Monday, May 4, 2009

Cohutta 100

Last weekend I raced the Cohutta 100, in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in the mountains of Tennessee and Georgia. The course starts on the Tanasi trail system in Ducktown TN, then heads south across the Georgia border to trace the boundary of the Cohutta Wilderness Area on steep USFS jeep roads. Then it loops back up into Tennessee to finish on some more sweet Tanasi singletrack. There’s a total of about 12,000 feet of climbing over the hundred miles. It is the year’s first race in the National Ultra Endurance Series of 100 mile mountain bike races and was a focus race for me.

I had no idea how well I might finish. I’d been training hard and had a couple decent finishes in spring XC races but had been sick or had mechanicals in early season endurance races. On Friday, the day before the race, I was really nervous. How nervous? Let me count the ways:
1. When I got to the town nearest the start I couldn’t remember where the race registration was or the name of my motel. I made a couple calls to friends, finally found the registration area, and managed to get my number plate. I saw a lot of pros around the registration area, some of the biggest names in endurance racing were there. This made me even more nervous.
2. I was totally confused by the drop bag rules. We could leave drop bags (with bottles etc) at only three aid stations, but there were six aid stations total. And each racer had to decide which three of the six they wanted their bags at. I hadn’t known I would get to choose and couldn’t figure out what would be best. I finally gave the guy my bags, then immediately forgot which aid stations I had decided on. 2, 3, and 4? Or 3, 4, and 5? I would just have to wait and see what happened when I rolled up to Aid 2 midrace.
3. Then-- and this is the most obvious sign I was losing my shit-- I nearly ran my bike over leaving registration. That’s right. I drove all the way to the race, registered, and then nearly ended my race before it began by RUNNING MY RACE BIKE OVER WITH MY CAR. I had completely forgotten I had taken it off the car rack to ride over to the registration table, then leaned it against the car while making up my bottles for the drop bags. Luckily as I started backing out of my parking place I heard it crash to the pavement and heard a couple people call out at the same instant… and immediately slammed on the brakes. I was about eight inches from crushing the back wheel.
4. Back at the motel I decided that there was nothing at all in the entire town that I could eat for dinner, including the food I had brought with me. Luckily my friend Garth had some granola that my nervous stomach was ok with, or I would have been on the starting line in serious calorie deficit. It was lucky he did, because I finally chilled out and started feeling ok at that point.

I pulled it together and was feeling less insane when I rolled up to the start pre-dawn. It was still a little dark when the race started. The beginning is a 3 mile paved rollout up and down a steep hill, which stretches out the field before the singletrack. These trails are fast and fun, tight but not too technical, and I had gotten into the woods fast enough that everyone around me was keeping a pretty good pace. There were a couple traffic jams, including one at a creek crossing, but nothing too bad.

Sooner than I expected, we got spit out of the singletrack and onto the fire roads. I blew through Aid 1 without stopping, which had been my plan. I had enough calories and liquid on the bike at the starting line to get to Aid 2. In the undulating gravel along this section racers can work together to keep the pace up, almost drafting each other. I felt strong at the pace I was holding, especially on the steeper climbs. I was happily surprised to enter Aid 2 and have them hand me my drop bag. Guess I had decided to leave bags at 2, 3, and 4… After Aid 2 the course kicks up into the steepest and most sustained climbing of the course between miles 30 and 50. I dug into the climbing, was feeling good and passed some people here. After Aid 3, at mile 50, there is a long steep doubletrack descent that takes almost forever and ends with Aid 4.

After Aid 4 there is a long flat section of gravel, I threw it into the 44x11 and was over 16 mph through most of this. The temps by then were around 90 degrees and the heat was getting to some people but I was still feeling strong. I started thinking about my overall time. My bike computer had been bumped and gotten misaligned for a few minutes in the singletrack so I wasn’t sure exactly what mile I was at. Timewise, though, I was definitely on track to finish well under 10 hours barring mechanical or nutrition issues. I decided I might be in sixth or seventh place but hadn’t seen another woman since before Aid 2—I was just racing my own race.

After Aid 5 is the second major climby section—not actually as sustained as the earlier one, but between the miles and the heat it seemed harder. I was covered in sweat and grime but just kept on doing work. Definitely fatigued, and spending more and more time standing in the pedals on the climbs, but I still felt ok. After Aid 6 the course drops back into the Tanasi singletrack to finish out the race. It is moderately technical riding, made significantly more difficult by all the miles just traveled. I was slightly dehydrated and my mind started to wander, and it took a lot of effort to keep concentrated enough to ride without mistakes. With about 5 miles to go I got a stick wedged in my derailleur for my only mechanical of the day. I briefly flashed on my DNF at Snake Creek Gap from the same cause, but this time nothing was broken and it only took me a few seconds to get back on the bike. As I crossed the river after Thunder Rock Express—the last section of the singletrack—I looked at my watch. I might be able to slide in under 9 hours. All that separated me from the finish line was a half mile of pavement. I threw it in the big ring, put my head down, and dug all the way down to give that last half mile everything I had left.

My finish time was 9.04—my watch had been off by a couple minutes! I was still incredibly happy with my finish time. I had a great day on the bike and felt mentally and physically strong the entire way. I was even more happy when I found out this finish time had put me in 5th place! The winner in my category Carey Lowery had finished about an hour ahead of me which is mindblowing. I don’t know where I could find an hour of time out there on the course. The men’s finishes were also impressive, with Jeff Schalk setting a new record finishing time for a 100 mile mountain bike race (full writeup in cyclingnews). This was a wonderful race with a great atmosphere and some incredibly fast people. It was really fantastic to be on the podium in a race like this and I hope I get a chance to come back and race this again next year.

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