I wonder which will happen first: will I get bitten by a poisonous snake or eaten by a jaguar? This is the question I ponder as I push my bike through rugged jungle singletrack in the lush Mantiqueira Mountains of Brazil. It is night, pitch black and I have no light. Despite the fact that I’m participating in a duathlon race, I am alone. The leaders disappeared ahead of me long ago and the slowpokes are well behind me. I have tripped, toppled, and slid to the jungle floor too many times to count. The trail finally turned to a style of riding that suits me, technical and downhill, and I’m walking, unable to see three feet in front of me.
Four thousand vertical feet below me my headlamp sits atop my duathlon partner’s head. I left it with Gustavo because he didn’t have one and I was assured that I would be done well before dark. Going against my instincts and the clock, I trusted the race organizers and jumped in with both feet. When in Rome… Then again, this was Brazil.
I suffered up the four thousand feet, legs seizing up a few times in the process. As I watched other competitors, men and women, pass me on this excruciating climb, I told my ego that the downhill portion was going to be my redemption. Now, I’m just hoping to not have to pull a snake’s clenched fangs out of my leg, or find myself the protagonist in a future episode of I Survived.
Three quarters of the way up the mountain I knew I was in trouble. The sun was getting low on the horizon and I was nowhere near finished with my portion of the race. I struggled onward and upward knowing things were about to get interesting.
As I crested the mountain, the western sky turned crimson while its eastern counterpart began to showcase its brightest stars. This was the most magnificent sunset I have ever witnessed and I kept my eyes glued to it trying to absorb every detail. The warm glow of the sun a thing of the past, the temperature immediately dropped below freezing.
Within minutes I was engulfed by darkness and the trail went from open fire road to dense jungle. Riding was impossible, as the last glimpse of anything resembling light vanished. I breathed deeply, dismounted my bike and accepted the fact that I would be in for a long, cold night.
Now, I inch forward. I have no clue how long I’ve been out here, maybe 30 minutes, maybe 3 hours. A glimpse of a light breaks the darkness from ahead and I sarcastically talk to myself. “Please tell me that is a person and not a jaguar’s ghost.” It isn’t a person, it’s people. A group of three racers come crashing forward, following a woman’s single blinking red light. In my thick accented Portuguese I ask if I can join them. They happily bring me into their battered band.
Like stop animation, flashes of pain and perseverance blink alive, the red strobe leading our way. We work as a team passing bikes over fallen trees and giving hands on slippery slopes. Time passes, and we eventually stumble out, reaching a treacherously rain rutted dirt road.
Now out of the jungle, the moon provides enough light for us to hop aboard our bikes and work the rest of the way down. We give each other a nod of respect and it is back to every man and woman for themselves.
Thirty minutes later my tires roll onto asphalt. I’m back onto the main street headed toward Gustavo where he awaits my arrival, and the start of his adventure. I cruise through the finish line under a spectacular moon. Gustavo and I give a quick hug. He tells me that as far a racing goes, we are somewhere in the middle, closer to the front than the rear. And, with that he is off to have his own race experience, a long dark trail run. I stand and watch my headlamp disappear into the night.
The hot chocolate I drink brings warmth while my beaten body rests on a rock wall. Once a participant, now a spectator, I watch other riders celebrate and tell stories with their friends and families. A band plays music and the notes drift into the night air, setting the festive mood. Though I am alone, I feel part of something bigger. The mountains have brought us all together, a great equalizer, they wash away our differences and what remains is community.
The lead runners begin to trickle in. It won’t be too much longer till Gustavo is back and I periodically watch for my headlamp to come bopping down main street. I can’t help but think of what a great experience this has been. It falls squarely in the category of it doesn’t have to be fun, to be fun.