I really wanted to push myself this year and sign up for something that scared me. Ted had mentioned doing a 100 mile mountain bike race, so we decided on the Lumberjack 100 in Wellston, Michigan. As the race sells out quickly, we registered within the first couple of minutes that registration was open – the 450 racer cap was met in just 6 days. The anxious feelings and long training hours started soon after.
Six months later, we were nervously joking around at the start line. I calculated that on a perfect day, with no flat tires or mechanicals, I would finish around 10 hours – best case scenario, I thought I might be able to squeeze in under 10 hours. No matter what, when the race started, I knew it was going to be a long, grueling day in the saddle. I planned to have to dig deeper than I ever have before, and I was right.
The Lumberjack 100 is a three lap course; each lap consists of 33.3 miles of mostly singletrack with some fire roads and plenty of climbing. I knew the terrain would be different than what I am used to riding in Indiana. The trails in the Manistee National Forest are fast, flowy, and smooth ribbons of dirt weaving through stunningly beautiful stands of hardwoods. A thick canopy overhead and endless ferns covering the forest floor offered plenty of scenery but not enough to take my mind off the daunting length of the race. The first lap was slowed quite a bit, like most cross country mountain bike races, by the sheer number of riders trying to go from road and doubletrack at the start to singletrack. It thinned out enough in the first few miles, and I was able to get into somewhat of a rhythm. Most of lap one, I was trying to learn the course and take in plenty of fluids. For each lap, I planned to have a 24 ounce bottle of Tailwind in my cage and a 16 ounce bottle of water in my jersey with plenty of real food in my pockets as well. My cooler at the lap area was stocked with all of my pre-mixed bottles and nutrition needed for the day – I had about 2400 calories in all; I knew I wouldn’t take it all in, but I wanted options for late in the race when my stomach and cravings do weird things.
Lap one went by in a little over 3 hours and I grabbed fresh bottles and a lap’s worth of bars and gels from my pit area. Rolling through the pit area gave me extra energy as it was noisy with all the pit crews and supporters, ringing cowbells and screaming at riders. Then within seconds, it was back into the forest and the eery quiet other than the sound of tires rolling on dirt and rocks. I wondered how Ted was feeling and where he was in his lap. I tried to keep my heart rate low up the climbs, but as the temperature was steadily rising, that was becoming a monumental challenge. As I passed other riders or as others passed me, I tried to give some encouragement. As the miles ticked by, I kept looking down at my gps waiting to see that 50 mile mark – half way! I saw 38 miles then 41.6 miles then 43.3 miles. Damnit it was hot, my legs and breathing were feeling heavier than they should, and I’m not even halfway! I tried my best to stay in the moment and enjoy the trail, but I really wanted to hit halfway and feel like I was on the return trip. Although I also knew every mile of trail would have to be repeated one more time on lap 3.
I was feeling confident though overheated. The last five miles of each lap were rough. A lot of the climbing was all smashed up in the last bit of the laps, and that is the point that you really just want it to be over. I struggled at the end of lap 2. I knew I was fatiguing physically and mentally as I railed a sandy corner onto some doubletrack and ended up sliding out. It was a simple crash that bruised nothing more than my ego – just enough to make me a little upset with myself for the mistake. I finished the second lap’s climbing and rolled through the pit area for the last time. I was hurting for sure, but I reloaded fresh bottles, more nutrition, and then stretched my legs off the bike as I downed a 7.5oz. mini-can of Coke. The quick hit of far-too-many simple sugars hit my blood like jet fuel and sent me flying out on my last lap. I have used these mini-cans before in training, and it’s crazy how big of a difference it makes. The high lasted for a while, but around mile 72 I started to feel some real mental fatigue that slightly worried me. Having never ridden a mountain bike this long or far, I felt a little uneasy knowing my brain was reacting to stimulus slower. When you’re bombing down a rocky hill at 23mph with a slow reaction time, things can happen. I feathered my brakes a bit more on the last lap to be safe. My eyes automatically checked the miles on my gps more frequently. Sometime after mile 82, my brain and body went a little off track. I bonked and started getting really frustrated with everything. The guy’s hub behind me drove me nuts! The intermittent squeak in my left pedal annoyed the hell out of me! The aid station that I thought for sure was at mile 82 wasn’t there! I needed the aid station badly as I was running low on fluids and was craving salt. Every turn in the trail, where I didn’t see the aid station, my blood would go up a degree. COME ON!! Finally, I got to the aid station, and one of the awesome volunteers refilled my bottle. I drank half of it, and he filled it up again. Then I shuffled over to the food. I ate a handful of combos, a half of a PayDay bar, and a small bag of Doritos – shit I would never eat on a normal day, but I needed salt and calories badly. The bars I had in my pockets could make me gag. I was tired of sweet stuff.
I felt a little out of body at the aid station – I was looking around at all the other racers who were hurting like me. All of us just standing there; some eating, some drinking, but all were kind of staring blankly ahead. My thoughts were very clear, but I knew I looked like a zombie just like everyone else. I knew my face and neck and arms were crusted with salty sweat and Doritos crumbs and dirt. I slowly threw a leg over my bike once more and headed toward the finish. It was going to be a slog, but I felt six months of training behind me pushing me toward the finish like a weak tailwind. I started to feel some life back in my legs after the buffet at the aid station and was moving pretty well on the flats. The hills were still rough, but after 85 miles of riding, I was okay with that. I just really wanted that finish line.
The signs for “8 miles left,” “7 miles left,” etc. were taunting me. It felt like they were ten miles apart. I knew once I hit that “5 miles left” section, the climbing would begin and I would suffer all the way to the end. It was extremely challenging. Every hill I got to, there would be someone walking their bike up, silently encouraging me to do the same. But I knew riding would be much faster, if not more painful. I would find my easiest gear, and just stare at my heart rate the whole way up. My heart rate refused to climb above 150bpm; a sure sign I was dehydrated or exhausted or both. Long, gradual hills and short, punchy ones all felt the same – painful, frustratingly slow, and never-ending. “4 miles left.” Hill, hill, hill. “3 miles left.” SHUT UP. I surprisingly had enough leg strength to climb every hill. Watching my mileage creep up into the high 90s and still being able to climb and pop up over roots and rocks was a confidence boost. Too bad my heart didn’t care. As I rode past one guy walking up a hill, he mumbled something with the word “good” in it. I mumbled something with the letters “thks” back to him.
Finally the “1 mile left” sign appeared in my crusty vision. The last mile was pretty fast, and I could hear the crowd and music at the finish. It pulled me in, and I crossed the line in 9 hours and 58 minutes. No energy was left to think about anything. I stopped my watch, laid my bike down in the grass, and just sat there. I was in a daze. I stared blankly down at the dirt on my leg. Strangely, only the center part of my vision was clear – I could only focus a very tiny part of my vision. The dirt on my leg was extra detailed while everything around it was blurry and moving outward like quicksand. I felt like I was looking at a Magic Eyes book. No matter where I looked, I was seeing through a tunnel. Weird. I figured I was dehydrated and needed calories. I stood up and shuffled back to the pit area – Ted took my bike, put a t-shirt he had soaked in the cooler around my neck, and gave me a bunch of water. Ted, like a lot of the other 450 racers, had bailed after two laps. The unseasonably hot day had gotten the best of a lot of racers. The Lumberjack 100 was the hardest endurance event I have competed in. I learned more over the past 6 months of training, and especially the ten hours it took me to finish the race, than I could have imagined. I am so happy to have this race behind me, but I’m also looking forward to whatever comes next.