The Shenandoah 100 is a 100-mile back-country mountain bike race that takes place every year on Labor Day weekend. Over the course of 100 miles, it includes around 16,000 feet of climbing on about 5 1/2 major mountains, the first 4 of which occur within the first 50-miles. It’s not a race to be taken lightly. This year, VeloWorks-Spokes, Etc. had three racers take on the challenge, Matt McDonald and Chris Lane were making their Shenandoah 100 debut, and Emily McDonald (yes, me, writing again) was back for her 3rd go at the race.
Race day dawned hot and humid after thunderstorms the day before. Not exactly ideal conditions to race 100-miles in, but there was no looking back or down now. Lining up at sunrise, the race went off promptly at 6:30am. The first 5-miles is pretty much a mess, as the race turns down a dirt road and then on to pavement until you reach the first climb. People are scrambling to jump on someone’s wheel, grab a position and not get left in the dust. Thankfully, we were able to stick together heading toward the first climb. It’s helpful having your big brother ride with you, especially when he’s 6’3 and provides a really nice draft. I stuck on Matt’s wheel and out of the wind and chaos as we made our way toward Narrowback.
I should note that even before the race started, I had trouble getting my breakfast down, and my stomach still was none-too-pleased with me as we headed up the first climb. Matt and Chris took off, as I tried to keep my pace steady. Narrowback was (as always) a congested mess. It’s sometimes hard for me to sit back and get passed on the first climb, but at the same time, I also realized that if I tried to hammer so early on, I’d probably pay for it later in the day. I rode the entire climb and only really had to slow down when there was a bit of a back-log getting into the single-track at the top of Narrowback. No biggie. The rocky ridge rolled by a lot smoother this year thanks to the big 29er tires on my Stumpjumper. Despite having switched from full-suspension to a hard-tail this year, I found myself a lot more confident on the ripping descents riding the 29er hardtail, as opposed to my old full-suspension. Go figure…
My challenge of the day came early on, as I struggled going up Linn Trail. I was expecting to have to walk a bit, since the single-track climb does tend to turn into a line of hike-a-bike, but I wasn’t expecting it to be as slick as it was and my legs to not want to hike today. Actually on Linn Trail, my legs didn’t want to work at all. The didn’t want to pedal, didn’t want to hike and every step or pedal stroke felt hard. At one point I even got passed by some other racers hiking. Apparently I was hiking too slow. Talk about an ego blow. The thought crossed my mind to pull out – since I was feeling pretty bad, my stomach wasn’t cooperating and I wasn’t even 30-miles in, but I wasn’t bleeding, my bike wasn’t broken, I was just being a baby and that is not an excuse to pull out of a race that I’ve trained all season for. Time to suck it up, try and get some food down and keep on going. I made it to the top and by the time I hit the really fun swooping almost pump-track like section of the Wolf Ridge Descent, I was starting to feel a lot better. I’m not the best descender, but these trails are so much fun and so well kept (Thank you Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition and Shenandoah Mountain Touring!) that it’s hard not to rip down them.
I reached Aid #2 with a smile and was finally starting to feel a lot better as I headed off toward Hanky Mountain. Hanky Mountain, while a long and challenging climb, is perhaps one of my favorite climbs on the course. Reaching Hanky, I was a little disappointed to find the bottom half had been recently re-graded, making they typically nice grippy climb a slick mess of peanut-butter sticky type mud. Ugh. Thankfully about half-way up, the trail reverted back to its more “normal” state and I was able to get a little more power behind my pedal strokes. Toward the top of Hanky, I passed Chris, who was having some cramping issues. I think the heat and humidity of the day would cause a lot of folks to not quite feel at 100%. I pushed on, slowly working my up the “stair-step” type pitches that make up the final part of the climb up Hanky Mountain. Once at the top I carefully, and perhaps too carefully picked my way down the rocky first part of Dowells Draft, before managing to wipe out going up a little rocky uphill near the top. My bike was fine and I was okay save a bruised shin, so I brushed off what dirt I could and pushed on. Picked up my first drop-bag at Aid #3, re-stocked on fuel and rolled out. I was lucky to fall into a good paceline on the road section from Aid #3 to the base of the Braley Pond Climb. Riding roads on your mountain bike isn’t as easy or as fun as it sounds. If anything, it’s a bit of a drag and an easy place to expend too much energy.
The climb up out of Mountain House to Braley Climb is a long single-track haul. It’s never easy, and it was again an extra challenge today as it was slick in spots from rain. I rode what rock gardens I could and somewhere in there passed the 50-mile mark in a little under 6-hours. Not quite the time I was hoping to be making that day, but at that point, I was happy to be making solid forward progress. I left Aid #4 and started on the somewhat ominous “Death Climb.” The entire “climb” takes up the better portion of the 2nd half of the race, basically going from mile 57 -80 (give or take) and considering that racers complete the first 4 of the race’s 5 1/2 climbs in about the first 50-miles, by the time you start the Death Climb, your legs are already starting to feel a bit spent. Thankfully (or not-thankfully depending on your preference for riding) the first 13 or so miles are on paved/gravel roads. This equates to a long slug, which can be really hard for folks riding heavier all-mountain bikes. Even on my lighter hard-tail, I still had to settle in and just spin the legs out. Near mile 60 I spotted a familiar jersey up ahead and soon caught up to Matt. He was doing an awesome job at his first Shenandoah – definitely a lot further along at this point than I had been on my first! We rode together for a little bit which was really a nice change of pace. I started to feel tired and spacy, but as brother-knows-best, he fussed at me to eat something even though I told him I wasn’t hungry. His advice paid off and while it was a bit of a challenge to get a gel down at this point, I started to feel a lot better soon after the sugar and caffeine entered my system.
The Death Climb starts to kick up around mile 70, and here’s where you (well, I do at least) have to just sit and spin it out. It’s a 5-mile climb, with a few reprieves, but it’s a slug. I made my way up it, no major issues, and rolled into Aid #5 feeling surprisingly good. A fresh pair of gloves and a few more gels (since that was all my stomach was somewhat OK to handle) and I was ready for the last 25 miles. The Death Climb is so long though, that even when you leave Aid #5, you still have a lot of climbing to do. A whole lot. The course has a brief ripping descent, before you have to climb again, through seemingly endless double-track that goes through multiple meadows on top of Shenandoah Mountain. I was just starting to climb again when I felt a sharp pain in the back of my upper thigh. Oh yes. Some evil little bee or yellow jacket or some other wicked stinging insect had decided it was a good day to stick me. Not cool. Thankfully I’m not allergic and it annoyed me enough to actually amp up my adrenaline and make me ride harder despite the pain and slight tingling in my left leg. I wasn’t stopping now. And somewhere in there, I crossed the last meadow and arrived at the top of Chestnut Ridge. One more downhill. I let it rip, and for the girl who is a timid descender, I shelved the nerves as I just was ready to be off the bike and rode some spots I had been too scared to ride a few weeks before. I pedaled through Aid #6 and knew I was on the home-stretch. My watch had me there at just after 10-hours. I was disappointed as I roughly knew how much time I had to ride, and was going to have to push it a bit if I even wanted to break 11-hours. The last few road hills hurt, and the slippery bottom-part of Hanky drained me I wanted to be done. Soon enough, I reached the last section and was almost home-free. A little single-track, one last evil section of slightly uphill fire road (you come out onto it after a really fun downhill and it just kind of depresses you) but once I turned the corner into the camp, I knew I had it. I crossed the line in 10:55, not my best time, but I had managed to keep it just barely under 11-hours. After a long and difficult day on the bike, I was finally done.
Matt wasn’t far behind me, and came in finishing strong in 11:19. I think he may be switching to a 29er next season… and shortly thereafter, Chris overcame is issues with cramping and finished in 11:35. Quite an impressive feat to have all three team-members finish in under-12 hours!
Chris, Emily and Matt – all happy to be done the Shenandoah 100 in under-12 hours!
At the end of the day – when results started to be posted, I was happily surprised to find out my initially disappointing time had landed me a 10th place finish in a field of incredibly talented women! I guess that goes to show that everyone must have had a hard day out there!
Huge thanks goes out to Chris Scott and Shenandoah Mountain Touring and all the sponsors of the Shenandoah Mountain 100 for yet another incredibly fun race on some of the best single-track you’ll find on the east coast!