Stage 2: Cooper’s Gap // 37.5 miles // 5,892′ climbing // 5:01:06 ride time
Breakfast was served each morning at 7am in the dining hall. Huge pans full of eggs, sausage, pancakes, and oatmeal were laid out for us. I always eat breakfast, but it’s typically something simple like granola and yogurt. This morning, I decided that the cheesy eggs and sausage looked too good to pass up.
And it ended up being the biggest mistake I’d make all week.
The day started out overcast, but the clouds burned off and it got hot. I was excited to be mixing it up at the pointier end of things, and I neglected my nutrition and hydration. It’s always tough for me eat when it gets really hot. I mean, who wants to choke down an energy bar while sopping wet?
WARNING: it’s about to get graphic, you may want to skip the next three paragraphs if you get grossed out easily.
About 20 miles in, my stomach started feeling very unsettled. I ignored it as long as I could, but it got painful enough that I was forced to stop. At first, I thought I was going to throw up, but after standing on the side of the trail for a couple minutes it became apparent this wasn’t the case. I needed to shit. NOW! I ran into the woods while simultaneously stripping off my kit. I found a tree to hide behind and did my squat of shame. Let’s just say I wasn’t on “solid ground.”
I kitted back up, tried to gather myself, and pushed on to the next checkpoint at mile 27. By this point I felt terrible. Like, “Should I drop out of the race?” terrible. I spent a good 15 minutes or so at the checkpoint sitting on the ground, slowly drinking cold water. The volunteers at the checkpoint were amazing. They checked on me constantly, brought towels soaked in ice water and placed them on my neck, and moved my bike out of the middle of the road where I had absentmindedly left it. I was in a very bad, very dark place.
Other riders that came into the checkpoint encouraged me to get back on and finish. It was just 10 more miles to the finish after all. Easy, right? Eventually, I got back on my bike, but I didn’t make it far before I had to make another emergency dash into the woods. Thankfully, I had the wherewithal to grab a couple paper towels from the aid station. Just to really punctuate the day I was having, I threw up another 1/4 mile down the trail.
I soft-pedaled my way out of the woods towards the finish. The stage finished with a 3+-mile gravel road climb up Stillhouse Hollow; it was a fairly shallow grade, but it seemed to go on forever. Small black flies and gnats hovered right in front of my face and buzzed in my ears. By the top I was yelling obscenities. I just wanted it to end. I wanted to cross the finish line, set my bike on fire, and drive home, middle finger out the window until I was out of Pennsylvania.
Eventually, I did cross the line. I made it maybe 10 feet past the scorer’s table before I collapsed in the grass. I needed to eat and drink, but I couldn’t move. The slightest movement of my legs caused vicious cramps. After an hour of this, I had recovered enough to hobble back to Eagle Lodge.
So, what happened? It was a combination of things: the greasy breakfast my stomach wasn’t ready for, the tough pace from the gun, the heat, dehydration, and a lack of calories out on course. The rest of the week I ate granola and a bagel for breakfast and I was free of stomach issues.
Once I was clean and fed, I felt immensely better–enough so that I spent the evening swapping the fork on my Niner JET 9 for something beefier. For Stage 3 there were five Enduro segments, and the trails were the chunkiest we’d see all week. The 100mm RockShox SiD that the Niner was spec’d with performed admirably, but for my size (200+ lbs) and the terrain (extremely rocky), it was under-gunned. The SiD was really having a hard time keeping up with the punishment doled out by the trails.
I pulled the 120mm-travel, 34mm-stanchioned SR SunTour Aion fork off the Zen Trail I had brought for backup and put it on the Niner. I used the shorter stem and wider bars from the Zen as well.
Note: Niner does offer the JET 9 with a 120mm fork on some of their builds.
Stage 3: Galbraith Enduro // 23 miles // 3,553′ climbing // 0:23:21
For Stage 3, only the enduro segments would be timed, which is why my time for this stage is only 23 minutes. We were free to go as slow as we wanted on the transfers between the stages. After the misery of Stage 2, an enduro day was exactly what I needed.
Stage 3 was also one of the most remote stages of the week, meaning we wouldn’t be starting and finishing at the Scout Camp. Instead we went to the Tussey Mountain Ski Area in Rothrock State Forest, a quick 15-minute drive away.
What the enduro segments lacked in length, they made up for in gnar. Super steep trails, changing light conditions from bright to dappled to dark, and fields of granite with no discernible line kept everyone on their toes.
Changing the fork and cockpit was the right decision. The JET 9 was transformed into a singletrack-slaying machine. Even though the rear had an inch less travel than the front, it never felt overwhelmed. At the end of the day I had blown the o-ring off the shock, but I didn’t experience any harsh bottoming out.
The more upright riding position of the shorter stem and wider bar was much more comfortable as well. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the classic XC position with a long stem and narrow bars, and it was hard to readjust to it. I left the bigger fork on the Niner for the remainder of the week.
Stage 4: Coburn // 46.5 miles // 4,396′ climbing // 3:49:07
In the TSE bible, Stage 4 is referred to as a “dirt road-stye stage.” While there were four enduro segments on the day, most of the riding was on gravel roads and doubletrack. This might sound boring to some, but I really enjoyed it.
Trees lined the gravel roads and created green tunnels for us to ride through. A brief sprinkle halfway through the day was a nice respite from the heat. For some reason, I was getting a strong Sherwood Forest vibe from this stage.
One of the Enduro segments in particular was a blast. It was a doubletrack descent that was arrow-straight down the mountain. It had its fair share of rock, but none were very large. I was able to stay on the gas through the whole section without worry of clipping a pedal. There’s something about spinning out your largest gear that is sure to put a smile on your face.
As the organizers promised, this was the fastest stage of the week. The leaders actually had a three-up sprint for the stage win–pretty crazy that after nearly 50 miles of racing they were all together at the end. The leaders averaged over 16 mph! I was over 12 mph myself, which I was pretty pleased with… at least until I did the math on the fast guys.