The Feagans love the Great Wide Open. Heading West is the ultimate adventure for us. But when the Rockies are snow packed, our gaze faces to the dirty south of Arkansas. Though we thought we'd not go there as much this spring, we just couldn't help ourselves. And when you think of Arkansas, I doubt you think of Oden, but well, you should.
The Oachita Challenge was on the schedule from the get-go. Our first long event of the season was going to be an ass kicker and our good buddy Larry was up for the challenge. Ryan and I did this event last year on the advice that it was a well-supported and organized event and we weren't disappointed.
This time around it was just me and the hus-boy with Larry. He entered the next age cat of 50+ this year and he's on a terror to rip some legs off wherever he goes. We figured this could be a great event for him now that he has his full suspension rig to get through the gnarly parts.
Our home away from home was a very cute cabin on the bank of a river at a remote campground named High Shoals Cabins. Last year we stuffed 6 people into a mobile home in a different town. This time, due to some folks bailing on the race, we had room to spare. We did have to share the outside with a friendly-ish swarm of wasps however! Aside from the care-taker and one other family, (and the wasps) we had the run of the place. I'd recommend it. They have a shower house for campers and even a laundry facility. You can even borrow canoes to take down the river!
We arrived on Saturday. It was sunny and perfect. Our recon involved riding up the gnarliest part of the course, Blow Out Mountain. It was the exact part of the course Larry needed to see so he could mentally prepare himself. It was a bitch, to be honest and I had a heck of a time trying to dial in the suspension but I got there. We spent a good 1.5 hours total on the trail. We came across some of the Iowa and KC regulars we see at races, which is always great! Afterwards, we checked into the race at the school that receives some of the proceeds. It was chow time and the event includes a spaghetti dinner the night before and pancake feed on race morning. You can't beat that! I did get a chance to chat with Loreen, my frenemy from Tennessee who always is on point early in the season. Seems the talent was stacked with a transplant from Colorado coming back with gears (she got 4th on SS last year) as well as Laura Scherff from Missouri and a few others I didn't recognize. It was going to be a tough fight. I was 3rd last year in a very wet race. My plan was go finish under 6 hours.
We spent the evening chilling at the cabin and getting everything dialed.
Race morning was a cool one! With a temperature difference by race end of thirty degrees, it was tough deciding what to wear. As I've done in the past, I decided to just deal with the cold and dress for the end. That meant summer kit but with wool socks to help keep my feet warmer from the very wet and deep water crossings. I used a camel back this time plus two water bottles to minimize my stops. I warmed up in my winter clothes, sprinting up the hills and doing high cadence drills to get the legs moving. I lined up probably 10 rows back from the front. I could see all the ladies who were in the open category and well, that was the last time!
The gun went off. The first 3 miles are on a dirt road. It's a neutral lead out but it's fast. Here's a link to the start. I can be seen 5:47.
It's a great warm up on the flats and then the hills come, not too long or steep but enough to start stringing people out. That's when I felt like I was going backwards. I saw the ladies roll away as my HR was reading in the high 170s. I didn't have much more to put out without going too deep in the red, so I just powered on and hoped I'd catch up in the trees. My hope came true when I caught Laura in the first bit of single track. She pulled over for me and I passed without issue. Once I popped out onto the familiar double track where we warmed up the day before, I fueled up to get ready for blow out mountain. Blow Out Mountain is a great name for this trail. It's a long, rocky climb to an even rockier top out, followed by rocky descents. It's one of those trails that you want to stay on your bike because getting started again is almost impossible due to the steepness and the loose terrain. I eased into a rhythm and spun my way up. I got hung up at the top and decided since i was off the bike, I'd take a pee break. I was so preoccupied with getting that done and getting back on the trail that I forgot to grab some food and it was a bitch to take a hand off the bars in those conditions so I stopped quickly to grab some fuel. By then Laura had caught back up and she was in a train with a couple other guys. I jumped on and the pace was pretty easy. I was getting antsy but I was where I was. Finally, the guy in front of me pulled over (he was on a SS) and then I was behind Laura. I stayed there through the chunder because it was already hard enough to ride let alone try to pass someone safely. We were together through the rest of the descent (which was a blast) and once it opened up onto a road, I kicked it into high gear to try and make up some time. Laura is very strong in the open so I knew I had to really attack hard here to get some distance. It stuck.
I got in with a couple groups here and there. Right before the middle of the race is a long, usually windy, stretch of gravel and pavement. Last year I did it alone and it sucked! This time I grabbed onto a wheel of a SS rider and we worked together, catching people and grouping up to share the work. By the time we got to the next aid station, we had 5 racers rotating through the wind. It was awesome! I had to have made up some serious time.
At the next aid station, my train pulled over to refuel, but I didn't need to so I kept on. I caught Ryan going into the next single track section on Womble. He looked good but pulled over to let me go by with my new pack of riders that seemed to like my pace. We caught many riders here. A Kuat guy immediately behind me was calling out requests to pass long before we got to them because the trail is bench cut into steep terrain and there's no room to pass so the earlier you call it out, then the next open spot, hopefully they'll pull over. It worked sometimes and others it didn't and there was some grumblings about good luck with 60th place, but it worked out for the most part. Finally, I had to let the Kuat rider go. He was pushing me, which was great, but I still had a couple hours of racing and didn't want to blow up. I let him go at the next road crossing and he disappeared. The guy who was behind him, told me to go and together we were a good pair but soon I messed up a step up and he went around.
And then, I was on my own. Alone with my thoughts of wanting to be the F-done! Every descent, though fun, meant I had to probably work to get back out of whatever fucking ravine I was in. There was a section that, after I popped out onto a road, and thinking I was at the end of the single track, I hammered hard. I asked the next road marshal how much longer, and he yelled 10 miles as I entered back into the trees. TEN MILES! Shit! I was down to my last water bottle. It was maybe 3/4 full. I still had food but nothing was going down except goos. Survival mode had kicked in.
I spun it out. Not too hard, not to slow. I had to save some for the last miles of open road. I finally went by a marshal that granted me my wish to have the single track part over with (yeah, odd, I know). But that also meant I had to climb some pretty steep gravel, and then get pay back on some pretty fast descents. I recalled last year at this time when my hands were so numb, I couldn't shift with my thumbs and had to use my other hand. This year, though windy, was dry. I put my nose down and just dieseled my way home. I had enough in the tank to stand up to get up the damn power climb to get to the finish line. Such a gut punch after 6 hours in the saddle.
And so, I came in just a hair over 6 hours. I thought I was close. My Garmin didn't turn on for the first 10 minutes of the race, so I was never sure of my time. That got me a 4th place on the podium, some cash and a nice trophy. They do it right down there. A buffet of pizza, cookies, fruit, pop, water, coffee...it was paradise! Ryan came in about 10-15 minutes after me, pretty happy.
And Larry...yeah. He stomped! He got 2nd in his age group and wasn't far off the top step.
After I pulled in, a herd of children grabbed my bike and washed it off with a hose. What?? I came back later with some cash for the tip jar. So cool! We ate our share of the fixins and eventually made our way back to the cabin. We tried stopping at the jiffy mart that claims the Best Burgers This Side of Heaven but was too late. They had just closed. So my dreams of a fat juicy hamburger were dashed. Instead we stopped at the grocery store and picked up some meat for the grill. We spent the rest of the evening by the river, sipping beer and hashing out the play by play of the race.
Races like these are a huge mental and physical challenge. Overcoming our doubtful minds while trying to overcome obstacles isn't easy but once you do, and you take a minute to think about what you just did, gives you the desire to do it again. So, the MTB Wagon may just be back here next year.