You can’t outrun a cloud of gnats while climbing a sustained 8% grade with sections approaching 20%. All things considered though, gnats aren’t that bad. Now horseflies, they are that bad. They are also fast and know how to draft.
My day started at 5:30 in the morning when my phone alarm squawked in the hanging pocket of my hammock. Jonathan, Jamie, and I were camped next to the Ocoee River at the Thunder Rock campground. I got up, slammed a bottle of chocolate milk and an apple fritter from the local gas station, and started prepping my bike in the dark. Slathering on sunscreen with the light of a headlamp. Putting in contact lenses. Pumping up tires. As the sky got lighter the campground got quieter as the riders made their way down to the start line. Jonathan and I didn’t say a lot to each other. We knew it was going to be a long day.
The night before at dinner, Jamie gave us some good advice about racing the course from the back to the front, focusing on a sustained effort instead of trying to start hard. Jonathan and I both decided that a 160 bpm heart rate would be sustainable all day, though his power output and speed at that effort would be well above mine.
At 7am the starting gun fired and a mass of riders started into the climb up highway 64. I watched my heart rate monitor and kept it under 160 bpm on the climb, quickly losing sight of Jonathan, and my teammates Chuck and Bain. The singletrack was tacky and fast and over far too quickly. Once we exited the trails for the fire roads we would be on them for hours. I talked with the riders who were maintaining my pace for a while before Aid station 2. One guy was from San Jose and decided to use up some airline miles (heck of a way to spend a weekend!). Another was using Cohutta to test his training for Dirty Kanza in a few weeks. As long as they were willing to ride at my 160 bpm pace they were welcome to hang out.
Bain made it to Aid Station 2 at 23 miles a few minutes before me, and we quickly rolled out together. His pace matched mine close enough that we rode together for several hours. On one sustained climb, Bain and I paced past a rider in a black kit who mentioned what a nice day it was. He pulled back up to us a few minutes later and asked if I post on a well known bike forum. Turns out we knew each other. Small world. (and a relatively distinctive mustache)
I remarked to Bain at Aid Station 3 that we had basically just finished Snake Creek Gap. Roughly the same mileage and time had elapsed at this point. Probably not the most motivating thing to say, but at 4 hours into a 100 mile mountain bike ride both of us were feeling good and climbing strong. Within the next hour we started seeing faster riders heading back on the return route. Jonathan was one of them. As I was screaming down the steep gravel descent of Potato Patch Mountain, I saw him climbing out of the saddle on the other side of the road. He did not look like he was having fun, and threw a grimaced “Ignore the pain!” in my general direction.
Aid Station 4 was at the bottom of three miles of sustained downhill; the longest of the day so far. I refilled my two water bottles for probably the third or fourth time so far and stuffed some of the food from my drop bag into my jersey pocket. Bain wasn’t ready to remount yet, so I continued my descent down the mountain to the furthest point on the course. I wouldn’t see him again the rest of the day. More than half of the Cohutta 100 course is on gravel and dirt forest service roads, but the parts that are on singletrack are on high quality, destination worthy singletrack. Pinhoti 2 was no exception. A gentle climb followed by a smooth, fast, flowing descent through a pine forest. It was the perfect way to break up the monotony. All of this descending came at a steep price though. A literally steep price.
Two race volunteers were positioned on the climb back up to Aid Station 4 (now 5) handing out orange wrist bands to signify that a racer made it to the furthest point of the course. Without one of these, anyone crossing the finish line received a “did not finish”. I ran out of water on the climb back to the aid station, but was happy to have my wristband and have less than half of the race left. 40 miles to go. At this point I had been on my bike for 7.5 hours.
Potato Patch Mountain. Steep, hot, long. It was here that I learned about the gnats and the horseflies; I hadn’t noticed them at any point of the race prior to this. Potato Patch was also the first time that I needed my granny gear. The most incredible thing about this climb was that as I went up there were still a handful of riders descending it. If Jonathan had climbed back up this road close to two hours prior, that put these riders two or more hours behind me. My guess is that every person who I saw going down hill at this point was riding their way to a sag vehicle and a DNF.
I rode solo for most of the next 15 miles, becoming perversely happier when slowly climbing and unnaturally upset when descending. Climbing meant I was ticking off vertical feet from the 14,000 foot total for the day. Descending just meant I was about to climb again. The South Fork of the Pinhoti section of grassy overgrown singletrack nearly made me angry. Adding to that, Aid Station 6 was nearly out of water and was limiting racers to only one bottle to preserve what they had for late comers (I was definitely a late comer). My mental state was definitely heading towards the darker place that a lot of endurance racers go at some point. Reading other reports online show that a lot of others ended up there in some way too. Unlike shorter races, Cohutta covers so much distance that even the fastest pro or accomplished amateur can’t escape the fact that they are spending their entire day on the bike. There is an equality to the experience regardless of fitness level.
One bottle on the bike, the remnants of my drop bag food in my pockets, and several ibuprofen slowly taking effect, I started into the 13 miles to the next aid station; the only one with a time cutoff. Any rider who rolled through aid station 7 after 6:30pm would be allowed to finish, but wouldn’t receive a finish time. They were also nearly guaranteed to finish after sundown. My thoughts shifted to my wife at home, 38 weeks pregnant with our first baby. A girl. I had been out of cell phone contact with her for more than 24 hours. Was she ok? Had she gone into labor? Should I have stayed home this weekend instead of selfishly going to a bike race that I wasn’t sure I could even finish? Irrational though they may have been, these questions forced renewed strength into my legs and ignored the number on my heart rate monitor the first time all day. I made the time cutoff with an hour to spare. The only thing left now was a few miles of rolling fire roads and a few more miles of smooth Tanasi singletrack.
87, 88, 89 miles. 90. 26 more miles than I had ever ridden a mountain bike before. The truth is, I didn’t really train for this event like I thought I would when I signed up for it. A seed of doubt never really left my head until I re-entered the trail at the top of a short climb. Familiar trails. Fast, smooth trails, built for racing mountain bikes. I couldn’t descend well anymore due an imminent foot cramp and tired hands, so I let several riders pass. The Thunder Rock Express trail is normally the kind of fast and fun downhill run that you never want to end. It terminates at the Ocoee River powerhouse that marks the entrance to the campground where we spent the night. After 12 hours on the bike I was never so glad to see the wooden bridge that marks the end of the trail.
Jonathan was at the finish line, fresh from three hours of recuperation after his 9 hour 20 minute ride time. I finished at 12 hours 19 minutes. My longest mountain bike (or any bike) ride by far. While pounding down a burrito and Coke I called Allison to let her know I had finished and make sure that I hadn’t become a father at the same time I became a Cohutta 100 finisher. Everything was fine at home, as expected. No baby just yet.
Would I do it again? I think I would, even though wasn’t sure if I could do it the first time. I know endurance racers aren’t supposed to give in to doubt, that it’s the beginning of an excuse as to why they couldn’t finish or didn’t want to finish. My longest offroad ride this year was the 6 hours of Warrior Creek race two weeks ago. Before that there were three Snake Creek Gaps, several gravel grinder rides, and a short cross-country race. Not exactly adequate preparation for my first offroad century. So sure. I had doubts. I still applied sunscreen. There’s a lot of optimism in applying sunscreen in the dark.