When Missoula mountain biker Bill Martin first unveiled his plan to ride Sheep Mountain, his friends decided he had reached another level of insanity—not that this was any big surprise. Everyone who follows @boneshakerbike on Twitter is familiar with his 140-character tales of whoa: blizzard-condition 80-mile rides, accidental SOS calls in the wee hours, waking up next to his bike along a trail with 50 miles of riding left. When you're a 44-year-old world-class endurance athlete, monomania and masochism are just part of the job description. There's always another trail to conquer, risk to take or harrowing experiment in seeing what your body can bounce back from. Torturing himself on two wheels is what Bill Martin does for fun, even—especially—when it doesn't seem like fun at all. "Suffering brings you somewhere," he says. "It brings you to a different place."
"Sheep" is Missoula's hallmark epic ride, a 27-mile counter-clockwise loop that takes you to the highest point in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, with some 5,000 feet of elevation gain through rocky, steep and somewhat technical terrain, including a barely maintained trail overlaid with beargrass. It's a good day's ride, and one that every hardcore MTBer in Missoula's probably done. Martin planned to do it as part of the 2010 RMVQ, which is his personal all-day-all-night tour around Missoula's highest peaks, something he began doing in 2008 after the death of his beloved hiking buddy Marcy, a cocker spaniel mix (RMVQ stands for Remember Marcy Vision Quest). No one has ever actually finished an RMVQ except for Martin—a handful of his friends take on a leg or two or three, some with hours of resting in between, others going just until they drop.
At the first RMVQ in 2008, Martin rode 153 miles in a little more than 21 hours; the two "second-place" finishers completed 73 miles in 13 hours.
"Sheep" in and of itself is a challenge. But to do one of Missoula's toughest rides as just a sliver of a 21- or 22-hour pedal, with 25,665 collective feet of climbing?
Before anyone had a chance to talk him out of it, they found out there was more to Martin's beta.
"He says, 'I'm also doing it at night,'" recalls Ed Stalling, a friend and fellow mountain biker. "And then he adds, 'I'm gonna do it backwards.'"
Meaning—no, he's not that crazy—clockwise, which makes for steeper steeps, at least another thousand feet of elevation gain, and a gnarlier, more hazardous descent. In the dark. With nine hours and 72 miles already wreaking havoc on his body. Alone. Because even the people who ride with Martin don't often ride with Martin. He'll sometimes get in "team mode" (i.e., just for fun/camraderie) versus, as he puts it, "that place I need to go to talk to my demons," but not often.
When another friend and local rider heard about Martin's plan, he expressed his skepticism thusly: "Somebody's gonna die."
Martin is lean and unimposing, a genial, boyish, self-deprecating software engineer by day (for Missoula's Univision Computer) whose one-word self-description is not "athlete," "racer" or "champion," but rather, "doofus." As a redhead, Martin bears a slight resemblance to Archie from the comic books, but put him on a bike and he turns into Moose combined with Reggie.
"On the exterior, he's the kind of guy you could go out for a weekend riding trip with anytime," says Colorado racer Ben Welnak, who went head to head with Martin in the November 2010 season-ending "25 Hours in Frog Hollow" race in Hurricane, Utah. "Behind the exterior, he's a fierce competitor who not only wants to win, but would be content with ripping your legs off and beating you with them."
He's suffered for that fire. A Montana native—"Born in Roundup, raised in Roundup, graduated in Roundup. Left Roundup," he says of the little town north of Billings—Martin never knew his father growing up. His mother raised him on her own until she met the man he still calls dad, who made his living as a logger. One day the family joined their father in the woods, and 12-year-old Martin darted off to get his Mom a Kleenex from the car, right as his father felled a tree into his path.
Martin tells this story with the same affectless nonchalance he brings to conversations about biking mishaps. "I had a tree fall on my head once. It put me in a coma for a year or so," he says. When you've had a branch barrel right into your skull, what's 100 miles of riding without solid food, or your 13th "slight" concussion? All Martin remembers from the logging accident is waking in the hospital, agitated by the sound of crying from a patient in the next bed. He'd missed the whole 6th grade.
Physical therapy taught him to walk again, and then he says, "I just progressed into walking so fast that I became a fast runner. I just kept going. Like Forrest. Just kept going." He ran cross-country and long distances through high school, racking up the miles and the medals. After graduation, he bounced from town to town (Casper, Spokane, Salt Lake City) and job to job (power washer in the mines, door-to-door salesman, grocery store clerk). He also put in one semester at what was then Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University-Billings), and was married long enough to have a daughter and recreate his family history.
"She was maybe six months old and I was gone, and her mother wasn't good at keeping in touch," he says, aware of (and not untroubled by) the parallels with his own absent father. "They moved around a lot, and I moved to the East Coast."