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!

1 comment:

  1. A few things:

    Yes, I can't believe someone would actually ride down the VA and then race...he certainly is a special kind of crazy. :)

    "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."

    She was just in awe of the beard.

    "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."

    I LOL'd at this one.

    "(Why would someone so far out of the top ten -- I finished 18th -- be so excited?) "

    Uh, 18th is nothing to gloss over. Just ask the 19th place guy.