Last year, I quit.
I wasn’t the only one. In fact, of the 244 starters, 113 quit the race before it ended. Many didn’t even get out of bed that day, as the permitted 350 rider field limit was nearly met through pre-registration.
Quitting races sucks in a way that you’ll only know if you’ve done it. Sure, on that Saturday last year, I felt pretty good about my option to bail at the first checkpoint. That ‘justified’ decision tasted sweet for less than two days. On the next Monday morning, the shop banter was all about the trials of the event. Everybody had met their own obstacles -- physical, mental, mechanical, and certainly geographical -- and had overcome them, except me. And that was a bitter pill.
So a year later, I was determined to get back to the ways I’d always known. I’ve ridden Syllamo’s Revenge every year but one since it started. The missed year, I was pouring footings for a new house, and it ended up working out to be a pretty good day! I’d signed up, paid the money, and eventually resigned the entry fee as a donation to the organizer. Hell, he always puts on a great event. He deserved it.
A ride at Ouachita Challenge earlier this year put at least one demon to rest. I’d quit that one in 2008, due to a bad mental state and a broken, but for the most part rideable, pedal insert in a carbon crankarm. I entered that event this year with the modest goal of eating. Eating, that is, often enough to fuel myself for the effort. I didn’t bonk, and I finished. There were fleeting moments of speed, but the threat of cramps always seemed to be on the horizon, so I tried to curb my enthusiasm lest I overreach my limit too soon during the event. The cramps eventually came and went, and I finished in a totally exhausted state but not hungry.
The goals and expectations for Syllamo’s Revenge were a bit more aggressive. I knew I couldn’t battle at the front of the race. My normal top twenty effort would be out of the question as well. All I wanted to do was give an earnest effort from the start, up the killer hill, and onto the singletrack. The start at Syllamo’s is as rude as it gets. The selection is made in the first two minutes of the race on the slopes of a steep and continuous (and muddy this year and last) fire road. The clay minerals in the soil made it slippery and sticky at the same time, and the mix of single speed and geared riders made it really difficult as well due to the differences in pace as the group struggled to manage the effort.
Surge ahead. The tire slips. Surge. My handlebar just knocked another. Passing a rider, someone said hi. I tried to respond, but breathing was difficult enough with my metered effort, let alone if I had wasted some of that precious air. A nod and a grunt had to do.
We’d had torrential thunderstorms roll through, the night before the event. Some localities even encountered deadly tornados, and I drove through the tail end of some nasty storm cells on the way north from Little Rock. I stayed at a spectacular cabin on South Syllamore Creek with some friends the night before. As we sat on the covered porch in the rain, we all wondered how mangled the trails might be. After the collective effects of tornadoes and winter ice storms for the past two years, the Syllamo trail system had just recently been brought back to glory through some serious effort by Forest Service and volunteer efforts. Would the recently perfect trails be battered again? Only time would tell.
On the morning of the race, the descent into the valley, reminded me why I came. The scenery is spectacular, but the event is what makes the weekend. Syllamo’s draws people back year after year. The permitted 350 riders sign up within 24 hours, months in advance. And it fills up faster every year. You can see the anticipation and excitement on everyone’s faces on the morning of. The hour before the race is spent saying hello to old friends, checking bikes, and packing food and gear in one of Arkansas’ most beautiful campgrounds, Blanchard Springs.
Finally, the race started and we sped away towards the dreaded hill. As we passed the bathhouse, I remember thinking of the hot showers and feeling reassured that it was going to be ok to plow through as much poison ivy as necessary to get through to the finish this time. Speaking of the ivy, it’s turned out to be banner year for it thus far. I’ve had it twice already, and it hung over the trail like grapevines off the trellis. As I rode headlong into the first imposing blockage, terror mixed with dread made me slow down even though it was already into it. Damn it. Keep pedaling. There was nothing to be done, no way of avoidance save for going back to the car. Keep riding! Faster! Charge into it and stay on top of the bike. I thought of the bathouse, of finishing, and nothing more.
Like last year, the trail was either rocky or muddy. And not surprisingly, the mud was more predictable than the treacherous limestone slabs. A few miles into the event, I noticed how relaxed I felt. I had entered the singletrack with a good group of riders, but the conditions made for on-off-on again riding/walking. At first, the hike-a-bike pace was frustrating, but I realized that it was easy to keep pace with everyone else. In fact, I couldn’t go fast enough to breathe really hard because the traction was so tenous between the carbon fiber and steel of my soles and cleats and the mud-slicked limestone. In effect, I could easily manage an effective pace that was still easy on the old heart rate. So I quickly noticed that I was far better to climb off and hike than remain on my single-speed bike for steeper climbs, even ride-able ones. Where I’d have 20 pedal strokes with my body under tremendous tension -- muscles taught from my Achilles to my neck -- I could take 40 steps at a pace I could sustain all day.
At the end of the day, the race played out on the fastest section of trail at Syllamo’s, the red loop or Bad Branch Loop as it’s called. The rest steps I’d used earlier in the day, if you could call them that, enabled me to get to this fast section (the last fifteen miles or so) in what felt like terrific shape. I hadn’t cramped, and I’d been eating and drinking all day. My legs felt the effort, but they were a long ways from wooden. I entered that final loop, with what now seems like a fizzy, excited mental state. I’m proud to say it after quitting the year before -- proud that I reserved what I needed for the crucial last section of the race. I raced this last loop as if I’d just taken off at the sound of the starter’s gun, and with the same fervor. I finally felt the cramps I’d been nervous about all day. But they were light and I was able to pedal through them without really slowing. The last loop finally took its toll. I was getting tired, and I ran out of water, but I’d overtaken a good number of riders, including some single-speeders racing in my category.
There was no way I was going to falter. And I wasn’t going to stop for water at the last time through the checkpoint either.
The race was won in less than five hours. I did it in 6:07. As I rode in to the finish area, I heard someone shouting my name.
To cross that line after a year’s worth of shame was glorious. I wasn’t particularly fast, but I’d done it. And I felt like a racer again. Finally.
-- We’re proud to announce an upcoming Ibis Bicycles demo event on Thursday, May 20th, right here in Little Rock at Competitive Cyclist Headquarters. The fellas from Ibis are loading up in their Sprinter Van with their Hakkalugi cyclocross bikes plus their full range of carbon fiber mountain bikes, including the brand new Ibis Mojo HD!
They’ll be here all day showing off their wares and answering questions about what it is about their bikes that makes them so special. If you’ve never before ridden a dw-link mountain bike, come out and see for yourself why it’s one of our favorite suspension systems. We’ve got miles and miles of rooty, rocky trails right outside the shop door to challenge your perception of just how comfy and efficient 140-160mm of rear suspension can be.
The Ibis Bicycles Demo Event will run from 9:00am to 5:00pm. We’ll ask that if you show up at 4:59 and grab one of the demo bikes that it be back by 6:00 sharp to conclude the event. IDs will be required to ride the demo bikes and it might be a good idea to bring all of your riding gear including shoes and pedals so you’ll have the best experience possible.