Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wicked Fun ...

The crazy mass start at 6 Hrs of CP
photo credit: Jennifer Carlson
I rolled over and looked at the clock on the microwave. It was about 5:30. I had planned to get up at 6:00. I'd actually been awake on and off all night, which was odd. I'd done the Something Wicked Six Hours of Cathedral Pines three times before, and I never really have much trouble sleeping the night before races that I know well. But there I was, up and ready to go more than three hours ahead of the start. My hotel was only a few miles from the start, so I took my time getting ready.

If I had to guess why I didn't sleep that well, I'd probably say it was because things had actually gone way too smoothly this time around. That may sound strange, but every other year I've done this race, I've had some kind of drama in the run-up to it. In 2010, I came down with a pretty nasty head cold a day before but decided to race through it anyway. I was jacked up on sinus meds and feeling pretty loopy by the end of the day, but I still had so much fun on the course that I knew I'd found a race I'd return to every year I could. Then, right before the 2011 edition, my fork ceased up and I needed to have it rebuilt, which meant I would be without it for the race. As a stop gap, I picked up a rigid carbon fork and had it installed one day before I left for the race, meaning my first ride on the fork was in the race. It worked out okay in the end, but I was worried that the roots would hammer me (because there are a lot of roots at CP.) In 2013, I took Friday off to drive out to the venue early for a pre-ride and while I was out on the course, my seat post snapped in half and I spent the next few hours first tracking down a seat post that would fit my frame, and then trying to extract the broken piece inside the seat tube that refused to budge. (That worked out, too, thanks to some creative use of a slide hammer by the folks at Rocky Point Cycle.) So this year, when the only thing I had to deal with was a cracked water bottle cage, I had a pretty easy run-up. In fact, I was done with my pre-ride and checked in to my hotel by 4:00 Friday. So maybe I was so restless because I hadn't had any problems to deal with!

I hung around the hotel for about an hour waiting for the breakfast buffet to open. After a quick waffle & egg meal, I loaded up the car and headed to the park. One of the great things about this race is the fact that everyone pits from their car. The course circles a wide open field and we all park on the perimeter. So once you pull up to your spot, you just pop the trunk and set yourself up right behind your car. Having done races where the pit areas were miles from the parking, I can say this is an awesome feature. After six hours of racing, who wants to drag a cooler and possibly more back to a car (especially in the cold)? As I pulled up to my spot, I saw the man himself, Shoogs.

The Cowbell King - Randy "Shoogs" Larrison
photo credit: Gary Hoehne
We discussed how deep the SS field was this year. I'd noticed that when I'd checked the lineup a few days before -- I knew a lot of the names on the list and there were some really strong riders coming out. I wasn't too concerned about that, though, because in all honesty, my only plan for the day was to get 8 laps again (and maybe do it a bit faster than in 2013.) I could have cared less if I came in DFL if I could still pull that off.

It was really cold at the start -- somewhere in the 20's -- but it was supposed to reach the low 40's during the day, so I had some concern about how to dress. I was shivering out of control, though, so layering up won out. Even then, though, I was shivering uncontrollably as I waited for the start.

The start … the start at CP is kind of nuts. It's a mass start with all classes going off at once, and it stages in the lower parking area of the park. Only the "staging" is basically one massive single line across the width of the lot, and on the sound of the gun it's a mad dash for all racers to reach the much narrower road first. Why? Because shortly after we reach the single track about a mile up the road, the first climb causes a miserable bottleneck -- unless you happen to be up near the front. And so that's where everyone wants to be. And it can get pretty hairy -- wheels rub, brakes squeak, angry racers shout, and occasionally someone can go down. I've made it a point of putting out as much effort as necessary to stay out of the fray and get up near the front ever since the first year I did the race, and this year was no different. What was different is that it seemed like a whole lot more of the field had the same idea this year and I had to stay on full gas all the way to the single track just to avoid getting spit out the back.

There was a very brief bottleneck as we turned into the trail but once we got through that, I found myself on a fast moving train of riders. We rolled along for a while, picking off a few quick-starters here and there, and eventually I found myself on the back of a short group of three behind Chris Brawley from NJ and, just in front of me, SS pro Matt Ferrari. I know how strong both of these guys are, so I figured sitting on with them was a good place to be. We rode along for maybe five miles this way and then I dropped my chain for the first of many times over the course of the day. I'm still not sure what loosened it up, but I wasn't about to stop to find out. And even though it took only a few seconds to fix it that first time, I was passed by about 20 riders. But all in all, though, if I have to have a mechanical, I'll take dropping a chain over most others any day because on a SS, it's almost always a very quick fix. Ultimately, I would drop it about 8 times during the course of the day, but in total that may have cost me only a minute or two tops.

Pushing out of the woods
photo credit: Chris Daily
One other thing about the crazy start at CP is that the confusion of everyone running all together makes it more or less impossible to know where you are in your class. And since I was only focusing on chasing 8 laps, I wasn't focused on finding out. I just wanted to stay as fast as possible without blowing myself up. But around my fourth lap, I started to realize that I was on a pretty good pace to hit my goal as long as nothing too major happened and as I came through the Start/Finish area, Scott Rath from the Cadre Crew told me I was in the lead with about a two minute gap  to second place. At first, I was sure that was a mistake. I'd already had to stop 5 or 6 times for my chain, and I was sure I remembered seeing at least one other SSer passing me very early on and I certainly hadn't caught anyone. But I figured it couldn't hurt to stay on my effort either way. And besides, at that point every time I was coming through the Start/Finish, Jody or Jeff form Cadre were yelling at me to go faster on the PA, and it's hard to deny that kind of motivation.

Speaking of motivation, one of my favorite parts of this year's edition of CP was that every time I'd pass through Shoogs' Cowbell Heckle Pit, I'd hear him yell my name and call me a "crusher of souls". Whether or not you agree with the idea that crushing souls is a good thing to do (I happen to be fine with it!) having that yelled at you while you're struggling to go as fast as you can is an undeniable boost! I highly recommend experiencing that at least once in your racing career!

I finished up my 7th lap in about 5:50 or so, ensuring I'd hit my first goal for the day. I was on pace to beat my time from the last year, too, so that pretty much ensured that I'd hit my second goal as well (again, barring disaster.) I still had only seen a few other SSers all day, and those were guys I'd lapped, so I started to wonder if what I'd been told earlier was actually the case. Either way, I wasn't about to leave whatever position I was in to chance. I worked with one of the LWC guys, Don Breon, for the last lap and that kept me moving. I crossed the line in about 6:38, about 4 minutes faster than last year. And they confirmed that I had, in fact, won the SS class! That was really cool. The guy who they'd been warning me about all day came in a few minutes later. I'm glad I never knew for sure because I wouldn't have wanted any reason to do anything differently. I had ridden solid all day, had a lot of fun doing it, got to see a bunch of friends from all over, and ended up with the win. And I also came away with an awesome chain-ring and cog set from Endless Bikes (in orange, no less!) as a special SS prize! That's how you do a race day!

On the SS Podium with Brian Berry (right) and Watts Dixon (left)
And with that, my season is done. It was a long year, and I'm really happy with how it played out. But it's time to take a little time off before next year's training begins in earnest. I really couldn't have asked for a better way to end the year, too!

Huge thanks to Randy, Jeff, Jody, Scott from Cadre and everyone else involved with putting on this race. It's become one of my perennial favorites and I mark it down as a "definite" every year when planning the events I'll attend. It's so well run, and so much fun -- perfect for first time endurance racers and those of us who've been doing them for years. It's definitely one not to miss, and a great way to close out a long season! Whether you want to push yourself for the full six hours, race with teammates, or even just ride a few laps and then hang out for the fun (and post-race chili!), do yourself a favor and don't miss out on this race next year. Hope to see you out there!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

October Racing, Part II

Is this a heart attack or a course profile?

So after Cyclemania at Blue Marsh, I had a weekend off before starting a vacation week. My birthday is in October and I've been taking that off every year for as long as I can remember. It's not even to celebrate my birthday - I've just always loved the fall and by coincidence, my birthday falls in the third week of October, which is usually perfect fall weather. This year, it was actually a pretty awesome birthday, though.

My wife gave me a pretty awesome birthday present this year -- my very own personalized beer crawl. It was actually a Brew Pub tour. Everywhere we went is a brewery. Some of them only brew for serving in-house, and some were larger brewers. But all were friggin' awesome. I can't do it justice, so I'll just let the photos tell the story.

We started the day at Yards near Delaware Ave in Philly ...
… where we were joined by nuns for the Nun Crawl ...

… and got a quick glimpse of heaven.

From there, it was on to Nodding Head a few blocks away. We had lunch there - great food, and their brews (all for in-house service) were awesome. 
Next it was on to Coshohocken, right off the SRT. They have a  tasting room that was really cool. And a fantastic selection (including one of the best IPAs I've had in a long time. Big props to the server for suggesting it!) I will be returning there soon!
Number 4 was another spot that brewed exclusively for in-house service. I had an awesome Dubbel ale here. 
Our final stop was at Ambler's Forest and Main, which looks like a residence, but has a really cool, funky bar area. I loved this place, and their nitrogen pours … very cool!
So, yeah … pretty awesome birthday. I'm a little biased, but I still think it's fair to say Joanna is the best.

During my week off, I had to do a little work to find some rides -- it rained from Tuesday through Thursday here. But on Tuesday, I headed south below the storm to ride the Patapsco 100 course near Baltimore. It's a 33 mile loop that they do three times during the race. (I now understand why there is such a high DNF rate in that race -- that's a brutal course!) And on Thursday, I headed due west to one of my favorite spots - Rattling Creek at Weiser Forest. It was pouring at my house, but it hadn't rained all day out there. I love riding there, so that was a blast.

The hang-glider launch … always a necessary photo op

It was cloudy, but never rained at all

Autumn in Weiser … doesn't get much better ...
All in all, I managed to fit in six rides in seven days. Not bad, especially considering that I was signed up for the Six Hour Relay at Susquehannah on Saturday morning.

Saturday, I drove down to Havre de Grace, MD to the Susquehannah State Park for the race. The promoter, Zach Adams, has put on some pretty cool races in the past, so I was psyched for this one. Like the Blue Marsh race, I'd be racing SS in an open class, which I expected to be the same kind of challenge. But I liked the venue -- it had been years since I raced at Susquehannah. I think the last time was around 2004 or so when they used to have the AMBC Susquehannah Scorcher in the summer. So I probably should have known better when I took Zach's pre-race email at its word when it described the course as having only "... a few punchy climbs …" But I didn't listen to that voice in my head and left my usual 32:18 on the Niner.

It turns out that the course had a shit ton of climbing -- like the first 2/3 of the 6 mile lap was all uphill. And not just uphill -- uphill with tons of water bars. So it was basically like riding up steps for 4 miles. And that can get pretty old after a few hours.

The pre-race meeting was pretty informal, as was the start. Zach finished up his comments on the course and then said, "Okay … GO!" When none of us responded, he said, "I'm serious … GO!" He was serious, too. So I just happened to be standing close to the course entrance, so I jumped on my bike and took off, leading the entire field -- solo and teams -- into the single track.

We hit the first climb and I tried to manage my pace as I popped over the first set of water bars. I was still at the front at the top of the second water bar climb and took a quick glance behind me to see who else was with me. And there was no one there. I mean, no one. I was all alone. I briefly panicked, thinking I must have turned off course. But then I saw another rider far back and figured someone must have held up the group on the water bars. And since I had a lead, I didn't want to waste it, so I started to push a little harder. I kept the effort up, even beating Zach to the first road crossing. I was out front an call alone until I hit the first real descent. At that point another rider finally bridged. He was a much stronger descender, riding a FS bike, and at the bottom of the descent, he was right on my wheel. But I lost him on the last climb, a very loose rock hill with three hop-over water bars near the top, and he wasn't able to catch up on the long descent to the Start/Finish. I crossed the line and headed out on my next lap all alone.

On the second lap, as I passed the road crossing where Zach was directing traffic, all I could manage was a quick, "Lotta climbing out here." He laughed and just said, "Yes there is."

I rode alone for the next three laps, only seeing a few other riders when I caught and lapped them. I was feeling pretty good, but I figured that wouldn't last the full six hours, not with that much climbing. So I wanted to keep the pace up as long as I could. It was either on my sixth or seventh lap when another rider finally ran me down. As he passed, he said, "You're killing it" and I said, "Thanks! Are you solo?" He laughed and said, "No way! I'm duo." At that point, I didn't have the legs to follow him, so I let him go. But I was happy to hear I was still leading the solo. I was a bit worried, though -- all of it was starting to hurt pretty bad, and i was starting to wonder how much longer I could keep it up.

My legs were actually fine. What was really hurting was my back. Or, more specifically, the sweep of my lats from where the tuck into my shoulders right down to the hips. I think this was because of all the  water bars. I was constantly popping the front up and over the berms. And eventually, it just wore my back out. On the seventh lap, every time I pulled up on the bars, my back started to go into a full cramp. And if I tried to relax it, the cramp transferred down into my forearms. It was bad. I was drinking plenty, and like I said, my legs were doing great. But that back pain was getting hard to deal with. I finally had to get off and run a bit rather than try to ride the last water bar climb. I decided this was how I'd have to finish, and also figured it would probably cost me the lead.

My seventh lap was particularly painful. I was cramping every few minutes and had to really focus to keep moving. But I got through it and was able to relax a bit on the long descent to the finish. I started the eighth lap feeling a little recovered, but I did have a few moments of cramping during that lap once again. I was still holding the lead, but I was really hoping I would be able to stop at the end of that lap.

But it wasn't to be. At the end of my eighth lap, I asked the scoring table how much time I had on the second place racer. He told me that at the end of my last lap, I was holding seven minutes. I crossed the line at about 5 hours and 35 minutes or so, so I knew I had to go back out. So off I went.

It's always funny to me how much of a mental game these endurance races can be. Knowing I was now definitely on my last lap, I felt a lot better, and it showed in my lap time. I shaved several minutes off my previous two laps, and never cramped during that last six miles. I was also never caught, so in the end, I crossed the line in 6 hours and 8 minutes with nine laps and the solo open win. I was also second overall out of all racers -- teams and solo combined. It also turned out that the guy chasing me was possibly suffering just as much -- he actually lost time on that eight lap and ultimately never went out for a ninth. I totally understand that -- I was decimated at the finish. I was really happy to have the win, though, and as tough as the course was I really had a blast all day.

Solo Open Podium at the Six Hour Relay @ Susquehannah

Not a bad way to close out a really fun month of racing. I have only one more race to do this year, one of my favorites: The sWe Six Hours of Cathedral Pines. After that, I'll start thinking about next year. I'm not going to plan it all out, but I am going to pick at least a few big events again because I don't want to lose that sense of urgency with respect to fitness. I've been pretty happy with how that worked out this year, so I would kind of like to keep it going (and maybe even raise the bar!) next year.

Until next time, see you on the trails!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October Racing, Part I ...

I raced three out of four weekends in October this year. In my last post, I covered the first race I did this month -- Iron Cross. The following week, I lined up for the four hour endurance class at Blue Marsh Cyclemania, and then this past Saturday, I was down in Maryland for the inaugural Six Hour relay @ Susquehannah.

I've done the Blue Marsh Race almost every year they've had it now, including the last two versions in the endurance class. Blue Marsh is a very fast course with one massive climb up the back of the old ski mountain. That climb is what really makes the race challenging for a single speeder, because the endurance class at Blue Marsh is open -- there are no age groups or separate class for geared vs. single. So it's pretty much a tough road to hoe to make the podium on a single speed because you can't gear for  both the mountain and the flats. What you end up doing is gearing for the fast flat sections and accept that you'll be hiking the big climb. The geared riders don't have to make that choice, so … like I said, tough road on a single speed.

My goals for the race were to ride as fast as I could all day and try to beat as many of the geared riders as possible. I figured I was going to be the only single speeder because that was what had happened the previous time I'd done the endurance race there. In fact, it wasn't until the day before that there were even any other single speeders registered, and that was when Chris from MTBNJ texted me to get some info on the race. I did know that there were at least two geared riders coming who were going to be almost impossible to beat on that course, so I figured that my absolute best case scenario was maybe third. On race day morning, I was happily surprised when Chris brought along Mitch and another friend, Tim, to join the two of us on single speeds for four hours.

The race start at Blue Marsh goes along the contours of a small, slick grassy hill. I knew that the best option was to get out front early if I could because someone always seems to hit the ground on that grass and I wanted to avoid any part of that. So of the start, I went out as hard as I could and led the entire field into the single track. I knew that wouldn't last, but I wanted to avoid as much possible trouble as I could. As it turned out, I stayed near the front for most of the first lap, and at one point took a quick glance backward and realized that we had a small selection up front -- three geared guys, myself and the other single speeder, Tim. I could see Chris charging hard but we had a gap and I figured that even if Chris caught on, we had already put a bunch of the other racers on the defensive.

We lost the lead three geared guys on the mountain as I suspected we would. Chris caught on with Tim and I as we hiked up to the top portion, but the effort seemed to cost him quite a few matches because we dropped him again after the descent. Chris and Mitch had both made a last minute decision to swap out their gears for larger ones right before the start, so they both had to do a lot more work than myself or Tim on the few steep climbs on the course. Personally, I don't mind spinning so I would never have opted for the larger gear and I was happy all day on my 32:18.

Once we left Chris behind, Tim and I pretty much settled in for the rest of the day together. We chased the geared guys, but realized pretty quickly that we were really at a disadvantage on the singles, and eventually we decided that we'd continue to chase but would focus more on holding off anyone chasing us. We worked very well together, and I had a good time chatting with him as we looped around the course again and again. I pretty much sat on the front all day, but that wasn't Tim playing any games. The truth was it worked best that way. I was a little stronger (because of my slightly lighter gear) on the climbs and I get skittish following a wheel too close because I like to see my own lines. Tim was a better bike handler and had no issues sitting on.

There was some confusion at the scoring tent near the end and it ultimately cost Tim and I a final lap, but it all worked out in the end. We were never going to catch the lead three (even though we did get closer than I thought we were) and in the end I crossed the line with Tim for fourth and fifth overall.

PLACE  BIB  FIRST NAME    LAST NAME    Team                                           Age  Finish Time
1      514  GORDON        DAVIES       ELEVEN MADISON PARK / BICYCLE TECH RACING / VTC47   4:14:49
2      517  STEVEN        MANCUSO      CYCLE CRAFT/BULLDOGS                           40   4:15:45
3      512  CHRIS         BRAWLEY      MTBNJ.COM-HALTERS CYCLE                        48   4:18:23
4      515  MARTIN        GRIFFIN      TWIN SIX / BULLDOG MTBERS                      43   3:47:07
5      523  Tim           Borsetti                                                    53   3:47:07
6      521  CHRISTOPHER   SCHILLING    MTBNJ.COM/HALTERS CYCLES                       43   3:57:21
7      518  JOHAN         NEL                                                         44   4:06:23
8      519  JASON         PERRY        HANGSTERFERS LUBRICANTS                        36   1 Lap
9      520  JASON         PILATO       TEAM MARTY'S                                   43   1 Lap
10     511  JOHN          BAUMANN                                                     52   1 Lap
11     522  BRIAN         SHAUB                                                       37   1 Lap
12     555  Mitchell      Gold                                                        55   1 Lap
13     526  Anthony       Groves                                                      40   2 Lap
14     524                                                                            0    3 Lap
15     525  Erika         McEnroe                                                     42   3 Lap

16     516  ROBERT        HIMES        MASON DIXON VELO/THE CYCLE WORKS               40   4 Lap

Next up … Susquehannah ...

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Michauxing ...

Over the last three weeks, I've taken the drive out to Michaux twice, once for the Terror of Teaberry on September 21 and then again this weekend for Iron Cross XII.

I've had a weird relationship with Michaux for years - I love riding there, but it seems that almost every time I race there, something unusual happens. The first time I raced The Curse of Dark Hollow, I was maybe ten miles in when my bottom bracket housing separated from the frame on my carbon OCLV. And a few years ago, at the Michaux Trail Cup, I missed a turn and rode seven miles out into the woods before I found my way back. This year's Teaberry was no exception.

This was my first time racing the Teaberry race. I've done both of the other two in the Michaux Endurance Series in the past (Michaux Maximus in the Spring and The Curse of Dark Hollow in the Summer.) And having done those two and then hearing the Teaberry was the toughest race in the series ... well, my curiosity was peaked.

I should have just ignored my curiosity.

I was a bit tired before the race. I think part of it was the inevitable slow down that came after SM100 this year. I was still riding a ton, but it was on top of continued long hours at work, and there was definitely less urgency to training as other priorities took the forefront for a while. That's not an excuse - fact is, I actually felt okay on the start. And on the roll out, I was pretty close to the front. But then, not three miles into the race, my legs just stopped working. It wasn't anything dramatic. It wasn't like I cramped up or anything like that. It was just … empty legs.

I tried to make a go of it, but the course wasn't going to allow that. If you're going to have a bad day, it's best not to do it at Teaberry. I was within reach of the podium but really not feeling like I could bridge the gap. I would occasionally catch a view of my rabbit on dirt roads but could never seem to get close enough to pull him in. And then I came to a rocky v-drop section and had to dismount and when I put my foot down in the middle of it, I stepped right on a bee's nest. A disturbed, angry bee's nest. I looked down and my right foot was covered in them. And then they started stinging. I screamed and started to frantically swat them away and then ran away as fast as I could. I'd later count eight stings. I was lucky I'm not allergic (a fact I was not aware of before it happened.) 

After that, I was done. I just had no race left in me. I rode out the rest of the course and hiked half the last (awful) climb. I just wanted to get out of there. No one passed me the rest of the way, so I rolled into the finish in fourth place having averaged about 7 mph for the last 15 miles. Meh. 

I've thought a bit about why I just couldn't psyche myself up to really move that day -- was I burned out from earlier in the season? Was I just having a bad day? In all honesty, I think a lot of it was the course itself. It's a beautiful course, for sure -- the first few miles alone go through a wildly scenic section of the forest. But it's one of the most frustrating courses I've ever ridden. On most courses, even most really tough courses, you get a payoff for the suffering -- like the swooping descents in the SM100, or the ridge line single track at the Stoopid 50. Not at Teaberry. At Teaberry, there weren't any payoffs. Just more suffering. A long slog of a climb topped out with a mile long rock garden. Or a bone-rattling rocky descent ended with a slog through a loamy trail. (Loamy trails are the bane of any single speeder.) Okay, so there was definitely some fun sections on that course -- the "waterfall" rock garden was a blast. But even the fun sections were tough enough that you had to stay completely focused to survive them. And don't get me wrong -- I'm not actually complaining.  I actually think it's pretty impressive that a course could be so relentlessly tough and I'm sure there are plenty of racers out there who think this is the only way we should ever race. I think I just hit a perfect storm of low motivation, bad legs, ridiculously tough, tech course, and … bees. I didn't have a mental game at Teaberry so when things got tough, I didn't break down but I did just kind of shut down. I didn't race so much as I just rode my bike after the bee incident. Until then, I was fighting myself to keep racing. After that, I admitted defeat. Like I said, meh. Will I go back? If you asked me that in the days following the actual race, I'd have said "no way". Now? Not sure. Part of me thinks I left something unfinished. So … maybe.

At any rate two weeks later I was back in Michaux, albeit in a completely different section of the forest,  for Iron Cross XII. I did IC last year for the first time and had an absolute blast, so it was on my radar from all the way back at the beginning of the season. In fact, besides Leesburg, CP and the SM100, it was probably the only other race that was a "definite" for me. In '13, I finished in 5:30, so this year I really wanted to get 5 hours.

The course is about 90% gravel and/or paved road with a little bit of single track thrown in, and you can reasonably ride a cross bike or a mountain bike. I ride my mountain bike since my cross bike isn't a SS and that's the class I want to race. In fact, I think a mountain bike is faster -- you can really let loose on the gravel descents and it's obviously better for the few single track sections. 

The course is advertised as a 100K, but that K actually stands for "Kuhnometers", as the promoter Mike Kuhn likes to say -- could be more, could be less than a true 100K. In the case of IC, it's quite a bit more - about 68 miles. I figured five hours on a SS for 68 miles would be a bit aggressive for me (since there is also about 7000 feet of climbing), so I knew I was in for a pretty good effort. The course itself is basically two loops that meet at the start finish, and the hardest part of the course comes in the second loop. So I knew I'd have to get off to a good start to build a cushion if I was going to meet my goal.

In fact, the start was freezing!! Temps were in the high 30's, expected to get up into the high 50's and I thought I was dressed well for the day. But at the start, I was shivering uncontrollably and felt awful. In fact, I was so stiff from shivering that it took me a good ten miles of riding before I felt like I loosened up at all, and it was on the walk-up at about 20 miles before I got feeling back in my hands. 

But despite not feeling good at the start, I did feel pretty good as soon as I got moving. I was a bit stiff, yes, but I was able to use the MTB to advantage in the early power line descent and got ahead of the crowd of CXers who had to take it slower down the rutted, rocky trail. Being cold may have even helped because I pushed harder to try to warm up. I settled in once I got past the first real single track section and started to feel better as I rolled along the highway into Caledonia. And then I really started to feel pretty good after doing the walk-up climb with Matt Falwell, another SSer (and the ambassador from KY for this year's SSCXWC!) 

The walk-up … oye! To picture what the walk-up at IC, imagine riding your bike along a path that ends at a skyscraper. Your only option to go over the top of it -- you can't go around it. That's kind of like the walk-up. It's a brutally steep hike of about a quarter mile long that is filled with rock and log steps. It's an awful climb that I wouldn't want to do if I was just hiking, much less with a bike on my shoulder. But it eventually ends, and then things get fun for a while.

I started to feel really good at that point -- the hike had warmed me up, and there was a screaming descent to enjoy before doubling back through the start/finish area to start the second loop. I had been going back and forth with another SSer for a while, and as he caught me about five miles into the second loop, he mentioned that I could have ridden away from him if I was running a bigger gear (my gear was 32:18), but I told him that I had thought about that and decided to stay with my easier gear, because even though I was spun out on the roads, the climbs that were ahead were going to make me glad with the gear I chose. 

And that was largely true. I felt pretty good on most of the climbs (and even took the beer hand up at Larry's Tavern!) In fact, I was right on pace for my goal right up until the second to last climb. I lost a little bit of time there because I was really tiring out and that climb feels endless -- it doesn't really change grade for about 6 miles. It's just a miserable section to ride that late in the day. I definitely slowed down, but I never went "dark" -- I kept my focus and knew I'd have one more chance to make up the lost time. 

Right after that six or so mile climb, there is a screaming gravel descent. I took some stupid chances getting down that descent because I knew that right on its heels was the final climb back to the start/finish, which is itself shorter than the previous one, but still brutally steep in a few sections. I hit the final climb having recovered a little time, but still needed to average about 12 mph for the last two miles. 

And ultimately, it was just a little too much to ask. I crossed the line three minutes past my goal, at 5:03 and change. In fact, that three minutes was roughly the time I spent stopped at aid stations, so my ride time was right on it. I wasn't too disappointed (although my placing - 12th - was a bit of a letdown. Last year, my time would have put me in the top 10.) I did knock almost a half hour off my time from the previous year, which was pretty cool, and I feel like I rode well, pushed myself, and still had a ton of fun. And if I can say that about any race I do, I'd call it a success. After the race, I got to hang around and see some friends from Evolution and the LWC crew while I chowed down on a BBQ sandwich, and chatted with a few other racers about how the day went. All in all, a very fun day!

(BTW: Sorry about no photos this time -- I just didn't have any at my disposal!)

Next up … Cyclemania at Blue Marsh this Sunday. See you on the trails!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Long Time Coming, Pt. 4 ...

The rest of the story:

Part 1: Motivated by Failure

Race day!

The heart attack profile of the SM100

The phone rang for my wake-up call at 4:30, and I hopped out of bed immediately (mostly because I was already awake.) I got ready, ate a quick breakfast (knowing the hotel buffet wouldn't open for a few hours, I had picked up some pop-tarts the day before) and started bringing my stuff out to the car. I headed out the door by 5:15 and was at the venue a half hour later. There were a lot of people stumbling around in the dark (I need to remember to bring a headlamp next time) and it seemed like only a few minutes after I got there, Chris Scott was telling everyone to head to the staging area. I picked up the pace to get moving and managed to spill half of my Osmo pre-hydration mix all over a towel in the back of my car (it still smells like pineapple/lemon back there now.) Oh well. No crying over spilled Osmo - it was time to go.

I lined up in the nine hour corral, not because I was thinking I'd actually finish in nine hours. I just wanted to avoid as much of the bottleneck that was certain to form at the first climb as possible. That was kind of futile, of course, since one thing I was absolutely certain would happen was that on the SS I was about to get dropped on the crazy mad dash in the first mile or so of pavement. But whatever - I still figured being further up at the start had to count for something.

A moment later, it was moot - the roll-out began and we were off. Sure enough, tons of riders came flying by once we'd crossed the metal bridge and were on the long paved straightaway. I was just happy I had managed to avoid getting taken out in the early chaos (a few others weren't so lucky.) I settled in and planned to just ride smart in the first few miles - pass where I could but not get too caught up in burning matches early. It was already in the high seventies when we started and I was figuring that the heat would only get worse throughout the day.

I did spend most of the five mile dirt road section passing riders who'd been able to go by me on the pavement, and when we finally hit the hard left turn into the single track climb, I was able to sneak by two more riders and then just settled in to a long train. It's always tough to sit in like that on a SS - it's actually a lot easier on the legs to go faster on longer climbs. But I just accepted it -- if I started trying to pass people, it would have been a constant stop and go. There were dozens of riders ahead of me in the train and I just had no other option but to sit back and try to take it as easy as possible.

We eventually topped out in the technical single track that led us toward the nicest surprise of the day - a super-flowy descent that seemed to go on forever. In my pre-ride the day before, I had turned left at the top and headed down the old climb, so I had no idea what I was in for on the descent. A few minutes into it, I was almost laughing. I was also surprised to notice that I was feeling really good and as the first hour alarm went off on my Garmin, I noticed that I was just about 11 miles in.

Overall, the SM100 is probably best described as a set of six distinct climbs, interrupted by periods of fire road or pavement. Most of the single track (around half the ride) comes in the climbs and descents. Each climb has a very distinct characteristic. The first climb used to be a loose gravel grind, but now it's a single track ridge climb that gets progressively techier the closer you get to the top. I was very surprised at how good I was feeling at the top, but I knew the next climb (plus four more after that) was looming a few miles away so I knew not to read too much into how I was feeling just 10% into the ride.

I popped out of the single track after the first climb and started down a long gradual fire road descent. I quickly felt totally spun out but just kept my speed going at around 20 mph as much as I could. Eventually, a big train of riders came flying by and one of them, a small girl on a Misfit, yelled "hop on!" I wasn't able to hold their wheel (even though the guy on the back actually tried to sit up and give me a chance to catch on), so I had to let them go. But that set up a theme for the rest of the day - I would eventually spend most of the day going back and forth with Linda Shin from Toronto -- I had to go a little faster on the climbs by virtue of riding the SS, but she was definitely a much better descender than I was and she and many other geared riders would always roll by me in the flats. (I'm not ashamed to admit that I simply followed her wheel on the techiest descent of the day because she was just simply much better at picking lines than I was.)

I continued rolling down the fire road and eventually it kicked up a bit and I started to reel in some of the folks who'd come by me. I hit the base of the second climb, on the Lynn Trail, and decided that since I was still feeling pretty good, I was going to give it a go with riding as much of it as I could this year. That trail quickly becomes extremely steep and I rode maybe the first 20% of the climb before hopping off to save my legs. I trudged for a bit, but did remount a few times and rode some of the flatter sections. But the last few miles of the climb are very steep and I didn't want to blow myself up, since I was still only 20 or so miles into the race. I trudged along with another single speeder who seemed to be pretty miserable. I think he was riding a much bigger gear than I was and kept asking how much longer he'd have to trudge. I tried to cheer him up, but the only thing that really seemed to work was when we turned a corner and saw daylight - the top of the climb! Of course, as with most climbs on the SM100 course, it was a false summit. And some of the steepest short sections of uphill were yet to come, but I didn't mention that since he seemed to be really happy to be able to start riding again. I had to stop before starting the descent to check my rear thru-axle because my rear wheel seemed to be a little shaky. I fixed it and started down the impossibly techy descent.

I was practically sitting on my rear tire on a few of the rockiest sections of the descent but eventually made it to some smoother single track and then the fun began. I was flying along and swooping around bermed switchbacks and having a great time. I saw a few riders on the side of the trail but no one needed any help so I kept rolling. Eventually, the descent popped out into a less steep singletrack straightaway. This should have been the easiest part of the ride, but while rolling along at about 25 mph, I managed to hit something and t-boned my handlebars. I was thrown over the bars and landed on my head and shoulder. I got up slowly and checked that everything was still working. My handlebars were bent from when my knee hit them, and I had a new dent in my helmet form where I hit the ground, but other than that and some cuts and scrapes, I felt fine. I had to adjust my bars, but luckily I had a 5mm wrench in my pack and was able to get them realigned pretty quickly. While I was on the side of the trail, dozens of riders came by and all of them asked if I was okay, so that was very cool. I got going a little gingerly to recover from the shock but for the most part I was good. The only thing that hurt was my knee because all the skin was scraped off, but it would later turn out that was just adrenaline -- the next day I would notice that I had banged up my shoulder pretty bad, I had a big knock on my forehead, and bruises all over my legs and arms. But at the moment, I didn't notice a thing, so I saddled up and headed out.

Next up was Hankey Mountain, one of the longer climbs of the day and a constant slog. As I was riding up the hill I was catching a lot of the folks who had passed me after my crash, and they nearly all asked how I was doing. That's a very cool thing I've always noticed about mountain bikers in general -- more often than not, we tend to look out for one another and I really appreciated the concern. I was good to go though and thanked each of them for asking. And the truth was, the first ride up Hankey Mountain was a turning point for me. Up to that point, I was convinced that everything would eventually blow up for me as it always had before. But despite having bounced off the ground at a pretty high speed just a few miles before, I felt really good going up that hill and started to think that just maybe this day would be different. I summited the climb feeling strong and even managed to stay upright (with one near miss) on the early, ultra-techy part of the descent. Once I got through that, I just hopped on the back of a train of riders and we flew down the back side of the mountain (I think it's called Dowell's Draft) on some of my favorite single track anywhere. I popped out at the aid station and checked my time - I was running right around 10 mph including my crash time and was feeling pretty confident that I was going to beat my early prediction of 12 hours. I still figured that I was going to have a rough time going up the "death climb" but I figured I'd done enough in the first 45 miles to give myself at least a small cushion.

I swapped my bottles at the aid station and headed out along the highway toward Braley's Pond. I rode for a while with another single speeder (I think his name was Josh) and I was telling him how much I wasn't looking forward to this part of the course. The road section was something I'd particularly been dreading before the race -- it's a long slightly uphill slog on an active highway and I imagined it would be a nightmare on a singlespeed. He agreed but only because he'd been running a pretty big gear and was a bit wiped at that point. But for me, it turned out that wasn't the case. I kept a pretty good average speed along the road and before I knew it, I was riding through the rocky creek bed into climb number four.  And then I rode much more of the climb than I had in the previous two times I'd done the race. That climb probably has a higher percentage of singletrack than any other on the race, most of it very tight ridge line trail where you don't want to risk slipping off to your right. I walked the techies parts just to be safe and was surprised at how quickly I reached the top. I was also really psyched because the Braley's Pond descent is about as much fun as you can have on a bicycle -- super fast with flowy berms around every turn and sections where you are just flying between trees on a very well-kept trail. No matter what happened in any previous time I've ridden here, I always came out of the woods at the bottom of Braley's with a big smile on my face and this year was no different.

My one bit of strategy for the day had been to leave my only drop bag at Aid Station 4 just before the death climb began after Braley's. I rolled up and the volunteers already had my bag out for me. I grabbed my extra bottle and reshuffled my pockets to balance everything out. Once I was all set to go (and had slammed a few cups of coke), it was time to the tackle the death climb!

The early part of the death climb is actually barely a climb at all. The whole thing is over 20 miles long, but the first ten or so miles are pretty gradual. It was on the death climb when I started to wonder if I might make it in less than 11 hours after all. I was feeling very good on the early part of the climb, averaging well over 10 mph. More importantly, I was able to keep it up without feeling like I was pushing too hard. That was key because I knew that once we hit the switchback, it would get pretty nasty and I'd have to slow down. Sure enough, I rolled into the steep part of the climb and immediately felt like I was hitting a wall. I felt pretty good and was able to keep pedaling but it was definitely a slog and my speed dropped down to less than half of what I'd been doing earlier. It always seems that Rest Stop 5 is just out of reach on this section of the climb. You keep expecting it to be around the next corner and those last two miles to reach it seem endless. But eventually I rolled into the rest stop and checked my time -- I was still right around 10 mph and thought maybe I should rush through and get out ASAP. But there was coke and pizza and apples, so that wasn't happening. I was feeling pretty good, but knew that a coke at 76 miles would be like a little slice of heaven so I enjoyed a cup (or three) and ate a slice of pizza. Then I grabbed an apple and told the young girl at the table my quick story of how an apple saved my life a few years ago here. She looked at me like I was nuts, and so I just said thanks and took off.

I knew from experience the one fact that most racers there overlook -- the worst part of the death climb comes after the rest stop. People who haven't done it before often think that once they reach the rest stop the climb is over, but that couldn't be further from the truth. The reality is that the rest stop only marks the beginning of the "endless meadows". The meadows themselves are the brief respite from the uphill. If you look at the profile above, the last kicker on the huge climb is where they are. You basically ride through a meadow and then hit a nasty uphill section and then you repeat that about half a dozen times or so. It gets to the point where just seeing another meadow makes you cringe. But just about when I was starting to feel like I was going to explode, I crested the top of the mountain and was staring down a cray steep, crazy techy descent.

That descent was and probably always will be the hardest part of my day at the SM100. It's incredibly loose and you can't really stop your speed form building no matter what you do because it feels at times like you're riding off a cliff. I was sitting all the way back and felt my hands cramping as I gripped the brakes to control my ride. I kept expecting to smell burning metal as my rotors caught fire or something. This was the point where Linda rolled up behind me and I happily gave her the line. She handled the tech like a pro a I just sat in and let her pick the lines. Eventually, the drop smoothed out and I was able to shake out my aching arms. I was aching in my upper arms at that point, but we kept up our pace in the very flowing bottom of the descent.

At the last rest stop, I didn't need to swap a bottle but I did grab some french fries. At that point, there was about 12 miles to go and I was starting to do the math in my head -- I was still really close to a ten hour pace, but I knew that the last climb, a second time up Hankey Mountain, lay ahead. I started wondering what was going to happen.

And then on that last climb of the course, I had the same conversation with about four other riders. Everyone I passed wanted to know how much climbing was left. Everyone, it seemed, just wanted to be done going up and I was no different.

One thing seems worth noting here: the second time up Hankey is nowhere near the longest climb of the day, nor is it even hit the steepest section of Hankey Mountain. But after 90 or so miles and roughly 12,000 feet of climbing, it's a total punch in the dick and probably the darkest time of the day for almost every rider out there. You get a pretty good feeling when you finally finish the death climb, but to look up at another long dirt road slog is tough that late in the race. But this time, I was able to keep my mind from going too dark and I just kept telling myself that it would be over soon. My legs felt fine, oddly enough. I was never worried about them, even though I did purposely get off and push once or twice just to be sure I didn't stretch myself too thin. Eventually I reached the top (I think I was pretty accurate telling people it was about three miles, by the way!) and then you go over a little hump and start the (mostly) downhill ride to the finish.

I was now really wondering what my final time would be. I was pretty close to 10 hours and about 95 miles in, and figured it was all going to come down to how accurate my mileage was reading at the time. To give it my best shot, I really just let loose on the final descent. I was ripping through the creek beds and rolling trail as fast as I could and throwing all kinds of caution to the wind just to keep the impossible hope of a sub-10 hour day alive.

And then it happened -- I came around a final bend and saw the first camp site above the finishing field. I looked at my time and realized that not only was I going to finish this thing in under 10 hours, but I was going to do it with more than five minutes to spare! I went nuts. I hit the field through the camping area yelling and launched myself off the roller, even catching a little air.  I ultimately crossed the line in 9:52 and change, and probably scared Chris Scott by how amped I was. (Why would someone so far out of the top ten -- I finished 18th -- be so excited?) But this was a really long time coming -- I had cut about an hour and a half off my previous best time and did it on the singlespeed, which was way beyond anything I thought I could do. I was so excited that when I hit the gong, I knocked it over. A total spaz, sure, but seeing that single digit hour finish really felt good.

I grabbed my pint glass and briefly debated whether I should grab a beer right away or go try to get a signal on my phone to tell Joanna. I opted for the phone and spent five minutes walking around until I had enough signal to send a text. I told her my finish time and promised her I'd call when I got back to the hotel. Then I got cleaned up and headed for the kegs. After a beer or two, I tracked down my friend Jesse Kelly who was catching a ride with me back to Philly. He's a super strong rider and had just straight up murdered the course in just over 8 hours for 13th place in the open class -- after riding his bike from Philly to Harrisonburg!!! I think that's one of the most impressive things I've heard in a long time. I told him he should seriously consider doing the Tour Divide some day. After working out the details for the next morning, it was time to head back to the hotel to call home and then get some dinner.

And so that was it. Kind of four years in the making, and I don't mean that in a dramatic way. I realize that my time wasn't anything special in the overall placings, but this was definitely killed a few demons given how tough a time I had at this race in the past. Shenandoah had been a mystery I couldn't crack, and this year I managed to work it out in a way that I think I can build on from here if I choose to. So what's next? Well, long term I'm not sure. I have a few ideas working for next year, but nothing concrete yet. And I have three or four more races this year, including (of course) The Six Hours of Cathedral Pines in November (one of my favorite races all year.) I'd love to go back to Shenandoah with a bigger goal -- is it possible to shoot for nine hours next year? I don't know, but one thing is for sure: I'm going to try to maintain and build on the condition I built this year. Usually, I don't worry too much about weight and fitness in the winter. But I think I've reached an age now where I really can't ignore it at any time of year. Given how much I actually enjoyed the effort this year, I'm going to see how long I can keep it going. I took it easy this week since I was on vacation, but when I go back to work tomorrow, it'll be back to spinach and turkey once again! I certainly don't want to get caught up in racing everything in sight, but I would definitely like to feel like I have the fitness to show up any time I do feel like throwing a number on the front of my bike.

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you on the trail!