I didn't think I was going to be able to start Cohutta this year. Thursday night I came down with some kind of horrible stomach bug. I rode to Ducktown, TN on Friday laying in the back seat of my car not able to eat or drink. I had already paid to race so I figured I may as well register and pick up my stuff. Which I did and also left my drop bags for the aid stations. I'd figured I probably never see them again.
After about an hour or so of watching all the other racers ride there bikes around I decided to take a spin and see how I felt. Which pretty much confirmed that I felt pretty bad. I decided to go back to the Hotel, get something to eat and get plenty of rest for Saturday. I was able to eat without getting sick, so my plan was to show up ready to race as far as I could. If I felt bad, I could drop out when we came bike thru the Ocoee White Water Center. If I still felt Ok, the next plan was to get to the 37 miles to aid station #3 where Beth and Anthony were going to be. If I still felt OK, I was going to do the new addition to the course - the Pinhotti trail and make it to aid station #6 which was the same as #3. This would be a tall ask but if I made it that far I figured I could ride an easy pace the last 25 miles and at least finish the race.
The weather was perfect for race day - not too cold at the start and not too hot in the afternoon. I felt OK at the start and the 3 mile climb up hwy 64 felt OK, but it was probably just the adrenaline at the start. The first 15 miles of the race is singletrack. It has a few places to pass, but mostly you just pace with the riders around you and pass those who are struggling. This works out well because it keeps me from going too hard too early.
I blew thru aid station #1 as planned and survived the next few miles to aid station #2. There would be a long, long climb to aid station #3. I decided to push the pace a little to see how I responded and figuring I would end my race there. I continue to pass people on the climbs and take full advantage of my fast rolling V12 tires on the few (but steep) descents.
3 1/2 hours into the race I make it to aid station #3. Beth and Anthony get me all the stuff I need to continue on. I don't know if it was just the routine of stopping and going at the aid station, or the thought of not finishing but I just couldn't bring myself to abandon.
There is still more climbing immediately after I roll out. I was really thinking about turning around and hanging it up. But as I struggle along, I am still passing people. My next goal becomes to get the bracelet required as proof you completed the loop of the Pinhotti trail between aid station #4 and #5.
There is a lot of descending on the way to aid station #4 - which means lots of climbing on the way back. I decide to worry about that when I get there...
Just before aid station #4 I pass Jeremiah Bishop who was already headed back after going thru aid station #5. I blew thru aid station #4 and soon reach the single track. It's pretty sweet - fast and flowy and nearly all downhill. I feel a little better after pumping through the single track. All too soon I pop out of the trail, back onto the fire road - and back up the long, long climb. Just before I reach aid station #5 I get the wristband I've been coveting. I stop at the aid station feeling confident I can make it to aid station #6, but maybe at a reduced pace.
As I ascend the long, long climb riders are flying down the road headed to the loop I just came from. It would be a long time before I see oncoming riders pedaling while I am flying downhill. I feel ridiculously slow but I'm not getting passed by anyone and every now and then I catch and pass someone. On some of the outrageously steep sections there are hike-a-bikers. I carry on. If only to be done with the race. But, I think about why I am here and do my best to enjoy the ride, the trail and the outdoors.
As I close in on aid station #6, there are still riders coming towards me. Meaning they are in for a very long day. It encourages me to keep pedaling and to quit worrying about all my aches and pains.
It’s kind of game now: guessing what’s going to be around each bend as I climb, but the answer always seems to be more climbing. Finally, rounding one of the bends I see my wife and the tents of aid station #6. A welcome sight. On paper it’s mostly downhill from here, with 2 substantial climbs remaining. I get my nutrition and kiss from the wife and head up the trail for a bit more climbing.
We are routed into another section of the Pinhotti trail that starts out as double track then turns into single track. It’s mostly downhill - a refreshing change from the fire road climbing. But there’s still more climbing.
Other riders are few and far between now. On the next to last climb a single speeder that I had passed earlier slowly grinds his way past me. “I’m about done with climbing” he says on his way by – echoing my sentiments. The climb eventually tapers and I’m able to spin my legs a little easier. The effects of not being properly hydrated yesterday are starting to take there toll.
I get some temporary relief on a rapid descent. It’s really pretty fun. I keep pedaling whenever I’m not spun out to keep my body from going into recovery mode (which it desperately wants to do by now). The descent is short lived but it was nice to see the miles click by a little faster for a while. I’m averaging over 11 mph which means I’m ahead of my goal time of 9:00.
And then the final climb. It’s pretty steep, or maybe just seems that way because I’m pretty well fatigued. My back hurts, my knee hurts plus a myriad of other aches and pains. I keep my focus on the goal: The top of the climb. I keep looking for the singletrack that would signify the last segment of the race. Around every corner is more climbing. And then it appears: only, not what was I expecting. The last 2 years we went downhill when we entered the singletrack. This year we kept climbing. I briefly consider hiking, but I knew I wouldn’t want to get back on my bike if I did. So I grunted up the climb which turned out not to be too bad.
At this point I know that I am going to finish. If I break, flat, bonk, cramp or whatever – I can walk back from here. Plus I can usually roll the single track sections pretty fast compared to other extremely fatigued riders. But this section of single track is not like the last two. It’s more technical with some short sharp climbs and some very good opportunities to fly off the side of the mountain. It’s not super technical but certainly enough to warrant full attention and focus.
I have to stand and shift to my lowest gears to be able to ride some of the climbs, but they are kind of short with an occasional downhill thrown in to recover a bit. Normally it would be some pretty enjoyable trail, but I can’t put forth enough power to speed through it in a manner to fully appreciate it.
A pattern begins to develop. Go down a hill, turn right in the muddy section, then climb up a hill. Repeat. I pass a couple of big frog 65 racers and a few other 100 mile racers which makes me think I’m not doing too badly even though I never reeled in the single speeder that passed me on the last climb. I pass a tandem team and then it’s downhill to Hwy 64.
I push the biggest gear that I am able to and try to hammer to the finish even though there is no one around me. When I enter the Ocoee White Water Center there are cheers from competitors and there friends and family as is customary for all the finishers. I cross the bridge and make the final left turn to the finish line. The clock ticks 8:43:16. Two minutes slower than my finishing time last year, but on a more difficult course. I had to lay down in the shade for several minutes before I felt like moving again.
The call of a Veggie burger wrap, sweet potato fries and an ice cold Coke finally rouse me to my feet. It felt good to be done. Not just to end the suffering, but for the feeling of accomplishment. The feeling of overcoming.
As I pack my things and prepare to return to the Motel for some much needed rest there are still riders finishing. It’s pretty cool to see all the racers coming in. Most are people like me with jobs and family's. They have chosen a path less taken. They have chosen adventure and hard work over a lifestyle of immediate gratification and being sedentary. At the end of the day I didn’t hear one story of how easy it was to ride the flat parts or that they wished the course wasn't so difficult. The talk was about the hard climbs, the close calls on the descents and overcoming obstacles whether physical, mechanical, or mental. I salute all the racers that rose to the challenge of a very grueling race.
Later that day I would eat a large Wendy’s Frosty with no guilt.
See you on the trails!