It's easy to feel sheepish as an amateur athlete, celebrating a midpack finish in a race that most people could never relate to. But there we stood after Friday's final stage of the Breck Epic, cradling beers, shaking hands, toasting a week that almost broke us but didn't.

That's the point, I've concluded. There may have been prestige on the line in the pro races—where the fields included everyone from Olympic XC racers to marathon studs to four-time 24-hour national champion Josh Tostado. (Specialized's Howard Grotts, the youngest contender at age 24, made up a 2:44 gap Friday on Todd Wells to win an improbable overall title.) But for the majority of us, the impact is almost entirely personal. You're the only one who knows how much your legs and lower back ache at night, or how hard it is not to hurl your bike down the hill when Rock Island Gulch pitches up to 89 degrees near the end of a 40-mile day, as the field rides away from you.

Breck Epic Breckenridge Race

Looking forward to more hand-wrecking descents.

For most of the people here, the question isn't whether they can do this race—they can. The question is how deep are they willing to dig in order to maximize their potential—a pursuit that brings great fulfillment no matter one's finishing time.

I'm not a racer, and neither is my teammate Dave Gelhaar. He toed some start lines 20 years ago, but at age 50 he's much more of a soul rider now. His job as a bartender at the Breckenridge Brewery allows him to ride way more than his ever-growing firewood pile suggests he should—often three times a day, including his 2 a.m. commute home on singletrack. Going into this week, I'd done one race in my life—the inaugural Breck Epic in 2009, a week after I got married, with virtually no preparation. It spanked me like a toddler, but the feeling after I finished lingered in my mind through the years. It was unlike anything I'd come across in sports.

So when the opportunity to enter this year's edition came about, knowing Dave had always been interested in the Epic, I asked if he might be interested in teaming up. Much to my glutes' dismay, he agreed.

I felt like a hen slowly browning in the oven on three of the first four days. Dave pulled me along, sometimes yelling "Up, up, up!" to keep me moving. I felt horrible for slowing him down. Our bodies have a weird way of adapting to pain, however. By the second half of Thursday's Wheeler Stage, I was feeling stronger, so we bombed down the notorious Miner's Creek descent—a ride we'd each done dozens of times—faster than we ever had or probably ever will again. We must have passed 30 people by the time we reached Frisco.

I never thought I would do that ride in under four hours, but we crossed the line in 3:51, good for second in our category after taking seventh on day one (it's a loop that rewards local lungs, as almost every Summit County racer finished higher than his or her GC standing that day). Then I stood over my bike and wheezed for 10 minutes, out of water, bloodied from crashing, dirt caking my clothes and skin, my right knee swollen like a grapefruit.

Twenty years from now, I doubt I'll remember where we ranked overall, or that I left some soft tissue on the mountain. But I'm pretty sure I'll remember the feeling I had when we finished that day, a cocktail of exhaustion and exhilaration that kept me up until 1 a.m. We'd found the edge of our abilities and lived there for an afternoon. Every bit of suffering was worth that.

Breck Epic Breckenridge Mountain Bike Race

A much deserved celebration on the final day of the Breck Epic

Men’s Pro Podium
1. Howard Grotts
2. Todd Wells
3. Geoff Kabush

Women’s Pro Podium
1. Erin Huck
2. Katerina Nash
3. Evelyn Dong

Enduro Champs
Men: Stephan Davoust
Women: Katerina Nash
*each stage included timed descents

So you want to ride the Breck Epic?

I hear ya. It's a good time. Here are some things to consider. First, this isn't something you can show up to unprepared. It's going to take a lot of your time leading up to it, and you still might throw up after every stage. It helps to sleep in an altitude tent, as a racer from Alabama said he did before his sixth edition this year. But if you have the PTO, a better idea is to arrive a week early and ride rad trails while your lungs adapt. They're the reason the race is here in the first place.

Lodging: You can do everything from stay at the race hotel, Beaver Run Resort, to camp or rent a condo with friends. I recommend the roof-and-bed option given the importance of quality rest, but to each his own. Check for a lodging menu.

Bikes: I rode a Santa Cruz Tallboy 3 and would do it again (full review from the race coming soon). The 29-pound build was probably on the heavy side for some of the climbs, but the Epic's long, technical descents punish hands that grip light bikes. The Tallboy consistently helped me make up gaps from the ascents on the ensuing downs. A friend who ended up on the Cat 1 30+ podium rode a 25-pound trail bike with 150mm of travel, and it sounded like that worked well for him. Like anything, you must decide how much fun and performance on the descents you're willing to concede for faster climbs. In terms of maintenance, Avalanche Sports took care of Dave's and my bikes every night and offers full-service, weeklong packages to Epic competitors. Their mechanics also know every inch of the stages and will tailor your suspension to each day's course, which can make a huge difference on certain trails.

Registration: Early Bird pricing is in effect through August 31—$699 for the six-day odyssey, which includes a jersey and ticket to the "Stage 7" banquet. You can also sign up for the three-day Epicurious races for $449.