It was just after daybreak Saturday on Blackstar Canyon Road and 135 mountain bikers awaited the signal to start a very tough ride on Saddleback Mountain.
Before race director Chris Vargas gave that signal, he blessed the gathering with a sheaf of burning white sage while Mac Lopez, a Shoshone Indian and Rancho Santa Margarita resident, played a lilting tune on his wooden flute.
Vargas urged the bikers to respect Mother Earth and do their part to help preserve the mountainous ground they were about to ride over.
After going over checkpoints and safety precautions, Vargas stepped aside and beckoned the riders to begin their challenge.
It was a reverential start for the fifth Mountain Bike Pow Wow, a brutal endurance test organized annually by the Warrior's Society of the Santa Ana Mountains (http://www.warriorssociety.org/).
The society of mountain bikers is dedicated to maintaining and improving trails in the Orange County section of the Cleveland National Forest.
Part race and part spiritual journey, the Pow Wow is two rides: The 48.5-mile Vision Quest features an exhausting 11,000-foot cumulative elevation gain and 2 1/2 miles of hike-a-bike; the 37-mile Counting Coup has 7,500 feet of cumulative elevation. Each is a roller-coaster ride over some of the forest's toughest terrain.
Jesse Beck, a San Juan Capistrano resident and a founding member of the Warrior's Society, won the Vision Quest in 5 hours 3 minutes 18 seconds. Laura Anderson of Pasadena set the women's Vision Quest record at 6:26:44. Steve Timm of Long Beach won the Counting Coup in 4:24:00.
Finishing and learning something along the way is considered far more important than winning.
"All I think about is the ride," said Emilio Cervantes of Seal Beach, who finished third in the Vision Quest. "If I let my thoughts wander, I make mistakes. I do nothing but keep my mind, body and spirit in focus. It's therapeutic."