Updated: May 13, 2020
Dragon Slayer. The name haunted me these last few months. A three-headed beast of sharp rocks, gruesome climbs, and ripping descents. A place where slashed tires abound, crashing is plentiful, and a harvest of blood is expected. I had only four weeks back on my bike to prepare after a month off due to injury. Four weeks of sword practice before a battle does not spell good odds, unless you are the opposition. Joel Carrol is a set of legs I have never managed to best. My own teammates, the Nash-bros and Robert Johnston, are always a gnarly group of hitters. The many unknown animals, Noel Reuter among many others, are always on the prowl. My apprehension was warranted.
An ominously cold and dark day greeted those brave enough to hold the start line. Breath rolled from the riders at the line, each staring down their three-headed foe with a mixture of determination and trepidation. Todd Eric sent us into the maw of the beast with well wishes and an evil smile. Joel immediately set a pace that deeply concerned the field. The first screamer charged into the morning mist.
Noel and I were the only ones foolish enough to keep pace with him.
Again and again Joel would crank the heat, waiting for a response from Noel and me. Little did we know these were just the engine revs that precede the blistering launch from a drag strip. Noel faced the pace without flinching, passing me and closing the gap to Joel. Knowing where I was physically, I kept the accelerator on but at more of a slow cooker on medium than a hibachi grill. I was betting on my handling, tires, and persistent pace to bring my opponents back. After the first wide open sections were finished, the two ahead of me held a small gap of 15 seconds or so. By dropping to the stanchions of my fork I was able to mitigate most of the power difference, but the sword I carried had two edges. The frigid morning and cold metal set a profound numbness into my hands past my fingers all the way into my palms. Braking became scarce, which was fine considering I was connected to the ground like velcro. After the rock-garden superstore began their black Friday deals, I bought the gap back almost instantly. Noel was leading the charge with Joel and I tripping on the edges of his coat tails. Another open section. Start the Joel launch sequence. Atop the smooth pavement of the dam Noel and I worked together to reel in the man on fire. As we came upon him, he went again.
Just how many matches did this man have?
At first I waved him off, sure it was a bad call to hammer 20 miles into a 90-mile death march. The sudden urge to go fast overcame my good sense and I followed with wild abandon. Noel made a comment, "is he doing three laps?". The implication was clear. This pace was a bad idea. We raced to the next single track section and I dove in just ahead. The flow overcame me, the braking stopped, and I opened my first gap since the start line. I prayed Joel would not be able to disengage his brain and catch the flow bug too but as I neared the end of the lap he pulled up behind me with compliments about the attack. We chose different strategies. I went to record my first lap time and he stopped to refuel. The end of each lap rewards you with a draw from the box of fortune! I drew a gorgeous Teravail bottle to match my other ones and pulled out to refuel as Joel pulled up to test his luck.
Céline has a bright future ahead challenging the Red Bull F1 pit-stop team. With her leading the refuel, I was rolling again in seconds. This allowed a small gap to open between Joel and myself, which he quickly closed down with liberal application of horsepower. The small gap that opened through the next few miles of single track was eaten and reversed on the next jeep road. Remember the blistering launch I spoke of earlier? Slingshot ENGAGE!
When I say Joel opened up minutes on me in the next few miles of smooth I really mean minutes.
Finally alone, I had time to reflect on what a splendid day it had become. The birds chirped with love in their hearts, mist rose from the river lazily, and the grass danced gently in the breeze. What a perfect day to shove myself in a hole of pain and suffering! As the tech began and my cheery mood settled in I realized just how lucky it is that I get to do stuff like this. Having the able body, resources, time, inclination, and the event all accumulates to make a pretty special situation. Not wanting to waste such luck I pushed on. What was that ahead? Did I just see a flash of yellow? Was I actually able to close the gap? At mile 16 of this lap I had not expected to see the mythical Carrol again but there he was.
"I was wondering when I would see you again," he said as I pulled in behind.
We forged ahead together for a time, both content with the pace. He grew impatient and surged through a smooth section. At first the pace was not bad to match, but then the warning lights on the dash popped on. Check Engine light in mind, I settled back in and kept pedaling. Due to his faster than light pace, Joel missed a right turn sign. If I was going to lose or win it would be fair-and-square. He turned around at my insistence and quickly mitigated his mistake. Potentially as a thank you, he took a horse-sized chill pill for a short while. We discussed tires, the weather, and traded pulls on top of the dam. Cute date over, he launched again into a steady climb and quickly left me eating dust. Daydreaming or oxygen deprivation caught me off guard and I missed the next entrance to the single track. Only a few seconds were added but these were seconds I needed. The rest of the lap was a day at the rodeo. I wanted to close the gap back down but Joel had different plans. The warning lights got brighter. My adductors have not acted up since mid-year, which means they were overdue. I backed it off as they threw a tantrum and channeled my inner massage therapist. Crisis averted. For now. Seeing Joel pull out of the lap recording station gave me a little hope. I was only a few minutes behind.
With the sweet steed laying gently in the grass there was a moment to chug pickle juice and relax. Céline had been doing some thinking. Thinking is something I had not the time or inclination for so I started listening. Instead of emptying the barrel in the first 10 miles and slobbering on myself for the next few hours she suggested I dial it back one notch, take the first 20 "easy" and slam my head into the last 10 miles like a brick wall and see who breaks first. Céline is wise beyond her years and fast enough to drop most.
Heeding the wise sage's advice I began my last lap. 60 in, 30 to go.
With just a little more oxygen in the noggin, this lap was a lot nicer. The legs still cramped, small moans of pain still escaped, pedaling was still happening, but it was just 5% easier. 5% may as well be 50% if it makes just a little of the pain go away. 20 miles disappeared in no time. Finally time to set the tanks on fire and watch em' burn. 4 miles down unbelievably quick. The warning lights blew from too much juice, the cramps came back seeking justice for their fallen brothers, and it all began falling apart. This is when the counting starts. Todd was kind enough to put a mile marker up every single painful mile with fun little quotes. These became my obsession. Make it to mile 25. Make it to mile 25. Make it to mile 25... There ahead, hope. "No more rocks, I promise!" was LYING on a sign. 85 down, 5 to go. Make it to mile 26. Make it to mile 26. MAKE IT TO MILE 26. "Don't pet the snakes" was written in bold government warning label font. Noted. 27. Can I do another mile? NO! No doubting. Just pedal as hard as you can and worry about the "if" after. "Quick! Solve for X. (Insert equation here)" maths? In this economy? No thank you! Pedaling. Pedaling. Pedaling. Dying. Dying... Where the hell is that mile 28 sign? Suffering. Pain. Suffering. I do not recall what was on this one, too few brain cells were active to remember. Make it to mile 29. Cmon. PEDAL! 29 passed without consequence. Time to really empty the tank. Only it was already empty. I pedaled no harder than I had been. I was already maxed out. When will the pavement start? These rocks are terrible. I will make it. I WILL make it.
I MADE IT! Sweet blessed beautiful gorgeous soft concrete. Down to my stanchions. 1/2 mile of all out -1% grade beauty. When I made it to the finish line the ground rushed up and hugged me. Our embrace lasted centuries. Okay, more like 15 minutes. Some kind soul offered me water, Céline took pictures, someone wrote my final time for me, I held back vomit. What a wicked day of trail and trial.
Unmitigated disaster is usually a part of these longer events. Especially long, rocky, and unforgiving courses. The Dragon bit, but it only had me as a snack. Not my equipment. A big part of this is choosing the right equipment. Teravail Ehline 2.3 for the rear, Teravail Honcho 2.4 for the front. So many flats held up peoples day. Doing 0 kph on the side of the trail is slower than riding at a crawl, and MUCH slower than riding quickly. The tech was my advantage because not braking, turning in hard, and trusting your tires is fast. It really is as simple as that. My Jakroo Echelon kit kept me comfortable and aero. 8 hours in the saddle will do disastrous things to your gouch if your kit does not have a comfortable design and while the aero factor does not matter as much in mountain biking it is great for my gravel rides. Nutrition, as always, is Go Far from Infinit Nutrition; it provides long term go without the need for solid food, which is amazing in a race where holding onto your bars is everything. Céline as my pit-crew was a no brainer. Seeing her face each lap gave me renewed hope and life, and she rocked at outfitting me with what I needed to conquer each lap (even if the kiss I gave her with my dirt and slobber-caked lips after lap 2 made her cringe). The Salsa Spearfish is the PERFECT bike for this sort of race. Light, fast, tough, and enough travel to handle it all without wearing you down. The course was brutal and required everything I had just to finish. Promotion was great with prizes after each lap, fun course markers, great support on site, and a wonderful host of volunteers to watch us all suffer. I will be back again and again. The dragon nearly ate me, BUT I WAS ABLE TO SLAY THE DRAGON!