<9 Death March 2013: In Which The Streams Are Crossed* And Training Pays Off!!!
*No, not like that. No legions of ectoplasmic beings were released in the making of this post.
In 2012, I didn’t finish a single race.
Okay, so I only had two starts, and I did finish the four-day, three-night 280-mile Tour of Hilly Places In A Flat State (not a race, but a whole lot of riding nonetheless) back in July — but my racing record was 100% DNF. In March, Timothy and I started the Death March, got lost, and DNFed after 42 miles in the wilderness; in November, I made it to the first turnaround in the Gravel Grovel before mechanical problems forced me to throw in the towel.
This year, I’m 1-for-1 thus far: one start, one finish. The Death March is behind us, and we finished, and — perhaps surprisingly — we finished pretty well!
In contrast to 2012’s grey and dreary Death March, 2013’s took place in glorious weather: though the few weeks before the race were so rainy that the bridge at the start location (provided by our gracious hosts, Midwest Trail Ride) washed out, on race day a bright late-winter sun consented to come out and play.
My day began with a kit decision (thermal jersey, or Gore Phantom jacket? — I went with the Phantom) and a solid breakfast at the Comfort Inn in Bedford, Indiana, where I kitted up and treated myself to a DIY Belgian waffle (as well as a couple oranges, a biscuit-and-egg sandwich, a banana, and tea) at 6:30 in the morning.
I figured a fairly sizeable breakfast wouldn’t kill me, since I had plenty of time to digest before the start at 9:00 AM.
Because the bridge was out at the MTR camp, Blackwell Limestone kindly provided parking for those of us whose vehicles were unlikely to make the creek crossing. Timothy met Denis and I there, then Team River City Cycling Society rode over to the MTR camp. Denis followed in the truck to see if he could find closer parking on the road.
I had to admit that, in that first few minutes, I had my doubts. As we cruised the mile or so up to the camp, I felt a little sluggish on the long-but-shallow climb. Timothy, too, was less than sure about our potential for the day. We were both recovering from illness-related training setbacks.
That said, the sun was shining and the temperature was cool, but comfortable. Soon, we reached the creek crossing where the bridge had been. For me, it would be the deepest and widest water crossing I’d ridden thus far. We had to ride it twice to start — once to get into camp; once to get back out.
I’ve always believed that the best way to face potentially-daunting obstacles is to charge straight at them (or, in this case, diagonally, since the crossing in question is diagonal), and that’s exactly what we did. It turned out the line we picked rolled straight through the deepest part, so my feet were soaked, but we both made it across without a spill.
At the check-in, I resisted the urge to introduce ourselves as “Team 184**” (our number from last year!). Soon, we had our race numbers, trail passes, and commemorative Death March 2013 t-shirts in hand. We weren’t entirely sure what to do with the T-shirts, so when we got back outside I stuck them in my trunk bag.
We hit the head one last time, then headed out to the start. I was pleased to see that the field was pretty large even given the situation with the bridge (or lack thereof). I was a little worried that only the really seasoned, intrepid riders would actually show up under the circumstances. Instead, 150 teams (300 riders!) lined (or, more accurately, bunched) up at the start.
Next came the most nerve-wracking part of the day: the wait for the drawing of the last two mandatory stops. Along with everyone else, we were hoping that Gorbetts cemetery would not be drawn, since it was way out on the other side of creation and up a long climb.
Fortunately, Gorbetts did not make the cut. Instead, Houston and Robertson — both conveniently located near other cemeteries already on our planned route — were called. This meant that we could ultimately shave about 10 miles and at least one wicked climb off our ride.
Relieved, we briefly consulted and decided on a strategy of waiting patiently at the back of the pack during the start. With 300 riders trying to cross one creek, a hurry-up-and-wait strategy that would allow us to cross in the clear seemed well advised.
We made the second stream crossing without incident, though we both forgot to gear down and had to practice our cyclocross dismounts as we rolled up the steep, slick bank on the far side.
There, we hung a right and briefly hooked up with Denis, who collected our T-shirts. We debated changing our socks, but decided against it (in fact, though they got wet a few times, my feet remained comfortable throughout the day) and headed for our first stop.
Predictably, our day began with a climb. It wasn’t a hard climb, though — just long and shallow, and we set ourselves an easy pace. At one point, due to the lay of the land, we appeared to be rolling on a slight descent and were mystified briefly by the fact that we still had to work to maintain speed. Then Timothy noticed that his Garmin indicated that we were, in fact, still climbing: we had encountered one of those pesky optical-illusions, a true false flat!
Soon, we turned left and headed down an actual descent (which was quite fun) to bag our first cemetery for the day.
To Team RCCS (AKA Team 144, AKA Former Team 184**), this was a pretty big deal. You see, in 2012, it took us a full hour and a half to bag our first check point. In 2013, we had our first within a half an hour.
In the next hour, we snagged two more checkpoints. We thought about doing the Fire Tower, but ultimately decided against it (in retrospect, a wise decision; I don’t think we would’ve gained as much time as it would’ve taken us to get up there, wait for everyone else to finish taking pictures, get our pictures, and get back down). Maybe next year.
Thus far, we’d ridden mostly on a combination of paved surfaces and really nice “strada bianca”-style terrain. Last year, the Powers That Be had dumped fresh, enormous, chunky, horrible gravel right before the race; this year, they hadn’t. This made for much smoother (though sometimes also much slicker) sailing. It was in the wettest spots that I realized the brilliance of Maxxis’ Raze tires: they’re fast on the road, but on the slick stuff, they have just enough texture to keep things rubber-side down.
Moreover, I quickly realized that the Tricross is a straight-up mountain goat. It climbs beautifully, handles with sure-footed ease on all kinds of stuff, and feels nice and stable on the descents. I was able to really let ‘er fly even on some of the non-paved descents (though I was still summarily dropped by a few much-more-confident descenders). As in 2012, I generally stayed ahead on the climbs, but this time I didn’t drop so far back on the descents as to lose sight of my partner.
After a beautiful stretch of rolling climbs and descents and a nice, flat road parallel to a creek, we rounded a corner and came at last to the start of Combes Road. We rolled off the pavement and onto some more lovely lightly-graveled clay surface. A little ways on, I paused to swap out my gloves and remove my jacket’s sleeves. The winter gloves and the sleeves went into the trunk bag; I proceeded in arm warmers and my light long-fingered gloves for the rest of the race.
This year, I knew what to expect from Combes Road. Because of that, I was probably feeling a little more cautious than I did the year before.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried — once passed beyond the famous gate, the Tricross just rolled on like a tank.
Through streams, mud, rocks, roots, and countless creek crossings, I was able to remain mounted with a few exceptions. There was one turn sharp enough that I can’t imagine any bike making it (with a fallen tree on one side and a drop-off on the other, for good measure!); the rest of the dismounts were mostly tree-in-trail related. Even on the dreaded Combes Road Climb, I dismounted only for a few yards, where the terrain was both steepest and slickest. (For what it’s worth, I still hate pushing my bike.)
Soon, we had bagged Elkinsville Cemetery. By this point, I was starting to feel pretty giddy. A non-DNF finish was in sight, and with Gortbetts off the table, the only remaining serious challenge was Callahan, which involved the longest true off-road stretch I’ve ridden to date (as far as I can recall, anyway).
Leaving Elkinsville, we hit a steep climb — the kind, as I said to Timothy, that I’d power up if it was July — and we both dismounted and pushed for a bit. We then proceeded to bag a few more checkpoints and grind up a long, steep climb that beat the crap out of me last year. This year, I rode most of it.
At the top of that climb, a wild SAG wagon appeared! We were completely stoked, having failed to find a SAG stop even once last year (Death March features roving SAG stops). This one couldn’t have come at a better time and place; I had just emptied my Camelbak and was definitely ready for some serious snacks. The SAG wagon offered water, another beverage choice, and an array of delicious comestibles. I snagged a bag of BBQ potato chips, some pretzel rods, a Mandarin, and some more pretzel rods, all of which were the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted right at that particular moment.
For a little while, we hung out and chatted with our fellow SAG-stoppers and the SAG-driver. Then, refueled and feeling optimistic, we rolled out.
…Or tried to. It was as he attempted to clip back in that Timothy realized he’d lost a cleat. We realized that, while both of us have bags of extra cleats and bolts at home, neither of us had possessed the foresight to bring so much as a single extra SPD cleat. Um. Oops?
To our defense, neither of us had ever lost a cleat mid-ride before — or, rather, I had, but it was because I hadn’t screwed it in well enough in the first place, and it has never happened since. While my pedals offered a flat side as well as an SPD-compatible side (which came in handy, by the way, whenever my cleats were chock full of clay and I couldn’t clip in), we didn’t have a wrench on hand that would let us swap pedals out, and Timothy didn’t think his carbon-soled shoes would pay nicely with the flat pedals anyway.
In the end, we decided to simply roll on as we were. For Timothy, this meant riding the last 18 miles with only one cleat!
At the bottom of the descent, I overshot Thompson (or was it Todd? I’m always getting them confused) Cemetery by a few meters; fortunately, Timothy stopped in time. We snagged a picture, then rolled on to …. er, the one cemetery at the Callahan trailhead and to Callahan, our final checkpoint for the day.
I don’t even know how to describe the experience of riding to Callahan. We took our final on-road cemetery picture, then descended into the trees. Sometimes — read, any time we were actually able to ride our bikes — it was wildly fun. Sometimes — read, any time we were pushing our bikes up ridiculous, clay-slicked ascents — it was horrible. Have I mentioned that I hate pushing my bike?
For the most part, I enjoyed the ride out to Callahan. At one point, as I gave the Tricross free rein on a bumpy descent, I said out loud, “This is just like riding hunters!” I was glad for the years of horseback riding experience that taught me to balance with my legs and core while my arms did something else entirely. I was grateful for the gift of what horse people call “following contact” and the “automatic release.”
The woods en route to Callahan offered one more major water crossing; one we would ride twice. It was at the bottom of a steep and rather wicked hill; a climb (largely unrideable) on the way out and a descent (totally rideable, though I also totally unclipped and stuck my feet out at the steepest point) on the return leg.
The outbound leg constituted the single worst bout of pushing-the-bike on the ride, though not the worst I’ve ever encountered (pushing Denis’ 60-pound folding mountain bike up loose scree on a ridiculous incline at Hippie Camp in 2011 was a thousand times worse than anything Death March dished out this year). That said, I got back on and rode as soon as it was humanly possible (I’m happy to say that Death March has made me much more confident off-road and also taught me how to get the bike going again when remounting on a gravel, loose-surface, or mud climb.)
For Timothy, there was an extra helping of horrible. With only one cleat, he lost a significant degree of mechanical advantage on the climbs and much of the finesse required for off-road riding in sloppy conditions. I was able to ride climbs where his mechanical limitation required a dismount-and-push approach.
Even so, I was now starting to feel tired, hungry, and cranky, and after our stop to snag our final checkpoint photo, I was often annoyed with myself for churning out a neck-breaking speed of approximately 1.7 miles per hour on long stretches of the trail. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever ridden so slowly for so long: the trail surface continued to be wet, often gnarly, and strewn with occasional obstacles that required a dismount-and-lift approach.
Soon, though, Timothy announced that we were two tenths of a mile from the road!
Okay, so I’ll admit that I didn’t quite believe him at first, since it took bloody long enough to get there — but, in fact, he was right. Abruptly, after rounding a long bend, the trail dumped us out at the base of one last wicked gravel climb. We both wound up walking part of that one.
With that bastard behind us, though, we were home free. Suddenly we were sailing along at speeds upwards of fifteen miles per hour, often hovering around nineteen. I couldn’t help but think back to the awful start of last year’s Gravel Grovel, when I watched the field ride away from me as I fought my bike with everything I had to crank out a measly 16 MPH.
Soon, we were returning to camp. Because my shoulder was not cooperating, Timothy lifted the Tricross over the barriers on the closed bridge we had to cross. We spanked along at a nice clip, and soon we came to the parked cars lining the bank opposite the MTR camp.
Denis was waiting at the spot where the end of the bridge would be. We waved to him as we passed and dove into the creek crossing. Just as we began the descent, someone zoomed up on my left side and took the line I was heading for without so much as an “On your left!” I was a bit nonplussed, but this last-minute passing attempt apparently didn’t work out for the rider in question.
Without losing another spot, we rolled up the far side (I nearly rammed Timothy from behind as his cleatlessness caused some climbing difficulty, but managed to get around without killing anyone), hung a right, and rolled through the finish line. I’m pretty sure we were both elated that we’d finished.
Our finishing time was 4:08, and we were told we could feel free to kick back and stuff our faces and take our time; the checkpoint check-in desk was in no hurry.
Inside, I crammed a Naked Burrito, a cookie, and a glass of lemonade down my gullet as fast as I could (thanks, QDoba!), then we checked in our pictures. At last, I bade Timothy good-bye, noting that I might be back if Denis wanted to cross the water, but wasn’t thinking that seemed likely.
Back at the truck, I managed to load the bike and my stuff without dropping dead; Denis observed that he thought we’d placed pretty well. On the road, we saw a good number of other racers still out plying their routes; some of them looked completely bushwhacked. Denis was optimistic about our standing in the GC; I was simply elated that we’d finished. For me, finishing the Death March marks the beginning of a new era in my racing life; one in which I plan to finish a lot more races and to finish decently well.
Today, Timothy discovered that, in fact, we did finish pretty well — 52nd out of 110 in the mens’ division; 75th out of 150 overall! Since our goal was to place in the top half of the field, we’re both pretty excited. In fact, I believe the word for what I’m feeling is “stoked!”
Anyway, that’s it for this year’s ride report. I took exactly no pictures and apparently somehow killed my Garmin out there (update: the Garmin is not dead, but it also failed somehow to record Saturday’s miles and lost a bunch of data somewhere; I’ve reset it and it seems to be functioning again), so I will have to gank pix from Timothy’s blog when he posts them.
I was planning on hitting the hills today, but I’m feeling iffy about it. Tomorrow, I will probably do the full commute to school for the first time in a number of weeks. Spring is near and my racing season is off to a great start. I’m looking forward to more of the same, with more racing opportunities this year than I’ve had before. There’s even a new team adventure race up in Hoosier National Forest in September — more on that soon!
Keep the rubber side down!
** I just noticed that I was totally wrong about this. We were Team 182 last year.