The author and a teddy bear face some zany challenges in a run-and-ride race. Not the least of which is a table full of Spam.
It’s not so easy to ride a mountain bike down a trail that falls away faster than Niagara Falls. The feat requires sharp reflexes and rapid-fire assessment of the available options. But just try it while clutching a teddy bear over your head.
I drop Teddy. He falls beneath my front wheel, is ground into the dirt, then flung skyward on the back stroke, where he spins several pirouettes before landing in a puff of dust. I dismount, dash back and snatch him up. Despite the tread mark crossing his fuzzy yellow belly, he’s still worth 3 minutes–a time handicap I sorely need. I jam him head first into my shorts. This might seem callous, but there’s no time for sentimentality. Ahead of me, runners carrying cardboard turkeys, inflatable reindeer and 3-foot bears are charging off down the trail.
The instigator of this mischief is an elfin soul named Bob Babbitt, co-publisher of a San Diego sports magazine. The magazine is a very adult endeavor, but this doesn’t stop Babbitt–who may be the only 41-year-old who owns more than 200 stuffed animals and a rubber Pokey–from reliving his childhood at every opportunity.
This explains why, on this brisk Thanksgiving morning, otherwise rational folk have forgone warm beds to run and ride mountain bikes through a canyon on the outskirts of San Diego for no good reason and lots of silly ones. In Babbitt’s mind, this is reasoning of the soundest sort. More than 100 goofs, myself included, agree with him.
The awesome idea
Babbitt came up with the idea of a mountain bike ride-and-tie after trying a ride-and-tie with horses. A friend convinced him to do the equine version, in which two persons, partners on the same team, alternately ride horseback and run over trails. Babbitt practiced once or twice beforehand. During these practice sessions, the horse–an even tempered being named Shasta–responded docilely to Babbitt’s every whim. Babbitt’s ride-and-tie debut might have gone equally smoothly had the race not started with a shotgun blast that went off just behind Shasta’s ear.
Keen on the ride-and-tie concept, Babbitt took the idea and made his own revisions–the first being to get rid of the horses. Now, at various holidays throughout the year–Christmas Eve, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving–fitness freaks, fun hogs and people with nothing else to do convene at a local canyon to take part in San Diego’s most popular underground event. Several years back, a Babbitt ride-and-tie drew more than 200 people. This terrified Babbitt, who has never put much stock in Park Service permits. For this reason, Babbitt prefers the canyon’s name be kept a secret.
“We can tell your readers where the race is,” he told me, “but then we’d have to kill all of them.” This would be quite messy, and a big chore for Babbitt, so I’ll respect his request.
I will tell you that the ground rules for Babbitt’s ride-and-tie are simple. Two-person teams share the best mountain bike which across 13 miles of out-and-back trail. Partners start together. The cyclist rides off, and after a few minutes of riding, dismounts, leaves the bike by the side of the trail and starts running. The trailing teammate runs to the point of the bike drop, mounts, rides a short distance past his or her partner, dismounts and charges off on foot.
Babbitt spices up this aerobic leapfrog by hiding various objects along the trail. Mostly they are toy animals plucked from Babbitt’s own collection–pinata bulls, inflatable reindeer, stuffed dinosaurs. Contestants receive time discounts for the animals they carry to the finish. The more cumbersome the object, the more time deducted. A rubber spider might be worth a minute; a 3-foot bear, 10 minutes. You get major minutes for a 10-foot inflatable Frankenstein or a gift-wrapped bowling ball. When the dust clears, and the minutes have been subtracted, the team with the fastest time wins.
I figured my prospects were bright, partly because my partner, Rick Kozlowski, had once been a professional triathlete, but mostly because I had helped Babbitt hide the animals along the trail before the race. One reaps what one sows, and I figured that knowing precisely where I’d sown would allow me to pilfer the place blind come race time. I mentioned this to Babbitt as we were hiding the animals in the brush, mostly to see how he felt about cheating. He was unconcerned. He pointed out that we were hiding the animals about a mile from the race start. “By the time you get out here,” he said, “everything will be gone.”
Babbitt wasn’t being rude; this was an accurate assessment of my riding and running skills. Rick and I would be butting heads with some pretty daunting competition. Past ride-and-ties have attracted many of endurance sport’s biggest stars, including triathletes Mark Allen, Paula Newby-Fraser and Colleen Cannon. Mark, Paula and Colleen opted to sleep in this year, but three-time Olympic 1500-meter runner Steve Scott, two-time Ironman champ Scott Tinley and triathlon sprint distance star Brooks Clark didn’t.
Tinley would be teaming up with Steve Scott. Regulars at Babbitt’s event for years, the two are sage ride-and-tiers, though, truth is, experience doesn’t matter much when you can run like a gazelle. At his first ride-and-tie, Scott–who has run a 3:47 mile–started on foot. His partner never caught him. Scott ran the entire canyon and still finished first.
This year’s ride-and-tie also attracted an annoying number of perky folk with exquisitely sculpted calves and the body fat of bamboo. I had few illusions about our team’s chances. But, as Rick pointed out, we did have one thing going for us.
“We can cheat,” he said.
True. If Babbitt’s event is distinguished by one thing, it’s a paucity of rules. I know this because just before the start I sat in Babbitt’s van while he jotted down the rules on a sheet of paper. This took less than a minute.
Finished with the rules, Babbitt donned a turkey outfit and went out to inspect the bikes. Here, too, the attention to detail was encouraging. Babbitt waddled over to a bike, perusing its outline with his beak. “Two wheels. That’s good,” he said. “Rollability is an important factor.”
Perhaps aware of my train of thought, Babbitt offered a last word on cheating. “I know there are a few crimes in every race,” he said, sadly shaking his beak. “I just don’t want to know who’s cheating.”
I agreed. Let those heinous folk suffer the barbs of their conscience.
Shortly after the race start, it became apparent that no amount of cheating would save Rick and me. Runners passed me right and left, which wouldn’t have bothered me had I not been riding the bike. Fine. Let them implode. I understood the importance of pacing.
Just short of the first mile, I dismounted and left the bike for Rick. I ran toward the section of trail I knew was rife with prize animals. Not anymore. A field that had once resembled the aftermath of a Toys R Us explosion was barren. Ransacked. Stripped bare. I scanned the scrub frantically. Surely these selfish oafs hadn’t taken everything. There! Off in the brush. A kindly yellow teddy bear, snout turned up in an eternal grin. A small prize, but still worth a 3-minute deduction. So what if it took me several minutes to wrench him from a sticker bush?
Finding only one animal was a setback, but hope lay ahead. One year someone suggested to Babbitt that a 13-mile event merited an aid station. Babbitt agreed, setting out a table of Spam and offering a 30-second discount for each downed piece. That first year, a local triathlete named Mark Montgomery pulled up a seat and gobbled everything on the table. Impressive, but hadn’t I once smothered pork chops in barbecue sauce, placed them in the oven, waited 40 minutes, then eaten three of them before realizing I hadn’t turned the oven on? Anyhow, before the race Rick had given me a primer on handling Spam.
“You take the Spam, stuff it in your mouth and then pfffffffffft,” said Rick, spraying imaginary Spam bits about the parking lot.
Unfortunately, Spam in the flesh is quite a bit uglier. Arriving at the table, I saw row upon row of gray hunks, square Spam soldiers cloaked in shields of fat, glistening in the sun. I even touched one, and it jiggled enticingly, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it.
“Spam?” asked the kindly fellow manning the table.
“Ummmmm. Maybe on the way back.”
Victory no longer meant so much.
Experienced ride-and-tiers move over a course with precision and beauty, their choreography a wonder to behold. The idea is to switch from run to bike often, maintaining a brisk pace and seamless momentum. Minor gaffes include leaving the bike at the foot of a hill. Major gaffes include running past your bike or riding past your partner without seeing him or her.
Rick had gone over these basics before the race, repeating them several times. Did I understand? I assured him I did–any dolt could master these simple details. Ten minutes into the race, Rick whipped past on the bike. “Never leave the bike at the bottom of a hill,” he said. Five minutes later, head down, browbeating myself for this transgression, I rode past Rick without seeing him.
In my defense, this wasn’t entirely my fault. It happened on a hill. Two paths headed up the hill. One was long and gradual. The other path was shorter but far steeper. Rick, on the run, took the short, steep path. Keen on conserving energy for a later push, I opted for the easier route. Later Rick would tell me that he stood at the top of the hill and shouted down to me, but if he did, I didn’t hear him. We passed like two ships in the night, a sad thought, especially for Rick, who was now in for a long run. I dropped down the hill’s backside and plowed off down the trail, certain my partner was ahead of me.
After 5 minutes of riding and no sign of Rick, my confidence began to waver. Rick was a swift runner, and my cycling skills are somewhat wanting, but even a 10-year-old with playing cards clacking in his spokes can outpace most runners. I knew I should have caught Rick by now. Still, I wasn’t sure he was behind me. If he was up ahead, and I got off the bike before catching him, we’d both be on foot, a foolish risk I knew wasn’t worth taking. One of us needed to stay on the bike.
I wasn’t the only one forced to make this difficult decision. Several minutes later, negotiating a narrow section of trail, I brushed past a runner. He was sweaty, angry and tired.
“Where is that idiot?” he muttered, shooting me a poisonous look.
Apparently he expected me to have a telepathic bond with my fellow idiots. I smiled back. Bad luck. I found his sourpuss attitude unseemly. I was sure Rick was holding up much better. At least, I hoped he was. By now I knew he was behind me. Having made the turnaround, the leaders were coming back down the trail. Steve Scott and Scott Tinley whipped past, followed by a conga line of svelte folk moving so fast they looked like they were fleeing a Bee Gees revival.
Rick and I hooked up shortly after I made the turnaround. Rick was surprisingly chipper considering he’d run most of the first 6 miles. “I wondered when I’d see you,” he beamed, interrupting my run-on belch of apologies and excuses.
Still, you couldn’t miss the note of relief and the way he eyed the bike hungrily. I offered to dismount on the spot, but Rick demurred. “Ride on up ahead a little bit,” he said. “We’ll switch up there.”
I began to protest. Surely he wasn’t going to run to the turnaround and back, a distance of at least half a mile? He wasn’t. Rick turned on the spot.
Way back to home
On the return trip we moved, if not with flawless synchronization, at least a bit less like Laurel and Hardy. We switched every minute or so. Rick would later say this was so we could go faster. “At the end you really want to be going for it,” he told me, “running as hard as you can and getting on the bike only long enough to loosen up.”
I suspect he didn’t want to let me out of his sight. Cutting the course short had put us right back in the thick of things, and over the final miles we warred with several teams. We even ran away from some of them, a tribute to Rick’s conditioning and the fact that the only thing holding me back were saddle sores.
We crossed the finish hand in hand–Rick astride the bike, me on the run. Rick sat down in the shade. He claimed to be fine, but I thought he looked a bit flushed. A few yards away, people were tallying up time deductions, though the race had already been decided. Tinley and Scott had finished first but were upset by Mark Montgomery and partner Paul Lundgren, mostly because Montgomery had once again inhaled a regiment’s worth of Spam. I considered walking over to present Teddy for our own time discount but changed my mind. Instead I sat him softly in a pile of his fellow animals, battered and soiled but still smiling cheerily.
Later Rick, too, would smile, assuring me that my performance had been credible. “It takes awhile to understand the complexities of the event,” he said. “You just made a few standard rookie mistakes. I thought you did pretty well. I really did.”
He even said something about teaming up again, though I attribute this more to his good nature and the warm buzz of camaraderie that follows shared effort. Given time to cool, I suspect he’d sooner gobble down a tableload of Spam.
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