It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of ignorance, it was the age of folly, it was the epoch of faithlessness, it was the epoch of disbelief, it was the season of darkness, it was the season of night, it was the winter of hopelessness, it was the winter of despair, we had misery before us, we had disaster behind, we were mired in sand, we were pinned by the wind, in short, we were not characters in a Dickensian epic about the French Revolution, we were racing ‘cross on the beach in Oceanside, California.
And you’re not even going to have to read 700 pages to find out how it ended: MMX finished first. I finished last.
Yet our paths to victory and defeat could not have been more different, which, I suppose, explains our respective outcomes.
The team huddle
A few moments before the race I huddled with my ‘cross mentor and team leader. “What’s the plan?” I asked, eagerly.
MMX gave me a steely look. “For you? Try not to fall off your bicycle.”
“Oh,” I said, a bit disappointed. We had no other teammates in the race and I’d hoped that, if only on this day, I’d be a sort of lieutenant. “Anything else? I mean, like tactical strategy stuff so’s I can, like, help you win and stuff.”
He looked away briefly, then focused his full attention on me. “I’m going to give you some advice.”
“When you sling your bike over your shoulder on the run up…”
“Try not to spear your testicles with the chainring.”
Then the race started and I mostly never saw him again.
Just add sand
Roughly coinciding with the invention of tequila and the bikini, the beach became a travel destination. For millions of years, however, beaches were loathsome places that no living creature sought out or stayed at for long.
The beach is where the relentless wind and wild ocean meet land, and they do so with such ferocity that they grind everything into sand. The mightiest rocks? Ground into sand. The largest continents? Ground into sand. Cliffs and mountains? Ground into tiny little fucking microscopic grains of sand.
The beach is where animals scurry momentarily in a wild dance to avoid being eaten as they seek refuge beneath the waves or cover in the vegetation farther back from shore. The Little Penguin does its daily death race against the marauding gulls as it slips from the water’s edge and dashes across the sand to its warren. The baby turtle hatched beneath the sand runs madly across the exposed beach to the safety of the ocean and life.
It is only on the sand that they find death, that awful strip of no-man’s-land where no green thing grows, where no structure gives shelter, where the unending war between ocean and landmass have been, and will be, fought until the end of time.
It ain’t just the critters…
Whether it’s the sands of Iwo Jima or the beaches of Normandy, humans have regularly killed one another on beaches. Beaches have been the point of ingress for marauding armies for thousands of years, a weakness for defender and invader alike.
Beaches are the sites of slaughter, and today’s ‘cross race at the US Marine Corps tactical vehicle training site on Camp Pendleton was just such a killing field. As a wholly unskilled ‘crosser, I knew the race would be packed. All season my fellow racers had complained about the boring, easy, non-technical nature of the races.
With its 22+ mph headwind along the exposed shoreline, its brutal 100-yard climb up a sheer sand wall, its death-defying full-on descent into a knee-deep sand strip followed by a crazy hairpin turn, its second hard ascent immediately after the barriers, where you had to remount on an incline, its second fast downhill through a curvy, sandy drop that ended in another huge sand pit with a 180-degree turn, and with its bitterly hard and fast tailwind section…this course had it all.
“This,” I thought “is going to bring people out of the woodwork! It doesn’t get any nastier than this!”
With the addition of rainstorms in the forecast, cold temperatures, and the pitiless, exposed nature of the course, this would really attract all those racers who were sick of the boring and easy courses and who really needed a tough challenge in order to distinguish themselves from all the loafers and newbies and wannabes whose only skill was pedaling quickly through soft and grippy grass.
Where is everyone?
I was shocked at the start line to see only a handful of riders. “Yo, MMX,” I whispered. “Where is everyone?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Everyone?”
“Yeah. All the people who wanted a tough, fast, technical course with bad weather.”
He gave a bitter laugh. “You’re looking at ’em.”
We blasted off the line and rode in a tight pack through the sheltered, hard packed tailwind section until the first sand crossing, where the course emptied out onto the beach.
The group shouldered their bikes and ran across the deep sand, which was like, uh, running in deep sand. I was the last rider through, and the pack sped off. With a huge effort I bridged. MMX sat on the front, driving the pace as we all huddled in fear of the howling headwind.
Huge clumps of kelp provided extra bunnyhop fun, but I was already having so much fun that I couldn’t fully enjoy the jarring smack of seaweed getting thrown up into my face and spokes. Shortly before we reached the end of the headwind section, MMX, Mike McMahon, and Brad Stevenson pinched off the rest of us, kind of like a pesky bowel movement that’s hung around for just a second or two too long.
My group then hit the second sandy dismount. I came to a complete halt, even as I could see MMX flawlessly dismount at speed, shoulder his bike, and run up the sandy wall.
Thinking about my testicles and the chainring, but also about being the last rider, I finally chose honor over reproduction and draped the bike half-assedly over my shoulder. This was where it hit me: I’m running up a sandy mountain while carrying a bike when I could just be riding a bike along, say, a paved road.
The last time I actually ran, as in “moved my legs quicker than a walk in order to speedily arrive at a destination” was in 1982. I remember the night well, but that’s another story. This story was an incredible reminder of how slow you run when you’re 48 years old and haven’t run in thirty years.
There were short fat dudes with tiny legs blowing up that thing twice as fast as I. I wasn’t just the slowest, I was also the most awkward, and I was also the most gassed, having already been dropped once and time trailing back onto the group.
I looked and sounded so bad that one of the hecklers asked, genuinely, “Are you okay, dude?” Then, because it was a ‘cross race, he added, “And if you die, can I have your bike?”
Meanwhile, back at the front
MMX now had his breakaway companions sitting on his wheel, and after giving them ample opportunity to come up to the front and enjoy the scenery, he realized that they weren’t going to take the invitation. On the fourth lap disaster struck in the way it always does racing ‘cross: One small mistake leads to a bigger one which leads to an even larger one which leads to sailing out of control way too fast into the sand trench and falling off your bike, which is what happened.
The break jumped and left MMX in the dust, or rather in the sand, forcing him to chase the entire 5th lap. Since the two leaders weren’t working together, MMX caught back on the shoreline headwind section, took a quick breather, and then charged first up the wall in order to hit the downhill at full speed with no one in the way, get to the turn without having to pedal, pedal through the turn to the dismount, and then remount in the big ring, power up the hill, and gap the two chasers.
On the last lap, MMX overhauled a group of 35+ A danglers, and drove them over the sand with none willing to take a pull. Coming hard into the soft sand dismount before Mt. Everest, teammate Garnet attacked the last 150 yards on the beach all the way to the dismount, sending MMX through the sand and up the wall first. This, with a fast remount, gapped the chasers and sealed the race, giving MMX his first win of the season on what was indisputably the toughest course on the calendar so far.
Afterwards I made my way through the throng to congratulate MMX. “Great job!” I said.
“Thanks, li’l buddy. How’d you do?”
“I was lapped by the 35+A leaders, including D-Mac.”
“Hm. You were with us there for a few pedal strokes. What happened?”
“I kind of fell off the pace in the first sand bog and had to chase back on. Then I was gassed at the run-up and had to lie down for a few minutes. So, like, could you give me some pointers now?”
“Sure. On the big run-up and remount, never let anyone by you on the run up; you have to get to the remount first. Did you at least beat the other guys in your group on the run-up? That’s key.”
“Well, there were a couple of big clumps of kelp that were having a bad day. I beat them. Why’s it key, anyway?”
“Because of the climb after the remount. You don’t want to be behind some slow wanker going up the hill. That can ruin your race.”
I thought for a minute about the two or three people who had been stuck behind me on the hill, and whose race had been ruined. Maybe time to change the subject? “So, that run-up was really hard, huh? I mean mentally and physically.”
“Psychologically I looked forward to it on every lap. Others dreaded it or used it as a place to take a breath or quit, but it’s often a good place to attack, even on foot.”
“Attack? On foot?”
“Sure. Couldn’t you see how badly people were hurting a few steps into the dismount?”
“I think I was one of those people. At the run-up after the barriers this one dude kept asking me if I was racing or just doing a course recon.”
“What’d you say?”
“I don’t remember anything except barfing on his shoes.”
“The run-up is also key because you can take very good stock of your opposition there. I could tell on the big dismount they were struggling. Body language, posturing, speed; all of it.”
“I guess my body language was that way, too. Lying down in the kelp and crying and everything probably tipped ’em off, huh?”
“But you have to save enough for the last lap. I rode the fastest time on the last lap; that’s where you get the separation. Gearing’s important, too. Big ring after the barricade, for sure. How about you?”
“I used the no-ring.”
“Yeah, I think I kind of walked, sort of.”
“Really? Bummer. What’s all that sand and blood on your knees?”
“I might have crawled a little bit. Not far. Just a few yards.”
“This course allows for great psychological tactics, too, because the sand is so demoralizing. It zaps you of everything, and then grinds you up with the battering headwind. How’d you fare in the sand?”
I sat down and took off a shoe, then turned it upside down. “Like this.” Out came a cascade of sand.
“Wow. How’d you get that much sand in your shoes?”
“Walking knee-deep in sand, mostly. And lying down. Didn’t you at least have to walk a lot?”
I could tell he was trying to be nice, but that the truth was getting ready to win out. “No.”
“Sorry I was so useless, man.” I felt like crap.
He clapped me on the back and grinned. “There’s more to racing ‘cross than winning.”
“Really?” I brightened. “Like what?”
“Losing,” he said with a laugh.
I laughed too, giving a clump of kelp a vicious kick. “Loser!” I said to the kelp, and I meant it.