Steve Boyd and I traveled to Amarillo, Texas to represent the UCC/JW Floors mountain bike team at the 2019 Mountain Bike Marathon Nationals. This 350 rider event was held in Palo Duro Canyon.
The course consisted of a 4 mile prologue to sort out the field followed by two unique 20 mile laps. The course had one climb that was steep and technical with about a 300 foot elevation gain. The rest of the course was undulating with a combination of technical rocky sections sprinkled amongst mostly flowy singletrack. The week leading up to the race was quite rainy for the Amarillo area and Texas in general. My wife Suzy and I had our connecting flight from Houston cancelled due to severe thunderstorms and flooding and we had to drive 9 hours in a rental car to get to Amarillo in time. I made it just in time to attend the rider meeting, unpack my bike and get some sleep before the race Saturday morning.
By race day, the rain had cleared. But due to the rain the night before, it was announced that the start would be pushed back 2 hours to give the course time to dry out. There were long lines to get into the race venue and this caused the start to be moved back another 45 minutes.
Once at the race, I met up with Steve Boyd and his cousin Gordy, who lives near the canyon and helped build the trails we were about to race on. After a nice warmup (a recon of the prologue loop), it was time to line up. My group lined up with the 40+ women. The ladies crowed the start line making it impossible for any of those “called up” to the front to take their rightful place. The old guys filled in behind, grumbling a bit like old guys sometimes do.
The course started with a flat paved road section and the ladies pulled our coed peloton. Content to wait for the short road climb, I sat in the group. When we hit the paved road climb I quickly went to 2nd wheel and several of the other 60+ guys jumped to the front, vying for position before the single track began. I slotted into third as we entered the single track. I wanted to be in second so I had a wheel to follow but not be at risk of getting blocked in the tight sections that I knew followed. Mark Kuithe (Dallas rider) was leading with Paul Curley (Boston rider and 30 time (!!) national champion of various disciplines) in second. About 5 minutes into the prologue singletrack, Paul struck his pedal on a stump and flipped his bike spectacularly. Just like that I was in the 2nd position I desired. John Lauck (Utah rider who finished 2nd at True Grit in March) was behind me in 3rd.
We completed the prologue loop and headed into lap 1 with the top 3 riding wheel-to-wheel in twisty narrow single track. After a few minutes I noticed Mark was a bit tentative on the technical portions of the trail so I politely asked “do you mind if I take the lead for a bit”? He was quick to oblige. As I went past I heard him breathing quite heavily. I heard later that my choice of words gave the other guys in the front group the impression that I was not pushing very hard, which was not the case at all. I was actually 10 BPM over my target heartrate. However I managed to move away slowly and gap the others. Within minutes I had lost track of them due to the twisting nature of the course with lots of vegetation to limit the view. At this point I slowly backed down the effort to get my heartrate to “target” as I held about a 1 minute lead. It was encouraging to pick off rider after rider from the earlier groups (55-59, 50-54, and 35+).
After about one and a half hours of racing, I ran out of water with about 5 miles left in the lap. I was concerned that this might catch up to me in the form of leg cramps later. It was at this time that I saw teammate Steve Boyd up the trail and was motivated to catch him and have a friendly to pace with. But Steve had an issue that required he stop momentarily on the side of the trail. Too much pre-race hydration perhaps. I went by him with a quick shout out.
At the end of the lap I stopped briefly to replace my two water bottles and headed into the final 20 mile lap. This was a more technical lap and the challenge took my mind off my slowly rising fatigue level. I continued to work past riders from the other age categories at a steady cadence. At one point I began to work with a younger rider. This only lasted about 10 minutes before he faded back however. Again I noticed that I did not have enough water to finish the race and made a plan to stop at the neutral aide station to fill up one of my bottles.
It was at this time that I heard Steve Boyd behind me. Shouting, he informed me that the second place rider of my category was with him! “His name is Paul and he’s a nice guy” Steve announced. This was the guy who flipped his bike on the prologue loop….the 30 time national champion. “Oh boy, game on”, I thought. So much for cruising into the finish. And so much for the luxury of stopping for more water. I had the ability to increase my pace, which I did immediately. But I was now very concerned about cramping. We were over 3 hours into the race and there was about 6 miles to go. I could foresee a sprint finish as a real possibility.
Paul passed teammate Steve and got onto my wheel. Several times he got so close that he bumped my rear wheel with his front wheel. Paul was riding aggressively and definitely not like someone who was tiring. He jumped in front of me on a short trail bypass section that I did not even see, but the main trail brought me back to his rear wheel. I was content to ride his wheel for a while and see the pace he set. It was a pace I could sustain, but knowing that he had already crashed once in front of me, I decided to go back to the front. Past the neutral aide station we went; without stopping. I had about two swallows of water left.
Locked together, Paul and I clicked off the miles to the finish. I stayed in front and Paul stayed on my wheel. I contemplated trying to ride him off my wheel, but each time I started to accelerate hard, I could feel the twinges in my legs. So I resigned myself to a sprint finish. As we entered the finishing area, there was a 50 yard uphill on asphalt, a sweeping left turn, and a 100 yard flat straight section to the line. I needed to guard the inside. When we entered the finishing area, the cramps came on. Distracted by the cramps I didn’t stay tightly to the left as I wanted to. Paul powered by me on the inside and easily accelerated away to a 0.9 second margin at the line. We finished 1st and 2nd with a 9 minute margin on 3rd (John Lauck) and 4th (Mark Kuithe).
Came very close to my goal, but no stars and stripes jersey for me. Paul Curley now has 31 national titles.
Steve Boyd finished in 9th place in the large 50-54 men category.