They say hindsight is 20/20 but when does it kick in? When do you stop assuming that you have progressed as a rider and start knowing? I'm of the old school (Or poor school) that doesn't use fancy electronic tools to mark the output of my body. Instead I use three indicators to determine my progress. They are: 1. Personal Records (PR), 2. Repetitions per Exertion (RPE), and Oh My God, Did I just do that? (OMG). None of them are very scientific. In the short term all of them are subjective and can be prone to slights. In the long term, to get a clearer picture of where you are coming from, they can work very well.
On Feb 7th, 2015 the boys from SCORR gathered together to take on the Croom 35/50 Off Road Challenge. This is an annual endurance ride held at Withlacoochee State Forest in Brooksville, Florida. It is hosted by the SWAMP club who holds the event to raise money for their trail building efforts. It is a self guided ride of either 35 or 50 miles depending on your preference. My SCORR buddies had all done it before but this year was to be my introduction.
It was a chilly morning. As our car shuttered down the dusty road known as Croom Rital, I watched the temperature gauge drop lower and lower, bottoming out at 38 degrees. That was a tad cooler than I had planned for. We reached the very end of the road where we were directed to a parking space. The event was to start between 8 & 9am and even though it was only 7:45, we felt late. I got in line to sign in but didn't see any of my friends. I was handed a parking pass and they fixed me with an orange wristband in case I was inclined toward breakfast which was self-serve at an adjacent tent.
The SCORR guys arrived a few minutes later. Four of them crammed into an SUV like it was a clown car with all of their bikes dangling off the back. In short time we returned to registration so they could sign in, take a group photo and then we were off.
Progress rolls on. I'm sure you've heard it said that if you want to get faster, just ride with faster people. That is exactly what I do. My friends have been riding many years more than I have. They all do endurance rides on a regular basis both on the road and trails. In contrast I have only completed one race that was longer than 50 miles (Piggy's Revenge). Being the newbie of the group when it comes to distance I spend much of my time trying to keep up. Today would be no different.
The first mile was a bit technical with random roots, small drops and a high pace. I appreciated the quick start simply because it was so cold. At the one mile mark we stopped only to find we had already lost someone. I was just glad it wasn't me. We waited to no avail and then continued on with the snappy pace reaffirmed. Squeezing into the middle of the pack allowed for a better chance to hang on.
In places Croom's narrow singletrack is a combination of two minute long ascents followed by swift twenty second descents. The hills are either long and mellow or short and sharp. The terrain is variable but mostly smooth and smartly crafted. It has the feel of a young growth New England park.
As I chased my SCORR buddies through the pine needles, I was waging another war. It was an internal war against my own body. For the ten days building up to this event I had been sick. It was the same bug everyone had been catching and I was coming through mostly unscathed. All that remained was the congestion in my lungs which was making it just a little harder to breathe.
The first Sag stop was a welcome reprieve. Nestled at around the 14 mile mark was a colorful tent surrounded by happy people. A lady tied a tiny plastic Piranha to my handlebars while I ate one of their Oreo/peanut butter/banana treats. My coughing was still at a minimum but I wasn't socializing much. A lack of personality is usually the first sign that my system is slowly shutting down. I drank some water, took a couple Endurolytes and when the guys were ready we continued forward.
Progress rolls on. It takes a long time to learn how to stay out of the red. You want to push your body. You want to get the most of the highest gear you can manage without breaking momentum but discipline is tantamount. The guys were not slowing down so neither was I. For the next four miles I stayed very close to that red line but somewhere around mile 18, I crossed it. They slowly rode away and there wasn't anything I could do to catch them.
The center section of Croom is what I call 'The Dark Country.' The wide open rolling hills are gone, replaced with narrow ledges overlooking drops that fall away into shady valley's. This is where it gets very technical. This is where you slow down to a crawl and concentrate on your balance. Features like Heartbreak Hill and Volcano Rim, live up to their names. This is where people start to walk their bikes or short cut around the hard stuff. If only to avoid getting lost, I rode it all. Granted I was hacking up my lungs and stopping every hundred feet to drink water but I was still moving.
I struggled into the second Sag stop to the sound of applause. The guys were nice enough to wait. I drank some Gatorade and had a slice of PB & J. This was the first they knew of my cold and promised to start slow on the way out but it didn't matter. Their slowest pace was still too much for me. I stayed with them for about a mile and then I was on my own.
At a certain point into exhaustion your mind starts playing tricks on you. You get frustrated with your lack of strength. You are teased by fluctuating energy levels. Then you simply get tired of having so many people pass you. I was done, completely cooked. I was ready to bail but I also wasn't thinking straight so coming up to a split in the path I took the wrong way. Instead of short cutting myself closer to the end, I struggled all the way through the Sugar Mountain loop. With no legs or lungs left, I pushed my bike up that climb and decided it was finally time to look at a map.
Progress rolls on. While my trek might sound a little disconcerting, the truth is that I'm glad I went. Remember about hindsight being 20/20? Well, lets take a look at what I accomplished compared to rides in the past. For starters I was basically able to stay with my SCORR buddies for about 18 miles before they lost me. That's not bad considering my chest cold. Also, I rated the RPE at level 8 for four hours of riding, which adds up to 1920 points. That is an epic effort making this one of the hardest rides I have ever endured.
Even the distance was impressive. I bailed with about 30 miles under my belt. Thirty miles under any conditions is a long ride for me. Finally, there was one sharp climb that was blocked by a protruding root. I had to haul up the hill, lift my front tire over the root and keep pedaling to breach the peak. That was uber-tricky and thus qualifies as an OMG! Did I just do that?
There is another kind of progress that needs to be mentioned here, trail progress. The Swamp Club started the Florida tradition of making the most out of every feature. Inside Croom there were so many dips and rolls that were spaced and timed to perfection. There were high ridges that banked into picturesque moss walled valleys. There were options for people to choose harder or easier routes. There were signs and arrows everywhere so that you would never get lost. It is quite simply amazing how many hours of creative trail building went into developing this park.
Despite my miserable cold and despite losing track of my friends on course, I'm very happy that I made an attempt at the Croom Challenge. Now that I know how much fun it can be, I'll have to mark my calender for another attempt next year.
If you like my writing be sure to get your hands on my new book Twisted Trails.