Cohutta 100: UnRace Report
Here’s a synopsis of the race report I wanted to write about the 2013 Cohutta 100:
“I had an awesome time at the Cohutta 100. It was brutal but I endured and finished in xx:xx time [insert a time under 10 hours]. The conditions were terrible and it was the hardest day of my life but I finished my first National Ultra Endurance series race. I can’t wait for the Wildcat Epic in 2 weeks!”
Instead, I’m begrudgingly writing this report with the three dreaded letters I have refused to even conceive of since I started riding a bike 16 months ago:
Those three letters stand for “did not finish.” I failed to complete the Cohutta 100.
Ouch. That definitely was not the plan.
The days leading up to Cohutta the weather forecasts went from “not too bad” to “worst case scenario” in my mind. I guess it could have been colder, but if it had I probably would have been more prepared. It was looking like rain all day with temps in the 50’s.
I left Friday morning with my friends Andrew Dunlap and Jerry Jackson. Andrew is a friend and fellow Adventures for the Cure teammate. Jerry was one of the first guys that I rode with and I’ve put in hundreds of hours with him the last 16 months.
I’ve got high quality company.
We had a long, uneventful, ten hour drive to the thriving metropolis of Ducktown, TN. Ducktown is the quintessential one horse town: a stoplight, a restaurant, a hotel, a grocery store, and a fast food joint all at one intersection of highway 64.
Dinner Friday night was at Brothers Copper Kettle. The kind of place where 50% of the food is fried and the other 50% is drenched in some kind of gravy. We had popcorn shrimp, popcorn catfish, and fries. I’m not sure whose idea that was but it worked. I felt like I had a brick in my stomach when we were done but it didn’t seem to bother any of us the next day.
We woke up early for the 7am start and did the normal dressing and obsessing that goes with an endurance event: what to wear, what to bring, etc. Although this would normally be automatic the weather made it a bit more of a process, at least for me.
The forecast at 5:30am was 70% chance of rain all day. Radar was even more promising:
I had two objectives starting Cohutta: have a good time and finish. I did really well on the first one until I didn’t do well on the second.
It was a mass start. Jerry and I lined up towards the middle/back. We weren’t too worried about being up front. It would be a long day. Andrew was right behind the row of elites at the front. Jerry was snapping photos with his iPhone when the starting gun went off so we stuffed the iPhone in a pocket and took off pedaling.
100 miles to go.
The start was uphill on road for about three miles. I stayed on Jerry’s wheel while we passed others riders climbing the hill. I soon realized Jerry was eager to get a much better position going into the woods than I was. This was my first 100 and I didn’t want to work too hard in the opening miles trying to stay with him. So I let him go. I could see him turn into the woods maybe 50 back from the start. I was more like 80 or so back. Andrew told me later he was in the top 15 entering the woods.
My coach, Pat Blair, had given me three words of advice the morning of the race: pace, nutrition, and do not give up. They were great reminders in the very early stages of the race. It was going to be a long day so I took a sip of my camelback and focused on spinning at a moderate pace.
We entered the woods and the single track began. This was the most fun part of the day for me. It was a bit muddy but the trails were still not too bad considering how much it had rained. I was right in the middle of a pack of about 20 riders and we were moving at a good pace but not killing ourselves. I was happy with where I was, how I felt, and was optimistic that a number of these riders would be great to be around all day. They were quick but they weren’t the hammers that I often ride with back home.
The fun part of the day soon became a bit more of a challenge as the mud increased. I quickly realized that the tires my friend Chris had recommended were going to be a challenge for me in the mud. Chris had recommended the Maxxis Aspens because of their high volume and low rolling resistance. I had ridden on these tires for two very short rides the days before the race. They felt great and I knew they would be great for Cohutta. At least for a dry Cohutta.
A muddy Cohutta was a different story. For someone with master bike handling skills like Chris these tires wouldn’t be a challenge in the mud. I felt like I was ice skating with roller blades.
I settled in knowing that the single track was only about 30 miles of the 100. If I could stay upright for those miles I would be great on the fire roads that make up the rest of the course.
At mile eight we hit a flat rooty section that was very slick. A few of the guys I was chasing went down on the roots. I tried to pick a decent line and just get over that section as fast as possible. It worked and I rolled through the roots without a problem. But less than a minute later I heard a painful hissing coming out of my rear tire. At this point I’m still in good spirits and I practically laugh out loud.
If you knew how much time I had spent obsessing about getting my tires just right for this race you would know why it was funny. I had asked Chris and Andrew what they would ride. I had been to multiple bike shops looking for the right tires. At one point I had 5 tires in my car because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. I returned all but the Aspens.
So getting a flat less than an hour in was humorous. I laughed it off and thought: It’s going to be a long day so I can’t stress about a flat. Fortunately my Stan’s seemed to seal the tire so I pumped it up a bit and kept riding. However within five minutes the leak was back and I was off the bike again. This time I knew Stan’s was not going to seal it so I had to stop and put a tube in my tire.
The worst part about getting a flat so early is that the field is still tight so by the time I was done changing the tire the entire field had passed me. I’m still keeping my spirits up. Re-starting behind everyone else means I should be passing riders all day and that can be fun. I’m thinking I can catch the group that I was with if I really cruise through the rest stops and move at a good clip.
I’m alone crossing the Ocoee River and starting a long single track climb. There are few things I like more in life than being in the woods on a mountain bike. I like to ride with my friends but sometimes the solitude is perfect. This was one of those times. I settled in for a very long, enjoyable time alone in the woods.
I ride for half an hour or so and start passing riders. I’m still having a good time. At mile 16 the single track dumps out onto a fire road and the course drops into the first fire road descent.
Then the rain starts in earnest.
Things become a bit more challenging but I’m still moving at a good pace. Passing people and playing catch up. I cruise through aid stations one and two grabbing some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a cookie or two. I spent 2 minutes at each tops.
Miles 25-50 are a long climb up to the top of a mountain far down into Georgia. On Strava the segment is aptly called the Cohutta Death March Climb. I leave aid station two and start the long grind. This climb goes on forever.
That’s when it starts getting hard to shift my rear derailleur. At first I couldn’t get into my largest rear cog. And it got worse from there. By aid station three I was unable to shift without serious effort from my thumb. Even then it wasn’t working. I tried for a while to leave it in the middle of the cassette and just use the front shifter as much as possible. I crest the top of the mountain at mile 48 and I can hardly shift up at all. I can go down but once I shifted down I couldn’t get it back up the cassette.
I’m cursing myself because going into the race I new my shifter/derailleur needed some attention. “What’s another hundred miles?” I thought. But 100 miles of dry conditions is one thing. 100 miles drenched in mud and rain is another matter. That’s just a rookie error.
At the same time I’m getting cold. The sub 50 temps and rain are beginning to take their toll. My feet are soaked through and my shoes feel like they are carrying ten pounds of extra weight each. My winter mountain boots that seemed like a great idea early on are now big buckets for water that won’t drain at all.
After a long, freezing descent, I roll into aid station four shivering. Jerry is there. He’s ten miles ahead of me at that point and heading back. The course is down and back with a couple of loops thrown in. Jerry is on his way back.
I hand my bike to a mechanic and ask him if he can get the shifting to work again. Meanwhile I change socks (I had packed socks in my drop bag). When I go to change socks I turn my shoes upside down and water pours out. The fresh socks are soaked immediately not helping anything.
Finally the mechanic gives me the bad news. He’s pretty sure my cable is going to break anytime. I can keep going but it’s likely that I’ll be hiking before I get to the next aid station.
Flat tires, shifting problems, freezing feet, tires that leave me sliding everywhere when on single track. Any three of those and I’m continuing on. I’ve got all four and I pull the plug. I do the walk of shame to the sag van.
I don’t do giving up well. I get in the van and I’m with a crowd of happy people that are excited that the miserable conditions have justifiably ended their day. I’m just angry and frustrated.
I don’t do “DNF.” I’m ok with taking forever to complete a race but I want to finish.
My happy new friends and I spend the next hour and a half driving back to the start in the sag. I finally loosen up a bit and start talking to some of the folks on the van. These are good people. It was a rough day. I need to let it go. We joke that the Cohutta 50 was an awesome race.
I get back to the start area in time to clean up a little and see Andrew finish the race. I know he is top 20. I run through the finish to catch up with him. He’s delirious. Andrew told me later he put in a heroic effort the last two miles to catch a couple of guys. He ended up being 18th overall. A dream day. I’m thrilled for him.
Jerry rolls in not much later in 47th place. Awesome result. In a couple of years that will put him on the podium in the masters class.
I’m proud of my friends. Not feeling too proud of my result. I’m still not handling defeat well.
I found out today from the race director that 280 people were entered in the race and 138 finished. 49% finished the race. I can accept anyone bowing out under the extreme conditions.
I just don’t like when it is me.
I texted Pat and tell him the bad news. He reminds me that pros DNF at times. Everyone has bad races. A good race is around the corner.
My friend Greg texted me this Sunday night:
I’m a fan of failure. Losing is learning. Experience is king.
It took me a couple of days to shake it off but I’m over it. It was bound to happen. I made a couple of rookie mistakes: my bike wasn’t in top shape (I knew the shifting was messed up I just thought I could get through it), I should have prepared for the cold better (I know I can handle almost any temp if my feet are warm), and I should have swapped out my tires when I saw the forecast.
But often you can’t learn without mistakes.
This past Saturday I had an awesome ride in a beautiful forest in Tennessee and Georgia with some great people. I didn’t get the result I wanted but I’m already scheming my personal revenge at Wildcat 100 in ten days.
Acceptance is the key. I’m not good at it but it’s good practice for me to fail. Forces me to learn to accept.
I had a tough day. More tough days will happen. And some really great days are ahead as well.
Keep moving forward,
PS Strava links: