As I drove home from the race I thought, “How did I finish that race?”
I reached for the Gatorade sitting in the cup holder next to me, but pain prevented me from lifting it to my lips. I switched hands and took a drink. I did all my steering with my left hand and winced every time I had to shift my leg from the accelerator to the brake. My ribs ached. My hip was bruised. My entire body felt like it had been beaten.
Earlier in the day, the prospects had been so positive. The Ohio Mountain Bike Championship series (OMBC) was holding a XC mountain bike race at Chestnut Ridge Metro Park just south of Columbus, Ohio – “The Race on the Ridge.” The September morning air was crisp and cool, but temperatures quickly rose into the 60s when the sun rose overhead.
My warm-up lap was encouraging. Course conditions were ideal. There had been just the right amount of rain that week. No mud. No dust. There was plenty of tacky singletrack for my Kenda 24Seven tires to rip through. My bike was performing well. I had replaced the stem that broke when I slipped on the bridge in the previous race at Dillon State Park.
My legs felt great too. I had tapered a little for the race. Thursday was a speed workout. Friday I did a light run and Saturday I took a quick bike ride around the neighborhood. I was well-rested and energized. I felt nimble weaving through the woods. After a light warm-up, my legs were feeling twitchy and ready to go. This was as good a day as any to perform at the top of my game.
A Rough Start
This was the first time that the OMBC had held a race at Chestnut Ridge and there was a great turnout. 187 racers lined up to test themselves against the best mountain bikers in Ohio. There were 59 novice racers and 30 kids, which is great because it means that the event was drawing new riders into the sport.
There were 21 other sport masters at the start line with me. My goal for the day was to get a top 3 finish in my division, which is what I needed to improve my series score for 2014. I am in second place in the sport masters division behind Bill Mickey and would love to hold on to that place for the season. First place may be out of my reach at this point, but I’ve committed to moving up to expert in 2015. This was one of my last three sport races. I wanted to make it count.
As always, I was hoping for a good start because I didn’t want to get caught in traffic in the woods. My goal for the day left very little room for error. As we lined up, I looked up and down the start. There was no sign of Bill Mickey.
I glanced at my long-time nemesis, Chris Knapp. “Where is Bill Mickey?” he shouted down to me. Everyone looked around.
A voice behind me, I think it was Rusty Brown, joked, “Hurray, we all get to move up one spot!” Everyone laughed.
With Mickey out, I believe he was at a birthday event for his son, I shifted my focus to another rival – Brian Gonser. Gonser has put down some of the most impressive times this season and was definitely a threat to my top 3 finish. He was standing right next to me. We gave each other fist bumps and words of encouragement. Thankfully I resisted the urge to pop the quick release on his front tire.
I was lined up on the far right side of the start. When race director Ryan O’Dell said “GO!” I shot off as fast as I could. I thought it was one of my better starts, but there were at least 6 riders pulling away from me. It was about a quarter mile of grassy field trail to the woods and I knew I was going to have to dig deep to catch up. Brian Gonser was in the lead and Chris Knapp was close behind him. If I didn’t catch them, my top 3 finish might fall out of reach.
As the pack surged forward, I had gotten myself boxed in on the right. My Combo Race Team cohort, Cory Knight, was directly in front of me on the left and unknowingly moving me into the tall grass on the right side of the trail. When we hit our first right turn I had to throw on my brakes to avoid hitting him. This section was wide open and there was no reason that I should be braking yet. I needed to be powering forward, not stopping. I knew I had to act quickly.
I prepared to tell Cory that I was going to pass on the right when the trail straightened out. I gave the pedals a power stroke to gain momentum for the pass. And then…
My wheels hit a slick section of wet grass and flew out from under me. My body slammed to the ground at 20 miles per hour. Wham! Ooff!
I don’t think I could have fallen any faster or harder. It was immediate.
I instantlly began my adreniline-soaked effort to scramble back to my feet. I stood up and felt pain everywhere. I had the wind knocked out of me and my initial focus was on how much my ribs hurt. My left arm cradled my right arm and I turned to see 15 other racers coming straight at me. I was dazed and just hoping that I wouldn’t get hit or run over. Rusty Brown was right behind me on his fat bike and managed to avert disaster. He claims he avoided me, but I’m pretty sure I had fat tire tracks on my forehead. 🙂
I was shaken. I picked up my bike as quickly as I could muster and noticed that my GPS had been torn off and that the Bar Fly 2.0 mount that holds it on had snapped in the crash. I picked the GPS up and put it in my back pocket. Then, I noticed my handlebars were no longer straight. They were angled about 5 degrees to the right. Could I even ride them like this?
All the racers were gone. I was in last place. Should I DNF? I’m tough and like to stick it out, but I was hurt and my bike seemed like it might be broken. I had no tools, so if I wanted to fix anything I had to run back to the start. Despite my doubts, I hobbled onto my bike and began slowly pedaling towards the woods. I would ride first, then decide about DNFing later.
Those first pedal strokes hurt badly. I had fallen hard on my right side and everything from my right shoulder down to my right calf had been damaged in some way or the other. The pedals slowly churned and with each rotation I got a little faster. I hadn’t seen anyone enter the woods and now I had no idea how far ahead everyone was. Could I catch the leaders with so many riders ahead of me? That was a lot of passing.
Just thinking about the next 90 minutes of suffering was daunting but I pushed forward into the trees not knowing what would happen.
The Long Road Back
This was such a frustrating way to start. I managed to go through all 11 races in 2013 with zero crashes or mechanicals. In 2014, I already had a flat in a race at The Wilds that I would have won. My pedal fell off at West Branch. A slick bridge broke the handlebars off my bike in a crash at Dillon when I had another chance to win. And now this. I didn’t think I was doing anything differently this year. I was actually trying to be cautious so that I wouldn’t get hurt. My training was intense this year because I wanted to win, but Lady Luck did not seem to be on my side.
As I entered the woods., my steering was way off at first because of my twisted handlebars and the pain in my right arm. I actually missed a couple of the first turns and steered myself into some bushes. This was not going well. The mental fog was still hanging on and I was wondering whether this was worth the effort.
I slowly started to gain my senses and when it came time to power up some of the first short climbs, my right leg ached as I stood and put my weight into the pedals. Good news: only 8300 more pedal strokes to the finish!
I started assessing the situation. It only hurt when I hit roots, went over rocks, dropped off ledges, descended and/or climbed, pedaled in general, and made right turns – other than that I was fine. I reasoned that only about 53% of the turns went right on this clockwise course. That meant plenty of left hand turns for me to only feel slightly uncomfortable instead of completely miserable.
About a half mile in I caught up to my first rider, Daniel Fausey, who was racing in his first sport race. We had chatted before the race and I was definitely rooting for him to have a fun day on the course.
“Dan, when you get a safe spot, I’m going to need to get a pass!” I shouted. It was encouraging to know that I was catching the pack a little.
“Is that you James? Are you okay? That crash looked awful,” he said as he pulled over to let me by.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said as I passed him, “My ribs hurt a lot, but I think I can recover.” At this point I still thought that my ribs were the worst part. Boy, was I wrong.
I motored on and just chatting with Dan was motivating. I was still in pain, but I found a little extra pep in my step because he seemed so supportive. I caught and passed a few more riders over the next 5 minutes and started feeling a little better about my efforts. The pain seemed to subside a little and I was able to focus on my riding more.
All of a sudden, the ride morphed from one of my most painful race moments into one of my most moving experiences of my mountain bike career. As I approached each rider I gave them a lot of warning that I was coming and I was going to need a pass when they had a safe place to let me by. Everyone was so cool about letting me by (…which is why mountain bikers rock!). But, not only that, when they realized that I was the guy that crashed, they asked if I was okay. They seemed genuinely concerned about my well-being. A lot of them recognized me from Quickdirt and shouted words of encouragement.
“Go get ’em James”
“Glad to see you’re alright”
“You can catch ’em man!”
The next 6 miles were full of the positive energy and motivation that I drew from these interactions. It made me feel like all the writing I’ve done this season mattered. These guys didn’t despise me for staying in sport one last year. It felt like they were on my side, rooting for me in one of my final sport moments. Thanks guys. It meant a lot.
I snuck past one rider after another and pretty soon I started to think, “What place am I in? I’m doing better than I expected.” When I caught Rusty Brown and his fat bike at the apple barn I knew that I had to be near the top 6.
At one point, Brian Gonser, who I thought had a good chance of winning the race, was standing on the side of the trail with a mechanical. I heard later that he might have cracked his frame. (Maybe someone could confirm this in the comment section. My source is an anonymous Japanese mountain bike racer.)
Now, Bill Mickey was at home. Gonser was out. I had an epic crash. This race was open for a new winner. That’s why you go to every race folks. You never know what will happen!
When I caught Kunihiko “Max” Tanuma, I knew I was at least top 5.
“Max-san, what place are you in?” I asked as I approached him from behind.
“Uh, maybe 4th.” he replied in his cute little Japanese accent. The hesitant way he said it made me unsure of whether he didn’t know what place he was in or because he wasn’t confident in his English.
He is a strong rider and I did not pass him immediately. But, after trailing for about a half mile, I felt like I had the juice to get by him and sustain it. I asked him for a pass and he graciously let me by and chased me for a while.
“Ganbarimasu!” I said in Japanese to encourage him. It means “to persist” or “keep up the good fight”. (My wife and I met in Japanese class and my mother-n-law is Japanese from the island of Okinawa.)
I couldn’t believe that I had moved from 22nd to potentially being in 4th place. I had spent a lot of energy playing catch-up and I wasn’t sure I could sustain it. I was still winded and aching, but I continued to chug forward.
The Return of My Nemesis
There was a time 4 or 5 seasons ago when I started noticing that I was finishing almost every race within one or two places of Chris Knapp. It was so consistent that I began to judge the success of my races by whether I had beaten Chris or he had beaten me. The two of us were in an epic battle for points in the sport veteran’s division and developed a friendly rivalry. I began jokingly referring to him as “my nemesis” to my wife Chrissy at home.
We’ve both had our racing ups and downs. Sometimes he is faster and other years I am faster, but the important part is that even though we compete 10 times a summer, we still have a great time hanging out at the races. We even ride together from time to time.
As I started my second 8-mile lap, I was trying to figure out where I stood. Who had I passed? Who was still left in front of me? I wasn’t sure of my exact position, but I knew there was one guy that I still hadn’t caught for sure – Chris Knapp.
He was racing with his Team 614 teammate, Doug Carroway. I didn’t know Doug. I think this was his first OMBC mountain bike race this season. Chris told me later that he is more of road and cyclocross kind of guy.
I had no idea how far ahead they were or whether there was anyone else in between us. I just wanted to stay focused on closing the gap.
I pedaled and careened through the sweet singletrack at Chestnut. Sometimes I surprised myself with the efforts I was able to put forth, but as fatigue started to set in the pain became more noticeable. I tried to bomb down the rocky descents, but each stone sent a wave of hurt up my right arm. Eventually, I had to succumb to my feelings and slow down. I was worried that I might lose my grip to the discomfort and I had no interest in falling for a second time that day. Right turns became increasingly painful – especially the sharper curves.
When I was just about to concede, I caught a glimpse of Knapp’s 614 jersey on a switchback ahead of me. It motivated me to keep pushing. At that point, I may have closed the gap to 90 seconds. I pedaled harder. Maybe I could catch him. I tried to dig deep on the climbs, but my body pushed back. The pain in my arm was shooting to my brain and begging for mercy. Each time I tried to refocus my motivation I was forced to pull back. I still maintained good speed, but had probably dropped to about 80 to 90 percent of my potential. It was frustrating, but I was happy that I was at least going to finish.
My nemesis, Chris Knapp, had pulled off the win. He rode strong and outperformed this wounded warrior. It was his first OMBC division win ever and he was ecstatic. Once again my nemesis stood between me and mountain biking greatness – but, I really was happy for him. He has had a few tough moments this season, but he has been a class act. When I had a flat at The Wilds, he didn’t think twice about throwing me his camelback with all of his tools and water. Congrats Chris!!! I’ll be gunning for you at East Fork!
Chris is now in 3rd place in the sport masters division and will be in a tight race with Kunihiko Tanuma, Cory Knight, Brian Gonser and Rusty Brown for series podium spots in the final two races. Tune in to find out how this shakes out. I’m going to have to watch my back.
In the end, I pulled across the line in 3rd place. Good enough to improve my series score by one point. I dropped my bike and stumbled around the finish area. The reality of my injuries started to really set in. I reached for my Garmin in my back pocket to check my stats and realized that it had fallen out in the race – more frustration. I let out an off-color word that rhymes with “duck” and turned around to see my cute little 5-year-old son who had showed up to surprise me at the finish. Now I felt like a bad father too. The misery continued to pile up. Doh.
All things considered, I was happy with the performance that I was able to muster. Within an hour of the finish my body was showing the true signs of the damage. My muscles tightened up. Bruises began to appear and swell. I was limping. I couldn’t lift my right arm more than six inches. How had I ridden for 17 miles?
I haven’t ridden my bike or run since the race. My body just hurts too much. I plan on heading to East Fork and I’m just hoping that I can heal by then.
I probably won’t be able to do a course preview for East Fork because I can’t fathom riding my mountain bike right now, but I hope that I see you there. My only goal at this point is to finish safely with no mechanicals. We only have two events left this season and as you can see – anything can happen!
Check out the full results on ombc.net. Congratulations to all the top finishers:
- Expert – Heidi Coulter, Lady Gnar Shredders
- Sport – Vicki Munnings, Jinx/Eddy’s
- Novice – Heather Tarlton
Top Men’s Times:
Expert – 3 x 8.5-mile laps
- Steve Twining, Open, Team Lake Effect, 1:54:37
- Ross Clark, 35+, Edge Outdoors/Hammer, 1:56:53
- Jeff Rupnow, 35+ Paradise Garage, 1:57:28
Sport – 2 x 8.5-mile laps
- Tom Pollock, 30-39, Backroom Coffee Roasters, 1:22:15
- Mike Egnot, 19-29, Combo Race Team, 1:24:09
- Chris Knapp, 40-49, Team 614, 1:24:19
Novice – 1 x 8.5-mile lap
- Brett Saultz, 15-18, 42:40
- Addision Good, 19-29, 44:15
- Jeff Harper, 30-39, 44:16
P.S. Did anyone find a Garmin 800 on the trail? I’d love to get it back.