Cracked; the word racers use for a very particular feeling you have, one that is both physical and mental. It's not easy to put it in to words, but imagine your tank is totally empty. You feel broken physically and your will to go on is wafer thin. That's being cracked.
I was 43 miles into the Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell, and I was cracked. "Only 43 miles?!" one might cry. Yes, ONLY 43 miles, but with every bit of 8,500 feet in my legs. Actually, I was going downhill when it really hit me. A downhill ironically called "Heart Break Ridge." It is correctly named in case you were wondering. I was cracked, my legs were seizing, and I still had to climb another 1,500 foot mountain to finish ORAMM.
ORAMM is one of those legendary races. You hear about it, you see the climbing figures "10,000 feet in 60 miles" but it's reputation still sucks you in. I went for the climbing. I love going up huge mountains. To me, it's just fun. So on 7/31/2016, I toed the line and took my first stab at this epic race.
Close to 500 racers came out for the 17th annual ORAMM put on (flawlessly I'd add) by Blue Ridge Adventures. With perfect aid stations, GREAT course markings and a warm embrace from the hosting town Old Fort, there was nothing not to love.
Sitting on the start line, I looked around and took a deep breath. There were some heavy hitters lining up, way more than I was hoping for. NUE winners, former ORAMM winners, and plenty of guys who have beat up on me in the past. Hopes for a top 10 at my first ORAMM were vanishing quickly.
We rolled slowly out of town with a police escort and made our way out to Kitsuma mountain. Somewhere along the line, the front group split from the rest of the pack, but we were still probably 30-40 riders flying up the mountain. The pace was pretty hard and I was amazed at how many guys had made the split with our front group.
For 40 minutes it was one big mixing bowl. Jockeying for position, getting up to the front, getting pushed to the back, and doing it over again. Despite the shifting, it was a great time to prime on nutrition, so I drank most of a bottle of Infinit Go Far on the way up.
We neared the final bit of the climb which was narrow singletrack switchbacks and the fight for the holeshot began. We were 4 bikes wide gunning for a 1 bike slot. We funneled down, but the log jam eased quickly. Up Kitsuma, then we RAGED down the back side, full bore. I wish I'd been wearing a camera because no one would believe how fast you can go down a trail like that if you just tell them. We were a snake, whipping and weaving all the way down the mountain faster than bikes should be capable of going.
Back in the valley, gaps had opened from the downhill and we were now in a bunch of groups. Scott Hoffner and I hit it hard and got to a big group containing Elliott Barring and Gordon Wadsworth, and started sharing pulls to bring back the leaders. I slammed half a bottle of Go Far on my breaks and hammered in between sips. It was a hard push (much harder than I was hoping for) and the second we caught them, we turned back onto trail and began climbing Star Gap. Ouch.
Star Gap crushed me. You need to be lazer focused and fresh, of which I was neither. It has very tight switchbacks that you climb up and navigate, testing you every bit of the way. After a tough chase, I was off my game, needing recovery and found myself hiking half the tight turns. The leaders climbed away.
Demoralized, I did my best to hold it together and recover a bit on the next downhill. Soon, Hoffner and Barring joined me and we started a series of punchy double track climbs. We ended up catching a group containing Wadsworth (1st single speed rider, who had also finished in the front group of the pro/1/2 Page County Road race while working for a teammate the day before!!). We worked well together and soon were flying back down the mountain on some fun double track.
We hit aid 2 and Wadsworth and I stopped, and soon were chasing back to our group. I picked up a bottle of Jet Fuel and a flask of Napalm and got started on those as we caught the group right at the base of the notorious Curtis Creek climb.
Now, Curtis Creek had been on my mind for a month straight. It is the start of a 3,300 foot climb and is typically where the race is decided. Up until that point, the race had been very hard and punchy. I was tired from chasing and burned matches in places I hadn't planned on burning them. But that's racing and now it was time to implement the practiced plan: hit this long climb hard and HOLD IT.
So we did that. Our group of now six was chatting and happy when Wadworth and I got on the front and got to work. Barring joined us and soon it was just us 3, tapping out a good rhythm and making up ground. We passed a broken soul along the way and soon had Mike Danish in our sights. We caught him and he joined us right as we rolled into aid 3 to find Brian Schworm who was off his game.
The group rolled out and I stayed for a bit longer to empty a full bladder. I got to chasing back to them when I noticed it was blowing apart. Barring attacked and Wadsworth followed. Schworm didn't look motivated (and later DNF'd as he was sick) and Danish was rolling his own pace. I climbed up to Schworm and Danish and set a pace up to the top of the climb. Another bottle of Jet Fuel went down and I was feeling pretty good about being 4 bottles in at 3.5 hours. About 5 minutes from the start of Heart Break Ridge, the big twinges started to appear suddenly. My pace began to fade a bit, then we turned onto Heart Break Ridge, and that's when it all fell apart.
It was a humid day, but really not too hot by comparison to what it has been this summer. All week I had been struggling with hydration and thought I was in good shape, but I think a 3 hour drive to Asheville with no AC the day before did me in. As soon as we started Heart Break Ridge the stabs of pain were becoming REAL. Calves, hamstrings, quads, hands, forearms. Everywhere. It was the worst cramping I have ever experienced and it totally cracked me.
Meanwhile, this is happening on maybe the sketchiest and longest descent I have ever done. 2,600 feet down in 4.5 miles on 12 inch wide trail. Logs, rocks, huge roots, washed out ruts. It's like riding down stairs for 25 minutes, and some of the stairs are covered in wet moss, angled towards the side of the trail that drops off into the jungle. So you're tense, and then add to that I was cramping.
Oddly enough, I was still moving pretty well. But that certainly wasn't because I was feeling well. I noted this earlier this year HERE, my descending has DRASTICALLY improved. I probably would have been over 30 minutes for Heart Break Ridge had I done it last year. Yet, here I was going down in 25 minutes while feeling horrible. My only explanation is that I had just the right equipment.
Tires: choosing tires for this race was tricky. Having never done it, and hearing about some of the gravel and dirt road sections, it sounded like a fast tire would be good. But it's also Pisgah, which spells GNARLY. So I opted for something not super light, but also fast on the roads: Bontrager XR2's. The verdict? Best blind choice ever.
Bike: it's no secret that I think the Trek Top Fuel is the best full suspension bike ever. It climbed well, was snappy on the gas, great on the the tight switchbacks, and descended like a big travel bike. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect rig for the day. And to those on hardtails... you're nuts!
Grips: 12 inches of trail and a good drop into the jungle on one side. Heart Break leaves no room for errors, and that includes losing your grip or sliding even a little bit. ESI chunky grips were absolutely PERFECT.
Glasses: I talked to Asheville Native Cameron Cogburn before the race and he strongly advised clear lenses. That was gold. Having glasses on in the dark/thick woods of Heart Break kept me safe while getting smacked in the face with random Rhododendron branches. Spy Screw Overs + clear lenses = safety and ultimate comfort.
Dropper: I feel pretty strongly that droppers are the best invention of recent years in mountain biking. And I won't go into that again, but wow, so glad I had one all day.
So amidst falling apart with cramps, I still managed to fly down Heart Break and get to the final climb because I had equipment literally keeping me on track. You can't buy victories with good equipment, but you can definitely keep yourself safer and have fun in the process!
After Heart Break, it was just a measured effort. Don't push too hard and aggravate the cramps, don't go too easy and get caught... Last bottle of Jet Fuel went down like it was going out of style, thanks to being able to take my hands off the bars finally for a drink, and that seemed to buy me some more time.
The last run down Kitsuma was a blast. That trail is terrifyingly fast but it's hard to not smile even if you're triceps feel like they're melting. I made it to the bottom safely and hit the road. It's a deceivingly long drag back into town that is MOSTLY downhill, but when you're legs are crushed, all you want is a smooth, straight 20% downhill. I pedaled as much as I could will myself too, and rolled across the line for a time of 5:02, good for 7th in the open Men category and 10th overall!
What a day, what a race. It certainly lived up to the hype and it would be tough to compare that course to others. East of the Rockies, you simply can't do 3,000 foot climbs and descents anywhere else. It was an awesome test, and I hope to make it back next year!
And lastly, I wouldn't have made it 10 miles into the race without Thomas Turner (who went on to take the overall win!). The night before the race, he installed new brake pads on my bike that got me through the day without incident. Without new pads, I would never have made it past the first descent! Big thanks to Turner!
Lessons Learned (and relearned)
- Humidity can crush you just like heat. Drink more than you think you need, even when the temperature doesn't seem to call for it!
- When you're dehydrated, a heart rate monitor becomes fairly unhelpful. Same thing happens when you're fatigued. Take it with a grain of salt after 3 hours and if there's even a chance you're dehydrated.
- Find races that have both your strengths and weaknesses. Lean on your strengths during the race, but continue to work on your weaknesses AT RACE PACE!
- Big power is great, but if you can't apply it appropriately or after 2 hours of single track, it doesn't matter what you did in training. I can do way more power on a road bike for 5 hours than I can in a 5 hour mtb race. Practicing putting out that power on the mtb will help close that gap.
- Everyone is suffering and someone is always just right up the road. Get out of sight of the rider behind you, but remember that the next rider is just around the next bend. Hang tough, keep pushing and don't assume the next competitor is gone!