6am never felt so early as it did on Sunday. The previous night was yet another restless night of poor sleep. How is it possible to ride so much and sleep so little? My legs felt dead, heavy, stiff, sore, you name it. No big deal. I only had the most difficult stage in front of me, with close to 50 miles and over 7000 feet of climbing. At that point, I was in survival mode - just finish. I forced down some food and headed down to the staging area.
Stage 4 was a 24 mile loop that we would do twice. Each loop had over 3500 feet of climbing. We had actually ridden about 2/3 of the course during Stage 3. The course took us up the same paved and dirt roads toward Brian Head Peak, down the Lowder Ponds trail, and then skipped all of the flat/rolling fire roads of the previous stage. Instead, it went straight up the Sydney Valley road and up the same steep single track climb back toward the Peak (I think it's called the Bunker Creek Trail, according to UMB). Fortunately, instead of climbing all the way to the top, the course takes a right turn down the infamous "Dark Hollow" trail. Near the bottom of Dark Hollow, we hung a left at a scout camp, and the loop finished with a 4-5 mile climb back to the start/finish area. You can check out a low-tech profile of the stage here.
I figured I'd have plenty of time to take pictures during this stage, so I brought the camera along. Here are a few pics of the staging area and start.
Tony and me pretending to look forward to the stage:
The "peleton" at the start:
Tony getting ready to drop me:
The race started pretty mellow again while everyone tried to get their race legs back. It took me a while, but after the first 20 minutes or so, my legs were actually feeling quite a bit better than I had expected. Tony went out ahead as usual, but I was able to keep him in sight all the way until I reached the top of the dirt road climb. As we were funneled onto a short, steep, rocky single track to finish the climb, Lynda Wallenfels snapped this picture of me:
Yesterday on stage 3, I was able to catch Tony on the descent down Lowder Ponds going into the feed zone, so I hoped to do the same thing today. Just after this picture was taken, I was feeling the flow on the DH, hopping over rocks and carving the corners. And then I heard the dreaded hissssssss coming from my back tire.
I still don't know for sure what caused the flat because it happened on a completely straight and smooth section of the trail. I hopped off my bike and found the puncture. It was a 1/4 inch tear in the sidewall. My only guess is that a sharp stick jabbed the side of my tire as I rode by. I tried to position my wheel so that the Stans sealant would do it's work, but it never sealed. From there, it was a comedy of errors. I took my back wheel off (which seemed to get hung up by the chain more than normal), grabbed a CO2 Big Air and went to work. For whatever reason, I couldn't get the CO2 to properly empty into my wheel. Chad had a similar problem on Stage 2 and I think I ended up with the same faulty CO2 nozzle/valve thingy that he previously had. I gave up on the Stans and took off the tire and rim strip, emptied out the excess sealant and started to throw in a tube. I fumbled with the tube and tire for a while before I got everything properly mounted. I begged a hand pump from another racer, and I reached down to unscrew the valve stem so I could start pumping. To my surprise, the valve was completely missing from the tube. The stem consisted of an open passageway from the outside to the inside of the tube, which doesn't really help much. The thought of DNF'ing the entire race went through my mind. We were less than 30 minutes into the race when the flat happened and I'd been fiddling with my tire for 15 more minutes. My only tube was a dud, and not many more people would be coming by. A guy came into view and I practically threw myself in front of him on my knees begging for a spare tube. He was incredibly nice and reached in his pack for a tube, and then said, "shoot, you're a 29er, aren't you?"
"Yes, but a 26 is going to have to suffice", I replied.
He tossed me the tube and I stretched it into place around my big wheel.
While I was pumping and waiting for the tube to explode in my face, the guy says "Hey, aren't you Aaron Smith?"
"Yeah, that's me. How did you know?"
"I'm Tony's friend, Doug. He'll kill me if he finds out I'm helping you."
I laugh it off and say "Your secret is safe with me" (which it obviously isn't). "The race for first is over anyway. Right now it's about finishing and hopefully hanging onto second. Plus, Tony is the nicest guy around. I'm sure he'd have it no other way."
Doug chuckles and says "Tony's a lot more competitive than he lets on. Plus, you just never know what might happen over the next 5 hours."
I pumped the tire up to about 40 psi in hopes that I wouldn't pinch flat and we headed on our way. I figured I'd been stopped for close to a half an hour, but at the end of the race I compared my ride time to the elapsed time on my bike computer and figured it really took me about 24-25 minutes. Either way, I knew there was no chance of catching Tony plus making up the 16 minute deficit, but I did have a 2nd place finish to try and recapture. By the time I started riding again, I'm pretty sure that there was nobody behind me in the entire race.
On the way down Lowder, I snapped this pic of the valley below. It's not the best, but I was riding at the time:
I made a few passes on the descent and made it to the first feed zone without blowing out my 26 inch tube. I grabbed two 29er tubes and was on my way. I made a few passes on the climb up Sydney Peaks Road, and a few more on the "uper steep" (thanks Jon) climb up Bunker Creek, including Clayton Bell from Arkansas. I mentioned in my Stage 2 write-up that Clayton was the toughest rider at the AMC, and now I'm about to tell you why. I pulled up behind him and greeted him with a hello. He replied back, but sounded kind of weird, like he'd just gotten home from the dentist and his mouth was filled with novocaine. I asked if everything was okay. He responded that while descending Lowder, he reached down to unlock his fork, lost control, crashed and knocked out three of his teeth. Actually, I take that back. He only knocked out two teeth. He PULLED OUT the third tooth! I asked him why he was still riding his bike. He told me that he was going to finish. He'd come all the way from Arkansas to race, had already ridden 130 miles, and there was nothing he could do now about his teeth, so he was going to finish. Not only did Clayton finish, but he ended up winning his class. Just before I pulled away, I asked if I could take his picture, and he obliged. Caution, the content is somewhat graphic:
As I rode away from Clayton, I thought to myself, if Clayton can finish with 3 missing teeth, the least I can do is give it my best effort for the rest of the race. So I did. I climbed the rest of Bunker Creek, and started the descent down Dark Hollow. Dark Hollow is the most rocky, steep, rooty, crazy down hill I've ever ridden. In other words, it's a little slice of heaven. I passed more people on the Dark Hollow descent than anywhere else (remember though, that I basically started at the very back end of the race). It's not too hard to pass when most people are walking. I got fairly beat up on the way down with my hardtail and 40psi tire, but felt okay once I got to the bottom.
I climbed up the single track back to the start/finish area and came in with a somewhat dreadful 3:07 lap time. My lovely wife Wesla was waiting for me with a bottle and food, and she said that Tony was about 10 minutes in front of me. I was quite stunned, since I figured he'd be closer to 30 minutes in front of me. I did the math and realized that minus the flat, Tony and I could have been in a pretty close race. If I could keep up the same pace and avoid any additional mechanicals, I figured I had a chance to at least catch him during the second lap, so I quickly took off.
Up the roads, down Lowder Ponds, and through the feed zone, and no sign of Tony. By this time, I had caught and passed the 2nd and 3rd placed guys in our category, so my 2nd place was pretty secure. I figured if there was any chance of catching Tony, it would be on the descent down Dark Hollow. That meant I'd better give the last big climb everything I had. I dug deep and started to motor. It seems like when you take it easy, the climb goes by fast, but when you push hard, the climb seems to last a lot longer. This climb seemed to go on forever. I finally made it to the top and barreled down Dark Hollow. I took another good beating all the way down to the scout camp, but never saw Tony. All that was left was the 4 mile climb back to the finish line.
At that point, I knew I wouldn't catch him and lost a bit of motivation. It was all I could do to climb those last 4 miles. I don't know if I've ever been that tired on a bike before. At the very end of the race, the course took us around a final corner where you see a quick descent down a grassy slope and into the parking lot where the finish line is. I can't describe how relieved I was to take in that sight. I cruised across the finish line with a second lap time of 2:51 and overall time of 5:58 and was met by my wife. After the congratulatory kiss, she asked, "Where's Tony?"
"I'm not sure, but he must be here somewhere, because I never passed him."
The results board was updated just as we checked it. At that time, I was the only one in my class with a finishing time. Tony was still out there somewhere, and I hoped he was okay and not in the back of a truck, since I hadn't seen him. We waited around for 15 minutes or so and I had to get back to the condo to grab some food.
We came back down for the awards ceremony and they still hadn't updated the results since we last checked, but I did see Tony. Apparently, Tony broke his chain on the second lap, almost exactly where Lynda took my picture above during the first lap. He left the trail for a minute or so to get a tool from a spectator, and while he was there I must have passed him. I spent the entire second lap chasing him when he was actually behind me for most of it. He also ended up flatting on the Dark Hollow descent, but I'm not sure if it was the first or second lap.
We compared the times we thought we had for stage 4, and we decided that I narrowly picked up the victory. We exchanged congratulations and shared war stories until our class was called to the podium. To our surprise, my name was called up as second place, and Tony was called as first. Here's the podium pic:
I was a little curious, but figured we'd somehow miscalculated and Tony must have edged me. The announcer congratulated us on a tight race, mentioning that only 7 minutes separated us. My curiosity grew. That meant that with his 16 minute lead going into the last stage, I could have only finished 9 minutes in front of him on stage 4, but I didn't see him cross the line in the 15 minutes I hung out after I finished.
The final finishing times for stage 4 were posted by the time we left. We checked the times, which just added to the confusion. I had crossed nearly 24 minutes before Tony. If I were a nice guy, a good sport, or not so uptight, I would have just left good enough alone. Apparently, I am none of those things because my curiosity got the best of me and I asked the timing lady about the situation. She pulled up her spreadsheet and saw that I had a 7 minute lead, but it turns out that she never re-sorted our category after stage 4, and the podium MC was just reading the names in the order he saw them. She apologized profusely, grabbed me a gold medal and a "class champion" jersey, and sent me on my way.
I can't say I was initially all that excited about the win. Instead, I felt a little bit petty for even looking into it, especially since Tony was probably the stronger rider. I guess the final results were inevitably going to be published here anyway, so I suppose it's nice that I was able to get another free jersey out of the deal (everyone got a finishers jersey as well). Either way, it was an amazing race, and a pleasure to duke it out with Tony day after day. Tony is a class act.
I wish that the race hadn't come down to a battle of mechanicals, but for two hacks like us, I guess it's almost inevitable that something will go wrong after that much brutal racing. I can't help but laugh about Doug's prediction that "you just never know what might happen over the next 5 hours" as he gave me his 26 inch tube. If not for Doug's generosity, who knows how long I would have been on top of that mountain. And if Tony hadn't dragged Dough to the race, Doug may not have been racing in the first place, so he wouldn't have been able to help me out. Oh the irony! Doug eventually confessed to Tony, and Tony jokingly threatened to make Doug find another ride home. Of course, I was more than willing to give Doug a lift. In case you're wondering, the 26 inch tube worked flawlessly on my 29 inch rim. It's still holding air on my bike right now, even after two romps down Dark Hollow.
The big guns kept it exciting to the brutal end. Tony had the chance to talk with Jeremiah Bishop after the race, and he relayed Bishop's account to me. Bishop said JHK was taking all sorts of risks down Dark Hollow and had a pretty good gap at the bottom. Bishop could occasionally see JHK's dust clouds on the final climb to the finish, which which gave him hope. He finally caught JHK before the finish, and JHK outsprinted him by a mere .2 seconds. Bishop hung onto the overall lead by 6 seconds. How is it possible for two people to be so evenly matched? I can see this happening on a road race where drafting plays a key role, but this is over 160+ miles of some of the most brutal trails I've ever raced. To put their speed in perspective, they beat living legend and recent 24 hour world champion Tinker Juarez by an hour. I'm almost embarrassed by how much they beat me by, but you can see that for yourselves in the results.
To wrap up, the AMC was everything I hoped for and more. Stage racing is a blast. In most one day endurance races, I doubt that you'd even know who you were racing against during the race. In a stage race, you finish the day, check the time gaps, make a note of who is who, and form a strategy for the next day. By the end of the race, I could recognize most everyone in my class, which made for fun competition. The tight race against Tony made it all the more memorable. I hope the race happens again, and I hope they keep the course the same so that previous year's finishing times can be compared. If the fasted guys in the country keep showing up, I think the AMC has the potential to be one of the premier endurance races in the country since there is nothing like it unless you go to Canada (Trans Rockies), South America (La Ruta), or Europe (Trans Alps). Huge thanks to Wesla and Mags for the support at the aid stations. I'm sure they had better things to do than sitting around at aid stations watching for Chad and me to roll by.
Sorry for the long-winded write-up, but it was a long race. This account is more for my sake than anything else. For next year, Tony and I have already talked about racing the Open class. Although we won't be racing directly against one another (he'll be in 35-39 and I'll be in 30-34), I'm pretty sure that I'll be checking his time and he'll be checking mine.