Sunday, July 29, 2012

Wilderness 101 Race Report

This Wilderness 101 was my first 100-mile mountain-bike race, and while I've done several endurance events in the past, the 100-mile race tends to be seen as the culmination of mountain biking endurance events (well, maybe the 24-hour solo tops that, but I think that is pursued by a [much] smaller subset of cyclists).

Part of the experience is the camping.  We arrived the evening before and setup camp, gorged ourselves on pasta, and fell asleep.

Race day started off with fog.
Looking over the campers is Coburn park.

And that shortly turned into light rain.  My little waterproof camera does fairly poorly in low-light situations, so most of my early-on photos were garbage.  This one is also blurry, but I think captures the mood of the start: this race starts fast -- on the road.

A fast start with misting rain.
In fact, the race basically stays on gravel roads for the first third of the race.  A common theme was working to bridge up to small groups of riders so I could sit in the draft for the long road stretches (and conserve energy for later).

This view typified the beginning of the race, and a good percentage of the race throughout.
Later the race starts adding more singletrack.  A lot of the singletrack was in fairly technical (or at least rocky) descents (I didn't take any photos on any of the descents, for probably obvious reasons), but there was some riding along the ridge tops too.  
Ridgetop singletrack riding.
 Despite the high percentage of effectively "road riding", there was some really spectacular scenery (though relatively few opportunities to see out over the valleys).  I loved riding through the huge pine forests, for example.

And there were some very dramatic bridge crossings.  I hit this bridge just as it started to rain on us.  (This bridge was less narrow than the one that came later.)

The first narrow bridge.
And there was some more more technical singletrack in the second half (or last third?) of the race.

Technical uphill section.
I crashed (flipped over forwards) a couple times in the race.  Neither time was too painful and only had to straighten out my bars and seat to keep riding.

And in the last 15 miles there were some fantastic sections of "rail grade" (converted railroad tracks).  Some of it was double track; this particular section here was single-track.  The rail grade is fast (16+ mph) and there were a few of us hammering out a good pace for the last half dozen miles to the finish.

Rail grade.
 And then we hit the much narrower bridge.  It was tough to ride through this with wide bars (and mine aren't even very wide) -- as they keep hitting the edges.
The second/last narrow bridge.
There were also a couple of great tunnels toward the end of the race, which I also did not photograph.

On the whole this race was a lot of fun.  The weather was great (high in low 80s) and I didn't have any mechanical issues (or flat tires).  I probably carried too much food/water, but I did stay well hydrated and consumed gobs of electrolytes to keep from cramping up (something that seemed to be happening to lots of riders around me).  And lots of stretching on the bike early on which kept me from getting too sore later (notably my back was fine, despite wearing a Camelbak).

And the support on this race was excellent.  It would be a grossly incomplete account of the race not to mention the quality of the aid-station volunteers and race organization in general.  As soon as I would arrive at the stations someone would have my drop bag for me and be asking me what I wanted in my bottles, helping pour water for my Camelbak, etc.  They had mechanics at the aid stations to help with bike repairs, etc.  It was awesome.  And the local beer at the end was awesome too.

While the race was definitely difficult, I think that my teammates had over-hyped this race a bit (and maybe 100-mile mtb races in general).  I was expecting that the experience would be harrowing, epic, demoralizing, and sublime like nothing else.  It wasn't all that bad.  I suspect that means I didn't push hard enough; certainly many people did it much faster than I did, after all.

It is hard to compare experiences between years (I'm in better shape this year than I've been in the past), but this race made me appreciate the Revenge of the Rattlesnake race I've been doing out in WV for the past couple years.  I've always just ridden it to ride it (not race it), but that race really gives the W101 a run for its money in terms of the epic-ness and sense of accomplishment.  The ROTR race is much shorter distance-wise (usually ~40 miles) but is almost all single-track, much of which is barely rideable (and plenty is unrideable for me), and it is an extremely lonely race in a fantastic and almost surreal natural environment.  (That race typically takes me almost 6 hours.)  I found a great race report that captures the beauty and brutality of that race.  The W101 had some great technical sections, but it was a very small percentage of the course.  And the other parts of the course were repetitive enough (climb up this mountain on gravel roads, descent on gravel roads) that after 4 or 5 hours those patterns started to feel a little boring.

All in all, I'm very pleased with my race.  The time was better than I was hoping for first time out (total time ~9:20).  I think I can improve that time next time (probably by pushing a little harder on the climbs and being more efficient at the aid stations), but I expected to make those types of mistakes.  I'm just glad I didn't have any serious crashes or mechanical issues.  I suppose if I slowed down less to take photos I might have shaved off a few seconds too :)  Interestingly my Garmin only recorded 98 miles.

I'm guessing that if/when I do my next 100-miler, it'll probably be the Shenandoah Mountain 100 race (maybe next year?).  For now, I'm glad that this major cycling event is past; I don't need to stress out anymore about whether I'm getting enough training in and can get back to a more normal cycling routine.

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