Wow, 15 years of the Shenandoah Mountain 100!
I had just sketched out a sample route using my trusty National Geographic - George Washington National Forest map. It had topo and everything! Luckily, I met some friendly mountain bikers from Harrisonburg and Churchville and embarked on the first mountain bike ride that pushed me to the edge.
It was a lot more than I had bargained for. I was used to 10 to 15 mile cross country mountain biking in central Virginia. My cheap K-2 Attack bicycle probably weighed 35lbs and I was rocking out an athletic shirt, swim trunks (with the liner removed), and a pair of sneakers. The only thing greener than my appearance was my optimism.
About 15 miles or so into the ride we were ascending the fire road climb to the radio tower. I was running low on water, food, and general fitness… Right at the last steep pitch of that fire-road, I cracked...I got off my bike and hoofed the next 50 yards, which felt like a mile.
After passing the radio tower, we rode the ‘Cookie’ and descended down the Festival trail to a fire road. Finally we made it back to the paved road and I just made it back to the Car. Wow, 25 mountain biking miles with lots of elevation. I was smashed… and I was instantly in love with riding in the GW.
In 2007/2008 I got pretty serious about mountain biking and took on two major events. The BC Bike Race followed with a big season finally at the SM100. Now, to give you an idea of how intimidating the SM100 can be to a 1st timer, I was not sure if I could finish it well, maybe not finish at all? That same year I had completed a 7 day stage race in British Columbia and ridden the hardest trails I’ve ever encountered, but the SM was a lot longer than any single day in the BC Bike Race.
So long ride … err… story short, I finished my 1st SM100 exhausted, destroyed, and completely exhilarated. I made a lot of new friends that day and got hooked on 100 mile mountain bike races.
Fast forward to the present.
So as I got ready for this year’s 15th annual SM 100 I tried to figure out what emotion I was feeling while cutting through the pre-dawn fog hanging in the Shenandoah Valley as I approached Stokesville. It was something I’ve not really experienced before starting any of the hundred milers I’ve raced. Was it nerves? Excitement? Trepidation? No.
It was a strange feeling… Overwhelming anticipation of doing exactly what I want to be doing. Like a hammer just before it strikes a nail.
Bang! And the race is on.
The race rolled out of the observatory campground and onto the pavement. We crossed the old train bridge and turned right. There was an immediate acceleration and the riders were packing in tight. I think there was an extra sense of urgency for everyone who knew the course re-route. There would be no long sustained fire-road climb to separate riders.
Suddenly somebody’s handle bar jabbed into my ass and started to knock me off course. I turned slightly into it to keep from getting knocked over. The rider behind also seemed to be getting sucked in. Just when it seemed to be stopping, it jabbed back in and almost knocked me off again.
We turned left and started a tough climb up festival. It’s normally not that bad, but when you are racing, there is one steep pitch that hurts pretty good. It soon eased up and we were rolling on the new trails on Narrowback. What an awesome set of trails! I gained a position on the up and down bench cut trail punctuated with a bunch of really awesome rock features. Then I rolled the super sweet downhill that follows, hitting a double or two for good measure. I also noticed a lot folks shooting pictures or video of us rolling along. Sweet! Looking good!
The transition from Tillman RD over to Briery Branch Dam is always an essential spot to hydrate and refuel. I found a group to pace line with and stuffed some homemade rice cakes into my mouth. These are great when you are on a training ride, but I was finding them difficult to get down while working a pace.
The climb up Lynn trail seemed a bit harder than usual. Then I realized I was doing this climb for the 1st time with a 2x10. My other 29er’s got a 24 small ring and those 2 teeth seem to make all the difference for me. I just never could quite get enough of a reprieve to ride most of Lynn like I usually do. That was very frustrating. Oh yeah, the wet rocks were a bit tricky too. The descent down Wolf Ridge was awesome as usual. The dirt was damp and had incredible traction. Soooo much fun!
Rolling the other direction on Tillman RD, I noticed there was some ‘snap’ missing from my legs. OK, I’ll just eat some more food. I hoped my remixed nutrition strategy would work well, but feeling it this early was not a good sign.
I made a pretty good pace up the 1st part of the Hankey mountain climb. I worked on more nutrition and hydration while rolling out the climb to the gate where the old double track really gets steep. Now I definitely noticed a bit of a problem with my energy level. Oh well, just focus on grinding out the last of this green monster of a climb.
Finally the climb was over and bombing down Dowells Draft was made even more exhilarating by a rain shower that had just started to move in. I rode the 1st half of the pavement on Rt. 250 solo. Then another rider passed me and waved to my GoPro. Too bad I had to let him know the battery was toast. We formed a two man pace-line and traded pulls till the next single track section.
The climb was slick and the roots were tricky. The rock gardens on this climb are no piece of cake when it’s dry! I made good time to the top and had a rocking descent on the way down. I’ve ridden this trail down to Braley Pond plenty of times, and it’s really interesting when it’s a bit wet. It was awesome!
Then there was a lot of wet grass and muddy trail to get to Aid 4. Luckily the awesome volunteers were ready for each one of us and made the transition back to gravel a seamless one. Thanks so much to all the volunteers!
Back on the road, I headed towards West Virginia. I was joined by a couple of riders who helped pull me along this psychologically challenging section of gravel I call ‘sh*t road’ because it just seems to go on and on and on…
When I got to the bottom of the ‘death climb’ I knew I was in trouble. I decided to stop for a moment. I normally never stop, but I was running low on juice. After a minute I was back on the bike, but turning a much lower gear than usual. That’s when I really knew I had blown my nutrition. At this point getting to Aid 5 was going to be hard. Blowing up is really frustrating, you started getting passed a lot when you normally might not. I felt like I was inching my way up when I got within striking distance of Aid 5.
At Aid 5 I took longer than usual and stuffed a bunch of food into my mouth. I stood around for a moment but got on my bike as soon as I felt like the guy that folks were looking at like “hey, are you alright?”
I struggled to ride with any sense of competition as I made my way through meadow after meadow of the grassy double track that heads up to the Chestnut Ridge descent.
I stopped, sat on a rock. I had stopped racing an hour ago, now I was wondering about finishing. I took a couple of minutes to consume a gel shot and was soon overwhelmed with nats and such. Grrrr, no rest….
OK. Let’s finish this one out. I got back on my bike and got back too it.
Soon, I heard lots of familiar voices asking me if I was OK and encouraging me to soldier through. I told some I was felt like I was falling apart. Everyone encouraged me to keep going. These were friends, competitors, and fellow soldiers in the fray. Thanks so much to everyone for willing me on.
The first half of the Chestnut descent I was trying to not lose my cookies. All that food and gel I consumed to get my blood sugar up was getting jostled quite a bit and for a minute I thought I might spew. Gross!
Finally nausea subsided and shredding commenced. I started to feel a lot better and even had some energy by the sharp right turn in the middle of the Chestnut downhill. My speed and my spirits picked up as I flew down to Aid 6.
I ground out the last section of the race with a steady, albeit slow pace. It was not too much longer before I bombed through the campground and made the final grass turn towards the finish, the food, and kegs.
Lots of friends greeted me at the finish and we all had a lot of fresh war stories to tell.
I started the day looking for a new personal best at the Shenandoah Mountain 100. This year it didn’t turn out that way. But that’s just the way it goes sometimes.
However, I did spend the day and night with friends at the best 100 miles in VA.
Thanks so much to Shenandoah Mountain Touring for making the SM100 best event ever.