Race Report: My First Century, a MTB Tale

By Jeff Landry, HCC Member

To cyclists, the term century means a 100 mile (160 km) road ride. For some, the goal might be to complete a century by the end of the season, to others it’s nothing more than a weekly training ride. Regardless, for an avid cyclist, while potentially arduous, a century is relatively common and easily attainable goal.

My confession: While I have been an avid cyclist for 20 years, I have yet to complete a century. Never during the course of one ride has my odometer spun past the 160 km mark. I have been close, but my longest rides have topped out starting with a 14. That is not to say I haven’t had some difficult days on the bike, just as of yet, not seen that elusive 100th mile.

That was about to change, in a big way.

While I much prefer to call myself a cyclist, many of the rides/races I have done would classify me as an endurance mountain biker. The definition of ‘endurance’ is open to interpretation, but my idea is generally rides/races that exceed 4 hours. I organize a yearly, pseudo underground group ride that encircles the Hamilton Harbour, mostly off-road, typically 80-120 km. I have raced many 8 hour relay events as a solo, done marathon MTB races and completed Transrockies, a 7 day epic MTB race. Heck, I’ve ridden to the top of Whistler mountain just for giggles. Long, hard, days are not new to me, yet still surprisingly, I have never completed a century.

So when a friend asked if I was interested in joining them on a group road trip to mid-Ohio for the Mohican 100 MTB race, my interest was sparked. It was time to put the century notch on my belt, but do it in style. Off-road.

I signed up. And while somewhat tempted by the 100 km option, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied at the end of the day, so the 100 mile box was checked with no second thoughts. Most people would want a training plan, looking ahead at least a couple months to prepare themselves for such a task. I signed up only a couple weeks before the race. I was hoping that wouldn’t backfire.

I would need to rely heavily on my experience from years past to get me through this race. Like many others I had a great spring, unfortunately, the past 2 years have seen me focusing more on shorter, OCUP styles races (1.5 – 2.0 hours) and far less on rides/races extending beyond that. This spring has only seen me on the bike more than 3 hours, twice. The first being in mid March during the infamous ‘Tour de Buttertart’. While then name conjures up images of pain and suffering, in reality, while over 100 km, the ride is very social in nature. My second long ride of the year was the 125 km all surface ‘Hell of the North’, which took place in early April in the Uxbridge area.

Even without the long ones, I was riding and racing a lot. To the point where in mid May, after a disintegration during an MTB OCUP, I decided that I was experiencing a little early season burnout. I imposed a couple light weeks on the bike, and during this time, signed up for my century. Coming into the Mohican MTB race I was feeling good with the rest. The week before I raced the Spring Epic 8 hour as a tag-team, meaning ½ hour full tilt on, ½ hour off. The body and legs responded well, making it on the podium, so with another relatively light week I figured I was a good as I could be to complete 100 miles.

Race weekend approached and typical preparation ensued. Bike cleaned and tuned, stuff packed, potatos boiled. I should take this time to tell you about me and potatos. During endurance races, I am powered by potatos. I have tried every form of what I call ‘synthetic’ food, gels, blocks, drinks, bars, and while I can survive on these items and do use them, they will inevitably turn my stomach into a ball of hate. So I eat potatoes. Little mini potatoes, boiled, lightly seasoned with olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary. I put them in a baggy, and when the opportunity arises, I eat a couple at a time. I’ve even used mashed potatos and eaten them like a gel, but regardless, potatoes keep me feeling ‘human’.

The drive to the race, which was located about an hour south of Cleveland, was through a steady rain. This caused some nervous energy. What would the trails be like, would they be muddy, slippery, would we get rain during the race? Nothing can turn an epic ride into misery like horrible conditions. Pushing your bike through sticky mud is not fun for 1 mile, never mind 100 miles. Luckily, with the dry winter and spring, the hope was that the trails would easily accommodate what mother nature was dishing out.

Arrival at the small town of Loudonville, a general atmosphere cycling abounded. Bikes were everywhere. Between the 100 km and 100 mile races, there were to be over 700 racers. At check in, familiar faces from the GTA were a pleasant sight, and further nervous excitement built as the typical pre-race discussion began.

There was a group of 12 locals rooming together for the event. We managed to secure a great cabin about 10 minutes away from the start line. Upon arrival, it was bike central, with everyone discussing strategy/survival techniques, filling bottles, making drop bags, last minute tune-ups. Morning would come quick, off-road centuries start early, so the alarm was set for 5:00 am.

My general goal for the race was to survive and feel human afterwards. This meant I didn’t want to ‘race’. The harder I pushed, the more I knew I would suffer when I was done. While suffering is inevitable, there is also a huge difference between good suffering and bad suffering. I wanted to keep it on the good side of things. I knew I had the potential to go sub 8 hours, (winning pros are typically 6.5 hours), but I also knew that would evoke some bad suffering. I needed to find that good balance of riding hard, but comfortable. I knew however I didn’t want to be on course 10+ hours either. It would be a battle.

Race morning came, the routine was very typical. I ate my breakfast of pierogies and yes, you guessed it, potatos (I don’t like oatmeal, the typical staple) and finished organizing my hydration pack. While not a big fan of wearing a hydration pack while racing, I also only have 1 bottle cage in the frame of my full suspension mountain bike, so there really wasn’t much of an option with aid stations 20 miles apart. While a bottle tucked in my jersey pocket might have been an alternative, with the sheer quantity of stuff I wanted to bring with me, I would have felt like a chipmunk in a peanut factory. I was also using the hydration pack as a reminder to ride, not race.

Weather was cool as we lined up for the race. I was out-fitted in shorts, jersey and vest (which needs pockets!). It was tolerable, so I knew that once the race started, I should be fine. Weather was looking great, skies were clear and it appeared that we were going to experience sun and mild temperatures (18-19 ᵒC), perfect.

I lined up about 1/2 of the way back, while I wasn’t there to race, I still want to get into the first single track with people around my speed. You certainly don’t need to be going needlessly slow, and I also knew, that after the first couple miles, it was close to 25 miles of singletrack, where passing opportunities to go faster would be nonexistent with 700 people descending into the same little ribbon of trail. As the gun when off, we immediately started a little climb out of the town, this was a great opportunity to work my way through the pack a little. I managed to put myself in the top 25% without extended any extensive effort. Just before we entered the woods, I looked around and felt comfortable with the general level of rider around me, so it was time to settle in for the day ahead.

Put simply, the first 25 miles were an absolute blast. We were lucky enough to be directed through the best trails in the area. This is what mountain bikers dream of. Great trail, and lots of it. This is however not sustainable for a 100 miler. Average OCUP speeds on courses that are 50/50 singletrack and double track, with moderate climbing, are usually 20 km/hr for an average racer. And that is only for 1.5-2 hours. With 100% singletrack, and a healthy dose of climbing, and lots of traffic, I found myself finishing the first ¼ of the race, still in the top 25%, with a huge smile on my face, but also in about 3 hours. By extrapolation, that’s a long day in the saddle.

Luckily, though with a heavy mountain biking heart, we were spit out of the pure singletrack and started winding our way through all sorts of surfaces for the remainder of the race (paved/dirt roads, 4×4 roads, farm tracks, trails, etc). This is typical of most off-road centuries, 1) as there are very few places in the world, if any that have 100 miles of easily connected singletrack, and 2) For the average rider, 100 miles of singletrack would make the difficulty level increase exponentially, for what is already an epic ride.

During the course of race, there were 5 aid stations. These are stocked with water, food, energy drinks and lots of great volunteers, almost always who are not cyclists, but are willing to help out the weary souls with kind smile and abundance of enthusiasm. I had decided to forgo aid station 1 at about 20 miles in, but my plan was to stop at all remaining aid stations to pop some potatos. I was managing to eat a little synthetic food on the bike (sport beans, gels), but they weren’t providing me with enough long term energy, and they were starting to wreak havoc on my stomach. When I arrived at aid station 2 (about 35 miles in), I was greeted by a friend. This was not a good sign, he was a strong contender for a podium in the singlespeed category (yes, many people race these without gears, often no suspension either). Unfortunately a bike issue just before aid station 2 left him playing the role support for the remainder of the GTA folk coming through. While I was sad for his bike issue, selfishly it was very nice to have him there with his enthusiastic support. With him and the other volunteers helping to fill my bottle and hydration pack, I was able to focus on eating and the other small tasks that needed to be done during my brief stop.

Back on the bike, I continued my journey. I was doing very well to keep my pace in check, ensuring I was going to meet my goal of finishing, while feeling human. Miles 35 to 65 were simply riding. I was enjoying the variance in the terrain, some trail, some road. It was also nice to start knocking off miles at a faster rate, so that by extrapolation I wasn’t on pace to be out for 12 hours. Just before the halfway point, aid station 3 came. A couple more potatos and I had also caught up with another cabin mate, who I would end up riding within sight of for the remainder of the race, but never really together. At this point as well, the two races, the 100 km and 100 mile split. Everyone had started together, but it was at this point the 100 kmers would head back towards the finish line, while we would continue further into the depths of the Mohican State forest system.

At this point, the race got lonelier. More than 60% of competitors were doing the 100 km version, combined with the 100 milers spread out across multiple hour gaps, there wasn’t the constant comradery that was experienced during the first half. I was still feeling strong, though the desire to be done was starting to creep into my head.

It was during miles 60-70 where my decision to complete this race really came into question. To this point, the terrain was varied, which broke up the monotonous nature that can be associated with spending many hours on the bike. Unfortunately miles 60-70 were rail trail. Being from Hamilton, I quite like rail trail, and ride it a lot. After 60 miles of riding however, sitting in and pedaling for 16 km on a flat, never ending piece of straight gravel is not fun. It’s hard on the mind, hard on the legs and hard on the bum. To make matters worse, I wasn’t eating. I knew that aid station 4 was coming at mile 70, so I figured I would hold out. About halfway through the rail trail, I could feel the dreaded bonk coming on. Unfortunately I just wanted to finish the piece of rail trail and didn’t have any easily accessible food. It was a bad choice, but I decided to just push through. By the time I had finished the rail trail, I was experiencing a mild bonk, bored out of my mind and I had lost my will to ride.

I stayed at aid station 4 for what seemed like an eternity compared to my previous stops. While I had lost my will to ride, I hadn’t lost my will to finish. It just didn’t want to have to ride my bike to get to the finish line, not a great combination for a bike race, with 30 outstanding miles. I ate my potatos and loaded up on coke, hoping that would jolt me back into the game. I reluctantly saddled back up, after seeing many people I passed come in and leave before me. While I wasn’t racing, it’s still not fun loosing places.

To put it simply, the next 25 miles sucked. There were some very difficult climbs. What I haven’t mentioned to this point was the climbing. I like to climb. I climb for fun. I’ve climbed L’Alpe D’Huez, Haleakala crater, Whistler Mountain, over 18,000m during 7 days of Transrockies. During the 100 miles, we were expecting to climb close to 11,000 ft, or 3,300 m. Mostly in short, steep 200 – 300 ft sections at irregular intervals. It was similar to just going up and down the escarpment in the Hamilton area, like 40 times. A couple of the climbs during miles 70-95 were just soul crushing. There was one that was extended over a km with average grades well over 10%, with significant portions approaching 20%. I wouldn’t have wanted to drive up this road, never mind ride it. There was another off-road climb that went up what was a natural fall line for water run-off. It was wet, soggy, not overly steep, so it was ridable, but required significant energy to keep the momentum going. This was all happening, when I didn’t have the will to ride, I could do nothing but spin. The legs were fine, it was the mind. I wanted to be done. My desire to be done was overwhelming. There is always a point in endurance races where you want to be done, you just hope you can push through it, and you hope it’s not with 45 km to go.

Besides the grueling hills, I don’t remember much from aid station 4 to 5, I just pedaled. Stared at the ground, mostly thinking about how I was never going to ride a century again, while convincing myself this one was worth finishing. It was an interesting dichotomy, for many people, the physical breaks down before the mental. After my bonk control, physically I was feeling fine, it was mental, mostly thoughts of why the hell am I doing this.

Luckily, given the nature of the race, I had no choice but to finish. If this had been an 8 hour race, with 10 km laps, I would have pulled into the pits and called it a day long ago. In a big 100 mile loop, there was really no option but to follow the arrows to the finish, albeit slowly. What was also mentally tough to handle was the thought of the last 12 miles, which upon pre-race discussion, led me to believe was all singletrack. While a mountain bikers love singletrack, it’s typically physically demanding, slow, requires concentration, and most important desire. I was expecting this final 12 miles to be at minimum 1 hour of riding, likely closer to 1.5, that was difficult to handle mentally as the hours clicked away. Aid station 5 marked the start of this final push. Not having an odometer or GPS with me, I had no idea when it was coming. When I did arrive, I was extremely surprised and excited to be told the route had changed and I was only 5 miles from the finish, which exchanged 7 miles of singletrack with 7 miles of easier, mixed surface riding.

It’s the little things that you remember and make you happy and boy was I happy. 5 miles was about a ½ hour, I was close, so close. The last push in any endurance race is a weird combination of pain with this euphoric feeling caused by knowing you are almost done. I was happy to get into that zone. I was still lacking the desire to do anything but soft pedal, but I was happy to be riding again, which was a nice change.

I rode that euphoric feeling in. It was a great feeling. I was lucky to have a large crew of friends at the finish line to cheer my arrival. I ended up finishing in about 8:50, 50th finisher of ~180 in the Mens Open (winning time of 6:38). Most importantly, I felt human, which was my main goal. I was given a beer immediately and drank it with pleasure, something that is not a given after riding for 8+ hours.

In retrospect, as is usual with such events, I am happy to have completed this milestone. I have also said that is the end of my entry into the off-road century club, though I still need to finish a road century, which shouldn’t be a problem! I still enjoy the long rides, but for me, a good day on the bike is in the 5 hour range, which I think will be a personal limitation that will be adhered to for now on.