|Better put your "big girl pants" on for this one.|
New to the NUE Marathon series this year, the Iron Mountain 100K was sure to surprise the average endurance racer. This 54 miler, with 8400 feet of climbing is about as raw and rugged as you can get. These trails are old school hiking trails that follow fall lines, creek beds, and old logging roads reclaimed by Mother Nature.
Having raced this one 3 years ago and pre ridden portions of it last week, I knew what to expect: a long ass day suffering in the back country of the Appalachian Mountains. The course was going to be a little bit greasy due to the recent rains and a forecast which called for the potential for more. I was ok with that, as I had pretty good experience being a pin ball.
Their were some heavy hitters here to play. I had no big goals other than to go hard and let the chips fall where they may. In 2015 I had an awesome race, finishing in just a little over 6 hours, in similar wet conditions. I was hopeful that I could come close to that time.
I chose to wear my Camelbak, as I would have a better time staying hydrated on the mostly technical single track course. I also decided to refuel with what the aid stations had as opposed to leaving drop bags; I did not want to have to wait a long time for my drop bags to arrive back at the finish. Hammer gel, bananas, Hammer Heed, and Coke would all work for this engine.
Thankfully no rains rolled in the night before. The morning brought with it cloudy skies and a starting temp of 68 degrees. Perfect! While my Rescue Racing team mates were posing for the Boy Band Rejects calender, I was out on the Creeper trying to bring some snap to my legs.
The start was neutral through town. Once we hit the Creeper Trail, the pace increased a little and I comfortably stayed mid pack. About a mile from the road crossing and onto Beech Grove Trail, someone let the rabbit loose and the hounds gave chase. I initially responded and the legs felt good. But my heart felt like it was going to jump out of my chest! I looked down at my Garmin and my heart rate was 180bpm! Not good! I hadn't seen that number since Michael Jackson was alive and playing on my Sony walkman. Not feeling good with my heart beating like a hummingbird, I had to pull up and slow it down.
Beech Grove Trail is only 1 mile long but shoots straight up the mountain to connect into the Iron Mountain Trail. On a dry day and by yourself, it is easily rideable. But with a train of racers and rocks slicker n snot, I made it about 100 yards, hit a wall of racers, and began the long HAB up. Fortunately, this allowed my HR to stabilize in the high 160's. At this rate, it did not feel like an alien was going to rip out of my chest.
Once on the Iron Mountain Trail, the trail began to roll along the ridgeline. But that didn't make it any easier. Some sections were fun, fast, and flowy, but few and far between as the overall profile still had you climbing. Mostly it was narrow and strewn with large rocks that would smash your pedals or kick your front wheel out from under you or straight up a wide, washed out, rooty nightmare of a climb. Doable, but once you dabbed or spun out, it was a HAB. My pace was slower than I wanted; my legs felt good, but anytime I tried to push the power, my heart rate would go in the red.
I was frustrated, but focused on the positive. I told myself that by staying steady now, I would have some reserves for the last long climb up the backside of Iron Mountain. A short section of gravel allowed a short reprieve before hitting another HAB. I rolled a short bit of ridge and then dropped down a nasty chunky descent. After a hard right, I was on the Beartree Gap Trail, 3.3 miles of dropper down free speed! There were a couple short sections of easy pedaling and it was on one of these that I passed by Lara, who was being assisted by another rider. I found out as she caught back up and came around me rooster-tailing leaves as she sped by that she had dropped her chain and had a difficult time getting it back on.
Checking my CamelBak as I popped out onto Beartree Road, I still had plenty of Infinit and so did not need to stop at Aid 1. I saw Lara just ahead on the pavement and decided to try to reel her in over the next 3 miles of asphalt. The rain settled in here. It didn't take long for the drizzle to settle into a steady downpour. I whipped out my handy dandy Hampton Inn shower cap and covered my helmet. Not knowing if this rain was going to last just 30 minutes or all day, I did not want a steady stream of sweat and rain pouring over my eyebrows and into my eyeballs. This little trick keeps my vision clear and is easy to take off and on as needed.
Drafting off available men, I was able to catch back up to Lara. In am attempt to look back and assess where to hop on the train, her front wheel went off the pavement onto the muddy shoulder. She narrowly missed hitting the pavement and taking out the train. I felt bad for her as we rolled past and she mentioned something about her rear derailleur. I could tell she was frustrated and I hate seeing any racer struggling due to a mechanical.
By the time I hit the Lum Trail, the rain had slowed and was just a drizzle. This trail starts off relatively easy, but about a 1/3 of the way in, it turns into a beast of a climb. Several creek crossings with steep entry/exit points and littered with slimy rocks, I struggled keeping the front wheel tracking where I wanted it to go. At times it seemed to have a mind of its own and I would suddenly be off the trail and pedaling through brush and fallen limbs. I could only laugh at myself!
Passing the shelter, I readied myself for the descent. Chunky and Pisgah'ish and now wet and slimy with the rains, I "ski'd" down it and hit the "marbles and banana peels" section of Iron Mountain.
|0.7 miles of this shit and then later I get to go back up it!|
I managed to stay upright and not wander off into the brush on this descent. After riding through some muddy bogs, I was back on a more manageable section of Iron Mountain and heading for Skulls Gap. Crossing SR 600, I began the 1 mile gravel climb up to Jerry's Creek Trail. At 10% pitch, this one is a doozy. I felt pretty good and my heart stayed in my chest.
Jerry's Creek descent ... a love-hate relationship! Gets the adrenalin flowin' and the ass puckerin'! Ahh, good ole half-track, side bench, off-camber, diagonal roots and algae-fied rock Jerry's Creek! Throw in some rain and about 40 racers in front of me and it turned out to be a "Flintstoning" cuss fest all the way down the initial 2 miles.
|This is one of the tamer sections of Jerry's Creek.|
I swear my bike tried to buck me off a couple times due to her total embarrassment of my sudden lack of descending skills. Left foot unclipped, pushing off rocks, and the use of the "butt" brake ... yeah, that was not pretty. Glad no one saw!
I rolled into Aid Station 2, being manned by Mark Prater, of Karl's Kaleidoscope fame! This was a full service fill up and windshield cleaning (eyewear, in my case). Mark asked where Zeke was, to which I replied, "smart enough to have not signed up for this ass-whoopin'!" After a quick pit stop, it was onto another gravel climb, albeit at a much nicer grade. I loved the next section of single track, Barton Gap. One mile up followed by a hoot of a 1 mile descent. I suppose this was the flow trail of the course. It was over way too soon.
Trying to get my legs to turn over the pedals on the next 3 mile (with 1000 feet of gain) gravel climb, I felt the first signs of fatigue. The legs balked but after a few minutes gave in and began cranking out the power. To make the climb go faster, I alternated between seated and standing. Doing ascending/descending pedal revolution intervals kept my mind focused on numbers as opposed to how stinkin' long this climb was. For me, playing these little games during times of suffering makes it a little less painful. Racing is as much a mental struggle as a physical one; if you can get into the right mindspace, the miles and hours flow better. And there will be less grimacing and more smiling!
The two mile descent on Iron Mountain Trail back down to SR 600 was where my day almost ended. This section is steep, narrow, and with thick underbrush, it is hard to see the trail at times. I was in a rhythm of avoiding the baby heads and getting face smacked by rhododendron branches when I hit the two foot rock slab drop a little faster than what I wanted to. Upon hitting the drop, my right foot suddenly unclipped from my pedal. This caused me to veer off track and smack a tree with my left shoulder.
After a quick triage of bike and body, I continued on; a little rattled and a little slower, but still moving. I stopped at Aid Station 3, ate a banana, and topped off my Camelbak for the final push. Climbing back up the trail, I knew I had a bugger of a section to work through. The "marbles and banana peels" section followed by a HAB back up to the ridge. It was here that I thought about Grace Ragland and the Tour Divide. Not only did she have many HAB's of hell, she had to push a fully loaded (I'm guessing 40-45 pounds) bike up and over Rocky Mountain passes. Suddenly what I had to do to get up to my "mountain pass" seemed like nothing.
After riding the perpetual rock garden along Iron Mountain over to Shaw Gap, the descent down Chestnut Ridge pushed my forearms and calves to their limits. By the time I hit the tight right handed switchback, followed by the free fall to the creek, I had lost most of my grip. I closed my eyes and just sent it! My Trek Top Fuel squealed with joy; she liked me again!
I stopped at Aid Station 4, chugged 3 cups of Coke, and began the loooong pedal back up to the Iron Mountain Trail. I was glad that I had eased up at the beginning of the race because I had just enough left to clean the uphill, save for the last 10 yard steep pitch up Sawmill Trail. During this grind up the mountain, I had caught fleeting glimpses of one of my team mates, Spencer. He was sangle-spudding it and at times looked to have a cadence of 20 rpm. Little did he realize but he was motivating me all the way back up to the top.
Feather Branch Trail was one of my favorite climbs as it had a gnarly creek crossing followed by a short HAB, but then planed out to a beautiful piece of single track. I was able to catch my breath along this 4-6% grade and listen to the songbirds and smell the forest. I took a break racing and just soaked in the beauty of this place I was traveling through. Damn! I am one lucky lady to have the time, money, and fitness to witness the grandeur of this country!
Ok, time to focus my eye on the prize again. I hit Iron Mountain with all 8 cylinders. I knew it was mostly downhill and no more HAB, so I put my head down and pushed forward. I thought I was in 5th place, which was cool, because that would earn me a ticket into this event next year, when I turn 50.
I finally caught Spencer; we rode together for a short piece, which reminded me of our travels over the final miles of the Snake Creek Gap TT earlier this year. Something about riding with teamies that will bring out the best of you.
Then final descent down Moe Holler was beastly. Steep, baby-head strewn, slick-ass rocks, had me pinballing left and right! Eyes wide open, knuckles white, and dropper down, I hung on for dear life, relying on the steed beneath me to see me through to the end. By the time I hit the pavement, I was smoked! Looking down at my Garmin, I saw 6:31:36. 27 minutes slower than 2015, but I was alive and had made it out of the back country unscathed ... well, except for a sore shoulder.
|Content to have rounded out the podium with these speedy lasses!|
I really appreciate the hard effort of Chris Scott to bring back this race. It is one of the hardest I've done, but a favorite. To complete this beast is a true test of not only one's fitness but mental toughness, grit, and fortitude. The week before, I had ridden or walked over at least 35 downed trees. Today, less than 10. I heard even Jeremiah Bishop was out sawing logs the day before; one class act!
I must make mention of a fellow competitor I met while scarfing down my burger post race. This young woman approached me and introduced herself as Nina. She reads my blog (humbled that I have yet another fan) and told me how it helped her to prepare for this race. As she was telling me how hard this race was and how much climbing it had, I was looking at her and thinking that she looked so young. I asked her how old was she. My jaw dropped and I just about fell over backward when she said 16! Now that was MOST impressive. Nina, YOU now have a fan!
Trying hard to remember what I was doing when I was 16, I think I was pretending to be a 5K road racer. So remember this name, fellow racers: Nina Machnowski. I predict she will be a lethal machine in a few years!
As far as my heart goes, I have felt no ill effects of that rapid HR. I am still not sure of what to make of it. I just hope it doesn't happen again at the Tatanka 100 in a couple weeks. And if it does, you betcha I will be calling my doc!