So usually I like to document my race day experience as quickly after the event as possible. But there’s nothing usual about the Cheaha Ultra. There’s nothing usual about completing the race and immediately thinking about where I’m going to lock my bike so as to not have to see it, much less ride it ever again.
It’s also unusual that I’m not unflinchingly positive about all things Cheaha. It may be recency bias, but even as I write this, I don’t know if I’ll get back to the days where I loaded my bike up on my car, pointed the car to Cheaha and tried my best to contain my excitement the entire way there.
Trips to Cheaha were like my Christmas’. Cheaha State Park itself was my Santa Claus - an abundant source of happiness, and the deliverer of the gifts that I most cherished. And, man, Santa Claus never disappoints.
…the Cheaha Ultra is basically the jackass in your second grade class who told you that Santa Claus isn’t real.
THE TERRIBLE TAPER
To properly recap my race day experience, I think I probably need to provide some context. The Cheaha Ultra was a part of the bigger picture – my participation in the Haute Route France as a fundraiser on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters. The Haute Route features 70,000+ feet of climbing in 7 days, spread over 500 miles; numbers that are equal parts intimidating, exhilarating, and impossible to replicate…especially for a Floridian.
In April, I really focused on trying to recreate the day-after-day strain that riding 500 miles in 7 days will cause. April was a 1,000+ mile month. With such a workload, I didn’t do some of the things that I think make me an effective climber – things like driving up to Cheaha for a weekend, strength training, and plyometrics. I was just all-out gassed and couldn’t find ways to fit those workouts into my regimen.
In May, I dialed back the mileage to approximately 200 miles a week. In an attempt to revive the dead legs, I continued to neglect climbing-specific workouts. Then…with one week to go until Cheaha, I panicked a little bit. I hadn’t done any strength training in nearly 5 weeks, and so I hit the gym pretty hard. Much harder than I usually would days before a race like Cheaha.
I think it proved to be a very poor decision as it relates to the Cheaha Ultra. However, riding the Ultra on what might have been somewhat compromised legs may prove to be a brilliant decision for the long-term goal. I guess we’ll find out when I get to France…
THE START (MILES 0 – 20)
As I discussed in my Cheaha Preview post, I’m a firm believer of showing up early and taking it nice and easy early on in the ride. I also believe fully in practicing what I preach.
I showed up about 30 minutes later than planned, and because I was riding around the parking lot, jamming out to hype music instead of…you know…paying attention to what was going on around me, I damn near missed the start of my wave.
I do have time to post this video before the race gets going...
Because I nearly missed the start, I didn’t get a chance to try to seed myself intelligently in the wave. I would’ve loved to have identified a group right there at the start line that I could ride through the valley with. Instead, I found myself working the first few miles to catch up with a group that I thought would work well together in the valley.
Even better start. Nailed it.
Regardless of the rocky start, I picked a good group and we were riding mostly well together. There was what felt like a decent headwind and there were plenty of passengers not willing to do much work at the front, but even though I’m doing more work than I’d like, we’re making it through the valley. Ticking off the miles without hammering it.
Ride smart in the valley – check.
THE PARKWAY (MILES 21 – 38)
We hit the first real climb of the day – the Skyway Climb – and the group falls apart. I expected as much. That’s what the Parkway does to groups. I ride away from the group and ride by many cyclists from earlier waves. I’m climbing really well, but I’m reminding myself not to push too hard, too early. As I’m reaching the top of the Skyway Climb I send a quick update to my mom and my partner. Something along the lines of “Didn’t feel very good to start, but rode past a bunch of people on the first climb. Good sign”.
While I’m crafting that message, I ride by a cyclist who is stopped one the side of the road with the SAG vehicle. He’s pumping his tire up as I pass. He looks really strong, and looks like he would’ve contended for a UCI spot. Now, he’s on the side of the road within an hour of the race start, likely out of contention. Cycling is a brutal sport.
A minute or two later, that same cyclist pulls up beside and eventually past me on one of the little rollers. I think of hopping on his wheel and putting down some tempo, but he’s likely going to be riding even harder than normal to try to chase back some time. Plus, today is about riding my race. But when we get to another roller and we’re only separated by maybe 20 feet, I decide to close the gap down and get the benefit of the draft. I figure that any additional effort required to stay on his wheel will be more than offset by the energy savings of drafting.
We work together until we hit the named climbs, and we come back together after the named climbs. Horseblock, Not Again, and Oh Shift come and go with nothing of real significance happening. I feel like I’ve worked hard to get over these short, punchy climbs, but I remember that these climbs always require lots of power. No biggie.
THREE-MILE CLIMB (MILES 39 – 42)
Because I don’t like descending and because I wanted to give the legs even a few extra seconds of recovery between Oh Shift and 3-Mile Climb, I let my newfound friend go. I don’t want to be tempted in the least bit to try to ride at someone else’s pace up 3-mile, and even if I did, I figured he would blow right through the aid station.
It’s the right decision, and it actually becomes an interesting way to break up the climb. My new friend becomes a rabbit. After about a quarter of a mile of climbing, he’s coming back to me pretty quickly. After about half a mile, he’s in my rear view. After a mile of climbing, he’s out of sight. I get so lost in this little game that I almost totally forget that I’ve already ticked off the suckiest part of 3-Mile. Nice.
I’m climbing really well.
Legs feel fresh, and I feel like I’m working within my limits. It may be the upper ends of my limits, but I’m confident that the level of effort that I’m exerting on 3-Mile is a sustainable effort level for the Ultra.
I even take a minute to post a quick video...
On the climb, I focus on getting down a good amount of fluids, pouring water on my head to keep the body temperature down a little bit, and attacking the climb with cadence.
Before I know it I’m turning into the Bunker Tower Loop.
By the Bunker Tower Loop, I’m feeling it a little bit, but I know that my legs can recover. I’ve put in enough miles in training and I’ve ridden this climb enough that I trust that I’ll recover. Plus, today is all about fighting back.
I hit the top of the climb 21 minutes and 46 seconds after I started it. Not bad.
ADAM’S GAP (MILES 42 – 55)
Descents are usually my least favorite part of cycling, but given the temperatures and given how long of a day I’m in for, I actually welcome the descent down Cheaha. I take it easy and cautiously and focus on trying to get some juice back into the legs.
I pop in my headphones to help alleviate some of the fear that comes to me from just the general noise of descending. Man, I got some good songs queued up. I’m jamming.
Now I’m really having fun. Feeling good on the bike. Jamming out to some solid music. Mountains in sight. Love it.
Putting my headphones in, while generally frowned upon, was so clutch. Adam’s Gap is a really difficult portion of the ride. The back portion of the out-and-back is really mentally taxing…oh and with some punchy climbs, it’s not exactly a cake walk physically either.
I was committed to riding my own race all day. Buuuut on an out-and-back you see your fellow competitors…and you start to measure yourself against them. I see about 25-30 cyclists ahead of me. I figure most of them are riding the Challenge, which would likely place me in the top ten of the Ultra. Interesting.
Holding down a top ten spot becomes another welcome distraction. Another game that I can play to fight off the fatigue. But I’m not going to blow my race up just to hold down a top spot. The Ultra is such a long race that even though it might feel like your window is wide open for hours and hours at a time, it only takes minutes for that window to slam shut.
THE 7-MILE CLIMB (MILES 62 – 69)
I make it through the short, punchy stuff on the run-in back to 3-Mile Climb and I’m still loving life. I figure that if I can fight off the fatigue until the top of Cheaha then I’ll be golden. That’s my mindset as we make the left-hand turn headed to Lake Chinnabee. It’s a big “if” though.
The Challenge has now separated from the Ultra, and all the guesswork that I did about my placement will now be put to rest. I’m shocked that by mile 3 of the trip down to Lake Chinnabee that I haven’t seen the race leaders.
Wait…am I in the lead??? No way. I can’t be.
Another mile goes by. Well…maybe I can be. But, seriously, there’s no way, right?
A few minutes later the race leader comes into sight. I’m surprised that he’s out in front by himself, and I expect a group of cyclists to be right on his heels. I’m kind of right, as there are 2 more cyclists about three quarters of a mile behind him.
I have another fun game to play. Counting.
I’ve seen three cyclists ahead of me, going in the other direction. There’s one guy in front of me. That makes me 5th. How many more am I going to see?
Answer: 3. I hit the bottom of the 7-Mile Climb sitting in 8th. I stop at the rest station, because damn it, I’m riding my own race. More fluids, some salt, a little fuel. Ok, back on it…and quickly.
The first mile of the 7-mile climb is the toughest. It’s steep enough that it hurts no matter what gear you’re in. Again, I try to kill the climb with cadence. High pace, low resistance. That’s the idea.
Well…until I make contact with the two cyclists that were just ahead of me on the descent. That whole riding my own race concept goes out the window for about half a mile, as I just drill it. I want to send a message to both them and to myself. I’m here to climb. I’m here to suffer. Bring it on.
I’ve taken the first mile and a half of the climb pretty aggressively, so I very much welcome the rolling hills portion of the 7-mile climb. I use these miles to re-calibrate a little and to try to re-focus on the remaining three miles of climbing that await us after the rollers.
I vow to ride the last three miles of the climb aggressively but within my limits. I’m pushing it, but I’m still staying as light and quick on the pedals as possible. I come out of the saddle every mile or so just to break the climb up a little, and I generally do a very solid job on this climb. I knock out 7-mile climb in just under 42 minutes.
But by the time I make it to the top, I’m starting to feel some of the stress that the heat plus climbing can bring on. I once again stop at the aid station to bring on some more fluid and fuel. I don’t want to hang around too long, because I’ve now got ambitions of a top five finish, but I make sure to take enough time to get everything that I need.
THE PARKWAY PART 2 (MILES 70 – 82)
Once again, I take the descent carefully and I definitely lose time as a result. Ride your race, Jason.
I’ve done a good job preparing for all the punchy stuff that is awaiting on the Parkway, and I’m not making the mistake of looking ahead to Bain’s Gap or Chimney Peak. I’m putting down some good miles but the fatigue is starting to set in. I keep telling myself to fight it off until the end of the Parkway. That becomes my intermediate goal.
…but then…the wheels fall off.
Bad quad cramps. What the hell? At mile 75?!? I’ve put in the mileage. I’ve hydrated smartly. I’m ready for this. What the hell is going on, body? Don’t do this to me!
I find myself taking down even more fluids, banging on my quads, and trying to find moments to stretch out a little.
I’m going to ride until my quads seize up and refuse to move, or until I hit the finish line. Whichever happens first.
So on I go. Putting down some pretty good miles and occasionally catching an awful cramp.
…but then…the wheels fall off…again.
This time, more literally. I start to feel my rear wheel wobble a little and I feel this sinking sensation. Is my damn tire flat? Unlike my quad cramps, I can’t ride through this one. The near deafening pop that I hear as I’m trying to figure out if I’ve actually got a flat confirms that there’s no riding through this.
Oh, and this is one hell of a flat too. It actually blows the rear tire right off the rim. I can’t even spin the wheel without the tire snagging on my brakes. I spend about a minute monkeying around with the wheel and I decide that the SAG team would likely be a much quicker option.
Problem – they’re 3-5 minutes away. Ok, I’ll just get the wheel unseated and the tire popped off. Get the new tube unpacked for them so that we’re ready to roll when they show up. They show up ahead of schedule, quickly determine that I need a whole new tire, and get to work.
As I’m siting there with the SAG wagon, the two guys that I worked so hard to pass on 7-mile climb go cruising by.
Cycling is a brutal sport.
I try to put the most positive spin on it possible. I look at it as a way to recover, to stretch the legs, and to give the mind a little break. But I’m basically incapable of standing still. A local journalist that is embedded with the SAG wagon takes an interest in why I’m riding. I tell her a little of my story, I tell her about my fundraiser, but the whole time I’m talking the only thought that I’m having is “Come on, come on, come on…”.
I’m so appreciative of the SAG team though. Top-notch work out of them, and even just their presence was reassuring. I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts, and panicked about changing a tire as quickly as possible. I thank them profusely as I roll away, but it’s probably still not enough to express my gratitude.
By the time it’s all said and done, I’ve made a 10-minute donation to the course. I’m now sitting in 9th. Rough stretch of miles for me. Cramps and a flat. Hey, but I’m still on the bike and it’s still moving in the right direction!
I’m able to finish out the Parkway really strong. The legs do feel significantly fresher post-flat. And as I’m convincing myself that the flat might have been exactly what I needed, I start to cramp up again.
Ok, cramps. I see you’re coming with me to the finish line. Let’s go then.
THE VALLEY PART 2 (MILES 83 – 92)
We’ve got a glorious 10-mile section of flat road immediately following the descent from the Parkway. As we’re starting the cross-valley slog, a rider with a Challenge bib pulls up beside me. He says “Hey, I’m looking to split some work if you’d be interested”. Umm. Yes. Definitely interested. Like I’m going to text you 5 minutes after you give me your phone number interested.
We start to work together and I’m a bit miffed at what feels like a headwind again in the valley. How can that be possible? We had a headwind on the way out, now we’ve got it on the way back? Whatever. Throw it all at me, Cheaha. I can handle it.
It’s mile 90 of the race and I’m hiding my fatigue really well. Sadly, my quads aren’t cooperating. But even then, I try my best to only stretch out the cramp or to massage it away when I’m on my newfound friend’s wheel.
We’re riding well together and we pick up a couple small groups of cyclists as we pass by. By mile 3 of the valley, we’ve got a nice little pace line of 8 cyclists. That’ll work.
I desperately want to be a passenger and skip my turns at the front. I almost convince myself that I deserve it because I’m riding 26 miles further than anyone else in the pace line. However, either my pride, my sense of fairness, or both takes charge and I find myself putting in more work than I’d like to at the front.
We hit the split point for the Ultra and Challenge, and I point my bike towards Bain’s Gap.
BAIN’S GAP (MILES 93 – 103)
I’m downright fearful of Bain’s Gap at this point in the race. I remember it nearly being the final nail in my coffin on both of my previous Cheaha Ultras, and I don’t expect anything different today. Try being confident heading in to a super hard climb, while you’re cramping on the flats leading up to the climb. It doesn’t work so well.
It doesn’t matter. Confident or not. This bike is going to the finish line. These shoes are staying clipped in. And that’s just that. There will be pain. There will be suffering. Like it? Cool. Don’t like it? Tough luck, kiddo.
I get to a really weird spot mentally – one that I don’t find myself in very often – I don’t know how bad I want to suffer on this climb. I don’t know if I really want to smash myself to pieces.
As soon as that thought pops into my head, I try my best to just let it float right out. And as I’m doing that, the 8th placed cyclist comes into view ahead of me. I kind of laugh to myself as I now have a new reason to suffer. I’m good mentally, but am I good physically? I guess we’ll find out…
I came into this Cheaha stronger than I ever was, and I hoped that this would translate to some moments in the race where I said “Heyyyy, that wasn’t as bad as I remembered it to be”. Bain’s Gap was not one of these moments.
Brutal, brutal climb. And the worst part is knowing that it’s an out and back. Bain’s Gap mocks you as you’re inching your way up the 15% gradients for the last 800 meters. It’s laughing, saying “I’ll be here for you, honey” as you struggle to try to keep your lunch down and your head from seeing stars.
Oh, and I’m very much struggling to keep my lunch down and to keep from seeing stars. But, at least I’m not cramping. I’m throwing everything I have at this climb – which isn’t much – and I’m just hoping that I can somehow recover to do it all over again.
By the time I reach the crest of the climb, I’m toasted. I don’t know that there’s any coming back from this.
Thankfully, there’s a nice, long downhill to the rest stop. That nice, long downhill is a double-edged sword though. It’s nice now. Won’t be so nice when the bike is turned around.
After taking a few moments at the rest stop, I get back on and get ready for more intense suffering. Bain’s Gap sucks. I make my way up the 8-9% portion of the climb and prepare for the 3-4 minutes of ensuing pain that the 15% gradients will once again bring.
As I’m doing so, the 7th placed cyclist comes into view. And I couldn’t care less. I’m fried. I don’t want to think. I’m putting every last bit of energy that my fatigued mind and body have into these pedals. I slowly, but surely gain on him and by the time we hit the 15% gradients, I’m riding ever so slowly by him. He says “Good job” and I’m literally so out of breath, and so close to hurling that I can’t even respond with a simple “Thanks”.
Mercifully, the top of Bain’s Gap comes into sight. I don’t even try to hide my fatigue at this point. The guy I passed can see it all that he wants. I’m hurting. It’s me against me. What he doesn’t see is that I’m willing to shatter myself to pieces to get to this finish line.
COTAQUILLA (MILES 115 – 118)
I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to be cramping on the flat portions of the ride, knowing that the hardest climb is ahead. And it’s incredibly challenging both mentally and physically to be fighting off cramps for hours. So when I’m occasionally catching a cramp on the section of flat land before Cotaquilla, I’m just all kinds of frustrated. But what can I do? Fight like hell to get to the finish line. That’s it.
As I approach Cotaquilla, I remember that one blog post of mine. You know…that one where I referred to Cotaquilla as “more of a mole-hill than a mountain”. Bet you don’t feel the same way right about now, do ya? The irony of it all brings a rye smile to my face. For like a minute. Then I catch another quad cramp.
The climb starts and I try to change the mindset – this climb is easy. It is. Trust that it is easy. It’s only hard because you’ve smashed yourself just to get to this point. But, on any other day, this climb wouldn’t cause any concern. So why let it cause concern now? Stay quick and light on the pedals and knock this thing out. Be confident in your capabilities. Get through it.
This mindset works, but I am still suffering. The fatigue is very high at this point and I do need to concern myself with what awaits – Chimney Peak. But I really try to stay in the moment, and to whip through Cotaquilla.
After 11 minutes of effort, Cotaquilla is in the books. I make a quick Facebook post that goes:
There are a few miles between Cotaquilla and Chimney Peak. Mostly flat. Which means mostly cramping. The 8th place rider has been gaining on me since Bain’s Gap. I see him as I peak around a turn. Usually, the pride would kick in and I’d do everything in my power to hold my spot.
But my pride has been taken from me. The Ultra owns my pride at this moment. Maybe I’ll earn it back on Chimney Peak.
The 8th place rider zooms by. Damn.
CHIMNEY PEAK (MILES 121 – 125)
The moment of reckoning is here.
Chimney Peak is here. With its brutal 20%+ gradients, and an unrelenting tilt at the top. The dreaded climb that requires punchy power, sustained climbing, and more punchy power. It’s an evil beast. And it’s at my doorstep.
At this point in the ride, Chimney Peak is not a question of physical capabilities. If you’ve made it this deep in the ride, then you’re capable of climbing Chimney Peak.
It’s not a matter of can you? It’s a matter of will you?
In my first Ultra, I didn’t. I unclipped at the bottom – which is the dreaded quarter mile at 20% - and I unclipped again at the top.
In my second Ultra, I didn’t. I unclipped at the top – also dreaded, but closer to 16% than 20%.
In my third Ultra, I wouldn’t be unclipping. That was my mindset.
I told myself coming into the climb that nothing else mattered. Forget all the concern that you’ve had all day about the cramps. That doesn’t matter now. You’re going to finish the race. That much is assured. How you finish the race is in question.
Are you willing to climb Chimney Peak? Yes. Ok, then nothing else matters.
And that’s how I go about it. I hit the base of the climb and I brace for the suck. I’m prepared to go until I can’t go anymore. I shift down to my easiest gear, put my head down, get out of the saddle and try to hold on.
I refuse to lift my head because I know that flashes of mental weakness can pop in at any moment. I can’t have that right now. And I know that looking up to see how much of the 20% section that I have remaining could be one hell of a conduit for weak thoughts.
I hit the steepest portion of the bottom section. My front wheel is coming off the ground as I try to pull my pedals through. I get dangerously close to swerving off into the ditch. Whatever. It doesn’t have to be pretty right now.
Legs screaming. Gasping for air. Body temperature rising.
I finally lift my head up because I know that I can now see the crest of the bottom section of the climb. As I do so, I see the cyclist that zoomed by me just a few minutes earlier. He’s unclipped and is walking his bike. Been there, brother.
Seeing him walking his bike reminds me of how I felt on my previous attempts. I don’t want that feeling. I don’t want to come away letting Chimney Peak cloud my sense of accomplishment.
I clear the crest of the bottom section. Chimney Peak at least gives you a nice little downhill/flat section before pitching back up at 10 – 16% for the last mile and a quarter.
I’m in trouble. Relax, Jason. Get oxygen in. Today, you will. Remember that. Stretch the legs a little, bring the heartrate down, then re-focus. You’re not done yet.
I take my time on the downhill/flat section, and the cyclist I’ve just passed goes by me. Bummer. Maybe I’ll get 7th back on the last slopes of the last climb. That would be a really cool deal.
The road pitches up and it’s time for more suffering. Within 200 meters I’ve regained 7th place, but I really pay no mind to it. I’m in a battle with myself at this point. Today, I will. I will climb Chimney Peak.
We round the last bend and it’s all laid out right in front of us. A brutal, brutal stretch of road that tilts up at a demonic gradient.
Remember what you’ve got through just to get to this point.
Remember what you felt like when you let Chimney Peak get the better of you.
Remember that you’re willing to go through hell to get to this finish line.
I inch my way up the climb. Killing the climb with cadence is not an option at this point. Too steep, too many cramps. I’m muscling my way through it, throwing everything that I have left at it.
I’m 3/4 of the way up the climb when it tilts up even more. This is where I unclipped last year.
I don’t know if I can do this. I’m dying here. I think I’m going to unclip. I think I’ve given it everything I have.
Then, the students that are manning the rest station start to cheer me on. I’m thinking, “Ya, ya. Whatever. You don’t know what I’ve been through, guys”. And then one of the young men just happens to say the perfect thing. He screams:
He’s right there. Outwork him.
I know that he was referring to the cyclist that I’d been jockeying back and forth with. And I certainly took it that way, but it became more than that. Outwork him. Him became all my doubts. All my angst that I had about this climb. All my insecurities. Outwork them all. Prove to yourself that you’re stronger than all of it.
And I did.
I made it to the top, turned the bike back around, and cruised to the finish line. Told you that you were coming with me to the finish line, quad cramps.
Now, if you want to help me reach the finish line in my fundraiser - an initiative that aims to raise enough funds to match 6 underprivileged youths with mentors - please mosey on over to the donation page!
I'm a proud Big Brother, and despite my Little wishing that I wouldn't run so much, a proud endurance athlete. I started my endurance career by signing up for a marathon when I couldn't even complete a 10k, and I started my Big Brother career by volunteering when I wasn't sure I even could offer a youth much. Both processes have showed me that stepping outside of your comfort zone serves as the best method of improving yourself.