MTB Race Report: The Squealer (in delight, and some pain...)
The name says it all. A literary homonym of a race with as many meaning as racers.
It was one of the most civil start lines. A testament to our midwest mentality and current location lined up along the two-track gravel, the swollen Council Bluff Lake barely discernible through the trees. At the sound of the horn, we rolled and clipped-in, negotiating the rutted, chunky-gravel uphill, bobbing and weaving to find the pack of riders off the start line with similar speeds and skills before we dove into miles upon miles of roller coaster single-track.
I got off the line well, and immediately found my climbing legs, accelerating to near the front of the pack. We drove past the cheering race organizers and assorted family, at the eventual finish line, vying for space as the course narrowed along a pavement road before the first of many creek crossings. Slippery rock steps and a rooty exit popped me and several racers off our bikes. After a perfectly executed cyclocross dismount and remount, I was back on the pedals.
My position among the riders was nearly perfect. I passed a few folks, and a couple more passed me, but overall I found myself immediately "among" a group of similar riders. In-and-out-and-in again amongst the endless reentrants along the lake trail. The freshly applied sunscreen and bug spray perfume I wore left a bit of a wake, and Laura, my female competition right on my six (!), commented on it. It would be the last time during that race that I smelled good, ha!
Leaving Council Bluff Lake behind, we rode a short ways on a connector before turning South on the Trace Creek Section of the Ozark Trail (OT). Hear we encountered our first real mud, some clean, some decidedly not, but all rideable. At least, I insisted on making it rideable as I had no intention of having mudding socks this early in there race. Bee Balm (Menarda fistulosa) bloomed all around. And something else "blooming" kept my nose running as fast as my legs were moving.
Oh the hills! Some of the hills on this sections get upwards of 20% grade (or sometimes downwards), testing my gear choice, HR, and tire tread. I kept a check on my heart rate, not wanting to blow a piston this early, but it was hard not to try and keep up with a group of riders challenging me on the technical descents, one with music emanating from a bike-mounted speaker.
I was trying my best to tail one rider, Wes, on a particularly switch-backy, loose-gravelly descent, until I heard the unmistakeable sound of brakes forcing a wheel to grab traction as he pulled up short just before the trail dropped several feet into the creek. Orange spray paint and signage did their job. We dismounted and one-by-one shouldered the bikes and waded into the creek Safely across and just remounting, I heard an "oh" followed by a loud splash, and another person saying "man, are you okay?" A friend had miscalculated the drop and dove face first into the creek! (Talking to him later, we found out he was okay after his bath).
By the time I got to the first checkpoint at HWY A, the chain was beginning to "creak" from all the "creek" crossings (some of them were running a bit high and fast). Thank you Doug-E-Fresh for giving me a tiny bottle of lube. I lubed the chain, inhaled a Need-for-Seed Picky Bar, took off my base-layer (the day was beginning to heat up), and took off with Wes down the single track. I was following tire tracks to what I thought was the way out to the road but what ended up being a dead-end at a campsite. Both confused, the two of us headed nearly back to the checkpoint before a group of four riders coming toward us took a different turn and we followed them out to the road. I spotted my sweetie through the trees just coming into the checkpoint and figured I would be seeing him before long.
On the road, I couldn't match the guys for power on the flats, but the legs were feeling great, so I pushed it a little to stay in the loosely organized pack. Many of the guys were eating and stretching as we moved along the few miles of road, preparing for what lay ahead... hills, or more like, hill.
This section consisted of 3ish miles of nearly deserted pavement (the occasional house, one of which was clearly occupied by a fan of Ohio State), and then 10ish miles of absolutely deserted gravel road. On the gravel, we had been warned that we would have to carry our bikes across a low-water bridge that had 2 ft of fast-moving water flowing across it. Long legs came in handy both here and as pistons on the steep ascent (and pre-race designated "King of the Mountain TBD Competition") on County Rd. 818. I blasted up this particular hill, stretching the legs after churning on the pavement. At the top, I turned on to County Rd. 835 and was quickly overtaken by two riders in our former pack. We were the Three Musketeers riding through the countryside. We meandered along the ridge, eating, hydrating, and diving in and out of the shadows, mentally checking for the upcoming trail head.
Tragedy strikes. My foot comes "unclipped" about a mile from the trail head. I look down and see only the spindle body of my left Crankbrothers Candy pedal sticking out from my crank arm. The pedal, I realize, is still attached to my shoe! I carefully thread the pedal back onto the spindle and slow to stop. The guys keep going, as I examine the stripped remains of the threads in the pedal. I do a mental check of my pack and realize I have no tools that can fix this, briefly wondering what chewing gum might do. Quickly dismissing this, I jump back on the bike, carefully clip in, and try a few test pedal strokes. It's slipping, but by adjusting my weight a little forward and holding my right leg against the bike, I can ride it. My thought, "this could be interesting". And, so, with no where else to go, I take off after the guys and catch them just as they are headed onto the trail (they must have slowed to make sure I was okay).
Uphills are easiest, downhills are much slower, and technical sections present a bit of a challenge for maneuvering since I am essentially only using half my body to maintain my balance. A loud "plunk" at a dismounted creek crossing requires me to take off my riding gloves and go fishing amongst the rapids for my fallen pedal. Two other times, I lose the pedal during a remount and have to go searching for the pedal amongst the trail-side brush. But each time, I retrieve it, slip it back on, and carry on for the 10ish miles of single-track to Checkpoint B at Barton Fen.
The trail was in amazing shape, a testament to the hard work put in by the race organizers, friends of The Squealer, The Ozark Trail Association, and countless others. Despite the technical challenge, I was thoroughly enjoying myself, riding, smiling, and identifying plants along the way (Pussy Toes!). However, I was having trouble, and had already decided to bail at the checkpoint unless by some miracle someone had a matching pedal to loan me or a tool to fix it.
Just over one mile from the checkpoint, I caught a rock on a downhill, and with more weight on the handlebars than I am used to because of the pedal, I took a flying lesson over the bars. Landing in a pile of horse poop, I "squealed" and rolled off the side of the trail. The two riders in front of me paused to call out and a third rider came up almost immediately behind me. Standing, I let them know that I had bruised my ribs but was otherwise in good shape. The rider that had been behind me kindly removed a chunk of horse poop from a vent in my helmet. I checked my bike for damage (brakes, bars, fork, and wheels), examined my extremities for cuts and bruises (there were a few new ones), decided I had gotten off easy, and strengthened my resolve not to continue unless I had a safe solution to the pedal.
Word had traveled ahead of me that I had taken spill, and I ran into Dave the paramedic coming down the short stretch of gravel to the trailhead from the checkpoint to check on me. He asked how my "wrist" was, and I smiled... our game of telephone in the woods after my spill had turned "ribs" into "wrist".
What are the odds? Someone could probably calculate them, but a volunteer at the checkpoint actually had a Crankbrothers pedal and was willing to loan it to me! I thought about the beautiful 20-mile stretch of single-track ahead of me (my favorite of the whole race), and smiled. Dave checked my ribs and breathing. All good. We put the pedal on, lubed the chain, filled the bottles with more Nuun. I changed into a glorious pair of fresh, clean, and dry Switwick socks, munched an Ah, Fudge Nuts! Picky Bar, chugged a sugar-free Red Bull, and took off up the Middle Fork.
I immediately, realized the problem with my ribs... turning. The long straight climbs were great, and my legs felt amazing, but each at switchback I had to lean forward and twist my lower body to avoid upsetting my tender rib cage. And it was during this section that I started to feel my rib "slipping out"; I could take my hand, push on the spot, and make it stop hurting for a few minutes.
The woods are quiet. Another rider can be 50 yards ahead or behind you and you would have no idea. I kept expecting to hear the words "Hey Babe" as Doug came grinding up behind me, and I briefly sent out a little thought that he was still rubber-side down and having a fun ride... Instead, I caught and passed the few riders who had left me at the checkpoint, and then I was back riding with Wes! He was incredibly motivating to have close, and it took my mind off the developing pain in my chest (I am a fantastic denialist!)
This section of Middle Fork can be maddening; each climb looks like the approach to the HWY 32 crossing and the John Roth Memorial at the DD Trailhead. And each time, it starts to descend, you are torn between joy at the thought of more single track and chagrin at the thought of another climb. I kept checking the mileage on my Garmin. "Not yet", it kept telling me.
And then there were three! Wes and I caught the third musketeer in our posse. We attacked the final hills, each pushing the pace on segments of our respective strengths. The smooth pavement of HWY 32 was suddenly under our tread, and once crossed, we all smelled the barn.
Uh-oh. A protracted downhill segment to the trail junction with the Trace Trail segment back to Council Bluff Lake follows. I pull off to let the guys pass, since my ribs are preventing me from really attacking the downhill (and they are both better downhillers and on full suspension bikes compared to my hardtail). They are quickly swallowed by the understory. I splash through a creek, pull up on the bars to ride out the short, technical exit from the water. I feel a pop in my chest, scream, and as if in slow motion, fall to the side of the trail. Breathing hurts, and I hold my breath as I sit-up. It's reflex to now reach my right hand to my rib cage and push, and I fell myself push my rib back into place as a huge sobbing wail escapes my lips.
The forest is so dense that the sound goes no where. I stand myself up. Check a couple of positions, and a few more sobs escape as I pick out what positions don't hurt. I reposition and tighten the chest strap on my pack, hoping this might hold something in. Only one way to go. Lifting my bike the rest of the way through the technical bit is difficult, but I manage to put a shoulder into the saddle, lean over, and push the bike the rest of the way up the short hill.
Riding steep inclines, standing on the pedals as I pull on the handles bars, or anything technical is out. If you know anything about the last few miles along Council Bluff Lake, this will prove to be something of a huge problem. But, I can still climb. I can still downhill with my weight on the back of the bike. And, I gingerly ease my leg over the the top tube, girl-style, and roll onto the pedals.
I'll spare you the details. I don't remember many of them anyway. My Garmin ran out of battery, so I had no way of knowing the mileage, but I did start the timer on my watch to keep track of the time. A few riders caught and passed me. I had one instance near the boat ramp at Council Bluff Lake (still 1-2 miles from the finish), when a root popped me off the bike, and my rib slipped enough to cause me to start wailing again. And it was at this moment that an unfortunate rider came upon me.
Most of the people who passed me must have thought I was just bonking. But, I think I scared him with my Squealing (it sounded worse because I couldn't breath and my wails came out like the screams of DeathEaters from the Harry Potter movies). He told me to stay at the boat ramp and he would send help, but he took off too quickly for me to tell him that I was able to continue on.
That's how I finished... One more person passed, I think a guy from our original gravel pack, and I asked him kindly to let them know at the finish line that I was coming (in case more "Wrist" rumors had spread). I walked and pushed my bike through several sections of roots, rocks, and kicker-uphills over the last mile, including the last section of trail before the glorious pavement of the path to the beach.
I crossed the finish line without fanfare or celebration, laid my back down, and crawled to lean against the railing of the dock, in the grass. Ready for ice, ibuprofen, a shower, and a well-earned Squealer Jug.
Is hindsight 20-20? Maybe. I had a new set of pedals at home just waiting to be put on the bike. And then there was my loving HOBM's comment when we talked about the pedal, "that'll happen". Really Crankbrothers? You're pedals are so awesome in every other way. I also wonder about ways I could have DIY fixed it with the things in pack: duct tape (either to tape the pedal or my chest), the aforementioned chewing gum, etc. But then, I start thinking about the amazing riding, the beauty of the woods, and the blooming Bee Balm, and it's hard not to smile. That, at least, doesn't hurt my still bruised ribs!