Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Shenandoah 100!

I've said it before and I'll say it again, 100 mile mountain bike races are my favorite kind of racing. For one, I love the patterns you recognize in races. It start's off fast, you find a groove, you feel great, you feel crappy, maybe you feel great again, and so forth. That narrative seems all the more dramatic when you're in the moment. 

And then there's the adventure. Climbing up abandoned forest roads, traversing along ridge-tops, and flying down literal mountains is the epitome of mountain biking. You get all the great views and all the great trails all while getting to race and push yourself. That's a win-win, win.

Perhaps the most important to me, though, is the experience of being at the race. That's intentionally vague because it encompasses so much. Spending a weekend with family and friends - and new friends - is a blast. Racers camp together and then the now-veterans of the race hang out at the finish line after the event. If only for a weekend, mountain bikes seem like everything.

Being from Pittsburgh, there are three 100-mile races that stand out. The term "Triple Crown" perhaps seems a little bit ostentatious, but still, for the Pittsburgh area, it's hard to argue that there are more iconic 100-mile races than these: the Mohican 100, the Wilderness 101, and the Shenandoah 100. Now that I think of it, perhaps that's only true among my friend group of singlespeeders, but I'm a singlespeeder, so that's alright.

Dan, me, Stick

Either way, having already raced in the Mohican 100 and Wilderness 101 races year, I was really excited to try Shenandoah. Especially since I've done both Mohican and Wilderness two times each before, but I've never done Shenandoah. Going into it, I knew the weekend was going to be great regardless of the outcome, since I'd be camping with great friends and even seeing Zach and my parents briefly after Saturday's 100 kilometer race.

The trip started with picking up Stick and driving south to Harrisonburg. After some difficulty finding lunch, Stick and I hit up a Mexican place for some grub before getting to camp. The timing worked out pretty well; we got there right as people were starting to finish.

Zach finished shortly before we got there, in 8th place overall. With a strong field, that was a great result. Shortly after him, Simon came across the line winning the singlespeed class. There were a lot of great results from Pittsburgh friends, with teammates Anthony (who had some major Camelback issues) and Jim finishing 4th and 7th, respectively, and Ryan J. winning the 100k race overall. My friend Tanya from State College also had a great race in the 100k!

My dad finished the race a little bit later for his 3rd NUE marathon distance race of the season. He thought the Shenandoah course was the hardest of the three he'd done, and I'd have to agree.

Pre-riding with Stick

After a little chatting, me, Zach, Simon, and Stick went down to the Stokesville bridge for a swim in the creek. The water was cold, but ice baths are supposed to be good, right? I'm trying my hardest (not really) at this whole athlete thing.

Down at the swimming hole

Zach and my parents had a hotel in Harrisonburg, so eventually they headed back to town for the evening. Me, Simon, and Stick talked with some friends for a while - McJorts, Litz, and some others - before heading out to find some dinner.

I thought Simon was an electrician. I guess he's secretly a model and a plumber.

The closest town, Bridgewater, had a nice pizza place we settled on after some initial difficulty finding a place to eat. After I scared him earlier in the day about the perils of eating salad before a race, Stick cautiously picked at his side salad while I went to town on a Stromboli large enough for a small village.

Simon's new lucky turtle on an Oreo, and Stick breaking two of his own rules: cheese and bread before a race

Which reminds me, is there a difference between a calzone and a Stromboli? In real-life, I mean, not according to some "definition". Simon's calzone sure looked a lot like my Stromboli.

Before and after

After dinner, Stick and I picked up our packets, got our drop bags ready, and aimlessly wandered around camp while Simon his best to help us out. My friends Tanya and Clay came over for a while to hang out for a while which was great. After listening to Simon play his guitar softly for a few minutes, it was time for bed.

Mixing up the Flow Formulas; Simon on guitar

Since the race starts at 6:30 AM, we set the alarms for 5:00 AM. Simon had his pop-up camper, which had extra beds for me and Stick, meaning it would be a little easier night's sleep than crawling in and out of a tent. We debated on what song to use for the alarm, and we thought we settled on a solid 80s rock song.

I was awoken by what sounded like Teletubbies or some other toddler's show. Turns out, it was just Simon's alarm. I guess he didn't choose the right song after all. It's always great to start off the day with a laugh though, and I even have a smile on my face now while writing this, so in the end I guess the toddler song was maybe the best.

Me about 5 minutes after I woke up

Even though he wasn't racing, Simon got up at 5:00 AM with us and immediately went to work helping us out as best he could. Seriously, Simon is the best. He made us coffee, held a light whenever we needed it (still dark outside), and was just all around the best friend you could ever ask for on race morning.

Race morning in the camper... Simon being the best friend ever!

With Simon's help, Stick and I were were ready to roll. There was a cluster of riders near the start line, and I couldn't really tell where the actual start line was. By some luck, I found Jimmy K. and lined up next to him. I guess I was in the front race, which is nice, but also not nice, because I'd be hiking up part of the first climb.

Chris, the race director, had some final words to say and then the race started. I had a fairly good start, but of course, when we reached the hike-a-bike, it didn't matter. I kept it fairly steady, and I could see teammate and friend Joe F. just. behind me on his singlespeed.

As I was hiking, I came upon my friend Ian on the side of the trail taking some videos and yelling to racers. Like I said, I was hiking my bike at the time, so a little heckling from Ian was to be expected. Usually Ian crushes the Shenandoah race, but since he's in the middle of the collegiate MTB season, he wasn't able to race this year. I'm pretty sure he actually won his collegiate race later that day.

For a while, I kept looking back and seeing Joe F. right behind me. As we hit more hike-a-bikes, I think I was able to just walk a little bit faster or ride just a little bit more, because by the top, there were no other singlespeeders in sight. I knew Joe is a really strong rider though, so I was careful not to ease off the pace too much.

My roadie skills didn't stack up, or perhaps I was in a group of roadies

The first descent was Lookout Mountain trail, a fairly rocky and technical descent which I had actually raced before back in 2021. My tailbone was still pretty sore from an oopsie the previous weekend, so I took the descent a little more cautiously than usual. Despite that, the trail was still a blast and I stuck with the riders bunched up ahead of me.

For the first hour or two of the race, I was feeling extremely good. The climbs felt easy, and despite not averaging much more than 10mph due to the terrain, I was optimistic about how I'd feel the whole day.

The first major climb (as if the two 800+ footers weren't major enough) was a 2,000 foot slog up Hearthstone. 

When we reached the bottom of the climb, I was in very good spirits. I was singing out-loud to myself, smiling, and overall having a great time. Even though the climb was really hard, and I had to hike-a-bike for a lot (most?) of it, it was still really fun. At the top, I caught up with Anthony F., who I'd spend lot of the day with, and we rode the next big downhill together.

I was still feeling really good after that climb, and I thought my luck would continue for a while. That was not the case. By around mile 40, I wasn't feeling quite as great. It was getting warmer, and the thought of 60 more miles and around 7,500 more feet of climbing was daunting. 

I thought about what Simon said to me, "just keep moving forward". I won't be overdramatic and say that saved my race or anything, but I did honestly think about that as I kept racing forward.

Even though I was suffering, the trails were so amazing that it basically made me forget about the pain. I love Virginia and I love Appalachian riding, and since these were mostly new-to-me trails, every new mile was exciting.

The second big climb of the day came around mile 55, which was Hankey Mountain. It was a little under 2,000 feet from bottom to top, and since I'd raced that climb before during the Stoopid 50, I vaguely knew what to expect: more pain.

For a while, it was steep enough that it hurt, but not steep enough that I had to get off and walk. In a way, those are the hardest climbs, because at least hiking gives you a little break.

That all changed once the fire road turned into singletrack at the top. It became way too steep for me to ride, and it was time to hike. I suffered a lot, but I've done enough of these kind of races now that I think I've grown at least partly numb to it.

The next downhill was another banger. Anthony F. and I were still together, so following his line down the trail was great. It was a very long downhill that led all the way to an aid station at the bottom of the Death Climb, the next big climb.

I was pretty blown out at the aid station. I knew it was going to be a struggle to get to the finish line while still riding hard, but I also knew for a fact I was going to finish, so my only option was to keep riding and take it as it comes.

The gradual miles of climbing after the aid station flew by, and the steep part of the Death Climb wasn't as terrible as I feared. I'd actually ridden some of the Death Climb before back in January of 2021 with Will. There was snow and ice on the road and we were on gravel bikes, but still, it was cool to recognize a road for a change.

The aid station near the top of the climb was much appreciated, but there was no time to stop for long. I quickly refilled a bottle and set off on my way with Anthony. The next section of the climb has a few names for it. I've heard it called the "endless fields", and I've also heard it called less politically correct names that I probably shouldn't use. Either way, it wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. Before long, I was on top of the Death Climb.

I know I've said a lot of trails are "awesome" or "the best", and Dahn Pahrs actually just called me out on this via text, but this time I mean it, I swear: the descent off of the Death Climb was fantastic. It was rugged, had great views, and being near the end of the race meant you could almost smell the finish line BBQ. Well not quite, the finish was 15 miles away, but it felt like the end was near.

I knew after the descent there was only one climb left. Except for the other 300 foot climb I forgot about. So there were two climbs, oops.

The first short climb was easy, the second climb: not so much. We started up Hankey Mountain a second time, but this time, luckily, we only went halfway up. Instead of following Hankey all the way, we turned onto a trail that would take us back to the finish line.

Even though it was now a net-downhill to the finish, a few punchers made it so it wasn't all coasting to the end. Either way, I was having a lot of fun at that point and I was just praying I wouldn't get a flat or some other stupid mechanical so close to the finish. The miles ticked down: two, one to go... and I finally let myself believe that I was going to get the singlespeed win.

Coming down into the campground was a very happy moment for me. The amount of pleasure I feel at the end of the race is directly related to how hard a race was, and since this was extremely hard, I was extremely pleased. 

I ended up finishing in 10 hours 3 minutes, good enough for 9th overall and the SS win. The course was 100 miles with 14,700 feet of climbing, quite stout. Immediately after finishing I went for a swim in the creek, both to cool off and to clean off. Phew, that was hard. And hot.

In fact, the course ended up being a lot harder than most people expected, and because of that, only 36 of the 200 or so racers finished the full 100 miles. A lot of people had to be diverted onto a shortened course, or else they wouldn't have finished before dark.

As if the day wasn't great enough already, Stick got 3rd place SS just behind a strong riding Dan G. I never doubted for a second that Stick was going to have a great race, and all the climbing played into his strengths. Nate W. finished with a strong 4th place SS on what was without a doubt the hardest edition of Shenandoah 100. To be fair, this was my first Shenandoah, but I've heard that said by enough people to believe it's true.

The post-race affairs were a lot of fun as always. I talked to the overall 100 mile winner, Ethan, for a while. Super nice guy and obviously a hammer of a rider. The BBQ was very nice as well, and sharing the podium with Stick was a perfect ending to the race day.

Since Simon went home to see his kids, Stick and I set up our hammocks at the campsite that night. We saw the Starlink satellites going across the sky in a perfect line, a trippy sight, and then settled in for a not-so-great night of sleep. It's not that a hammock is bad, but I never usually sleep too great after a hard day of racing.

The next morning, Stick and I packed up and headed home, deciding not to go out for a bonus Stokesville ride. Doing a ride the day after the race sounds like a good idea, but after a 10-plus hour race, it ends up not being as enticing as it first sounded.

The breakfast we had in Moorefield off of Highway 48 was one of the more welcome breakfasts I've had in a while, and despite being tired, it's always a great time driving with Stick. Once I got home, I pretty much just laid on the couch the rest of the day, unable to do much else. If that's not a sign of a great weekend, I don't know what is.

I know everyone is hoping that's where this blog post ends, and it almost is, but I want to add just a couple things.

This is probably the most satisfied I've been with a race in a while. I felt great, I didn't make many mistakes, and the race was hard enough that it felt extra satisfying. Plus, spending the weekend with friends was fantastic.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm easily excitable. I'll ride a new trail, immediately exclaim it's the best trail ever, and then say the same thing about another new trail I ride the next week. The same goes for races. I loved the Shenandoah 100. Was it my favorite race ever? Was it the hardest NUE race? The more I think about it, it's sort of a dumb thing to say anyways. There are so many variables that make a race "hard" or "great". That being said, it's gonna be pretty hard to change the excitable way I think, especially when I've just finished a race and emotions are high. I think you're all just gonna have to deal with me mindlessly exclaiming that this or that is the best ever.


  1. So has the baton officially been passed from Phlug to Dahn to you now?

    1. I think I have a while to go before I'm worthy of that haha, but I'm doing what I can to keep SS going strong.