On the morning of Saturday, April 21st, 2012, I found myself surrounded by friends and wedged in a big pack of mountain bikers, awaiting the start of the 2nd annual Slobberknocker marathon mountain bike race. I had raced in many mountain bike races in the past, but this was the first "marathon" length race I had ever attempted. The race was to be held on mostly forest service roads out in the Ouachita National Forest in the vicinity of Lake Sylvia and Lake Winona with the start and finish in Perryville, AR. I was registered for the "Lite" race, a mere 57-miles in total distance with approximately 5,700 ft of elevation gain. Most of the people were registered for the long course, 75 miles with 7,800 ft of elevation gain. Having not ridden anything of this length or climbed anything of this elevation, I decided the lite race would be more than enough of a challenge.
The theme of the day was to spend anywhere between 10-20 minutes climbing, followed by a fast descent that was over in a matter of minutes, wash, rinse, repeat. There were a few sections of flat-ish terrain but they were far & few between. The pre-ride had convinced me of one thing: this was going to be no picnic. The 34 miles we had ridden covered the middle portion of the race, but I had yet to ride the first and last 14 miles. It had also taken me 3 hrs & 40 minutes to ride the 34 miles, including stops to rest, figure out where we were, etc. I was going to be happy to finish this race in 5 hrs.
My plan was to pace myself, not blow myself up on the climbs, ride the downhills somewhat conservatively and not crash, eat and eat often, and to finish the damn thing. The weather forecast for the day had a high temp of 70 degrees, moderate winds, and low humidity. It was a cool 50 degrees at the start which suited me perfectly. I definitely don't function as well in heat & humidity, so the cooler it was the better.
As the group approached the base of the hill that lead up to Thornburg, the pace car turned off and the race was afoot! The peloton surged and the strongest, superhuman riders went off the front like a bat out of hell. I was amazed by just how far up the road & hill they went before I really even had a chance to get going. It wasn't long before they were completely out of sight. The rest of us mortals ended up getting strung out along the road on the 2 mile climb. I found Brahm's wheel and we took turns pulling for each other as we steadily made our way up the blasted hill. My only consolation was that we would get to go back down the hill on the way to the finish. We made it up the climb without any incidents and I was feeling good. Brahm looked to be struggling just a tiny bit but he would soon recover.
By the time we turned off the pavement onto the gravel Forest Road 210 in Thornburg, there were only a few other riders around us. This section was relatively flat, with a few minor climbs/descents so I took the opportunity to get some nutrition in my system while I had the chance. We rode along at a constant pace, not trying too hard to put the gas down as we still had a long way to go. We eventually hit another paved section (Blue Jay Hollow Rd) and I started to surge a bit. I noticed Brahm dropping behind so I slowed up to wait for him. Eventually, we made our way onto Browns Creek Road, which is the start of the section we rode the previous week. It was here that the grueling climbs would really begin. The first part of Browns Creek Road is a gradual to moderate hill about 7 miles long that gains 700 ft in elevation. After that was a series of relatively short, but very steep climbs up and over Flattop Pinnacle.
The night before, I had laminated a picture of the race profile and mounted it to my handlebars with a couple of cue clips. I had indicated the mileage of all the major climbs on the profile sheet and it proved to be invaluable during the race. I could keep track of where I was mileage wise with my cyclocomputer and know exactly when the climbs were coming up and how many were left.
As we made our way up the first long climb, I was feeling good, and not pushing too hard. I kept pulling for Brahm but he still couldn't quite maintain the pace I had set. Eventually, a nicely sized group of people caught up to us, and I jumped aboard this "train." I managed to stick with this group all the way until CP1 - we rode at a pretty equal pace and it was motivating having others around as we struggled up the steep climbs. Because I had ridden it the week before, I remembered exactly how these climbs were, and managed to ride ALL of them (whereas the week before I had to stop & rest on some of them & even walk some). After reaching CP1, there was only one more big climb before getting rewarded with a nice downhill/flat section as we made our way down to Lake Winona.
The ride from CP1 to CP2 (Camp Ouachita) was pretty uneventful. Uneventful makes for good riding but not very exciting stories. It had 3 long climbs and one somewhat sketchy descent. I managed to catch up to & pass Brahm on the first of these climbs. But on the descent, he totally bombed by me like I was standing still. All I heard was a "on your right!" as he flew by me. I was impressed. Call it old age, or self-preservation, but I had a healthy respect for descending on the mtn bike. I tend to be a bit more conservative than most, but I figured nothing would end a race faster than a bad crash. No sense in saving a few seconds over something that could put me in the hospital.
Now we were down along the shore of Lake Winona. We had a nice flat stretch for a few miles before a moderate climb on some really rough road. I managed to keep Brahm in sight (although barely) and caught up to him on the climb. We rode together slowly up this one, carefully picking our lines through the big rocks and gullies. And as he had done all day, he left me in the dust on the descent. We had one more LONG, steady climb which would be the last "big one" for the day.
Again, I caught up to Brahm on the climb when he had to stop to get his circulation going again in his legs. I wished him well and continued climbing at a constant pace. This was where I had cramped up BAD during Raid the Rock a couple of years ago. I vowed to conquer it without stopping this time. The salt tablets I had been taking all day long seemed to be keeping the cramps at bay, so I was glad for that. I found another climbing partner as we spun easily up the climb, and for our efforts, we were rewarded with a nice 3-mile long downhill run to Camp Ouachita.
This was the part of the ride I enjoyed the most - bombing downhill at 25mph on a fairly smooth gravel road, with the trees whizzing by. I saw several of the long course riders making their way up the hill back the direction we had come and was very glad that I wasn't doing that course. This was the only stretch where the long course riders would see how far ahead or behind they were with respect to the other racers. I pulled into Camp Ouachita where they tied a ziptie to my handlebars to indicate I had made it to the 40 mile mark. I had no idea what time it was (nor did I want to know) but I felt I was riding strong and riding well.
I had another respite of several miles on a paved road until I turned back onto Blue Jay Hollow Road back the way I came. Seeing as how I still had 1 1/2 bottles left, I was in & out of Camp Ouachita in a matter of seconds. I was expecting to see Brahm at anytime but I didn't see him for the rest of the race. In fact, I barely saw anyone for the remainder of the race.
The last 15 miles were pretty difficult - I was sore, tired, and my energy level was dropping steadily. It didn't help that I was riding solo at this point, and even the smaller hills seemed monumental. I kept looking back, thinking I was going to be chased down & passed but that never happened either. I was pretty much giving it all I got anyway, so even if someone caught me, there was probably little I could do. The downhill on the paved road from Thornburg back to Perryville was fun - I put it in the large chainring and cranked it out, speeding down the hill. Now all I had to do was finish, but the town of Perryville eluded me. I kept looking for the bridge which would indicate the final homestrech, but around every bend was another bend. My wife Jen passed me in the car on her way into town to see me finish. In my deluded state, I actually wondered if she would get there in time.
Remember how I said earlier that I should have paid better attention to the road at the start? Well, now I had no idea how much further I had. I was doubting the mileage on my cyclocomputer, thinking that maybe it was wrong or I had remembered the distance incorrectly. It was also somewhat windy and that made it more difficult riding solo. Eventually, after what seemed to be ages, I finally saw the bridge in the distance, and I also caught sight of another rider, maybe 1/4 of a mile ahead of me. We would cross the bridge, take a right, come back under the bridge, cross a field, and then go through several neighborhood streets which would take us to the finish. As soon as I crossed the bridge, I saw the rider ahead of me making the turn heading back towards where he would cross under the bridge.
I now knew that I was gaining on him but I didn't know if I had enough to catch him before the finish. I had delusions of grandeur that I was in the top 10 or maybe top 5. I crossed the field and lost sight of him, but saw that he was only about a block ahead of me when I hit the neighborhood. I cranked harder, thinking just maybe I could catch him on the last turn leading to the finish. I also knew that there was 2 riders behind me so I hoped they didn't have anything left to catch me.
I took the final turn wide, just a wheel behind, as we both sprinted to the finish. I surged and got alongside him, maybe half a wheel behind. We both sprinted to the finish while the crowd cheered. The announcer said something but I couldn't hear what it was being completely focused on the sprint. Unfortunately, the finish area was narrow and I sat up not wanting to cause a wreck in such close quarters and came in a wheel behind the CARVE rider. At least I had made it a little exciting.
Even better yet, as part of the Slobberknocker Bike Tech Contest, (in which I submitted a rather creative entry that you can read in the link), I won a pair of Schwalbe Racing Ralph 29er tires. Chainwheel provided a bunch of free swag too so I ended up with a couple of pairs of Swiftwick socks, a hoodie for Braden, and a nice bike multitool for Jen. Not a bad haul for an event only in its 2nd year. And of course I got what I hope will be one of the coveted belt buckles as this race may be a Leadville 100 qualifier in the future.