Taking place atop Lookout Mountain, Tn/Ga, this race was a Jeckyl and Hyde kind of course. Race director, Michael Long, did his homework well when laying out this course. It had a little bit of everything, from pavement to smooth flowy fast trail to tight, twisty rooty trail to rock gardens to creek crossings. The further you got into the race the harder it became ... at almost an exponential level.
I had just come off a much needed rest week, especially since I had raced the 3 weekends before. I hadn't done that in a long time, and it hurt! This aging body needs more time in between efforts to recoup and it wasn't until the Thursday before the race that I started feeling good again.
The starting temperature of 49 degrees was perfect. There is nothing like uncontrollable shivering at the start to keep my mind sharp and focused. Once the race started, I was on the gas and forgot the cold. The lead out on the pavement was only neutral until the first hill. And then I was digging deep to stay with the lead group. My goal was to hang with Paula and any other women on the road, even if I had to burn a match or two. I fell off the lead group but managed to stay with the second group and slowly bridged back up to Paula who had been in no man's land for a while.
Closing in on the 5 Points single track, it was Paula, Elizabeth, Namrita, and I. With less than 100 yards to go, I knew it was imperative to get the hole shot, so I surged ahead of Elizabeth and Namrita and rode Paula's wheel into the woods. We were on the connector leading to the climb up Fugget Lift when I shifted into my little ring up front ... and the chain decided to wrap itself around my bottom bracket. Crap! Off the bike, looking upside down at this ridiculousness, and trying to unravel this mess, my heartrate shot up as racer after racer passed me. Monty was kind enough to stop and offer assistance, but by that time (it seemed like many minutes later) I had fixed the mechanical.
For the next 30 minutes I played catch up. I shifted minimally for fear of a repeat and so spent the most of the 5 Points trail system in my big ring, grinding my Jet9 RDO up the climbs like it was a single speed (that would come back and bite me later). My full suspension rig was a little overkill on the sweet flowy 5 Points trail system, but would later be to my advantage. I enjoyed the flow and slowly bridged back up to Paula and Elizabeth. I was able to make a pass as Elizabeth overcooked a turn and ride Paula's wheel through the CapRock section.
Upon entering the Ascalon trailhead I took the lead, did not take a feed, and rode the short pavement section to the newly cut single track. It rolled fairly well, but was off camber in a lot of sections and strewn with loose small rock. As I entered the rock garden, Paula was on my wheel. I pushed just a little harder. When I heard Paula falter, I drilled it for a few minutes, trying to shake her off my wheel. Mission accomplished, I caught up to two guys. They were riding a good pace so I used them to focus on keeping my tempo up through these 5 miles.
Coming through the Ascalon trailhead a second time, I felt my Camelbak, and knew I could make it to the final aid station before needing a feed. It was on the Tailing's Run trail that I felt the first signs of fatigue. This tight, twisty trail with its short punchy ups and downs was working on my hamstrings and quads. I was glad to finally be on the CCT and racing back to Lula Lake Land Trust.
The CCT was fast! I really enjoyed the full suspension here as it was chunky in places with lots of loose cathead rocks. I came upon Shane who was attempting to fix a double sidewall flat (a 9 penny nail had gone through both sidewalls!). I stopped for about 30 seconds, massaged a CO2 out of my saddle bag for him, and told him that he had better catch me.
I really enjoyed the 2 mile section off the CCT. It was primitive single track ... I think some old hiking trails. In some areas, had it not been for the orange flags, I would have lost the trail. It felt like I was deep in the forest, miles from civilization. The creek crossings were challenging, but rideable. This was the second section that I saved precious seconds by having full suspension. The last crossing had a short hike a bike and this was where Shane caught me. He was riding like a bat out of hell! Popping out onto a high end subdivision, I rode past multi million dollar mini-farms and stopped at the aid station. I opted to drop my Camelbak and pick up a bottle for the final 12 mile push.
And a long push that was going to be! There was a 1 mile section of mostly uphill pavement to get to some private property that would lead to the Lula Lake Land Trust section. When I tried to go a bit harder, I felt a twinge in my right hamstring. Not good! I immediately slowed up, trying to avoid a full on cramp. It worked, but this was the first time that I got worried about the competition behind me.
The section of ATV roads leading to Lula Lake was like riding the spine of a stegosaurus: long steep ups and downs. Luckily my bike was behaving and the granny was put to use ... alot. Finally I was onto the trust property and was introduced to some kick ass trails! The one trail I remember is the B Trail, aka the Jedi Trail. A gently rolling smooth flowing trail, it weaved through the trees. I had my groove again. This section was laid out so that you would climb on double track and descend on single track.
At one point, I saw the start/finish area through the trees and across Rock Creek. I crossed the creek on foot allowing the cool water to soothe my feet and calves. Then it was onto a gravel road climb, followed shortly by a steep section of single track that was so tightly woven amongst the pine trees, I had to slow considerably just to get my handle bars through. After about 3/4 mile, I was directed out onto the pavement for a 2 mile rolling climb to the final section of single track.
It was here that my engine died. That rolling pavement did my legs in ... and that reoccurring twinge in my right leg reminded me how close I was to completely blowing up. The racers in front of me appeared as tiny ants. Finally I was at the left hand turn. A short bit of pavement, somebody's private drive, and then I was directed right ... up THE POWERLINE CLIMB.
I cracked! Off the bike pushing and suffering. Suddenly I heard a rider come up behind me and then pass me like I was standing still, which I pretty much was at this point. It was Elizabeth! She had seen me on the pavement, smelled blood, and charged!
As she pedaled away, up the powerline climb, I did a little soul searching. Was I satisfied with second? Did I even have a chance of vying for first? Would I be caught by third? While I was thinking about what happened and what could be, I pushed just a little harder, hopped on the bike, and pedaled a little harder. After a few minutes, I could still see her. I dug a little deeper; I got a little closer. The gap was closing! When she turned around to see where I was, I knew then I had a chance of vying for first! I caught her on a descent.
With about 3- 3 1/2 miles left and the single track being tight, I had to wait for her to make a mistake. At one point, I tried passing during a log hop, but she surged ahead and we almost locked bars. I backed off, not wanting to take us both out doing something stupid. I laughed and she said something like, "This is a real race!" We came to a descent and I was right on her wheel; the trail veered sharply to the right. Elizabeth was carrying too much speed and went straight. I made my move!
I turned myself inside out over the last 2 miles. I had never seen my heart rate that high so late in a race! I suppose I can now rule out any sort of heart condition, as that was a true test of its performance. And it was over this last section I was at an advantage on a full suspension. The trail was pretty technical both on the ups as well as downs, with large rocks and roots to climb over, and some pretty good ledgy drops on the final descent leading back to the pavement.
I never looked back, even on the short pavement section back to the gravel drive that led down to the finish. I buried myself in my machine, turning the pedals over as fast as I could ... hoping that my legs would not seize up. I rolled through the finish line in 4:27. Elizabeth came in 2 minutes later.
I had asked of my body what I thought was possible, but not probable. Now knowing what I am capable of, I can never just "let her go," which will make future races all the more interesting.
Pain cave, I have entered you not knowing, and have exited with the excitement of knowing that I can push my body to its limits, and not only survive, but succeed!
Epic trails + happy volunteers + organized aid stations + equal pay outs + tons of usable schwag + a great post race meal (watermelon!) = MUST DO NEXT YEAR. But be forewarned, the course will test your limits. The last 12 miles are brutally fun.