Tag Archives: skyway

Skyway Epic 2022 – 10 years of Skyway

Always hard, always epic. This year’s skyway was no exception. Most people try to get better over the years. I’m OK with continuing to see my results decline because that means more and more strong, competitive people are finding this amazing race created and brought into being by Brent Marshall and continuing to grow under the oversight of Jason and Wendi Shearer at Ordinary Epics and the dedicated COGS group.

At-a-glance: skyway over the years
I’m starting out with a table of my results and links to race reports over the years along with stats about the races before a recap of this year’s race.

YearRace Report (and Strava link)PlaceDistance (total)Time (total)Pic
2012Epic Skyway Epic 2nd59.4mi4:08:43
2013Skyway Epic 2013 2nd58.5mi4:09:28
2014Full stop – an unexpected mid-season breakn/an/an/a
2015Skyway Epic 2015 2nd107.6mi
2016Skyway Epic/Tour de Tuscaloosa Double Header 1st100.9mi7:25:41
20172017 Skyway Epic 200 Mile Race (Report) 1st203.7mi17:00:45
2018Skyway Epic 2019 and 2018 1st278.2mi33:32:00
2019Skyway Epic 2019 and 2018 1st303.83mi33:41:01
2020Postponed skyway (September) 2nd102.1mi
2021Skyway Epic 2021 6th109.6mi
2022Skyway Epic 2022 – 10 years of Skyway 7th108.7mi
Skyway Epic over the years. This year marked the 10 year anniversary with the race starting back in 2012, which made it the 11th edition. Sadly, for me, this was only my 10th Skyway Epic finish as I missed the 2014 edition having come just home from the hospital the day before the 2014 race after recovering from colliding with a stopped car on a steep descent at 40mph.

Favorite Memories

Some of my favorite memories over the years

  • Family showing up to surprise me at the finish
  • Oven mitts
  • Emergency bivvy
  • 1st place
  • Falling over and getting completely submerged in a skyway mud puddle
  • Podiums over the years
  • Hanging out with people at the end
  • Starting down by the boat dock
  • Starting down by the dam
  • Alabama’s longest gravel road … hot
  • Thunderstorm lightning everywhere … cold
  • That feeling of bombing down Rocky Mountain Church Rd
  • Riding through a controlled burn still smouldering during the race
  • Kristine rescuing me at the Chelsea Sonic on the way back one year
  • Riding back out to watch Pete Foret finish the Skyway 300
  • Sleeping in the car waiting out a thunderstorm before the start
  • Racing with a medical boot
  • The absolute relief and joy of the finish

2022 Skyway Epic

This has been a busy year for me. Research projects are taking off at work, plus a number of other responsibilities keeping me quite busy at work, plus my normal teaching load means that I have had to limit my riding quite a bit … almost 750 miles less than this time last year. On top of that, most of my riding has been quite slow with no racing at all in the legs. And on top of all that, it’s not like my hunger/food intake has decreased so I’m a few pounds over where I need to be weight-wise for good racing. And lastly, age is starting to catch up with me as there are more aches and pains to deal with while riding.

I know that last paragraph sounds like a laundry list of excuses, well, because it is. It’s also somewhat intentional as my primary goal for this year is to put in the best possible time I can at the Tour Divide, which requires a different kind of training and yet would be great to not line up at the start in Canada with 15,000 miles already in my legs for the year, which is exactly what happened before the June 2015 Race Across America.

To maximize training for the Tour Divide, I decided to ride to the start of the 100ish mile Skyway Epic again this year, do the race, and then ride home for a grand total of 21 hours and 252.5 miles on the day. I wanted to be sure to hit 250 miles to make sure this ride would count towards my lifetime Eddington goal of 250, which I barely made it to last year on the way home (250.3 miles). This year I managed to push it out a couple miles farther by including the climb from the Cahaba River all the way up to the top of Shades Mountain.

I knew it was going to be cold on the way down to the start, and sure enough it was cold with the temp in the mid 30s for most of the 6 hours it took me to get to the start. I was about 30 minutes late leaving the house, which meant I had to cut the ride a bit short, and still just barely made it in time to get my registration packet, dump all my extra stuff (and clothes) under the registration table, and then race over to the start area by the dam holding my race plate and zip ties in my hand.

Sarah Cooper, fellow 2015 Heart of the South 500 finisher and 2017 Race Across America winner, flew down from Iowa to race this year’s Skyway Epic. As I propped my bike up and frantically tried to tie the plate on while Jason was giving last minute instructions, she came over and helped me tie the plate on. Just in time, as only minute or so later Jason said 3-2-1 go and we were off! Sarah did great winning the women’s masters race in her first ever skyway.

I took off like the start of a short track mountain bike race gunning for the hole shot. I knew I didn’t have a chance at doing well in the race, but I wanted to be first up and over the hill. I made it to the top of the hill first, but the rest of the front group caught up at the crest and came right around me. This was good, though, because as I would soon find out I was going to have lots of problems in the singletrack. I put on new mountain bike tires and set them up tubeless the day before thinking I would keep the high tire pressure (nearly 50 PSI) for the road ride down to the start. I intended to drop the pressure all the way down to 25-27 PSI up front and maybe 30 PSI in the back, but then completely forgot in the mad rush of me being late to pick up my packet and get ready for the start. So I entered the opening single track on a rigid gravel bike running nearly 50 PSI. I wondered a few times in the singletrack after things weren’t going well if it would be worth the 30-60 seconds to stop, unscrew the valve caps and stem and let some air pressure out. But ultimately, I decided against it and did the best I could.

Also, with a lot of pedal swapping recently between my Fat bike and gravel bike, I ended up with my oldest set of pedals on my gravel bike. I realized this as soon as I pulled my left foot out of the pedal and smashed my heel hard onto the pedal within the first minute or two of entering the singletrack. It hurt bad, but what can you do. I kept on pedaling hoping it would stop hurting. A few miles later I had mostly stopped noticing it, when I did it again smashing my heel at the exact same spot. This hurt a lot and was discouraging. I even had thoughts of calling it a day before making it out of the singletrack. But I knew I was already long out of contention for the podium, and I wanted to practice pushing on through pain.

I also felt like since the pain had quieted down once it would quiet down again, which it did. As soon as I exited the singletrack and made it to wiregrass road, I took off in pursuit of a decent finish and no longer though about my heel at all … until I finished about 8 hours later and started walking around at the finish and then immediately remembered I had smashed my heel on my pedal twice unprotected. I was wearing sandals for the race because of toe problems, long story that involves getting hit by a car on a deserted road, multiple surgeries, and ultimately not being able to bend my toe ever again. Doesn’t work well with mountain bike shoes where something has to give either the bottom of the shoe or your toe … and if the toe doesn’t give … and the shoe doesn’t flex … it leads to a pressure point on your toe that becomes unbearable after a while. An alternative is tennis shoes on flat pedals, but another alternative is sandals and that’s what I went with.

But meanwhile back in the race, I made some progress and caught a few of the many riders who had passed me in the singletrack, but then I eventually got caught by a couple riders and stopped looking forward and started looking backwards expecting to see somebody else catching me soon. But eventually that stopped as I started to feel better on the way back and started catching the 60 milers. By the end I was moving pretty good because I had passed a 100 miler and was worried that they would pass me back on the singletrack. The singletrack was much better on the way back because I wasn’t trying to keep up with really fast guys on mountain bikes. I could ride it at my own pace and this ended up being a lot more efficient. Also, I had stopped before the dreaded Skyway-2 on the way back to let air out of my tires. It’s kinda funny, actually, because I kept forgetting that I needed to let air out of my tires. But ultimately it was the thought of how bad it was going to be coming down Skyway-2 on a gravel bike that made me remember to let air out of my tires to at least absorb the blows a little bit.

All-in-all, Skyway is always hard, but it’s always epic, and it’s always rewarding to finish. It’s also rewarding to see other people struggling to make it through and overcoming the many challenges that come up during any undertaking like this and see it through to the end.

Skyway Epic 2021

I ended up writing up about the skyway epic just on Strava, so here is a belated copy and paste of the race report … plus a pic of my favorite view in Alabama below. Enjoy!

Where to even begin … this was such a great race as always. Super honored to race against the man who started it all – Brent Marshall – along with eventual winner Mat Stephens (DK champion) and a host of other really fast riders – last year’s winner Jack White, Scott Kuppersmith, Eric Nelson – speaking of which it was definitely the closest race ever with 1st (Mat) and 2nd (Eric) less than 30 seconds apart! Also, southern Alabama and Mississippi had quite the showing this year. It is so great to see so many people discovering or rediscovering this jewel of a race. It was quite the stacked field this year!

All of that being said, this ended up being my worst placing ever and first time off the podium in 10 years except for the year the race was the day after I came home from a week in the hospital (hit by car). Yet, I couldn’t be happier, to see this race continuing to grow under Jason and Wendi Shearer’s leadership means that as I get older and slower and more and more fast people continue to find this race, I may never see that podium again. And that’s ok!

The race itself was quite dynamic. Scott Kuppersmith had the lead up Bull’s Gap and the top 3 were still together after the turnaround on the way down Cheaha as we were just starting our climb up it! I don’t know when Scott came off, but Mat and Eric were together all the way to the finish with Mat edging out Eric in the closing 12 miles of singletrack. Scott held on a for a solid 3rd. Back behind all that in positions 4th – 7th, there was quite a bit of changing and riding and racing and awesomeness. I had a solid 4th for a while, but Blake Waggoner (from Huntsville) caught up to me as I had to pick and choose my way across the skyway on a rigid gravel bike, whereas he had a hard tail mountain bike he could crush the chunkier descents I had to be quite careful on.

Still, it wasn’t just the descents b/c after he caught up to me on Skyway 2, I had a hard time keeping up with him on the climbs, too. It was great to have someone to ride with through here as it is a normally a lonely section of the race where I’m pushing as hard as possible to either stay in the lead or catch up to the lead. This year I was aiming for a top 5 and was happy with Blake that even though we were having a good time chatting about TNGA it was still pushing me harder than I would have been going if I were by myself b/c of the way I was feeling on the edge of cramping. Then right as we hit the pavement of the Adams Gap descent, Austin Sullivan and Jack White caught up to us on their gravel bikes. This made for a super fast descent and since I had been on the edge of cramping for a while and knew I couldn’t go much faster, I had already resigned myself to a 7th place finish at the back of that group, but wanting to stay with them long enough to make sure if I had real trouble later that I could keep a top 10 finish.

But they were happy to take the climb up Cheaha at a very reasonable pace and chat about all kinds of bike packing adventures with Austin and Blake. Jack, who had flatted in the opening singletrack, came off through here b/c he had chased hard for so long to catch back up. Still we had a nice long water-fill food restock where I exchanged a gas station poptart package I still hadn’t opened (but was quite crushed to pieces in my back pocket and prior to that my top tube bag) for a nice fresh 8 pack of oreos.

Kristine called right as we were leaving. It is a long-standing tradition (probably more than 50 times now on 200+ mile adventures which I usually route up and over Cheaha!) that whenever I’m on an adventure that takes me up and over Cheaha that I call her from Cheaha (b/c there is cellphone reception there). Well b/c I was with a group and b/c I had broken my phone mount coming off Skyway 3 of all places – the tamest of the skyways – I hadn’t called her and since she could follow me on tracking she called me! Great to talk to her for a few seconds before divebombing Cheaha [see pics of the skyway knolls in the distance] back to the skyway portion of the skyway (Cheaha technically is part of the Skyway ridge line, too, but b/c you have to descend down off of the skyway and then climb back up to Cheaha, it feels like its own thing).

So in the pic coming down Cheaha, you can see Blake, Jack, and Austin ahead of me as well as road riders training for the Cheaha Challenge Ultra and since Jack had come off on the descent I was starting to feel better about not getting last in the group. I still wasn’t sure how long I could make it without cramping, but I surprisingly made it all the way across Skyway-1 as we really weren’t pushing the pace that hard. Then I stuck to Austin’s wheel like glue up the short Skyway-2 climb b/c I knew I would be slowwww on the descent. Blake put a lot of time into us on the descent on his mountain bike while Austin and I were very carefully trying to keep the bikes from shattering to pieces on any of the many, many, many ruts or rocks.

We caught up to Blake towards the bottom of the Skyway-1 climb and saw that he was with another rider. This was past the 60 mile turnaround so our only conclusion was that it was one of the top three riders. All of a sudden (we thought) that we were racing for third place! We would find out later that it was actually a 60 miler who had missed the turnaround. This rejuvenated me quite a bit so as Austin turned up the screws I did everything I could to stay on his wheel. But it was definitely too much for me as the cramps that had been at bay were coming back with twinges that I knew I just couldn’t ignore. So I backed off the slightest bit and he pulled away. I kept it steady until I came the closest so far of the day to a full lock up. In fact, it may have actually been a very short lived cramp where I happened to relax the muscle at just the right time. That made me back down several more notches. I was still holding onto 5th (what I thought was 4th at the time) in front of Blake who had not followed our accelerations all the way until about halfway down the Skyway-1 descent where he flew past me on the mountain bike while I picked a careful line down much slower on the gravel bike.

We both stopped at the final aid station given how hot it was getting and took off together. I followed him on the descent and the first couple rollers but I had to back off again on the latter rollers as I could feel my legs right on the edge of cramping. Sorry for talking so much about cramping, but it was pretty much all I could think about for the second half of the race … and it worked b/c I never did end up with a full leg locked cramp!
I steadily caught 60 milers the whole way back and kept the pace on as much as I could not knowing how far behind me Jack might be. Every sound in the woods behind me I thought for sure was 7th place catching me in the single track. But I held on for 6th. Up ahead, I’m not sure as I just assumed Austin held on for 4th, but it looks like in the results that Blake may have actually caught up to him and passed him in the single track which would have been quite tricky for Austin given the sporadic muddy conditions on the cyclocross tires he was running … maybe 45mm?

Speaking of conditions, it was quite surprising. The Lake Howard singletrack was the muddiest I had ever seen it, but only a few spots … maybe 8-10 short sections and 2-3 longer (but still short) sections. So much of the rest of the trail dries fast b/c of the slope and nature of the dirt/granite rocks. What really surprised me was Skyway 1 and Skyway 2. Skyway 1 was much wetter and muddier on the opening climb, but it was actually better everywhere else. Somebody had gone in and cleared the trees/bushes on the edge of some of the frog pools that frequently stretch edge to edge across the skyway (called such b/c you can hear and sometimes see large frogs jumping in them). I fell into one of those last year being indecisive about whether to one leg scoot across the side or just ride it. And then I couldn’t unclip the other leg when I ended up getting stuck and fell over on that side straight into the deep pool. It was comically sad and dumb, I’d rank it up there in the top 10 dumbest things I’ve done on the bike. But this year you could ride around all of them. Also, skyway-2 has one pool at the end that can be quite bad if it’s edge to edge, but you could also ride around it this year. One year we had to hike-a-bike through the woods b/c of how nasty it was. Not this year! Skyway-3 dries incredibly fast given how much gravel and sand are on it. I wasn’t worried about it at all, and it was dry and fast as usual. In fact, I’ve ridden that in the pouring rain and it still doesn’t get muddy. Very unusual soil.

Back to the race, well, actually, I guess that’s it. I, just like everyone who races the skyway, was so happy to finish and see everyone. One of those people was winner Mat Stephens who mentioned that we had raced on the road together back in the Mississippi Gran Prix, Tour de Louisanne days. That seems like a whole lifetime ago now. It was great looking back at some of my old race reports – https://toonecycling.com/…/16/mississippi-gran-prix-2013/ and https://toonecycling.com/…/mississippi-gran-prix-day-3…/ and a whole bunch more … and it was also a little sad too as I saw the name of one rider who passed away a few years ago who I had only met at the MS Gran Prix race in 2013 but it was still sad then and even now, six years later. On a much happier note, it was great to see Mat and it was great to be alive and racing the skyway.