The 24 Hours of Great Glen Experience
It’s just past midnight. I see the 8 mile course marker sign and realize that it’s just over a mile from the end of my last lap. After 62.6 miles of heavy trail racing, I am filled with a combination of relief and sadness that it is almost over. What is wrong with me?!?!
Eastern Mountain Sports is title sponsor of the classic mountain bike race “24 Hours of Great Glen“. Along with sponsoring the event, we also send teams to race. This year we were competing in three categories- 4 Woman Expert team, 4 Man Sport Team, and 12 Hour Men’s Pair team. My assignment was the 12 Hour Men’s Pair that teamed me up with my good friend and fast racer Owen Travers.
The race is run on the Great Glen Trail system at the base of Mount Washington. It is a 9.1 mile loop that has about 700 ft of elevation gain per lap. Lots of climbing combined with mud covered rocks and roots makes for a challenging course. Team endurance racing requires a solid game plan that can be modified when the going gets tough. Owen and I decided to alternate running 2 laps at a time.
Start time is High Noon and signaled by a cannon firing to trigger a flood of racers running around the pond in an epic “Le Mans” style start. After sprinting around the pond, you have to grab your bike and start your first lap. Every year the race has a theme, and this year’s theme was “Beach Party”. Racers are encouraged to dress up, and I didn’t want to disappoint. I pulled on my board shorts, a pair of floral-print swimmies, and my tropical bird float to prep for my first two laps. The response from spectators at the starting line was a blast and made my first two laps fly by.
At the end of my second lap I came into the timing tent where Owen was waiting to turn out two blazingly fast laps (his first lap time earned him the “fastest lap” title of all racers in the 12 hour event). It is has always been a little stressful coming back into the tent for me. Years ago, I was racing a team relay and had a teammate who was late getting into the timing tent. If your teammate’s timing is off and you want to keep your team competitive, it means doing an extra lap without enough food or water. Heading out for an extra lap without fuel sucks. Owen was the perfect teammate. He was always at the line waiting to rip.
Because of our lap times, we each had about 2 hours of down time between our double laps. It was just enough time to change, eat, hit the bathroom, and check our bikes for the next 2 laps. I pulled on my EMS team jersey, filled the pockets with energy gels, and rode over to the timing tent to bust out 2 more laps. Owen “passed the baton” and it was time for another 18.2 miles. At this point, your body starts to remember the course and anticipate the terrain instead of reacting to it. The laps went well, and I came back into the timing tent to see my teammate smiling and ready to go again.
The sun was going to start setting midway through my 5th lap and I needed to get my lighting setup. I like to run both helmet and handlebar mounted lights along with a third as backup. My lights of choice these days are made by “Light and Motion“. I brought two of their lights from home, and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to borrow a backup light from them at the race. When I got to the timing tent, I found out that we were in 1st place for the 12 hour Mens pair race. Owen came flying in, and I knew it was time to get back to work with two more laps.
The sun was just dropping behind the mountains when I started my lap, and about 4 miles in had to switch on my lights. Riding into the woods at Dusk is a really cool experience. The light and shadows make a strange wooded world that only lasts about ten minutes. After the dark comes, everything changes.
Riding a trail at night is a completely different experience from riding it in sunlight. Your world becomes a small circle of light, and the forest seems to come alive with the sounds of nature calling to you in all directions from the darkness. It is the most hauntingly beautiful feeling of loneliness I have experienced, and it is mesmerizing. Your bike and the trail become your whole existence. The dark and exhaustion make it impossible to remember that anything in your life exists outside this moment. Everything else is a fog as you pedal.
Owen met me as ran back into the transition area and he raced off for two more laps. The posted results showed us with a 7 minute lead over the second place team. Doing the math, I knew that if he could avoid mechanical issues and run quick lap times, I would get one more go around before the end of the race. I grabbed a quick shower, suited up, and rode towards the tent to wait for a possible seventh lap. Laps at night are slower, and some people have a harder time with it then others. Owen had no problems with the dark and turned in a fast fifth lap. Our lead jumped up to over 10 minutes with less than two hours to go. The reality of winning started to take root in my brain. When you come to that moment, you can also see all of the ways that it can slip away.
Every minute I waited in the timing tent felt like an hour as imagined catastrophes filled my head. I heard his number announced on the speakers, and knew he had escaped another lap unscathed. His sixth lap was strong and only a little slower than the previous one. I saw my teammate and all my thoughts swapped from worry to making sure that I didn’t let him down. I charged out of the tent and into the darkness. The lap was hard but went smoothly. I had paced the whole race right and had just the right amount of energy for one more strong lap.
From the finish line, light skips and wiggles across the pond before burning into the dark woods and illuminating the sign for mile #8. As the light from the finish line grows brighter, the pain and beautiful solitude of racing at night slips away. Most of me was relieved that the pain was almost over , but a small part of me was slow to let go of this challenge and my courtship with isolation. That is the reason I will line up here again next year to defend our title.