Last weekend, November 16-17, 2013, I finished the Cross Florida Individual Time Trail mountain bike race — a self supported 265 mile race from the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf of Mexico over singletrack trails, dirt roads, and quieter paved roads. This was my fourth year riding in the five year old event.
The course this year was from New Smyrna Beach, Florida to the end of the old barge canal diggings near Inglis, Florida. Thirty six official riders lined up for this no-entry-fee, wildcat type of ride. There were one or two renegade style unregistered riders on the course as well. They were following the course, but did not appear on the race updates at www.trackleaders.com.
The course was longer and tougher this year than ever before, and to add a challenge, the route crosses the St John’s River on a Ferry that only operates from 7AM -5PM. Last year I barely made the last boat across. I estimated this year’s course would be as much as two hours longer as some paved road sections had been changed to dirt road, doubletrack, and a really slow section of unkempt social trails/firing range/ATV track. I changed my start time from the mass start at 6AM to 4AM have a chance at making the ferry.
Friday before the race, Chris, Paul, and I drove up to Inglis, where we met Mark and Kevin, who ferried us across. For the most part, all was smooth and efficient. We did turn back for a forgotten bag, but made New Smyrna in plenty of time to settle in and meet the other riders for dinner. We arrive, start to unload the bikes, and I see that my axle, the part that attaches the wheel to the fork, is neither in the fork or the wheel. (The wheel had been taken off to fit in the truck.) I ask Paul where he put it when he moved the bike from my car to Kevin’s truck. Oh, how crushed he looked when he told me it is on the roof of my car, two hundred miles away.
I simultaneously accept that I may not be racing and work towards fixing the problem. Paul offered to drive over to get the part, but he would be up all night and ruin his own race, so I told him no. I asked all my fellow racers if they had a spare, but no one did. The somewhat rare part is specific to only certain types of Fox suspension forks. I did receive offers of a cyclocross bike and two cars, which shows how these unsupported racer types will reach out to support each other. I kept the offer of a car in mind, thinking I might race the course backwards after driving back to get my axle, but then went for the long shot.
I found a bike for sale locally on Craigslist that had the right part. Using my best phone skills I asked the seller if he would sell just the axle. He wasn’t sure and recommended I call his girlfriend who was the actual owner of the bike. These calls were high stakes for me. I was acutely aware of the danger of making a wrong impression. Imaging calling a total stranger on a Friday night…..”Yeah, I saw your ad in Craigslist. I want your axle tonight. I need you to bring it to my hotel.” Mmmhmm…right, no danger there. I organized my thoughts, made the second call and got voicemail. I left a very careful message, explaining my predicament, providing the URL of my facebook page where anyone could verify my story, and offering a $150 for a part that retails for about $75. Then I wait. We walked over to dinner, meeting all sorts of racers in the parking lot and at the restaurant. I asked everyone I saw for a lead on an axle. I missed opportunities to really get to know and connect with my fellow racers as I am obsessing over the axle. I wait and hope for the phone to ring.
Dinner was a blur. I was mostly staring at my phone looking for options on my missing part and willing it to ring, and then finally, Jennifer, an adventure racer from Daytona calls me back. Being a fellow racer, she is kind and sympathetic to my situation. She is having a hard time believing her part is what I need, but I assure her it is and provide instructions on how to take it off the bike. She agrees to make the sale, but is not at home. She says she will call when she is on the way. I spent another hour all ecstatic and worried at the same time, then finally, Jennifer calls and arrives, the deal is done, and my race is officially back on.
Some racers have mentioned having a theme, mantra, spirit guide, or avatar for these races. For this race, I decide on Honey Badger. “Honey Badger don’t care” will be the thought I use to greet all the difficulties ahead. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg is where I learned of Honey Badger’s determination and resilience. Starting the weekend in the rain with a broken bike, each time I felt nervous or was faced with some new problem, I would just say to myself, “honey badger don’t care, ” and continue on my path. I had packed 27 scoops of Hammer Sustained Energy, 4 scoops of Cytomax, 2 bags of nuts and dried fruit, GUs, and a fistful of Cliff Bars. For this race, I planned to stop only for water before the ferry. Even after the Ferry, my only food purchases were in Salt Springs and Dunellon. For racing, this worked quite well. The problem is I love touring more than racing and felt a little sad to pass all the food stops. Honey Badger mode is efficient, but next long ride I think I will be a fun loving squirrel instead.
There were just three of us on the beach at 4AM. We took our required pictures at the start and off we went. We all were split up at first, but then met in a section of rough going with a water crossing and another required photo of an old railroad bridge ruin. I tweaked my back in there a little carrying my bike over all the fallen trees, but honey badger didn’t care. Once back out onto the roads I made good time, and did not stop again until the photo checkpoints in Olsteen and on the bike path. I refilled my water at mile 60 or so, where Chris passed me. I saw her again in the Chuck Lennon Singletrack where she passed me again while I refilled my bottles and mixed up some more sports drink. We passed back and forth and sometimes rode together until somewhere between Lake George and Seville.
The rain began again as I approached the ferry. Sticky sand slowed my ride, but I still had enough time. The endless turns the route took as is approached the Ferry were a trial. I had recorded the mileage incorrectly and spent an hour thinking the ferry should be around the next corner. During this part of the ride I had expected all the fast riders who started at 6AM to be passing me, but that did not happen. When I reached the ferry, I was the only cyclist there. I learned that Chris and two others were on the crossing that had left just before my arrival and that only a few had been before them. It was late in the day. I asked the ferryman if he would take one more trip after mine. He said he would, so I hopped aboard and left right away with just one car for company, happily knowing that anyone just behind me would not be stranded.
Chris was waiting for me on the other side. For safety reasons, we had agreed to try to ride together across Ocala National Forest at night. There are bears and sometimes odd people there. I sometimes think the danger is overrated. Every time I see a bear out there, it is running away. As to the odd people, I am out there in my blinking lights and day-glo spandex, riding a light weight racing bicycle while carrying 15 pounds of gear, tools, parts, and food in a place obviously designed for pickup trucks. I am probably the oddest of the odd people out there at that moment.
We stopped for a big meal at a restaurant in Salt Springs. There we met Celso, who even though we live just a few miles apart, I had not met until the dinner party Friday night. We invited him to join us in crossing the Ocala National Forest. Conditions here were perfect. The rain had packed down the sand roads. The moon was bright enough that we could ride without lights. It was warm, but there were no mosquitoes, which is pretty much a miracle in Florida. The three of us finished ONF strong, then made our way to the Santos singletrack.
We picked up Mark at the beginning of the Santos trails and maintained a nice pace over the yellow (easy) trails to the Landbridge trailhead. Here we decided to refill our water bottles, eat a little, and nap. Tackling the upcoming technical trails would be faster and safer in the daylight. Sadly, the police came and told us we could not stay at the restroom/picnic area at night, so we packed up and left. The trails were easy enough at first, but then became really difficult. I tried a few times to convince everyone to sleep for an hour or two, but there was talk of bears and the danger of the woods, and we pressed on.
I had been in the lead from the Santos trailhead, but after stopping on a technical section, I was too tired and befuddled to see how to ride the next section. It was a giant hill with an assortment of complex technical challenges. Chris took the lead, but fell just a little ways ahead. I once again pressed my case for stopping. I would have stayed by myself at that point if the others wanted to go on. I knew there no bears in that section of the route and felt perfectly safe sleeping in the woods. In fact I felt safer there than at the trailhead, because I am more afraid of people than bears. I lay down on a mylar blanket and covered myself with a silnylon tarp and had an hour or two of deep restorative sleep. Chris and Celso saw the advantages of a nap, while Mark continued on the route.
When we woke up in the daylight, the horrible difficult trail had transformed itself to a buttery smooth, gently rolling ribbon of singletrack. Where Chris had fallen was just a small little root crossing the trail. We had a nice ride on Nayl’s Trails and Ern and Burn, two of the harder sections of the route. Chris and Celso raced ahead. I did not have the skills to maintain their pace and thought I would not see Chris again for miles, or Celso until the finish line. Instead I found both waiting for me at the exit of the difficult singletrack. Nice. I suggested we stay together until the end and agree to call the race between us a tie. We easily made our way over to the Trike Trail, which being less than a year old and infested with feral pigs, was soft and heavy going. It was bumpy, and at 200 miles, our behinds were in no condition for bumpy. I found it best to pedal hard for a segment then stop and rest. Spinning in an easy gear would exposed me to the bumps and brought much suffering to the end of the ride.
Chris took the lead there and was hitting cobwebs. Cobwebs? So we are winning? Go figure. I usually am last or near to it in these events. I know that two of the riders who had either passed or started before us went off course or had withdrawn. They stopped at the landbridge, but left again without taking the required photos. Strange, they never said hello or goodbye. I couldn’t see who it was in the dark. They murmured to each other then left the landbridge via the limestone road. Despite the cobwebs, I was pretty sure there must have been some one still in the race ahead of us. Anyone riding that in the dark may easily have gone off to the side of the trail sometimes, as it is new, soft, and covered with leaves. Or maybe, we were so far behind, the spiders had had time to build more webs since the last rider.
After wearing ourselves down on the soft, strength sapping trike trail, crossing the sandy and grassy roads of the Pruitt section was a chore. It took all my strength to lift my bike over the gates at the end. I’m very glad for the weight training I have done this year. I was out of water by this point. The new route does not pass the water stop at Ross Prairie trailhead. We pushed on to Dunellon, where we had a feast at the gas station convenience store. I drank a chocolate milk and a mango smoothie and felt much restored. We were caught by a couple of the fast riders there. They had been behind us, spending the night in the comfort of a Silver Springs hotel. I knew keeping up was futile, so we continued to enjoy our breakfast.
From here on, the course was paved roads, dirt roads, and horrible push-the-bike deep sand. Chris and I both had falls, our cleats were so clogged up with sand that we were stuck, landing under our bikes in the deepest sand. Chris’s fall was broken by a thicket of sand spurs. She did not like that very much and will aim for plain old sand next time. We were all slower, everything hurt, but kept steadily onwards. It was such a relief to finish. I had a little picnic and could have stayed for hours napping and eating, but the no-see-ums were chewing us up, so back to the hotel we went. We chatted with some folks near the finish and learned we were placed quite well. I was very surprised. I am not the fastest rider out there. The 4AM start turned out to be a huge advantage. I will probably never place so well again. Just this one time, it seems experience and judgement made up for my lack of speed.
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