This past weekend, Big Jim Slade, Derwood, Silk, and I made the journey to Thomaston for the Thunderbolt Classic. Even Little Bro' Phil made the trip down from the ATL.
This was a trip back in time. Thomaston had long been my favorite mountain bike race in the Southeast. She offers up heavy duty old school mountain biking. Raw, as Silk put it. The trails are a far cry from the IMBA handbook. There were fall line trails, both up and down, and trails that followed the topo lines, but were never bench cut, so you are constantly off camber. Add in plenty of rocks and you're good to go.
The promoters decided we needed a little extra this year, so they added in new trail, to connect two more hard climbs per lap. The website claims 2100 feet of altitude gain per lap. Now, I'm from FL, so I have a very minimal grasp of what it means to climb "X" number of feet. For us, we go uphill and we go downhill, but there is never enough of either to bother calling out numeric values. I know that at 8,000 feet, I get a headache on the 2nd day. I know that at 10,000 feet, if I stand up to fast, I'll sit back down even faster, whether I want to or not. But knowing I was going to climb 2100 feet per lap, it just didn't register what I was in for. I've raced Camp Thunder many times and the last couple were two lap races, so I went in confident. Nevermind that it has been 10+ years since they last raced there.
We arrive on Saturday and looking around, the rider count is sparce. The promoters broke tradition and ran the beginners and juniors on Saturday. i only saw about 15 or so people line up for the beginner starts. This is not a good sign. We register, grab our campsite, and head out for the preride. The course is marked for the beginners, so we get some sketchy directions from an official, and head out to see how the course looks. This trail follows the Flint River for about a half mile, and then turns to singletrack. Immediately she goes up. It's nothing but switchbacks for the next mile. This climb always takes me about 15 minutes. It's just me, the granny gear, and my inner demons. The fast guys check out, and Jim, Phil and I are at the top together. We try to find the sport/expert course based on verbal instructions, but somehow we blow it. We just finished the 2nd long climb, when Darien and Silk catch up to us and inform us that we missed a long sketchy downhill, with and equally long climb back out. This does not bode well. Oh, well, I'm not going back to see what I missed. I can't keep my heartrate down on these climbs anyway, and I don't want to blow myself apart on a preride. I'll deal with it race day. We finish the preride in about 1 1/2 hours. This race is promising to be much longer that typical XC races.
That night, at dinner, my legs feel toasted. I decide that the race will consist of survival for me. I'm way more concerned about finishing than I am about going fast. I have not felt that in a while. We stay up exchanging old stories around the campsite. The first race we ever took Phil to, as a 14 year old junior, was Thunderbolt. I remember his Mom giving me a mimeographed list of things to watch for, and what to do in case his diabetes gave him trouble. I almost had a heart attack worrying about him. At that race, I forgot my shoes, so I did the preride in Doc Martens on my clipless pedals(A friend brought my shoes up that night.). Even without my shoes, I was waiting for Phil at the tops of all the climbs. It's just not like that anymore. So racing at this venue, with Phil back on a mountain bike, brought back a lot of memories. Even though it was a little warmer than ideal, we had blast hanging out, and catching up.
Race day rolled around, and thankfully, a few more people showed up. It was still a small turnout. Probably around 20 experts and 20-25 sport riders showed up, total. The starts were rolled together, with all the experts starting at 9:30ish, and all of us sport folk starting at 10. I settled in towards the back, determined not to blow on the 1st climb. As soon as we hit the climb, I see Big Jim, two riders up from me, crash in the 1st switchback. Poor bastard. I start telling him to calm down, get on his bike, and take his time getting rolling. I want him in front of me, so I don't hold him up, and I'm trying top make him understand that there is a large gap behind me, so he has plenty of time. He gets going, and promptly drops me. Good enough. Only, two switchbacks later, he's off his bike, standing there as I climb by. I'm not sure what's going on with him, but I'm already hurting too much to worry about it right now. About 2/3's of the climb is done, but my HR is through the roof and climbing. I finally bail off my bike so that I can get it under control. Climbs this long don't forgive oversized efforts, and I can't afford to blow on the 1st climb, when there are three more just as hard on this lap, and a 2nd lap is still in the cards!
After I get going again, I start a game with myself. I decide I have to clean every climb on the course at least once. I guess it worked, because I suffered up all the remaining climbs that lap, but I made them. Regardless, my 1st lap took 1:31, so I was starting to worry about finishing. My arms were shot, Everytime we hit a big downhill, they were so rough that my triceps and calves quaked. I honestly wondered if I would have to DNF because of upper body failure. That would be a first. Here's the catch. I was the only clydesdale in the race. How can I drop out, when I'm the only guy there?! I could just here the questions when I got back home.
How was your race? Did you win?
Nobody, I was the only guy there and I quit.
I just couldn't go out like that. So I start my 2nd/last lap and want to clean that 1st climb, since I blew it on the 1st lap. I groove the 1st switchback, and my hamstring promptly starts to cramp. Dammit!!!! I jump off my bike and walk it off before it gets bad. Again, this is the first of many climbs, and I can't afford to come apart completely. Disappointed that I won't clean this one, I remount and ride the next 1/2 mile of switchbacks, I get happy with the idea that I'll make the remainder, and that lack of focus was all it took. I hit a rock, my front wheel wandered over into tree, and I was off and walking again.
The rest of the race was pure, unadulterated torture. My entire body was wasted. My back hurt, my legs hurt, my glutes hurt, my arms hurt, my neck hurt. All I wanted to do was get this beast done. I rode along a small creek, and pondered lying in it to feel the cool water wash away my insanity. Fortunately for me, she was a little too shallow, or I would have tried. I promised myself that as soon as I finished, I'd go lay in the river. Every time the hurt got too heavy, I'd imagine that cold water washing away all the grime and sweat.
I rode as much of everything as I could. My granny gear and I got intimate. I measure progress in inches and feet. I dreaded the downhills for fear my triceps or calves would cramp. I stressed my hamstrings cramping at the base of every climb. Eventually it all started to run together. Just hurt a little longer, and it will end. The river's waiting.
On one of the longer new climbs that were added for this race, Phil finally caught up to me. He was on his third lap, and was tired. I can't tell you how stoked I was to see him still out there, and I told him so. He said he thought long and hard about quitting, but knew that if I was still out there, he might get a beating back at the campsite. How true, how true! We talked for a few more moments, and he rode off after another tired expert just in front of us. I saw him riding the downhill with his buddy, as I finished the climb. If only I'd been a little stronger, so he'd caught me nearer the top, I could've ridden that piece of trail with them. That would've been good.
At the top of the last climb, a feeling crept over me. The end was near. I'd wanted to stay under 2:45 for the race, but that had already passed, but I finally knew it was all good, though. I flew the last downhill at mach 6, and headed straight through the start/finish, to the river. Cold redemption awaited.
I was so demoralized during that race, that I was going to sell all my bikes. Then I was keeping them, but only racing flat courses like Fernandina Beach or Jacksonville. Maybe I should just get panniers and flags, and start doing centuries, I thought. Whatever! Not a chance! I may suck at these big climbing races, but I felt like I accomplished something. This course had one climb similar to the main climb at Bump & Grind. Then it had three more that were harder...every lap. B&G has always been tough for me, because of the climb. This year, I'm not so much worried. I'd much rather do two laps of B&G over two laps at this beast, so my one lap race won't seem near as hard as years past. Thomaston tore me down, mentally and physically, but we come through the other side stronger than ever. At least mentally, I feel ready for Bump & Grind, this year. In fact, I can hardly wait. I just hope the body backs me up.
By the way, Silk managed another 2nd behind controversial Andy J.. Darien finished 2nd in singlespeed. How he did two laps on a rigid bike with no gears, I don't understand. Big Jim is working through some demons, but I'm sure that as soon as he hashes it all out, he'll see he's going to be fine. Phil suffered the same fate as me. Being the only guys in our classes, we were first, last, and everything.