Shenandoah Mountain 100: an epic blog about an epic race
Blog by Kim Ely
I’d heard quite a lot about the Shenandoah Mountain 100 race. “The best in the series, fantastic course, sweet trails, great race director, top notch post-race party, awesome weekend of camping…” And less loudly, “there’s 14,000 feet of climbing, and something called the Death Climb.” Oh, boy, here we go.
The Shenandoah Mountain 100 is the 12th race in the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) series. The series includes 13 races in 13 different states across the country. Most races are 100 miles, and the few that are a little shorter in distance make up for it by being really challenging. Shenandoah is the biggest race in the NUE series in terms of the number of competitors, and the second biggest endurance mountain bike event in the country behind the famous Leadville 100. Shen, as it is affectionately known by the racers that return year after year for one of their favorite events, was going to be my second 100 miler, having finished the Mohican 100 earlier this year.
Thursday before race day involved assembling piles of gear and making last minute checks on the bikes. For me, a big worry with the 14,000 feet of climbing is that meant 14,000 feet of descending. My brakes had been persistently noisy, to the point of being really annoying, embarrassing and making me want to wear ear plugs. I was super happy that installing new rotors and pads the week before had solved that problem.
With everything (we hoped) packed into the car, at 5 am on Friday we headed off to Virginia, trying to beat the worst of NYC traffic. That plan worked out pretty well, and in less than two hours we were across Manhattan and through the Holland Tunnel. Thanks to Eisenhower and his visionary interstate highway system, we only needed to make one other turn and by midday we had cruised through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia to arrive in Harrisonburg, Virginia. First stop was the Shenandoah Bicycle Company for a few extra supplies, and a chat with the enthusiastic staff about the race. A pattern was emerging, yes, there was a lot of climbing, but the descents were so rewarding that it was all worth it. A wander about town and some lunch and we were on our way to Stokesville.
Arriving at the campground on Friday afternoon there not many people around as we set up camp and then headed out, trail map in hand, to see for the first time what riding in Virginia was all about. A bit of road riding took us out to the location of the last aid station, then we followed what would be the last ten or so miles of the race. Paved road gave way to gravel, then a sharp turn and we were climbing Hankey Mountain on a jeep track. This was a good part of the course to know, as you get to do it twice during the race. At just under 2 miles at a steady 7% gradient, this climb has plenty of switchbacks, each one looking like it could be the top, but, no, it goes on. After reaching the ridgeline we turned north; finally onto some singletrack. Some nice bumps and rollers were reward for the climb. Then the trail dives off the ridge, down a loose, steep descent that goes on for around a mile. It was exhausting, and I was considering stopping to rest and regroup, and wondered how I was going to manage to stay in control doing this after almost 100 miles of riding. Particularly if it was dark. Eventually we came out onto the easier terrain of an overgrown jeep track that took us back towards camp. A short single track descent delivered us to the field where we would find the finish line on Sunday.
On Saturday morning we checked out the first 6 miles of the course, an undulating gravel road climb, before heading to the swimming hole, lunch and a relaxing afternoon. Time flew by, and it was soon time to register, sort out drop bags and do some last minute bike checks. The camp had filled up, and there were hundreds of racers there for the pre-race pasta dinner, racing briefing and a couple of beers. It was tempting to have more, but all too soon it was time to set the alarm and try to get some sleep. Sunday arrived with buzzing alarms and the official race gong doing the rounds on the campsite. It was too early, and I tried to snatch a few more minutes sleep, but it soon became evident that the only thing to do was get up. Breakfast. Mix up drinks and fuel bottles. Try and beat the bathroom queues. Go on a wild goose chase looking for a supply of coffee that had been exhausted. Nevermind, a cup of tea will do. Time to roll over the start line and bid good luck to other racers from Long Island, Jeff, Randy, Peri and Wayne. The starting area was staked out with time brackets and I rolled down past the 7 hour, 8 hour, 9, 10, and 11 hour signs before slotting myself in just in front of the 12 hour group. The crowd behind the 12, 13, 14 hour posts was pretty sparse; I guessed I was in the back 20% of the line up. My main goal was to finish, preferably in daylight. Twelve hours was an aspirational target. Over 13 hours and it would be getting dark. Some announcements were made, I couldn’t understand any of what was being said. Then we were rolling.
The first part of the race was just about finding a rhythm and not using too much energy. As we got onto the gravel climb I picked out a rider and tucked in behind him. He was keeping a nice steady pace, and his tall, broad shouldered figure made for some good drafting potential. This turned out to be an excellent choice, as while we didn’t ride together a lot, Nick from Tennessee and I to’ed and fro’ed many times during the day. Then Wayne came by, having made up any ground lost spinning his single speed on the flat road, and I jumped on his wheel. After 40 minutes riding, 7.7 miles in, there were still plenty of riders about, and we found ourselves stopped, joining the queue to start walking the first single track. It was a bit frustrating to be walking what was really nice trail to ride, but there’s not much you can do short of wasting a ton of energy and being really annoying by dragging your bike off into the brush and trying to squeeze past people. But soon enough people were able to get on their bikes again, and while the pace wasn’t fast, at least we were rolling. The summit of the first, and smallest, climb of the day was reached at the 9.3 mile mark. This was rewarded by over 2 miles of amazing, smooth, bermed, rolling downhill single track. So. Much. Fun. One day I’d like to ride this much faster, but for now I was just happy to enjoy it, pulling over occasionally to let speedier riders whizz by. As I neared the bottom of the descent I could hear cheering coming from Aid Station 1, and a few people perched on big boulders getting a view of the single track. I rolled through Aid 1 and started up the next gravel road climb. At the 18.5 mile mark this turned onto the Lynn Trail single track, and pretty soon I was back into a hike-a-bike conga line for the 1100 ft ascent over 2 miles. After several “are we there yet?” switchbacks I finally made it to the ridgeline and passed a bunch of riders catching their breath at the top. The Wolf Ridge singletrack was a sometimes rough, but very impressive descent of nearly 5 miles. Thankfully it got smoother lower down, so I didn’t rattle all of my teeth out. I was thinking of Wayne and his choice of a rigid front fork. As I came out at the bottom onto a gravel road I noted that I had covered 25 miles in exactly 3 hours. Pretty easy maths to calculate a finish time of 12 hours. Early days, but on good schedule for a daylight finish.
The next 10 miles were much faster going. Not too far down the road I caught up to Wayne. We had a quick chat before my extra gears allowed me to pull away on the rolling terrain. I made a quick stop in at Aid Station 2 before continuing onto the third climb of the day, Hankey Mountain. There were plenty of riders on the climb, but the double track made for easy passing. No walking required on this one. At some point Wayne caught me again and went by. At the ridgeline the track ended, but with less than half of the climbing done, we continued going up, up and more up on singletrack. It was tough, but I knew I was headed to the raved about Dowells Draft descent. Not far from the top I passed Randy, and gave him a big shout out knowing that I would be seeing him again soon on the descent. After four and a half hours of riding, and around 41 miles, I started the descent. Not far from the top the trail turned pretty hairy, with a super steep section with lots of loose rock. I was off the bike, as several others were, scooting my way down and trying to stay upright, getting off to the side to let braver riders skid and slide their way down. Randy came by at this point, walking the trickiest section but then back on his bike and bombing down the shale. Having gotten that out of the way I knew it was all fairly smooth sailing to Aid Station 3 at the bottom of the descent. As long as I stayed on the trail. It was fast and a lot of fun, but a little off camber and you had to keep your wits about you to not slide off the side and down the mountain. I passed Wayne as he was running back up the trail to get first aiders to a rider who had done exactly that. I continued on rather cautiously, looking for the fallen rider. When I reached him he was up and walking. After confirming that he didn’t need any help from me I continued my flight path down the mountain.
After Aid 3 the next climb started with about 6 easy miles on a highway with a gentle gradient. Here I caught up to Randy again, who was struggling with a badly buckled wheel after breaking spokes earlier in the race. It was really nice to have some familiar company, and we worked together for a while, but he found himself speed limited on the descents. When a train of riders came by he yelled at me to jump on, so I grabbed a wheel and pushed on. Unfortunately this group fragmented quickly, but three of us maintained a good pace, helped by some perhaps overenthusiastic work by a young guy. In any case, this quicker progress ended abruptly after turning onto singletrack that certainly wasn’t designed to ride up. The narrow trail clung to the mountainside, and featured high step ups formed out of rock slabs. More hike-a-bike. At this point the field had thinned out, and in sections where some people could still ride where others walked riders were able to pass and make headway. This climb went on for 2 miles at an average of 10%. Sometimes riding, sometimes walking, it was hard work. But we were past the halfway mark. Every step, or turn of the crank, was getting me closer to the end. Finally over the top, then it was a 17 minute singletrack downhill. I cannot remember anything about this descent. I’ve absolutely no idea what went on in this section. I was getting tired. The gradient then flattened into a gentle valley as I finished the descent into Aid Station 4.
I spent a few minutes at the aid station, probably eating, probably drinking, and getting my bottle refilled. I was 6 hours and 40 minutes in, and had covered 58 miles. And was about to start the Death Climb. It would be 23 miles, 2300 ft of elevation gain and two and a half hours before the next serious downhill. Innocuous enough to start, the route headed gently up the road, over some undulations. I was trying to catch some people to ride with, but I found myself riding away from anyone that I caught up with. It was going to be a long slog. After 13 miles of up the gradient kicked into a completely different league. Had to keep on spinning. My pace was dwindling, and I wasn’t feeling good at all. Just under 2 miles at an average of 8% on gravel road. Not that I knew these figures as I was riding it. I got to a point where I just had to take a break. Let’s just say that sitting in the saddle spinning a low gear and climbing for this long was new territory. A sachet of chamois cream provided instant relief, and downing a caffeinated gel gave me the burst of energy I needed to get back on and pick up the pace to Aid Station 5. Yet again, all of the volunteers were amazing and helpful. They even had pizza. But my stomach said no to pizza, and yes to orange slices. This is a very rare thing. But that orange was delicious. It was still an hour before the cut where you had to take lights, so I was very happy to leave them in the drop bag. Wayne rolled in just as I was heading out, so we said a quick hello. He had warned me that the hardest section was to come, with another 5 miles of climbing to go. I prepared for the worst and was off. The climbing continued, but the trail was narrower, and climbing was interrupted by some flowy descents, so it was good fun and more interesting than the wide gravel road before Aid 5. I was constantly yo-yoing with a couple of riders; I would pass them on the climbs, they would pass me on the descents. Some of the more punchy ascents were becoming just too much. Too steep, too loose, it just seemed easier to walk than spend a huge effort riding up them. It was on one of these that Randy caught up to me again, and with a roar, cranked his way up. Following the disappointment and difficulty of the broken wheel, he’d regained his mojo and was on the way to the finish. Go Randy!
The highest point on the course. Nine and a quarter hours in, 82 miles covered. It was time to get off the mountain. The forest was dense, the singletrack was damp and the rocks were slimy. Ugh, not my idea of fun. After just a few minutes my hands and arms were really, really tired from hanging on the brakes. And the brakes felt weird. They were working, but I could barely reach the levers, so was braking with just the tips of my fingers. This was miserable. I pulled over and dialled in the reach on the levers. So much better. Down, down, down I go. Walked down a few steeper steps. Then the gradient eased a little and the fun factor increased exponentially. It was going to be downhill all the way to the last Aid Station, and I had been given the heads up that they would be serving the most delicious hand cut hot chips on the planet. I rolled into Aid Station 6 exactly 10 hours after starting. It was at this point that it really felt like I was going to do this. I knew what was coming up for the rest of the course, and while it wasn’t going to be easy (another Hankey Mountain climb, and steep descent), having a map in your head makes it easier to deal with. But I did need some more energy to get there. Mmmm, are there hot salty chips in those cups? Yes, please! Wayne arrived just as I was finishing the last chip. I got another cup to keep him company. We decided it would be good to try and ride the finish together. But my legs were heavy on the short road climb after the aid station. I pushed Wayne ahead; I would try and catch him on the gravel flats before the Hankey Mountain climb. We started the climb together, but I was starting to flounder badly. Not enough fluids to go with the chips, or is this just how it is near the end of a race like this? Hard to tell. I sent Wayne on as he was still riding strong. I would deal with the mountain on my own. At last I made the turn onto the ridgeline singletrack. Mostly downhill from here. Except for a few uphill parts, including one last short hike-a-bike. Then it was down the steep section that I’d found tough two days before. Compared to what I had ridden now, it was flowy and fun. Woot! I was nearly home. A few miles of undulating singletrack then I started to hear music and cheering from the finish. Dropped into the final trail that led down through the campsite. I knew I had a couple of riders on my tail, and I didn’t want to hold them up. Came out onto the grassy field. Swooped down over the bumps, could hear people cheering. I just had to hold on through the final corner and not wipe out. Saw the clock, it read 11:04:59. Rang the gong.
Of 510 starters, 423 finished, and I was 213th overall, and 13th of 52 women. Jeremiah Bishop won the open men in just over 7 hours, and Selene Yeager took out the women’s race in just under 9 hours. There was a bunch of racers chasing the cut off times who finished in just under 15 hours, and a lone finisher at 16:24. That is a long day in the saddle!
This race took me to a place of being present ‘in the moment’ over the course of an entire day, and then some. While some sections required intense concentration, and others were more relaxing, I realised that my mind was never anywhere else. I was totally absorbed in riding, eating, drinking, ticking off the miles, calculating finish times, my surroundings, glimpses of distant views, occasional butterflies, mentally preparing for what was to come, and conversations with racers and volunteers along the way. After I finishing, I was still there, cheering on others, talking to people about their race, enjoying lying on the grass and having the post-race atmosphere just wash over me. As we drove home on Monday, it seemed like a very long time since we had left home.
the video on Dirtwire.tv