Subject: Former VT Mt. Biker’s 24 Solo Race
Former Vermont Mountain Bike Racer Fulfills A Dream – Places Sixth In 24 Hour Solo World Championship
I am not fully sure Bill was officially supposed to be in this race, let alone place in the top 10. I knew he had the potential and trained as well as anyone could who did not race for a living, but he had never raced in this high caliber of a 24 hour race before. In fact, he had more or less stopped racing for several years before starting back into it three and a half seasons ago. The type of official 24 hour races he had raced and won involved rest time for up to an hour and those he did ten or more years ago with regional competition in Lake Placid. I found out only a week before this world championship race that 24 hour mountain bike races have turned into virtual nonstop high speed rugged cross country races where a one minute rest is considered long. Up until that previous week I was sure Bill had what it took to do well in a 24 hour race. He had won the Butte 100, a brutal 100 mile race mostly along the continental divide of Montana, the last two years and he had trained by biking unimaginable miles over countless elevation gains throughout the mountains surroundingMissoula, MT, including a self made 24 hour race he created in honor of his recently deceased dog, Marcy. This year alone he had biked a total of 400,000 plus vertical feet, nearly 4,000 miles, and over 400 hours. Most of all he still seemed to mentally have more than ever what it takes to keep going when most have long given up; I would think the most important asset in a race like this.
However, two weeks prior to the race Bill lent us a movie about a previous six time solo world championship racer who was defending a seventh. This racer ended up losing to another cyclist who rode most of the race in his highest gear and ended up in the hospital after coming close to death. Both cyclists stopped competing in the world championship soon there after. That was the world championship and that was the race Bill was soon going to compete in. Unlike those racers he did not do this for a living and had only limited resources. When I say limited resources I mean like times when he did not have enough money for weekly groceries. He would be going up against the top racers on earth and on a course where each biker was encouraged to carry bear spray in case of a grizzly attack. (Last year an unfortunate racer at another Western Canadian bike race was attacked and killed.)
It was only then that I realized what Bill was about to take on. I still had faith he had a chance at the top 10 but I also knew this was a racing challenge unlike any Bill had specifically faced. I was no longer focused on him placing, only impressed that he was going to take it on, and might live to talk about it. Out of over 110 solo racers Bill somehow was given 35 for his starting place. Not a bad starting place for a relative new comer but just one more reminder he was not supposed to place in the top ten. After 24 hours of riding through an endless haze of dust and on a course the first place racer called his toughest course and Bill likened to a past rooted course at Mt.Snow, Bill placed ahead of two of the favorites and secured sixth by completing 18 laps of the 17k, 1,700 vertical foot course. That means he raced virtually nonstop for almost 200 miles and completed a total of more than 30,000 vertical feet of climbing.
That Bill placed sixth in a 24 hour solo world championship mountain bike race is still hard for me to digest. That anyone even completes such a race is beyond my understanding. I found it exhausting just to wake up in the middle of the night to go support Bill at the race. What brings tears to my eyes is the thought of him completing a dream he has worked toward much of his life in spite of many obstacles. He did not do well simply because of natural talent but rather because of his endless passion and training for a sport he loves and has promoted for over 18 years. I witnessed the beginning of this journey and now was witnessing one of its celebratory moments. Although the win impressed the hell out of me, it is Bill and what his life represents that moves me in deep ways I cannot fully describe. He had dedicated a large portion of his life’s energy toward a type of perfection, and I was privileged to be around at one of those moments when it blossomed.
Some of you might remember Bill. He started mountain bike racing at the weekly Catamount races in 1992. He was the guy that would bike from Plattsburgh to Williston, switch out his slicks to nobbies, race, and then switch back and ride home. I met Bill two years before; right after he demolished his first mountain bike, a Huffy, and invested into an entry level Trek. He had followed a local girl to Plattsburghfrom his home in Roundup, MT, but that had ended and he was just trying to make ends meet. His primary goal was to maintain a factory job that would earn him more money than anyone in his family previously had. Unfortunately, Bill was repeatedly laid off, called back and laid off again. He shared with me later that he also wanted to work toward becoming a professional mountain bike racer. I admired his spirit but thought that a rather impossible dream given his circumstances and limited biking record. What I did not realize then was that when Bill puts his mind to something; he does it, and with more focus, intensity and passion than anyone I have ever met. Other than when he was at work or sleeping, Bill rode his bike on every road and trail of Northeastern New York and read up on everything there was to know about biking and training to race.
By the end of his first year of racing in 1992 he had placed ninth in the expert class at Stowe and by 1996 was the New England Champion Series Champion in the Expert/Pro category and had won the Vermont 50 both in 1995 and 1996. During that time he also helped promote mountain biking in the Plattsburgh area through helping develop a race series at Beartown Ski Center. For much of that time my wife and I were in graduate school in Missoula, MT so we did not get to witness much of Bill’s successes first hand; however, we quickly realized Bill was one remarkable person. An interesting side note is that when Bill was crossing the border in Sweet Grass, MT a border guard on the US side noticed his Plattsburgh College Alumnus sticker and pulled him over. He was extremely excited; Bill’s friends were worried he was going to get detained. Instead the patrol guard was ecstatic about seeing Bill because as a young teen living in Plattsburgh he had greatly admired Bill when he was developing his own passion for mountain bike racing at the Beartown races Bill helped start. Now he got to see Bill years later on his way to a world championship.
Originally only I was going to travel to Canmore to see Bill at the worlds, from Missoula MT where my family and I were spending the summer house sitting, but after watching the solo race video my nine year old son, Niko, insisted he wanted to take the long nine hour drive to Canmore to see Bill race. He knew this was something amazing and did not want to miss it. After getting him and my wife to sign statements they would not complain about the drive, we arranged to make the journey. My two year old daughter, never agreed and so freely cried and harassed my son for many miles of the drive. When I could hear myself think, I spent time re-looking at Bill’s journey to get to this race.
Bill’s previous racing career had been cut short in the late 90s after he became physically afflicted with some sort of blood disorder and was also forced to focus full time on college. Later when he worked at a software engineering job in Connecticut his time was also limited. He finally had money to eat and buy things but also many bills and a company that wanted his life to revolve around its every need. Fortunately for him he was laid off from his high paying job after two years and moved back to Montana to do similar work for a fraction of the pay; but he was in the heart of the most amazing mountain biking in the country. He finally got back into mountain bike racing, as well as road and cyclocross in 2006 – anything to stay on a bike. He did well but even last summer when I visited him he had no idea he would be at the World’s this year. He was managing a staph infection from the previous year that impacted his most important body-bike contact area and he had recently crashed on his head during a road bike race, seriously straining his ankle on his peddle before landing to receive his second concussion in three years. Fortunately for Bill, two years ago a former 24 hour racer who was working to promote endurance racing in Montana organized separate 100 mile and 8 hour races in Butte, MT. Despite Bill’s buttocks’ infection, he had won the Butte 100 its first year. After my visit Bill won the Butte 100 for a second time and later the 8 Hours of Labor, which resulted in Bob and his Triple Ring Productions supporting Bill’s bid for the world championships in Canmore, Alberta. Bob apparently approached him and said, “Bill if you’re interested in going to the world championships, Gwen (his wife) and I will help you in every way.” He said this after the awards for the 8 Hours of Labor and just 12 hours before Bills dog and long time friend, Marcy, died as the result of a fall. Bill believes that Marcy’s loyal spirit and Bob’s support were the most important aspect in helping him to realize is lifelong dream.
I say Bill placed sixth in the Worlds but in reality this solo sport is a team sport. The riders rely heavily upon a pit crews who support every aspect of their needs prior and during the race. Bob Wagner and two of Bill’s Bozeman based Team Muleterro teammates, Sten and Rich, also stayed up the entire 24 hours to provide for his every need. Prior to that they all prepared for many days to make sure they would have all their supplies. Going to a 24 hour solo without a pit crew is the equivalent of doing the Indy500 without a pit crew. The team wins the race, not just the rider. Bill’s crew was remarkable, because they were all friends volunteering for six days to support their rider. Friendship doesn’t get much better than that, and Bill knew it. He remarked later that more than anything it was this support of friends that moved him the most about the experience.
The race, officially named 24 Hours of Adrenalin, was in one of the most beautiful places on earth. The over 100, 10 by 10 solo pit tents, lined two sides of a quarter mile long path where each biker would ride after completing a lap. The Canadian Rockies towered over in all directions. Campers and five person team pits surrounded the rest of the area as far as one could see. To begin the race, solo riders were individually announced and then called up to the line up. Prior to getting on their bikes they had to run what appeared to be almost a half mile path up to a ridge, past the pits and back to pit row where they could pick up their bikes. Bill started 35th and then passed a number of others before getting to pit row, but because his pit was more than half way down the row he still could not get on his bike until well after the favored bikers had left on their bikes. Three quarters of the way through the first lap he came up on us and was clearly at the front with no more than seven or nine riders ahead of him. Normally Bill is strictly focused on the race and does not expend energy on hellos, but as he passed me and my son he took the time to slap us five. I knew he had to be in good spirits despite the run and fast starting pace. Later he said his pulse was over 170 for the first half of the race. That was not what he had trained for. We stayed for the first lap and three quarters but then went to get lunch while Bill powered forward. I had a two year old to feed and entertain. During lunch and throughout the day my son just kept coming back to the idea that Bill was still racing. I kept reminding him that at this point Bill was only starting the race.
Reading Bill’s race profile on the 24 Hours of Adrenaline site I noticed Bill saying the worst part of a 24 hour race was at 3 am. I decided I would make sure I got back for those early morning hours before the sun rose, so he knew we were with him. I went back at 11:30 pm to check in. I knew from the on-line race reports that Bill was still in the top 10 but little else. As I drove up the mountain to the race center I could see hundreds of lights zigzagging throughout the wooded mountainside all framed by the silhouette of towering mountains and a clear starry night. In the distance hundreds of bear bells rang off the seat post of racing bikes. It was an amazing and exhilarating sight.
When I got to the pit they shared that Bill was still going strong and despite the leader almost gaining a lap on him he was holding seventh position. This was encouraging, but they also shared that they wanted Bill to stop and rest a minute or two on the next lap and they needed my help. On his last lap, ten or eleven, he reported having thrown up and feeling sick. Later he told me he wanted to quit. My impression is that at some point most want to quit but recovering and continuing is what separates the hard core racers. They said he was barely functioning and their biggest concern was for him to finish the race. I was concerned, but Bill had made it clear to me before the race that under no circumstances was I to attempt to pull him out of the race. It is hard to explain, but even if Bill were to end his life there I could not be the one to intervene. Besides, I had seen Bill appear close to death many times and he always had some way of recovering and continuing. This was the quality I knew about Bill that gave me faith he could do well at a race like this. These are not normal people that do these races. They each know they are pushing their bodies past reasonable limits.
I ran over to the three quarter check point with Sten and waited to see how Bill was doing. Bill rode in slower than the past lap but Sten felt he was doing much better than when at the pit and was no longer concerned about him resting. This was good news. It seemed this pace and course was taking its toll on many of the racers. While waiting for Bill we heard that a rider had crashed and was suspected to have a broken neck. The riders had to stop and walk around the area of the crash, which explained why Bill took longer to get to us. Then another solo rider came by and reported having thrown up to her check person. She kept apologizing for failing them. I think she continued on but she was followed by yet another solo rider who looked in almost equally bad of shape. I focused my thoughts on Bill recovering and maintaining and made sure he knew I was there when he stopped in to update Sten on his status. It was mind blowing to think the race was only half over. Basically, anything could happen over the next 12 hours. Bill’s position was an excellent one but at this speed and over this terrain and with this world class competition, would he be able to maintain his position? It all seemed way too soon to tell. Everyone seemed to be feeling the pain. I went back to the hotel and back to bed so I could be there when it would be even tougher.
The alarm went off at 2:45 am and I longed to keep sleeping. I had to mentally let the idea that Bill was racing nonstop for the last 14 plus hours shame me out of bed. I barely could think; what the heck was going on in Bill’s mind?! I woke Niko who had said under no circumstances was I to go up without him. He looked like he might have changed his mind but by the time I was almost ready to leave he showed up at the bathroom and climbed into his clothes. I could barely drive the short distance to the race because my eyes and brain were having difficulty coordinating. As we drove up the mountain to the race center we could see hundreds of lights zigzagging throughout the wooded mountainside. The pit crew told us Bill was now in sixth place and that his next closest rider had dropped out of the race. That was one of the riders favored to win. The lap after I last left was one of Bill’s fastest and was faster than the lead rider’s. But Bill was still having some difficulty holding down proper nutrition and had asked for more cantaloupe. There was none left so we used my car to search the small town of Canmore for whatever we could find. One hour later we were only able to bring back three peach cups and an old nectarine. This seemed to do because Bill eagerly sucked them down on the next lap. He was doing okay. The pit crew knew if he could simply hold the pace he would keep sixth place. Bill was still trying to gain fifth but began to realize it might be out of reach. Niko and I headed back to bed so we could return for the finish. Bill had been riding now for 18 hours and had six more to go. After the race I learned from Bill that sometime during the dark night hours he had passed out three times while riding and found himself lying in the meadow in the flat section looking at the stars. Other than that he was surprised to never get sleepy and felt it was because the trail was so technical. Another rider likened the ride to holding a jack hammer for 24 hours. It was starting to get light and Bill had also shared on his profile that the best part of the race was dawn. I was now feeling confident he was going to at least maintain what he had gained and finish with a good place.
After much to do with getting the family up and ready to go to the mountain, we arrived moments after Bill finished his final lap. He had secured sixth place and was only 35 minutes behind fifth. His crew was in tears over the final accomplishment and mine came when I ran up to tell my wife what Bill had achieved. It is not often I have been graced to witness first hand the finale of such focus, hard work and team work. It is an amazing experience that goes well beyond anything I can put into words.
I share this story because I am impressed with Bill’s life journey and recent accomplishment, but more importantly, because I know it is also the story of a journey not unlike many we are on as we work to perfect our own abilities. Some pull off the top wins and others do not, but I am sure that all the work toward this type of perfection inspires the rest of us to find our own perfect speed. I believe as children we all knew what we were meant to do in this life. Unfortunately, the people around us often have other ideas and do their best at times to detour our journeys into theirs; often out of envy or as an act of protection. I am guilty of such actions myself. Watching various aspects of Bill’s journey over almost 20 years I am reminded that in at least one way he has managed to become what he always knew he should be, despite our conventional world unintentionally, repeatedly and consistently working to stop it. Although I have never gotten the impression that Bill has wanted to tell anyone else what to do with their lives, I have learned a lot from watching his life unfold. While the world quickly supports your wins little is done to recognize what is most important, discipline, practice and training while under extreme circumstances. I believe Bill’s win is simply a moment of clarity and would mean nothing without the life behind it.
At this writing Bill is off to race the Butte 100 again only six days after the world championship and with a major sinus infection from breathing dust laced with coal for 24 hours. I wish him the best but it does not matter what he does there because for me it is about his journey, not the wins. He is already working to learn from this race to continue his goal to be the best biker he can be and to promote thesport he loves for others who might find the same enjoyment. I feel compelled to get on my own bike and ride the biggest mountains I can find. In the words of Richard Bach, “The perfect speed is being there.” Some day I hope to know better myself what that means. Thanks to the many people like Bill out there, working to be who they always knew they should be, I have a lot of teachers. If you would like to follow along with Bills future journeys, explore the past ones, find related links and more pictures or movies, or just find a great place to mountain bike in Montana, you can check out Bill’s personal blog at www.WilliamMartin.Com.
Paul Bardis lives and plays in Plattsburgh, NY when not visiting Montana. Despite never getting the competitive sports bug, he finds himself longing for winter so he can skin up mountains with friends and perfect his backcountry turns. Hiking and mountain biking also help keep him connected to nature, and sort of fit during summer and fall. His goal is to ski at eighty. You can reach him at Bardis@Gmail.Com .