Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Shenandoah 100: Did That Just Happen?

On our way to the starting gate, we learned Lee Carmichael's bike had fallen off Justin's truck. I noticed that Lee was kind of wandering around like a drunken person. He said he was going to race Justin’s bike while Justin drove around to look for his bike. I think I said, “Ok; that sounds reasonable.” Lining up at the start, Lee still looked a little too dazed and confused to be operating heavy machinery, so it is a good thing his bike is so light.

On the starting road and up the first climb Lee kept looking back. I imagined he kept expecting Justin to be running alongside waiving his bike in the air, shouting, “found it!” It got to the point that I was looking back in case he saw something I needed to see as well.

Unlike most NUE’s, this one starts out pretty fast because the single track at around mile 7 is a big pinch point. It’s close enough that everyone races toward it but far enough away that you're already hurting by the time you get there. Nearly at the top of the climb, about ½ mile from the single track, the pace was fierce like a Chattanooga TNR sprint section and the field was twitchier than a Crash 5 road race. A very steep pitch in the double track jammed up the pack and some riders had to hop off and run. One such rider, positioned at my 10 o’clock position, slipped and fell back into me and landed squarely on my wheel as I moved to get out his way. The Stans Race Gold is a great race wheel and has put up with a ton of abuse but I do not recommend having someone sit on it. The guy jumped up and began to scramble away.

I said: “Hey, you just tacoed my freakin wheel!”

“That’s racing, bro.” He turned and ran off before I could get a good enough look at him. In my opinion, he should be responsible and should at least have given his name to discuss it later. But I guess that's racing. Bro.

Standing there, on the remote mountain, watching dozens of riders pass every minute, I thought about how I was going to get down, how much I was looking forward to taking a nap, and if I could somehow get down without Stephanie finding out that I’d DNF’d. Before I had to worry about any of those things along comes good buddy Keith. The first words out of his mouth were:

“You want my bike?”

“What? I can’t take your bike!”

“What about my wheel, you want my wheel? My sciatica is killing me. I’m not going to finish.”

“How are you going to get down?”

“You let me worry about that.”

I couldn’t believe it. I crossed the trail, frogger style, through the racing pack of riders to reach Keith’s side.

Just as I jumped into the tall grass to reach Keith, he grabbed me across the chest and pulled me back. I looked down and, lo and behold, there was a coiled copperhead sitting ready to strike. I actually had to jump out of the way as it raced at me.

This was no hallucination… this man Keith, whom I’ve only ever met one other time, gave up his wheel for me to race and saved my life from an adolescent copperhead that was ready to kill me. Who would have thought so much could happen 7 or 8 miles into an NUE?

While standing there running from snakes and exchanging wheels, it felt like the whole race had passed me by. I was already thinking about waiting on Stephanie and forgetting about actually ‘racing’ but Keith had one last gift for me.

His parting words, before I left him stranded on the mountaintop were: “Hey, Just do well!”

Crap, I thought. Now I have to race.

I saw Justin at Aid 1 and let him know that Keith was up there hanging out with my broken wheel. Later, Stephanie saw Justin sprinting up the mountain off the trail like Legolas the elf carrying a bike and what she thought was a spare wheel.

Stephanie also said that Lee Carmichael passed her after Aid 2 which doesn’t make any sense because I never saw him again. Lance, who looks just like lee with the same clothes, also passed her. So did Lance pass her twice or did Carmichael somehow get behind her on the course and then pass me without knowing it? It’s all a big fog.

Vicki Barclay, who had experienced a bad mechanical on the first climb, caught me and passed back on the downhill to aid 1 along with her No Tubes Domestique, Rich O’neil. Rich proceeded to bury himself for the greater good of pulling Vicki back into the running, ultimately passing Brenda for 4th place. I wanted to hang on to their wheel but I had to stop and talk to Justin. I passed Rich on the Soul Crusher and I believe he was truly crushed, moving just fast enough to keep his bike from falling over.

The rain was unbelievable. At first I thought it was great because rain and 75 degrees beats sun and 95 degrees any day. However, as the day wore on, the trails got worse and worse and my tires would pack with mud, making the climbs painstakingly slow.

It was a slow day for everyone but I did improve my time by 2 hours, 23 minutes over last year so I guess I can’t complain.

Stephanie, being a bit behind me, suffered even more on the back half of the course as the trail conditions continued to worsen. She was a victim of the soul crusher and started going backwards around mile 65. I know the feeling of having your world close in and all those riders you worked so hard to stay in front of seem to pass you so easily.
She still improved her time from last year while most everyone slowed down, so she has a lot to be proud of. She finished 18th out of 37 finishers plus 21 DNF’s. Unless I’ve done my math wrong, she has 6th place pretty well locked in for the series with a shot at 5th place, depending on how Saturday goes at Fools Gold.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

ORAMM With a Reasonable Finish: What a Difference a Year Makes

I’ve participated in endurance bike races for about a year now and have just started to anniversary races. Last year, ORAMM was arguably a disaster, though not connected to any one mistake as much to a general lack of fitness- ‘simple fatigue’, as the Simrils call it- and a lack of experience. Since ORAMM last year I’ve completed 5 hundred milers, swank, and the snake trilogy. In the process I’ve learned a bit about balancing nutrition and gotten a little faster on the bike. I was still the slowest guy from the Chattanooga group to cross the line, but the margins are getting smaller.

I do not know if I will ever get to the point that I can hang on the long climbs but just to be in the mix offers a more enjoyable race experience, due mostly to one notable difference: The aid stations do not look like zombie apocalypse waste lands.

I did not realize how well organized the aid stations are before the ‘picnic tour’ crowd moves in. Let me tell you of this land the lies ahead of the hapless and hopeless.

I saw orange slices and Dixie cups full of trail mix lined up like little toy soldiers on clean tables. I had clean, cool, water to refill my pack, and even some ice! The aid workers were motivated to help and moved quickly to retrieve my aid bags. They did not condescend or scowl but offered encouragement to get me moving. They were bright eyed and even smiling. The experience gave me pause to think: Where were the bloated carcasses of middle aged men blocking the path, flies circling overhead? Where were the candy bar wrappers and potato chip bags, tumbling in the wind? Where was the look of death and regret on the faces of the wretched who thought their new race wheels and electrolyte drink might save them from their lack of training? The absence of gloom made this a wondrous place, indeed.

It is an entirely different experience to be among the group who know, more or less, what they are in for and have spent adequate time to prepare. For those of you who have been pushed into a race a like this, ill-prepared, and turned back in despair, let me tell you there is hope ahead. There is a road paved in golden delicious apples and tables full of Fig Newton’s. Take heart and ride hard: The Promised Land exists!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Childhood Memories - USS Silversides

Last weekend my wife and I drove from Chattanooga to Manistee, MI to race in the Lumberjack 100. It was a long drive and sent me back to the family vacations of my childhood. My dad’s plant would shut down around July 4th for 2 weeks so we would load up the car and see how far we could go. Often we would go to Florida or the Outer Banks. One particular year, when I was around 10, we drove to Canada. We had no destination, only to breach the border into Ontario and stay in a regular hotel, maybe to buy a couple cokes with Looney’s. On the way back we drove west across Michigan to Muskegon because Dad wanted to see a WWII era submarine, the USS Silversides. I do not remember being excited about the experience. Following the educational visit aboard the old diesel sub, our car promptly started spouting smoke and running erratically. Amazingly, we were able to limp into an open ford dealership. It turned out that a computer controller had went out and it would be around $400 to repair and they would have the part the next day. In those days, $400 went pretty far with my family so, from my 10 year old perspective, it seemed to cause quite a crisis. I do not remember what I felt but I think it was fear that we might be stuck in Michigan. Fortunately, the worst of it was just that we had to carry all our luggage onto a dirty public bus for a ride to a local motel. The upside, to me, was that we got to spend the day in the motel instead of the car and I was still young enough to get a thrill out of hanging out in a large bedroom with my family and jumping on beds other people had done God-knows-what on.
The point of this telling is that on the way up to the race we detoured into Muskegon and revisited the place that was the source of chaos for one of the summers from my childhood. To stay true to my lineage, I was too cheap to purchase the $15/person tickets to actually board the ship so I just posed awkwardly next to it for a picture.

It was enough for me. It was a reminder that, good or bad, our experiences are what make us who we are. I still remember that little boy who was scared of being stuck in Michigan. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t; going outside to ride my bike is still my favorite thing to do—speaking of, I’m late to meet the wife for a bike ride.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lumberjack 100 - “Learning to Race My Race” and “Too Much Chocolate”

Some bill this race as the ‘easiest’ NUE race because it only has 9000 feet of climbing without a single, distinctive, climb to fret over. I would actually claim this as one of the harder ones I've done. Although there is no singular climb, there are also no places to descend or coast and recover. Essentially, you start off pedaling hard and Never. Stop. Pedaling. L put it best when he said it was like being on a trainer for 8 hours. Also, since all of the climbs were short (though steep) I was teased into ‘powering’ up and over them rather than easing over them with a steady pace. If Mohican was 'death by a thousand cuts', Lumberjack was 'death by 100 punches to the stomach'.
Race My Own Race
The start of the race was fast and furious with about 2 miles of pavement. Excitement is not the best word to describe what it is like to take a group of riders 10 wide by 60 deep at 30mph and force them into a single file line into the woods, but it is the best that I can think of. I continued with the theme from prior races and tried to hang with my friends, L&B, as long as possible which ended no different than past attempts, with failure and disappointment. The trail is flowy and fast in a thick forest with tall, thick, leafy canopies and fluffy fern covered floors. Like Napoleon D. and his Liger(lion/tiger); Its basically my favorite trail. Through the first 20 miles I was easily able to stay on with B leading the charge through the swooping singletrack. Unfortunately, I made some mistakes on the ascents leading up to the fire tower hike-a-bike. Our group got separated by another group of riders and, while trying to pass, I expended way too much energy. I was not able to recover before the Fire Tower Hill Run-up and had to walk.

This is what death looks like
L&B ran up the hill and were out of sight before I could get to the top. I could not catch back on and it was then that I realized that I had pinned my motivation to staying with them. It was such a disappointment to be dropped that I almost completely lost the courage to go on. Apparently my spirit is so delicate that if I get put behind by a minute I will throw my hands up and want to call it. This is probably going to be the hardest lesson to learn and biggest obstacle to overcome: To find motivation from within.  To remember why I’m doing this: because it’s fun and exciting to see how far and to find out what I’m made of; To meet a challenge head on and push through with sheer perseverance and determination; and to know that I will not be able to do this forever and realize how lucky I am to be out here. All that sounds great but none of it really speaks to me as well as "getting to ride with my friends L and B."  Learning to 'race my own race' is going to be a long term project.
Single Track is Like Chocolate: Too Much Will Give You a Tummy Ache
On lap 2 and 3 I slowed down considerably, with lap times of 2:38, 2:56, and 3:02. During the back half of the race, while dragging my beat down mind and body through the sweetest single track I had ever experienced, I could not help but visualize a small, round Dutch boy (like the one from Willy Wanka) holding his belly and groaning “Too much chocolate.”
I had indeed had too much chocolate. I was sore and beat and wanted no more of the sweet single track. I looked forward to the borring double track road that, while its thick beach sand provided its own obstacles to forward progress, at least promised a break from the nightmare of the steep hills. What several of us independently named “the wall,” a short and steep but rideable climb that promised to make you hurt in your bones, provided me with much dread in the pit of my stomach for both of the last laps.
Regardless of the emotional lows (which I’m sure everyone experienced) and my personal pity party through lap 2, I managed to finish with an adequate time of 8:42 that I will call ‘just ok.’ I will give myself a break because I know I am still learning and, though I know I will not ever see the front of the race, I am building my arsenal of weapons to fight the demons that I will meet on the trail when I am by myself in a day long endurance race. See below for awesome video of the highlights.

Watch more video of Lumberjack 100 2012 on

As Peterman said patronizingly to Elaine, "Kudos to a job… done."

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Mohican 100

Two weeks prior I was in the lowest point of my racing experience. For a couple days I seriously considered the idea of giving it up, with ‘it’ being the time, effort, and money that I put into preparing and traveling to these races only to be crushed, both mentally and physically. After those first few days in the doldrums, I decided to pick myself up and look forward to the next event, the Mohican 100, in central Ohio.

I used to think Ohio was flat and boring. In the Mohican State Park, Amish country, there are short, steep hills and they are painful. Somehow they managed to string enough of these hills together for a total elevation gain of 11,000 feet over 100 miles.

In past races over the years, both on and off the bike, I have paid close attention to my heart rate and pacing. I tend to have a higher heart, with a race pace of around 170-180, and the ability to burst up to 200-205 quickly which can be bad in a long race. At Mohican, I decided to try something new and just ride by feel and try like hell to hang on to L&B's rear wheel.

The start is a field sprint up a steep climb for about a mile before rolling down some double track and into the woods single file. Luckily we were all able to get into the woods safely without too much trouble; only one crazy jack leg buzzed B’s rear tire before crashing out. Our 100 mile race started at the same time as the 100k race. They both sound similar in difficulty and length (what’s another 38 miles, right) but the fact is that the 100k race will often draw in individuals who have never raced such a distance and will go out of the start gate a little overly ambitious. In the 100 mile crowd, we generally know each other and, although we only see each other a couple times a year, have shared respect and exchange some common courtesies on the trail. Not so with the 100k new comers, who breathe fire and think they can pass through whole field in the first 5 miles of single track. L&B and I had particular trouble from a guy in a Marian Jersey. We named him, uncreatively, Marian. Marian tried to do his best to put us all out of the race before it got started.

I’m trying to work on the aforementioned common courtesy in these races and not tailgate racers in front, unless I’m looking to pass. As a result, I tried to leave about a 10 yard gap between myself and L. Unfortunately, Maid Marian did not share my view and saw the gap as something that needed to be closed. This sequence was repeated about 6 times; Marian would pass me, almost immediately bobble on a root or crash into a tree, then I would pass back. On one such event, Marian got in front of me, tried to jump a tree and get around L, immediately flew over his handlebars and narrowly avoided t-boning B. L passed back but I could not get around before the knuckle head jumped up and started running with his bike. In my moment of frustration I unloaded on the guy with some colorful language. It’s funny, in that moment I was so pissed that I was ready to throw my bike down and go to blows with the guy. What’s more funny is that, unlike road rage where you can yell at someone, roll your window up and be on your way, this guy wasn’t going anywhere. Almost immediately I regretted my outburst and when he managed to make his way back up to us, I apologized and made amends. L says I handled it well enough but it is important to remember that this is just a game that’s supposed to fun. If a guy wrecks in front of me I shouldn’t be pissed that he’s slowed me down, I should see if he’s ok. I need to maintain the perspective that I’m doing these races to for fun and to learn important lessons about myself like patience, perseverance, that when it gets bad, the bad never lasts. Marian did manage to pass l and I one more time before unceremoniously crashing off the trail. Like In tennis, if you bobble the ambitious ace attempt, you need to go for the lob. I don't think Marian plays tennis.

The rest of race is mostly a blur. I got dropped by L&B about mile 30 (they’re too fast in/out of the aid stations and just too fast in general). However, somehow I managed to stay within 9 minutes of them through to the finish, though I never saw them again. I did make a friend shortly after the L&B left me to fend for myself: Brian Collier. Brian talked just enough to keep me distracted but not so much that I wished he’d shut up. Brian set most of the pacing and provided me with the moral support to keep the pressure down. It’s amazing how much simpler it is to allow my mind to shut down and just focus on sticking to his wheel. Instead of the constant, “Am I going to hard? Too fast” argument in my head, it’s just, “stick to his wheel and don’t fall off.”

The cool weather definitely helped in keeping me from overheating and allowed me to eat more regularly but I’m hopeful I can build upon this experience and continue to improve. I’ll never see the front of the race, but I don’t think the NUE has seen my best. Next Up: Lumberjack 100 in North Michigan next week. I’m looking forward to see what the future holds. Here's a great highlight reel from the folks at cycling dirt.

Watch more video of Mohican 100 2012 on

Thursday, May 24, 2012

If Misery Truly Loves Company, Syllamos Revenge Aid Stations Were Mardi Gras

Syllamos 125k. I'll make it short: No flats or mechanicals but I did run out of water twice so I suffered from dehydration and fell into the pit of despair - the life sucking machine was thrown to 50.

Out of 156 registered, only 57 finished. Somehow Steph and I managed to be among the 57. I heard only 137 out of 300 50mile racers finished. It was brutal: the aid stations looked like a MASH tent in a warzone by the end.

In races like these where you come to the same aid stations multiple times, the middle of the 100mile race gets mixed in with the back of the 50 mile race. I got to witness the transformation of the aid workers from cheery and motivating to beat down and impatient. Granted, I would not sit outside in the heat for eight hours to manage a sale of knick knacks in my front yard so I really don't even know where these generous people with positive attitudes come from; maybe they bus them in from local churches? If ever I am roped into working one, It would not be long before I took a box of cookies and hid from the wretches behind a shade tree and wait for it all to end. Maybe that is why the put the aids in the middle of absolute nowhere... not for the benefit of the racers, but to keep the volunteers from wandering off!
At the very least, It was an eye-opening reminder that the volunteer aid worker is not who we should be confiding in during our darkest moments on an endurance race course. Even a seasoned bar tender could not carry the burden of 300 successive cries of despair without it taking a toll.
Here is my wife: I do not know how or from where she maintains such a positive attitude. I came across the line in tears. She came across it all smiles. Even though I had about 30 minutes to recover while waiting for her to finish, I still wanted to say “what do you have to be so happy about?”

We could all use a little Stephanie positivity in our lives.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Cohutta 100 - First Nue Of The Year

Cohutta 100; first  100 miler of the season. I really didn’t know what to expect seeing as this is the first time I’ve race Cohutta and only my second 100 miler. I have been riding well in the pre-season and was hopeful for a sub-10 hour finish, though the goal was arbitrary at best.
I still have trouble pacing and thought it would be wise to start out with Brenda Simril to help meter my initial effort. Looking back, that thought process sounds more like the punch line to a joke because when the gun fired I think Brenda was the bullet. She, along with most of the front field, shot across the line like we were in a BMX race. She charged up the climb, standing, slinging her bars side to side in a blur.  I quickly saw 187 bpm which is a little higher than I like to be 3 minutes into a 100 mile race so I had to do the responsible thing and say goodbye to my silly plan of hanging with B at the start, dropped 5 gears, and settled in.
First 15 miles were mostly singletrack and an uneventful train of cyclists. Even though I went into the woods a good 30 places behind the Simrils, I still felt like I was getting pulled along faster than I like, with a HR of 175-180. Shooting out of West Fork midway down Chestnut Mountain begins the endless, featureless slab of fire road that would continue, mostly uninterrupted, for a good 80 miles with 14,000 ft of climbing. We always speak to the altitude gain, and it was especially appropriate here. It did not ever feel that we were descending.  It was more like we climbed, stopped pedaling, then started to climb again. I would not call any of the downhill descending, I would call it “not pedaling.”
An interesting observation on the beginning of the race was that so many of us raced as hard as was reasonable during those first 15 miles just so we could get to the fire roads and start surviving. As they say, the race would not start until the fire roads, but it no longer felt like a race once we got there. For an hour we jockeyed for position and fought for every scrap of trail in the paceline but, once the fire road started, it became a time trial.
To add to the agony that comes built-in to a race like this, I bought the double dose self-torture pack by installing fresh brake pads the night before and failing to install the retaining pin. The pads decided to stay in the bike for about 50 miles and popped out on the way down Potato. I descended Pinhoti-2 without rear brake pads which actually wasn’t too bad. I decided to stop in at Mulberry Gap Cabins to see if any of the patrons might have an extra set. They did not, but I got to work on my door to door salesman skills:
“Good afternoon. I’d like to talk to you about an exciting opportunity concerning your Avid brake pads and my bike.”
“This is a limited time offer. I have no money but can I interest you in some used gu packets or this attractive seat bag?”
“Uh… “
“Is this Missus home?”
If you want to know what this course is like, I can tell you to go ride up any deserted dirt road with some trees and Cohutta will be no different, only more of it. There is some new singletrack that was added in but we had to give up some to get it so I’d say it’s about a wash in terms of the FR/ST ratio. Pinhoti-2 is a great trail but, when the looming darkness of climbing back up Potato lies ahead, all I could think about was how it wasn’t worth the trip.

I made it back up Potato and down Pinhoti-0 running front brake only, praying that my mostly reliable elixir front brake would not choose today to be sometimes unreliable.
It all worked out and I was able to make it back to Aid 6, about 75 miles in… where Sam from Cycle South had a set of brake pads. “Praise Be…” I said. Sam was great but you know how guys and tools are: As soon as they start working, 3 more have to wonder over and see what’s going on:
“hmm.. what’s the problem…?”
“Installing  brake pads”
“hmm… yep… “
“hmm… think it might be a frozen piston?”
“Did you check the fluid levels?”
“His brake pads might not be bad… coulda got lube on it.”
“He doesn’t have any brake pads”
“How’d that happen?...”

I had to walk away to keep from seriously embarrassing myself. This is a race people! Not a guy working on an el camino in his front yard! Leave him the hell alone so he can get me back on the trail!

Last 29 miles (4 miles long… those bastards) went by pretty uneventful except that I felt like a rock star descending with both brakes.
All in all a good race. I didn’t catch or see Brenda but there’s always next time.