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The madness of Bill Martin

Missoula's endurance mountain biking champion finds solace with a two-wheeled mistress

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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."

Martin refuels 100 miles into his RMVQ ride. - TOM ROBERTSON

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."

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