I’ll let you in on a secret. The Iron Mountain 100k, despite its tough as nails name, is a cast iron darling. It's Grand, that's the way I see it.
Yeah, there is a lot of elevation, +10k feet in 55 or so miles. Yeah there is a lot of single track, up and down, with rocks and roots. There is some Gnar, some flow, and… there is a ridiculous amount of single track. It’s like riding a ‘friendly’ Pisgah. Or maybe Squamish BC without all the free ride double black and log skinnies. It’s Grand.
I arrived in trail town of Damascus where the Appalachian trail, Virginia Creeper rails to trail, and Iron Mountain trail converge to form a trinity of recreation and adventure. My good friend Mike and I set up a sweet camping spot next to the river with a dam/waterfall providing some nice white noise, oh yeah there was a pretty decent shower facility too. A local gaggle of geese greeted us and tentatively spot checked us for food.
We met up with a solid group of the Stauntonian off road cyclist militia hailing from Black Dog Bikes and North Mountain Woodworks. Our pre ride revealed a nice technical single track climb with lots of fun slippery rocks and roots encrusted into a sandy soil, flanked by rhododendron occasionally flowering in white and pink blooms. At the top, we turned left to check out the final descent of the race, a wide track covered in what I’ll dub loose 'rock granola' made of golf ball and fist sized chunks. Fast, loose, and exciting!
For race night fuel and shenanigans, a trio of us headed over to the Blue Blaze restaurant. We sampled a smooth local IPA and veggie pizza. After the 1st round, we got a free 2/3 pitcher on the house because the keg kicked while they were filling it. Nice.
I tried to doze to sleep with the muffled sounds of a band playing at another riverside restaurant. The greatest hits of Skynyrd and Bad Company seemed an appropriate lullaby for a Southwest Virginia summer night.
I woke up multiple times in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of pouring rain that seemed to last a couple of hours. In the morning I had the Jet Boil cranking out the morning mud cup-o-coffee like my own little java still.
The racers gathered in the Damascus town park and paced out with the familiar smell of diesel I have grown accustomed to when following the SMT white whale replacement super duty. Soon enough we dropped into the Virginia Creeper rails to trail for a few miles and must have been an intimidating sight to the small group of runners we passed. There was a near incident further down the trail as someone in the lead peloton swerved a bit, but all dramatics abated as we crossed the road and started the day's 1st single track climb.
Moderately steep, sandy soil with wet rocks and roots made for a good challenge. Riders fumbled here and there and I gained some positions. At the top I was rolling with strong single speeders and geared riders alike for the undulating ridge of Iron Mountain. Several steep ups were just too slick to ride and hiking proved to be just as fast.
Once I got a sense the trail was about to head down, I lowered my dropper post an inch, and started hammer rolling like my single speed companions. The downhill was fast and entertaining with the wet conditions. Eventually we popped out and were soon dispatching a gravel road section. Then another single track section from an old road bed turned into a big ring, pedal hard, super-fast descent… watch the drift in the wet apexes! Man that was fun!
Next up was a brief road segment on 301. I was all alone until another geared ride caught me and I managed a draft off him for a bit. Then we each traded a pull, and were so focused on rolling we almost blew by the next turn onto single track.
Another single track climb greeted us. I love single track climbs. Especially if they have a bit of technical challenge, because you are so consumed with riding, the pain and effort get pushed out of your mind. You see for me, on a gravel climb, the discomfort of high output leg commotion from my short running sticks is front and center in my consciousness, like an annoying sound. But climbing technical single track is like cranking up the high fi over the noise of the engine clanking away.
Eventually this gave way to some long gravel road followed by an extended squirming descent decorated lots of fun little features that finally then dropped out at aid 2. Mark Prater was manning the aid and hooked me up with bottle exchanges, and brother, the bottles were nice and cold too! I made my own a critical mistake and did not grab any of the food from that aid... I should have brought more food for the ride between aid 2 and 3. There was plenty there, but in my haste I left it right there on the table.
More long stretches of gravel climbing awaited, but it was not really all that bad because the grade was never very steep, it was just loooong. I noticed a ways into it how I was running out of energy. I had just eaten the last bit of cliff blocks I had, and had used all my Perpetuem up before aid 2. While I rolled the climb losing energy and watching a few riders promenade by, I fantasized of a bowl of cliff bars... or even better, a stack of waffles! Finally the gravel led to ridge line single track that undulated up and down. This helped take my mind off my dwindling energy and I got back on task with a less than cooperative motor but now I had the high fi cranking.
A long fun descent eventually dropped me off at aid 3 where I was so happy to see the volunteers! They helped me with my drop bag. Yes! Energy drink. Oh yeah, I scored some coke… the fizzy kind. One volunteer encouraged me and said "your awesome" to which I replied "y’all are AWESOME!" So great to have those wonderful volunteers helping and cheering.
Just as I was rolling onto the single track out of the aid, I heard the volunteers welcoming the first female rider to roll into aid 3. I knew I had to kick it up a notch, because she was wicked fast!
As I headed back onto the trail, I realized this was the same Iron Mountain trail I had descended earlier, but it looked quite different. Different like any trail does when you ride it in reverse. Sort of like a sweet Hendrix reverse solo. I was pleased to clean a particularly steep and slippery section, but there would soon be stretches requiring a hike.
The ridge line trail in the Iron Mountains is equally fun in either direction. I started to real another rider in and dropped in behind as we folded into the high speed turns at the top of the day’s most technical descent. He was riding well and we zoomed down the wet leaf covered bench cut. Near the bottom there was a switch back that turned sharp right, on top of a very slick looking rock into damp loam. I sensed a hesitation in the rider in front of me so I jumped on it, dropped the post, and bombed the last bit. I had a bit of speed coming into aid 4 and managed to save a small front end slide rally style. Braaap!
Finally there was only one long jeep trail / double track climb that eventually took us to the Iron Mountain trail again. I started feeling good when I recognized I was descending down the steep stuff on top that I had hiked up much earlier in the day. The final bit was soon to be under tread.
I reached trail that I recognized from the pre-ride and attacked with a new vigor as a taste of the final descent hovered just off the tip of my tongue. I swear I could smell it, that sweet ‘rock granola’ from the pre-ride.
When I race XC, spectators sometimes comment when they see me. They say things like “Look at that guy. He’s smiling!” I must admit that in those races, I’m not really smiling. It's my unconscious game face produced by gasping air through a wince that is sometimes mistaken for smiling.
However, in this case there were no spectators to make a mistaken observation. But no one could have mistaken the huge smile I was gulping air through as I rallied down the last descent of what is now my favorite back country course in Virginia.