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!