“It’s like we’re supposed to be doing this.”
That became our mantra from about Thursday on. For six months or more Mandy and I had fretted over being able to pull off the first ever one hundred mile mountain bike race in the Red River Gorge area—for certain—and likely the first ever in Kentucky.
As the weekend and race day rocketed toward us things were falling into place like precision tooled components into a well-oiled machine. Those months of uncertainty and worry had paid off a hundredfold. Instead of my anxiety mounting, with each new development, each new confirmation text, each eager volunteer, each milestone of early registration, late sign-ups, and finally packet pickup passed it seemed more and more like we were going to pull it off.
Mandy and I got to this place because for the last decade we’ve participated and volunteered in numerous running and cycling events. Also, in my previous job I was the planner that reviewed special events permits for a county of 500,000 people. USA Pro Cycling Challenge? I reviewed that permit in 2011 and 2012. I’ve got the cred to pull something like this off, but the Red River Gorge MTB 100 was the first “from scratch” race Mandy and I had attempted.
Let me just say this…she can throw one heck of a party. The after party, the organized packet pickups, the results and registration…all her. She ran the admin and numbers side of the race like someone who has been doing it for a decade. I was the logistics and volunteer coordinator, but truly we shared race director duties. She was not my co-director. We were both co-directors.
I grew up in the Red River Gorge. And I’ve explored more than the normal weekly visitor to the area and honestly more than most natives. And I have a knack for geospatial awareness. My memory of the terrain, my extensive lifelong encyclopedic knowledge of the roads and backroads allowed me to put together a course that connects all of the best backcountry riding in the area with some amazing rural country roads. No one could have come up with a better 100 mile mountain bike course in this area. I’m owning that. It’s my intellectual property.
Unfortunately, what this meant for me was there was no one else I could count on for coordination into some of the remote areas where we needed volunteers to make sure our racers didn’t race into the wrong county. There were places that if someone had taken a wrong turn we’d still be looking for them. I absolutely did not want that to happen. I dropped a really fun, but tough and technical section of road two weeks before the race because it came at mile 90. I decided we couldn’t have people hitting it that late in the race, tired and frazzled, and risk people getting deep into the woods late in the day and getting hurt or lost. That would have put many out after dark and potentially put our emergency responders in dangerous and difficult situations. And while I have complete trust in them, I didn’t want to ensure that we’d test their readiness and resolve.
Going into next year I know I have a team of volunteers who will be able to help me lay out the course and keep everyone rolling the in the right direction. Having so many people I could trust out there gave me peace of mind. They also were the heroes of the day, adapting and making sure all the racers stayed safe.
I can say we met all of our course goals. The vast majority of racers loved the course. I was called a “sadistic bastard” a couple of times by people who also shook my hand and said they had a great time. We met our after party goals. The awards setup looked amazing. The venue was stunning and perfect (when I get a little more time I’m going to add to this post a list of everyone who helped us pull it off—we did not do this on our own and owe our success to our community).
I told someone on Friday that at that point I had done everything I could to make the race a success. From that point on it was on the volunteers and racers to make it happen. And strangely, on Saturday, I felt like I had nothing to do at a couple of points. Everything was moving like a well-oiled machine.
Volunteers….wow, we know good people. Great people. Our local friends who care nothing about mountain biking or bike racing came out and supported us far above and beyond anything we expected. I’m not even going to try to list them by name because I absolutely do not want to forget and leave a single person out. They all stepped up and helped us pull it off without a serious hitch at all.
As of Monday morning I’m aware of four people that had medical treatment. No one was transported off the course by ambulance and the ones I spoke to were doing well and in good spirits. There were no serious issues out on the course. There were some mechanicals. At least one person went off course early on. But otherwise everything went according to plan. The race was a success. A dream come true.
I realize that every year won’t be this smooth (oh yes, we’re doing it again!) and I realize that there are probably issues that I’ll be made aware of over the next few days. But when it’s all said and done the event and the experience far exceeded our expectations.
We had 88 folks start on Saturday morning in the fog. An amazing 74 finished! Brian Schworm of Morehead won with a blistering time of 5 hours and 55 minutes. Our last racer—Winchester native and good friend of mine—Rob Lootens came in at a respectable and inspiring 12 hours and 12 minutes. I asked a few people if the course was too easy because people were finishing so fast, but no one would concede that. It was hard in its own unique way. The pavement sections let people recover from the brutal and technical dirt climbing and it also allowed them to make up time and keep a high average pace.
This was our test run. We made planning decisions based on that. Next year will be different. The course will be the same. The venue will be the same. The difference will be that we know we can do it, and we know we can do it better.
Thank you–and I know I speak for Mandy when I say: thank you ALL–anyone and everyone, who gave us moral support, who wanted to help or race and couldn’t make it (life happens and life is important), and thank you all who raced, who volunteered, who helped us with awards, food, signs, t-shirts, the venue, traffic control, promotion, behind the scenes support, and most especially for all of you who I approached quietly when I wanted to quit and you told me no, that I needed to do this. You all bought into my vision and you wouldn’t let me quit on my dream. I owe you all a huge debt of gratitude.
I picked up a guy long after the cutoff at Aid Station 5. He was walking up the hill. He had a smile on his face and pushing his bike. I walked down to meet him.
“Hey man, this is the last hill,” I said with as much compassion as I could manage. He took a couple of more steps and then stopped. He realize what that meant. He started pushing the bike again and there was a hitch in his voice. His eyes were welling with tears. He apologized. I told him no. “No, don’t apologize. I’ve been right where you’re at now.” I walked with him up to the jeep and loaded up his bike. On the slow ride back as we paced Rob in the last few miles we talked and I got to hear the story of how he found out about the race and came up from Hattiesburg, Mississippi to do the race with his step-father. And I heard the steel determination in his voice when he said he was coming back next year to finish. That’s why I do this. Those moments are powerful. It was incredible to watch Brian Schworm come powering over the finish and look fresh an hour later (he ran four miles the next morning according to Strava!), but it’s the moments with the people in my part of the pack who are there to test themselves that inspire me to do what I do.
I realized after the race that being a co-race director means you can’t quit. You’re in it until the last person finishes. You can’t give up at Aid Station 3. You can’t even really push your bike up the hills. You’ve got to be there every pedal stroke to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to find within themselves the strength to keep going.
Thank again to everyone who helped make this possible. We can’t wait to do it with you again next year!
The Story I Told With A Race Course
After three days we’re still digging out from under the race. Mandy got our living space mostly put back together on Tuesday. I rounded up the last few loose items in the yard and threw them into the trailer this morning on my way to work so our guy could mow the yard today. Our basement is a wreck with piles of signs, race debris, and the random collection of junk from our lives that was unorganized before all this chaos. Tonight, I wade in to put things in order.
The Red River Gorge MTB 100 was a great success. Next year is a go. October 13, 2018 will be the date. Same venue. Basically the same course unless singletrack miracles happen. Same folks. Same friends. Same racers and then some. It’ll be grand again. We’ve learned a lot and we’ll make sure to incorporate everything we learned into the race next year and into anything else we do.
I’m going to throw my name back into the Leadville lottery. It might be stupid with our event coming up, but I think I can balance it. The key will be just being healthy. I’ll ride what I can and do my best to eat well and have good habits. That’s the thing I never did right before. If I don’t get in that’s okay. I’ll pick a different race to throw myself up against. Probably something shorter and closer to home. Maybe I’ll try to improve my Mohican game. But I think I want to do something different. And no, I won’t be racing in the RRG MTB 100, lol.
I do intend to ride the course this year though. I had fully intended to do it before the race, but I never got the opportunity. Well, I’ll have it now. I’m going to do it before next year’s race. Probably solo. Probably unsupported. That’s just how I end up doing things. Or, I’m certain, my lovely wife and the real Race Director will run SAG for me. We’ll do it all quiet like. No fanfare. No timing.
Maybe that’s the only hundred mile race I’ll need to do…the one against myself on the course I came up with.
The course is autobiographical. I’ve mentioned this to a few people, but I want to explain it. My earliest memories in life include the Red River Gorge. The first dream I can remember having was a nightmare about colors swirling in the muddy river, reds like blood and browns as I was used to seeing as my parents drove me around the county. Nada Tunnel has existed in my awareness since I became aware. And it was on Cane Creek where my child’s mind began to remember and process the world. The race goes through the tunnel, up North Fork, and then onto Cane Creek past the trailer where I lived and the farm my family owned. I remember playing while they stripped tobacco and cut soybeans. I remember playing in the creek, climbing fences, and sledding in the big snow of ’77.
Then the race drops over into Menifee County by way of Pumpkin Hollow and then returns into the woods to drop into Spaas Creek. Spaas Creek was the first place I mountain biked with intention; riding around in my surplus camo pants, hiking boots, cotton tee-shirt and no helmet. From there it follows pavement through the Red River Gorge. The Gorge has been my solace and refuge throughout my adult life. And as a child my family spent a lot of time there hiking and canoeing, picnicking and going for drives. The Gorge is my home. I am native to this place. I’m not at peace anywhere else.
From Sky Bridge Station the course takes KY 715 past the small community of Rogers before dropping into Walker Creek. Walker Creek is a new discovery for me, but it is part of the old Kentucky Union Railway which I have been familiar with my entire life. Railroad Street in Stanton follows the same line. The tunnels at Natural Bridge and Torrent are part of that line. Old buttresses I’ve seen from the car window across farm fields and while paddling the river were part of the KU line. So discovering that I could ride my mountain bike for six miles on a fairly unspoiled section of that old railroad was exciting to me. I had to include it on the course. And in my opinion it’s the best part of the course and the section that makes it all worthwhile.
Then the course climbs onto Shoemaker Ridge, traverses Hell Creek, and then winds its way to Bald Rock Fork of Big Sinking Creek. Bald Rock is part of the Big Sinking Oil Field and my maternal grandfather—“Papaw Lacy”—worked all over that area for Ashland Oil until he was too sick from cancer to keep working. He told many stories of his exploits there, and in my adult years, after he was gone, I found myself continually drawn down into that part of northern Lee County where my mom grew up and where Papaw made a living to support his family. As a rock climber I spent time in Bald Rock and exploring the greater area. As a mountain biker I have always gravitated to Big Sinking Creek and the first time I rode with another person was to show my good friend Dave Lutes a four mile technical loop I had worked out. Back then I rode a fully rigid 26” Cannondale M300. I still have that bike, and I still ride that loop.
From Big Sinking (Fixer Road) the course climbs up to KY 1036 and passes through Leeco and Standing Rock. My Lacy grandparents owned a store at Standing Rock and I have dim memories of the time I fell off a stool at the lunch counter there. The course runs with the Sheltowee Trace for a mile or so on the pavement, and the Sheltowee is a bright line of light in my mind most of the time. I want to see it developed into a more mountain bike friendly trail. I was stoked with Josh Patton and friends thru-rode it a few months back. Josh designed our race logo. The threads are tangled in this story, I know.
From Standing Rock the course turns onto Barker Branch Road and eventually crosses what locals call “The Narrows” (generally pronounced ‘Nars’) which is not the Narrows at White’s Branch Arch a few miles away. My mom tells stories of freaking out in a school bus crossing that narrow saddle of rock and sand.
The course turns onto the last dirt and gravel section into Stump Cave Branch. Doc Townsend lives just a little further down the road—just out of sight of the turn—and he is the father of one of my best friends from high school. The first (and one of the only) time I rode a dirt bike I almost wrecked it turning around at that course intersection.
After crossing into Red’s Hollow and exiting onto the pavement at Mountain Chapel (where I have family buried) racers pick up Pilot Road. I hate Pilot Road. I’ve ridden Pilot Road after many miles of road and mountain biking myself; cursing every hill, bonking, wishing I could call for SAG but having no cell reception… Pilot Road represents ultimate suffering on the bike in my mind. I’ve never ridden it fresh, and I’ve never enjoyed riding it. So, it’s fitting that it comes after mile 90. I know the darkness you feel in your soul out on those lonely roads. I know it well.
And finally, somewhere in the mid-90s you hit the bottom of High Rock on the Rogers Chapel side. Our cycling friends that live nearby call it “Ray’s Hill” because Ray lives at the bottom. It’s not the toughest road climb in the area, but it’s tough enough. High Rock is one of the highest points in the county and is the location of a long gone fire lookout tower. Four roads intersect just beneath the cliffline around the massive promontory of this high country landmark.
From High Rock it’s seven miles of mostly downhill back to the finish. By the time you reach the main road at the bottom of the Cow Creek descent you’ve ridden through my cycling history.
What I’ve described is mostly the highlights of the course. Folks who know me know I like to tell stories, and there are hundreds more stories I could tell about the course along all parts of it. This is not just a few lines on a map I pieced together and marked for people to follow. The course is a tour through my psyche. I may not be an elite mountain bike racer, but I’ve suffered on those roads. I understand why that race should be appealing to people, and it was incredibly satisfying to have people come up afterward and compliment me on the course. I worried a lot about how it would be received, and all of that worry is gone.
I have to say it again though, while I am the master of the course my incredible wife threw the rockin’ party back at the Barn. We are a pretty good team. It’s like we were meant to do this.
Four days later I’m still basking in the afterglow. Putting on the first ever one hundred mile mountain bike race in Kentucky was fulfilling. It was hard, and stressful, and time and time again I wanted to give up. But it was worth it.