"The Ouachita Mountain area of Arkansas is dominated by Cambrian through Pennsylvanian clastic sediments...The Atoka Formation, formed in the Pennsylvanian Period, is a sequence of marine, mostly tan to gray silty sandstones and grayish-black shales...The Collier sequence is composed of gray to black, lustrous shale containing occasional thin beds of dense, black, and intensely fractured chert. An interval of bluish-gray, dense to spary, thin-bedded limestone may be present. Near its top, the limestone is conglomeratic and pelletoidal, in part, with pebbles and cobbles of limestone, chert, meta-arkose, and quartz."
Now I know what was imbedded in everything from my kit to my cassette after racing the Ouachita Challenge two weeks ago. But don't let this scare you from trying it. Those folks down in the Ozarks know how to throw a party!
Our good racing buddy, Rafal "The Polish Punisher" Doloto had been pimping this race for a couple years, telling us it was the next best thing to french press. We know our good friend is a champion at suffering and loves gravel, so our hesitation each time he brought it up was warranted. But this year, we decided we would do most of the Arkansas schedule, which included this race. Rafal was pumped. He promised miles of smiles, angelic volunteers who practically throw food at you at each aid station and a marked course that even a sight-impaired person could follow. Okay, okay. We're in.
The MTB Wagon left a cold and wet Omaha on a Thursday night. The wagoneers were a different mix this time: Rafal, Noah "Selfie" Marcus, Skip "The Other Philospher" Chronin and Wixon, who pretty much just shows up in our driveway on the weekends and asks where we're going.
The race wasn't until Sunday but Rafal's plan was to ride ourselves silly BEFORE the race. Now, that's not part of my pre-race coaching plan, said no one ever. Yeah, we (as in Ryan and I) bitched and moaned that we wouldn't be able to enjoy post-race libations and a relaxing-by-the-fire kinda night after the race, but as it turned out, that wasn't gonna be in the cards anyway.
We pulled into the hotel sometime before midnight. Rafal supposedly had stayed there on another occasion. So we go to check in while Ryan unloads bikes. The woman at the desk, pleasant and friendly, was on the phone. We stood around for a few minutes and few more minutes. Finally, she asked for our reservation in a confused tone because she was not expecting any more arrivals that evening. Greeaaaaat! What cluster was this going to turn into? So Rafal got out his phone and mentioned the hotel name...
"Oh, that hotel is directly behind us".
"Can we walk there?"
"Um, I'd suggest driving around the back."
Ryan is going to come unglued, I thought. We would have to load up all the bikes and drive a block. Well, that wasn't the case at all. The hotel was quite literally behind the one we were standing in, sharing a parking lot. The sign out front was for both properties so it was a natural (and common, come to find out) mistake. I walked in the front door, rolling my bike with me and we got checked in licketly split. Sweet. No issues.
The next morning it was a full-on hotel buffet with actual omelets with actual veggies in them, waffles and the like. We stuffed ourselves and checked out by 8am. Sometime between 11 and 12 we were at a trail head parking lot. The sun was out and the trail was dry. Oh, and it was Friday. Life was good. Well, until I stepped in some kind of shit pile and I say some kind b/c I don't know for sure what mammal contributed to my misstep. I was hoping this was not going to be an omen.
The ride was glorious. Rough in places, buttery in others and after hours of sitting, our legs were much happier. I took the climbs easy so I wouldn't tax the pistons (I stoled that name from Rafal). I was also fiddling with my suspension since I hated my set up at Spa City and hadn't had any time on the bike since, so I was jra.
Post ride we cruised into town, with the option of Mexican food or Italian. Duh. Mexicano! It was 3 in the afternoon so the place was deserted, save for a couple diners here and there and the crazy old man in the corner who, every 5 minutes, let out a sigh like the world's problems were on his shoulders at the moment. Maybe none of his FB fans were posting on his page or something. The guy, probably my dad's age, had a loptop and an ipad open on the table and I think a briefcase. Maybe that was his office. Regardless, the food was good (yes, Wixon, it was good enough even for you) and we ate our fill while we watched a continuous loop video of commercials for area businesses. Yes, entertaining, to say the least.
Next stop was to our crash pad. Sunnybrook: "A charming little hide-way cabin with its own shady yard and bubbling stream, on a quiet paved road. Although it is a small cabin, it sleeps 6... (insert scratching record here). SLEEPS, yes. Lives, no. Well, sleep might even be questionable when you're 6' tall and have to share a mattress on the loft floor with another 6' tall dude because the only other room in the place would be the tub or the kitchen floor. Sunnybrook was a very cute glorified mobile home. It was like hanging out in a very large motorhome complete with ladders up to the loft spaces and nooks for storage. What it lacked in space, it had in character, 6 of them to be exact, and we made the best of it, managing somehow to not back up the toilet. Especially after noms full of brussel sprouts and spicy sauces. We capped off the first night in our snuggly abode watching Space Balls and listening to Noah giggle.
We headed back into town and to packet pick up. Race headquarters were at the local elementary school, which proceeds from the race go towards. They were well set up, using the cafeteria to feed everyone in the evenings and in the mornings. Southern hospitality that we didn't take advantage of, but is a very nice perk for those who travel great distances to be there. They also had a make-shift shop set up for anyone wanting to buy everything from shorts to nutrition to tools. They were in a remote location, so they thought of everything racers would need.
That night, after a dinner of indian and Thai food, and finally getting Ryan's laptop/phone set up to stream the NCAA championships for Noah, we settled into our pre-race routines. And since we had to pack up for good at the crack of dawn, we had to get as much ready as possible so we could be up, fed and on the road by 5:45. And I'll be dammed if we weren't driving down the road at 6 a.m.
Pulling into the school's parking lot, we secured rockstar parking. We watched the skies as we pulled everything out of the van. We had a beautiful sunrise greeting us but dark clouds were closing in. It was chilly but not windy. The calm before the storm.
About 30 minutes before start, I took to the road for a warm up. Not sure how fast the start would be, I shocked my heart and lungs into shape. They knew it was go time. I lined up just as the announcer was calling for the pre-ride chit chat. I was probably 5th row or so. Loreen Coffelt was nearby and one other woman but I couldn't see any others. The narrow driveway caused the sausage fest to swallow them up and scatter them around. These type of mass start races are so unnerving. Unless you're right next to your rivals, you never know where they're at.
The gun went off. It was a neutral start. Which I prefer as opposed to going into the red immediately. We followed a truck and kid-you-not, an old guy on a recombant who was a local trail sweeper. The recumbent, like all things off-road in the dirty south, was jacked up, so he was at eye level as we passed him at the end of a long, gravel road. The rain had already started by the time we went into the single track, although it was light. I had on arm warmers, knee warmers and a vest. I've warn less on colder starts but since the rain was eminent, I was ready for the worst. Except I opted for hot weather gloves...
Aside from one crash on a paved turn, the start was very gentleman-like. There was some jockying as expected but everyone was hospitable. I even got a high five from a racer for my Trek SF100 that was just like his. As we made our way along the double track, I was feeling good. Not too hot and not too cold. The trail began to rise and the pace slowed a bit. Loreen had been around me up until the trail began to go down. The slippery roots and rocks were a plenty and I was riding pretty cautiously. I hadn't had the new bike on this type of wet terrain so I was dialing in its responses to greasy rocks and roots as I raced. Needless to say, it was pretty stable. Barely did my tail whip on a root and the tires seemed to stick more than slide. The newly slammed stem put enough weight on the front tire but I still wasn't 100% sure I wanted that much weight when it's wet. I like being able to let the tires do what they need to do and I was concerned that weight on them wouldn't allow me to steer quickly enough.
All that worrying and suddenly Loreen was gonzo. I was on track for what I wanted to do that day (which for whatever reason wasn't to kill or be killed) so I just did my thing. I had a good pace and even got some props from some guys who were following my wheel up until the first check point. Some of Blow Out mountain was super rocky, and sometimes unrideable due to the rock falls. So I took my time on those, careful not to twist an ankle.
But complacency doesn't win races. I was caught by a woman on a single speed. She was descending skillfully and putting some huge power down on the climbs. We yo-yod for a spell. She even had a great spin on the flats but I wasn't going to be too nice. I let her draft a bit but then I shifted up and slowly put the hurt on. The course went back out onto the main highway. By then I had to pee in a big way. There was a long gradual climb coming up and I saw a good opportunity to veer off into a small wooded area and relieve myself. I could see Sara (the SS rider) at the bottom of the climb and by the time I was back on my bike, she was right there. I hooked up with another geared rider, who happened to be the promoter of the Dirtly Little Secret (a nice race down in Manhattan, KS). We chatted a spell before heading into the half-way point where I stopped to refill bottles. Sara came around me but I caught her later in the trees. She let me pass when we got into an open section. By then we were on the Womble trail and though it was wet, it was still fun. I stayed steady on the climbs knowing it would pay off. I recalled Rafal's advice: Save some for Womble. The misty rain earlier in the day turned to drops. As I rode up and up, my body was still warm, even after riding through a couple pedal-deep water crossings. I could feel the stream of rain going into my shoes. The only way to stay warm was to keep going but as the terrain leveled off, so did my body temperature. And I didn't want to go too much harder for fear of the slippery terrain. The rain was steady. Any break into the open road was awful. Mud sprayed up in our faces. Wind blew into our bones. I was much happier on the trail.
By the last aid station, the man yelled out 8 miles to go on open roads. The time was 5:38. My goal of 6 hours was within site. I was just wishing the finish line was too. Any chance I could I jumped on with another rider, trying to catch a break from the wind only to get a face full of spray. I know half-wheeling is not cool, but neither riding behind a rooster tail of muddy water, so I did what I had to do. A fat biker was ahead of me and I used him as my carrot. I pushed hard at the end. I was proud of myself for keeping a good pace so that I could stand up on the rollers and motor on the flats. My hands were starting to with less than a couple miles to go. I had to use my right hand to lock out my suspension because my left thumb just wasn't cooperating. It sorta helped to stoke the fire, in a way. I really wanted to be done!
As I said at the start of this blog, the folks down in Arkansas know what's up. Before I could come to stop, I was handed my winnings and someone took my picture. Then Rafal (who had flat troubles) took my bike and walked me towards hot pizza and coffee. Damn if I could see but I sure could smell it and it was the best pizza in the world. Hot and greasy and nothing like I had been eating for 6 hours. I was in Heaven. And even better was the warm shower I was able to take within just a few minutes after I finished. It's all of those little comforts that make events like these memorable for everyone and especially for the 99% that do it just to do it. That is how you grow the event and these folks have it down, lock stock and barrel.
So, Rafal was right. This race was braaaptastic covered in awesome sauce. The support was top of the line, the swag was quality, and the food was heaven by the slice. I absolutely will go back with the mindset that if I could do it in the wet, then it should be mind blowing in the dry.