The Wilderness 101 race held in Coburn, PA is one of two races held on the same day (The second being the Big Bear in California which my partner in crime and awesome teammate David Jolin raced this year. He placed fifth by the way...GREAT JOB DAVE!!) and is the 5th race in the series, so things are definitely heating up as everyone's fitness is starting to peak. For me, this is the second time attending this race and is the most challenging course due to the big, sharp, angry rocks that the riders ride over and down!
I tapered a bit differently for the last two races and this seems to be paying off, so I need to bottle this approach and continue to follow it because the results that I am seeing in this series is paying off. In my humble opinion, this year the strength and depth of the talent in the series has significantly increased. It is just very tough to have a good placement in such a tough field. Kudos to all the riders that put in the time to train and make every race a tough challenge!
I felt good at the start and did a very easy spin just to get things moving and flowing and made sure not to do so much as to raise the HR a whole lot. This race has a 28+ paved and gravel start with a couple climbs before you hit the first single track, so there is time to warm up and time for the field to split up a bit, especially on the climbs. I felt fantastic on each of the starting climbs and managed to stay in touch with the lead group even through aid station #1 which for me is really just unheard of, but that gives you a sense of how good I was feeling. I was grabbing wheels when I could just to try and conserve energy so I really believe that paid off quite a bit later on in the race.
The first single track section comes around 28 miles into the race and between aid #1 and aid #2. I was running bottles for this race as opposed to a camelback only because there is a lot of gravel road riding and climbing and the single track, while very technical (at least for me) are somewhat short lived, so not being able to drink for those short periods is tolerable and from my race results, very doable.
That first single track section is the Lonberger Trail and this is where you start to get a taste of how rocky things can get. Ohio really does not have much in the way of rocks and what there are, they just do not compare to PA angry rocks. There is a portion of this trail that includes the "3 bridges" section that has three fairly close knit, fairly narrow, bridges that cross over streams and you really don't want to go down on those bridges. The height from the ground isn't terrible, but it would definitely hurt and so some damage. Dirtwire.tv caught me on a video crossing the third bridge, pretty cool. Not sure how long this link will work, but here it is (I am the last rider or three to cross the bridge in the video): https://www.facebook.com/Dirtwiretv/videos/458051177701920/
After three bridges, I really don't know exactly where but I have the image in my head still, we had a group of guys flying through more single track. We all hit one section that had some rock armoring and it was just a massive pileup. Guys were hitting their brakes and flying off the rocks. So, since I was last in line I took the brunt of it. Hit the brakes to slow my speed, went off the rock path, over the handlebars (still clipped into the bike) and ended up putting the bike into a dead tree off to the left of the trail. Ouch. Amazingly I felt fine as I gathered myself and realized that I really had not hurt myself. The bike on the other hand was not so lucky. I jumped back on only to realize I blew the bead on the front wheel (I run tubeless tires) and it was as flat as a pancake. Bummer. Tried to reseed it using CO2 and no luck. Fortunately I carry a tube and this is the first time during one of the races I have had to go that route, so...here we go. Pull off tube, blah blah blah. Another racer was in the same situation and so we sort of chatted a bit while we were getting our bikes back in order and while other racers were riding past. Always disappointing to see. I managed to get the tire in good enough shape to continue. My biggest concern is that none of the really challenging sections had been encountered yet, so the entire rest of the day I was very nervous about hitting these very rocky sections with a tube in the front wheel as opposed to the much preferred tubeless setup.
After thee bridges there is a bit more single track (which is where I flew the over-the-handlebars jig) and then you are greeted with this bit of funess.
The idea is to ride over these rocks....well....I have done two recon rides on the course over the past two years and during last year's race I attempted to ride them again and every time I have failed and just lost time doing the whole...one foot down and sort of drag the bike with me while trying to maintain footing and not fall over. This year I had two plans, 1) if I get behind a rider that chooses a "good line" ( if there is such a thing on that section) then I would try and follow that rider or 2) dismount and do the cyclo-cross thang. Well, as I rolled up to it two riders ahead of me tried to clean that section (all while being encouraged by a bunch of spectators....its a hot spot for spectating, heckling, etc) and neither one of them were making good progress. So, I dismounted before the rocks and ran across with the bike on the shoulder. It worked, I bolted past the riders and re-mounted on the other side minimizing my loss of time in that section. Cool. Probably another reason in the back of my mind that I decided to do the cyclo-cross thing is since I had a tube in the front wheel now I had to be very careful with the potential pinch flats.
Once I was back onto gravel roads I just wanted to get to aid station #2 so that I could drain the CO2 air as it tends to leak out pretty quickly and have the mechanics fill it with some air from an air pump. Thank goodness I made to aid #2, actually still slightly faster than last year, and they got some air into the tire so I felt much better about that. Everything was holding with it so far, but my day would be over if I pinch flatted. Did a LOT of praying on this race!
We climb out of aid #2 and the next single track section is Croyle. It is loose, rocky, and technical. Not my strong suit, but I have ridden it three times now and my goal was to enter the ST (single track) with no one behind me so I pushed on the hill a bit to get a gap on any nearby riders so that I could take that descent at my own comfortable pace and not feel pressured to ride over my skill level (pretty much the strategy that I took on three specific technical sections on this course). Here is a youtube video that I discovered a few days before the race and used it to study and recall this particular portion of the race: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73aBQPJH-1I The video shakes you around quite a bit and gives you a sense of how rocky these trails are. It is blurred at times and doesn't give you a great impression of the difficulty of the trail, but it does give a little bit of an idea.
I made it down Croyle, not in my fastest time, but for me these particular sections are not about KOMs, they are about survival and staying alive in the race. I can push on climbs and gravels roads and that is where I can do the most damage. These trails are what can do damage to me, so I try my best to be very smart and know my skills and limits. At the end of the day, I have a family and day time job like all the other riders out there. ;-)
After I made it out alive on Croyle, I actually felt the most comfortable I have on that trail, there are more climbs and I believe aid #3 is where I grabbed a couple bottles of water and then we head into my most feared section of the course called Ruff Gap, appropriately named. I could not find a video of Ruff Gap but honestly it would probably just be a blur. This section is one mile long and every bit of nasty that one can imagine, again that's coming from me. I know the DH MTBer's probably love that section, but holy smokes. It is everything that I can do to just grab the brakes, point the bike straight, and pray the entire way down. Loose, rocky, rooty, drops, and a few weeks ago I came off the pedals and walked the last 50 feet of it. This was the first time I have ever cleaned this section. Amazing. Honestly I "think" they cleaned it up a bit or maybe it was the numerous riders ahead of me that knocked some of the loose rocks out of the way or perhaps I just had most sense about me and control on the bike but I made it down safely and actually a of couple riders let me go ahead of them ... I was like ... really?!?! you want "me" to go ahead of you .. sure...why not. Better for me to be in front of a rider not confident in getting down than to have them in front of me and take the chance of getting caught up in a nasty spill because on this section if someone goes down in front of you ... well ... you just are not getting around that in one piece. At least not me. ;-) Got to the bottom and again, literally thanked the good Lord for getting me there and that my tubed front wheel held up. Probably another reason why it was not my fastest time going down that section. No desire to pinch flat.
Only one more bit of gnarliness on my list of three nasty sections and that would be the trails named, Beautiful and NoName. After another good climb you roll into the Beautiful trail and perhaps by PA standards the trail is Beautiful, but it does have some very challenging rocks sections that have always eluded me. Again, I must have had some mojo flowing today because I cleaned the entire trail. For me, that is saying something. I road rocks like I had never ridden them before. I was able to follow one rider that had some very good lines thru a couple of the rocks sections until he got off a good line and came to a stop. I did a quick track stand and got around him, sweet. He gave me some props for riding thru that section, I conveyed the same to him and thanked him for letting me follow his wheel, and then I was one my own. Still, I continued to ride all of the remaining rocks sections. If nothing else good came out of this race, the ride thru that particular section was just a huge morale uplift and confidence booster that it made my days and race. Here is a you tube video link for the Beautiful trail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ac_sYCy69iw
The turn from Beautiful to NoName comes up pretty quick after you clear the rocks and there is a volunteer directing the traffic, so that's always cool to see (BTW, the volunteers are AMAZING on this race. Just awesome!). So NoName is one of those trails, again at least for me, that feels like someone's sick joke. To say that it is rocky is an understatement. It is a descent, it is fast, and it looks like a rock monster threw up on the trail. There is a rather BIG cliff off to your left and if you were to fall down it, well .. you would not hit the bottom very quickly and most certainly would be coming out on a stretcher. Moral of the story is, pick a good line, stick to the inside and be smart about your skill level so you don't get into trouble. I did very well on this section and caught a rider about 2 minutes into the descent. This is just a tough section for anyone, but this guy seemed to be a little les confident than I (perhaps his first time seeing this bit of nastiness). He asked if I wanted to get around and while I did want to get around, I told him to not worry about it, I wasn't going to win any points trying to pass, and I would rather him be safe then to let me by. Road the road together for a bit and when he felt comfortable he let me by on the outside. I made a smooth pass, wished him luck, to be safe, and motored down the rest of the descent. #3 of the gnarly rocks sections was done and I was still making good time, so ... very happy at that point.
After that section there is mostly just gravel climbs, like Stillhouse which comes after aid station #4 and was a total beat down last year, but this year I actually felt great going into it and picked off a few guys on that climb. The final rocky descent is a double track section called Panther Run. Last year I did this race on my hardtail and seriously ... no joke here .. thought I had internal bleeding by the time I got to the bottom of this thing. The rocks just don't let up and just when you think they are done ... nope ... they come back with a vengeance. Now, I know I could have ripped down this faster than I did ... but remember ... I have been running a tube since mile 30! So, I was not about to end my race trying for a PR on this bad boy. That darn Panther Run just goes on and on and on. Man oh man what a beat down. I figured some hard core DHer would have rolled up on me since I was being ginger with the front wheel, but nope ... never saw anyone on that section. At the very bottom before you dump out onto the gravel road for the next climb I did run up on a rider and couldn't really get around. Had I still had a tubeless setup on the front I would have taken the chance and gone more off-road to get around, but I just wasn't willing to take that chance and end my race. I was having such a good day that I figured the benefits of staying back out weighed the potentially for flatting my front tire. We got around the gate at the end and I took of on the next gravel road section and never saw him again.
Finally rolled up to aid station #5, grabbed two bottles of water figuring that since I was at 86 miles I had 14-ish miles left, give or take. The volunteers were great and told me that I had 6-miles left. Six miles?!?! No way I heard that correctly. So I took off from aid #5 and just a mile or so down the road you are greeted with this river crossing ...
In I went behind two other riders, one being Roger Masse who is just a phenomenal rider and does a great job in the series, so much that he is leading the series now and won the series last year in the Men's Master category. Frankly he is just an all around great guy! Fun to race again, fun to ride with, great to chat with. Very happy to have met him! Roger made quick work of the creek crossing while me on the other hand ... well ... I don't get drunk ... but that is how I can best describe it. My footing was all over the place as the water flow was swift but manageable but of course the rocks are ridiculously slippery so every foot placement was critical to be planted before taking another step. A video would have been good at this section ... I looked like a total drunk trying to clear that section. Oh, and this is where I realized that I had done "something" to a toe on my right foot. As soon as my right foot hit the water I had some pretty intense stinging feeling running through my foot and leg. I figured it was just another blister, but nope ... not a blister. More to come on that in a second.
Got thru that, and managed to grab Roger's wheel along with the other rider. I was feeling so good at this point that I decided to see what I had in the tank and passed both of them and put some time in on them, about 2 minutes I believe.
My finishing time was 7:30 and change, I placed 20th in the Open Men's category and 25th overall. TO put that in perspective, last year I placed 37th in the Open Men's category. So yep, I had a great day on the bike.
So, the damage to my toe on my right foot? Somewhere along the race I went down and landed in such a manner that cut right through the top of my shoe, thru my sock, and lacerated by third toe. Down thru the tissue. No wonder that sucker stung so much when I hit the water section. Ouch! Well, I now have five stitches in that toe and need to stay off the bike for around 10 days to let it heal. As frustrating as it will be for me, a little mid-season recovery is probably not a terrible thing and it could have bee worse. I will just focus on a bit more resistance and make sure I am good for the next race I have in three weeks.
Plus my wife is taking all my toys away from me so....I guess she is grounding me for 10 days from the bike. Probably a smart move on her part. ;-)
Much thanks and props to Jim Mathews for once again taking me and another good friend Brad Rogers on a recon ride of the course a few weeks before the race. Jim is a great MTBer with lots of experience and great advice for a newer MTBer such as myself. Always a pleasure to ride with Jim and enjoy a post-ride re-hydration beverage!
Props and credits to my my awesome wife for being my editorial advisor so I don't look like a complete idiot with these reports. I look like enough of an idiot on the bike. ;-)
Image and video credits go to DirtWire.tv. Great bunch of folks that do a great job following the series!
~ Scott Morman