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."
He landed in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and worked in a carpet factory that laid him off every summer, which gave him time to kill and put him on a bike. His first one was a Huffy, which folded in a ditch almost immediately. Then he fell in love with his first Trek and started racing. Too broke to own a car, he became known as the guy who got to and from races on his bike, even when they took place 60 or 100 miles away.
Between 1992 and 2001 he won 45 cycling races around New England at the expert, elite and semi-pro levels, spending part of that time as sponsored racer on the K2 Factory Team. Then he stopped, in large part because his racing success made him confident enough to take another shot at college. When SUNY-Plattsburgh told him he had to pick a major, Martin recalls, "I was like, 'Well, if I had a job where I could just sit around all day, I could train and recover.' So they put me down for computer science." He now wishes he had chosen photography, or perhaps nutrition and exercise physiology, since he has a certain expertise in those fields. "I think I like that more than the race itself," he says. "Preparing the body for battle."
In 2006, Martin moved back to Montana, this time to Missoula. He fell in with Missoula's "Thursday Night Ride" mountain biking group and started doing cross-country and cyclocross races. When he won the rugged Butte 100 for the second time on August 10, 2008, organizer Bob Waggoner made sure he realized that this made him an automatic qualifier for the 24 Hours of Adrenaline Solo World Championship in Canmore, Alberta. The July 2009 race would draw more than 1,400 competitors to Canada from around the globe.
"I was like, 'right,'" Martin says. He'd done several 24-hour rides during his Plattsburgh days, largely of his own devising. But to go from that to organized 24-hour racing, and at the very highest level, would be like going from throwing a baseball in the backyard while pretending it's the bottom of the ninth in the World Series, to pitching in the actual World Series. "I knew how much pain it was," Martin says. "I was like, 'I don't want to go there!'
"And then my dog died."
It happened after the first 8 Hours of Labor race on August 31 at Homestake Lodge outside of Butte. After Martin won with 13 laps, everybody gathered at their campsites and around the lodge, which has an outdoor staircase to the second floor. Marcy and some other dogs were playing on it when she took a freakish fall, and since it was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, no one could find an open vet's office. Martin got into his car and headed east, but pulled off near Anaconda when he saw that Marcy wouldn't make it. She died in his arms along I-90.
He was already toying with the idea of a lengthy ride around Missoula. Now it would be for Marcy. At each RMVQ, Martin tacks up photos of her, many of them shot at that very spot during hikes with her. One of the photos from the 2008 ride is still up at Snowbowl's A-Frame chalet two years later. Martin also brings her ashes to most races. At the 2010 8 Hours of Labor, Martin and his friend Sten Hertsens were on the trail together briefly when Martin pointed out, 'Oh, there's Marcy's bones!'"
The rides themselves inspire awe or angst. During the 2009 RMVQ, 53-year-old Ed Stalling couldn't ride because of broken ribs—suffered while riding with Martin on Sheep Mountain—then got lost driving up a logging road while trying to meet Martin for a 3 a.m. support stop. Knowing Martin would just keep riding if nobody was there, Stalling fretted that his friend would bonk without refills of water, Carbo Rocket and, if he could take in solid food, a camp-stove-steamed Marie Callender pot pie (1,000 calories!).
Meanwhile, Martin could see headlights as he pedaled up the ridge. "I'm thinking, 'Oh no! That's Ed. He's gonna run out of gas and die!'" Martin remembers. He imagined the worst: "The first person to die in an RMVQ was the guy in the car!"
Stalling did eventually catch Martin, but three hours later, the solo rider hadn't checked in with another text or tweet. His friends started to panic; Stalling, a former search and rescue worker in Alaska, was ready to call S-and-R in Montana.
Of course, Martin turned up at the next pre-arranged aid station ahead of schedule, unaware that anyone was ever worried.
The next year, Stalling was one of three riders who joined a regretful Martin for "Sheep Backwards" in the 2010 RMVQ, albeit two hours behind him.
"That is so dangerous," Martin said when he rolled into the parking lot at Lincoln Hills after 10 p.m. He looked shaken. "If I broke a bone up there I'd be dead. I feel bad, like I misled people. They shouldn't do it."
They did (with lots of portage on the hairy parts). "He's inspired me to do things I would have never done," says Stalling. "He pulls and inspires us to do our own personal best."
If Martin ever doubts it, finishing a 24-hour race like the RMVQ reminds him he's a natural—a hallucinating, tunnel-visioned, physically wrecked natural—at surviving on a bike for one full day. "It's like an entire lifetime in 24 hours," he says. "You start out, you go through all these tremendous challenges, overcome a lot of obstacles and discover a lot of things. Self-discovery is a bigger motivator than competition. Because a lot of shit happens in 24 hours. Your body's releasing melatonin and you start to dream while you're awake."
Sometimes the intensity brings him to tears. More than a few times, he's found himself asleep next to the bike. "He would go out on a lap and literally pass out in the woods," says Rich Shattuck, who joined Bob Waggoner and Hertsens on the pit crew at the Worlds in Canmore in 2009. It's the only 24-hour event Martin hasn't finished first in. But to come in as a virtual newbie against the entire world, instead of just the smaller fields of mostly local races, and finish 6th (and second among all Americans), was no small thing.
"I swear, he was out of his mind for like 14 hours," says Hertsens. "The guy can just turn himself inside out. When we saw him at the last aid station, we were in tears. Because it was just like, God. What an achievement. The sacrifice, and the suffering." During pit stops, they could barely get him to take in some calories or give himself a breather. All he cared about was his position in the race.
"The accumulated suffering of my whole life doesn't seem to hold a candle to what I saw him go through that night," says Shattuck. "He was a shell of a person."
Which is something Martin finds quite liberating. "Everybody's trying to get so comfortable," he says. "But change never comes about in comfort. It only comes about when you go through pain."
And that still beats the pain of actual life. Even in his Plattsburgh days, Martin pedaled to get over a bad break-up, as well as that failed marriage. "Oh shit, he brought his demons," rival racers would say.
"You're racing, and you're going hard, and you're like, well, this doesn't hurt as bad as getting your heart broken, so you go harder," Martin says. "The bike heals." For him that includes not just romantic heartbreaks, and the loss of Marcy, but the way he still senses his parents' guilt over the logging accident, his own guilt at the financial burden that it put on them, the absence of his birth father (whose new wife sends a Christmas card each year) and his own estrangement from his daughter.
"I know where she lives and I can see her Facebook page, but I have to wait for her to contact me," he says. "It's what my ex-wife suggests."
Martin's demons are both extraordinary and completely ordinary. Most great athletes (or artists) have them. There's always something just a little off from "normal" life in those who do great things, an unsettling intensity and ability to live with pain. They are inspiring, not just for their actual achievements, but because they're willing to take on the dark stuff many of us won't. Martin is unusually self-aware about this. It's certainly occurred to him that if he ever soothes his soul, it might affect his cycling. It's not just the racing, but also the training that gives him purpose, and a challenge, and control.
"It gives you something to work on every day," says Adventure Cyclist deputy editor Jill Homer, another one of Martin's riding friends. "Whereas if you have a career or lose your job or a relationship fails, that really throws everything into flux."
"I don't have anything else," says Martin. "That's what I do. It's my mistress." But, he says, he's lonely, and could imagine slowing down for someone (though he'd rather it be someone who could actually keep up). "I don't need any more wins," he says. (With no sponsor and a day job, he couldn't give the World Championship another shot, since the 2010 race was in Australia). "And I've always failed at relationships. So that seems more challenging to me."
At his final race of 2010, 25 Hours in Frog Hollow (it's an extra hour because it takes place when clocks turn back to Standard Time), Martin made a truly shocking move: He sat down early.
The Utah race was not one that he'd planned to do, or at least not solo. It was supposed to be a team ride with a female friend from Washington, Martin doing two laps for her every one. But that didn't work out.
"So now I got demons," he says with a self-mocking Cheshire grin.
But Jill Homer and her boyfriend Beat Jegerlehner rode in Frog Hollow as a team, giving Martin pit help on a handful of his 20 laps. Some of their friends refer to Homer, a recent transplant from Alaska, as Martin's lost sister or doppelganger; her first book, Ghost Trails, is about snow-biking the multi-day Iditarod Trail Invitational.
For the better part of 14 hours, Martin dueled Ben Welnak, who is 16 years his junior, but eventually he took a one-lap lead. "I should have kept trying to push him during the early evening hours," Welnak says. "My inexperience made me nervous about continuing the fast pace, when, in reality, I probably could have. He's really strong and has a lot of experience. That was hard to match."
Then the sun began to rise. Needless to say, Martin's not a stop-and-smell-the-roses guy. "I don't really want to," he says. "There's a different journey going on. I think I interface differently with the wilderness than other people. I don't go out and hug the trees—because one of them fell on my head. Bastards!"
But when he came on Homer at an overlook amid the pink-lit desert landscape, something stirred. "The sun was coming up and I'm going over these rocks, one at a time, kind of suffering, and I look up, and Jill's just standing there, smiling," Martin says. "So I just stopped right there and watched the sun come up."
"For him to make a 15-minute stop without having any purpose beyond watching the sunrise was sort of unique for him," says Homer.
They rode together for a final lap and Martin stopped an hour before he had to, settling for a win against the field (he bested Welnak by 68 minutes) instead of going to his utter outer limit. Of course, he still rode 256 miles, which is a pretty giant laurel to rest tired quads on.
"My big goal this year was to beat 200 miles," Martin says. "At 24 Hours of Rapelje I got 230-some and thought, 'Holy shit, that's amazing.' But I haven't even touched the surface of what I can do."
That morning in Frog Hollow, Homer asked him, "So, if somebody really supported you, how far do you think you could go?"
"Not too many people would ask me that," Martin says. "I said, 'I think I can get to 300.' And she said, 'Yeah. Let's go for 300 next year.'"