Before this years Wilderness 101 - a ~101 mile back country mountain bike race which highlights some of central Pennsylvania's best singletrack - I stocked up on spare tubes and energy goop in Freeze Thaw cycles. With old friend Harry, Justin and the guys who work there we shared a laugh about my lack of preparedness and the fact that, at the end of the day, 'old man strength' would get me through.
I think 'old man strength' is another way of saying pertinaciousness. In other words, the lack of fitness, small number of miles in the legs and poor acclimatisation to the heat and humidity could be overcome by resolve and experience.
I was to put this theory to a harsh test.
It had been many years since my first flirtation with the rocky and demanding trails in Bald Eagle and Rothrock State Forests which form the core of the W101. Years that have not treaded lightly. At the time, I never rode anything other than a singlespeed. I rode tall gears on improbable grades and trails as often as I could. Fitness was not the result of training, just a by product of riding far and often.
Nevertheless, at the time I had never ridden 100 miles off road in one go. I was also nervous of how my rigid bike (with new fangled 29er wheels consisting of crap tyres and Open Pro Mavic road rims and tyre-roll preventing über high pressure) would treat me.
It was tough, but I finished in a respectable time.
In 2016, I had decided to ride a geared, but still rigid bike (albeit with a 29+ front wheel) and although my preparation was relatively poor, I retained confidence in my ability to finish having done several 100 mile races in the USA and UK in the intervening years. This was the experience bit.
The weather in Pennsylvania was hot and humid (95°f and 90% plus humidity). I had ridden early in the a.m with my friends Frank and Sean, but we were generally done by 10.30 a.m, missing the heat of the day. Come race day, I knew that I needed to get as many miles under my belt as possible early on, otherwise I would suffer. I had all I needed to stay hydrated - 2 bottles and a 1 litre bladder (minimising weight on my back) and my bike was sorted. I had minimal stuff stashed in the 2 drop bags allowed for aid station 2 (which then went to aid 4) and aid 3.
A 5 a.m wake up was less harsh than it could have been due to jet lag and we headed to Coburn park with little time to spare before the start at 7 a.m. Daisy, Trina and good friend Buck waved me off and I tried to just remain calm and in the moment as we pedaled through Coburn and then onto the first forest road of the day.
[The following is my memory of trail name and events and I admit it may have some inaccuracies. The course had changed since I first completed the race and due to it being one big loop, you ride a *lot* of different trails. If there are any glaring errors and you happen to spot them - please let me know!]
The first ~20 miles are on rolling forest road. No difficulties or hard gradients. The weather was warm but as it was so early the humidity hadn't built yet and despite having to stop twice for a loosening bottle cage, I kept the pace up but well within my abilities. Aid 1 was a simple bottle fill and after this I made sure I started to eat some food.
Longberger, Spruce Gap and the Three Bridges Trail brought back memories and I enjoyed the technical riding. A photographer - Derek Bissett - snapped a picture of me still looking pretty lively as I cleared Three Bridges.
Then it was time to climb Laurel Run road and turn onto the Little Shingletown double track descent. Fast as.
The last couple of miles into Aid 2 were on firm road - I cannot remember if it was forest road or even sealed road: I was just glad to have completed the first ~40 miles in 3 hours.
I knew from reading others' reports that there was a monster of a climb out of Aid 2. Seeger road delivered on this threat, no doubt! Up and up it went. the heat and humidity were stifling and the harsh gradient sapped energy from my legs. Keep calm, spin, eat and take in fluids.
At the top of the climb, we turned onto Croyle Run Trail - the first of the really rocky descents. It was clear that I was handling my bike like a sack of potatoes. I struggled to focus on one thing - my eyes were darting to and fro and I was breathing fast and shallow. Noticing my arms were completely dry - no sweat whatsoever - I stopped riding and pulled to the side of the trail in some slight shade and sat for a minute on a rock.
Sometimes my day job can be pretty useful for bike riding and my diagnosis? early heat stroke. I knew I was well hydrated, with electrolyte and I knew I had been riding (just!) within myself. In that sort of humidity, being bone dry while exercising is a clear sign my body's thermometer wasn't registering correctly. Much more of that and things would go south, quickly.
I was just over 50 miles in and the bulk of the hard riding was still to come.
I mulled over the options and in truth there were precious few: call it and give in or find a way to keep moving round the course. The latter was clearly more attractive and a streak of obstinacy (old man strength, remember) acted as an emotional and mental anchor.
Beidlehmeimer, then Bear Meadows roads, before more climbing on Stone Creek and Seeger road led into Aid 3 and a welcome refreshment of fluids. I was still able to take in calories at this point, but most climbs and some of the narrow gauge trails that required a lot of effort meant I had to stop for up to 5 minutes at a time and allow my breathing to slow and the heat to dissipate a bit. It was disappointing as basically this was not a race for me any more - it was akin to survival.
Climbing Pigpile and then Sasspig and Sassafras trail were next and we were soon in Coopers Gap. I climbed Beautiful trail (it was) and then No Name trail before Lingle Road and Aid 4.
By this stage I could not tolerate electrolyte or food - a worrying sign. My energy levels were dreadful - any effort was draining me. I could feel hot, hot air in my mouth with every breath: I just wanted to cool down.
After Aid 4 I walked up Sand Mountain road as the gradient required too much physical output even in a 32x42 gear and it was only when we continued onto Lingle Valley and Siglerville Pike that I could start pedaling again.
My original aim had been finishing in 9 hours and some. At this rate I would be lucky to come in under 12 hours.
All around me there were racers suffering in the heat. One racer noted the temp on his gps as 100°f (40°c) and I can well believe that.
With a race this long, there are always going to be multiple stings in the tail and although the next trail, Panther Run, wasn't the last it was the most painful. A slight downwards gradient but an absolute mess of sharp mobile and immobile rock. I can't quite describe the intensity of this trail. It got to the stage that I could not control my bike in any meaningful way - fast or slow. I simply let off the brakes and pedaled up to speed and sucked up the impacts, relying on my bike to not break under the onslaught. This went on and on. I stopped and rubbed feeling back into my hands then went again. And again.
I was bellowing without meaning as we finally dropped on to Poe Valley road.
Aid 5 signified 12-13 miles still to go. The old Mingle road climb with it's multiple false summits took an emotional toll and the Fisherman's trail by the river was barely walkable let alone rideable in my state.
The railroad grade back to Coburn saw me sitting, somewhat petulantly, with my back to my bike, muttering to myself 'I can't do this anymore. I can't do this anymore'. Of course, I knew that I could, I just needed one last chance to slow down, calm my mind and breathing and cool myself as much as possible in the shade. I got going after a brief fit of dry retching.
Why I didn't jump in the river is anyone's guess and probably another sign of my poor physiological functioning.
On returning to Coburn I heard Daisy and Trina and friends Frank, Gareth and Teri urging me into the finish. A welcome home from the race organiser Chris Scott finally penetrated my consciousness that the day was done. 11 hours and 37 minutes. A terrible time compared to what I had hoped, but the number of DNF's and the shell shocked bodies all around told the tale of the day - the heat had made everybodies efforts a real test of metal. Expectations had gone out the window and survival was the goal for all but the hardest of racers.
For me, old man strength got me through. Just.
(With thanks to Derek Bissett and Trina for their photos. )