Skyway Epic 2017 – Inaugural 200 Mile Race Podium. Brian Toone (1st), Eddie O’Dea (2nd), Chris Joice (3rd), Justin Shealey (4th), Pete Foret (5th), Josh Lederman (6th)
I’ve arranged these pictures from 1st – 6th, but this inaugural edition of the 200 mile version of the Skyway Epic mountain bike race was definitely a race where just finishing was a huge accomplishment. We couldn’t get a podium for this race because we all finished over a span of 20 hours, so I’ve made a 6-place virtual podium from the pictures race director Brent Marshall took of each of us at the finish. Here’s how the race played out.
My approach to the race was minimalist, even taking a smaller backpack then normal (thanks Ben!), so that I would be carrying less weight on my back and also more aerodynamic for the fast descents. I packed two gu’s, two snicker bars, and 1 clif bar for the first 50 miles of the race. I also only took two 20 oz. bottles full of gatorade because the temperature was 32 degF at the start, thinking that I’d refill both at the 50 mile stop and then buy an extra bottle or two at the Piedmont gas station when it got hot later in the day. I had only drank one of the bottles of the gatorade and a few sips from the second bottle by the time I made it to the 50 mile aid station (100 mile turnaround spot). I also took minimalist clothes – a short sleeve jersey with no jacket or base layer, knee warmers, and short finger gloves. I was quite warm for the opening singletrack except for my hands which were frozen by about halfway through. I did the whole trick of riding one handed on the straight smooth sections with my other hand behind me whapping it on my bottom to try to get some blood flow into it. That helped … some. I reckoned I’d be hot for most of the race, but didn’t count on how cold it would be by the end.
Equipment-wise, I had the following in my backpack:
- Two 29er tubes (tubeless tires, so you gotta have two tubes)
- One CO2 and a mini-pump
- Multi-tool allen wrench including chain tool
- Spot tracker and cellphone
- External battery pack
- Axiom 200 lumen (max) headlight, I ran it at 50 lumens (more later)
On the handlebars, I had two GPS’s mounted and an external battery pack I mounted on the stem when riding the long Cheaha pavement section but otherwise carried in my backpack. I didn’t have any tools or other supplies mounted on the bike, just the deluxe multi-tool in my backpack. In all, I’d guesstimate my backpack weighed less than 5 pounds.
Lake Howard from registration everybody starting to wake up and get ready for the race! Cold morning, 32 degF.
I planned to arrive at the start about 530AM, get ready, and on the trail by 6AM to ride a good chunk of the opening singletrack, but I made a McDonald’s coffee/bathroom stop in Sylacauga and didn’t make it to the start until after 6 and by the time I got on my bike ready to ride it was 6:41AM so I was only able to ride a little bit of the singletrack before needing to get back to the start line for the 7AM start.
Opening Singletrack and Wiregrass
The race starts out with all 10 miles of the Lake Howard singletrack before heading out to Wiregrass Rd. The 200 mile racers (13 of us) lined up behind the 100 mile racers. I met and started next to 3rd place finisher Chris Joice. When Brent started us off, I debated gunning for the hole shot, but it had been 1 year since the last time I had ridden singletrack (besides the little bit I had just ridden) and I didn’t want to mess anyone up so I settled into about 7th or 8th place behind Tracy McKay and decided to just follow his lines on the singletrack and save energy. Eddie got the hole shot and I figured that might be the last time I saw him until the turnaround. But as it turn out, it worked well to ride at an easier more comfortable (fun, even) pace on the singletrack. I passed singlespeed rider Max Diaz about halfway through the singletrack and then Tracy near the end of the singletrack.
Pretty soon on Wiregrass, I could see another couple riders which turned out to be Eddie and Chris (or Jason). I passed them on the opposite side of the spillway hill having ridden down the nearside considerably faster. I think this is where having ridden the course and Wiregrass Rd so many times helped me a lot. I knew that it was absolutely crucial to bottom out on those descents as fast as possible to carry as much momentum as far as possible up the next side.
The Skyway-1, 2, 3 – Outbound
On the climb up Rocky Mountain Church Rd to Bull’s Gap, I saw Hefin Jones (1st place, 100 mile) and Jered Kelley (2nd place, 100 mile) up ahead. I had almost caught them on the climb when I realized I had to pee pretty badly and it didn’t make sense to be carry an extra pound of liquid all the way to the top of the climb when I could just pee on the side of the rural dirt road. So after stopping for a quick nature break, I had lost sight of them on the climb. I hit Skyway-1 and rode up it hard hoping to catch them before the top, but I never even saw them with the slight twists and turns until after hitting the top and the passing the first few big mud puddles.
I started to catch them on the longer gradual grades before Horn Mountain and passed them right before the top, flying down to the huge tree that had fallen on the descent to the turnaround. People were working with bow saws (no chainsaws allowed I think) to cut a path under the tree. I was able to climb through the tree and continue on down to AL-77 where for the first time in all my years of racing Skyway I had to wait for traffic (a tractor trailer and a couple cars) who arrived at the dangerous crossing at the same time as me. Then there’s a couple miles of fast gradual downhill pavement to the church to turn to head towards the Union-T railroad intersection and Skyway-2. Looking back near the church I could see Hefin not far behind me, and he looked to be by himself so I think he must have been booking it to try to get ahead of Jered.
I was super happy with the climb up Skyway-2 as it is the trickiest section of the Skyway with large ruts. During the day, it was possible to chart a good path through all the ruts even if it meant running into the smaller pine trees growing right up against the side of the road. Towards the top I ran into an off-road vehicle convoy that was trying to back up the trail after getting stuck. I was just able to squeeze by them without having to slow down. Then it was down the much shorter descent to the Gunters TN pass before hitting Skyway-3.
Skyway-3 is by far the easiest section of the Skyway to ride. But there is a bit of a mental hurdle for me when hitting this section of the Skyway because I almost always include that section of the Skyway or the Gunters TN pass on my road rides out to Cheaha, which means that I usually am in that area pretty tired. One realization this year really hit hard as I was climbing up the gentle gravel towards Burgess Point is that I could abandon the race and ride all the way home to Hoover and it would be about 85 miles shorter than what I had left to race. And having been to that exact spot on my way home to Hoover on many a previous adventure, it provided a very concrete realization of how far away I had to get home and correspondingly how incredibly far was left to go in the race.
Thankfully, there was many other things to think about including primarily whether I had actually passed Eddie or not and how much farther up the course he might be. Also, there was a bit of tailwind (or at least non-headwind) on the descent from Adams Gap, which was jammed packed with cars because of the beautiful weather, so there was a lot to distract me / make me forget about the omg moment of how much farther was left in the race.
As soon as I hit the pavement, it was lock out the fork and full speed ahead. I made it to the aid station (100 mile turnaround) and got confirmation from Matthew and Jeffrey that I was indeed first to reach that point. So I stopped and got some snickers and filled up my empty bottle with Cytomax and topped off the gatorade bottle with water. I also took my external battery pack out of my backpack and mounted it to the stem to charge my garmins on the smooth cheaha pavement. I was relieved to get the extra weight out of my backpack because my neck was getting a bit sore from the straps. I forgot to get out my phone, though, and had to stop again to get it out after half a mile of climbing. It had fallen to the very bottom of my backpack, and I had started to tear up thinking that I had forgotten it back at the car and wouldn’t be able to call Kristine at Cheaha. After some additional frantic digging, I found it and took this picture of one of my favorite views in Alabama although it wasn’t necessarily at the best spot for the picture.
Skyway Epic ridge line extending off in the distance beyond Adams Gap near the bottom of the Cheaha climb (behind me).
Calling Kristine on the climb up Cheaha is a bit of a tradition on my adventures in East Alabama, West Georgia, South Carolina, and no joke, Florida. It’s a reliable place for cellphone reception, and it’s usually near the halfway point (or sometimes insanely close to the end of a ride, think about the implication of hitting Cheaha 75 miles from home “near” the end of a ride – one time I started laughing almost uncontrollably after having the thought – I’ve only got 120 miles left in the ride hitting Cheaha on the way out to West Georgia before realizing how absurd the thought of “only 120 miles” is no matter how experienced a rider you are). During the race, I was just super happy I could find my phone and call Kristine. She was happy and excited to talk to me. I found out from her, and she asked me where I was on Cheaha, and I told her I was pretty much at the exact spot where I had to involuntarily stop riding and walking up Cheaha on a particularly hot ride where I was trying to ride to North Carolina to meet her for an anniversary weekend getaway where I was going to try to hit the AL, GA, and SC state elevation high points in a single ride. I was so dehydrated I couldn’t think straight, and I was starting to cramp really bad so I stopped riding and started walking up the climb (at the powerline cut if you are familiar with the climb). It’s amazing how I felt like a million bucks compared to that, and how much of a mental boost that gives you on a ride/race/adventure by comparison.
I passed Brent by at the top and felt great heading to the super fun section of the Cheaha Rd with multiple 50mph descents in a row. I kid you not, though, there was a car stopped in the middle of the road at the Pinhotti trail crossing taking a picture of the sign. Thankfully my head was not down and I blew by it at 40mph instead of t-boning it at 40mph. I maxed out at 48mph near the bottom of the first section (AL-49) which takes you straight south towards Florida and I’ve ridden twice hitting the AL and FL high points on the same ride.
I hit 49.8mph coming down from the second scenic overlook tucked as much as I could, chin resting on my gloves on the stem. I was a bit disappointed to come so close to 50mph. Coming down from Horseblock, it was about the same speed but my max speed for the ride didn’t change. Later in the ride, I would bump up the max speed to 49.9 coming down a descent I was doing for the first time (Duggar Mountain). I couldn’t believe that. Seriously, how do you miss 50mph by 0.1mph. Thankfully, Strava shows 55.5mph because I was way outrunning the satellites (or more specifically the Garmin prediction algorithm for where you should be based on current direction and speed, then when it goes to “catch back up” it has you going at a faster speed).
Hell is County Road 500
National Forest Service Rd 500, which is labelled incorrectly (or perhaps it has a dual name) as Co Rd 500 on the maps was easily the toughest part of the race. Interestingly, it was the first time I had ridden it and it turned out to be the hardest part of the race. That made me realize how much of a huge advantage I had in the race having ridden all of it numerous times except for the 50 mile round trip section of Co Rd 500. But I think even if I knew 500 well, it still would have been the hardest part of the race.
Apparently the Forest Service or the county had laid down fresh gravel within the last week or two as it was really rough and loose. This would be fine if you were just cruising along on a flat road, but it is super hilly. The big gravel posed a problem on both the steep downhills and the steep uphills. By this point in the race, I was already starting to consider the possibility of winning the race but felt that a flat tire might derail that possibility. So I rode the brakes on the downhills wanting to avoid gashing the tire. This meant that you didn’t have any speed to carry into the next uphill. Then on the next uphill, it was so loose that you were desperate to try to find a smooth spot where you could get traction and didn’t feel like you were wasting so much energy going nowhere. On the way to Piedmont, it was tough but fine. On the way back from Piedmont, it was Hell.
Near the top of Duggar mountain, you hit the Calhoun County line again and it switches back to a smooth chip/seal. This made for a fast descent before the terrain flattens out on the way into Piedmont. I ran out of both food and water on Duggar mountain so I was thankful for the quick trip to the gas station in Piedmont. It was such a beautiful day in Piedmont that there was a lot of people out on the Ladiga trail so I spent a lot of time riding the grass instead of the paved rails-to-trail to avoid causing problems passing people tooling along at 5mph or walking. A wedding party was taking photos on the arched bridge and they made room so I could fly by between half the wedding party on one side of the bridge and the other half on the other side of the bridge.
The turnaround point in Piedmont was the Chief Ladiga trail welcome center, but there’s no food there. The nearest gas station where I had planned on getting food only has a vending machine for food, which I figured would take too long to feed in my cash and get stuff, so I rode on down a few more blocks on AL-21 to the next gas station where I bought over $18 of food (snickers and various granola bars) and gatorade. I also bought a 8 oz red bull which I downed before leaving the gas station. There was no one else in the store so I was calm and picked out my food quickly, but when I went to check out I couldn’t figure out why the cashier was telling me “you don’t want this one, you don’t want this one” as she was tossing some of the bars aside. It turns out she was checking the expiration date on everything ($18 worth of snickers and granola bars, that’s like 8 bars or something), and it was just the two dark chocolate chili granola bars that were expired. I didn’t say anything about being in the middle of a bike race and that I really needed the food and instead grabbed one more snickers bar which was right next to the cash register. Also, as it turned out, I had more than enough food to get me back to the Cheaha store but I did run out of gatorade again on the Cheaha climb on the way back despite having purchased 68 oz of liquid – (3) 20 oz gatorades and (1) 8 oz red bull.
Hell is County Road 500
I had my first cramp of the day near the bottom of the super steep climb back up Duggar Mountain on the paved part of Co Rd 500. It caught me by surprise, so I stopped and peed. My pee was dark yellow/brownish. Dehydrated. Shit. This was shortly after I saw Jason Merrill heading into Piedmont who was in second place at the time about 7 miles (plus refueling) behind me. I still had nearly 100 miles left in the race (I knew it would be longer than 200 miles) so it gave me great concern to think I was cramping already. After resuming the climb, I switched into my easiest gear and decided to dial back the pace considerably on the uphills. Also, I decided that I no longer cared about flatting that it was worth the risk to bomb all the downhills with no brakes rather than take extra time on the downhill and lose all the momentum going into the uphill. This strategy was OK, but the hills on Co Rd 500 were steep enough that you had to grind up them no matter what. Plus, with the hotter temps and loose rocks, I was cramping while sitting down and couldn’t effectively stand up without losing traction. It was really tough. Without a doubt the toughest part of the race.
I continued on, hill after hill, repeating the struggle of trying to find the right line, trying not to spin out, trying not to cramp, deciding when I could lock out the fork and stand up because there was enough traction on the pinestraw covered rocks on the side of the road. Thankfully, in almost the middle of Co Rd 500 is a series of paved roads – perhaps as much as 2-3 miles of them. This really helped because I could lock out the fork and ride standing up, which gave my inner thigh muscles a chance to recover since you mainly push down when you are pedaling while standing up. It seemed interminable, but I was super happy to finally make it back to AL-281 with nearly 20 miles of pavement again. This meant I could lock out the fork to my heart’s content and stand up whenever I wanted to. It also meant I could stop and take my phone and external battery pack back out of my backpack lightening the load on my neck and shoulders a bit. After a quick stop at the stop sign in the middle of the road where I could prop up my bike, and reconnect all the electronics to the charger, I continued on.
Hitting AL-281 also meant some brutal paved climbing ahead. But again, because I have hit that stretch of road at over 400 miles into the Heart of the South 500 mile race, I still felt much, much, much better than those times when I had to weave all the way up the climbs with no hope of actually riding straight up the 15+% grades on my road bike. On my mountain bike, I was able to shift down into easy gears, stand up and ride up the climbs considerably faster and just slightly slower than normal road biking adventure pace. I made it to the final 3 mile climb up Cheaha and gave Kristine a call to find out that I was over 20 miles ahead of Jason and even a couple miles farther ahead of Eddie. [I found out after the race that Co Rd 500 was the breaking point for Jason as he scratched there. I can totally empathize. I was half-hoping to flat or have some severe mechanical that I could use to force myself out of the race on Co Rd 500.]
At the top of the climb, I made it to the Cheaha store, which was packed with people. Thankfully, they had two cash registers open and by the time I found everything I needed one of the registers was open. I was hoping to do my gatorade/red bull concoction but they only had Monster energy drinks which I had never had before. So I bought one of those and a 32 oz gatorade which was enough to fill up both bottles and top off each bottle with the energy drink. The cool thing about this concoction is it tricks your brain and taste buds into thinking you are drinking two full bottles of energy drink when you are mainly drinking gatorade and getting they hydration you need. The sun was setting as I left Cheaha, and the temp was already down into the mid 50s. The descent was so phenomenally beautiful that I contemplated trying to fish my phone out and take a pic of the alpine glow on all the ridges but I was too tired and didn’t want anything to slow me down on the descent. I hit the pullout area on the climb up Adam’s Gap just before sunset and decided to stop and put away all my electronics so I got the pic of the sunset and alpine glow looking back at Cheaha below.
Not the ideal spot for this pic as Cheaha is hiding behind the trees on the left, but it still gives you an idea of how beautiful the sky was and the alpine glow on the mountains.
Sunset looking west partway up Adams Gap almost directly at my house beyond the horizon.
Into the Heart of Darkness – Skyway-3,2,1 – Inbound
This is where the 200 mile race differentiates itself from the 100 mile race. In the 100 mile race, you are going to finish before dark. In the 200 mile race, you don’t even make it back to the skyway before dark!!! I hit 600-3, the smoothest section of the skyway, about 5 minutes after sunset. So I was able to ride that entire section with no lights. But as I approached the crossover to 600-2 at Gunters TN Rd, there was an offroad vehicle coming down from the other side with not just his headlights on but a full rack of extra lights that made it look like the sun. And here I am riding the thing with no lights at all. To be fair, though, 600-2 is the most remote and least maintained of the three skyway sections.
Why no lights? Because I figured ahead of time I would only need lights for 2-3 hours, 4 hours worst case, not 5 hours!!! My light at its lowest setting will last 4-5 hours and I thought I absolutely had to have it for the singletrack at the end so I rode a bunch without it on at all and never on anything but its lowest setting. But riding 600-2 up or down would be impossible without lights because of the ruts – even with a full moon, which fortunately we had an almost full moon last night. Even with my light on, it only helped you a tiny bit with avoiding larger rocks right before you hit them. It couldn’t help the bigger picture of rut navigation where you have to plan ahead about which side of the rut you need to be on before it becomes impossible to ride. During the daytime on the way out, I did everything perfectly. It’s one of the things I really like about this kind of mountain biking – I call it “micronavigation” and “micro route planning” where you are having to chart out your path with only a few seconds of leadtime during the day. Well, unless you have really bright lights, you have no time to make any plans. I tried to remember the ruts and which side to be on, but then it gets tricky because you are going the reverse direction. Needless to say, I had to stop several times when I ended up on the wrong side of the rut as it washed off the trail (leaving a 3-4 foot drop). You would have to climb over the rut and get back on the correct side. It took me 23’20” to do the 3 mile climb on the way out during the day and it took me 23’23” to do the 3 mile descent on the way back down at night.
When I made it back down to Union-T, I was so relieved because it meant a couple miles of pavement before hitting Skyway-1. With the full moon on this side of the mountain, I was able to do the whole climb until the county line. One county maintains their section of it, the other doesn’t. It was back to ride a little bit, get stuck in a rut, hop off, continue riding for a while. The mud puddles (these are puddles big enough to fit cars in and support ecosystems of frogs) were fun at night, i.e., you had to guess which side to go on and I guessed wrong about half the time slipping up and stepping down into one of them. I’m really lucky that one was shallow because otherwise I easily could have lost my balance and completely fallen over submerged in the mud. That would have been amazing to show up at the end completely covered in mud, but with the temp already down into the lower 40s by the end of the race, I would have been completely frozen (as it was I was only partially frozen).
Wiregrass and the Closing Singletrack
Once I made it all the way through 600-1 and back out onto the wiregrass section, it was no lights again to save every last bit of battery for the singletrack. I even did the descents at basically 80% speed with no lights because I figured I almost always pick bad lines on those descents so what difference did it really make if I couldn’t see. I was very lucky that I turned my light on right at the entrance to the singletrack taking you to the dam otherwise I would have missed that and ended up going all the way down to the boat ramp. My lights held to the end, but after 194 miles, 10 miles of singletrack felt like 100 miles of singletrack. Exhausted it was really tough to keep your balance. Thankfully the Sylaward trails are fast and flowy (i.e., non-technical) so I could ride them slow and weavy bouncing from one side of the trail to the other. Yeah for tubeless tires because I would have flatted on thorns for sure with tubes. It’s funny how I wanted to go one way and would end up drifting the other way and be puzzled how I ended up on the wrong side of the trail again. Lastly, big shout-out to the crew at Bob’s who got my Specialized Bike back into perfect working condition after it had been sitting in my garage since the 2016 Skyway Epic race. Yes, this was the first time I had ridden it any significant distance since then!!! Cahaba Cycles does an amazing job keeping my Trek road bikes rideable despite the huge miles and crazy adventures I take them on (in my mind, I kept checking off places on the skyway I want to try to road bike), but Bob’s Bikes does all the work on my mountain bike and they did fantastic.
Maps and Data
||16 hours, 58 minutes (12.0 mph)
||16 hours, 26 minutes (12.4 mph)
||32 degF min, 75 degF max, 55 degF avg
Skyway Epic 200 Mile Race – County Map annotated. (click to zoom)
Raised relief map on our stairway which shows how prominent the Skyway and Mount Cheaha are in East Alabama.