One-Legged Wolf Attacks TransRockies|
Wednesday, September 22, 2004
|Photo by Garry Edmundson
|The start of the TransRockies.
Brett Wolfe, 35 years old, is regarded by many to be the toughest mountain bike racer in the world. Those who have ever competed with him are the first to agree. Specializing in endurance mountain bike races, he has completed an impressive slate, including numerous 24 hour solos, La Ruta de los Conquistadores across Costa Rica twice, the TransAlp Challenge across the Austrian and Italian Alps, and the TransRockies Challenge across the Canadian Rockies twice. There is not a race he has entered that he hasnít finished. Brett is truly in a league by himself.
Having lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident in 1990, he competes in these events against two-leggers and routinely finishes ahead of 25-30% of them.
A lifelong athlete, Brett shifted his talent and energy from back-country, alpine skiing to mountain bike racing only less than two years after his above the knee amputation. He entered his first race and finished last. Though initially disappointed in his performance, when he learned that many had not even finished, Brett was hooked. What makes Brett stand out above all is his unwavering passion and positive spirit: it is difficult for fellow competitors to feel too badly when he passes them going uphill on the course when he always has a kind word of encouragement for each one.
What follows is Brett Wolfeís account of his most recent race across the Canadian Rockies. But first, a bit on how he races on just one leg...
Mechanics of racing with one leg and the Wolfís body
The editor asked me to talk about riding with one leg versus two and challenges. Rather than write a novel and with minutia of detail to guide someone on the journey....Iíll keep it simple. Hopefully it will not sound like whining - something I detest.
I truly enjoy the ability to ride a bike in the mountains. Many times bounding through the single track I honestly donít feel as if I have physical disadvantages. Obviously, racing with one leg does have some disadvantages, but in traditional dry humor of my family you have to see the positive side.
A. Missing a lower leg means less power and definitely less torque and uneven torque surge to the rear wheel. Good news is you drop 15lbs of weight, and therefore have lighter overall weight for climbing. More good news is to keep spinning I have more gears, lower ones I might add...32 to be exact, than my competitors. More is better.
B. Hard to stand and pedal. While your butt may hurt more, good news is you can sit on your butt cheek rather than in the middle, crushing the soft tissue and ruining your chances of having children or needing a funky shaped seat.
C. More muscles are utilized and maximized; therefore the rest of the body has to be stronger to compensate for the missing limb. The docs told me in the hospital when I broke almost all of my lower body and lost my right leg that the remaining parts would have to be three times as strong to do what I was doing before I lost the limb. I disagree. I think it only needs to be a little over twice as strong, and who needs to cross train when you have a built in rowing and weightlifting routine just getting on the bike. Bonus number two is more calories are consumed per hour to go the same distance, so have another baked good...itís all fuel.
D. The bike becomes a crutch. With an above knee amputation, you have no hamstring or quad. The power gain from bringing a prosthetic leg on a trip is negligible. (Plus you gain back that weight you lost.) Therefore, your bike becomes your crutch.
Lock the brakes and maneuver. No extra stuff makes you travel lighter, Zen-like and faster. Plus bearing manufactures get to see how their stuff works being submerged 100% of the time.
E. Miscellaneous stuff. Lack of ligament in remaining joints, knee, shoulders and elbows. Good news is if you overextend the joint, you have very little to tear, therefore recovery can be significantly faster. With the sciatic nerve damage in my left leg, I donít feel as much of the pesky cold and minor pains and aches. My shortened Achilles and semi-fused ankle make it hard to overextend while hiking for long periods.
|Photo by Garry Edmundson
|Brett on his morning coffee run
Most importantly, if walking is not a good option (slow and caloricaly expensive/ hard on your remaining foot) you are obligated to ride more terrain challenges, becoming a more accomplished technical rider by default.
TransRockies 2004 overview and insight
Why do I compete in the TransRockies Challenge race twice? Why race again? Simple, I want to go faster and see what the body and mind can dish out, and of course...spend some quality time in the mountains. For most of us racing can be very personal. The desire to flog yourself and go further and faster than you thought possible defines your 'self'. Of course, beating your personal demons propels most of us beyond our competitors. First, set up the body for the mileage and vertical gain. Second, find a strong teammate. Third, dial in the equipment. Fourth and most importantly get ready for the unexpected hurdles. Does it work?
The tragic flaw of racing in mountains manifests itself in the unpredictably of the terrain and the weather. Welcome back to a 600 kilometers, 12,000 meters, seven days of an off-road adventure. The TransRockies Challenge is a mountain bike stage race from Fernie, BC to Canmore, Alberta based upon the very popular TransAlp Challenge in Europe.
Versatility of rider and steed are paramount as the surfaces and terrain vary widely. We raced our mountain bikes upon multiple surfaces consisting of: dirt, gravel, pavement, jeep roads, gas line roads, cattle trails (it seemed), hydro line cut, seismic lines, muddy double track and single track, smooth single track, tooth-rattling rocky loose single track, Canadian single track, freshly cut single track, overgrown where-did-the-trail-go single track, creek crossings, wood chips, wood stairs, washed out trails, very steep hiking sections, river crossings, mountain passes, log jams, mud composed of clay, and fast fire road descents with water bars, and so forth to get to the finish each day.
The race organizers and volunteers have camp all set up, so all we have to do is survive the day... hence make it across the finish line. We find our gear, food, shower, clean the bikes, and not necessarily in that order. Lastly we need to find our tent and try to get in a recovery for the next day. No problem... sort of...
TransRockies 2004 left its mark on the racers with a bit of moisture/rain/standing water for the first three days along with revisiting part of 2002 routeís seismic lines to stretch out the Achilles and warm up the calf muscles. TransRockies 2004 was true to its billing of becoming a testament of equipment and body durability. After seven days of racing, we had garnered more insight into the resilience of the body and attitude.
Reflecting on the Body
The Body: In a standard format Matt and I made sure we had enough base and time on the bike ascending mountains to be comfortable on the days ahead. I had done some preliminary testing: 16,000 foot weekends, riding only in the afternoons, and the body seemed to be working like clockwork. Matt was to be riding at idle waiting for me, while I was planning on racing full out to see how the body performed. Looking at the times from last year I budgeted for an average of six hour days, yet sadly seven and a half hours became my reality. I had to start consuming more calories, which of course, I never got ahead of the curve; leaving me 5-7lbs lighter come the end of the race.
Day one was supposed to be easy...we had to roll out 105 kilometers in half day. We encountered roads of every different shape and form with some additional short hiking sections. Cool and comfortable weather. Fast if you were feeling good, slow and laborious if your body seemed to be dragging, which unfortunately, is how I felt - like pedaling through jello. "No problem," I thought. "Take it easy and get ready for day two and three." How much hiking would we encounter on day two and three? Unknown, so during those days we plunge into the dark, watching what happens to the body, tendons, arms, and the dilapidated left foot.
We got an opportunity to see some of the famous Rocky Mountain mud, sliding our way past hikers (racer pushing bikes) on a double track section. Matt and I felt in our element. We began the first seismic line on day two with an uphill washed-out creek bed of a trail. Rideable most of the way. Bonus. Another beautiful pass to cross over that day had us hiking on loose rock, but we were enjoying the views nonetheless.
I had the opportunity to chat with Karl, one of the overall leaders at the end of day two. We talked about his season and how it had unfolded. He had his performance mapped out as if I was looking at an elevation map - with fine precision. He had bad luck with a mechanical at the Olympic Trials for Germany and was unable to make the German Olympic team. He was trained and a bit hungry.
|Photo by Garry Edmundson
|Brett riding glorious BC single-track.
The battle up front was fierce - still within minutes by the end of seven days. This was in direct contrast to other riders and people I met during the day and in the evening who were surviving day by day. Everybody was learning. While riding with one of the Italian teams on day one, they stated afterwards they had never ridden this far off-road per day. They were learning to adjust their pace as were we all.
We crossed paths with a fellow racer barefoot in the mud on day three just before the main seismic line hike. His partner asked us to inform the first aid team his partner would need to be extracted. While many people were hiking in the clay mud section, Matt and I continued to ride.
Mattís specialty is cyclo cross. His skill and smooth power strokes in the mud reflect his years of racing fast with drop bars in the nasty wet conditions of Seattle. The hiking overall, two days up to that point, was taking a toll but not too severe. The final seismic lines for day three were daunting visually. You could see a line stretch out before you unbending as far as you could track the horizon. I rode sections of the Seismic in staccato-like rhythm: hike some, ride some, hike some, ride some. Hiking for me is akin to doing dips or rowing for hours on end. I had to go anaerobic longer than I would have preferred when riding the wall-like sections; drawing cash out of an account that was going to come back and haunt me, but we would worry about that later. We had to complete day three.
Overextension in the first three days left me with no power towards the end of day four, and most of day five, with my body finally succumbing to the local sinus /head/ cold by day six.
My partner was obliged to relax for I had to spin my body at idle up the "Jumping Pound Ridge," which left me smiling even in my deteriorated state, seeing dramatic sight of the plains meeting the Rockies. I never realized that a one-legged man spinning at idle is painfully slow. The labor of day six was over and I had my fingers crossed that I would get in recovery. The next morning, I didnít feel any different, yet when we bolted in fray/pack dirt criterion near the ranch, my body went back to work. The rev limiter was off, the sickness was gone or at least oozing out of my nose. My partner and I had a great time eating up real estate as fast we could, flying on technical sections of single track towards our finish in Canmore.
Reflecting on the constant creative problem solving of racing
Attitude: I am often asked how I get over this, hiked through that, crossed that river, made that dramatic climb. I honestly donít think that I do anything different than anybody else out on the trail. I treat every physical obstacle as a separate problem to be solved and then relate its cost to the overall picture. Upon entering a difficult section I have concepts of what might solve the problem. Yet, until I see the physical nature of the problem, I keep a very open mind of what might be the best answer. What follows is a collection of my approach to the first four days, sprinkled with other stories that I have been able to bring together about my peers.
My partner and I were having a straight forward race regarding our equipment until his freehub stopped freewheeling on day two. He was forced to continue pedaling at all times, which included a steep downhill at speed after the pass, over waterbars, never to stop his pedaling otherwise his rear derailleur would risk being ripped off. His brakes were heating up from checking his speed and he had to completely change his perspective on how he approached any obstacle where he wanted to shift his weight on the bike. Waterbars, corners, rocks. He couldnít level his feet to brace for impact of a waterbar otherwise the derailleur would back feed and get ripped off. Other than slower pace off the pass, we managed well.
On day three my brake pads were giving off telltale signs of contamination and by day four they had become anti-lock brakes. I was having difficulty hiking for I use the bike as a crutch and with inoperable brakes I would slide backwards, making it difficult to get up the hill. Mattís brakes worked superbly, so he would stop on hiking sections, where we would trade bikes so I could hike with his machine. He would push my bike until it became rideable, and we would trade back.
Later that day with brake pad and rotor contamination I gave up checking my speed when we hit the mud sections at end of the day, which inadvertently helped me carry more momentum through thick, clay-like mud. In the midst of that same day I noticed the mountain streams water levels were high. I brought this detail to Mattís attention, for we had a major river to cross at the end of the day. My strategy of utilizing the bike as crutch in possibly waist deep, rapid, current might not work. When we approached the river they had strung out rope with help steady racers. So no problem, I utilized Matt as a crutch and we hobbled across the river one step at a time.
I had a bit of apprehension regarding seismic lines of day two and three. The stories of aggravated Achilles tendons and abandoned riders made me apprehensive of my damaged tendons in my elbows and remaining left foot. The seismic lines are notorious for going straight over hills and mountains with no switch backs or reasonable grade in sight. Day twoís seismic difficulty never materialized due to some changes in the course and what we did visit was short hiking, with an arroyo to wedge the wheel into to keep me from sliding backwards, or rideable.
When we arrived at the first major seismic for day three we surveyed what we could see. I quickly came to the conclusion that there were rideable sections intermittently sprinkled into the hike. Thus began a game of riding into the redline/anaerobic, get off and breathe, hike until the foot needed a release, or the upper body loaded up with lactic acid, breathe, find another section to clip back into the pedal and again ride into the red for as long as possible, start over. As I noted before it worked superbly. We were able to summit the two major climbs without aggravating the tendonitis in my elbows, or making my upper body so weak I would be unable to hold onto the bike, or more importantly, leaving my left foot inoperable from strain/nerve compression/on Achilles damage. The above method for the seismic line allowed me to evenly fatigue all the parts out on the body, muscles in particular, rather than a specific area.
|Photo by Garry Edmundson
|Brett hiking his bike.
Both Matt and I found great joy in riding trails and working the single-track in its variety. We were constantly finding faster lines, sliding around, riding every section we could rather than get off the bike. This helped me immeasurably by decreasing wear on my foot, elbows, ankle, and hands while keeping me psychologically motivated yet mentally disengaged from the strain the body was undergoing.
The attitude to persist and find solutions was everywhere. During day three we bumped into Erik and Lou, who were in the top three for the mixed teams. Lou had the misfortune of snapping off her rear derailleur hangar. Erik had given her his, they had the same manufacture of bike, but Erik was unable to get his bike to function as a single speed. Happenstance, a local racer from Canmore, Tom had then given Erik his bike, a few sizes too small, but functional.
Tomís partner was having physical difficulties, therefore he was in no rush. So Erik and Lou made up time to stay in contention with borrowed equipment.
Tomís partner was feeling better by the next checkpoint and he ended up borrowing a bike from someone at the check point and continued to race. (I apologize to the parties in question if I botched details but it was an impressive display of improvisation and persistence.)
Every day we would see someone having to improvise and find new solutions to problems they were having. Jim was having a rough race. His bike suspension had given out on day three. He snapped his pedal day four, rode with one leg and severed pedal until the next checkpoint. The head mechanic gave Jim a crank arm and a pedal so that he could finish the race that day.
Troy and his racing partner, local strong boys from Crows Nest, had an exceptional day three, taking over the overall lead while their competition had series of mechanicals. They were now in the lead, the hot seat, with the heavy hitters banging on their back door. When I talked to Troy at the end of day three they were having a great time, positive attitude, and just taking day by day.
Will I go back? Yes, I can consolidate the mechanicals to certain amount of time lost, sickness cost me another section of time, and my lack of training in very specific areas cost me time and recovery. I see an opportunity to go faster next time. Itís part of the curse and charm.
Everybody experienced the incredible views, the different environments, the failures, the successes, the dirt, the fun, the challenge...the camaraderie. Day one was a drawn out warm up, day two we started climbing, day three we hit the jackpot, day four back on course with more adventure and trail textures, day five checking account of fuel was overdrawn... but the trails were fabulous and made for faster day than my body should have really produced, day six head cold took hold, yet no fever therefore the views up on the ridge couldnít be missed, day seven back on the program, fun technical single track with a finale of some nasty root/rock filled descents to make this mountain biker happy to see the smooth texture of pavement....
1. Karl Platt & Andreas Hestler ( German and Canadian)
2. Troy Misseghers & Neil Grover ( Canadian)
3. Andreas Strobel & Silvio Wieltschnig ( German and Austrian)
1. Karl Arnold & Stefan Ruttiman. ( CHE)
2. Paul Newitt & Nels Guloien ( Canadian)
3. William Letham & James Shellard ( Canadian)
1. Cristoffeersson ? & Marg Fedyna (CAD)
2. Eric Warkentin & Louise Kobin ( US)
3. Trish Grajczyk & Pat Doyle (CAD)
1. Karen Eller & Sabine Grona ( GER)
2. Christina Begy & Joan Orgeldinger ( US)
3. Isabelle Dube & Maria Hawkins (CAD)