Ouachita Challenge

“Ya’ll didn’t drive all the way down here from Missouri to ride bicycles, didja,” asked the Arkansas state trooper?

“Yessir. We just raced on the Ouachita trail,” answered Doug.

“Well I’ll be…do you know the speed limit here?”

“The sign right there (pointing out the windshield) says it’s 45 MPH, so I’d say 45.”

“That’s right and I just clocked you at 61 MPH. License and insurance. I’ll be right back.”

“Dude! You are so getting a ticket,” snapped Rich from the back seat.

The trooper walked back up to the window and handed over a warning! If only the entire weekend would have gone that well. It’s not that it was a bad weekend; it just wasn’t the weekend I had planned. Before I signed up for the Ouachita Challenge I studied the results from last year. Seeing the sub 5-hour times of the big guys (Jeff Kerkove, Bryan Fawley, Aaron Elwell, Garth Prosser, et al), I set my goal to be between 5:30 and 6 hours. 5:30 was obviously the best-case scenario, but it gave me a goal to work towards. Unfortunately, my training didn’t fit the bill. I had good fitness but no technical skills.

We arrived in Waldron around 3:00PM, checked in to the hotel, quickly suited up for a ride, and headed to the grand metropolis of Oden, Arkansas, population 212. We planned to check out the 10-mile gravel section leading to the single track. After talking with folks at race headquarters, we decided to drive 3 miles of it and then ride the remaining 7 miles. From what we heard, it was a long climb that got very pitchy at the end. And it was. At a leisurely pace, it took us 30 minutes to reach the top. We rode the first 200 feet of single track and then turned around for the truck. It took less than 15 minutes to get back. We headed back to Waldron, grabbed some late grub, and then crashed for the night.

We drove back to Oden bright and early on Sunday. After a pancake breakfast, we suited up and lined up. Somehow I was on the front row, right behind the pace truck. After 15 minutes of racer-meeting speech, the flag dropped and we were off. The pace was immediately faster than I anticipated. Even more shocking was the jockeying and diving guys were doing. I was more than happy to give up a spot to save myself from the insanity. I fell back to 50th-ish place by the start of the long climb. I took back 20 or so places by the time I turned on to single track. I felt great climbing up to the top of Big Brushy. I even passed a few more guys before the summit. Then, I started the descent. And guys started passing me. The rocky trails banged and bucked me like a rank ole PBR bull. I wasn’t even halfway down the mountain when I started thinking, “I want this to end.” A 26″ hard tail with tube tires and a driver lacking skills is not the best set up for these trails!

Just as the banging and bucking reached the I’m-done point, I popped out at the first aid station. “AHHHH!” I flew through the station, and on to the long climb of Blowout Mountain. The first 25 minutes of climbing weren’t too bad. I passed several guys but also let several pass me, especially in the technical areas. Then I reached the dreaded rock gardens…two miles of walking! I lined up with the others and hiked to the top. The walking was actually a nice break that offered a little rest for my legs and lower back.

I checked my watch as I rolled over the summit and noticed that I was still ahead of schedule by 20 minutes. Perfect! But, just like Big Brushy, the descent killed my time…and my lower back. I knew I was in trouble when Rich blasted by me like I was standing still. He was here and then immediately out of site. And then a women. And then a single-speeder. No matter how much I tried to speed up, the rough terrain kept me in check. Just like Big Brushy, the single track dropped out to a fire road just as I reach the done point–hands tingling, lower back screaming, and head pounding.

I dropped two Tylenol and gobbled a Stinger Waffle during the respit. I rolled through the second station and started the second Blowout climb. Where the first climb was rocky and technical, this one was just steep. I rolled past a few people that were walking and started to wonder, “what’s better rolling at 4 MPH or walking at 3?” How about riding at 5 or 6! So I dropped a gear and forced myself to pick up the pace. It seemed like 30 minutes of grinding, but I finally rolled over the top. Just like last time, everyone (plus a few more) that I passed on the way up zoomed past me on the way down. After 20 minutes of descending, I popped out on a gravel road and started the 10-mile drag to the next check point. With a 20 MPH headwind, I needed a wheel, but no one was in sight. Everyone that passed me was long out of sight and I didn’t want to wait for whoever might come up behind me. So I dropped my head and put my roadie legs to work.

All that was left was the infamous Womble Trail and a short run on gravel and then pavement. I stopped by the 298 aid station to top off water and eat a pickle. I checked my time and calculated that I was behind my target time by about 10 minutes. Fortunately, the Womble was faster, with less climbing, not as many technical sections and flowing lines. I picked my way through woods and soon found myself running a 12-inch section of trail cut into the hillside. To the left, a 45-degree incline up; to the right, a 45-degree drop down, down, down. The trail also started pitching upward, too. I didn’t mind, though, as long as it didn’t buck and bang me like the earlier sections.

I reached the next aid station in relatively no time. A quick check of the watch and I was less than 5 minutes off schedule. Cool! According to the lady at the water jug, I had 10 miles of single track and 4 miles of gravel to go. She forgot to tell me about the nasty cramps that were waiting for me about half way through the single track. My right quad seized so fast and tight that I didn’t even have time to clear the trail. All I could do is stand over my bike with my right leg stuck out to the side. Standing there, with all my weight on my left leg, caused my left calf to cramp. I dropped the bike and fell to the ground in pain. I didn’t know if I should rub my right leg or stretch my left one. Neither would have helped. My muscles were angry and only time and electrolytes were going to calm them down. So I sat there. For 20 MINUTES! Waiting. Drinking. I tried to stand up several times but felt that snapping twitch. “This is ridiculous.” Other than two cramped up legs and a sore back, I felt great. But, I was completely incapacitated. I stopped counting people as they went by after the 15th person passed me.

When I finally started rolling again, I was determined to take back some of the places. I finished the single track and jumped the chain to the big ring. As soon as I got up to speed, the OC reminded me who was boss. The road slowly pitched upwards and seemed to keep getting steeper and steeper, eventually reaching what seemed like a 20% incline. Fortunately, I was passing people as they walked up the hill. Seeing them drop behind me kept me going. I finally reach the top and started the 5-mile run for the finish. I rolled from gravel to blacktop and used every once of the 20 MPH tailwind to blow me home. As I rounded the corner for the finish, my right leg screamed “done!” I had to stop and stretch with the finish line and all the spectators within ear shot. Fortunately, the cramp passed quickly and I rolled across the line before anyone could pass me.

All said and done, I finished in 6 hours and 26 minutes. While I could never ride the course as fast as Kerkove, I agree with him: technical skills! And, just to add my own 2 cents: a full-suspension bike!!!


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