Monday, June 1, 2015

Foolproofing: A Mohican Adventure

A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.
~ Douglas Adams

“He DNFed,” I said.
“What's that?” Tomahawk said as he swerved to avoid the mangled roadkill raccoon.
“'Did Not Finish,'” I replied.
Tom laughed.  A little further down Wally Road he swerved to avoid a centerline row of potholes. 
“Yeah, don't hit those,” I offered, thinking back to his crash on North Bend Road a few years ago.  And keep your hands on the handlebars!
My father-in-law had gone for a road bike ride a few years ago when we were in visiting from Colorado and as we rounded a bend Tom sat up in the saddle with his hands at his side.  I saw he was headed for the rough patch in the middle of the road and opened my mouth to say 'watch out' but he turned to look at me not seeing the gaping crack in the pavement and in horror I saw him go down like a crash test dummy. 
He ended up being okay, but as he and I rode out toward Aid Station 3 of the 2015 Mohican 100 course to our respective proofing sections I cringed as he just barely missed a similar scab of asphalt.  Then we hit the gravel and I couldn't help the smile that crossed my face.  I'm not a grave grinder, but I love the feeling of cruising across a well-packed dirt road.  Leadville nostalgia waxes hard as my synapses respond to that feeling.
We parted ways just before the third aid station.  Tom headed for Aid Station 5 and the last section, while I headed for 3 where I would pick up the 100 mile course for my forty mile proofing responsibility. 
Aid 3 was desolate.  It was only 6:30am.  No one would be coming through there until 10:00 or so.  I continued on, following the course signs and ribbons, and into the unknown.  I had never made it beyond Aid 3 on the hundred.  Last year I turned off on the 100k route from 3 and continued the short way to the finish.
Not too far down Wally Road I saw signs spaced up a steep grassy hill next to a Tree Frog sign.  Jeff and I had bemoaned the section just before Aid 3 through Tree Frog.  It looked like right after 3 it dipped back in.  I crawled up the steep hill and into the woods.  Maybe I shouldn't have taken that ten mile ride the night before...
On the Mohican MTB loop Friday night
Tom, Jeaph, and Casey planned to do the easy Wally Road ride pre-race and Mandy wanted to go for a run on the multiuse path in town.  I was adamant I wanted to ride the singletrack in the state forest and so we all parted ways with a plan to meet at Trails End for dinner around 8:00pm. 
Mandy dropped me off at the trailhead that would become Aid Station 5 in about thirteen hours.  Right out of the gate I climbed.  In a mile I climbed to the crest of the ridge.  Then for three miles I rode some incredible singletrack and for the first time truly got to enjoy it without the pressure of trying to hang with the mountain biker in front of me and not hold up the hoards behind me.  There was no pressure to nail every line, to fight off fear of my heart exploding, all the while saving something for the next thirty five miles.
Forty-five minutes after Mandy dropped me off I returned to the parking lot five miles of riding richer.  I turned around and reversed the loop.  I knew I was jeopardizing my proofing success the next day, but I was enjoying the ride too much.  I kept passing other mountain bikers.  That was a new experience for me.  Most of my rides are on lonely trails or during banker's hours.  I had to practice sharing the trail.  It was a novel experience for this guy.
So when I turned off the paved road early Saturday morning and began climbing up into the wicked technical singletrack of Tree Frog Canopy Tours I felt the sluggishness of a full on mountain biking hangover.  My legs felt hollow.  My body groaned against the drain I was subjecting it to.  I began to worry I would DNF.  As a proofer.
I rode well.  Through Tree Frog I mostly stayed on the bike.  I did walk a couple of short, steep hills.  On one particular hill it looked like the course crested a bench and then came right back down.  I opted (out of character for me) to cut the “switchback” and continue without the last few feet of gain.  After a few minutes of riding things started to look familiar.  Nothing should have looked familiar.  I had requested to proof that section specifically because I had not ridden it during a previous race.
Finally I came out of the trees and was certain I had inadvertently gotten onto the pre-Aid Station 3 section of the course.  When I reached Wally Road I turned right knowing I would pick the course up again further south, and for a few minutes pondered where I went astray.  Finally I remembered cutting the switchback and realized it must have been a place where the course came very close together at milepoints 40-ish and 50-ish.  I had screwed up.
I rode on down Wally Road at a breakneck pace angry at myself for making such a bonehead choice.  I was never certain I could outpace the race leaders even with an hour head start.  My delay—and impending fixing of the situation—was going to slash the gap to nothing.  I reached Stumbaugh Road and saw a Mohican sign on the side road.  I turned and began backtracking on the course hoping to reach the point where I deviated in short order.  Except I was climbing a long steep, dirt road and sapping the energy I would need to hang in for the whole proofing stint.
I crested the climb and saw no other course markers as the road began a steep dip into the unknown.  I made what I hoped was not another bad decision and turned around, knowing I had to be close to where the trail came out of Tree Frog and back onto the public road.  Then I was screaming down the gravel road leaving a spray of gravel and dust behind me.
I settled into a Leadville-esque posture over the handlebars and turned the crank in a high, but steady cadence.  I blasted through the charming community of Greer, turned south, and paralleled the Mohican River on the other side for a change.
Finally I reached a marker sign which indicated the #12 course marshal and that Aid Station 3.5 was up the trail in the woods.  I left the road just happy to be doing what I was supposed to.  The trail was wide and sparsely marked with horse hoofprints.  I hadn’t caught my second wind just yet, but I felt good climbing up the subtle grade into the woods.  Then my proofing skills were put to the test.
The top of a large tree had fallen across the stream, the trail, and partway up the slope above.  I dropped the bike, stripped off my helmet and hydration pack and started breaking branches.  In ten minutes I had a tunnel cleared through the tree, but I still had to carry my bike over some arm thick branches.  Since I didn’t have a chainsaw in my jersey pocket there was nothing for it.  If only I had brought that folding saw!
I soldiered on, hoping if I had missed something with my flub at Tree Frog maybe I had made up for it by opening a path through the deadfall.
I climbed out of the holler (I guess you’d call it a “holler” in Ohio) and found myself in the middle of a camp.  I followed the signs past a smoldering fire ring and out along a horse pasture and toward a paddock.  A guy on a golf cart came tearing up behind, overtook me, and raced ahead to open the gates through a pen.
“It’s cool, I’m just proofing,” I reassured.
“Oh, I know,” he said almost breathless.
I noticed he had a chainsaw on the back of his golf cart.
“You have a chainsaw,” I said.
“Yeah,” he answered.
I told him about the tree at the base of the ridge.
“I’ll get it,” he assured.  I felt even better about my proofing abilities at that point.  Not only had I made it possible to continue racing progress, but I may have even made it possible to pass the obstacle without dismounting.
The guy said if I saw anything on the camp section forthcoming to stop back by and let him know.  I said I would and we parted ways.  My legs felt stronger for some reason.  The interaction with another person, the obliteration of the cloud of my mistake and knowing I had made somewhat of a difference…it’s amazing how the mind can affect the physical body.
I raced through Mohaven (the camp) and looped back past the main buildings.  Then the trail dropped back into the woods.  My effectiveness as a proofer was about to be seriously hindered.
Right off the road the trail was steep.  In fact, the course marker had two arrows pointing straight down.  I kept it together and let gravity have me.  My technical abilities have been improving.  I was comfortable rolling over rougher and bigger obstacles at speed.
Unfortunately my chain wasn’t with the program.  It dropped.  My derailer was immediately sucked into the wheel and ripped off the bike.  Thankfully only one spoke broke, but I was stopped cold.
Without hesitation I once again stripped off helmet and pack, whipped out my multi-tool, broke my chain, resized it to the straightline cog, and then removed my lone shifter and replaced the brake lever and grip, stowed my potentially ruined derailer, cable, and shifter in my pack and threw a leg over the bike.
It was a ten minute delay at most.  I didn’t think I would get far in Mohican terrain on a single speed.  I know the guy who won in 2013 did so on a single speed, but he was inhuman.  I am mere mortal.  Wussified mortal.
On the first hill my pedals locked up.  Would hardly turn.  I muttered curses under my breath but just got off and began pushing the bike at a fast walk through the woods.  I set my jaw in determination.  I was going to proof until the leaders overtook me.  I would not give up my duty.  I began feeling it as a dutiful obligation.  I had to proof.
I finally came out of the woods next to an active (but not on race day) sandstone quarry.  I peeked at my phone.  I had full service and responded to Mandy’s How’s it going? with:
I’m DNF.  Broken derailer and spoke
I was able to get an address between Google Maps and actually walking up to the address marker at the house across the street.  She came out to get me.  While I waited for her to find me from Loudonville (not easy in the backwoods of northern Ohio) I perused the cue sheet and map.  If she were game we could still proof another section along the road.

I also diagnosed my mechanical a bit better than I had in the woods.  Not only had my derailer been broken off, but my wheel wasn't seated good in the dropout because of a remnant piece of aluminum, and what kept happnening was the chain would "shift" up to the next biggest cog from the one I had sized the chain to, making it insanely tight and putting way too much pressure on everything.  I was...officially...DNF.  I felt better than Rocky Raccoon, though.
I knew the leaders had to be getting close.  Mandy found me, I loaded up the bike, and we headed on down the road.  At the first intersection there were no race signs.
“Not good,” I said.  We drove on 1.5 miles to the next intersection.  No signs.
“Let me get out and check to see if it’s just over in the weeds,” Mandy pulled over and turned on the flashers while I paced up and down the road just before the turn.  Nothing.
We drove on until we reached the rail trail which the race would follow for ten miles unbroken.  From the place where the course came out of the woods from Mohaven (where Mandy picked me up) to the rail trail every course marker was gone.  Gone.  At least there were still painted markers on the pavement.
I emailed the race director—not having his number—hoping he would get it on his phone.  I included my cell number.  Almost immediately Ryan called me, and I explained the situation.
He said the leaders should be entering Mohaven in ten minutes…which put them a half hour to forty-five minutes from reaching the first unmarked turn.  He said he was on his way and that there was actually a lead car on the roads that had backup signs. 
With little else we could do Mandy and I headed back toward Loudonville and the finish.  Hoping we had averted disaster we grabbed lunch and our day wound down.  After I changed Tom and Casey left the hotel headed for Aid Station 4 to wait for Jeaph and I headed out to Aid 5 in hopes of getting some good pics of racers on singletrack.  I did.

I know this post is dragging long so I’ll quick wrap it up.  Jeaph  finished strong, but at a conservative pace.  He held back early on and just rode steady.  He wasn’t wrecked afterward and was pretty happy with his time and effort.
Race Director Ryan O'Dell giving Jeaph a virtual high five at the finish
I hauled a slightly trashed bike back home.  It’s fixable.  I have extra spokes and will pester Jeaphre to true my wheel for me.  I really just need a new derailer now.  Part of me wanted to leverage the situation into a new bike, but I’m thinking we’re not at that point just yet.  The One still has life in her.  I’ll put on a new derailer and give it a solid cleaning and tuneup and my old faithful racing steed should hold up for another year at least.
On the trip up we discussed the possibility of finding some race or event closer to home, but by the time we were all sitting down to eat breakfast at the Whiffletree in Butler it was decided: we were all coming back to the Mohican in 2016. 
The only question that remains for me is do I want to race the 100k or try to redeem myself as a proofer?


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