I'd been looking forward to this one all year for a number of reasons. It's the realization of two good friends' dream. It's something I helped scout routes for last fall. It's another backcountry endurance race in the Southeast.
It turned out to be probably one of the toughest hundies out there.
Nuccio and I rolled out of Tampa late Thursday morning, took care of a few errands for a frazzled race director, made it to Dahlonega for dinner, then retreated to the secret pre-race headquarters of 55nine Performance. Friday we left civilization for Camp Wahsega and went for a ride. I'd originally planned to ride Bull Mountain, but since I knew that trail well I thought we'd scout some of the other trails in the course. We'd spin down the gravel road, jump into the last half of the course, then ride until we felt like quitting. 25 miles later, we were back at camp. It wasn't bad for me, but poor Nuccio, fresh off recovering from a major knee gash, was cooked.
We cleaned up, checked in and checked out our accommodations for the weekend. Despite the stifling heat, the a/c-less cabins weren't too bad since they were shaded and near a creek. Still, they were a bit warm. There were 2 fans in the cabin and I'd brought one from home, so once all the windows and doors were opened and the gale-force vortex was set up, it was quite nice.
We got a spaghetti and meatball dinner and washed it down with Sweetwater 420. We hung out with the low-key crowd and turned in around 9:30 for the 5AM wake-up call.
While the fields were kind of small, there was plenty of competition: Sam Koerber, Peter Joski, Garth Prosser, Chris Janiszewski, and Dicky and Trish Stevenson waiting in the wings for me to have a bad day. Just making it to the podium would be tough.
The race started at 6:35 AM. The pitch-black sky had just started to get a hint of blueness to it when we started. It was light enough to see the fireroad that would be our friend for the next 12 miles, so it was fine. What was missing was the rolling start. We shot across a grassy field, up a hump and onto the gravel climb. As I was vocally lobbying for a racer-created neutral start, Chris jumped up the road and a bunch of others followed. I started to go, but my legs and lungs still weren't awake. I let Sam, Peter, Garth and Rich chase Chris and spun to warm up. I was soon joined by Trish and another rider. After about 15 minutes I felt awake and upped the pace, shedding my early companions. I caught Rich on the ridge and left him once the ridge started pointing down.
I was all alone for the next 60 miles. I knew the hard stuff was in the rollers in the second half of the course, so I took it easy on the long climbs. At the end of the lap there was a short section of gravel road that we rode down, then back up to start the next lap. I saw Garth and Peter heading up as I was going down and timed them to be 8-9 minutes ahead of me. When I went through scoring Eddie O confirmed that Sam was way up the road, with Peter and Garth 8 minutes ahead of me, and Chris was at his car trying to fix a front chainring problem. I was in 4th and had a pretty big gap to try to bring back, but I felt good.
I felt good, that is, until I hit that gravel road climb for the second time. This time it was pushing 90 degrees without a cloud in the sky. It was sandy and dusty. I wasn't having fun. I'd decided to leave my full Camelback at the car and do the second lap with bottles. I'd drained them by the time I hit the first aid station. I stopped, grabbed bottles of Gatorade and what I thought was water, chugged a Burn, and started the mostly downhill miles to the base of Bull Mountain.
I took a swig of that "water" and it had a minty flavor. It was kind of nice, even refreshing, and made the hot water seem not-so-hot. I found out that it was something called "Rapid Recovery" that Dedicated Athlete is testing. A lot of people hated it, but I loved it. I drank lots of it for the rest of the race.
When I pulled into the aid station at the bottom of Bull, Peter was rolling out. I asked how he was doing and got a sarcastic "fantastic" for a reply, so I knew he was hurting. There was no reason to get excited and hurried, so I went about my business of topping off bottles and forgetting to lube my chain.
About 3.5 miles long, Bull Mountain was the second major climb of the day. I started up, keeping my pace in check. Pretty soon I saw him, only it wasn't him. It was Garth, going backwards. I was gaining on him rapidly. In my excitement, I let it go a bit too much on a short downhill, washing out in a sandy turn. I slid across the ground, ripping a brand-new pair of shorts. I saw blood under there, but there wasn't time to worry about that. I jumped back on and resumed reeling Garth in. This time I passed him, only to realize shortly thereafter that my front tire was almost flat. I must've burped air when I crashed, or I was getting a flat before the crash and low air was the culprit. I decided to try shooting some CO2 into the tire first. When I was doing that I noticed that the tire bead was unseated from the rim, confirming the burp-while-crashing theory. The air did the trick, re-seating the tire, and I was rolling again, this time passing Garth for the last time.
I knew Peter couldn't be far ahead and kept pushing. I'd see him, but he was proving to be a bit harder to reel in. I caught him on the last steep pitch before the top of the Bare Hare trail. He was walking it. I rode it and he let me by, but he was right back on me after a bit of downhill. It went like that all the way down Bull Mountain. I'd open a gap on a climb, he'd close it on a downhill, repeat.
I got to the aid station and took my time. I had to re-arrange the contents of my jersey pockets to fit a third bottle for the next long section. Peter rolled in as I was doing my thing, but he walked over to a cooler and sat down, not willing to continue challenging at that point.
The squeaking of my neglecting chain was getting unbearable (I forgot to lube it at the aid station again), so I attempted the "apply lube while rolling" trick, only to dump half the contents of my jersey pocket all over the gravel road.
I made it to the final aid station without incident. I was pretty sure that nobody was closing in on me. One of aid station volunteers optimistically told me Sam was maybe 10 minutes ahead of me, but the other guy sounded a bit more realistic and it sounded like it would be difficult at best to chase him down. I kept at it in my survival pace - hard enough to feel it, but leaving enough that I'd have something in the tank if I really needed it.
The big creek crossings were great in the last section. It was well into the 90s by now and I'd felt like my head was going to explode from the heat more than once. Those creek crossings were about hub-deep and had lines that allowed them to be hit really fast. I hit them as fast as possible for maximum soaking effect. I was as giddy as a kid playing in a rainstorm.
As I rolled toward the finish line, I saw Sam heading toward his campsite. I finished in 10:16, 4 minutes (!) behind Sam and 2nd overall. My biggest need was to be cool, so I went straight to my gear bag, grabbed a towel and headed to the small waterfall tucked into a sweet creek that rolled out of the hills into camp. I sat in and around that water for almost an hour.
The after-party was great! They had a live band, and plenty of food and beer. Watching the people rolling in after dark, with and without lights, was inspiring as always. Eddie and Namrita put on one hell of race, and this was only their first year. That makes it a don't miss race in my book, because I'm sure they'll make it even better.
What made this race so hard? The first 15 miles were gravel road, then the rest of the course was almost all singletrack. There would be a section of gravel here and there, but probably no more than 5 miles over the rest of the course. I turned out that a lap was around 55 miles, not 50. It was August in Georgia, during the mother of all heat waves. I'd like to think that if I'd known how close I was to Sam, I coud've dug deeper and reeled him in. As I'm sitting here Monday afternoon typing this after calling in sick and sleeping half the day, I think I left it all out there.