photo credit David Carrasquillo
 
Cohutta 100- Or, soooo much pedaling.
It was off to a rocky start almost before it even got going.  We were pulled off the side of the road outside of Hartford CT, in the midst of bumper-to-bumper traffic with the lights of a State Trooper car flashing in the rearview of our rented Ford F-150 pickup.  Turns out, they take their “disturbing the peace” pretty seriously in CT, and my friend relieving himself on the side of the road fell under that broad reaching term.  Luckily we were released with nothing more than a strong talking to, and the four of us-myself, as well as friends Adam, Rich and Chris were back underway heading to the first of the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) series races in Tennessee.
After our auspicious beginning, things quieted down and we made good time for the first leg of our journey where we would stop in Virginia and stay with an old friend of Rich’s named Carol, from back when they raced on the Merlin factory team together.  It was great to be able to break up the journey without having to resort to staying in a hotel for the evening, and Carol was kind enough to take us on a pretty awesomely scenic “leg-stretcher” ride when we arrived despite her having already run something like 6 miles in the morning.  It certainly was a relief to get out of the car and aboard the bikes albeit a little stiff and awkward at first.  The scenery helped keep my mind off the stiffness of my legs as the countryside was a patchwork of small farms nestled into the crooks and crannies of tight valleys- the steep walls rising up from the almost deserted roads.  The air was thick with humidity, but not that hot and the effect was like a fine layer of mist on everything, lending the lushness of the greenery and the narrowness of the road a certain weight and silence in the early evening dusk.  I ended the ride with a little uphill drag race with Adam just to open the legs up and was pleased with the bike, the legs and the vibe of being on another race adventure. 
            We arrived at the venue the next day with enough time to pre-ride the start of the race which proved to be helpful because after about a mile of uphill pavement, the race took a hard right hand turn into tight singletrack and stayed that way for the better part of the next 40 minutes.  Obviously, avoiding the almost certain traffic was going to be a necessity and I laid in bed in the hotel room thinking about having a good start…and how much I didn’t really want to wake up at 5AM.  Luckily some really bad TV helped alleviate the worries and before I knew it, the alarm was ringing and I was out of bed stuffing face with PB and jelly while mixing bottles of Perpetuem to help me make it through the day.
            Now, I had done some research about this race in prep for my first attempt at these 100 mile series races.  Last year the finish time was in the neighborhood of 6 hours and 20 min.  The usual suspects were present and accounted for, most notable being Olympic hopeful and endurance mtb legend Jeremiah Bishop.  Beyond that though there were a host of names I had heard about in the endurance game and who I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from when the gun went off.   My training had been going well and knew I had the right tool for the job in my D680 hardtail, so when I made it through the chaos of the pavement start and hit the singletrack about 4th wheel, I was feeling pretty confident.  We looped our way back towards the start and then began a tight singletrack climb that I figured would take about 10-15 minutes.  I made my way to the front and decided to push the pace a bit, and when I looked back after the climb and subsequent descent, I was sort of amazed to find that the group was blown apart and there only seemed to be 3-4 riders left around.  After I drilled it some more, we shortly reached an extended section of dirt road and there was, unfortunately a regrouping of pretty much all the race favorites.  I was quickly learning that prior knowledge of the race course was a valuable asset in terms of where to put in your efforts.  But I was still feeling that I had things under control as I was in the lead split, setting the hard tempo up the climbs and gapping people on the way down them.  But this is where the research failed me.  You see, this year’s course was a lot, lot harder than previous years.   In fact, it had apx 14,000 ft of climbing and was 60% singletrack.  So when we hit checkpoint 4 and I had to stop for water-it now being 3.5 hours into the race- I lost contact with the leaders who had stopped earlier at a less crucially placed station (as in, not at the bottom of the day’s longest climb), and I was left to battle on by myself in 5th place; fighting my growing fatigue and the brutal course alone. 
            The climb seemed to last forever, and I was in some pretty dark places for a while as I stared at my stem and blew snot-rockets on my knees.  But once over the hump I started to rally and was riding at what I felt was a sustainable, near XC race, pace.  Unfortunately, as I neared the final 10 miles of the race I was overtaken by a hard charging team CF rider.  He blew by and I almost lost the mental ability to keep racing as he instantly put 15 seconds into me.  But then, he just sort of hung there and I realized, that if I could just make my way back to him before the singletrack I would have a fighting chance of dropping him in the technical stuff.  So I grit my teeth and clawed the seconds back just in time to catch him as we turned off the dirt road and into the woods.  When we briefly popped out on an ATV trail I knew it was the only opportunity I was going to get so I attacked as hard as I could into the next section of trail (fortuitously this happened right in front of Tom Parsons from Cyclingdirt.org so you can see the footage online).  I got the gap I needed and pushed the limits of my handling skills and the grip of my tires around every turn in an effort to open it up more before the run in to the line.  When I hit pavement for the mile run-in to the finish, I locked out my fork and buried my head on my bars and TT’d for all I was worth to cross the line in just over 7 and a half hours.   So much for my research into last years race.  Even Jeremiah, who won handily, took over 7 hours to finish and by his own admission and the data on his powertap, it was his best 100-miler performance…ever. 

            So what did I learn?  Well, contrary to what many people think about endurance racing, it is not slow.  These guys (and the women) can all hammer out the hours at full on race pace, and the strategy of when to stop for food and water is an intricate part of the game.  I also learned that research can only take you so far and unfortunately is no substitution for first-hand course knowledge….so in the future I should keep myself in check and follow the lead of those who are more experienced for the first portion of the race at least.  But while I wasn’t satisfied with 5th place, it was still a pretty solid showing for my first go at a NUE race- There is a definite learning curve to being competitive for 100 miles on your mountain bike and I feel that each time I’ll gain some nugget of wisdom.  This time I learned that you certainly can’t ever give up, even when you get caught and passed because the difference between being on the podium or not can be as small as a single section of singletrack, or one hard acceleration on a climb.  Hopefully, with what I learned and all the great support from my Redline, I look forward to taking a few steps further up the podium next time.