I really wanted to quit the Butte 100. I wanted to quit a mile 10. I wanted to quit at mile 50. And I really wanted to quit at mile 80. I wanted to quit so bad I even tried to before I left home. But I didn’t. And I’m glad.
“Why are you so worried about this race?” asked Romney. “You never worry about this kind of stuff.”
I was worried because it was going to hurt. Bad. I wasn’t sure how bad it would be, exactly, because I’d never been to the area. But as they were throwing around tag lines like “hardest 100 mile race in the US” I figured it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk no matter how fit I was. But I wasn’t fit. Not for endurance racing at least, since I’d only had time to eek out a couple of long rides this year.
“Die or do something. You’re not dead yet, so you might as well do something.”
This campy line, uttered by Dr. Conrad of the Jackie Robinson Sports Institute in the film American Flyers, became my mantra for the day. Each time I wanted to quit I’d do a body assessment. I wasn’t injured. The stuff that hurt was all GOOD pain. And as long as that was the case I would have no choice. I wasn’t dead, yet, so I’d might as well do something.
life at the jackie robinson sports institute
My friend Mike says he likes to start his seasons with “an eye opener. Something so ridiculously hard that you know you’re going to suffer like mad that will set the tone for anything else you do.” Butte was my eye opener. I had to get through it to transform into the proper mindset for Nepal. Here’s a little recap.
It began the night before at a suspiciously bad Mexican restaurant. Montana is, as Josh says, “not exactly known for its Mexican food” and this experience would echo that in spades. Josh sent a pic to the gang that came back with replies like “Blast It!!!”, a line from a friend’s surf film.
mining the waves for stoke
This was prophetic enough as I spent a good deal of the race alone in the forest. Curious aside, we saw Tinker Juarez (probably the most decorated distance mtn biker in history) at the restaurant and wondered if he chose it on purpose to make him uncomfortable so he’d go faster. Could be, since he obliterated his own course record.
Part I – A sadistic sightseeing tour of Montana
As it wasn’t a race for me I began comfortably in the back of the pack, only going fast enough so that I was in last so there would be people behind me in case I got lost. This turned out not to be a problem as the course was very well marked. Josh said the first section—a series of steep sandy fire roads to spread the field—was awful and, well, I guess it was. But it sure was pretty.
I’m very geographically oriented, especially when I’m outside, and almost always know where I am. In this race I hadn’t a clue and was enjoying the weird sensation of having never been in the area or even looked at a map. Since I wasn’t really racing, the experience was like a sadistic sightseeing tour of Montana.
I rode a lot with Josh, who was having a worse day than me. Not sure if it was the Blast It! effect or something else but he wasn’t regulating very well as the temps got high, which had me a worried about him when I rode away on the final long climb of the first 50.
Part II – No threat to the growler.
I got the halfway point at 5:30. I’d heard the second half had “more single track” and was slower and harder but this seemed way ahead of my planned survival pace. I considered re-stocking at my van but didn’t because I was worried that the lure of beer and a bed might be too much. I also heard the Tinker was already hours ahead and rolled through this point without stopping, asking only for a banana, which seemed so crazily IN-sane and had to see the entire course. So I headed onto the second half chatting with a guy about how slow we could ride and still make the cutoff times.
tinker after losing his first butt 100. he has lowered his time nearly 3 hours in two years since. wild.
The next few aid stations went great. I didn’t even want to quit. I was tired but the only thing that really hurt was my butt, not surprising given I’d already eclipsed my longest ride of the year. As I was chilling in the shade at talking about cutoff times a guy told me I was in 55th, elaborating on that as “no threat to the growler.” Apparently a growler of beer was awarded to the last place finisher of the race, which sounded so good I started to ride even slower.
Part III – Sandbagged!
Anything advertising itself as “the toughest…” has to include something understated that is truly hard. In the Butte 100 it’s the section between check points 7 and 8 (or was it 8 and 9?) Anyway, it looks the same as any other section in the race bible. In reality it’s really friggin’ hard.
The bible warns you of the 4-mile (sometimes un-rideable—though we think Tinker rode it) climb but the rest of the section looks pretty benign, so I did a double take when the course official at the top of the climb told me “two more major climbs” before the aid station.” I was not alone. I ran out of water at least an hour before I got there. It was grim but I was passing people looking a lot worse than me. I think it was the longest 10 miles of my life.
The Highlands aid station resembled a triage unit. Riders were strewn about, all complaining about the same thing as me, some dropping out. Here, I did want to quit—especially when a squall rolled through transforming my state from overheated and dehydrated to hypothermic in an instant. Thankfully I was far enough ahead of the cutoff time I was able to spend about an hour drinking and warming up.
Part IV – Finally, a good excuse to quit
The rigors behind us forced some comradeship for those who ventured into the next section of the course, ominously dubbed “8 miles of Hell”. I was the last to leave of my group and, by now, the cutoff time was looming. When in less than a mile in I was forced off of my bike to walk almost an entire climb I started doing math calculating my chances. At this time another American Flyers line came into my head. I’d better pump.
more fun from american flyers. “better pump.”
This kicked in some adrenaline, as there was absolutely no way I was going to do all of this riding and not be allowed to finish. I picked up my pace and passed our entire group. Then, as I was about to crest to final climb “of Hell” I ran into a situation.
A woman in the 50-mile race had stopped sweating, for some time, and then become hypothermic when the storm hit. Someone had stopped to help but they didn’t have a phone. I did, but calls for a rescue weren’t answered. So I called Josh, now hoping he’d dropped out. He had, answered, and we got things in motion. Unfortunately, most of the course does not have cell reception and it was hard to organize so we had to come up with a plan.
Obviously I didn’t care about finishing any longer. However, the best tactic was for me to ride for help and the shortest place that might be was ahead on the course. Sarah, another rider from our group, had also arrived on the scene to help so I left them with my phone and took off, riding harder and much faster than I had all day. I soon found a course official but he had no service, so I filled him in and rode on. Josh had set things up and there were paramedics at the aid station and we strategized about what to do. Soon Sarah arrived with a report and, eventually, a plan was hatched that didn’t include us, meaning we had nothing left to do but finish the race. We hung out for a while, then “cruised” (relative at this point) that last 9 miles to the finish together. The end of an epic day and a perfect eye opener for what lies ahead.
Notes on the Butte 100: Tinker raves about this race on his blog, not just as a race but as a challenge for any recreational rider to finish. I have to agree. While the course isn’t as pure as the 99.9% single track of the Park City Point 2 Point, the fire roads are always engaging, technical, and stunningly-beautiful and there is plenty of excellent single track. I told a few course officials that it would be an amazing 100-mile ultra run course and think the combo would kick the crap out of Leadville, at least from an aesthetic and difficulty perspective. The Butte scene itself is positive and very supportive, which seems to be spearheaded by the Leipheimers, all of whom gregariously introduced themselves and shared about anything I felt like listening to. The event feels like a family affair (I didn’t ask but race director Gina Evans is probably a Leipheimer somehow), which is getting more rare these days, so get after it before it turns into Leadville!