First off, I am the consummate weekend warrior. I don’t pretend to go to a race to take the podium, nor have I ever come close LOL. You can find me towards the back of the pack and I’m perfectly OK with this. I go to these things for the sense of adventure and accomplishing them. My goal was to ride strong and enjoy seeing new trail for 50 miles!
My training this past winter consisted of going to the gym several times a week, mainly to run the track or spin on the bikes for 30 minutes. I absolutely hate spinning so I prefer to run as much as I can. When the weather got nicer this year, I took to running outside and of course started to ride my mountain bike when appropriate. One big problem I encountered was an extremely wet April, and not only did I seldom get out on the bike, I wasn’t running as much as I wanted. Long story short, in the run up to the May 14 race, my training seriously plummeted instead of ramping up. I never got a ride in of more than about 10 miles this spring. Trouble ahead!
Even with these problems, I went into the race feeling really fit and mentally prepared – which is often as important as the physical. I had a brand new bike – Salsa Spearfish – and was excited to take her out on her first race. Took the 5 hour drive on Friday afternoon, found my campsite Friday night – too late to pre-ride anything -, and settled into a horrible night’s sleep. Woke up feeling the usual nervous energy of a big ride, but nothing really serious. Ate a banana, some yogurt, and a grain bar as soon as I woke up, giving it about an hour to digest before the race. Loaded my gear and headed to the start line with the other 200 racers.
The race starts and I’m in the middle/back, knowing that is where I’d be most at home. The first mile is straight up hill on a fire road, which is designed to thin the field for the eventual entry into singletrack. Had no problem climbing, felt really solid, and even began passing a few groups of riders. Since I’m not fighting for position I really just go at my own pace and enjoy the climb. Once we hit singletrack the wheels literally came off the bus…
The singletrack starts with a tangled mess of slippery rocks that is likely ridable when dry, but only just. It had rained a couple days prior and everything was still drying out, but not dry. Each rock was slippery with the mud of the previous riders and something about the rock there makes them as slippery as ice when you try to ride over them. Everyone was walking their bikes through these sections and it was hard to judge distance alternately riding for a bit and then walking for a bit – but perhaps a full half mile of the first 7 or 8 mile stretch was spent walking, at least for me. I got a major quad muscle cramp in this section, which is super rare for me. I took some Hammer Endurolyte capsules and removed that threat immediately, but this was just the beginning of my problems.
I’m not sure why, but about 45 minutes into the ride I started to feel sick to my stomach. I was using my usual Hammer products for in-race nutrition and I’ve never had problems like this before, so I don’t think they were to blame, but something was making me feel bad. At one point I had to stop, thinking I was going to unload my stomach on a fellow biker LOL. This passed after a bit, but I felt “off” for a good long while in the morning.
Then another problem popped up which I didn’t expect; my bulletproof Camelbak which I’ve used for years without incident decided to take a dump this day, and the end-cap popped off and it started spitting my water out all over the place. I knew I’d never find the missing piece so I let it empty out and had to rely on the one drink bottle I was using on the frame of my bike for the rest of the day.
It felt like an eternity reaching the first checkpoint (mile 15) but I chomped on some oranges, refilled my water, and was on my way. Spent only a few minutes there. The next section (Green Loop) was much faster singletrack and at least temporarily I was out of the wet rock sections. A few miles of this brought us back to the Orange Loop which was again a mix of fun singletrack and awful walking and mud pits. My bike was a gory mess already.
At this point between checkpoint 1 and 2 I was actually starting to think my day was done. A combination of unsettled stomach, unexpected amounts of walking, and rumors that we hadn’t even reached the hard part of the trail conspired to make me think bad thoughts about giving up. I’ve never given up on any bike race or even a recreational bike ride, so giving up was foreign to me – though it really sounded good at this point.
As I left Orange Trail for Blue trail, I hit some really nasty rock gardens going downhill that I chose to walk due to how slick they were. The only other place I can recall encountering slick mud like this trail was in Hawaii. If I had to pick either though, Arkansas would win hands down as a better place to ride no matter how bad the mud… I reached the bottom of Blue and ran into a friendly rider who seemed to be on the same pace as me since we’d passed back and forth all day. He said this was his 6th time doing this race, and that it would likely be the first time he didn’t finish. We looked at the clock and the cutoff times for checkpoint 3 and figured it was beyond reach.
But an odd thing happened in the next 30 or so minutes. As we pulled into checkpoint 2, the staff said we had 2 hours to reach the final checkpoint before we’d miss the cutoff. We had 26 miles done (5 hours in the saddle so far), and it was “only” 9 miles to the next CP, but contained the worst climbs of the day. I was beat down, my bike was caked with mud and my gears sounded horrible, and while my stomach had returned to normal my energy level was ebbing pretty low. In talking to my riding friend, he said what would likely happen is that we’d arrive too late at CP 3 but that we would at least be able to ride that far. But, after reflecting on the crappy ride that I was having so far and realizing that if I didn’t finish this today I would likely feel compelled to come back and try again – I resolved to give it everything I had to make it in time for the cut off. I had a purpose, a goal, a mental target again. I was off.
This section WAS pretty hilly, and I did do a fair bit of walking despite my zeal. One section was so steep it went up man-made steps through a notch of rock. But all in all, I was able to maintain forward momentum and push myself through the worst of the climbs. Even this nasty section had a fair amount of level riding and even some downhill. The miles ticked away, especially the final few miles which were rolling singletrack. In my head I recalled the story of a previous rider of Syllamo’s revenge who posted his ride report afterwards – he bailed out his first year – and he said he regretted it for the whole year until his second try in which he succeeded. I’m trying to find the link to his report. That guy helped inspire me to push it. I pulled into CP 3 with about 10 minutes to spare! Victory would be mine.
The last section of trail (Red Loop) is dubbed the “fun” section of this 50 mile affair. It is fast, rolling singletrack through majestic pine forest – which reminded me of riding in Colorado. Very sweet indeed. Even so, I spent a good portion of my reserves pushing hard to make the cutoff and now I was dragging horribly on anything but actual downhill. There were no longer many riders doing the 50 mile race – most were already well finished and probably heading home by now. The few guys I did see were taking it easy like me. However, there was another group of riders who were doing the 125k race and those guys were blowing by like they were fresh. Really impressive to witness, and every single one was very nice with words of encouragement as they whizzed by. Hats off to those guys (and gals).
Easy or not, that was the longest 15 miles of my life. When I finally reached the last descent back down the fire road I was so happy because I knew even a mechanical failure couldn’t stop me from finishing. Pedaling down to the finish line was a breeze, and the few people remaining gave me a nice welcome. I was immediately off the bike and over at the food trough loading up on spaghetti and salad. Yum!
Bottom line was that victory was mine. Not a podium of course, but I beat down the quitter in me and managed to maintain forward momentum no matter how tired I was physically. Racing against the weaker version of myself helped me emerge from this thing knowing that I can conquer almost any challenge. On my sliding scale of “most difficult things in my life” I think this race probably takes the cake. I was on the bike for 9 hours and 30 minutes. A good portion of that was spent pushing my bike (I wish I had a way to measure that) up hills or through mud pits. By comparison I did a 75 mile race in Wyoming (Laramie Enduro) which at the time I felt was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. However, looking back that race was easy in comparison because you could go downhill for miles and miles in some spots. It also lacked mud and never once did I slip on muddy rocks (although ironically I fell into a mud pit!). A close third on my list of difficult bike rides was doing one section of the Colorado Trail where we carried our bikes on our backs for 8 solid miles, mostly uphill. We then rode another 40 miles. As hard as that was, I think I’d rather do that again before I’d do a muddy Syllamo.
As to whether I’d do this again under any circumstances I think that time will tell. Today, this minute, I don’t think I’d invest the time and effort riding it again. It is well run, the volunteers and staff were awesome, and the area of Arkansas where the race is held is beautiful. As races go, I have no complaints. As trails go however, the fun factor was sapped by the mud and rocks to a point that I can honestly say I wasn’t having fun for most of the day. It’s fantastic that I finished it as I don’t feel compelled to go back there to prove I can complete it, so maybe I’ll just leave it at that. In 2004 I said I’d never do the Laramie Enduro again either…and I’d LOVE to do that race again – so who knows.
The main thing I learned about long rides in general is to carry chain lube in muddy conditions. My chain sounded like it had coffee grounds in it as I rode the last 25 miles or so and at times I really felt like the whole drivetrain was going to blow apart. The CPs had lube, but so many people needed it that by the time I made it to each one they were empty. A small detail to be sure, but an important one that might have helped smooth out my late day grinds.
Special thanks to Weider Nutrition, my awesome sponsor!
Thanks for reading.