Last year I did a race report on the Skyway Epic and how I have never wanted a race to end so badly in my life. This year’s edition turned out to be just as “epic”, though I felt much better during the race than I did a year ago. Here is a quick report from the 2013 edition.
Brian and I met up at 6:15am Sunday to head out of town. I made sure to eat just a light breakfast (toast with cream cheese) this year, as opposed to the Egg McMuffin meal I ate last year that surely led to some of my stomach issues. For the first thirty minutes or so, my nerves were fired up…Brian had to tell me to calm down at one point. I think I was just apprehensive about getting myself into another sickness situation at this year’s race that I had a hard time chilling out. After all, this would be my first long effort since I began having daily hypoglycemic issues after the 2012 Skyway Epic. I knew that I would likely be ingesting a lot of sugary drinks and gels, which would typically wreak havoc on my blood system.
Once we got near the race site all was good, and we quickly checked in and unloaded our bikes. By the time we had everything ready, we ran into Big Joe and headed over to the starting area. We didn’t even realize Joe had signed up, so it was good to see a third teammate there.
Once the race started, we had maybe 100 yards of open dirt and grass until we hit the first section of singletrack on the Sylaward Trail. This did little to separate the group (I’m guessing maybe 60 riders), so some inevitable bunching up occurred at the trailhead. I had intended to stay right behind Joe, who was two riders behind Brian, but a couple other guys slipped in between us. After not even a mile of singletrack the gap between Joe and I had grown so much I could no longer see him….the two guys in front of me were just not as fast and allowed way too much separation to occur. There was nowhere to safely pass for the first couple of miles, so I just sucked it up and hoped to be able to bridge up to Brian and Joe once we exited the singletrack. However, by the time we hit a wide section of doubletrack they were nowhere to be found.
I passed a few folks on the doubletrack, which was short-lived as the race immediately dumped us onto more singletrack (basically the reverse from 2012, where we kept most of the singletrack at the end of the race). While I was happy I would not have to endure the punchy singletrack climbs at the end of the race, it also sucked to yet again get stalled by slower riders in front of me. Some of the singletrack was brand new for this race and therefore I had never ridden it. I wasn’t even sure how long it would be between doubletrack sections, so I waited too long before finally passing a few riders.
After a few brutally steep trail exits (riding over dirt berms, crossing a drainage ditch at 90 degrees, and then hitting a road) and a creek crossing with steep mud on both sides, we hit a stretch of semi-smooth doubletrack. Problem is, this section had a couple of good mud puddles and I would have my first crash of the day. A pretty good crash as it turns out, as I tried to bypass the mud by going slightly off-trail to the right only to have the remnant stubs of a freshly-cut tree trunk maybe 1” in diameter grab my frame and send me off the front left corner of my bike into the mud. When I got up my bike was still standing somewhat upright, with tree stubs lodged between my spokes and between my chain and rear derailleur. I immediately noted that I was really lucky to have not damaged anything on my bike, and then hopped back on to try to gain some ground.
Shortly after, we would arrive at the first aid station, where I took a refill on one of my bottles and downed a gel. From there, we had around 5 or 6 miles of gravel roads to try to boost the average speed back up. It was in this section that I had caught up to Joe, who told me that he also got stuck behind some slower trail riders on the singletrack and had no idea how far Brian was up the road. It’s amazing how much time we both lost by getting stuck behind others….I was starting to wish that we would have had less singletrack and more doubletrack for the first 10 miles of the race just to have a chance to split up the field a bit.
Once the climbing began in earnest, I bid Joe a temporary farewell and began my ascent towards the Skyway ridgeline. I grabbed another bottle and a banana at the second aid station, which was at the base of the KOM/QOM climb, which climbs roughly 640 feet in just over two miles. All told, the complete Bull’s Gap Climb from Rocky Mtn Road gains 1,028 feet over 3.4 miles. It is NOT an easy climb, especially given the rocky terrain.
By the time I had reached the top of the climb I was pretty well isolated with nobody in sight. I was able to gain some good ground on the rollers, particular the flatter sections, and passed more people than what passed me. The problem I found is that riding my fully rigid bike was like bringing a knife to a gunfight…it was just not the best equipment. While a hardtail might still be a good choice, having front suspension on this course is a MUST if you are trying to do it at race pace. My splits on the downhill sections last year were considerably faster than they were this year, even though I felt better and stronger physically. I would guess that the downhill sections probably cost me a total of ten minutes this year. A lightweight full-suspension bike that climbs well would have been an excellent choice, but no such bike exists in my garage.
Cramps were coming on strong by around mile 25. My ipod started playing “Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne, which was exactly how I was feeling at the time. But once I popped a couple of Succeed S-caps I felt immediate relief and charged on. The Skyway ridgeline portion of the race just stretches on and on, and it cannot be stressed enough how rocky, rutty, and challenging the terrain is. There are just simply no good places to catch your breath and recover.
The terrain does get a little smoother for the last couple of miles, which is mostly downhill to the turnaround point. After receiving my green cable tie signifying I had “checked in” at the turnaround, I hung out for quite a while refilling my bottles, downing a gel, and then refilling some more to make up for what I just finished guzzling. Not long after leaving the aid station, I passed Big Joe looking surprisingly fresh as he made his way to the half-way point. A quick “wazzup” and I was back to traversing the Skyway trail on my way inbound.
This year I felt much better on the return leg of the Skyway trail than I did a year ago, but was maintaining a slower overall average speed. I attributed this to having started this year’s race with the long sections of singletrack, as well as to me needing to ride the downhills conservatively considering I had no suspension to help me out. I tried to make up as much time as I could, which led me to take some more chances on the rocky downhills. It’s a wonder I didn’t crash out or get flat tires by careening through some of the larger rocks and rut drops. The ipod that I had clipped on my sleeve fell off five times, requiring me to pull over to reclip it. Finally during the long steep descent on Bull’s Gap I just rode with it in my mouth for two miles until I got to the aid station at the bottom, where I then stuffed it into my pocket pouch.
From this aid station, there is a fairly long and fast gravel downhill that you can use to really pick up some distance quickly. By this time I was riding and chatting with another racer, as we were able to pace off of each other for the next five miles to help make up some time. I decided to stop for another bottle refill at the last aid station, whereas my riding mate went on ahead. I should have stayed with him, because after the aid station I completely missed the turn-off for the next section of trail. I just kept riding on the gravel road until it eventually came to a large berm. I then stupidly rode over the berm and across a land bridge. Then over another berm and across a big field. When I got near the end of the field and could see that there was in fact no trail where the woods started, I finally convinced myself that I missed something and turned around. In addition to the extra mileage, the backtracking that I had to do was uphill…it’s a little demoralizing to have to backtrack uphill because of a mental mistake after 50 miles of exhausting riding. (I would also later miss another trailhead, bringing my total of extra distance to around 3 miles on the day).
Finally back on the correct trail, I began to hit the gas on the smoother sections of doubletrack when I saw the mud hole that caused me to crash hard the first time through. Knowing to stay away from the brushline this time, I hit the mud near the left side and began what was a rather remarkable crash. My bike slid out from under me at full speed, sending me sliding across the top of the mud for probably ten feet and falling hard on my right side. Because my body naturally reacted to the crash by tensing up, I lay on the ground with both thighs and both triceps locked up in cramps. I was also still hooked into both of my pedals. My thigh cramps were explainable due to having ridden over 50 miles in muggy conditions, whereas my triceps cramped up because they had been so hammered on the Skyway descents that they were almost as fatigued as my legs. Another guy came up behind me and also slid out, narrowly missing me while I was trying to get unclipped from my pedals.
Not long after I hit the creek crossing again, followed by a few miles of singletrack before the final land bridge crossing. After the land bridge I knew there would only be a few more miles of singletrack before the finish line. It was during this last section of singletrack that my rear brake failed. It didn’t just wear through the pad (which it did), but one of the bolts had completely come out so now I had zero use of a rear brake. I’m not sure if the bolt got sheared off somehow, or if the bumpiness of the day had caused the bolt to shimmy loose. Either way, I was faced with having to scale back my speed enough to feel comfortable taking the turns and downhills with just a front brake to slow me down. But finally I dropped out of the Sylaward Trail and made my way through the finish chute where Brian was waiting for me.
It turns out that during one of the times that I missed the trail markers Joe had been able to slip past me, as he was washing his bike as I was finishing up. It surely would have been a sub-6 hour race for me had I not gotten off course, but nonetheless I was happy to be done. And more than that, I was thrilled that I was able to complete the race without any hypoglycemia flare-ups. I’m still trying to figure out ways to keep it under control, and this race was a huge step in the right direction for how to give myself nutrition during an endurance event. While I consumed a fair amount of gels, along with an EFS flask, I kept plenty hydrated (about one bottle per hour) with a weak mix of HEED and also downed a banana mid-ride.
After the race, Brian and I both really wanted something to eat but each time we walked by the food table we basically just cringed thinking about it. So we both just had a cold Coke and some water, and waited for the door prizes to be called. Last year I won a fender set that I will never use, so I was holding out some hope of something good this year (like the Twin Six water bottles with gift certificates). We were both so sick of HEED from drinking it all day, and would laugh every time someone’s name got called to get a 72-serving container. So as luck would have it, I won me some HEED.
While the day was punishing, and I definitely have a lot of scrapes and bruises all over my body from my crashes, I’m not quite ready to say I’ll never do this race again. After all, half of the fun is trying to best my time from the previous year. But with that said, I need to make it a point to pre-ride the course before next year’s event to try to get used to the layout and to figure out where it is worth putting in monster efforts.
All in all, it was indeed Epic.
still plenty of mud after driving around for over 24 hours.
rear brake bolt totally missing. other bolt was very loose and about to come off.
Big Joe rolling through