Sunday, September 13, 2015

Playing Ahab at the Shenandoah Mountain 100

Chasing the White Whale
The last three years, chasing a PR (personal record) at the SM100 has had me feeling a bit like Captain Ahab. I’ve been chasing this dick of a whale down relentlessly, but each of the last three attempts, a good, clean, fast race has eluded me. I’ll blame my own botched nutrition strategies for the 2013 and 2014 efforts.

Dream a little dream

This year I had managed to get most everything sorted just after another classic SM100 dinner. I settled in, hoping for a good night’s sleep, and this year I actually got one. Well, sort of.

I was rolling out the race methodically, rallying on descents, and taking it all in, finally trading war stories and enjoying the satisfaction of a clean race.

Then I woke up. What a tease! I rolled over to catch a quick 30 more minutes of precious sleep. At least my breakfast burrito did not disappoint.

Never enough time
No matter how much I prepare, I always seem to run out of time getting to the start line.

I had just got my drops sorted and was ready to kit up when ole rumble gut demanded round two of number two. There was a ridiculous line for the port-a-potty complex, and unlike my gut, it seemed completely stagnant. Eventually I got it all sorted out, but it had cost me a good bit of time.

I scrambled into my kit, threw on sun tan lotion, and grabbed my glasses. Shit! They were still sweat stained from my pre-ride the evening before. Tires felt ok-ish, and I headed over to the staging area to find Chris delivering the pre-race talk.

It’s a festival, until race day
Climbing Festival is really not that hard, but it never fails to turn into a shit show during the SM100. There are some rocky sections that aren’t that difficult, but when the conga line starts moving more like a slinky, it’s easy to lose your momentum and spin out. Once that happens, you need to just push quickly to try and stay out the way. I was embarrassed to have spun out in front of Kyle from Harrisonburg. I’ve ridden this trail with ease on non-race days, but somehow it always seems to get fumbled at 6:45am.

I realized towards the top, that I was lacking a certain motivation to pedal hard enough to maintain my spot. Yeah, I was riding a bit lame. It just felt too early to embrace the burning legs that would be required to stomp the undulating bench cut and rock features.

Watts called me out for not riding the tech features. I laughed and tried to conjure a smart reply, but only managed some wheezing response before letting him by.

At least I managed to knock out and rock out the tech features. I traded places with Watts and dropped into the Tillman West descent with a renewed vigor. I was able to reel in the group I had lost touch with. The descent was way fun, but this trail always has a bit of a log jam of riders towards the bottom during the race.

Tillman transfer and the bitch called Lynne
The road spin over and up to the Lynne trail highlighted my fitness deficit, or maybe it was just a lack of will power. I was happy to see Wake steam by me while pulling a long train. He was having a great race and riding strong.

Lynne started out as a gut buster straight away. After burying myself on the road, Lynne offered me a game of Rochambeau, and then kicked me square in the nuts. Bitch.

Fresh trail work had re-rerouted a punchy little spot where a tree had fallen down and left a rocky hole. Chris and his crew of trail gnomes had done an awesome job getting the course ready.

A familiar voice began insulting my Richmond heritage and commented on the pressure I was running in my Thunder Burt on the rear. I should have payed more attention to the tire commentary from James and his State College knowledge.

Garth came storming by like the giant he is, and for a few moments was pushing my bike in a friendly gesture. Where does he get all that energy? Reggea Shark, him no wants to harm ya… him just wants your ganja.

Last year I rode almost all of Lynne with just a couple dabs, but I was hiking sooner than I had wanted to in this race. I rode a bit, stumbled some more, and watched more of my friends climb past.

A Dick called Moby, or The Whale
Redemption seemed in my grasp as Wolf Ridge unfolded, and I quickly set about regaining positions as I started hauling ass, making passes, and finally began having a good time. The Ahab in me had just got a glimpse of that white whale I had come to chase.

Then, it happened. The dick’s barnacles chewed through my rear tire on the first gnarly bit of Wolf Ridge. After what seemed an eternity fixing my rear flat, first attempting to plug and seal, then giving in to the reality of needing to tube it up, I set about the rest of the ridge. That’s when I realized the front tire wasn’t ship shape either. Damn it!

A constant parade of riders rolled by, all while I bent over my tire with my mini pump, furiously stroking away. I must have looked like a pervert in a dark corner of a park.

I started to give in to the inevitable. Once underway, I began slicing through the 10 hour pack. I was a solid card carrying journeyman in that group for my first 3 years of hundred mile bike racing, and I was soon reminded of the mixed bag of fitness and riding ability. On lower Wolf, the pace became agonizingly slow, as I turned into the caboose for a long train of riders. I might as well have turned into a pumpkin. At this point I knew it didn’t matter much, so I just settled in and stopped looking for the pass that would never come.

32 Teeth and the Chupacabra
In the weeks leading up to the race, my bike had started to feel heavy to me, so I looked for ways to lighten it up. I could have reduced my beer consumption, but that seemed dumb, so I switched to a 1x10 drivetrain with the help of OneUp Components and some elbow grease. I also swapped out my trail handlebars and grips and managed to knock about a pound off the bike while gaining the simplicity of a one by.

My chain ring was sporting the same amount of teeth as my grill. At least on my chain ring they are straight. Rolling back on Tillman, this felt inadequate as I spun out with 32/11 and got a taste of what my single speed brethren endure during this moderately descending section of road.

I was collecting my stash from Aid 2 where I happened upon Gordon and Wilson. Seems that Wadsworth had been attacked by the odd stomach Chupacabra. Or maybe it was the gods of single speed punishing him for that aero lid? I believe he ended up in the hospital later on with serious fever, a lasting gift from below the equator.

Fresh nutrition, renewed vigor, and another glimpse of the white whale, propelled me up Hankey Mountain. Howdy Ho!

Flat Out, No Brakes
I set about fixing my third flat with a relative calm, fully aware that I’d blown all chances of a PR out the window. Why did I decide to run such a shit rear tire for the SM100? Maybe my lack of proper inflation for a tire with such a modest amount of volume was to blame. That didn’t matter anymore. I pulled my last spare tube out, a 35c cross tube. Yeah, I know that seems like a stupid tube to keep as a spare. I installed it, fitted the bead back on, and inflated it to probably 35 or 40 PSI.

Riders trickled and zoomed by, heading into the first real technical bit of Dowels Draft. Another rider had pulled over where I was, and I mentioned the little known overlook that was just beyond the trail where we stood.

A calamitous racket approached and a guy was yelling “No Brakes!!!” as he careened down the single track past us with an understandably terrified expression, looking for a place to ditch. We watched him, mostly out of control and half off the bike, somehow manage to come to a stop in the brush and trees mostly unscathed. “I had no Brakes!!!” he said again. Yes, clearly you had no brakes.

You OK man? … “I lost both Brakes!!”

No shit. I said something like: “Wow, that was lucky. I’m glad you are OK buddy. Look out man, your bike is blocking the trail. You should probably walk the next section.”

We helped him readjust his brakes the best we could. I finished fixing my flat and set about dispatching Dowels Draft.

The descent was pretty uneventful for me. I was going at a fast pace and benefited from the good trail manners of the riders I caught. In my heart, I felt defeated, and I contemplated dropping out and riding back to Stokesville.

I was immediately overwhelmed by the friendly, eager, and uber efficient help of the volunteers at Aid 4. These folks hooked me up and really lifted my spirits. Thomas from SBC asked me what I needed, and set me up with a spare tube.

Right then I decided that I had to finish the race. I was not about to let down all the folks working so hard to help us all do the best we could. Besides, it was a beautiful day for riding, so I dialed it back some and watched the white whale slip away into the distance.

Yellow Jacket, Green Tunnel
I had heard stories of the Yellow Jacket’s nest towards the hike-a-bike stairs at the beginning of Road Hollow. The creek bed leading up to it was dry and pretty easy to ride across. I shouldered my bike and hoped for the best. There was no need to worry though, I’m pretty sure that nest had been cleared out. No one around me even mentioned bees and I never saw any signs.

Road Hollow is always a challenge during the race. Like the Lynne trail, it’s all ridable, but having sea legs from the road section can be a challenge for folks. I was pleased to clean all the rock gardens and only got hit by stinging nettle once in the leg. This climb is always a bit of a green tunnel with late summer growth and stagnant air.

Metro and I summited at the Bald Knob intersection, and I set to work on my favorite downhill out here. The trail was very dry, and some sections had gotten a little blown out. My bike bucked and skidded more than usual. No doubt my over inflated wheels were the main culprit. The 35c cross tube in back held up just fine and I worked my way over to Aid 4.

No PR today, just PBR

Several volunteers helped me with my drop bag and Wilson filled a bottle for me. Then I asked him, “Is there any beer?”

He had some PBR in his car, and this was great news, and I was giddy with anticipation. I took a few minutes to enjoy the best tasting Pabst I’ve had in a long time.

Ole shit road
I passed Steve from Richmond on the last little punch of a gravel climb that then leads downhill for a ways to the left turn towards West by god Virginia. Steve made some funny noises and confirmed he was cramping. Sucks.

I made my way to that left turn and started grinding up what I call “shit road”. The road is actually not bad at all, with a good gravel surface. However, the lack of shade and relentless succession of false flats wear you down with steeper grades than you realize.

Snake on the trail!
Sort of an inside joke for someone pissing on single track. Whenever there is actually a snake on the trail, someone blurting out “Snake on the trail!” elicits instant juvenile laughter from me.

I had just left Aid 5 and saw a minivan driving oddly on the fire road. They stopped and sort of backed up to the left side of the road. As I prepared to whizz by on the right, someone in the minivan blurted out, “There’s a snake on the road!”

You know that bionic action sound from the Six Million Dollar Man? Yeah, that sound!  It filled my head as I bunny hopped the shit out of that huge black snake. Then I just laughed as I turned right onto the fast, loose, and jump filled fire road connector towards Chesnutt Ridge.

Rowdy ridge and a tree hugger
Chesnutt was fun and a bit jiggy thanks to my overinflated and surly tires. I passed a few riders here and there. At one point I asked for a pass on a rolling up-ish section, and she said, “OK now, on my left” as she proceeded to stay directly in the middle of the narrow single track. Soooo, I bushwhacked around her and muttered something about making a little room when you are letting someone pass.

Then I caught another fellow at the lead-in to a fairly ripping downhill section, and he gave me a great pass opportunity as soon as he could. My gusto got the best of me and I found myself coming in too hot for the steep and dirty trail pulling hard to the left.

I was drifting to the outside and decided to put my weight heavy into the wheels and brake for all it was worth. I bounced and skittered right up to a tree and decided to sort of  dump the bike and hug the tree. It worked pretty good, but I got a nice bruise on my thigh from some unidentified part of my bike digging in. I laughed nervously and was relieved to not have wrecked any worse.

I got back on my sled and proceeded to charge down the hill to Aid 6 with a little more caution.

Five Lefts
Buck was just hanging out at Aid 6 and asked what had happened to me. Just one of those days brother. Then as we rolled out on the pavement, he told me how he had just ridden the Trimble Mountain loop for shits and giggles. Shut up.

There was a nice bouquet of wild flowers Buck had collected and placed on his stem somehow. I agreed that it was a sweet gesture his family would probably appreciate.

Years ago when I was having another one of “those days“ finishing the last climb, a rider started pestering me like a deer fly. I really did not want to talk the second time up Hankey. I was in a dark place.

Every left turn, he kept asking: “Is this the turn?”… “Where is the last turn!?” … “This turn?” Over and over, he kept trying to chat with me and asked the same pointless questions.

Shut the fuck up.
I don’t know how many god damn turns it is, but clearly it’s not this one. Grrr.

Thankfully, that did not happen this year, but I made it a point to count how many turns feel like they should be the last. The answer is, (drumroll)… Five Fucking Turns. So the next time you are climbing Hankey and agonizing over how many more turns are left… there are five.

Not so fast, but with a little grace

I was essentially solo rolling the last ridgeline and downhill. Hopefully, no one saw me walk that last little insulting punchy climb I call “bitch slap”.

Like all the riders, I was relieved to make that final right turn into single track at the top of the campground. There was some fresh flow trail mixed in, and I boosted a little jump for the cameras. I slammed the dropper and threw in a little mini whip over the last grassy hump and then rode a tired wheelie into the finish.

I found a quiet spot behind a tree and nursed on my last water bottle.

Not such a fast day for me, but I could not have asked for better weather, trails, volunteers, and companions.

Cleaning up at the swimming hole felt great, and I didn’t even mind the little fish occasionally nibbling on my legs.

I ate dinner with Garth and seemed to be the only one enjoying the Saison on tap. Then I made a point catch up with fellow racers and friends. A lot of great stories from the day’s journey were swapped and the podiums were presented.

Then I heard through the grapevine that someone might have died during the race. That was very sad and sobering news. I had hoped it was a mistake, but the gravity of the words weighed upon me and hung heavy over the remaining conversations I had. I decided to call it a night.

Back at my car, I prepared to make the drive back to Staunton and a warm comfy bed at my in-laws. I paused and looked around to make sure I was not leaving anything behind. That’s when I noticed it, stretching across the sky in a faint band.

On the East Coast we rarely get a good look at the Milky Way because of the humid air and omnipresent light pollution. I remembered back to when I traveled out west in Arizona. I had made a point to get away from the cities and stop somewhere on a country road to look up at the night sky. I stopped the car, turned off the lights and waited a moment for my eyes to adjust before stepping outside. When I finally did, I was completely humbled by what I saw. Never before had I looked that vastness in the eye. Unpolluted, unfiltered, this is what our ancestors would have seen. It was sublime and overwhelming and I was part of all that impossible vastness.

Probably ten years have passed since I had that first reckoning with the Milky Way.

It had been a long day filled with emotions, struggle, and perseverance. I was wrestling with the seriousness of the news I had just heard, not knowing how to express the sadness I think we all felt.  I stood there gazing up, my mind was heavy and I was searching for something that would make sense. Then this song by Joni Mitchell started playing in my mind:

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me

I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm
I'm going to join in a rock 'n' roll band
I'm going to camp out on the land
I'm going to try an' get my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Photo Credit: James Wheeler -

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