I Survived 12 Miles of Hell

In my quest to do something of importance before turning forty-four, I decided to enter a mountain bike race. But this wasn’t just any mountain bike race. I could have signed up for a beginner’s trail tour or a family-oriented ride-a-thon around a lake. No, those would not do. If you are like me and you crave speed and danger, then only a race named “12 miles of Hell” will do.

This was the twentieth running of the “12 Miles of Hell” race. Out of tradition they call the race twelve miles, but each year the course is different and total mileage varies. This year’s course was actually seventeen and half miles. I think the race promoters missed a marketing opportunity by not promoting the race as “12 Miles of Hell – Now with 50% More Hell!”

The course is located in the Wichita Mountains, on base at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Expert rider and this year’s winner, Steve Tilford, calls this course “extreme and difficult.” He describes the terrain as “nearly all rock–loose rock, solid rock, sharp rock. Pretty much just rock. The climbs are steep, loose, super technical,” said Tilford.

This is obviously not a race for a beginner. I fully understood that and signed the waiver, but I have years of riding experience and have ridden hundreds, maybe even a thousand miles of trail. Unfortunately, all that experience was in the 90s. So, I had some getting in shape to do. I started this past Christmas. I bought a new bicycle and headed out to the trails. I spent hours honing my skills, increasing my endurance and getting reacquainted with wearing form-fitting Lycra.

I really like mountain biking. I like being deep in the woods. You see a lot on a mountain bike; you are part of the scenery. You actively interact with it, and if you don’t watch out for trees, sometimes you forcefully interact with it. That’s the risk part. There is something inherently thrilling to me about cheating danger. Mountain biking is one of the few sports that reward your expertise by not hurting you. I’ve had my share of bloodied, strained and bruised body parts – even two dislocated shoulders. But when the thrill of speed and risk call – I ride!

And don’t even get me started on the cool gear. Aluminum framed bicycles with front and rear air suspensions, lightweight helmets, backpacks with hydration systems. It’s a gadget guru’s heaven.

Even with all my riding, I never competed in a race before, so I thought it best to get there early, set up and check my gear. My race support team (wife, Sandy) helped with some last minute fashion choices then went off to take pictures. I was hoping she would say something like, “I await your triumphant return!” But I had to settle for, “Let’s go to Outback on the way home. If you get hurt, I can drive.” She obviously had total faith in me – or she didn’t fully understand my quest.

A Fort Sill military cannon signaled the start of the race and then—nothing. It took nearly a minute for the riders in front of me to start moving. In the distance I could already see racers heading up the first hill. Finally, the crowd of riders around me began to surge forward. I clipped into my pedals and was officially on my way.

Hill climb, after hill climb, after hill climb morphed my race strategy into a simple survival plan. Ride up the hill as far as I can. Dismount. Push bike up the rest of the hill. Catch my breathe at top of the hill. See the next hill. Careen dangerously downhill. Repeat.

When I used to ride years ago, my motto was “If you aren’t falling, you aren’t going fast enough.” Age and the stark reality of this course modified my motto to a more practical, “If I am not falling, I am not getting hurt.”

I saw riders get sick, flip over their front wheels, ride into trees, bushes, boulders and each other. I met a rider who was in his sixties. I met a guy who only competes in this race and then stores his bike until next year’s race. I met unicyclists and I met a ten-year-old rider who seemed like he would rather have been playing Halo. You meet a lot of people when you have to stop frequently and concentrate solely on sucking air into your lungs.

Somewhere, after several hours of hill climbs and descents, comes what riders like to call the “Kevinator.” From what I understand, the Kevinator was named after a local rider named Kevin, who was afraid to go down this part of the trail. And with good reason. The Kevinator is the most challenging decent of the course. It’s where spectators, photographers and first aid emergency workers congregate (all for one reason, but for different purposes).

The initial drop is so treacherous that the following seventy-five feet of nearly impassible, pointy-sharp rocks seem “not so bad.” As I approached the crest of the Kevinator my first thought was, “Golf—if I enjoyed golf, I would not be here.” Then, rolling forward, down the hill, with photographers snapping and EMS workers poised, I managed to beat the odds and bounce down the Kevinator without dismounting, flying over my handlebars, weeping uncontrollably or wetting my Lycra.

As the day rolled on, I churned out the miles. At one point, I found myself riding for nearly a mile by myself. I wondered how a group of nearly 700 riders could thin down to one person, alone, riding through the woods.

By mile sixteen my legs were beginning to cramp, and I had nearly exhausted my supply of Goo (the liquid equivalent of energy bars) and water. I began the final push for the finish. A few more hills and rocky passes and there it was—the finish line—and a mostly empty parking lot. The parking lot clued me that I had come nowhere near my projected goal of finishing in two and half hours. Nope, as I crossed the finish line and pulled in to get my certificate, I got the news that the course took me a humbling four hours and sixteen minutes.

Steve Tilford finished in one hour and twenty-eight minutes. He had his quest and I had mine – which I completed without incident, injury or even a flat tire. I had enough energy left for one thought: Wake me up when we get to Outback.

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