Let's lay some groundwork here. Here is a brief list of facts that should be considered while reading this report.
1) I have never done a race longer than a standard XC race. 25 miles, 2 hours, that's my bread and butter.
2) I have never raced outside of New England
3) I'm of Irish heritage, and therefore feel comfortable in cold, rainy climates.
4) I was coming off the 24 Hours of Great Glen, and had spent the week living life as an animated corpse.
5) I have never spent the night before a race in a tent.
The game plan.
Thom came up with a plan to head down to the venue Saturday, since waking up at 4:30am and driving for hours is bad race prep. We hit the road Saturday afternoon with the intention of showing up at Stewart State Forest with enough time to get in a lap of the course. We made it just in time, and finished up our lap as the sun was setting. My initial impression of the course was two fold, on one hand there was "OMG!!! this is like sooo totally, like, rad!", on the other hand there was a the steady stream of sweat running off my chin. This was a great preview though since Sunday's action would be dominated by the incredible course and unbearable heat.
I should probably mention that I may have had a few too many beers on Friday night, and was feeling less than stellar all day Saturday. I didn't want to race, I wanted to go home and crank the air conditioner. Ironically, after Hodges Dam, feeling like I don't want to race is a harbinger of a great race. I was kind of psyched about not wanting to race, and therefore looking forward to racing. Figure that one out.
We don't need no stinking sleep
The night before the race was possible the most miserable sleep I had gotten in years. It was horrible. The humidity put a thick layer of dew on everything, including me and my sleeping bag, and the mosquitoes were fucking nuts. As soon as the sun went down, I was ready to retreat to my tent, away from the mosquitoes, and lay my hungover head down on my pillow. Problem was, the mosquitoes found a way into my tent.
I alternated between two different sleep modes. a) Sleeping in my bag, waking up soaked in sweat, but safe from mosquitoes. and b) outside the bag, not being able to fall asleep because I was on full body mosquito watch. Plan b did work occasionally, leaving me waking up soaked in dew with mosquito bites on my arms, legs and face. Yes, I got a mosquito bite on my face. Back and forth I went, in the bag, out of the bag, until morning finally came. I think a cloud of insomnia follows crazy Thom Parsons everywhere he goes. I set my tent up a little too close to his, and therefore was in the cloud.
I eventually got all oatmealed up, and had my morning eggs and toast in the form of a smushed egg salad sandwich. I mixed up a bunch of bottles, headed over to registration early, then went to shake out the legs. I still wasn't feeling it, and the wet, miserable, mosquito bitey sleep didn't help much. I don't function well in the morning and I'm new to 9am starts. I think my list of excuses has now reached a acceptable length.
We stage, and the Pros, Singlespeeds and 30-39 Cat1s are all let out in the first wave. This is a gigantic, and very fast group. The starting stretch is quite long, and straight. Then turns onto a long and straight section of double track. Drafting and road-type tactics played a roll in the first mile as everyone scrambled for position.
(All of the following pictures were lifted from here. The individual that goes by the moniker gtluke is an excellent race photographer and I encourage everyone to purchase some of his images, I know I will. )
Have you ever seen such a spry and alert mountain biker? I was on form for the first lap. I was in the groove. I settled in behind Sean Cavanaugh, the super fast Josh Wilcox, and a Team Bulldog rider. I didn't know the Bulldog rider, but I figured if I could hang with Sean and Josh, I was in good shape. And hang I did, for pretty much the entire first lap.
Lap two (The "Linnea Koons rules" lap)
It was hot. Super hot. Like racing in a furnace hot. The breeze in your face felt like a hair dryer to the face. In conditions like this a poor hydration strategy will break you like the dry, dead twig you will surely become. Enter Linnea Koons (thought I was going to link to the October blog, didn't you?). She raced Windam the day before so she was spectating today. We chatted on the start line and she offered to hand me bottles, I was grateful. What I didn't realize is how awesome it would be flying through the feedzone, getting a high speed choice of refreshment, and a perfect pass off without losing any time. Heading down the double track at the beginning of the second lap, my perfect feed gave me a gap on the rest of the group. My brain was still working at this point, so considering the heat and the length of the race, I waited up and settled back into the train instead of trying to crush it solo for the next three hours.
I was still rocking pretty tight form, but I either look sleepy, or I got something in my eye. Both are possible, I was tiring, and my eyes seem to be crap magnets. Halfway through the second lap, I could hear some more riders coming up behind us, hopping on the train. This made me nervous. This was my ride to victory, I can't let others just hop aboard whenever and where ever they please. When the trail spit us out onto one of the paved sections, I made my move. I came around to the front and pushed the pace. I wanted to drop a few dudes off the victory train. It worked. A little too well.
I came through the starting stretch alone I dropped the rest of the train. I grabbed another bottle and went to work. Lapped traffic was pretty bad at this point, but after Harding Hill and Great Glen (what!?! no race report to link to? WTF mate?), I've honed my passing skills.
Oh no, not looking too good, starting to show signs of cracking. The arms and legs seem to be going strong, but zombie face has made an appearance, giving a slight glimpse into the inner workings of the quickly fading racer. I was finishing an entire tall bottle each lap, but I knew that wasn't going to be enough. Regardless, I kept the pace high, but conserved a tad by dropping down to the granny ring to spin up the punchy climbs. No sign of my competitors, this is good. Hang in there buddy.
Almost there. I knew I wasn't drinking enough, the bonk was inevitable. My bike only has a single bottle mount (not counting the retarded one under the down tube). I just hoped I could delay the bonk until I was close enough to smell the finish line. I couldn't. Halfway through the fourth lap I cracked. The heat got the best of me with about six miles to go. I was off and running the short climbs, which soon changed to off and walking the short climbs. Then the cramping set in. At the top of the climbs when I remounted, my legs protested. Ooooooh did they protest. My groin muscle, from my upper thigh all the way to the inside of my knee was cramping, bad, on both legs. Screams were let out. I came up behind a few lapped riders while screaming and punching myself in the groin, trying to work out the cramps. It was horrible, the pace dropped to a crawl.
You can see I appear visually smaller in this picture. I shrank up like a raisin. I lost 35 pounds and 6 inches in height during this race. I stopped at the beer station for water. Water was not readily available, but there were about 30 PBRs set out on the table. For the first (and hopefully last) time in my life I was angry that cold beer was so available when I was looking for a drink. I waited about 30 seconds, looking over my shoulder the entire time, for a cup of water to be poured. I actually needed about six cups of water, but after drinking one half, I went back out on the course.
I knew I was going to get caught, and there wasn't much I could do about it. Chris Gagnon soon came flying by me, and I clung to his wheel, hoping for a second wind. It worked. I was able to ride at his pace. Once we got out onto a paved section, he sat up for a drink and I went around him because I am an idiot. My brain had shut off and I was back in race mode. I kept the pace high for a bit, and didn't see Chris when I looked over my shoulder. I thought I was good to go, until I remembered I was in the middle of an epic bonk, and Chris soon came flying by again. Turns out I didn't drop him at all. Since he is a smarter racer that I, he probably stopped at one of the aid stations to refuel, while I attacked with an empty tank.
I was unable to hold Chris' wheel, and he disappeared up the trail. Next up? Team Bulldog. Oh please let this be a non 30-39 Cat1 Team Bulldog rider. I remember just about every other name on the pre-reg list was Team Bulldog, so I tried to convince myself that this guy was just a Cat2 rider and I could let him ride away. Didn't work. I asked him how he was feeling and he responded with a peppy answer that alluded to how soon he would be drinking beer at the finish. Shit. He sounds fresh, his brain is clearly still working, and his legs have him up the trail and almost out of sight.
I couldn't let it happen. I dug deep, tried to shake out my cramping legs, and clawed back up behind him. We were pretty close to the finish at this point, and I was on his wheel. I used everything I had left to go around him, and immediately put a few lapped riders between us. I turned onto the paved Start/Finish stretch, put it in the big ring and got up to speed. I looked over my shoulder and saw nothing. Sweet. I got aero and spun towards the finish. Glancing over my shoulder again, there he was, and closing quickly. I stood and hammered, both legs immediately cramped. Again. Screams were screamed, pedals were mashed. We put on a good show for all the beer drinkers, bike washers, and porta-pottiers we flew past. At the line, I was still in front, by a single second. After the line, a rolling fist bump was performed between the two of us. The level of effort this fist bump required caused my shoulder to cramp. I had absolutely nothing left. After checking results, I learned the Team Bulldog rider was Noah Meineke. Nice race Noah.
Turns out the sprint to the line was for second place. Sweetness.
This is Mike, I'm not sure what his official title is, but I'm going to call him The Host. I know what you're thinking, races don't have hosts; races have officials, timekeepers, volunteers, promoters and what-not. This is true of most race, but most races aren't the Darkhorse 40. Mike made it his mission to make sure every racer felt welcome, got everything they needed, and went home happy. A tall order for sure, but Mike crushed it. Smiles all around, free beer (best beer on the planet no less), free BBQ, well stocked aid stations, the quality of the swag only outdone by the quantity, generous payouts, and to top it all off, the dopest t-shirt (and medal) I have ever gotten at a mountain bike race.
Mike, you are truly the man. See you next year.