It wasn't going to be like this.
Less than a week before, I had finished second in the last MASS endurance race of the season at Fair Hill. As with last year, I was using that race as a tune-up for the SM100, but I was really happy with a podium finish for two reasons. First, I took it as a measure of where my fitness was the week before the toughest race of the year. And second, it was my first race in the kit of my new team, Toasted Head Racing. I'd already done a few other races under the THR banner, but this was the first one in the new team kit, so it was pretty cool to represent.
So I came into the week of Shenandoah feeling pretty good about my goals. Ever since I finished last year's race, I had it in my mind that I might be able to finish in 9 hours flat. And so I'd set that as a goal for this year's race. Truth be told, I've done enough long distance races and rides to know that goals are best kept amorphous, so my actual goal was to be "in the neighborhood of nine hours". But I was pretty sure I could achieve that when I considered the numbers: the SM100 is actually about 98 miles, which means an average of 11 mph gets you in under 9 hours. Now, 11 mph is no easy task, but what made me think I might be able to pull it off was the experience I had last year on the infamous "death climb". I averaged well over that until the really steep sections before the aid station, and that's about 15 miles. Between that and the descents, where 20+ can be sustained for miles at a time, I figured that what I really needed to do was just stay strong on the big climbs and I'd be in that neighborhood I was looking for. And as I headed into the week before the race, I felt like I was riding well enough to at least have a shot.
Flash forward to Friday morning. I had packed up the car and was on the road by 9:30 in the morning, but before I even reached the Fort Washington on-ramp to the PA Turnpike, I felt a quick spasm in my left hamstring. I just blew it off at the time, figuring it was just a little tightness in the morning. But it didn't let up - the whole drive down to Harrisonburg, I was feeling that quick spasm that usually precedes a full leg cramp. But it never gave out. I thought it was really odd. It basically just felt like a there was a weak spot in the back of my leg all of the sudden. At the time, I figured it would be fine once I got a chance to loosen it up on a ride.
|The calm before the storm - SM100 Setup|
After that ride, I called Joanna and told her what was happening and she suggested I pick up a foam roller and try to loosen it up that way. So that's what I did first thing Saturday morning. I rolled it out and it did feel a little better, and so I headed back over to the venue to test it out again. This time, I met up with a few friends from the Cadre crew and rode a little bit of the local single track with them rather than head back out on the course. And I felt really good during that ride. So I figured that the roller had worked its magic and that I was ready to go.
But after I picked up my registration packet later that day, the spasm started again, only now it was more than just one spot - the whole hamstring felt weak. And so I went to bed Saturday not knowing what to expect the next morning.
There is a dichotomy I've always found with big races - there is always a level of stress in the run-up to the race itself, but then the moment the race starts, any and all stress is gone. I almost never sleep well before a big race, even though I know that no amount of worry will change anything about how I ride the next day. And when the gun goes off, it's just a job to do: point A to point B as quickly as possible. I'm not really sure why I don't sleep well considering that, but I don't. And I didn't this year, either. I actually got about 5 hours sleep, which is not bad for me, but considering that I went to bed around 9 to wake up at 4, that still left 2 hours of staring at a ceiling.
But once it was time to get going, I lined up in the second corral and just hoped that my leg would hold out. I was kind of aware that my original goal was going to be tough - even standing on the starting line, my hamstring was already popping on me. And when we finally did get moving, I hit the first incline and, sure enough, the twinge was right back again. I made up my mind right then and there that I was going to just ride until I couldn't ride anymore and figure it out then.
As usual, the early pace through the rolling gravel on Bear Trap Farm Road was pretty crazy - everyone was jockeying for position before we hit the first climb and a bunch of us single speeders were trying to make our way back through the bunch after being dropped on the paved road out of the camp site. Eventually, a small group of us were riding together and got a small gap ahead of a whole bunch of riders behind. We were in a weird "no man's land" between two huge groups on the course and I was surprised to find an easy entry into the first climb. But less than a quarter mile later, we caught the back of a long conga line of riders slowly inching along the single track. A few guys up ahead were getting frustrated at the pace, but I just laughed. You just have to accept that in this race: even if you could get around the slower guy immediately in front of you, you've still got another 150 more riders trying to manage along on very tight, no-margin-for-error single track. I always just assume for kicks that everyone in front of me is faster than I am except for the one guy 150 people ahead and he's ruining it for all of us. It just makes it easier - like we all have that in common.
I did learn one thing on that climb this year, though, that would help me throughout the day. I found that my hamstring was bad, but it felt better if I stayed out of the saddle. So I basically slow pedaled out of the saddle the whole way up the hill and made a deal with myself that if that's what it took to finish the race, that's what I would do all day long. I may not have a shot at finishing in 9 hours, which sucked but even more than that, I really didn't want to DNF.
And so the story of my race became a story of "cramp management." Actually, it wasn't that dramatic. It was more of a very simple and constant binary thought process: do I have to slow down right now or not? Do I need to be out of the saddle right now or not? Is that twinge a cramp coming on or just another spasm? It was constantly on my mind and colored everything I did the rest of the day. As a case in point, I found myself entering the Hankey Mountain climb with another single speeder and as we hit the first steep section, I had to decide whether or not to try to follow when he took off. I had to let him go without trying to get on his wheel. I don't know if I could have held his wheel either way, but I did know at that moment that it would have cost me too much just 35 miles into the race given how tweaky my legs were.
I'm happy to say that my "strategy" worked out pretty well. Even though I felt all day like my legs could give out, they never actually did. By the time I got over the hike-a-bike climb up to the Lynn Trail before the Wolf's Ridge descent, I realized I'd been overcompensating with my right leg too much and it was starting to spasm a little, too, just 28 miles into the race. But I held back just enough to keep them from popping. A few times on some of the steeper sections of Hankey, the Braley's Pond climb, and the steeper sections of the endless meadows near the top of Shenandoah Mountain, I got off and pushed even where I could keep riding just to keep some reserves in the bank. It definitely cost me time and I lost a bunch more just slow pedaling on many climbs all day. By the start of the death climb, I was so used to making these decisions that I really was going on auto-pilot and did some mental calculations to figure out what I might be able to expect. I quickly realized that with a pace of just over 10 mph 60 miles in, nine hours had slipped away from me unless I could really pick up the pace from there out. And that was a tall order considering. But I started to wonder if I'd even beat the previous year's time. It was definitely a possibility that if I had a bad time of it on the climbs ahead, I'd slip outside a ten hour day.
I have to admit that the death climb hurt more this year than last. I was really suffering on the section where it gets steep after the switchback, and one of the endless meadow climbs I had to pause for a few seconds to stop a cramp from taking over. That was the closest I came all day to really blowing up. But I made it over the mountain without slowing down too much and had possibly my best descent ever on the horrible, scree-field terror drop off the other side. I was flying down the mountain and trying desperately to shut out the voices in my head that were screaming for me to slow down. I am absolutely scared to death of that descent, and yet this year I somehow managed to rail it as best as I ever have. The descent went by in a blip and I wasted almost no time at the last aid station, just swapping a bottle and heading out. Then I hit Hankey Mountain for the second time wondering if I was going to make it or not. I had plenty of time left - I was about 8:50 in at this point - but I knew the climb was going to be a slog and I was really feeling it in both legs right away. And I couldn't quite recall how long the roll in to the camp was once I cleared the top. So I tried to balance the pain in my legs with my hope to salvage something from the day.
I rode about 90% of the climb, slow pedaling out of the saddle most of the way, and just at the point where I hd to get off and push, two riders came by me and I saw them take the turn off the gravel road just ahead. That motivated me to hop back on and I tried to use them as rabbits. One thing I definitely forgot was that there are two last nasty short, steep sections after you crest the climb itself. Those both hurt like hell, but I pushed through and as I started the long descent back toward the campground, I caught both of my rabbits and then chased down another I spotted ahead. As we came through the new pumptrack section at the top of the camp, I managed to get by the other rider as he slid a bit into the turn. Then I pushed hard through the field and crossed the line.
My final time was 9:40. That was good for about 12 or 13 minutes better than last year, and considering how lousy my legs were all day, I was happy with that result. There were definitely some frustrating moments out there - I really felt like every climb was a lost cause for me all day long, and even where I did ride, I felt at times like I wanted to pick up the pace but wasn't sure I could without blowing myself up. But there were also some really surprising positives - I descended much better than I ever have before. On almost every single big descent, I caught a rider or group of riders who had crested the climb well ahead of me. That's a new thing for me - I've never been good at descending. And I was even happy with how I managed everything in the end. Of course, I'd have preferred not to need that kind of strategy, but when I consider that my legs never gave out despite feeling cramp before we even started, I'm pretty happy with how I was able to manage the race. Everything from my nutrition to the effort I put out at each point in the race actually worked out all things considered.
Oh, and there was one other thing that happened that was just really odd. Near the bottom of the descent off the death climb, when I was going about 25 mph or so, I got stung by a bee on the back of my leg. I mean, how wild is that? This guy managed to land on my leg and sting me while I was passing by at over 20 mph. That's amazing. I really hope that he didn't die after stinging me, because that's a talented, skilled bee and I think he deserves to live.
So … will I ever get to 9 hours? I don't know. If I can ever put together a day with good climbing legs and I manage to repeat how I descended yesterday, I think it may be possible. If not, I'm at least convinced that I can get pretty close. But all that is in the future. Right now, it's time to rest a bit. I'm going to be off the bike for a bit now to rest my legs and let my left hand heal (I hit it a couple of months ago and I'm pretty sure I've got some broken bones that I've just been ignoring. It's time to let that heal.) I have a few more events this year - Iron Cross in October, and of course, CP in November. But nothing else is set in stone right now and I haven't had a real rest off the bike in a very long time. I may just ride for the fun of it for a while when I get back on the bike next week or the week after. It's been a long season and it'll be nice to just get out without a training goal for a bit before I start thinking about next year.
Thanks for reading and until next time, I'll see you on the trails!