The weather forecast was looking grim as hurricane Isaac threatened to send a day of rain upon the George Washington National Forest for the Shenandoah Mountain 100. Saying that I was nervous before the race might be an understatement. Mountain bike races scare me. And it turns out that I was nervous for a good reason, because the race was literally confronting all of my worst mountain biking fears all day long, including but not limited to:
- Getting my eyeballs poked out by branches
- Scary slippery descents
- Puddles of unknown depth
- Wearing through my brake pads
- Disney characters in their underwear
The Start to Aid Station 2 – Narrowback, Lynn Trail, and Wolf Ridge
I lined up at the start with the 12 hour group and my teammates who were racing, and right as the first rays of sunshine started to poke through the clouds out at 6:30 a.m., we were off. It took until the first section of single track for my nerves to calm down and my death grip on the handlebars to loosen. Two years ago when I did this race it was the longest event I had ever attempted, and I literally though spontaneous combustion of my body was a possibility of things that could happen during the day. This time, I at least knew I could ride for 12+ hours, but wasn’t positive that I would not melt in the rain.
With a smaller than usual field this year due to the weather, I encountered less bottle necks on the trail, which was really nice, but Lynn Trail still turned into a hike a bike. It was frustrating, because it seemed totally ridable, but I didn’t want to force people out of my way to just get in their way on the descents. So I just walked up with everyone else, eating a sandwich on the way (unlike everyone else).
Like a cruel, cruel joke, as soon as I got to the top, it started to rain. If I could have picked any one place for it to not rain, it would have been at exactly at this point. I am not confident on the descents, and I am not confident in the rain, but apparently, mother nature really wanted to test me. I couldn’t see at all with my glasses, so I had to go without them. My now vulnerable eyeballs were just one more thing to make me feel less comfortable on the way down. But I made it to the bottom of Wolf Ridge unscathed and breathed out my first sigh of relief. I was soon faced with a guy in his underwear wearing a giant Mickey Mouse head. I stared in disbelief, and couldn’t help but laugh.
Aid Station 2 to 3 – Hankey Mountain and Dowell’s Draft
I got what I needed at Aid Station 2 and was on my way. It rained hard while I was on the fire road and mud was shooting off my tires and getting stuck in my contacts. I tried my glasses again, but they fogged up instantly so they were useless. The Hankey Mountain climb was next and it was muddy. I rode the entire climb, past many walkers, without thinking much of it. However, from the perspective of saving energy, it may have been a poor choice. But would I do that again? Yes of course I would, screw saving energy.
As I approached the top of the climb, I started to hear thunder. I felt like I was sticking my head right into a thunder cloud as the skies boomed above me and I continued to ride up towards it. Just as before, as soon as I hit the descent, the rain started to come down. I questioned how I ended up flying down a wet slippery mountain in a thunderstorm, clinging to a trail that seemed only inches wide as I snaked my way across the side of the mountain for several miles. I pictured the usual group of wives and girlfriends spectating as their husbands did their races and wondered where I went wrong.
Aid Station 3 to 4 – Brailey’s
The bottom was a muddy slog to Aid Station 3, or maybe that was to Aid Station 4, I can’t remember. I emptied the contents of my drop bag (sandwiches and rice cakes) into my pockets in the pouring rain and used the muddiest port-a-potty I have ever seen in my life. I snagged some rides on some wheels across the road section and it was up Brailey’s. Normally, I can ride nearly the entire climb, but the slippery conditions and walking riders made it much more challenging. I made my way around a few people and climbed most of the way to the top following my teammate Russ. I started to question if it was really worth continuing in these conditions, but Russ said we were still on a 12 hour pace. To my surprise, it did not start to rain on the descent. Perhaps there was still hope for the day!
The sun started to come out, and despite the conditions, I was feeling good. I planned on riding strong up the Death Climb, and after that, the hardest parts would be over. It looked like I would be at Aid Station 5 potentially before the cut off time for requiring lights. I would take them anyway, but that still meant that I was on pace to beat my previous time.
Shortly later, however, everything fell apart. I don’t really know why. Post-race I found myself typing to a friend “I just fell apart on the Death Climb. I have no idea what happened.” Maybe what happened is that I was on a “Death Climb.” I slowed down. I ate. Nothing changed. As the climb continued for 18 miles to Aide Station 5, turning the pedals hurt and walking felt good. I walked a bit to stretch out and reached Aid Station 5 slightly defeated.
Soon, disaster struck. Aid station 5 was out cups for the coke. I stared at the full coke bottles sitting there, it was torturous. I eyed a cup on the ground, but then just drank out of the bottle like everyone else. Drinking out of the coke bottle was definitely not the grossest thing I did all day, but I will not go into that.
After Aid Station 5 I rode with Russ and it was mud upon mud, only to be separated by giant puddles as we continued on the last 5 miles of the climb. After riding through two puddles that were nearly hub deep, I learned my lesson and went around all future puddles. We continued to climb across multiple false summits, but arriving at the descent did not provide that much relief. It was slippery, technical, and steep in spots. It wasn’t bad if I took it pretty easy, but it wasn’t long before I started to smell burning brake pads. I stopped and my rear brake pads were smoking. Not confidence building. If Russ wasn’t there to say his were too and look unconcerned, it would have been a much sketchier longer ride down. It got better as we went, but the idea of wearing through my brakes really freaked me out and took some of the fun out of it.
The final 12 miles
Aid Station 6 held many friendly faces, I’m not sure if it was the people, or “the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of life” that I ate while I was there, but I finally felt better. Russ and I headed on to our second time up Hankey Mountain. I distracted us with random pointless conversation. At this point, a 12 hour finish was out of the question, and so was beating last years’ time, so we just took it easy and rode together. The Hankey climb breezed by.
By the time we got to the descent to the finish, we needed our lights. This was about the second time I have ever been night riding. I kept seeing cats and bears darting across the trail and in the woods, but every time I realized it was a shadow of a leaf in my headlamp.
We finally approached the finish where I almost ran over a girl chasing a ball into the finishing shoot. That would have been an interesting way to end the day. My time was 13:45, which almost sounds embarrassingly slow to me, and I had some pretty mixed feelings after the race. SM100 is a huge collection of SERIOUSLY STRONG riders, and it can be a truly humbling experience. It’s not like an open marathon or an Ironman race where anyone who puts the training and dedication in can do it. This is not a race for everyone. I am at the back of the pack here, finishing hours after first place, where at many other events of a similar size I could be shooting for podium. The caliber of the racers here is just unbelievable. Which brings me back to why do it? I am surely out of place. But I read a quote from Sue Haywood (first place for the women) and it reminded me of why I do in fact, belong at such a race:
“I wasn’t even going to do the race because I was scared that it would hurt too much, but then I thought of two things: There are people who do and complete the race who are in worse physical shape than me because they love riding their bikes and they love the challenge of it. And then there is the beauty of the trails, the volunteers, and all my friends who do the event. It’s an important event for our biking community. So I decided that I HAD to do it.
I think some people want to put an asterisk next to their time and do a mud adjusted version of it. But the whole PR thing for these 100 milers can really get in the way. Every time is going to be a little different and it’s the way that your mind handles the race that is really important, no matter what the condition. Enjoying the company of the other people out there, meeting the same challenges, and sharing the same thrills, I really had a blast and was stoked that the locals had such a great showing.”
Perfect. I love riding my bike, I love the challenge of it, and I love all the people I meet at these events. When you get caught up in rankings and PRs, it can be hard to remember what is really important. I’m not a pro and never will be, and 10 years from now will I remember that I got a 13:45, or will I remember that I had a good ride with Russ, met some new teammates, heard hilarious stories from my husband about making JJ wear a trash bag, Mickey Mouse drinking beer, and his pedal finishing in 8th place, and that I completed one of the hardest races out there when I seriously doubted my ability to overcome the conditions? Probably the latter.