"I don't mind thrashing my bike if I'm having fun, but the amount of damage I was doing to my equipment was far exceeding the fun factor, so I pulled the plug after the first 25-mile lap."
That right there is my race in a nutshell.
Many of us talk about mountain biking and racing as a "fun" pursuit, yet our competitive spirits and plain-old stubborness can sometimes get the best of us and cause us to push on in misery when simply stepping away is clearly the more attractive option. No doubt, that determination and grit can lead to great achievements, fond memories, and certainly more than a few badges of honor have come from the unwillingness to just... simply... stop. Sunday's "Test of Endurance 50" in Blodgett, Oregon was not one of those days for me and, I'll admit, having totally wowed myself at the 24-hour race in Spokane just 2 weeks prior did make it that much eaiser to take the DNF yesterday.
Brett and I made the lengthy drive down to central-coastal Oregon on Saturday through non-stop rain showers and one lengthy confused detour that added over an hour to our trip. The goal was to arrive by 2pm, set up camp, and pre-ride a short section of the course to spin the legs out after the car ride. We didn't roll into camp until after three o'clock and decided that it was so rainy -- and likely to be so muddy -- that we'd forego the pre-ride in order to keep our gear dry and clean. The campground was simply a grassy field behind a small cafe in this one-light town, but what was lacking in the camping accoutrements was made up for by the good-and-cheap food at the smalltown cafe. Not only did the cafe serve up a heaping portion of meat lasagne for about seven dollars, but they even opened at 6am on raceday for an all-you-can-eat pancakes and eggs breakfast for five bucks. Most of the hundred-plus racers competing in Sunday's 50-mile endurance race lived close enough to sleep in their own beds, but the 20 or so folks camping at the cafe were treated to a keg of beer and a three-piece bluegrass band Saturday night, care of the race promoter. Nevertheless, the rain kept on coming all evening and throughout the night.
The TOE 50 was also -- arbitrarily in my opinion -- serving as the Northwest Single Speed Championships and 30 single-speeders were given a 15-minute headstart on the 90 or so geared riders. The first two miles of the ride were on a gravel country road and although the rain had stopped momentarily, it didn't take more than five minutes before the entire field of racers were speckled in millions of tiny brown drops of mud from helmet to pedal. But even more obvious than the mud was the incredible pace being set by the 50 or so riders at the front of the pack. Do they know this race is 50 miles long with close to 7500 feet of ascent? Somebody did tell them this isn't some little cross-country NORBA race that will have you dry and fed within 2 hours? Yeah, there were some crazy fast racers there. Despite the weather.
The course did feature a lot of climbing, but nearly all of it was middle-ring territory and although my legs were still feeling a bit leadened from the Spokane race two weeks earlier, I felt like pretty good. I definitely had the endurance to go the distance, but it was clear in the first mile or two I was not going to be "racing" this ride. I was out there for a lengthy ride at a new locale. After a few miles of forest road, we kicked onto our first section of singletrack and got a taste of what we were in for. The singletrack was a snot-slick ribbon of mud that, more often than not, dropped straight down the fall line of the mountain while snaking through trees and around ditches. The rain started falling, the mud got deeper, and with each passing rider the conditions deteriorated more and more. At one point I had the brakes locked up and was sliding down the trail with the back end of my bike nearly 90-degrees to the front with the rear wheel plowing through the mud as I continued the descent. I'd quote some of the various comments myself and others uttered during these singletrack portions, but I'd hate to have to label this post "NSFW". Let's just say that nobody I spoke with enjoyed the trail. And it wasn't just because of the conditions; I sincerely doubt these trails would be fun in even the best conditions.
Over and over we would do a mile or two of middle-ring climbing on forest road, only to once again drop into a short stretch of singletrack that further caked our bikes and bodies in mud, made us cringe in anticipation of the inevitable endo, and frankly, make us wish to be back on the damn forest road. One of the biggest challenges of the conditions were its affect on visibility. You simply had to wear protective glasses to keep the mud and grit out of your eyes. However, having sunglasses (clear or yellow lenses was virtually mandatory) caked with mud and water and fogging up reduced visibility to about 20%. I finally took to hanging the glasses low on my nose to act as a shield from the trail grit flying off my tires and would strain my eyes upwards to peer over the frame. This only offered slightly better vision. One rider who did get frustrated enough with his speckled eyewear and took them off ended up with so much debris in his eyes, I last saw him with his eyes bandaged and sitting in obvious discomfort.
Conditions aside, I was feeling good. I was drinking enough to necessitate two pee-breaks during the first lap and was right on schedule with my calorie intake. Sure, I was feeling a bit lethargic and certainly didn't have any explosivity in my pedaling, but my body was where I expected it to be. Unfortunately, my attitude was not on par with my body. My bike, which I had brought into Ti-Cycles earlier in the week to have three problems addressed, was running like shit. It's clear that they only addressed one of the bike's problems. Sure, they charged me nothing for the bike service, but I would have rather paid them some money and had a working bike. The bike is having a free-hub issue and every few minutes I would enjoy a crotch-meets-stem collision resulting from a pedal stroke with no resistance. Nothing like being out of the pedals and powering your way up a hill, only to have the free-hub spin in place, the crankarm drop with ease, and your groin slam into the stem and/or top-tube. To make matters worse, I need a new chainring. I was assured the rings were fine and that my chainsuck was rider error, yet I was repeatedly having to backpedal to unfree the chain from the middle ring. The middle ring is obviously worn out (that's another discusssion altogether) and it really sucked to be on a course that was essentially 100% middle-ring territory without one. I was constantly off the bike and prying the chain out from under the chain-stay or putting it back onto the gears. Some of this was no doubt attributed to the build-up of mud and debris on the derailleur and on the chainrings, but it was also doing this while perfectly clean and dry before the race. This is why I brought it into the shop for service. Or so I thought.
Nineteen miles into the course was a bail-out option for those who wanted to take the DNF. I was actually in good spirits when I reached this point on the course and, having gone 10 minutes without any drivetrain issues, I decided to keep on riding and go for the second lap. Minutes later the rain started hammering down, the trail turned into an unrideable and sometimes nearly unwalkable ribbon of mud, and once again the bike was having all sorts of drivetrain issues. I was pissed. I wasn't enjoying myself, I thought the trails were pretty lame, and frankly I found nothing redeeming about the race and constantly having to get off the bike and re-align the chain manually was getting me more and more annoyed, not to mention I was starting to get concerned about the unnecessary toll this was taking on the bike. When I reached the start of the second lap, I hopped off the bike and stood there thinking for a couple minutes. I didn't want to quit. After all this is the "Test of Endurance". Did I want to fail the test? Then I thought about how chewed up the course was after just one lap and how much more destroyed it would be after 120 riders pass through a second time... while the rain continues to fall.
I walked over to the checkpoint volunteer and told her I was leaving the course. It turned out that of something like 47 racers in the Men 39-39 category, there were only 31 people who finished. Unfortunately I was part of the third who didn't finish, but I really don't care. I half-expected Brett to be at my truck waiting for me when I got back to the starting area, but he went for the full two laps and ended up finishing in a time of 5:31 and 13th place out of 30 riders in the single-speed division.
The race was well organized and Mike at Mudslinger Events does a great job securing tons of excellent schwag to raffle off (including a De Salvo SS frame and Cannondale Caffeine 29er frame) and even had free massage and burritos for all racers. There's no doubt in my mind that Mudslinger is one of the most racer-friendly promoters out there as everything from the cost of entry fees to pre-race information to post-race food and prizes was done with an eye towards making it a great deal for the entrant. Unfortunately, I and many others I spoke to simply won't make the 5+ hour drive back in the future as long as the race utilizes this course. The trails simply weren't enjoyable. And I really don't think they'd be any more fun in even perfect conditions. Nor do most of the people I spoke with. A shame, really.