Pam was starting to scare me. Not everything she said made sense, and her face was kind of puffy.
“I think I’ll pick some of these pretty blue flowers to take home,” she told me, her voice thick. “I’ll wrap them in a wet paper towel to keep them fresh.”
I stared at her. Where was she going to get a wet paper tower in the middle of the bike leg of an adventure race? We were miles from civilization.
“Do you want to rest for a minute?” I asked her. She nodded, and laid her bike down on the side of the trail. Her eyes had that squinty look they always got when it was late and she’d had a couple glasses of wine.
“I wish I could just go to sleep,” she said, closing her eyes and leaning her head against rock.
“How much water do you have left?” I asked. She pulled her bladder out of her race pack and I could see it was nearly empty. And it was her second bladder—she’d gone through two in the time it had taken me to drink less than one. And I hadn’t seen her pee for hours. I thumbed mentally through all the articles I’d ever read about hyponatremia, the potentially lethal condition in which the athlete dilutes the blood with too much water and not enough salt.
“Do you still have those electrolyte tablets I gave you?” I asked her. Pam nodded, fumbling through her backpack.
“Never mind, here’s another one,” I said nervously, holding a large white capsule out to her. Pam obediently swallowed the pill with her last few sips of water.
The swiftness of her recovery was amazing. Of course, Pam is tough and that was part of it. I love to introduce rookies to the sport of adventure racing, but I’m not crazy—they have to have the mental fortitude the sport requires before I’ll even take it on, and Pam, who introduced me to running marathons years ago, is probably the best candidate I know. She’d flown in from New York yesterday, and had no time to acclimate to the altitude in the Durango area—we were at 8000 to 9500 feet—plus she was just getting over a nasty cold. To top it all off, we discovered during our initial ride on the beautiful, winding single-track of the Hermosa Creek Trail that her bike wouldn’t shift into granny gear. It wasn’t an issue at first, but halfway through the bike left we began a brutal, 3000 foot climb.
“When was the last time you had it in the shop?” I’d asked her.
Pam had shrugged. “I don’t think I’ve ever had it in the shop, not since I bought it,” she said.
I blinked. “And remind me when you bought it…?”
“You remember, it was around the same time you bought yours.”
Four years ago, I thought glumly. It’s a wonder nothing else had gone wrong yet. I switched bikes with her. I’d be able to ride more of this stuff without the granny gear than she would. After all, I lived at 9000 feet.
All these challenges aside, Pam was hanging tough. Being a runner, she knew how to pace herself. She’d done exceptionally well during the initial run up the ski slopes of Durango Mountain Resort, and she’d set a respectable pace on the single-track until we hit the climb we were on now. Since then we’d been walking a lot, but considering I’d just witnessed the worse bonk I’d ever seen, we were doing OK. After the electrolyte tablets, she got up and pushed on, and I wondered admiringly if I could have done the same in her shoes. We finally reached the top, and followed along a ridge with glorious views of the San Juan National Forest on either side of us. Then we descended the other side on a steep jeep trail littered with loose rock, finding checkpoint five at the bottom. Pam ducked behind a bush to pee while I wrote the clue word in our passport, copying it from a checkpoint sign.
“I’m peeing!” Pam informed me, eager to dispel any more fears I might have. Whether that was a budding case of hyponatremia or just a severe bonk, I would never know. The important thing was that she seemed fine now. Thankfully, I would not have to call Vincent, Pam’s boyfriend, and explain how I had managed to put her in the hospital.
A two-person co-ed team pulled up behind us, excited to see the checkpoint. It had been a long bike leg.
“Are we going to make the cut-off?” one of them asked me.
I looked at my watch. “I think so,” I said, “but it isn’t a given. We’ve got 40 minutes, and I can’t tell what the terrain is like from here.”
We hopped on our bikes and discovered gratefully that the jeep road smoothed out considerably from here. It was a mellow ride, and three miles later we pulled into the rappel site where a couple of bored-looking volunteers sat on a rock and offered us water from a large tank in the back of their pickup. Both of us had been out of water for over an hour, so we filled up before putting on our climbing harnesses.
The rappel went smoothly, despite Pam’s nervousness—it was only her second time—and then we had a six-mile road ride to the final section of the race, a fourteen-mile paddle on the Animas River into the town of Durango. We missed the turnoff for the river, despite the fact that it was marked by a bright orange cone, and a kindly volunteer pulled her vehicle over to re-direct us. I was pretty sure we were in last place or close to it when we arrived at the river put-in, right at the cut-off time of 5:30 p.m., but I didn’t care. Pam was OK, and we were going to finish.
Two cowboy-hatted dudes from Coyote Shuttle, the Moab-based shuttle service that was acting as support for those racers without their own support crew, waited for us at the edge of the river with our rented canoe.
“You guys look a lot more chipper than the last few teams who came through,” one of them told us as they shoved us off. We smiled at each other. If only they knew.
The Animas River winds like a writhing snake through the countryside outside of Durango, and as we navigated the hairpin turns and class one rapids of the river for the next three hours, I thought about the day. I’d been trying to talk Pam into racing with me for three years now. She was one of my best friends, and an inspirational figure who had introduced me to road racing and adventure travel some years ago, and I could think of no better way to give back than to introduce her to AR. She was a busy executive, however, with too little time for her active interests, and it had taken this long for us to finally do a race together. Was she having he same kind of experience I’d had during my first race, I wondered? Would she feel that incredible sense of accomplishment and perseverance through suffering? Would she have an uncontrollable urge to tell everyone she knew about every detail of the race?
As if sensing my thoughts, Pam said suddenly, “Well Anna, I’m not sure I can honestly say I want to try a 24-hour race after this one. I think I got a little more than I bargained for today.”
I tried not to feel disappointed. The race wasn’t even over yet—she didn’t really know how she would feel later. Everybody has moments of hate while they’re racing, don’t they? Those moments when you question why the hell you’re doing what you’re doing? The rewards always come later.
“The races are almost always like that,” I told her, truthfully. “Always harder than you think they’re going to be. But that’s part of the satisfaction you feel later. You’ll see.”
It was 8:30 and starting to get dark. We strained to see the bridge that would single the take-out point. Pam was a strong paddler, stronger than me, and she kept us moving at a good pace while I shouted, “Rock! Go left!” during the last few rapids. Finally, just before 9:00, we saw the bridge. Race volunteers were on the shore looking worried and they asked us if we’d passed any teams. So we weren’t quite in last place, I thought.
After one last doubtful moment, stuck on a rock and thinking we were going for a swim, we managed to shove up on shore. We walked the last eighth-of-a-mile “sprint” to the finish, where a lone volunteer signed us in and a man on a stepladder was already dismantling the big red inflatable finish archway.
We hugged each other, happy to be done, and I thought one more time—what would she feel tomorrow? I guess I’d have to wait and see.