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The Twelve Miles of Hell

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The front. The part of the race that draws everyone’s attention. The back...well, I can’t remember the last time that made headlines. Who cares about the back, who lost or never made it? Like Vince Lombardi said, winning isn’t everything...it was the only thing. Or was it? I wanted to know.

As a kid, Fonzie, Steve McQueen, and Johnny Cash “got it done”. Snap your fingers, punch the accelerator, take the stage: WIN. All I wanted to know was who “won” when the cold hard fact of the matter is that when it comes to racing there’s only one “winner”. “Me First! hey buddy you second get outta my way“. I wondered what would happen if I let go of the drive to win, and opted instead to focus on the back of a race.

So for this years Twelve Miles of Hell, I went to the front and took a good long look at the start line and said one or two “hello’s”. Had I been racing, I would have hopped on my bike and then would have tried to squeeze my way into the first two or three rows of racers and familiar faces who might have grudgingly let me do so. Instead I turned my back and walked the other way, and climbed my way up Start Hill with camera in hand.

The front, it came. Up the hill, blisteringly fast, went Forrest Smith, Jason Humphrey, John Purvis, Shawn Dunn, Chris Rickey, Jason Meinke, and Rebecca Gross. At first I felt panged. I wanted to be “there” with “them” fully kitted, fueled, and fighting for my right to get up the mountain faster than….well hopefully faster than most.

Then as quickly as the font came…it was gone. In it’s wake were hundreds of ordinary folks gasping for air, muscles screaming for mercy. Each expression, each face told a different story. Some grimaced in silence. Others clambered up the hill in ungainly bike shoes while pushing their bikes at the same time. Some seemed prayerful as if they were caught in an act of personal faith. The only thing existing for them seemed to be a moment with the divine in the midst of all the carnage. Some laughed, some giggled, others made jokes.

On and on they climbed up the steep grade. Breeaaaaaathe, gaaaasp, pant. Cussing, laughing, praying; anything to defeat the doubt, to get the pedals around just one more time. Each rider different, each caught in an act of faith unique to themselves; perhaps sacred, perhaps profane, or a little of both

Feeling out of place, I cheered the racers on. I fed on their energy, and then somewhere after the multitudes, and throngs of riders came the back. The back of the race almost had a zenlike peace, a mindful resignation that this race was in no way going to pass quickly for them. For some it would be life changing….for others just another day at the office. I stood alone with several other spectators and savored the moment. As quickly as the front came and went so did the back. The wind blew, the sun shone and I found myself walking down the mountain as shards of rock, cacti and last Winters grass held firm against the wind.

Having watched everyone go by had been pure torture. How I wanted to be out from behind the lense of my camera. I wanted to be “there” in the race. I wasn’t even close. I was now at my truck changing into my bike costume, pinning on a race number and then rolling to the start line some 30 minutes late.
It had been several years since I participated in the annual kick-off to Oklahoma’s Mountain Bike Racing season; the Twelve Miles of Hell. The reason for my non-participation was to take photographs of every one in the race...or better said...everyone in the race until my compact flash cards were full. Since 2003, I’d cover the start and then walk back towards the power line road to greet the winners and everyone else as they neared the finish.

I rolled to the start, turned my bike around and churned my 32 X 18 one quarter of the way up start hill, then hopped off and started walking my bike. My focus, my world was the back. I was curious….it was almost as if being last were some sort of societal taboo, as if I were doing something wrong. Yet it felt strangely liberating…..the back, and for some strange reason I felt as if a weight had been lifted, as if I’d been liberated from some sort of depravity.

Up over the hill... no one in sight. Down the hill. No one. I was alone: Dio....last in line. Left turn, through the creek...still no one. Up over a little rise was the first rider I encountered. I was happy to see a person standing dumbfounded as they stared off into the distance toward the second climb. His body language seemed to speak disbelief. “How in the world do those people do it?” he seemed to think. Rider to rider we encouraged one another. “Don’t Quit. “Good Job”. “Keep it up”.

The next rider I saw was crouching beside his bike face flushed. I tried to make eye contact and asked, “Got everything? Are you Ok?” He didn’t respond. I asked again, “Are you ok?” To which he responded with sign language. Not remembering any of my broken sign language I made the thumb’s up sign and made a question mark to it by shrugging my shoulders and make an inquisitive expression on my face. He immediately lighted up and spoke, saying that he was tired and needed a break...that he was hot. I nodded my agreement. It was amazing, a simple gesture....a slight move of the hands and we knew exactly what the other was feeling. He was the second hero I met on that day. I made the thumbs up sign once again to signal my encouragement. He nodded in reply and I was on my way.

At the top of the second climb were several riders mingling around a flat. I noticed one of the bikes was a fully rigid Trek from the late 80’s/early 90’s. Threaded headset, cantilever brakes....only six or seven cogs in the back. “Whose bike is that?” Whose got the rigid Trek?” I asked. None of the younger looking guys replied. Instead a grey haired gentlemen spoke up. ”It’s mine! It walks up the hills as good as the other one’s” he joked.

I saw a guy on a unicycle who quipped “What, you think your friends won’t believe you?”, as I stopped to snap his pic. I made it to the intersections and asked who was in the lead. I would have jumped for joy when I heard that our local boy in the lead, but by then I was in pain.

I wasn’t climbing too well and before I knew it my legs had cramped up. It was all I could do to walk. Sitting on the bike...cramp...getting off the bike..cramp. Try to get back on the bike..cramp and then cramp some more. I’d pass several riders..cramp....then they’d pass me back... cramp. It was during all the cramping, getting passed, and then passing again and rolling downhill only to get off my bike and cramp some more, that the words came to me, words I had used in the past. Words that made any challenge seem trite.

When love beckons to you, follow him,

Though his ways are hard and steep.

And when his wings enfold you yield to him,

Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,

Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,

So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth..

He threshes you....

He sifts you....

He grinds you....

He kneads you until you are pliant;

It was hard, It was steep and I wanted it over....not the race but the threshing I was getting earlier this year. Over, done, gone, but I was in the middle of it, life, bad karma, disease, lost love, failure. It could be anything for anyone. Sometimes it’s just a race.

Life, the race, I was in the threshing floor. One rider walked by me; knee split wide open. There was no peace, there was no pleasure in it as I watched him hobble down the mountain. I winced, I cringed, and continued to push my bike up that hill and the one after that. I in my own way hobbled on towards the finish line. The jokes, the laughter and easy banter became more cynical, sartorial, and in many ways funnier the more the race wore on our bodies and our minds.

But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you, that you...pass out of love's threshing-floor,

Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.

One mile to go: I was thriving on the pain, the cramps, the fatigue. I “snapped” my fingers, “punched” the accelerator. The gritty pain of it all fueled me all the way to the finish line. I relished every moment. I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t “win” I wasn’t even close and I didn’t even care, but for one brief moment I knew what it was like. Happy Days, Folsom Prison, My own personal Great Escape . The Twelve Miles of Hell. The Threshing floor. A life rich with seasons.

For a moment all of those things didn’t matter. I was just happy to be alive, upright and whole. At the finish line I saw a crowd of smiling faces. Huge grins spread across faces as riders recounted their experiences and congratulated one another. The injured received relief or showed off their wounds. Others sat quietly, soaking it all in. Kona Rider Forrest Smith, continued his reign as the most prolific and successful 12MOH rider, with a second place finish. John Purvis also a Kona rider followed in the ways of Smith and threw down hard to take first. OKC VELO Rider Jason Humphrey blasted through the course until he double flatted. Rebecca Gross (OKC VELO) picked up where she left off after recovering from her wreck at the Sooner Stampede. She gapped her nearest competitor by a whopping thirty minutes.

It was Junior Macias of Lawton Oklahoma that performed the final act of the event. He was the first person to cross the line last. I don’t know if his experience was that different than those who finished earlier. His time on stage lasted longer than Smith, Purvis, or Gross. Like Macias, moments languished, and occupied a greater space in time for those playing the final notes of the five hour and twenty minute event. Those already finished had their experiences compacted into smaller and smaller increments of time the faster they rode. In my mind I imagined everyone giddy, joyful and happy. The race was over, no one was winning, no one was losing. The back, the front, who cared? It was time to laugh.

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