Pushing through ‘impossible'
Whiting: Pushing through ‘impossible'
On the best days, getting outdoors is a journey of self-discovery, learning you can do things that at one point in your life seemed impossible.
Saturday was a great day.
With the sun rising in the east and the moon setting in the west, some 400 mountain bikers gathered in the pre-dawn darkness in Black Star Canyon for the Warrior's Society's legendary races, Counting Coup and Vision Quest.
Vision Quest is the big brother with 55 miles and 11,000 feet of gain. But Counting Coup, perhaps the saner race if you have a family and work for a living, offers its own demands.
Think 44 miles and 8,000 feet of gain.
That includes loose rocks, riding over small boulders, crossing streams and, yes, one more thing – cutoff times.
As Kay Monteleone and Nicky Down pedaled off at 5:30 a.m., the looming question was could they make the Counting Coup deadlines?
The other question: Could they do it without breaking bones, as some have?
At more than 5,500 feet, from any perspective Saddleback Mountain looks like a good-sized mountain.
When you're riding up Black Star Canyon in the dark, it looks even bigger.
Down of Rancho Santa Margarita considered what was ahead as she rode with Monteleone and hundreds of others.
First, they would face the never-ending switchbacks up Black Star. Then they would navigate the Main Divide Road up and down – and up and down – to a gnarly, rocky downhill trail called Motorway.
Motorway would drop them down practically to where they started, the end of Silverado Canyon Road. From there, they would ride all the way up Maple Springs Road and return to the Main Divide. Then, they would pedal through loose rocks the size of softballs to the top of Santiago, Peak, 5,689 feet above sea level.
With muscles weakened, they next would face the most technical parts of the race. Upper Holy Jim Trail requires threading through – and over – boulders, negotiating tight turns and avoiding cactus that can leave dozens of thorns.
Next, would be Lower Holy Jim, a series of tight switchbacks and stream crossings, some so rugged the only way for most to cross is by doing something mountain bikers call hike-a-bike.
Those more sane call it climbing through boulders while carrying an unwieldy, heavy contraption with moving parts.
Down had completed Counting Coup in 2009. But work and other things had meant little training time this past fall.
Would Down and Monteleone be able to finish?
There's history behind the Warrior's Society calling the race "Counting Coup."
Native Americans practiced "counting coup" in battle against other tribes. Unlike wars in which warriors tried to kill opponents, any time a brave simply touched an opponent it was considered a counting coup. Escaping untouched was considered an honor.
How tough is Counting Coup?
Of the 250 people who test themselves every year, only about 150 finish.
In 2009, Down cleaned the course in a little more than eight hours.
As Down rode up the Black Star switchbacks and Monteleone took a moment to wave for a photo, they needed to make it to the bottom of Silverado Canyon in less than four hours.
Considering what they both were taking on, perhaps the most amazing thing is that these two middle-aged women only had 11 years of mountain biking between them.
Less than a decade ago, Down, who will celebrate her 46th birthday next week, had been out of shape her entire life.
As a young woman, Down was a heavy smoker. Later, after giving birth to her 10-year-old son, she weighed 182 pounds.
Five-foot-six, Down now weighs 135.
After the race, she told me, "Coming from absolutely no fitness at all, when I think about that and to where I've come, it just blows my mind."
What helped Down turn around her health?
Trail Angel power
Both Down and Monteleone of Orange are members of the Trail Angels, a mountain biking group for women of all cycling abilities.
The coolest thing about the Trail Angels – and there are many cool things about the organization – is that they don't just talk the talk. As I've witnessed during rides, the Angels live what they promise.
Here's the Trail Angels' mission statement: "To create an atmosphere of fun, encouragement, adventure and strength through mountain biking for women of all ages.
"To give them the tools that are necessary to handle most technical situations and to feel more confident on the bike and out in their world."
Monteleone, a production manager at Powdercoat Services Inc. of Anaheim, told me after the race that one of the best things about Trail Angels are the members' enthusiasm for getting people outdoors and riding bikes.
Down, who grew up in Britain, said of the Trail Angels, "I've lived all over, and I've never met a bunch of women before who are so welcoming and encouraging to everybody."
Monteleone and Down made it to Silverado within the allotted four-hour deadline. Next, they had to make it to the Main Divide Road, some 3,000 above.
Both Down's and Monteleone's husbands mountain bike. And before the race, the women trained at times with their husbands. But on Saturday, they rode as Trail Angels.
Grinding it out, they both cleared the second deadline up on the Main Divide Road. Monteleone took off. Down's secret weapons were waiting.
For the second half of the race, Trail Angels founder Jacke Van Woerkom and Meredith Ford, wife of the founder of Rock N' Road Cyclery in Mission Viejo where Down works, joined the Angles.
They ripped down Upper Holy Jim, cornered the switchbacks on Lower Holy Jim and tore along the final four miles of Trabuco Creek Road toward the race's end.
To cheers from friends, family and other cyclists, Down and Monteleone crossed the finish line.
For these Trail Angeles, there were no broken bones, just smiles and feathers from the Warrior's Society honoring their Counting Coup. Oh, yes, there was one more thing.
The knowledge they can accomplish their "impossible."
David Whiting's column also appears News One Wednesdays, Fridays, Sundays; firstname.lastname@example.org.