But, as excited as I was to do this race, I almost did not make the trip because of feeling exhausted from the three previous 100 mile races I did and because I learned at the beginning of last week that a friend I was going to meet in Salt Lake City for the trip could not make the race due to an injury. To make matters worse, I started feeling the symptoms of a minor cold a couple of days after doing the W101 last weekend and wondered if racing somewhat ill at altitude would be a good idea. But, I was determined to complete my goal of doing four NUE races in a row, so I decided to man-up and make the trip alone, feeling less than 100%.
When I finally made it to the race venue at the Grand Targhee Ski Resort on Friday Afternoon and saw the grandeur of the Teton Peaks and the surrounding mountains covered with wide-spread wild flowers in full bloom, I was glad that I stuck to my guns and made the trip. I became even happier with my decision after I rode a majority of the course and got to witness the beauty of the area close-up from the seat of my bike. I found the trails and views to be nothing more than amazing.
The course itself consisted of one 25 mile loop, which would be repeated 4 times to attain the 100 mile race distance. Generally, I like doing big loop races better than lap races, but I didn’t mind doing multiple laps on this course because it was challenging and fun to ride. Repeating the laps gave me a chance to dial in the course and feel more comfortable with the fast downhills and tight single track. Most of the course was on well-manicured trails, but there were also a few technical sections to keep things interesting. There course also contained a few miles of paved road that climbed out of the valley back to the resort on each lap. This section gave me a mental break from the trail riding and also gave me a chance to eat/drink because doing so on the trails was next to impossible. One thing that I really like about races that do multiple loops is the fact that I can use a cooler to get exactly what I want for food and drink. On the races that do one big loop, this is much harder to do with the drop bag system.
So, when the gun went off at 6:15 am, all the 100 mile racers started at once and immediately started climbing a cat track trail in front of the ski resort. The climb lasted for about 5 minutes or so before it turned back down the mountain on the blazing fast Mill Creek Trail. I was able to hang with the lead group of riders up the first climb and came out at the bottom of Mill Creek as the second place SS racer. Dejay Birch was totally ripping up the descent like a mad man and he put a little gap on me during this section of the race. Luckily, my geared (and sometimes SS) racer friend, Rob Spreng, came out of the Mill Creek Trail at the same time as me and was kind enough to give me a fast pull on the dirt road leading to the long road climb. From there, I was able to bridge up to Dejay and ride with him to the next trail entrance.
The trail at this section was also a fast downhill with many big water bars crossing the trail that could easily send a rider flying off the bike if speed wasn’t kept in check. I used some caution on this trail and once again Dejay put a little time on me by the bottom. I knew the biggest and steepest climb was ahead, though, so I felt confident that I would catch Dejay again. I did catch him on the steepest section of the climb and quickly was able to get a time gap on him. I pushed the pace for the remainder of the climb and by the time I climbed back to the ski resort, Dejay was no longer in view. I then made a quick pit stop at the aid station before finishing the 7 miles of super fun single track leading to the start finish line.
At this point, I might have become a little too comfortable with my lead and rode the second descent down the Mill Creek Trail too conservatively because by the bottom of the hill, I heard Dejay ringing his handlebar bell to let me know he was right behind me. I couldn’t believe he had made-up that much time on me going down the hill and I knew that if I wanted to win I would need to immediately put the pressure on during the road climb. My strategy seemed to work and by the time I went back onto the fast downhill trail with the water bars, Dejay was not in sight again. From that point on, I did not see any other 100 mile SS racers and did my racing with the lead geared guys to keep my pace high. I learned after the race that Dejay had a pretty nasty crash on that descent after going over one of those big water bars at high speed. He did not get seriously injured and was able to finish the race, but I am sure the crash took some of the steam out of his ride.
Since I did not know what was going on behind me, I continued to push my pace for the next two laps. One of the rewards of finishing this race is an awesome custom belt buckle for any rider beating the time of 9 hours 45 minutes. One of my main goals was to win one of these belt buckles, so I continued to push myself hard to ensure that I got one. I was somewhat surprised during the race that I felt so good considering how tough the course was and the fact that I was racing with congested lungs at a fairly high altitude of between 6000-8500 feet. I’m sure the reason for this was because my body has become pretty accustomed to doing these long and hard races after doing so many of them this year.
Anyway, with no problems occurring during the rest of the race, I was able to win a belt buckle by finishing with a time of 9:01, which was also good enough to be the first SS racer and 7th overall. I thought this course was a blast to ride and I would definitely recommend it to anyone thinking about doing it in the future. Oh, and BTW, this course was hard, but I didn’t think it was nearly as hard as Breckenridge, which is a good thing in my book. My only regret of the trip is that I couldn’t stay longer to do more riding in the area. Oh well, I guess that gives me an excuse to go back again.
Photo Credit: MTB Race News - top photo