“Bouldergeist” XC Race

There seems to be an unwritten rule that every mountain bike race must have its own unique name. Generally that name conjures up wild and violent images — seemingly, the more extreme, the better. Perhaps it is race promoters appealing to a video game culture or maybe it’s just tradition. Mostly the race names are a stretch, with one notable exception: Bouldergeist.

In a single word, race promoter Howard Rhyne epitomizes his race. Succinct, fully descriptive, and emotive. Bouldergeist is the perfect name for yesterday’s well run race at San-Lee State Park. (Great job, Howard and company.) Think about it… Bouldergeist suggests large rocks (boulders) and poltergeist (the apparent manifestation of an invisible and destructive entity). Most accounts of poltergeist manifestations involve noises and destruction that have no apparent cause.

bouldergeistPerfect description. Put the two words together and you have a race that is characterized by a boulder strewn course that is both scary and potentially destructive. I was looking at photos of some of the best riders in the field and nearly all of them had blood visible from knees, legs, or elbows. It wasn’t a matter of if you were going to crash, but rather, when. Let me give you some perspective.

I met a new friend, Barret Fishner this week who’s been racing mountain and cyclocross bikes for almost half his 30-odd years. He has competed numerous years in the US Cup West mountain bike series and he’s raced in some of the toughest terrain from Oregon to California to Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. Having just moved to North Carolina he’s been riding a couple of times a week at San-Lee over the last few months.

After our pre-ride of the course on Friday afternoon he told me that San-Lee was hands down, the hardest course he’s ridden, and he’s ridden hundreds. Now I’m sure that there are probably harder courses out there, but after a year of racing many venues throughout the southeast, Bouldergeist is the toughest course I’ve ever ridden. Why is it tough? Really two reasons: terrain and intensity.

To give you a better idea of the terrain, let me paint you a picture. In exactly 22 miles there was 2,283 feet of climbing. Being in the sand hills, the soil is comprised of a mix of loam, gravel, and sand. Being in the woods, you can throw in exposed tree roots, fallen trees, stumps, pine straw, sticks, twigs, and pine cones.

But as the name so aptly suggests, a major element is rocks. But rocks doesn’t really describe San-Lee. Thousands, if not millions of rocks, ranging in size from baby heads (I didn’t invent the term), to rocks the size of a Volkswagen. Several sections of the course were literally covered in rocks.

To describe the intensity, think of a two and a half hour cyclocross race. Most mountain bike courses have tough sections where intensity is high, followed by long flowing fast sections where you have a chance to recover. Not Bouldergeist. If you are not climbing a short, steep hill with sketchy traction over rocks, gravel and roots, you are hanging onto your handlebars for dear life descending a rooty trail without crashing.

Maintaining momentum is important to minimizing work, and it is crucial when riding a single speed bike because if you slow too much you can’t carry the next climb. Nothing kills momentum quite like piles of rocks and switchbacks, and Bouldergeist is a leader in both categories. Over and over you pedal on the only reasonably flat sections of the course, where on most courses you could recover, and Bouldergeist has a rock garden in the middle of it and a tight switchback at both ends.

To give you a better idea what that feels like, my 2:24 race felt like several of the 6-hour races I’ve competed in. Hammer, hammer, hammer, climb, descend, rocks, rocks, rocks, hammer, rocks. No rest. I’ll share my numbers at the end, but suffice it to say Bouldergeist has a high intensity factor. Now lets talk about rocks some more.

Besides the regular rockiness of the trail in general, to make things more challenging, Boldergeist has several “signature” rock obstacles, just to, as Emeril Lagasse would say, “kick it up a notch”. The signature sections are in the order of encounter, “Bouldergeist”, “Gauntlet”, and “Freefall”. I really must paint you a picture of these three.

When the start whistle blows the course goes straight up a quarter mile long climb from the park entrance to the upper picnic area parking lot, and beyond up a gravel road to the trailhead where the fun begins. Immediately you go from physical intensity to a relatively short quarter mile of rooty, rocky switchback laden trail to “Bouldergeist”. The approach to Bouldergeist is over some nasty jagged rocks the size of basketballs down a narrow path with a drop off on the right, then the left.

When you finally get to the bottom the trail opens up and you see it: a huge rock dome like the dented roof of a Volkswagen bus, only much harder. Because you are descending your speed is probably too fast. Over the boulder there is a four foot drop into a hole, with 60 degree angled sheer rock face to the left sloping down to the bottom or, the more rideable dirt covered bumpy path down to the right. Oh, and this is all in the middle of a more than 90 degree left turn. If that weren’t tough enough, add a pile of basketball sized rocks in a small stream that you must ride over.

To give you a better picture, imagine the beginning of a race, and an entire wave of competitors hitting that obstacle together. I’m laughing out loud as I type this. Un. Believable. That is “Bouldergeist”. You aren’t a half mile into the race and you almost had a heart attack. “Whew!”, you think, “Now the worst is behind me.” WRONG! The good news is that you get another 4 miles of generally intense riding before you encounter the second signature obstacle: “Gauntlet”.

As you near the entrance to “Gauntlet” you are riding down the trail and on your right there is a sign nailed to a tree with an evil looking caricature of a joker and the single word, “difficult”. Calling Gauntlet difficult is tantamount to calling a hurricane wind and rain. Nothing quite like understatement. To paint you a visual of Gauntlet, I’ll start with a buzzard’s eye view.

Looking down, picture the side of a hill, with a trail running laterally for 75 yards from left to right, making a 180 degree turn while climbing and then going from right to left another 75 yards, making another 180 degree turn while climbing, then do it again. Four continually ascending lateral passes with hairpin switchbacks at each end. Tough, right? Now picture the entire section covered in rocks the size of microwave ovens. Need I say more?

When you finally and mercifully finish Gauntlet, you get about 200 yards down a relatively smooth wide trail that turns right into signature obstacle number three: “Freefall”. I’m not quite sure how this section got it’s name but I’m sure there were several runners up. I’m quite sure that some of the finalists were “Willfall”, “Hardfall”, “Fallnow”, “Betchufall” and “Justplainfall”. Getting the picture? I make my appearance at 8:50 in this video.

In fairness, Freefall is reserved for only the expert riders. Everyone else takes a nice easy bypass. Not the Cat 1s and Pros. They get all the fun. Being a Cat 2 rider and only having raced one year, I was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to ride “Freefall”. When we pre-rode the course on Friday, I smiled as I rode by the entrance to that section and said to myself, “I’m sure glad I’m not doing that!”

When I got home from the pre-ride and checked my computer, I saw I’d received a notice from Jim Smalley, the Southern Classic series organizer. It said, “Matt just a heads up you’re going to be getting upgraded to Cat 1 50+ as you’ve met the mandatory requirements already. From what I heard this will be effective this afternoon.”

“Are you kidding me!”, I thought. Of all the races to be upgraded at! Worse, I just pre-rode the course and skipped the dreaded “Freefall” section — ON PURPOSE! Now I would have to ride it, not once, but twice, without benefit of a pre-ride. I called USA Cycling and asked about getting a waiver but to no avail. Seems the series is just starting so I can complete the entire series as a Cat 1 and not compromise my chance at winning the series, and at Nationals, all 55+ racers are combined so there is no reason to grant me a waiver to race as a Cat 2 since it is open. Either way, no waiver.

bouldergeist 2So, I was understandably nervous about my first ever Cat 1 race and having to ride Freefall. Fortunately, I was so terrified of it, that the actual experience was actually not quite as bad as my two days of dread. Here is how you can best describe Freefall. Take Gauntlet, make all the rocks bigger, and make it a mile long. Somehow I managed to keep my momentum through the entire section only tapping down my foot 3 times. I made it through, I had not crashed and Freefall was fall free.

After eleven miles of some of the most brutal pounding imaginable, we finished the first lap and got to start the second and final lap. Halfway done! Woohoo! The big question was, did I have enough left in the tank to finish a second lap? The second lap seemed longer, mainly because my legs were smoked, my shoulders were sore, my arms and my hands were exhausted, pulverized from the constant work of missing obstacles, popping over logs, and hanging onto the bike through very rough terrain. My body felt like someone had pummeled me with a pillow case full of oranges.

For the most part, lap two was more of lap one with a few exceptions. I had a tougher time through Freefall because I managed to take a bad line and get stopped. After coming to a standstill in Freefall, it is extremely difficult to get your speed back. Second time through, I probably lost a little time having to tap down several more times and dismount once and carry the bike over a short section.

Somewhere during the 22 miles of beating, I managed to “endo” or fall end-over-end, twice. I am for sure a Cat 1 when it comes to falling. I am getting really good at it. I hardly even get hurt any more. I think I’m learning to bounce and roll instead of just splatting, a very valuable skill to have when it comes to racing mountain bikes.

So how did I do on my first ever Cat 1 mountain bike race? I got second place! Don’t get too excited. I also got last place. There were only two Cat 1 50+ riders. I did finish ahead of several other Cat 1 riders of different ages but I don’t know the riders yet nor the details. Might have been mechanicals, flats, crashes or a combination of all three. I was happy that I only got beat by one woman, Zoe Zdenka Cahojova-Worsham. She nearly always wins the Cat 1 30-39 women’s race and besides being extremely fast, she is nice too.

All in all, I was very happy with my performance. I was able to sustain a Heart Rate of 91% of max, above my Lactate Threshold (LT) for the entire 2:24 minute effort and peaked at 112% of max. My best 20-minute power was 215 watts and my Max Power was 1,209 watts. For those of you who care about such things, my Normalize Power (NP) was 210, my Intensity Factor (IF) was 1.049, and my Training Stress Score (TSS): 261.1.

I’m glad that Bouldergeist is behind me, and that I survived my baptism of fire into the world of Cat 1 mountain bike racing. Next weekend I race in Ocala, Florida on the Santos Vortex trail. I posted a report of a 6-hour race I did there in early February. After Bouldergeist, that quarry race should be a walk in the park. I’ll let you know.