At 5:11 PM, Team IBM's Gaylon Buttars hands me the baton, which I slip inside my stretchy bike shorts. Heading into the twilight, I test the 10-watt halogen light that's duct-taped to my apple-red helmet. We've been warned: The Utah desert gets dark quickly.
A wire runs down my back, connecting the light to a six-volt battery that's stowed inside my Camelbak — a 100-ounce bladder of water. Taking the first tentative pedal strokes on my electric-blue Mongoose mountain bike, I'm hit with a flash of worry: I've paired live current with a leaky water bag.
And now, having jounced a mere mile up a rutted access road, I start to gag on swirling clouds of red sand — the result of the scorching hot, rainless weather that has plagued the Southwest for months. As I loudly suck air through my sand-encrusted nostrils, I realize I'm spooking the other riders. Yesterday, my four teammates predicted that I might be Team IBM's stud. Here in the saddle, I have an update: I'm a dud.
Like marathons and other ultra-endurance contests, the goal of this infamous fat-tire race, dubbed the Fifth Annual Newsweek 24 Hours of Moab, is painfully simple: Survive. At noon today, 360 teams took off into Moab's backcountry and began slamming their way through 14 miles of S-turns, stair-step descents, and wheel-swallowing sandpits. Fast-track teams like Quads of Fury and Cycopaths hope to log more than 20 laps through the remote, high-desert course, the centerpiece of which is a rust-toned massif called Prostitute Butte. That's about 300 miles of riding at a Himalayan peak's worth of elevation. The team that tallies the most laps in 24 hours wins.
Team-based, 24-hour off-road races, of which there are now dozens in North America, are becoming to mountain biking what a marathon is to running: They're the Big Ones. The kind of race you must try at least once. But the relentlessness of the nonstop format can bring out the worst in folks. People crash. People quit. People get very grumpy. Every race-day neophyte inevitably ponders this question: "Why the hell am I doing this?"
Part of this race's draw is Moab, the undisputed mecca for gonzo riders. But the opportunity to race as a team is also appealing. In most endurance classics, you struggle alone in your own private hell. At Moab, the hell is divvied up five ways. You strategize as a team. You carry a baton. You share those 2 AM blowouts with four of your closest buddies.
"Mountain biking is an individual sport, but this is a team-based competition," says race founder Laird Knight, 40. "And when it's over, every team will have a story to tell."
But Knight neglects to tell us the naked truth about endurance epics: Rookies almost always screw up. So here, then, is Team IBM's story — 24 hours of misadventure at Moab.
Race Wisdom: Your team might be mediocre on paper, but the race isn't won on paper.
Race Reality: Read it, and believe it.
I met the anxious members of Team IBM on the eve of race day, outside their room at the Super 8 motel in downtown Moab. Having been assigned to follow a team in the corporate division, I've learned that Big Blue needs a fifth, and I'm the new recruit.
Three of my teammates — Buttars, Mike Cooper, and Mike Billmayer — are part of a business tech-support group that's headquartered at IBM's Boulder, Colorado facility. Buttars's aerobics-instructor wife, Karla Schwenn, is also racing with us. Perhaps as a hedge against less than blue-chip results, team leader Cooper is explicit: We aren't officially riding for you-know-who. For this race, he says, IBM stands for "I Bike Moab."
Our squad is not exactly scary. Because of his work-crazed schedule, 35-year-old Buttars is carrying an extra 15 pounds. Billmayer, 38, a longtime off-road rider, confides that tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of his ACL knee surgery. At 43, Cooper is fit and damn fast on a road bike, but his off-road tear-assing has lacked gusto ever since a spectacular "endo" eight years ago. Schwenn isn't accustomed to technical trail riding, and I'm a day away from sea level.
There's more: Team IBM's preride revealed a spectacular level of preparedness — among all the other racers. Several teams have brought along masseuses for postlap rubdowns, as well as mechanics for soup-to-nuts overhauls. Amid the hundreds of base camps sprouting up on the eve of the race are stationary warm-up bikes, satellite-TV dishes, concert-quality stereos, even blue-velvet Barcaloungers. Last year, somebody even trucked in a hot tub.
Our own setup? Tents and lawn chairs. Our support team consists of Cooper's wife, Jackie, and their two spunky kids, eight-year-old Travis and seven-year-old Kaylyn. But we do have a secret weapon of our own: Members of Team IBM regularly pull 12-hour night shifts, as part of IBM's 24-by-7 hardware-support program. "We may be underprepared," says Cooper, "but at least we know how to get by on zero sleep."
Race Wisdom: It's a marathon, not a sprint.
Race Reality: Hold back, and you're roadkill.
Saturday, 11:50 AM. Billmayer has bravely accepted the martyr's role and agreed to lead us off. He'll be part of the race's Le Mans-style start: At the stroke of noon, a cavalry charge blasts from two-story-high speakers, and 360 adrenaline-pumped maniacs stampede 400 yards to their bikes.
Minutes before the start, Billmayer is gripped: He's forgotten a spare tube and his energy-gel antibonk food. Cooper hurriedly retrieves both and tells Billmayer to block out the hundreds of cowbell-ringing, horn-blowing spectators and to fight the tendency to go out too hard.
Billmayer follows that advice — to the extreme. He barely breaks into a jog as he heads for the bikes. For a while, he disappears from view. "Did you see Billmayer?" asks Buttars, who got a close-up view of the mayhem. "Wasn't in much of a rush, was he?"
But Billmayer turns in a respectable lap: 108 minutes. Most other riders, however, are clocking 75 to 90 minutes; the fastest lap is an immortal 63 minutes. "Everybody was flying by," says Billmayer. Among those who zoomed past him: Brett Wolfe, a renowned one-legged rider.
Later, the play-by-play race announcer grabs Billmayer and asks him to handicap Team IBM's chances. "We make really fast computers," he allows, his amplified voice reverberating throughout the canyon. "We don't make fast riders."
Race Wisdom: You race against the 14-mile course, not each other.
Race Reality: Tell that to the jerk next to you.
Saturday, 1:48 PM. Karla Schwenn is next. She appears almost eerily serene as she saddles up. But her goal is unambiguous: to croak Billmayer's time. Competing against your teammates is actually a good team tactic. If we can each do 90-to-120-minute laps, we'll have a good shot at 15 laps and a top-30 finish.
Despite the broiling 85-degree heat, Schwenn finishes the course in 123 minutes. As expected, the treacherous first third of the course beats her up: the three supersteep descents, the large patches of axle-deep sand, and the mile-long section of washboard. But it wasn't the course that made her lose her cool.
"This jerk who wanted to pass me kept yelling at me to move over," she reports. "I told him I was as far over as I could go." The rider muttered something rude, and Schwenn went ballistic, spewing curses and ending her tirade with a warning: "I know your number, and I'm gonna get you!"
Energywise, the outburst cost her, says Schwenn. But the kick-in-the-pants impact it has on the rest of us is significant. Like a coach who jacks up players by laying into a ref, Schwenn's reaction gets us revved. We may not have cutting-edge bikes. We may not have green goatees, camouflage cargo shorts, or a bohemian bone in our collective body. But look out Moab, we've got Karla!
Race Wisdom: If you're not riding, you're backing up your teammates.
Race Reality: People do funny things when the sun goes down.
Saturday, 7:11 PM. This is a team-based race, and team chemistry depends entirely on one thing: caring about your teammates. Is your on-deck rider ready and waiting at the timekeepers' tent for the baton handoff? Is your newly finished rider updating course conditions for the next one out? Does everyone, as baseball types put it, have their heads in the game?
In our case, we're like many rookie teams: borderline dysfunctional. Back in camp, we don't talk strategy. We're not reading aloud from some inane bike magazine, or trading tales of epic endos. Hell, no one's even up for raiding the nearby encampment of the pink-spandexed team Betty Returns.
This all comes to a head shortly after I finish my lap. To my surprise, I find a second wind after my early woes and turn in a team-best time of 88 minutes. At our campsite, Schwenn and Buttars are obviously happy for me. But what's this? They're in Billmayer's truck, and they're going somewhere.
Buttars returns 30 minutes later from the campground showers — and he informs us that Schwenn has driven into town. Moab is 20 minutes away. This is a thoroughly unanticipated development. Suddenly our lady heroine is awol.
Stranger still is the reason. Schwenn wants to hit the First Annual Sidewalk Sale in Moab. "She's not even a shopper," says Buttars, trying to appease us.
Right now we're in 70th place, barely ahead of Cheap Chicks. If Schwenn doesn't return in time for her midnight lap, we'll be forced to ride more and rest less. Privately, I say a prayer: May she find her blue goblets with their 50% markdown, and get her ass back to camp — pronto!
Race Wisdom: Failure is not an option.
Race Reality: Stick a fork in us; we're done.
Saturday, 9:30 PM. Cooper wobbles into the timekeepers' tent. Until tonight, he'd never ridden a single moment in the dark. Handing the baton to an on-deck Billmayer, he looks like he's seen a ghost. "Be careful, man," he says in the hurried transaction. The course is littered with downed riders.
The race organizers say that the best riders fly by night. They like the tunnel vision of night riding; they love the speedy feeling of blurring past things.
Cooper doesn't buy that. Near Nosedive Hill, he came across a crumpled rider surrounded by EMTs. Fifty yards away, two other newly thrown riders were shrieking for medical assistance. As for Cooper, he wrapped himself around a juniper tree and flipped a time or two on account of "moving rocks." Volunteer mechanics in the "neutral-support tent" needed an hour to rebuild his mangled rear wheel. Says Cooper: "That was one of the most frightening things I've ever done."
My other teammates' night laps were uneventful. Not mine. I've got the near-freezing, predawn ride. In the desert night's inky blackness, the course I had phoned in just six hours earlier is now unrecognizable. The big, vertigo-inducing drop-offs between mile seven and eight are unreadable. There's no way to scan the right line of descent. I just hope for the best — and go for it. But my front tire smacks head-on into some immovable object (log? rock? minicliff?), and I sail over the handlebars.
"You all right?" asks another rider, after I crash for the second time in the space of a mile. "Walk the next hill, okay?"
I do. And I walk the next hill after that. I walk halfway back to the starting line, where I pass the baton to Cooper. I finally make camp just before daybreak.
Billmayer is the only one up. "Thought I'd leave the light on for you," he says. But the small campfire betrays the real story: Everybody has quit. "I guess I'm done, too," he concedes.
I'm shocked. We're less than six hours away from the end of the race. We can't quit, I protest. But Billmayer, who rides next, is resigned to our sad surrender. "I haven't hydrated," he says. "I'm just not ready for another 14 miles." Cooper's wife, Jackie, overhears this comment as she fires up the Coleman stove for breakfast. "You're no IBM," she snorts. "You're 'I Be Gone.' "
Race Wisdom: Everything looks better in the light of day.
Race Reality: Next year, we bring painkillers.
Sunday, 10:30 AM. Miffed that we're caving, I decide to take Billmayer's place. When I pull out of camp, the guy I'm filling in for is alone, burning tumbleweeds to stay warm. But 14 miles later, as I pull into the finish line, they're all there: Cooper, Billmayer, Buttars, even Schwenn, who returned from Moab in time for her midnight ride. In fact, she's the most effusive of all. "You are awesome!" she screams. "Want to do another one?"
Cooper says he was momentarily inspired by my push and thought about making one last lap. "Then Jackie made me breakfast, and I lost it." He tells me to hold on to the baton. If I hand it in now and nobody rides, the team will be disqualified. Turn it in at noon, and we're official.
According to the race results, I turned in the baton at 12:30 PM. My strategic delay gave me the slowest time for the race, a whopping 229 minutes. "I did a faster night lap," whoops Schwenn.
Ironically, the timekeepers — apparently convinced that nobody could do the course that slowly — credited us with an extra lap. Officially, we completed not 11 but 12 laps. The winning five-person team notched 17. Nevertheless, we beat 10 teams in our division, including the Cheap Chicks.
The news perks us up. We repair to camp, raise a beer, and make our vows: Next year, promises Buttars, he'll lose those 15 pounds. Next year, says Schwenn, she'll kick my butt. Next year, Cooper exhorts, we'll finish the freakin' race. And next year, we'll all pray to the god of fat tires that Moab's Second Annual Sidewalk Sale gets cancelled.
Todd Balf (email@example.com) is a Fast Company contributing editor.
Action Item: 24 Hours in 28 Minutes
Not ready for an endurance event? You can still get a taste of the race by ordering a copy of Granny Gear Productions's 28-minute video, "24 Hours of Canaan: Children of the Night."
The Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia may be damper than Moab's slick-rock massifs, but the fat-tire rendezvous at Canaan has the same trippy feel. Besides offering a glimpse of some of the sport's more outrageous characters, the video lets you crib field-tested tactics for surviving one of these babies.
Coordinates: $29.95. Granny Gear Productions, www.grannygear.com
Sidebar: Ultimate All-Nighters
Are you rough enough, are you tough enough, are you nuts enough to try a 24-hour race? Then team up with your best fat-tire buddies, and check out these start times for the off-road kingdom's most epic enduros. The funky-and-getting-funkier 24 Hours of Canaan — the granddaddy of 24-hour races — took off in 1992 with just a handful of crazies. Last year's edition, in Davis, West Virginia, drew 502 teams and 20,000 spectators. This year (June 10 and 11), the largest mountain-biking event east of the Mississippi will take place at the Snowshoe Mountain Resort in Snowshoe, West Virginia. Race founder Laird Knight reports that the new course won't disappoint hard-core Canaanites. In addition to the 24 Hours of Snowshoe, Knight's Granny Gear Productions will host 24 Hours of Tahoe (at Northstar resort in Lake Tahoe, California, August 26 and 27) and 24 Hours of Moab (October 14 and 15). Event registration begins January 10 for all races. Finally, think twice before you sign up for the Colorado epic, called Montezuma's Revenge (in Montezuma, Colorado, July 14 and 15). Universally hailed as the most extreme race of them all, Montezuma features 34,000 vertical feet of elevation gain, 10 trips across the continental divide, and a 14,270-foot hike-and-bike ascent of Gray's Peak.
Coordinates: Granny Gear Productions, www.grannygear.com/amtri.htm; Montezuma's Revenge, www.montezumasrevenge.com
Sidebar: Back Me Up
You can easily do these 24-hour races on the cheap, but those who know better don't. A solid support team is worth at least one extra lap — and probably more. Solo rider Nat Ross, 28, the second-place finisher at last year's Moab race, may have had the event's most conspicuous setup: a 2,000-square-foot pit and a 10-person backup team. His main team of four worked around the clock, greeting Ross after each lap and giving him mechanical as well as physical support, including massages and food. The second team — the "party" crew — kept the vibe alive. Though his was a team of volunteers, Ross still took a financial hit. Here's the price for his 24 hours of pain: One 38-foot RV with beds, shower, fridge, and stove (four-day rental): $640; One keg of Dillon Extra Pale Ale (for the partying team): $50; Last-minute groceries for the support team ("Find friends who don't eat a lot," advises Ross): $240; Three coolers with a week's worth of preplanned meals: $150 (cost of food minus the coolers); One cooler of keg ice: $10; One cooler of Red Bull (energy drink): $35; Eight sets of Christmas lights (strung along the border of Ross's pit so he could identify it after finishing a night lap): free; One mechanic-masseuse-cheerleader (John Root, friend): free; One team manager (Leslie Ross, Nat's wife): free; Six hula hoops (for early morning laughs): $10; Assorted firecrackers (for midnight celebrating): $20. Total tab: $1,155
Coordinates: Nat Ross, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sidebar: In the Dark
Riding 'round midnight isn't as dumb as it sounds. Bike-specific light systems provide safe trail riding at night — honest. Herewith, four tips for going over to the dark side.
Don't buy a cheapo system. Get the brightest, baddest system you can find. Last year's Moab racers agreed that NiteRider technical lighting systems are among the best. The top-of-the-line models are the Digital Pro-12 Extreme (mounts on your handlebars and has six light levels) and the Digital Headtrip (mounts on your helmet). The latter runs on a 10-ounce, rechargeable nickel-metal hydride battery; the former uses a bottle-shaped version of the same battery.
Use two lights. A two-light setup gives you a better read. A handlebar light puts out a broad beam. A second beam provides a light for your eyes.
Conserve batteries. Most rookies keep their brights on all the time — which drains the power in about 90 minutes or less. So when you can, use a lower setting.
Never ride solo. In case you crash, you'll need a buddy to pick up the pieces.
Coordinates: $329.95 (DP 12-E); $179 (Digital Headtrip). NiteRider, www.niterider.com
Sidebar: Recipe for Success
Laird Knight, who created the 24-hour race format, has a pet saying about his pet race: "It's not about speed or strategy; it's about recovery." What you put in your stomach, and when you do so, will have a lot to do with how fast your body bounces back at 3 AM. Here's how Knight eats for the big ones:
Prerace. The biggest misconception in endurance racing, says Knight, is the eve-of-the-race, carbo pig-out. The big feed should come two nights prior to race day. That gives your digestive tract enough time to do its work.
Race morning. Eat a hearty breakfast of pancakes, bagels, or oatmeal with raisins — one of the finest race fuels out there, says Knight.
Thirty minutes and counting. Mix up an energy drink. These help to top off minerals and electrolytes — the stuff you don't get from your tasty bagel.
During the race. Drink plenty of water. The prescribed intake for the desert is a gallon a day. Knight tucks a packet of glucose-rich gel in his jersey to prevent crashing.
Postlap. The key to a speedy recovery is to quickly get some carbs into your system. Knight likes to down another energy drink and some plain, old-fashioned food. Include on your menu: lentil soup, mild bean burritos, or even more oatmeal.
Coordinates: Laird Knight, email@example.com