2012 Wilderness 101

Yesterday, I had a cool new experience at the 2012 Wilderness 101 Ultra Endurance Backcountry Mountain Bike Race. I’ve done some tough mountain bike races, but this one had it all, and it now tops my toughest mountain bike race list. It probably qualifies for my Toughest Ten overall list, my Difficult Dirty Dozen (Toughest 10 plus Ironman Brazil, Ironman Hawaii, and Lookout Mt. 50 Mile Trail Race); or at least an honorable mention. It’s time I update the toughest list anyway. None of these things are really all that tough. I’m open for ideas on something tougher to do next.

I’ve done some hard ultra endurance rides, but for some reason, I hadn’t done a 100 mile mountain bike race. I’ve done the Jay Challenge (~65 miles), Jay Mountain Bike (~70 miles), the Hampshire 100 (100 kilometers), and the Vermont 50 Mile Ride (many times) in the past, but hadn’t sought out a 100 miler until this year. The National Ultra Endurance Race Series has some cool events in it, and the 12th Wilderness 101 is one of the most challenging. At 101 miles and nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain and loss on rugged central Pennsylvania terrain, it is a beast of a loop.

I made the trip to central PA with my Horst Engineering colleague, Team Horst Sports teammate, and Team Seven Cycles teammate: Arthur Roti. Earlier this year, when I told Art that I was interested in the Wilderness, he was quick to join me in registering. He focuses on mountain biking, especially with his involvement in NEMBA, whereas I mix MTBing in with a variety of endurance sports. The past four years, I’ve done a lot of road and off-road triathlons to go along with my trail running, mountain biking, and cyclocross. Art and I were both overdue to ride 100, and it was fun to do a bike race outside of New England for a change.

I  made things a little more challenging by riding my new Seven Sola 29 SL singlespeed. I reviewed it a few weeks ago in a previous blog post. It’s a rigid set-up, so I gave up a lot of time by not having a suspension fork. A lot of people asked, “Why?” Well, riding singlespeed and rigid is a matter of choice. It’s a style of mountain biking that is new to me, but one that I’ve come to enjoy. It does make a hard ride harder. The course was about 7 miles of roads, 19 miles of degraded forest roads, 45 miles of forest roads, and 30 miles of singletrack. Most of the singletrack was downhill, and it was brutal. The rocks were abundant, sharp, and wet. There were a fair amount of roots thrown in for good measure. I saw my life flash before my eyes on several occasions. We hurtled ourselves down these trails with reckless abandon. There were some truly sweet sections, but I much preferred the grassy and flowy stuff to the rocky and gnarly stuff.

About 300 riders started the race. We camped at Coburn Community Park, which was a great venue. Coburn is a sleepy little town. Elk Creek flows through it. The park was just right for this race. We rolled out of the start at 7:00 A.M. and after a neutral start, immediately hit a six-mile climb. That strung things out,though for the first fast 30 miles, there was a lot of group and paceline riding. It was noticeable that many of the riders had no road or pack riding experience, so I was on guard watching for stupid moves. There is no reason to tangle with other riders at a MTB race.  At the start, It was foggy with light rain. The weather improved in the middle of the race as it warmed up with intermittent sun and clouds. It remained humid and the threat of afternoon thunderstorms hung in the air. The trails were damp at the start, dried out a bit, and were very wet by the end of the race.

I had one painful fall at about 65 miles. I didn’t have a chance. I took a sweeping right hand turn at a high rate of speed and hit several wet roots that were across the trail. I was down in a flash. I hammered my right wrist, elbow, hip, thigh, and knee. I was a bit stunned, but got up quickly. The only damage to my bike was that my handlebar end cap popped out. I found it (because I’m crazy about that sort of thing), plugged it back in, and was on my way again, though it took me a few miles to get my rhythm back. The elbow bled a bit, which caught the eye of Karen Potter who bridged up to me. After we came into the 70 mile aid station together, she and I chatted a bit. She has a lot of experience with these ultra MTB races. She subsequently dropped me on the next climb like a bad habit. I had a chance to ride with three of the top five women during the course of my race. It was a lot of fun. They were all strong and they were also very good bike handlers.

I was impressed with the low-key and efficient race production and I loved the volunteers. The aid stations had just the right amount of options (I’m not picky) and the helpers were awesome. They filled your hydration pack, bottles, held your bike, and even offered simple mechanical support. No crews were allowed, so this was quite the contrast from last week’s Vermont 100 Endurance Run, which had a lot of crew and spectator activity. One big mountain bike loop doesn’t lend itself to a lot of attention, which is just fine. There was some spectator traffic around the aid stations, but for most of the day, it was you, a handful of fellow riders, and the course. I enjoyed the moments of solitude and suffering.

The forest roads were unreal. Some of the climbs went on for 40 minutes or more. I was forced to walk some of the switchbacks during the second half of the race. I had a lot of trouble with the rockiest singletrack. The descents beat me up pretty bad and I was having trouble hanging on to my handlebars. My hands were numb and my wrists and arms were cramping. My arms gave out long before my legs. Truthfully, I felt strong throughout the race, with the exception of my arms and hands.

I was very happy with my belt drive system, particularly when the afternoon thunderstorms hit. It is a very clean running system. They rain came in two phases, the first was 30 minutes before my finish and the second was later in the evening when we were having dinner. The first line of storms loomed over the mountains late in the afternoon. I could hear the thunder in the distance as I left aid station #5 at 89 miles. The sky darkened and began to spit. I pushed the rail trail section as hard as I could. When we started the last big climb before the last nasty section of singletrack, the rain got heavier. By the time I made it back to the final section of dirt road, the rain was coming down in torrents. It turned the trail into a quagmire, but I pushed on. The only reprieve was when I walked through the second of two dark tunnels. I thought I could get under 8:30, but made a bonehead move with 1/8th of a mile to go when I literally smelled the finish line (it was the BBQ!) and turned down 9th Alley instead of 10th Alley. It cost me a half a minute, but it was comical. Truthfully, the course was really well-marked and only on a few occasions was I worried about missing a turn. My day started in the fog and ended in a fog.

My time was 8:30:55, which was good for 15th singlespeed. It was respectable. I didn’t have any expectations. It was my first time at the distance and I wanted to finish strong, which I did. I drained my hydration pack three times, drank three 3-hour bottles of Perpetuem, ate six Hammer Gels, a Clif Bar, and a banana. My nutrition and hydration were spot on. I probably could have had a little more solid food, and sooner in the race. This was my first race on a singlespeed and  first race on a rigid bike since 1992. I feel like I could have cracked the top 5 with a suspension fork, but that is pure conjecture. It had been 20 years since riding rigid, and it was my choice, and that’s kind of cool. Speaking of cool-a geared and suspended rider passed me with 12 miles to go and paid me a huge compliment. He said of my Seven Sola, “That is the coolest bike I’ve seen all day.”

Art finished in 9:08:59 and was pleased. He rode his more traditional Seven Sola 29 SL and loved it. We both banged on the gong at the finish line. It is a tradition. They used the same gong to wake us up at 5:30 A.M., so it was payback of sorts. The heaviest rain stopped five minutes after my finish and the sun actually came out for a while. I washed off in Elk Creek. The food was excellent and the brew from Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks was very good. One funny episode occurred around the 45 mile mark. I was with two riders at the start of a long climb when we came upon a pickup truck parked on the side of the road. There were two guys sitting in lawn chairs in the bed. There was a 36 pack of Busch beer on the side of the road. There were two kids and between the four of them, they were offering beer hand ups. One kid asked as we approached, “Water or beer?” One of the guys I was with grabbed a cup of beer. Not me!

First overall went to pro mountain biker, Jeremiah Bishop, in a stellar 6:30:56. He was followed by Jonathan Schottler and Justin Lindine. The women’s race was won by Cheryl Sornson in 7:44:37. She was followed by Vicki Barclay and Kristin Gavin. The top singlespeed rider was Patrick Blair in 7:10:05. There were almost 40 DNF’s, so Art and I felt great to just get to the line. The second round of storms rolled through around 7:30 P.M. and they had even more lightning and thunder than the storm that I finished in. It made for the end to a truly epic day. We heard riders finishing up until the 10:00 P.M. cut off. We met some new friends and saw some old ones. The mountain bike scene is quite different from the trail running scene and very different from the triathlon scene. I’m like a chameleon, moving between these vastly different sporting cultures. I’ll probably do another 100 next year…just for fun!

Race Results

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