I've known about the Excruciation Exam for a few years now, but didn't expect to do it. Then, a few months ago Devin told me I should give it a go because he and a few of my other AMCT friends would be out there.
Nothing more came of it until a few weeks ago, when Devin told me he thought I could break the course record. Oh, Devin, you certainly know how to push my buttons.... He enlisted the help of Patty B in a coordinated G-Chat assault of coercion, and I conceded to ask my coach about it.
I thought it would take more convincing to get the go-ahead for an endurance mountain bike race in the middle of my base training period. Here is our conversation on the topic:
me: a couple of my college friends are pushing me to race the excruciation exam on the 7th
David: do it!
With that settled, I just needed a bike that would work. I had serious doubts about the ability of my ghetto mountain bike to withstand a 5 hour race, and I feared destroying my hands and my chances of winning by trying to do the race on my 'cross bike. Patty B came through, offering up his full-suspension 26'er. The size was close enough.
I arrived at the race site at 6am after an hour+ in foggy conditions, having awoken in College Station just a couple hours earlier. I was force-feeding myself the breakfast burritos I had made the night before, trying to get as many calories in the bank as I could. I don't normally have breakfast for another 2 hours, and didn't get as much down as I would have liked.
I registered, got my number, and began preparing my food and bottles for the race. The race was set to start at 7:30, it was now 6:45, and I had yet to see the bike I would be racing. Finally I set about trying to find Patty in the pre-dawn darkness, and was relieved to hear him shout my name. He pointed me in the general direction of his car, and I set off to meet my partner for the next several hours.
The bike was a Kona Hei-Hei set up as well as anyone could have asked. He had put brand new disc brakes on just days before, which were as yet untested. I measured out the saddle height and setback with a rudimentary string with dots marked on it, and called it good enough for government work.
I returned from my morning visit to the loo, put on my kit, and stuffed my pockets with food. It was now 5 minutes until the pre-race meeting. I checked the tire pressure. The tires had pressure, so I called it good. I got on the bike, rode it a quarter mile to the staging area, and put it down.
The race director told us the rules of the race and how the checkpoints would work, during which time Devin, Patrick, and Matt made fun of my socks and pasty legs.
The start would be a Le Mans start, which means that every racer starts on foot and runs a couple hundred yards to their bike. I made sure to put mine right at the edge of the road, ready for a quick getaway. They ushered us to the start line. You've gotta play the game to win, so I slowly sauntered over to ensure I was one of the last to arrive, ensuring my front row start.
The race is unlike anything I've done before. After the run to the bikes, we would do a lap of Bluff Creek Ranch in Warda, then race 30 miles over roads of varying condition to Rocky Hill Ranch, where we would race a full lap before racing back to Warda for one final mile of singletrack.
The gun sounded, and I ran as quickly as I could while trying to hold the bottle and food in my pockets. I just had to make sure to get on the bike quickly. With a field this big, the holeshot heading for the singletrack is one of the most decisive ever.
I was about the 5th person to the bikes, and quickly got going. There were just a few ahead of me, and the singletrack would be starting in a short half-mile. So, for the first time in 2012, I turned the engine room to Full Steam Ahead. All cylinders were banging and it. felt. awesome.
I slotted into second wheel. I had started without my sunglasses on because of the heavy fog. Now I was getting mud and cowpies slung onto my face and couldn't see, so I put the sunglasses on. They were promptly covered in dirt and fog and I could see even less, and while I took them off again I was passed by a couple riders just getting into the trail.
Now would be a good time to say that--aside from the short two-hour ride at my home trail two weeks earlier--I have not been mountain biking since December 2010. And I had just dived into singletrack following a handful of professional mountain bikers. I would be making a large withdrawal from the good ol' talent account in this race.
A lead group of 6 was slowly pulling away from the rest of the field. As we popped out into open field, another group of 6 started to catch us, at which point Payson McElveen moved to the front to string it back out again. If there was going to be a split in our lead group, I was determined to be the one to cause it, so I moved into third wheel.
As I dove down Gas Pass at full speed in pursuit of Payson, on a borrowed bike, I imagine my face looked like this:
We finished our lap of Warda in about half an hour and popped out onto the road with a group of 6: Payson, Rick Wetherald, Scott Henry, Nathan Winkleman, David Hanes, and me. Out of sight, out of mind always applies to breakaways, so we floored it for a few miles to establish a solid lead, then settled in for the hour's ride over to Rocky Hill.
I was eating on the ride over, making sure I wouldn't run out of energy later. As it turns out, I should have been stuffing my face--but more on that later.
The first checkpoint went without incident--the volunteers put a colored ziptie on your handlbars, with a different color for each checkpoint.
We hurried through the checkpoint entering Rocky Hill, and everyone took off on their own. David stopped to fix his slow leak in his back tire. I was second out of the checkpoint, a few seconds behind Scott Henry. I was soon passed by Wink, and was quickly in a sandwich between Wink and Payson. This is great, I thought, just stay with these guys and you'll be able to follow great lines all day long. You'll be fine.
Not thirty seconds later, on the roller-coaster downhill right at the start of the trail, I was thrown off balance from the changes in the trail since I last rode it in the fall of 2010. Payson complemented my nice save. But I could only do it once. The next turn, I ran out of talent, ended up too far outside and was met by a sizeable log in the ditch that stopped me too quickly. I tumbled hard, just hoping that I and the bike would come out fine, and that Payson wouldn't run over the both of us. As I was rolling, I began looking for the bike and--no joke--reached up and grabbed the frame by the downtube just before it came crashing into my head. I set the bike down as Payson skirted by and inquired of my health. Reassured that I was fine, he went on.
I put my bottles back in the cages as quickly as I could and began chasing Rick, who had just passed me. I passed Rick in an effort to catch the group of 3 just 30 seconds ahead. I settled into the fastest pace I could manage and set to work.
An hour and a half later, we finished the 17 miles at Rock Hill. Rick and I had caught Wink and were only 1.5 minutes behind Payson and Scott as we began the final segment of the race. I was running through tactical situations in my mind over how I could win, but was worried about how soon the bonk might be coming. I had been able to keep up with the pros in the trail, but it had taken its toll. I wasn't as smooth as them, so I was burning more energy to go the same speed. Every faculty was focused on taking the best and fastest line, and in those 1.5 hours I had only managed to suck down a bottle of gatorade and a couple of goos. My careful eating plan had been thrown off by the trail, and now I was in a hole that would be tough to dig out of. My stomach was upset from all the sugar without any solid food, but only sugar would hit fast enough to get me back on track. So I was stuck.
The three of us began slowly closing the gap to Payson and Scott. With less than 10 miles left, we were about a minute behind as we hit the final checkpoint. I was fading fast. Rather than stopping for the zipties, we grabbed them on the run. These zipties were the smallest yet, and my clumsy gloved hands carefully tied it around the bar. Sure that it was fine, I let go--and to my horror, it flipped open and dropped in slow motion to the ground.
NOOOOOOOOOOOO! I had no choice, I had to turn around for it. I quickly picked it up, but now had to close a 20 second gap to Rick and Wink. I did it, but that was the final match in my book.
Just a few miles later, Rick surged up a hill and neither I nor Wink had anything left. We trudged along for the final few miles together. As we entered the final segment of trail, he took the lead from me, which is what I wanted. I had just enough left for one final kick. As we popped out into the field, Wink began to prepare for the sprint. He kicked as we got onto the road heading towards the barn, with only 200 meters left in the race. I punched it and forced my way up the inside, just barely managing to keep him from shutting the door on me as we came flying through the barn. We came out of the barn side by side, but of the two of us only I could hold it the last 50 meters for the hard-earned 4th place.
Scott had outsprinted Payson for first, Rick came in solo about a minute behind for third, and Wink and I were a minute behind him. The five of us had blitzed the course record by a solid 15 minutes as I understand it, finishing in 4.5 hours. We were 16 minutes ahead of 6th place.
It's always frustrating to lose a race that you know you could have won--especially when all I needed was some more food--but that's what keeps us coming back for more. The others simply did better than me that day, and all I can do is look forward to next year's edition and take another crack at it.