Sometimes it seems that my entire athletic career has consisted of me asking, “Why would anyone want to do ______?” and then proceeding to do it myself and ending up loving it.
When I was a kid I would go to local high school track meets and during the 3200 meter run would ask my mom, “Why would anyone want to run 8 laps? I’m going to be a pole vaulter!” (ha,right). Fast forward several years and I have the 3200m school record and in another few years a 25 lap race is my best event (collegiate 10,000m).
This whole process happened again when I started cycling, then mountain bike racing, and then taking on endurance events (making 35 minute look like small fries). Last year I went to support Alex racing his first 100 mile mountain bike race at Lumberjack 100, a National Ultra Endurance race near Manistee. I had fun watching but it seemed like an overwhelming amount of time to ride, let alone to race fast and focus. However, after a year of confidence boosting mountain bike races, dramatically improved bike handling skills, and Alex claiming it really wasn’t that bad (always dangerous, Alex has a warped version of hard), I decided to give it a shot.
Two weeks before Lumberjack I raced Mountain Bike Marathon Nationals (60 miles) in Columbia County, Georgia. This turned out to be a great pre-Lumberjack test. The course was much more technical and raced slower than LJ. It included hardly any climbing but with constant turning and log crossings there was absolutely no rest. The course was one big 60 mile loop which was definitely a bit of a mental challenge. On top of this, the mercury climbed to 97 degrees during the race. Stan’s No Tubes pro-rider Rose Grant dropped me early in the race which made for a tough and lonely slog with the masters men’s fields. Despite questioning why I was doing it many, many times during the pre-rides and the race, it was a great Lumberjack tune up for fueling strategies and heat management and it actually left me much more confident about racing 100 miles.
I was excited for LJ because the course is much more my forte with lots of climbing (9000ft total) and really nothing technical. I’ve also raced and ridden at the Big M trails before so I had the benefit of familiarity. Looking at previous years’ results, I figured if I could ride cleanly under 8 hours, I should be able to be in the hunt to win and based on Alex’s times, I should be able to ride under 7:45, barring disaster.
The start was a nervous affair with a mass start of over 400 riders and a very short rollout before hitting the singletrack. I wasn’t ready for the speed of the start and started farther back in the field than I wanted after some sandy, sharp turns and early singletrack. The theme of the first 33 mile lap was patience. I had seen one female in the line of racers in front of me but gaps opened on the singletrack and I was unable to pass slower riders. I watched her group ride away and hoped that wasn’t the last I would see of them. I had to repeatedly to tell myself that it would be a long day and the race was not won in the first half.
Eventually the trail opened up and I joined a strong group of guys including some Traverse City riders I often race with. We were moving well and bringing back plenty of guys but still no sign of the mystery female rider. Averaging over 13mph, I was well over my goal pace and I was impressed she (and I) were riding so fast and I just hoped it was somewhat sustainable.
Finally, just minutes before the first feed zone, I spotted the red jersey I had been hoping for. My group caught her on a climb and she jumped on our train. I got a small gap on the next climb and sped into the feed zone first for a quick camelbak and bottle swap.
Heading onto lap 2, we reconverged and I tried to assess how I could win. We talked a bit and I found out her name was Chase Edwards and she lives in Arizona but grew up in Glen Arbor and I actually knew her family through cross country skiing. We rode the majority of the second lap together and although I was still feeling good, I didn’t want the battle to come down to the final miles of the race.
The last five miles of each lap include some killer climbs that hurt a bit more each lap before a fast descent into the feed zone. I made my break at the end of lap two and again came into the feed zone first, but knew it would be a challenge to shake her for good.
Riding alone with the temperature rising to the high 80s, the final 33 mile lap was rough but I tried to keep focused by chasing down lapped and blown up riders. I willed myself not to look at the distance or dropping average speed on my Garmin but periodically checked behind me with no sight of Chase. It was only during the final miles that I was confident that she wasn’t going to reel me back. I rolled through the finish to win my first 100 miler with Chase just 2 minutes behind.
I clocked 7:27 which was faster than my “best case scenario” time goal and faster than any female has ridden the LJ course before. It was also good enough for 25th place overall.
Alex also had great days in the men’s race with Alex taking second behind last year’s winner Brian Schworm just ahead of United Healthcare’s Brad White.
Ultra-distance mountain bike races are definitely unique beasts but they are actually pretty fun, albeit in a masochistic kind of way. It was fun to be able to ride with multiple different groups over the course of a single race with a pace relaxed enough to talk a bit. I also enjoyed the “comfortably hard” pace, patience, and planning the distance requires. Overall, it draws a group of tough, quirky people who are pretty enjoyable to spend a day in the woods with. Between the riders’ support crews and the racers themselves, it is a pretty cool sense of camaraderie out there. And there is definitely a special feeling of accomplishment to finishing a race that takes the better part of a day to complete and having your Garmin turn over 100 miles. So yet again, now I understand.
A race report from MTB Race News can be found here.