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!