The Stewart Super Six Pack race is a six hour, multiple lap, endurance race run by MTBNJ on the familiar trails of Stewart State Forest, about an hour north of NYC. The lap is just over 10 miles long, and is probably about two-thirds singletrack with the remainder on fire roads. The format is that you do as many laps as possible before the six hour mark, and can finish one final lap after six hours, as long as you started the lap before that time.
This would be my first time doing a race of this format. After having done the Wildcat race a month and a half earlier, I was somewhat confident of being able to keep riding for that length of time. The nice thing about this format is that completing one lap means that you have legitimately finished the race. So my goal going in was to get that one lap done and then see how things went from there.
Kim and I decided to head up the night before to avoid a super-early start on the Sunday morning. We took the luxury option of staying in a motel instead of camping. It felt a bit odd not seeing the Dark Horse Cycles crew pre-race, as every other race I've done at Stewart (Singlespeed-A-Palooza 2012 and 2013, Dark Horse 40 2012) has been run by them, and we've camped each time at their shop.
After a quick breakfast at the motel, we drove to Stewart State Forest, getting there early enough to get a good close parking spot and with plenty of time to get ourselves set up.
A big group of Long Islanders were there for the race, so we set up our pit area right next to the Cadre tent. Having not done a looped event like this, I wasn't 100% sure what to take with me on the bike and what to leave at the pit. In the end, on the bike I took two bottles of Hammer Gel, one drink bottle with Endurolyte Fizz and a Camelbak with plain water, and left an extra supply of gels, Endurolytes, Power and Clif bars and water bottles at the pit.
The race start had the Open Men going off first, and then, at one minute intervals, Open Women, my category (Singlespeed) along with the Fat Bikes, then Master Men, teams and finally Sport Men. The start was a familiar ride along Ridge Rd, a fire trail through the middle of the park. I'm normally a pretty slow starter, and this race was no different. I really don't know how the other singlespeeders manage to go so fast on the flats and downhills. But given that this was a 6+ hour race, I was happy to take it easy at the start. What it meant, though, was that I was being passed by the front-runners from all the groups that started behind me. Fortunately, a lot of this happened on the fire roads where passing was easy.
The weather at the start time was warmish, and relatively humid. I've been experimenting recently with different base layers, and did this ride with a wicking base layer which seemed to work really well. I started to feel hot later in the race, but never felt like I was so drenched in sweat that I wasn't getting some cooling effect. It felt quite counter-intuitive to be putting on two layers when expecting warm and humid conditions, but it worked out well.
After about a mile on Ridge Rd, the course took a right fork into our first mud. There had been quite a bit of rain in the week leading up to the race, so there were some good muddy sections, but nothing too long or deep. On the first lap, there were also a number of vehicles on this part of the road. Fortunately they were gone by the second lap. After a total of a couple of miles, we hit the first singletrack, which started with more mud, and then got into the fun, flowy singletrack that makes up so much of Stewart. I was happy to just take it easy for all of the first lap, getting a feel for the course. There were a couple of short sections I walked on this lap, especially the short rocky climbs when coming into them with a bunch of other riders around. A couple of short steep descents were marked with down-arrows. I found the first of these quite rideable. On the first lap through though, on the second steep descent, a rider had come off ahead of me, so I stopped briefly to check that he was OK. While I was talking to him, I saw at least one other rider fall coming down this. That was enough to psyche me out of that part for the rest of the race. But I rationalised this by telling myself it was a long race, and losing a few seconds walking this part was better than falling off and not being able to continue.
A number of familiar faces passed me during the first lap, including Jody, Paul, Tori and Robin. On this first lap, there seemed to be a large number of people with mechanical problems, primarily flat tyres. I keep wondering when this is going to happen to me, but so far I have been lucky.
Towards the end of the lap were three wooden bridges which were really slippery thanks to the mud being tracked onto them, and then a couple of short sections of fire trail, which were really good places to get some food and drink in. The lap finished heading east through one of the tougher sections of trail, with plenty of roots, and one particularly nasty section of rocks, where it seemed almost impossible to pick a decent line through them. Every lap I got bounced around by these rocks, known affectionately as baby-heads, and it was a relief each lap to get through that section and be able to relax just a little bit. Towards the very end of the first lap, I caught up to Kim and rode with her for the end of the lap and the start of the second. This was my first time check as I had neither bike computer nor GPS nor watch. I got through the first lap in just under 64 minutes. Some quick mental arithmetic told me that 6 laps was feasible, assuming all went well for the rest of the race.
The next couple of laps were spent just getting into a rhythm. I was starting to get to know the course, so could mentally tick off certain parts: aid station - check, first steep descent - check, second steep descent - check, three bridges - check, second fire road - check, horse trail - check, last fire road - check, baby-heads - check, finish line - check. Without a watch, this was my way of keeping my mind active and tracking my progress through the course.
On the third lap, I stopped briefly at the aid station to top up my water bottle, and then stopped at the end of the lap to change water bottles and take a couple of Endurolyte tablets. I've had problems in the past with cramping, so was trying to take some preventative electrolytes to see if that worked.
It was great encouragement to see friends in the pit area. Some were riding in teams, so got to do some spectating while their teammate was out riding the course. Thanks to Missy, Scott, Kyra, Tori, Robin and Ellen for their encouraging words.
I'd been playing a mental game, saying that four laps would be acceptable, and that I'd be happy with five, but six was still doable. On the third lap, I rode with Jody for a short while, and commented that I felt OK, but kept expecting a ton of bricks to fall on me somewhere in the next lap or so.
I stopped again at the pit area after both laps four and five. Both stops were brief, and were an opportunity to get some different food and top up on water. On the fifth lap, I was definitely starting to feel some fatigue, and the short pinch climbs were becoming more difficult. It was about this time I started wishing for some lower gears, actually, any other gears(!), to help me up the hills. I was also feeling hints of cramp in my quads, but luckily, it didn't get any worse than hints.
In the pit area after the fifth lap, I had no idea what the time was. Finding out that I was about 5 hours 20 made me really happy with my progress that far. It also meant that I had no real choice but to go out for another lap. Some smarty said that if I went out and did a 40 minute lap, I could get 7 in for the day! Yeah, right, not even the top riders were doing 40 minute laps. But I would be really happy with 6, and was feeling OK about doing a sixth, knowing that no matter how long it took, it would still count.
My sixth lap was definitely the toughest of the day, and I walked a number of the short climbs that I'd been able to ride earlier in the day. My legs simply didn't have the power left to grind up those climbs. Walking the short distances was actually a pleasant change. Again I played the mental game of checking off different parts of the course. Knowing that when I hit the second fire road, I had just two sections of fire road, one easy singletrack and the last tricky singletrack was a great feeling. Also a great feeling was dropping down the short hill to the actual finish line and being able to stop.
Immediately post-race involved some quick chats with others who had finished as well as waiting for Kim to come in. When I saw that she wasn't in the pit area, I knew she must be out on her sixth lap too.
Then it was time to get cleaned up a little bit. The layer of mud, which, it turns out, seems to have protected me from any poison ivy, needed to be washed off and the bike packed away. And then it was beer o'clock with the post-race hanging out mostly done huddled under tents to escape the deluging rain. Luckily this rain held off until after the race, with only a couple of light showers during the race.
Overall result for me was six laps completed in 6:30:03, which placed me 13th out of 26 singlespeeders.
A long time ago, I'd entered the Wildcat 100 km mountain bike endurance race, thinking that it was so far off in the future, there would be plenty of time to train and prepare for it. Those months disappeared in a blur of snow, travel and, fortunately, quite a bit of time on the bike. This was going to be easily the longest race I'd attempted. The previous longest was the 2012 Dark Horse 40, which, sadly, was the last time that race will be run.
The race is based out of a small town called Rosendale, near New Paltz, an hour or so north of NYC. Kim and I drove up Friday afternoon so that we would have time to get the tent set up, bikes checked, dinner eaten as well as an early night. On the way to the campsite, we stopped at the registration location to pick up our race numbers. The campsite was on the site of a defunct resort set around Williams Lake. The site has recently been purchased by a development company who have big plans for an eco-resort, but they are still in the environmental approval process, so most of the buildings are in a slow state of decline. In contrast to the buildings, the grassy, lakeside area set aside for camping was quite deluxe. This area was also the location of the finish line.
The weather forecast for the race was less than friendly. Rain and possible thunderstorms were predicted for both Friday night and Saturday during the race. I woke up a few times during the night to the sound of relatively light rain on the tent. When my alarm sounded at 5am, it was still raining lightly. It was a battle to get myself out of bed and into race mode. My frame of mind wasn't helped by the realisation the night before that I'd left my multitool back at home, so would be doing the 66 miles (they upgraded the 100 km!) without the ability to fix any minor mechanical issues. Once I actually got dressed and put my bike together, I forgot about the lack of repair tools. Also, the rain had disappeared for the time being, so things were looking more positive.
After a quick breakfast, it was time to head down to the start line to pick up a timing chip and line up for the 6.45 am race start. The first couple of miles were on paved road, and this, along with the fact that I tend to start races much slower than most people, had me lining up at the back of the group. I saw a few other LI and PA familiar faces on the start line, and knew that there were quite a few others in amongst the 250-odd starters.
The race started pretty close to the correct time, and, as expected, most people took off pretty fast. I was happy just to spin along the first bit of flat road, and then take it easy up the first road climb, knowing it was going to be a long day. I rode this first section with Kim. As we rolled through the campsite, Kim detoured to our car to drop off her jacket, not wanting to carry it up and down hills for the rest of the race. I'd started out with a waterproof jacket on, but, given that it was not raining as we waited on the start line, I took it off and swapped it for the arm warmers I had in my pack. It turned out that the choice of merino base layer, jersey, and woolen arm and knee warmers would be a good clothing option for the day. I never felt overheated, and the wool was good for staying warm during the rain we had during the race.
The first section of single track was all on the Williams Lake property. Being towards the back of the field, there was a lot of walking due to congestion on the trails. I think I would have been able to ride some of these sections of trail if there had not been traffic, but, again, I was happy to take it easy at the start of the race. We passed a couple of cave entrances on this singletrack, which had chilly air coming out of them, so much so that the air around the entrances was foggy. Soon after these caves, the trail took us through another cave. Fortunately Kim had pre-ridden this section, so I knew that the cave floor was flat. There was also enough light from the entrance and exit to sort of see the rocks that were on the floor. I'd overtaken a few people through here, but it was mainly a line of bikes either being ridden or pushed, depending on what the person at the front was doing.
After exiting this track, another short road section followed, and then some more singletrack to take us back to the start area. The race was still pretty congested at this stage, so this next section of singletrack was also a mix of walking and riding. From here the race took us on a mix of paved road and dirt road towards the main climb of the day. About 10 miles or so in, the first wrong turn happened. Fortunately it was a minor mistake, as others had already found out it was a dead end and were heading back out to find the correct course. Talking to people after the race, many commented on the poor course markings. I thought the course marking was generally pretty good, but there were definitely a couple of intersections that could have been marked better, as well as a couple of long sections of rail trail where there were no indications that the course continued along that direction.
The first big climb started at around the 16 mile mark. It was mostly carriage road, so not technical, and was also a gentle enough gradient that I was able to climb it all relatively comfortably on the SS. As I was making my way up this climb, Shoogs' words of advice came to mind: "You haven't finished a climb until you've been descending for at least a mile." I kept repeating this to myself during the climb, as there were a few short descents that pretended that the climb was over, only for the road to head back upwards. Somewhere in this section, we entered an area of fog. I can still clearly see the image of a grassy field, single track winding through it with a few riders off in the fog-shrouded distance. The actual descent was a fast gravel road, with one particularly tight right-hander. After the descent was a long flat section before the next climb. I was right on the limit of how fast I could spin my legs, so was limited in top speed. Kim caught up to me in this section, and we rode together through the rest of the flat and the short climb up to the first aid station. This climb took us past an amazing waterfall and a really pretty river. I would have loved to stop and take in the view, but a few stolen glimpses while riding the trail would have to suffice. At the base of the waterfall, the trail steepened, and I had the choice of getting out of the saddle and grinding up the hill or walking. I was conscious of the distance still to go, but was feeling OK here, so decided to push up the hill.
I stopped at the aid station to fill up my Camelbak with water and top up my drink bottle with water and an Endurolyte Fizz. I'd been trying hard to remember to keep refuelling with gels as well as keeping up the electrolytes. The Fizz worked really well, and I took a few Endurolyte tablets as well. The volunteers were very good at all the aid stations, filling drink bottles, handing out food, grabbing drop bags. Kim did a speedier transition through this aid station, so was out on the trail in front of me. This first aid station was the first time the 100 km and 100 mile riders parted ways.
From this aid station, we entered the second of the big climbs of the day. This one, in theory, was about 1200 ft of climbing. It was also a mostly steady grade, but there was one particularly nasty steep pinch which had me off the bike. I rode for a short while with Wynn, who I'd done some training with in the leadup. He'd had a tough start to the race with a crash. He'd put dry weather tyres on, in anticipation of getting speed on the carriage roads and paved roads. In hindsight, the knobbier tyres I was running were a good choice given the slipperiness of the singletrack sections. A bit further up the trail, I caught up to Kim again and we rode together again for a while. We then entered a section of trail where we basically rode across a large rock slab at the edge of a lake. This is what I imagine riding in Utah might be like. Utah was already on the list of places to ride, but even more so now. At this point, we came across Riva Johnson, a friend we met at Dark Horse cycles a number of times. She and I would ride quite a bit of the next part of the race close together. There was supposed to be a seriously steep descent (around 15% gradient, with a compulsory hike-a-bike section) from the top of the climb, but the weather must have resulted in a re-route, as I found myself on a long, long, long gravel fire road descent. Once this had been going for a few minutes, I knew the major climbing was over. My brakes got a good workout during this descent, as the gentle rain made visibility average. I played with glasses and cap positions to try to get some visibility through my glasses, but in the end went for the Shoogs patented jousting helmet approach of glasses down my nose so I could see over them.
The next phase of the race took us through a lot of farming land interspersed with paved roads. These trails ranged from grassy and relatively solid, to boggy mud pits. Riva and I rode much of this together, passing the time chatting. This was the first race that I'd done where sustained conversation was possible, and it was good to have company to pass the longish road sections. I found that I was actually able to ride through some of the muddier sections, perhaps due to the wider, knobbier tyres I was running. This part also included a number of trails through apple orchards. After the race, these seemed to be the least-liked trails, particularly by the 100 milers. I didn't mind them, as they were mostly firm and rideable.
Somewhere in here was aid station 2, where I did a quick top up of the Endurolyte Fizz bottle. Fortunately I'd picked up a spare tablet of this as they did not have any at the second aid station. My hands were covered in mud, so I had to ask the volunteers here to actually open the packet and put it into my drink bottle.
The next section was possibly on of the hardest for me. It was about 8 miles or so of rail trail, which sloped ever so slightly downwards. Normally this would be a dream section of trail, but it was not quite steep enough for me to coast, but was steep enough that I was continually spinning right at the limit of how fast my legs would turn. I slowly caught up to a rider in front of me. We took turns at calling "clear" for the many roads and trail crossings along this trail. It was reassuring to have him around as there were no trail markings along this section. Even one every now and then would have been good to stop the wondering of whether I'd missed a turn arrow somewhere. He was another singlespeed rider, so I had an incentive to keep up with him initially, and then keep pedaling when I eventually passed him.
This long fire trail took us back to near the start line in Rosendale. It was a buzz rolling past the aid station here, with a drummer and people cheering us on. I knew I was now getting closer to the finish, but didn't have a good idea of just how much was left. From this final aid station, we hit, in reverse, the second section of singletrack we'd ridden that morning. The first part was a hill that was way to steep for me to get up on the SS after 60 odd miles of riding. This was the first of quite a few walk sections for me in the last part of the race. After navigating this singletrack, I then hit the paved road again, and soon came to the entrance to the Williams Lake resort. A marshal at the entrance said to me "You're sooooo close!". I was now thinking that I had less than half a mile of paved road until I could stop pushing the pedals.
Rolling up to the finish line, there was a line of cones directing us to the right of the actual finish gate. The announcer was calling out "One more loop! Just a mile and a half!". It seems that there had been some last minute course changes, possibly due to the weather, which involved removing some distance in the middle of the course, and tacking on a bit extra right at the end. As it turned out, we had to ride the entire Williams Lake section of singletrack, which we'd already ridden at the start of the race, again. This time around the trail there was no traffic, so all the walking I did this time was entirely my doing. And I did plenty of walking. By this stage of the race, I had some hamstring cramps trying to kick in, and did not have the power to crank up the steeper hills. I'd been trying to keep up the electrolytes during the event, but I think I was just reaching the limit of what my legs were capable of. I was also conscious of not wanting to hurt myself so close to the end, so was quite happy to ease through the last parts of the trail. But I was also aware that the SS rider I'd passed on the rail trail couldn't be too far behind me, so the competitive part of me really wanted to keep going. It quickly became apparent that we weren't doing an abbreviated 1.5 mile section of the William Lake trail. We were doing the whole thing again, and the announcer had been telling fibs about it being just 1.5 miles. So there was another trip through the cave, which this time had glowsticks lighting the way, although they were basically at the end of their glowing life, so didn't really help much. It was much darker than in the morning, so my glasses came off for the traverse through the cave. Soon after exiting the cave, the heavens opened. The last couple of miles were ridden in a solid downpour, but fortunately the most difficult parts of this trail were done. I finally dropped out of the singletrack onto the road and then the grassy trail to the finish line.
After I crossed the line, I dropped my bike on the grass, out in the rain so that some of the mud could wash off. I then headed to the shelter of the tent to wait for Riva, Kim and the rest of the LI crew and others to come in.
The afternoon was a combination of refuelling with both beer and food, recounting the race with the 66 milers who had come in, waiting for the 100 milers we knew and wondering about how an event supposedly chip timed could get the results so badly wrong. I'd gone from 5th in my category (out of 10 at the time) to DQ by the end of the day, Kim didn't appear at all, Riva had been shifted into a completely different category and a number of other racers were questioning their results. Also, given the heavy rain, the race director announced that they were cutting the finish of the race short and not making racers repeat the Williams Lake singletrack as the trail was being destroyed. A part of me wished that they'd done this earlier so I didn't have to ride it a second time. Racers coming in were progressively covered with more and more mud.
It was encouraging to hear people describe this as the hardest 100 miler they'd done. Even though I'd only done the 66, it was still a tough event, and knowing that it was up there in terms of difficulty made me feel like it won't be the last of these races that I try. VT50 is next on the list, and maybe a 100 miler next year.