Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chehaw Fat Four

Yes, the Chehaw Fat Four.

 Chehaw Sign

I've been looking forward to this race all year. Why would I be looking forward to a mountain bike race two hundred miles south of my house in the middle of the flattest part of South Georgia? Well, in part for reasons alluded to in that very question. While still an endurance mountain bike race, it should be a very different set of challenges from the ones I'm used to. The race is shorter, but still not short in the absolute sense. The course will be unfamiliar. The competitors will be different. The terrain will be different. The very soil and trees will be different.

"But it's so flat." Yes, but a flat course is no easier than a hilly course. On a flat course, you're always on the gas. Always. You get no rest, at all, for 4 hours. You just have to go as fast as you can and still make the turns. The draft is operative, even on dirt. It's very, very different.

Another reason I was looking forward is because the race was being organized by a bunch of friends of mine from South Georgia Cycling and I'd get to hang out will all of them in one place, all weekend. Various of them show up for various races in North Georgia at various times, but it's rare that I see everyone together.

I did have some concerns though. I'd spent the previous two weeks not riding, working all day and night, and sick. However, I'd gotten plenty of rest the night before, almost kicked the sinus infection and gotten in 5 hours at Chickasabogue. I'd planned on being home for a few days before the race, so I didn't have all my gear, but after a quick inventory after Chickasabogue, it looked like I had just enough to get by. My concerns might be unfounded. There was only one way to find out.

I reached the vicinity of Albany at about 11:00. Just then, Steve called and asked where I was. I wasn't sure. To my left, a team of baggage handlers was unloading an idling UPS cargo jet, not 300 yards away. "South of Albany... The airport?" Thinking I'd driven in from Atlanta, he and the rest of the guys became fairly concerned and weren't sure how I'd managed to drive past the park and end up south of Albany. We straightened that out though, they gave me better directions than Google had and within half an hour I was knocked out in Vonnie's trailer.

 Vonnie's PopUp

The next morning it was cold. Colder than it's been. I've been saying for weeks that it's trying to be fall in Georgia, but that morning it had decidedly arrived. Man, I didn't want to get out of bed, much less put on bike clothes, especially given that they were still slightly wet from having ridden in them the day before.

I did get out of bed though, and eventually got dressed, checked in, and warmed up, though I had to wear my jacket for all of that because it was cold, cold, COLD!

 Me Pre Race

I think Clark took that picture. It's weird having photos of myself. I never recognize me.

I was number 100.


Do you like the smiley face with dreads? I did. Apparently I was the first person to sign up for the race, thus the number 100. I told you I was excited about it.

The finish line was crazy. For the Chainbuster 6-hour series, we wear RFID anklets and have to dismount and run across a carpet with a sensor in it. For races where you don't have electronics, there are usually chicanes or some other mechanism for slowing down the riders so their numbers can be read by the officials. In this case, perhaps in honor of the cyclocross season which we are now in, there were wooden barriers that you had to dismount and negotiate. These were no ordinary wooden barriers though, they were pine logs, freshly cut and custom-flattened on one side at the local saw mill.

 The Finish

It looked dangerous. I could imagine tripping in later laps. I'd have to watch out for that.

After getting warmed up, I rolled around for a while, checking out the place. They have a wild animal park, lots of camping, a lake, a river, a disc golf course, a bmx track, miles of trail... Oddly enough though, it was the Spanish Moss that kept grabbing my attention, hanging from every tree, swaying in the breeze.

 Oaks and Spanish Moss

Mmm, Spanish Moss.

Everybody gathered for the pre-ride meeting.


Vonnie gave us the run down.

 Pre Ride Meeting

We'd start at 10. It would be a LeMans-style start. It would be a true 4 hour race a la the Chainbuster series too. If you came in at 2:00:01, your last lap wouldn't count. And so on.

We lined up and I looked around to size up my opponents. The SGC crew was working the event so I didn't have to worry about those guys crushing me. Wes Garland had come down. He's good friends with the SGC boys too. He used to give my brother the business back in the GAP series, ages ago. There was a guy up from Florida named Daniel Vu who was allegedly pretty hard. I met a guy from Savannah named Nick who looked pretty strong but he wasn't in my class. I think he ended up winning the XC-3 class. There were a dozen or more riders from Robin's bikes in Florida, but none of them were in my class either. Suzy Neal was riding. She and Clark and I ride and hike together up in North Georgia. Ha! Me and Suzy were lined up on each other in the same race! That seemed cool to both of us.

"15 seconds!"

Oh, I'd better quit screwing around.


We took off running. The little bit of running that I've done over the past few years has been just enough to make these running starts not suck horribly. I grabbed my bike, and believe it or not, made it into the woods ahead of everyone. This has never happened before. I found myself in the lead with only theoretical knowledge of how to sustain it, and apparently that knowledge was tucked away in some dusty old tome in the very back of my mind.

I didn't have time to go rummaging around in my mind-library though. The trail immediately began twisting back on itself dozens of times. I was so keyed up and it was so twisty that I'd underbrake, overrun the turn, have to brake again, and then have to power back out. It was terribly inefficient. I just hoped that the riders back were having the same problems.

The first few miles alternated between crazy twistiness and long straightaways. Wes was behind me. The rider behind him was the first place guy from the next class down. I attacked the straights and rested in the twisties. After about a mile, I started remembering how to ride them. Do all your braking before the turn. Get way back and way low. Weight the outside foot going in. Swing through. It should throw you forward on the way out if you do it right. Use that momentum to get your pedaling started, but you've got to pick the right gear for that to work. So many details. It had been a long time since I'd ridden such a twisty trail. That's a perfect example of why I wanted to ride there. I was getting my money's worth.

We'd mostly been riding through fields of tall grass so far, with only brief little bits of woods, but soon we were just in the woods the whole time and the trail got way less twisty. Some sections of woods were really dense, others reminded me of my grandparents front yard - huge pine trees, scattered 40 feet apart with grass in between them. If somebody had gone out there with a rake and piled up the needles against the trunks it would have been identical.

We crossed a couple of roads. Some course marshals were standing on the far side of one of them so we turned left and pinned it.

From way in the back though, I heard someone shout: "Wrong turn!" Oh no! We'd taken a wrong turn. We were supposed to go between the course marshals. This is the first bike trail that Albany has ever had though, and the first race ever as well, so it's reasonable that the course marshals weren't exactly sure what to do. That's bike racing. These things happen.

Wes and I looped back. Daniel Vu had caught up right then too, so, Wes, Daniel and I rode together for the rest of the lap. At some point, we determined that we were the only XC-1 riders.

The trail wasn't entirely devoid of elevation. There was a section along the river with two hills, one of which was a tough, steep climb. There was a switchback climb out in a field too, one that ran straight up a hill to an old chimney and a crazy hill with a steep drop off of the back side. The rest though, was flat and in some places, very twisty. The scenery was quite variable though. The course had several different sections, each with its own flavor - grassy fields, piney woods, oakey woods, open fields, river runs, swampy runs... I didn't really start looking at the scenery that first lap though.

At some point, I made a move to get back to the front and actually finished out the lap in the lead.

On lap two, I wanted to see what the other guys had so I let Wes by right as we went into the first grassy field. He was taking it even easier than I had through the twisties and I was getting rested up but I feared an attack on the first straightaway. It wasn't Wes that attacked though. Wes actually eased up to take off his arm warmers. Daniel attacked. It seemed dirty at first, but really, from the back, he couldn't have seen Wes taking off his arm warmers. I had to counter. I held him for the first two straightaways and sat up on the third to let Wes catch. Daniel was slower in the twisties so we were pulling him in. All we had to do was keep the same distance on the straights. I say "all" but there was no "all" about it. Daniel is really fast and after a few miles, it was hopeless. Wes came by to try and run him down. All I could do was hope that the two of them were hitting it too hard, too early. I let them go, recovered and began riding like it was a time trial.

Lap three went by quickly. I was starting to remember details about the course.

At the start and end of lap 3, I asked the time and spent almost all of lap 4 doing the math over and over in my head. I would definitely be able to do 6 laps. I might be able to do 7, but it would be really close.

I didn't have any margarita Clif Blocks or salt of any kind, but I didn't seem to need it. I could feel the lack of recent riding but I don't think it made that big of a difference in my performance. Now that I had it wired, the course was really fun.

I started catching riders on lap 4. One of them joked: "Thanks for making me look bad." My heart rate was too high to do much but laugh at the time, but what I was thinking was... We do a lot of these long races, so it just seems kind of normal to us, but it's really quite a thing to do. If you can ride a bike, at race pace, for 4 hours, without quitting, independent of how you place, I don't think it's possible to look bad.

Elaine Mercer took a photo of me, I think on lap 4.

Chehaw - Photo by Elaine Mercer

Again, it's weird having photos of myself. That's what I look like?

Late in lap 5, I finally caught Suzy. She still seemed fresh but I was starting to wind down. At the very end of the lap, the guys said I was one minute behind Wes. At the end of an earlier lap, I'd been 6 minutes back. Apparently I'd made up quite a bit of time.

I stumbled over the barriers at the end of that lap. It was luck that I didn't trip and fall.

Winding down or not, I put it down pretty hard on lap 6. I kept thinking I saw Wes ahead of me, but then it would end up being another rider when I finally caught him, or her. At the end of the lap, the guys told me I was 30 seconds back. If I kept it up, I could make up the time, especially if Wes cracked, but how much time did I have left?

"What time is it?"

"You have 33 minutes!"

"Yeah, but what time is it?"

"Thirty three!"

"Yeah, but what TIME is it?"

"Oh! 1:27!"

I'd asked the time prior to lap 6 too. I could have subtracted 33 from 60 to get the 27 but my feeble mind wasn't up to the task. It took me almost a mile to figure it out, but it had taken me 36 minutes to ride the previous lap and I had 33 minutes left. I really had to pick up the pace if I wanted to finish in time, independent of catching Wes.

I put it down hard for about a mile but that was all I had. There was no way I could even do another 36 minute lap, much less a 33. I was done. I pulled out and rolled back to the start.

It took a while to recover, but I managed to recover enough to cheer on Daniel and Wes as they finished.

Daniel finished with plenty of time.

 Daniel Vu

Wes missed the finish by seconds and his 7th lap didn't count. Nooooo!!!!!

 Wes Garland

Usually I pack up and hit the road, but I had way better things to do this time. I did pack up though, and this little gecko kept me company while I did.


There was only one other rider who didn't make it in on time, so the podium ceremony was ready within half an hour of the 4 hour cutoff.

Suzy got first in her class, though I think she might have been the only one in her class.


I got 3rd, but I wasn't unhappy with 3rd. I'm happy to get beaten by these guys any time.


You'd think I'd be tired and wouldn't want to touch my bike for a while but I had my GPS with me and if I'm in the vicinity of an unmapped trail, with my GPS, there's a low percent chance that I won't map it. And map it I did. And I took a few pictures.

There's a light gauge train that runs around the park. The trail crosses the tracks twice. There were course marshals at the crossings, but any of us could have had to wait for the train if it had been coming when we were riding through.

 Train Tracks

There are remnants of old trails all over the park. Many are overgrown, some are used by the new system. This outhouse lay along one of the old, overgrown trails, near where it crossed one of the new ones.


There's a wild animal park near the back. I didn't get a chance to see the animals but the trail crosses the roads leading in and out and runs down the fence that borders it.

 Animal Park

One section of trail is interpretive. There are signs identifying all kinds of trees and bushes.


The old, overgrown trail system was apparently an official system at some point. There were even several maps posted along it. This one was posted along a section that is currently used by the new system. I haven't crunched the GPS data yet but it will be interesting to see how the new trail matches up to the old one.


It probably took me an hour to turn that lazy lap. When I got back, some of the guys were going out for a group ride. That sounded fun at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn't want to ride any more. I wanted three things, in this order: a shower, a nap and food.

I put up my bike, drove back to the campground and waited in line for the shower. In the ladies' room, a mom was bathing her 9 year old son who's paralyzed from the waist down and her daughters were showering in the mens' room. I didn't mind waiting. The mom and her son got finished before the girls so I even got a chance to talk to them for a while. The boy had a T-5 injury from a car accident when he was 6. People always say: "It was nice to meet you" and sometimes they don't really mean it, but it was a legitimate pleasure to meet him. He was really polite, he had a very advanced vocabulary for his age, and he asked a million questions, but it was funny, his accent was almost unintelligibly country. It was like when I was talking to the Scottish lady at Disney last time I was there: "I know that's English, so it should be possible for us to communicate, but I just don't recognize those words." It didn't help that the words he was using don't generally accompany that accent. It took me a minute or two to lock on, but after I did, we talked for about 10 minutes about all kinds of stuff. I specifically remember him saying "Is that a yellow jacket? Man, I despise them." as opposed to "hate them", and he asked me "Did you compete?" rather than "Did you ride your bike in that race?" and lots of other lofty diction. I wish I could remember the rest of the things he said. Sophie talks like that too. He reminded me of her.

I was almost disappointed when it was my turn to take a shower, but then when I actually stood in the water, it was as if my whole life had been spent in preparation for that moment. It's funny how getting clean can feel so good sometimes. How did they even live in the middle ages?

Shower accomplished, I trudged over to Vonnie's trailer and crashed for a few hours. I don't remember waking up exactly. I just remember that I found myself walking toward the pavillion in the center of the campground where dozens of folks were hanging out around a grill.

Clark was grilling burgers, dogs and sausage.


My phone doesn't like the word "Grillmaster" so it translated it to "Drillmaster" which ended up being the title of that photo. I thought it was funny so I didn't change it.

The sausage belonged to Stephen Woolard. Clark indicated that he was handling Woolard's sausage and the jokes just began to write themselves. Half of it was jalapeno/cheese and the other was just cheese. My god it was good. The burgers were good too. I didn't try the dogs because I was too full by then.

I have a Chris King headset, bottom bracket and hubs, and now I've eaten from a Chris King Grill. Who knew?

 Chris King Grill

Just in case anyone was wondering, I'm pretty sure it's a different Chris King, I just thought it was funny.

Post grilling we all hung out around the fireplace in the pavillion. The pool was definitely open and though I do not swim, I enjoyed the company of the accomplished cliff divers around me. As the evening wore on we got hungry and warmed the leftover sausage and dogs over the fire using marshmallow grilling sticks. Merritt's dog Zaxby was begging for food from everyone. He's a good dog and he won't take food unless he's offered but poor Bill let his hot dog dangle from his hand for too long in Zax's direction and it must have appeared as if he was offering it to him. Zax was so smooth about it too that Bill didn't notice it was gone until someone else mentioned it. If I'd gotten video, I'd have won $10,000 on AFV.

I slept well that night. I don't even remember going to bed.

The next morning, we were all up early. It was cold again. It's just going to be cold in the morning now, isn't it?

Someone who will remain nameless used the bathroom in Bill's trailer, but Bill hadn't bothered to hook up any water because there was a bathhouse not 100 feet away. He had to take care of the situation on the way out, lest he have to haul the "chocolate hostage" home with him. The jokes just wrote themselves there too.

I headed north around 9AM or so. I hadn't seen my family in a week but they weren't all that happy to see me. Man, I'll tell you, it doesn't take long for people to get used to you being gone, then when you come back, you're just an intruder in their territory. Better luck next time, I guess.

The Fat Four was exactly what I'd hoped for. It's going on my list for next year too. It's not fair that I should podium in the expert class of an endurance race though, so next year you need to come down and push me off.

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