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A Swanky Race Report

After a fun time at the XTERRA Epic race, it was hard to believe that I would be racing another 4+ hour race a week later.  My day-job calendar just wouldn’t allow me to race XTERRA Worlds, no matter how hard I tried, so the Epic was another one of those last-minute substitutions.  I was already signed up for the Swank 65 endurance mountain bike race along with Dan.  He and I discussed it at length, along with many conversations with Coach and Alba.  I decided to keep both, even though they were only one week apart.  My goal for the Swank 65 had to change though.  There was no way I could race the Epic at 100% and also do well at Swank.  Besides, I knew that being a multisport athlete going into a race with a bunch of guys that focus only on cycling would be tough, not to mention coming into it with tired legs.

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Race: Swank 65 Endurance Mountain Bike Race
Location: Brevard, NC – Pisgah
Date: November 6, 2011
Distances: 36 mile mountain bike with 9300 feet of climbing
Result: 47 out of 167
Products used: GU Roctane and GU Brew, Maxxis Monorail & Larsen TT Tires, Cobb Plus DRT Saddle, Rudy Project helmet, Scrub Brakes, Crank Brothers Candy Pedals.

I’ve always been told that a good triathlete is not someone who is an outstanding swimmer or an awesome biker or even a super-fast runner.  Instead, a good triathlete is someone that can put all three together.  The funny thing is, most triathletes, especially at the amateur level like me, are not great at all three sports.  They’re just good.  If they can be good, and do so at all three sports, they’ll be a great triathlete.  If they are GREAT at all three, they’re probably professional.  So why am I talking about what makes a good triathlete when this is a mountain bike race report?  Because I’ve been told before that if you want to get good at a specific sport, then train with folks who are faster.  This means that racing against folks who focus on just cycling (and thus probably a bit faster) then I could improve my cycling.  I know that there were other folks at this race that were also triathletes, but most of them were just cyclists.  Most of them much better and faster cyclists than I. 

So, with that said, this race had many goals.  First, a training race to get in some serious climbing and technical descents.  Second, have some fun time riding with Dan on some outstanding trails.  Neither of us had any grand plans about being in 100% race mode and honestly didn’t care where we finished.  Granted, we were still going to ride hard and fast, it’s just that we didn’t have a finish goal of any sort.  Last, I knew that New Belgium was there and I was REALLY looking forward to earning one of my favorite brews: Fat Tire.

Before I jump into the report, let me back up a little in the timeline to tell you about a small incident that would affect this race.  Coming back from Arkansas, I arrived in the Charlotte airport and eagerly awaited my bags and bike.  When flying, I always, always, always open the case up, right then and there, to check the contents as soon as it comes off the conveyor.  I usually get a few stares and a few glares when I break open a big bike case right in the middle of the airport.  But, this is one thing that I could really care less what other people think, as I am protecting my investment.  It’s usually only a couple of seconds as I glance over the contents of the case.  As soon as I opened the case, I immediately saw something wrong.  The two straps that hold the bike in place, and in the center of the case (where it’s protected) were loose.  Also, the bike had slid down to the end of the box.  Upon closer examination, one of the rear dropouts had poked all the way through the hard plastic case.

Pictures below are a properly packed case:

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This case isn’t your thin plastic case.  Instead, at 3/16 of an inch thick, it would take quite a bit of force to cause a loose bike to poke all the way through the case.  The only thing I can think of is that it took quite a drop from a pretty decent height to cause the damage.  So in my view, not only did TSA unpack the bike for inspection and not put it back correctly, but the airline had to have dropped the case off a conveyor or from a vehicle.

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Needless to say, the rear dropout was busted, crumbled and broken.  Being carbon fiber, the entire frame is probably toast.

Back to the race report.  Since my race bike was busted up, I now had to make a choice.  Either I ditch the race and quickly put my Swank 65 spot up for sale, or I pull down my pristine, clean, polished and ready to sell 26” full suspension bike from it’s lofty throne.  Since it was up for sale, it was all cleaned up and ready for delivery.  In the end, I decided to race.   The only change I had to make to the 26er was the saddle.  I had been riding on the Cobb Plus DRT Saddle and really wanted to use it for Swank.  Since it took me a couple of rides to get it dialed in right where I wanted it, I didn’t want to mess with its position.  So instead of removing the saddle, I just removed the saddle AND seat post, swapped it with the one on the full suspension bike.  THEN, I was ready to race.

Race Morning

Dan and I rode up to Pisgah together chatting about the season, how much fun it would be to cap it off with Swank and even strategized a bit about  the 2012 race season.  As we exited the highway, we noticed a Krispy Kreme with the “Hot Now” sign on. He mentioned that he had never had a Krispy Kreme donut hot off the conveyor.  I don’t recommend hot donuts as a pre-race meal, but since we were racing Swank just for fun, we pulled over and picked up a hot one for each of us.

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The rest of the drive to the race start was beautiful because the trees where beaming with different colors.  Deep reds, vibrant oranges and bright yellows were all represented across the canvas of trees as we entered the Pisgah forest.  As we climbed in elevation, the colored leaves gave way to bare branches.  It was the first realization that I had about the upcoming cold weather and impending winter that would be hitting us before we knew it.  By the time we arrived, there were only a handful of trees holding on to some dark orange leaves.

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Since we were one of the first vehicles to show up, we parked on the far end, near the restrooms.  The “parking lot” in the pic above would eventually be full of cars all the way from the finish line to where I was standing when I took the pic. After hanging around in the truck for a while, we went over and picked up our packets.  We were greeted by a friendly little fellow who was making his rounds running over to each car as it parked, and greeted every single person that showed up with a wag of his tail and sort of a grin. 

It wasn’t too long before it was time for the race to start.  Dan and I had been riding up and down the road to get warmed up when we heard the horn blowing calling everyone to the start.  Since it was a “Lemans” style start, we stationed our bike near the start line.  We had to run a small lap all the way around the parking area, grab our bike, ride a lap and THEN dive into the trail head.  It was a mad, crazy but fun way to start the race while thinning the pack out beforehand.

We started the first long climb as a single file train of bikes that stretched as far as the eye could see.  The first couple of creek crossings were virtual road blocks as everyone dismounted and walked across the moss-covered, log bridges one at at time.  We eventually thinned out and the ride became a bit faster.  The woods were gorgeous and it was great to be out in the crisp, cool air with a bunch of people who all enjoyed mountain biking.

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Dan made his way out in front of me and eventually passed a couple of people.  I got caught up in traffic and couldn’t get by them as easily due to trail conditions.  When we arrived at the first water stop, he was waiting for me.  I paused briefly to have my water bottle topped off and then we took off together again.  I told him that due to my tired legs from the Epic, that he would probably drop me on the climbs.  I have a hard time keeping up with him as it is on the the climbs, not to mention on tired legs.  He explained that he was really only out to enjoy the ride and really didn’t care how he finished.  He said that if he got ahead of me that he would wait at the next water stop for me.  This would hold true for several more climbs.  At water stop 2, or 3 (I can’t remember which one), he was actually hanging out eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when I arrived.  Apparently, he had been waiting around 3 or 4 minutes before I got there.

The water stops were amazing.  Not only were they completely stocked with fluids (both water and electrolyte drink), but they also had a variety of different types of foods to choose from.  But it wasn’t the food or fluids that made them so great, instead, it was the people.  They were so friendly and eager to help.  You couldn’t even come to a stop before you had someone right there, in your face, grabbing your water bottle or asking what you needed.  Each station also had mechanics from local bike shops willing to jump in and take care of any bike problems.  The volunteers and staff really made the aid stations above and beyond what I have seen at just about any race so far. 

After hitting the 3rd water stop, we began the long, arduous climb up to Farlow Gap.  Dan warned me on the way out of the water stop area that I should put it in an easy gear and to mentally settle in for a long climb.  He wasn’t kidding.  We seemed to climb forever and, as always, Dan slowly climbed out of my sight.

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After the climb, it was good to descend for a while.  Once we hit the really technical section of Farlow Gap, I just tried to maintain speed as I descended.  Most of the time when someone has trouble on a descent is when they they try to go too slow (at least that’s what I think).   The trail was littered with boulders about basketball-size all the way up to about the size of dorm refrigerator.  I had watched videos of Farlow Gap during the stage race and I noticed that most folks who rode it non-stop picked a line on the far left of the trail, so as soon as I hit the tough section, I made my way over to the left side and tried to stay there.  One problem (or blessing) was that unlike the videos I had watched, you couldn’t really see the rocks that well (or the good lines) due to all the leaves that had fallen on the trail.  The leaf cover disguised the jagged rocks a bit. 

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As I descended, I noticed Dan up ahead already dismounted from his bike.  He had come across another racer that was dismounted and blocking his way, so he had to step off.  I came barreling down upon both of them and tried to pick a line right in the middle.  Dan stepped off to the right and the other guy to the left.  When I saw that my line down the middle was too dangerous, I slammed on the brakes.  Due to all of the leaf cover, I slid for a long way before coming to a stop, on top of the other biker.  Our bikes became intertwined at the cranks and my left foot became wedged in the spokes of his rear wheel.    We paused for a moment and gingerly removed my foot as not to break any of his spokes. 

I took off down Farlow Gap again, trying to stay to the left, with the exception of where there were two trees.  During my investigation and video watching, I had noticed that near the two trees, just about everyone that rode it smoothly, moved from the left side of the trail and always went by the two trees near their trunks.  I made a mental note of this and tried to store it away in my memory for use during the race.  At one tree, I had to step off again for a second just to clear a boulder.  I tried not to waste too much time, re-mounted and rode the rest of the way down. The only other dismount was to clear a tree.  Someone had placed rocks on either side to try and make it where you could ride it, but it was a bit out of my skill’s reach.   What a fun, fun trail.  

There were numerous creek crossings as well.  Many of them were not rideable as we had to dismount and hop from boulder to boulder with our bikes over our shoulders.  This was a bit scary as I never have liked stepping onto a wet, moss-covered boulder with bike shoes and metal pedal cleats.  It could have easily spelled disaster as the creeks were deep and the rocks perfectly in place as somewhere you could break an ankle.  The boulders in the pic below are about the size of a small dorm refrigerator.

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Once we finished up Farlow Gap, we dove into the Daniel Ridge trail.  Just when I thought the ride couldn’t get any more fun, it did.  Riding down Daniel Ridge was a BLAST.  There was a large, 50 foot or so, drop off to the right side of the trail and straight up on the other.  There were plenty of little jumps, baby-head boulders and what-not to keep the trial interesting, but still a ton of fun to bomb down.  A short ways down, I see Dan ahead running along side his bike.  I knew instantly that something was wrong.  I came to a stop and rode slowly next to him.  He explained that a baby-head boulder bounced up and hit his wheel right at the valve stem, knocking it out of the wheel.  Since there was no way to fix it, he decided to just run his bike out.  He gave me some quick instructions on the upcoming trail and I took off following his instructions.

 

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I came into the last water station and had them top off my bottle.  I knew I had one more long climb in front of me and tried my best to mentally prepare for it.  I bombed through the section before the climb which was a fast, gravel-covered trail that followed a valley until we reached the last climb.  Winding back and forth up the climb which seemed to take 30 or so minutes, I tried my best to keep folks from catching me while also trying to catch a few.  I passed someone shortly before we dove back into single-track.  I knew that I had to keep him off of me until we hit the trail.  If not, it would be next to impossible to pass him.  As we dove into the trail, he wasn’t too far behind me.  I bombed downhill as fast as I could to stretch the gap.  Before we would reach the finish line, there were three bridge crossings that would require a dismount.  Each crossing gave the two guys behind me a chance to catch up.  So each time, I would try and put as much distance between us before the next bridge and each time, I would gap them by almost a minute.  This would hold true all the way to the finish. 

Upon finishing, there were plenty of folks mulling about. BusyBee Farms brought out local raised beef for some AWESOME burgers.  You could smell them before you had even come across the finish line.  Also hanging out in their own tent was New Belgium serving up Ranger IPA, Hoptober and my favorite, Fat Tire.  I helped myself to a burger and a Fat Tire.

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Big thanks goes out to Todd Branham (of Blue Ridge Adventures), his race crew and all of the volunteers for putting on such an AWESOME event!

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Be a Warrior!

Marcus

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