Death by a Thousand Cuts - Posted by Rob Whittier for Mikal Landa

An unexpected development turned my Friday workday into a 15-hour pressure fest. That delayed my departure from Chicago and set a cascade into effect that meant I had only two hours of sleep under my belt when I met my friends at the starting line in Loudonville, Ohio.

Hunter Stoneking is a Marine who battled severe depression and survivor’s guilt since retuning from Iraq. Adam McCann is also a Marine who survived physical injuries. Adam is one of the veterans invited to ride with President Bush in the W-100 this year. For different reasons, they have both benefitted from cycling as a form of rehabilitation. Therefore, I feel it’s a special opportunity to race with them. That’s about the only reason I didn’t bail on the five and a half hour drive to Loudonville when work went into overtime.

None of us had a fantasy of getting on the podium. So, we were fine settling in the back of the pack at the starting line while I was still polishing off my breakfast burrito. The start was unusually calm. Maybe that was a result of lining up far behind those who have not made peace with their competitive issues. We got into a reasonable climb pretty quickly. The Irony of racing MTB with friends is that you generally get separated at the start and don’t see each other till the end. This race was no exception. I was on my own by the time I entered the first single track.

It was challenging; lots of rocks and tree roots. The recent rain left the trails muddy. Some guy rode up behind me and started a conversation, “First time doing this race?”

“It is,” I responded.

“How do you like the hills?”

“I love climbing hills.”

“You’ll have enough hills by the end of this race.”

“Nah, these aren’t very big.”

“No, they aren’t. But it’s death by a thousand cuts.”

The hazard of starting in the back is traffic jams, particularly when there is a lot of single track. I tried to spot the back ups ahead and dump down into the granny gears to prevent burning energy that would get me nowhere. The terrain was challenging; wet rocks and slick tree roots. Navigating them slowly was a new challenge in balance and dexterity. Gone was the ability to take “29’er privilege” and blast over little obstacles, ignoring the perfect line. A poorly placed front wheel created a dump in the dirt. When you could pick up speed the rocks and roots were just the right size to create an unrelenting gauntlet of scrotum thumping. The single track went on for mind-numbing hours. It got painful. I concentrated on trying to keep my sit-bones over the strike zone when the seat would come blasting up toward my nether-regions. I wanted to prevent a dynamic in which I would, one day, be dependent on the little blue pill to arrive at Shangri-La, all because of a mountain bike race.

The race was painfully slow. With the mud & slick rocks, the back wheel frequently spun out. Reasonable steep climbs were all ankle deep hike-a-bike. Descents were washed out and loose. I lost track of how many times I wrecked and then slowly extracted myself from the briars on the side of the trail. Dismounting, then slogging down with the bike was often the prudent option. There was never a grand moment of topping out a big climb. There was only toil, ass-bang and mud. By the time my Garmin showed 50 miles, the timer read 6 hours 22 minutes.

The summertime heat kicked in. The Mohican national forest was a steamy terrarium. When I stopped at an aid station, I could feel my ears and the sides of my head burning. One of the volunteers said that Joe Malone, the single speed champion from last year, had been taken away with heat exhaustion. When I finally reached sections of fire road, I thought I could lay into the pedals and put some miles behind me. However, in the heat, my groin muscles were sending those little electric signals that they were about to cramp a big effort now would seize up my legs and end the day.

Then it rained.

The upside is that the rain came with some cold air and little by little I gained confidence in putting some power into my pedals. The downside is that there is fresh mud to be flung up from other racer’s tires. My glasses had fogged and been pocketed. My eyes were filled with so much funk-soul-brother, that I would have shown a weight gain had I stepped on a scale. I rationalized that at least I had maxed out and the human eye could hold no more foreign matter. Then a bug flew in my eye, and I was wrong.

I digressed into a zombie-like state. I was the cycling dead. My brain was firing so slowly that I saw a wet tree root and thought, I better handle that obstacle or it will shoot my front wheel out to the left and send me tumbling in the mud. I did nothing. The tree root shot my front wheel out to the left and sent me tumbling in the mud.

So, was my toil. 10,548 feet of elevation gain without a remarkable climb. Promoters of the Mohican 100 sell the race as an arduous suffer-fest, and you get a growler of beer at the finish. They don’t disappoint.

I was handed my brown jug and, after a while, reunited with Adam and Hunter.

We drank our beer and Hunter asked, “should I reserve a cabin so we can do this again next year?”

I responded, “My man-taint is swollen. I can’t make decisions right now.”