Saturday, March 28, 2015

2015 Land Run 100 - Mud Mask for the Soul

Photo by 241 Photography
Despite favorable weather forecasts for a week before the race, on Friday afternoon mother nature decided Stillwater, Oklahoma needed a serious soaking and turned the rain on for much of the evening. While spring rain may make farmers happy, to a gravel and dirt road race on Oklahoma's red clay, it's a game changer. Roads that were fast and dry less than 24 hours before the start might now be swamps of mud with the consistency of extra thick and chunky peanut butter. This happened in the first version of this race in 2013.  Something like 50% of the field wasn't able to finish because of a rain cloud that caught many riders still 20 miles from the end.

With Collin Little at the meeting. He's not really taller than me 
so I'm not sure how he pulled this off. Photo by 241 Photography
Everyone arrived in Stillwater on Friday night to attend the pre-race check in and meeting/party at District Bicycle's amazing shop. I think initially it was going to be outside but since it was pouring rain we all tried to pack inside. The condition of the course was a huge concern in the crowd. One of the people who spoke at the meeting was the route designer, Jim Bruer. He tried to put minds at ease when he estimated 85% of the ride should be in pretty good shape. I did the math quickly in my head, if 85% of a 100 mile race was good, that meant 15 miles might be in bad shape. That's more than a half marathon! Was anyone ready to carry their bikes over that much mud?

Photo by Collin Little
I was hoping I wouldn't have to carry mine at all.  The reason people pick up their bike and walk is because the mud loves to destroy. Wheels covered in heavy mud grind to a halt. It's particularly hard on rear derailleurs. Mud collects on the chain and derailleur until the pulleys stop turning and then your drive train pretty much explodes. I suffered this exact fate in the middle of the night 268 miles into Trans Iowa last year. Flying down the road thinking the end is in sight and then BOOM your game is over with only 70 miles to go. As I sat in the mud staring at my broken bike and waiting for a ride to pick me up, I decided I would race everything this year on a single speed. One gear to rule them all. No pesky derailleur to fail and dash my dreams. The mud would not shut me down again. So I feel a little guilty when I say I was actually hoping there would be some good muddy patches to test my bike choice out.

One other thing I noticed last year was that larger knobby tires carried far more mud than skinnier slick tires. Against the grain of current recommendations, this year I was running 32 mm Schwalbe Marathon Supremes which actually only measure 30 mm. Skinny slick tires to slice through the muck and no tread to hold extra pounds of mud. I knew I would suffer a lack of traction if it were too muddy, and the control might be twitchy if it's dry and rough, but I'm comfortable with all that. This bike would not break down. Nothing would take me off this course until I was ready.

I rode the mile from the hotel to the start and arrived an hour early. The Aspen Coffee Company had their doors open early serving gourmet coffee. I had a double shot of espresso in a mocha and brought my sugar and caffeine buzz I had started at the hotel to an early frenzy. I realize it's an addiction and I'm totally fine with it because it's awesome. Standing in line to order I met a man with his wife. He shared that today would be his first attempt to ride 100 miles. I had several conversations throughout the morning with people there to try the distance for the first time. I love the energy of someone about to tackle a big new challenge. Trying to be confident but not quite sure what to expect. Nervous excitement and hope. It's a contagious feeling.

This would be my first race on the single speed. I have been riding it for the last 6 months but I haven't actually raced it yet. I knew I wouldn't be able to keep up with my friends at the start if I wanted to have energy for the end so I lined up at the very back of the crowd to try and keep my start relaxed. While 561 had signed up to ride today, 403 had shown up in the morning.  95 people for the 50 mile ride and 308 for the 100 mile ride (106 miles if you care to be precise).  The crowd has more diversity than you might expect. Everyone is there for the same reason, to challenge themselves. The severity of the challenge we had chosen wasn't fully understood by anyone just yet.

He's got a gun! Photo by 241 Photography
Regardless of our readiness for what lay ahead, at 8:00 am the gun was fired and we rolled out of town in a giant pack led to the gravel by the local police. Not long after starting the mood of the group took a quick and distinct swing. By the end of the first hour the group's energy had faded quickly from hope and excitement to frustration and concern for their ability to finish within the time limit. As we left the good roads near town and got further into the country, conditions deteriorated quickly and paces began to drop. My single speed allowed me to ignore worry for my derailleur and I was able to keep rolling when many were stopped.

When it was only an inch or two deep I didn't have any trouble besides some fish tailing and extra effort, but occasionally I would sink too deep and it would become too difficult to push through it. I would throw the bike up on my back and carry it until the road went downhill or firmed up a little and  then jump back on. Often I was only moving slightly faster than the walkers but I was passing tons of people.

Photo by 241 Photography
I had to ask many to move aside as they were walking on the same firm parts I was wanting to ride. I was trying to be courteous when I would say coming through but the effort level was sky high and I was gasping for air so I probably sounded like an asshole barking orders. Sorry to anyone if I came off poorly. One of the best interactions was with the women's overall winner, Desiree White. After I rode by her she yelled, "I didn't know you were on a single speed or I would have bowed!"

Fairly early I came upon Kuat teammate, John Bradley. Derailleur gone and chain hanging slack. He shook his head and told me he was out. I dream about beating John in races. Though not the most heroic way to finish ahead of him, I'll take it. He told me later he had seen the grin I was trying to suppress. A couple hundred more stranded people later I came upon Jamie and again felt a strange mix of guilt and excitement for getting ahead of him in this way. I didn't know Jamie was out of the race at that point and thought he might just be stuck in another unrideable section. Turns out he was done, but imagining him about to catch me provided serious motivation for the rest of the day. Shortly after I passed Jamie I saw last year's overall winner, Bob Cummings, on the side of the road looking at his bike. I didn't know quite where I was in the field yet but I definitely wasn't at the back anymore.

My nose was dripping all day and it was infuriating. I hated wiping it because I was covered up to my elbows in red mud and I knew I was smearing it all over my face. At some point I stopped caring and just went ahead made war paint stripes on my cheeks.  It seemed appropriate as we were all at war with this course. I almost lost my second wedding ring in a race. I lost my first one at the Dirty Kanza a couple years ago. This time I actually saw it slide off my finger and land in the mud at my feet. I snatched it up and put it in my bag for safe keeping.

Riding by everyone who had broken down was an odd feeling. Normally if I saw one person on the side of the road looking distraught I would ask if they needed anything. A short, "You good?" is usually enough. There was no way to do that in this situation. For over 5 miles there were people lining the sides of the road. It would have taken all day to have even short conversations with each of them. Some had their bikes apart and were examining links of chain trying desperately to get it back into working order. Others were just staring up and down the road looking lost, probably wondering what to do next. I trusted the Jeep club would be hard at work and hopefully all those people had arranged bailout plans.

Photo by Bobby Wintle
A little bit more slipping and sliding brought me to the dismount zone. There was a bridge out and you had to hike down the embankment and across the riverbed. They had built a wooden staircase climbing out of the riverbed just for the race and this is where I saw Bobby Wintle on the course. I would later learn from a podcast that at this very moment he was really questioning if he had done the right thing by allowing the race to go on. I was too lost in my own competitive zone to notice anything out of the ordinary about his encouragement and exciting energy. I remember him pulling out his phone to take a picture of me and then sending me up the stairs with a smile and cheers. I tried to ride the road out but the combination of it being uphill on soft mud covered with leaves made it impossible and I slogged most of it on foot.

At the end of the road it was finally getting rideable again, for me at least. At the next intersection they had an oasis set up with a food truck and a coffee truck.  There were lots of people there clapping and offering help but I didn't want to slow down. I wanted something to eat badly but I knew it would be a time suck. I also knew that if the roads got even a little better all those fast people I had just blown by would be taking their leads back. It felt so good to be riding again and finally picking up some speed. The roads were still squishy and ready to stop you if you got off the main tire strips but there was a glimmer of hope for the day returning. Even though I had jumped so far ahead and was now rolling, it had taken a lot of time and energy. If my pace didn't get much faster than it was I was in danger of missing the cut off at the midway point.

The muddy miles. Heart rate is through the roof
From the GPS I can tell the walking for me started at 10.6 miles. Over the next 10 miles, I got off the bike to walk a total of 3.5 miles on greasy slippery mud. I have heard some people say they had to walk as many as 7 miles. I don't know how much the bike weighed with all that mud on it but the effort of carrying it and trying to move quickly over the terrain with shoes covered in heavy mud had
Photo by Kim Morris
my heart rate pegged near my redline. A week after the race my shoulder still had a sore spot on it. On a positive note, I feel super proficient at carrying the bike now. My average speed for the first 25 miles was 8.6 mph.

Fortunately the ground was getting better with every mile covered. There was one re-routed section where the cues said to cross a highway but there was a volunteer waiting. He told us to head up the paved highway until we saw the next volunteer. This was miles 44 through 46 and they were seriously tough to cover on a single speed.  Slightly uphill with a headwind the whole way. I laid down on the aerobars and worked. Finally there was a water tower with the name of the midway town on it. Perry. I thought we would be pulling in to the checkpoint anytime and started to get my hopes up, but then I came upon the next volunteer who sent me in the opposite direction of town on another dirt road. He said we could follow the cues from there. They had cut 2 miles off the course, I'm guessing to save us from another muddy stretch.

The cue sheets were dead on and easy to follow all day. It wasn't really necessary, though, as every single corner was marked. Since leading several off the course here last year I have tried to be more diligent with my tracking and checked every corner with the cue sheet.

After the the checkpoint it was a different race completely. While there was an occasional patch of mud to negotiate, the roads were pretty much dry. I had 50 miles left and only a few people in front of me, though, I didn't know exactly how many. There were very few tire tracks on the ground. The challenge of the second half was going to be the wind and hills. Heat was gradually picking up and I started to get pretty hot.

Photo by Kim Morris
One of the more exciting times of the day for me came when I noticed a white helmet on the horizon behind me. All day I had just known Jamie would come from nowhere and blow by me at the end. He wears a white helmet. I was around 80 miles in and starting to count down the miles.

The white helmet was moving closer each time I checked back. Eventually the rider was right on my heels but it wasn't Jamie. It was Thomas Adams on his brakeless fixed gear bike. We made eye contact and smiled at each other as he pulled aside me and then he put his head down and soldiered on. I kept trying to match his pace but it was too difficult to maintain and slowly I lost sight of him. My pride was stung to be passed by another single speed competitor this late in the game, but it was awesome at the same time to see another person rocking a bike that most would never consider for a course like this.

Photo by 241 Photography
A few more hot, dry, and hilly miles brought us to the edge of town and almost the finish. Frequent head checks to look for Jamie behind me I just kept laying down all the power I could manage. Before I knew it I was turning onto the final stretch and saw the finish line ahead. As he always is, Bobby was waiting at the line to congratulate everyone and to give one of his signature hugs.

Bobby told me I was the 4th single speed. Thomas had bumped me off the podium and snatched my trophy! I finished 16th overall in 8 hours and 43 minutes. The finish is the real trophy here, though. This was definitely one of the toughest courses I have faced. To Jim Bruer's credit, his estimation of the mud on the course had been pretty close. 85% of the course was good enough roads and rideable, but that other 15% took a huge toll on the participants. Of the 308 riders who showed up for the 100 mile version only 107 made it into Bobby's arms at the finish. Only 26 of the 50 mile riders made it. A 33% finishing rate. My kind of race!

I have heard a few whine about holding a ride in such conditions. I suspect those people like everything in life to come the easy way. I've always preferred the harder path. To me this ride is what gravel racing is all about. The desire to face and overcome the unknown challenge ahead is what keeps me focused and wakes me up to train in the months before the event. The experience is more memorable and the opportunity for personal transformation is much greater when the conditions are most severe. In my opinion, the 2015 Land Run was perfect.


Human Bobble Head