The last race we did was in the fall of 2019! So hard to believe it's been that long since we pinned on a number. After racing for over two decades season after season, it's been weird not having racing in our daily lives. So, when it seemed people were ready to get back into throwing elbows, (don't think it ever really stopped down here in Florida) I started looking for an event that would have less of the serious competitor vibe that is pretty rampant in the XC world down here. The Graham Swamp 360 is considered an endurance event with a 3 and 6 hour option. Not really wanting to ride 3 hours straight as we haven't even been riding more than 2 hours at a time, the coed team category seemed align perfectly with our non-training lifestyle. Author's note: I'd be lying if I didn't mention that I've been doing intervals since the first week of February, however, that was before I read about the 360 event and it was more of a way to spice up my forever flat rides.
Anywhoo, we heard through the Florida NICA league director that Graham Swamp was a pretty technical course for Florida. We've heard this phrase before and people below sea level have a different interpretation of technical. But we thought it was worth a look so we drove across to the east side of the state to check out the trail in late February and we're so glad we did. Not only is it technical but it's like fun technical, as in keep your speed up technical. As in get some air technical. As in rooty, droppy, jumpy, sandy technical. I took my Pivot Trail 429 (aka Miss Pivvy - hey, she's big boned) on the recon and even though I could have done it on the Super Fly, the extra suspension was going to help keep things comfy and chill. Plus we replaced the Maxxis tires and put on some used Bontrager XR3s to get her a bit lighter and rolling better in the sand.
As we do, we drove across the state the night before the race. Ryan had to work til 5 o'clock and after getting some burritos to go, we headed north. As we passed Orlando and started east, the traffic was absolutely bonkers congested. What was to be a 3.5 hour drive turned into more like 5. Holy crap. Bumper to bumper and it was just congestion. No accidents that we could see. Thank God for long form pod casts! And I hate Disney even more!
We pulled into the hotel and the lot was completely full of motorcycles of all kinds. And trucks with trailers. It was bike week in Daytona! Luckily, the loud mufflers quieted down but I slept like shit (as usual) even though I wasn't nervous about the race. What we were nervous about was parking at the race. It wasn't ideal and we wanted to get a good spot. We were only 10 minutes away and since we were up, fed, and full of coffee, we headed to the venue. Two hours before a race is pretty typical arrival time for us but it seemed folks don't arrive that soon down here. I think we were there before most of the volunteers! Needless to say we got rock star parking and the shadiest spot for our staging area.
Soon riders began to arrive and a woman I've met who leads many of the women's rides and events down here set up next to us along with her friends, so we had a fun group to hang out with all during the race. Party Pace!!! We were all about it.
It was time to head to the start line. Ryan was going first. Because of how the event was set up, they had very limited space to start, and the course went immediately downhill. So, they did a Le Mans start. However, there was a twist. They told everyone where to line up and then threw out potato sacks. That's right! A gunny sack race to the start line was an awesome way to spread out the pack. It was fun to watch but I was glad it was them and not me! Ryan was early to his bike and made it out clean.
The riders would pass the start line once more before heading onto the rest of the course and Ryan was right up there with a mix of single riders and team riders. We assumed our laps would be 40-45 minutes so I went back to our staging area and hopped on the bike to do a few spin up intervals to get the heart rate up and make sure all the gears were working. Then I waited (and visited the port-o-pot about five times). Right on schedule Ryan came by our staging area within about 35 minutes. That was my signal to get up to the transition area. Once there, I saw him a couple times through the trees and along with maybe 4-5 other riders, I got myself to the front so we could easily exchange our ankle bands. Then I was off!
It was our goal to have fun. I raced in baggies and my R&R tech tee to remind me of our goal. I wore a camel back but only carried enough fluid for each lap and I could barely tell it was there. The course was technical and there weren't many places to drink. It was also tight and punchy and tested our skills with sections that had rooty climbs that forced riders to navigate between trees; there were drops with large roots across the middle of them and high speed jumps with flat landings. One section took us through a labyrinth of roots 6 inches tall, one after another, as if a giant octopus was trying to emerge from the sand. The best way to get through them was just keep unweighting the front wheel, which left just enough time to take a breath before stomping a 2ft step up. One power climb was "rewarded" with a tall root to navigate around before bombing down a waterfall of drops that included more roots or deep sand. Only a few sections were flat enough to take a breather so mostly I was on the gas, which was just what we needed after over a year of vacation paced riding.
There weren't many women but the ones who were there were good riders, as the course demanded a bit of skill. One of them had on a leaders jersey from the Florida State Series and I found myself around her a few times. The first time she caught me but the next two times I held her off. The second time she was right on my wheel for the last 1/4 mile and I did everything I could to stay on the gas and keep a good pace so she wouldn't need to ask to pass. After we came in to the transition area, we were both like hell yeah, that was fun. The next time she was behind me it was our last lap. I was feeling the effects of a Red Bull high and had fun pushing hard so as to not let her catch me.
Our final lap count was eight total and the winning team I think got in 9 laps. It was fun to get called to the podium although at first we thought there was a mistake with the timing b/c the team with the State Champ on it was called up to 2nd place even though the results had us beating their time by several minutes. We were like, what evs but then they announced "masters co-ed" and called us up. I laughed to myself as I'm sure Ryan didn't really dig being on a masters team. Hehe.
The after party was sweet. They fed us pizza and tapped beer and gave out really cool finisher medals made from wood. They had a massage vendor on site and a recovery tent where riders could don recovery legs, those blow up pressurized leg wraps. The podium winners received cash and the trophies were hand cut by the trail crew from fallen trees. I thought using the trail work truck as a podium was a nice touch. They called out props to the trail bosses and really made sure those that made the event happen were given all the love. It kinda felt like we had crashed a local bike party that had a race attached to it.
All said, it was great to be among bike folk again. The track was really unique and fun and maybe, just maybe, fun enough to sit in traffic and head back there next year.