Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Double Header

There were two endurance races near home this weekend that I really wanted to do. On Saturday, the first annual Hilly Billy Roubaix was held in Morgantown, WV and the Wayne Ultra Endurance MTB Race was held outside of Marietta, OH on Sunday. I have never done two back to back endurance races, so I figured why not give it a try.

The Hilly Billy was the first race of the weekend and it was a 72 mile on and off road adventure through the hills of northern WV. The recommended bike for this race, according to the course designers, was a cyclocross bike because of the mixed terrain and the lack of anything truly consider technical. Without currently owning a geared cross bike, I decided to register in the single speed race. I have used my single speed cross bike for muddy cyclocross races, but I must admit the idea of doing a long on and off road mass start race with it was a little intimidating.

In addition to the tough terrain of the Hilly Billy, the hot weather also added to the difficulty of the race. But, even with nearly 7000 feet of climbing ahead and the temperature rising quickly, the race still had a very fast start. I had to draft and spin my butt off to hang with the geared guys until the first gravel climb a few miles after starting on the pavement. The climb almost immediately started to split the pack up. While struggling up the steep climb, I started wondering if I could push the big gear I had chosen through out the rest of the race.

The pack thinned out even more to a group containing me and just a handful of others after heading down the first loose gravel descent and then entering the first of many muddy sections on the course. They race promoter said everything we rode during the race was a WV State Roadway, but this “road” was at best a quad trail with many 2 foot deep mud pits. The nastiness of this trail changed my mind about my decision to use a single speed, as I could only imagine the noise and problems a muddy chain and derailleur would be making all day.

It seemed as if the majority of this race was either climbing up steep gravel climbs or descending back down the other side. Occasionally, there would be a fast road section or some muddy stuff to go through, but the majority of the race was all about climbing, which always seems to be good for me. At times, I wondered if I was going to be able to keep my big gear turning up all of the steep climbs without blowing up. But, it seemed to be working for me and by the halfway point in the race I was all alone in the front and leading the race overall. I never thought that a single speed bike would be the best tool to use for this type of race, but it certainly seemed to be helping me with my job. It gave me no choice but to ride hard, really hard.

I continued to climb hard and spin out the occasional flat section as fast as I could for the remainder of the race. By the time I finished the race, I had a lead of over 11 minutes over second place and by over 20 minutes on third and forth. I was completely amazed at how well I did with only one gear. Winning a race overall on single speed against 100 other racers almost made me feel like superman for the day. The following day, however, my superman thinking quickly disappeared at the Wayne Ultra.

I felt fine on Sunday Morning and was really psyched to go back to the Wayne Ultra after being the overall winner of the race last year. The trails at the Wayne Ultra are super tough. They are technical and constantly shoot you up and down steep trails. The distance of the Wayne is only 45 miles, but because the trails are slow riding, technical trails finish times are four plus hours. Anyway, feeling good about my win at the Hilly Billy and being the past winner of the Wayne, I didn’t think I would have any problem pulling out a second win for the weekend at this race.

The race started on a paved road and headed up a big climb to the first section of single track. I felt good up the first climb and stayed directly on the leader’s wheel, entering the single track in second place. I knew it was a long race and the heat was already feeling more than uncomfortable, so I let the lead rider go and a couple other riders also as I tried to find a more comfortable endurance type pace. The pace stayed pretty face, though, and I didn’t want to drop back too many positions, so I stayed on the gas. I don’t think I could have felt any hotter than I did during that time. Sweat had completely soaked through everything on me and my body was definitely not happy about what I was asking it to do. I started making stupid mistakes on the trails and seemed to be going backwards faster than forwards by about the midway point of the race. I had also gone through the majority of my liquids and was not feeling comfortable about pushing myself to the point of complete exhaustion after the effort I gave only a day earlier. I am not one to pull the plug often, but I came to realize that if I continued on with this race, I might be paying for it for a long time.

So, I made the hard decision to DNF. I then rode back to a fire road I saw off the course, looked at my GPS and decided to ride east because I knew that it would eventually get me back to the starting area. I rode for maybe a mile more, most of it up a long fire road climb, and then had to get off the bike and just sit in the shade for about five minutes to rest. Eventually, my heart rate and all finally seemed to calm down, so I got back on my bike and rode about 10 miles back to my car. When I saw that the temperature gauge in my car had hit 95 degrees, I understood better why my body was starting to shut down during the race, especially when the humidity was also so high. I figured that doing two hard endurance races in two days would be a hard thing to conquer, but with the weather adding an extra level of severity, it became too much for me to achieve my goal.

I am still glad that I attempted doing both races. I definitely had a blast at the Hilly Billy and even though I did not finish the Wayne Ultra, I did have fun riding about 20 miles of The Wayne Single Track Trails up to the point where I pulled the plug. I would highly recommend both races to anyone interested in doing them. They are well promoted, well marked and well supported by all the race volunteers. But, if I can make one request to both promoters, please consider coordinating your calendars, so that each is on a separate weekend. Doing double header endurance races is something I don’t want to try again soon. Happy Trails, Gerry

Thank to Benjamin Stephens for the photo above and to see more of his work from the Hilly Billy, checkout this link: Ben's Flickr Page

Monday, June 21, 2010

Almost Perfect

Sometimes things go pretty well at a race. Other times plans are made, but things don’t go as expected. This past weekend at the third stop on the NUE Series, the Lumberjack 100, I had an interesting mix of the good and the bad. It all worked out in the end, though, as I was able to finally win a NUE Series Race this year after my two failed earlier attempts.

The weekend started out pretty good as I was able to take Friday off from work and start the long trip to Michigan on Thursday. On my way from PA to Michigan, I picked up my long time friend Sologoat in Ohio. Back in the mid nineties Ernesto and I used to travel to many races together, but it is a rare occasion for us to travel together now. It is always cool to catch up with an old friend and share life’s stories.

We traveled about half way to our final destination on Thursday Night and stayed at one of my infamous crusty carpet inn internet special hotel selections. I am usually happy to just have a bed and a shower for use and really do need any special hotel luxuries, so typically these hotel choices work okay for me. On this occasion, my choice seemed to be a good one for sleeping, but the “continental breakfast” was a far cry from anything worthy of eating. But, being the miser that I am, I was soon more than content to consume the offerings of the establishment. The funny thing is that Sologoat walked in about an hour later than me and had even fewer stale donuts from which to choose from on the breakfast bar.

Our travels continued on in pretty much the same uneventful manner on Friday. After about 4 hours of driving, we finally arrived at our hotel in Cadillac, MI. We decided to check in first, so that we could leave some of our stuff behind before continuing out to the race venue in Wellston, MI. When we arrived at my second crusty carpet selection of the trip, the lady behind the hotel desk was involved in a heated argument with another employee of the hotel. It didn’t seem to faze them that there were customers waiting for them to stop their argument. This should have been my first warning to move along to another hotel. But, the lady finally calmed down, gave me two keys and then warned me that if the room was not clean it was because check in time was not until 3pm. BTW, it was 2:30pm at this time. I figured the lady was just joking around with me and I exited the lobby to walk down to my room. I thought the number the lady wrote on my key envelope read 104, but after trying to enter the room 104 a few times without success, I checked the number again to see that it actually read 124. I then tried my keys at room 124, but had no luck there either. At this point, I decided to go back to the hotel lobby and ask for clarification on the room number and ask for new keys if my guesses at her writing are correct. She doesn’t believe me that the keys don’t work and sends a maintenance man with me to confirm my key usage is being done properly. The maintenance man also cannot get the key to work, so I walk back to the lobby to get some new keys. This time I am finally able to get into the room.
A "Cocktails" sign in front of to love it!

So, of course, we go to the room and it is not clean. As a matter of fact, it was a mess. And, judging from the receipt on the empty pizza box in the room it had not been cleaned since the weekend prior. Being the calm and collected person that I am, however, I walk back to the front desk to find out if it will be cleaned while we are away on our pre ride of the course. I am assured by the owner of the hotel that our room will be cleaned, so off we go for the pre-ride.

Before doing a 100 mile race, there is definitely not a need to do many miles. As a matter of fact, it is much better to rest up to prepare for the race than do a long ride. Ernie shares my thoughts on pre race rides, so we both decide to ride for about an hour and checkout the beginning of the race loop. Well, we get moving along and come to a section of the course where the race traffic will be sharing the same trail. The trail is separated with course tape at this point and we figure this will be a good point for us to stop our preview of the course on the way back through. We only had about 40 minutes of riding in and figured that we would only have a few more miles to do at most before coming back to this point on the course. As it turned out, though, I was wrong with the mileage estimate back to this section on the race loop. Of course, we didn't figure this out until after after I had already told Ernie let’s just go for a few more minutes about 5 times. Our ride time was at nearly two hours at this point and we had no clue as to where we were on the course. We finally decided to stop and read a trail map posted on the trail side. By looking at the map, we figured we would only have a few more miles to go to get back to the car if we took a fire road instead of the marked trail.

We followed a sandy fire road for awhile and then climbed up a long gravel hill quite a distance before eventually coming to a fire tower on top of the hill. There were no well used trails and no trail maps around this tower, so we had no choice but to head back down the long gravel climb. We eventually found some more course markers on the fire road and decided to follow them. From the map we viewed earlier, staying on the fire road seemed like the best option for us. But, now time and mileage was still ticking away and we did not have a clue as to where we were going. We became encourage, though, when we saw some houses in the distance. Unfortunately, as we rode by the homes most did not seem to be occupied, but finally we did find one with a few cars parked in the driveway. Just when we were about to go up the driveway to ask for directions, we saw a car coming down the fire road and decided to flag it down instead. In the car was a very old man. I asked him if he could direct us back to the Big M Ski Area. He mumbled something about going back the way we just came and taking a trail back to the area and nothing more specific. This did not seem like a very good option to me or Ernie because we knew it would take a long time to figure out if we were going the right way. So, I then asked the man about just staying on the fire road instead. He says, “Well, you will have to go about a mile or so and then will come to a paved road. Go left and then the ski area will be on the left.” It was a no brainer as far as Ernie and I were concerned and we took the second option of staying on the road. We ended up with 2.5 hours of riding and about 28 miles in our legs. Not what either of us really wanted the day before the race.

On our way back to the hotel, we started betting on whether the room would be cleaned or not. We both thought that it would still be dirty, so we did not place any wages on the bet. Surprisingly, we were please to find that the room was cleaned while we were away. Unfortunately, though, nothing else that night would go right except for the all-you-can eat fish dinner we had a little later at a restaurant near our hotel.

After our delightful dinner, I had the “smart” idea of changing my gearing to something just a bit harder, so that I would not be spun out on the flat sections of the course. At the time I made this decision, around 9pm or so, it seemed like a good idea. At around 10pm when I was cleaning up the mess I had made, it did not seem like a very good idea. In hind sight, it all worked out fine, but I would have probably been fine with my initial gear selection.

Things only became worse when two over sized vehicle escort drivers (male and female) arrived in separate vehicles and were given the room right next to ours. It seemed to me that this was there first night off the road in a while and they were ready to have some fun. And, to make matters worse, they had a dog with them that would not stop barking. Ernie and I discussed about asking for another room before climbing into bed, but the barking had stopped briefly and I was not too excited about facing the hotel management again. About 45 minutes into this decision, the barking started again. It was around 11:30pm at this time and we had our alarms set for 4:15am, so things were not looking good. Needless to say, the barking continued most of the night as did constant door slamming, loud music and other unspeakable noises. If I slept for an hour that night, I would have felt lucky. The best part about this hotel story is that when we got up in the morning the only two rooms occupied on our side of the hotel was the one we stayed in and the one occupied by our neighbors.

Even after a having a horrible night of sleep, I amazingly still felt good to go in the morning. The race started fast like I expected and I was happy with my bigger gear selection. I was able to enter the initial single track in the first lead group. Perfect, I thought to myself. We started climbing the first long section of rolling climbs at the beginning of the course and I worked my way up in to third place briefly. Not so much because I wanted to be there, but more because I had to keep my big gear rolling. I saw Schalk and Tanguy riding next to me and then had the feeling like my heart was about to explode. I decided my best option at this point was to wave the other riders around me, so that I could settle back into a more manageable pace. A lead group of about 8 riders (all the race favorites) then got a gap on me and a few others. But, I was not too concerned because from what I could tell, I was the leading single speed rider. Soon after things in the chase group calmed down a bit, fellow Pro Bikes Rider J-POK came spinning by our group. I decided to join him and soon we were all alone.

Justin and I then came upon Mike Simonson on the trail side fixing a flat. I screamed “Get it fixed fast Mike” and continued riding with J-POK. Shortly thereafter, Simonster caught us on a fire road and I decided to jump on his wheel for a bit. J-POK had some trouble at this point and missed this key draft. I rode with Mike for a few miles until we went up and over a few steep rolling hills. His pace was way too much for me to match on my SS, so I settled back into a more reasonable pace. I then rode alone for a long, long time, about 40 miles, I would estimate. But, I was cool with this situation because my riding seemed to be going very well and I was enjoying my ride on the fun single track.

Then, for unknown reasons, at around mile 60 or so, I veered slightly off the trail on a fast downhill into the grass on the trail side. Suddenly, I had my life flash in front of my eyes, when I hit a tree stump with my front wheel, which was hidden in the grass. The stump sent me air born and I landed hard into a dirt embankment at a trail crossing. It was one of those crashes where you need to take a quick inventory of your body parts when you get up because you’re not sure if something might be left behind if you rush off too quickly. I was in pain, but everything seemed to still be attached. I jumped on my bike and started riding again. My bike seemed fine, but my elbow was very tender and was already swelling. Of course, making the decision to do the race with a rigid fork was not making my elbow feel much better after my crash.

Trying to fight off the pain in my elbow, I attempted to find a more comfortable riding position on my bike. Nothing was working too well, but I found that descending without holding the right grip very securely made my descents much less painful. I decided to ride the last 1.5 laps pretty conservatively because of the discomfort in my elbow. I managed to endure my discomfort for the rest of race and hold on to lead even with my pain, however, for a very satisfying SS victory and my fastest time at the LJ 100. So, overall I would have to rate my race as an almost perfect experience except for my crash and my lack of sleep the night before the race.

On a side note, Ernie and I decided to cough up an extra 10 bucks each on our trip home and stay at a hotel where we could actually sleep. Not that it would have been too hard to sleep that night anyway considering what I had just endured over the past 24 hours. And, oh did I sleep well that night.

The Lumberjack is a super fun 100 mile race and Rick Plite, the race organizer, does a great job at putting on the event. It is certainly another race that I would recommend for you to put on a list of must do races.

Happy Trails, Gerry

Thanks to Jack Kunnen for the first photo and Sologoat for the second shot.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Big Bear 24 Hour National Championships (NOT)!

As many of you know, Granny Gear Productions has hosted a 24 hour endurance mtb race at Big Bear, WV for many years. I was excited to learn last year that this race was going to be the USAC 24 Hour National Championship Race for 2010. I think many east coast riders were also excited to finally have a shot at this race without doing too much traveling. However, early this spring a sudden announcement came out, which stated the 24 Hours Nationals were being cancel at Big Bear and were instead being held at Moab, UT once again.

If you have never had a chance to ride the trails at Big Bear Camp Ground, you are missing a treat. There is a great network of fun, technical single track trails throughout the property. The main man behind this network of trails is Mark Schooley. After 24 Hour Nats were canceled, Mark stepped up big time and decided to promote a relay mtb race on the same date as the canceled 24 hour race. After a couple format changes, Mark decided to call the race the Big Bear 2x12. Basically, the race was designed for teams comprised of two riders to do a multiple lap relay race. The technical race loop was 12 miles long and had expert duo teams completing 3 laps per rider (6 total for the team) and sport teams doing 2 laps per rider. The one catch to this race for expert teams was that only first place received money for the win. Second and third placed would only receive a trophy. And, to ensure that the race would attract a good amount of fast riders, Mark offer $1000 to the winning team of each expert category (duo men, duo women, duo coed and duo single speed).

Wanting to have the best chance possible at winning this race I had to consider my single speed teammate choice very carefully. After much consideration, I decided to ask Weston Schempf if he would be interested in doing the race with me. Wes was totally psyched about doing the race and I was also excited to have one of the fastest single speed racers around on my team. Next up was naming our team for the event. But, with Weston’s name ending in PF and mine starting with PF, we decided to combine the two names and call ourselves the Schempflug Effect. Which, if you google it, actually has something to do with photography.

So, on race day Wes and I came up with our game plan for how we were going to do our laps. Wes started first and what a start he had. He actually took the hole shot going into the section of single track like the experienced cyclocross racer he is and then finished the lap a few seconds off the time of the fastest geared guy. I was up next for my first lap of three, but instead of doing only one lap I decided to do two laps. Not only did this give Wes a chance to rest up for his next two laps, but it also let me do a longer sustained effort, which is better for me than shorter efforts. Our game plan seemed to be working pretty well and by the time Wes went out for the final lap of our race we had a 7 minute lead over second place.

The first two laps of the race were pretty fast and dry for us except for a few slick spot in some wet areas. But, by the time most expert classes were beginning their third laps, the wind blew in a rain storm. It didn’t take long for the fast course to become a really slick one, especially with all the roots and rocks on the trails. Wes had a Stan’s Crow Tire on his rear wheel, which I tried to get him to change prior to the start of the race because of the technical nature of the course. I told him that a more substantial tire would hold up a lot better on this course, but Wes stood by his tire selection. On my last and super muddy lap, I couldn’t stop wondering how Wes was going to ride this slick stuff with basically a bald tire on his bike. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I returned to the relay tent to learn that Wes had switched his rear wheel out for my Salsa Semi 29er Disc Wheel mounted with a knobbier tire for his final lap. Ironically, however, Wes nailed a rock on the longest and most technical descent of the course on his last lap and got a flat tire anyhow. He then had some trouble with his tire change after breaking his one and only tire lever. Fortunately, though, he did get things back in order before being caught by the second place team and was able to take the win.

I can’t say enough good things about this race. The payout was incredible (if you won that is), the trophies were awesome beer steins and for a first year event it organized perfectly. If this race becomes an annual event, I highly recommend finding the fastest guy you know to team up with you for some good racing times next year. In the end, I am actually happy that 24 hour Nats were replaced by this event. Not only was this event a lot less painful, but it was a better way to prepare for the Lumberjack 100 next weekend. Happy Trails, Gerry

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Dark Place

As a friend of mine and fellow single speed racer, Ron Sanborn, said to me while we were waiting in line to clean our bikes after finishing the incredibly muddy NUE Series #2 Race, the Mohican 100, in Loudonville, Ohio, “My mind was in a very dark place at many points during the race.” I could not have agreed with the description Ron gave of his mental state during the race more. The Mohican 100 was intensely tough this year after the area received many days of saturating rain, which included heavy rain falling the day before the race and on the day of the race. Riding in wet, muddy conditions for 8 plus hours will make an already difficult race almost impossible at points.

I think for many riders the race was more against the course than it was against other riders. Sure, there were individual battles taking place between riders on the course, but I am pretty sure most riders would agree the race was more about surviving the nastiness being thrown at us by Mother Nature and hoping that the mud on the course would not cause a fatal bike mechanical than it was about beating the guy next to you. In conditions like these, the single speed is a viable weapon of choice. Overall, my Salsa Selma accepted the challenge quite well. I did have my issues at times, both physically and mechanically, but my trusty single speed helped guide me through the muck and the mire to a respectable 3rd place SS finish and to 13th place overall.

There were so many points in the race where I just wanted to quit because things were such a mess. I started questioning why I torture myself this way race after race, year after year. I couldn’t come up with a good answer, so I just kept riding, waiting for the pain to come to an end. Eventually, everything that hurt, including my mind, went numb and my only focus was on finishing the race, not allowing the course to beat me.

As I entered the last four miles of single track, which was more like a flowing stream of water at that point, I actually became euphoric about conquering the course. It didn’t matter what I was riding over or through during this time because I knew I had won my battle against nature and I was feeling good. The feeling of overcoming such a difficult test is a good one, especially since many did not finish the given challenge.

After the race, the darkness that entered my mind faded into the past as I was able to share stories of the race and hang with many friends that endured the same hardship. I am sure there are many people that would consider riding a bike in the mud for 8 hours and 53 minutes over a 100 mile course as being somewhat insane and at certain points during the race I would probably have agreed with them, but it is almost impossible to describe to anyone never experiencing such a thing just how rewarding it also feels to push yourself to the limit and finish something so hard. Congratulations to everyone else that suffered along with me at the Mohican 100 and was able to push through all the mess to finish the race. It is one challenge that I will never forget. Happy Trails, Gerry