Shenandoah Mountain 100 Race Report

On September 2, 2013 by Peter

I completed the epic and amazing Shenandoah Mountain 100 mile mountain bike race on Sunday, September 1st, 2013. You can view the details of the ride here. I can’t thank my support crew enough: Jack and Sharon; Steve and Celia; Alice, Kaleb, and Bella; and Jen and Clark all came out for the weekend, volunteered at the race, and gave me — along with some help from Lauren, always my best source of motivation — the strength to get through an epic day.

Short version, by the numbers (according to my Garmin GPS and heart rate monitor):

  • 4,288 calories burned
  • 12,402 feet of climbing
  • 2 Yellow Jacket stings on my right leg
  • 1 other bite from who knows what on my chest, not discovered until Monday
  • 73 degrees F average temperature, with 90% humidity (felt hotter)
  • ~ 8 miles of hike-a-bike
  • 5 PB&Js, 9 Hammer Gels, 4 Gatorades, pecans, 11L of water, and 5 salt pills consumed
  • 8 amazing people supporting me (can’t thank you enough!)

This photo gallery also does a great job capturing the race. I’m in a few of the photos, if you look carefully.

Long version:

I woke up at 0400, made and ate a huge bowl of oatmeal with almond milk, blueberries, banana, and walnuts, stuck a couple of PBJs into my Camelbak (backpack that holds 3L of water, food, and some other gear), and spent a little while stretching and foam rolling to loosen my legs up.

I drove the half hour from our rented cabin to the start line with Alice and Kaleb through an eerie morning fog. We crossed the old C&W rail bridge into Stokesville, spent a few minutes relaxing in the car, and then I donned my bike gear and pedaled to the start line just in time for the start at first light, about 0630.

The first few miles were mostly flat or slightly uphill on paved roads, and many people were hammering to try (as I realized later) to make it to the first section of singletrack trail before the massive traffic jam commenced forcing everyone to hike-a-bike up the steeper parts of narrow trail. My goal was to keep my heart rate fairly low all day so I could maximize my chance of finishing. I was aiming for an average heart rate of around 145bpm, so I let lots of people pass me at the beginning. I re-passed many of them later in the day. We spent a while climbing up fireroads before making a sharp left onto the first singletrack of the day. Everyone was walking and the trail was too narrow to pass even though it looked rideable to me, so I pushed my bike up nearly 1000 feet before starting the first descent of the day. I used the hiking time to down a bunch of Hammer Gel.

The first downhill was on a new section of trail that was very well maintained, and we flew down it. Bruce Buckley was taking pictures out on the course, and he caught a few riders (though not me) heading down this new section. This was probably the most enjoyable downhill of the day. At the bottom, we turned onto a gravel road (Tillman Road) which meandered up and down for a while past Aid Station 1, which I skipped. I’m in the white jersey in Bruce’s photo. We turned left onto a paved road and I cruised along next to a guy who had attended James Madison University just down the road in Harrisonburg (purple jersey in Bruce’s photo of us on the gravel road). He had completed the race before and gave me a better idea of what to expect on the next climb (second big one of the day), which was an utterly ridiculous, totally unrideable hike-a-bike up wet, slippery roots and rocks on a narrow trail. It would be extremely difficult to ride most of this trail in ideal conditions (dry, without 649 other people on it). My highest heart rate reading all day came pushing my bike up nearly 1000 feet of elevation in little more than a mile, from about mile 19 to mile 20. The heat and 90% humidity made it a total sweat-fest. To avoid cramping and dehydration, I was doing as directed and drinking about 40oz of liquid (mix of gatorade and water) per hour and I was taking a salt pill (~340mg of sodium) about every 2 hours. I also used this second hike of the day to down more Hammer Gel. There were people who were clearly not doing any of those things and they did not look happy; they would look worse later.

We crested Wolf’s Ridge and began descending. I followed the JMU guy since he had ridden the trail before and we bombed down a rock-strewn, very narrow trail for 5 miles of punishing rock drop offs and blind corners, passing a handful of riders who had stopped to try to mend their broken bikes. The trail was full of baby-head sized rocks that seemed designed to shred bike tires. Parts of the trail were also all-but overgrown, so you are basically riding through bushes, vines, and branches at 10-15mph. There was a traffic jam at a creek crossing at the end of the descent because there was a spectator dressed as Mickey Mouse causing all the racers to do a double or triple take and wonder if they were hallucinating so early in the race.

We turned back onto Tillman Road and cruised along a mix of gravel and paved roads into Aid Station 2 just below Todd Lake about 32 miles into the race. Before the race, I thought I might be able to make it to Aid Station 2 in about 3 hours. I arrived in 3hrs 41mins. hadn’t factored in the more than an hour of hike-a-bike that I had to do to make it up the first two singletrack climbs of the day. The awesome volunteers at Aid 2 filled refilled my Camelbak and my water bottle (gatorade), I took a salt pill, and pedaled away while eating my first PBJ of the day.

Leaving Aid 2, we climbed up a paved road past Todd Lake before ripping down more paved road, turning onto a nice flat gravel road, and then making a hard left onto the start of the Hankey Mountain climb. I had heard that this climb was one of the toughest of the day so I settled in for an hour of climbing up about 1500 feet of elevation and tried to keep my heart rate down. It started as a double-track fireroad before transitioning into a super steep, muddy singletrack section to the top. Nearly everyone walked the last mile of the climb, but it wasn’t technical so I just pedaled in my easiest gear up it. No sooner had I summited then a yellow jacket stung me on my right calf. We had been warned about the potential for a “nasty yellow jacket problem” on the trail. I pulled the stinger and pedaled to the start of the Dowell’s Draft descent.

The descent was dangerous. The trail was off-camber, vaseline-slippery, and full of rock and root drop offs that did their best to throw you and your bike off the trail and down the fall line. You could see tire marks off the edge of the narrow trail (again, less than a foot wide in most places) where other riders had gone flying off the trail. I nearly wiped out several times on the five mile descent, and had a close encounter with a tree at the very end of the downhill just as I was approaching Aid Station 3 at mile 45.

The friendly volunteers at Aid 3 refilled my water bottle and mixed my gatorade powder into it for me while I popped another salt pill. They handed me a PBJ and I was on my way again. I drafted behind another rider for the entire 4 or 5 mile road section (so nice to be able to draft in MTB races, unlike in triathlons) up the false flat and gradual climb until we made a right turn at the halfway point of the race and had to ford a creek/stream (too deep to see the bottom clearly, which means it is a terrible idea to ride it) with our bikes on our shoulders. Our reward after the crossing was another long hike-a-bike up a steep, narrow, slippery, muddy, rock-strewn trail for about 45mins (3 miles). There were some seriously frustrated and unhappy folks on this section. But you don’t sign up for a notoriously difficult 100 mile mountain bike race thinking it is going to be easy, right? I ate some more Hammer Gel and pressed on, but it was painful. I pushed my bike on the right side of me since the trail fell of the ridge in that direction, and my left pedal would bash my shin every third or fourth step the entire way up.

The downhill was worse than the uphill. We dropped 1000 feet in about 2 miles of insane, rocky, rooty, off-camber, narrow, disintegrating trail. I nearly crashed a couple of times, including one spectacular (if I may be immodest) recovery where I was literally halfway off my bike with my right leg in the air behind me before I regained control. This descent confirmed what I was beginning to suspect during the Dowell’s Draft descent earlier in the race, which is that the downhills were going to take more of a physical toll on my body and bike than the uphills. At the bottom of the descent we slogged through a few miles of several-inches deep mud in flat meadows that was as slippery as you can imagine. It was like riding a bike on an ice rink, and several riders in front of my crashed while trying to pedal through it.

I rolled into Aid Station 4 at about 7 hours into the race and met the first half of my support crew: Jack and Sharon and Steve and Celia. They refilled my Camelbak and gatorade bottle while I stuffed down some pecans and a salt pill. They handed me a PBJ, cleaned my comically muddy riding glasses, and I was on my way again. I knew the next 20 miles was a mix of paved roads and fireroads up the longest climb of the day, and I was actually looking forward to it because I knew it wouldn’t be nearly as physically punishing as the singletrack descents or the singletrack hike-a-bike climbs earlier in the day.

A guy from Chicago caught me as I was finishing my PBJ while pedaling along the paved road out of Aid 4, and we decided to catch a group of four riders not too far ahead of us on the road so we could form a peloton and work together to make the climb easier. The next 10 miles flew by as we took turns at the front of the pack before dropping back into the wonderful drafting positions behind the leader. The only downside to riding just behind someone on a gravel road is the constant barrage of small, sharp pieces of gravel that chew at your body. Also, somehow another yellow jacket managed to sting me during this stretch, again on my right leg (just above the knee this time).

Eventually the climb became steep enough where the benefit of riding in a peloton disappeared and we settled in for the last 5 miles of steep fireroad climbing up to Aid Station 5 at mile 75. I’m third in line in this photo. It was a wonderful distraction to have friendly people to talk to while slogging up endless stretches of steep fireroad. Many of the folks had done the race before, including last year when it poured rain. They said this year’s race had the toughest conditions they’d ever experienced, particularly on the descents. That didn’t really make me excited about the descent off the top of the mountain still to come, but I was looking forward to seeing the second half of my world-class support crew at Aid 5. When I rolled in, they refilled my Camelbak and gatorade bottle, handed me a PBJ and sent me on my way for another six miles of granny gear (the technical phrase describing the easiest gear combination on a bike) climbing. Kaleb got this hilarious photo of my demolishing a PBJ on my way out of the aid station:

Demolishing a PBJ during the Shenandoah 100

Demolishing a PBJ during the Shenandoah 100

Up the hill I went, PBJ remnants still in my left hand:

Climbing out of Aid 5 Shenandoah 100

Climbing out of Aid 5 Shenandoah 100

I was excited to be in and out of Aid 5 before the cutoff time when they make you mount lights on your bike because they assume that at that point you’ll be finishing in the dark, which was just about the last thing I wanted to have to do.

People complain a lot about the 5 or 6 miles that follow Aid 5, and I understand why. You are more than 75 miles into the race and you are climbing up steep slopes covered in slippery mud through a series of false flat meadows. I figured it would take me about an hour to reach the summit, and reminded myself that we are capable of doing pretty much anything for an hour and kept pedaling. I passed a few shell-shocked looking people along the way.

When I reached the turn into the singletrack “descent”, I soon wished I was still climbing. It was really dark in the woods because of the cloud cover (it was only about 4:30PM) and the trail was a rocky, slippery, steep mess. I actually had to walk a short stretch of the downhill because it looked too dangerous and I didn’t want to crash, injure myself, and not finish the race. When I got back on my bike, it was all I could to do hang on for the rocky descent. I could smell my brake rotors cooking under the sustained force of braking. It was incredibly hard to stay in control because of constant drop offs and fatigue. Also, the “descent” wasn’t actually 100% downhill. There were several sections of short, steep rocky, rooty climbs that were barely ridable because they were so wet and slippery. I was basically praying for the bottom of the downhill to emerge sooner than later because my arms and brakes were at the breaking point trying to hold it together down the last 1000 feet into Aid Station 6.

I rolled into Aid 6 (which was the same as Aid 2) about 10hrs and 40mins into the race. At this point, I was 88 miles into the race and I knew I had at most 12 miles left to ride, at least a part of which would be riding up a chunk of Hankey Mountain again. The amazing volunteers filled my Camelbak about halfway, put some more water in my bottle, I popped another salt pill and pedaled away while trying to force down my last PBJ of the day. I started climbing the hill out of Aid 6 on the road past Todd Lake, then flew down the hill onto the gravel section that leads to the start of the climb. Hankey Mountain round 2 started at about 90 miles, and I knew I only had to climb for a few miles before I would begin the final stretch to the finish. I passed a handful of people on the climb, all of whom were walking their bikes and looking about as tired as a person can look. I knew if I just kept pedaling in my easy gear, I could average about 5mph and would be to the top of the climb in less than half an hour. Lauren gave me a nice mental kick in the butt and I again reminded myself that I can do anything for half an hour, no matter how tired I am.

I made it to the left turn off Hankey Mountain, thinking I would start descending only to be greeted with another stretch of climbing. When I finally crested that bit, I was nearly 93 miles in and figured I could probably make it to the finish in under 12 hours if I pushed just a little bit harder and didn’t crash. The final stretch to the finish is actually not all downhill. There were a number of false flats and short climbs on rocky fireroad before I finally rounded the corner into the campground.

Final turn of the 2013 Shenandoah 100

Final turn of the 2013 Shenandoah 100

It totally snuck up on me. I pedaled across the slippery wet grass, determined not to crash within sight of the finish, and rolled gratefully across the line a second or two short of 11hrs and 46mins, cheered on by 6 members of my awesome support crew (Jack and Sharon had gone ahead to the cabin to prepare the best post-race meal ever):

Shenandoah 100 Support Crew

Shenandoah 100 Support Crew

2013 Shenandoah 100 Finish

2013 Shenandoah 100 Finish

I rang the gong, collected my pint glass, and declared victory. Taking my socks and bike shoes off revealed just how muddy it had been. My friend Alice (right side of frame) was pretty entertained:

Note the mud lines around my ankles

Note the mud lines around my ankles

At that point, all I wanted was a shower and some real food. I was too tired to document the feast, but Jack and Sharon outdid themselves with perhaps the best post-race meal in history. Thanks again!

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