As I laid awake in bed trying to forget about the itching caused by the poison ivy rash spreading about my body and watched the hours counting down on the clock, I knew the second stop of the National Ultra Endurance Series at the Cohutta 100 in Ducktown, TN was going to be a tough challenge. You'd think after 35 years of racing one type of bicycle or another the nervousness I feel before doing a big race would be almost nonexistent by now, but my mind never seems to rest before these events and my constant desire to itch wasn't helping matters. My sleepless night ended at 4 AM when my alarm went off and the reality of doing another 100 mile off-road race, without any meaningful amount of sleep, stared directly into my eyes. I've conquered these sleepless night demons before, however, so I put on my game face and lined-up with 250 other riders at 7 AM to do my best at winning a 5th Cohutta 100 singlespeed event.
Surprisingly, even with little to no sleep, my legs felt pretty good on the paved road climb leading to the first section of single track. My travel companion to the race and teammate, Rob Spreng, set a fast tempo on the climb, which allowed me to get into the trails about 20 riders back from the lead. I was able to keep my pace fast enough to eventually catch back up to the front of the race to join Rob and Jeremiah Bishop. During this time, only one other singlespeed racer, Gordon Wadsworth, was able to ride with me, which is exactly what I expected from my SS friend.
By the time the single track ended and the long section of rough gravel roads began, the lead group was whittled down to five riders, including Gordon and I. Strangely enough, the pace being set at the front was not super fast like it was in previous years when I've done this race, probably because Gordon and I were watching each other and the geared guys were watching Jeremiah. But, eventually, two other geared riders joined our group and that was enough to make the pace speed-up on the endless climb leading to checkpoint #3. This increase in speed dropped two riders from the pace and again left Gordon and I with three geared riders in the lead group and no chasers within view.
Our group was riding well together and we all basically cooperated at efficiently keeping up the speed. The group was riding so well together that we even all agreed to stop at the same time for a pee break. But, I knew in the back of my mind that this cohesiveness to work as one unit would not last much longer. It was just a matter of time before the attacks began. Our last section of group fun was in the single track between miles 50-60. Jeremiah led our group through this section of trail and it was an absolute blast to ride it faster than I had ever done before this attempt.
I was pretty certain the long climb out of checkpoint #5 would be the game changer of the day. Sure enough, Jeremiah increased the pace and our group began to splinter. I had no intentions of trying to match the pace being set. The past experiences of riding this climb stored in my mind told me to be conservative and save my energy for later in the race. Additionally, I felt the fatigue of not getting a proper nights rest starting to creep into my body. It was hard watching the four other riders pedal off into the distance, but I knew going my own pace was my only chance at staying near the front of the race.
By the top of this brutal climb, I saw no riders in view behind me or in front of me. I was all alone and riding
my own race, which was fine by me. I felt like my pace was consistent and I did my best to keep moving along at a descent clip. But, by the time I got to checkpoint #6, I learned that the rider directly in front of me was five minutes up the road. I later learned that this rider ahead of me was a geared rider and not my SS competitor, Gordon. I didn't give up hope of catching Gordon at this point, but I knew a gap of over five minutes would be tough to make up in less than 25 miles.
Before the last section of single track comes at the finish of the race, there are some pretty long climbs that switchback on their way going up the hills. I would look up and down the road at these times in hope of seeing another rider, but saw nothing. By the entrance of the last section of trail, there was a tent set up and staffed with race volunteers. They informed me that 7 miles remained in the race and that I was in fifth place overall, still about five minutes behind the rider directly in front of me. I was happy to hear this news and was going to give me best at bombing the remaining miles of single track to the finish.
Not very far from the this tent at the 93 mile marker there was a "T" intersection in the trail with no arrows, only a piece of course marking tape laying on the ground across the trail on my left side. I hesitated for a minute at this intersection, but decided to go right because the tape seemed to be blocking the trail to the left. My decision also seemed to be right because the course had earlier come from that direction at the beginning of the race. I descended for a while and then climbed even further before coming to a gate blocking a gravel road with no course markings in sight. I realized then a turn must have been missed and I figured it was a single track trail I had passed that was used at the beginning of the race, so I rode back to it and started riding this single track trail backwards. When I saw mile 100 appear on my Garmin, I knew this choice was also incorrect and I began to feel overwhelmed with frustration. A short while later, I eventually came across a group of riders standing in front of course marking tape. They gave me directions of how to get back on course and to the finish.
I caught a bunch of riders in the last few miles of single track and hoped that I might still be the second SS racer across the finishing line, but the thirty minutes of time I lost while doing my bonus miles of racing was apparently enough to allow two other SS riders to get in front of me. I would have been completely content with a second place SS finish at Cohutta because Gordon was absolutely the stronger rider of the day, but I must admit that dropping those finally spots at the end of the race definitely felt like a big slap in the face. After having a day to think about things now, I guess finishing fourth in my class is not too bad considering the circumstances; it's just a bit disappointing and hard to swallow after riding so well for the first 93 miles of the race.
But, there will be good days and bad days. And, overall, I've had a pretty good and long lasting string of luck to help me win many races over my many years of racing. With the right preparation and little more luck, I'm sure my winning ways will return. Until then, I'll continue applying Calamine lotion, hope for a few good nights of sleep and keep riding my bike.
Congratulations to Gordon for taking the SS win, to Jeremiah for taking the overall win, to my teammates Rob Spreng and Andrew Dunlap for their fine finishes in the open race, and to my teammate Roger Masse for taking second in the 50+ race.
Happy Trails... Gerry