Friday, February 5, 2016

Upper Buffalo Headwaters Challenge

It's been a while and this wasn't a race, but it was probably one of the most mentally and physically challenging things I have done since the crash.

It all started when I found out I'd be moving to Little Rock, AR for work.  I started searching Facebook for trails and rides and the OORC Upper Buffalo Headwaters Challenge made the top of the list.
Photo Credit: OORC

There was a half (26+ miles) and a full (44 miles).  The full was advertised as 5500 feet of climbing,  and would be physically and mentally challenging. The location would be "remote" and as I found out on the day of the ride there was no cell service and 911 would work off satellite, but if you were hurt it would be a minimum of 2 hours to airlift you out!  They also encouraged you to have gear to spend the night in the woods if you got lost or hurt or broke your bike.  My first thought when I read the info was "Ugghh, no way.  It would be lots of climbing and suffering.  There would be no lift and no resort accommodations." It sounded like the half would be like one lap at Mohican, which I already think is a horrible ride with only a few fun DH sections that aren't worth the climbs (but that's my opinion).  There were going to be only 2 rest stops, the first at mile 17 and the 2nd at mile 30.  The event would start at 9:30 for all participants and the cutoff time for the first stop was 12:30 and the second 3:30, respectively.

Somehow, the weeks went by and I let GM talk me into the full.  He kept saying it was nothing and I could handle it.  I started spending more and more time once a week out in the woods doing a long ride pedaling more and more climbs (son of a ... why I have to be so stubborn is beyond me).  He has no concept of how much I detest suffering, climbing and racing now.  No wait, I think he does, he just likes it when I suffer, lol.  I even begged Dirty Drifts to come down and do this with me as he is one of my favorite people to ride XC with but no luck.  This ride would not only be almost twice as far as I'd ever ridden but it would be twice as much climbing as I'd ever done in one ride on a mountain bike. These thoughts were in the forefront of my mind and yet I still let him convince me the full was the way to go. 

Friday, I drove the nearly 3 hours NW into the Ozarks to meet with what turned out to be an incredibly cool and welcoming group of riders.  F.A.S.T. had rented out a lodge about 45 minutes from the start (which was actually really close without camping -- another thing I prefer not to do).  We had some sweet accommodations and great food. 
Photo Credit: Ken Sluyter

There were 22 of us and we were up and at 'em and out the door by 7:30am.  It sounded like most of the crew was breaking up into smaller groups to ride together and half were going to do the full and half were going to do the half.  I knew I probably wouldn't be able to keep up on the climbs so I had prepared to ride alone.  The event announcers went over final instructions for emergencies, aid station locations and then snapped pics of the 330 brave riders that were about to take on the challenge.
A rare photo of me.  Photo Credit: Michael Roys

Photo Credit: Kevin Yingst.

I've always been a planner and a strategist, reviewing course layouts and forming my plan of attack, this event was no different.  I figured if I could average 6 mph with breaks and pushing I'd finish around 4:30p (before dark).  I had a map in my pocket and there was also one on my buff of the half.  I had packed a jacket, tools, spare tube, a fun size pack of M & M's and (2) Reese mini-cups, mounted a light onto my handle bars, along with 3L of fluid.  I had opted not to bring an extra cleat, derailleur hanger or chain link as I only knew how to fix the cleat anyway.
The challenge started with a 2 mile climb up a fire road to the start of the single track, some people of course were in a hurry and sprinted out to the front and up the hill.  The climb was brutal and there was lots of bottle necking as people lost their momentum and had to dismount.  I followed a guy for awhile until he lost his momentum and abruptly stopped.  I too had to dismount as there was nowhere to go (thankfully).  I happily pushed with many others to the top.  I knew the drop in would lead to about a mile of fun, i.e. DOWNHILL!!  When we reached the drop-in, I waited for the people in front to go and give them a little head start before dropping in but others just kept cutting in front of me.  Oh well, here goes nothing.  I dropped in and started jumping all the rollers and rocks I could just for fun.  I'd slow down before a section I could jump to give the people in front some room and then pedal hard and huck to flat off the tiny rollers and kickers.  I could hear the guy behind me cheering and yelling.  We were both laughing and I was having a blast.  As I made my way down, surprisingly rider after rider started pulling over and letting me by (guess chivalry isn't dead after all).  I repetitively shouted "thank you" and enjoyed the free speed.

When I reached the bottom there was a few miles of flat and lots of creek crossings.  I'd never ridden anything like this.  I saw lots of riders dismounting and walking and some riding.  I would track stand, give some room and then charge on through.   As they got bigger and bigger I got wetter and muddier and realized I'd have to start taking a pedal stroke or two to keep my momentum.  They were also getting deeper and deeper and my socks were getting soaked just riding through.

We started a non-technical climb back out that seemed to take forever and I was pushing again.  I saw some of my F.A.S.T cabin mates and we exchanged words of encouragement.  JZ saw me one of the few times on a climb where I was actually pedaling and yelled something like " Downhillers do pedal uphill."  I had to laugh, it wouldn't last long.  When it was finally over after what seemed like an hour we dropped down on to a trail called Azalea falls.

Photo Credit: OORC
This one had some small rocks and a slight down grade to start.  I had remembered JZ saying this loop would be more my speed earlier in the week.  A guy behind me yelled "Hey aren't you the girl from Iron Mountain?"  I looked back and recognized a mountain biker I had met a few weeks ago.  I yelled back "Hi!" and "Yeah!"  He said something else as the down hill started but I couldn't hear him and I started shredding away.  This downhill was a little more exposed and there were some small drop and kickers on the left side of the trail if you wanted even more fun.... and I always pick the fun way.  I was having a blast and people again were moving out of my way (whenever they could find an open spot) as I caught them (except one guy - he looked back at me saw I was a girl I guess and just kept rolling in front of me -- oh well, I didn't care.  I was having fun either way).  It did get a little muddy over some of the rollers and one drop I flew over had me landing in peanut butter mud and I could feel my tire sliding...Oh boy, I was a little scared but that little fear and danger of living on the edge has become part of the fun nowadays.  I told myself "hold on to the bike, don't touch the brakes, ride it out."  Needless to say I made it to the bottom with a big old smile on my face and upright.  I looked back to see if that guy was there to talk to but no one was in sight so I started the next climb.

I made it through a little over 6.5 miles the first hour, so I was a bit ahead of schedule.  I climbed back out and up to the top to the next fun trail called "sidewinder" and dropped in.  This one was switchback after switchback to the bottom.  It connected to a new section of trail, I believe was called "Wildcat."  The trail was definitely new.  The dirt wasn't packed and the flags were still in the ground.  I would have gotten off and started pushing but the climb eventually went through a bunch of rocks and out of pride and to work on my tech skills, I rode up through all the rocks.  The rocks ended with a nice big one you had to pull up on the front end and keep your momentum going to get up and over.  RA apparently, didn't pull up hard enough, twisting his handlebars and taking a bar end to the gut -- ouch!   As soon, as I cleared the last of the rocks I dismounted and started pushing, trying to catch my breath.

I was almost to the top of the climb when I noticed a ledge with a nice drop on the right.
I think this was the drop.  Photo Credit: OORC
 I pushed up farther, set my bike down and walked back to look at it.  I saw some tire tread on the take off so someone sometime had already tried to hit it.  Another rider was pushing up and I asked him if he could watch for on-coming riders so I could hit the drop.  He was super cool and said he would.  It was about the size of a drop at the Mohican Wilderness at home.  I had punked out there too scared to do it without SD to help me back in November.  GM still heckles me about pussing out that day, but there would be no heckling today!  I was going for it.  I marched back up to my bike decided to push up just a little farther.  I had never hit a drop this size on a little bike like this or with clipless pedals and I wasn't wearing any pads or my full face.  Lately thought I've been forcing myself to think more confident and try new stuff without SD and the guys around.  It's the one skill SD can't teach but I am most certain he wishes he could.  It holds me back more than anything.  I shouted down to the guy "Clear?"  He yelled to another rider coming up that I was going to hit the drop.  The rider pulled off and I yelled "dropping" and went for it.  I took no pedals and didn't touch the brakes.  I flew off  the drop and new I had too much speed.  I landed way too far down the trail and grabbed the brakes and tried to make the right turn.  The bike started to slide and I low sided but didn't go over the side.  I had some dirt rash but I was fine.  The guys were super stoked and yelling "That was awesome!  You jumped at least 15 feet."  I laughed and said it would have been awesome had I not crashed.  The one guy was funny saying "Man, I wish I would have video taped that." I ended up with a scraped up right leg and my hip and right butt cheek have 2 pretty big bruises on them too, but all surface damage.   We got back on our bikes and headed for the first aid station.  I made it to mile 17 in a little under 3 hours.  I was right on schedule even with my shenanigans. 

The aid station was at the top of a hill (of course).  It was the known as the Fire Tower.
Photo Credit: OORC

They had rice cakes (blueberry and raisin, pbj and one with bacon, peppers and onions -- I think).
Photo Credit: L. Danielle Many

I had only been drinking Gatorade and water, so I wanted something salty, not sweet.  I only wanted to stay for about 5-7 minutes so as not to lose too much time.  More and more people arrived and I could overhear lots of people talking about how brutal the ride was thus far.  I saw JZ and RA and told RA I was heading out and didn't want to waste anymore time.  He agreed and we both left about the same time.  I headed down a fire road to the next section.

I left the aid station riding next to some guy and he told me we were going to hit a downhill first.  He then asked me if I was "fast" on the DH's.  I had to smile.  "Fast" is such a relative term I thought.  I said "no."  He then told me to go first anyways.  If someone is that keen on letting me go first I've learned -- just go, so I dropped in.  I looked back after a minute and he wasn't there.  This downhill was super fun and I saw a lot of ladies through here.  As  they let me pass, I yelled words of encouragement and thanks.  When I got to the bottom the creek crossings were double the size of the ones earlier in the day.  I have no idea which ones you walk and which ones you ride and I was tired of wet socks so I hiked me and my bike through a few barefoot, sat down on the other side and put my shoes and socks back on.  This section was flat but we ran into a rock garden that reminded me of West Branch.  There's no downhill momentum to carry you, so you kind of just have to slam your way  through.  There were lots of loose small rocks I could feel shifting under my tires and a few big ones you had to pick your way through.

Mile 22 had the biggest stream crossing by far.  I think it was about 30 yards or so and almost up to my mid thigh.  It was around 70 degrees so the cold water felt great on my legs.  A few people rode through it well above their crank and hubs.  I chose to keep my shoes and socks dry and again barefoot hike a biked it.  I was half way.
Photo Credit: River Valley Adventures
I finally had to go to the bathroom too and found a spot in the woods.  I had been drinking all day but was surprised this was the first time in over 3 hours I had to go.  We were back on a fire road and this was by far THE HARDEST and WORST part of the ride.  This climb would be 7-8 miles of fire road back to the fire tower, aid station and mile marker 30.  It would get as steep as 20-21% at some points and you'd climb or push in my case crest the top and the pitch would just get steep again.  It was how can I say this "f*cking awful!"  It got to the point where I would hop on my bike for 10 seconds here and there just to see my Garmin speed go faster than the 1.2 mph I was averaging on foot pushing.  I met up with 2 guys and we ended up finishing the last half mile or so back to the fire tower together.  It was 2:45pm at the 30 mile check-in.  I made the last cut-off by 45 minutes. 

The aid station was a ghost town.  The volunteers told us we were the last ones.  I was shocked!  I hadn't planned on being first but wasn't planning on being last.  One of the guys said there was at least 5 riders behind us.  That didn't make me feel much better though.  I found out many people who had wanted to do the full had dropped to the half after reaching the first aid station at mile 17 and some had even bailed after the first aid station and taken the road back.  I knew this ride would be no joke and I'd suffer because I was out of shape but I wasn't feeling that bad yet and only had 14 miles to go.  I always have a "striking distance" point where if I get to a certain mile I know all I have to do it hold on and finish.  Today it was mile 40 (so really just 10 more miles and I knew I'd make it).

I left the aid station for the last time ready to finish this thing.  I turned on my headphones for the first time that day and dropped down the same single track we had the first time we left the aid station.  I could tell my legs were tired but I felt super flowy and smooth jamming to the music, not having to pass anyone and just enjoying the trail.  I got to the bottom and was at nearly 33 miles.  Sweet!  I pedaled on hoping for a few miles of flat, because the only other way to go was up.  I came to an intersection I had turned left at earlier in the day and turned right. I was headed for home!

The climbing started again unfortunately, ugghh.  I was off and pushing sooner and sooner, not wanting to trash my quads too much before making it to the top and getting on a trail called "Bear." It had a slight decline, not even a down hill and I was weaving my way through some trees and twisties and I caught a hidden tree stump funny with my front tire.  It sent me flying over the bars.  I slammed the back of my head into the ground and my glasses went flying.  I was in shock!  This crash hurt so much more than sliding out on after the drop.  I wasn't going fast or being aggressive, just a random weird crash.  I got up slowly and took some Aleve I had brought with me.  The back of my head on the right side hurt a little where it had slammed into the ground but I wasn't dizzy and seemed ok.  I put my glasses back on and grabbed my bike.  It seemed ok and then I realized the shifter was broken -- "Son of A...!"
I could shift down to make it harder but I couldn't shift up to make it easier and I had 9 miles to go.  I had a moment of panic and thought about how if I can't ride it out I might be sleeping in the woods after all.  Then I just got pissed off.  I wasn't giving up and I still had one gear.  I hopped back on the bike and did thing only thing I could...  I kept going.  I rode when I could and pushed when I had to.  Nothing had changed except I had to start pushing sooner.  I made it to the Buffalo Headwaters Trail and ran into some of the volunteers cleaning up the markers and told them what happened.  I knew there was a shorter route to cut out 2 miles up ahead and double checked with them.  It was now a safety/survival issue for me.  I had one gear left to get me through this.  My bike hadn't seized up but I was done.  I would ride 40+ miles either way.  I headed straight instead of turning right and hik-a-biked myself up and out of the woods.  I was all too elated to see the familiar road back to the start and coast the last 0.25 miles downhill. I had coke in my car for the post ride, but it was warm and a fellow rider parked next to me finishing when I did offered me a cold one!  It was the BEST tasting coke I've ever had.  I had been dreaming of one for about the last 3.5 hours.  I had done it!!!  I had survived the UBHWC of 2016!!!  I was pumped.

The course was very well marked.  I missed a turn here and there but never by more than a 100 feet or so and the weather was beyond perfect with sun and 60 degree temps.  The volunteers were amazingly awesome and OORC put on quite an EPIC event.  They do a spectacular job and if you live in Arkansas and ride a mountain bike of any kind this is a great adventure to do.