Back in 2019 a friend of mine asked me to do a Mountain Bike race with him. Specifically, he asked me to do a really, really, really (yes - three reallys) hard race known as The Cape Epic. “The Cape” as it’s known among enthusiasts is the granddaddy of all Cross Country (XC) Mountain Bike races.
A typical Cape Epic is raced for 8 days, covers 400+ miles, and climbs over 50,000 feet - all in the scorching South African heat. Part of my friend’s expert sales pitch was that he nearly died on Stage One of the 2019 edition of the race. Now, that’s some solid salesmanship.
Another element of his pitch was that the Cape Epic is part of the “Epic Series” of races that includes multi-day mountain bike races in Switzerland, Croatia, and Andorra. If you successfully complete three of these races the organizers give you the illustrious title of “Epic Legend.” “Wouldn’t that be cool?” He added. Writers Note: As of the typing of this email, there are only 207 Epic Legends on the planet.
“Let me get the math on this sorted out,” I replied. “If I join you on this ridiculous adventure, I'll have the opportunity to risk life and limb for 18 days, across 800 miles while hauling me and my bike up and over 110,000+ feet of climbing on 2 different continents. And, if I do all that, I get a fancy medal that says Epic Legend on it…do I have this right?” “Oh yeeaah!!,” he said excitedly.
“You, my friend, have lost your mind.“
Not only did I not like the idea of potentially ending my time on earth, I was also in the worst shape of my life and quite busy in my personal life (wife, 2 kids) and professional life (CEO of ROAD iD).
Over the next year, my friend (we’ll call him James…because that’s his name) kept nagging me about the Epic Series. These events are raced in teams of two - and James needed a partner. Desperate and out of options, I’m pretty sure I was his last resort.
Worn out by his continued puppy-dog-style groveling (and feeling quite sorry for him), I finally relented - “Okay, okay - let’s give it a go.” That was it. Within an hour, he signed us up for the Cape Epic. Time to prepare…
Step One: Learn how to ride a mountain bike.
I’m serious. Prior to agreeing to this insane endeavor, I didn’t even own a Mountain Bike - much less know how to ride one competently. On my very first training ride, I sailed over the handlebars at a considerable rate of speed. It hurt. Then, we started climbing. That hurt too. I crashed again. It hurt again. I climbed some more. It hurt some more. There’s a theme here…you picking up on it?
As time went on, I got a bit faster, a bit skinnier, and became a bit better at handling my mountain bike. The training, however, never got any easier. There’s a common saying in bike racing: It NEVER gets easier, you just get faster. I think a similar philosophy can be applied to many things in life. I digress.
Just as my form was taking shape, Covid canceled events all over the world - including the 2021 Cape Epic.
Determined to put our form and fitness to use, we decided to race the first Epic Series event that was brought back post-covid. That happened to be the 2021 edition of the Swiss Epic.
After 5 days, 216 miles, and 41,667 feet of racing at altitudes above 6000 ft, I was exhausted, bloodied, and bruised.
I was also elated and swelling with a sense of pride and accomplishment. I was hooked.
When I first agreed to do an Epic Series race with James, I had zero intention of participating in more than one of these events. My plan was to “check the box,” and get James to stop nagging me.
Later that year, we raced the Cape Epic (8 days, 407 miles, 50,853 feet of climbing). We followed that up by racing the Swiss Epic again in 2022 (5 days, 223 miles, 38,386 feet of climbing).
Then, we set our sights on the April, 2023 edition of the 4 Islands race in Croatia.
When I first started this adventure, the idea of earning the designation of “Epic Legend” seemed very, very far-fetched. Over time, however, I became intrigued and quietly decided to give it a go. A successful completion of the 4 Islands race would also earn me the Epic Legends medal.
Finishing this feat would not be easy. The course in Croatia is uniquely challenging because of its extremely rocky terrain. The event’s tagline “Conquer The Rocks” is perfectly suited to their mountain bike trails. In some places, it’s so rocky that downhill sections actually feel like you are going uphill - the rock is so loose that you have to pedal hard going downhill just to avoid crashing.
In these multi-day races, I typically have one really rough day. In Croatia, that day was Stage One. On paper, the day didn’t seem that tough. On race day, it nearly broke me. After several hours in the saddle and some epically challenging climbs the trail tipped upward at a slope that seemed unfathomable. These super steep, impossible-to-ride bits of trail are affectionately known as “hike a bike” sections.
By the time we approached the final hike-a-bike section, I was completely toast. Shattered. Exhausted. Spent. My awkward breathing and groans of suffering sounded almost non-human. Getting off my bike to push it up a nearly un-hikeable section of trail felt insulting in a medieval tortuous way. I truly questioned whether or not I could make it to the top.
LIFE LESSONS - THE PAYOFF
I could fill many pages with the lessons that I’ve learned from participating in these Epic events. I could go on for hours about: the value of competition, pushing limits, forging friendships across the globe, personal sacrifice (for me, my family, the gang at work), teamwork, physical preparation, coaching, support networks, mental strength and proper selection of gear.
My biggest takeaway, however, is the value of perseverance - the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.
I made it to the finish line that day. After a bit of recovery, James filmed this impromptu video…
I consider myself extremely blessed to have been able to compete in these events. During this journey I also rediscovered my love of racing bikes, learned how to ride a mountain bike, shed 30 pounds, and began to live a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle.
I’ve also had a ton of fun, mixed it up with some amazing mountain bike racers from around the globe, forged new friendships, smiled a lot, tested my limits, suffered, had a few gnarly crashes, learned about new places/cultures/people, won the elusive “best dressed” award, finished as high as 18th place, and created memories that will last a lifetime.
I also realize that none of this would have been possible without a great support system. I'm massively appreciative to my wife, my two boys, and the rest of my family. I'm also beyond grateful to the team at ROAD iD for creating the opportunity to do these things. I'm extremely thankful to my coaches…and to James for coaxing me off the couch and onto a mountain bike.
In closing, I’d simply like to say that, for me, bike racing has been a good metaphor for life. Mountain biking, like life, can get really hard at times. I’ve discovered that most of the good and worthwhile things in life tend to be hard at times. When things get hard, we can either give up…or choose to put one foot in front of the other.
BEFORE YOU GO
I want to hear from you. Reply to this email and tell me about a challenge that you conquered. How did it make you feel? What did you learn from it? I can’t wait to hear your story.
Here’s to putting one foot in front of the other,
P.S. Here’s a video that gives you a small glimpse into the 4 Islands experience.
P.P.S. In case you’re wondering. I earned that “Epic Legends” medal (medal # 165 of 207). Here’s proof…