By Hal Walter
In 1989, after finishing my first Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon in Grants, New Mexico, I overheard something that still sticks in my mind. I had returned to the motel, showered, gone to a Mexican restaurant, washed down a plate of enchiladas with a couple bottles of Negra Modelo and staggered back to the finish area for the awards ceremony.
Near the finish line a woman and two children were waiting. The clock, at this point, was marching toward the seven-hour mark. “We’re going to have to be real nice to daddy when he finishes because he’s had a real hard day,” the woman told her children with a certain emphatic tone that implied pity for her husband, who had been doing battle with a 4,801-vertical-foot climb/descent and the four disciplines of cycling, running, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing for the better part of a full work day.
That was the first year I had traveled to Grants for “The Quad” — an event I’m sure is not so much named for its four disciplines as it is that particular chunk of flesh this race seems to render inoperative for weeks afterward. I was there on a whim with a borrowed bike I had never ridden and absolutely no idea of what I was getting myself into.
This race begins in downtown Grants with a 13-mile, 1,800-vertical-foot bicycle grind. From there, entrants must run about five miles and 1,200 more vertical feet in the upward direction before donning cross-country skis and a backpack containing snowshoes. A couple of miles and 1,300 feet higher, skiers switch to snowshoes for the one-mile, 601-vertical-foot grunt up the face to the 11,301-foot summit of Mount Taylor, an extinct volcano, highest point in western New Mexico and legendary home to an ancient Indian god who I am certain is mightily irked about having so many white people in Lycra trod up and down his frosty visage.
From the top of the mountain, you snowshoe back to your skis, navigate the biff-defying four-mile downhill cross-country ski course, run the five miles back to your bike and then pedal back to the finish line. It’s a full day’s work, but top competitors have whittled the thing down to less than four hours.
Choose your weapons, choose your style — there are many ways to discover the true meaning of humility in this race. That first year I rode a real low-tech monster made of steel, weighing nearly 30 pounds and bogged down with training tires and Mr. Tuffys. A buddy of mine, Russel Bollig, loaned it to me. I also applied a borrowed pair of split climbing skins along the outside edge of my skating skis. Another friend of mine who had done The Quad before suggested this, saying that I would be able to climb straight up the steeper hills and skate on the inside edge of the flatter sections of trail. For the downhill ski, I could peel the skins completely off.
Believe me, none of these innovations helped my effort at all. But I did somehow manage a ninth place the first time out — not good enough to win one of the beautiful silver pottery Nambé medals, but good enough that I began shopping for a decent road bike for the next year.
I finally decided upon an aluminum-frame pony about two weeks before the race. I even rode it once beforehand. Also, I realized that full-length mountaineering climbing skins on skating skis are the best way to survive the uphill ski leg and can still be peeled off for a fast descent.
I really don’t love bicycles or any of the trappings that go along with them. Most cyclists I know spend more time tweaking their machines than riding them. Also, there is the vagary of the flat tire. I decided right away to continue the Mr. Tuffy tradition and had them installed before even taking the bike from the shop, where the mechanic looked at me askance for even suggesting tampering with the purity of a racing bicycle. He spake of extra rolling resistance, rotating weight and other bicycle geekisms that I knew wouldn’t mean jack diddly to someone squatting by the side of the road and changing a tube on the last leg of The Quad.
That year, my second at the quad, I had a great race going, until I pulled into the final transition, where volunteers could not find my new bicycle. I looked out over the sea of bikes and wondered where it could possibly be hidden. I ran with the volunteers up and down the rows of bikes, looking for my number. Bikes, bikes, bikes. Close to 500 of them. This was not quite as much fun as the Easter egg hunts I remember from my childhood. One volunteer finally asked, “What color is your bike?”
“Black,” I responded, realizing that my own aura was taking on that very same tint.
“Here! It’s over here,” someone shouted from two rows away. I ran up one row and half way down another, mounted my trusty steed and pedaled it on back to the finish line for 10th place, a few places worse than I would have been had my bicycle not been misplaced.
Year three. While traveling from Colorado to the race, I came down with a killer cold the first night away from home in a Taos bed and breakfast where the entire population of Texas had booked rooms for Presidents’ Day weekend. The Lone Star touristas kept me up nearly all night long with their partying and then woke me up altogether too early in the morning by playing TV news reports of Saddam Hussein’s impending surrender at high decibels.
Well Saddam did not surrender that day, and neither did my cold. Neither did I. The next day I showed up at the starting line in Grants and blew a lot of snot all over the course en route to a 15th place finish. I spent the following week in bed.
I went to the Mount Taylor Quad the fourth year with no expectations, other than that some way, somehow, something would go wrong.
I was so right.
Off the bike in 30th place, I worked myself into the top ten on the uphill ski, then skated into fourth place overall at the end of the downhill ski where the third-place guy was still in the transition area changing his shoes. At last, things seemed to be going right. As I pulled off my ski boots, a volunteer emptied the plastic sack that should have contained my running shoes. Instead, it contained only one of my running shoes — and another shoe of unknown origin and a most gauche color combination. I busied myself with cursing and throwing ski equipment around in a fit of very unsportsmanlike rage that I vowed never to repeat, even in The Quad.
Meanwhile, the volunteer, not unlike a chicken minus its head, ran in circles. He ripped open bag after bag. Four other competitors came into the transition area and ran off. Still no shoe. Then it occurred to me to try on this shoe that had been supplied to me, apparently by some malignment of the planets or twist of fate.
So I took off with my own Adidas Torsion Response on the left and some other guy’s New Balance whatever on my right. Oddly enough, not only was this shoe a right-footer and my size, but also its owner had prepared for the mud and ice by studding the bottom with hex-head sheet metal screws — just as I had my own shoes. This poor chap, by the way, was only a few places back and went through the same nightmare before deciding to run in my shoe. I finished eighth that year.
The year 1993 marked my fifth consecutive appearance at the Mount Taylor Quadrathlon — a half-decade of some of the most humiliating disasters in my personal sporting history. Not to worry this time: Just about anything that could happen already had.
I was confident as — just like the year before — I jammed to the top of the mountain in eighth place, then picked up three more places on the downhill ski and run. As I got onto my bike, still fortified with Mr. Tuffys, I was in fifth place. I looked back uphill and could see nobody. I figured a four-minute lead would give me three miles on the next competitor, who I knew to be my old buddy Russel Bollig, who, besides being the guy whose bike got me into this mess in the first place, is a United States Cycling Federation Category II racer and just plain fast.
The moment was at hand and I was going over it all in my head while descending the winding mountain road. Top five overall. Finally, a medal in my age group. Much glory and sense of personal achievement. At last I had actualized my potential at The Quad.
Probably about the time Russel was mounting his bike, I hit something hard with my rear tire. Nothing is so deflating as winding to a full stop in front of a man with two young boys watching the race from the sunny side of the roadway and not being able to cuss in the presence of children. At least I didn’t crash.
“Quadammit,” I thought to myself. Then, in what has become an instinctive Quad response when bad luck strikes, I checked my watch so I would know just how much my lousy karma had cost me. It took only about three minutes to replace the tube. I jettisoned the Mr. Tuffy, figuring it would be slow to get back into the tire properly. Russel blew by, giving his regards: “I’m sorry, Hal.” Then I had problems with my pump and it took five more minutes to get the tire reinflated. Everyone I had worked so hard to pass throughout the duration of the race now seemed to be buzzing by.
“Can we help?” one of the boys asked as I fumbled with the pump.
“I wish you could, but it’s not allowed,” I responded with a snake-bitten grin. “You could do me a favor and throw this tube away.”
“Sure,” the other boy said.
Eight minutes and several places later, I was back on my bicycle, much wind having been taken out of my sails and much more wind — of the head variety — now in my face. My head wasn’t in this any more. My quads weren’t either. A couple more guys caught up to me and passed.
I finished 14th.
But even more memorable than this, my best effort — and next-to-worst placing — at the Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon, was what I could almost swear I heard the man with the two boys say just as I pedaled away: “Don’t feel bad, dude. I did this race once — it took me damn near 7 hours!”