The ultra-endurance race at Carrabassett ends up being an adventure every year, and in its 3rd year, this past weekend was no exception. The first two years proved adventurous with the distance- 50 miles became 57, 63 became 52. But who’s counting.
So driving up to the race on Friday night with the ultra-fast Andrew and Hattie Freye we hypothesized about what could possibly await us. We’d heard rumors of a “totally new course”; and if that turned into my biggest pet peeve of race directors saying “hey we cut this great single track last week that we want you to ride” I might have tweaked out. We also knew what the weather’s been like. I hadn’t even TOUCHED my Scalpel since racing Grafton Pond two weeks ago because Maine like everywhere else has been soaked on a daily basis. If Carrabassett was just as wet as we’d feared, this 100k could turn into a death march (we’ll get back to the death march later).
On top of all that, I had spent an entire week running a youth mountain bike camp at Bradbury State Park in Pownal, Maine. Turns out the trails were okay, but I was on a single speed for four days straight, something I’m definitely not used to.
Arriving at the venue and checking we learned that the course was actually pretty similar to what we’d done in the past. One major changed was the elimination of the two way traffic on a footbridge getting to the narrow gage trail system- one of the many recommendations racers had made in the past. The back country loop which we ran counter-clockwise the year before was being run clockwise. I instantly breathed a sigh of relief knowing there were snow machine trails we WOULDN’T have to ride up by riding in this direction. Overall, I was optimistic about the course.
Saturday’s 7 AM start welcomed us with cool temps and clear blue skies. A small elite field of 8 riders, but some strength in there with Tinker Juarez- National Champion, Andrew Freye- super fast and placed well here in the past, and Gered Dunne- ex triathlon/Xterra guy. As we stood at the starting line we wondered “why the heck did we need to start at 7 AM for this thing, push it back to 8, 8:30 at least!” Well, an hour into the race when we started the ascent of a mountain access road and the sun was already starting to beat on us it dawned on us “ahhhh, isn’t it great that we started so early in the morning?”
As I said, for the most part I was happy with the course layout. The venue itself is a XC ski center with a ton of trails, and they’ve been doing even more work to build up their mountain bike trail network, and the stuff they’re building is great. Well thought-out, bench cut, well drained, technical yet flowing single track. So the mountain bike riding at the outdoor center is pretty killer. Unfortunately that only lasted for the first hour of the race before we got sent hauling up Sugarloaf Mountain. A long condo access road climb brought us to not-so-stellar ski slope descending. In previous years this brought us back to the bottom of a lift and we traversed right to left back to the ski touring center. Up until this climb I was riding with the lead group- Andrew Freye and Tinker Juarez. They gapped me just a bit at the top, and then at the bottom I saw that they had about 30 seconds on me as I expected them to shoot across the ski slope. Instead, they went up. And I mean UP. As I looked ahead to see them tacking back and forth on a ski slope I saw the tiny little orange EFTA course marker uphill from them. And then I saw the next arrow 3-4 lift poles up the hill from that. Yup, we had a solid ½ mile death march straight up a ski slope. No access road, no trail, just a ski slope ¼ mile wide mowed down and boggy from the rain. Everyone walked, well, Tinker kinda jogged, but hey its Tinker! I figured okay, if we’re going to suffer through this, there must be some SWEET flow trails that they wanted to send us down. WRONG! Instead it was nasty grassy off camber soft wet water bar strewn…yuck. So the whole point of that was, well we have no idea. Definitely wasn’t a feature of the race that made us say “awesome, I’m definitely coming back to ride that!”
So now that I was off the back of the two leaders the chase began. The one benefit of the death march was looking down from the top- the nearest person to me wasn’t even close, so the three of us had put some SERIOUS time into the field early on. So I got into chase mode, which this early in a 100k race isn’t much faster than normal race mode, but definitely meant no slacking off. I hoped that every corner I went around I would catch a glimpse of Freye.
By the time I hit the first major aid station 30 miles in I was 2’ back of Freye and 4-5’ back of Tinker. I knew the rest of the course, and based on that I knew that by the time I hit the next aid station at mile 45 I should be able to really hammer into the finish. Until that point it was a matter of riding tempo, riding a little scared of being caught, and trying not to blow up in the meantime.
The backcountry loop was actually great. A lot of the ATV and snow machine trails that last year were nearly impassable had been weed wacked down so you could actually see what you were riding on- another suggestion from previous years that the promoters really took to heart. Just before aid 45 we crossed a power line and off to the left at the top of the hill I saw a rider- Freye? Hopefully. Tinker?!?! That would rock! I timed myself getting up there and guessed that I was down about 3.5 minutes at that point. At the 45 mile aid station I got confirmation it was about 4’. From there I knew it was go time- 18 miles to go, no major climbs, super techy single track coming up. I was feeling confident. I absolutely killed it riding the backcountry single track out to poplar streams hut- thanks much to the Scalpel 29er I was on. (side note, this was one of the races that in previous years I’d been wishing I was on a full-suspension, so to have the Scalpel this year ROCKED).
I came into the last aid station at mile 57 doing about mach 1. 6 miles to go? Full bottle in my cage? Maybe I’ve got this! I saw a crowd of riders at the aid station- this was the point where the 100k and 50k rejoined courses, so I knew I wanted to get into the narrow gauge single track before all of them. I did my mandatory foot on the ground at the aid station, asked them what the time gap was to Freye and the volunteers all looked at me quizzingly. “Uh, well Tinker is about 8 minutes up”. Whatever, I thought to myself, I’ll just ride. If I catch Freye, great, if not, I’m not gonna get caught up in traffic standing here.
I churned up the narrow gauge almost at full tilt. I held back expecting to dive into more and more of the single track that I know weaves its way along this graded gravel path. As I rode by missed trail after missed trail I scoured for course arrows. No arrows. Weird, I guess we’re not gonna ride single track at this here mountain bike race. Okay, full gas, let’s get this done with- sitting in a cold river and our complimentary burrito were the only things running through my mind!
I rolled through the finish and heard Mr Computer-voice announce me as 2nd place overall and class finisher. Confused I asked the promoter what happened to Freye. He hadn’t rolled through yet. I started to rack my brain on where I may have passed him. No clue. 3 minutes later Freye crossed the line. Apparently I rolled right past him at the last aid station. I had no clue he was there. He tried chasing through the first singletrack section, but once onto the road he knew he wouldn’t close the gap and sat up.
So this year’s race was a complete 180 for me from last year where ½ way through I wanted to quit, cry, never ride my bike again. It felt great to be in the mix of the lead pack from the beginning and ride stronger and faster as the race wore on. On top of that, standing on a podium in 2nd with Tinker Juarez and Andrew Freye, I was pretty psyched to be on such a world class podium. It was definitely a good boost for the 100 milers coming up later this summer. Next stop: Wilderness 101.