My parents used to tell me, “Donnie, don’t bite off more than you can chew.” I think I finally understand what they were talking about. I signed up for the Cohutta 100, one of the MTB races in the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) series, in an attempt to ride my first MTB century. I’ve done a bunch road centuries, many in the mountains (BSG) but 100 miles on mountain bike with single track and big climbs would quite a big bite. The race is held in the Cherokee National Park, near the Ocoee river (starts at the Ocoee Whitewater Center, home to the ’96 Olympic whitewater events). The course is 20 miles of singletrack, followed by 70 miles of gravel/forest roads, and finishing with 10 miles of single/double track. This course is new this year so it is hard to compare finishing times from last year (e.g. mid-pack 50+ was 10 to 10.5h) The course also includes a shorter route called the Big Frog 65 (foreshadowing).
The first sign this was not your typical local race was the parking lot at the hotel. Not a single plate from the area. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky. Clue number two was when I found out the guy in the room next to me did the Tour Divide last year, a 3000 mile race from Canada to Mexico along the continental divide. Hard core dudes here for a hard core race.
My ride was a Niner EMD aluminum hardtail with a Niner carbon (rigid) fork. 1×11 (32 x 12-40). SRAM BB7 brakes. Blunt 35 rims with Conti Race Kings 2.2 (11psi F/13R). The 35 mm rims running at low pressure provides a reasonable amount of squish for the full rigid setup. That combined with the expected groomed trails and gravel roads made this a lightweight (24 lb) rig. A gas tank bag on the top tube held nutrition and a camel back held gear and water.
Getting to the Starting Line
Training for this involved a lot tempo work, working up to a big 3 x 45′ tempo ride a few weeks before the race. I also did bunches of hill repeats on local hills (2′ climbs on either roads or trails in Duke Forest). My favorite hill repeat was starting in the biggest cog and doing 2 or 3 repeats, dropping down one cog, rinse and repeat until I’m out the saddle pushing hard (about 12-15 repeats total). What I did not get in are the long hill repeats. The short ones were good for the singletrack punches but I needed more mental and physical prep for the 30 minute climbs I was going to see. I also did some 3 and 4 hour endurance MTB rides about every weekend.
Nutrition was going to be CarboPro in flasks (5 scoops + 1/4 water + splash vanilla extract). 4 x gel flasks = 2000 calories. I took two Clif bars to give me some solid foods.
The drive up was surprisingly easy. Basically 5 1/2 hours with one turn: I-40 to 74 and almost all four-lanes. When you partake in these kind of races, since they are in remote areas, you can’t always count on quality accommodations. The Ducktown Copper Inn lived up to those expectations. The place was completely sold out with bikes everywhere. Checking in I found a don’t-mess-with-me-becuase-I-ride-a-full-rigid-SS bitch chewing out the manager because her shower wasn’t working. Uh-oh. I got one of those used-to-be-smoking non-smoking rooms where they cover the smell with massive quantities of spray. The sign on the back of the door was especially telling of the clientele.
The weather forecast called for 80% chance of rain and thunderstorms for most of the day. This meant careful clothing selection. With the starting line temperature at 55 deg and likely cooler at higher elevations, I went with long bibs, SS base layer, LS base layer, jersey, and a medium weight rain jacket (Endura). I added a brimmed cap to keep the rain/mud out of the glasses and neoprene booties over my shoes (Garneau booties did not interfere with the platform pedal pins; retained good traction).
Not much sleep and then up at 430 to pouring rain. Briefly considered sleeping in and skipping the race. Got to the parking lot near the starting line about an hour before the gun. Boy, was it dark. I did have lights but it looked like the sun would be up just in time for the start. Rain continued to pour, flooding the parking lot. We all sat in our cars till the last minute. Got out, and lined up near the back. Best I could tell, all the smart people decide to stay home. It did not look like much of a crowd, may 100 total.
And we’re off. I wore the HRM to try and pace myself during the early part of the race. My usual MO was to start toward the front and burn matches trying to keep up with some of the bigger engines. For this race, I tried to keep it in zone 3 but with a 3 mile paved climb, no sleep, and adrenaline pumping, I settled for keeping it in zone 4. Even then, I was pretty much in last place heading into the singletrack. The s/t was soupy and muddy. Not many roots which made it not too technical. A few stragglers came roaring by me to assure my position in the back. The plan was to stay conservative and be in a position at mile 75 to make my move, which never happened (more foreshadowing). But the s/t was nice, and I could imagine it very nice in dry weather. They have large mountains into which they carve trails, running back and forth without too much elevation gain/drop, which greatly reduces erosion. Toward the end of the s/t, there was a section of roots, as noted in the cue sheet:
Seriously, how bad can roots be? I’ve seen Pisgah roots and that’s bad. Well, these were super bad. A maze of 3-5″ tall pine roots that were harder to navigate than a rock garden. I got caught on one, lost momentum, and crashed. Minor injuries, mostly a bruised palm. Just after that, a creek crossing where I stalled. Wet feet!
I emerged from the 20 miles of s/t with an average speed of 7.3 mph. I was shooting for a 10 hour total ride time so for 100 miles, I was going to have to up the speed to get there. The forest roads were in decent shape, not too much washboard. Long, slow climbs followed by adrenaline pumping, teeth-chatting descents. The trickiest parts were the switchbacks which were muddy and rutted. Coming into those at speed was dicey. Needless to say, the muddy s/t combined with the wet forest roads did not do the brakes and drivetrain any favors. I had shifting problems most of the day and had to continuously adjust the brake pads, one of the downsides of mechanical brakes. About five miles into the forest roads, though, the sun came out. Hallelujah! But then I had to strip off all the gear, except the long bibs. The camel bak looked like pregnant water buffalo.
At about mile 40, I began to realize that my legs were shot and my motivation was waning. Every hill was struggle. I also knew that the Big Frog 65 return loop was coming up and temptation was going to be mighty. The split meant continuing on the 100 route (6-7 more hours) or taking the shorter route and complete the 65 mile course (3-4 more hours). Oh, the temptation! What would Kenny Rogers do?
I decided to fold ’em and take the 65 route back, another 15 miles of forest roads and 10 miles of s/t. Not a layup but certainly doable. Finished the course in 7:35, spent but not totally trashed. It was a good race, learned a ton, and got to ride some great trails. Here’s the aftermath:
The bonus for the day was a drawing for bike parts. I ended up winning a sweet pair of Industry Nine hubs. I took in some local mexican food, grabbed a six pack and sat in my room to “recover”. I had run into Paul,the tour divide guy, earlier and invited him over for drinks. Turns out he was celebrating his 51st birthday so he and his wife brought over champagne. We sipped champagne from plastic cups and talked endurance biking into the night.
I never like starting something I can’t finish. Taking the DNF at ORAMM was hard but I had no choice. Here I had a choice but my desire to do an MTB century did not outweigh the pain and suffering that was required.
- Endurance MTB is hard sh**. The combination of the short punchy climbs and the long, slow grinds takes it out of you mentally and physically. You really need to work up to 12 hours in the saddle. The longest ride on a mountain bike before this race was 4h.
- Pacing. I think (hope) the pacing payed off to a certain extent. I did not have any cramping even though the race was 8k+ of climbing. But I was definitely slow and if I had been with a group my speed, I might have pushed myself harder. Who knows. Also, with MTB, compared to road, it’s harder to get a handle on pace/effort/work. You’ve got so much up and down and concentrated effort that it’s hard to know if you are pushing too hard or not hard enough.
- Technique. I concentrated hard the last 10 miles of s/t because one of my weaknesses is making good decisions on the trail when fatigued (see ORAMM). The groomed nature of the course made that easier compared to Pisgah but I also realized folks who have been riding for years, more than my two, have tremendous muscle memory and intuition which allows them to not think as hard and go faster.
- Training. I think I was about as dialed in physically although it would have been nice to get more long climbs in as prep work.
- Its All Mental. Once again, I’m reminded this is mental game. I had the fitness but mentally I wasn’t prepared for the ordeal (and having a convenient, tempting bail out point at mile 40 doesn’t help!). You gotta want it!
- The rig I had was about right. With different gloves, my hands would have been a little more comfortable. My shoulders and hands were a little sore afterwards but not much more than that from a road century. Hyrdo brakes would have been a better choice given the weather conditions. The Conti’s were a little weak in the mud but I only found myself spinning out a few times.