Race Report: Dark Horse 40

There is a distinct pattern in my preparation for and recovery from an endurance race.  This past weekend’s Dark Horse 40 featured all of the usual fun, neuroses and caloric intake of my usual endurance activities.

The week didn’t get off to the best start as I had a nasty crash on Tuesday’s ride.  I didn’t get stitches but probably should have, and I broke a shoe as well.

The Dark Horse Cycles guys put on a few events that are as well known for their antics as they are for their racing.  To some people antics are more important than racing, especially if you’re a singlespeeder.

The race format was fairly straightforward and consisted of two laps on a rolling 20 mile course.  In high school I did a few races at the same venue so I had some idea of what to expect- fast, rocky technical sections, some water crossings and short but very steep, punchy climbs.  That was mostly right, but since 1998 they’ve built out the trail network to include many more miles of sinewy singletrack under the thick forest canopy.

When I arrived I was directed where to park and got the sense that there was some sort of regional bias for the assignments, though I couldn’t really gather any empirical evidence to support my theory.  I ran into local Grass Moots rider George and his partner in crime Mark.  We talked about my RSL and geeked out for a bit about Moots and bikes in general.  George is one of those unassuming guys who seems perfectly normal but can ride a singlespeed over anything and is hearty enough that he could probably survive on a diet of lug nuts and tree sap.  I unfortunately am not that diesel and will be sticking to my cottage cheese, chef salads and strong coffee.

After a brief warm up and several Red Bulls I coordinated with Mom & Dad for the staging of my water bottles in the feed zone.  Dad was kind enough to get up at 5:00 AM that morning to make some of his famous pancakes.  Dad’s pancakes are some of the best legal performance enhancers you can find- just ask World Cup racers Adam Craig and Kathryn Curi Mattis.

I lined up towards the back of my field, which happened to be Men’s Elite Open, but only because there wasn’t a Cat 1 option.  This doesn’t count as making the grade in elite partially because I am still a Cat 1 and also because I got smoked relative to the real pros in attendance.  The air horn went off and the field thundered down the long gravel road.  The dust was incredible, and I managed to be in the optimal position to catch 90% of the spray from the one mud puddle that was on course.

40 miles is not a distance I’ve ever done before, so I was unsure how to pace it.  After some conversations with Spinney I came up with a strategy that sounded good based on what I thought I could sustain for the roughly 4 hours I planned on racing.  Together with the 90+ degree heat I was unsure how to meter my effort, so I went for a conservative strategy on the first lap.

The combination of the heat, race nerves and too many Red Bulls (3) made it hard for me to find my rhythm on the first lap and I ended up bouncing off of most obstacles and letting riders pass me who I probably could have stayed with.  In most of my races that run 6 to 8 hours  the start is the least important part, and the race really doesn’t take shape until the second half.  With that in mind I decided to start a little more conservatively and let the course and the heat soften up the field.

That strategy mostly worked, but the aforementioned cocktail of heat and caffeine made it hard for me to determine my actual effort since I felt like my heart rate was artificially elevated.  The first lap went smoothly enough and I found myself relearning how to manual and using it all the time- the Small Block 8’s make the coolest sound when you drop a rock face.  It’s like something out of Transformers.

As I completed lap 1 I found Mom and Dad in the feed zone and pulled three full water bottles from the cooler that they had waiting for me.  I debated about whether I needed all three bottles, but given the heat I decided to play it safe and bring all of them anyway.  In less than a minute I got what I needed and rumbled back out onto the course for lap 2.

At a certain point I stopped thinking about the terrain or my pace and just started riding.  Right at that moment things clicked into place.  With very little effort I was taking the right lines, maintaining my speed and pushing the gears I’d expected.  Also at that point the race became a hell of a lot of fun.

Note the flapping band aids on my left arm from Tuesday’s crash.

The Dark Horse guys also provided a fair number of distractions like attractive young women standing by a keg. Usually when I’m three hours into a race I’m pretty sick of seeing sweaty, muddy dudes, and Godzilla’s sister would look good if she was wearing a tube top. Fortunately I was able to resist the temptation (of the beer) and kept riding.

In the last half of my second lap I started to really pass some people- some of them walking, some soft pedaling, and I was making up places that had slid by during my lap 1 freak out. I was still feeling good and picking good lines as I pushed the pace as hard as I could in the home stretch.

The last 5 miles for me are often the toughest, but if I’m in the pain cave then I know that I’ve given it a solid effort. Right on the last short road section before the last piece of singletrack I got caught by two guys who were clearly in a battle with each other. The lap was somewhat deceptive because the course went right past the parking area before heading back into the woods for another half mile or so. Right in this paved faux finish one of them asked me where the finish was. Great I thought- these guys are team racers who haven’t done a lap on the course but they’re hell bent on killing each other right in front of me. They took turns attacking each other on the trail as I tried to keep contact. I got gapped on one of the short rock wall sections and they ended up finishing about 15-20 seconds ahead of me.

After the race I fumbled around and collected my empty bottles then made my way over to the beer tent. Although I was unable to formulate complete sentences the EMT manning the keg was able to interpret my needs and handed me a cold Harpoon. It was the best thing I have ever tasted, even if it meant that I was half drunk before I had even taken off my helmet.

Back at the car I put on some clean-ish clothes and managed to sweat through my t-shirt before I stuffed my bike into the trunk. With decreasing cognitive capacity I made my way back to the beer tent and caught up with George and Jay Pro for a while before sitting down with Mom and Dad in the shade and coming to my senses enough to drive home. I had less than two beers in two hours, but in my weakened state I felt like a 14 year old that had raided his parents liquor cabinet. Ironically enough I was in front of my parents.

I said my goodbyes and sat in the car for a few minutes with the AC cranked to try to cool down. As my body temperature started to come back to normal I thought about how I would replenish my caloric debt and reward myself. The answer soon came to me: Doritos.

After a quick stop for a sandwich and fuel I located a family sized bag of Cooler Ranch and proceeded to stuff them into my cake hole as quickly as possible. At 10:45 I polished off the bag before I brushed my teeth and went to bed.

I consider that a successful weekend of racing.

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