When Jake was 3 or 4 we were at the top of a cliff in Arkansas. As he peered over the edge he told us, “my butt feels scared!” We explained to him all about the pucker factor. That tension you feel in your body whenever you’re facing whatever it is that makes you afraid. The next time he was doing something that scared him, Jake turned and loudly proclaimed, “I've got the pucker factory!” As the group hurtled down the hill about to hit the first gravel road at high speed, I was definitely experiencing the pucker factory.
The OGRE 150 (Ozarks Gravel Road Expedition), is a 150 mile (156.1) race on gravel roads through the hills around Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. The climbing was what everyone had been dreaming about before this ride. However, being the very first edition of the race, the actual amount of climbing was an unknown. Rumors based purely on speculation were saying it might even be harder than the famously tough Dirty Kanza 200, but nobody really knew.
After making it through the beginning sprints, the group had spread out nicely, my pace became more sensible and I found myself riding in a familiar place, side by side with Jamie and Collin. We would spend a good portion of the day in this configuration. At times we were joking and laughing, then other times it was quiet with nothing but the sound of labored breathing and the gravel spitting out behind us as we struggled up some of the steepest gravel hills I've ever ridden.
It wasn't long after we were onto the gravel before we started seeing the first sacrifices to the flat tire gods. Tyler, a single speed rider from our local crew, was one of the first victims. As with any gravel race, tire selection was a point of hot debate. I rode the same style that brought me flat free through Dirty Kanza last year, 1.9 inch Kenda Small Block Eights. One change I made, thanks to the fear-research, was running a much lower pressure (45-50 psi). Counter to road riding where higher pressures are used for lower resistance, on gravel, a much lower pressure can give less resistance and improved handling. It works, trust me.
The three of us rode together into the first pit stop at 50 miles. The final climb into the stop was brutal! I didn't realize until we were nearly at the very top that it was even the pit stop. I looked up to see all the people standing at the crest of the hill cheering us on.
|Hill into Pit Stop 1|
The weather wasn't what I would call ideal, but it was pretty good. The only bad part would have been the starting temp in the low 30’s. Anytime you want to get your act together, Spring, that would be fine by me. The high was only to be in the low 60’s and winds would be light, that part of the forecast was outstanding. Despite freezing for the first hour of the race by the time we reached the first pit stop the temperature was in the 50’s and I was able to strip down to shorts and short sleeves. The temperature felt comfortable for the rest of the day. There may not have been much wind but whatever breeze there was always seemed to be blowing in our face, it was typical.
There were checkpoints with volunteers between each pit stop where they would take down your race number and re-supply you with water if you needed it. As we pulled into the next checkpoint, a rider in front of us was just getting back on the road. Checking my cue sheet, I asked the volunteer if that guy was going the right way and he says, “I can’t tell you, didn't they give you a map?” I had been the navigator for the group all day, which I don‘t really enjoy, it‘s easier to sit back and follow, especially after you start getting tired. Though the course was marked with flags at every corner, at this checkpoint the course intersected itself and it would be possible to head the wrong way. We had a short pow wow about what the cue sheet said and decided to head the opposite direction the other rider had gone, that always makes me nervous. In the end, thankfully, we were right. For the navigation save, Jamie said he would give me two bathroom breaks without harassment. If you have ridden with me before, you would know I was grateful.
|Jamie, Collin, Me|
As we got closer to the second pit stop at mile 87, the effects of the mileage were starting to take their toll. We were spending a lot more time in quiet exertion. The five of us pulled into the pit stop together. Another fast swap of bottles and I was ready to roll. Jamie and Tyler were set and Doug said he would hang with us for a while if that was cool, but it was here that Collin let us know he was going to spend a little more time resting. We wished him luck and pulled back onto the course one man short.
The course seemed to follow a pretty regular pattern: up a steep hill, down a steep hill through a six inch deep low water crossing. The crossings were just deep enough to fill your shoes with water if you left them on the pedals. Every 20 or 30 miles there would be a mile or two stretch of pavement to get to the next gravel portion. If I were to guess, I would say around 10 miles of pavement over the entire 156 mile course.
Thankfully, this was another race where my nutrition went well. I’m realizing having your hydration and nutrition needs figured out is one of the most important parts of the puzzle, if not the most important. Muscles will keep working all day, as long as you keep them fueled properly. Stop fueling for a little bit and fall behind, your day becomes a death march. I did have one nutrition challenge, it was kind of difficult to eat with the terrain. There were several times I would have to put the bottle away or hold a gel pack in my teeth because I needed both hands on the bars to manage either a fast descent or a steep wheel slipping climb.
After hanging with us for several hours, at some point we lost contact with Doug. Miles and more miles were clicked off as the afternoon wore on until we finally reached the final pit stop at mile 127, leaving us with only 29 miles to the finish. Tyler and Jamie were still hanging with me and we pulled back onto the course for the final stretch. We now had the gravity of the finish line lifting our spirits and starting to pull us in, but there was still plenty work to be done. Another couple hours of quad burning climbs, each rewarded with a screaming descent.
|Tyler and Jamie at Checkpoint 3|
Dogs were everywhere on this course. There seriously seemed to be hundreds of them. Most were pretty tame and did their barking from the side of the road. A few would give a spirited chase, but all eventually gave up without a bite. When they run into the middle of the road before I get there, I generally take the approach of charging and growling straight at them. In the past it has worked fairly well. Most of them step back, and by the time they realize what is going on, I have blown past and they don’t stand a chance. Sometimes, they turn and run from me and I get to chase them down the road for a bit, this is my favorite response. There was one crazy dog near the end that decided to stand his ground. He didn't flinch. There was skidding and veering and I thought I was going to hit it but somehow managed not to. At about that time, Jamie came rolling by yelling and the dog turned his attention to him. We both made it through unscathed.
With only 16 miles to the finish, while descending a long slow grade, Tyler suddenly dropped back and then dismounted. Jamie was up the road a bit and by the time I caught up with him to say something, Tyler was out of sight. We decided to go back and make sure he was good. By the time we got to him, he had a wheel off and was working on fixing his second flat of the day. He assured us he was good and told us to get on our way. Being so near the end, we obliged and turned back towards the finish.
The hills. That was the promised challenge of this race and they really delivered. With only 5 miles left to go we hit yet another 200 foot climb that just added insult to injury. In the lowest gear, moving 4 miles an hour, back tire slipping and sliding with every crank rotation. What was the total for the day? The GPS readings I have seen since the race are wildly different, from 7,000 to 21,000. If I average the elevation readings of the 13 people who uploaded the ride on Strava, I get 13,147 feet of elevation gain. We’ll just say there was plenty to go around and I wasn't left wanting any more.
We weren't quite done climbing yet as we turned onto the final stretch of pavement with just a couple miles left to go. It seemed to go straight uphill all the way to the finish line. At one point Jamie looked back to see a rider on the last stretch of gravel about to make the turn onto the final road behind us. Jamie stated to me emphatically, “He is not going to pass us.” I kept my head down and hammered with all the strength I had left. As I was about to make the very last turn, I realized Jamie was heading straight through the intersection and heading the wrong way. I yelled. No response. I yelled again. Still nothing. I gave one last spirited shout in my loudest voice and he turned to look back. I pointed in the right direction and made the turn. He was back by my side shortly and we rode the final distance to the finish line. Our crews were there and everyone was cheering and ringing cowbells. We crossed the line side by side the way we had ridden most of the course.
I noticed as I was about to lean my bike hard into a downhill curve on my way to work Monday that I wasn't feeling any of the fear I had been living with over the last month. Apparently, I had scrubbed my system clean of hesitation on the washboard topography of the Ozarks.
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