Updated: Apr 21, 2022
Yes, this is what a local athlete who I work for asked me back in mid-April, "Wanna Hear a Stupid Idea?"
Immediately a wave of past memories from flying in the Navy flooded my head as I anxiously replied, “Yes?” Mike told me about a mountain bike race in Salmon, Idaho called the "12 Hours of Disco”. However, there wasn’t just a 12 hour race but also a 24 hour race, and it was in 5 weeks.
“Ah, that IS stupid”, I replied. But his excitement had me intrigued as he told me he’d love to do it with me and camp out on site. He heard about it from another friend who has done quite a few of these and made it seem quite doable to Mike. I told him I’d think about it over the weekend, which is code for, “Yes I’m in, but this is really stupid and I need a couple of days to ‘think about it’ so that I feel better about myself.” 3 days later I told him I signed up. We were both now committed!
Just to set this up properly, I have really only been riding mountain bikes for less than six months (although I’ve coached quite a few mountain bikers over the years) and have only been swimming three times a week and alpine skiing for the past couple of months. Cardiovascularly I was in great shape. Everything else, however was a bit behind, shall we say? I had a trip to Japan for coaching the week before the race and had lots of spring weekend garden prep that Jennifer and I had to do between this point and the race. So, I knew I wouldn’t get a lot of riding in. Additionally, my wonderfully old, big and heavy mountain bike wouldn’t cut it for this event so I reserved an awesome Felt Edict 3 from the local triathlon shop, Tri Town.
So there you have it: not in shape, limited experience, riding a bike I will have only had two days on that was very different from my own. Do as I say, not as I do!
I wont bore you with details of the planning as it was extensive and almost completely done by Mike (retired engineer and lifetime cyclist with mad skills). Needless to say, after multiple planning meetings, half a dozen lists and a night ride for practice, we headed towards Salmon, Idaho with four bikes and a truck full of gear that included two propane tanks, three deep cycle batteries, a 10x10 popup, tent, tables and something like 50 bike bottles and food!
We arrived Thursday night and set up camp as the beginning of the race crew was putting up equipment. Salmon is above 4,000 feet and they just had snow on Wednesday that was mostly gone (thank goodness)! On Friday we got the course lowdown as “Max” the Race Director was setting it up.
“Dudes, great to have you! So this is your first 24 hour race? Rock on!”
Yes, he is a great guy who didn’t seem as if he could get worried about anything.
The course was a 10.5 mile loop with about 1,200 feet of climbing with very narrow and hard trails that had real cactus plants lining most of them on both sides. After a test ride, I realized that there were technical sections that were very challenging to me at my current skill level. The “finish line,” timing, tents, “pits” and start were all on a small plateau used by the local remote control airplane club complete with a mini runway and taxi ways. Finally, I had the local mechanic, a sixty-something year old guy named “Flo” take my rental bike’s tubes out and convert to tubeless so as to handle the rough trails better and decreases my chances of a flat with the rocky sections and cactus all over the place.
Race day started with some camping “coffee” and watching the 12 hour solo, 2-person and 4-person teams start at 7am. Our race started at 10am. We ate, went to the race briefing and then lined up! There were a LOT fewer of us for this 24 hour race - most likely because this was the first time this race has done a 24 hour race. We had 6 soloists, 4 x 2-person and 2 x 4-person teams. We were to race from 10am Saturday to 10am Sunday with only the laps completed within that time to count. We figured the laps would take us 1:05-1:20 for time, but weren’t sure based on our effort level - which was to be relatively easy. Mike had a real shot at doing 16+ laps. I was shooting for something less and threatened to sleep if I wanted to! I kept telling him I was there for him…ha!
I let everyone get to the start gate before me so I could navigate the course with my limited experience without pressure from behind. I completed the first lap and rolled into our pit. I pulled out my bottle filled with HerbaLife 24 and replaced it with another while simultaneously eating a half banana. Mike had already been in and was back out on the course. That first lap, quite honestly, scared me a bit. There was lots of new technical riding on narrow trails that I just hadn’t experienced. I was very concerned for sure.
By the second lap, I had adapted and flowed a lot smoother. I was excited! One minute into the third lap, I crashed on a rock bridge made of loose shale and jammed by right ankle badly. I quickly got up, checked the bike and kept on going not wanting to look at the throbbing area beneath my right sock. The bad news? Five minutes later I checked for my bottle of nutrition and realized that it was somewhere back at the crash site. No nutrition for me for this lap. The good news? My adrenaline was cranking and everything was effortless for the next 40+ minutes! I rolled into the pit after three laps and ate quickly, checked the bike and put a new bottle on.
For the next five laps, I just clicked them off. Each time I scared myself multiple times on the course, my lower back started hurting a bit more and more and I started to quickly clean the bike in the pit and re-lube the drive chain every other stop. One lap I forgot to take some nutrition and on another I completely forgot to put a new bottle of nutrition on the bike. I rolled in from completing my 8th lap after it rained a bit and decided to make my first apparel change. I ate more and as I was getting ready, Mike rolled up now having caught up to me. He was very focused for sure and we quickly exchanged stories on who we passed and tried to guess where each of us were in the standings. I thought I was 4th and I thought Mike was at least 2nd. Off I went with Mike following a few minutes back.
At this point it was about 8:45 pm and I was on the farthest and highest point of the course. Mike had passed me about 5 minutes prior. I was climbing up a last stretch of single track on the side of a dirt hill with lots of loose gravel. I had been here eight times before and had avoided the 1.5 foot rock in the middle of the narrow trail each time.
The sun was out of sight, but there was still a bit of light and I was warm and sweaty in my shirtsleeved base layer, short sleeved bike top and shorts. Well, for some reason I passed that same rock super close on its left side and immediately heard a loud bang and crunching noise. I was unable to pedal further. I jumped off the bike and let out a loud “$H1T” as I saw the rear derailleur mashed straight up and into my rear wheel. I was done. I walked up the remainder of the hill and looked it over again. Now I thought, what was I going to do?
There are only a dozen or so folks on this loop now at any given time as the 12 hour racers finished hours ago. The sun was completely down, dusk was quickly upon me, and I became immediately aware as I stopped moving of the dropping temperature. There was no one around. Then I thought that I might be able to contact Max, the RD. I had cell service (thank goodness) and found an old email that happened to have his number. I called and on the 5th ring I actually heard a phone ringing from the trail below - it was Max! Crazy. After a “Dude, that sucks” comment upon further inspection, we decided that he would call someone to come get me.
Fortunately the only dirt road we cross on the entire loop was a short 400 meters back on the trail. We took the chain and derailleur off and I coasted down and waited for my ride. it was 10 minutes, 20 minutes, and then 30 minutes with no sight of a ride. I was now shaking violently of cold trying to get my arms underneath my short sleeved shirt. I called Max again who told me his buddy was close and to hang on. A few minutes later I saw the headlights and was “saved”. It took 20 minutes to get back to the race site, and it was now pitch black. I thanked the guy for coming to get me and immediately found Flo the mechanic to see if he had a spare rear derailleur. “No man, I don’t have any up here…sorry Dude.” I went back to the tent, changed and wrapped myself up with every available warm clothing I had.
Although I had brought my own additional bike that was much larger and heavier than the carbon rental, I knew I couldn’t ride it on this course. I was having a challenging enough time with the nimble, quick and light Felt. I knew I’d get hurt if I took my own bike out there. So I realized that my day, now over 12 hours of racing, was over. Totally bummed and still shivering, it then started to rain. “Ah, what the Hell, I’d probably hurt myself in the pitch black all night anyway”, I thought.
Just then, Flo shouts from outside my tent, “Hey Mike!” “It’s Mark”, I shout back. “Oh, Mark. Listen, if you still want to stay in this, I think I can steal you a derailleur - it’s only 10:30pm.” I paused for a few seconds, “Let me think about it?” “Sure, no problem, take your time, man.” Uhhhgg. I was cold to the bone, tired, had scared myself all day and broken the rental bike already. Now it was much colder, pitch black, and raining and I had to do it all again over and over with headlamps. 2 minutes later, I found Flo and said, “I’m in. Thanks man. I’ll be back in my tent when you’re done.”
I ate and drank more. The coffee we made in the morning and put in a thermos was now just slightly warm, but I knew I needed it. Sometime after 11pm Flo brought the bike back. “Dude, I put my own rear derailleur on it. Be careful as it’s not shifting easily - you’ll have to shift sooner than you plan and press really hard. Good luck man!” I thanked him profusely and added the additional items to my worry list. Five minutes later I was off into the black abyss.
That first lap in the dark, after not riding for over 3.5 hours was really tough. The concentration it took me to just stay on the trail was intense. Combine that with my skill level and I had death grips on the bars. I came in sometime around 1am - give or take 15 minutes - and changed my clothes again. I had sweated a ton on the climbs and froze in the valleys. My lower back was hurting quite a bit forcing me to stop and stretch and my left palm was hurting and going numb along with my left toes. I took a good 30 minute break. During this time Mike rolled in looking rough, but still moving quickly. I gave him my quick story and he barely heard me. We wished each other good luck and off he went again. I completed two more laps during the dark with major breaks in between.
I was also seeing things on the course: two white goats and a turtle. Additionally I kept hearing what sounded like folks partying? And I thought I kept hearing my name called…”Mmmmmmmmaaaaaarrrrrk!” I couldn’t look towards any of these sounds because if I moved my head at all from the course, I’d be off the trail and into the cactus. I was like Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away talking out loud to myself the entire time. I even thought of that and yelled out “WILSON!” The partying I thought I heard were just cattle that were all over the course during the day. My name being called? That was just the sound of “mooowwww” from those cattle. Pretty damn funny.
Each time I rode back into camp and across the timing mat, no one was there. I would hear the familiar timing “beep” and look over at the timers table to see an empty chair and open laptop. I’d look at the pickup truck on the other side where I knew the USAC Official was supposed to be in and waved as if he was awake.
On the final dark lap, I saw the most beautiful rising of a crescent moon I’ve every seen. Soon after I saw Mike on the course as he passed me again. He was in good spirits but his back was killing him too. By the time I climbed up to the finish line, I had turned off my lights as it was approaching sunrise. I changed into fresh clothes, ate again and headed out again. This lap was tough for sure - I was off trail a few times and unclipped a few times. And I stopped multiple times to relieve my back.
When I finally got the finish line, I rolled around to the timer who was now up and at his table. “What place am I in? Mark Sortino” “Dude, you’re in second place.” “What?” I responded? Immediately I asked, “Where is 3rd and how far back?” Third place was this younger, tall guy who I had passed on lap 4. He was on lap 12. He would be coming in soon and had time to finish one more lap before the 10am cutoff which would put him at 13. “How many laps have I done?” “You’re at 13” the timer responded. “But in the event of a tie, you would still beat him because you finished 13 before him. You should get back out there and get one more lap for 14!”
“SCREW THAT,” I said. I’ve got second if I don’t do damn thing more. DONE! Just then Mike rolled across the finish line and went straight to timer and asked what place he was in. “First, and you finished 18 laps!” “DONE” he exclaimed!
We both rode to our tent relieved we were done and amazed that we survived as we starting sharing “war stories”. At 10am the race was officially over, and we had award ceremonies. There was a small group at that point of about 30 folks staring at these first timers from Boise.
I publicly thanked Flo the mechanic for saving my day by putting his rear derailleur on my bike. But we were all amazed at Mike’s performance: 18 laps, 189 miles and over 21,500 feet of climbing. ROCK ON DUDE!
That’s the story of my first 24 hour race. Although I was not in shape to race it and am still, at this writing two weeks after, feeling tingling in my hands and left toes, I loved every minute of it. And I now know how to train, plan and execute it. Who knows, this may not be my last…