2014 Cohutta Men’s Open Podium (left to right) – Brian Toone (8th), Garth Prosser (6th), Tom Burke (4th), Rob Spreng (2nd), Jeremiah Bishop (1st), Chris Michaels (3rd), Andy Rhodes (5th), Andrew Dunlap (7th) – not pictured German Bermudez (9th – off screen to the left), and Ben Richardson (10th – off screen to the right).
I never thought I’d be able to do this race because it is the same day as Athens Twilight. But this year was different because Kristine was out of town all week for work and to run the Big Sur marathon today in California. I wasn’t as excited for all the crazy awesomeness of Twilight without having Kristine to share it with. So I figured this would be as good a year as any to race Cohutta, and I was not disappointed. What an amazing race course and race!
Update – Kristine and her BRF Kim Moon (I think that stands for Best Running Friend) finished her marathon – see instagram pic below
My race went really well – attacked from the line and entered the singletrack with a good 15 second headstart on the rest of the 225 rider field. I figured I would get caught within the first minute of singletrack, but I held onto my lead all the way through the first singletrack — mainly because it wasn’t technical and it involved a climb. When we shot out onto the Boyd Gap overlook after 2 miles of singletrack, I let Jeremiah Bishop and a few others including single speeder Gerry Pflug pass me before the long singletrack descent back to the Ocoee Whitewater Center.
I hopped in front of the next few riders because there was a small gap and stayed out of their way until the hairpin switchback where I shot wide (partly on purpose) to let them by. I think three or four more people came by and that was it. I didn’t get passed by anybody else the rest of the day until really late in the race when German Bermudez (Rare Disease Cycling) caught back up to me in the final singletrack shortly after I passed him on the final climb up to that singletrack. I then followed his wheel all the way back down the final singletrack with the confidence of seeing somebody in front of me I had no problems keeping up. I then passed him on the final road section to finish 8th place.
But before all that … after the course crosses the Ocoee on the forest service bridge pictured above, it enters another long singletrack section but on a somewhat substantial climb. I had no problems staying in front of anybody coming up behind me. In fact, I started to catch two riders on the steeper sections of singletrack. They were not too far ahead of me when we exited the singletrack onto the first forest service road about 16 miles into the race. I thought “sweet” I’m going to start catching and passing people any minute. Well, the forest service road starts out with a long descent and those guys could fly on the descents. Even though there were a few really steep climbs in the middle, you are basically descending for 8 miles with some tricky switchback descents in the middle.
My first sign that I was starting to catch back up to them after what seemed like an eternity was Andrew Dunlap (Rare Disease Cycling) pulling out of Aid Station #2. We chatted and rode together on the flat section, and he mentioned that the two guys I had been chasing had been crushing the descents, but were just ahead. I saw them riding together right after Andrew fell off my pace at the first or second steep section of the long climb to Aid Station #3. It took a couple minutes but I caught up to them near some of the construction areas on the forest service road. I figured they would hop right on and draft me for a bit, but I think they came off pretty quickly. I wasn’t looking back, though, for fear of being discouraged that they were keeping up with me.
At this point, I figured based on the number of people I had passed and the number of people who had passed me that I was well inside the top 10. I kept hammering the climb all in the big ring for fear of shifting into the small ring and easing my pace. I spent a lot of time cross-geared or close to it, but it felt good to stand and roll instead of spin. Also, it really forced me to concentrate on finding a good smooth line since I was standing and needed the traction. I think this was really important on the climbs because there was a lot of loose gravel and you would waste a lot of energy bouncing on the rocks if you didn’t find the sweet spot of pine straw or dirt.
The next person I caught was a Toyota rider. A few minutes later, I caught his teammate. Then after another 10 minutes of climbing, I caught eventual third place finisher Chris Michaels (American Classic/Kenda/Tomac). This was shortly before the top of the first really big climb. Not too long after passing him, I got a small stick in my rear derailleur. I pulled over to stop thinking it might take a few seconds to pop out of the pulley wheel and that Chris would catch back up to me, but it came right out as soon as I stopped and pulled on the stick. Oh, if only it had taken a little bit of time to come out, it would have saved me 24:32 minutes in the race because I would have been with Chris and I don’t think we both would have missed the turn. Instead, I hopped right back on, crested the top and proceeded to ride 2.8 miles off course down into a saddle off the wrong side of Potato Patch mountain and then halfway up the climb to Little Bald Mountain (see annotated Strava screenshot below) I started getting suspicious that I made a wrong term when I couldn’t see another rider that I had been catching after passing Chris. Then eventually I stopped two different cars and asked if they had seen any cyclists. Both said no, so I turned around and headed back. The turn that I missed was marked with blue paint on the ground instead of the SRAM banners and arrows that I had been following. I don’t know why there wasn’t somebody stationed at the triangle there telling people to turn as it was in the middle of a fast descent where the natural direction is to go straight to carry your momentum up the next hill after it. I was going over 30 mph when I missed the turn.
After turning around and riding for a few minutes I knew for sure that I had missed the turn because all the people I had passed should have caught up to me. My first instinct was to cry knowing that I was racing essentially a perfect race up to that point and already in the top 3 or 4 about halfway into the race. My second instinct was to hit it hard to try to make up time. I think if I were younger I would have probably done the second, but having raced now for 20 years I knew that my best bet was to stay calm and just continue as if what I was riding was actually part of the course … continue to take in nutrition and eat as normal and don’t lift the pace at all. I did, and I was hoping to get the KOM on the reverse direction back up the climb with my steady Zone 4 effort as a reward for my being off course, but I missed it by a few seconds. Another reward, which I didn’t miss and greatly tempered what could have been huge disappointment was the absolutely fantastic view of Fort Mountain from partway up the Little Bald Mountain climb where I was off course. Fort Mountain will always be significant to me for a lot of reasons but especially because it marks the start of my foray into ultra endurance cycling. Read about Fort Mountain at the end of this post and towards the middle of this one.
Back to the race, I knew I had made it back to the race course when I saw two guys coming down towards an intersection. I saw the blue paint on the ground and knew that I had missed the turn. They were confused, too, as were many racers at that intersection. Most racers ended up missing the turn and hitting it on the other side of the triangle. But at least one other poor soul who I met when I climbed back up to the same spot 20 miles later had missed the turn and gone up and over the ridge like I did. I had the unfortunate (and somewhat ironic) opportunity to tell him he had missed the turn and had to go back down the hill I was climbing up. I was just ahead of those two guys on the start of the correct descent. There was another person just ahead of me on the descent and another person ahead of them. I immediately dropped the two guys and flew past the guy in front of me — I was guesstimating that my ability to drop people on the descent meant that those people were well outside of the top 50 of the race, and that was discouraging. I tried really hard not to think about the blown opportunity and what might have been and instead thought about 24 hour mountain bike nationals, how this was all good experience for future races, and man did i mention the course was awesome??? I think I passed four or five more people on the descent. I was out of water so I had to stop at Aid Station 4, even though it was not quite the bottom of the descent (hate losing all that momentum – my original plan had been to stop there on the way back, but going 24 minutes off course changed that plan!) The aid station workers there were super fast, and I got a bottle and was on my way in just a few seconds. I passed more people (perhaps some of the same) on the rest of the descent.
Then we hit a gravel road to start the long, never-ending, inferno of a Cat 2 climb (just a tiny bit short of Cat 1) back up Potato Patch Mountain. Initially, I was passing people somewhat constantly. As soon as I passed one person, there would be another person just up ahead on the climb. I would guesstimate I passed 10-15 people through here during the first 20 minutes of the climb. I had to stop at Aid Station #5 about 25% up the climb because I had gone through all my gatorade and the bottle I had in the back I hadn’t drunk out of and I knew it would be warm. I dumped that bottle on myself to get some cooling from the water and then refilled my big bottle out of the pump which was ice cold water. This was super helpful because the climb up Potato Patch Mountain from that spot was hell. My Garmin shows that temps were only in the upper 70s, but it was full sun in a lot of spots and you were only going 3-5mph at a hard zone 3, low Zone 4 effort. Sweat pouring. Eyes burning. One thing that really helped me towards the top of the climb was a rider I didn’t end up catching until many miles later – James Wiant (Peachtree Bikes, Atlanta).
I was closing in on him towards the top, but I didn’t catch him. He went over the top ahead of me maybe 15 seconds ahead and was maybe twice that far ahead by the time we made it to the next steep hill. This process repeated itself through all the steep cat 4 climbs across the top of the mountain. Each time, I would be a little bit closer until I actually caught him maybe close to 10 miles later on the last kicker before the longer descent down to aid station 3. I think he was pretty tired by this point because by the time I made it to the crest, I had put enough time into him that he didn’t catch me on the descent. That descent was particularly long and bumpy – it was one of a few later in the race where I was struggling with cramps in my hands. I would take one hand off the bar so I could stretch it and then alternate back to the other hand. I also spent a lot of time riding no-handed on some of the smoother sections of the course either in an aero position with my elbows on the bars or sitting upright stretching. I think that is really important in these long races otherwise you get to where you cannot hold onto the bars anymore.
After I passed James, there was nobody for quite a while – until close to the bottom of the 10 mile descent down to aid station #7. I passed two people in short succession, who then proceeded to pass me back when I stopped at the aid station. I had gambled with water by not stopping at aid station 3 and had been out for about 5 miles of the descent. In fact, some of the longer flatter parts of the descent I kept motivating myself that the aid station was just ahead, got to make it to the aid station for water, got to make it to the aid station for water. I was glad that I was well-hydrated up to that point and ended up drinking about 120 oz of gatorade and water in total for the day. That may not sound like a lot for an 8.5 hour race, but you have to remember that the first 3 hours of the race were quite cold with temps in the 30s and 40s in the valleys. It was definitely hot by the end, though, with temps climbing into the upper 70s and lower 80s.
At the aid station, I was told by the awesome volunteers who were also very quick (very proud that several of the volunteers were Samford students!) that there was one guy about 30 seconds ahead and a small group ahead of them by maybe another minute. I knew that there was only 14 miles to the finish, but I figured I could make up a minute on them – the question would be could I hold any kind of lead through the singletrack. At this point, I had still not passed any of the people that I had passed earlier in the race before going off course so I am imagining that I am sitting somewhere in the top 25. As it turns out, I was probably in 12th position at that point because I passed four more people (the group the aid station volunteers had told me about). This group had shattered on the final forest service road climb to the singletrack, so I passed them all one-by-one up the climb.
German was the first rider I caught, but he was the only one to catch back up to me in the singletrack. So that makes me think that he was the lone rider behind the group and was in fact catching the group when I first caught him. I mistook him for Andrew and said “hello again”. He asked what happened to me? And I told him I had gone 6 miles off course. It was very cathartic to finally tell someone that I had gone off course, but more importantly catching one of the leaders meant that I was well inside the top 25. Also, I caught one of the Toyota riders I had passed earlier. Still, I wasn’t convinced that I was anywhere close to the top 10 because I figured they were just having a bad day. As it turns out, I was having an amazing day but ended up adding 24:32 to my total time going off course. I wasn’t the only one, though. Singlespeeder Gerry Pflug was leading until he went off course at mile 95 and rode an extra 30 minutes of singletrack. Nathaniel Cornelius was in 3rd place and missed the same turn on the singletrack and ended up riding even more singletrack than Gerry. Fourth place finisher Tom Burke also went off course in about the same spot.
Even with the course snafus, this was a really well run event with some great volunteers. Any time there is a course problem, unless it is sabotage, it is ultimately the racer’s responsibility to know the course. That’s a bit harder for 100 mile mtb races where you’ve never ridden before, but still I could have spent some more time memorizing and studying the detailed maps on the website (I memorized the whole 500 mile route for the Heart of the South 500 mile race). Also, I could have pre-loaded the course into my Garmin. Normally I would do that, but I wasn’t sure about the battery life and whether the Garmin would crash if it were trying to follow such a long course. Live and learn!!!
Huge shout out to Greg Schisla, friend living in Murphy, NC who let me stay with him and also met me Friday after pre-ride for dinner at a very nice local Mexican restaurant. He was doing well in the Big Frog 65 in second place when he had major mechanical end his race (freehub body stopped engaging). It seems like even with perfect weather this year, the bad luck gremlins were out in full force at this year’s Cohutta! Maybe next year will be the year of perfect weather and good luck for everyone.
2014 Cohutta 100+ heartrate zone summary