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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

2015 Shenandoah Mountain 100

Warning: This is long and the writing rambles like a mind thats racing.  Some photos and videos are stolen.  I'm sorry about that.

If you want the Cliff notes, look at the photos and watch the DirtwireTV Highlights video....  

It's very dark and subtle sounds are beginning to fill the air. Had I slept? Tents unzipping, soles of shoes and sandals walking a gravel road, the occasional car door slam, and hissing propane camp stoves;  these are all clues it was time to get up.  I looked at my phone, 4:40am.  Five minutes before the alarm clock was set to go off. Today I'll ride 100 miles on my mountain bike.

Katie is still in a deep sleep and I escape our tent without waking her.  It's cool outside and stars glimmer between the branches; the sun won't rise for another couple hours.  There isn't much sound from Leif's tent either; a friend of mine who joined in hopes of accomplishing his first ever 100 mile bicycle ride.  I begin my morning rituals and as I wait for coffee to brew, I put sunscreen on in the dark.  Why do so many of my best days begin with putting on sunscreen in the dark?!

At 5:00am, Chris Scott, the race promoter of the Shenandoah Mountain 100, slowly creeps through the campground on his bicycle while gently sounding a small gong.  Immediately the campground erupts into a frenzy and now hidden underneath the heavy music and anticipation, I can no longer see stars or hear familiar sounds of a campground waking.

This song is blasting over the stereo:

The start is at 6:30am and with nearly 600 racers, there is a call to begin staging at 6:15am. My morning rituals are done and I have nothing left to do but get on my bike and go to the starting line.

In 2014 I raced nearly the entire Root 66 XC Series in New England (with decent results) and I don't think I ever once lined up with more than 5 minutes until the start. However, when I did this in 2014 at the SM 100, I had to squeeze into the staging area in a less than ideal position.  This year would be different.  I was going to start as close to the front as possible.  But it turns out that I wasn't the only one that had this plan; with a nearly 15 minute wait I was about 100 racers deep.

The sun is still below the horizon and behind me darkness in the sky is transitioning from a pale blue-to-pink-to-orange-to-purple and in front of me, racing kits and bicycles appear desaturated almost black and white.  The temperature feels somewhere in the low 60s, the air is still and there is a typical morning dew.

At 6:28am, motorcycles and race organizers gathered at the front of the starting line.  There is some spoken word that I can't quite hear (but I imagine they were describing the neutral start) and then a flood of hooting and cheering from both the racers and spectators.  Somewhat anxious, I feel my heart rate climbing.  The gun goes off and we are racing.  

I've only done four races with "neutral starts" but they have all been far from neutral.  As soon as we begin to roll, racers jockey for position.  Brakes squeal and chains rip across rear cassettes as racers sprint to fill holes and then slam their brakes shouting, "slowing" or "stopping".

Its still mostly dark as I follow a hundred racers downhill on a broken paved  and twisty road.  It'd be easy to make a foolish mistake and go down here, you can hardly see a foot in front of your wheel. Stay focused, ride smooth, I said to myself.  After we cross a bridge and take a right hand turn onto a level somewhat gravelly road our neutral pace increases to 25+mph. After nearly 7 minutes, our pacers continue straight and the course takes a sharp left hand turn onto Bear Trap Rd.  Now the race has truly begun.

The Shenandoah Mountain 100 is a backcountry mountain bike race throughout the George Washington National Forest in Western Virginia (although part of the "death climb" creeps into West Virginia).  The race climbs 6 mountains and accumulates some 14,000+ feet of elevation gain.  The range of finish times is roughly from 7 hours to 16 hours and the race has a nearly 40% failure rate.

Given these statistics, "burning a match" or going out hard at the start is not wise, however, I knew to achieve my goal of a sub 9 hour finish I would need to work hard and earn a good position when the group hit the first single track.  But how hard could I go without burning a match?

Committed, I am aggressive on the first climbs and start moving forward through the group. My pace is somewhere near a high tempo; not too high and not too low.  The course continues to climb on a jeep trail and somewhat wanders along the eastern edge of the forrest.  There are several sharp right hand turns, that keep me honest.  Stay focused, ride smooth.  On a straightaway, just before the single track, I see what looks like 40-50 riders ahead of me taking a sharp left.  Was that the front of the race?!

I make the sharp and steep turn onto the Narrowback Trail following a rider who keeps a good pace but isn't smooth through the rock gardens.  He dismounts at the first obstacle and I had no choice but to follow suite. I remain calm and tell the rider, its no problem, "we have plenty of rocks to ride today".

Now more than a thousand feet above the Shenandoah Valley, the sun has crept over the horizon and is splintered through branches that occasionally allow streams of golden sunlight to fill sections of the trail.  The rocky trail kicks up in steepness, my heart rate is consistent and I feel strong as I power upwards. This is one of the best feelings in the world.

In the second rock garden, the racer ahead of me finally dumps it and takes a minor crash off his bike  Still calm, I ask if he is okay and then let him know I'm going to pass.  He is fine and I quickly move past him. I'm not winning the race but amazingly there is nobody in front of me; I'm in a perfect bubble and can ride the rest of this technical ascent at my own pace.  There is a racer behind me but he seems perfectly content.

The top of Narrowback:

45 minutes or so into the race and its time to point the bikes downhill. Still in this awesome bubble of space, we blast down the flowing single track.  This is a mountain bike specific trail and banked turns and jumps are so damn fun I forget I'm even racing. What had taken nearly an hour to climb was descended in less than 10 minutes.  I look at my Garmin GPS, 55 minutes.  I'm five minutes ahead of my schedule and unbelievably only a few minutes behind the race leaders as I cross the creek and roll into Aid Station 1 (12.5 mile).  I see Katie and she hands me a new bottle of water and I'm off without losing a second.

Descending the Narrowback:

After Aid Station 1 the course follows a a dirt road and then takes a sharp left onto pavement.  The pavement ascends an easy rise but is in the shadow of climb #2-The Lynn Trail.  This is the steepest climb of the day and requires quite a bit of hike a bike.  It's 2.2 miles in length and ascends nearly 1,300 vertical feet. For my local friends, to give you an example of this scale, the opening climb at Rockland is 1.1 miles in length and ascends 199 feet of elevation.  The Lynn Trail is a monster.

It makes consecutively challenging turns that slowly weed racers off their bikes.  In between the turns are balancey off camber sections of trail that catch a rider if they aren't paying attention or make a slight error. There is one distinct right hand turn that forces most riders off their bikes, its steep and very sharp, and there are a few roots and rocks thrown in for good measure.  Last year I walked this section like most around me.  This year, the rider in front of me cleans it and so I prepare to give it my all I too.  I transition my body position and the rider behind sees that I am also going to go for it, he says "come on man, you got this" (perhaps he is just hoping I wouldn't mess up his attempt).  I move onto the balls of my feet and push my weight forward towards the tip of my saddle, lower my chest near my handlebars, look through the turn and then within one motion I bump my front tire up and around the roots and rocks in a 90 degree pivot and slowly climb up and around the corner.  I had done it!  Wow.

The next sharp turn would be all but impossible for anybody besides a trials rider.  Its capped with a large rock and is ridiculously steep. I dismounted and climb up this section pushing my bike. At this point, I realize I'm passing Gordon Wadsworth, a top ultra-endurance singlespeed racer. This is alarming because a few weeks previous he had almost won the Hamsphire 100 overall (on a singlespeed!) and was likely to win the National Ultra Endurance Series for the second year in a row.  How could I be passing him on the steepest climb of the day? If this is for real, I am certainly going too hard.

I look up and say, "Hey man, how's it going?" and he replies back, "not too good.  I just got back from racing in Costa Rica and I think I got dysentary or something. I'm not sure about this today,  I could use a gin and tonic."  He moves to the left of the trail and I pass to his right, "ah man, feel better." At aid station 2 he would withdraw from the race.

The lynn trail gets really rude from here.  Scattered bits of severly steep climbing lead to bits of hike-a-bike.  My pace is slow 2-3 mph and my heart rate is at high tempo, nearly threshold.  My calves burn from hiking such a steep pitch and I'm not sure whats harder, hiking or biking.  There is nowhere to hide on this thing.  I put my head down and trudge upwards, it takes another 20 minutes to reach the top.

Descent #2 takes us down Wolf Ridge and it is wild.  The upper section is "old school" fall line mountain biking and the lower flank is more bike specific and flowy.  Last year, when I hit this section of the race, I knew I was in trouble very quickly.  I had prepared for a relatively buff course with non-technical riding and my over inflated tires, and stiff suspension were a horrible match for the rocky, loose and steep singletrack.  This year, I had prepared better but the trail still feels somewhat abusive.

Doh! I forgot to take compression off my front fork.... Focus John.

Once I dialed that back, life feels better and I get into a groove.  Near the bottom, the descent is awesomely twisty and fast.  I come up quickly on a racer that I could pass but rather than taking the chance at a high speed pass, I focus on relaxing and riding smooth.

The next chunk of course covers quite a bit of road; 11miles or so, and the field of racers is finally pretty spread out and I'm no longer concerned with positioning. Okaynow is time to settle into my endurance pace.  I've pushed a lot of high tempo and if I want to finish this race, I need to just maintain.

A small cohesive group forms on the gravel road and I ride along the other riders and explain we should work together on this stretch.  Enough agree as long as we don't push the pace too high and keep our pulls short.  We work together to get to Aid Station 2 and push a nearly 18 mph average pace for the 7 or 8 miles.  

At the Aid Station (mile 32) , I see Katie and she hands me another bottle.  I drop an empty bottle and hand her my cycling cap; its too hot for that today.

Excitedly, she says, "you're only 20 minutes behind".
Confused and thinking of my own schedule, I frankly reply, "What? No I'm not. I've got to go.  I love you."

Later it occurred to me that she was talking about the leaders. I won't see her again until Aid Station 6 and at that point I'll have an hour of racing left.  That seems like an eternity from now; don't think about that.

Who would have thought that nearly 6+ hours later I'd finish with the Dude who took this photo.... 
One by one, the small group I had been working with before Aid Station 2 comes back and begins to grow. Although many had come and gone, this group is still centered around many of the racers I started near and at this point in the race (nearing 3 hours) I feel I can gauge their style and performance.  Internally, I asses how they feel, how much they have left in their tank, whether they are confident in technical sections, whether they are crazy, or whether they are annoying.  Really I know nothing but I was making my race decisions based on these judgements and with this information, I create a simple plan: Ride away from the bad or annoying riders, put the crazy riders ahead of me (at least on the descents) and stick with the good riders.  Simple enough.

Climb number 3.  Hankey Mountain.  Our group rolls into the base of Hankey Mountain fast.  The first half is a jeep road about 2 miles long that gains 700+ feet of vertical elevation.  Its averages 7% or so and isn't too steep but you've got to climb it again at the end of the day and this must mentally tax us racers.  We push a good pace up this jeep track and climb to the intersection in less than 16+ minutes.

The climbing gets more difficult and our group splinters;  now its three or four of us.  A guy pushing the pace up front is tall and skinny, he looks like a great climber.  I imagine he rides the road a lot because his arm muscles are small like Chris Froome's. Skelelator.  We continue upwards and now the jeep trail deteriorates and feels even steeper.  Several punchy sections force me to weight the front of my saddle with my chest slumped way over the stem and chin near the handlebars.

A pain from my lower back moves up into my right shoulder.  I stretch while riding and hear a voice from behind, "Whats going on with your shoulder Guy?" says the voice.
 I reply, "its getting tight from this climbing."
He advises, "Keep doing what you're doing and drop your shoulders forward every now and then and lower your head too but climbings over and now we get to shred the gnar."

Shred the gnar?  Was he saying this because of our race kit? I had no clue we were about to descend but he knew this.  He must be a local but after the first fast downhill section, he was gone. I never even saw his face.  Either he got a mechanical or he didn't exist.  If he is a real person and not a figment of my imagination, I'd like to thank him because I echoed his advise all day and continued to drop my shoulders like he suggested.

This is descent #3- Dowell's Draft.  It drops 1,400+ feet in 3.4 miles and takes about 15 minutes at race pace.  The upper section is very steep and the lower section although unbelievably fun is off camber and tricky at high speeds.  Somewhere near the top a rider who I deem crazy gets onto my rear tire.  I hear him chattering down the loose scree and say,  "I'll let you pass when its good man; no worries." Soon I see a spot to pull off and he blasts by me, completely out of control.  Thank god he is no longer behind me.

This trail is challenging and I focus all my energy into line selection.  I ride a double drop and then make a tight turn through some trees over another small drop.  I get a bit sideways in some steep loose stuff and decide to walk this short bit.  I have no shame in walking here.  The trail is now smooth and my speeds increases to 20+ mph.  Stay focused.  I see a cloud of bugs swarming a dip and tight left hand turn.  Bee's.  It must be a ground nest thats now swarming.  I have no choice but to hit it at full speed.  I ride though and amazingly, I didn't get stung (well....I did twice but didn't realize until after the race).  The trail continues to get smoother and faster, near the bottom of the trail, my speeds hit nearly 30 mph.

POV of Dowell's Draft:

At the base of Dowell's Draft, I roll into Aid Station 3 (mile 45).  I have a "drop bag" here that I pre-supplied with food and tools. The volunteers help me refill my bottles and I'm out of there in less than a minute.  The group we had going up Hankey Mountain has broken up and I roll out onto the next section of road alone.

I place my forearms onto my hand grips and let my hands dangle out into the space ahead of me.  My head is down and I put constant energy into my pedals as I propel forward. The course is now on a paved highway that is a slight climb for 4 miles.  Alone I push a 14mph pace.  Within five minutes a paceline of racers gain my wheel and quickly they overtake me.  I know the time advantage I can gain if I join this group and I put in the effort to grab the last wheel.

This paceline is built of 6 riders or so and the man leading the paceline is unbelievably powerful, by far the strongest rider in the group.  It seems nobody can keep his pace when its their turn to pull and he just overtakes them; continuing to let everyone suck his wheel.  I don't want to be a "wheel sucker".

I take my turn at the front.
20 second pull.
Okay, I'm done.
drop back
catch the last wheel....
got it! Pheww.

The next rider makes a short slower pull and the powerful rider gets out of line again and moves up front. This happens several times and as as the powerful rider overtook me on my 3rd or 4th attempt at a pull,  I apologize that I can't keep a pace as high as his.   He casually says, "no problem".  Myself and those other 5 racers owe that man a beer.

The next 7 miles offers some of the best singletrack riding on the race course. It's somewhat old school and for some reason reminds me of my local riding venue- West Woods (It must be the moss and the rocks?).  The climb is all single track, 1,000+ vertical feet in 1.9 miles.  Again, for my local friends, let's compare that to the opening climb at Rockland which is 1.1 miles with 199 feet of vertical climbing.  This is steep climbing with 2 or 3 challenging rock gardens and one mandatory hike-a-bike.  The forest here is beautiful.  I love this section despite the pain it inflicts.  Near the top two very fast riders appear from nowhere and one passes me very quickly. The other is far enough behind me that I don't think he'll get me before the descent but he is close enough I can almost make out his race kit.  Where did these guys come from and how do they have so much energy at nearing mile 53?

Bridge Hollow leads to Braley's and this descent is part of the reason I'm back this year.  I'm back for some retribution because last year, I ripped open a tire on this descent and had a miserable repair. My tubeless setup wouldn't seal and I was forced to use a spare tube.  Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't be a problem, however, I had short stem tubes and my deep carbon rims made it nearly impossible to inflate the tubes.  After exhausting a few CO2's I ended up using my emergency hand pump and barely was able to inflate the tire.  This repair cost me 10+ minutes and made me very nervous the rest of the race.  I was terrified of getting another flat.  It was a complete rookie mistake but I was a rookie.

This year will be different I sigh and I take a deep breath as I point my bike downhill.

Like a Deer in the headlights..... focused. 

Stay focused.

I echo this mantra dozens of times as I ride down Braley's.  I decide to error towards caution and ride slower and well within my limits.  I don't care that the rider behind me has now caught my wheel, I am going to ride this descent at my pace.

Down a steep rocky straight away,
sharp turn to the left 
and back to the right around some roots. 
Yep, thats the spot I ripped open my tire. 
Oh, and here is the spot I stopped and did my repair.  

Stay focused, ride smooth. My speed feels slow but I am comfortable and my bike feels good.  The trail is becoming more and more fun. One last tight turn and I'm back onto a jeep trail  Wow.  1,100' of elevation lost in about 11 minutes.  That was awesome.

The rider who caught my wheel near the top of the descent complements how smooth I made the descent look. It did feel good.  I thank him and apologize if it was too slow, making him aware I was being careful because I had torn my tire there last year.  He makes a remark about it being a gnarly descent and that I was going plenty fast.  He added that he'd taken a few bad falls on that in the past.

Yes it was a gnarly descent and one not to be taken lightly.

In fact, we'd soon learn that a racer lost his life on this very descent later in the day.  Somwhere near the top he struck a tree and went some 60 feet off the trail and down the embankment.  He was 54 years old and had been competitively riding bicycles for three years.  This is a tragic reminder that our sport is dangerous and serious consequences can result.  My deepest sympathies go out to this racers friends and family.

We move on and the rider behind me passes me on the jeep trail and when the trail tucks back into the singletrack I can tell he is a very good rider.  Following my strategy from earlier I know I should  stick with the good riders; so I stick to him.

Together, we roll through Aid Station 4 (mile 58).  I grab a bottle of water from a volunteer.
"Nothing else?" said the volunteer.
"No, I'm good" I reply.
The tone in the volunteers question made me somewhat nervous because the "Death Climb" loomed ahead and my water supply was at the bare minimum but it should be enough.We roll out of the aid station.

Spinning down the road, I  feel my knees getting sore. It must be from the downhill and not spinning much, they'll loosen up again, I told myself.

Myself, the rider I was with coming down Braley's, and another rider in a Bike Doctor racing kit move down the road.  The rider in the Bike Doctor kit is obviously very strong and has lots of power left but his rear wheel was far from true and he'd occasionally stand up and sprint in our small paceline.  His sporadic movements freak me out and I prefer the other riders more stable wheel.  As we continue on towards the "death climb" we hook up with a few other riders and our paceline gains momentum.

I listen as these racers casually discuss the race outcomes and I learned that Gordon Wadsworth (the singlespeeder I passed on Lynn Trail) and Keck Baker (another NUE leader who could have won today) have dropped out from the race.  How do these guys know this stuff?  Then they began talking about overall NUE series points and how it all works.

And then at that moment, I realize the rider I had been riding with since Braley's, the stable wheel, is Roger Masse, the 2014 NUE Master Series Champion and all around mountain bike bad ass who races for Rare Disease Cycling.  Wow.  I can't believe I'm pace lining with him up the death climb.  This is unbelievable.

What is a death climb?  Well, in the Shenandoah Mountain 100 the death climb starts around mile 65 and finishes when you drop down into Chestnut Ridge trail around mile 82.  It's a long slow slog gaining 2,200 (if not more) feet of elevation.  It's mostly gravel road, however 8 miles in, it takes a sharp right hand turn and kicks up significantly in steepness.  The false summits add to the pain and its easier to think you'll never hit the summit because just when you think its over, it kicks back up and feels never ending all over again. Aid Station 5 (mile 75) is also a stop along the death climb and most racers think its all over from there but nope, the death climbs puts you into the "killing fields" and the false summits and climbing continue.  In total the death climb took me an hour and fifty two minutes to climb.  Ouch.

As we roll along the "easy" parts of the death climb, I feel my left hamstring cramp when we hit a steeper rise.

I can't lose these wheels and this paceline. I've got to ride through this.

I stretch the best I can while riding in the group, take some endurolytes, and drink more water.  How much water have I had?  Has it been enough?  I start calculating and my mind rambles and rattles off numbers inside my head that barely make sense....

I've been riding for nearly 6 hours... 
So, let's see there was 1 bottle at the start...
then a bottle at aid 2...  Thats 2.
....But I didn't finish the first one so thats 1.5.
Okay 1.5 and then there is Aid 2's bottle so thats 2.5.
Then I got another bottle of perpetum at Aid 3, and a bottle of h20
... So I'm at 4.5.
and i just grabbed a bottle at Aid 4, thats 5.5.
So, I've had at least around 5 bottles of liquid.  Thats pretty good! 
But did I really finish all those bottles?  
Not really...
Why am I cramping?  I never cramp.

Amazingly I pedal through it and the cramp dissolves.

Ahead of us, the Death climb makes the punctuated turn to the right, and our group splits, one racer says, "see you guys at the finish line."  I follow Rogers consistent power and keep steady behind him.  I feel as though I could possibly push harder but I am slightly concerned my hamstring cramp will hit worse and know the course still has too much climbing to let that happen now. Plus I am on track to beat my goal time and I don't want to get greedy.  Do I?

After a false summit, we are flying downhill, still spinning but somewhat recovering.  Our speed is probably 27-28 mph.  At this time there is only three of us.  The Bike Doctor Kit guy on the Scalpel, Roger, and then me.  Then all of a sudden Rogers rear wheel locks up and he goes into a skid. I avoid him and pass quickly on his right.

"You okay?" I shout?
"Yeah, I'm okay" he replies sounding confused.

Within seconds I can no longer see him because of the speed I'm carrying but I can still smell the burned rubber from his rear tire.  What was that all about?

Aid Station 5 (Mile 75).  I roll in and am completely out of water and feel pretty spent.  I hop off the bike, ask to get my chain lubed.  Identify my drop bag and have the volunteers help fill my H20 bottle and mix my perpetum bottle.  I grab a small cup of coca-cola and eat a couple orange slices.

"You guys have anything with salt?" I ask, in hopes it will ensure my cramping hamstring is gone.
"Pringles?" the young girl answered with a question.

I eat a few Pringles, take my first pee break of the day and then get back onto my bike to go upwards on the death climb towards the killing fields.  I've been riding for 6 hours and 48 minutes.  According to my plan, I should be able to finish in 2 more hours if I push a fast pace.  That is 12 minutes under 9 hours!  Yes!  I've got this... Stay focused.

For some disgusting reason, I love the killing fields.  The riding is not particularly difficult but its hard, its not interesting (although you do feel like you're in the backcountry) and its actually kind of shitty.  You are in the sun and there are sections where your riding mowed grass through fields.  Both times I've ridden it, I've passed a handful of riders that can barely talk.  Its a very demoralizing section of the course but for whatever reason, I enjoy its distgusting beauty.

Ah, the drop into Chestnut Ridge trail.  I made it.  Okay.  Put the suspension into downhill mode and stay focused.  

This descent is unbelievably fast.  You can be squeezing your brakes all the way closed and still flying 20+ mph through some sections.  Near the top it is mostly fall line with several loose rocky sections.  Its tight single track and its an easy place for a racer to ruin their day, especially this late in the course.  The vertical drop is 2,400+ feet in less than 5 miles and takes about 25 minutes at race pace.  I'm alone most of the descent and I can focus all of my attention on line selection. I pick up a rider near the bottom and we move fast, its almost scarier with another rider because now I see in scale how fast I am moving. My GPS says 35+ mph.  At the bottom there are blurs of spectators and photographers.  We blast across a couple shallow creeks and then as if transported to another world, we are in Aid Station 6 (mile 88)

Katie looks surprised to see me but is prepared with a bottle of H20.  I throw an empty bottle down and then a somewhat full bottle down. I'm only carrying one bottle for this last stretch. I want to keep my weight low.  She cheers me on and I'm off.  My clock show's 07:51.  It took me just over an hour to get here from Aid 5.  If I want to finish sub 9, I need to complete the last 10 or 11 miles in one hour.  I did that last year but it wasn't easy and I knew the climb up Hankey Mountain would be really challenging today.

Out from Aid Station 6 I find myself on the road with a racer I was with nearly 6 hours ago at this exact spot.  I hadn't seen him since and I say, "so we meet again." Earlier in the day he said to me, "I'm just going to let the course come to me." We laugh a bit and pedal on. There is a paved climb right from Aid 6 thats short but a somewhat steep.  My heart rate is lower and I assume thats due to cardiac drift, our pace isn't slow and I don't feel the need to push harder.  Then like a lightning bolt my left hamstring seizes up like it had a few hours prior on the death climb.  Shit!

My mind begins strategizing and calculating...
If I want to beat my goal time, I need to continue riding somewhat fast. 
However, if I don't take care of this cramp it could stop me and I'll fail my goal.

Without letting the other racer know what is happening to me, I soft pedal to the top of the hill, mostly on my right leg.  I swallow down some endurolytes, and drink some water.  Having ridden this section once today, I know its a pedaly downhill but there's one section thats steep enough you don't need to pedal.  I think to myself, If I can stretch my hamstring during that section, I might be able to fight of this cramp and climb Hankey fast (which is nearly 800 feet of climbing in 2 miles) to finish within my goal time.

As we start to descend, I tuck in behind the other rider into a goofy aerodynamic position.. lean far over my bars and raising my ass in the air so that i can hold 10 second stretches on my left hamstring.  I get two good stretches in on the short descent and we are back on level ground; I'm hopeful that will work.

Hankey Mountain is the only big climb you do twice.  In the morning it wasn't too bad but now with 90+ miles and nearly 14,000' of climbing in my legs it feels pretty significant.  I decide to occupy my mind and chat with the other racer.  If I can pre-occupy myself I won't realize how much pain I'm in and I can continue upwards harder and faster.  I learn that his name is James and we chat about nothing important, simple stuff, our brains are fried.

We look up the steep road and the rider ahead of us is "tacking", swerving left and then right to make the steep jeep trail less steep.  Without trying, we are closing the gap on him.  My plan is working and my legs are feeling strong again.  We close the gap on the other racer.  It's Roger.

I ask, "what happened earlier on the death climb when you skidded?"
He explains that his rear axle must have gotten bent somewhere on the course and his rear wheel locked up by itself.  Scary! He is very glad we didn't cause a pile up.

James and I  pull away from Roger and he shouts, "nice job man, smooth and steady you're doing great and going for a good finish." I gain more momentum from his compliments and we ascend faster.

After about 20 minutes, we hit the intersection on Hankey Mountain.  Only 3 minutes slower than when we had done it this morning.  Not bad!  From here, I know there are a couple more slight rises but nothing huge.  I've got this.  Stay focused. Ahead there is a very punchy climb and a racer I recognize from earlier in the day is hiking his bike up it.  Besides its steepness there is no reason to be walking it.  I hammer the pedals and clean this rise, I look behind me and James also made it.  I shout back, "That might have been a bad idea." He responds, "don't think about it, just pedal".

We exit the somewhat rocky single track and are on a descending jeep road.  One of the leaders from the single speed race is fixing a mechanical.  Ugh, so close to the finish.  Stay focused John, this race isn't over, one mistake and you fail to meet your goal.  stay focused.

The jeep road now slightly rises and we catch another racer, a single speeder, standing up and hammering his pedals.  He appears out of his mind at this point and yells, "my legs are screaming at me! You guys aren't single speeders are you?!?" We pass him on the descent and he cheers us on, "yeah, you guys got this!".  On this short descent, we pass another racer with a mechanical, this one is geared and I had ridden with him down  Chestnut Ridge less than an hour ago.

 I think to myself:  he was going pretty damn fast down Chestnut and you were scared to keep up with him.  See, thats what happens when you ride too fast; you get mechanicals. Stay focused, stay smooth.

The jeep trail rises a second and final time.  "I think this is the last bit of climbing" James shouts to me.  I also knew this and am psyched.  I've got this. After the rise, I begin descending and select a horrible line, its the worst possible line down the rockiest, most eroded, and overgrown section of double track. This line is terrible but I'm committed and moving too fast to get out of it.  I've got to see it through the end.  Miraculously I escape unscathed and shout back to James, "that was definitely not the line to take." He laughs and responds, "yeah that looked horrible." I am lucky.

We drop down into the final singletrack through the campground.  He shouts, "Yes!".  The trail is obvious straight ahead but arrows point right.
This is different than last year. Which way?  
I start to go straight, and James goes right which is correct.
I Now follow him through the campground trail.

We blast through more spectators and folks cheering us on and then hit the final field.  It's really all a blur.  Pedaling in my big ring, I launch up and over a noel and come flying into the final turn at 25 mph. James and I pass under the finish line together and the race is over.

Chris Scott announces into the microphone, "Congratulations, 8:44!  Nice job John Biehn! Where you from John?"  Almost unable to process what is happening I reply, "Connecticut". "Alright, ring the gong and grab your pint glass!"

8:43!  Look no hands!!
A small child, maybe 3 or 4 years old,  cruising around on a red miniature mountain bike hands me a pint glass and I slam the gong.  Katie grabs my bike and gives me a huge hug.  "You did it!" She exclaims, "you did so well!"

In the shade, I sat dazed for 20 minutes or more and watched riders filter in. Many of them had a name I recognized from leaderboards or would later be on the podium for Single Speed, Masters, and Woman's Open.  I am exhausted but stoked beyond belief.

The evening continued on and racers kept flowing through the finish line.  Leif and his friend Jonathan finished their SM 100 in 11:49 minutes; beating the Sunset and finishing a very impressive first century bicycle ride. We celebrate with a few beers and multiple dinners as we watch the final riders cross  the finish under their own lights (at nearly 16 hours). It was a great day for us.


One of the most challenging parts of this race (surprisingly) was that I knew how well I was doing the entire day and having the excitement and realization that I was accomplishing a year long goal for nearly 9 hours was very hard to control. My mind continually wanted me to leave the moment and celebrate.  So much of my energy was spent reminding myself to focus, ride smooth and stay in the moment.  I couldn't count how many times I said that to myself but I'd bet the number is in the hundreds.

So why do I enjoy this so much?  For one, its incredibly fun; Hop on a bike and your instantly free.  There is also the enjoyment of competition and the fulfillment of achieving an objective.  But there are deeper, more complicated reasons that I don't fully understand yet.  One common thread I keep finding is that I enjoy pushing my physical self to a place that puts my mind into a very focused present for a long period of time.  So much of life is filled with getting from point-a to point-b and its a challenge (and sometimes boring) to truthfully live in the moments between. In this 8 hour 44 minute race, I was living.  

Finishing the Shenandoah Mountain 100 will never be easy, its a very challenging course and demands much from a racer. I took an hour and fifteen minutes of my time from 2014 and I couldn't be happier with that achievement. I'm not sure what will happen but I'll come back again and give it my best.  This is an amazing event for the mountain bike community and one that should not be missed.

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