It's been a week, how hasn't it gotten any better? By now you'd be acclimated had this been anywhere else, but this heat, this damn heat! Every inch of your skin is burning up, nothing is helping, nothing at all. From the corner of your eye you notice the local riders and other South Indians unphased, a regular day for them, but how? This heat should be dropping them to their knees as it has made you, but that's irrelevant, there are bigger matters at hand. 10 minutes to go.
The whistle blows as the officials call for a lineup. Amidst the dust and the heat was an atmosphere of tension blanketing the track and all those who were about to drop in. You stand in line. You've been to the nationals before yet no matter how many times you come here you are taken back by the sheer grit, determination, and guts of some of the riders. You swear that you saw a lunatic on a cross country bike going all out on the track, none of your friends back home believe you, but you know what you saw. 5 minutes to go.
Riders are dropping-in in 60s intervals, one pedal stroke, and into the valley, they disappear. This isn't like last year, you feel confident, far more comfortable on the bike, you even have developed your ride style and are proud of the progress you've made. The podium may seem far yet not out of reach, you strap your gloves, adjust your goggles and take a deep breath. 1 minute to go.
45 seconds to go.
Time isn't moving fast, time isn't moving at all. Your heartbeat is gaining speed and each breath gets sharper, shallower.
30 seconds to go.
The crowd is silent but you hear them screaming, you are on flat ground but it starts sloping, the sun hangs directly above you, and still you can barely see anything. You close your eyes.
20 seconds to go.
With eyes shut you can see your lines, they are clean, fast, smooth. You are ready. Each muscle fiber lets loose as the weight of the situation is lifted, relaxed, you open your eyes.
Wasn't that line on the gap jump the same as that kid who got hurt? Is he okay? We had to take him out of there on a makeshift stretcher, thank god for trained first responders...Is the ambulance here? Wait none of our health details are written anywhere! How will they know my blood type?
Stop thinking about that, time to send it! Easy breathing...
What was your line through the second rock garden again? It wasn't clean in any attempt and now I barely remember it.
I just heard a shriek! Aren't they going to stop the timer? that had to be a crash!
I'm not in the right gear! Oh no! I don't have time to fix it!
My foot came off the pedal! Oh God Oh God OH GOD!
The timer starts and you grind on the pedals. The crowd roars! You aren't flying out of the gate as you expected, this is already a bad start you think to yourself. The bike drags itself into motion as you enter the track. A sea of rocks, off-camber loose sections, and a beating on the arms awaits your entry, another sacrifice from those high above. Tunnel vision sets in as you navigate the sea.
A high line here, a low line there, skip this rock, enter the chatter, bam bam bam, good! Next section! What seems to be a bunch of discontinuous obstacles seem to coalesce into a symphony. The ebb and flow of your bike, a rollercoaster firmly on its rails, the chatter of rocks beneath you, a melody.
You exit the first section, staring down the first gap jump, you approach, all guns blazing, and just like that...you were past it. much ado about nothing you repeat to yourself. the panic you feel settles.
Your ship, your rocketship, your other half in this symphony gets ambitious, she knows that you can go faster, she knows what's best for you. The chatter beneath you quickens. Time to put your worth to the test!
Exiting the top section, you gap the compression, slam on the pedals and let the bike do her thing through the right-hander approaching the second gap. Intimidating. Ominous. Big, and getting bigge- ...You cleared it and were on your merry way. There was something about this lap that didn't quite make sense but you couldn't put your finger on it, doesn't matter, onwards to the rock garden!
Swishing and swaying, jumping and pumping, you navigate your way down the tight singletrack with ever-increasing speed. Headlong you charge into the rock garden that has posed a threat to all participants as a race ender, a deal-breaker.
The rock garden has two distinct lines, a high line requiring bang on accuracy and bullet-time reflexes, or a low line requiring the brute force of a bull whilst remaining light on the bike so as to not destroy your wheels. You approach. There are two options, choose one.
As you prepare to hit the low line and charge through, she makes a different decision, bumping a rock, bouncing you into the high line. I guess we're doing that now you exclaim. One rock, two rocks, three rocks, all clear! You jump from the high line down into a perfect opening on the low and push on. the force on your pedals gets stronger and harder with every passing moment, you can see the crowd at the finish line, the light hitting the bikes laying beside the trail shimmers with an ethereal glow as once again, time slows to a crawl.
I'm at the nationals, despite all the hardships I faced to get here, I am here. Waking up to posters of my favorite idols felt amazing! Am I the next rider to be idolized by some kid with big dreams? Can I be the next national champion? Is that my name I hear them chant? Only one way to know for sure.
The race is almost done and you are approaching the finish line but it isn't over yet. What can only be called a superhuman display of force takes over. You hop the final few rocks pedaling as you do, hitting the ground and blasting across the straightaway, a plume of dust remains where you once were a mere millisecond ago. Wincing. Whining. Wheezing. A sharp shriek leaves your body as the finish line and everything in close proximity is left under a fresh coat of dust. It's silent, you look around, very little energy is left in you to do much more than that, then, a thud. It's dark, you can feel the soft grass you seem to have fallen on, nothing hurts. You lie there, just a couple of moments you say.
Light pierces through closed eyes. Regaining consciousness, you slowly open them. A crowd of spectators, riders, race officials, and flies have surrounded you like vultures around fresh meat.
"Hey dude, you there?"
The crowd erupts with glorious fanfare, you hear music, hollering, and cheer.
"What's happening?" still half-dead you inquire.
"Oh yeah! Well, for firsts, you're alive, and for the second, What's up National Champ?" says rider 362, a loud kid with an ever-changing accent.
Still low on energy, you crack a smile and giggle. You've done it! Sometimes dreams do come true!
Maybe it was luck, maybe skill, perhaps a bit of both. You sit up. The paramedic comes to do a quick test and sends you on your way. As you walk slowly to the car, tired, happy, and very much craving a beer and some good food, you think to yourself;
"Maybe I should try Cross Country next time."