Saturday was the second edition of the OGRE (Ozark Gravel Road Expedition) put on by Bonk Hard Racing. After coming in last year at 12:02 AM according to my watch and only being counted as a finisher because of a little stretching of the rules by the race promoters (my time is shown as 11:59:30 on the official results), I kind of wanted to come back and finish it within the allotted time. However, when they opened the race registration back in January, I waited to sign up…and waited….and watched the price increase…and waited some more. Finally, the week before they closed registration, Chuck Vohsen decided that he would rather be a family man and watch one of his son’s last sporting events before he goes off to college than race. After a little bit of peer pressure from Super Kate (who still has yet to even attempt this bad boy), I decided to buy his entry off of him, and with 2 weeks to go before the event, I needed to
digitize the course and stare down every major climb in Google Earth prepare myself.
Fortunately, this year I had been riding more through the winter than last year, mostly thanks to some weekly Thursday night rides I’ve been doing with Bob Jenkins & Chuck since the end of January. Regardless of weather, we were out there on some frigid nights (0°F one night, -2° another 2 weeks after that). Sometimes we got 5 miles in (the -2° night with 5″ of snow on the ground), sometimes we got 20, but we were out there every week. The only week we skipped was a month or so ago when the tornado sirens were going off. So even though this has been one of the coldest winters since the 90’s, I had about 200 more miles under my belt YTD going into the race than last year (650 vs. 450).
As penance for leaving before my finish last year, I guilted Aaron into running SAG for me, because the only race I can ever talk my wife and kids into going to is a 30 minute dirt crit. She’s convinced they would be bored at one of these events. I tried to lay the same guilt trip on Jim, but he said he had to move or something. Lame!
Finally, Friday rolled around, and I headed down to Lake of the Ozarks, but not before my wife tried to talk me out of going and helping her do some yardwork. I
had to tell her no, I have a race. I rolled out of St. Louis around 3:30, about 2 hours after I’d hoped, and got to the check-in around 6:30 or so. With going on the rainy Thursday night ride the day before and being distracted while I was trying to pack and leave Friday, I had a lot of prep work to do once I got to the house I was staying at that night. After stocking up on nutrition and spare tubes at the bike shop and grocery store that was next door, I headed down to the house. There, I started getting my bike ready and deciding what exactly I was going to bring with me. I had brought a backpack and my two Revelate Designs bags (the Tangle Frame Bag and Gas Tank Bag) to potentially use. Then I saw someone else’s setup and they were just going to have a small bag (Gas Tank equivalent), their 2 water bottles and whatever they could stuff in their jersey pockets. Granted, I knew this guy was a lot faster than me, but he had a point – the longest stretch between refuel points was 35 miles (the first leg), and they were mostly within 20 of each other. You don’t need to carry much. I’ve gone on 20 mile rides with no water before. At that point I decided I would just bring my 2 water bottles and strap on my Gas Tank bag to carry my food in, and leave the backpack and Tangle bag in my car. I had one tube and a couple CO2 cartridges in my seat pack and hoped for the best with my bike.
Last year for nutrition, I used Sierra Mist (I admit it, I can be a soda addict, but you can inhale a lot of calories really fast with soda), Fritos, and Peanut Butter M&M’s. This year, I decided to just use water for my liquid on the ride, and I bought some Smuckers frozen PB&J sandwiches, Pro Bar Energy chews, Peanut Butter M&M’s, peanuts, and some potato chips for food. I also bought a couple boxes of Capri Sun for at the rest stops. I was pretty sure it would be too much when I bought it, but come 12 hours in to the race, I never know what I am going to want to eat to keep me going.
As is usual for these races, I didn’t make it to bed until 11ish, and I set my alarm for 4:45. The race was to start at 6:00, and the start line was probably a 5-10 minute drive from the house. People in the house started stirring a little after 4:00 though, and I was awake about 4:30. Since my bike was mostly (not really) set up, I just had to kit up and head to the start line. While at the grocery store, I forgot to get anything for breakfast, so I was thankful to see the McDonald’s on the way there open for breakfast. Energy for the first leg taken care of. I was at the Big Sur Waterpark lot by 5:30, so I then had time to take care of my last minute items on the bike (attach my number and map case). After a brief panic about not being able to find both gloves, I lined up with the 10 mph group at the start line.
At 6:00, the police escort flipped on their lights and guided us to the end of the pavement, about 2 miles down the route. Upon rollout, I realized in my panic about my gear (and praying I wouldn’t drop my chain on the rollout descent), I’d forgotten to attach my map case! Whoops. Thankfully, the route to the first checkpoint was the same as last year and the course was marked with little yellow utility flags, so I figured I would be able to wing it and relaxed. I was also hopeful there would be other riders in my sight for a good while as well. As we went through the first few bumpy sections though, I happened to glance down and see a dropped cue sheet. I immediately pulled over and grabbed it, just for insurance. As a bonus, it was in the plastic sleeve Bonk Hard had given us, so it wouldn’t get all sweaty and nasty in my jersey pocket.
Checkpoint 1 was at mile 37.6. The ride was organized into 8 segments. After the odd segments, Bonk Hard had a volunteer station so they could keep track of the racers’ progress. After the even segments, they had pit stops where you could meet your crew and get food and take care of routine maintenance on your bike. The Pit Stops also had time cutoffs to weed out the people who probably wouldn’t be able to finish in the allotted 18 hour time frame. While I remembered a couple good climbs in this leg, I also remembered it as the tame leg, and I think I only walked one or two hills before I got to the checkpoint. I was making fairly good time, and hanging with some people who I knew were faster than me. I was probably pushing myself a bit much here at times, but I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to bank some time here in case later segments didn’t go so well. At one point though, shifting my front derailleur, I’d heard some sort of popping noise, and then a while later, it seemed like it was shifting between my two rings too easy. Eventually, I looked down and realize that it wasn’t shifting into the big ring at all. Uh-oh. Thankfully, it was stuck in the small ring rather than the big one. I could deal with that, so long as I could use all of my back gears without too much rubbing. I pulled into the checkpoint at 8:49, 35 minutes faster than last year. At the checkpoint, they had lots of water and a pretty good spread of cupcakes, muffins, and other prepackaged baked goods. I got a blueberry muffin, topped off my water, and headed out after a 10 minute break.
Leaving the checkpoint, I started doing some math. Aaron was driving down from Jeff City that morning, and wanted to stop to do a lap on his mountain bike at Honey Run, a MTB trail at the Lake of the Ozarks. Last year, I came in to Pit Stop 1 just before 11:00, so I told him to show up about 10:00. My game plan for a faster finishing time was mostly just not to waste time at the checkpoints, I wasn’t anticipating actually riding a whole lot faster. I knew there were 2 monster climbs in the 13 miles to the pit stop, but in between them is some flattish ground you can hold some speed on. I started wondering if I would beat Aaron to the pit stop. I smiled a little at the thought (mostly because Emma, Orange Lederhosen’s awesome head of support, was holding my food until he arrived). The first climb, on Mt. Horeb Rd, was as tough as anticipated, but I just hoofed the bike up to the top and pedaled out to Highway D, knowing once I got to the pavement, the rest of the way to the pit stop was a pretty easy trek, except for the last few hundred feet uphill to the pit stop. The gravel on the climb was also supposed to be in better shape than the previous year. Not long after I made the turn onto Tunnel Dam, the road to the Pit Stop, I noticed a car come up behind me. A few seconds later, it honked at me. Turns out it was Aaron. He asked what I needed, and I mentioned my derailleur issue. Other than that, I was just getting a little hungry. He continued on to get set up, and I finished the ride into the Pit Stop, arriving at 10:01, 52 minutes faster than last year. I was still feeling good, but I wasn’t looking forward to the next 30 or so miles. There was a 15 mile lollipop segment, then I had to ride the 13 miles I’d just ridden in the opposite direction. The two giant hills I’d just climbed in the last segment had buddies on the opposite side of each
But after less than 15 minutes, I decided to head on out, knowing that I could stop by again on my way back the other way. I figured it’d probably take me 90 minutes to do the loop, knowing what I had to climb. This segment was flooded out last year, so other than looking at the route on Google Earth, I didn’t really know what to expect. The climb was every bit as tough as advertized, and just about at the top, I saw this house that didn’t look like it was anything special, but it had a fence around the yard and some sign on the fence that said something to the effect of “If the dogs don’t get you, the camera will.” I think there were some other ones as well, but I didn’t feel like wasting any time to look or take a picture. Can we say paranoid? There was also a Confederate Flag flying in the yard. Someone needs to remind him the South lost the Civil War. I laughed to myself and moved on. Even after the steep part of this hill ended, it just seemed to grind on up for a while, but finally, I turned to the north and the ground leveled out and started to trend down a bit. Unfortunately, the gravel was rough through here, so I couldn’t take advantage of it as much as I would’ve liked. But when I made the turn to go back east to the bridge over the Niangua, the I got to enjoy a good 3 1/2 miles of downhill goodness. At this point, I also started to feel some raindrops. I don’t think I ever saw more than a 20% chance of rain advertized for the day, but there were some dark looking clouds in the area. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with any rain more than a drizzle. When I got back to the pit stop, I had Aaron pull up the weather on his phone. He was having problems getting a signal, but he convinced me the rain showing up yellow on the radar just to the north of us wouldn’t affect me. After I left and got to the top of the hill opposite the pit stop, I stopped and looked at the horizon. Knowing that I was heading east, which also was the direction of the darkest clouds, gave me a sense of relief. Maybe I wouldn’t get wet. The storm had passed us by after all. I continued back towards the church in Decaturville that was being used as Checkpoints 1 & 2 in pretty good spirits, especially as Mt. Horeb Road going east didn’t seem as bad as I’d remembered. Last year I thought there were several hills I had to walk on going east, but this year, there was only the big one and maybe one more. I stopped and checked in when I got to the checkpoint, guzzled a bottle of water, and headed off, knowing it was less than 10 miles to the next pit stop, and 3 of those were paved (2 at the beginning and 1 at the end). Those 10 miles were pretty uneventful. After a little climb leaving Decaturville, there was some glorious downhill to the end of the pavement, and then it seemed like most of the gravel was uphill, but it wasn’t anything super difficult. I pulled up with Keith, a rider who I’d met on a mountain bike ride the previous weekend, and we rode into the Pit Stop (mile 87) together at 1:50 PM. I was now an hour and 40 minutes up on my pace from 2013.
At this point, I was starting to get sore, and I was not looking forward to the next 20 miles, and especially 97-107. Those 10 miles were the 10 that almost broke me last year. It took me almost 3 hours to ride that segment last year and threw into serious doubt whether or not I’d be able to finish the race. It felt like I was at the pit stop for a long time, but it was just 20 minutes, during which Aaron was practically force feeding me, saying i wasn’t eating & drinking enough. He was probably somewhat right. I felt like I was drinking, but I wasn’t really eating in the saddle, mostly because I wasn’t feeling bad enough to stop and open any packs of my energy chews. After the race, Aaron commented on how he could see my mood change between the 3 pit stops, and how dark I looked here.As it turned out, the 20 miles I thought I’d hate weren’t quite as bad as anticipated. The first significant hill on the leg seemed tougher than I remembered, but while the climb up through Lake of the Ozarks SP was tough, it seemed easier than last year? The hills right after the 100 mile marker were also tough, but I made it through them, and I didn’t have to walk every hill on the dreaded road with the roller coaster hills that kept getting taller (I only walked half of them). I rolled into Checkpoint 3 at 4:11 PM, now 2:15 ahead of my pace from last year.
I was now just 47 miles from the finish line, the length of an average weekend ride for me. At this point I wasn’t worried at all about the midnight cutoff, I was wondering if I might finish by 9:00. I was in and out of the checkpoint in under 5 minutes, mostly because I wanted to keep ahead of a rider who was approaching me from behind.
However, here is where things started going south. The road I missed a turn on last year didn’t seem as fast as it was. There was a sketchy descent on the next road and a walking climb to follow. Then another climb. And another. And yet another one. There were like 4 or 5 climbs where I had to hop off the bike before I got back up to Highway U, which was the midpoint of this segment. My legs were starting to hurt, the wind kicked up and I was having to ride into it, the rider who was coming up on me passed me, and the gravel just didn’t seem to have many good lines through it. I thought things got easier on the other side of Hwy. U, but there were a couple walking climbs over there too. I finally rolled into Pit Stop 3 at 6:48 PM, the segment taking me 6 minutes longer than last year, even with missing a turn and riding a couple miles out of my way last time. Thankfully, I still had 2 hours in the bank compared to last year’s time.
But rolling into Pit Stop 3 (mile 127), I knew I only had 27 miles to go, which is almost a distance I could do without water. This is how I manage the last stages of a long ride – just put the distance left in the context of a ride by itself. 40-50 miles? That’s a Trailnet ride. 30 miles? A weekend ride with a buddy. 20 miles? An after work ride, and yes, sometimes I’ll go out without water for that length. Or bring water and not touch it. 10 miles? I could do that in my sleep! I had the turn onto Highway D (mile 148.6) marked in my head as much as the finish because even though there was 5 miles to go at that point, D was paved, the road after that was almost all downhill, then there was the doubletrack segment and the cyclocross climb up the embankment to Highway 242, and once I was there, it was all pavement to the finish (even though it’s mostly uphill). Those were cake miles. I just wanted to get to D, and that was less than 22 miles away. Aaron had bought a rotisserie chicken earlier in the day, and even though he had the nerve to eat all the dark meat, he let me pick at that while I was resting at the pit stop. At least all the yummy skin on the breasts was untouched.
Again, I limited my break to 20 minutes, and headed to the last stretch, still in the daylight. Last year, it’d been dark for an hour when I got to the pit stop, and I was riding with a little 35 lumen headlamp and trying to stay close to a couple other people with lights (with mixed results) until I could get my light there. The first couple miles were pretty easy, then there was a sketchy creek crossing about 3 miles in. The creek was probably 6″ deep or so and filled with soft gravel, so i dismounted to cross it, and for the first time of the day, my feet were wet. I had wicking socks on, so I wasn’t too worried. This section is supposed to be the easiest, but by 130 miles into the race, my whole body was getting tired and sore. Without the time crunch of last year, I was mostly just taking it easy, walking anything that was more than a bit uphill and coasting as much as possible. Between 8:00 and 8:30, the sunlight disappeared and I flipped my light on, holding out on that as long as possible. Last year, my light was indicating a low battery as I pulled into the finish line, and even though I was only going to be using it for about half the time of last year, I didn’t want to take any chances. There was probably as much traffic on this segment than anywhere else on the course, which made me a little nervous in the darkness, but thankfully, I didn’t have any issues with cars. One lady passing me after I crested a hill even rolled down her window and said she wanted to make sure I was going to get up the hill before she went around me. There were even a couple places along here where people seemed to be hanging out watching us go by and cheered me on as I passed. Both of those were pretty cool. The only bad thing is that my Garmin started giving me a low battery warning. My spirits dropped as I didn’t think I would make it back before it died, but the warning seemed to just stay on my screen for a long time. I kept the light mostly off to help prolong the life, and only flipped it on to occasionally check mileage. Finally, just before 9:30, I climbed up the hill to the Highway D pavement. I was back in town! I passed the city limits sign, turned onto Wood River and descended to Checkpoint 4, where the guy asked me if I knew where I was going. I told him I did, and headed down the doubletrack toward the embankment to get onto Highway 242. From there, I headed up the hill to the finish and crossed the line at 10:03, an improvement of nearly 2 hours from last year.
At the finish line, Gary handed me a specially wrapped mug so I wouldn’t drop it and break it, then I proceeded to have my picture taken for the OGRE wall of fame. And while Aaron missed me finishing yet again, he was at least inside Oz Cycles at the finish line. I joined him inside and refueled with some yummy barbeque. After a while I had to get out of my kit, so I had Aaron run me back to my car so I could go back to the house to clean up and get some rest.
While 2014 might be the last time for a while I do the OGRE, it’s not because of anything negative about the race, other than maybe the hills. Bonk Hard does a great job putting on their races: support is awesome, prizes are great if you’re in a position to podium in your division (I’m not), and they keep their checkpoints well stocked, along with having the awesome spread of food at the end of the ride. Given my current fitness, I’m pretty satisfied with my finishing time. Sure, maybe I could’ve run the last 50 miles a little faster, but is my slower performance there due to running the first 100 miles so much faster and burning all of my matches early, or just not having the time cutoffs staring me in the face to push me at the end? If I decide to start training for speed and think I could cut another hour or two off my time, maybe I’ll sign up again. But with my kids getting older, it might be a few years before I have that kind of time.