Amazing race on Saturday – great job Chain Busters Racing! I ended up winning my very first 12 hour mountain bike race … barely! Tyler Murch nearly closed down a 30 minute gap that I had at the start of my next-to-last lap. But it was dark and pouring down rain for those final two laps, and the trail became pretty much an ice rink for the front tire that I had on (Specialized Renegade 1.95″). He knocked off 17 minutes from my lead on the next to last lap and then another 12 minutes on the final lap … leaving me with an advantage of just 51 seconds by the end of the race. I could see his lights behind me as I crossed the bridge into the iron works area. Fortunately, I had enough energy left to kill it up the final climb and down to the finish. A 12 hour race decided by less than a minute!
Strava screenshot showing epic “suffer score”. My previous high suffer score was from a 249 mile, 20 hour, 42K feet of climbing road ride, and it was only HALF of this suffer score! (click to enlarge)
Heartrate zone summary – note the calories burned. I think this might be a little high, Strava only calculated 6700 calories burned. Let’s split the difference and call it 7250 – that’s a lot of oatmeal!
Sorry if I get any of this recap wrong, my brain is still a little bit hazy from the race …
My fastest speed for the race on a mostly single track course (two short sections of double-track) was just under 25mph in the dash for the hole shot leading into a steep, tricky opening singletrack climb. I didn’t get the hole shot, but I believe I was 4th wheel going into the single track. Two guys had some separation immediately on the single track and were pretty much gone. David Darden (Smith/Lock) was next, followed by me, and then Chad Hungerford.
David was going just a tad slower than I wanted on the climb, so Chad and I worked our way around. I was slowing up Chad though, so I let him by, but then it kicked up again and I thought about passing him back, but I told him I didn’t want to pass him if there was anything technical coming up … he said he didn’t know — it was his first time riding the course. It was also my first time, so I decided just to sit his wheel as long as I could, which wasn’t very long because he dropped me on the downhill before the sharp right onto the short steep climb up to the pine forest screamer.
When I saw the steep double-track climb, I let out a little “whoop” b/c I knew I could make up time that I would lose on the leaders in the fast single track sections. Sure enough, I immediately passed a couple guys that I had let by after I had let Chad by. At the top of the double track is a long, straight gradual slightly rolling downhill through a pine forest. I switched into my largest gear and ramped it up as fast as I could to put as much time as possible into everyone else. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to catch the original two guys and it didn’t put me far enough ahead in the next singletrack to stay in front of the people who I had passed. So I had to stop a couple times and let people by.
Here I am 15 minutes into the race, and I had already gone through the whole range of emotions dealing with the uncertainty of racing my mtb on an unfamiliar trail — nervousness about how technical/tight the turns would be, seeing the steep initial climb and being able to keep up with the better skilled riders, elation at having a steep double track section and a super fast non-technical singletrack through a pine forest, to my then-current state of “oh crap, there goes the race” as people kept passing me and riding away from me.
It was in this panicked state of death grip on the handlebars, sprinting after every turn to try to close the gap that had opened up to the person who had just passed me that I began to relax and switched into a different mode of thinking “you don’t have to keep up with the leaders, just relax and outlast them, hold onto the handlebars lightly, take a deep breath, and drill the next hill that you see”. Sure enough, eventually after what seemed like an eternity of tight turns a few tiny creek crossings, the trail started to kick back up. This was by FAR my second favorite section of the trail (the first being the pine forest screamer). Ironically, it was also on the same ridge but going in the opposite direction towards the pine forest screamer. After you climb back up the ridge, you have a small rock garden section (basically just one ledge drop-off) down a FAST downhill with only one turn where you had to brake into a rooty downhill that was also fast when dry because the few roots on it you could hit mostly squarely without braking … in the rain, this section was torture because the mud was super slick.
I made up some more time on the leaders all the way through the end of the course, and I think I crossed the line after the first lap in first position from the solo riders with one team and Scott Staubach (solo singlespeed) still out in front. Towards the end of the second lap, I must have been completely out in front of everyone — because there was nobody on the trails in front of me for the next 10 miles or so (well into the third lap). Shortly after passing the last rider in front of me, I saw two deer on the side of the trail. They bolted parallel to the trail and then jumped across the trail not too far in front of me.
After my third lap, I made my first stop – I had finally run out of gatorade. At this point I was lapping riders and when you are always coming up on riders – eventually you forget that you are leading the race. During the fourth lap, I had noticed a rider with a low number (indicating solo rider) on the trail behind me – but with the trail weaving in and out and doubling back on itself, I didn’t realize that they were actually really far behind me. Since I hadn’t seen any riders behind me and couldn’t remember passing this guy, I was thinking that he must be closing on me. This lit the fire under me again and I hit it as hard as possible for the end of the fourth lap. I was very relieved to find out by the end of my fifth lap that I was nine minutes ahead. At this point, I backed off the pace quite a bit and made sure to eat and drink as frequently as possible on the course. This was challenging though so I found two good spots on the course and made sure to eat and drink a lot through there.
Somewhere towards the middle of the 7th or 8th lap, I started to wonder how I would hold up mentally for 12 hours on the mountain bike. I’ve ridden much longer (20 hours) on the road bike before, but the level of constant concentration on the mountain bike is quite a bit higher than the level of concentration required to ride a road bike — although I do tend to pick out road routes with a high amount of cornering, descending, climbing, and general insanity. Even so, I got to the point where I was having some mental difficulties navigating the bike correctly. I would start drifting to one side of the trail and found it unexpectedly difficult to will the bike back into the middle of the trail. That’s when it started to sprinkle. I think the few sprinkles towards the middle of the 8th lap and then the light rain at the end of the 9th lap were good wake-up calls for me. The sudden shot of adrenaline motivated me to push the pace as hard as possible to try to extend my gap. This renewed drive to ride fast again turned out to be more important than I realized because during the Lap 10 downpour, I completely burned through my rear brakes. Fearing burning through my front brakes as well, I decided to ride really slow to avoid having to brake at all.
Towards the beginning of the second climb, I ran into Brent Marshall again and asked him if he had any brake pads I could borrow back at the start/finish. He told me exactly where to find them, and recommended I get Jason Barksdale to throw them on there for me. I took off again with a bit more abandon because I felt a bit safer using the front brake knowing that if I did burn through it I would have new brake pads for the rear for the next lap. It turns out that I had been pulling so hard on the brakes to try to get anything out of the rear pads that I had pushed the pistons in so far that the new pads wouldn’t fit into the holders. Jason worked hard and then Craig joined in, too, and they eventually got them in far enough but with the brake pads rubbing pretty hard on the rotors. That was fine, though, because with the conditions the pads would wear down shortly into the lap to stop rubbing. In fact, they only made it half a lap before being completely gone again. So I was back to just my front brake for the second half of the 11th lap. Being cautious again with the front brake, I started to get passed by a few riders. It was hard to tell whether it was riders I had already lapped or team riders or what … Scott Staubach caught and passed me during this lap (solo singlespeed) and this gave me some renewed motivation to try to hold off whoever else might be charging up behind me.
Kristine had made it back to the course by the end of my 11th lap. She helped a panicky me (b/c I knew that whoever was behind me would be making up gobs of time with how slow I was riding) get started on the final lap. I had really been hoping that I would still have enough of a time gap not to have to do one more lap in those conditions — but it was pretty clear that I had enough time to do one more lap and whoever was behind me could probably do another lap as well.
Even though I knew I needed to pick up the pace, there was nothing I could do on the final lap except hit every uphill and straight section as hard as possible and then ice skate through the mud everywhere else. It was interesting how several sections of the course still seemed sticky even with the conditions, but other sections of the course were super slick. It was hard to tell entering a corner whether it was going to be slick or sticky so I ended up guessing. I had a few close calls with the front wheel sliding, which on a road bike would spell instant doom but on these wider tire mountain bikes the wheel can grab again. This happened a few times and rattled my confidence so I kept getting slower and slower. I still was passing some lapped riders, but eventually I got caught and passed by one of the team riders.
Towards the middle of the lap, I caught up to Jonathan Soto (one of my students at Samford who graduated a couple years ago), and that was super important because it was encouraging to ride together for a while and chat instead of being alone in the dark wondering if the race would ever end. I ended up riding away on the second main climb on the course just a few miles from the end. I pushed it hard through that section b/c the course was relatively straight — but then you had the rock ledge and the long downhill to the tri-county marker. I started out super slow b/c there were some slick muddy turns, but eventually I started to get more confidence … too much confidence b/c I got up to 16mph in one of the turns, and it was slick, and even though the trail turned left my bike went straight off the trail down the side until stopped by a rock or a stick and I went superman style over the bars. A quick assessment of everything and short hike back up to the trail and I was on my way. If my lights had come loose, I would have lost the race b/c it would have taken me a while to get them tight again. Instead I was able to ride again immediately with the only consequence to my bike that I was stuck in the little chainring for a bit. I eventually did get it to shift up to the big chainring after bearing all my weight down on the left shifter.
I probably only lost 30 seconds to a minute because of the wreck, but I lost even more time on the next downhill which was the rooty downhill before the end of the singletrack and the start of the 3/4 mile long double track back to the finish. I was torn because I knew I was so close to being done with the muddy single track, but I also knew how slick that section was going to be in the mud. I crawled through it — toying with the idea briefly of hopping off my bike and running it — but instead opted to just ride slowly. As soon as I made it through the single track, I gave it everything I had left up the double track steep climb, down the other side, gingerly through the short section of single track to the bridge and then up the final rocky double track through the ironworks, down to the finish, across the concrete creek crossing, and then finally splashing through the real creek crossing up the bank across the line to take my first 12 hour mtb win!
Tyler Murch was next to cross the line just 51 seconds later to take 2nd place. I had seen his lights behind me as I made that lefthand turn onto the short singletrack before the bridge crossing. I didn’t know if it was Jonathan catching back up to me or someone else, and as it turns out Tyler had passed Jonathan not too far from the finish and was catching up to me rapidly. Thankfully, the end of the race from the bridge to the finish was not technical and I had enough left in the tank to hammer up it and stay away for the win. I wonder how many 12 hour races are decided by less than a minute!
As far as the course goes and a little reflection on what I like (and don’t like) about mountain biking … I really liked the first half and the last third of the course. If I do my math right, that means there was 1/6th of the course that I was not a big fan of — basically a “flowy” section of trail where the turns were too tight for me (off chamber rounding a hill instead of going over or down the hill) but if I had grippier tires and more practice I think I could grow to like that middle 6th of the course as well. As it turned out though, I had to constantly scrub speed and then reaccelerate. On Strava, the section of course that I did not like is a segment called “Never never land”.
Also, I could see improvement in my cornering confidence as the race went on … at least until it started to rain. As I got more familiar with the course, it was easier for me to identify which parts of the course I liked and could make up time. I could also identify the part of the course where I would lose time on everyone (even the people I was lapping). This helped tremendously on the mental aspect of a 12 hour race – because during that first lap I was blowing out of proportion that part of the course that I didn’t like from what it actually was (1/6th) to what it felt like — at least half of the entire course.
Also, the atmosphere from mountain bike racing is so much better than road racing from the pre-race registration to the end-of-race awards ceremony… road racing can be so serious and cliqueish! Mountain bikers seem to be much more laid back, friendly, and all around willing to work together to see everyone do their absolute best. In any case, Kenny from Chain Busters Racing did an amazing job organizing this. The BUMP organization has done a fantastic job building and maintaining the trails at Tannehill (amazing single track and carved into the side of some cool topography in a historic location … the one short section of trail i didn’t like is simply because i haven’t learned how to race it yet – would be fun just on a ride or if i was better at cornering at high speed!)
Other highlights from the race –
- following brent down the never never land section
- jason, brent, and craig helping me with my rear brakes
- hanging out / talking with people before the race and after the race
- just the beauty of the area … the fact that the appalachian mountains geographic end is inside the park
- the tri-county marker on the course
Animal highlights –
- shortly after taking the lead towards the end of the second lap – came across two deer right beside the trail – bolted forward parallel to the trail before crossing it in front of me – called it out to the rider who I had just passed to finally take the lead.
- third or fourth lap – saw a single deer standing next to the trail. Didn’t bolt until I was almost past it
- moths in the fog and light mist attracted to the headlights when the rain let up for a bit briefly somewhere in lap 11 or 12
One more gallery of pics from before the race started with my short warm-up to take pictures of the cool entrance signs: