My longest race of the season deserves a lengthy report, so fill the coffee mug and make sure the boss isn't around. The Iron Cross race is touted as America's longest cyclocross race. At 62 miles, 7200 feet of climbing, it is a beast. None of this puny, buffed 40 minute Gloucester stuff. IC goes big: brutal two mile singletrack descents, 500ft gnarly run-ups, fire roads and ATV trails, many downed trees to dismount for, and yes, some pavement. I have a fondness for point to point races like this. Since its inception in 2003 when I last did this race, entries have steadily grown. This year, there were nearly 300 racers at the start. Dave Penney and I headed down to Carlisle, PA Saturday evening, a 7hr drive in my xD.
It was chilly warming up, probably in the low 40's. The temperature was expected to rise dramatically during the day. I had left four water bottles to be placed at various checkpoints on the course, plus I took two with me to start. I barely warmed up for this race, figuring how hard could the start be when you have 4hrs to go?
The race start was spectacular. The day before, an email update implied that there would be four waves. Incorrect. It was only guidance on seeding. They launched all 300 of us into a traditional 'cross course in one wave. Over the PA, they said this would be the biggest mass start CX race in America. They called up about 10 top riders, then everybody else would self seed behind them. I was a few rows back on the one-lane dirt road we started on. It was riders as far back as I could see.
They had the Iron Cross Lite race the day before, a classic course with barriers. It contained "The Spiral of Death." Picture a large field that is taped off as a spiral into the center. Then with a U-turn in the middle, you work your way back out of the multi-turn spiral. 300 racers. You would wind in tighter and tighter until you reached the center. But to either side of you, massive numbers of riders were going the opposite way. It was a most sensational effect. I saw no pile-ups, but speeds were quite slow. Strangely, this start approach worked.
It took me only a few minutes to clear the classic course before heading out into the woods for the "big loop." I was with lead pack that went ballistic on the hiker-biker path. After a few miles of hauling-A, we began the first climb, still going all out. Small splits started to form, especially when coming to closed fire-road gates that created huge bottlenecks. Some guys gained spots by dismounting and sliding under the gate. The first stretch of fireroad was littered with nasty sharp embedded rocks. In a pack, you could not see these coming. The rear tire of a guy next to and just ahead of me exploded. Not like pow-hiss, it was just pow hurt-your-ears loud. The blast sprayed my whole body with rocks. Flats are a common theme of this race.
After cresting this long climb, we cruised on flatter gravel for a while before picking up pavement. On the pavement, the lead group came back together again. We had maybe 20-25 riders at this point with our motorcycle pace vehicle ahead. I saw only one mountain bike in this group, a tall young kid. The rest were cross bikes.
When we reached the first Check Point (CP1), I still had a full water bottle. I was with a select group, and nobody stopped. I did not want to lose my spot on this train. I figured at the pace we were going, I'd have enough water to get to CP2 where I had two bottles of Gatorade spotted. They were serving HEED on the course, something that did not agree with me at the Everest Challenge race last fall. The descent from CP1 was insanely fast. It was hard gravel but contained numerous embedded rocks that would nearly launch you into outer space. I promptly jettisoned my full bottle into the woods. Now I had no water and an hour's worth of riding and hiking before getting to CP2. Not only was the Gatorade my primary source of carbs, I needed the added electrolytes in the mix. It was already getting warm.
The first section of singletrack was typical New England fare: rocks, roots, downed trees and rutted out loose sections. I did not know it was coming and went in about last of my group. Big mistake. They all started walking! It was perfectly rideable climbing at a modest grade. I passed many but got held up a lot. Then the two mile descent came. I must confess, I dismounted for a short piece of this. Two mountain bikers that we left behind earlier came flying by on this section. There were many trees across the trail too, most could be bunny hopped. This killed my wrists. It was a relief to reach pavement again.
The front of the race was busted up by the time we reached the next climb, the dreaded power-line "run-up." Some dirt road and bony ATV trail brought you to an incomprehensible scene, a 500-700ft wall that appeared unscalable. The first installment begins in the woods. It is so steep I found my self grabbing trees a few times. It is all loose rocks and sand. It was so easy to slip off rocks or slide in the dirt. The average grade had to be at least 40-60%. The trail momentarily plateaus, but then the second installment appears before your eyes: Another few hundred feet vertical worth, not quite as steep, but just as difficult to hike. It was ankle deep loose baby head and fruit sized rocks.
Reaching CP2, I devoured a couple cookies and restocked my water supply. The volunteers informed me I was in 10 place overall. Amazingly, I put some time on the three kids I was working with coming into this climb. They eventually caught back up to me. The pace I sustained up to this point was very high. Consuming only 1 of 3 planned water bottles with electrolytes left me with a huge deficit. I already felt some early warning signs of cramping coming on, and I was only 28 miles into a 62 mile race.
The story gets a bit fuzzy on what transpired between CP2 and CP3. We were back to a group of four working together again. I was the only masters rider. Muscle spasms were becoming more frequent now. A spectator on the course said we were riders 10-13 to come through. Excellent I thought, but I know once the cramp demons come to roost in my legs, a race is pretty much over for me. I had one more bottle spotted on the course at CP3 and none at CP4. The guys I was with knew the course and told me CP3 was just coming up, and the hardest climb of the course was right after it. Terrific.
I could not find my drop bag at CP3. All the bags looked the same and there were a zillion of them spread out on the ground. I lost at least 30-40sec looking for it. My kid train was gone. Just as well. I could not have stayed with the fastest rider in the group anyway. I caught one of the riders and dropped him on this 800ft/8-9% beast of a climb. Dirt of course.
I thought that might have been it for major climbs, but no. I was out of water again at CP4. Apparently the volunteers were refilling dropped bottles and I took a hand-up of HEED. Two riders were fixing flats there. I believed that put me in 9th place overall with only 10 miles or so to go. Some nice descending ensued, some of it wicked scary. I hit speeds of over 40mph on some pretty rough, loose gravel.
The climbing would not end. Nor would the bony singletrack bits. I was cramping so badly I resorted to walking the slower but completely rideable bits. I started hemorrhaging places. First the two young'ns that were fixing flats, but others came by too. This situation really sucked. To do this well so close to the end and then just see it all go poof.
Apparently the last major climb was designed to be another run-up. Talking with Ross Delaplane, 2nd place overall finisher after the race, he said nobody is able to ride that climb. This was a good thing for me, as I could walk without seizing. My muscle spasms were playing like Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture at this point. The cannon blasts were when all major leg muscles would spasm simultaneously. I could pedal up at all, not even up the slightest grade. I was pretty sure I was not going to finish the race. What is amazing, during a 15 minute interval that I walked, no other riders came by. Was I DFL? Was I off the course? It was just spooky how slow my progress was yet there must have been nobody within 10 minutes behind me when I hit this stretch. I reached the top of this crawl-up and there were spectators there. I begged and pleaded for water. Mercifully, they let me gulp from one of their Camelbaks.
It was only 4 miles or so to the finish, mostly downhill, but a couple stiff climbs on pavement to tackle. I could only stand and pedal two strokes on the climbs before having to lock my hamstrings out to keep then for permanently seizing into a knot of hellish pain. Again, despite coasting or barely moving on the rolling climbs, nobody was coming up behind me. I rolled into the finish solo, in 13th place overall out of 253 finishers. It is amazing I even finished, let alone just missing my target finishing place of top 10. One of the riders I hung with to CP3 finished 12 minutes ahead of me I believe, so I was on target for a 4hr finish. My time was 4:12:01.4, good for 5th/93 in the masters division. I could not walk after finishing, and my stomach was in a major funk. I could only drink water. After about 30 minutes, I attempted to eat a chicken burrito, but struggled.
Dave came in 5th/27 in the singlespeed division with an impressive time of 4:38. I couldn't imagine doing this course with one gear. But there were a large contingent of single speeders, double the number of last year. Gunnar Shogren, famed MTB pro from years ago handily won the SS division and beat me too. He even flatted. What I didn't know before we left is that Gunnar, of masters age, was a SS rider. The initial results posted showed me in 6th for masters, but Gunnar was ranked in the SS division. Cash paid five deep, and had I stuck around, I could have collected my $75.
I heard the overall winner was on a 29er mountain bike. I think it's been a while since a mountain bike has won this race. In a sense, most of us were on "29ers," as 'cross bikes use the same 27" rim. We just run skinnier tires with drop bars and have no suspension. It's a toss for me whether I could have finished faster on a MTB. Probably not. I would have gotten dropped earlier in the race on the roadie sections. Andy Applegate came in 3rd overall, again winning the masters 40+ field.
There was way more blood at the finish area than there should have been. You would've thought this was a rugged MTB race. I suppose many of the riders are primarily roadies, and if you send them through some gnarly singletrack or at speed down dirt roads, shit happens.
Dave is already talking about next year, maybe bringing his wife Beth with him. She too enjoys off-road sufferfest events, pedaling solo from Canada to Mexico through the Rockies a few years ago. Iron Cross is kind of like Battenkill. It breaks the mold, is unique and has gained a reputation for being epic. It's not a MTB race, not a road race, not a traditional cross race. It some how magically marries all three into one package. It embraces skills from all three types of competition. It is very well organized and staffed with possibly hundreds of volunteers. Hats off to everyone that makes this race happen. Good chance I'll be back next year.