Written by 5:06 am Mountain Biking, Racing • One Comment

Ring of Fire 2023

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Earlier this summer, I was not very smart. Overwhelmingly excited to have relocated to the mountain biking mecca that is Bend, OR, I was going ham on a local trail while riding my hardtail bike like a fool and solidly planted my face and torso into a downed tree.

It’s always interesting to note what you think of in the brief, slow-motion moments that arise when you realize you’ve lost all control. The two thoughts that I recall are “I’m glad that I have disability insurance” and “I wonder what facial bone I’m going to break”.

Wrong I was. Though fat-lipped, my face was fine. The following day it was clear– I’d broken some ribs. At work I ultrasounded my chest and sure enough, I had one broken rib on the upper left chest and two on the lower right. My plan to race in the Cascade 100 was fried, as it hurt to breath more than just shallowly. I sheepishly emailed the race director, and he graciously let me shift my registration to the Ring of Fire, a 50-mile race in the late summer.

On Saturday, September 23rd, I lined up with about 250 other riders in a wildfire smoke haze to see how much my legs could tolerate. I hadn’t trained per se. I spent this summer riding, lifting, paddleboarding, and doing whatever sounded like the most fun and best aligned with the air quality. This was also my first real bike race, so I wasn’t sure of pacing or how my legs would feel. I resolved to race in thirds. First third: Use the energy and momentum of the start to go fast but not get fried. Second third: Smooth is fast. Third third: embrace the suck.

4 miles in and contemplating the pace. Photo: Frizz Studio

The course began with around 2000′ of climbing right out of the gate. The start was exhilarating chaos; a tight pack rolling fast on dirt roads, the clouds of dust and whirring freewheels made for great ambiance. We vied for best lines on the loose roads as the pack stretched out, and by the time we hit singletrack after a few miles, I had settled into a group of four riders of similar pace.

My heart rate was a source of some stress. I saw that I was averaging an HR around 172-174 for the first hour. I haven’t tested my HR zones recently, and in the past when reasonably trained, this is zone 3 for me, but I was worried that I was pushing a bit hard and would pay later. It seemed too early to rein it in though.

Entering Dutchman Snopark, midway through the first large climb. Photo: Frizz Studio

The other point of worry was fueling. It’s much harder to eat and drink on a mountain bike than on a road bike or while running. I started with my calories dissolved in my electrolyte drink and managed to force down both bottles before reaching aid, and that seems to have been effective, but man, it is hard to force it down while riding avoiding crashes.

I’d found a mantra of sorts, a mindset, that was working well for me. My guilty pleasure TV show is Formula 1: Drive to Survive. For those unfamiliar with the sport of high end car racing, the radio traffic between teams and drivers is broadcast and recorded. Interestingly, the prevailing culture seems to be absolute deadpan communication, no emotional excitement. Simple, brief, overtake, Verstappen is 1.2 back, pit now pit now. Even congratulations are without intonation. This voice came to me as my race mantra, a command that I recalled from the show: push mode. Push mode meant riding the edge of the what was clearly sustainable and looking for any small opportunity to make gains.

The descent from the race’s highpoint descents Flagline, a great technical enduro-style trail with some really choppy features. Here my local knowledge was useful, and I passed a few riders by using faster and knowing my way through the blind drops. More fast gravel road eventually led back through the start zone and over to aid. My split was slightly faster than I’d hoped and my legs felt good. The plan for first third had worked. Transition to second third.

I ate a handfull of potato chips, stuffed 3 gels in my jersey, pulled off my leg and arm warmers, and was out of aid in just a couple of minutes. The second half of the course started with some rocky XC riding before hitting the Tiddlywinks flow trail. It was a fun experience to ride Tiddly in race mode. Normally I meander around, jump off a rock here, whip off that jump over there, but this time I was staying low, squashing the jumps and laughing at the speed.

Tiddlywinks Rock Garden section. Photo: Frizz Studio

At the bottom of Tiddly, the course spills over to Larsen’s Trail, a rolling and gradually climbing XC romp. It was here that I started to have to earn my keep. Not accustomed to the punishment currently being doled out to them, the medial part of both of my quads started to try to cramp. Standing to try to stretch, I was ambushed by a retort from my calves. For several minutes, my legs were quite miserable. Here, experience racing other endurance sports served me. Experience said that the race is long, and things always change. Tolerate and observe. I forced myself to smile and relax, acknowledged that if need be I could finish through the cramping, and eventually, the pain subsided.

Enter final third. Climbing up the climb trail for Tyler’s traverse, I fell in with the gent who ultimately won the Masters 60+ category. I am inspired by the tow he gave me up this hill before I eventually passed. I hope to be so strong when I’m 60. The Tyler’s climb behind me, I started chasing down another rider on the miserable endless tiny hills of Dina Mo Hum trail.

The last four miles or so were on forest service roads that were starving for rain. Rutted and with 2-3 inches of loose sand on top, the riding was moderately miserable. Embrace the suck. Smelling the barn and feeling like I had juice left to give, I pulled past a few more riders who gave chase. I knew that the course turned downhill on good gravel at an approaching corner. I also knew that if I made it to that corner with a good gap I wouldn’t be caught and it would be fast flying to the finish. Push mode.

I cleared the corner with a solid gap and spun a solid 30 mph+ through to the line. 4 hours 24 minutes, 14th in open men’s and 19th overall. I’m very happy with that and look forward to trying to best it next year. The real question is whether to race the Cascade 100, the 24 hour race the week before, or both?

Post race dust face. Photo: Some goon.

Kit Notes:
-2022 Specialized Epic Evo Pro
-Rapha XC jersey and pro team bibs with undershirt
-Specialized arm and leg warmers for 45 degree start
-2x 20oz bottles, starting with Gnarly Fuel2O carb drink
-Total 4×20 oz bottles, total ~900 calories

Tags: , , , Last modified: October 8, 2023