Race reports from 2017 Monster Cross, Warrior Creek, Bakers Dozen, Massanutten HooHa, Middle Mountain Momma and GRUSK!Read More
The dirt started, the roadpitched straight up to 15%, and the group exploded.Read More
So I attacked. I went up the road chasing the escapee and no one followed me either. I got about 5 seconds up the road and that’s when the group finally moved to hold me there, ratcheting up their pace to match mine.Read More
The forecast was great 10 days out. A bit cold, but sunny and no rain. Then it changed. And it got worse. Then it got even worseRead More
My lungs were seared. This felt like a 5k. I was flat out, pushing as hard as I could, but going nowhere. Every tenth of a mile felt like 20 minutes.Read More
I came to the Shenandoah 100 hungry, fit, and looking for a good result. For two years I'd thought about my 2013 experience, always wanting another shot at this beast of a race. I fixed my sights on a top 15 finish as my goal this year, hoping to redeem my 40th from 2013.
This year's edition of the King NUE race had the fastest field in its 17 year history. Not only did Jeremiah Bishop set a new record, he smashed his previous record by 20 minutes! On top of Bishops dominance, to be in the top twenty this year you had to ride sub a 8:05 race while last year 8:18 would've landed you there. As the most prestigious 100 miler on the east coast, every year sees a even deeper field toe the line, looking for glory.
For 9 months I have been working towards this race. Cameron Cogburn has been analyzing my fitness, and prescribing workouts day in and day out to get me into the best form of my life. I knew he had my legs as ready as they could be, so on race morning, I was only focused on visualizing execution.
The race started fast, as it always does, and I quickly found myself remembering my pacing plan. I obeyed the plan to stay in z3 and no higher, and let the lead group go, watching as many friends rolled up the road, pinning it on the opening stretches of gravel roads. Into the first climb some guys slotted in just in front of me and I found myself climbing with John Petrylak, a great place to be at the start of 100 miles.
Ripping down Narrowback I was with a handful of riders including Jon Gdwoik and Heath Thumel. We worked hard together to get up to the base of the second large climb of the day. I joined up with Nick Bragg and Dan Kotwicki on the climb and we made our way up to the rocky and unforgiving Wolf Ridge. Getting caught behind a slower climber, I lost Bragg by the bottom of Wolf and had to get to work on the long 40 minute road section alone.
The climber in front of me joined up but wasn't interested in contributing to our efforts, so I pulled him to the base of Hankey. I made sure to drop my passenger by the top and ripped the Dowells draft downhill as fast as I dared. Mid way down I passed Ryan Serbel who was having an off day and moments later Aaron Albright passed and gave us a clinic on descending.
The road out to Braileys was fun. I was hammering along as aero as I could get, and Serbel dieseled up to me. I joined him and soon we had Albright for company, catching him up the road. Serbel pulled us most of the way to the next monster climb and on arrival we were all together hitting the first rock gardens. Serbel danced away up the climb and I sat just behind Albright until the incident.
Now, this climb up Braileys is probably the most technical of the day. Rock gardens, lots of roots, steep trail and it's all bench trail, with little room for error. So when I felt the bee fly into my helmet vent, it couldn't have been at a worse time. It stung me good and had me yelling in pain. Stopping, I ripped my helmet off and swatted my enemy away. Now stopped on the steepest part of the trail, starting again was a chore. But after a brief struggle, I was on my way, swelling head and all.
I caught Albright at the peak just in time to watch him descend away from me again. Alone with 13 miles of road ahead of me, I put my head down and got to work solo.
As I made my way out to the Death Climb, I kept turning around expecting to see a train of a few riders coming up to me that I could link up with to share the work. But no one ever came. I resorted to getting aero on the bike again while keeping my heart rate as low as possible.
I reached the Death Climb and immediately saw a rider up ahead of me. I held my pace steady, caught, and dropped him immediately. And once again, I was alone.
Up and up I climbed, watching my motivation waiver significantly with no one in sight, I felt like I wasn't in a race at all, just some incredibly beautiful but lonely wilderness.
Aid five came and rejuvenated me, mainly because of the awesome volunteers there who were so encouraging. Another 5 miles of climbing and I was on cruise control. I had no more snap in my legs. My body was aching all over from over 6 hours of racing and 10k ft of climbing. I pressed on, desperate for the end.
One last technical descent down Chestnut and I was finally within reach. And that's when the switch flipped.
During these long races, I often lose my motivation to compete. It's such a long time to maintain focus that I have to turn it off, ride, and hopefully have something left at the end. But when I hit ten miles to go, the competitiveness turns back on, and I give it everything. That's exactly what I did up the last climb.
I saw Matt Merkel up the climb and his body language looked labored, like he was suffering. I got to work reeling him in, trying to make sure I made the pass decisively before the final descent. I came up to his wheel, upped my pace and motored past as quickly as possible. No response from Matt thankfully, so I backed it off slightly from the gut wrenching pace, to the "I still can't wait to be done this" pace.
Down the final descent, I was flying, crushing my former times from 2013. Seeing the finish line always brings elation and relief.
I rolled in for 22nd overall in 8:10, totally exhausted but happy. While it wasn't what I had hoped for place wise, I had to be content with a 41 minute improvement from 2013. The training had paid off, and my execution had been spot on. I had no mechanical issues all day thanks to a race week tune up by Nate at Joe's Bike Shop. Nutrition had been great with a mashup of various types of Infinit for different segments of the race. And Chris Scott did it again, making another a killer event. Smiles were contagious at the end as we hung around eating and watching people finish for hours. It was a great day, and I can't wait to go back for more.
The bike floated below me as rocks and roots bumped it up and down, back and forth. My legs and arms resembled rubber bands, shaking loosely as I hung on to the Chunky’s for the ride. The turn surprised me. It came up fast and was a full 90 degrees. Overshooting it would mean dropping down a steep slope into who knows what. I locked the MT8’s, the Epic’s suspension compressed, the tires broke free as the slide began. Dust churned off the ground (the Screws shielding my eyes). Then, as if perfectly planned, I slid through the turn inches from the edge. A slight smile crept onto my face as I realized I had averted near disaster, again. The Fairhill Classic course was tricky, but on Saturday, I was railing it.
Rewind to 2014, and I was lining up at Fairhill for the first time. I had never ridden this labyrinth of trails, littered with more roots than I have ever seen on a trail. From the moment I started that edition, my stomach revolted, limiting my calorie intake, and the antibiotics I was on depleted my power. Simply, it was a BAD day on the bike.
This year’s edition had it’s own challenges too. I only decided to race the night before, and I was coming off of a big workout from Wednesday, that had been one of my best all year. I was fatigued and decided to race for 4 hours instead of doing my scheduled 4 hour training ride as my final tune up for the Shenandoah 100 this coming weekend. Unsure of how my body would respond to such a long effort, I lined up with little expectations.
The start was much more reasonable than last year, and soon there was a group of 8 on the trail. Not surprisingly Ryan Serbel took the holeshot and lead wire to wire, big congrats to him. A few miles in, we crossed a stream and I found the hole everyone else missed and it literally bucked me off my bike! I landed on the other side of the stream and scrambled up the steep embankment to try to regain contact with the leaders. But at that pace, losing 8 seconds snapped the connection to the front 3 riders.
Pushing hard, I clawed my way back to Jed Prentice and Heath Thumel and we rode as a trio for the first hour. About 45 minutes in I saw Jed drift back, so I attacked Heath to get some separation. I put some day light in between us and kept up the pace to stay out of sight, but it wasn’t enough and they both came back, eventually dropping me about 90 minutes in! Fairhill is a drivers course and I was clearly not the best driver of that trio.
I pressed on alone, feeling like I was racing full gas the whole day. The race director is very ambiguous about how long the course actually is. Last year it was 38 miles, This year it was longer, but I had no idea how much longer! I had 3 bottles of Infinit with me and was wondering how I would fair past the 3 hour mark if the course was much longer than last year. Fortunately, once again, Infinit was perfect. I never got close to bonking and felt good all day. Up, down, twisting, rocks, roots, big power, no power, gravel, loose turn; it was a bit of everything out there. And the legs just kept giving and giving. At the end I was amazed my legs hadn’t given up with such a hard pace. I must be in the best form I’ve ever had, big thanks to Cameron Cogburn for that one.
I ended up coming in at 3:44, on a course that was at least 30 minutes longer than last year, which was good enough for 6th. With no prep, and on a course that exploits all of my weaknesses, I was quite happy with that! I can now firmly erase my bad memory of 2014 and replace it with this one.
The mistake had been made, now all I could do was hope to recover. The rocks got bigger, more irregular, and required more precious energy that I didn’t have. I was behind on nutrition and desperately needed a break. But you can’t stop, you just have to dig deeper.
The Wilderness 101 isn’t for the faint of heart. A 100 mile backcountry (and I mean BACK country) mountain bike race staged out of Coburn, PA is the setting for one of the oldest and difficult endurance races on the east coast. With over 10,000 feet of climbing, lots of rocks and teeth chattering descents, it’s a long day in the saddle.
Bike: Specialized Epic World Cup – full sus is HIGHLY recommended
Tires: Racing Ralph – No flats, great traction.
Grips: ESI Chunky – CRUCIAL to hand survival in the high speed rocks
Brakes: Magura MT8 – Steep + rocks = give me all the power I can get in a brake
Glasses: Spy Screws - perfect for humid and densely wooded courses
Nutrition: Infinit GoFar, as always
Seconds matter, even in 100 mile races. Most think that a few seconds here and there during an all day race don’t matter, given that the top finishing times are well over 6-7 hours. But in reality, 1 second can be the difference, so 1 minute can be HUGE. These long races are about managing every second to get a great result. Every turn, descent, aid station stop, it all matters.
I was elated when I saw aid 4 come into view. Having never ridden the course I felt like I was blindly fumbling through a series of trails, hoping to find the finish line eventually. Course changes and a thick canopy of trees made for everyone’s GPS units being way off on mileage. I never quite knew when I’d hit the next climb, see an aid station or even finish the race. So pulling up to aid 4 after getting beaten repeatedly by rocks was a huge relief. My hands were tired, my fingers hurt, and I needed my next set of bottles badly.
Let’s rewind though. The W101 started in what could be described as the PERFECT conditions. 58 degrees at the start under sunny blue-bird skies! We rolled out of town like a parade, the pace was fun, people chatted, caught up with friends and the mood was light. The first climb came too quickly and the several hundred riders exploded in the first half mile. Tanguy pushed the pace and had me doing 330w for the first 20 minutes. Everyone was awake after that.
The lead group over the top of the climb was down to 10 or so and we relaxed on the gravel roads that followed. Soon after our group swelled with chasers and before I knew it we had probably 50+ riders back together! Another few climbs came and saw me sitting in low threshold to stick with the leaders, that wasn’t good, but I had heard you needed a strong group for the road sections until mile 40. So I pressed on.
Mile 25 saw a crash as our now smaller but still large group hit an S curve. One guys inattention was found out and he hit the deck and Pat Blair literally jumped over him with nowhere else to go! That was funny. The crash split the group and two groups formed a few seconds apart. I got to work slowly closing the gap not wanting to expend too much energy. The closer I got though, the faster the pace became as we did yet another 5ish minute climb. Once I got back up to threshold I decided it wasn’t worth it and backed off.
I quickly joined forces with John Petrylak and a few others and began the final road section to the Three Bridges Trail. This is the first single track of the race and the first rocky part. It was much more manageable than I had anticipated and being in the second hour of the race makes you still feel like superman. I rode everything smooth. We hit a fast downhill through thick and narrow foliage and which had me following Aaron Snyder FULL speed into a huge rock garden. 3 of us hit this garden at over 15 mph and though we all bottomed out our wheels on rocks and nearly killed ourselves, we escaped unscathed though Aaron broke a few spokes.
From there we were on gravel roads, pacelining and motoring on. We hit the first major climb at mile 42ish and the group slowly fell apart. John went off the front and followed in second. And then it happened. We hit the first rocky downhill and I realized it would be a brutal day.
I like rocks and have some experience with them. But when you’re racing 100 miles, adding something as energy sucking as rocks to the mix is completely exhausting. The last thing you need is another way to tire yourself out. So here we are flying down this descent with huge, chunky, loose rocks, getting our brains rattled around. Despite being on a full sus bike, I was STILL getting beaten up! It was just gnarly.
This was the race. Climb gravel, go down rocks, rinse, repeat. I made the massive error of climbing too hard up to a ridge where we proceeded to do a long trail of rocks followed by more rocks on a downhill. It felt like 18 hours, and this was only mile 55 or so. It was mentally exhausting. Lesson learned though, take in a lot of calories before it gets technical!
The race went on and I worked with various people over the miles. The last 20 miles were pretty uneventful. I only saw 1 person, passed 1 rattle snake, crossed 1 river and started feeling GREAT with 10 miles to go. I had finally caught up on Infinit and that was a good thing! I also had the pleasure of eating a Fig Newton and Mike and Ike at the same time. While I wouldn’t recommend such things when in your right mind, 6 hours into a race it tasted great!
Having lost so many placings bumbling my way half bonked through the rocks, I was pretty content to roll in for 12th in the open men and 19th overall. The rocks had rattled some bolts loose on my bike moving my seat and jamming a bottle cage in my crank which ultimately robbed me of a few precious minutes to keep me out of the top ten. Every second counted.
Going fast in endurance racing is much more complex than being fit. You need to pace, eat and pedal, perfectly. Not to mention bring the proper equipment! Every little detail can add up to the difference between standing on the podium and finishing an hour down on the winner. It’s a very fragile balance, one that must be walked carefully to do well. I tried to walk that line carefully on Saturday at the Hilly Billy Roubaix, in the Wild and Wonderful state. Two weeks out the weather forecast looked quite unusual. Instead of the typical 90 degree temps that flog racers, the predicted temps looked to be surprisingly low on race day. As the date crept closer it became apparent that this was because a massive storm was going to roll through, dumping inches of water during the race.
This changed a lot of things. While Hilly Billy is a gravel/dirt/road race, it always has a few muddy spots, even during the driest of years. So match those roads up with some serious rain, and we would be in for an adventure with nature. I chose to bring my Specialized Epic World Cup mountain bike instead of a cyclocross bike for a few reasons: 1. It had bigger tires that would do better in the mud and would be less prone to flats in the gravel, I ran Maxxis Aspens and I suffered 0 flats but had good traction; 2. I wanted a trouble free drivetrain, rain and mud don’t exactly make a bike work better (even after submerging my SRAM XX1 drivetrain over 10 times, it still worked flawlessly, I was impressed); and 3. Suspension on rough WV downhills is pretty comforting to have. So with that choice, I was off.
The day came and rain had been pouring for a long time before we even hit the start line. The staging area was just a big puddle and all of us were totally soaked by the time the race started. But, given the pleasant 72 degrees, it wasn’t too bad. We began in typical fashion, blazing fast descent and within 3 minutes about 15 of us were off the front of the 300+ person field. A few gravel rollers greeted us immediately and Merwin Davis, Cole Oberman and Nick Waite were all on the front, out of the saddle, making us work for it.
First match burned.
A few miles in we hit the first steep and fast descent, right into a series of mud puddles (that were more like car sized bogs). I was happy where I was until I looked back and realized I had become the last person in the group due to dropped riders. When the second to last guy in the group went down in front of me in the first mud bog (he was on a cyclocross bike) we were gapped ever so slightly, maybe 4 seconds. No big deal, right?
When you’re navigating endless mud bogs, it is very helpful to be in a group. It’s somewhat like playing Russian roulette. You look at a massive pool of muddy water stretching across the road, and you pick a way through: left, right or middle. Your hope is that the way you pick isn’t deep or filled with obstacles and you can ride through easily. In a group, you can watch as inevitably every direction is picked by someone ahead of you, and you can go the way that looked best. So I’m 4 seconds down but am only looking at what is 1 second in front of me and thus playing the game alone. Thankfully my Screws weren’t fogging so I could actually see despite the mud spraying everywhere. But even still, I quickly picked the wrong side of a puddle and rode my bike completely under water; as in, over 3 feet deep. My cyclocross companion chose the better line and was now back ahead and catching up to the group. I extended my gap to 10 seconds wallowing out of the deep hole and soon was out of sight of the leaders. Great. 4 miles in and I lost the lead group.
I hit the road finally after slogging through what seemed like 100 bogs and was alone. Now, in most races I do, being alone is totally fine. You don’t get any drafting help while on trails so it’s great being by yourself. But at Hilly Billy, you want help. The road sections link up the gravel and dirt roads, and having companions to share the work with on those roads will increase your speed drastically. I couldn’t see anyone in front or behind me, so I just rode along easy until a group of 3 caught me and we were able to work together. However, they were blazing and motivated, unwilling to give up the lead group and after about 10 minutes we caught back on; I couldn’t believe it.
Second match burned.
Right as we caught them the road turned up, and we climbed for a while, ending with a rutted and muddy steep pitch over rocks. It was great fun in the pouring rain, except for that at 40psi in my tires, I was struggling to find traction and once again, a small gap opened to me and the rest of the group. I had to dismount to get through the peanut butter and lost more time. Here we go again.
A quick and rocky descent followed and I could see 3 riders about 15 seconds ahead who also had been gapped off the lead group. Jordan Snyder, Jeremy Burkhardt and hard-man 50+ rider Gunnar Shogren. I slowly reeled them in on a road section, and closed it up on another long gravel climb. It was harder than I would have hoped, but they were not done with the lead group yet, whereas I assumed a second catch would be impossible. We crested the climb as three and accelerated, Jordan, Gunnar and myself.
Third match burned.
Another road section waited and we got to work. Hammering. Following these guys down gravel descents was crazy. They were flying, putting me into a death grip on my ESI grips in the pouring rain, mud and deep gravel. A tight paceline with hard pulls got us into view of the lead group again; seriously unbelievable. A few minutes of work later and we caught them again, this time right before a river.
Fourth match burned.
Technically, it was a long gradual climb on gravel, but a nearby stream had overflowed into the gravel road and made everything but the center of the road a moving river. The rain still hammering, we slogged our way up the climb that got steeper and steeper as it went. Just over the top another downhill lead to a flatish road and some antsy cyclocross riders went off the front while people were sitting up eating. Everyone looked at each other and eventually the chase was picked up. A bit of disorganization led to a fracture in the group and I was now in a group of 5 with Oberman, Waite, Dan Wolf and another. Now, Waite used to be one of the better road pro’s in the country a few years back and Oberman is currently one of the best mtb pros in the country, so I wasn’t too concerned that my group would be left out of the fun. And sure enough, we got organized, and another chase brought it all back together at aid 2.
Fifth match burned.
I hit the aid station just behind most of the 9 guys in the lead pack and after searching for my drop bag for what felt like an eternity, I found it and got moving, but about 10 seconds too late. I watched the lead group crank up the steep climb ahead out of aid 2 and knew that was it for me. You can only burn so many matches in a day, and I had burned 5 in the first half of the race, far too many for a race 70 miles long. I began thinking about my mistake. I hadn’t positioned perfectly and had ridden a few sections sloppy. I hadn’t paced well at all. Wanting to have companions on the road sections had led to many unnecessary pushes that would ultimately leave me tired over the rest of the race. How much time did I save being in the group? Was it really worth it? Looking back, I don’t think it was, because the next 35 miles were SLOW.
I slogged on and saw Gunnar drop off behind me. I was happy to be in 10th place considering the talent ahead of me, but knew anyone could catch me in the closing miles. I got busy drinking Infinit GoFar to make sure I had all the calories I could stomach, and was very glad I had brought some Napalm for some extra caffeine. That was a life saver, and kept me somewhat on the gas instead of fully unraveling.
I rolled on alone, into the rain, into headwinds, up climbs and down very remote WV roads. It’s a beautiful place, even in the rain, and I’m glad JR Petsko puts on the race every year. Speaking of JR, around mile 40, he rolled up on me in his truck with Bill Schieken (In the CrossHairs). They chatted with me for a minute which helped boost my spirits on the particular climb I was on. Thanks guys.
A while later, I checked behind me and saw the inevitable; a rider was closing on me. Jeremy Burkhardt was coming and around mile 50, made the catch. We talked for a bit before he soldiered on, leaving me to my miserably tired self. A bit later Brian Patton, eventual single speed winner, rolled up and passed me around mile 55, hunting for the next SS rider that was up the road. It was pretty demoralizing going backwards through the field, but it was happening slowly, so I was hoping to hang on for the last 15 miles.
On any other day, this would be a fun 15 miles. Steep, narrow climbs with some twisty descents make it very fun and interesting. But when all you want is to be off your bike, it was painful. With about 10 miles to go, I hit some extremely tight and fast descents. The rain had stopped finally and I realized that (thankfully!) my brakes were working awesome as I almost over cooked a turn through more gravel. Mud, rain, grit, gravel and everything possible in between and the Magura’s were still kicking. That was a relief. Having good equipment is such a mental boost late in a race.
Shortly after my fun descent, two riders came up on me, Matthew Weeks and Ron Glowczynski. It was nice to see a familiar face in Ron, but they were both flying! I pushed hard to hop on Ron’s wheel and soon Matthew had a gap up the road. Another climb came and Burkhardt was on the side of the steep climb fighting cramps. He joined our group making it a trio and we rolled on.
With a handful of miles left we worked a tight paceline to try and reel Weeks in. The third to last climb came and would leave us within sight of the finish, so I knew it was time to empty the tank. During long races, I always try to save a bit of mental energy and competitiveness for the end. So I unloaded everything I had and left Ron and Jeremy to bridge to Weeks. I caught him and Merwin Davis at the base of the second to last climb, a grassy one, and descended through a field a bit faster than they could on their cyclocross bikes. I was flat out, tucked down, and rolling, hoping to get a few precious seconds to hold them off.
The last road climb to the finish line is only 2 mintues, but it might as well have been 20. I saw Weeks coming. I stood, pounding the pedals. Then I sat, spinning fiercely. I fought the bike up the hill, trying desperately to get more out of my legs, but they were dead. Weeks passed, riding strong, and I rolled in for 9th in the U40 group and 11thoverall (results).
Not bad. I rode considerably faster than in 2013, even with our monsoon conditions, but I broke my cardinal rule: go out easy and pace carefully. Yes, riding in the lead group taught me some great lessons which is helpful, but overall I think it would have been a faster day if I had hung back and worked with Ron. If we had worked together all day, I think we both could have finished even faster than we did. Oh well, that’s racing. It was fun, and I got beat by some of the best in Hilly Billy’s strongest field yet. Hopefully I’ll be back next year!
Awesome race recap video from the Gravel Cyclist
Short film by In the Cross Hairs
Unable to get back to Cohutta this year to do battle in the Tennessee mountains, I opted to stay local for the other endurance mountain bike race in the region: 9 hours of Cranky Monkey. This is a timed race at the Marine Base Quantico in Northern Virginia. Timed means that you do laps of a preset course, logging as many as you can get in over the set time, in this case, 9 hours. Being on a military base I'd never ridden at the closed-to-civilian trails and had only heard they were rooty. So off I went to have some fun. After a quick prologue that took us up a very steep and loose gravel climb, I set out with a small pack onto the course. I would describe the course as fast and flowy, mostly smooth and an absolute blast to ride. All of that is true when you are fresh and doing your first of many laps for 9 hours. Midway through a race though, you begin to develop perhaps more realistic thoughts about a course...
But back to the start. We were 4 strong on the front and after a quick check, I found I was in the company of 3 relay team riders, whereas I was racing solo. Because of my excitement for new trails I happily cruised through the course, pushing the climbs and enjoying the descents. I let one relay guy go when the courses true reality sank in: it was either steep up or down. There was no flat. Anywhere.
Shortly thereafter, I was alone. Off the front of the solo riders I was content to set my own pace. The course was great for me, lots of very steep and loose climbs that required max power just to keep moving, but nothing too technical to slow me down elsewhere.
I had fun. Even riding alone all day with no pressure from behind that I knew of, I still felt motivated to push and ride hard. The aid station volunteers were very encouraging despite the colder conditions and the rain that came... That's where the battle started.
Usually when racing I'm battling people. Back and forth we mentally assault each other by pushing the pace, always trying to crack one another. But today, the clock and weather battled me. Racing for 9 hours is no picnic. Doing it on the same 9 mile loop over and over adds even more difficulty. And lastly when you add any adverse conditions, it becomes a real struggle!
It was lap 8 and I was tired. The course was either full gas or coasting and my legs were feeling the effects. Then the temperature plummeted when a storm rolled in. The rain came and though it didn't change the course much, it was just enough to scare me in my depleted state.
After 7 hours on course, I was losing it a bit. My focus was drifting, my body was hurting, and I had very little mental stability left. My brain was off and I was just turning the pedals. Getting cold was a rough addition. I tried doing the simple math of how much of a lead I would need to not have to go back out on a 9th lap. No, I couldn't do that, I had to do 9. Then I tried thinking about 10. That math proved too hard, so I gave up. Getting the heart rate into zone 3 at this point was a chore. The legs hurt. My hands were destroyed. Lap 9 came and I was slogging. Trudging. I started resting my wrists on the bars to avoid using my lifeless fingers. Thankfully I had fuel, so that wasn't an issue. Nothing like finishing a long race without bonking or coming close. I used Infinit GoFar and Jet Fuel all day and felt great, but, the fatigue goes beyond what calories can provide. Being such a physical course, I had to be all over my bike. My back had long since given up protesting, settling into a numbish state that faded into the background. I was a haggard figure as I rolled into aid 3. A sweet woman there had been encouraging me all day and told me the greatest news ever. The rain had forced them to call the race an hour early! I was elated.
1 more mile to get back to the finish, so I hammered it with everything I had left. I don't know why. I just gave it everything. I crossed the line just over 8 hours with 73 miles and 13,750 FEET OF CLIMBING. I'd never done that much climbing in a race, and never that much in such a short distance. The closest was probably the Shenandoah 100 mtb race that has about 13k, but over 25 more miles. It all made sense now. At almost 200 feet of climbing per mile, it was unrelenting!
All in all, it was a good day. SCORE did a great job with the race and the course was perfect. A fine case of Fat Tire rewarded me for my efforts and post race food never tasted better! I won the solo category by a lot and forfeited second and third overall against the relay teams by talking to the timing guys on my 7th and 8th lap. Oh well. I did my work, and had fun. It was a solid day of training and a good race.
We knew the gap was around 6 minutes, and with Keith, our fastest rider, out on course, we were confident we would stop bleeding time. But then Keith flatted on that lap, and suddenly we were only 2 minutes up after 10 hours of racing at the 2015 Bakers Dozen. There is a special kind of panic that comes over you when you begin to see lots of hard work melting away. For the past 2 hours, our lead of 10 minutes had shrunk to 2 minutes. Everything we did in the beginning of the race to get a solid lead was gone and now we sat on the razors edge of losing the lead. 2 minutes at Bakers Dozen is nothing. It’s a slow lap. It’s getting caught behind some slower lapped riders. It’s being a touch low on sugar. It can be easily closed in one lap. Or less. We were all but tied up now with Haymarket.
Rewind to 10 hours earlier and it was a beautiful warm day. The trails were a bit soft but with sun and wind, we were sure things would harden up for the 2015 edition of this great race. Joe’s Bike Shop had a ton of teams representing on course for the day, and I thankfully was on a 3 man team, versus the 2 man or even solo category options.
The race started fast and Keith Omundson ripped the first lap. We had hoped the course marking would be clear enough that he wouldn’t miss any turns (given he had never raced Bakers before) but even after turning around on course twice and back tracking, he still managed a crazy fast lap to put us in the lead. I was next up, and Ethan Frey anchored. It was a fast bunch, and a lot of fun.
The first three laps were uneventful, just riding fast, learning the course (and the evolving conditions). Somewhere around lap 7, Keith went down and had to ride the last quarter of his lap with his bars at a 45 degree angle to his front wheel; that was impressive.
Everyone was riding very consistent laps and our lead was extending easily. By our 10th (of 21) laps we had 9:40 over our next competitor Haymarket, 12:54 over AFC, and 14:16 over Rocktown. These three teams were our rivals for the day, and all had very accomplished and speedy riders.
We had come to Bakers expecting a good battle with Haymarket who had beaten us last year, and I was a bit surprised they weren’t closer after the first half. But, we plugged on, happily ignorant to a few crashes they had suffered on course, setting them back a bit.
The fourth and fifth laps are tough. Your body has done 3 full out laps (approximately 37 minutes for a lap for me) and you’re getting tired. The legs are heavy, you need calories, and the constant starting and stopping of doing a relay isn’t something you ever train for. Not surprisingly, that’s right when it started to happen. Haymarket started taking time back. Up until lap 10, we had only given them 29 seconds all day. But between laps 11-16, we turned over 8:31. That’s when the panic set in. We were about to give them the race.
Keith came back after flatting and I was next out. I had been paired up against fast man Barry Croker of Haymarket all day, and sitting in transition with him for that lap, knowing he would be hunting me shortly, wasn’t very reassuring for my outlook of our chances. But, I didn’t want to lose.
It was my sixth lap and the sun was setting. It was a gorgeous day, and I was on my bike. Enjoying that lap would have been easy to do. Too bad. It was time to focus, and dig. I pulled out all the stops, took the risks through every turn and turned in my fastest lap of the day, by over 1:30. I was pleased with that as I collapsed at the team tent. I hadn’t put much time into Barry, in fact, despite my all-in effort, I only got us 44 more seconds of breathing room.
Next up was Ethan, he got a good chunk from Graham Smith and we had another 1:37. The last laps were being started as Keith set out again. This was it. Any more issues and the race could go either way. We still didn’t have enough time to protect us against a mechanical or crash. Thankfully, Keith did what he does well, and put in more time over Haymarket’s Jared Neiters.
The last laps are in the dark, and typically times slow down a good bit as riders navigate a bit more gingerly through the trails with lights on their bike. But we didn’t have time for that. Having ridden the course all day, it was time to play the memory game. What was around that next corner? Where was that rock and how do you have to jump it? How much can you lean through this turn before clipping your bar on that tree? It’s like doing complex math with your heart rate through the roof and your muscles screaming.
I burst out of the woods one last time, handed our marker off to Ethan, and then waited. I didn’t know what our gap was, I didn’t know how far back Haymarket was. We just had to wait. Keith and I made our way to the finish line and were relieved to see Ethan appear first. That was it, we took the win.
After 13 hours of racing, we had only beaten Haymarket by a meager 10:30. We were almost too tired to be happy, but a few smiles were shared. It was a truly awesome day for racing. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, competitors, or team support. Racing is a group effort regardless of whether you’re solo or on a team. ESI Grips, SPY Optics, Infinit Nutrition and Joe’s Bike Shop got us over that line first, and we are very grateful. And of course, Go Time Racing, a big thanks to them for another great edition of Bakers Dozen.
My eyes narrowed like a hawk, noticing every movement of the two bodies in front of me. I was third wheel in a train during the closing miles of Monster Cross. We flew, twisting through the park, waiting for the inevitable. John worked on the front just hard enough to keep us at speed, easy enough that we knew he was waiting. The last big pitch came and Dave glanced over his shoulder at my face, analyzing my fatigue from the grimace now painted on. I gave him a good show, pretending not to see him checking on me, gritting my teeth. The truth was I had been recovering a bit from the train-wreck this race had become, and wanted to salvage it somehow. So when Dave accelerated, intending to pop me off the back of our group, I smiled and matched his effort with relative ease.
Looking down, we were now doing 400 watts coming over the top of one of the last climbs before the finish. Dave and John noted my presence and the top and the pace eased again, John still working the front. The last section of trail came and unsurprisingly, Dave attacked. Pouncing on his pedals he shot around John fast enough that no drafting benefit could be retained. It was clean, it was fast, and John didn’t respond. I stayed put.
In a race, even if you know the terrain, the finish often seems like it will never come. As fatigue and exhaustion set in, your mind plays tricks on you and even the simplest calculations become impossible. When Dave jumped off the front, I couldn’t figure out how much further we had to go. “Somewhere in the 5-30 minute range” was what I concluded.
John wasn’t making any efforts to close the gap now forming between us and Dave, so I made my decision, got some speed, and attacked John. I did feel bad for him. He had worked on the front for the past 15 minutes and here we were taking advantage of his tired state. But, that’s racing.
I moved quickly and decisively, eyeing Dave carefully up the trail and made quick work of closing the gap. When I got within 10 meters, my heart sank. We burst onto an open field and I realized we only had 300 meters of racing left. Panicked, I shoved my face against my bar, summoning any aerodynamic advantage I could get and pushed with all I had. At 200 meters to go, I was two bike lengths behind Dave. One more hard left and we were on the final stretch. Dave started his sprint early which I knew was a mistake. He quickly sat, too tired to keep standing and I barreled toward him, finish line in sight. I could taste it. It was possible. I could pass him right before the line. I was right on top of him now!
Then the unforgivable. A spectator told him I was close, that I was about to overtake him. One glance was all it took. Dave stood again and mashed the pedals, rocking fiercely with all he had. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to close the door on me. That was it. I settled for a pathetic 19th overall.
I didn’t go to Monster Cross looking to sprint for scraps. In fact, a mere 3 hours earlier I thought I was positioned to be well inside the top 10. I wanted a good start to the season, to verify that countless hours spent riding in sub freezing weather had been worth it. But instead I got nothing of the sort. I felt like I hadn’t trained all winter.
Monster Cross is a fantastic race of attrition. There are no long climbs, no technical trails, nothing to make it hard really. Ridden on dirt and gravel, the race is staged outside Richmond on a relatively flat course. Dry conditions would make for winning speeds in the 17mph average range. But not today. The question of the race is what kind of bike to bring, cyclocross or mountain. With these conditions, and that course, I was very glad I chose to race my Superfly, with XO1 and the perfectly tacky ESI grips. Sliding around turns, climbing, descending, it all felt good and there were no mechanical issues with the mud to speak of. Big win!
We started fast, a paved prologue loop made for an almost criterium styled beginning as we whipped around, ultimately dropping into the woods a few minutes into the race. Immediately the group lurched to a grind. Mud. Everywhere. All over you and your face (or on your Spy glasses!) From then on, every pedal stroke counted. Each little circle kept your precious momentum intact as we wound around the park. No downhill brought relief, no flat provided respite. It was just a matter of pushing and pushing. No brakes were really needed during the race as the moment you stopped pedaling, your speed evaporated.
We dropped onto the dirt and 15 minutes later of 330 watts, I gave up on the lead group. I watched them grind up some climb, and wondered why I felt so horrible. That’s when I joined Dave and John. We had all been spit out the back, and we stayed together from that moment for the rest of the race. We suffered, pushed and rode our legs dead.
Early season races are tough. The body isn’t accustomed to the rigors of racing, nor is the mind. Convincing oneself to push hard despite your bodies pleadings is never easy. But one step at a time, we recalibrate ourselves. We remind ourselves that this is racing, and the season is finally here. Looking back 19th out of a few hundred racers is a great first step in the season. Can't wait to see where we go from here!
Actual limits have a reason for being such. But most limits aren’t actual, they’re imagined. This is how it usually goes: we envision a goal, objective, achievement, etc, and do a quick mental check to determine how possible it is that we could reach or attain it. Typically,we incorrectly base our determination off of unrelated experiences, surmising that such a thing is outside of our or beyond our “limits.” Not only have we then given up before even attempting this goal/objective/achievement, but we have partitioned ourselves into a set of limits that are fictional. It is a rare day when we use empirical and applicable data to determine our limitations. Basically, for most of us, our limits have been entirely self-imposed.
October 5th was Iron Cross, a 68 mile race composed of gravel/dirt roads, rocky trails, long sections of sling-your-bike-on-your-back-and-hike, and endless climbing. Despite these challenging conditions, the day promised to be a fast one with the likes of Jeremiah Bishop, Gerry Pflug, Garth Prosser, Ethan Frey, Cole Oberman and others. In a fast race, getting into the front group is essential. If you’re not able to work together with other riders on the draft-able sections, you’re going to be doing a lot more work over the 4-5 hours than everyone else. So, I lined up near the front, I was ready to rock.
I chose my Stumpjumper hardtail as my tool of choice for the day, mated with Renegade tires that roll fast and would hopefully protect against the rocky single track on course. It was dialed in with SRAM 1x10 components, and tuned to perfection thanks to Twenty20 cycling. Fit, hungry, ready. What could go wrong?
60 seconds after the gun went off, I was on the side of the trail trying to fix a flat tire. I put air in it, rode a bit, and realized I needed to put a tube in. Then I knew it was going to be a long day. After what seemed like the longest flat change of my life, I was going again, having been passed by the entire field of 350 riders. Let's try that again.
When you start from the back, not only are you working alone, but you are fighting traffic in the tight trails. Such was my lot as I pushed as fast as I dared to make up ground. Hitting basically standstill traffic in the rocky trail, I recovered a bit just in time to catch up with my RDC teammate Stephanie Swan. She was sitting with two of her competitors positioned for 3rd, 4th and 5th in the women’s race. As I was now out of contention for any kind of result, I grabbed Stephanie and got her onto my wheel and started the engine back up. We managed to dislodge one of the women but another came along for the ride solidifying both of them for the 3rd and 4th spots on the day. That was probably the highlight of the day for me, getting to work for a teammate was very fun. Big congrats to Stephanie for riding strong for 4th place and putting up with my erratic pacing! We made it to “run up” Wigwam and then lost each other. Check out the video (and pictures) by Jayson O'Mahoney of the race. Stephanie and I make our cameo around 2:24.
I must say, I’ve done some really crazy things during races, but this was new. At the end of the first third of the race, you do a hike up a 48% grade hill. To put that in normal terms, think: one hand on the ground, one hand holding your bike, hiking straight up a rock field. It’s pretty incredible. It was much more fun than I thought it would be!
The rest of the day slogged on, and the danger of my chase became real. After chasing hard for 2 hours in the 310-315w np range, I eased up. I had to. In fact I had already gone past my limits of what I thought was possible. I know what my body can do, and I know what I’ve done in training recently. My limits were running through my brain and the negativity was sinking in. "I've gone to deep, I'm going to fall apart." I was beginning to lose against my fictional and determined limits, instead of seeing what I could actually do. It was the darkest point of my race.
Now, everything became about picking off the endless stream of riders in front of me (I managed to pass around 300 in all). Having not trained much the past two months, I was anticipating a massive implosion from my early effort, and it came around mile 50. But it wasn’t as massive as I thought it would be. Limits were being redefined, and I was surprised. I was pretty toasted and hit another steep climb. Taking in as many calories as I dared I cranked, ever so slowly in my easiest gear, up, up, up. Jet Fuel was my best friend as I guzzled it furiously, desperate to avoid the dreaded bonk. Just near the top of the climb I heard yelling, and I came upon the legendary Larry’s Tavern. Beer was being handed up to the riders and Dan Rapp was there to do the handing! Hey, calories are calories, right? I took some, and got back to work.
The next 10 miles were forgettable, as I zoned in and out of attention, hoping to avoid thinking about the pain in my body. I arrived at the base of the last climb and saw a glimpse of a friend, Chris Lane. Desperate for companionship during the suffering, I dug deep (which at this point in a race is quite shallow) and summoned bits of energy to begin to slowly reel him in. After 25 minutes of climbing I finally pulled alongside of him and we got to chat. He was riding strong so I glued myself onto his wheel, and continued the journey.
The last pitch to the finish line is a bit of a joke. Its steep, its long, and it seems to be unforgiving. So we started up. Soon, Michael Hosang rolls up on us, and we got a chance to catch up a bit. He was a racer I met in a similarly difficult finale of a race called Hilly Billy. He presented more motivation and we pressed on more vigorously up the last stretch. After 4 hours and 35 minutes of racing, and 20 minutes spent on the side of the course, I crossed the line. It was not a great result as I pegged the 21st spot in my category, but the numbers didn’t lie and the day had been in the top 10 of my strongest for the whole year; beyond the limits of what I thought was possible.
Don’t imagine your limits, find them.
Focus, hunger, fitness; you need all three to race well. If you're missing one, forget it. We all have days that just don't go as we would like. For me, the Fairhill Classic was one of those days. But to rewind, the day before it wasn't either. I was on a local Friday morning ride, one I have done every Friday for years, with the same group of riders. We were on a quiet road when a car crossed the double line and struck two of my friends. head on. The driver fled the scene but thankfully was later arrested. My friends were lucky, though they suffered very serious injuries, they will live. Life is not guaranteed and while that reminder is helpful, its never one you want to be forced to think about.
Fast forward 24 hours later and I was toeing the line at the Fairhill Classic marathon race. As the last MASS race of the year, the field was stacked and riders were hungry. My mind however, was elsewhere, still spinning from Fridays events. I pulled it together and hoped for the best. We started, fast and furious for a 2 mile prologue. 340w for the first 11 minutes furious. The group quickly splintered in the single track and I began to realize what this race was not going to be my best.
This season has been great for me. With only one "bad" race at the Cheat Mt Ultra due to a mechanical (when a stick broke my XO1 derailleur on the Epic World Cup), I was a bit overdue to make a mistake. Long distance racing is tricky. Lots of pieces need to come together perfectly in order to have a good day, let alone win. So when one goes wrong and you don't sort it out quickly, things can spiral downhill fast. I wasn't focused, I made a nutritional blunder, and the problems began.
My stomach was giving me some issues that morning. I wasn't very careful about what I had eaten for dinner and was feeling the effects. I was hoping I could ride off the discomfort or drink enough Infinit GoFar to counter it, but that was wrong. After the first hour I was beginning to suffer as the GI issue was pairing up with my other thoughts, distracting me from the task at hand. While you're racing, focus not only helps you stay in the game mentally, but it helps you push your body to its absolute limit. Not only was I now distracted, I was now unable to hold water and calories down.
I tried everything I could until about half way, but I was losing the battle. I couldn't take in anything and it was making everything worse. My heart rate was still up as I pushed but my watts were plummeting; I was unraveling. I simply didn't have the energy to pedal. I began going backwards through the field until I crossed the line for 12th, a full 30 minutes behind the winner.
Certainly not my day, or two days really. Hopefully I'll learn from them and promptly forget them.
Saturday was a 4 hour race at Stoudts brewery in PA. The course had been designed specifically for this race, and it was awesome. It reminded me of the World Cup XC races I watch that happen in Europe with courses that have everything. Switch back climbs, super rocky technical sections, tight off-camber downhill turns, rock bridges, steep climbs, shallow climbs, and even two ramps on the course. Midway through each lap they even had a section for specators to watch riders coming through one of the more difficult parts of the course, and much like a cyclocross race, they were heckling and cheering like mad. It was great. I elected to go solo for the 4 hours as opposed to doing a 2 or 4 man team. We lined up mid morning for a Le-Mans start (running to your bike) and I immediately learned I don't start very fast that way. I made up a few spots on the first climb but got stuck behind a few riders at some tight turns. Two riders jumped hard and I later learned it was Nick Sears who was leading. I chased furiously as I was not ok losing time to him on the very first lap. Going into the third or fourth lap, I was sitting on the wheel of second, still pushing a fast pace... thats when I learned Sears was apart of a duo, as was the guy in front of me; they would be trading out with their partners at the end of the lap.
Relieved I wouldn't be chasing Sears all day, but also worried now about all the matches I just burned, I dialed things back and kept on trucking. A last minute course change meant the course was only 1.3 miles as opposed to 2.4 miles, that meant we were in for a TON of laps over four hours. I tried not to think about it, put my head down, and pedaled.
I ended up doing 31 laps. 31 climbs up the totally exposed switchbacks, 31 trips through the rock gardens, 31 off-camber/loose dirt turns. It was a long 4 hours. Every minute that passed seemed to bring even more heat. I wasn't prepared, and by midway through the race, I was getting worried. I was drinking Infinit so my hydration was great, but more core temperature was still going up and there is only so much water you can take in before feeling sloshy. When I stopped for more bottles after 2 hours, I grabbed some ice from my cooler and placed it in as many places in my kit as possible to cool me down. That worked wonders and within 15 minutes, I was feeling good again!
But, the race went on. I had no idea where I was in the solo field, but I wasn't getting passed much, so I figured that was a good sign. As my endless laps went by, my mind slumped more and more. The heat was oppressive, and the course required maximum focus on the tricky sections of rocks and turns. I started focusing on the good things to keep my legs pushing.
Bike: I can't recall a more perfect race for the Specialized World Cup Epic. I needed a smooth locked out suspension for the climbs immediately after flying out of the rock gardens. But since the rocks were designed for the race, they made them tough! Rear suspension was a life saver as we tried all day to find some sort of efficient line through the various fields. The terrain went from packed gravel, to soft grass, loose dirt, and on to sharp rocks. People were flatting all day and shredding tires. But, as usual, the Specialized tires were flawless.
Nutrition: When you're starting to lose focus in a long race, nutrition is typically the first thing that suffers. Almost immediately after that, you begin to suffer more because you don't have the calories/liquids you need. I always use Infinit when I race. For Stoudts, I had 3 bottles of GoFar and 1 of Jet Fuel. It's so easy to take in, that it has become a mechanical part of my riding. I train with it, and make sure I'm used to always getting those calories in so that during races, I don't ever think about it. So when things start to slip, my nutrition stays completely rock solid with Infinit. I couldn't be happier with this stuff. Its just awesome.
Friends: There is nothing like have friends at a race cheering you on. There were a bunch of Twenty20 folks there racing and FatMarc Vanderbacon was kind enough to give me splits in the later half of the race so I knew what was happening behind me. Fellow Rare Disease Cycling teammate Kathleen Harding was also there racing and cheering hard for me! I got to ride with her for a brief bit when our laps coincided and wow, she sure can fly! Her husband, Ron Harding, was paired up with Nick Sears and they crushed the Duo category, and were even kind enough to give me water after I ran out! It was awesome seeing all of them there.
The day wore on and I was told I had over a lap on second place. That was great to hear, but one flat tire or broken chain, could have blown that lead. So I stayed steady, trying to shut the door, and leave it all out there. I managed to do just that and finished 31 laps in 4:07, good for 1st in the solo category!
The race production was exceptional and the course was really fun (albeit a bit short). Big thanks to the promotors, volunteers, photographers (Don Pagano) and the hecklers, it was awesome.
When I decided to do the Patapsco 33 at 11:30pm the night before the start, I knew it would either turn out to be a very good decision or a disastrous one. I was away for the July 4th holiday and ended up getting back early, putting me back in Baltimore at 2am the morning of the race. I love the trails of Patapsco and after hearing all the good things about the race from those who went out for the inaugural race last year, I decided I just had to try it. So, 2 hours of sleep later, I was back up and heading to the start. The day turned out to be a true battle; I battled others, the trails, my mind and body. It really can't be overstated, AFC does an incredible job with this race. They're obviously racers themselves because they have all of the important parts of a race dialed perfectly. And its only their second year having the race! The aid volunteers were excited, motivated and encouraging. The course marking could not have been any better. And the trails, well, we all owe a huge thanks to Ed Dixon who put in thousands of hours the past two years making the trails ridable and ready. He was even out at 8:30pm the night before clearing a new tree that had fallen on the course that is 99% single track! The course really is incredible.
Given the shorter format than usual, I elected to just take 3 bottles of Infinit GoFar with me on course, and roll through the aid stations in order to save time. That strategy worked out perfectly, as I felt energized and sharp the whole race. This would've been a good course for a camelbak though, as the unrelenting terrain was a bit tough to sneak drinks in! Twenty20 actually hooked me up with some really cool Specialized Purist bottles recently that have some sort of coating inside that keeps your fluids from tasting plasticky, which is really nice! I loved that during the race.
With a tough course ahead, the start line was ominous. To add to the impending pain awaiting me, I line up next to none other than Chris Eatough, former 7 time 24 hour mountain bike world champion! I readjusted my expectations and presumed it would be a race for second. Given my training though, I felt confident I could race well and get somewhere in the top 5. Chris Beck had prepared me for months for these moments.
At the start, Chris Welsh (Diamondback), Eatough and I got an immediate gap in the opening single track. We ripped the first sections, flying over the most technical and narrow sections of the course. Eatough and Welsh were taking more risks on the technical descents than I was willing to and were getting separation that I would push to make up on the climbs.
Then, unfortunately, Eatough flatted and had some issues with his flat kit, taking him out of our group. Welsh was up the trail a bit, so I dug in and pushed the climbs even harder to get him back. I reeled him in finally and we began working together on some of the flat sections to try and hold off the image of a charging world champion behind us. The trails were super fast, with just enough moisture to keep them tacky, but not enough to slow you down. I was worried my tires wouldn't be aggressive enough running a Fast Trak in the front and a Renegade in the rear, but I couldn't have been happier. The format of the race, 3ish hours, is just long enough to be endurance, but just short enough to require full gas racing. That meant every section was taken full speed and all energy saved was vitally important. I rode my Specialized Epic World Cup and was very pleased. Out of the saddle the brain was locked out, but over the rocks and roots (that seemed never ending) it just floated. At one point even Welsh remarked he was jealous!
Right around the half way point, Welsh and I had slowed a bit as we rolled along some flatter sections of flowy trail near a river. I came around him and put down a long effort to speed things up, thinking we might be leaving ourselves open to getting caught. Immediately a little gap opened, so I drove it hard to see what I could do. Welsh didn't respond and I started drilling the climbs even harder to make the gap permanent.
One thing I loved about the course was that it was never boring. Every section was different and relatively short, so the terrain was changing constantly. This minute you might be climbing a rocky single track, and the next you were flying on a smooth, flat, flowy track. I did hear some folks comment that the constant changes lead to them having difficulty seeing. Sometimes it would be super bright and sunny, and moments later you were in thick woods where it was much darker. I was wearing the Spy Daft's and found them to be perfect the whole race, even for the early morning start.
Leading a race with 90 minutes to go is anything but relaxing. With no idea whats going on behind you, its really stressful. Such was my lot for the remainder of the race. My mind played constant games on me, taunting me into slowing down. I pushed and pushed as hard as I dared hoping I wouldn't blow up before reaching the finish line. I turned into the park onto the final climb (3rd of a mile at 11%) and couldn't see any chasers. That was it, the top spot was in the bag in 3:05:30. I sat up and took the ride through the park nice and easy to enjoy the victory; a nice taste of redemption after last week! Every race is a learning experience and I learned some new things about myself that day, especially how I handle stress! Talking to myself to maintain a positive but focused perspective was huge.
All in all, it turned out to be a great decision to race, even if it was a tough battle. Not only did I get the win, but I got to ride with tons of friends who were racing various distances or volunteering on course. It was such a fun day, I can't recommend the race enough!
The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
This year has been different than I planned. Unavoidable circumstances sidelined me from racing for May and June just as the season was getting underway. Life shifted again, opening me back up to the opportunity to race. So last week I quickly found some races and got to planning how to get a few more races in before the season finished up. First up would be a 38 mile race in the steep mountains of WV.
I arrived at the race site about an hour before the start. My Specialized Epic WC was ready to roll compliments of Twenty20 with fresh ESI grips to ensure comfort. I mingled with some of the other racers to gauge who I should be watching for, as the only familiar face I saw was Gunnar Shogren. We set out from the staging area for a 40 minute neutral start to where the course began; at the edge of a 3 mile, 1,700’ climb.
The race began and it was immediately a hot pace. The field exploded immediately as we were pushing upwards of 450w for the first few minutes. As the pack thinned the leaders emerged in Bradley Schmalzer and Don Powers. Not being local I was happy to pace off of the guys who knew the climb and we settled into a healthy pace up the mountain. After a mile, I glanced over my shoulder and found that Brad had dropped back to a chasing pack and it was just Don and I about 5 seconds up. Don was single speed and climbing well doing the pacing. He looked over at me near the half way point so I took that as my cue to set the pace for a while. I went to the front and immediately heard him drop back a bit, so, I attacked. I got a few seconds on him immediately, but minutes later he was back.
The gap to the chasers was growing, and as we crested the top of the climb, we had about 20 seconds. We were gassed, 17 minutes of full on effort isn’t the easiest way to start a long race. When Don eased a bit to get a breather at the top, I saw my opportunity, and hit it hard. The reprieve of climbing was short, and the next few miles were a rolling gravel road with shorter climbs. Having no idea what the single track would be like, I wanted to ensure I arrived first. I tucked down, and kept the pressure on.
I pushed and pushed around every corner until Don was out of sight and at least a minute back. No chasers in sight. I was flying and my legs were feeling great. I got to the first single track and dropped into the mostly downhill trail. It was rocky, mushy, with tons of roots and moss. Very pacific northwest like. A few minutes from the next climb, plans shifted. A stick jumped into my drivetrain, breaking my rear derailleur, and ending my day.
Sitting in the mud trying to fix something (that can’t be fixed) watching your competitors ride by is demoralizing to say the least. In the first 9 miles I had put 2 minutes on two of the former winners, all for nothing.
The best laid plans of mice and men...
But, a week later, I would get my redemption.
Patience is a virtue, so they say.
In endurance mountain bike racing, anything can go wrong. Over the course of 9 hours there is plenty of time for your bike to break, for your body to revolt against you, for you to lose focus and crash, or to simply become unmotivated. To do well, you need all of those things, and more, to not happen.
The Cohutta 100 is a mountain bike race in the Cohutta wilderness area that sits between the Tennessee and Georgia border. It is a 100 mile race that climbs 14,000 feet and descends just as much in its mostly out and back format. Charles Nelson does a fantastic job every year putting the race on and the volunteers are exactly what you’d expect from an NUE race: energetic, helpful and fantastic.
A week before the race, one of the best mountain bike pros in the country, Jeremiah Bishop, announced he would be starting. That deepened the field significantly and promised to make the race even harder. There were over 150 open mens racers, a bunch of singlespeeders, women, and masters (50+) on the line to make a field of just about 250. The gun went off, and we began.
You never want to go very hard when you’re racing all day. It’s all about being steady for hours. But at the beginning of a race like this, starting slowly can lead to getting caught in traffic at tight sections of trail. So, when the gun went off, the front few rows hit it hard. After 2 miles of fairly steady climbing on the road, the 250 person field was strung out. The lead pack was about 15 strong as we headed into the first single track. We wound and weaved all over the mountain side and the pack thinned further. Around mile 10, my Rare Disease Cycling teammate Rob Spreng led the group of 8 as we entered a series of fast tight downhill sections. I sat 7th wheel and slowly began losing contact as Rob, Jeremiah Bishop, Gordon Wadsworth, Gerry Pflug, Chris Michaels and Andy Rhodes ripped through the trails faster than I was willing to go.
It is at these precise moments that you have a very important decision to make. Do you turn on the gas and burn precious energy closing the gap that has formed? Or, do you be patient, settle into your all day pace, and trust that is the smartest thing to do? It’s a hard decision to make. You’re in a race, you can see your competition just a few seconds up the trail! But closing that gap down, however small it is, will hurt you at hour 7 and beyond. So, I settled in, and waited.
Fast starts are great. They set you up to move easily through all the opening miles of track. But, it also means that there are a lot of fast guys behind you, and you will get passed ALL DAY by the overly zealous. That is exactly what happened. Around mile 16 the single track ended and a few guys came by me chasing the leaders. I tried to remember the day ahead, and keep my pace steady. “Maybe I’ll catch them later” I told myself.
Then I was alone. Riding, churning out mile after mile, just by myself. Around mile 21, Brian Toone (a very strong rider from Alabama), came up on me and we worked together to get to the bottom of the huge climb of the day. When the route got steeper I said my farewells to Toone and he rolled away from me up the mountain. This climb would rise steadily from miles 23 to 48, and gain about 7,000 feet
A few miles later, Garth Prosser, snuck up on me (literally) to try to scare me. He gave me a slight push and startled me; he got me good! We talked for a minute and he relayed no one was even close behind us which was great to know. He motored on and I once again had to fight the urge to up the pace. “Patient, be patient,” I kept telling myself.
In such a long race, you lean heavily on various things and are forced to trust (sometimes blindly). I had to trust that even though I hadn’t done many long rides this year, that my coach Chris (of Chris Beck Racing) had prepared me well for the race. I had to trust my nutrition strategy would fuel me well into the late hours of the race. I had to trust that my SRAM drivetrain would keep shifting well, not get jammed, or loose. I trusted that my Specialized Epic would keep me stable on the 45 mph downhills of the race. A week before the race I had flashbacks to last year when my brakes were failing towards the end, so I went to Twenty20 and they tuned them perfectly to ensure I was ready to go. All the variables spin through your head and separating from them, turning your mind off and pressing on is all you can do.
I was feeling steady like I was climbing strong, but at mile 40, Roger Masse and Jesse Kelly (two of my RDC teammates) rolled up on me like I was on an easy Sunday ride. This time, I forgot patience and upped my pace to stay with them. My heart rate jumped as my power spiked as a result, and I soon realized this was not smart. So again, I backed off and watched them pedal away. More people passed. It was getting discouraging. Patience.
Mile 48 brings elation and the biggest smile to your face. The climbing is done (temporarily) and it’s time to head down the mountain to the turn around. I ripped my way down the long descent and finished the single track that is the turn around. Almost immediately, the road turns back up for 7 miles of steep climbing to go back the way you came. I was promptly passed, AGAIN, by two riders. I was about 5 hours in at that point and the thoughts of holding back didn’t even cross my mind. My pace was set, there was no upping it now.
I pressed on steadily, trying to stay out of the way of the many racers now coming down the mountain in my direction. I picked my way up the climb slowly and deliberately, searching for the best traction on the steep pitches. I passed some gorgeous overlooks and enjoyed them greatly. It was a beautiful day; cloudless, 75 degrees, and relatively low humidity. What a great day to ride a bike
Towards the top of the climb, to my confusion, I saw Greg Rittler descending toward me. He had missed a poorly marked turn and ended up doing an additional 14 miles and 2000 feet of climbing! Bummer! He flew past down the mountain and I continued on my way up. Reaching the top of the second climb is a huge weight lifted off of your shoulders. The hardest part of the day is over. My spirits lifted a bit and I began my meandering back towards the long downhill. A few riders came into view and a few riders passed. My mind had lost track of my position so I simply focused on keeping my heart rate steady, riding fast and smart. At this point in the race, the only thing left you can do is make sure your nutrition is rock solid. Any lapse you have in your intake, any hesitation in drinking and eating can take you from a good race to a horrible race. I always use Infinit for every race. It gets you the calories and the fluids all at once. Simple, no thinking required. Thankfully, it was working like it always does: flawlessly.
Down the mountain I flew and after what seemed like an eternity, I was back at mile 85. Exhausted and losing focus, my previously positive mental state was deteriorating quickly. I actually prayed that I would zone out for the final miles which features many little climbs, and that’s exactly what happened. Until mile 90.
I was content with my day. I had ridden consistently and hadn’t made any mistakes. I felt rough but knew the finish was within reach. Just then, Brian Toone rode up next to me. “What are you doing here?” I asked. It turns out he had missed the same turn Greg had! Such a disappointment. He seemed to be in good spirits and promptly continued on his way much faster than I.
I glanced over my shoulder and a Toyota rider was about 30 seconds back. Until this point, I was content to hold my pace and not really “race” anyone all day. But then, the competitiveness turned on, I zoned out (as requested!) and I drilled it.
Out of the saddle I hammered the climbs, pushing 30% harder than I had been all day. My heart rate jumped up and I began flying. The pain faded to the background, and I was dead set on not getting passed again. Instead, I began picking up riders. One by one they appeared around turns, head down, legs heavy, slogging their way towards the finish. I passed as quickly as I could, and saw Toone again as we entered the final single track. Being primarily a road racer, he doesn't get the same training time in tight single track and was very gracious to let me come by. I was racing scared, afraid to be caught by anyone and the fear propelled me forward. Every twig snapping, every bird chirp sounded like someone’s drive train coming up on me. I pushed and pushed.
The final descent came and I did it a full minute faster than I ever had before. I trusted my tires (Fast Trak/Renegade) to their complete limit, hoping no one would be able to match the pace. Toone was on my mind as I came out on the final 2 mile stretch of road the finish. He’s got a lot of power that is hampered by single track, but when he hits that road section, I knew he would be crushing it. So I put my face on the bars, tucked down as low as I could, and hammered with everything I had left.
I crossed the line in 8:32 which was good enough for 7th place. I was thrilled. I had hoped for a top 10, so 7th was a nice reward for the dig I put in over the last 10 miles! Jeremiah Bishop ended up taking the win with my teammate Rob Spreng finishing 2nd on the day. Gerry Pflug also had a great ride taking 4th in the singlespeed even after getting lost for 30 minutes. Roger Masse bagged 2nd in the masters (which was a tough field) and Jesse Kelly had a solid ride finishing inside the top 15.
It was a hard day, and a battle. But, in the end, the patience paid off.
The Bakers Dozen is a 13 hour race in Leesburg, Virginia. A very popular race in Virginia, it sells out every year and typically draws some good competition. This year, I planned to try the race for the first time as part of a 3 man relay. We would take turns doing a single lap at a time to try to get as many laps in over the 13 hours as possible. I joined up with Patrick Traill and Ethan Frey to see how we could do against the field. Last year’s winners, Rocktown Racing, did 21 laps in 13:09. We were shooting to get 22 (8.5 mile) laps in, and with that, hopefully lock up first. A relay over 13 hours is tricky. On one hand, its an endurance race as you’re racing all day. On the other hand, each lap is a separate race where you are pushing yourself to the limit, with fairly large breaks in between. I talked to my coach Chris Beck (Chris Beck Racing) beforehand and he basically told me to go as hard as I could every lap, and to simply rest in between. So that is what I did, and it turned into doing 7 laps as hard as I could.
The race began and our first guy, Ethan Frey, led us out. He passed things off to Patrick Traill next, and I rounded things out on lap 3. They told me my job as the last guy was to make sure we made the cutoff for 22 laps. If we were close on our 20th lap, I needed to be able to go out and fly so that Ethan could go out for the 22nd lap. Great, noo pressure!
My first lap could be described as a traffic jam. Since Ethan and Patrick had ridden so fast the first two laps, we were now catching up to and lapping other teams and solo riders, so I was in a constant state of passing, slowing to pass, or speeding back up. Additionally, having never ridden the course, I was learning the hard way just how tight some turns were, how to go over and through certain rocky sections and when to hit the gas. When I started, I knew we were a bit behind Haymarket, a team of very strong local pros, and last year’s winner, Rocktown. Shortly after starting I reeled in Rocktown and passed, but in the process picked up a nice train of racers who sat on my wheel and paced. I finished the first 2/3 of the course and accelerated to gap my train a bit to give Ethan a bit of a heads start on Rocktown going into lap 4. It worked and we had a tiny bit of breathing room.
As the laps wore on, Haymarket kept getting further and further up the road. We had the perfect pit location that was in a spot that the course passed twice thanks to Joe's Bike Shop. The first time you passed it, the next lap rider knew they had about 8 minutes until you would be back and ready to transition. So we could sit, eat/relax, and wait for the first pass, then gear up, warm up and get ready to roll again. This was also great as we could see how far ahead and behind the competition was on any given lap. Going into my second lap (our collective 6th lap) I knew two things: Haymarket was riding faster than we were, and Rocktown and the Old Line Velo teams were right with us.
I began my second lap and the crowds had thinned just slightly. I went into the woods right behind Tony Vacchino, an OLV racer who happens to be one of best technical riders I have ever seen. He was absolutely flying through the course, taking turns faster than I would have thought possible, going over rocks with seemingly no effort. Following him was very educational as I learned the best way around everything. Each time we’d pass someone though, he’d get around them first and put in a little dig. A gap would form between us and I’d have to claw my way back to keep him in sight. Rocktown was nowhere to be seen at that point, so it was just me chasing OLV. As we approached the pits, I attacked Tony but he was waiting for it and I couldn’t shake him free. We entered the Pines (the last 1/3 of the lap) and Tony jumped in front and upped the pace. I latched on and we flew through this fast section of the course, averaging over 14 mph. Leaning through every turn, ducking under branches, around tree trunks it felt like a race track. Confidence is vital for survival at such speeds. You have to know your hands aren't slipping off the bar, and that your tires are not going to break free and lose traction. With Specialized tires and ESI grips, I didn’t think twice about it. Eventually we both dialed it back, seeing we were glued together, and chatted a bit as we finished up our respective laps, acknowledging the good battle we had on the lap.
7th, 8th, my turn again. Going out on the 9th lap, I knew we had a little gap over OLV and were widening our margin over Rocktown who was sitting in 4th. Not wanting to battle with Tony again, or to give them any hope of pulling us back to take back 2nd, I dug deep on my 3rd lap. At this point, I’d put in about 70 minutes of all-out effort during the day, and it wasn’t easy to get the engine warmed up again. But after about 3 minutes of feeling terrible, your legs come back and you start to feel good again. I pushed and pushed the whole lap hoping to not see Tony coming up behind me. When racing all out, you are shifting constantly. Up, down, two up, back down. You are essentially pushing your drivetrain to its absolute limit so as to be as efficient as possible. But, as expected, mine performed flawlessly all day, unlike many I saw on the trail side trying to coax life back into their various mechanical issues. Thanks to Twenty20 and SRAM for the great XO1 system! I finished my lap, utterly exhausted, ate and drank and almost fell asleep in our pit tent.
The 12th lap came all too quickly and my body was feeling a bit haggard. Muscles were tightening, energy was depleted. The sun was getting hot, more than forecasted and dehydration was setting in. I set out hard, just like the other laps, but I hoped to settle into a pace more reasonable given that I still had 4 laps to go, and many hours remaining. I was able to hold a steady pace through the lap, and was particularly happy to find the crowds had thinned a bit finally and passing was becoming easier. I focused on the positives of the day to keep me pushing hard. My Epic World Cup had been flawless, and with the course being so fast, having full suspension was a back saver! After finishing the lap I inhaled as much food as possible, and drank a ton of water. Midway through a 13 hour race, I couldn’t afford to feel how I did. I needed salt, calories and water. I checked the live results that Go Time Racing provides and saw that we were close to 12 minutes back from Haymarket, and only a minute or so up on OLV, with Rocktown a few more minutes back.
My energy began coming back and I started to feel better when it was time for lap 15 (my 5th). Our lead over OLV was growing but a single flat tire, broken chain, or any mechanical issue could wipe that lead out instantly. I focused on riding carefully on the rocks so as to avoid flatting. I entered the woods with a rider from the “geezer” Haymarket team (they had two teams) and realized a guy perhaps double my age was holding my pace with seemingly no effort. That irked me a bit but there was nothing I could do to lift my pace through the technical part of the course. While we were competing in different categories, he in the above 40 category they affectionately dubbed the “geezer” category, there was still overall honors to consider. So when we hit the last 1/3 of the course I floored it, and finally was able to shake my shadow. The Haymarket "geezer" team had a really great showing and ended up winning their category!
The day drew on and I felt better and better physically. My legs were dying a slow death, but I wasn’t hungry or thirsty anymore; a very good sign your body isn’t shutting down. A 13 hour race that starts at 9am in April is guaranteed to end in the dark, so when my 6th lap came up we were right on the edge of needing lights. I put them on my bike and hoped I wouldn’t need them. Riding in the dark, even with the brightest lights slows you down, and I wasn’t interested in seeing less and increasing my risk of crashing. I rode out and had probably the most enjoyable lap of the day. I rode hard, but was able to watch the sun set through the trees as I rode around the course. I didn’t have to navigate around many groups and was able to ride mostly alone as I worked my way back to the transition area. I was smiling, soaking it all in. I was riding a bike on a gorgeous day with a bunch of friends. What a gift.
It was dark. Small camp fires were popping up all over the farm that was our race course for the day. The mood was good as the end was now in sight for everyone. I waited impatiently for my last lap, and was excited when my turn came. I had about 60 minutes to get my 7th lap in (our 21st) so that Ethan could go out for a 22nd before the 10pm time cut off to start another lap. Haymarket was long gone with something like 15 minutes on us (so we thought), OLV had slowed and were about 7 minutes adrift and Rocktown was even further. I was happy the pressure had lifted and I started onto my lap, lights ablaze, and with a higher contrast yellow lens in my Spy Daft glasses. Doing the course 6 times that day, you start to memorize everything. Every rock, root, turn, log. What the traction is like here, what’s the best way over that rock there; it all becomes second nature, which makes riding it at night a bit easier. I glided through the course and watched the other lights of other racers dance through the trees. It was like magic, I could’ve enjoyed that for hours. I passed our pit once more before finishing the last 1/3 of the lap and shouted a heads up to Ethan that I was 8 minutes out. Once more through the fast section and I was done.
Ethan finished our 22nd lap and powered all the way through to the end, shutting the door on OLV finally and securing our place on the 2nd step of the podium. We ended up 9 minutes down on Haymarket, 8 minutes up on OLV and 23 minutes up on Rocktown. It was a fantastic day. Patrick, Ethan and I all raced our hearts out. I can't imagine having done the race with a better set of guys.a Sitting around between laps talking to other teams was a ton of fun, and the course was a dream. Go Time Racing did a fantastic job and the 120 pizzas they had delivered at 10:30p was a pretty nice bonus!
With more laps than the winners last year, it was disappointing to not win, but given who we were beat by, we were happy we got as close as we did. It turned out we had raced 10 laps faster than Haymarket but 12 laps slower. Oh well, next year! As the second fastest team of the day, we landed ourselves in the money which was great. Looking back, the course, camaraderie and overall atmosphere of the race put it solidly into the top 3 of my favorite races I’ve done. Big thanks to Go Time Racing who absolutely nailed the execution of this race, and did so without a hitch! What a great day.
Sugar Hill XC draws some of the regions fastest racers. It is fairly common to have multiple pros show up to deepen an already fast field. Last year I paced very poorly and limped in for 22nd place. This year I was hoping for a top 10 finish, but having raced Willowsford the day before, I was thinking that would probably be unrealistic. I did everything I could to rest well and let my legs recover so that I would have something to give. None the less, my coach Chris Beck, pulled me aside before the race and set me straight mentally. I was not there to train, I was there to race to win. Feeling tired I was fully ready to just enjoy myself; Chris set me straight. This is racing: RACE.
The race starts with a brief section of road that funnels into a hard climb where the whole thing blows apart. I immediately realized that even though my heart rate was plenty high, power was lacking from my legs. I came over the top in about 14th, very unusual for me.
The race is run at Patapsco State Park and has a good mix of technical and super smooth trails. The first few miles are fairly smooth and the pace was full bore. I was quickly on the back of a group of two and we rode together for the first lap. About 2/3 the way through you hit the most technical section of the course. It is a rock garden that was muddy, and immediately after you hit a climb with massive roots you have to navigate around and over. It pushes your heart rate to its absolute limit. It was there that I lost contact with my group and began my solo ride.
I was trying to stay very conservative given my condition, knowing I would be racing for over 2 hours, you must pace extremely carefully. I rode steady and alone for the next lap and a half. Towards the end of the second lap, I was feeling very steady and good. There is a long series of climbs and that is where I saw the next guy up the trail. Just then, I came up on Beck. He gave me the split up to Colin Becker of Old Line Velo, and got me motivated to bridge up. I thought it was going to kill me, but I was able to pass Colin right near the top of the climb. I pushed hard as I passed to deter him from getting onto my wheel.
Shortly into the last lap, a spectator gave me a split of 13” up to the next guy. I began catching glimpses of him through the woods and my motivation was on. It took me 4 miles, but in almost the exact same place I caught Colin, I passed the next guy to drop into 12th overall. I ripped the rest of the course trying to hold my spot and finished in 2:03, almost ten minutes faster than last year. Winning the day before, and still pulling off 12th was great. I was happy with my performance.