I was right, and on the pavement it was all I could do to just keep rolling. Somewhere out there I ran into Jamie Pittman, whom I had talked into doing this race on account of how awesome it is, and was psyched to see the Fats colors way out here in Virginia. At least, I think this is where I hooked up with him -- in actuality, it may have been later, or earlier, or he may have been a dream and never really existed. I do remember that he recognized me first, and when I looked at his number plate and it said "James," I was totally confused and couldn't get my mind wrapped around the idea that "James" equals "Jamie."
I rolled into Aid Station 2 to a bounce of blonde curls and a HUGE "HI DADDY!" from Little K, handed off my now-empty gel flask to Big K, told her it was going to be a long day, hoped she got the underlying message, and floated on to grab two fresh bottles and my stash of food. I put a foot down, half-drank and half-poured a bottle, dropped my bike and ran back for a new fresh bottle, and then got going again. I think I've mentioned it before, but I'll say it again: I love the volunteers at this race, and the bottles-in, bottles-out trade is pure genious. Above all, I think the vibe from the help is what keeps me coming back, year after year.
On to the third climb, which this year has been used by big machines and was a spongey mess in 95% humidity at 9:30 in the morning. I struggled to hold wheels, was never too far off the group I was with -- I think Jamie was in there somewhere? -- but wasn't keeping pace whenever it went up, even a little. Experience paid off throughout, though, and I knew to conserve just a bit for the super-steep top section, where as badly as I wanted to get off and walk, I didn't, and I just kept the gears turning over. Through the meadows at the top, I kept hoping we'd hit the tree line that marked the downhill, but it was so far away ... so far, in fact, that I almost stopped once or twice to regroup. But I knew stopping would be death, so I kept it together as much as I could.
And then -- gloriously! -- it was time to go downhill. I was doing great, but then the guy ahead of me checked up on the roots, I got off-line, and I missed my goal of cleaning the downhill. Damn. I stood by as first one, then two, then five, riders passed me by, including Lee and Brenda, the power duo from Motor Mile. I would not see them again until just before the last climb, many, many hours later ...
The rest of the descent was awesome, and I was faster than I've ever been. Think Squirrel on crack -- only even more fun, and more fast. And for once I was having fun, instead of being scared out of my mind. Wa-hoo!
Into Aid Station 3, grab new bottles, and off we go. Five miles of pavement, I'm pretty sure I'm with Jamie here, and I know that after the river crossing and partway up the next climb is the halfway point of the day, at least geographically. I've gone through there sub-4 more than once; this year, it was a struggle to hit 4:35. This is also the climb where I get stupid, where I lose my front wheel, where I've injured myself and created deep, lasting scars ... this year, thankfully, I was under control. I rode about as much as I have in the past, walked some when the power just wasn't there, and was doing OK until almost the top, when WHAM! DAMN! F*! I'm getting a bee sting on my right Achilles tendon, through my sock. Holy crap! That hurt!
I made sure there was no stinger, though it was irritated for the rest of the day, and part of it may still be in my sock. Jamie had fallen back somewhere along there, and instead I was trading places with Scott, another guy from the TN Cup -- the guy who had walked off the course at the H8R. We'd been off and on since the second climb -- he would get ahead of me, crash or flat, and I'd catch up. We continued this way until the last descent, when a decisive flat allowed me to stay in front through the campground. But in the meantime, he got ahead of me on the fourth climb, only to crash and let me in front on the descent. And what a descent it was -- finally! Brailey's Pond without injury, absolutely FLYING on the way down. It almost made up for how long the climb was (I'd forgotten -- I didn't make it this far last year) ... almost ...
Into Aid Station 4, quick chain lube, new food and new bottles. I rolled out, and the suffering began. The sun had come out, adding a baking factor to the high humidity, and the long, long, long slog all the way to the base of the big climb was pretty horrible. I couldn't keep up with the small groups that formed around me; hell, I couldn't keep up with the single-speeder who was dragging us along -- in a pedal section! I did what I could to limit my losses, as guys blew and guys flew -- we'd pick up a body or two, drop another one or two, until finally we hit the rollers near the real climb, and I was toast. Done. Finis. I remember Kelly in there somewhere, riding strong, but even he was having a tough go of it on that road -- one gear, one long, long slog.
I made the turn at 6:25, and started to play games in my head. I thought maybe, just maybe, if I hit the aid station by 7:15, I could get a sub-9. I had no idea how far away it was, only that the sign at the base said the road was closed 10 miles ahead -- so it couldn't be more than that. Right?
I got about 10 minutes into the climb, and I was cooked. I had to stop. I pulled over in a small cove, found some shade, and stood there for a minute to collect myself. I poured water over my head, drank some, and took a few deep breaths. My body was almost completely shut down -- no matter how hard I pushed, my heart rate would not go above 143, and I was climbing at 138-140 -- by comparison, two years ago I was worried I couldn't get above 152. A couple of guys passed me, and as I remounted, I thought to myself: "Self, you just need to keep Dicky behind you as long as you can." Not serious, mostly in jest, I had seen him hours before as he passed me by (on the first climb? Second? I don't remember), and I knew he was behind me after I re-passed him somewhere along the line on some long pedal section.
But then, like Beetlejuice, no sooner had I uttered his name than he was there.
We rode together for a minute, but every time the road pitched up, he powered ahead. I'd catch him on the little flats, but he was on a mission -- there were a few singlespeeders just ahead, and one of them was in sight. He cajoled me with thoughts of Coke and pizza, gave me a bad time for being allergic to pizza crust (rubbing it in how good it tastes), and generally commiserated with my misery -- his knee was flaring up, and he was just out to finish, as I was. It worked out well, as suddenly we were at the aid station, hitting it at exactly the 7-hour mark. He was faster out, wanting to stay with his rabbit, and though it hurt my feelings for a minute, I made him my rabbit, and did what I could to keep him in sight the rest of the ride.
I sort of remember being sky high from year's past, but this year that ridge just seemed to go on forever. I entertained myself with thoughts of riding up there with Andy Applegate a few years ago, and just kept on pushing toward that summit. I was chasing Dicky, I was chasing Scott, the TN Cup guy, I was chasing my demons. And I knew that downhill was going to be a sweet reward.
Meadow after meadow after meadow came and went. Holy crap had I forgotten just how long that damned ridge was. It seemed to never end, as each tree line marked not the descent, but yet another grueling pedal section. It was somewhat sloppy, I was hot and bothered, and I just wanted it over with. Where was the top, damn it?!
And then -- FINALLY! -- it was time to go downhill. I had forgotten how rocky it was, was again very thankful for my tire choice, and was enjoying every minute even as my brakes faded and my arms and chest burned from the effort. The singletrack flew by as I bounced from rock to rock, until it opened up and there were guys standing there -- "FOUR WHEELER AHEAD" -- and why are there a bunch of dudes pushing a 4-wheeler down the slope, are they hunters or something or holy crap that's a body on a backboard thank god I'm sill riding and not sprawled on the side of the trail ...
I had to check up behind the medical team, giving me a moment's respite. I hear it was Simonster who went down -- not sure of status, and hope he's OK. I dropped into the widetrack, kept on rolling, enjoyed the shout-outs from the volunteers, and rolled into Aid Station 6. Quick bottle change, out and going, dump water on myself, drink, dump on the ground ... one climb, repeat the bottom of climb three, don't need extra water to slow me down, and then turn left and we're almost done ...
I caught back up to Lee and Brenda on the pedal section, and we chatted for a few moments. We made the left onto the climb, passed through the gate, and while I didn't want to be anti-social, I was still harboring hopes of a sub-9 finish -- I set my own pace and kept on, keeping the pedals turning. Scott caught and passed me, I was doing mental gymnastics with my watch, and before I knew it, I was turning left. Hallelujia!
And then reality set in. First, we kept climbing. I remembered from a few years ago that there is a short climb once you get to the gravel part of the downhill. What I didn't remember was the two steep climbs that come *before* you reach the gravel, and when I saw the second one, I knew sub-9 was not going to happen. Still, I wanted to keep Scott behind me (he had apparently ripped his valve stem off with a rock, only to have Stan's seal it!), and though I was completely blown physcially, I was keeping it together on the downhill enough that I couldn't hear anyone behind me. Only I thought I did, and every small rock that pinged off my wheel was Scott, or Lee, or Brenda -- and I was almost too tired to care.
But then, mercifully, I crested the ridge and was on my way down. I pushed as hard as I could on the gravel pedal section (which wasn't very hard), and was so thankful when I finally saw the arrows pointing down. One more rocky section, a couple of fun, semi-tricky drops (only when you're tired), and then I was in the campground, the race was almost over, and I could finally relax with no one else in sight. Through the field, ring the gong, and I was done. Finally. I pulled through and collapsed onto the tread of the Bobcat that was there, the one piece of shade I could find. The Ks were there, but I was so shell-shocked that I could barely acknowledge them. I think I said one thing for the next 30 minutes:
"That was hard."
I eventually gathered myself, and Jamie's wife introduced herself. Jamie finished, and I made sure he gonged, got his Chris Eatough Coaching water bottle for being a first-time finisher, and got his pint glass. I grabbed some food, congratulated Christian, and the Ks and I headed to dinner. It took a while to feel anywhere near normal, though oddly I understood the conversation Christian had with another racer and a volunteer entirely in French while I was in line for soda. And my ankle was swelling fast -- by the time we drove home, I had a full-on cankle that wasn't letting up. And I hurt. Everywhere. Just finishing took about all I had. But I did it.
And somehow, it doesn't bother me that much. I get more worked up by broken bikes than empty bodies -- days like this will happen, whereas broken bike parts or crashes are preventable. Sure, I'm disappointed, but I'll try to look at the positive: My second half of my personal worst at SM100 was nearly as fast as my second half of my personal best -- I'm riding the downhills that much faster now. I actually ran a negative split on Sunday. So I have that to look forward to: If I'm not yet at Eurobike next year, maybe -- just maybe -- I can keep my diet together, hit Stokesville in perfect shape, and that sub-8 will be mine ...