I’m only 40 years old but goddamn if my body doesn’t feel a lot older than that on most days. Yet I train (when I train, that is) like I’m still 20 despite nothing responding the way I’d like it to. So naturally,I prefer to jump in the deep end when some sort of event comes up. When someone says “Hey let’s do one of those fun mud runs”, I say “OK, how about the Tough Mudder?” Likewise when my training partner suggested I do a bike race, I opted for the Almanzo, which is 100 miles of gravel roads through the hilly farm country of Southeastern Minnesota.
Even though I entered the event with a team of five guys it took me all of ten minutes on the bike to realize this was going to be an every-man-for-himself type of contest. I’ll spare you the mile-by-mile account of elevation, weather fluctuation, mental torment, and physical exhaustion. Let’s just say there are a lot of variables you have to endure out there on the trail. It goes from bottom of the barrel depression to thrill ride of your life and back again in a matter of minutes and it lasts for 12 fucking hours when you’re as slow as I am. I wrote two novels, directed three movies, had imaginary phone conversations with my dad and my brother, named my yet-to-be-conceived children, and worked out a bunch of un-dealt-with shit from my childhood in my head just to survive. It was like a tug-of-war between my body and my mind. My body was like a school yard playground where all my muscles were cruel little kids running around pointing at each other and chanting “Haha, you can’t do this.” But then my mind would slap my muscles in the face and tell them to shut the fuck up. My cramps developed their own cramps who then had their periods, so my brain would morph into Jesse Ventura in Predator and tell them, “I aint got time to bleed.”
I ingested two Gatorade gels, one Cliff Shot Blocker, two Nice granola bars, one Cliff Mojo granola bar, three quarters of a PB&J, a handful of Sun Chips, half a banana, a small bag of teriyaki beef jerky, 16 ounces of Cytomax, 96 ounces of Gatorade, six liters of water, six raspberries, four Oreos, six Advil, 18 Hammer Endurolytes, and enough dirt to cough up a sand castle big enough for Peter Dinklage to live in.
I saw painted horses, a giant turkey, a hawk of some sort, a humongous Bernese mountain dog, a black lab, a herd of goats, the most beautiful red wing blackbird ever, locals drinking beer in their yards, and some fabulous countryside filled with streams, bluffs, and green meadows.
My favorite parts of the race were the rare miles where I was able to keep up with the rest of my team; flying down hills and using the momentum to power up the next. And the camaraderie amongst all the competitors was awesome too. I didn’t talk to one single person out there that wasn’t friendly and motivating. My least favorite part was the last 20 miles, complete with sketchy gravel, and a so-close-yet-so-far-away route seemingly designed with the sole intent of pissing me off and breaking my will power. But quitting was never an option for me and more than anything it was the fear of failure that kept me going.
So, was the finish line handshake from organizer Chris Skogen and the sense of pride and accomplishment worth it? Yeah, it definitely was. Would it be worth it to do it again? At this point I honestly don’t know.
Someone asked me if it was as hard as I expected. Two days later and I still don’t know how to answer that. I keep vacillating between exactly as hard as I thought it would be and way fucking harder than I could have ever imagined. Physically, is it the hardest thing I’ve ever done? Quite possibly yes. Mentally, in terms of athletic endeavors, yes…I think. You see the thing is I’m not really sure anymore. Despite my body bouncing back surprisingly well, the Almanzo 100 has left me with a giant question mark looming over my head as to where I stand as an athlete. Going into this event, I knew I was quite under-prepared. Winter's asshole-y reluctance to go away, stolen bikes, and general laziness got the best of me these past months. I definitely could have trained and dieted better; I will be the first to admit that. But going forward, what kind of athlete do I want to be? And am I still capable of being the type of athlete I want to be? I don't know. 100 miles of thinking and I still haven't come to any conclusions.
-Nathan G. O'Brien