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Sixty-six miles in and thirty-seven left to go, the coil tightened it’s grip on my femur, a double stranded helix of pain that was DNA deep. It crushed to the core and finally stopped me in my tracks, frozen in the heat; hunched, hysterical. This was the worst one I’d ever felt; raw, relentless and instant. It was one thing to pedal through the small fleeting dull ones. The shallow shadowy ones that would flare up slowly and say hello, fire the first warning shot through my nerves, then slide silently back down into my fibers. But this one was something else, an electric eel that slithered by my defenses unnoticed, wrapped and coiled itself up around and through my quad, then wrecked and wrenched down with the strength and surprise of a rogue wave in the middle of the dark open ocean.

Yeah wow, I sure didn’t see that one coming. I better get to the Michigan Bluff aid station soon.

The cramp of a lifetime probably would have been avoided if, forty-two miles earlier, I hadn’t crashed on the singletrack of Red Star Ridge. It was a small crash, a simple stuff of the front tire into some too soft dirt with too much speed trying to make too tight of a turn, but one that had large consequences: It ripped the Garmin GPS off of my stem. I didn’t even noticed it until a few miles later when I exited Red Star Ridge, began bombing down to the bottom of the Glen Mine climb, looked down to check the time and it was gone. Shit. Riding and flying blind with about seventy-five miles and eight hours of riding ahead with no way to check the time of day, no way to check how my pacing was going, no way to be sure of how far I’d ridden nor how much farther the next aid station would be, and thus no way to exactly know if my electrolyte consumption and fueling schedule was on track or was falling off the tracks. Needless to say, it fell off the tracks. More accurately, it got smashed head on by a bullet train then blown off the track in bits. Commence cramp of a lifetime.

When I made it to the small town of Michigan Bluff, mile sixty-eight, I was confused. I thought a street fair or carnival or something was going on. I heard music. “Here, let me take your bike”. I smelled bacon. I thought I saw someone dancing. “What do you need?!”. There were people riding bikes. There were people putting wet rags on the back of my neck. “This is gonna be cold!”. There were people handing out drinks. Is that someone playing a flute and charming a snake? Wait, I know these people. “Do you want your chain lubed? What do you want in your bottles??!”. Aha! I’m at the Mad Cat aid station. It could have been a dusty vendor street in downtown Marrakech for all I knew. Sure yeah, I’ll take all of that. Oh and a jar of pickle juice. And that little baggie filled with the sorta crushed up endurolytes, how much will those be? I’ll take those too.

I had always wanted to visit Marrakech but I had to be on my way. Next stop Foresthill.

As of that Saturday morning, at 6:00 AM while on the start line in Soda Springs,

the only sign that there was a massive forest fire that had just torched 2,000 acres in three days burning just to the North of the Tahoe-Sierra 100 race course was the gentle scent of a distant, sweet white smoke that was just barely there. Then as we pedaled off the pavement

and onto the dusty, rutted out portion of Soda Springs Rd,

climbed up to the first water station (mile 14)

and watched the sunrise splash on the Granite Chief Wilderness off to the left on top of Lyon Ridge,

descended off the backside, then pedaled toward French Meadows Reservoir, climbed up to Red Star Ridge (mile 24)

and picked up the Western States singletrack,

then descended a short bit on Mosquito Ridge Road to the loose and technical Glen Mine climb, then climbed past the Folsom Bike aid station (mile 39)

upwards and onwards to Cavanaugh ridge and again more technical Western States Trail singletrack, to Dusty Corners aid (mile 52),to contouring singletrack past Pucker Point,

then plunged straight down to the swinging bridge,

hiked and crawled back out the other side, refilled water bottles at Deadwood (mile 62), descended into El Dorado Canyon, hiked and crawled again back out the other side, visited Marrakech Bluff,

then flowed down some more fun technical twists and turns before one last final climb to Foresthill (mile 73), the scent slowly faded away and disappeared. Funny how that can happen when you’re focused on other things with the wind on your side. But while in Foresthill, the evidence of the Robbers Fire burning just to our North was in our faces: Evacuation centers, the Red Cross, large flame retardant tankers and water drop helicopters buzzing overhead.

We got lucky.

At Foresthill, a volunteer told me that it was 2.5 miles along Foresthill Road to the left hand turn on the south side that would lead us to the flowy Todd Valley trails. Then it was roughly 7.5 miles of downhill flow and fireroad descending to the bottom of the Ruck-a-Chucky rapids on the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River. This left me, on my singlespeed with an extremely spinny gear

with nearly 10 miles of relaxation. There’s just only so fast that you can go on a “false flat downhill” on pavement on a bike with one gear. So I took this opportunity to rest, recover, get passed by a few guys chugging along in their big rings, and refuel along the way in order to avoid any additional cramping episodes in the 20 miles or so that were left to the finish (especially since there were still 2 major climbs and lots of rolling singletrack ahead.

After climbing the hot and extremely hard (for me) Ruck-a-Chucky climb to the Drivers Flat Aid station where Folsom Bike and my wife and friends were volunteering, I knew I was nearly done. In fact in my head, I pretty much was done. From here on out, I knew the trails like the back of my hand. It wouldn’t matter anymore that my Garmin was gone and I had no idea how far along I was, I knew these trails well, and I was going to rip them to the finish. North side of Foresthill Divide, Westbound Connector trail, past the green gate and up the Oak tree, down the new-and-improved Culvert Trail, cross the road, fly above the river on Confluence Trail, pop under the bridge, speed on by and wave to the volunteers at aid station mile 98, and continue one last grunt up the 2.5 mile Stagecoach climb that by this time of the day was 100% in the shade and just fucking glorious, top out, then a couple of last meandering neighborhood roads to finish around 11 hours and 30 minutes. Good enough for 1st Place Singlespeed and 10th Overall.

Now a few days later, one recovery ride, a flight to the East Coast and several days or so of not riding, and my legs are still store. Jim Northey, the tireless organizer of this race calls it, “The Race of a Lifetime” on his website , while I can still feel the damage from the “The Cramp of a Lifetime” in my left quad. It hurts.

But damn, it hurts really good, and it feels like I did something.

(**Nearlly all ūüėČ photos courtesy of Jeff Barker — THANKS BRO!)

Since 2008, local NorCal race promoter, Jim Northey of Global Biorhythm Events (www.globalbiorhythmevents.com), has been putting on what is arguably one of the toughest one-day mountain bike races around, the Tahoe-Sierra 100 MTB Race (TS100).¬† As the name suggests, it is a 100 mile MTB race held in the rough and tumble “backwoods” of the Greater Lake Tahoe region and Western Slope of the Sierra Nevada.¬†

 

For the past few years, the TS100 has been more of a loop style course which would have racers starting and ending at the same point.¬† However, for 2011, Jim and his crew devised a menacing point-to-point course that had the start point in Soda Springs, CA (elevation 6,738 ft) and ending in Foresthill, CA (elevation 3,096 feet).¬† This actually shortened the race length to approximately 83 miles, but not many racers were complaining about the “shorter” race this year because stuffed inbetween the start and finish was over 12,000 vertical of climbing and over 15,000 vertical feet of descending.¬† Check out the elevation profile below, paying close attention to how much steeper the climbs get as you get closer to the finish:

Much of the course would also take place on the famous Western States Trail. This is the same trail that is used in the Western States 100 mile endurance run (held every year since 1974), and also in the equine version, The Tevis Cup (http://www.teviscup.org). Until this year, and thanks to Jim Northey and his crew of race volunteers’ herculean race promotion and organization efforts, there has never been a MTB race held on this route making this year’s TS100 a race with significant historical significance. Finally, mountain bikers would have their own race on the Western States trail alongside our friends in the running and equestrian racing communities. (Note: The TS100 route only followed the Western States trail for the portions that are designated as legal for bikes.).

It’s been a few years since I’ve tried my hand at a 100 mile MTB race (last time was in the inaugural 2008 version of the TS100), as I’ve focued mainly on the more traditional XC length races that last anywhere from 1 – 3 hrs, but after learning that the 2011 version of the TS100 would be the point-to-point monster that it was, I just had to sign up for the adventure. I had originally signed up for the race in a geared class, but as the event drew closer, I decided to switch over to what I know best, racing singlespeeds, and changed categories into the Pro/Expert Single Speed Open Class.

When I race shorter traditional length XC races, I am generally known for running steeper gearing than most others and have had some success with that strategy.¬† I’m definitely more of a “masher” than a “spinnner” and I’ve spent a significant amount of time trying to get stronger in order to push gears tall enough to be able to keep up with the¬†fastest geared class riders¬† in my local area on the flats, but still be able to climb efficiently as well.¬† In a 2 hr XC race on rolling terrain, this strategy has served me well, and I decided to take this strategy into the TS100.¬† I knew it could backfire, but I went with it anyway.¬† My line of thinking followed that no matter how ‘spinny’ of a gear the other single speeders would be riding, they would still all be walking out¬†of the last 3 crazy steep climbs at the end of the race (these climbs are so steep and heinous that many of the geared riders have to walk them as well).¬† So my thought process was, since we’ll be hiking out of the climbs anyway, maybe I can put on a bigger gear for the first 2/3rds of the course and “out mash” everyone until we got to the crazy hikes out of the canyons at the end where it would essentially become a footrace.¬† I’d also use my lightest wheelset/tire combo (Maxxis Ikons without the EXO sidewall protection shod on Stan’s NoTubes lightest wheelset, the ZTR Race 29’ers) to hopefully make the mashing of the taller gear a little easier.¬† It was¬†a risky strategy for sure, but went with it anyway.¬† I also “guestimated” an 11 – 12 hour finish and tried to plan my fuel/water consumption apporpriately as you can see below:

Race started promptly at 6AM and about 150 excited racers were off.  The race started with about a miles worth of pavement before turning onto dirt and predictably, a group of about 10 of the fastest Pro class geared riders pushed the pace and were off the front.  Even though I knew this was a LONG race, I knew that with my steeper gear choice, now was the time to try and take advantage of it and get off the front as early as possible so I got into the paceline and drafted behind the lead group and onto the dirt. 

photo credit: Jeff Barker

The first 20 miles or so went by extremely fast.¬† Much faster than my “guesstimations” in the photo above where I thought it would be possible to manage a 10mph for the first 20 miles.¬† In reality, we hit the 20 mile mark at about hour and half mark.¬† And after the first significant climb at mile 21 and it’s fast descent to mile 30, I was still ahead of my schedule by about 30 minutes and thoroughly enjoying trying to keep pace within the top¬†7 or 8¬†geared riders overall¬†(which at this point was Jesse Miller-Smith, Chuck Ross, Chris Schulze, Aren Timmel, Greg Golet, and Rich Thurman).¬† This pace (for me) would not last much longer however…

photo credit: Jeff Barker

As you can see from the “strategy” pic above, at approximately Mile 31 we hit the second major climb of the day.¬† The Category 2 climb up to the singletrack of Red Star Ridge.¬†¬†This climb gains approximately 1,700 vert in 5 miles at an¬†average grade of 6.4% with a few steeper bits touching 25 – 28% (stats taken from www.strava.com) into it, I knew this would be¬†the first significant test of my 34×19 gear and I was fearing that I would have to walk a few spots.¬† Fortunately, I was able to ride the entire climb, but unfortunately, the grinding of my gear slowed me down significantly and just before the top I was caught by fellow singlespeeder, Mike Harrison.¬† As he passed, we chit-chatted briefly and I noticed that he was sitting down and spinning comfortably, while I was standing and mashing.¬† Already at this point, mile 35, I knew that I could be in some serious trouble.

One thing that I completely underestimated when developing my strategy of pushing a bigger gear than most was the condition of the high elevation trails and their corresponding chunkiness and looseness.¬† Mashing a bigger gear up climbs works great when the trail is hardpack, but when they are scorched with deep dusty ruts, littered with loose baby head rock debris, and twist and turn tightly forcing repeated hard re-accelerations…the larger gear begins to wear you down…and quickly.¬† This was my fate on the singletrack of Red Star Ridge

photo credit: Jeff Barker

 

Red Star Ridge destroyed me.¬† The photo above is one of the nicer sections of trails, but on a single speed with too hard of a gear, it was generally, THE SUCK.¬† I was off my bike and walking a LOT.¬† Which was very disconcerting for more than a few reasons: 1) I knew that Mike was ahead spinning away happily and probably laughing at my gear choice, 2) I knew that I was going to have a hell of a time holding off whoever else was behind me, and 3) if I’m walking this much now, and there’s a LOT more mandatory walking ahead down the road..how friggin long is this race going to really take me?.¬† Huge trains of geared riders swept me up and left me in their dust and wake on Red Star Ridge.¬† Already at the end of this section, at approximately mile 41,¬†I was mentally toeing the line between treating this as a “race” and treated it as “just survive and finish”

photo credit: Jeff Barker

 

Following Red Star Ridge, we were treated to a FAST pavement descent on Mosquito Ridge Road for a few miles which gave me some time to drink/eat and recover mentally from the total beatdown that Red Star Ridge just served me.  This recovery would not last long however, as we got back on dirt at about mile 45 and began what would ultimately be the longest climb of the day checking in at 8 Р9 miles. 

In my strategy map above, I wrote the word “walk?” at the very top of this climb where it appeared to get steeper way up at mile 56 or 57.¬† And I was correct in that assessment…I definitely walked the crap out of that section up there.¬† However, what I actually should have done was written the word “walk?” about 80 more times along the length of this climb.¬† Seriously.¬† From the bottom, to the middle, to the very top…I walked alot and grinded my pedals a little.¬† It was pretty crushing and the constant “get off bike”, “get back on bike” really began wearing on me and I felt my quads getting small twinges of cramps. Uh-Oh don’t do this already here..not now…it’s too early.¬† About 1/3 of the way up this climb was an aid station and just before reaching it I was caught and passed by another single speeder, Aron Yevuta who looking very strong and also spinning away at a much easier gear than me.¬† We spent some time at the aid station together re-filling bottles and hydration packs, left at about the same time, and I tried my best to stay on his wheel for the fire road climb along Cavanaugh Ridge when not more than 2 minutes after the aid station, my left quad completly seized, cramped, and locked.¬† Off the bike again.

There at approximately mile 54, I double-over my bike for about 10¬†minutes trying to get my quad to un-cramp.¬† Literally couldn’t move for 10 minutes and all I could do was contemplate about¬†how I was even going to finish this race when the worst climbing was still a long ways away.¬† The thoughts of backing out and heading back to the aid station for the dreaded DNF finally faded away along with the cramp that eventually released it’s strangle hold on my quad and I found that I could actually make a few pedal strokes without it seizing up again.¬† Just a few more miles to the top of this climb and then I knew there was finally some descending to be had.¬†

Miles 55 to 61 went by pretty fast and relatively uneventful.¬† It was fast fun technical descending on chunky loose trails with amazing scenery at high alpine elevation.¬† Pretty easy to forget the pain of seizing quads and mashing too big a gear on steep climbs in terrain like that and I took full advantage and begin to recover mentally.¬† I finally began to feel fresh again like I did during the first 25 – 30 miles.¬† This recurring feeling of freshness got another boost when I rolled into my teammates (Team Mad Cat – www.teammadcat.com) aid station at about mile 61.¬† Mad Cat has staffed this aid station for the past few years and have become famous for cooking up some mean bacon tacos and being being incredibly efficient and friendly at helping racers fix any issues with their bikes, throw cool water towels on their necks, and refill their bottles.¬† My team mates and friends treated me like royalty when I rolled in and I can’t thank them enough.¬† I had been hurting and I left them feeling rejuvenated so THANK YOU.

After the Mad Cat aid station, the most fun part of the race course (for me) was ahead.  We dipped onto the Western States trail for some true ripping singletrack on historic flume trails in shaded pine forest that just made you smile. A few miles of that to about mile 70 and the trail dropped off the end of the earth on one of the steepest descents I have ever been on.  Miles 71 Р73 plummted into a deep canyon through steep loose switchbacks and long fall line straightaways that overheated rotors and seared brake pads.  It was nice to rack up miles quickly, but I knew that we would have to climb out the other side of this canyon and there would be a few miles of walking to get up and out of the other side.

So after reaching the bottom of the canyon at mile 73.¬† I walked.¬† And walked.¬† And walked some more.¬† It was steep.¬† It seemed never ending.¬† It was extremely hot.¬† I got blisters on my heels.¬† Blisters on my toes.¬† My back ached.¬†I began to have visions of ice cold beer and it almost brought a tear to my eye. Ice. Cold. Beer.¬†¬†I began to question my sanity for entering this dang race.¬† More than a few times I uttered the “Never again” mantra…and if anyone at the bottom of this canyon heard someone yell “THHIISSSS SSSUUUUCCKKKKSSS!!!‘ at the top of their lungs from somewhere half way up the climb….well yeah, that was me ūüôā¬† I think it took me an hour to hike out of that canyon.¬† I have no idea.¬† Luckily there was an aid station at the top.¬† The friendly volunteers who staffed it were very nice as they tried to make sense of whatever came out of my mouth when they asked how I was doing. “Gunga.¬† Gunga galunga. gungagalungddffaddfs….”.¬† They just looked at me and nodded and sent me on my way.

Fortunately, with that hell climb behind me, there was another one almost exactly like it just a few miles ahead.¬† Awesome.¬†¬†And inbetween where I was now and that next hike from/out-of-hell was another steep ripping singletrack descent into another canyon.¬† It was on this descent that my rear brake completely went out.¬† I wore the brake pad down to nothing and was now left without whatever was left of it constantly rubbing on my brake rotor.¬† More awesomenes.¬† Thankfully the descent ended soon and I was facing a hike of another 45 minutes to an hour so I wouldn’t be needing my brakes anyway for awhile.¬† “gunga. gungagalunga” – all over again.¬†

By my calculations, by the time I hiked out of this second hell climb/death march I was only about 14.56 percent of my former self.¬† I was basically a walking shell.¬† A walking shell of a mountain biker who couldn’t get visions of Ice. Cold. Beer. out of his head. I stumbed into the last aid station at Mile 80-something looking like the Charlie Brown character Pig Pen with a bad meth habit.¬† “gunga. gungagalunga. gungaldfdhfsddf.”¬† The friendly aid station volunteers checked me in and checked me out and I was on my way.

As I pedaled out of the last aid station, one of the volunteers shouted out, “hey! you’re the 3rd SS’er!¬† Keep going¬†and you’re on the podium!!”.¬† Huh?¬† Wait what? How?¬† This is a race?….ooooohhh yeahhhh… and I’m in 3rd!¬† I suddenly got a jolt of energy and wave of euphoria came over me when I realized that hey, I’m in 3rd place, and hey, I’m nearly done with this fricking thing.¬† I began to have more visions of Ice. Cold. Beer.¬†and I heard the fantastic refreshing¬†hissing sound that Ice. Cold. Beer cans make when you pop them open after a long hard ride echo throughout the hills.¬† However, I began to realize that the hissing sound I was hearing was indeed a very real sound and it was not coming from Ice. Cold. Beer.¬† but rather from my rear tire.¬† Nooooooooooooo!¬† My risky strategy had once again backfired and lmy ightweight tire had a torn sidewall with Stan’s fluid gushing out all over the place.¬†¬† Pull over.¬† Spend 10 minutest screwing around with CO2 cartridiges and tire sealant and get moving.¬† Ughh…end this.¬† Now.

Two miles after the¬†tire slashing and fixing, it did end.¬† I suddenly popped out on Foresthill Rd, and cruised into the finish line at around 10 hours 40 minutes.¬† Just 8 minutes and change behind the 2nd place single speeder, Aron, who passed me way back at mile 50-something just prior to my quad cramps.¬† I had somehow made some time up, but not enough.¬† Mike Harrison had a great race and won with a time right around 10 hours on the mark and took the days top spot for the single speeders.¬† I pulled into the finish.¬† Was handed a finishing medal and Ice. Cold. Beer.¬†and was told to hang around for a few minutes because I arrived just in time for the SS podium presentation.¬† Sweet ūüôā

photo credit: Jeff Barker (me on far right)

 

Immediately after the podium, I emphatically told anyone around me who dared to listen that I would never ever put myself though this torture again.  Actually, immediately after the podium I had an Ice. Cold. Beer. but it was after THAT when I began saying such things.  But now today, one day after, I want to get after it again.  I want to get after it with a not-so-dumb gearing choice.  I want to get after it with non-paper thin tires.  And most of all I want to get after it with another Ice. Cold. Beer. at the end.   What is it in our nature that make us so quickly forget all that pain and suffering and want to do it again?  It must have something to do with the Ice. Cold. Beer. Gunga.  Gungagalunga.  See ya next year TS100.

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