Pete Hitzeman

A 30-ish runner, rider, racer, cyclist and Air National Guardsman. And, as you may find here, a sometimes-writer.

Mar 302015
2015 Scott Solace 20

Oh what fun we’re going to have…

Roads I’ve ridden a hundred times are suddenly unfamiliar to me.

I mean, they look the same. I’m not lost; it’s just that the roads I’m on feel completely foreign under my new Scott Solace 20 from Black Pug Bikes. What were hills are now nothing but small rises; bumps and rough surfaces are hardly noticeable. The chipseal pavement leading up to the dam not far from my house sounds rough, according to the noise of my tires, but the sensation translated to my feet and bum through the bike is decidedly muted.

To be fair, some of that plushness is down to the 25c tires. Most every other road bike I’ve ridden has been shod in the erstwhile standard 23c, and the increased displacement of the 25s does make a difference. But the crap pavement near my house truly reveals the genius of the Solace’s frame design. Scott’s HMF carbon weave that makes up the Solace’s frame is divided into two “zones,” to provide increased rider comfort through super-flexible seatstays, while transferring good power and lively handling inputs through the beefy bottom bracket, chainstays and head tube. The result is a bike that climbs and accelerates like a thoroughbred sprinter, but doesn’t punish your posterior in return.

Scott Solace 20 detail

All that alphabet soup means a carbon frame as dialed as the best in the Tour from a few years ago.

And that frame design is something to behold, as well. Scott’s design engineers didn’t mess around when sculpting the Solace. The graceful lines, impeccable paint, and obvious contrast between “zones” provide enough eye candy to last through several contemplative beers (ask me how I know). Small details– the ports for the internal cable routing, the junction of frame and fork, the way the top tube blends into the chainstays– make for a bike that would be equally at home in an art gallery as in the peloton. Even decisions made for function, like mounting the rear brake under the chainstays to allow for those impossibly compliant seatstays (no really, you can flex them with your fingers!), add to the aesthetic of the bike.

But as easy as it is on the eyes, it’s evident that function was the primary driver behind this bike. The steering is stable but not sluggish, shifts are handled flawlessly by the Ultegra 2×11 drivetrain, and everything glides along without a rattle or creak anywhere. This is a well-designed and manufactured machine, expertly assembled by Chris at Black Pug. Everything the bike does is smooth. It rolls smooth, accelerates smooth, shifts, brakes and turns smooth. And that smoothness translates into a large degree of confidence in a short amount of seat time. In only my second road ride on the Solace, I was throwing it through climbing switchbacks with more aggression and confidence than I had on my previous bike, which I had ridden for two full seasons.


Taken as a whole, it’s hard to believe that this is a bike that retails for under $3000. A well-executed carbon frame, respectable DT Swiss wheelset, full Shimano Ultegra groupset, all weighing in at under 17 pounds, at a price point amenable to most serious recreational riders. This is Specialized-level refinement, for $500 less than a comparably outfitted Roubaix.

I’ll need several hundred more miles before I can provide a thorough review of the Scott Solace, but my initial impressions are overwhelmingly positive. Over the coming months, I’ll be testing it out on crushing training rides, racing it against some of the region’s best, and stretching its legs on charity tours across the state. Stay tuned for the full review this summer, and as always, go see Chris at Black Pug to upgrade your ride!

Black Pug Bikes!

Thelonious is excited about my new bike. Can’t you tell?

Jan 282015

The callous on my right hand reached failure...The majority of the posts on this blog have documented my successes, triumphs and progress over the past couple years. This is not one of those posts.

This morning at my gym, we repeated a workout from the CrossFit Open last year. It was 14.4, a chipper consisting of a 60 calorie row, 50 toes-to-bar, 40 wall-balls, 30 power cleans and 20 muscle-ups, with a 14 minute time cap. Last year, this was my first workout back after discovering the mind-crushing pain of exertion-induced, acute onset headaches. I approached it cautiously then, careful to keep my heart rate reasonable so as not to aggravate the pinched nerve that we suspect set off the headaches the week before. I finished with a score of 99, completing only 39 of the toes-to-bar before time expired.

This morning, I had it in my head that I could make it through the toes-to-bar and get to the wall balls, and provided there was enough time left, I planned to try and do all 40 of them unbroken. There was still the requirement for caution, as I’ve been nursing two very angry shoulders for the last several months, and I would need to concentrate on maintaining good scapular retraction throughout each pull to avoid aggravating them. Still, I counted on getting through them in plenty of time to attack the wall balls, and maybe even get to the bar for a few power cleans.

I didn’t make it. I failed.

I did complete three more reps than last year, giving me a score of 102, but that was small consolation. I got through the first 20 quickly enough, in bunches of five, but then the wheels started to fall off. I started missing reps, only getting three at a time, then two. With a minute to go, I reached failure, and couldn’t get my toes to touch the bar any more. I was frustrated. Dejected. Mad.

As days at the gym go, this will not be remembered as one of my favorites. But it will be important. Reaching failure is an essential element to any training program. It is the point at which the body is optimally stimulated for muscular growth. It is the benchmark against which future efforts will be measured. It can be, once the bitterness of the moment is overcome, the fuel that will drive you toward greater things. It exposes and brings into focus your weaknesses, so that you can address them with specificity and intensity before your next maximal effort.

In fact, a maximal effort is not possible without at least approaching failure. When you are striving for a personal record in any event, you are trying to reach the nexus of performance and failure. In a running race, the goal is to cross the finish line unable to run another step. In a lift, the goal is to put up enough weight that you couldn’t add another gram to the bar. On the race track, the perfect lap is one where you are just on the edge of control, using every ounce of available power and traction. In life, if you aren’t failing with some regularity, chances are you are not challenging yourself, not growing, not really living.

Before today, I never really considered failure as its own destination. I train and race hard, and flirt with failure on a regular basis, but like most people, have treated it as something to be avoided. In the ongoing battle to maintain the positive feedback loop I find necessary to keep me coming back day in and day out, I try to focus on my successes. That perspective will need revising, for me. It turns out that searching for one’s personal limits, in other words striving for failure, is the surest way to find success.

I’m not happy with how I did this morning. I did not meet my own expectations for performance. But I’ll be back to try again, having learned from the experience and improved myself in the interim. And hopefully, next time I’ll reach failure again.

Jan 142015

10344296_716673191704842_3567698627960657134_oNo sooner had I posted my goal sheet for this year, than I was given cause to reconsider significant portions of it. A majority of this year’s race season was intended to mimic the last. I had planned on return trips to Big Frog, the race that almost killed me, and Lumberjack, the zenith of my mountain bike racing career to date. But several things have come up that have caused me to reconsider much of my big-race lust.

The Benjamins

First, I need two new bikes. After thrashing it mercilessly for years, I sold my beloved Trek Fuel at the end of last year, with an eye toward a lighter, hardtail 29er on which to contest this season. The handful of races I entered on the Airborne Goblin Evo last year convinced me that this was probably the most prudent route for the type of riding I’d be doing, and I was past due for an upgrade anyway. My road bike, while certainly a satisfactory performer for recreational rides, was never meant to be a race machine, for sprints or endurance. With more road racing on the agenda for this season, it’s time I stop bringing a cinder block to a rapier fight.

Buying two new bikes isn’t going to be cheap. Neither are out-of-town ultra endurance races. Between registration, gas, hotels (where necessary) and food, I can count on most of those weekends costing me around $500, and that’s before paying to fix whatever the race does to my bike. Those of you who follow me on FaceTwitGram (links at the top right) have seen some of the carnage I inflicted on my machines last year. As I started (at my wife’s gentle prodding) to add up the estimated expenses for my fitness pursuits in 2015, it became clear that trying to do all of it– racing, new bikes, going out of town a half dozen races a year– was becoming cost prohibitive. Something had to give, and the most logical thing, since I need the bikes, is to cut the expensive races.

Where to Improve?

But there’s more to it than just the financial aspect. Ringing in the back of my head for the last several months is a snippet of a conversation I had with my brother-in-law, a far superior and more experienced cyclist to myself. After commenting on the strengths of his finishes at the Iceman Cometh Challenge, I intimated (half joking) that maybe he should give up being a roadie, and focus on mountain bike racing full time. To which he said:

The only reason I do as well as I do on the mountain bike is because of road biking.

And there’s a lot of truth to be found there. Many of the most successful mountain bike racers in the world only ride on dirt when they’re racing. The rest of the time, they’re out on the asphalt, pounding out the training miles. The reason that strategy can work is consistency. You can hold yourself at higher levels of effort, on demand, and for longer on the road than you’ll be able to do when at the mercies of the trail ahead of you. That unpredictability is what makes mountain biking more fun, but also sometimes less effective from a training perspective.

All of this underlines an ugly truth I’ve been trying very hard to ignore: the biggest hole in my mountain bike game isn’t the mountain biking, it’s my level of fitness. When the going gets rocky, or muddy, or tight and twisty, those are the places I’m usually able to hold my own, or even gain ground on my competition. This became especially evident at my last two big races of 2014. But when the trail or road angles sharply upward, or even when there’s a long stretch of fast flats, I run out of gas well before my erstwhile peers.


The targets I set for myself at the bigger events this year would represent substantial improvements, no doubt. But to what end? If I succeed in knocking off an hour or more from my times at Big Frog and Lumberjack, I still finish well outside the top 100. The painful question becomes, do I pay all that money, take the time off work, and go race my brains out for such an ignominious finish? Of course, finishing at all is something to be proud of, but I checked that box last year. To go back and do it again, to finish merely for the sake of finishing, seems a waste of time and resources at this point in my progression.

The gap in my fitness to the next pack ahead of me had already caused me to step back from some of the local MTB races for 2015, removing 6 events from my already jam-packed schedule. While I won the Sport class of our local FastLaps series last year, my victory was due, in no small part, to the sharply reduced field. The next leap forward for me is to the Expert class, where I will need to lose about 4 minutes per lap at John Bryan or MoMBA to be competitive. With that in mind, I had already decided to forego racing the FastLaps series in 2015, planning to train hard and come back in 2016, more ready for the challenge. Consistency demands that I apply the same logic to my endurance racing.

What’s in Store?

Postponing my return to a few of the bigger events this year does not mean my calendar will be short on racing. As I mentioned, I anticipate racing quite a bit more on the road this year, including a few rounds of the Ohio Spring Roadrace Series, and some local crit racing. I intend to scratch the MTB endurance itch at a few of the Tri-State 6 Hour rounds as well, for the experience as well as the training load. And all the while, I’ll be training up to run my first marathon in October.

It was not an easy or pleasant decision to scratch some of my favorite big events from the planning calendar for this year. But if all goes according to plan, I’ll be much better prepared for them in 2016, enough to start chasing some respectable finishes. In the meantime, 2015 will have no shortage of fun and racing, albeit more local and less expensive. Stay tuned to this page for more updates and announcements soon, as my plans begin to take shape!

Jan 042015

Goal SheetOver the past few years, I’ve made a habit of making my fitness and racing goals public. This has served well to drive me forward. It provides a sort of passive accountability, as once I’ve made my goals public, they become obligations to my friends and readers. I harbor the perhaps delusional notion that people are watching me, and waiting to see if I succeed. Maybe they’re rooting for me, and I want to live up to their expectations. Maybe they’re waiting for me to fail, and I don’t want to give them the satisfaction. Either way, it’s fuel.

There have been more than a few people, from psychologists to motivational speakers to coaches, who have come out lately against the practice of setting goals. They say that setting goals is too risky, too idealistic, too finite. They say you don’t need goals, you need a system. Sometimes, they’re even willing to sell you that very system (oh boy, what luck)!

To them I say, goals are my system. They’ve worked for me for years, and I expect they’ll continue to do so. For me, goals are the footholds by which I climb the mountain that is life. They are the ruler by which my progress as an athlete, and a person, is measured. To abandon them in favor of some nebulous “system,” when they have proven so useful for me, would be foolish. My systems, where I have them, have evolved to meet my goals, not the other way around.

Missing goals is a risk, and in fact I missed several of mine over the past year. I missed my goal time for a 5k by 23 seconds, for a half marathon by 1:04, and for my Iceman Cometh finish by 1 position. I wasn’t able to achieve some of my goals due to injury. I missed Barry Roubaix after I put myself in the hospital with thunderclap headaches during the 2014 CrossFit Open, and my progress in the gym has been hampered by nagging shoulder injuries.

But learning how to accept setbacks is part of the process. If I were achieving every goal I set out for myself, then I probably wouldn’t be setting high enough goals. It’s important to know yourself well enough to strike that balance; set goals that you can reasonably achieve, but not so reasonable that you won’t be challenged and improved by striving for them.

So with that in mind, I give you my 2015 goal sheet. It is as ambitious as the same sheets from 2013 and 2014, perhaps more so. Some of the things on this list scare me, but that’s as it should be. Being a little nervous will keep me focused and training. How will I do this year? Keep checking back here to find out.

Note: The first number or time is my goal, the second is the difference from last year’s record, and the third (if present) is the pace.


  • <15% Body Fat                           (-5%)
  • >99 AFPFT Score,                     9:29 run (-0:17)
  • Rehab/stabilize shoulders


  • Deadlift                                        455               (+50)
  • Back Squat                                  315               (+30)
  • Front Squat                                 285               (+40)
  • Clean                                          255                (+30)


  • 5k                                                 20:59             (-1:23)          (6:45/mi)
  • 10k                                               44:59              (new)            (7:15/mi)
  • Half Marathon                              1:41:59           (-4:05)          (7:45/mi)
  • Marathon                                     3:59:59           (new)            (9:09/mi)


  • JB 6 Hour 6 Laps                        (+1)
  • Big Frog 65                                 7:29:59             (-1:36:14)
  • Lumberjack 100                          9:59:59             (-1:12:57)
  • Iceman Cometh                          AG Top 35        (+16 pos)


  • Try a road race
  • 10 mi TT                                      22+ mph avg      (+.36)
  • Calvin’s Challenge                      108 mi                 (+13.5)          (18 mph)
  • Cat 5 Crit Podium                        (+4 pos)

Cyclocross & Gravel

  • Finish races in the pack
  • Gravel Grovel                               5:29:29         (-20:02)
Nov 132014
Iceman Finish Line

Posing after the pre-ride with Ben. I had no idea what it would take to reach that sign the next day.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome that “suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance character,” he didn’t have mountain bikers in mind, but the description is appropriate nonetheless. Over the past couple years, I’ve witnessed and been a part of some of the most miserable suffering you can voluntarily inflict on yourself on two wheels, and also have found myself among some of the greater characters (in all senses of the word) I’ve ever met. Riding in the endless slog of the Death March, the unceasing climbs of Big Frog, the merciless winds at Calvin’s Challenge and the mosquito-infested forests of Lumberjack has made misery a familiar acquaintance. So familiar, in fact, that I expect it without dread. I’ve been near enough to my personal breaking point enough times now that I have learned how to keep myself there and endure, and still succeed.

Perhaps naively, I didn’t expect The Iceman Cometh Challenge to elbow its way right to the top of that list. On paper, it lacked the components that have brought me to my knees before. Neither the distance, nor the elevation, nor the technical nature of the terrain were of significant concern to me. The only wildcard was the weather, and even then, I wasn’t overly concerned. Michigan trails are famous for their ability to handle precipitation, and I have a decent enough assortment of cold weather riding gear to negate potentially frigid conditions.

But in its 25th year, The Iceman had something special up his sleeve.

In a break with longstanding tradition, I arrived in Traverse City on time, with everything I needed, and well fed and rested, the day before the race. I met up with my (fire-breathing) brother-in-law Ben, an Iceman veteran and podium finisher, to pre-ride the last portion of the course before heading to the Expo. On our chilly pre-ride, I didn’t see anything surprising. The trails were sandy but firm, with good grip and easy lines. The climbs looked punchy but approachable, and the bike was working perfectly.

I again had the good fortune to race on the Airborne Bicycles Goblin Evo, the same machine I tested and raced earlier this year. The boys at Airborne and I agreed that it should be the perfect bike for this kind of race, but we didn’t know just how right we would end up being. The Evo isn’t billed as a race machine. The long-travel fork and 2.4 inch Maxxis Ardent tires place the bike closer to the Trail category, but my experience riding the thing has convinced me of its potential as a race rig. The most important thing a race bike must have is proper geometry, because almost everything else can be adjusted or changed. And the geometry on the Evo is spot on for an XC race bike: short chainstays for good climbing and lively handling, head angle relaxed enough to be stable on descents and through corners, and rock solid stiffness.

Goblin Evo at the hotel

What, you mean you don’t sleep with your bike next to you? You leave it on the car? But it’ll get lonely!

A more experienced rider may have taken the weather forecast as a warning, but I was nonplussed. I’ve been in crappy conditions before. I had the right bike and the right gear, and that’s all I could worry about. When big, heavy snowflakes appeared outside my hotel window as I got ready for bed on Friday night, I only grinned and thought yup, this is gonna suck. Then I shrugged and went to bed.

Race morning was far too busy with administrative details for me to contemplate what I was about to endure. It probably took me 20 minutes just to apply all the appropriate layers of clothing necessary to keep me warm(ish) and dry (yeah right) during the race. The Iceman Cometh Challenge is a point-to-point race from Kalkaska to Traverse City, which means leaving your car in one location, having a bag of clothes at the other, and arranging transportation (via the provided shuttle service) for you, the bike, and your bag. I parked in Kalkaska (which I won’t next year), threw some lube on the chain, and wandered over to the start line, to cheer on Ben as he stormed the course with the first wave.

My wave (18) didn’t start for another 50 minutes, so I had plenty of time to get back to my car, put on the last few bits of cold weather gear I would need, throw my bag on a Penske truck bound for Traverse City, and wander back to the start line. It had snowed and rained all night and all morning, and was still only 36°F and raining when I squeezed in under the staging tent, but my optimism and excitement for the event remained undamped.

I was so optimistic, in fact, that I slotted into the second row of my wave, the better to get a clear start. I had this vision in my head of hitting the dirt and picking off the riders ahead of me, then having clear trail to chase down the previous waves.


When the start was sounded for our wave, I took off with the lead group, spinning up to a respectable pace and staying with the leaders. But when they continued to accelerate through 18 mph, I let them go. Iceman is many things, but it’s not a sprint race, at least at my level. I backed off as my legs started to complain about the sudden punishment, and reasoned that I’d see many of them again after we left the pavement.

Only when we left the pavement, things got ugly, and fast. The first gravel road was completely saturated with water, and the spray and silt made it hard to see, let alone pass anybody. By the time we hit the opening section of two-track, my brakes were already grinding, which they would continue to do for most of the rest of the race. I started to pick riders off by ones and twos, but it was impossible to get into any kind of rhythm. So I settled in, reminded myself that there was a lot of race left, and took my passes where I could.

I was surprised that most of my passing opportunities were coming on the more difficult sections. Contrary to previous experience, I was passing people on the climbs, in technical sections, and when the sand and mud got rutted and deep. Some of that was down to my equipment; it was far easier for me to find traction off the racing line than for some of my competitors, shod as they were with small-tread racing tires. But the rest of it was down to my fitness and bike handling, and my exuberance at being part of the largest mountain bike race in the United States.

The drive to the race start. Not confidence inspiring.

I was still getting held up a lot, and the gaps I thought would develop never materialized. The tops and bottoms of every climb were soon marked by clumps of dismounted riders, hunched over their machines as they attempted to address some mechanical malfunction. I continued to pass where I could, but some stretches of singletrack allowed few opportunities. The tread in many areas had been pulverized into a tarry consistency that felt like riding through peanut butter.

Somewhere around mile 10, we hit the logging road that would become symbolic of the whole race. To call it a road is a generous overstatement. By the time I reached it, and 1700 or so other riders had squished, slogged and slid their way through it, the road had been reduced to a longish stretch of deep mud and standing water. I was determined to stay on my bike, even as others unclipped and dragged theirs into the woods to walk the whole section. I shifted to the easiest gear and ground along, yelling ahead of me for dismounted riders to get clear, so they wouldn’t break my momentum. I picked my lines as best I could, using the experience of Coombs Road at the Death March as a guide, and kept my legs moving. After a final splash through a 10-foot-long puddle, I was out of the mud and bearing right back onto a proper trail! I must’ve passed a hundred riders on that stretch alone.

But it wasn’t long after this that I started suffering the consequences of making so many of my passes in the most difficult sections. The course became punctuated by short, steep climbs, a few of which forced me off the bike as I asked my legs for power they didn’t have, and my rear tire slipped as I tried to stand for more torque. I had been so busy during the first hour or so that I was far behind schedule with my nutrition, and my energy was flagging.

This was when the suffering started, for me. I pulled the throttle back a little and tried to get some more consistent swigs from my bottle, even though the nozzle was filled with mud and debris. I was getting passed with depressing frequency now, and my rear derailleur had begun having trouble shifting down the cassette. I cursed myself for not finding more time to train in the previous month, for not getting out on more simulation rides, and for not losing those five pounds I’ve wanted to lose all year. For the first time in the race, my hands started to get cold, and I noticed just how wet and dirty I was.

Mentally, I was no longer in a race, but in a grinding trudge to the finish; the survival mode I’ve employed on so many other occasions. Ordinarily, for a first attempt at an event, this wouldn’t have been a big deal. But I had anticipated being able to legitimately race this one, given my season’s experience and fitness level. A combination of the atrocious conditions and a few strategic errors had put me firmly back in my place, and now all I could do was keep my legs moving, and hope they came back at some point.

36 and raining. Awesome.

One unique element of Iceman Cometh is the spectators. Atrocious conditions or no, they were out in force at all accessible points on the course, and some points that required quite a hike to reach. They were at every intersection, at the top of every hill, and along every road crossing, ringing cowbells and cheering their frozen faces off. The spectators alone are worth the price of admission to Iceman, even if that price includes, as it did for most riders this year, a slew of worn out or broken bike components.

It was after one particularly vociferous stretch of spectators, stationed at the midway point of Broomhead Road, that I decided it was time to try and get myself together. The gravel road past the spectators was flat, but despite their cheers, I couldn’t manage to pick up any speed. I looked down and saw that I was barely doing 10 mph, where I should have been doing 15. That just wouldn’t do. As the course returned to singletrack trail again, I pulled off to the side, to stretch my legs and take in more nutrition. I was surprised to find my first bottle still about half full, and I hadn’t even touched my second bottle yet. No wonder I was running out of gas! I forced myself to stand there and finish my first bottle, even as dozens of riders came past me. I’m sure that some of them were riders I had triumphantly passed just five miles ago, when my legs still felt good, and I was powering through the mud of the logging road. But no matter, this was what I had to do to recover.

It took another few miles, but I did recover a little. I didn’t get all of my power back, but I was at least able to accelerate again, and grind up some hills. I started passing people here and there, and that felt good enough to convince me I was back in the race, even if I was a half hour behind where I’d hoped to be. I was having fun again, if one can call being soaking wet in mid-30s temperatures, covered in mud and sand, and riding a bike that’s barely working, fun.

It didn’t like it, but it got me there. The Airborne Bicycles Goblin Evo held its own in the worst conditions Iceman has ever thrown at his riders.

I had started the race with a 2×10 drivetrain, but as the mud and sand packed its way into every nook and crevice of rider and machine alike, my selection of gears became somewhat fewer. By the midway point  it was reduced to a 2×7, although with my lack of pace, losing the top three gears wasn’t a huge penalty. Then I had only a 2×5, and then a 2×2-and-sometimes-five-if-I-hit-a-bump-just-right. Front derailleurs may not be in vogue in the mountain bike community, but having one saved my bacon in this race, as it doubled my swiftly dwindling list of options.

We were finally reaching parts of the course I recognized from my map study, including Anita’s hill, and 11% grade punch in the face around mile 25. I trudged up that hill on foot, pushing my bike with legs on the verge of spasm, while I cheered for the handful of spunky riders who managed to climb the whole thing in the saddle. There were spectators at the top of this hill too, perhaps warmed by a bottle or three, cheering wildly for those bold enough to climb. At the top, many riders paused to catch their breath, even if they walked it, but I threw a leg over and started down the descent, knowing I was close enough now to start taking chances against my fatigue.

At last we crossed a road I recognized from our pre-ride, and I called up whatever reserves I had left. I knew there were two little hills left, and that I could climb both of them. I started passing people again, trading places with a girl in a white and yellow jersey as we weaved and dodged around riders who were only a bit more spent than we were. The final 3 miles were a microcosm of the race in full, with rutted sand, deep mud, and slick, tight singletrack, interspersed with the occasional punchy climb. But now I knew where I was, and what to expect, and I put forth everything I had.

I’m honestly surprised anything on this bike worked at all, by the end.

The finish area at Iceman Cometh is something truly special. You can hear the music and the party from a long way off, and it has a way of motivating you to push harder than you thought you could. The course brings you just close enough to see the finish, to smell the food trucks and make out what the announcers are saying, before heading you off back into the woods for another half mile. For many of the riders around me, this was the last straw, and they were demoralized. But thanks to my pre-ride, I knew it was coming, and was able to keep the hammer down! I was passing people in clumps now, carving up the inside of them at every available opportunity. I passed six of them in one corner, as they all swung wide, searching for traction. I put every ounce of energy I had left into my screaming legs, fighting to keep the pedals turning and my momentum up, until at last I dove under the bridge, swerved  to the left, and crossed the finish line!

The area just past the finish line was awash in shattered riders, broken bikes, photographers, fans and family members. I pedaled on slowly until I was through the throng, finally unclipping gingerly and sitting on my top tube to let my legs come back from the brink of catastrophic spasm. After a few failed attempts to rally up with my brother in law (who was very happy to hear I was alive), I decided the best thing to do was get showered and changed, and warm up. The steam and hot water of the on-site shower trailers were a godsend, even if the wait to use one was a half hour long.

In the final tally, I finished 51st in my age group, and 2078th overall. I had a target of cracking the top 50 in my age group, so I’m relatively satisfied with that result. I learned a lot this year, and hopefully will have solutions to some of my mistakes for next year. In truth, I have to be satisfied with finishing at all. Of the over 5200 entrants, only 3500 or so managed to complete the race. Everyone I spoke to who had raced Iceman previously, even those with decades of experience, said these were the worst conditions they had ever seen. So despite not riding as strong as I had envisioned, I rode as well as I could have hoped. And I’ll be back.

Sep 242014
Struggling through the last mile.

Struggling through the last mile. (Photo by Katie Hitzeman)

I have not spent enough time running this year.

I certainly haven’t spent enough time running to lower my times to where I wanted them to be. At the end of last year, when I drew up my goal sheet for the 2014 season, I wanted a sub-22 minute 5k, and a 1:45 half marathon. But with some fairly ambitious bicycle racing goals alongside, there just hasn’t been much time to train on foot. I’ve dropped my 5k time deep into the 22s, but hadn’t run further than about 6 miles all year. Strava tells me I’ve only logged 26 runs, with a measly total of 126 miles.

That just isn’t enough. Some of my running friends log more than that every month. I’m not putting in anywhere near the volume I should be, if I expect to drop my times and race without injury.

Those were the thoughts going through my  head a few weeks ago, as I started to prepare in earnest for my third attempt at the US Air Force Half Marathon. And by prepare, I mean do a last-minute ramp up to see if I could still even run it. Starting just four weeks out, I went to running club a couple times, raced a couple 5k events, and did exactly two “base building” runs, of 7 and 11 miles, respectively. Seven miles felt good. Eleven… not so much.

In terms of dress rehearsals for half marathons, I’ve had worse. I didn’t have a nagging injury. I didn’t bonk on my last long run, as had become a habit last year. And on my last tempo run, I was able to hold pretty close to my intended half marathon pace (8:00/mile) with some level of comfort, despite being sore from CrossFit the day before.

Still, as I finished my taper and started thinking of my strategy for the race, I wasn’t sure what I could expect. On the one hand, I know that I’m stronger and faster than last year. On the other hand, my 11 mile run was a little more brutal than I expected it to be, and I was intentionally going super easy. I hadn’t planned any other half marathons for this fall, choosing instead to leave time open for cyclocross. But if I fell apart in the race and missed my goal by a large margin, maybe I’d need to do another half to redeem myself.

After talking it over with Katie, I figured the only thing to do would be to go out with the pace group for 1:45, and see how long I could hang. I had no idea how long that would be, but I figured I could at least hold onto them through the flat portion of the course, up to the overpass hill at mile 9. After that, it was anybody’s guess. Privately, I just hoped to be under two hours.

How's that for level splits?

How’s that for level splits?

The conditions on the morning of the race were as ideal as anybody could ask. Pleasantly cool temperatures, brilliant sunshine, and just a slight breeze at our backs as we moshed across the starting line. The bike ride from home had been a sufficient warm-up, and I felt my body settle into a comfortable rhythm as we crested the first hill, over Huffman Dam. The first three miles passed easily enough at roughly a 7:45 pace, and as we made the left turn onto Skeel Avenue, my anxiety over the race melted away.

I was enjoying the run, something I can’t often say. I had just been joking with friends in the days before the race that I actually hate the act of running, it’s just the finishing that I’m addicted to. But this morning, the combination of the energy of the race, the gorgeous weather, and my body performing at the requested level without much complaint had me grinning behind my flashy new sunglasses.

Five miles in, and contrary to everything I thought I could expect from this race, I felt like the pace group was holding me back. I decided to let my legs stretch a little and see how things went. Ahead of me, I spotted a friend, and increased my pace catch her. We chatted for a minute, and then she turned me loose. She was turning down the gas just as I was turning mine up, so our pace curves crossed. That mile, the sixth, ended up being my fastest of the race, at 7:22.

Upping the pace felt good, but I was mindful that the second half of the race is much harder than the first, and so I slowed back down. The occasional glance over my shoulder revealed that the pace group wasn’t far behind, so I couldn’t afford to relax too much, but neither could I continue burning matches to stay under 7:30.

Before I knew it, I was turning left, toward the familiar sounds of a speed metal band that’s parked at the bottom of the Overpass Hill every year. That band is well placed, because 8 miles into a race, you need a little extra motivation to run up and over a bridge! Either you love the music, and it gets you excited, or you hate it, and you run harder to get away. As in years past, the hill was where my training, especially the runs through my hilly neighborhood, showed. I passed at least a dozen runners going up the hill, and a couple more on the way down the other side, allowing my breathing to accelerate and concentrating on running smooth.

Having dispensed of that challenge, I started to allow myself to think I could make it. Not to the end of the race; that was a foregone conclusion. But if I could just hold together on the last hard segment, the rolling hills on Kaufmann Road, I might even make my goal time! The pace group had caught up to me again as we ran through the back portion of Wright State, just as the full marathon runners merge again with the half-ers. I pulled alongside the pacer and bumped my tempo back up to stay with her, hopeful that I’d be able to hang on.

The rollers on Kaufmann are where my race started to come apart last year. Until I hit them, the race had been going easily, and I was holding an 8:30 or better average. But those hills took it out of me, and I struggled to maintain 9 minute miles to the finish. This year, as Jens Voight would say, the hills didn’t hurt any less, but I did go faster. In fact, I stayed with the pace group and didn’t lose any time at all, despite working very hard to do so!

A mile and a half from the finish, as we passed the next to last water stop, I wanted to feel that I was home free, but I knew that wasn’t true. I had at least twelve minutes of hard work left, and it seemed that the pacer was accelerating. I held on down the hill to Springfield Street, but as the road leveled, I had to let the pacer go. My level of effort already felt like a kick, and it was far too early for that, so I backed off, just a touch, to try and make it to the finish without blowing up early.

The finish loop at the Air Force Marathon is dramatic, to say the least. And long. You pass by the start line on your right, and then enter a 3/4 mile U that takes you between static display aircraft and thousands of fans lining the gates, all accompanied by loud music and an enthusiastic announcer. In previous races, I’d try to start my kick when I was just about even with the finish line on the other side of the U, increasing my pace for the last half mile.

But this year, as we entered the U, we were treated to an unabated headwind that felt like hitting a brick wall! I tried to start my kick as scheduled, but despite my increased heart rate and effort, barely accelerated.  The wind was brutal, and so close to the finish, it became demoralizing. After what seemed like hours, I reached the bottom of the loop, turned right, and turned right again. Now it’s a tailwind! I was convinced that between getting dropped by the pacer and beat up by the headwind, I probably wouldn’t meet my goal time. But I still had a chance at a good time, maybe even a big PR, so I let loose. I stretched out my legs, pumped my arms, and let my lungs suck air just as hard as they could, kicking for all I was worth to the finish line.

The finish chute at a big race like the Air Force Marathon is something everybody should experience once. The finish line banner and clock are just visible in the distance, you’re working at an absolute 100%, fans are cheering, friends are screaming your name… It’s magic. It’s not that the all-out effort doesn’t hurt, it’s that you’ve decided that hurting doesn’t matter!

My sprint to the line was strong, but it wasn’t quite enough. I crossed the line in 1:46:04, a mere five seconds off my goal time. Still, that’s 5:45 faster than I went last year! I beat my previous best effort by more than half a mile! And since my rookie effort in 2012, I’ve dropped over a half hour.

With that in mind, it was hard to be anything but overjoyed with how the race went. I may have missed my goal, but I beat everyone’s expectations, including my own, given my minimal preparation for the race. My splits stayed level, and my body held together until the very end of the race, which is a huge improvement over last year, especially on the hills. I may or may not schedule another half marathon before the year is out, to have another crack at my goal time, but even if I don’t, I’ll trot into the offseason feeling satisfied with my progress.

Aug 202014

IMG_20140625_194802_901In my endurance racing this year, I’ve had plenty of time to contemplate the importance of having the right tool for the job. Most of those races have taken me over a wide variety of terrain, and often, my current bike isn’t well suited to the task at hand. Being an older, full-suspension, 26″ bike, it’s heavy and a little bouncy. (Not unlike us as we get older, eh?)

But there are places where that bike shines. Bombing downhills, for instance. When I hit a section like the descent from Hesitation Point at Brown County State Park, the bike seems to come alive, carving through the terrain with a surefooted ease that belies its difficulty in making it up the other side of the hill. For those few moments, when the bike is in its element, I experience that sense of chaotic bliss that every mountain biker seeks.

So when Airborne Bicycles asked me to take their new Goblin Evo out for a spin, I wondered what I might find as its natural element. Airborne bills their new hardtail 29er as a “trail” bike, rather than its Cross Country predecessor, the Goblin. I’ve ridden the old Goblin on a few occasions, and found it a competent bike, but the only thing that really knocked my socks off was the price point. And to be fair, the price point ($1199? Are you serious?!) is pretty amazing.

The boys at Airborne seemed all excited about this Goblin Evo, though. I wasn’t sure why. Visually, they’re not much different. The fork is raked out a little (69 degrees to the Goblin’s 71) and has more travel (120mm), the chain stays are a little shorter (by 15 mm), it’s fitted with chunkier, 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent tires, and it’s got a spiffy new paint job. How much better could it be, and what was getting Airborne’s crew all hot and bothered?

Goblin Evo, HobGoblin, and SUPER SECRET PROTOTYPE (Goblin)

Goblin Evo, HobGoblin, and SUPER SECRET PROTOTYPE (Goblin)

My first ride on the Evo seemed to confirm my initial skepticism. I raced it at our local IMBA chapter’s Wednesday night series, and by the end of my nine miles, felt like I had gotten the crap kicked out of me. I expected a transition in harshness from a full-squish to a hardtail, but I was getting bounced all over! After I got home from the race, I checked the pressure in the fork, and found out it was a little high. By like 40 pounds. Duh, that’ll do it! I dropped the tire pressures to 30 psi front and rear while I was at it, and tweaked the seat and lever positions to my liking. Things I should’ve done in the first place!

The next chance I had to ride the Goblin Evo, a few of us headed out to Versailles State Park in Indiana, to sample some of the best singletrack the Midwest has to offer. Immediately upon entering the woods and motoring up a winding, undulating climb, I started grinning. Hello, hardtail efficiency! Then the trail turned slightly downhill and I began to really get into a flow, learning how the bike likes to be handled and where I needed to change my style. My grin became a smile as I pushed deeper into corners, throwing the front end around with abandon, and rocketing out with the sort of acceleration that’s supposed to be impossible on an aluminum 29er. This thing likes to play!

Few things are sexier than a downtube spattered with mud.

Few things are sexier than a downtube spattered with mud.

Steering the Goblin Evo is a little different than on a thoroughbred XC machine, but that’s not to say it’s heavy. The slackened front geometry means that you throw the bike into the corners with your shoulders, using plenty of body english to get it to turn in. Then those Ardents dig in and you can rail as hard as you like. It’s not as quick or twitchy as a cross country bike, but the reward is supreme confidence mid-corner, whatever the conditions. Make no mistake: this bike is no slower than its XC brethren, “trail” designation notwithstanding.

It's an Airborne party!

It’s an Airborne party!

The shorter chainstays transform the bike into something truly playful. The front end lifts easily, making the bike seem to leap over rocks, logs and technical terrain.

Let me rephrase that: this bike wants to jump everything.

It’s a bike that begs to be raged on. It requires very little finesse, preferring instead to be manhandled, stomped on, and tossed around. The payback for all that abuse is that it takes everything you throw at it, and then begs you to do it faster. On descents and over technical terrain, the Goblin Evo earns the trail epithet handily, punching through creek crossings and over obstacles with enough ease to make you wonder why they put rear suspension on bikes in the first place.

Component performance was, for the most part, just as inspiring as the bike’s handling. The X7 shifters and X9 rear derailleur performed flawlessly, handling shifts under power with the notchy easy you’d expect from SRAM. I had a little trouble with the chain coming off the big ring up front, likely due to an out-of-adjustment front D, but frankly we were having too much fun to stop and do anything about it.

The Goblin Evo isn’t the lightest thing in the world, owing in no small part to the Sun Ringle Charger hoops fitted with harmongous tires. The wheels are like boat achors; heavy, but indestructable. I’d probably keep the big rubber, but go with lighter rims and a tubeless variety of the Ardent, if I got one to race.

A big surprise came from the Hayes Prime Comp brakes, which performed flawlessly all day. I found them to have more than adequate power and superb feel, performing at least as well as similar offerings from SRAM/Avid. And the RockShox Revelation fork lived up to its name (once set with the proper pressure), tracking smoothly over bumps and soaking up hits without getting out of shape in the least.

As I look toward next year’s races, I think most often of what bike might be the right tool for the widely-varying job of ultra endurance mountain bike racing. That answer will be a little different for everybody. I’m not 100% sure that I could give up the comfort and forgiving nature of a full-suspension bike for the distances I like to cover, but the Goblin Evo makes a strong argument. It does so many things so well, with so few weak points, that it might just be the answer. And at a mere $1599,  I could buy it and still have plenty left over to patch up those weak points, and register for races!

The Goblin Evo in its natural habitat.

The Goblin Evo in its natural habitat.

Jun 232014

“Go fast and take chances!” – Garry Blair

“Be swift, be safe.” – Tom Groszko

“Just remember, when you’re thinking you can’t go on, that’s it’s gorgeous and you’re one of not too many who get to be out there all day. SMILE, let that mud get in your teeth!” – Katie Oswald


I found this while I was getting ready to leave on Friday. Omen? Coincidence?

I found this while I was getting ready to leave on Friday. Omen? Coincidence?

These were the pieces of advice that I carried with me into the biggest race of my life so far, the Lumberjack 100. Lumberjack is a mountain bike century race, composed of three laps of a loop in the picturesque Manistee National Forest. It is the third of thirteen rounds of the National Ultra Endurance Series, which consists of 100-mile races from New Hampshire to Utah, on some of the country’s best trail systems.

For me, Lumberjack represents much more than just a race. It is the culmination of over four years of racing, training, scheming, testing and dreaming. It has been the distant prize that has pulled me forward and upward, through crashes and injuries, through suffering and pain. It has motivated me to lift heavier, train longer, eat better and work harder than I ever would have, otherwise.

I am a big proponent of setting goals. I’ve set, met and surpassed dozens of them in the last few years, but Lumberjack was THE GOAL. It’s been on my mind since Tom mentioned it to me years ago, when I was just rediscovering mountain biking as an adult. Indeed, it was Tom who got me working on long endurance in the first place, talking me into my first Death March, partnering with me and Jason for my first 6 hour race at John Bryan State Park, and even standing by the roadside, cheering like a madman, for my first half marathon.

Time to go do the thing!

Time to go do the thing!

Mountains always appear larger as you approach them, and so it seemed with this goal. Although I had been diligently preparing for Lumberjack in every way I knew how, the last several days before the event were tense. I was concerned about the trail conditions, about my bike being too heavy, about my new endurance setup which included two bottles and no pack. I worried that missing Barry Roubaix, and my rough day at Big Frog, which were intended to be ramp-up races for Lumberjack, had left me inadequately trained, physically and mentally.

But there was nothing for it but to do the thing, and so I fell into my pre-event routine. I studied the trail maps and elevation profiles. I made a checklist of everything I needed to take with me. I scoured the internet for race reports of previous Lumberjacks, trying to glean intelligence from them that might prove useful on race day, or at least prepare me for what I was about to face. I have found that thorough preparation has a calming effect on my pre-race jitters, but I still only had a one-word answer when the lady at registration on Friday afternoon asked how I was:


She laughed, and tried to reassure me. She pointed over my shoulder at a girl she said had finished every Lumberjack to date, and she’d tell me I was going to do fine. The girl she pointed at was Danielle Musto, who I’d soon find out was The Queen of Lumberjack, having not only raced every edition of the event, but won more than a few. Danielle did reassure me, at registration and at breakfast the next morning, patiently answering my questions and promising that, despite a solid week of rain, the trails would be in fine shape.

I had to take her word for it. It was still raining on and off when I picked up my packet, and racers coming back in from their pre-rides were looking soggy and caked with sand. My bike is not a big fan of getting wet, and I’m not a big fan of having to service the entire drivetrain and rear suspension the night before a race, so I opted to skip the pre-ride and just get to the hotel. And anyway, the mosquitoes (official state bird of Michigan) were attacking in formation!


The rain finally relented overnight, and we were greeted by a cool, humid morning, with a stubborn gray sky that hung just over the treetops. I set out my “pit” with Brad and Simona, friends of friends that I had met at Big Frog. My “pit” consisted of one cooler full of pre-mixed bottles of Infinit and one bag of miscellaneous tools and supplies. If all went well, I’d only need the bottles, and maybe some chain lube. If it didn’t, I’d be headed back to the car for my work stand, or worse, my first aid kit.

I tend to stay pretty relaxed before the start of a race, joking with the other athletes and staying loose. But this time my smiles were a little forced, my laughs cut a little short. I finished my final checks on the bike, setting tire pressures, fixing an already-ripped eyelet on my race number and applying another liberal coat of bug spray, while the race director made a few announcements through the megaphone that I couldn’t hear. I didn’t bother with an extensive warm-up routine, figuring the opening two miles of road leading into the singletrack would suffice.

Soon the mob of riders was streaming out toward the start line, and I found my way out with them, settling into a place in the back third of the gaggle waiting at the line, in the gap that appeared between those who obviously wanted to go hard, and those who merely wanted to survive. My own ambitions fell squarely between those two, and so the gap was convenient. There were more instructions, inaudible through the pack of riders and the thick humidity, and then a siren sounded, and we were off! Hundreds of cleats clicked into pedals, and knobby tires hummed against pavement as we spun easily toward the trailhead.



The swift flow of riders down the road became a logjam as we entered the singletrack, but there was little complaining. Everyone knew it was going to be a long day, and so we just got to the business of pedaling, flowing through the trail in single file. Danielle’s assurances about the trail conditions were correct, and I smiled as I found the sandy soil as grippy as the trails were rhythmic. Soon we encountered a couple gentle climbs, and the pack began to spread out. I made a few passes where I could, in an effort to maintain a level of exertion that both preserved my momentum and would be sustainable throughout the day.

One of the concerns I had going into the race was my hydration and nutrition setup. I had decided to give Infinit, a custom-blended, all-inclusive drink mix, a try. The recommended consumption rate is 1 bottle per hour, which necessitated that I run with two bottles. But the frame and suspension design of my bike means that one bottle is slung under the down tube, rather than vertically on the seat tube, which is less than desirable due to the risk of the bottom bottle being shaken loose. I tested the new setup on two short rides the week prior, and had no problems with my Lezyne cages holding full bottles securely.

Those bottles were my lifeline. They contained all of the hydration and nutrition I was going to need to make it through the day. The plan was to start each lap with 2 bottles, refill both of them at the aid station at mile 17, and then swap them for the premixed bottles from my cooler at the end of each lap.  I’ve struggled with dehydration and inadequate nutrition in the past, leading to muscle spasms and cramps that can make for a very miserable day.

So imagine my horror when, looking down after a series of roller-coaster hills only eight miles into the race, I looked down and saw nothing in my bottom cage! I cursed and pulled off the trail, next to a guy who was fiddling with a broken derailleur hanger. I reasoned that I couldn’t have dropped it too far back, as I had been checking on it with regularity. And I needed that bottle, and the nutrition it contained! In a panic, I made a rookie mistake, a crucial error that I’d regret for the next several hours.

I wheeled around, and headed back up the trail, looking for my lost bottle.

It was a stupid thing to do; a fool’s errand. Part of me knew that even as I was doing it. I was in a hilly portion of the course, and backtracking meant I’d have to climb those hills over again. I couldn’t even ride back, since the hundred or so riders behind me were still coming on, meaning I had to haltingly hike beside the trail, stopping to let groups of riders past. I was sure I could locate my bottle, since it was white and red against the brown and green forest floor, but as I pressed on over yet another hill, it was nowhere to be found. I walked a half mile in the wrong direction, getting passed by just about everybody, before giving up hope (or coming to my senses, more likely) and turning to rejoin the race.

Now I had compounded my problems. I had used up extra time and energy looking for a bottle I couldn’t find. I had lost touch with a pack of riders who were maintaining a pace I felt I could hold, which can be crucial to get through a race of this duration. I would have to complete my opening lap on half of the water and food I had planned, and now, I thought, I needed to go harder still to catch back up to where I should be in the race.

The errors were piling on. Having relegated myself to the back of the field with my poor decision making, I found myself in a prime position to make things worse: I was angry, I was on my bike, I had open trail ahead of me, and riders I knew I could catch and pass. The red mist descended. I dropped the hammer.

The next fifteen miles contained some of the best riding I’ve ever done. I was going fast and taking chances! Back through the roller coasters I sailed, bombing the descents and standing in the pedals to carry my momentum to the top of each rise. I caught and passed riders quickly, some of them surprised to see the rider they had only just passed going the other way. They had probably written me off as a mechanical DNF, only to have me calling “on your left!” as I slipped past them again. I looked for riders from the pack I had previously been in, naively thinking I could catch back on, and then relax a little.

It wasn’t to be. I had wasted probably twenty minutes looking for that stupid bottle, and twenty minutes is not a gap you make up in a mountain bike race. This reality was beginning to dawn on me as I reached the mid-lap aid station, where volunteers refilled my remaining bottle and sent me on my way. Still, I didn’t quite give up hope, as I was catching and passing riders with some regularity.

There is a metaphor in cycling regarding a matchbook. You start a race with a certain number of matches, and when they’re gone, you’re done. The idea is that you only burn matches when you have to, getting up a hill or sprinting to stay on a peloton, so that you have enough left to finish the race. With less than one lap complete, I was burning a whole lot of matches, and I was starting to feel it.

I caught a small cluster of riders on a twisty, flat section of trail, and grew frustrated that they were holding me up, but the trail was narrow and there was no opportunity for a safe pass. Finally the course emptied out onto a fire road, and I motored by them, pulling a guy on a hardtail 29er with me. The two of us traded pulls for the next few miles of trail and fire road before entering the final section of singletrack. My legs were burning, telling me in unmistakable language that they could not maintain the level of effort required to stay with the guy on the 29er. I had to back off.

My decision to ease up on the throttle was closely followed by the most challenging section of climbing on the course. Although the vertical ascent only totaled some three hundred feet, the segment was punctuated by a half dozen exhilarating descents, so that you ended up climbing several times that number. To be sure, I’ve seen harder climbs, particularly in West Virginia and Tennessee. The slopes weren’t impossibly steep, and they were mostly smooth trail. But I was feeling the consequences of my earlier poor decisions. Too much effort was mixing with too little nutrition to rob me of needed power.

At last I crested the final climb of the lap, and zipped down the descent to the start/finish area. I was relieved that I had survived my first lap on half of my planned intake, but still frustrated that I was far behind where I should be, and grimly determined to press on at whatever pace I could manage. I spent only a minute or so in the pit, stashing my second bottle from the cooler in my jersey pocket instead of the offending lower cage, before setting off again. I hoped that, with clear trail ahead of me and no reason to stop and turn around, I could clear this lap faster than my first, which had taken three and a half hours to complete.

That thought soon perished, as I spun up the first couple climbs. My legs were burning hard now, not recovering as they should between efforts. My knees were starting to hurt, my back was knotting up, and even my hips were starting to complain. Things were grinding to a halt quickly, and I was going deep into the pain cave. I glanced at my computer and saw that I was only 40 miles in. 40 miles! How in the world was I going to drag myself through another 60?!

My mood turned dark. I was contemplating failure in very real terms, convincing myself that there was no way I could finish the race, as things were going. My pace slowed further. I castigated myself for turning back for that damn bottle, for letting my frustration at not finding it get the best of me, and for trying to chase my way back through the field. This wasn’t supposed to be a race for me this year! I was only supposed to come out and try to finish! What was I thinking, hammering the way I did? And now look at me. Not even half way through, and burned up. I felt like I was out of matches. I started composing my apologies in my head. My explanation to my wife. My blog post on the race. All the harsh realities of my first ever DNF. By mile 48, I was done. Checked out, mentally.

I finally rolled into the aid station, convinced that I could muddle through the remainder of the lap, and then it’d be over, for me. As I arrived, the race leaders came in behind me, skidding to a stop while we mortals stood, mouths agape. Like an enclave of angels, the volunteers at the aid station all offered their help to each rider, leader or otherwise. Seeing on my face that I was having a pretty rough time of it, one volunteer refilled my bottles, while another one tried in vain to convince me to eat. He held out a plate filled with fig newtons and PB&Js like a maitre d’, but I declined. What I needed was to stop hurting. I asked if anybody had any aspirin. Another volunteer, who I’d later find out was the wife of the race organizer, came up with a bottle of ibuprofen, and, appraising my condition, shook four of them into my hand. I thanked her and the rest of the aid station angels and clipped back in, rolling down the trail for what I figured was the last time.


“Are you gonna do another lap?”

I had been caught by another rider, and together we were slogging along, our misery loving each other’s company.

“I don’t know,” I replied “I’m trying not to think that far ahead.”

“Me neither, but…” His voice trailed off. We pedaled on in silence for awhile, occasionally pulling over to let the leaders — who were already on their final lap — pass us uninhibited.

I had offered to let him past but he declined, saying he was only trying to make the cutoff, and I was pacing him well. He looked about as happy as I felt, but it was nice to not be alone. The stretch of trail after the aid station was flat and beautiful, through pine groves thick with the fresh aroma of logs recently cut by the Forest Service. I thought about my friend Katie’s words, and reminded myself to relax. I was lucky, after all, to be out here. Pedaling my bicycle through the beauty of the woods, rolling on soft turf and watching the sunlight filter through the trees. It was gorgeous, and it was time for me to smile, and let the mud get in my teeth.

The smell of the woods in summer is some of nature’s finest perfume, and coupled with the gentle terrain, it transformed me. I was catching up on my nutrition, and the ibuprofen was doing its job, taking the edge off my aching muscles and joints. The rider who had caught me and I rolled on, covering another couple miles of singletrack before hitting a section of fire road. He said he was going to stop and stretch, and I was alone again, but in a much better place, mentally. I was calmed, at peace with where I was in the race, and content to just keep going, and see what might lay ahead.


The climbs in the closing five miles of my second lap were still tough, but nowhere near as miserable as they had been the lap before. Content to take what my legs were willing to give me, I unclipped and walked when I had to, which was only a couple times. I focused on the descents, where the long travel of my bike’s suspension really shines, and bombed down them with enthusiasm. I tried to remember the sections, so that I’d know what to expect on the next lap…

Next lap? Wow, when did I start contemplating that reality?

I rolled back through the start/finish and to my pit for the last time, automatically going through the motions of restocking my jersey pockets and oiling my chain. I had known coming into this race that starting the final lap would be the hardest part. To date, the furthest I’d ever gone on my mountain bike was 65 miles. To do all that, and then set out for another lap of 33, would take all the mental fortitude I could muster. Yet somehow, when it came time to make the actual decision, it was as if it had already been made. I applied a fresh coat of bug spray, fired off a quick update to my wife, and rolled out, to the applause and cowbell-ringing of the small gathering of spectators and crew members.

A picture I wasn't sure I'd ever have taken.

A picture I wasn’t sure would ever happen.

My biggest worry when I registered for this race was making the cutoff. The rules were that, if you didn’t start your last lap by 3:30 pm, you were done. Somehow, despite all my problems on my first two laps, I had done that. By an hour. I was still doing well! Privately, I had told myself that I would be happy with any finish, happier still with a finish under twelve hours. Now, if I could maintain the average I had set, I might even finish under eleven!

My last lap was strangely serene. In most of my endurance racing experience, the end of the race is where you end up having to dig deep, where you hit your lowest lows, and where the struggle is most bitter. I usually reach a point where I’m not having fun any more, and I just want it to be over. But this was different. I had already fought through my lowest point, and the rebound of my mood allowed me to relax. Gone was the fear of the unknown; I had seen the course twice, and knew that while it was bookended with challenging climbs, the middle portion was relatively easy. My legs, though not fully recovered from my earlier abuse, were at least working again, and the pain in my back was manageable. I was even smiling now and again, enjoying the beautiful flow of Lumberjack’s trails.

To stay focused, I buried myself in the details of what I had left to do. How many miles to the aid station? When should I plan to change bottles? How long should I go before I stop to stretch? I set mile markers in my head for each of these things, using them to break the remaining distance into digestible pieces. Then I tried not to look at my computer every thirty seconds.

I stayed in the saddle and spun up the first two climbs, content with forward progress and unworried about my pace. I had abandoned use of the big ring some time ago, and found that I didn’t miss it. In fact, it seemed more efficient, since I didn’t have to wait for my clunky front derailleur to complete the shift as I started a climb. One last time through the roller coasters, and I chuckled at the mounting collection of bottles at the bottoms of the descents. Mine was around there somewhere, but I never did see it. The climbs became less frequent and severe, and soon I was at the aid station. Refueled for the final time, I thanked them all again and set off down the trail for the final leg of my first Lumberjack!

I was starting to feel confident now, but I was mindful of my late race mistakes at Big Frog, which had left me with full-body muscle cramps and a brutal crash only few miles from the end. It was time to be swift and be safe, ride smart, and keep looking after my intake all the way to the end. I planned my last bottle change, and thought of where I’d stop for a stretch before the last hilly section. And then it started, the final undulating ascent through the Udell Hills, on the other side of which was the finish! I pedaled as many of the hills as I could, stopping just twice to push the bike over the top before careening down the slopes. I made sure to keep my aggression in check on those downhills, as insurance against a tragic, late-race crash.

97, 98 miles in, and I was still having fun. I was riding loose, letting the bike do the work, hopping off roots and jumping the small rises. The last hill gave way to the last descent, and I shifted onto the big ring for the last time and crushed the pedals! I was sailing through the woods, euphoric. I streaked through the pit area, now half deserted, and across the finish line to the cheers, laughter and applause of the volunteers and racers already enjoying their celebratory pints.

Surreal. It's still sinking in that I did this.

Surreal. It’s still sinking in that I did this.

I finished! I made it! In my first attempt, and despite even my own expectations, I had completed a hundred-mile mountain bike race! I had survived Lumberjack, and got the finishers’ patch to prove it!

Officially, I crossed the line in 11:12:56, good enough for 169th place of 178 finishers in the Men’s Open category, and 257th of 273 overall. But given that the race sold out at 425 entrants, I’m pleased with that result, however humble! There were over 70 riders who completed one or two laps and couldn’t, or didn’t continue. I learned so much from this race, about strategy, about endurance, and about myself, that I know I can do better in the future.

And I do plan to be back! This race was so well run from end to end, the volunteers so friendly and helpful, and the course so fun, that I can’t imagine not giving it another try next year. If you’re thinking of trying out the Ultra Endurance MTB scene, Lumberjack is the place to start!

May 312014


Dear perfect stranger,

I’m sorry I was so rude today.

You stood by the side of the road, cheering for me, and I just glanced at you, and passed right by. I meant to thank you, but as you may have noticed, I was quite busy trying to refill my lungs with oxygen at as rapid a rate as possible. That preoccupation meant that I was unable to reply to your friendly gesture, but I didn’t mean to seem as if I didn’t notice.

We don’t know each other, but for those fleeting seconds, you were one of the most important people in the world, to me. You see, it was at that very moment that I was having a hard time going on. I had pushed too hard up that hill over there, and my legs were begging for mercy. My pace had slowed, and I was starting to feel bad about and for myself.

But just then, I looked up and saw you. You had a sign with something funny on it that I wish I could remember, and you singled me out for encouragement. And you know what? It worked. It snapped me out of my mental slide, reinvigorated my legs, and put a smile back on my face where there had been a grimace just seconds ago.

I don’t know who you are or where you came from. You might be a fellow athlete, sidelined with an injury, or else taking the rare weekend off. You might be a family member of another racer, there to cheer for them, but happy to spread the love to the rest of us. Or maybe you’re simply a race fan, who loves to come out and watch others struggle and compete.

Whoever you are, thank you. You were exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it, and I won’t forget you.

See you at the races.


May 292014


I saw a bad movie once, and now I hate movies.

I tried golf this one time. It was terrible. And I saw all these people slicing balls into the next county. Golf is dumb.

Sound familiar? It should, if you’ve caught wind of the latest viral hatchet job against CrossFit.

For the tl;dr crowd, let me sum up.

  • She tries CrossFit a couple times.
  • She is appalled that other people in the gym aren’t as fit/skilled as she is.
  • She doesn’t do deadlifts. (Wait, what?) Or kipping pull ups. Or kettlebell swings. But considers herself an authority on CrossFit anyway.
  • She was sore after doing CrossFit. And that’s bad.
  • She has never seen a workout like CrossFit. And that means it’s bad.
  • She takes training advice from WebMD and the Huffington Post.

Before denigrating the biggest fitness trend since Sweatin’ to the Oldies, one that has swept the nation and changed tens of thousands of lives for the better, maybe it’s best to at least try to understand it. That requires more than a few cursory classes and a few Google searches for articles underlining your position.

What CrossFit is:

  • Constantly varied.
  • A fitness program that uses a range of exercises and techniques to build overall fitness, including traditional strength training as well as short, high intensity, high volume sessions.
  • A tool that helps a lot of people reach their fitness goals.

What CrossFit is not:

  • Random – There is programming at every box, even if it’s unlike the programming you’re used to seeing. No, there isn’t an “arm day” and a “leg day.” But there is a method to the madness, you just have to stick around for more than a day or two to see it.
  • Greg Glassman – Yeah, he’s not exactly the model of fitness, but neither are architects always good construction workers. He came up with the idea for the system using a lot of existing science, but it’s not as if he’s actively involved in running every box in the country.
  • Dave Castro – We can all agree that he’s a smug-looking weirdo with questionable taste in hats and haircuts. But he also doesn’t run a box.
  • The “fail” compilation videos that pop up now and again. More than half of the stuff they show isn’t even CrossFit.
  • Cardio – Breathing hard does not equal cardio any more than sweating equals exercise. Nobody at CrossFit is claiming that it’s a cardio program.

The article as a whole is so haphazardly researched and poorly constructed from a logical standpoint that I almost didn’t address it, but let me hit a few points.

To begin, the author talks about how she went into a CrossFit gym and received only cursory instruction on a few exercises before the workout began. Then she goes on to talk about how she’s a career athlete and can bang out muscle-ups at the drop of a hat. It’s possible that she was at a gym where the instruction isn’t very good, but it’s also possible that the coaches observed her doing the movements, concluded she was performing them acceptably, and moved on.

Then Ms. Simmons (no relation to Richard) gets all in a tizzy because some CrossFit workouts include a high volume of Olympic or power lifts. That’s bad, you see, because when she was working out in college, they didn’t do that. But I bet what they did do, was train with volume. Study after study has shown the benefits of low weight, high volume training both for muscular hypertrophy (gettin’ swoll, in DudeBro speak) and for proprioception. So whether you do one movement 100 times, or three different movements that target the same muscle groups 30 times each, the effect is the same: volume. And nobody’s asking anybody to do sets of 30 reps at 90% of their one rep max. Are Olympic and powerlifting movements incredibly complex and technique oriented? You’re damn skippy. That’s why you practice them a bazillion times at a relatively low weight for your strength.

Now, it is true that repetitive stress injuries are a concern in CrossFit. And running, and tennis, and golf, and cycling, and football and bowling. Next?

The article expresses the misconception that, because CrossFit workouts are timed, that all emphasis on form and technique ends once the clock starts. I admit, that was my impression as well before I decided to try it for myself. The truth is, if the workout is to do as many reps as possible in a given time, you only get to count good reps. Proper squat depth has to be achieved, the medicine ball has to make it past the line, and you have to lock out your lifts at the top. While typically you are counting your own reps (unless you’re at a competition), the techniques and standards are clearly briefed, demonstrated and practiced before each workout, and it’s up to you to adhere to them. Coaches will circulate throughout the workout, correcting form, stopping athletes when necessary, and telling them to add or subtract weight. Any CrossFitter will tell you that missing a few reps or taking a few seconds longer to complete a workout because you’re getting some coaching happens almost every day, and it isn’t the end of the world.

Another misconception expressed in the article is that since CrossFit’s trademark workouts are intense, the program consists only of intensity and pain, without regard for safety. But that’s not the case at all. In every workout I’ve attended at several different boxes in different parts of the country, I’ll be at the gym for an hour, and only about ten minutes of that is spent at full throttle during the WOD. The rest of the time is spent on warming up, strength and mobility work, and instruction. Boatloads of instruction. In fact, far more instruction than you’re likely to find in any other readily-available fitness program. Not all of us get to train with college football teams (who, by the way, have totally clean safety records, right?).

She mentions screaming coaches at least twice in the post, which I find just laughable. If anything, CrossFit has garnered a reputation of being positive and supportive, a community that cheers for its newest and least skilled athletes as hard as for its heroes. I’ve been screamed at in a lot of athletic situations in my life. High school wrestling and Air Force boot camp come to mind. But at CrossFit, the only times I can recall a coach raising their voice at me was to cheer, or to be heard above the thumping music that accompanies most of our workouts.

Then there’s the familiar strawman argument about the poor quality of coaching and lack of education that box owners have. As Simmons would have it, you can get up off the couch one day, go pay your money to take a weekend seminar for your CrossFit Level 1 certification, and open a box the following week. Except that isn’t what’s happening. The gym I attend, for instance,  is owned by a husband and wife, the former a collegiate athlete, teacher and golf pro (visual and instruction skills, anyone?) and the other a physical therapist. Both had over five years of CrossFit experience before opening their own gym.  So much for the whole medical community thinking CrossFit is dangerous, by the way. I have yet to meet someone coaching at a box, let alone owning one, who hasn’t spent years and years training, studying and learning everything there is to know about fitness and physical training. Do all of them have masters degrees in a related field? Of course not, but then, most personal trainers at traditional gyms only had to pass an online exam to qualify for their position. If that. Kinda makes a weekend seminar look thorough, doesn’t it?

After listing off all of his perceived problems with CrossFit, the author is left scratching her head as to why anyone would do it. Maybe, she concludes, people are just addicted to pain, and want to be part of the group. Or maybe, as I observe week after week at the boxes I attend and follow on social media, people are addicted to getting stronger, to learning new things, and to setting new PRs on a regular basis.

It’s true that the most dramatic gains you’ll see at a CrossFit gym will be from people coming off the couch, but that doesn’t mean those are the only people gaining benefit from it. A big percentage of the athletes I train with at CrossFit are athletes in other disciplines, who were already extremely fit when they walked in the door. I’m talking about triathlon winners, Boston Marathon qualifiers, rugby players and the like. And all of them are getting stronger, faster, and better at their other sports because of the addition of CrossFit into their training regimen.

The author saves her most absurd mischaracterizations for last: that workouts are not individualized, and that every CrossFit box in the country is exactly the same. These two assertions are so blatantly false, that I was convinced by the end of the article that the author had been drinking. It’s as if she thinks that box owners pray at the alter of Glassman each night, receive the gospel of the following day’s WOD, and the faithful arrive the next day to perform exactly the movements prescribed, at exactly the prescribed weight, for exactly the prescribed reps.

The truth is, every WOD is adapted to every athlete, every day. Strong athletes add weight. Mere mortals (like myself) might go lighter. Coaches might have new athletes perform two rounds instead of three, or substitute easier movements for more complex ones. The WOD is only a small part of what we do at the gym every day, and even then, what’s written on the whiteboard is only a starting point. Never, at any point, have I had a coach so much as blink when I said I needed to use a lighter kettlebell, or when I dropped off the pull up bar and substituted ring rows, or when I stopped 2 rounds into a 5 round workout and knocked weight off my barbell. If your coach has a problem with you doing those things, by all means, go somewhere else. But I suspect you’ll have a harder time finding a box that has those problems, than one that does not. My coaches push me, but never to the point of danger. They’ll call me out if they think I’m half-assing it, but that’s because they’ve been watching me for months, and know what I’m capable of.

CrossFit has its shortcomings and challenges, and will certainly continue to evolve over the next decade. But if we’re going to address them as the larger fitness community, then let’s not waste time with strawman arguments, baseless rhetoric and double standards. Unless you have the knowledge and experience on the subject to speak with some authority, maybe it’s best you shouldn’t speak at all.

May 192014


Ah, the hook grip. Joining paleo diets, chalked hands and foam rollers, the hook grip has become part of the canonical gospel of Crossfit. The common consensus seems to be: thou shalt hook grip. Thou shalt use it on the Clean, and on the Snatch, and a higher place in heaven shall be attained by using it on the deadlift. Thou shalt hook grip thy steering wheel, and thy gym bag, and thy breakfast spoon, for good measure.

Except that there are several “maybes” in there. Hook grip, like chalk, is a tool, and a very useful one. When pulling heavy weight from the floor for a snatch or clean, it can allow you to move considerably more weight with considerably more speed than you may be able to with a normal grip. That is, it can, if you have a good hook grip. If you don’t, it can make the movement awkward, uncomfortable and more complicated than it would otherwise be. If you aren’t getting it right, it may even make your grip on the bar less strong or less controlled.

Those who insist that a hook grip is the only way ever to clean or snatch are akin to those who would insist that there is only one proper stance for squats. It’s been proven over and over again that differences in individual strengths and bone structure will dictate what your squat stance should be. Why is grip preference any different? The hand is certainly one of the most complex parts of the body, and differences in bone length, angle and structure can vary wildly from one person to the next. Contrary to what many CrossFit sites may assert, the problems many people experience with hook grip may have nothing to do with “mobility,” and everything to do with geometry.

None of that means that the hook grip is impossible for some people, just that it’s much more difficult to master for them. Difficult enough that it may be useful to sideline it when teaching them a new movement, until the more essential elements are mastered.

If an athlete’s grip is nowhere near the weakest point of their movement, why is there a need to change their technique? The reason often presented is that “well, it’ll help later when they’re lifting really heavy.” But what if that isn’t every athlete’s goal? Maybe not every athlete will get to the point where the power of their posterior chain will exceed that of their grip. Or maybe some athletes prefer to continue to develop their normal grip strength. Or maybe the transition from hook grip to front or overhead rack adds too much unnecessary complexity for some newer (or even more experienced) athletes, to be worth the trouble.

Besides which, there is no one claiming that a hook grip takes an enormous amount of time to learn. By sharp contrast to an incredibly complex movement like snatch, most trainers and coaches agree that hook grip can be picked up (pun intended!) in a couple weeks, so why not wait to introduce it until it’s needed?

None of this is to say that it shouldn’t be taught, or that you shouldn’t learn it, or that it isn’t a useful tool. But it is just that, a tool. You don’t need a 12 pound sledgehammer when you’re driving a roofing nail. I don’t wear a belt when I’m deadlifting 185. The hook grip is a technique that should be honestly attempted until it is mastered, but there are plenty of circumstances, particularly within the realm of CrossFit, where it doesn’t make sense (think low weight, power clean metcons).

If you love yourself some hook grip, that’s great! Just don’t proselytize.

May 052014

One secret you learn whilst climbing the umpteenth endless hill of the day is that you have ample time to look down and watch your belly jiggle. And, while watching, you will be equal parts amused, horrified and angry at its presence.

Time for contemplation, about my belly fat and other mysteries, was in abundant supply on a sunny Saturday in April, at the Big Frog 65. A mountain bike epic that runs tangent to (though not quite with) the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) series’ Cohutta 100, Big Frog could be seen, by the outside observer, as a nice intermediate step between your friendly local mountain bike races, and the 100 mile grinders of the NUE. I say could be, because anything with 10,000 feet of climbing and dozens of bone-jarring descents shouldn’t be seen as “nice” or “intermediate” in any sense of the words.

A Baptism by Elevation

I arrived at the Ocoee Whitewater Center on Friday afternoon, too late to make the massage appointment my wife had made for me in the next town up the road, but early enough to set up my campsite, pre-ride part of the course, and make a few tweaks to the bike before the sun went down. The trails I explored as the sun went low in the trees included one winding climb up Bear Paw and one raucous, rock-strewn, rooty, grin-inducing descent on Thunder Rock Express (which may be the coolest trail name in the history of trail names). I judged the trails to be enough of a challenge to be good fun without being totally over my head, and rolled back into camp feeling confident that I would survive whatever the full course would throw at me.

Home for the weekend

Home for the weekend

The morning dawned misty and cold. I arrived at the race start early for once, already dressed, fed, chamois-creamed and ready to go, only to realize that the Big Frog started a half hour after Cohutta. So I got back in the car and stayed warm, and watched dozens of riders zoom back and forth behind me, warming up. What sort of rider, I wondered, needs to warm up before an 8 hour mountain bike race? (The kind who gets it done in 4 hours, for starters, as I’d later find out.) Surely the opening 3 mile road climb would be plenty of warming up for me, so I stayed in the car until the last possible moment.

The race began with a prayer spoken with all the solemnity one can muster through a megaphone, which asked for the necessary aid and protection of the Almighty for all the racers, and which was punctuated by the starter’s gun. At that, some 200 riders giddily clipped in and charged off, bunny-hopping the speed bumps on the way out of the parking lot with the exuberance of confident gladiators.

We streamed up the road in a gaggle, the leaders charging on ahead, while we mortals sat and spun our cranks in a comfortable gear, mindful of the long day that lay ahead of us. The climb was long enough that small conversations were had between riders passing one another, and I wondered how many of them I might see later in the day. Finally, we crested the first hill and bombed down toward the trailhead that marked the opening dirt section, and all pleasantries were abandoned in favor of the task at hand. The next six miles of the Brush Creek trail were sublime singletrack, carved into the hillsides overlooking the river and adjacent man-made lakes. I’m sure the views were spectacular, as the morning mist burned off the water and the sunlight streamed through foliage still sparse from the late spring. But I was too busy to notice.

I was riding well, if conservatively, in order to hold a level of exertion that I could maintain all day. I accordioned with a small group of riders, each of our strengths and weaknesses being brought to light by the variety of the trail. In particular, I began going back and forth with a rider named Vonda. My bravery on the descents matched her ability on the climbs, so that whenever the trail turned down, I’d pass her, and when it went up again, she’d come back past me, bouncing lightly over the roots and rocks, her cranks never stopping. Brush Creek ended with a 300 foot climb that spread us out, separating those with true climbing legs from, well, riders like me.

All watermarked images, ©2014, Melvis Photography

All watermarked images, ©2014, Melvis Photography

The trail emptied out onto a curvy gravel road, which descended sharply for a short distance before routing us back onto a trail, this time the wide pedestrian track of the Old Copper Road. Its breadth and gentle downslope allowed the small pack of racers I was in to pick up speed, and we hummed along briskly, splashing through the mud and pedaling only when we felt like it. But the pedestrian nature of the trail should not be interpreted as without challenge. Just as we started to find ourselves at ease, a half mile section of rocks and roots abruptly presented itself, compelling those with shorter suspension travel (or none at all) to slow down and pick their way through. My bike having more “trail” than “race” leanings, and thus with ample cushion to absorb the blows, I simply stood on the pedals and banged my way through, passing a half dozen riders in the process.

I was in love with my trusty Fuel all over again. Although an antique by the standard of most of the field, heavy as a boat anchor, and with a wheel size widely considered obsolete, the roots and rocks were where she came into her own. I was grinning confidently as the section came to a close, and approached the rock-armored crossing of Laurel Creek with easy speed and a small gap on the riders behind. Eyeing the large, flat stones in the creekbed, I picked a line near the middle and plunged into the water to the delight of the nearby spectators, who were delighted still more by what followed. I had not investigated this crossing the day before, so I had no way of knowing that the rocks armoring the crossing were as slick as they were smooth, a fact that the reconnaissance of my front tire was about to reveal. It slid to the right, found a large crack between two rocks and lost traction entirely, causing the bike to begin a slow-motion, wobbly folding maneuver, that left it lying on the rocks and me standing in water up to my ankles. I received applause and style points for my dismount from the onlookers, who had chosen a particularly entertaining spot to enjoy the race.

It would be a fair characterization to say that the bike had crashed while I had not, but regardless, now my feet were soaked, my brake lever was bent, and the half-dozen racers I had passed only a few hundred yards back all came past me again. I banged the lever back into its original position crossed the bridge over the Ocoee, and started after them up Bear Paw. But the next 8 miles of singletrack wouldn’t afford me the opportunity to reel them back in, as the trail climbed some 700 feet and put me solidly in my place as a resident of the flat Midwest.


It was on this stretch that the ride became serious business. Until now, I had been able to spin my way up the climbs, pausing only to let faster riders pass or to let my heart rate calm down a little. But as the trail reached a marked Y, course workers directed us to turn right, and I encountered the first climb that forced me off the bike. It was something that I expected would happen, but at only 20 miles in, it was worrisome.

Gravel Grinding

Soon I was at the first aid station, and I was happy for the break. My legs felt okay, and I took my time refilling my bottle with electrolytes and munching on a rice cake. The other riders at the aid station seemed to have much more of a sense of urgency about them, which bothered me a little, but as my only goal for the day was to finish, I saw no need to rush. What did finally urge me on was the swarm of little flying bugs that congregated around my head whenever I’d stand still for more than a few seconds.

As I strapped my helmet back on, I reasoned that since I had climbed such a way to get to the aid station, a nice, gentle downhill was probably in order. And anyway I was on a gravel road now, so the next section should be easier. WRONG. Terribly wrong. Columbus-discovered-America wrong. Instead, I was treated to a mile-long, 7 percent uphill grade that caused me to stop several times, looking up at the gravel rising ahead of me and gasping “what… the… hell…” as I waited for my heart rate to settle down. Whatever illusions I had that the ten miles between aid stations 1 and 2 would be quick or easy evaporated on that climb. It took me almost ninety minutes to cover that meager distance, as the gravel wound its way along Chestnut Ridge. That first climb was the hardest of this leg, but it took enough out of me that the subsequent half dozen smaller climbs started to beat me down, mentally.

Sooooo glad I got to turn right here.

Sooooo glad I got to turn right here.

Worse still for my mood was when the race leaders started coming at me, going the other way on the out-and-back route. At first I couldn’t believe it, and so began The Five Stages of Endurance Racing Grief:

  1. Denial – As the first guy came past me, I thought maybe he’d had a mechanical and was bailing out.
  2. Anger – But more were behind him, and they came screaming past, carving down the hills at an impossible speed as I chugged up, breathing smoke from their nostrils and leaving a trail of scorched rocks in their wake. Did these guys have robotic legs? Jet packs hidden in their jersey pockets? WHY ARE THEY SO FAST?!
  3. Bargaining – Maybe if I could just carry more speed on the downhills, I wouldn’t have to climb so hard. Wait, nope, I’m in my granny gear again.
  4. Depression – For them to be that far ahead of me, they’d have to be averaging… The math was too depressing to contemplate, and anyway I was busy trying not to die of exertion on the climbs, and fright on the descents.
  5. Acceptance – Some were kind enough to offer encouragement as we passed, calling out “good job!” and “keep going!” as I looked up at them, slack-jawed. I concluded from this that I must’ve looked completely awful.

When I at last rolled into aid station #2, it was choked with riders heading the other way, they already finished with the 13 mile “lollipop” section that I had yet to begin. My pity party was now in full swing, complete with John Legend soundtrack. I was not yet half way through the race, and the leaders were charging for the finish. And what was I doing out here, anyway? I clearly wasn’t ready for this race, wasn’t ready to hang with the big boys. All my work through the offseason hadn’t been enough, and I was just kidding myself if I thought I belonged here. Those last ten miles had been the worst ten miles of my life, and the fact that I had to do them all over again to get home was more than I could comprehend.

But while my head was swimming with thoughts of quitting, and failure, and storm clouds and sad puppies, my body went through the automatic motions of a rest stop. I drank my electrolytes, refilled my bottle, and munched on a rice cake. Soon I found myself back at my bike, buckling my helmet and clipping back into my pack for reasons I still can’t fully explain. Maybe it was the sight of a few other stragglers coming into the aid station, confirming that I wasn’t in last place after all. Maybe it was the memory of my teammate at the Death March earlier this year, slogging through 30 miles and dozens of hills as he was coming down with a nasty case of the flu, but never giving up. Whatever the reason, I was off, spinning my cranks again, up another nameless climb on another gravel road, keeping on for the sake of keeping on.


The lollipop section contained the biggest climb of the day, some 800 feet in 3 miles. It was on this climb that I began to watch my belly jiggle, and that I began swearing at things. I swore at my belly, for being so heavy for me to lug up and over every climb. I swore at the mountains, for being so absurdly high. I swore at the road for being bumpy, and at the men who built it for deciding it had to go all the way to the top. “Seriously,” I grumbled aloud, as I pushed my rig for what felt like the hundredth time, “what idiot decided this road needed to go all they way up here? THERE’S NOTHING HERE!”

A Bear Cub, and The Way Back Home

At last the hill crested, near a turnout where a man was saddling a horse. He glanced at me with what I imagine was pity, and I threw a leg over my own aluminum-and-rubber steed, and started down the biggest descent of the day. The road plunged so precipitously down that my ears were popping, and I was soon thankful for the fresh set of brake pads I had put on before the race. Normally, I enjoy bombing down hills as much as the next guy, but as my altitude decreased, my dread of the climb that must follow increased. In the bizarre world of Big Frog, what goes down must come up, a fact with which I was becoming all too familiar.

The road wound upward again, and I clicked down the gears until the shift lever went slack, then waited for my legs to tell me they’d had enough. When they reached that familiar crescendo of burn, I unclipped reflexively, paused for a second to get a few breaths, and then started the uphill trudge. I told my legs that they’d better consider this as relief from the punishment they’d otherwise have to endure. A few hundred yards ahead, an older gentleman in blue jeans and a trucker hat bearing the name of some local business that likely hasn’t existed for 25 years, puttered around his old pickup truck on the side of the road. He kept looking at me, and then up the road around the bend where he was parked, and then it seemed he would shake his head and walk around his truck some more.

The locals, I thought, must all consider us complete idiots. And they’d be right.

I have never been so happy to cross a finish line.

I have never been so happy to cross a finish line.

As I reached the gentleman, he politely informed me that there was a small bear cub at the next bend, which I could just make out through the brush where he pointed. Then, with as mundane a tone as if he were relaying the details of the dishes present at his church’s last potluck supper, he mentioned that Momma Bear had huffed at him when he approached the cub awhile ago.

I stopped.

“Oh, you should be alright,” he reassured me. “You’ve got a bicycle.”

That I was pushing said bicycle up the hill, and that the hill showed no signs of stopping for some miles yet, and that this was hardly the first hill I had had to walk up, must have escaped him. I was scarcely in any condition to hop aboard and make a speedy getaway, should Momma present herself with unpleasant intentions. I thanked the gentleman for his advice, and resumed my trudge. I had no means to defend against an angry bear, no energy to extricate myself from the situation with any haste, and no alternate route home in this godforsaken wilderness. I decided, as I approached the bear cub, who sat happily munching on leaves just off the side of the road, that if its mother decided to take offense at my presence, I would have no option but to offer my sincerest apology for the infraction, and then be eaten.

As it was, I walked past the bear cub, who eyed me with something like boredom. I summoned my brightest “hey, little fella!” for the cub, so that if its mother was in earshot, at least she’d have no doubt of my friendliness. Which, in hindsight, was a little bit like bringing cupcakes with smiley faces on them to a negotiation with a hung-over Vladimir Putin. But Momma never presented herself, and I did not stop to take a picture, lest I tempt her to do so.

The hill finally eased up enough for me to get back on and pedal, and a mile later I was back at the aid station. I hadn’t seen another rider since the beginning of the lollipop, and so was again convinced that I was in last place. But as I slipped out of my pack at the aid station, handing my bike to the volunteers who kindly lubed my chain and retrieved my drop bag, up the hill came another rider! It was a girl, and she looked every bit as shell-shocked as I felt, but she also had the air of determination about her. At that moment, if she’d said she was going to quit, I’d have joined her. But as it was, she started going through the motions of her own pit stop, and so I did the same. I retrieved a Red Bull from my pack, and swigged from it while downing an energy bar.

With my fellow victims riders after the finish.

With my fellow victims riders after the finish. I’m still trying to figure out what just happened to me. The girl seated to the right of me is the one from the rest stop!

I retrieved a wash cloth from my drop bag, plunged it into the cooler full of icy water in front of us, and wiped the grime from my face and neck. It was ecstasy, and between the cold rag and the Red Bull, I was starting to feel human again. “This might seem weird,” I said to the girl rider, “but you want some of this?” She gratefully took the cloth from me and followed suit, looking much refreshed afterward. Then, with a shared glance that seemed to say lets just get this over with, we geared back up and started off, she a minute or so ahead of me.

The next mile or so contained a couple little climbs, and I soon caught and passed the girl from the aid station, surprised at how much better I felt after after our little break. Maybe, I thought as I glanced over my shoulder and saw no sign of her, I wouldn’t finish last after all! The thought restored my mood ever so slightly as I began a series of descents, the same ones the race leaders had been careening down when they passed me earlier in the day. I began to think that at least I could finish this race, and live to tell the tale. I started riding better, taking big, sweeping lines around the corners in the gravel, allowing myself to carry more speed down the mountain. I knew that there was one more big climb left, but it was at least on ground that I had already covered, so I knew what to expect.

I had been beaten, or almost beaten, by so many hills by this point that the rhythm of pedal-stop-walk-recover-pedal was automatic. I started breaking down the distance to the next aid station into manageable pieces, forcing myself to look away from my bike computer for as long as I could take it. Five miles, halfway there… Four more miles… Two and a half… Another mile to the aid station, and then you’re home free. The hill crested at last, and I was back in the saddle, coasting down as quickly as I dared. The aid station appeared abruptly as I rounded a bend, and I rolled to a stop by the volunteers. One refilled my bottle with electrolytes, while the other exhorted me to keep going. The finish was “only” seven miles away, and “mostly” downhill.

Down to the Finish

I wish the guy had actually used air quotes when he told me this, because maybe then I would’ve done the smart thing and eaten some food. Instead, I thanked him for refilling my bottle and bounced on ahead, back onto singletrack for the closing leg of the ride. A short distance later, my legs began to object in the strongest possible terms to the sudden increase in abuse. Of all the problems I had been dealing with all day, I had mostly avoided cramping, but now it began with a vengeance. Every punchy little climb had me off the bike and pushing again, because I simply couldn’t make the power to pedal up them without sending my legs into spasms. The downhill section that came next was almost worse. I barely had the strength left to stand out of the saddle, and while the trail plunged some 300 feet in a mile, I rode the brakes and held on for dear life, unable to get into any kind of flow. I was getting passed by fast guys again, this time from the 100 mile race, as our return legs rejoined. I did what I could to get out of their way, but doing so added to my stress and robbed me of whatever momentum I had built.

My new favorite coffee mug!

My new favorite coffee mug!

I turned left at a marked junction, and was finally back on the portion of the trails I had ridden the day before. Only, at my much-reduced pace, it looked entirely foreign. I bumped and sputtered along, surrendering to even the mildest climbs and getting passed every few minutes by riders from the Cohutta. In a clearing that required me to ride up a rocky wash, I grumbled expletives as I heard a rider approaching behind me, and got off to the side to let them pass. It was the girl from the aid station, and while she assured me that I’d pass her back on the upcoming downhill section, I knew better.

I chased her into the start of Thunder Rock Express, and tried hard to be excited about it. But what had been a joyful blast down the mountainside with the fresh legs of my pre-ride, had now become an excruciating test of my character. I stood in the pedals and tried to lean back, keeping the front wheel as light as I could manage to track over the terrain. As tired as I was, I began to feel like a mountain biker again, and found just a little bit of flow to properly address the trail. Then, at a rocky, right-hand switchback, it all fell to pieces. I misjudged my approach speed, coming in too fast, too shallow and on the brakes. Physics being the unforgiving bastard that it is, my front tire jolted to a stop against a rock, and I kept going, over the bars and down on my left shoulder, coming to rest in a tangled heap with my bike. My left foot was still clipped in, and my calf started to seize until I could twist it free.

This was the darkest part of the race for me, and only a scant few miles from the finish. I was dejected. I felt out of place, in over my head, and defeated. I was reduced to the disposition a despondent toddler at the grocery store who had missed his morning nap, and was now preoccupied with screaming incessantly and tossing boxes of mac-and-cheese out of the cart. My legs, already tortured from the day’s exertion, were now bruised from my crash and throbbing. Above all, I needed this to be over, a thought I began to express aloud to the rocks and tree roots that seemed to block my path every few feet.

Then I saw it: course tape. What had to be the last piece of it, directing me off the singletrack and onto a gravel road, for the final time. It was a white and red plastic ribbon of deliverance, and the relief was overwhelming. Rounding the corner I spotted the last course marshal, who motioned me to turn right, and gave me instructions to the finish as I passed, in a voice so comforting and kind that it made me want to cry. As my tires bumped onto the pavement of the bridge over the Ocoee River Number Three Dam, I did cry. I sobbed in relief, even as I pedaled, but I was too exhausted even to keep up that extra effort. And so went the last mile, every pedal stroke threatening to send my legs into spasm, and the needle of my emotional meter bouncing wildly between elation and total breakdown.

The last few hundred yards to the finish were lined with riders and their families, all cheering and clapping and ringing cowbells. For me, the last-but-five finisher of the Big Frog 65. I wasn’t exhausted. Exhausted had happened a dozen miles ago. What I was, as I came across the finish line nine hours and six minutes after I had started, was something for which they haven’t yet made a word. But I was a finisher, and on that day, it was the only title that mattered.