Last weekend, Zeke and I traveled down to Sylacauga, Alabama in the heart of the Talladega National Forest to participate in a true grassroots event. There were 3 options: 60, 100, and 200. I chose the lite version, because 60 miles was about all the fun I wanted. The course was an out and back with three aid stations; the first/third was the same at miles 20 and 40, and the second was at the turnaround point at mile 30.
The weather could not have been better for the 9 am start. Brent, the director, gave us a pre race briefing. He told us that due to a large tree being down on the Skyway portion of the course, the turnaround point was going to be a mile or so farther. Anytime the race director says "or so," just go ahead and add at least another 5 miles to the event. Even though Brent had thoroughly marked the course with arrows, flagging, and spray paint, I still made a copy of the turn by turn directions and stuck them in my CamelBak.
There were 37 racers, of which 8 were women. I knew only a few as it seemed most were locals. It was a short 100 yards of gravel road to the single track. Go time came and I entered the Sylaward Trail system behind another woman. It only took a few minutes for the pack to thin out. Beth, who was in front of me, led a comfortably hard pace through the 11 miles of trail. These trails were machine cut, and flowed well along the contour lines. "IMBA-rrific," a term Zeke coined, perfectly describes them.
|Sa-weet Sylaward single track!|
The single track miles went by fast. I carefully watched Beth for any signs of weakness but found none ... zero ... nada. We popped out together onto Wiregrass Road. This was a gravel road that rolled along for 5 miles. Beth and I introduced ourselves while taking pulls. I could tell that she was the stronger rider as I struggled to maintain any sense of speed on the short climbs. Turning onto Rocky Mountain Road, I knew that I was going to pop off her wheel. Beth slowly rode away from me on one of the short climbs. Seeing my heart rate higher than I wanted to, I had to back off or risk blowing up later in the race. This road was 2 more miles of rolling with the last 2 miles climbing up to Bull's Gap and Aid Station #1.
I was able to keep Beth at the very limits of my sight. These gravel roads were smooth and fast, but I was feeling like a sloth and wondering about my bike choice. I was riding my Niner RKT, but wishing I was on my Air 9, which was 3.5 pounds less. Having chosen to wear my CamelBak, I did not need to stop at the first aid station. I wanted to keep Beth in my sight, knowing that this would keep me focused and make the painful burning in my quads a little more bearable.
Right after the aid station came the grueling 2 mile, 1000 foot climb, up the Skyway Jeep Trail. This was a rocky-ass rutted climb that had me almost in my 42 tooth cog. Yes, Alabama does have mountains! I enjoyed the technical nature of this road and glad I chose my RKT. Once at the top, it rolled for miles. There were a few nasty descents and I was able to gain considerable time on Beth. They were gnarly and full of chunkiness and ruts, some of which were hidden from view until I was right on them. Wide-eyed I let my body take over and was able to keep them from swallowing my front wheel by bunny hopping over them. I had to embrace the "zig-zagging" mind of a squirrel to safely negotiate these sections, as there was no easy path to the right or to the left.
But then the climby sections would come and Beth would ride away from me. Getting close to mile 30, I saw Beth off her bike. Thinking that she probably had a flat, I slowed to see if she needed anything. There was another racer tending to her and when I stopped, I noticed she was having shifting issues. I tried to say something comforting, but having been in that situation before, there were no words I could say to make it any better.
This was not how I wanted to get in the lead, and I questioned myself for a few minutes, as I soft pedaled up the road. I actually felt guilty about being in first now. But then I reminded myself of the times I had mechanicals and felt no ill will towards my competitors as they blasted past me. After all, this is racing! So I gradually picked up the pace back to suffer mode.
Now at mile 30, I entered the bonus mile portion of the course. Where oh, where was the downed tree, I wondered. I knew I had to be getting close to the turnaround, as I was crossing paths with some of the lead group heading back. The course headed down for 1 mile, 2 mile, 3 miles (meaning I would be getting bonus climbing on the way back ... oh, goodie!) Finally, I saw the tree, with some Jeep peeps beginning to remove it from the road. Just 50 yards ahead was aid station #2 and the turnarond point.
I refilled my CamelBak and looked for a tasty Hammer gel. Nothing but apple cinnamon! I wonder why Hammer Nutrition continues to make this flavor, as I only ever see it at aid stations. I was wanting an Espresso, but finally came across a lone Raspberry. I inhaled it, got my zip tie for proof of hitting the turn around, and began the 3 mile climb back out of that hole.
As I was approaching the tree on the way back, I crossed paths with Beth. I shouted a few words of encouragement. I calculated that she was only a couple minutes behind me. A little bit further up the climb, I saw the third place woman, Kimberly, coming down. I knew these two ladies would be tasting blood upon seeing me, so I knew what I had to do to get the job done. The only question was, could I?
Time to see what I had left. I took it relatively easy on this climb back up to the ridgeline, allowing my stomach some blood flow to process what I had taken in at the aid station. Once on the top, I began to push the pedals over quicker. I brought my heart rate up to where I thought I could motor pretty consistently to the finish. I also settled into a single speeder's rhythm of alternating standing and seated climbing to use ALL my muscles. I still had my doubts of holding the lead. Every little hill I crested, I fought the urge to look back, for fear of seeing my competition gaining.
I slowly caught up to a man wearing a Christian cycling kit. He was smooth and steady, so used him to pace me along the ridge. I was definitely deep in the pain cave, but just kept telling myself that if I could make it to the long descent off the Skyway without being caught, I could get to the finish first. I was thankful for Mr. Christian Dude on the descent as he seemed to know the terrain and so I followed his wheel. It was fun, but not easy. I was constantly on guard for the many rutted sections and sharp rocks that were potential game enders.
We blew past the final aid station and I hit 35 mph on the smooth gravel descent back down to the rollers of Wiregrass. As soon as the gravel turned up, Mr. Christian Dude popped. I urged him to hop on to my wheel. There is not much to draft off of me, but every bit would help. He hung on for awhile, but told me he was spent. There was still about 4 to 5 miles of gravel back to the single track and I needed to get back up to speed, so I motored on. Those little rollers were kicking my ass. I was feeling it in my glutes as well as my quads. Uh oh, could that be a pre cramp twinge? I took a few big drinks and swallowed the last of my gel.
With just a couple miles to the single track, two guys came around me like I was standing still. They passed so fast and stealthy that I did not even get the opportunity to try and latch on. That made me very nervous. Was I fading? Where were Beth and Kimberly? Now was when I anxiously began to look over my shoulder. What would I do if I did see them? Could I mount any sort of counter attack? I kept telling myself, just make it to the single track, just make it to the single track, where I knew I could hold them off. Come on legs!
Somehow I managed to reel the 2 guys that had passed me earlier, right at the entrance to the single track. Now was the time to dig deep. David and Frank were soooo smooooth on the trail, I was having a blast staying on their wheel, even though my legs were screaming. I stayed off the brakes as much as possible ... every bit of momentum was crucial right now. A couple times I almost cracked, but stood out of the saddle and dug deep to remain with them. With about 4 to go, Frank cracked and let me on by. Now on David's wheel, I could tell he was in cramp management mode. He had slowed down some, but I had no intention of passing, as the pace was still what I considered winnable.
The last trail before the descent to the finish, the Ridge Trail, went ... on ... forever. I was so wanting to be done and around every corner, I was eagerly looking for the trail crossing. Finally, seeing it, I could let all the negative thoughts that had been rambling through my brain over the last 2 1/2 hours go. I cruised down and took the win!
|Alabama has some fassst women!|
Oh, and it was 66 miles, not 60. And 6400 feet of climbing, most of that concentrated in the 40 miles of "roads."
I knew I had truly went to my limits on this one, as every muscle in my legs felt like they were being stabbed. This pain continued for at least 15 minutes. Did someone have a voodoo doll of me? I drank a Coke and then a bottle of water, fearing I was dehydrated, and hoping that would help. Finally the pain subsided and I was able to change out of my kit and inhale some food.
If you want a race that will test your mettle, then this one is for you. The non single track sections were by far the hardest. I was never so happy to see that flowy IMBA-rrific trail at the end. Don't expect a number plate, an aid station buffet, podium pay outs, or to have your hand held. If you want a challenging, "vision quest" type of course (which was well marked), unique trophies, a great post race meal and all the beer you can drink, put this on your list for 2018.