Wilmington-Whiteface is a Leadville 100 qualifier race. There are several qualifiers around the country. Interest in Leadville exploded after big-name pros started racing it and a movie was made about it. The lottery system for entry wasn't working anymore. Thus a system of qualifying races arose. Wilmington is the only east-coast qualifier.
After months of borderline over-training by riding copious junk miles, I thought maybe a break would be a good idea. Backing off is the hardest thing for me to do. Exercise is an addiction not unlike chemical addictions.
Lining up 7am, it was freaking cold and windy. There was frost on my car leaving for the race. It was supposed to warm up into the 60's. It wasn't clear if I pitched layers later on the course if I'd get them back or not. I didn't want to lose any of my brand new team items. The course starts with five miles of descending. Could I tough it out in short sleeves for 10 minutes before hitting the first climb? Few were taking the chance. I shed my long layers minutes before the shotgun start.
Single wave mass start. Myself on left, John Mosher in blue Wheelworks kit, and
teammate Mike Harris on right.
Sitting about third row back of upwards of five hundred racers, things were a bit sketchy. Speeds stayed 30-40mph for much of the first five miles. Many times I hard the load braaap of knobby tires rubbing. Keep that shit behind me and try to hold my position, I thought to myself.
My GPS recorded a low of 37F during the first minutes of the race. I was just reaching the point of shivering so badly that I was getting wobbly on the bike. The first climb couldn't come soon enough.
Not warming up whatsoever, the Bartlett Rd climb was a kick to the nuts. Just like that, a large contingent of riders split over the top and I was relegated to the chase group. Oh boy, not a good start. Drafting, I learned, turned out to be a pretty big deal in this MTB race.
I barely regained some core body temperature before rocketing down the back side. 10 miles in, I was wondering why I didn't bring an eight pounds lighter cross bike. Nothing but pavement and well groomed gravel.
Then we turn onto Styles Brook Rd. This paved, double-digit grade hurt. Interestingly, I was part of a large pack again. Did we bridge back up to the front of the race? It was quite possible. This would be short lived. I had no interest in matching the pace being set up front. The pack began to distill into many smaller packs.
After a brief respite, we turned onto Jay Mountain Rd, a seasonal forest road. This went up a lot more on rough gravel. The grade wasn't severe. All that meant is you just had to go faster, not any easier, if you wanted to stay in the race. I had no familiarity with the course. I kind of remembered what the profile looked like. I could view the profile climbed so far on my GPS. I knew the descent was coming soon, after climbing 1600ft.
I quickly learned why very few bring cross bikes to this race. At speed, the descent off Jay Mountain is quite treacherous. I was hitting speeds of 30-40mph on what was little more than a jeep track. Touch the brakes for even an instant, five guys would come around just like that and fill gap in front of you. That was no good, so don't hit the brakes, stupid. The only flat I passed on this descent was somebody with a cross bike. That could have been 100% of the cross bikes that were ahead of me.
After bottoming out, I found myself with about a dozen guys with big gaps fore and aft to other groups. Teammate Tom Casparis was in my group. I did not know any of the others. Jay Mountain did its selection job.
A bit of road work brought us to the first truly off-road section. I wouldn't go so far as to call it singletrack, but it was definitely woods riding on loam. A 500ft grunt strung us out a bit. After contouring through the woods, the gradient pointed back down. Organizers actually had volunteers out there to warn us of impending doom. It wasn't that bad actually, actually tame by New England standards. I was a bit cautious only because I was riding rock hard tires on a hardtail. On my Tallboy with 18psi in the tires, I could have ripped that descent with reckless abandon.
This little four mile lollipop loop through the woods was the turn-around point for the race. Now it was pretty much retrace the track back, including going back up that 1600ft plummet on loose gravel. Our group of a dozen riders was still intact heading into the climb. Pace was a bit leisurely for me. I figured once at the top, it was kind of all downhill to the finish from there. Yeah, right. I picked up the pace and started to roll away from the group.
Pushing hard by myself in a personal pain cave, I started to close on another two riders. One was Drew Bennett riding for Corner Cycle, the other Billy Railey from Florida. I didn't know either rider and mentioned I was 50+. Drew said I needed to worry about Jimmy. Great. I just had to open my mouth. I just put a bulls eye on my back as I pulled away from them. Jimmy had ripped, tanned legs and had snap that seemed to have faded from my legs.
I crested the top, dismayed to see Drew and Jimmy just seconds behind me. I was even more distressed by the fact that as soon as I let up, inner thigh muscle spasms struck me. The was about 2.8hrs into the race and I had upwards of 2hrs to go. This was not going to end well.
On the gravel descent, which was not nearly as sketchy as the side we just came up, Drew and Jimmy quickly overtook me. On the bright side, at least I'd have somebody to work with. We hit speeds of 50+ mph on the lower paved portion of the descent, the double-digit grades we climbed earlier.
Then it dawned on me. It wasn't all downhill to the finish. We had to climb the back side of Bartlett Rd, an 800ft gravel grunt. Now I was fighting constant spasms. I'm sure the other two thought I was feigning fatigue to get out of doing any work. Regardless, they pounced every-time I paused to stretch my hammies. Bastards! I barely got back on a couple of times.
On the way back to Whiteface, we took another lollipop off the out-and-back to hit some honest to goodness singletrack. This was the Hardy Trails. I had heard it was quite buff material. We had scooped up another younger rider, so four of us entered the woods together. I hopped on Drew's wheel as he led. The trails were indeed very nice. Drew was a bike handler and rallied the turns! It was great to have somebody to follow. Before I knew it, Billy and the other guy were nowhere to be seen behind me. Now just if I could fend off the cramp demons a bit longer.
Then really bad spasms struck. I would have been off the bike had we still been going up hill. Ironically, Drew had the same issue and did have to stop. I motored on best I could. Carving the non-stop turns on the descent, I got sloppy and clipped a tree hard with my shoulder. A centimeter further over, it would have been a fracture. It nearly threw me off the bike. Dang, did that hurt. It left a huge raspberry on my shoulder and almost tore my jersey open.
My friend Alex, who was crewing for another friend had a water bottle for me entering the Hardy Trail. I said nope, only 6 miles left, so don't need the weight. Big mistake. My small Camelbak was already empty, and I figured there was only 20 minutes left of riding. Also a mistake. I really could have used the carbs, fluids and electrolytes in that bottle.
Heading out of Hardy Trail, a couple miles of road are taken to Whiteface Mountain, the off-road finale to the finish. It was supposedly only three miles. How hard could that be? Impossibly hard if your legs stop functioning with any kind of knee bend. The cramping would not stop, and now multiple muscle groups were getting into the tortuous action. I had no choice but resort to straight leg hike-a-bike all of the climbing. Didn't matter much at first, as a couple guys I was riding with at that point did not gain on me riding the steep, rooty, greasy terrain. I could still breath hard walking my bike up.
The problem was, as soon as I got back on my bike to pedal, instant spasms. F-bombs! Eventually the trail pointed down and I could almost ride my bike. But WTF, the course went right back up a ski slope! I was coming scary close to having another Everest Challenge debacle. I could barely move anything without everything cramping on me. I kept looking down the ski slope, expecting Jimmy to any moment come flying up. At this point in the race, I still had no idea if we were competing for a podium spot, but I was pretty sure I would not be on it if Jimmy passed me. I pushed through the pain.
Eventually the course crests again, and spectators said it was for real this time. I didn't believe it. People always lie about these things. The course did start pointing down, and in no trivial manner. More brownie mix covered roots were encountered. The problem I had now was I couldn't even bend my legs to absorb bumps without cramping. I was hike-a-biking down! This sucked big time. Eventually the trail popped out on a service road I could ride down. That finish line couldn't come soon enough. Would I have another cataclysmic seize-up 200m from the line like I did at Everest Challenge?
Crossing the finishing mat, destroyed.
I rolled across the mat in 4:35:57, much faster than I thought I'd finish. After eating copious watermelon, Coke and water, the cramping finally started to subside. It took a while to for my result to show. I was shocked to see it was good for 2/62 finishers in the M50+ category, 24th overall out of 350+ 100k finishers. Dave Wiens, now 50, won my age category. Podium shot with Dave Wiens - I'll have to stick around for that!
There is a lot to like about this race. I found it to be very well organized and run. The course was well marked and marshaled. Live music and descent food. What about the course itself? Well, I have a fondness for loops, especially single big loops. Examples are the Vermont 50 or Ironcross courses. A mostly out-and-back on roads is not as inspiring. I do believe the course provides robust selectivity for the Leadville 100 in August. Nearly 8000ft of climbing in 67 miles on a mountain bike will punish the burliest of riders. If this course could be turned into a loop with a little less pavement, I'd definitely come back. I wouldn't rule out doing Whiteface again, but I think it was a check box race for me.
One of the prettier metals I've won.
I declined entry into Leadville at the awards. Not ready to commit to it right now. I almost made Gold status, which I think means first corral at Leadville. I could always qualify another time if I wanted to give Leadville a go. I was set to do Leadville in 2010 when I broke my ankle. Since then my interest has faded. I'd rather visit the high country in Colorado at a non-race pace, as I do most years.