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!

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.

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 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.

Mar 242014
The trip to Elkinsville, any way you slice it, is one tough mother.

The trip to Elkinsville, any way you slice it, is one tough mother.

(Read Part 1 here)

The wisdom of our end-around route to avoid Combs Creek Road was soon called into question by a surprising amount of elevation change, and what seemed like an endless number of miles. In fact, our grand plan had added some 12 miles to our total, and they weren’t anywhere near as easy or swift to traverse as we had hoped. By the time we had climbed the mile-long, rutted doubletrack to the cemetery at Elkinsville, we were all ready to give our initial plan a harder look.

Endless, winding gravel. Fun if you're feeling well. Hell if you're not.

Endless, winding gravel. Fun if you’re feeling well. Hell if you’re not.

Even after the length of our excursion was clear, I was hesitant to deviate from it. The only other way South, where the remainder of our checkpoints lay, was on the dreaded Road-That-Sometimes-Isn’t. Jason’s condition had continued to degrade, and he was unable to make more than about 12 miles an hour, even on the flats. We had a choice to make, and neither option was good. Either we headed back the way we came, around half the county to avoid the mud, and risk grinding Jason’s legs to a dead stop, or we took on Combs Creek, and hoped that the hike wouldn’t blow them out entirely. Oh, and that my cyclocross bike would be up to the task of singletrack through a swamp.

In the end, we decided that miles were more daunting than the mud. We would take Combs Creek Road. That crusher of spirits, that destroyer of dreams, that haunt of the souls of men; that was the road we chose.

I didn’t have a great feeling about it.

As it turned out, it wasn’t so bad as the nightmares of last season’s event had persuaded us it would be. The colder temperatures of this winter had left a portion of the water still frozen under the mud, so it wasn’t as deep, and the standing water wasn’t as high. Even the sections that were impassable by bike were welcome in that they provided a change of pace. Being off the bike for a bit and walking, even if it was trudging through the mud, allowed our legs to relax a bit.

We spent the next two miles riding when we could, walking when we couldn’t, and setting our jaws, as men do against difficult tasks. The members of the fairer sex we encountered on Combs were handling the challenge with characteristic grace, smiling and encouraging each other with compliments and jokes. We grunted and panted up the hills, trying to smile at their greetings, but mostly wondering how they could be so damn cheerful in a time and place such as this.

While taking this picture, Jason was contemplating a permanent residence here.

While taking this picture, Jason was contemplating a permanent residence here.

What did put a smile on my face was the performance of my humble little ‘cross bike. Despite being placed in conditions never imagined by its designers, it did everything I asked of it, and then some. For one stretch, behind a couple fat bikes whose 4-inch tires were tailor-made for the conditions, I actually found myself gaining on them!

Slowly, the mud bog gave way to creek crossings, then jeep tracks, and finally the gate that closes the route to vehicular traffic came into view. We had made it! We conquered Combs Creek Road! Or at least I thought we did, because when I turned around, I couldn’t seem to find Jason. A few minutes later he emerged, looking very haggard indeed, but with the relief of knowing that what we expected to be the worst was over.

Although we had cut significant mileage from our overall route by taking Combs, there was still quite a way to go to reach our final two mandatory checkpoints. It would be another eight miles to reach Hanner, with a brief stop along the way at Cornett for a time bonus that didn’t seem to matter any more.

Jason was suffering, there was no other word for it. I knew by this point that it wasn’t a matter of his conditioning, but that something else had gone terribly wrong, but he was determined to continue on, and so that’s what we did. Adding to the misery of his still-building fever was the fact that he was starting to have serious leg cramps, and had run out of water. I gave him one of my bottles of electrolytes, and he cashed it immediately. We hadn’t seen a SAG wagon for hours, and if we didn’t see one soon, I’d have to give him my hydration pack as well.

Four mandatory checkpoints down, one to go...

Jason’s smile is only because he finally got some more water. Four mandatory checkpoints down, one to go…

It took us every bit of an hour to get to Hanner Cemetery, where we finally ran into the SAG wagon. I refilled my bottles, and Jason replenished his CamelBak, and took in a little food. I felt terrible for him, but there was nothing I could do. I thought of swapping bikes, but figured that my bike’s more aggressive gearing would negate the weight advantage, especially as we were again into hilly territory. The cheery afternoon light had given way to a gloomy early evening, and I began to feel as if, for Jason and I alike, this just needed to be over. We had been out for a long, long time, and I couldn’t yet say how long we had to go. I did know that we’d stopped having fun some miles ago.

We turned right onto State Route 58, and I hoped that, it being a main road, the terrain would remain relatively flat. We turned into a slight wind, so I got in front, set my speed at a pace I thought Jason could maintain, and tried to give him a tow. A hundred yards later, I glanced over my shoulder, and he had dropped off already. I circled back and tried again, sitting tall in the saddle to block as much wind as I could, and setting a speed a couple clicks slower. Same result.

There was no pulling him. He was so overcome with sickness at this point that he bordered on delirium. I filed in behind him and offered what encouragement I could, counting down the miles to our next turn and reminiscing aloud about the events of last year. Anything to take his mind off his present misery.

Then the road did something cruel. What had been a false flat became steeper, until it was a legitimate climb. It rose nearly 300 feet by the time we turned, and most of that in the last half mile. My gearing wouldn’t allow me to stay with Jason without bogging, so I pulled ahead, opting instead to stop periodically and wait for him.

That face about says it all.

That face about says it all.

For me, this became the enduring image of the race. Despite how he was feeling, despite the miles and the mud and his cramping legs, Jason never quit. He clicked down to his granny gear and churned away at the pedals, dieseling up the hill with all the grim determination of a prize fighter in the tenth round. As much as I pitied his condition, I admired his resolve to finish even more, given his obvious and legitimate reasons to call it a day.

Our final checkpoint was Hickory Grove Church, situated at the top of an eponymous, winding ridge line. The road that took us there stayed at the top of that ridge, which meant that we had already accomplished the final big climb of the day. But there were plenty of little rollers along the ridge road, and each one became a mountain to my ailing teammate. We both began to wonder if we’d make it to the finish before the 6 pm time cutoff.

The twisting nature of the gravel road to the church deprived us of the obvious landmarks and lines of sight which make judging progress easy. I tried to break the remaining distance to the church into manageable segments for Jason, fearing all the while that my “just around one more curve” promises would become demoralizing if I was wrong. At last, the church came into view, and I feigned exuberance and sped ahead, hoping he would catch some of it and be able to forget his agony for a few moments.

It didn’t work. He rolled to a stop by the sign, and I could tell from his face that it was all he could do to get off the bike. We’d been out for so long that my phone battery was nearly dead, but I managed to snap our last two required photos before it did.

I love this bike. I think I'm going to name it Hoot.

I love this bike. I think I’m going to name it Hoot.

The good news was that this was our last checkpoint. The better news was that it would be nearly all downhill from there to the finish, and that meant we might just make it in time. We’d only have about 6 more miles to cover, and then it would all be over, and it would be time for beer, a hot shower, and food, and a warm bed!

At least, it would’ve been only six miles, if I hadn’t chosen that very moment to make my only navigational error of the day, and miss the turn onto McPike Branch Road. My miscue sent us zinging down the ridge on the South side instead of the West, adding two miles to our total when we could least afford it. As we neared the bottom, I began to suspect my error, but the lack of road signs and a dead phone battery meant I couldn’t quite be sure. We turned right when the road ended, and I glumly hoped that my gut feeling was wrong, and that we had taken the correct road. We hadn’t.

Jason was crestfallen, and I felt like I had let the air out of his tires, stolen his candy bar and kicked his puppy all at the same time. There was nothing to do for it now, only to pedal out the remaining four and a half miles to the finish. It took us half an hour. The county road dumped us out onto State Route 446 again. A slight rise was ahead, not more than 50 feet of elevation before our final turn, but it might as well have been Alpe d’Huez for Jason. He was so exhausted he couldn’t even look up, and so he just kept turning the cranks, watching his front tire eat up pavement, until he caught up to me at the top.

From there, it really was all down hill, and we coasted across the bridge to the finish, me standing on the pedals to charge the final few yards, and Jason nearly collapsing beneath the pats on the back from our waiting teammates. To the casual onlooker, it may have appeared an anticlimactic finish for a race. But those who have survived the Death March, and anyone who saw Jason’s condition knows that there should have been a brass band for him at the line. He was a soldier that day, and he earned his beer, even if he was in no condition to drink it afterward.

Finishing the Death March last year taught me about how far my body could be pushed. It taught me how to overcome physical pain with sheer determination. This year, it taught me that trying to avoid challenges sometimes results in bigger challenges. It taught me that “the right tool for the job” is sometimes overrated. And it taught me that holding back to help a friend make it home is just as rewarding as pounding through on your own. Jason’s endurance through suffering to get to the finish, both for his own conquest and to help me get the result I missed last year, will not soon be forgotten.

What trials, tricks and turmoil will the Death March bring us next year? I’m already making plans to find out.

Mar 242014
My wonderful, versatile 'cross bike!

Number plate affixed, ready to rock and roll!

That my last attempt at the Sub 9 Death March nearly killed me should have served as some deterrent. That this winter has been particularly severe and persistent should have discouraged me. Last year’s teammates opting out of this year’s event for those reasons and others should have been reason for me to follow suit.

But I didn’t. After training hard all through the winter, I wanted to have another go at the race that took me to the edge and showed me how to live there. I wanted to beat it, to show the hills how much stronger I’ve become, the mud how much better I can ride. I wanted to bring my teammate to the finish with me, thus earning the result I missed last year, since the rules require that you finish with your teammate.

So it was that I found myself on a brisk Saturday morning, bouncing my truck and trailer along the muddy fire roads in rural Brown County, Indiana. The Death March, as you loyal readers will recall, is an on/off road checkpoint race, which uses a selection of 17 old cemeteries as the checkpoints. There are five mandatory checkpoints in all, three of which are preselected, and two chosen out of a hat just before the start of the race. All additional checkpoints may be reached for various time bonuses, which will be subtracted from your overall time at the finish.

The original plan had been to scout part of the race route the day before, but that plan collapsed under the weight of a full day of packing and loading for a week-long adventure. I brought three bikes with me; the mountain bike I used last year, my cyclocross racer, and my motorcycle, which of course wouldn’t see the outside of the trailer until I arrived in Florida on Sunday evening.

Two wild and crazy guys!

Two wild and crazy guys!

Which knobby-tired bike to use would depend on what I found on the gravel roads that made up the majority of the route. If they were in suitable condition, I would take the ‘cross bike. If they were not, or if a checkpoint was selected that would require extensive use of singetrack trail (read: Callahan), I would take the mountain bike.

Our scouting excursion on the way to the staging area proved as encouraging as it was useful . The roads were mostly clear of snow, and the muddy spots seemed either navigable or entirely avoidable. The three pre-selected checkpoints (Hillenberg-Stephenson, Elkinsville and Hanner) would ensure that we covered respectable mileage, but on my ‘cross bike this was no issue. Then we were granted a favor when the final two checkpoints (Hickory Grove and Mitchell) were drawn. Neither added substantial mileage to the route, and more crucially, neither required the navigation of muddy, serpentine trails to reach.

Two checkpoints down already? This is easy!

Two checkpoints down already? This is easy!

There was only one limiting factor in our plan: how to get to Elkinsville. The direct route takes you up Combs Creek Road, a route that, for some stretches, loses the “road” part of its appellation entirely. Last year, it was the graveyard of many racers’ dreams of a finish, including those of my teammate. The power required to slog through the muddy mess that the road became sent his legs into cramps and spasms from which he never recovered, and he was forced to retire.

Having been warned off by previous experience, this year’s team agreed to take the long way around, avoiding the muddy nightmares of Combs Creek “Road” and picking up the bonus checkpoints at Houston and Lutes, instead. We reasoned that what it added in length, it would make up in speed. When we came to the bridge at Maumee, we would turn right where other teams went left, and time would tell if our gamble would pay out.

After the final two checkpoints were announced, our foursome, which consisted of Mike and Kelly on one team, and Jason and me on the other, huddled over our maps briefly, and then set off across the bridge at an easy pace. Mitchell Cemetery was only a mile from the start, so we took the low hanging fruit early. The couple of rolling hills on the way there gave us a chance to warm up our legs, and I was happy to feel the wind on my face again, after a winter spent with too many hours inside, slaving on the trainer and at the gym.

Word to your mother.

Word to your mother.

We rolled out of Mitchell and turned right, up the gentle hill on State Route 446 toward Hillenburg. This was the route that the majority of teams took at the start, so despite our delayed departure, there was a logjam of bikes and riders by the sign, waiting for their turn for the requisite picture. Completing two of the five mandatory checkpoints so quickly created a deceiving sense of progress, even though we had ridden a scant five miles, and most of that on pavement.

The race began in earnest when we turned off of State Route 446, onto Tower Ridge Road. The road gave us enough mud, gravel and rolling hills to keep our attention and challenge our legs a little. I made sure to keep my aggression on the climbs in check, knowing that the grueling parts of the race were a long way ahead of us. Still, the miles were coming easy, our crew was in good spirits, and my bike was working flawlessly. There were some patches of slushy ice along this stretch that kept me on my toes. The mountain bikes would blow past me on the descents, confident in the traction of their fatter tires. But I would surge past them again when the grade turned upward, standing on the pedals just to stretch my legs.

Top of the tower.

Top of the tower.

We paused at Todd Cemetery for an easy bonus, then pressed on to the lookout tower itself. Climbing the 133 steps to the top was worth a 35 minute time bonus, if you were so inclined. Some of our crew were not, but my teammate and I climbed all the way to the cab, and snapped our pictures. We took our first break when we came back down, munching on some food and getting some electrolytes. As we rolled out onto the gravel road again, Jason mentioned that he was feeling a little queasy. We both shrugged it off–it was probably nothing, right?–and pressed on.

A series of swift downhills brought us to Robertson Cemetery for another time bonus, and then we slogged along some soft gravel and mud to the bridge at Maumee. Sticking to the plan, we turned right as the rest of the crowd headed left, and thought ourselves clever as we sped down the pavement.

Some weirdo behind us was still having fun at this stage.

Some weirdo behind us was still having fun at this stage.

It was on the three mile stretch to Houston that I began to notice Jason lagging behind, especially on the occasional hill. I held back the pace to stay with him, figuring that the additional weight and less advantageous gearing of his mountain bike made speed on the road less easy than my  comparatively sleek, light, and road-geared ‘crosser. In fact, and unbeknownst to all of us, his lack of power was due to an unfortunately-timed case of the flu, the effects of which would become increasingly debilitating as the race wore on. Even when the four of us were set upon by a few farm dogs (whose gravest threat beyond their barking was that one of them ran in front of Mike’s wheel and was nearly run over), he didn’t seem able to accelerate much.

I'm laughing at my poor decision to cut across the cornfield. Jason is finding no humor in any of this.

I’m laughing at my poor decision to cut across the cornfield. Jason is finding no humor in any of this.

I, on the other hand, was feeling no such illness, and so jumped at the chance to cut across the edge of a cornfield, in order to take a more direct route to the cemetery in Houston. That shortcut proved a completely terrible idea. The ground was softer than it appeared, and so we all ended up in our granny gears, churning through it and laughing through gritted teeth. I suspect the others were laughing to keep themselves from cussing me out. It was like riding through peanut butter. The grassy yard between the cornfield and the cemetery was in no better condition, and I nearly fell over when my tires sank inches deep into the turf-camouflaged mud. If my teammates had chosen at that moment to make me carry their packs for the rest of the race, I would hardly have blamed them!

We departed Houston and made the long, gradual climb to Lutes. My teammate’s condition was declining with every mile, and he found his legs unwilling to respond to his calls for more power. We rallied up at Lutes and I made sure we each took in some food. A few hills later, the unspoken decision was made to separate our teams, allowing the stronger pair to go ahead, while I stayed back with Jason. We would rally again at Elkinsville.

To be continued…

It's starting to become a long day, and we're not yet half way through...

It’s starting to become a long day, and we’re not yet half way through…


Nov 162013
Riding along the beach in a straight line? Not so bad.

Riding along the beach in a straight line? Not so bad.

This morning, I made the pleasant drive to Alum Creek State Park, host of Cap City Cross #7, dubbed the “Beach Party.” The race was to take place along and around the beach on the south side of Alum Creek Lake, and promised to be equal parts sandy slogfest, fast straightaways and off-camber mayhem.

I’ve been looking forward to this race every day, since my cyclocross baptism by fire at John Bryan with the OVCX series. I got my clock cleaned that day, but for whatever reason (or maybe that was the reason), I wanted more, pronto. I’ve been practicing with varying degrees of success on the CX course at JB in the weeks since, but what I really wanted was to grid up and have another go, and see if I could do better than next-to-last.

I pulled into the parking lot at Alum Creek a little under an hour before my race was to start. Usually that’s plenty of time to get ready, and I thought that it was, until I got out and took my sighting lap of the course. I was immediately concerned that the best tool for the job might not be my CX bike, but my mountain bike! Far different from the courses I’ve raced at Darree Fields and John Bryan, this race had a huge variation of surfaces and conditions, many of them bumpy, rooty and muddy enough to make me wish for some suspension. Unfortunately, by the time I had registered, kitted up and taken my practice lap, there were only 10 minutes left until the race start, so I made the call to stick with the ‘cross bike and hope for the best.

Time to whip out those mountain biking skills!

Time to whip out those mountain biking skills!

The intriguing thing about cyclocross as a discipline is that it’s never quite the same. Every course is different, and race organizers will frequently rearrange courses held at the same venue, just to change it up. Then there are the variables of weather, which can change everything about the race. Even the time of day that your race falls, and how many races have preceded it, can have a  huge impact on the course conditions and your accompanying strategy. As much as cyclocross rewards fitness and bike handling, there are many elements of strategy that can make or break your race, as well.

The mud rut didn't go so well for everybody... (Click to enlarge)

The mud rut didn’t go so well for everybody…
(Click to enlarge)

One of the most obvious bits of that strategy is how to approach the obstacles. There are some, like stairs and ride-ups, that intentionally require dismounts. Others, like deep mud, ruts, sand or logovers, rely on the rider to decide if it is more expedient to try and ride over, risking a crash, or dismount and hoof it for a few yards.

The course at Alum Creek presented several of those, including some sand sections on the beach, a couple man-made obstacles directly after, and a huge, muddy rut about half way through the lap. On my sighting lap, I noticed a lot of riders standing around the rut, or rolling their bikes through it while dismounted, trying to figure out if it was passable. I looked at it while I was riding up and knew what I was looking at, which is something of a first, for me. To the right were huge rocks, and the left was already churned up and slick from so many riders trying to go around. So I picked a spot in the middle and just plowed right through, letting my momentum carry me through the mud and over the lip on the other side.

That’s a strategy I’ve employed on a lot of rides this year on the mountain bike, and it rarely lets me down. If you’re looking to get through mud, aim for the middle, where it’s likely to be level and more compressed than around the sides. Go in fast, keep your weight off the front wheel, and just hold on, and you’ll make it though. At least most of the time. You might be muddy and wet once you make it, but less than you would be if you try to go around the side and crash!

It was encouraging to know that at least some of my mountain bike skills can transfer over to cyclocross, and that helped with the decision to stick to my Airborne Delta for the race. I rolled up to the starting grid for the Men’s Cat 4/5 heat feeling loose and confident of a better showing than I had turned in at JB. There were no call-ups, so I gridded myself conservatively, not wanting to hold up any of the series regulars, and waited for the start.

Trying to turn in the sand? Well that's a little more tricky.

Trying to turn in the sand? Well that’s a little more tricky.

After some brief instructions, the marshal walked to the back of the 34-rider grid, calling “30 SECONDS.” Next we heard the whistle, 34 shoes clicked into pedals like a mechanical round of applause, and we were off! Wave starts are always exciting, and I found myself grinning as we all barreled down the road toward the grass, and the first turn.

The opening corners were far less congested than at John Bryan, owing partly to the smaller field, but mostly to the longer start chute and wider first few corners. I had intentionally let myself slip back a few positions in the starting run, but now found myself getting held up by a couple riders as the course climbed up some doubletrack, away from the beach. It was time to start making some moves! I found a hole as the course reversed on itself and poured on the gas, passing three riders before cresting the rise.

That felt good. Real good. I’m accustomed to passing people in running events, but my only attempts at cyclocross to date have involved a lot of me riding along by myself. This felt like racing, and I liked it! I kept the hammer down as we exited the woods and wound through a grassy section, toward some off-camber switchbacks that sent us all into our climbing gears. I was determined to keep the riders behind me, behind me! We slugged through a little mud and a lot of wet, bumpy grass before slamming across an impromptu bridge made of a wooden pallet and some rugs, then headed down the hill to the already-infamous muddy rut.

I spent the whole last lap running away from this guy. He didn't get me!

I spent the whole last lap running away from this guy. He didn’t get me!

I eased up on the pedals a touch as I rolled down the hill, watching the riders ahead of me dismount and jog around the hole. I got lined up, stood on the pedals, and hoped that it hadn’t gotten too much worse since my practice lap! But my strategy worked, and I blasted through the rut, sending muddy water everywhere, and delighting the nearby photographer and spectators. Best yet, I passed all those guys who had dismounted and were now running with their bikes, trying to remount and climb the hill! My extra momentum from staying on the bike helped me get to the top without much trouble, and I was grinning, as my chest heaved and my legs dripped with mud, as we turned left, onto a brief gravel section.

Did I mention this course had everything?

A winding gravel road brought us to the beach portion of the lap, and I was again thankful for my experience on the mountain bike. I had a chance to ride some very sandy trails in North Carolina last year, with sections that were so deep that my front tire sank in and just stopped. This wasn’t nearly so bad, but it was loose enough that the turns were sketchy. A lot of riders fell on the second left turn, as the sand had been so rutted and churned up that staying upright required as much luck as skill. I took a wide line, intentionally missing the apex but staying out of the loosest portion of sand.

Properly dirty.

Properly dirty.

The beach section emptied into a muddy section, and I was reduced to slogging through in my granny gear. I looked back as I rounded a turn and saw two riders behind me, gaining ground as I was slowed in the muck. A bermed corner turned me back toward the start/finish, before which there were two obstacles, just low enough that hopping them was a tempting thought! But I was taking enough chances each lap, and my hopping skills are sub-par, so I dismounted and ran across the barriers, taking a flying leap back into the saddle on the other side.

A longish grassy section led from the start/finish to the doubletrack for another lap, and it was soft and bumpy such that it sapped your speed and energy. It was one of those sections that messes with you, because there’s not a visual cue as to why you’re working so hard, but your lungs don’t lie! I was relieved to finally get back into the woods, onto the relative ease of mud and gravel, and build some speed again!

I passed one more rider as we climbed through the woods, and kept the hammer down again to cement the pass. There was one more rider I could see ahead of me, and I hoped to be able to reel him in, though he had a couple hundred yards on me, still. A rider I hadn’t seen before came past me and quickly cleared off, perhaps the victim of an early crash that left me ahead of him when I otherwise wouldn’t have been.

Once more we rattled across the bridge and I slammed through the muddy rut, noticing that the far edge had gotten sharper as the race wore on. I only hoped it would be good enough for one more attempt! I was gaining ground on the rider ahead of me, but I couldn’t tell by how much. Up the hill, down the gravel road and back to the sand, and I tried a different line through the beach, looking for a way that wasn’t so slow. Nothing doing.

I trotted over the barriers and rode past the start/finish line, glancing ahead and then over my shoulder to figure out my place in my part of the race. I was still inching up on the rider ahead of me, but hadn’t put any distance between myself and the rider behind since my initial pass. The cowbells rang and the board indicated this would be the last lap, so it was time to go all-in!

I felt like I was getting faster with every lap, negotiating each section more confidently and putting more trust in the bike to do its job. I gave it all I had on that last lap, trying to really hit the areas that I had found myself to be faster than other riders, and find faster lines through the parts where I wasn’t. The last lap was cat-and-mouse, the three of us in a loose chain, reeling in and being reeled in, in turn. By the time we reached the beach again, I was nearly spent, but had put in just enough to insulate myself from attack by the rider chasing me. Unfortunately, so had the rider ahead of me, we finished the lap in the same order we had started it.

In the final tally, I finished 27th of 34 finishers in my race, which doesn’t seem like anything to be excited about. But after being left for dead in my last race at John Bryan, I couldn’t be more pleased with the result! I got to race with other riders, didn’t get left, rode strong and had a blast. As icing on the cake, a comparison lap later in the morning on my mountain bike revealed that I even made the right choice in equipment. My full-suspension rig was simply too heavy to be any faster, even if it was more comfortable and sure-footed over the bumps and roots.

I’m really hoping I’ll have another chance to race cyclocross before the season winds up. I’m in that puppy love phase where I get better at it every time I go out, and that sort of progress gets addicting, fast. But if I can’t make another round before winter closes in, I’ll be happy to finish on a positive note, and roll into 2014 ready for more!

(Photos courtesy Susan Hackett and Rick Jordon. Thanks you guys!)

Nov 102013

Bibbed up and ready to go. I’m surprised you can’t see us shivering.

Today was probably my last running race of the year, and one of the most memorable. We were in Columbus for the Ohio State Four Miler, an inaugural event benefiting the Urban and Shelley Meyer Fund For Cancer Research. The big draw for this race was that it finished in The ‘Shoe, at the fifty-yard line of Ohio Stadium!

For me, it was less of a race and more of a fun run, because I was there primarily to support Katie, as she tackled her longest race distance to date. My recurring hip injury that ended my chances at a fourth consecutive PR at my last half marathon means that I haven’t trained much. I wouldn’t be able to put in my best effort without risk of aggravating the injury, so it was better for me to stay with Katie, and help her through her race however I could.

The forecast for the morning called for breaking clouds and cool temperatures, but neglected to mention the wind. It whipped through the buildings of the OSU campus and froze just about everybody. We arrived an hour before the start, and spent most of it huddling together behind whatever wind break we could find, trying in vain to stay warm.

This being an inaugural event, it was not without logistical problems. There was no race-day packet pickup, which is a huge oversight for a race guaranteed to draw a lot of attention from out of town. Had I not already been in Columbus on unrelated business earlier in the week, this could have been a bigger problem for us. Then there was the start, which simply was never designed to accommodate the sellout crowd of ten thousand runners and walkers. For some incomprehensible reason, the race organizers decided to do a wave start, perhaps with the intention of creating some space between the groups of people and mitigate the traffic. But it didn’t work at all, and the result was that we stood around for a half hour after the first wave went off, waiting on our turn, and got to spend most of the race weaving in and out of people anyway.


Our “i” seems less than enthusiastic.

Growing pains aside, the excitement in the mob in the start corral was undeniable. It was a very different race from your local, garden-variety 5k, and the profile and size of the event was impressive. Members of the OSU football team and staff were present, including Brutus, both to help marshal the event and to run in it!

Katie made the reasonable decision to start in a conservative place in the queue, by a sign which was supposed demarcate runners with an expected pace of 11:00/mile. When it was finally our turn to start (we were the last wave), her nerves hit the firewall. She had recently completed the same distance on a treadmill, but that isn’t quite the same thing, and she was worried about how she’d do. Her concerns were the same as every runner when they approach a new race, and aren’t sure what to expect from the distance, and from themselves.

We settled into an easy jog when we finally got across the starting line, our pace regulated by the sheer volume of walkers and other traffic we had to navigate. As the mob spilled out of the bottleneck at the start onto Woody Hayes Drive, we started to make some headway, passing other runners by the dozens and finding what would become our pace. The exertion was welcome, as it started to thaw our numb and frozen feet and hands. I felt my legs warm up and start to come in, but was careful to restrain them enough to let Katie dictate our speed.

The sun started to break through the morning overcast as we finished our first mile, and I kept coaching Katie through as best I could, offering encouragement and pointing out how nice the morning was becoming. I know from training and racing together over the past few years that her mindset is everything, so the more cheerful I could keep her, the easier the run would be for her. That seemed to work well, and we cleared the first two miles before we knew it, before turning onto College Road for the zigzag back to the finish.

The third mile was the toughest for Katie, but she did the right thing, which was to dial back the pace until she was sure she could maintain it, and then just keep going. I got my phone out and started checking our distance, to keep her engaged with how much time and distance was left to go. That helped focus and reassure her, and soon we were on our last mile, and picking up speed again.


That’s my girl. Gettin’ it done.

We turned west on Woody Hayes again, headed back to the Shoe, and the finish. As the stadium came into view, the allure of the finish, and a personal victory, spurred Katie forward, and soon we were sailing past people at a solid clip. The pace quickened further when we turned alongside the stadium, and by the time we angled into the tunnel to enter the field, we were at a dead run. I couldn’t stay next to her any more, as the crowd was still too dense, and so we careened separately through the masses like a police chase through rush hour traffic. She was the very face of determination, and I that of the adoring fan, and I was doing everything I could to get back next to her before we crossed the finish.

The flood of emotion that came over her as she reached the line is all too familiar, to me. All of her struggles, and setbacks, and postponed dreams, all of the hard work, the sweat, the pain, the personal sacrifice that this whole year has embodied came over her in a rush. Once she knew she could finish, she felt nothing from her body but the insatiable desire to go faster, to get to that line. Nothing was going to stop her this time, not aching feet or painful hips or sinus infections or strained muscles. She exploded across the finish line in tears of joy and relief, and was soon sobbing on my shoulder.

I, on the other hand, was beaming. I’ve always been proud of Katie, but she really rocked it this time, and for the first time in a running event, success was never in doubt. She went out there and conquered this race, and in convincing fashion. I couldn’t be more impressed, and I can’t wait to see what next season holds for her, as she continues to train and get stronger and faster.

Being an athlete in your spare time is incredibly difficult. Juggling the schedules of work, family, your personal life and physical training sometimes leaves no time at all for relaxation. If I was the only one in the house doing it, things would be even harder. But having my wife and best friend to share in the daily struggles involved with trying to become an athlete, and then trying to become a better one, makes everything better, richer, and easier. We coach each other and learn from each other on a daily basis, and neither of us would have come as far as we have without the other.

This year, more than ever, Katie has taught me how to fight. She set a goal at the beginning this year to run a half marathon, and was on schedule to do so until injuries stalled her progress. She was forced to back down from her goal for this year, but she never used that as an excuse to quit. Her attitude through all the struggles she’s faced this year has been my own quiet inspiration. She knows to never mistake “not yet” for “no,” and that sometimes a tactical delay can lead to strategic victories. She has demonstrated the power of persistence, and has kept coming no matter how many times life has kicked her in the face. She’s never thrown up her hands in surrender to a problem, as I am so often tempted to. Watching her succeed, as I’ve been privileged to to all year, is better than any race performance I have ever turned in.

Great job, Katie. I can’t wait to see what you’ll do next year.

Oct 302013

303a1It’s that time of year, again. time for raking leaves, dressing your kids up as scary/cute things, breaking out your favorite hoodies, and screaming slurred expletives at college football games.

And growing moustaches.

That’s right, boys and girls, it’s almost Movember, the time of year where I allow a hilarious little fuzz strip to inhabit my upper lip, for your amusement and for charity! And not just any charity. Movember’s purpose is to raise money specifically to fight Man Cancer. We’re talking about prostate and testicular cancers. They aren’t pretty, and so they don’t get as much attention as, say, boobs. That’s understandable. But ignoring Man Cancer isn’t.

My maternal grandfather had prostate cancer, and it eventually claimed his life. He taught me many things as a kid, but the most important lessons were those of character and integrity. He worked hard every day of his life, and for the whole time I knew him, did it sporting a fantastic moustache.

So in his honor, starting 1 Movember, I’m declaring a thirty-day hiatus on shaving in my upper lip region. I’ll be posting regular, hilarious updates as to my… er… “progress” for you to follow, like and share. And this year, I’m upping the ante.

Last Movember, I ran a little contest each week to let people name my ‘stache when they donated. While that was humiliating for me and fun for you, I don’t think it involved enough pain and suffering on my part to keep you all engaged. So this year, I’m going to match you, mile for dollar, all month long.

That’s right. You donate a dollar, I run, ride or row a mile. I’ll post proof of my mileage on here along with updates on my fuzzy little lip friend. Now because you people have surprised me before, and because I may occasionally have to go to work this month, I have to cap the mileage total at 500. But that ain’t nothing. It’ll represent my single biggest total in a month all year, and fully 1/4 of the miles I’ve posted so far. But if you’ve got the cash, I’ve got the time.

Let’s do this. Click the link below to donate, share this page with your friends, and let’s team up to help stop Man Cancer in its tracks!


Oct 202013
Chipped, bibbed, and cow-belled. Time for some 'cross racing!

Chipped, bibbed, and cow-belled. Time for some ‘cross racing!

When one has acquired a new bicycle, the only logical next step is to go race it. Right?

So imagine my giddy surprise when I found out that the Ohio Valley Cyclocross (OVCX) series was coming to my back yard this weekend! That the race fell the morning after the MoMBA XC Classic was no deterrent. Have new bike, must race!

I’ve tried CX before, but never on a proper bike, so I hoped to do well. I held no illusion of being truly competitive, but I thought maybe I’d at least hold on to the tail end of the pack. And anyway, my goal was just to go out and learn, since I have all of 5 miles on this bike.

Race morning was cold, but a brilliant sunrise replaced the clouds and rain from yesterday. I showed up 90 minutes before my wave was to start, got registered, and eyed the course while the previous waves went off. It didn’t look all that bad from the sidelines, at least.

The atmosphere was buzzing. Hundreds of riders swirled around the parking areas, in various stages of bike prep, warming up, or spectating until their races started. Music blasted from loudspeakers, interspersed with two very experienced announcers calling the races like professional sportscasters, and recognizing racers by name. This was no mom-n-pop bike race, this was the real deal! I felt at once like I was in over my head, and jazzed about being a part of something so hugely impressive.

There were two races before mine, and between waves, they were allowing a short gap for riders to preview the course. I got kitted up and pedaled around while the second race wrapped up, leaving my hoodie on as long as possible. I figured at race pace, that I’d be warm enough, and I can take the cold for a mere 30 minutes, anyway. But that didn’t mean I wanted to freeze before the thing even started.

Having a laugh after call-ups.

Having a laugh after call-ups.

As the leaders from the race before mine started to come across the finish, they opened the rest of the course for sighting laps. I rolled onto the grass and started circulating, trying very hard not to look like it was my first time. I’m not sure I succeeded.

The course itself seemed fast overall, not terribly bumpy and not chock full of obstacles. The hardest feature for me was the sheer number of muddy, off-camber corners, which would require me to test the limits of my comfort zone, and the limits of traction on my new bike. Line choice wasn’t hard to figure out, as the previous two waves had worn a pretty obvious path through each turn, but as the day went on, those lines would become sloppier.  There were two log-overs that I likely would have hopped over with more experience on the bike, and two plank-overs that required a dismount from everyone, regardless of skill.

My favorite obstacle was the sand traps. I got a little experience riding in the sand when I was in North Carolina last year, so I knew to just plow through them with as much speed as possible, and let the bike go where it wanted to go. In the races before mine, a whole lot of riders found themselves underneath their bikes in the sand, but it wasn’t as much a worry, for me. I gather from talking to other riders that that makes me weird.

I finished my sighting lap and coasted down to the start area to wait for call-ups. Despite the appearance of being a simple mash-up of road cycling and mountain biking, CX is its own sport, with its own set of lingo to learn. Start order is set by call-ups, wherein the race organizer racks and stacks the riders based on some criteria, or by his personal preference. They are so named because you wait in a gaggle until the director calls you up to the line.

Then there are hand-ups, wherein people standing just outside the tape will try to hand things (beer, money, swag) to the riders as they come by. Most hand-ups happen at the least opportune times, such as in the middle of a sand pit, to add to the challenge (or create opportunities to crash, depending on one’s perspective). And don’t forget run-ups, barriers and pits… I’m still learning.

The size of the field for my race was impressive, and unlike any bike event I’ve started this year. There were 58 total starters in my wave, and I was gridded almost at the back, thanks to registering at the last moment, and not having any previous results to move me up. That was fine with me, as I figured on being a rolling chicane for the first lap anyway, and I didn’t want to get run over.

A voice ahead called 10 seconds to the start, and 58 shoes clicked into pedals in acknowledgement. Then we were off! The whole collection of us surged forward, and I stood on the pedals to charge, only to be sat right back down. The short start chute gave way to a collection of tight corners, and we were gridlocked. This underlines the importance of your starting position in a CX race, something I’ll have to remember when I get more competitive.

The start was exciting! And then it was gridlock.

The start was exciting! And then it was gridlock.

Tiptoeing through the corners, like a newb.

Tiptoeing through the corners, like a newb.

I held my line as best I could through the opening sections, trying in vain to gain a few positions while we were packed so close together. Then the course opened up, and the riders around me poured on the speed, and I was surprised at how easily they slipped away from me! I was staying with them in the straights and gaining on the brakes, but my mid corner speed was awful, and my corner exits were so tentative that I couldn’t pull them back.

The course wound around the trees, took us over a couple logs, and then zigzagged into the woods for a short section of singletrack. I was hanging on to a few riders yet, but working hard to do it. When we got out of the woods, there was a short dash across the gravel to another curvy section, this time with more mud, and I got left. The corners in this section were faster and more sweeping, but with even less traction than the other parts of the course, leading me to throw out the anchor and wobble through.

I found dismounting for obstacles less challenging than anticipated.

I found dismounting for obstacles less challenging than anticipated.

... where'd everybody go?

… where’d everybody go?

I came across the finish line on my first lap sucking wind and all alone, the field stretching off ahead of me. That was fine, as I was just out here to learn, but I had hoped to hang on a little longer. Still, there was one rider behind me, and I made it my goal to stay ahead of him, no matter what. If it was to be a race for next-to-last, then that was the race I was going to win, and I used that little motivation to keep the throttle pushed forward.

Having lost track of the riders ahead of me, it was down to simple experimentation, trying to learn how to ride this cyclocross thing. I played around with different lines in different types of corners, tried different braking techniques, and started pushing the bike into a slide when I felt comfortable, all while hammering on the pedals as hard as I could in the straights. I realized that I was a little tired from yesterday, but not so much that I couldn’t hit it pretty hard.

One lasting impression from this race will be the crowd. Short track racing is an excellent spectator event already, but I was impressed with how lively and fun this bunch was, and how positive. Even though I was clearly out there struggling, working hard to go slow, it didn’t deter anybody from cheering and clapping as I came by, offering hand-ups and encouragement. One guy in particular made it a point to get right next to the ribbon as I came by, clapping and yelling “you’re doing it!” That meant a lot to me, getting my butt kicked as soundly as I was, and it kept my attitude in check. I was doing it, even if I wasn’t doing it every well, and that means something. I remembered some advice I got a few years back at a motorcycle track day: “You’re upright, pointed the right direction and on two wheels, so you’ve already got most of it right.”

Deep sand, always a favorite for a cyclist...

Deep sand, always a favorite for a cyclist…

I came around a corner and onto the pavement by the finish line for the third time, and looked up to see a guy with a radio, waving his arms for me to stop. The organizers decided to pull me off, and he said they’d place me. I was a little bummed. I know it was unlikely my position would have changed, but I at least wanted the dignity of having run the same distance as the leaders. And anyway, I was learning the whole time, getting faster every lap, and I wanted another go to see how much faster I could get. But it wasn’t to be. I would be credited with 57th of 58 in my wave, and 45th of 46 in my category.

My baseline goals any time I try a new race are 1. to finish, 2. to not crash too hard, and 3. to not finish last. I accomplished those things, so I can’t be too disappointed. The racer in me is horrified at being left for dead, but given the mitigating circumstances, I have to be satisfied at having gone out, and raced, and learned. And even though I sucked, I can’t wait to do it again!

Less shiny, more muddy. That's more like it.

Less shiny, more muddy. That’s more like it.