(This is an article I wrote about my 2007 Moab Centurion Attempt. I had no photographer that day, excepting the few pictures Mary snapped while at pit stops. I've supplemented some photo's of the trails mentioned, however they are from different rides)
(one of my first Porcupine Rim rides--2004)
In the spring of 2004 I went to work in Moab, Utah. I thought myself indestructible; willing to throw myself off any ledge for the glory of being “known” around town. It was after six months of hucking, crashes, and a ton of abuse to my body, that I was being carried out of my house on a makeshift backboard, slid into the bed of a Nissan pickup, and taken to the ER. Diagnosis: herniated discs. “You take one more fall, kid, and you’re gonna finish severing that spinal chord,” says the Doctor. Whoa! Paralyzed! An active persons ultimate fear. I had to stop riding. I had to let my body heal.
Funny things happen when you have to give up what you love; when you’re not able to do what part of you lives for. A fanatic mountain biker, like me, who’s forced off the bike, for long enough, starts to wonder if life is worth living, if maybe one final huck off of a tall Moab cliff wouldn’t be easier. For me, it was a time of deepest depression and despair. I made my choice as I was lying on the floor of my cold rented room, the ache of my damaged back throbbing at my core. I decided that freeriding had to go. Hucking myself off of big ledges would have to stop. I turned 180 degrees and set my sights on something foreign to me, pedaling! In my delirium, I made a promise to myself that if I was allowed to ride again, I would do something monumental. I would try the most daunting ride known to me. The Moab Centurion! A mythical ride with 104 miles of Moab’s famous trails all strung together in a single day. So what if it killed me? I’d rather die trying that heinous ride than waste away in atrophy. Four years later, I attempted to keep my promise. I did not finish. This is my story.
Five AM start, I hadn’t had much sleep, too nervous I guess. I force breakfast down and check my gear one more time. The first step outside is cold, shockingly cold. We take a quick picture, the flash blinds me, and I hug my wife, Mary, in the dark. I notice she looks so proud of me. Why? I haven’t even started riding yet. She’s no stranger to what I’m about to do. She has attempted this ride twice. Her ride time of 13 hrs over 73 miles weighs on my mind. No man wants to finish behind his wife. I peddle off, into the dark, under street lights. Moab is quiet, everyone else still asleep. As I hit the climb at the edge of town I notice the bright half moon, and the amazingly clear, cold, desert sky. I tell my-self to hold back as the climb gets steeper; there will be plenty of other chances to exert my-self.
Slick Rock Trail, I have arrived. I ride past one of the most photographed trail signs in the world. The parking lot empty, I turn on my light, and rubber meets rock. I cheat the dots as I always do, slicing in between the domes of rock, avoiding as many climbs as possible. I know this trail like the back of my hand. Heck, I have never ridden the back of my hand, I probably know Slick Rock better. I make it as flat as possible, concentrating on NOT bringing my heart rate up. Nearing the end I bobble. TWANG! Goes my knee. All this prep, all the long training rides and I tweak my-self on the first trail? I push on, it will go away. Maybe?
Back on the road, I turn my lights off. A while later I pass a huge dome of rock where my wife and I were wed two years earlier. Wedding Rock, OUR rock. Without my notice, until now, a glow has crept behind the mountains. The three grouping of peaks now visible in outline. With the first light of the day, my bowels awake, and they are not happy to be up this early. And not a Port-a-Potty in sight. Finishing my business behind a juniper tree I grapple with my clothing, trying to get everything back in place. My shorts, smeared with chamois lube, are disgusting to pull back up. Cold, like a wet diaper. As I head back toward my bike I hear the sound of internal combustion, the thumping of Toyota pistons. Mary appears in our truck. I tell her to go on, to meet me at the upper Porcupine Trailhead. Just the sight of her gives me a renewed strength.
As I reach the Porcupine Rim trailhead, Mary rushes to give me the list of things I might need. Sportlegs pills, Gatoraide, more Chamois Cream? No Thanks! I kiss the girl and am off. Porcupine Rim comes alive in front of me. The slight glow behind the mountains has become a fire in the sky. Canyon Wrens heckle me at every turn. The Ravens croak, “Nevermore, your knee will not let you pedal anymore.” I make no attempt at the tricky ledges that I normally attack. I get off and push, I must conserve energy. The climb seems quite long today, it didn’t seem this long last time I did it. I’m still in the beginning stages of this ride. I try not to think of the pain, just the thrill of being on this trail, alone, before anyone else. First Tracks of the day! Then, like a gift from the heavens I pop out of the trees at High Anxiety Point just as the Sun breaks free of the wall of mountains. A new day is born.
“Downhill for good” I say, at least for this trail. I stop to eat an energy bar sitting on a log, not in any particular hurry. I’m in this for the long haul. Its my pace. I’ll ride as fast as I want to. I get back on my bike and the fun begins. The Porky down hill is legend, always a thrill, endless rocks with flat tire possibilities around every corner. Halfway down, in the distance, the Moab Rim begins to glow, showing off in the morning sun.
As I start to descend the Porcupine Singletrack I see, thousands of feet below, that Mary is waiting. Despite being close enough to see our truck, it will still be 15 minutes of cliffside downhilling before I reach her. My knee is a concern. My lowered seat height is inflaming it, but a necessity on this trail. Why must it try to stop me?! Thoughts of doubt creep into my head. Thoughts telling me that I should call it a day and be proud of riding this trail without a shuttle. At the bottom, I cross the car park toward Mary and a waiting lawn chair.
Our friend Marc is waiting with Mary. I had put out an invitation for certain close friends to ride along with me on this journey. Marc had surprised me though. How invigorating it is to see friends. Mary shoves a Subway sandwich in my face. I try to eat, knowing I HAVE to eat, but I just can’t get much down. I tell Marc of my knee pain and he pulls a funky knee brace out of his pack. “This’ll fix you up,” he says in that North Dakota way of his. He’s a redneck, hippie mountain bike guide. The kind of guy you want to have along when your veggie oil F-350 blows an axle. He’s the kind of guy that never needs a haircut, yet always needs a haircut. I whine about how badly I feel and give hints that I would like to give up. Marc is having none of it. “On yer bike!” He hands me my Camelbak and we peddle off down the pavement, a river on one side, 1000 ft of sheer cliff on the other.
Almost instantly the pain in my right knee begins to fade. That funky knee brace is amazing. Like a switch, the pain has turned off. But with one switch turned off, another is flipping on….in my LEFT knee! I try to ignore it, to just keep riding. Mark and I talk. I ask him how far he plans to ride with me? He says, “as long as you need me to.” I think to myself, ‘what a great friend. Someone to suffer with.
We peddle up and out of the Moab Valley past Arches National Park to yet another trailhead where, of course, my loving wife is waiting. By now, after over four hours of riding, a hunger is roaring inside me. I devour a Subway sandwich and drain a Gatoraid. The worst of the knee pain is gone and I finally feel on a roll. I’m, dare I say, excited, as I now realize that I can, at the very least, finish the next trail on the list. “Mary, lube my chain while I lube my butt!” I slide on a fresh pair of shorts covered in a slather of cold clammy goop. ARG, man I hate that feeling. Onto the bike again.
The climbing, really steep climbing begins again. We settle into a groove, not a fast one, but a comfortable one. After some miles on jeep roads we start the assent of the grueling Gold Bar Rim Trail. Gold Bar Rim is not on the radar of most Moab tourist‘s, and for good reason. If you’re a really good technical rider you might enjoy it, but it leaves most feeling broken and ashamed. The “trail” is more of a route, only marked sporadically with cairns of rocks and an occasional painted dot. It’s a rock slab on the edge of a thousand foot cliff with a gazillion ledges leading you up and down. It’s also quite long, by most standards. A loop from town will earn you 25 hard fought miles.
The crossing of the upper Gold Bar Rim invigorates me, I find flow and focus on making quick time. Despite the late October weather, the heat is rising. I drink water as fast as possible and then stop to drain it back out of me nearly as fast. The descent off of the rim is infamously known as The Portal Trail. The descent of death! The signs will tell you that “3 people have died on this trail, dismount now!” Cautionary tails, for a cautionary trail. We quickly walk the mandatory sections, those sections with a 100% chance of death if one should make a mistake, and continue down. Upon reaching the Portal View Point we meet the first riders we have met all day. The large group had already begun to descend in front of us…SLOWLY! I politely as possible picked past the slowest and set my sights on the faster ones. Being a competitive male, despite having over 50 miles under my belt, I just have to pass these guys. And I do. But my head really isn’t in the game, not a lot of gas left in the tank. I misjudge a drop off and come screeching down the rock. No harm done, just an injury to my pride as Marc and the group catch me picking my bike up off of the rock.
Mary is waiting at the base of the trail, with a pizza! Marc and I devour it. I’m now 8 hours into this ride, yet only half way finished. My metabolism is on fire. I chase the pizza with energy drinks and then squirt a GU on top of it all. After our “snack” we embark on the longest road section of the ride. Mark pulls in front of me, letting me draft. I began to feel my mind disengage, to simply drift away from the pedaling. I hear nothing but the road, the hum, and I feel an aching pain beginning to creep into my muscles. In the distance I see the shoulder less Colorado River Bridge that I had crossed earlier in the morning. I begin to dread crossing in mid-day traffic. Luckily, in Moab, friends are never far and two buddies pull up to check on me. A quick pep talk and they have me back on my bike. Then they stoically block traffic for us, keeping impatient motorists from trying to pass us on the narrow bridge. Our own personal escort into Moab.
Once back in town it’s hard to make the right turn that leads us out to the Amasa Back Trail. Marc doesn’t seem interested in giving up so I dutifully stick on his rear wheel. We quickly stop at Denny’s for a bathroom break. Looking into the mirror I notice my salt encrusted face, my eyes dull . A man coming out of a stall stares at me, his fat round face could never begin to comprehend what I was consciously putting my-self through. Back outside and onto the bike again. Talk between Marc and I has slowed. All attachment points to the bike are beginning to rub raw. Hands, feet, the straps of my pack pulling on my neck, and of course that uncomfortable wedge between my legs, that damn saddle.
I’ve always thought Kane Creek road as a beautiful little back road. Today the Cottonwoods are still in full fall color, bright yellow against the red rocks and that Utah blue sky. I tell Marc that I want to stop and take a picture. He reminds me that I had not brought the camera for this ride, to save weight. Remember??? Mary is waiting for me below the trailhead, our 5th trail of the day. And with her now is my BEST friend, Gustifson H. Blakfur, our trusty cow dog. He will run this next trail with Marc and I, he excitedly wags his tail-less butt.
As the gravel road leading to Amasa Back tilts upward I shift into the granny ring. I focus on saving my remaining energy for the trail. As we start climbing the ledges and rock of Moab’s third most famous trail, a rider comes up behind us. He was on a brand new 29er bike. Looking for something to take my mind off of the climb before me, I engaged him in conversation. I ask that always stupid question, “how do you like your bike?” as if someone who just dropped 4 grand will tell you otherwise. He says, “Its great, good for really LONG rides, like 50 milers.” I look down at my bike computer which reads 73 miles, I look at Marc, we smile and just keep on pedaling. He passes us, probably heading out on a really LONG ride.
Near the top of the trail I watch as the other end of the day slips away. The sun I had watched rise so many hours before is now setting. Could this be possible? Most people live every day barely noticing the natural world around them. Today I have noticed my world. I feel the heat leave the air, not slowly but immediately, the way it does in the desert. I notice the innocent joy of a dog out in the world, the way a dog should always be, sniffing and messing around, no leash. I notice the rock, the river below, the glow of the sun on the snowy mountains. I notice the magic of a bicycle, and the fact that after many hours of riding, its still quiet, no creaking. It just keeps rolling on as long as I can keep it going.
We descend down Jackson’s Trail, a single track descent off of the spine that is Amasa Back. It’s yet another trail on a precarious cliff. After over 70 miles my reaction time is somewhat slow. I try to concentrate on remaining loose and flowing with the trail. Gus and I lead Marc down, crossing Kane Creek at the bottom. We fight our way through Tamarisk trees toward the parking lot. I’m feeling crushed, worked, baked, totally and completely finished, but waiting with Mary are two friends, Anne and Nancy. Three girls! I tell my-self to act tough, to not let them see how destroyed I am. Just three minutes earlier at the bottom of the creek with a Tamarisk branch stuck in my eyeball, I had told myself I was done. Now, suddenly surrounded by this company of females and my beautiful wife I am suddenly planning to go on. I joke, “how hard can Moab Rim be, its only a mile straight up?” I tell lies and tall tales and I ask them if they have seen a guy on a 29er out on a REALLY LONG RIDE?
After “dinner” Nancy and Anne leave. Mary is struggling to get our lights assembled and working. I became irritable and angry. Night is falling and my reserves are gone. I need those lights to work NOW! I hurt her feelings, she has been there for me all day, yet I snap at her in my exhaustion. But, she knows what I am going through, what I am feeling, she’s been to this place before. With the lights finally on we pound some more pavement. We soon arrive at the base of the massive Moab Rim 4x4 trail. One mile, one thousand feet, a nearly continuous 21% grade. I switch to my hiking shoes, resigned to simply push my bike. Darkness fully engulfs us. The reflection of Venus shines brightly on the surface of the river. As we rise higher we gain sight above the surrounding terrain and I am shocked by the light of a natural gas well. It hovers near Canyonlands National Park, a blight on a perfect skyline. About a third of the way up I tell Marc that I must stop, my knee is killing me. I drop my bike and lie down on the cooling rock. The next thing I know Marc shakes me out of my delirious nap. “C’mon, lets keep moving or we’ll die.” So we trudge on.
Gaining the top of the climb we re-mount our bikes and switch the lights to full bright. On the edge of this massive cliff the glow from town below is striking. My knee is happy to be back on the bike and to not be walking. Marc and I negotiate the top of the rim, between domes of naked rock towering above us and through sand slogs that force me to walk. Talk between Marc and I has stopped, after the many hours there is not anything left to say.
I begin to detect a strange sensation coming from the front of my bike, a vague, mushy feeling in the steering. “Marc something is wrong with my bike, it’s as if my tire is flat?” Of course my tire IS flat, but the neurons in my brain fail to make the connection. It takes some time for us to formulate a plan. With 20 years of bicycle repair between us we are baffled by what to do. A complex plan forms and we decide to “put air in it.“ We pump, ride, repeat. Pump, ride, repeat. To change an inner tube is, at this point, far too much to ask, an insurmountable problem.
Finally, with no air in the tire I push my bike, which my ass appreciates, as sitting on the saddle has become torture. As I push I notice I am alone. Just bare rock and juniper trees and the beam of my light. I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other stopping frequently to lean on my handlebar. At the far end of Moab Rim the jeep trail reverts back to singletrack. A rocky mess that leads up to Hidden Valley-- a valley with walls towering above, yet itself hanging a 1000ft above town-- a valley with an ancient past, a place where long gone men scratched and pecked drawings on the walls.
Reaching a highpoint I hear Marc’s voice telling me to stop and put a tube in the tire. “Lets fix that thing, it’s all downhill from here.” Normally I rejoice in those words, but the trail down from Hidden Valley, known as Barney Rubble, is pure hell. It’s un-rideable in most spots, a washed out, hiking trail suitable for mountain goats, not bikes. A year earlier I had watched from the bottom as Mary struggled down this mess of rocks in her own quest to become a Centurion. Tonight she will watch my bobbling light, assuming we get the tire fixed.
Between the two of us we get it to hold air. The tube change leaves us cold. Again, we re-mount and the resulting wind chill causes our teeth to chatter. Frost is on every bush and shrub. I see my breath crystallize before me. Tumbleweeds clog the trail, sticking in my wheels and chain. Hidden rocks leap out at me, grabbing my peddles as I fight my way to Barney Rubble.
The hike-a-bike down Barney Rubble is like a cartoon. Like Wile E. Coyote I’m aimlessly chasing a roadrunner down a cliff. Strange delusional thoughts keep me entertained as I stumble from rock to rock. Suddenly in the midst of that cartoon landscape I hear a beep beep, lights flash. Thank goodness I’m not far from the truck or from my girl. I reach the truck and drop my bike. Marc is still up in the rocks above us, his light slowly getting closer. Mary asks me if I am going on? I ponder the question for just a few seconds. “I’m finished” Of course I’m not finished with the WHOLE ride, but with this portion of it anyway. Mary loads my bike while we wait a short time for Marc to stumble down. There is nobody cheering, just a slam of the truck door, done.
I was out for 17.5 hours. I rode over 80 miles. Those numbers mean very little and don’t describe this journey in the least. Upon reflection I’m left with a feeling of accomplishment, even though I still had nearly 25 miles yet to ride. I lacked Flat Pass trail, a trail anything but flat. Had we proceeded I have no doubt we would have watched the sun come up again. This ride was about the journey, not the destination, which was an anticlimactic burger at Denny’s. It was a journey from injury back to health. All the way from “you’ll never ride again” to “Its time for me to attempt The Centurion.” As I fell asleep that night I thought about those of us who are still on a journey, a journey back to health. To those that are hurting, I say this. Find your own Centurion, find something so big and daunting that you think your crazy to even speak of it. Then…focus on it, chase it, work for it, and then when you think your ready, attempt it! You may fail, but it’s better than the alternative.