When I looked at the list of registered singlespeeders for the 2017 Mohican 100k, I didn’t recognize most of the names. Fast guys from all over the country show up for this big event. However, two names stuck out to me as potential competitors – Mike Whaley and Eli Orth. Mike is a teammate of mine and I know he has a full arsenal of weapons to beat me, but I just wasn’t sure how he would hold up in an endurance event. His PR was over 7 hours, but I knew he was much more talented than that and had gotten much faster in the two years since he set it. I had a goal of finishing in 5 hours and 30 minutes, which would be my first time under 6 hours in 5 attempts at the 100k.
Eli, on the other hand, I don’t know as well, but I have seen his name popping up higher and higher in the standings for the events he’s been attending. My assessment was, that it depended on who showed up, but Eli might actually have a chance at winning, or at the very least, taking away a podium spot that would spoil Mike and my dreams of getting on the 100k singlespeed podium. And by the way, my secret secondary goal was getting on the podium at the 100k for the first time ever.
It was beautiful at the starting line, 60 degrees or so. It was going to get into the 80s by the end, and I thought that sounded like a perfect day for racing. I was the first racer to line up and so I was near the front of the pack. I could see Mike Whaley wide right. He had told me beforehand that he wanted to go out fast to get on the singletrack before it got clogged. So I expected him to get out ahead of me. I had no idea where Eli was in the mass of 600 riders waiting to go. Admittedly, it wasn’t on my mind, I was focused more on my own strategy and excited to start the day.
I wanted to start out moderately fast to get ahead of some of the slower, less-technical riders on the singletrack, but I was also trying not to go out too fast and blow my legs up. The race starts with about 5 miles of road which spreads out the pack and I always have a blast in this section. I like to bring out my inner roadie and draft when possible, tuck and get aero on the downhills, and singlespeed it up the climbs.
I find all the jostling for position and passing to be a lot of fun, but, it can be dangerous too. My cabinmate, Michael Gottfried, got caught up in a 4-person crash at the start, broke his collarbone, and ended up with road rash on his face. Emergency room. 6 weeks or more off the bike. About four miles in, I passed a bike laying at the bottom of a fast paved downhill. The rider was sitting on the side of the road with his head hanging down between his arms in pain and frustration. I hate to think of him sliding down the pavement at 25 miles per hour.
I guess I’m just saying to have fun, but be careful. You won’t win the race on the road section, but it’s definitely possible to lose it.
I ended up on the singletrack behind two of my Breakaway Quickdirt Trek teammates, Max Tanuma and Dave Tingley. We were far enough up that we didn’t get too backed up on the bridges and steep climbs that get congested. We settled into a train of riders that was being led by a slower rider that seemed to be struggling a little early on. For the first time ever, I was mentally prepared for this. Usually, I find it frustrating to get slowed down, but this time I embraced it as an opportunity to recover and save myself for later in the day. I focused on trying to ride efficiently to save energy.
Max dropped something off his bike when he hit a big root and had to stop. Dave and I passed him and were having a blast. We were making jokes and very conversational. This went on for several miles, and at some point Dave seemed to feel like he was holding me back and offered a pass.
“No thanks. You’re doing great. I’m saving myself for later,” I replied.
This was probably the smartest thing I did all day.
We rode together for several more miles and continued to have a lot of fun.
“Hey Dave, only 55 miles till we can drink beer.”
“Thanks for the reminder.”
“Just a warning. I’m going to be depleted and dehydrated, yet very excited to hang out. I’m going to drink 2 or 3 more beers than I should and say weird shit to you. The night will probably end with me giving a big uncomfortable hug.”
“I look forward to it.”
After about 7 miles of singletrack though, we hit a climb where I felt like I could attack and pass with almost no effort. I went for it and Dave was happy to let me by. After a few more passes, I was unleashed. There was no one in front of me and I could go at my own pace. That is such a good feeling.
After a few minutes, I noticed there was someone following me pretty closely. I was trying to not go too fast and stay conversational, so I decided to ask where he was from.
“It’s me. Eli,” he said.
Eli Orth was right behind me. I had two thoughts immediately. First, it was 12 miles into the race and I was neck and neck with the guy that I thought could knock me off the podium. Awesome. I’m in a good position. Second, Oh no! I’m neck and neck with Eli. I might have gone out too fast. I hope I don’t die later.
We rode together for several miles, passing a number of riders as we went. I came to the realization that I was going faster than I should be if I was going to pace this race properly, so I let Eli pass me, but it was hard for me not to be competitive. He would get away from me on the downhills and I would push to catch up on the climbs. I looked at my Garmin and my average speed on the singletrack was 11.3 mph. That’s what I was trying to average for the whole day. I was going way too fast.
I backed off and let Eli slowly get away. I accepted the fact that he was going to beat me and that I was going to get knocked down a spot on the podium. I still hadn’t seen Mike Whaley, so I wasn’t sure if he was in front of me or in back of me. Did he go out really fast at the start? That was another potential podium spot lost.
Breathe deep. Ride your own race.
I focused on just riding my own pace and trying not to get too excited, too soon. It’s a long day in the saddle. I finished the singletrack and hiked my bike up the excruciately long hike a bike that leads to jeep roads, horse trails, and other fun adventures.
While most of the trail was in pristine condition, the horse trails were still a muddy mess. The lead riders had beaten a path through some of the mud, but other pits were awful and really sucked a lot of energy out of you. At this point, my legs twitched a little with the first signs of cramping. Oh no. Had I pushed it too far? I tried to slow down a little to let them recover, but the trail was pretty challenging and did not provide a lot of relief. I was 30 miles in, about half way. If I pushed too hard and my legs locked out, my race would be over.
If you’ve ever done the Mohican 100, then you will definitely remember the water bars. There are many videos out there of people crashing trying to maneuver through these obstacles and this year the thick mud made it as challenging as I can recall. I definitely did not pwn this section of the trail and my friends from Knobby Side Down Racing, Kenny Kocarek and Josh Kunz were there heckling everyone. They had ridden the Transylvania Epic the weekend before and opted to sit this one out and make fun of everyone, which I love. At one point, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk to keep riding over these slippery wooden obstacles and I hiked my bike by the hecklers for about 50 feet. There was a lot of verbal abuse, but I survived with two very muddy shoes and no injuries. I only point this out because it was Kenny’s heckling that would come back to save me later in the day.
We had blown through Aid Station 1 and I was now trying to quickly stop at Aid Station 2. I handed them my Camelbak and grabbed two bottles and some Clif Bars out of my drop bag. It took me less than 30 seconds.
Somewhere here the course becomes a series of roads and gravel, and it was a nice relief to be able to soft pedal some of the downhills and let my quads recover. “I can do this,” I told myself. I just had to stay focused on sticking to my pacing strategy. I was by myself and the geared guys would pass me on the flats and I would catch them on the climbs. My overall speed was in a relatively good spot for reaching my goal.
And then I hit “the big climb”. It’s big. It’s steep. It hurts. I’m sure the locals have a name for it. I just don’t know what that name is. I was ready to climb it, like I had done the year before, but halfway up the cramping in my legs became too intense. I had to hike. My legs were locking up. Ouch. I was so frustrated. It felt like my day was over. When I got to the top, I coasted down the hill, not even bothering to get aero. I just wanted my legs to recover, so I could survive the day.
A few miles later, as my frustration was reaching a climax, Mr. Eli Orth came riding up behind me.
“Where did you come from?” I inquired, “I thought you were in front of me.”
“I thought I was in front of you too,” he replied.
I had caught and passed him at Aid Station 2 without even realizing it. Those transition times are so crucial!
We rode together for a little bit, with some light chit chat here and there, but I definitely felt like he was feeling stronger than me. I was just trying to hang with him and wasn’t sure how long I would last. He was definitely the alpha male at this point and I was just a shadow trying to keep up.
I took a moment to size him up. He’s very lean, zero body fat. His biceps are twice as big as mine and he looks like he lifts weights. (Do you even lift, bro?) He has the chiseled chin and solid frame of an athlete that could dominate in any sport he chooses (except maybe basketball, he’s no taller than me).
He started to slip away from me again, but amazingly I could still see him when we reached a hard, technical section of singletrack called Mohican Wilderness. He entered the woods in front of me and I started to make some observations. He was crushing me on the downhills. I couldn’t hang with him on the steep descents, but when it came to long climbs, I was still having no trouble catching back up to him. On one tough hike a bike (which is rideable with fresh, non-crampy legs), I was able to hike past him. He seemed to be hurting too. This gave me hope.
We entered Aid Station 3 together. I got two fresh bottles out of my drop bag. This time Eli was much quicker and we both left the station in under a minute.
We rolled down the road together at almost a neutral pace. It was like we had called a momentary truce in our battle. We chatted. We ate. We drank. We knew what was coming and there was no hurry to get there. I wanted to give my quads once last chance to recover before I had to climb one of the hardest hills of the day, the Valley Stream Road Climb around mile 52. I had climbed it the year before, but my legs didn’t feel this crampy then.
Eli and I both stood and churned our 32:18 gear ratios back and forth up the climb, trying to eek out every spare bit of strength we had left. My quads were twitching. I cried mercy first and decided I had to walk before my legs locked up. This seemed to give Eli permission to walk too. The two of us hiked up the steepest part of Valley Stream together. We rode the second half, but it hurt. I was definitely teetering on the edge of what my body could handle.
We found ourselves on Wally Road and it was paved. It felt so nice. There was less than 8 miles left and Eli went on the attack. Once again he slipped away from me. I was sure this was the death blow in our contest.
I cruised down the road and just tried to enjoy the beautiful weather and bucolic countryside. I did the math and realized that no matter what happened I was going to finish under 6 hours and crush my PR. Even though, I wasn’t going to beat Eli, this was a very successful day for me. I basked in a pool of positivity.
And then the heckler showed up.
Kenny Kocarek, pulled alongside me in a white vehicle.
“Do you want to draft me?” he jokingly said, and pulled in front of me. He then pulled right back to my side and started yelling insults at me.
“Come on man! You gotta push it! Whaley is only a minute behind you!”
Crap. Was this true. Good news: I’m ahead of Mike Whaley. Bad news: He’s probably not suffering as much as me and will pass me in the final 5 miles of singletrack.
That one comment filled me with both panic and determination. I looked into my cold, dark heart in search of fire. And shockingly, I found it.
I started pedaling harder and looking over my shoulder. I was not going to let that punk catch me. I blew through the final aid station and hit the last piece of trail. After the previous miles of smooth pavement, this section feels like race director Ryan O’Dell is just punching you in the gut and laughing. It is mentally tough and has a lot of challenging climbing that my weary legs would have rather avoided.
But I was ready to work. Bring it.
I started attacking climb after climb and pretty soon I could see Eli again. I was shocked, but this motivated me even more. I was going to catch him even if it killed me. I know longer cared about my legs locking up. This was the climax and I was going to burn the rest of my matches.
I caught him and we started matching each other turn for turn. We were flying faster than we had at any point in the course. After 50 miles this was still a true race and I had no idea how it was going to end.
And then Eli stumbled in a loose section of technical uphill rock. I came to a stop too, but managed to jog past him. Was he just being polite or was he too tired? I was now in front of my rival with less than 2 miles left and now he wouldn’t be able to get away from me on the final downhills. I was in good position and even started putting a gap on him. It felt great.
But, just as I thought, in the final moments of downhill trail, Eli shut down the gap. I came out of the woods with him right behind and only a short section of gravel road to the finish.
We were both pedaling as fast as our single speeds would let us. He started drafting me and I thought that was a brilliant move. He could save energy and shoot past me at the finish. I couldn’t let that happen.
I dug deep for one final sprint. I pedaled so hard and my legs were so far over the edge that I actually verbally shrieked trying to pull out every ounce I had left. That did it. With only a couple hundred yards left, Eli conceded to me. I crossed the finish line in 5:32:43 and PR’d by 37 minutes. Eli finished 7 seconds behind me.
I waited at the finish line to hug it out with him. He had pushed me all day and made me a better racer. Mike Whaley finished 4 minutes behind me, not even realizing the inspiration he had given. I couldn’t have done it without you Mike!
Eli and I had raced together for 50 miles and finished within 7 seconds. I was 4th in Men’s Singlespeed and he was 5th. We were 90 seconds away from 2nd place. It was a battle I won’t soon forget and I hope we can do it again next year.
We will be racing again in the TriState 6-Hour Series this summer, starting at East Fork. I hope you will all come out and challenge us!