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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Denial – As the first guy came past me, I thought maybe he’d had a mechanical and was bailing out.
- 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?!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.