- First ever 50/100 race at Oak Mountain (that I know of)
- First race I ever decided to do less than 12 hours before the race
- First endurance race where I wound up on the podium
- First time I ever willingly let Brian Toone set pace in front of me on singletrack (sorry, Brian. You won, you can handle it.)
I've been doing steadily more MTB racing in the last few years, with a few endurance races thrown in - most notably, 2 years of the Snake Creek Gap Time Trial Series in Dalton, Georgia. I could write a book on those races, but would sum it up with this: If you ride dirt, you need to ride the Snake.
Most of my endurance races have gone about the same way: Start fast (too fast), ride well but way too hard for the first hour, have an "oh crap, you're an idiot" moment in the 2nd hour, cramp, cramp some more, and crawl to the finish in total, grinding, limping misery for the last hour. Or 2. Or 3. I am a pretty spectacular muscle cramper - I have strong fast twitch muscles that are great for the explosive power needed in road sprinting, but which are utterly useless off road. When they start to cramp, it is going to be a real bad time. I've had cramps so bad that I literally had to be helped off the bike and couldn't reach down to take my socks off for 6 hours after a race. It's kind of my superpower, but in reverse.
Even some cross-country races have gone this way: Bump N' Grind is a 2-hour plus loop for the cat 1s, and after spending most of this year's race in the top 5, I experienced a total lockup in both hamstrings and quads with exactly 1 mile to go, and spent 13 minutes holding onto a tree, trying not to collapse / cry, failing, watching rider after rider pass me on the way to the finish.
Consider that foreshadowing.
When I first heard mention of the Oak Ass 100, I thought: No. Not a chance. Cramp city. But a few days before the race, I heard people talking about a 50-mile option, and it seemed like a reasonable, not totally insane distance to race, and good preparation for this year's Snake. Waiting to the last possible second, I begged my way into the race and showed up dark and early Saturday morning.
Totally unprepared to race 50 miles on any surface - I hadn't ridden over 3 hours since August - I decided to approach the Oak Ass as training. Unfortunately, there was a start and finish line, and when they said go, any plans of "training pace" went out the window. Kenny Griffin's truck led us on a parade tour of the loop road and parking lots, and suddenly... I was crit racing. 4 corners and a pace car? Heck yeah. Rip it.
5 minutes later, riding nearly 30mph down the road toward the entrance to 7 Bridges, 120+ cyclists strung out behind me, Brian Toone tucked onto my wheel, sanity started to creep in. I sat up, swung over, and let 4 or 5 guys come by. Training Pace. Endurance Pace. C'mon Jacob. Don't be an idiot.
A lot of the riders around me seemed to be from out of state and unfamiliar with the trails, and I realized pretty quickly that I could ride faster, smoother, with less effort, if I was leading rather than following. I started working my way past a few of the riders that I had let by. Unfortunately, I managed to crash myself attempting a ridiculous pass on a rider that was trying to let me by, and wound up keeping it pretty pinned for most of the first 30 minutes.
I settled down just in time to close in on Brian Toone right as we hit the Chimneys Climb, which is the first hill of any sort on the lower end of the trail system before the Red Road climb. Brian was riding a nice steady pace, and I figured sitting on his wheel would force me to back off a bit and settle in. He'd drop me on all the punchy climbs, I'd pull him back on the tech downhills. Good.
We hit the Red Road a few minutes later. I hollered encouragement at Brian, knowing he was itching to get the KOM, and he shot up the road and out of sight in seconds. I settled in for a grind. I'm never a good climber, and I knew that the only way to survive this race was to ride a controlled pace on the climbs to save my legs as long as possible.
Several riders behind me WERE good climbers, and I was passed almost immediately by a number of guys, including overall 50-mile winner Scott Staubach. Scott's pace on his Singlespeed was super impressive, and I never even thought about following him. Some of the next guys to pass were riding a more reasonable fast pace that I figured I could maintain, and most of them seemed to underestimate the length and difficulty of the the road climb. So, of the 6 guys that passed me shortly after Scott, I caught 3 by the top of the climb using my same slowpoke pace, and caught the last 2 - Randy Kerr and eventual 2nd place 50-miler Tyler Murch - right as we finished the road section and dropped in to the Quarry bypass trail. (I think eventual 5-mile Open winner Brian Roggeveen passed me here and was never seen again. He finished lap 1 about 1 minute ahead of me.)
Catching Kerr and Tyler was important: I could tell both were stronger than I was, and I figured 1 or both was racing in my category (turns out, only Tyler was), but also figured I'd be faster than them on the Jekyll technical stuff (Kerr was on a hardtail, Tyler was from out of town).
I was right, sort of: I got a good little gap on them during the top part of Jekyll, but due to the deep piles of leaves (I was only the 4th rider down the trail at this point, and it was BURIED), I couldn't see any of the familiar lines. I picked my way down but wasn't fast, by any stretch. Sure enough, Tyler quickly caught me up on the rolling hills leading out of Hyde, and I let him by as we approached Peavine Road.
I shoveled food in my mouth as Tyler blasted up Peavine, and was shortly joined by Randy Kerr. Kerr was riding a very hard pace on the lower part of the climb and again I just watched him power away from me up Peavine. He and Tyler hit the new Firepit trail barely in sight, about 30 seconds ahead. I chased them down the hill and caught Randy somewhere below Blood Rock. I got Tyler back somewhere in there too, and finished lap 1 in a respectable 1:58.
Lap 2 was a different story. Randy followed me out of the lot onto the road, and we rolled into the singletrack together. He had chain issues and I wound up riding ahead solo for a while. Around the BMX track, I started to see my ol' buddy Professor Toone cruising through the trees, and backed off a little to make sure I didn't get carried away. As usual, Brian disappeared when we hit the Red Road climb, and I ground up slowly. Again, Randy would catch and drop me on the climb, and again I would start making up time on the Quarry bypass trail.
This time, however, my luck changed. As I dropped into Jekyll, with encouragement from John Karrasch, I saw Randy Kerr and Brian just ahead. Motivated to catch them both quickly and hopefully put them between me and Tyler, who I knew was coming on strong behind, I started pressing. My legs immediately began sending cramp warning signs out: twitches and spams everywhere. Danger Will Robinson. I was in trouble.
Undeterred (or maybe just stupid), I blasted through the first tech sections on Jekyll, then hopped over a small diagonal down tree... only to cramp in both hamstrings as I launched, clipping the tree with my back tire, flipping all my weight forward into a brutal, high-siding endo.
I'm not sure what happened next. There is a brief period of time - maybe a second or 2 - where things are fuzzy. I remember sitting there for a good minute, doing the basic body inventory (arms attached? check. arms unbroken? check. legs attached?). My head was throbbing and helmet dented, but I was otherwise ok. I heard riders coming down the trail above me, so grabbed my bike and hopped back on... only to realize that my handlebar was now roughly parallel with my front wheel. And my chain was off, and my wheel was crooked in the dropout, and my bottle was about 50 feet downhill. Whoops. Unable to steer my wonked-out front end, I expertly crashed back into the ground. This time, I looked down in horror as as the muscles in my quads seized so hard they raised about an inch above my leg. I staggered around like I had been struck by lightning, trying to stop the runaway cramp train before it ended my day. Eventually they subsided, and I turned back to bike repair and trying to salvage what was left of my race.
Time ticked away as I got everything up and running. Tyler was long gone, and barring him getting lost, all I could hope for was to hold it together and hope to hold on to a podium.
I crawled up Peavine Road, at times doing 10 rpm in a huge gear, just to keep my cramping legs from completely locking down. I cruised down Blood Rock, feeling pretty good, knowing if I could hold on up Johnson's Mountain, I'd be home free.
Johnson's came and went, and the next thing I remember is sweeping down through Foreplay and Family, visions of BUMP stew in my head. 2 bowls later, I was napping in my car, waiting for the podium, dreaming about my next Oak Ass race.
Thanks to Kenny, Pete Foret, John Karrasch, Lee Neal, and the rest of the BUMP crew and volunteers for a spectacular first time event. It was a memorable day and I'll definitely be back.