“What’s It Worth to You?” (WIWY) is a question just about every bike racer asks just about every race. For me, the WIWYs typically come about two-thirds in, when the pain turns stale and stuff gets weird. I want to show you a little of the weird that uncurled for me from last weekend’s 10th edition of Gravel Worlds.
There I was, about six and a half hours in, pedaling like the dickens alongside three teammates: Mike Suing and the brothers Addison and Marty Killeen. The morning clouds had long since cooked off when I came due for my 98th drink of water.
Nothing distinguished this 98th drink from the previous 97 except this: I couldn’t find my Camelbak. I glanced along my handlebars and top tube. Not there. I felt that panic you get when you’re late and your keys go AWOL. Here I was, thirsty as chalk, and my Camelbak just vanished.
Calm down, I told myself in my dad voice. Where was the last place you had it?
I considered the question. On my back! Sure enough, there was the shoulder strap, right on my shoulder—its black fabric fringed in salt. Clipped to it was a long, life-giving, ocean-blue tube, capped with a familiar bite valve.
I bit and drank and felt the satisfaction of a kid who’d just solved a riddle and won a prize. I felt also a tired parent’s self-righteousness. Where was it? In the same damn place it’s been for the last six hours!
I had lost mental track of something literally strapped to my body. I comprehended then that all was not well with my soul, that the heat had found me, and that finishing this race would involve jousting with some peculiar demons. Enter the dark questions: Are you up for this fight? What’s It Worth to You?
I ate a gel, knowing my brain needed the sugar.
My next bout with the weird would be musical. I’ve never raced with earbuds before. Riding in big groups, there’s always plenty to focus on, and I often hear trouble before I see it. Plus, I like a good chat with the racers around me. And nothing says, “Don’t talk to me!” like those Apple earplugs.
Still, music can distract from the pain, so I decided to give tunes a shot at Worlds. I didn’t much care for it and wound up listening to very little. But even the small dose I took had the unintended side effect of sending a single line rattling through my head.
Sometime after my Camelbak confusion, I couldn’t take it anymore. I think I’m in love! I think I’m in love! I think I’m in love!
I had to carve that line out of my foggy head. Back in went the earbuds and on came the Eels, which is totally my jam.
The Eels’ Mark E and PCL’s Schmidty have a similar Bus Stop Boxer vibe going on.
Only here’s the thing. One hundred twenty-something miles in, I was so heat changed and sun brittle that I discovered with wonder that music now had a taste. How had I never noticed this before?
Mark E sang directly into both ears and an odd flavor swelled along the roof of my mouth. Field mice, head lice, spiders in the kitchen! Don’t think twice ‘bout whatever keeps you itchin’.
I wouldn’t have predicted the Eels to taste so sweet. I’d have pegged them for something closer to a salty cigar. But here was proof in the afternoon sun: A too-sweet film sliding unwelcome over my tongue and wriggling eellike down my throat.
Heat is rolling in like hell’s red rug, stinking like the breath of Beelzebub. And if you think you won’t walk on coals, you will.
My stomach kinked and I plucked out the earbuds so as not to puke. If I don’t listen to that flavor, I told myself rationally, maybe I’ll be fine. I washed the song down with water, careful to clip that blue plastic line right back where I found it. The sun gave off a high-pitched hiss.
Twenty-seven miles to go, race fans. WIWY?
As trippy as these exertion- and heat-related episodes are, they’re pretty common. Funky stuff happens upstairs in endurance races. Even full-blown hallucinations.
Doug Mayer wrote about them for Trail Runner magazine in 2016. “Without the resources to get the job done, your eyes become a 1970s Radio Shack computer trying to load Microsoft Office: Error messages start flying.”
Mayer quoted Jay Sanguinetti, who studies psychophysiology at the University of New Mexico. “It’s all blending together. Your brain is saying, ‘This is the best I can do…. You’re going to see some stuff, and I’m not sure if it’s out there or in here, but at least you’re still moving forward.”
I read about an ultramarathoner who once saw stormtroopers playing on swing sets along her path. She kept going. So my what’s-it-worth-to-you moments really weren’t that weird.
What was odd for me, however, was just how early the WIWY questions came with Gravel Worlds this year. It was well before mile 100; before the 60-mile checkpoint; before even the starting line. I was asking what GW was worth to me clear back in February, when I thought there was a small chance a new competitor might just nudge Gravel Worlds off the calendar entirely.
You can say I underestimated GW’s strength. I’ll happily agree. But understand: Races like this don’t just happen. Their continued success isn’t inevitable. Corey and Schmidty and Jen have had to scrape and pull and hustle to bring this together. Corey has said he plans to keep doing this as long as it’s fun. But believe you me, not all of this is fun. They sweat to make it happen for us.
Praise the god of cattle country they don’t sweat alone. A walk through the expo on Friday held all the warm reassurance of a huge family reunion. Good gravy, the volunteers!
Between the expo, registration and the race itself, there were scores of familiar faces, from Joe with the Solstice, a chemistry teacher from Lincoln East, a history professor from Nebraska Wesleyan, Christy Gibson and oh-so-many more folks I didn’t know—people for whom Gravel Worlds is obviously worth a great deal.
The checkpoints were things of beauty, especially at mile 131, where I was only partially capable of speaking for myself. A young man with sideburns luckily spoke dehydrated mumble. A woman took my bottles and returned them full into my trembling hands while sideburns all but poured a Coca-Cola down my grateful gullet. My trash disappeared. A voice said, Eat this. Take that. Good luck!
Just as deserving of thanks are the riders themselves—700 hearty folks who were more than willing to make “Don’t be lame” their number one rule.
So many folks who could have made the trip to Colorado to check out the next new thing came here instead to be part of this grassroots tradition.
And Panaracer made what had to be a difficult decision to split their ticket, with Mat Stephens joining Mike Marchand and John Borstelmann for Worlds while other teammates, including former GW champion Kae Takeshita, focused on Steamboat.
Talk about WIWY. Gravel Worlds obviously means the world to Mike Marchand. He’s a Nebraskan and GW’s first champion. I found it symmetrical and wicked cool that, thanks to a sprint finish, the race’s 10th champion is Marchand’s teammate and fellow Nebraskan, John Borstelmann.
Lest you think a local winner means the field got slower this year, check your stopwatches. No one had ever cracked 21 mph at Gravel Worlds before. This year, five racers did. One of them was Stephens, who helped set up Borstelmann for the win.
After finishing fourth, Stephens showered, got a little something to eat, then hopped in the car and drove 600 miles to race the next morning for his teammates in Steamboat. What’s It Worth to You?
The Abes Bat 1.000
Half a dozen Lincoln Abrahams rolled out on Saturday morning. And it makes me tinkle with joy to report that half a dozen Abes rolled across the finish line on Saturday afternoon. Gravel Worlds is no easy endeavor. I’m proud of these guys.