Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ouachita Challenge 2017 - Of Mud and Miracles






The first race of a new season is always such a stresser. Time to put all the fall/winter training into action. Time to see if those new bike bits really will transfer into better ride quality and hopefully a better finish time.

This was also the husboy's first race back as a competitor instead of just being along for the ride. But more than that, it was his first serious ride since nagging back problems flared up in early March and kept him off the bike. Add in lots of work travel and last minute work stuff, getting our own series off the ground and well, his head was in lots of places that weren't bike racing.

More on that later.

The MTBWagon was a little light on this trip with just Todd "no fucks" Eyberg (he's missing the top of one of his middle fingers from a work accident, plus he doesn't usually give a F anyway), Rafal, the Polish Punisher and the authentic Noah Marcus, who met us in KC for the rest of the drive down to Arkansas. Needless to say, lots of jokes kept the wagon entertainment cranked up. 

The Ouachita Challenge is a great set up if you're wanting to try a long event, as in 60 miles long. Aid stations are stocked about every 12-15 miles with folks at checkpoints and road crossings in between, so there's always a bail out option if things get ugly. You can give them a drop bag for the midpoint so you can refuel with your own stuff. Not into racing? They offer an optional organized tour of the race course the day before but cut out the most technical part. This gives you all the good stuff without the race stress. Plus your entry fee covers dinner and breakfast before each event. That's some real southern hospitality right there!

We arrived Saturday late morning to Brushy Trail Head. That's when Ryan discovered something very bad. He had left his entire bike bag at home. Everything except his helmet and sunglasses and a few change of clothes and toiletries were in that bag; kit, shoes, socks, shammy cream, hydration. As I mentioned, southern hospitality is a cornerstone of this event. There's no bike shop within 90 miles of the venue but there is one from Hot Springs that sets up a pop up store at the venue for racers who may need last minute accessories like tubes, tools and snacks. They didn't have shoes nor shorts so the kind lady working the register phoned the shop with Ryan's shoe and short size and by that evening, he was kitted out with some new kicks and baggies. He was even able to buy Shimano cleats! Ryan's race went from from shit show to shiny within a few hours! It was a miracle.

After Ryan returned to the cabin with his new wears, we sat down to a dinner of carnita bowls with South Omaha pork and salsa. We felt redeemed after a mediocre lunch at a Mexican place (never trust a place with a sign reading "authentic" with all white people working it and a drive through)! 

THE RACE

Race morning came early. Like Zero Dark Thirty. Not that I slept all that great anyway (never do before a race). Coffee. Oats. Eggs. We kitted up and were on the road to the start line by 6:15 am. By 6:45 we arrived and the staging area was already pretty busy with volunteers getting fed and downloaded and other racers starting to arrive. I went inside to change clothes and a woman was carrying around a baby goat! I was so stoked so I stopped for a few minutes to pet Marilyn Monroe (that was the goat's name). What a treat! 

As I was getting ready and even at that hour I was still deciding if I wanted to go full camelback or not. Long race. Hot day (high of 79) but I didn't want to carry the weight. I knew the track would be muddy for the first half and it would be hard to drink. The last half would be hot. So, I decided to carry it. Finally with about 20 minutes til staging, I got on the road to warm up. No power data. F!!! I had replaced the battery the night before since I used the same power meter a lot on my cross bike and wasn't sure how much battery life was left. Ryan quickly switched it out and it still wasn't reading. So I turned the computer off and back on and another race day miracle, I had power data. Whew! Great, now I only had 5 minutes to warm up so I did a few sprints on the road before sneaking in one last bathroom stop. 



It was chilly at the line but from many many races that start this way, I've learned to suck it up and dress for the end of the race. After formalities and shivering, the gun blast sent us off down a steep driveway onto the highway where we took a quick left and were tempo riding in a neutral roll out (aka jockeying for position). Once over a narrow paved bridge, the race was on. I always feel like I go backwards in these large pack starts so I just stick to the plan. I got behind a woman who was keeping a nice pace and that's where I stayed. We had to cross a rushing river that was spilling rapidly over the road. I was hoping it wasn't slick. Everyone seemed to be riding it but it was still sketchy. I just stared at the other side and didn't once look down. It was a good 10 miles until we hit the hole shot. Once in the single track, people popped off rocks and roots and it was a mess. I had to walk over the first tech section due to traffic. I lost the woman who had been in front of me but I caught her on the descent down to Brushy where we rode the day before. 


Photo by Will Kelsay
The bike felt great. New Rockshox World Cup fork was meant for me. I've been waiting for this fork for years. I've gone through two different forks and this one has brought the 29r alive for me. I feel like I can pop off little kickers and down drops better because it seems more predictable and more playful. More dials at the ready helps me zero in on set up when terrain changes from what I ride at home. Out of the box ready for light riders was why I bought it and the reviewers were dead on. I also have new Sram Level breaks. Happy to report, I never felt brake fade or that they weren't strong enough.

Back to racing. 


Blowout Mountain tire eating rocks.
After the first aid station at mile 16, we began the climb up and over Blow Out Mountain. The name is apt as it's the rockiest section of the whole race where one can easily blow a gasket, a lung or both trying to ride it. Add in mucky run off and it was all kinds of fun. At the top it's nothing short of a rock fall. (Because of this very section I opted to NOT wear my carbon soled shoes, oh and the dozen or so water crossings that were hub deep and higher). It was at this point where I caught the next woman. We both were carrying our bikes over the nastiest parts. She let me pass and once I had some terra ferma, I jumped on the gas. I felt really good and just did my thing. Soon No Fucks came by like he's been training all winter (not) on his new HT with a dropper and just killing the descents and mach-ing the climbs. Damnit, Todd, I yelled. I pay out the nose to stay in shape and this f-er practically rides one-handed right by me singing Yanky Doodle Dandy. But it was all good because when we were out of the single track he and his trusty hard tale pulled me up to the half-way point. We switched pulls with another rider and easily caught and passed a group of 4 riders and then he sat up front for about 1.5 miles until the halfway point. And to our surprise, there was Ryan chilling on the curb. I tossed my camelback to a volunteer who promptly filled it up with my mix as I took a very very necessary pee break. The women's room was locked so I jumped in the men's. Sorry duders! Back outside I downed some food, took a big gulp and remounted. I didn't see anyone but as I rode off, I could hear Ryan yelling for me. I gave him a wave and tried to tuck in behind a truck but that didn't last long. Into the wind I went so I settled in for a few miles of pavement and gravel before hitting the Womble Trail. 

Womble is an IMBA epic. It has it's own Wiki page. It's long and flowing but not flow trail. It is off-camber bench trail cut into waves and waves of Ozark hill country. It was mostly dry until the trail headed down through a stream at least six times, all hub deep or more. At one crossing there was a group of shenaniganeers. One was giving beer hand ups. Another was in a cot taking pictures and I kid you not, another was on a inflatable life preserver next to where we had to cross. It was a funny sight so of course I had to oblige and take swig of the beer. I could have stayed there the rest of the day! Those oasis save people more than they know. By this time I was in hour 3-3.5 and starting to feel the efforts of the day. Womble though smoother by far than the opening single track, still has roots to deal with and bench trail that could toss you downhill like a ragdoll if you caught a pedal, so you had to stay focused. 


The Authentic Noah in action. Photo by Brian Brennfoerder

The Polish Punisher in the wild. Photo by Brian Brennfoerder

Shenaniganeers - photo by Brian Brennfoerder
An SS rider from KC who was doing this just for fun (wtf) after doing the tour the day before (wtff), caught me and was chatting up a storm. I kept asking if he wanted around but he liked my pace I guess and he knew the trail so it was nice knowing how soon the next checkpoint was or where the next road was coming up. At about mile 43 I had to say goodbye to my friend b/c I needed to take a minute to catch my breath after a particularly tough section and to eat. It was like he disappeared in thin air. I didn't see hide nor hare of him afterward which was fine b/c I was suffering a bit and didn't want to be pushed due to the pressure of another rider with me. I rode pretty much alone after that, coming up on people one by one but never got passed after the SS rider. I made it to that last aid station and stopped for some extra calories and water but by the time I popped out of the single track for good, my camelback gurgled and I ate the last of my food. I had a single water bottle left to get me home. I had 20 minutes to hit my time from previous years but I wasn't going to make it. I felt good but it wasn't possible. I hammered into the finish at 6:19, good enough for 3rd place. Though much slower than previous years, I did stop more this time and had to deal with pretty wet conditions early so overall pretty happy about how it turned out.


Photo by Mandi Basquez Ammann
No Fucks came in about 10 minutes later and Ryan was in about 20 minutes later. Rafal and Noah had blown the doors off coming in at 5:40 and 5:20. Rafal lost his rear brake so had to limp through the single track but his time was still very respectable despite the setback. 


Photo by Mandi Basquez Ammann

Photo by Mandi Basquez Ammann

This event doesn't do traditional podium stuff so if you get on it, they just hand you your winnings and take a snap shot. I kinda like it that way. So few people do these things for the chance to win and I like that they don't make a big deal about those who do but instead celebrate the effort of all participants.



Our own private podium, complete w/mud, sweat and smiles. 

Once we were all in and cleaned off, Ryan and I went to visit Marilyn again. This time we got to hold her and it was heavenly. I'm sure Sweater and Lala were jealous but they have a pretty good gig.


Where else do you get to hug a goat after a race?

Marilyn Monroe, the Goat  Photo by Mandi Basquez Ammann

We left the venue starving and it being Sunday in the South, nothing was open close to us so we drove all the way back to Mena to the actual Mexican restaurant we wanted to eat at and it was closed! But luckily in the South, bbq is huge so we opted for a roadhouse and stuffed our gullets with smoked meats and endless bread bar. We all staggered out with food babies, ready to get back to the cabin for an evening ritual of storytelling around a campfire, with beers in hand so we could self medicate our aching backs and legs until we fell asleep under the stars. 

No flats and nobody injured. Considering how technical this race was with all of the rocks and mud, consider that another race miracle.

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