July 15, 2015

Crusher in the Tushar: Enter the Pain Cave

by Nick Frey

Five miles into the infamous Crusher in the Tushar I realized I hadn’t ridden my SL-G more than four times since competing in the equally infamous Dirty Kanza 200, more than a month prior…and I was heading into over 10,000’ of climbing with some of the best bike racers in the United States.

Tyler Wren setting the bar HIGH in 2011 on his Boo 'cross rig

Tyler Wren setting the bar HIGH in 2011 on his Boo ‘cross rig (pic: Chris See)

At one edition of the Crusher, Boo actually WON the overall…so I had a lot to live up to!

Tyler brings home the bacon...check out that original Boo bamboo jersey!

Tyler brings home the bacon…check out that original Boo bamboo jersey! (pic: Chris See)

Over the last couple of years my approach to sporting endeavors has become: “screw it, I’m doing what I want.”  That also means NOT doing what I DON’T want, too.  So if I feel like riding, I’ll ride.  If I feel like running, or skiing, or drinking beer, or just working on killer custom Boo builds…well, that’s what I do.

Brutal--trail marathon, entirely above 10,000, with 6333' climbing.  Pic: Tim Gormley; amazing shoes: Newton

Brutal–trail marathon, entirely above 10,000, with 6333′ climbing. (pic: Tim Gormley; shoes: Newton)

I only wish I had this mentality a few years ago when I was paid to ride a bike!  Because I am definitely riding better than ever now, and this relaxed attitude is the entire reason.

8 miles to go, on the way to top-20 in my first marathon!  Pic: Tim Gormley; amazing shoes: Newton

8 miles to go, on the way to top-20 in my first marathon! (pic: Tim Gormley; shoes: Newton)

At this point, I’m pretty certain my two sources of power output are 1) many years of stored suffering on the bike in my Pain Cave and 2) Happiness Watts.  Let’s take a look at these two sources.

The well-know, but often misunderstood, Pain Cave (PC) is something akin to the elusive Runner’s High.  While many believe the PC is simply a black hole of misery, it’s actually a place of infinite possibilities…of serenity, even.  This is a place the best athletes in the world embrace, rather than shun or fear.  Why?  Because, in the PC, one can simply endure the pain indefinitely, and to an extent that is impossible with a “normal” mental state.

Talk about some strange thoughts going through my head at this point near the finish!

Talk about some strange thoughts going through my head at this point near the finish! (pic: Drew Haugen)

Venturing into the PC is only natural to endurance athletes.  It’s a familiar state for the best in the world, and an unfamiliar and sometimes terrifying place for the less experienced.  This is because it’s actually a state of insanity.  I’ve found the PC to be a place of masochism, where more pain feels better, it feels RIGHT.  Pour it on thicker, baby!  That searing burn becomes a rhythmic surge of ecstasy, every circular pedal stroke pulsing the acid through every vein.

In a race like the Crusher, the sooner you can crawl into the PC and the more time you can spend there, the better you’ll do…it really is that simple.

And I truly love these races because my work is cut out for me: go into that special place as soon as things get REAL, and then just make myself comfortable.

You might ask how to get to that dark place and be happy with the lights off…well, that’s the second aspect: Happiness Watts. 

Pain Cave for sure

Pain Cave for sure (pic: Drew Haugen)

The PC can be a horrid, dank, treacherous place if you don’t enter with plenty of happiness.  That’s because a positive mental outlook is necessary to interpret those intense feelings inside the PC.  I’ve heard this is similar to taking hallucinogens…you can have a “good trip,” but you can also have a “bad trip”.  Both trips are somewhat insane, out-of-body experiences, but the former is what you want.

Since adopting this philosophy of “I’m doing what I want”, I have ridden my bikes less and less every year.  Because I want to do other things.  I want to drop into the 10’ wide, 48 degree couloir of a Colorado 14er.  I want to run a trail marathon entirely above 10,000’ without a single inch of flat ground.  I want to drink a lot of good beer and eat bacon and squeeze life so hard it cries out.

Living the Dream racing on dirt in Breckenridge, Colorado

Living the Dream racing on dirt in Breckenridge, Colorado (pic: Fred Newcomer)

And ironically, the less “training” I do, the better I go!  And the more I’m bored with traditional races.

This is the first year since I was fourteen years old that I do not have a current USA Cycling license.  I think I’m still a Cat 1 by default, but I could give a shit.  I’m not trying to prove anything by rubbing elbows in corners, worrying about my position within a field, shoving and dive bombing and risking life and limb.  I’m tired of pedaling at 150w and thinking about teams and their bullshit tactics that often make races negative, boring parades of danger, while the results rarely reflect the “best” in the race due to the tremendous influence of both luck and misfortune.

And I’m not the only one.

Unsanctioned races (i.e. they are not paying USA Cycling many thousands of dollars for little benefit), often the most demanding races in the country, are growing 50% to 100%+ on an annual basis. 

DK200 is getting quite, uh....POPULAR

DK200 is getting quite, uh….POPULAR (pic: Nick Frey)

It’s astounding, and outstanding—every event I’ve taken part in this year is simply blowing up!  Many of them now have qualifying events to even REGISTER for the damn race in the first place.  You now have to prove that you are worthy to even give them your money!

This is because people want to test themselves.  They want to take on greater adventures, to reach the PC.  And believe me, the courses these races employ to do this are surely up to the task of getting people there.

Don't know what to say about this one...other than I have no recollection, as "I" was "elsewhere"

Don’t know what to say about this one…other than I have no recollection, as “I” was “elsewhere” (pic: Linda Guerrette)

The Crusher in the Tushar, for instance, packs over 10,000 feet of climbing into a 70 mile race.  On GRAVEL.  Do the math on that!  You’re climbing for about 45 miles of the 70 (it finishes higher than it starts), meaning your average climbing gradient is over 5%, on gravel, for FORTY FIVE MILES!  It’s simply ridiculous…a good friend of mine in Breckenridge, recent winner of the Master’s National Championship of Cyclocross in the most competitive age group, said it’s the hardest race he has ever done in his life.  Some climbing was so steep, he dismounted.  The Crusher humbles even the best athletes in the country.

Yeah, it was THAT steep

Yeah, it was THAT steep (pic: Drew Haugen)

And I’m cruising along on my SL-G, thinking how freaking nice it feels, when I realize I’m IN IT…I’m actually going to tackle this thing, and not just race against the course—I’m racing against some of the most storied professional cyclists in the country.  Jamey Driscoll, Tim Johnson, Alex Grant, Danny Pate, Jonathan Page, Neil Shirley, Robby Squire, and more.  The list reads like the Who’s Who of a major professional UCI cyclocross event.  Below is an incredible video showing the battle in the Pro Men’s field in last year’s edition:

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But I’ve learned to Fake It Till I Make It.  FITIMI is very powerful, and I’ve found it helpful when I get into these races that used to intimidate and scare me.  Fear is bullshit, in ALL cases in life.  It results in a worse outcome than if it wasn’t present.  So I’ve worked hard to simply NOT be afraid, of anything.  Because guess what?  If it doesn’t kill you, then who really cares?  It’s not a big deal…it’s not life or death, seriously.  And FITIMI helps me be excited, and ENJOY what I’m doing!  So that means a ton more Happiness Watts.  And it means a Good Trip in the Pain Cave.

Finally done and chilling, happy as a clam, at the top of the mountain

Finally done and chilling, happy as a clam, at the top of the mountain (pic: Drew Haugen)

Yes, this all may sound like a load of voodoo.  But it’s been said that illusions are the only effective defense against insanity.  I’m a believer that we *require* illusions to enable us to persevere and reach higher levels, achieve those “unreachable” goals, get over your shit, put your head down, and just HAMMER.

In the span of six weeks, I did a 200-mile epic, treacherous gravel road race on my Boo SL-G, a 50-mile race on my Boo 29er, a 70-mile mountain climbing gravel race again on my Boo SL-G, and a 26.2 mile race without any Boo at all.  All of these have been at high altitudes, one of them almost breaking 14,000 feet.  All of them have been sufferfests of the highest order.  And all of them have made me smile while I went deep into the PC along with thousands of my best friends.  Every individual had their personal battles, fighting those demons, and achieving goals.  Some went unbelievably fast.  Some barely finished within the time limits.  But all were pushed to their limits, and then pushed those limits higher.


OUCH, COACH! (pic: Ryan Houston)

We just happen to make bikes that are perfectly suited to these types of races.  Over the last couple of years, during my transition from weight-weenie-roadie to endurance racing addict, I’ve come to realize that the bike must be your friend, and not your foe.  This may sound stupidly obvious—like DUH, of course! 

But in reality, I’ve never had better friends than my Boos.  They have been there for me in ways my previous ultralight-carbon-wunderbikes simply were not…they help save me from myself, when I’m in the depths of pain and so calorie-deficient I can barely see straight. 

When I fall off my line, they don’t punish me.  When I hit the gnarliest sections of road, gravel, and trail, they soak it up for me.  When I have to dig deeper and truly rip on the pedals, they put every watt of power into moving me forward faster.

Learning more about myself, and learning more about these bikes, are two of my greatest joys.  I also love giving this bug to others, showing them the light I was lucky enough to be shown years ago at races like the Crusher and the Tour of the Battenkill.  Going even further back, I was shown the joy of epic training rides (on road, and off) through the brutal winds, bone-chilling cold, and sharp hills of Iowa by some great lifelong friends.

Once people “go epic”, they don’t go back.  A 60-minute criterium just falls flat in the face of a 200 mile journey on gravel through Kansas or 100-miles of killer high-altitude climbing around the 14ers of Leadville, Colorado.

Words don't describe the feeling of finishing the Dirty Kanza 200

Words don’t describe the feeling of finishing the Dirty Kanza 200 (pic: Linda Guerrette)

So here’s a big cheers to those crazy addicts like myself, and a big welcome! to those soon joining our party, deep in the Pain Cave.  I promise you, it’s a good trip. 🙂

P.S. I was STOKED to finally have a race free of flat tires, and took 12th place in the Pro Men’s field!  It’s an honor to be in that company, and a BIG thank-you goes out to my friends Burke Swindlehurst, Westie (Firecracker 50), and Josh Colley (Leadville Marathon)…these guys have made these trips to the PC possible for many thousands, and I would go so far as to say they’ve changed people’s perception of what is possible to achieve in their lives.  Bravo.