Thanks to Arkansas Outside friend Jo Spencer for this great story of the Ouachita Challenge Tour.
Humbling. That’s the best one word description I can think of when describing the Ouachita Challenge. I am not much of a mountain biker; I ride on the road mainly and focus on triathlons as my race of choice with the Ironman distance being my favorite. I mention that because after about 20 miles into the OC I found myself wishing I was doing an Ironman at that point instead of the OC. In fact I was pretty sure that I’d rather be doing a double-Ironman. That’s how difficult the OC was to me!
I have wanted to do this ride for years considering its pure epic-ness. I have supported my brother a couple of times in the past. He’s a “real mountain biker” as they say, and has finished in the top 5 in the race on more than one occasion. I had no delusions of racing this course so signed up for the Tour and figured that I would be able to pull off a sub 7 hour ride.
The ride started out fine. I went out at a reasonable pace and enjoyed the gravel roads for the first several miles. No worries! Once the course turned off onto the Ouachita Trail I realized it may have been a good idea to be riding some single track this past month or so! Those skills get rusty in a hurry, and I felt like I was walking my bike more than I was riding it for parts of this section. As I was walking my bike, I kept thinking of the advice that fellow Spokes team member Chris Randle gave me back in December, “The best way to train for the OC, is to ride the OC”. I was really wishing I had taken that advice!
After helping a friend with a couple of mechanicals on this first stretch of the single track portion and walking my bike a lot through various technical and steep rocky spots (as well as almost doing an endo over the handlebars), I finally arrived at the first aid station at Big Brushy. Here I was welcomed by several of my team members who were working the Spokes aid station. This was two hours after the start. I recall reading in the race information that “the fastest riders will arrive at this spot after one hour” and knew I was in for a very long day! Looking at Chris Randle, who was working support and racing Sunday, I asked “The hardest part is behind me, right?” he answered with silence and a look of pity.
After a little more single track, I was happy to get out on the open road for a while and seemed to make up some time after that. When I arrived at the Hwy 298 aid station, roughly 30 miles into the Tour course, I was very hot as the temperature had climbed well into the 80s. I was also very, very tired. Prior to this day, I had very much looked forward to finally riding the Womble trail, but I was so exhausted at this point, I had a hard time mustering up any enthusiasm for the section called “Mauldin Mountain”. As I was climbing, I realized I really needed to be in granny gear and shifted down with too much tension in my chain. The chain came off and got caught between the chainring and the frame and caused my bike to stop suddenly. I went flying into my handlebars. Ouch! Less than a mile later, my chain came off again. At this point anger, frustration and disappointment took over as I picked up my bike and threw it into the woods where it landed in a nice patch of poison ivy. I did manage get a laugh from some people struggling up the same hill who happened to witness my trail rage.
After what seemed an eternity, I finally popped out of the woods and saw an aid tent. A fellow Team Spokes member, James Gaston, happened to be there finishing up a short ride in preparation for racing on Sunday. He looked at me, could tell I was not doing so great and asked if everything was ok. I immediately burst into tears, telling him, “no, I wasn’t okay” and that I was not going to be able to do this. After a pep talk and mixing me what I now dub as the ‘magic potion’ (an electrolyte mix that he had in his truck) he sent me on and told me he would meet me at the next spot that I came out of the woods. The magic potion started kicking in and I started feeling a whole lot better. The next time James saw me, I had a smile on my face and was ready to finish the Tour with a little bit of grace which I could not have done without his support. At about mile 50 into the ride, there is one last long, steep climb on a gravel road. I had recovered enough at that point to be able to ride up the road without pushing my bike which I saw everyone around me doing at that point. Once on the top of this hill, you are home free with about 6 or 7 miles of roads going mostly downhill back to the finish line. Getting across that finish line in 7 hours and 59 minutes was indeed a sweet moment!
Epic is certainly what the OC is all about. It was a day of epic trails and epic emotions and will most certainly push you to your physical and mental limits. I have a new respect for endurance mountain bikers and how physically and mentally demanding their sport is. Not one to give up easily, on Saturday when I came across that finish line my verdict was I would NEVER attempt that again. But Sunday afternoon while helping support and watching some of those guys suffer through it, I realized that I couldn’t lie down and let it beat me. I will be back, better prepared, to take it on again and get that 6 hour and something ride.