24 hour mountain bike racing in New Mexico
It’s 3 AM, I’m laying in the back of the spotlessly clean rental car tormented by feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, anxiously checking if the charged indicator on the bike light has turned green, as if the more I look the faster it will recharge — a watched pot and all that. I’m 15 hours into a solo 24 hour mountain bike race, 24 hours in the Enchanted Forest. I lay there wondering how, with all the focus on planning, I could have blocked out the fact that battery powered lights need recharging. This is definitely going to affect my goals. But, on the bright side, I’m getting a nice long rest and the worry has stopped “Lose Yourself” from running through my head.
24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest is a non-stop 24 hour mountain bike race held at the McGaffey campground in the Zuni mountains about 20 minutes outside of Gallup, New Mexico. It starts at 11 AM on Saturday and ends at 11 AM on Sunday. Competitors complete as many laps of the 13 mile loop as possible. It can be done as a team or solo. I’m a solo rider.
I flew into Albuquerque two days before the race. The rental car agency talked me into an upgrade due to cargo size issues, i.e. unlikely to be able to fit the bike in. I ended up with a Subaru Forester that had only 3 miles on it. It doesn’t even have license plates and it’s clean, and I mean shiny and spotless inside and out.
I picked up the rental bike and light from the bike shop. The light turned out to be a headlamp, as opposed to a handlebar mounted light which is what I was expecting. I haven’t ridden in the dark in years, I’ll just have to trust that that’s the best option. The bike is red, which, I was informed by the bike shop guy, means it’s the fastest bike. That oughta help with my goals. And, it does fit in the upgraded Subaru without any disassembly. Still a much more expensive car bill than I was expecting but it is nice not to have to take the bike apart. Hopefully I won’t get the car too dirty. Heh.
It's hot in Albuquerque, the temperature hit at least 101 as I drove through it. Glad I’m not racing there.
The drive to Gallup is about 140 miles. On the way out I’m driving straight through but will break it into two days on the way back. The terrain feels flat but it undulates gradually up as you sneak up on the continental divide. The terrain is mostly scrub brush, grasslands, and slowly rolling hills punctuated by mesas and wadis in the distance. Albuquerque is at 5300 feet and the continental divide on I-40 is at 7245 feet.
I spent two nights in Gallup — known for being a stop on Route 66 and the “Heart of Indian Country”. The beautiful red sandstone desert has been used as a backdrop for numerous movies. The best of the bunch has got to be the 1943 film, The Desert Song, which was filmed as a morale booster for the war effort. Desert Bandits have been enslaved by Nazis to build a railroad but with a fierce song in their heart they are able to overcome their evil overlords and freedom rings. It’s a musical, and a romance, of course. It was even nominated for an Oscar.
The first day in Gallup was all about touristing. I started with the Cultural Center which is also the Amtrak station and a café and a music store and the Storytellers Museum. I breezed through most of it and spent some time in the museum. It’s small but gives a good flavor of the local native American culture: sand painting, rug weaving, history, even an exhibit about the Code Talkers.
But there’s an actual code talker museum that I wanted to see. The Code Talkers were Navajo radio operators in WWII who used their native language as the basis of a code for radio communication that was indecipherable to the Nazis. I thought I had read that it was in the cultural center but it turned out to be in the Chamber of Commerce about a block away ( I’ve since found out that it has been moved to the cultural center. Maybe or maybe not. Information on the internet is slim for the Gallup Chamber of Commerce). I entered the industrial salmon colored stucco building. Not seeing any obvious signage, I picked the first door I came to and walked in on a class. The class, as if a single unit, turned to look at me seemingly glad for the disruption but with no real interest. I mouthed a silent apology and snuck back into the hallway.
With my new resources I meandered. intending to look at a few murals, — there are 10 around town — check out the amphitheater for the dance ceremony, and end up at the Hotel Rex Museum.
Day two in Gallup, the day before the race, I went out on a recce of the course and campground. The McGaffey Campground was built in 1937 on the site of what was the old logging town of McGaffey
It's in the Zuni Mountains which also, apparently, have a bigfoot. See link
The pre-ride gives me a chance to learn the course, get in one last ride, and test whether or not my 12 lap goal is reasonable. 12 laps, or about 136 miles, based on previous results, would put me in the top five of my age group. To make the 12 lap goal I would need to comfortably do a lap in under two hours. The further under two hours, the more rest I would get between each lap and more time I’d have ‘banked’ for a planned longer break. I should point out that planning for this much rest time is a back of the pack thing, the top racers will rest very little if at all. I was pleased with the test lap, without pushing hard it took about 1:40, giving me hope. Its a good course, about 13 miles long with 930 feet of climbing, not too technical but still with with plenty of flowy single track, and running through a beautiful forest ( and now, with bacon ).
The first three miles are easy going, mostly flat with a few rollercoastery whoop de loos and then swooping downhill on fire road and single track through sparse pine forest. At the Mile 3 marker, and there are mile markers at every mile, the easy section ends and we make a sharp left turn onto the Quaking Aspen trail and begin a long uphill to the highest point on the course. We wind through the trees on a nice single track until we hit the rock river. It looks like a dry stream bed but it’s actually all flat ( ish ) granite. The rock river is about 20 to 50 feet across and generally flat, and at first appears smooth. But it is not, oh not smooth at all. I don’t know if it was an old lava flow or just regular granite that had been flattened by water.
The few harder technical features on the course are on the rock river. The first is about an 18 inch rock step that I never even tried to ride. The other was a plank and rock ramp that I rode a couple times before deciding the ROI was too low, and the penalty for a mistake too high. I walked it the rest of the race. The other challenging sections were super short ( like 15 feet ), super steep hills that I could ride but decided eventually that it took less energy to walk — always the calculus during a race like this, how to use the least energy. After the rock river we have single track up through the trees that ends with a short steep section popping you up to mile 6, Sheet Rock Tank — a lovely little pond — and the bacon station manned by Bikeworks Albuquerque. These guys are awesome; there’s bacon hot and ready 24 hours.
After the bacon station it’s about two miles of gradual uphill through the forests. The course basically does a long and gentle parabola up and over the top. As it happens the only place with cell reception is at the top around mile 8.
Mile marker 8! The bane of my existence, near on the highest point of the course, and the trigger for my torment. The first time I saw the 8 Mile marker , and every time thereafter, without fail, or even if I just happened to think of it, and now again as I write this, “Lose Yourself” Eminem’s song from the movie 8 Mile popped into my head. And of course I only know a few of the actual lyrics, a little of the chorus, and the rising pattern of the music, and so it went something like:
"num num num na, lose yourself better let it go, GO.
You only get one shot, ta da da da chance to blow
Opportunity comes once in a lifetime,
You better lose yourself, in nnaa mum mum,
One shot do not, miss your chance to bloooowwww"
After the torture begins ( and I do like the song, just not the version in my head over and over for 24 hours), somewhere around 8 or 9 miles the terrain goes from mostly up to mostly down. It’s all single track and switches back and forth from heavy rocky, spine jolting rocks to smooth and flowy single track. Just before mile 12 the trail flattens as it goes through a big open field and then turns into the campground flashing past Solo City, the section reserved for solo riders. The final mile skirts around the outside of the McGaffey campground with a few hills then finally downhill to the start/finish line.
Teams set up their camps elsewhere in the campground, not really sure where because I’m a special solo racer, and they do their baton ( not an actual baton, more a metaphysical baton. Represented, I think, by a high five ) exchanges at the start/finish line. For the solos, since they have no need of exchanges, and because we’re special, we have an area right alongside the course where we can set up our stuff.
I checked out of the hotel about 8:30 AM and made it to McGaffey by 9 AM. I have a mandatory racer’s meeting at 10:00 but before that I need to get my camp set up in solo city. I’m apparently the least supported of the solo riders. I have my backpacking tent with the bare minimum of creature comforts and supplies; cooler, food, camp chair, sleeping bag ( not that I would be sleeping ), clothing changes. These other setups are multiple canopy, full mechanic capability, kitchens with camp chairs and camp couches, flags flying, and Christmas lights lining the edge of the canopies.
The athlete meeting was held at the main area for the campground, also the expo for the race. There were sponsor tents set up in a row, REI and etc., food trucks, some of which some were open all night. It would have been nice to have hot coffee or prepared food in the middle of the night but the trucks weren’t conveniently located for an unsupported rider living in solo row. Part of being a special solo rider.
The day was warming but it was comfortable amongst the trees seated on picnic benches for the meeting. The race director told us the race had almost been canceled due to high fire conditions in the Zuni wilderness. At one point his forest service contact had sent a message telling him that the race would have to be postponed. Happily, the order was rescinded later the same day. They ended up closing half the forest ( which I’ve always thought was a strange concept. Closing a forest.) and bringing all the forest service personnel to the race area so that the race could go on.
He also tells us of the emergency personnel who would be out on the course; 22 EMTs, firefighters, and SAR personnel ( and one ghost, who wasn’t mentioned).
The only surprise at the meeting was that we were going to have a Le Mans start. We have to leave our bikes near the entrance to the park and start the race on foot running the first couple hundred meters. I suspect this is to string riders out to avoid traffic jams and crashes during the adrenalized race start.
The meeting ended with about 30 minutes to go until start time. Just enough time for the pre-race jitters to build but not enough to get anything done or relax. I meandered around a bit; decided there wasn’t enough time to do anything such as go back to the tent and lay down. I turned around and went to the start and deposited my bike on the bike rack. Other racers were putting their bikes on the start racks or laying them in the weeds beside the road. Some had support people holding their bikes for them.
I followed the stream of athletes to the start line, which was at a forest service gate near the expo area. I placed myself near the back, not feeling the need to run hard to the bikes. My limiter, after all, was going to be how much I could keep riding rather than how fast I was able to go at any specific time. There was the typical pre-race jittery energy. Some people chatting away. Some, such as myself, faking a quiet calm, yet at least mentally joining in with the chatty racers wanting the connection of shared experience.
The gun sounds, the masses take off. Some of us run less vigorously than others, in fact you could say we started with a not particularly vigorous shamble, joking all along about our speed and effort. I’m near a group of riders who are wearing shirts that say “back of the pack racing” [https://backofthepackracing.com/], sounds like my people. After a hundred meters or so I decided that I should at least jog. I don’t want to be DFL to start. I get to my bike, mount up, take a deep breath, and I’m on my way.
Lap 1 was the busiest lap and the only time it would be crowded. The first quarter mile is on the paved entrance to the campground — the only pavement on the race course — before it turned onto single track. The crowd gradually thins out over the first lap, but I didn’t have the trail to myself until the 3rd or 4th lap.
The first couple laps went well and without incident ( aside from Eminem ), I was having fun, feeling good, it wasn’t too hot. I did around 1:40 per lap, which is perfect for my 12 lap goal. 1:40s gave me plenty of time to have a short recovery break between laps; get to my tent; park the bike; grab some water; fill my bottles; eat some food; change socks, as needed; lay down and close my eyes for a few minutes; wave to Linda ( support crew from one of the fancy solo setups across the track); and add a few minutes to the bank for a later, longer break.
On lap 3 though, my race plan got punched in the mouth by reality (and heat ). I started feeling tired and weary. It’s not that I felt terrible, just worn out and sluggish enough that the negative thoughts creep in. If I’m feeling this drained after two and a half laps, only 30 miles or so, how am I going to keep up the pace for 12 laps? It’s not desert hot but it is warm and it’s REALLY dry up here. My thoughts have changed from “can I hit my goal” to “how few laps can I get away with and feel like I’ve not wasted all the effort to get here.” Once that “saving face” thought happens self doubt comes rushing through the open door.
Timed lap races like this require a different type of motivation than a point-to-point race. For a non-lap ultra distance endurance race the primary goal ( for us regular people anyway ) is to finish. Time is a secondary consideration. Motivation is pretty straightforward; you finish or you don’t. For a timed loop race you can stop anytime you want. You do have to finish a loop for it to count ( and you have to get back somehow which, unless you’re injured, it’s all you ), but otherwise quit whenever you want. Dropping out isn’t really a thing. You can see how this manifests by looking at the results from my race. There are 15 entries in the men’s solo 50+ category. No DNFs but the last place guy finished 2 laps — which I’m happy to report wasn’t me — compared to the first place rider who did 15, also not me. In the end the satisfaction comes not from completion but your effort and execution. With a point-to-point race you can’t fall back on “at least I finished”.
I was about a mile or so past the bacon station, on a section of the course that meandered gradually and gently up and through a sparse aspen forest. The trail here is single track, slightly sandy, and a bit rocky. It’s very pleasant to ride on but not particularly fast. I was suffering through the discomfort and self doubt of lap three when I saw the ghost for the first time. This is the type of forest where you feel like you could see something supernatural. Not a scary thick pine forest where you expect wolves and bears and bigfoot and gingerbread witch houses, this is the type of forest where you expect a supernatural apparition to appear, floating through the trees, captured by an artsy photographer on black and white.
I was alone on the trail with no other racers in sight. And I saw him, walking towards me, approaching the path at an oblique angle, moving deliberately as if with a solid purpose but for whom direction was of no consequence. He didn’t appear to notice me until he was close to the trail, at which point he stopped and gave a feeble wave and without saying a word gave me a questioning look that said “Are you doing ok?” I waved, said hello, gave him a nod, and continued on unsure of what I had just seen.
Even with the heat, mental discomfort, and lethargy I still finish lap three on pace to hit 12 laps, but felt certain I couldn’t keep up that pace. I was feeling down and doubtful, the low point of the race. I did my between lap routine and was off for another go.
I started lap four at 4:41 PM and it didn’t take long for my spirits to improve. It was cooling off and the wind was picking up. I was feeling much better about my goal and strategy but lap three had done some damage and there were doubts and insecurities hanging around and dragging me back like an underinflated tire.
The wind blew for most of the race, the only exception was around dawn. Sometimes stronger sometimes weaker but almost always present, and it switched directions from morning to evening. On parts of the course, you could hear the wind whooshing through the tops of the pines yet feel barely a breeze at ground level. I imagined a great beast up there undulating over the forest and brushing the tops of the trees. It reminded me of childhood camping.
I rushed the break between laps four and five wanting to get out before 7:00. Lights were required for any lap started after 7:00 PM even though it doesn’t get dark until 9:00. I wanted to get another lap in before I had to monkey with the lights. I made it with about 10 minutes to spare.
I was cruising along comfortably near the middle of the course on Lap five, after the Bacon Station. As I rode alone through the forest, no other riders close by, I heard some raucous cheering, a misplaced party. I rode around a corner and suddenly this straggly bearded, rattily clad, bad teethed fellow is charging at me out of the woods brandishing a liquor bottle. He was yelling something about whiskey. I stared in shock and noticed that he came from a group of about 30 bearded overall-ed hillbillies sitting around a fire all cheering and carousing. Banjos started dueling in my head. My body began initiating fight or flight. Eventually I figured out that it wasn’t an attack but an offer. It turned out to be a local trail building group who had in fact built some of the trails we were riding on. This was their “whiskey station”, one of the traditions of the race. I politely declined the offer and continued on my way. And then shortly after the whiskey station; the 8 mile marker, dun dun DUN dun dun dun DUN…you get one shot…!
It was twilight when I finished lap five. It had finally occurred to me that the logistics of light charging was going to be an issue. I spent too much time wavering and waffling in confusion about what I should do regarding lights and recharging. The break between lap five and six took about 1.5 hours, and hard as I try, I can’t for the life of me remember what I did that took so much time. I did have to get the lights set up but that shouldn’t have taken an hour and a half. I had a small cheap light for my handlebars and the good rental light on my helmet. With some trepidation about night riding, the last time I had done so was over a decade earlier, I finally got on the trail at 10:07.
I rode cautiously and had no problems. I was passed by a few people. Overall I saw far fewer riders than during the day. One thing you notice at night is the dust. Anytime anyone passed, the light reflecting on it made it seem like riding through a thick cloud. However, it wasn’t actually thick enough to notice in breathing.
It was approaching midnight and I was past the highest point on the course. The last four miles of the course were generally downhill with some beautiful flowy single track and some super rocky single track that was benign on the first few laps and aggravating during the later ones. Somewhere in the night, somewhere on the course, out of the darkness appears…the ghost. Same guy. Walking with purpose, looking exactly as he did in the afternoon. Only seeming to notice me at the last minute. As I pass him he waves with a look that says “y’alright?” to which I give a nod.
Overall the night lap went smoother than I was expecting, though slower, taking about 20 minutes longer than other laps. The only issue was getting whacked in the helmet by a branch I didn’t see. If it had been a few inches to the right I could have had a real problem. Eye protection even at night — note to self.
Back to the tent. I have the usual water, food, shoes, and a layabout, but now, I have to charge the light.
I still haven’t figured out how or why I had this recharging blind spot ( probably because my brain space was taken up by Eminem). Even after the guy from the bike shop had told me the light would last about 2 hours per charge. Rather than use the portable battery charger I had brought, I hoped charging in the car would be faster.
As I mentioned, the car was new and immaculately clean. I, on the other hand, had been mountain biking for 13 hours and my legs were caked with dirt. Getting in would get dirt on everything. I mean sure “it’s a rental car” but this would be extreme.
From the driver’s side door I reached in without touching the driver’s seat ( much ), put the key in the ignition, and plugged the charger into the charging point. From the back passenger door I put in my food, water, and phone. And finally, through the hatchback, I put myself in. The Forester has a big black protective rubber mat that covers the whole of the rear area. I figured getting the mat dirty was fine since it would be easy to wipe off, as opposed to the rest of the cloth-covered interior and seats. I was right about how readily the dirt would transfer to the car; any part of me that touched the mat made big ole thick dirt streaks. By the end of the night the black rubber was covered in dirt.
So I lay there. For three hours. Reading. Fretting. Unsuccessfully napping. Questioning my choices that lead up to this moment. Wondering about character flaws. It was an odd combination of happy for the rest and anxiety about not moving forward. Self doubt and forced inactivity. I obsessively checked the charge light on the head lamp.
4:00 AM rolled around and the light still wasn’t fully charged. I decided to start the next lap at 4:30 regardless of light status. That would give me about an hour of darkness, and even if the light failed I wouldn’t be stuck blind in the deep dark woods. I gathered up all my gear and left the car accidentally triggering the alarm as I locked it. Fumbling with the key fob to shut the alarm up, I quickly slunk away to avoid identification.
That early morning lap, lap seven, was my favorite of the whole race. I hadn’t really slept during my forced break but felt fresh nonetheless. I cruised through the first few miles of the course and dawn was just breaking as I crested the short steep hill leading to the Bacon Station. I pulled up to the table expecting the usual liquids, bacon, and short break, to find out they had PANCAKES!!! Best. Aid. Station. Ever. Pancakes and bacon at 5:30 in the morning!
I left the bacon station after a quick gorge and rode into the woods through the brightening day. It’s peaceful and calm and still; it’s a magical time of day filled with promise and hope.xxxxxx
And did I mention the one and only aid station on the course had pancakes and bacon!?!?
There’s not a soul in sight until I’m heading down the single track a few miles out from home base and, you guessed it, the ghost. Same guy, different spot, walking through the trees waves a question as to my health. I smile and wave, wondering if he’s been walking the whole time. I suppose ghosts don’t need to sleep but what do I know. I continue on to the end of my 7th lap and make it back to the tent at 6:24 AM.
As I pass the actual start/finish line on lap 8 the announcer announced I was in 6th place in my age group which was a nice surprise. I now have about four and a half hours to go. This should give me enough time to do two more laps but that’ll be it. No more questioning just simple slogging execution. On this lap it was still nice and cool. I was pretty sure I could finish this and one more before time ran out but I couldn’t dawdle.
As I rode along on the first section of the course another rider came barreling up behind me. I slowed and pulled over to let him pass. He disappeared ahead, over a little hill, and as I crested that hill I see the guy go from speeding down the trail to violently flipping through the air. He did a complete summersault with his bike. I pulled to a stop beside him and he popped back up onto his feet with a confused look on his face. I asked if he was ok, and what had happened. He told me he was fine, and had no idea. He gave me a confused look and hopped back on his bike and took off. I’m glad he wasn’t hurt.
The 9th and final lap was uneventful except for a back of the head worry about missing the cutoff. It doesn’t matter where you are on the course if you don’t finish the lap before 24 hours elapses that lap doesn’t count, so I’m pushing myself in the last few miles. By this time in the race, the difference between pushing myself and just moving isn’t particularly significant.
And I hit the finish line at 10:51 AM, nine minutes to spare, nine laps done, 6th place in my age group. Not the 12 laps that I had hoped for but still a top 10 finish.
I’m more or less happy and satisfied with my result. The middle portion, the dark of night, wasn’t great. I had some poor planning and the occasional motivational issue but I ended up riding about 117 miles, which isn’t a bad day out. Another lap would have been nice even if it wouldn’t have changed my standings.
The award ceremonies had been announced for 11:30. I waited around a bit watching the final finishers, including one guy who finished at 11:01, according to the big race clock, but the official timer said that he made it.
My legs were caked with dirt. I wanted to somehow clean those before I got in the sparkly new car for the long drive. Note to self #2, always bring a case of wet wipes, and a couple gallons of water, or something comparable. The only solution I came up with was toilet paper from the bathrooms and water. It worked, more or less, with a bit of effort, though wasteful of a precious resource.
I went back for the awards but they were delayed, so I waited and meandered around, and waited. Decided I wasn’t going to win anything and wanted to get on the road. I had an hour’s drive to Grants which is where my hotel was for the night. I headed out, and as soon as I was in cell range I had a message from the bike shop that there was a problem. The bike was rented until Monday, but it turns out, the shop was closed on Monday and could I please bring it back today? I called him back and he agreed to meet me at the shop on Monday even though the shop was closed.
I stayed the night in Grants at a Best Quality Westerday Inn. It was a lonely little town out on the high prairie. Everything spread out. Not much was open. I had to rely on fast food and grocery snacks for recovery meals. The New Mexico Mining Museum is here, but I didn’t see it. I crashed early, unsurprisingly.
Then next day, I finished the drive to ABQ, dropped the bike with the bike store owner in front of his store, then the car, then flew home… and …
"Back to reality, oops there goes gravity, ops there goes bbabity. Nanana mamity…" ( pertinent lyrics with my last chance to share my pain. You’re welcome. )
Final word, Zia Rides puts on a great race. Well managed, supported, and smoothly running ( complete with ghosts and bacon ). In addition to 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest, they have a series of other long distance mountain bike races in cool, if remote, locations around the southwest.