like Goliaths astride bikes. Road racing seems to have some super skinny dudes, mountain biking the dudes can be so much substantially bigger. But maybe that was just the hypoxia talking. I’m relatively certain I saw a unicorn riding a Moots, so maybe my memories can’t be trusted. Acute mountain sickness is no joke.
Well anyway, Doug came through ahead of schedule and within seconds we got him some fresh supplies and he was off. I then spent the next 5 hours chatting, yay, chat o’clock! I loved talking with Sabrina and Chad (did I get that right?), the guys from Ergon, and all the others around me as we cheered cheered cheered for riders. I may have developed carpel tunnel from ringing my cowbell so long and screaming, “Let’s go RIDERS!”. I alternated between that and, “You’re lookin’ good rider”, “You got this”, and towards the end, “You just survived a yeti attack, you can survive this”. Because of course, there was an actual person dressed as a Yeti.
Time passed really quickly, and I became anxious to make sure Doug would have everything he needed when he returned, which would then be more than 70 miles into his 100-mile ride. I mixed his requested drinks, even taking care to break up the chunks of powder with my fingers stuck in the bottle. That stuff sure is cohesive! Sorry, Doug, I stuck my fingers in your bottles. Note to self, bring a spoon.
On the return trip, so many riders were hurting. The initial influx showed groups of riders, passionate advancement into the day’s mileage. The return trip was much more a trickle than a deluge and people’s faces were melty. You know, that look of holding no muscular tension, so the cheeks sag a little? All energy was in the effort, the legs, the determination.
At one point a female rider approached her crew next to me and she was delirious. Literally. She got off the bike declaring she needed to just sit, and I could see she was in trouble. Her all-male crew started making preparations, and I left my post to see what I could do for her. I started massaging her legs and helping her get out of her leg warmers, no longer needed in this near-perfect weather. We got her a medicinal Coke, and at one point she stood and looked at me and I swear she said, “Jillette, you’re my favorite pastor”. I swear. That’s what she said. We all looked at each other and realized she was in some form of altered mental state, we started pouring water down her back, I convinced her she needed ice down her bra (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it, this is how I survived RAGBRAI) and on the back of her neck. She eventually got it together enough to ride, she was at sub 9 hour finishing time.
Doug eventually made it back through, we spent a little more time getting him situated. He needed none of the extra clothes, just to lose some gloves and get more drinks. And just like that, he was off again. I reminded him that the rest of the mileage was just an ordinary ride. I find that helps me on long efforts- that at some point the mileage left is simply ordinary. Not in terrain or skills, this certainly wasn’t the case. But in duration. Doug at this point must have done hundreds of 28 mile rides, he could do this.
As soon as he was out, Bailey and I quickly loaded the car and headed back to town. Truth be told, I would have liked to stay and cheer for more people. I have been on the empty end of the cheer section many many times, coming through late and slow, and everyone is already gone. Those of us at the end need that cheering the most! And I was happy to have given it to people coming through the first time. You know the people who need it the most because when you cheer for them they will look you in the face and actually say “Thank you”. I cheered and got the thank you from quite a number of riders, even at only 20-something miles in, let that alone speak to the effort of this race.
After getting back into town, Bailey decided to enjoy the town while I went to watch finishers. It’s an incredibly magical place to be- the finish line of hopes and dreams. It’s like this for absolutely every event, whether it’s a neighborhood 5K or the NYC marathon, or Leadville. And unless you’ve competed or put your heart, soul, and existence into occupying those few inches of finishline you don’t realize how magical it is. It is the dream, manifested. Personified. Tangible. Those inches under the banner, in the ocean of cheering, is something. SomeTHING. That people cry, bleed, puke, and fight for. And if you’re ever needing motivation in your life, or influence to achieve a dream, go to the finish line. Of anything.
On this day, I watched person after person grab their dream. Especially at the 9 hour mark, the sought-after rarity of supreme fitness and training, I watched riders spill their emotional guts to achieve their dreams. Summoning what energy they had, I watched these riders propel themselves across those inches and collect in the finishing corral, doubled over, heaving, crying, cursing and exalting. Everyone faced the same direction, bikes at a standstill, while handlebars and frames kept pushed back against the physical needs of the riders. To those experiencing that moment of accomplishment, of realization and success-manifested, there were few words. Almost universally, they did not speak, but put forehead to forearm on the handlebars and just…stayed. Still for the first time all day. I could not get enough of that moment. Or of the moments riders took to cross the finish line holding their children. Or put their finishers medals around their children. Or of hugging their loved ones and raising their fists in victory. Lucky were the ones who had people to hug at the finish line. I watched some poor sap finish and stand around, blankly. I almost offered him the hug of a stranger, it totally sucks to finish and have no one personally invested in you at that line. It’s just sadly hallow, as if the recognition of others supplements your awesome. And yes I know the victory is sweet regardless, but until you see it shining back to you in the eyes of those who love you, it’s somehow…diminished. Those are only the opinions of the author, naturally. You may be quite fine to finish alone, and I could just be projecting. But anyway, the sad sap soon had teammates to high five and hug, so he finished well.
Doug eventually made his way to the finish as I was growing anxious. I don’t know why I was growing anxious, he was ahead of schedule. But I just wanted My Rider back home. I wanted his accomplishment for him as much as he wanted it for himself. I truly did. And so we finally saw him, thanks to Twin Six designing a wonderfully discernible FatCyclist jersey. He was moving slowly. And bizarrely. And I started screaming for him. He crossed the finish line, and trying to get off his bike, he collapsed. Two men helped picked him up, and move him alone the finisher’s chute, to where his wife, kids and I could get to him. We all ran through the crowd to snake our way to the exit, and in true crew fashion, we all tackled some aspect of helping him. Kids ran to get stuff, Coreen his wife began assessing whatever else he needed, and I of course attacked him with hugs and pride, to his, “not now, not now” declaration. Hey, pride is pride, and I was so incredibly proud of him!!
Ok, so here are my final ramblings:
- Always always control your kids at an event, every second, every direction, every moment. I saw too many near catastrophes as kids got too close to the course and riders. Same applies to dogs!
- Note to self: never set up your crew station by the puddle. Mountain bikers eat those things up like manna, and you will, hundreds of times over, be reminded to never set your crew station up by the puddle.
- A team jersey stuck on a long stick is probably the easiest way to alert your rider of your location amongst the chaos. In the faster influx of the beginning, visibility was much more important than the second pass through where essentially you could spot your rider from a hundred feet away and step into the empty course waving your hands.
- A tent is essential if you’re staying in the crew station for the entire day. The sun is strong, the weather finicky, and the elements intense.
- If you park along the course to crew and yours is the stop with the big truck, riders all day will be peeing and crapping behind your truck. A modesty tent or other visual obstruction would probably be the nicest thing you can do for those riders all day, they will absolutely NOT spend the time walking to the port-a-potties.
I am incredibly proud of My Rider, and filled with gratitude that I was asked for this favor, which turned out to the be a great gift for me. And if you find yourself in the friend zone, pull up a folding chair, stick your fingers in some bottle of drink, and enjoy the ride. Cowbells optional.