The Gravel Grovel is a 60 mile bike race on the gravel roads and mountain bike trails of the Hoosier National Forest. It is rugged and challenging. My friend Ted and I completed the event in 2012 – it was much colder that year (19 degrees at the start) and I came down with the flu less than 24 hours before the race, but we finished in 5 hours and 16 minutes. I remember that race well. It was a tough day. Being sick and cold, I really just wanted to survive and finish. This year, I was in much better shape, I was not ill, and the temperature was a cool 39 degrees at the start. So how was it that this day quickly became one of the hardest I have ever had on a bike?
After 24 hours of rain, the course was extremely saturated. I checked the weather diligently leading up to the time I left home, and every source showed the rain stopping around 10am. With a solid breakfast and just the right amount of hot coffee, I met Ted at the start/finish and we picked up our race packets. We were cold at the start but knew we would be heating up quickly. Out of 241 registered, the start was about 150 riders strong. The paved leadout section quickly dispersed the pack, and Ted and I stuck around somewhere in the middle to warm up. With a steady spitting rain, I was getting wetter and colder but my body was warming up. I thought I would be fine most of the day with a light wind jacket. Ted and I yo-yoed back and forth for the first 10 miles until we reached Combs Road – a somewhat double track mountain bike trail. I was on my Scott Scale 930 mountain bike with 2in tires, and Ted was perched on his Surly Long Haul cross bike. So I had the advantage on the muddy, slippery trail section, and we said our goodbyes. I was feeling pretty decent and passing people on cross bikes. I hit the major climb and descent with good speed and got back onto some gravel. I chatted with a few guys and we joked about the sun coming out. The sun was never going to come out and we knew it; there was only rain and gray skies.
The next five-ish miles hurt me. It was nothing but mud, and I struggled to get into a rhythm. Creek crossings, deep puddles, and leg zapping muck covered this trail section. It seemed like the choice was to ride through muddy water of questionable depth or jump over to the mud that would suck energy and momentum out of my legs. I was fighting myself through this section and felt the effort by the time I got off the trail and back onto the gravel road. On gravel, a mountain bike is much slower than a cross bike and I watched waves of crossers pass me. On the 3 mile section of Nebo Ridge trail, I passed a few back. And then out of the trails, on Berry Ridge Road, they passed me again. It was at this point in the race, barely 25 miles in, that I realized a few things. First, it was raining pretty damn hard, and I was absolutely soaked; on every down stroke, I could feel water squeeze out of my sock and drain through my shoe. Second, I couldn’t see very well, because my glasses and face were constantly being sprayed by mud and gravel road spray. Third, I was really cold. I’m not talking about the kind of cold where you run from your car into your office cold; I’m talking about the fell-in-a-lake-in-December kind of cold. My gloves were perfect for 39 degrees but terrible for a soaking wet 39 degrees. It quickly registered that my gear choice was inadequate – and I wasn’t even halfway. Luckily, I was smiling too. I was still having fun.
In to Houston and up one of the major climbs of the day, I warmed a little. But my hands were so cold it was becoming difficult to shift. Coming down that long descent, my hands became near useless claws. I’m sure I could have cracked my gloves in half. It was almost at that point where I wished it was just a little colder so the rain would turn to snow or ice. It felt like every drop of rain was soaking into my baselayer and sucking my body heat away from me. There wasn’t much I could do but spin my legs, smile through my muddy teeth, and hope I could warm up again somehow. Coming through mile 37 and back onto some singletrack, my hands were damn near useless. They felt like stumps attached to my handlebars. I shifted as little as possible and every bump in the trail sent a painful throb through my forearms. As I hit the Polk Patch climb, it felt better to get onto familiar roads. I kept my mind busy thinking of previous rides through this section in warm weather. I was trying to drink while on the gravel sections and realized at 40 miles in that I had not drank a full bottle yet. I wouldn’t finish even a single 24 ounce bottle through the entire race – a sure sign that I’m an idiot, if I had any doubts.
The next several miles were exacerbated by more creek crossings and road spray making me even colder. I creeped up the climb to Hickory Ridge Trail 20 and reluctantly dropped into the muddy singletrack, struggling with my frozen hands the whole way. Halfway through that section, I saw a black and yellow Team Adventures jacket in front of me! I knew it was my teammate Eric, and I paced myself to catch him. When I came up behind him, I jokingly yelled “Coming at you, get the **** out of the way!” Eric did not know it was me and he sketchily dove off the side of the trail, sliding to a stop. I felt so bad that I did that. I apologized a hundred times and we rode our way out of that last trail section together. At the aid station on tower ridge, I tore into a bag of Doritos. I didn’t plan on stopping at any aid stations and I had plenty of Honey Stinger waffles, but salty Doritos just sounded so good. Still feeling bad for almost crashing him, I fed Eric some Doritos too.. and some mud from my gloves. We rode for a bit together, but I just couldn’t overcome the uncontrollable shaking of my limbs. I was damn cold and trembling so much, I could not put any power into the pedals. I didn’t want to slow Eric down either; I knew he was trying to finish in under 5 hours. Alone and trying to figure out my ‘shakes,’ I ambled along over the next 7 miles with simply finishing on my mind.
Finally reaching the defunct bridge less than a half mile from the finish, I slowly lifted my bike and then myself over the bridge barriers. I mounted my bike one more time and crept to the finish, all in slow motion. I hit the last creek crossing and jumped off my bike. I walked through the creek and, slightly beaten, across the finish – a reasonable resemblance for my race. I finished in 5 hours and 1 minute. Feeling a bit dejected and a lot frozen, I trudged to my car. I started the engine, blasted the heat, and laid in the back trying to get my helmet and shoes off. It took twenty minutes for my hands to be useful again. I shoved an entire pack of Honey Stinger Energy Chews in my mouth. It was heaven.
It was 24 hours later before I got all the feeling back in my fingers – at the same time, I wanted to get out on my bike again.