Last weekend my wife Caitlin T (PBCO/Tufts), Alex L (QCW/Temple), Johann L (Tricycles/UPenn), and Adam L (Tricycles/Drexel) went down to North Carolina for the Burn 24 Hour MTB Challenge at Dark Mountain.
They did the 4 person relay and will have to recount their own details (Caitlin has a race report up), but an outsider summary sounded like this:
- 12pm: “What a beautiful day—woo, bikes! Let’s race!”
- 8pm: “Let’s make some dinner! Awesome race! Party times, woo!”
- 12am: “…”
- 4am: “Wake up, damnit, wake up, it’s your lap!” “No! No! And don’t ever talk to me again!”
- 12pm: “Well, I might MTB again sometime… if forced… maybe.”
I finished 2nd of ~15 in the Men’s Open Solo race. The winner did 18 laps and 3rd place 15; I did 17 laps in 24:17 hours race time, exactly 17 hours riding, for 108 miles, 13400 ft climbing. The GPS track is an amazing mess of scribbles. Fantastically, a couple guys in the 40+ bracket crushed us all. As much as cycling is an old man’s sport, endurance mountain biking is a sport for grizzled old men with bones as old as the dirt underneath.
That result was completely unexpected. Work has been real busy in 2013—I wound up riding just a few hours less than I slept the preceding week, and went straight from the weekend to another work trip—and I’ve been MTBing very little the past year. This was really just a training and fun race to ride as much as I could, and I was mentally prepared for that to be as little as 6–8 hours.
But in the end it was a very rewarding experience and fitness check. Besides work, cycling this year has been tough. The last ~18 months or so I’ve largely “just” been distance riding, and balancing riding with other life priorities, travel, etc., my force and speed have really suffered. It’s discouraging to go to Greentree every week and just be pack fodder after being reliably able to touch the breakaway the past two summers. Late in the race then it was rewarding to still be riding well, rolling down the trail in the Carolina sun, and reflect that this is exactly what I’ve been “training” for and here I was, with 2nd place all but locked up.
The full(er) story & some technical notes follow below.
The defining moment of the race came just after midnight, my 12th hour break. I was still riding well, but without joy. I’d even been chased by a dog on a lonely, lonely stretch. Caitlin was out then and I was terrified she would be chased as well and come in… not happy, to say the least. I decided to clean up, wait to check on her, and go to sleep. Luckily the dog was chased off and she never saw it. But just as I was about to tell her to let me sleep as long as I could, she said “Yeah, Joe, you’re still in second, two laps up on third!” File this under THINGS TO NOT TELL A YOUNG-ISH ADULT MALE WHOM YOU ARE TRYING TO ENCOURAGE TO MAKE HEALTHY AND WISE LIFE DECISIONS.
Instantly I faced a strategic dilemma: Try to crank out more laps, or sleep and hope to recoup the time in better riding afterward? Any sport in which power napping is a valid strategy is an awesome one…
In the end I took a nap, figuring: 1) Otherwise I’d just wasted half an hour; 2) A break would ensure my lights lasted the night; 3) Third place probably wouldn’t be able to regain 2 laps on me. So I told Caitlin to wake me up in an hour and a half… and in 90 minutes told her that again, for a good 3 hour nap before heading back out at 5am.
Then: Near disaster—3rd place did two laps while I was sleeping! At an 8am break I learned I’d only been 4 minutes ahead of him at 6am. That’s nothing! I had to assume he was passing me even then.
At that point there was nothing to do but go crush four straight laps and hope I caught him or he fell apart. It must have actually been pretty exciting in that 3am–9am period as he got on lap and then tried to chase me down. Well, as exciting as a race drawn out over 24 hours with dudes riding around like zombies can be. The volunteers at the halfway aid station clearly knew a close race was going on and were real real stoked. 3rd place told me afterward they’d been excitedly giving him splits on me every lap.
In the end though that was his high water mark. I must have started my 5am block just ahead of him on course so it was fortunate I hadn’t slept any longer, but after that I reclaimed 5–10 minutes a lap. Unknown to me he saw this happening and gave up around 10am.
On trail though, I didn’t know. Realistically I figured he’d probably stop at 16 laps, but if I stopped I’d be rolling the dice if he slogged out another. Plus, the race ain’t over till it’s over.
Coming through the grasstrack start/finish loop to head out for that final, 17th, lap was loaded with trepidation. I hadn’t actually managed 4 straight laps without a break since the 1st & 2nd blocks of the race. That’s ~25 miles, in and of itself more than enough mountain biking for a good day. It was clear this was going to hurt.
Ultimately it was indeed probably one of the five physically hardest things I’ve ever done. Tellingly, 3 of the other 4 are also MTB enduros. My legs were still spinning well, my hands and arms solid enough to hold me on course, but my lower back rapidly degraded from passable to completely unforgiving. It was actually a fascinating lesson in physiology. It turns out you need your lower back for all sorts of things besides pedaling—like hard steering, and reaching for water bottles! On the steepest pitches I was finally forced to walk. On lesser climbs the effort required to put my lower back into it and anchor the pedal strokes was intense. How many times you can tap a completely tapped muscle before real bad things happen?
It felt like forever, but I focused on the lap mileage ticking away, no matter how slowly, and just kept rolling around. Eventually I hit the top of the course, saw daylight, and sailed down to the finish, safe in 2nd.
For a few technical notes, my current ride is a carbon Jamis DXC Pro (26″ wheels). This is an amazing bike: Great climber, responsive, but very comfortable. Osprey Packs gets a shout-out for sending me a free replacement bite valve in very short order in time for the race. Rudy Project gets a big thumbs down; one of my helmet strap adjustors cracked for no reason early in the race, a significant problem later trying to stabilize a heavy helmet light. That’s the third straight Rudy I’ve had fail like that and won’t be buying them again.
Nutritionally I did pretty well. Caitlin and I have been experimenting with sticky rice cakes from the most recent Skratch Labs book, and I ate a couple of these per hour on average. That was augmented with some Tofurkey and cheese slices, muffins, bananas, and oranges in the breaks. This worked out really well, I had zero gut rot, indigestion, or nausea throughout the entire race.
The one downside was that in the last third solid food became very unappealing. I had to consciously work on continually eating, and needed something like protein shakes or yogurt. I’ve been meaning to figure out a liquid diet I like and will have to get on that. The last block I drank a couple bottles of Accelerade to compensate for eating less solids, but otherwise drank water and Nuun, caveat a couple sips of Coca Cola early on.
Strategically, it worked out really well to break the day up into 4 hour blocks. Even if nothing else, that reduces the whole thing down to mentally palatable chunks. Each block I would break for a bit to refuel, stretch, and beg the guys to do some minor bike work. Every other block I cleaned up with towels and baby wipes and switched out all of my clothes. One thing I did have to fight a bit mentally was to stay focused on 4 hour blocks, rather than trying to do a set number of laps per block and winding up grinding out one too many.
Unfortunately this was the final Burn 24; the organizers are, appropriately enough, burned out and taking a break. That’s a shame because they did a great job and it’s a really good course. I highly recommend anyone with the opportunity to go ride on those Dark Mountain trails outside Wilkesboro, NC. It was like racing an all singletrack version of the Kingdom Trails, a high compliment.
Of course, what really made the weekend possible was being with a great crew of friends. I had almost no mechanical problems, but it was incredibly helpful to have guys on hand to deal with what little stuff inevitably cropped up. Other than the obviously necessary 3am gruffness, the group attitude also made the whole thing a great time. It really helps to be with good people when it’s 4am, pitch black out, raining lightly, and you need to chamois up and head out…
See y’all out there! Just a few more photos are in the Flickr gallery.