"I gotta dial it back, the legs don't feel good."
Those words surfaced earlier on Sunday than they should have. On the hard packed dirt of Tillman Road15 miles into it. I had started steady, cleaned the climbs past the radio tower and kept it steady to the base of Linn (serious climb 2 of 6) where I knew the race truly began.
Pre-race meeting, more riders than ever before. I remember in 2000 when there were 150 of us.
The racer founder, Chris Scott starts the day early
Pre-Dawn, about to start. Not pictured but also on the team racing were Kevin, Pam, Colby, Matt and Buki.
Onto the pavement 17 miles along I was in good company with Paul Buschi - former 2nd place finisher of this sadistic 100 mile race. As we came off the back of a paceline I said again, "Sorry man, I'm going to hold it back a bit, I don't feel too hot." Paul agreed. It was too early to push too hard. Or was it? One of the highlights of my day was having Paul remind me of my sub-9 hour finish time in 2009. Paul can finish this race sub-9 on any given Sunday so I have no idea why he remembers it but I was flattered none the less when he said, "That was awesome". In fact the only reason he didn't stick with the group of guys up the road was to help pace a friend of his doing the race for the first time. Paul is that kind of guy. Luckily for me his friend was hurting as well. Paul kept saying "I'm just happy to be here" and that alone made me smile.
We hit the steep and off camber climb and I dug into a tempo I hoped didn't annoy those riding behind me. Cleaned the first 2 switchbacks but my HR was exploding. Paul must have been frustrated when the line of guys we were in went from riding to pushing their bikes at the steep, shale switchbacks near the top of Linn Trail. But only a few guys can actually ride that part. I was happy to walk it. So we hiked up and then blazed down Wolf Ridge. I was wishing the entire race was downhill, I'm just no good at climbing.
It's easy to mis-shift or find yourself in a gear that won't help you get over the trail that just turned vertical around a sharp corner. That's how I passed my team mate, Colby after many minutes of buzzing his back wheel through the berms and whoops that cannot be left unmentioned. A new, finely tuned, surreal part of the course that reminded me of the BC Stage Race - sublime singletrack thanks to the efforts of many including the US Forest Service. Once back on Tillman Road Colby passed me by and seemed to settle into an effortless tempo. I struggled to match his pace and that bothered me. I should have been hammering away the road sections. Something was off.
I began to realize just how "off" my day was going to be as my 22lb scalpel felt more like a 45lb anvil. Somehow my electrolytes were horribly out of wack, it felt like nothing was getting past my upper stomach. Food, drink - nothing I put in seemed to get absorbed. I can rattle off all I did to prepare for this race but in the back of my head I knew damn well my race was a risk I took without hesitation. Desire cannot replace truth and there on the upper reaches of Hankey Mountain truth was coursing through my body in the form of massive lactic acid buildup. I should have never lined up after being sick for days, overtrained in 4 short weeks since my 9 week hiatus from riding thanks to surgery needed after a crash at Kelly Cup. I wasn't the same rider I had been in May and it showed. As I pushed the bike forward I caught myself trying to rest my head on the seat. What? Was I seriously trying to rest my head on the seat? I snapped at myself "DUDE! This is pathetic" and then the guy about 100' behind me chimed in. "DUDE! I can't believe we get to ride this downhill together!"
God Send is appropriate terminology as I consider previous rides with Jon Posner not only some of the most inspirational time I've spent riding but also the most motivational. I was back on the bike and pedaling, slow but steady as we crested the top of the climb. Deep breath, picking up speed. I didn't feel right about being in front so I pulled aside to let the zen master of descending lead it out. I could barely keep him in sight but what a sight it was: he wrapped around the first right turn with rear tire lifting off the ground (from massive breaking on the front), he aired over the step drop that shoves left as the bike changed direction, right to left in mid-air. 2 seconds later as I barreled around the same drop he was 150' ahead of me, floating down the lose scree headwall that begins Dowells Draft. On top of the next steep up (this is a "Harrisonburg Downhill" meaning you gotta pedal plenty) he waited for me and then dropped in again faster and bolder than before. Now he was warmed up and God help anything or anyone who got in his way. His bike was on rails, mine was not. People should have to pay to ride behind the guy - it's a spectacle. A freak show of ability and style. I was so caught up trying to follow his line I almost wrapped myself around a tree. I fought to hold my line and keep speed up. He was gone in an instant but I still smiled. That was worth a lot of cramping. Poz somehow passed 2 guys before I finished descending and came into Aid 3. I thought my hair was on fire but quickly realized it was just the toxic blood in my veins. I planned to stay there less than 3 minutes. I was there for 10. Maybe more. On the ground. Legs locked. Fighting crying like a little kid. Friends asked if I was ok. I nodded yes. Too embarrassed to stay I got on the bike and pressed forward.
Poz was gone but Paul Bushi had again emerged and rode with me. "I'm just happy to be here" he repeated. We talked about his wife and bread in the oven as the miles slowly rolled under our wheels. I appreciated having someone to talk to and follow, keeping my mind off the reduced power output my screaming legs tried in vein to produce. And so it went. Paul dropped me back into the hands of Poz who was waiting on top of the next mountain known for the descent called Braley's. I led this one out and immediately crashed. Poz roared past while I got up and kept at it realizing this downhill was one of the best on the course so I'd better clip the pity party and start enjoying it. Even feeling blown apart I savored the trail and it ran under my wheels: left, right, over, down, around, faster and faster.
I worked hard to get food into the tank at aid 4 but the tank seemed to have some blockage issues. 5, maybe 6 Pringles and a handful of Endurolytes ... I really didn't want to leave. I wanted to be a volunteer like I was in 2005. They give love and get handed sweaty camelbacks. I didn't want to answer their "What can I get you" because I was bitter with myself. "New legs" wasn't very funny so I just pointed to the Lime Heed. Another big mistake.
Poz finished his meal and together we limped back onto the road that slowly climbs for 20 miles. A few stops for both my back and his bake let team mate Charles Buki catch up. "Is that Gripped?" he yelled with enthusiasm from 100' back. I looked back and answered "Dude! Good to see you. Don't slow down for us, keep going" and as long as it took me to say that he was past us. Out of the seat, rocketing past us. "Keep going, you're killing it! GO MAN GO!" I yelled. Felt good to see this guy who I met in nearly the same place in 2006 doing so well. It was his 5th 100 of the season and he deserved a solid finish (he would not have a personal best but made the top 30 for the NUE Series).
I sipped my camel back and wondered what the hell I had put in there. Oh yea. Heed. So I stopped drinking. Brilliant. Poz and I traded stories, me from Tour de France and him from bike retail. "So Cavendish says "Jason, turn off the damn camera, I need to scratch me willy" ... and then ... "So a triathlete walks in and ..."
We were caught by groups and dropped by groups. I took a rest and bid Poz adieu as I laid down in the dirt. Not sure how long I was there but along came Pam, another team mate doing the race for her first time. She didn't realize it was me at first but I told her to not break cadence and keep going. She did. I immediately wanted someone to talk to so I hopped back on the bike, almost fell off again as my legs were not cooperating and tried to catch Pam. Nope.
Aid 5, where most people who quit pull the plug. I dismounted my bike and there went both legs, violently locked up. One of the volunteers yelled out, "Does anyone need a ride back to the campsite?" I felt like he was asking me personally. Just me. Like, "C'mon friend, all you have to do is say the word and the pain will be over" ... No one took him up on his offer. My back was in spasms. My thumbs had a hard time squeezing the water bottle they gave me without also cramping into a sign language "B". However quitting, hiding and skirting who I am, even at my worst, is not something within me so there I sat watching racer after racer come and go. I knew I would finish and I knew my result would be embarrasing. C'est la guerre. I would take it on the chin regardless. Over 30 minutes went by until I could stand without my legs locking. I talked with SM100 veterans Thori Wolfe, Kent Baake, Matt Donahue, Mike Klasmeier and I had to smile. They were also having a bad go of it and misery loves company. Soon I got back on the bike and rolled out. Soon they all passed me again.
Most of the rest of our team was either finished or DNF'd. Here's Colby at Aid 6 on a personal best time of 9:05
Between Aid 5 and 6 I got emotional. Maybe it was when I tried to take a leak and both legs locked leaving me felled like some chainsawed tree. Maybe it was when the amazingly talented 10 year old kid asked if I was ok as he passed me. Yes, 10 years old. Yes he passed me. Wow. Maybe it was finally arriving to that small opening in the woods at the start of the downhill that welled up tears, I could finally do what I do best. Whatever it was I knew I was going to finish even tho my body felt like dying. And it wasn't easy to hold back those emotions. So I let them out as the trail turned down. I let the wheels roll as fast as they would or until racers ahead slowed me. I patiently passed one after another on my bid to Aid 6 where one of my closest friends was waiting. I was running on fumes but riding on fire ... and for a moment, it was brilliant.
Aid 6. Into the arms of Chris and Steph I collapsed. They picked me back up, put me in a chair, brought me coke and water and food and love. I sat there and soaked it in while my legs raged a war against me. Mike K. of DCMTB wrote, " Jason was back in a chair with horror-movie cramps. I've never seen 2" divots in somebody's legs CAUSED by their legs. He was hurting but laughing it off. Not a lot but I did see him crack a smile."
I told Stephanie I was shattered. She said, "You can sit here and tell me you're shattered or you can get up, finish and tell me at the camp site with a beer in your hands." So I got up, smiled at my friends and kept at it.
Proof of smile
I knew what was left and knew it would suck but I tried to welcome each part of it. 12 more miles and one more big climb, then another Harrisonburg Downhill. As you get close to the finish of the SM100 you feel something special, you know good or bad day it is almost over and the suffering will stop. The celebration, drinking, sharing stories and eating will soon begin. I rolled in with my head down, lightly tapped the gong and sheepishly took my pint glass. In that field stood (or lay cramping) hundreds of finishers and supporters, friends and volunteers, and at that moment we all were one. We all survived and we all gave each other credit with small looks, nods and smiles. For that moment, shattered as I was, things were wonderful and all was ok.
You can't say "it's over" because the next 12 hours hurt almost as much as those previous 12. Healing comes slowly and for many, the pain is too much to sit in a tent and endure. At 5am my team mate Scuba Steve packed it in. An hour later Jessica did the same. I soon followed suit. But as with race-day pain it does subside and what is left is a lifetime of memories of having lined up and tried. And for anyone who tried this year or another a pat on the back and a bit of a smile. This race is hard. It will push you to places you are not ready to visit. If you don't achieve your goal it feels like Hell. I finished just under 12 hours, a long way to fall from my previous effort of 8:50. But in the end I always learn something and appreciate everyone involved with the Shenandoah Mountain 100. Until next year...
Thanks to my friends, my team, our sponsors & Chris Scott.
Here's some random photos of our weekend.
Helping Chris get the lawn cut.
Scuba and Jared fueling
Jessica fresh from the White House
Penny taking it in, Friday before the race.
Jared, Penny, Steph
Jessica and Pam wondering what it will be like for their first try
Scuba setting up the Taj Mahal
His air mattress was so big it was brought in on a truck.
General Scuba didn't measure properly. It was almost too big.
"That's what she said"