With just 19 days to go until my first 100-mile mountain bike race, I’m feeling bruised and battered. On Saturday I spent about 8 hours on the bike and experienced one of the most difficult rides of my life.
Two Fridays ago I did an “easy” long ride – 90 miles on the road at a 17mph pace. I was done before noon and felt great afterward. Two days later I jogged 4 miles in 28 minutes and felt fantastic. On my Tuesday night MTB ride I was unstoppable and didn’t get winded on any of the climbs. I felt so good all week I was beginning to think the Cohutta wouldn’t be so tough after all – but my ride this weekend brought me back to reality.
I had hoped to complete about 75 miles at Bull Mountain on Thursday but the weather forecast the night before looked very similar to the forecast before my last ride in the rain (though this time the rain never materialized). I decided to go Saturday instead and Greg was able to meet up with me for the first part of the ride. The weather forecast literally said “delightful” (I had never seen that one before) and the 40-degree air was crisp as we got started.
Since Greg needed to be done by 9am to do some trail work, we stuck to the Jake Mountain trails and put together a couple loops for a total of about 15 miles. The trails were fast and I was feeling pumped about the day. Back at the car I refilled my water bottles and set off on the Bull Mountain loop to continue my training solo.
Less than a mile from the car I heard a hissing sound and realized my tubeless rear tire was leaking air. I quickly spun the leak to the bottom of the wheel, hoping I had enough sealant to plug the gap but it was hopeless. I had been meaning to squirt some fresh Stan’s into that tire for weeks but never got around to it. Time to get out the spare tube.
The tube went on without a hitch but now I was a little worried about what I’d do if I got another flat since that was my only tube. I should have at least brought a couple tubes in the car along with a floor pump “just in case” but I didn’t. Note to self: toss a couple tubes into my drop bags for the Cohutta.
Riding up Bull Mountain I felt great. In fact, Strava says I had the fastest time out of 10 riders on the road ascending from the big creek crossing (counter-clockwise). I walked a few of the steepest sections of singletrack near the top, not because I couldn’t ride them but because I wanted to save my legs for the rest of the day. The descent was a blast – I can’t believe I usually ride this loop clockwise!
Back at the car again, I had clocked about 30 miles – most of it singletrack – and was feeling good. Next up: Springer Mountain and the Winding Stairs loop. At some point during the 30-ish mile loop I started feeling really sluggish. I’m not sure if it was the sun or the hard singletrack riding I did in the beginning but my legs were spent. At several points I found myself zig-zagging sections of gravel road that I normally ride straight up with no problem. I even got off and pushed a couple times just to give my ass a break.
On the descent down Winding Stairs I passed 2-3 cars that were making their way down the steep, rocky road and even the descent was painful in my shoulders and quads. Fortunately I didn’t experience any muscle cramps since I had been hydrating well all day.
Back at the car I couldn’t believe I had only clocked 57 miles. I had hoped to be finished after about 7.5 hours on the bike but at 6 hours, 45 minutes hours I still had a long way to go. Besides the mileage goal, I also wanted to get in as much climbing as possible – ideally over 10,000 feet for the day. For the final leg I struck out on Nimblewill Gap Road, a nice out-and-back climb I could use to get my final mileage in. My plan was to ride up as far as I could then to turn around and descend when my legs gave out.
Nimblewill starts out easy – paved at first, then gravel and gradually ascending – before it turns up at a fairly consistent 7% grade until the top of the climb. During this part of the ascent I started to understand what those 24 hour solo racers mean when they talk about riding in a fog. My mind was blank and I just stared at my front wheel and the dirt in front of it. I got off and pushed a few times, never stopping, always moving forward. At about 2,700 feet, 400 feet shy of Nimblewill gap, I decided to call it a day and head back. I felt like I just wanted to lay down and go to sleep.
Back at the car I was disappointed with my results: 71 miles in a little over 8 hours on the bike. I climbed 8,500 feet which is 1,500 feet more than my biggest day but still well short of the 14,000 feet of climbing at Cohutta.
After looking over my ride stats and writing this post, I think my biggest limitation on Saturday was just a mental block. It wasn’t any one thing – overconfidence, the flat tire, boring roads after singletrack, wishing I was doing something else – but overall I just wasn’t in the right state of mind.
As a runner I always scoff at the guys who sprint at the end of a race like they’re running a 100-yard dash: clearly those guys didn’t run hard enough during the middle of the race. But on Saturday I think that was me on the bike. I tend to get lazy or discouraged when I’ve come a long way but still have far to go – and that’s something I need to work on before the big day. Perhaps I should stop looking at my GPS when I ride?
Based on my performance Saturday I plan on going for one more big ride on the mountain bike before tapering for Cohutta. With my nutrition and gear dialed, now all I gotta do is get my mind focused on finishing the race!