This sign pretty much sums up my preparation last week for the 12 Hours of Tsali:Sick? Check. New bike build? Check. Completely different setup? Check. Broken parts? Check. Lack of sleep? Check. Last-minute totally unnecessary panic parts swap? Check. New lights? Check. New-to-me trails? Check.
I did have a couple of things in my corner: Kim, who had me prepped and ready to go by the time I got home late Friday evening. Stephen, whom I coerced into a shake-down ride Friday afternoon that took us to Bent Creek and had us chasing twilight on the Parkway. (And Rhonda, who let him go with me despite clean-up duties from a birthday party!) And perhaps most importantly, Eric and Chad, Cane Creek cohorts, who were there supporting their wives' most-excellent 4th-place team effort and still found time and energy to help me out in the pits, lap after lap after lap. I take back everything I've ever said about them. ... Well, almost.
I've driven past the Tsali Recreation Area several times this year, and despite promises to the contrary, had never stopped there to ride. I had it in my head to visit Andy, proprietor of Bryson City Bicycles, at some point during 2010, but it never came together -- and so Saturday was my first time making the turn off 74 toward Fontana Lake, and my first time making the long descent to the fabled Tsali parking lot. Before I ever knew what Pisgah was, almost before I even knew what a mountain bike was, I had heard of Tsali -- an amazing trail system with ribbons of bench-cut singletrack looping in and around finger-like coves, stretching for miles upon miles of uninterrupted flow. Everyone I knew told me that those trails were well-suited for me, and that I would have a ton of fun out there. And they were right!
Eric and Chad had gone up on Friday and secured an amazing pit area right in the parking lot. I dropped my stuff, parked down the hill, and headed up to registration ... only to find that I had won "the race to the race!"
Truth be told, I was so paranoid that the race would sell out, that I mailed a check to the promoters way back as soon as the printed registration form was available on the web. Yes, you read that right. Kicking it old school, yo!
So now I had a bit to live up to, despite entering the event not at full steam. And, let's face it, I had a big old target on my back. Or rather, on my leg, since they inked each rider number on our left calf. (Awesome move, by the way, really helped to keep track of the competition and teams as they flowed through during the race.)
Thankfully, our pit was rockin', as the women got ready and the team next to us (also friends) had brought full families to the event. I got to kid around with the kids (light check anyone?), until it was time to take my bike for a long walk and get it laid up ready for the start. It's been a while since I'd done a full 12-hour lap race, and even longer since I'd done a le mans start, and even longer since I'd done an uphill le mans start, so to say I was a bit apprehensive was an understatement. I was prepared to pull the plug at any time, but by the same token was ready to hit out and see what I had left in the tank.
(Full disclosure -- I was in a weird place before the race. I remember seeing Elizabeth Glas out there, and sort of being weird to her -- I tried to apologize later, but I probably fumbled that too. Sorry, I was not myself! Thankfully, I've done this enough to know not how to treat folks, and cleaned up my act after that.)
How to describe the next 11 hours and 24 minutes? Remember a few weeks ago when I had a stellar day at PMBAR, and I felt no pain? Yeah. Totally opposite. From the gun, I was hurting, as Friday's pre-ride was causing undue soreness thanks to my illness, the heat was building, and each climb was beating me down with cramps, almost from the start. But on the other hand, the Tsali trails lived up to their billing, and each three-faced climb was followed by long, flowy, super-fast dowhill/pedal/false-flat/bench sections that had me grinning from ear to ear the whole day. The descent from the second climb was the only thing that kept me going -- as I was counting down the laps, I would fixate on that flow, spending nearly 10 minutes not pedaling at all while I hit speeds approaching 25 miles an hour.
This race was all about experience. I focused on myself, and was surprised as anyone as I came through the first lap mixed in with the overall leaders, with the eventual solo winner just a half-second behind. I skipped a bottle that time, and kept the rhythm going -- it was so cool to know so many people in the pits and along the course, it felt like a hometown WORS event!
That was probably the last time I felt "good" -- I had lost a step on the last climbs on the first lap, and after that, it was all kind of downhill. Thankfully I wasn't fighting the course, but I was fighting myself, and fighting the heat, and it was all I could do to stay hydrated, keep my spirits up, and stay focused on just riding. I kept self-checking to make sure I wasn't digging myself into a hole of fatigue and sickness, and thankfully the course was such that it didn't completely destroy me to stay out there lap after lap. So I kept at it, doing what I needed to do to refuel and resupply, as Eric kept the bike running smoothly and my water bottles refilled, and Chad kept track of my lap times without giving away too much information about my placing ...
One big difference from WORS is that May in North Carolina -- even in the mountains -- means heat. Like, August heat. And Tsali has some exposed areas -- at one point, we were pushing 90 degrees out there, on uphill sections with no protection. But then the sun starts to go down, and the shade starts to cool -- and oh, boy was it fantastic. I managed my trick of getting in and out just before lights-on for one, no-light twilight lap, and the next round Chad and Eric were there waiting with my helmet and new light. A quick change and off again -- I've got to give a big hand to Niterider for years of trustworthy night laps, and I must say I'm impressed with their newest batch of LED lights -- the Pro 700 absolutely outdoes itself compared to my old HID setups!
Somewhere in there, my seatpost clamp came loose, and my saddle slipped down just a bit. Unfortunately, my first clue was when my knee started to hurt -- and I still had a couple of hours to go. Eric fixed up the bike, but the last couple of laps were on the painful side, though I managed to ride each hill on every lap until I caught my chain on the super-steep pitch of the last climb, on the last lap. I've been here before with my knee (and had it scoped years ago because of this), so I didn't think I was doing permanent damage, just aggravating and leading to a loss of power on the steeper sections. I just focused on staying consistent, and pumping that trail for all it was worth on the long downhills, to maintain momentum and build speed into the switchbacks. The good news is, by then the other side of experience kicked in -- I was so tired that I stopped using my brakes so much, and I was flying!
With one to go, I checked in with the crew: Second place, with a bit of time in hand. My lap times meant I'd likely beat the cutoff and could do two laps, but my knee and my head weren't exactly in it. I felt like I was crawling that last lap, though I kept an eye out for anyone behind me -- and, full disclosure, I didn't really want to go out for one more lap and risk missing a podium presentation :-)
I rolled in with six minutes in hand, and sang along with Sloop John B as I waited -- and good lord, did I wanna go home. The seconds ticked by, team riders kept coming through, and then it was 1 minute ... 45 seconds ... 30 ... and that was it. I pulled it off! Second place!
The guy who won is a fast cat from Florida, who has switched up from the XC circuit this year and is killing it. He took the Big Frog in April, and I'm sure I'll see him in the Shenandoah ... in the meantime, though, I felt good about the finish despite the odds, and have to admit it was pretty awesome standing on the podium with cameras in our face ... What a super-fun way to close out the early part of my season, and now get ready for W24!
Oh, and the trophy (and payout!) awarded by the Gone Riding folks wasn't too shabby either! Big thanks to everyone who made this race happen!