The Land Run 100 is a gravel race that starts and ends in front of District Bicycles in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
How It Is is a novel by the French writer Samuel Beckett, in which a man crawls through endless mud and can hear only his own panting.
Stillwater, Oklahoma is home to Oklahoma State University, where the works of Samuel Beckett are studied (I assume).
The red soil of Oklahoma is so rich in character that it inspired a musical genre and is never ever going to wash out of my tights.
District Bicycles is owned by Crystal and Bobby, two of the most delightful people you're likely to meet.
Here's an example of the distinct and unusual voice of Samuel Beckett's How It Is:
"other certainties the mud the dark I recapitulate the sack the tins the mud the dark the silence the solitude nothing else for the moment"
I mention these things because I recently participated in the Land Run 100. It was a day unlike any other in my life but not unlike reading How It Is. It was muck and ooze to an order that's difficult to describe. It was so muddy that my memories seem hyperbolic. Photographs show they are not. There were at least four different kinds of mud. None of these were "fast mud."
It was intense, it was preposterous, and it may have changed the way I think.
My relationship with endurance events is love/hate, as is my relationship with travel. The drive to Oklahoma is long and boring, and the forecast for Saturday was a 100% chance of rain. However, I was past the point of cancelling my hotel reservation, so I loaded up with snacks and podcasts and ventured east.
After I arrived I discovered that the hotel had gone out of business and had taken my reservation with it. Well, whatever. I didn't have enough podcasts to get me back home. Once I found another hotel and a place to eat, I wrote a single sentence in my notebook. "This was a bad idea." Whether that refers to traveling to Oklahoma, signing up for another endurance event, or ordering waffle fry nachos from the late-night bar menu is anyone's guess.
The day before the race there was a no-drop, twenty-mile group ride. Living near the mountains and several trail networks, it has often been tough for me to understand what draws people to dirt roads, but they are empty and wild and sunny and take you past fields of perplexed cows and silos painted red, white, and blue, and you feel that you yourself are made simpler by this simple place. I'm no plainiac, but it was quite pleasant.
I awoke to the sound of rain on Saturday morning. It's tough to pin down why, exactly, I did not want to ride, but I found a supply of excuses. I thought I was getting sick (there were symptoms, but they disappeared), and I hadn't ridden a singlespeed in a long time, and I wasn't sure I had the right clothing, and ad nauseam. I thought about getting in the car and driving home.
As I pulled on my jersey I formulated escape plans: if it rains for an hour I'll turn around. I'll quit at the halfway point. If I'm cold after the first ten miles I'll call SAG.
Clearly I can't decipher my own mind. I signed up for an event and made tedious preparations and drove to Oklahoma and then labored to talk myself out of it.
The rain let up for the start. Nobody was fooled.
Before firing the cannon, Bobby had some words for us. Because I am a cynic, I heard him out and thought about how nice it would be if what he said were actually true. Because I am a cynic, I make a lazy connection between inspiration--a word that means 'to blow into'--and hot air. Bobby is really good at inspiration. What he said was stirring. But I'm really good at being a cynic, and talk is cheap and saying you can do a thing is no guarantee.
Whatever. He said his thing and we put our hands in the air:
We rode a little pavement to get out of town, but soon hit dirt. It was not bad. It hadn't rained all that much. The temperature was forty degrees--as it would remain--but the riding was pleasant.
It began to rain.
The roads were wet but in no way an indication of what was to come. I stopped to adjust some clothing and learned an important lesson about wet gloves with integrated liners. The integrated liner pulls halfway out when a wet hand is withdrawn, and wadding a wet hand into a wet liner and getting that mess sorted out inside a wet shell is nearly impossible. You might as well try to pull on socks that are tied together. Separate liners would've been much better.
"centuries I can see me quite tiny the same as now more or less only tinier quite tiny no more objects no more food and I live the air sustains me the mud I live on"
I'm guessing it was around mile twenty where we got our first real, literal taste of the terrain to come. At the crest of a hill the road turned the color of Mars, and we descended through wet cement. It was squirrelly. Climbing the subsequent roller was mixing cake batter with a bicycle. This was where I first saw a rider carrying a bike with the derailleur dangling from the chain like a pendant. I saw perhaps fifty iterations of this throughout the day.
"I turn on my side which side the left it's preferable throw the right hand forward bend the right knee these joints are working the fingers sink the toes sink in the slime these are my holds too strong slime is too strong holds is too strong I say it as I hear it"
I was unable to take a lot of photographs. Initially it was too wet for me to fish my phone out of its baggie and then worm my hand back into a wet glove. Eventually I couldn't really operate my hands at all. However, this picture I took accidentally shows the benefits offered by narrow and fairly slick tires. This is about as muddy as they got.
Compare that to other tires:
"the tongue gets clogged with mud that can happen too only one remedy then pull it in and suck it swallow the mud or spit it out it's one or the other and question is it nourishing and vistas last a moment with that"
The road became packed gravel once more. It felt like we should be nearing the halfway point when I asked another rider how far we'd gone. He wiped the mud from his glasses and from his Garmin and verified that we'd come twenty-seven miles. About halfway to halfway.
I couldn't navigate back to Stillwater without cell service. I couldn't face turning around. My hands were too cold to loosen the clasp on my snack bag, so I stopped on a bridge to eat. This is where everything changed.
I had been wearing the glasses with clear lenses that I always wear when riding, and though I tried to clean them the mud was greasy and I hadn't a scrap of clothing to wipe them on that wasn't also muddy. I stuffed the glasses in a bag. I cannot explain the abruptness with which clarity settled.
There was a tent on the riverbank (barely visible to the right of the bridge, above). A torn and soiled tent, a dog, a shovel, and a cooler. Likely these were the sum of someone's assets. The dog--seated to calmly survey the passage of hundreds of humans aboard strange devices--did not mind the rain.
"we are if I may believe the colours that deck the emerald grass if I may believe them we are old dream of flowers and seasons we are in April or in May and certain accessories if I may believe them white rails a grandstand colour of old rose we are on a racecourse in April or in May"
The above photograph, taken through a wet baggie, doesn't do the landscape justice. The water was translucent, and I could see ripples in the sand of the river bottom, which were purple and aqua in the strange light. With my glasses on, everything had been reddish-brown or brownish-red.
My Honey Stinger chews had become a single, firm clump, and as I sat there trying to dislodge a chew so that I might eat it I began to regard my general preference for being warm and dry as a meaningless preference. Skin is waterproof. Hypothermia wasn't going to be an issue, so what was, exactly, the issue?
There were a hundred very good reasons to stop riding, from broken derailleurs to illness to insufficient clothing to ninety-seven other things. Nobody who DNF'd should feel bad--that's not what I suggest. I, however, recognized I had no good reason to stop. At the end of the day, my story would come down to the narrative that I was telling myself. Indeed, this is cliché--mind over matter, etc. That doesn't make it less true. It took these clichés--a bridge, a clarity of vision--to prove that what Bobby had said to us was correct. My doubt was my greatest obstacle.
The mind is weak; the flesh is pretty strong, actually.
So I continued, attentive to my surroundings. Purple bushes were in flower. Green fields were resplendently sodden. Thrice I saw smoke rising in the distance and smelled burning wet willow, which is a smell that took me back to a place and time I'm not sure I'd visited in the first place. Gloomy is a word employed for days like these, but it's just a word. The world is sometimes dry and sometimes wet. Exchange the world gloomy for serene or lustrous and the entire narrative changes.
The sand had eaten away my brakes by mile thirty, which made for some really exciting descents.
A party was going down at the halfway point, but I stopped only long enough to do two things: adjust my brakes and eat a burrito, only one of which had an effect.
There were several miles of pavement leading into and out of Guthrie, and by the time I hit dirt again, the character of the mud had changed. It had grown mean. Ruts were deep. Clots of mud were flung by my rear wheel up over my head to rain down in front of me to be run over and flung up again.
In the days before the event, my friend Tobie from blackriver and my friend Joe from J.Paks had recommended a singlespeed with slick tires should there be mud, and their advice played a huge part in my being able to finish. There was a fifteen mile stretch where every half-mile I passed some poor rider--all of them brown, all of them bent over their derailleurs in the exact same way. It was like playing Excitebike and looping through the same graphic every few seconds. I don't have the willpower to ride a geared bike and not shift it, so here again it was a few words that changed my day (thanks, Tobie and Joe).
And yet here language is going to fail me. These last miles I cannot describe. The varieties of mud. The relentless rolling road. A motion outside of time.
"you are there somewhere alive somewhere vast stretch of time then it's one you are there no more alive no more then again you are there again alive again it wasn't over an error you begin again all over more or less in the same place or in another"
Inconsequentially, it stopped raining. Every few minutes I wiggled my fingers, and if I could feel them I continued. When I wiggled my fingers and couldn't feel them, I bit them, and if I could feel the bite I continued. When I bit my fingers and couldn't feel them, I stopped and put my hands in my armpits until I could feel them, and then I continued. I otherwise felt fine.
"for number 814336 as we have seen by the time he reaches number 814337 has long since forgotten all he ever knew of number 814335 as completely as though he had never been and by the time number 814335 reaches him as we have also seen has long since forgotten all he ever knew of number 814337 vast stretch of time"
Some argue that How It Is is about a form struggling to emerge from formlessness--a character speaking himself into existence. To one degree or another, that was my race.
These stories I tell myself about who I am, which of them are fictions?
I am not a person who does things like this. But I am. How does one reconcile the narratives in their head with what's real? By testing those narratives, I suppose. It's shattering when a discrepancy is revealed--you do not know upon whom you look when you look in a mirror. It's shattering for a cynic to admit that an enthusiast was right. You were right, Bobby. Thank you.
"and if it may seem strange that without food to sustain us we can drag ourselves thus by the mere grace of our united net sufferings from west to east towards an inexistent peace we are invited kindly to consider that for the likes of us and no matter how we are recounted there is more nourishment in a cry nay a sigh torn from one whose only good is silence or in speech extorted from one at last delivered from its use than sardines can ever offer"