Thursday, April 21, 2016

All But CARP or How I Turned 44 years old

Every once in a blue supermoon, I get an idea in my head to do some unique, crazy-ass bicycle ride that's never been done before.  3 years ago (the date of the last blue supermoon), I did 110 Miles of Nowhere at Burns Park in North Little Rock (100 laps of the modified Ronde van Burns criterium circuit).  There's been discussions of doing 100 Miles of Pfiefer Loop or 12 hours of Jackfork or some similar insanity.  Back in August, there was an organized ride out at the Central Arkansas Recreational Peddlers (CARP) trails at Camp Robinson called All-A-CARP in which the organizers provided the support to ride all the mountain bike trails at Camp.  

One thing that we're dearly lacking in Central Arkansas is organized mountain bike rides and events.  Usually, the only mountain bike events you have in this part of the state are mountain bike races that are part of the Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Series (AMBCS).  With the success of All-A-CARP which drew over a hundred mountain bikers, we need more events like that to cater to the casual and non-competitive mountain biker.  

Joe Jacobs and I discussed earlier this summer about doing a mountain bike ride/event called All-BUT-CARP, essentially riding all the mountain bike trails in Little Rock and North Little Rock with exception to the Camp Robinson trails.  Not only would cyclists get to ride a piece of every mountain bike trail, they would ride their mountain bikes from one trail system to the next via the Arkansas River Trail and city streets.  In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up, they have an annual MoCo Epic where they can mountain bike up through 11 different parks in the county.  This would be Central Arkansas' version of that particular epic ride.  

But before we could try to organize it as an official event with sponsors and support, we decided that we had to do it first ourselves as a dress rehearsal just to see if it was even possible.  Because our schedules never quite synced up, the summer came and went and the idea sat on our proverbial idea shelf gathering dust.  

Enter my birthday weekend the first week of September when I would be turning 44.  I decided that I would do All-BUT-CARP for my birthday ride, shooting to ride parts of all the trails and to finish with a total of 44 miles.  A couple of weeks before that, I quickly pulled up my previous rides on Strava, started a spreadsheet, and carefully estimated the distances involved.  My thought process involved cutting trails out, deciding which ones to do (based on difficulty and time), and soon I had a rough estimate of what it would take.  I developed an itinerary of times, based on how long I thought it would take to ride each trail, and factored in some extra time for unexpected issues.  Because it was also a celebratory birthday ride, I added in two stops for food/drinks at Pinnacle Valley Restaurant and Diamond Bear Brewery and Ale House.  

I figured not everyone would want to do the entire ride, so my plan also allowed for people to join and drop along the route.  As the plan got fleshed out, I created a Facebook event page and sent out invites.  The day of the event, I would update the invitees on the Facebook page where we were so people could join us along the way if they wanted to.  

Starting group
The only difficulty with a route that starts at one location and ends at another is that you have to factor in shuttling, that is, to get riders to the start while leaving vehicles at the finish.  That ended up not being a huge problem because Mat from Spokes Little Rock was generous enough to let me borrow the Spokes van to shuttle people from Boyle Park up to Jackfork for the start.  

I ended up meeting two of my good friends at Boyle Park to shuttle to the start.  I had a couple of other probables who never showed, but in hindsight, probably was for the best.  Little did I know that the day's temperatures would rocket up into the 90s, making it an even more challenging, brutal ride.  I arrived at the Pinnacle Mountain State Park Visitor Center at my pre-planned time and got ready for a 9:30am start.  I was eventually joined by another small handful of friends and teammates, making our starting number 7 strong.  I deliberately planned to ride Jackfork first because of the sheer difficulty of the trail.  My only decision was which direction to ride the main loop in?  I ended up choosing to ride in in a clockwise direction, but in hindsight, that was probably the wrong choice.  I felt like that direction is harder at first, but easier to end on.  Others disagreed.  We at least got a warm up in on Rabbit Ridge Trail, the easier, beginner trail immediately adjacent to the Jackfork.  Everyone seemed to be having a good time so far.  We tackled Jackfork as best we could, stopping to re-group at times, and stopping for short breaks.  Halfway into the trail and I was already drenched in sweat as the temperatures pushed the mid 80s.  As much as I love the trail, the challenge, and the technical aspects, that was not the case with most of my compatriots.  There was much grumbling and bellyaching.  It truly is a love/hate trail.  You either love it or hate it, and those of us who love it are in the minority.  We managed to complete the trail in about the amount of time I had estimated so we hit the pavement for the easier, faster-paced ride to Pinnacle Valley Restaurant, our next stop.  

I was ready to get the show on the road and took off at a pretty fast pace.  It wasn't until we had cleared the two short pavement climbs and descended the other side that I noticed I had left half the group behind.  Didn't they know I had a timetable to keep?  I slowed up to wait for everyone to catch up and we rode as a group to the restaurant.  The temperatures continued to climb slowly and the patio was in the sun, so we opted for the cooler air-conditioned indoors.  Not having much time, we got drinks and appetizers.  Oh, and milkshakes.  It was my birthday ride so I was going to drink a milkshake, and drink it all up.  However, in hindsight, riding in high temps and humidity, a beer, milkshake, and cheese dip was probably NOT the brunch of champions.  I was definitely surprised that I didn't heave that nasty concoction in my stomach up all over the pavement at some point, but I'm not about to eat that combination again any time soon.  In the short time we were there, we were greeted by the Ladies of CARVE (LoC) who were out on a training ride themselves, and several of my friends from the Little Rock Hash House Harriers who were out on a rare bike ride.  They all thought I was crazy and wished us luck the rest of the day.  By the time we left, it was almost noon and we had only covered a quarter of the distance.  Time to get a move on.  

After gaining a friend who was going to join us for a short portion of the ride and saying goodbye to a couple of my friends who had started with us (who had other plans the rest of the day, and maybe weren't quite as disturbed in the head as the rest of us), we made our way to Two Rivers Park, the Big Dam Bridge, and Pfiefer Loop.  We rode briefly with the LoC but soon left them behind as they were just cruising at an easy pace while we had some ground to cover.  Reaching Pfiefer Loop, we gained yet another one of my friends, Dena Woerner, the only female bad-ass enough to suffer the rest of the day with me.  Pfiefer Loop was nice as it got us out of the direct sun.  And I was excited to ride it for the first time since it had been flooded.  

My one mishap and almost potential ride-ending incident occurred at the sandpit on the southeast side.  While only moderately annoying before, it was now a full-fledged beach with sand strewn as far as the eye can see, well, nearly.  I managed to get my wheel turned sideways somehow and crashed ungracefully into the soft sand.  To make matters worse, my friend Nate was right on my wheel as I went down so he had no choice but to practically run over me.  Thankfully we had a soft landing but I did draw blood as his bike sandwiched my leg between my bike and the ground.  But it was only a flesh wound and I was not even close to being mostly dead so I just rubbed some spit on it and kept going.  

Our next stop would be Burns Park and I had picked a route that included a good portion of the trails out there (namely the Green and Red Trails).  We were down to just James, Dena, Vinny, Nate, and myself at this point.  And the heat and humidity was quickly taking a toll.  I was starting to have doubts whether I could even finish the ride, and was starting to feel fatigued.  I ended up riding my pre-planned route with James, although at times barely moving at all, while the others did shortened versions of the route.  Poor Vinny, who was on a borrowed bike (which he previously owned) which he felt really uncomfortable on, so he bailed and said for us to meet him at the skatepark where he would take a long break.  We ended up meeting back up with Nate and Dena by the quarry/golf course and we decided that we needed to find water STAT.  We were all overheating by this point and needed to cool down.  We remembered the restrooms at White Oak Bayou which were just down the hill so we went on the search for water there.  James didn't even stop as he screamed by Dena and Nate yelling something unintelligible about bathrooms as he sped by.  Nate informed us he would be leaving us at this point and wished us the best of luck.  I told him I didn't envy the fact that he still had Overlook to ride up to get home (but later found out he called for a SAG vehicle, namely his wife, to pick him up at the bottom of the hill).  

While there was water at the restroom, it wasn't nearly cold enough so I went to check out the river to see if it was any cooler.  I was fully ready to take a quick swim/dip but the water in the river was just barely above lukewarm.  No dice.  It was then James spied a spigot by one of the pavilions.  We prayed that it worked.  Not only did it work, but it was pouring out sweet, cold relief.  That was our saving grace for the day, I determined.  I doused my head and upper body under the clear, flowing manna for a good minute or two.  I can't even describe how refreshing it felt and how much it reinvigorating it was.  We had the last difficult climb ahead of us, namely Emerald Park, and we needed every ounce of energy we possessed.  Finally cooled down and somewhat rested from our short break, we set off to summit Emerald Park.  
Sweet cold relief!!
Resting atop Emerald Park

James felt slightly stronger so he took off ahead of us while I spun easy with Dena on my wheel.  Having my friends there as support, I wasn't about to let them down so as long as Dena kept riding, I wasn't going to stop either.  I think she was thinking the same thing.  Powered by each other's determination not to stop, we made it to the top in probably my slowest time ever, but we still made it.  We reached the top to find James slumped over his handlebars as he tried to recover from his effort.  We took quite a longer break than I planned at this point, but we all needed a little extra recovery time.  We lay on the shaded asphalt while trying to take selfies of us without looking completely hideous.  I now felt we could finish the ride, it was just a matter of how long it would take us.  

After being able to breathe again, we all remounted our rides and rode the paved trail adjacent to Fort Roots to take us down to the skate park where Vinny should be waiting for us.  Dena and I stopped for photos along the way and lost James and then took the road down.  We ended up meeting James and Vinny at the skate park where we found Vinny in good spirits.  We apologized for taking so long and having him wait so long for us.  He said he was able to grab a nap and it wasn't a problem.  James was pretty exhausted by this point and both he & Vinny decided they would ride as far as Diamond Bear with us (our next stop) but they would be calling it quits.  

With more indoor air conditioning beckoning, we made our way to Diamond Bear.  We tried a paceline as best we could, trying to help each other out in the hot, blazing sun.  Yeah, this was a brutal, brutal ride, no matter how you looked at it.  As I had a first date later that evening, I was sort of on a timeline now too, and I struggled with trying to finish in time, trying to ride the requisite distance, and riding the requisite trails.  I figured if we left Diamond Bear by 3:30pm, that would give us 2 hours to ride to Allsopp, ride a very shortened version of Allsopp and then to Boyle Park.  At this point, I really didn't care about the final mileage anymore than just being able to finish.  No one was going to say boo about not hitting every single goal that day considering the conditions and what we attempted.  We spent almost a good hour at Diamond Bear cooling off and re-fueling.  Vinny & James wished us luck and we told them we would call them when we left Allsopp so they could meet us at Boyle to pick me up & take me back to get the Spokes van.  

I was certainly glad Dena was still with me and kept me company during the final stages of my ride.  I couldn't have done this without the support of my amazing, wonderful friends.  We weren't going fast any longer but we made sure we kept moving.  As we made our way to Allsopp, I was trying to figure out the best route for us through the park considering she had never ridden there before.  It's not an easy trail by any stretch of the imagination and we were going to have to do some decent climbing to get to where we were going.  I ended up choosing the more-technical but less steep climb, and warned Dena was to expect.  She toughed it out like the badass that she is and we made it through Allsopp unscathed.  

Based on a recommendation from another friend, we hit Kavanaugh and then west on H Street to N Hughes which would take us directly into the backside of Boyle Park.  Those roads weren't without their share of hills but we powered through slow and steady like we did the rest of the day.  We did a quick loop of the northwest trail and that met my goal of riding a portion of every mountain bike trail in the Little Rock/North Little Rock metro area.  We made our way down to the parking lot to wait for our friends and I checked my Garmin.  It read 41.9 miles.  So close.  Well, I didn't really know how long it was going to take my friends to get there so I decided to make the best of it while waiting for them.  I would turn the pedals over as fast as I could and maybe I could still hit 44 miles before they got there.  

Turtle savior!
My legs were pretty cooked by this point so it was a real struggle to ride with any decent speed.  I made out and backs from the parking lot, I did small little loops, I do-si-do'ed with Dena and I allemanded left and right.  My friends arrived shortly thereafter and I checked my Garmin again.  42.9 miles.  Damn, I was THAT close.  Oh well.  I didn't have time to do another mile so I chalked it up to being "close enough".  I very well couldn't keep my date waiting.  It wasn't until later when I uploaded my Garmin data that it had corrected the distance to 43.6 miles.  So I ended up officially being 0.4 miles short.  Now THAT I probably could have done in the parking lot.  

Last two standing!!
So with the support and company of some amazing, wonderful and loving friends, I rode ~44 miles on my mountain bike to celebrate my 44th bday. Huge thanks and appreciation from the bottom of my heart to Vinny FergusonJames MorganDena Witt WoernerNate SiriaRick HoytAaron RobertsNick Volgas, and Mike Simmons for coming out and riding with me. I couldn't have done it without you. The unique thing about this ride was that we rode to and portions of all 7 mountain bike trails in Little Rock and North Little Rock (Rabbit Ridge, Jackfork, Pfiefer Loop, Burns Park, Emerald Park, Allsopp Park, Boyle Park) with exception to Camp Robinson. I don't think this has ever been done before?  Thinking about making this a cycling event in the future for everyone so it was a good recon/dress rehearsal. Took 8 hrs 10 minutes with stops at Pinnacle Valley Restaurant and Diamond Bear Brewing Company. It was not an easy ride to begin with and made all the more challenging in some pretty intense heat (97 deg!!?!).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Losing a Treasured Soul

It's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment you met someone who seems like they have always been a part of the community.  For me, I'm sure I first met Laura at one of the AMBCS mountain bike races in 2012.  I had been mountain biking for years before that but that was the first year I started racing competitively.  We were both in the beginner CAT3 division that year and I remember seeing her at the same races I attended and talking to her about how she hadn't been riding very long (relatively speaking) and just started racing and had done a couple of races in 2011. We both shared in each other's growing pains in learning how to race and marveled at the skill, fitness and ability of the more accomplished racers.  Little did we know that one day we would be accomplished riders ourselves and bringing new people into the sport we love.  

Laura was never shy about trying something new - here at her first road "race" (Scott-Tucker-Scott 2014)

Thinking back, one of the first rides I probably did with her was pre-riding the course at Eureka Springs in 2012.  I remember running into her on the trail just before we climbed up to Miners Rock and the first impression I had was just how friendly and enthusiastic she was.  She graciously allowed me to pass her and her friend saying that it would take them a while to do the climb.  I wasn't in any hurry myself and ended up riding with the two of them for a while.  I would ride on ahead just a ways but I could hear her laughing and chatting not far behind.  That was just the type of person she was - even just meeting her for a brief moment you got the sense that she was someone special.

Pretty soon, we would run into each other occasionally on the trails here in Little Rock and would often stop to chat.  That was one thing Laura reminded me of was to "stop & smell the roses"  (or take photo ops which she LOVED to do) every once in a while.  While I co-headed up the mountain bike at Spokes, I considered her my counterpart for Team CARVE.  We both lead group rides and strove to introduce new people to riding and/or racing.  Over time, we became friends and we often rode at the other's organized rides.  It wasn't uncommon for us to message each other before a group ride with weather threatening to see whether we should cancel the ride.

We joked recently about how she was recruiting all the female newcomers to CARVE while she maintained that Spokes had a monopoly on the more veteran female riders. Ohhh, burn. We may have represented different teams while racing, but we agreed that the rest of the time we were all part of the same mountain biking family.  Even on different teams, we were always cheering for every single racer (maybe a bit more for our own teammates), but still encouraging everyone to do their very best.  Seriously, I have never met someone who was always encouraging, always positive, no matter the situation or conditions.  

One of Laura's favorite group photos with trees in bloom- Spring 2014

Laura would be too humble to admit this, but she is a true paragon of a mountain bike ambassador.  The beginners womens mountain bike clinic that she was in charge of (and I had the honor of helping out with) and her leading the Cyclofemme rides were two of my fondest memories of her being selfless and being an advocate for women's cycling in Arkansas.

20+ women showed up for the first women-only beginner's mtb clinic

In the face of tragedy, we often strive to make sense of why it happened.  We may never know but what we can do is let Laura's legacy live on through each one of us.  It's apparent how widespread Laura's influence can be felt through the testament of all the photos people have shared on Facebook in which they are pictured with Laura.  We can all learn and follow the example she set.  The world is quite a bit dimmer with her loss but we should all strive to Live Like Laura.  I know that she would be proud of us for each person we encourage to start riding. 

I was just starting to get to know the rest of her family a bit better as of late.  We were making plans on getting her son Gregory and my kids together as they shared a love of riding and gaming.  One of my most treasured memories will be participating in the CATA parent-child trail work day on Pfiefer Loop with her and her son just a week ago. The bridge we repaired and the section we reinforced will be a special spot for my family.

Rules to Live Like Laura:

1) Wear crazy socks once in a while (not just while riding!)

2) Smile at everyone.  :)

3) Ride for fun more often (& document with photos!)

4) Lead a group ride or two or more.

Wrapping this up, I wanted to paraphrase Red from The Shawshank Redemption:
"It makes me sad though... Laura being gone.  I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be 'caged'.  Their feathers are just too bright.  And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to keep them here DOES rejoice.  But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone.  I guess I just miss my friend."
She truly had the most beautiful feathers of all, and I know wherever she is, she is smiling down at us with that unforgettable smile of hers and shredding the coolest singletrack she can get her tires on.

A memorial fund has been established in Laura's name for any who wish to contribute.  #GiveLikeLaura

Pfeifer Loop #LeanForLaura - one of Laura's favorite trails and
many of the women Laura got into mountain biking rode here for the very first time.

Friday, November 15, 2013

2013 Hazel Valley 100

I've heard it's sometimes baffling why people run marathons, compete in Ironmans, ride centuries, or participate in a host of other endurance type events.  If it's painful or difficult or not at all "fun", why do people subject themselves to suffering and misery?  The Hazel Valley 100, which took place this past weekend at Hazel Valley Ranch, is one such example.  Even moreso, as there is no prize money, no press releases, or any sort of official recognition of the accomplishment.

The Hazel Valley 100 could be considered the bigger and badder version of the White Rock Classic which takes place in the spring.  The White Rock Classic is a 50-miler out-and-back mountain bike gravel grinder from Hazel Valley Ranch to the top of White Rock Mountain.  The Hazel Valley 100 does that exact same route, except it adds an additional 50-miles from White Rock Mountain to Turner Bend and back.  It has an estimated 12,000+ feet of climbing and is not for the faint of heart or weak of legs.  To add an additional degree of difficulty, this year's Hazel Valley 100 would start at night so riders would have to ride a good portion of the course in the dark.  The course was described as extremely tough, brutal and challenging.  Only the fittest of the fit and the toughest of the tough need to enter this event.

Seeing as how Hazel Valley Ranch is one of my most favoritest places to visit in Arkansas, I jumped at the opportunity to go up with my family to cover the event as an emissary for  Roger Rains, the ranch manager, tried to entice me to do part of the ride as a 2-person team, but seeing as how I struggled mightily during the Hazel Valley Gran Prix a few weeks ago (and this would be an even tougher ride), I respectfully declined, knowing full well the limits of my fitness.  Nosiree Bob, I was content to play journalist this time around, and helping Roger with providing support in the SAG vehicle.

When we arrived at Hazel Valley Ranch Friday evening, the temperature had dropped to the lower 50s, and  there was a steady rain coming down.  I asked Roger if the event was still on.  He replied, "as long as there are riders to ride, we will do whatever it takes for however long it takes to keep the event going."  I admired his spirit.  The start was originally set for 9pm that night, and by 8pm, we only had 2 potential riders show up out of 12 or so that had committed to the event.  Looks like the cold and wet had kept the majority of the would-be participants at home.

Roger held a pre-race meeting with the two riders who had showed up - Nickel Potter, the defending Hazel Valley Gran Prix champion (I know this is correct this time, Gerald), and Nick Clausen(sp?), one of the Friends of Hazel Valley Ranch.  A decision had to be made - start the race at the pre-appointed time of 9pm no matter what, or delay the start of the race until the rain had stopped.  Nickel was ready to go.  He was ready to go right then if he had to.  He had outfitted his cyclocross bike with 700x45 tires, had rain gear on, a plethora of lights, and enough sustenance to last him the entire ride.  On the other hand, Nick wasn't so sure.  He hadn't planned for the rain so he wasn't prepared to do a ride in the cold and wet.  Roger said he'd hook him up with some gear if he still wanted to ride or he would even delay the start until the rain stopped but Nick decided the warmth of the lodge and the freely flowing beer on tap was a much better alternative.  Not that I blame him.

Nickel set off promptly at 9:18pm.  I was so occupied trying to get ready to do support in the SAG vehicle that I didn't even get to see him when he set off.  Roger and I soon got the SAG vehicle loaded up and we set off on the course to find Nickel.  In addition to the steady rain, a good portion of the route was shrouded in fog, as the lights from the truck struggled to illuminate the road ahead.  At times, the visibility was near zero, and I was glad Roger was driving as he was intimately familiar with the back roads.  I'm sure if I was driving, I would have driven us off the side of the mountain (or close to it) numerous times.

The conditions couldn't have been much worse, in my opinion, and my respect for Nickel grew with every passing minute.  I mean, seriously, one has to admire his resolve in attempting the ride with no other competitors, no prize money, no trophy, no glory other than whatever he takes away from the ride.  We finally caught up to him somewhere on the first big climb, his taillight barely visible through the thick fog and rain.  As we passed him, we asked him how he was doing and if he needed anything.  He gave us a thumbs up and looked to be in decent spirits.

We drove up ahead to where he'd be making the turn onto Hurricane Creek Road, and we set up "camp" there to wait for him.  By this time, the rain had stopped so we felt that would help Nickel's morale.  Roger managed to get his propane stove lit and made himself a double shot of hot chocolate while we waited.  We shared war stories of the various places we had raced or ridden and took the opportunity to get some "bro" time in.  After a while, Nickel passed us and it looked like he had shed his rain gear.  He zoomed by without even a thought of stopping.  If the rain stayed away, it would definitely improve his chances of finishing the ride.

We stayed put a while longer, then packed everything up and set off to find Nickel once again.  The better conditions were not to be, and the rain picked back up once again.  It was now bitterly cold and the rain didn't help.  When we finally found Nickel again on the climb up to White Rock Mountain, he stopped to get his rain gear on.  We drove slowly behind as he climbed steadily.  Eventually we met up with him at the turnaround at White Rock, and his face had the look of defeat all over it.

He said, "you know, I'm not having as much fun anymore, so if you don't mind, I'm going to jump in the truck."  The time was 12:18am.  He had made it the 30 miles to White Rock in exactly 3 hours, not bad considering the conditions and limited visibility.  We would have been more than happy to continue to support him had he continued, but I think the rain had dampened his spirits and the warm lodge and cold beer back at Hazel Valley was beckoning.  Nickel's excuse was that he felt bad for us being out there supporting only him, and he didn't want to keep us up all night.  Whatever, Nickel, you still rode 30 miles more than anyone else and he was declared the 2013 HVR 100 champion.  (Author's note: Please excuse the lack of photos during Nickel's EPIC ride - I didn't want to use the camera flash for fear of blinding Nickel and sending him plummeting off the mountain.)

The rest of the weekend was perfect - perfect weather, perfect company, perfect food.  We spent a leisurely Saturday lounging around the lodge, taking a tour of Terra Studios (an art center just down the road from Hazel Valley Ranch), and getting some singletrack mountain biking in.  The highlight of Saturday was playing some makeshift bicycle (and on-foot) broom ball.  With a ball made from plastic bags and duct tape, goals made from surveying flagging, and a bunch of brooms dug up from the garage, we engaged in some free-for-all broom ball on bikes which resulted in everyone playing having a grand 'ol time.  I can say everyone playing was laughing giddily at one point or another.  Everything was sort of cobbled together at the last minute, but Roger assured me that broom ball will be improved upon for the future.  The kids got to feed the buffalo, cook s'mores over the buffalo gas fireplace, and just in general act like a bunch of kids having a great time playing with each other, or was that the adults?  We had a bonfire Saturday night which warmed the cold night air, and we just enjoyed each others company.

One has to wonder why Nickel attempted a solo effort in such horrible conditions?  I think it's because we truly don't know what we're made of or what potential we have or what we can accomplish unless we put ourselves to the test and take our bodies to the very limits.  It's only in these situations where our physical soul is laid bare and we discover that we can go just a little bit further, go just a bit faster, or endure a bit longer than what we thought we could achieve.  Or in Nickel's case, maybe he was just bored and needed another challenge?  In any case, congrats to Nickel for his perseverance and effort when no one else was up to the task. Nickel Potter, you ARE the fittest of the fit and toughest of the tough.

As always, the environs and hospitality at Hazel Valley Ranch is top notch, and a huge thanks goes out to Roger Rains and the staff for keeping the beer flowing and putting us up for the weekend.  We had yet another fun and memorable weekend.  Here's to hoping the weather gods smile more favorably on Hazel Valley Ranch for next year's Hazel Valley 100. 

2013 Hazel Valley Gran Prix

This marked the third (I think) occurrence of the Hazel Valley Gran Prix - a 55-mile gravel grinder on the forest roads and back roads of the Ozark National Forest in Northwest Arkansas.  I had friends who had done the ride/race in the past and lived to tell the tale.  Now it would be my turn to put my mettle to the test.  Ever since I drove away from Hazel Valley Ranch last spring after the Saddlebock Mountain Bike Festival, I was looking for every reason to return.

I consider Hazel Valley Ranch to be one of the hidden gems nestled away in the mountains of NWA.  They have a wonderful lodge on 200-acres of property that served as the start and finish of the race.  While most of the riders that showed up came to race, I was treating it more as a tour, hoping to survive and finish.  I was especially excited to show off all the amenities Hazel Valley Ranch had to offer to my wife who was visiting for her very first time.  Her reaction to seeing the lodge was the same as mine when I visited back in May.  In the first five minutes, she felt right at home and didn't ever want to leave.  She was especially excited about the heated outdoor private showers which Roger Rains, the ranch manager, had just installed before our visit in the spring.

For a small registration fee of $30, riders were treated to an adventurous ride, a pre-ride pancake/waffle breakfast, a tech-tee shirt, all-you-could-eat meat, beans, brick-oven pizza, and all-you-could-drink adult beverages.  They allowed free camping on site which a few of us took advantage of.

The weather in late September can be especially unpredictable, but fortunately this year, we were treated to ideal riding conditions.  It was raining when we left Little Rock Friday afternoon, but it had stopped by the time we reached the ranch.  The rest of the day would remain cloudy and cool, but Saturday graced us with sunny, breezy and cool to warm temperatures.

Reading the race reports from previous years and talking to veterans of the race gave me an idea of what to expect.  Several long, grueling climbs mixed in with thrilling descents, and some great views of the surrounding hillside and White Rock Mountain.  The first half of the race to White Rock would definitely be the hardest, defined by three major climbs, enough to sap the legs for the rest of the course, which was mostly flat and had some rollers, with some shorter but nasty kickers thrown in for good measure.  My only goal for the day was survive and hopefully not get too lost.

Riders started showing up around 7am Saturday morning, just as the fog was starting to burn off.  Those who elected partook of some yummy pancakes and waffles that Roger personally cooked up himself.  By close to 9am, the lodge was buzzing with cyclists, doing their last minute preparations for the day's adventure.  We were given a laminated handlebar map, a topo map with the course, and printed directions.  This was to be a self-supported ride, but Vince Cucco would be out on his motorcycle patrolling the course, while Roger would drive a SAG vehicle that would also double as sweep.  Dr. Wayne would be leading a shorter, easier 20-mile ride for the day.  The rest of us had a strenuous ride ahead of us.

Shortly after 9am, Roger had his son River ring a cowbell and shouted "go!" and a contingent of approximately 40 riders went off.  There were quite a few doing the ride for the first time, myself included, so I hoped to find a group riding my pace that had some idea of where we were going.  The course is a 55-mile counterclockwise loop that goes out to White Rock Mountain and back.  The first of the 3 brutal climbs is within the first 5 miles of the race.  That definitely slowed my pace way down, but I was still among other riders at this point so I wasn't without company.

Alex Roberts gave a pretty good description of the course from last year so I won't go into too much detail about the course this time around.  In comparison to the Slobberknocker marathon mountain bike race (which is also a gravel grinder like this one), the Gran Prix has fewer climbs, but they are way longer and way steeper than the ones found in the Ouachita National Forest.  

As we settled into the climb, the day's groupings would start to form up.  I was in a pack of about 6 riders at this point, and having others around me definitely gave me some encouragement.  It was nice to have others around who knew the course and for the added moral support of doing the long climbs.  At some point, we stopped to aid a fellow rider who had suffered a mechanical with his bike and half the group took off while the rest of us waited.  I ended up doing the majority of the rest of the ride with two fellow riders - Chris Robertson and David Allen, two NWA locals who were out just touring the Gran Prix like myself.  Chris had done the ride last year but since the entire ride was shrouded in fog, he didn't get to see much of the beautiful surrounding landscape.  He said this year was completely different and was definitely enjoying the views a lot more.

We would get somewhat spread out on the climbs to White Rock Mountain as we climbed at different speeds but we would always regroup at the summit of each hill.  My legs started cramping a bit as we approached White Rock but I kept moving as best I could.  My only mistake of the day was leaving my salt tablets behind.  I had misjudged the cooler weather and thought I could do without.  I did have a bottle of pickle juice which I drank before we got to White Rock, and it probably helped keep the cramping from being completely immobilizing.  The views from White Rock Mountain were spectacular and on a clear day, you could see as far as Clarksville, Ozark, and Mount Magazine.  We took a few minutes to rest our weary legs and refuel with energy bars, Gu, and slimjims.

I decided at this point that there were essentially three grades of steepness to the climbs out here: 1) Steep, 2) OMGMyLegsAreGoingToFallOffSteep, and 3) Are you kidding me how does anyone ride this!?!? Steep.  Yeah, this was not the place for wusses and flatlanders.  Those who came out and did any part of this ride should be proud of themselves.

 Upon exiting the overlook to refill our water bottles, we ran into Roger who had cold burgers and hot dogs in case we needed something more substantial to eat.  He briefly improved my morale by saying he had cold Cokes in the cooler but it was not to be as someone had forgotten to put them in.  He promised next year he'd have hot burgers and cold soda.

The remainder of the ride was pretty uneventful.  We managed to stay on course and kept ticking off the miles.  My bike computer stopped working at mile 41 so from that point on, I had no idea how much further I had to go.  Vince would ride by every once in a while checking up on us and he would give me periodic mileage updates.  I think he felt sorry for me as he watched me working the cramps out of my quads.  We soon emerged from the forest-like terrain and got on some flat, wide-open dirt roads.  I was pretty exhausted by this point and could only sustain a moderate speed.  David took off and left me and Chris literally in his dust.  I'm pretty sure Chris could have gone with David as well, but he was kind enough to stay behind and pace me.  With about 9 miles to go, Roger drove by one last time asking if either of us wanted to quit.  The thought did enter my mind briefly, but I had never quit a race before and I wasn't going to start now.

We were the last few on the course and I kept going, looking for the paved road which would signify the last 2 miles of the course, all downhill.  We had one last nasty short steep climb and once we topped that, I felt like we were in the homestretch.  I stayed on Chris' wheel the whole time, bombing down the paved state highway, which was an absolute thrill and fun way to end a difficult day in the saddle.  Vince said he clocked us doing 47mph on mountain bikes down the final steep descent.  We rolled in to the cheers and applause from everyone who had already finished.  I think they were just cheering because now they could get their awards and go home.

In addition to smoked meats, boiled beans, and bottomless pint glasses of Fat Tire, 1554, Shiner Bock, and Diamond Bear beer, this year Roger had a real treat for the cyclists by bringing in Kevin Bennoch & Pedaler's Pub who provided wood-fired personal pizzas.  Not only did they make mouth-watering, delicious pizzas, it was entertaining to watch them do so.

For the first time in the history of the Hazel Valley Gran Prix, Roger had trophies made in the shape of a buffalo that would be awarded to the top male and female finisher.  The male winner of this year's Hazel Valley Gran Prix was Nickel Potter with the defending champion, Austin Morris coming in only a few minutes behind after taking a wrong turn and adding an additional 4-miles to the race.  The winner of the female trophy was Aly Racheotes.  Just about everyone who stayed behind also won in a raffle for a plethora of gift cards donated by local bike shops in the Fayetteville and Bentonville area.

People were welcome to hang around and stay after the ride was over.  I need to express a special thanks to Chris and David for sticking with me through the day.  They definitely made the ride 100x more fun than riding solo.  And I did get to utilize the outdoor showers both during the day and at night.  It was pretty amazing taking a hot shower with the stars overhead.  All I know is that the outdoor showers were worth the price of admission.  I think everyone had a great time, spectators and riders alike.  In fact, I was glad to have stayed for 2 nights - it was just a wonderful place to rest and relax no matter what your interests are.  I was missing the Hazel Valley High before I had even left, and my whole family and I look forward to our next time there.  Hmm, Hazel Valley High, Arkansas - someone should write a song about that.

Huge thanks goes out to Dr.Wayne, Roger Rains and the staff at Hazel Valley Ranch for their wonderful hospitality and making it another fun, memorable weekend.  It was wonderful to reacquaint with old friends and to develop new friendships.  And thanks to the sponsors of the event -Ozark Surgical Associates, Ozark Off-Road Cyclists, and the local bike shops: Phat Tire Bike Shop, the Bike Route, and Highroller Cyclery.

If you want to experience the fun and hospitality that Hazel Valley Ranch has to offer, they will be hosting the Hazel Valley Trail Half-Marathon on October 5th, and the Hazel Valley Ranch 100 gravel grinder which starts on the evening of Friday October 18th and lasts well into the day on Saturday October 19th.  

2013 Syllamo's Revenge

I couldn't believe it, I had actually finished the Syllamo's Revenge 50 mile marathon mountain bike race.  That made it 3 for 3 for the marathon mountain bike races I had committed myself to training for and racing in for the year 2013.  First, there was the Spa City 6-hour race, then the nationally renown Ouachita Challenge (the OC), and now Syllamo's Revenge, which took place on the IMBA Epic Syllamo mountain bike trails just outside Mountain View, AR.

Funny enough, this was the only race this year that I never felt nervous or got all anxious and jittery about.  I didn't get the classic case of "butterflies" in the week prior, nor the day before, nor at the start of the race.  Maybe it was because I had ridden the last half of the race last year when I rode sweep.  Maybe it was because I thought the OC was the harder of the two races, and finishing the OC gave me the confidence that I could finish Syllamo as well.  Maybe I just truly didn't understand the magnitude of the difficulty which I was about to tackle.  Sometimes, ignorance really is a blessing in disguise.

In the first two races of the marathon series this year, I had learned a couple of valuable lessons that I swore I would take to heart for this race.  I had made some crucial mistakes that had bit me in the ass that I vowed I would not make again.  First of all, salt is your best friend.  During the Spa City 6-hour race, not only did my legs cramp, they cramped BADLY multiple times.  I took a little bit of salt during that race, but it obviously wasn't enough.  The temperature and humidity for Syllamo's Revenge was going to be a lot worse than it was for the Spa City race, and cramping could be a major factor.  I ingested sodium like it was going out of style.  The day before, I had sodium ladened meals.  The night before, I took several salt tablets before going to bed.  First thing I did when I woke up was take a couple of a salt tablets.  I took more at the start.  I took them at every aid station I stopped at.  And guess what?  No cramps.  Not even a single twinge.  GG Cliff - at least I did THAT right.

Second, I started off the OC at much too fast of a pace trying to keep up with riders who were much faster than I was.  That resulted in me nearly blowing up on the initial climb, getting passed by just about everyone in the race, and then struggling by myself for a good part of the 8 1/2 hours I was out there.  Had I taken it a bit more easy, I probably would have spent a good part of the day riding with teammates (who ended up only about 10-15 minutes ahead of me the entire day) and had a much more enjoyable experience.  I swore that I wouldn't do that again at Syllamo (which starts with a long, nearly 1 mile climb at 10-15% grades) and that I would spin easy up that hill and pace myself better for the entire race.  Goal #2 accomplished.  GG Cliff again!  As a result, I felt pretty strong all day and never felt like I was suffering as badly as I was during Spa City and the OC.

Syllamo's Revenge is an IMBA "Epic" designated ride on the Syllamo mountain bike trails in the Ozark National Forest just north of Mountain View, AR, in the vicinity of Blanchard Springs Caverns.  There was a 50-mile race as well as a 125k race that was part of the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) Series.  I was perfectly content to race the 50-miler, which would prove to be plenty challenging.  While not as popular as the OC, registration still sold out within the first day, and the NUE race brought riders in from all over the US.  The Syllamo trails are almost completely singletrack with many technical sections, several long climbs, and many fast descents.  The race would require the utmost concentration and focus, and a lapse in either of these could result in a possible crash or bike damage.  The Syllamo race was well known for chewing up and spitting out the hardiest of bikes, parts, and tires.

There were not as many of my fellow Spokes teammates that were going to do this race, but I was still committed.  David, one of my teammates asked if I wanted to drive up with him and share a room the night before the race in Mountain View and I gladly welcomed the opportunity.  Since the race started at 7:30am (the race directors actually moved the start time a 1/2 hour early because of the heat/humidity forecast), going up the day before seemed like a wise choice.  Because we decided on our plans fairly late, David had warned me that the only room he could find for us was at a "romantic" bed & breakfast in downtown Mountain View.  I didn't care.  I was good as long as we had a bed and a bathroom.  However, when I saw the room we would be staying in (Violet's Arbor), I nearly changed my mind.  Romantic doesn't begin to describe it.  Frilly, and victorian, and all things feminine would be a more apt description.  At least with the lights out you couldn't see all the flowery wallpaper, girly pillows, and lacey doilies.

We arrived in Mountain View in the late afternoon on Friday, and immediately ran into friends from back home.  It still kills me that we can drive hundreds of miles only to see and hang out with the same friends from Central Arkansas.  David & I picked up our race packets, checked into the B&B, and then were joined by our great friends Joe & Lisa from for dinner at Tommy's Famous A Pizzeria.  I must say, the innkeeper at the B&B seemed surprised that we were okay with the single queen bed in our room.  He made sure we understood that there was only one bed.  When David said, "yeah, we know, we'll make do," I detected a somewhat puzzled (or was it a knowing raise of the eyebrow?) look.  We took great joy in sharing that story with Lisa and seeing her reaction.  When it was all said and done, what happened in Mountain View, stays in Mountain View.

I ordered a sausage and pepper calzone which turned out to be as big as my head!  It was delicious and I can't believe I ate the whole thing.  Tommy, the owner, kept coming by and making sure we were enjoying ourselves.  After dinner, Joe and Lisa left to go camp with some other friends of theirs, so David & I took the time to wander around the small town, listening to the live folk music.  There was literally a band playing on every corner.  What was unusual to us, was that even though both of us are in our early 40s, we were probably some of the youngest in the crowd that had showed up to listen to the music.  We made our way back to our B&B, availed ourselves to the rocking chairs on the front porch, and talked well into the night.  David had been fighting a stomach bug all week and hadn't even decided if he was going to race until late Thursday.  I admired his perseverance and fortitude to do a marathon race even if he had been sick.

Race morning - cloudy and somewhat humid.  If it were to stay overcast all day, you wouldn't have gotten a single complaint from me.  We made it to the start at the Blanchard Springs Campground with plenty of time to park, get ready, and warm up.  As part of my warm up, I rode up the first section of the dirt climb we would be tackling in just a short bit.  Yeah, this was going to suck, but I was going to stick with my plan, dammit!  We saw the 125k riders go off and then soon it was our turn.  I lined up somewhere in the back, well within eyeshot of my teammates this time.

Only now did I start to get a bit nervous, which was highly uncharacteristic.  I didn't have much time to be nervous because after a few instructions and announcements, we were off!  We rode a short paved section, and then hit the climb.  The group split into two halves, availing itself of the doubletrack.  I put it on an easy gear and spun my way up the climb, keeping my heart rate and breathing controlled.  I saw David about 3 or 4 cyclists up ahead of me, and was content to stay where I was.  The climb seemed endless.  Every time we went around the corner, all I could see was a line of riders extending up, up, up.  But staying patient and keeping an easy pace worked.  After nearly a mile, we turned right onto the Yellow Trail (Jack's Branch) and finally entered the singletrack.

My legs, lungs, and heart were glad to get a reprieve.  While I felt pretty good having taken it relatively easy on the climb, the problem was that I was now at the back of the pack, and it would take some time before the crowd thinned.  We were definitely riding slow (much slower than I would have gone), and it seemed like everyone was dismounting and walking whenever we encountered the least bit of technical section.  It didn't help that the rocks littering this portion of the trail were wet from either rain or condensation, and they were super super slick.  I mean, slick enough that walking on them in bike shoes was like skating, and my bike kept wanting to slide enough even pushing it across the rocks.  Attempting to ride over these rocks was a crash sentence, one that could easily result in a broken bike or broken body.

Like the OC, I rode when I could, passed when I could, and walked/pushed when I couldn't.  Parts of the trail were technical, some of it was fun, some of it was difficult, there was a bit of everything mixed in.  Eventually, I finally caught up to my teammate David, and I rode with him for several miles.  I remarked that the variety in the terrain reminded me a lot of Allsopp Park back in Little Rock.  He said it reminded him more of the trails at Eureka Springs.  In any case, I was glad to have gotten in plenty of practice at both.  I would say I rode more than I walked but there was quite a bit of walking.  It just wasn't worth the risk of injury or a mechanical.

Many people simply got a DNF because of mechanicals or flats - it seemed like there wasn't hardly any part of the race when you weren't passing someone camped out on the side of the trail changing out a flat tire.

After riding with David for a while, I felt a bit stronger than the pace we were going so I went on ahead.  Poor guy was still getting over an intestinal bug, so him being a bit slower than me was uncharacteristic.  I wished him well and struck out on my own.  At some point, I passed my friend James "Power Ranger" Gaston on the side changing out a tube.  "Power Ranger down!" I yelled as I rode by.  He told me to keep going because he was going to come after me.  I had no doubt about that.  He caught up to me not too long after, and we got to ride with each for a bit before he rode off the front while the rest of us were walking a slightly technical section.

 We eventually turned onto the Blue Trail (Scrappy Mtn Loop) which was more of the same, but probably more technical than not.  One of my teammates had told me that when he had pre-ridden this part of the blue trail the day before, he had crashed five times in a short amount of time.  I never really encountered anything that was super sketchy, but then again, we did walk when the rocks were wet, so I probably avoided the really nasty stuff that my teammate crashed on.

I made it to CP1 and seemed like I was making good time.  I still felt good and felt confident I could make the cutoff times without any problems.  I refilled my bottles, took the opportunity to get some nutrition, and downed a small handful of salt tablets.  From here, we would ride on the green trail (White River Bluff Loop), the orange trail (Bald Scrappy Loop), and join back up with the blue trail to reach CP2.  I had heard that the green trail had some very scenic overlooks of the White River so I was sort of looking forward to that.  I remember riding some fun downhill sections before reaching the overlook, but as you know, what goes down must come up.  I stopped briefly at the scenic overlook which was very cool - some other racers were getting their phones out to take a photo but I decided to keep moving.

Just before reaching CP2, there was a nice creek crossing, and I actually stopped and splashed water all over myself before riding across to cool myself down.  I got to CP2 and restocked on everything once again.  Now we were to the part of the course I had ridden the previous year when I rode sweep so it was somewhat familiar in my mind.  The next 5 miles or so was going to be tough.  It was a pretty constant climb with some very technical rock ledges thrown in from time to time.  I was telling some of the other riders who were unfamiliar with the trail that this was probably the most difficult part of the race.  That it goes up, and just when you think you're at the top, it goes up some more, and when you think you're done, you keep going up. I rode the first half by myself, but eventually caught up to a group which I finished the climb with.

The last couple of miles was on some doubletrack/ATV trails so me and one other guy who felt a bit stronger than the rest sort of took off.  I was ready for the climb to be done and I knew we were close to the top so I went a bit harder to get it over with.  That would turn out to be somewhat of a mistake on our part. Once you get to the top, you're pretty much rewarded instantly with a nice downhill section.  We were glad to be done climbing so we blasted down the other side, with no one close behind.  We came to a T-junction and I saw flagging on the left side (without even really looking right) so we kept going that way.  We rode probably another mile or so until we encountered 125k riders coming the opposite direction.  They assured us we were going the wrong way.  Oh crap.  It meant we had missed a turn somewhere, probably back up at the T-intersection that I didn't remember taking.

The other guy seemed very down and told me to go ahead and he would catch up.  I did NOT look forward to riding back UP the downhill we had just ridden.  My morale took a hit too but nothing to do but go back the way we came.  I eventually ran into another lady coming from a taped off portion of the trail and she told me she was lost too.  I then remembered I had a printed map of the course and after looking at it, we figured out where we went wrong.  The worst part about going off-course is the time lost and extra energy expended to get back on course.  I figured at worst, I probably lost about 25 minutes, which was discouraging, but it happens.  As I rode along, I felt like if I had stuck with the group instead of leaving them behind, I wouldn't have missed the turn, and although I would have been a bit slower, I wouldn't have lost 25 minutes of time.  To be fair, that intersection wasn't marked very well since there was flagging on both sides.

I heard later that there were people who had missed a turn and ended up at the finish area well before they were supposed to, and they had to re-ride up that 1-mile hill we started on to get back on course.  Geez.  If I had done that, I might have taken a DNF myself.

Anyway, back on course, my confidence took a hit so I rode the next section to CP3 at a slower pace than I wanted.  My confidence and enthusiasm was shaken, and I was now just content to finish.  I knew that the hardest part was behind me, but I still had some work to be done.  The last loop on the red trail (Bad Branch Loop) was pretty flowy and fast, but it was still 15 miles of singletrack.  I stopped briefly at CP3 to top off my bottles and got back on the bike.  Unless something MAJOR happened, I was happy that I was going to finish the tough, grueling race.

I had hoped the trail karma I had gained during the race was going to help me finish strong.  I had stopped to give aid (in the form of salt tablets) to a fellow rider when he was cramping early on.  I had stopped to lend a tire lever to a guy who was changing out a tube and broken his levers.  I had given away one of the tubes I had to a friend from LR who had flatted and had run out of tubes.  But it was not meant to be.  About halfway through the red trail, my luck and karma ran out.

I noticed that my rear tire was feeling really loose on some of the turns, and then it felt like it was bottoming out when I rode over roots.  I stopped and gave it a squeeze.  Yep, definitely very squishy and low on air pressure.  I inspected the tire and found that sealant had been leaking out on part of the rim.  My thought was that I had 'burped' the tire (meaning that the seal between the tire and rim had been compromised) and I was loosing air that way.  I got out my pump and pumped it up as much as I could, and I could definitely see air escaping.  I picked my bike up and tilted it in a way that the sealant could try and seal the breach.  I probably looked pretty silly holding my bike up at weird angle over my head and shaking it back & forth.  I pumped it up as best I could and it seemed like it was holding air so I got back to riding.

I had only gone another half mile or so when it felt low again.  I decided to use one of my CO2 cartridges to get enough air in it until I returned to CP3.  I figured if I could do that, I could get a real pump and get it to the air pressure I wanted.  Using the CO2 got it pretty firm (That's what she said) and I was pretty sure I only had a few more miles to go so it was good enough for me.  But low and behold, not too much longer and it was low again.  But it never lost air completely which was baffling.  I continued to weigh the decision whether I should just keep riding or whether I should take extra time to put a tube in.  I knew I didn't have much more to go, but I was definitely going slower than I would have with a properly inflated tire.

After what seemed like ages, I made it back to the aid station and borrowed a floor pump to add air back in.  Instead of the 2 miles I had ridden on a low tire, it was probably more like 4, and I still had another 3 miles to the finish, but was almost all downhill.  It seemed like it was holding air once again so I took off - that lasted all of a 1/2 a mile but I was damned now if I was going to put a tube in.  As long as it still had air, I was going to finish.  After about 2 miles of singletrack, I made it back to the road we climbed up at the start, only now I could bomb down.  I bombed down as fast as I was willing to go with a nearly flat back tire, and crossed the finish line with a big smile.  I had done it.  3 for 3.  I was greeted by several friends who were still there and I relished my accomplishment.  My final time was 8 hrs and 11 minutes, but I had misread my Garmin time thinking I had done it in 6 hrs and 11 minutes.  I sort of jumped the gun on that one, reporting it to Facebook to the shock and astonishment of my friends.  I had to issue a retraction/correction later.  But truth be told, I was so glad to have finished that I didn't pay any attention to what the official time was.

I felt like I rode a strong race, and that I raced as hard and as fast as I could have, and I felt fortunate to get an official finish while so many others didn't.  Even with all the walking, I enjoyed it more than the OC.  I definitely felt better after Syllamo's Revenge than I did with the OC.

While very satisfied with my accomplishments so far this year, I'm glad for the end of the marathon MTB season and now I can focus on the much shorter XC races.  I plan to be back next year either for the OC and/or Syllamo, this time to try and get a couple of PRs!

2013 Saddlebock Mountain Bike Festival - Fun for the Whole Family!

Through word of mouth, the hidden gem of Hazel Valley Ranch had been talked about among my fellow mountain biker and cyclist friends here in Central Arkansas.  I was determined to get up to NW Arkansas the next time an event was held there, and when Joe invited me to accompany him to the Saddlebock Mountain Bike Festival, I jumped at the opportunity.  Billed as a "Family Friendly weekend event", I decided to bring my boys Braden and Connor for some camping and riding fun.

Even though the weather forecast (cold, rain, snow) was dismal for Friday and Saturday, we headed up anyway expecting the worst and hoping for better.  We were all up for whatever adventure awaited us.  We arrived in the late afternoon on Friday and being one of the few guests that night, ranch manager Roger Rains invited us to sleep in the main lodge rather than camping out in the cold and yuck.  The boys instantly made themselves at home and availed themselves to the pool and shuffleboard tables in the main room while we got the tour.

At this point, it was wet and overcast, but the nastier weather was holding off.  Not knowing whether we would get another chance, I took the boys out on one of the 1-mile mountain bike loops close to the lodge.  While my older boy Braden did fine, Connor struggled on some of the sections but persevered and rode most of the muddy, wet, and moderately difficult trail.  We returned to the lodge tired, wet, and muddy, but after a quick shower, Connor was in good spirits all over again.  

A delicious dinner of BBQ chicken and mac & cheese was soon served, and we ate like ravenous wolves.  While the adults developed new friendships, my boys cycled between the pool and shuffleboard tables, and the television upstairs.  There was no shortage of adults who were willing to teach my boys the finer points of pool and shuffleboard as we played, ate, and drank well into the night.  

Saturday morning greeted us with the predicted weather - a steady, cold rain with occasional snow flurries.  After a tasty breakfast of hot oatmeal, fresh fruit, and bread, we decided to take the boys on a hike up Spongebob Creek to Spongebob Falls in lieu of riding.  The hike was a variety of hiking on the mtb trails, bushwacking through the woods, and scrambling over rocks and boulders in the creek bottoms until we reached the falls themselves.  The boys did superbly, even though they were soaked and muddy.  We scrambled up to the top of the ridge after seeing the falls and trekked back to the lodge just in time for lunch.

By this point, the rain had stopped and more guests had arrived at the ranch, including several kids, to the delight of my sons.  They were soon found playing child-sized chess with each other on the grounds, riding the fatbike, taking their own mtn bikes off a bmx ramp that was set up, or coming indoors to play some pool or shuffleboard.  Some people may have even seen me playing the role of a zombie and chasing Connor and one of the little girls he made friends with.

With several kids now at the ranch, Roger decided to load everyone up and take them down to see the small herd of buffalo roaming the grounds.  The kids got to pose for photos with the buffalo and see them get fed, but the highlight was the Suzuki they were riding in getting stuck in a mud hole on the way back.  It was quite funny listening to their laughter as the ranch hand tried unsuccessfully time and time again to get it unstuck.  And then hear their cries of joy as a Jeep fitted with a winch came to the rescue.

For the rest of the evening, the kids were entertained by the bonfire outside, wandered in to listen to the wonderful bluegrass band that was playing, or were just content to hang out with each other as newfound friends.

Even though the conditions weren't ideal, the kids made the best of it, had an amazing time, and made some new friends along the way.  What impressed me the most was how many of the adults at the ranch interacted with the kids and involved them as much as they could.  My boys had an incredibly fun, memorable weekend and can't wait to go back again!  A special thanks to Chuck Maxwell who helped guide Connor through most of the difficult parts of the hike, and to Dr. Wayne and Roger Rains for being so hospitable with the kids.  

Monday, April 8, 2013

THE Ouachita Challenge Marathon MTB race

So last year my crazy goal was to run & finish my very first marathon at the LR Marathon which I achieved successfully.  This year I decided to continue that crazy marathon goal, but instead of running, I would do so on my mountain bike through the Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Series (AMBCS) marathon events.  I had already completed the Spa City 6-hr race a few weeks back which I essentially used as a training ride for the rest of the marathon series.  I had tried to train over the winter to keep my fitness level up, and ride as much as I could in the past few months to build up to these longer, more difficult races.

My big crazy goal this year was to race in and finish the 13th annual Ouachita Challenge (OC), or what I like to call, the "Leadville of Arkansas."  This race is very popular and sold out in a record time of 13 minutes this year.  They offer the official race on Sunday and a "tour" version on Saturday which is the same course as the race minus Blowout Mountain.  18 states were represented between the two races with 233 starters for the tour and 250 for the race.  The race is presented by the Ouachita Cycling Club and much of the proceeds from the race gets donated back into the local community.  The race takes place over nearly 60 miles (and 5800 ft of climbing) on the Ouachita Trail and the IMBA epic-designated Womble Trail.

From their website: "The Ouachita Cycling Club is now in its second decade of presenting the Ouachita Challenge. This unique event in a sixty plus mile loop provides two days of mountain bike touring and racing on two of our best trails. The Ouachita Trail is known for its challenging climbs, vast technical sections, and scenic views of the Ouachita River. The Womble Trail is known for its fast trails and scenic views of the Ouachita Mountains and valleys."
Map & profile of the OC course

I had planned on riding parts of the OT in preparation for this race, but that never happened so I would be racing the course "blind", as in, never having ridden any part of the course at all.  That would present a whole new challenge in itself, but I had a profile plot of the course taped to my handlebars which noted the mileages of the big climbs.  While others would be racing for podium finishes or beating their own personal records, I had but one goal - make all the cutoff times and finish the race.  In a sense, I would be racing against the clock and not against any of the other 250 racers out on the course.  

By the time the start of the race rolled around on 8am Sunday morning, I had already considered myself "winning", due to several reasons:

1) Just before I left home Saturday morning, I decided to take a quick, easy ride around my neighborhood just to keep the legs loose.  Not more than 3 houses down after leaving my driveway, my chain broke.  Can you believe that?!?!  Here I was, preparing for the biggest race of the season, and my chain breaks in a fortuitous moment of luck.  Thankfully, I had time to stop by Spokes on my way out of town and get it replaced.  I can only imagine what might have been had I not done that.  I easily could have just started the race and been a mile or two in and have that disaster happen.  #burningkarmapoints

2) Somehow, I got the luck of the draw again in the race plate number lottery.  For the AMBCS last year, I had plate #1000.  For the Spa City race, I had plate #360 (as in, hoping I don't do any).  For the OC, I received plate #123.  I couldn't help but think of the lyrics, "A-B-C, it's as easy as 1-2-3..."  But the OC was not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination.

3) Thrice, I lucked out during the prize raffle Saturday night by winning a NiteRider Lumina 650 lighting system.  That will definitely come in handy for leading those night rides!

I don't know if this is me reaping the trail karma from last year, but who knows?  I definitely need to build that back up after burning a few this weekend.  

The race started with a very fast neutral start on paved roads, which then transitioned to gravel roads and then finally singletrack.  The hardest part of the OC takes place in the first 25 miles or so with climbs up and over Brushy Mountain, Blowout Mountain, and Chalaybete Mountain.  This was the part I was most worried about with 2 cutoff times that I had to make to even have a chance of finishing.  At least the weather was cooperating with cloudy skies, temps in the 50s and slightly windy conditions.  It would get up to the 70s by the afternoon, but the cloud cover made it feel relatively cool(er).  It would have been a much more difficult race had the sun been beating down.

Wristbands - gotta get 'em all!
We were told that there would be bracelet stations positioned somewhere along the course where we would receive rubber wristbands identifying that we had ridden the entire course.  I remembered seeing Tour riders from the previous night with 5 such bracelets.  It turns out for the race that there was only 2 stations, and I worried for a bit if I had inadvertently missed a station until a volunteer told me that there was only two.  At one point on Blowout Mountain, I saw a racer with a rubber wristband and I asked him (somewhat panicked) if I had missed the station.  He told me it was a personal wristband and that several people had already asked him about it.  Joke was on me.  Ha ha!    

Fresh & ready to race!
At the start, I felt like I had prepared about as much as I could, and I had a good strategy worked out for nutrition & hydration.  Nothing left to do now except pedal my bike.  When they said the neutral start was going to be fast, they weren't kidding.  I kept falling off the back of the lead pack & kept thinking if I pushed myself just a little harder to get into the draft, I would be okay.  STUPID.  STUPID.  STUPID.  Yeah, I definitely went out too hard and paid for it on the first 10 mile climb up Brushy Mountain.  I was only a couple of miles into the race and my legs already felt "tired" - not a good sign.  

I finally calmed myself down enough to pedal at MY pace, (which was probably slower than had I actually paced myself to begin with), and I kept dropping further & further back, and I was getting passed steadily.  Some of my smarter teammates eventually caught up to me and had formed their own "train" and I tried to latch on the back rather unsuccessfully.  Yeah, my hard effort at the beginning was really coming to bite me in the ass now.  Had I known they were back there riding an intelligent pace, I probably would have been able to keep up.  Come to find out, they all only finished 15 or 20 minutes ahead of me, so after they passed me, I didn't lose too much more time over the entire day.  Damn.

Brushy Mountain wasn't too bad - I think (a lot of my memory is a jumbled haze right now) I rode most (if not) all of it.  I made it to the first time check with about 45 minutes to spare.  Blowout Mountain was a lot tougher, and I rode when I could, and I walked when I couldn't.  I had told myself earlier that I just needed to keep moving, no matter what.  In fact, it wasn't until I had made it past the last cutoff check station that I allowed myself to stop & rest a bit.  The worst thing about Blowout Mountain is the boulder garden at the top.  Some trails have rock gardens.  This one had giant huge cobbles and boulders.  From what I was told, this is where a lot of the mechanicals/flats happen.  So I took my time and walked through a lot of it.  At one point, the racer ahead of me asked me if we had gotten off the trail somehow seeing as how it was completely unrideable.  I somehow survived Blowout and made it down without any major incidents.  Whew!

I now had about an hour and a half to climb the 3rd mountain make it to the 2nd time cutoff at Sims.  This started with a steep, but relatively shorter climb, and I probably hiked up most of it.  Much of the same for this section of the course - some nice scenery (when I could pay attention to it), water crossings, sweet downhills, and grueling climbs.  I made it to Sims with another 40 minutes to spare.  Here the Spokes van was waiting for me & I thanked Mat, Scott, and Heather for helping me re-supply.  It's amazing what seeing familiar faces can do to one's mood.  Thanks again to Spokes for their incredible support!!

I was now about 30 miles and 4 1/2 hours into the race with the toughest stuff behind me.  I was pretty tired, but at least now I had a relatively flat & paved section to give me a chance to recover.  I had about 2 1/2 hours to make it to the 3rd check station and as long as I kept riding, I thought I could make it.  A bunch of a highway riding, some gravel roads, and then singletrack on the Womble with two climbs up to the final aid station and 2nd to last checkpoint.  I kept a close eye on my clock as I got closer and kept pushing it just a little bit harder.  The time cutoffs were being strictly enforced so being a minute slow could be the difference between an official finish and a DNF.  I managed to make it with about 15 minutes to spare.  Whew again.

Now I had misjudged the time to the final check station.  I thought it was a good 7 miles from the 3rd one, which would make getting there in an hour and 15 minutes rather difficult.  It turns out, it was only 3 miles away so I was pretty certain I would be able to do it.  It's always nice to hear you're wrong when you overestimate.  After I made the final check station and knew I could finish, I felt loads better.  I even afforded myself a 10-minute break on the side of the trail to eat & drink & rest.  Some more gravel roads & singletrack brought me to the final climb of the race - a brutal 0.7 mile climb back up to the aid station.  Cruel and unusual punishment, if you ask me.  I'm not proud to say it, but I pushed my bike up almost that entire thing.  If it's one thing I know, I know my limits.  

From there, it was a 4 mile (mostly downhill) ride on gravel roads & paved roads to the finish.  Let me tell you a secret.  When race organizers tell you it's all downhill (and they are being sincere about it), it's never ALL downhill.  I saw another racer ahead of me on the road, but I could never make up any ground on him. I really took this time to enjoy my ride and marvel at what I had accomplished.  The finish (in a slightly lesser form of punishment) is a small climb up a grassy hillside.  Let me tell you, at that point in the race, any hill seems like a challenge.  I spun my way up the hill as Fred Philips from DLT Multisport announced my name at the finish.  I was greeted by my friends from and my fellow Spokes teammates who had finished not too much earlier than I did.  Again, familiar faces and all that.  

I ended up finishing in 8 hrs & 25 some odd minutes.  Yeah, I know.  Slow, slow, slow.  But the important thing is that I got an official finish in the legen-(wait for it!)-dary OC on my first try.  No matter how you cut it, 8 1/2 hrs is a long ass time to be racing in any sport.  And speaking of asses, I dubbed those teammates & I who finished around or over the 8 hour mark the winners of the "buns of steel" award.  That just sounds better (& more impressive) than the "slow as mol-asses" award.  ;)  So proud of you guys!!

In closing, I have to say that the OCC knows how to put on a top notch race!  They offered excellent facilities, meals to racers & families Saturday and Sunday, sweet raffle prizes donated by sponsors, and free lodging for those who wanted to camp or sleep in the school gym.  The long-sleeved tech-tee shirt will definitely get used, and the volunteers were beyond amazing!!  They were all incredibly nice and super-encouraging!  The route was well-marked and I never really felt like I was off-course (other than wondering when a particular section would be over!)  This is HUGE coming from someone who was doing the race "blind".  So thanks again to the sponsors and all those who made the race possible.  Now that I'm all out of excuses, I'll need to come back and see if I can shatter my PR next year!

Official finisher!