I can barely walk. My fingers are swollen. Quads, knees, back, triceps: all useless and paralyzed by fatigue. It’s the day after the Cohutta 100 mountain bike race, and my body is wrecked.
I don’t typically feel this way after a race. In fact, I have never felt like this in my life. But strangely enough, it doesn’t deter the desire to do it again. In a sense, I feel I earned this pain; it is my medal.
100 miles. 13,000 feet of climbing. Miles of grueling and muddy single track trails. Unending gravel climbs, rutted and carved by years of rain-shaped rivers cascading down the smokey mountains. This is the Cohutta 100, supposedly the “easiest” of all the N.U.E races (a series of long distance mountain bike events). Today, it became the hardest. Forecasts and radar maps showed the truth. A high pressure system was affording much of the country with beautiful spring weather, all while holding those of us in Tennessee captive to misery. The rain was coming, and with it, intense difficulty.
Racing 100 miles isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Its more of an “all day ride” then a race. Most would agree that the race doesn’t actually begin until the last 10 miles. Survive for 90 miles and go as hard as you can for the last 10 to determine your result. The problem becomes that you don’t necessarily have much left to “race” with as the pain and exhaustion from the day are firmly settling on your legs. It takes every ounce of energy you have, both physically and mentally, to press on to the finish. Riding 100 miles is exhausting. Riding it on a mountain bike is harder still. Riding up 13,000 feet adds to the difficulty. Riding that in muddy and slick conditions forces intense focus and the need for added power as your tires can slip as you pedal. Riding in sub 50 degree temperatures necessitates your body using energy to warm itself, thus taking it away from your forward motion.
The rain began overnight, soaking and muddying the trails before we even began. Contrary to typical habits, I remained in the car staying warm until 10 minutes until the start. It was raining lightly as I spun around the parking lot and got to the line with about 1 minute to go. The gun went off and it was on like a 90 minute XC race. People sprinting, jockeying for position and going fast. The race began with a 2 mile road climb where I remained in the top 15. I looked back near the top and the field of 200 some racers had been blown apart. Little groups speckled the road behind as we flew up the mountain.
We burst into the single track full throttle. You’d think the trails were bone dry as we ripped around narrow turns, up and down hills. Things were immediately strung out into long snakes of riders, and I was happy to be in the top 15 after the first few miles. Somewhere around mile 8, I felt a little bang on my leg and noticed that my two spare tubes were falling off the bottom of my seat. Not wanting to lose these precious items I stopped and lost a few places to re-secure them. After stopping again to simply rip the whole thing off and stuff it in my jersey I was behind some slower folks and somewhere in the top 35.
Floating and bumping our way down the muddy mountain we got into some fire roads (think gravel that has potholes, divots, washed out sections, ruts and mud). I was happy to get out of the more dangerous single track and on to something slightly more predictable. We dropped down more descents of very steep roads and ended up on a paved section.
About this time (mile 20) I was feeling a bit heroic and wanted to make up some time. I carefully upped my effort, keeping a watchful eye on my heart rate and pushed ahead. I met another rider, Dave Tippy, who began working in a pace line with me and we quickly caught a group of 5 riders. They joined our efforts and before long you’d have thought we were off the front of a road race; taking our pulls and drafting as much as we could.
The fun quickly ended at mile 23. A few things happened at this point in the race. I realized that my hands and feet were going to be cold for a very long time, and that I would be going primarily uphill for the next 25 miles. Up 6,000 feet to be exact. And thus it began. The long, long slog up multiple mountains.
At mile 37, Cheryl Sornson (2012 female NUE series winner) caught me and was a perfect pace setter for me. I followed her up that mountain for the next 13 miles. Many times I would begin drifting back, easing up, but with eyes LOCKED on her rear wheel, I pressed on. It finally ended at mile 48 and I began what could arguably be a worse than climbing for 25 miles: descending for 4 miles, at 30 mph, while soaking wet. At the bottom, I was shaking uncontrollably.
I lost Cheryl on the descent and was alone again, and fairly demoralized in my near hypothermic state. Fortunately, Scott Cole (a former 24 hour racer) rolled up on me and talked with me for quite a while. We rode together for the next hour chatting about family, bikes and anything positive. The rain began again and having another fellow sufferer was essential. The Cohutta 100 was taking its mental tole.
Around that time it dawned on me that even with the thick mud, peanut buttery in consistency, my drive train (SRAM XX1) had been solid all day. No issues. Quite surprising considering the conditions, and awesome that I had not had to think about it once since I started. Any mountain bikers dream! Scott was riding it as well, and we both marveled at its reliability.
We passed the southern checkpoint, got our wristbands and began the 6 mile, 2,200 ft climb back up. Around this time, I noticed that my heart rate was sitting happily in the low zone 2 world, and I was unable to push it higher. Up until that point I had been monitoring how hard I was going based on my heart rate, but now, I was in survival mode and going at the only speed I had: finish.
Scott was feeling a bit better than I so I told him to go. He kindly offered to ride with me, but I was not interested in holding anyone back. I climbed and climbed back up the fire road, carefully picking every place my tires went, looking for traction, avoiding holes and ruts. The climbing felt truly endless. The pitch changed constantly making rhythm difficult. I was extremely thankful for my equipment choice. I had recently built up a Specialized Stumpjumper hardtail. It is super light which mentally, was very helpful slogging uphill for miles. There is a lot to say for “mental” aids. When you’re out there for hours and hours, any positive boost can help. Knowing I had the fastest and lightest bike… well that was exactly what I needed to climb fast, and needed to know to stay focused. I was elated to see the top. Perhaps overjoyed is a better descriptor. 35 miles to go.
Just then, Greg Rittler passed me heading down the mountain (after having had some bike troubles) and shouted some encouragement and said I was sitting in the top 20. Those simple words lifted my spirits! The competitor within restarted its engine and I was off… at the same pace, but excited!
The next 25 miles are a blur of passing folks, climbing more, descending very very fast and doing everything I could to get my hands to function. Numb and tired hands make grabbing food and water bottles very difficult. So with about 10 miles to go, I stopped eating and drinking, hoping I could make it on what little fuel I had left.
During the last few miles of fire road I passed a few guys that looked rough and began thinking about finishing position. There were a few singlespeeders that would catch me on the climbs and get dropped on the descents, and we were in full on battle mode. I reached the final single track first only to find that it was an absolute mud bog. The track couldn’t have been more than 2 feet wide and slick. I went as slow as I could all the while having trouble braking as my hands were getting very stiff and my brake pads quite worn. I entered the final single track descent and was passed by a single speeder. “Ok, just keep him as close as you can” I thought as we slipped our way down the mountain. Half way down, I was passed again, dashing my spirits a bit. Not to be deterred, I stayed at my pace and hit the final 2 mile section of road to the finish line.
After 99 miles on a day like this, there is very little you want more in life than to just stop. But at this particular moment, I wanted to beat these two guys more than I wanted to stop. 2 miles of road that pitched slightly upwards was what I needed. My focus was drawn tight as I could see the first man ahead. Hunched over my bar I churned the pedals as hard as I could and quickly passed the first guy. My head was down as I time-trialed as hard as my legs go up the road, spending every ounce of energy I had left. At that moment, I was particularly grateful for my tire selection. Low rolling resistant tires that had worked well all day in the mud were great as I hammered down the pavement! I ran Maxxis Ignitor front and Specialized Fastrak rear, both of which had been golden all day long. No punctures, just pure traction. But, alas, despite the best equipment and my efforts, I wasn’t able to close to the next single speeder!
18th in the open race sounded great to me as I collapsed next to the fire to try and warm up. 9 hours and 41 minutes of racing, 45 degree average temperature. What a day.
I would be remiss to not mention Charles Nelson and his army of volunteers. What an incredible bunch! Energetic all day, super helpful, friendly, funny and life giving! They made the day bright by going above and beyond for all of us. When I collapsed at the line, a woman was there to help me get warm and eat. When i was out of sugar at mile 70, a aid volunteer gave me their own personal soda to help give me a boost.