While I’m still somewhat early in my spring training, I decided that the Iron Mountain MTB Marathon would make a nice season opener. At 42 miles, it wasn’t crazy long, and, from what I’d heard, the course was a lot of fun (as opposed to something like Ouachita or Syllamo, where the course is billed as “challenging” and/or “soul crushing”). It also helps that it was “only” a 3.5 hour drive from Memphis.
Matt and I left Saturday morning (Ryan was at a Homebrewer’s competition and ended up winning the “oak aged” category with his Turbo Porter). During the drive over, I noticed that my throat was pretty sore, but I totally ignored it, hoping that I’d just been breathing funny or something. As is customary for driving through Arkansas to a bike race, there was rapping.
The nice people at Holiday Inn Express let us check in early, and we unloaded some stuff out of the car, had a snack, then made the short drive to the race course. The course wasn’t too hard to follow based on the website map/instructions, so we were able to ride the “start loop” and part of the first lap. The course was exciting- lots of flowy/bermy stuff, and some rocks mixed in for fun. It really keeps you on your toes, because some of the berms end a little earlier than you expect, and some of the blind corners lead you into loose over hard rocky turns. Definitely a good one to pre-ride before going race-pace.
As the day/night progressed, my throat got more sore, and my nose started getting stuffy. Luckily, Sunday morning, my cold seemed to still be isolated to my nose/throat, and, unlike my previous illness, I wasn’t getting a fever. We checked out of the hotel and went to the race course.
After about half an hour of warming up, I lined up and tried to eyeball the ladies in the group of around 170 people. I didn’t really know anyone except for Laureen Coffelt, who I’ve raced many times in the past. She’s a 24 hour racer, and, historically, a little slower than me, but incredibly steady- always someone to look out for.
Being somewhat early in the year, I knew I couldn’t go balls-out from the start (the course began with a 2 mile, double-roller climb on pavement before turning on to singletrack). So, I paced myself a little more than usual. Once I arrived at singletrack, I wasn’t sure how far behind the next woman was. From there, the course turned downhill for a while. It was a fast, flowy/rocky decent where you could definitely carry enough speed to end yourself if you weren’t on your toes. At the bottom, I backed off of my pace a little at a time in order to find a comfortable yet not-too-slow race speed as I passed through the start/finish area at the end of the start loop and started up a long-ish climb to begin the first of two laps.
I may have been a little too comfortable, because a few miles later, Laureen caught up to me (we were about 16 miles in to 42). She asked in her cheery Canadian-nice voice if she could get by, and I was happy to oblige. She’s so smooth everywhere, I knew that, even if she was riding a little faster than the pace I wanted, that I’d likely be able to stick with it. So, that’s exactly what I did.
For the remainder of the first lap, and up the first climb of the second lap, everything was pretty chill. There was a dude behind us the whole time who seemed to be happy to sit back and spectate (we asked a couple of times if he wanted to get by, and he said no, he liked the pace). It was very comfortable- Laureen would sit up and spin a bit up the hills then let it fly going downhill. I started to formulate a plan… initially, I thought, “I’ll just stay here and sprint the final 2-300 meters.” I paid very close attention to our trip though the start/finish at the transition from lap 1 to lap 2 in order to scope out where to start and what line looked smoothest.
Then, we got to the top of the first climb of the second lap, where there were a bunch of embedded rocks without a clear line through them. She, on her full suspension, started to pick up the pace a bit. I had to fight a little and mmuscle my way through to stay on her wheel. There was a brief respite as we crossed a road and started on the next section of trail. However, soon enough, she began turning the screws again. It was very subtle, because, without looking like she was working any harder, would pedal about one gear harder on all of the flats/false flats, and stay off the brakes a tiny bit more going downhill. The guy who’d been cruising with us was gone within minutes. I held on hard and concentrated on staying off the brakes and getting calories every time I could- I typically keep a very concentrated bottle of Roctane drink on my bike when I race just in case the terrain or competition doesn’t allow for me to get to my gel flask. It definitely came in handy on the 2nd lap.
The attacks left me dangling a few times- enough to make me re-evaluate my race-finish strategy since she could potentially open a gap in the last mile that would make me work so hard, I wouldn’t have a good sprint for the finish. The only place I felt like I was really stronger was on the climbs. So, my new plan was to keep on being a bulldog until the final 1/4 mile-ish section of road before the final 1.5-ish mile section of trail… which included a climb that started as a false flat, crossed a creek, then got steep and turned up a piece of wide doubletrack with one good line. Being in front going in to that climb was ideal, because there was one good line, and anyone wanting to pass would need to take the chunky/loose line on either side of it.
Implementing this strategy wasn’t without risk- it was very close to the finish, and there was a straightforward, yet significant downhill immediately following the climb where I wanted to get away. She’d been killing it on the descents (making me uncomfortable more than a couple of times), so if I didn’t create a large enough gap, it was possible she’d close it back if I didn’t also go all-out down the hill.
When we reached the road, I sat on her wheel a second before going full-roadie-apeshit and sprinting off towards the last section of singletrack. Once I was in, I backed off and caught my breath. She caught up to me during that time, but I wasn’t worried since I was in control of the trail/pace. We made it though the false flat to the creek crossing where the climb really started. The crossing was super sketch, and, if I hadn’t kept cool, I definitely could have screwed up and put a foot down, leaving the door open to get passed back.
I made it, though, and let loose again with the ground & pound- hammering up and over the final climb and down the hill after it. As I exited the trail, I looked back and saw that my strategy had worked. I was alone with only a hammer to the finish ahead of me.
It was a nice change of pace (literally & figuratively) to race head-to-head with Laureen. I don’t think that I’ve ever had to use strategy during a mountain bike race- either I’m ahead and alone or my competition is ahead of me, and I’m alone. It took all of my patience and self control to not pass any of the times she offered to let me by on a climb earlier in the race. With my springtime fitness still in “build mode,” I knew that if I was setting the pace that I may not be able to shake her, or that I’d possibly go too hard in my attacks without the legs to back them up, leaving her with time to catch back. Waiting ’til the end really was my best chance…