(Editor’s Note: AO Contributor, Cliff Li, raced in the 2013 Syllamo’s Revenge and shares the experience with anyone planning out their race this weekend.)
I couldn’t believe it, I had actually finished the Syllamo’s Revenge 50 mile marathon mountain bike race. That made it 3 for 3 for the marathon mountain bike races I had committed myself to training for and racing in for the year 2013. First, there was the Spa City 6-hour race, then the nationally renown Ouachita Challenge (the OC), and now Syllamo’s Revenge, which took place on the IMBA Epic Syllamo mountain bike trails just outside Mountain View, AR.
Funny enough, this was the only race this year that I never felt nervous or got all anxious and jittery about. I didn’t get the classic case of “butterflies” in the week prior, nor the day before, nor at the start of the race. Maybe it was because I had ridden the last half of the race last year when I rode sweep. Maybe it was because I thought the OC was the harder of the two races, and finishing the OC gave me the confidence that I could finish Syllamo as well. Maybe I just truly didn’t understand the magnitude of the difficulty which I was about to tackle. Sometimes, ignorance really is a blessing in disguise.
In the first two races of the marathon series this year, I had learned a couple of valuable lessons that I swore I would take to heart for this race. I had made some crucial mistakes that had bit me in the ass that I vowed I would not make again. First of all, salt is your best friend. During the Spa City 6-hour race, not only did my legs cramp, they cramped BADLY multiple times. I took a little bit of salt during that race, but it obviously wasn’t enough. The temperature and humidity for Syllamo’s Revenge was going to be a lot worse than it was for the Spa City race, and cramping could be a major factor. I ingested sodium like it was going out of style. The day before, I had sodium ladened meals. The night before, I took several salt tablets before going to bed. First thing I did when I woke up was take a couple of a salt tablets. I took more at the start. I took them at every aid station I stopped at. And guess what? No cramps. Not even a single twinge. GG Cliff – at least I did THAT right.
Second, I started off the OC at much too fast of a pace trying to keep up with riders who were much faster than I was. That resulted in me nearly blowing up on the initial climb, getting passed by just about everyone in the race, and then struggling by myself for a good part of the 8 1/2 hours I was out there. Had I taken it a bit more easy, I probably would have spent a good part of the day riding with teammates (who ended up only about 10-15 minutes ahead of me the entire day) and had a much more enjoyable experience. I swore that I wouldn’t do that again at Syllamo (which starts with a long, nearly 1 mile climb at 10-15% grades) and that I would spin easy up that hill and pace myself better for the entire race. Goal #2 accomplished. GG Cliff again! As a result, I felt pretty strong all day and never felt like I was suffering as badly as I was during Spa City and the OC.
Syllamo’s Revenge is an IMBA “Epic” designated ride on the Syllamo mountain bike trails in the Ozark National Forest just north of Mountain View, AR, in the vicinity of Blanchard Springs Caverns. There was a 50-mile race as well as a 125k race that was part of the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) Series. I was perfectly content to race the 50-miler, which would prove to be plenty challenging. While not as popular as the OC, registration still sold out within the first day, and the NUE race brought riders in from all over the US. The Syllamo trails are almost completely singletrack with many technical sections, several long climbs, and many fast descents. The race would require the utmost concentration and focus, and a lapse in either of these could result in a possible crash or bike damage. The Syllamo race was well known for chewing up and spitting out the hardiest of bikes, parts, and tires.
There were not as many of my fellow Spokes teammates that were going to do this race, but I was still committed. David, one of my teammates asked if I wanted to drive up with him and share a room the night before the race in Mountain View and I gladly welcomed the opportunity. Since the race started at 7:30am (the race directors actually moved the start time a 1/2 hour early because of the heat/humidity forecast), going up the day before seemed like a wise choice. Because we decided on our plans fairly late, David had warned me that the only room he could find for us was at a “romantic” bed & breakfast in downtown Mountain View. I didn’t care. I was good as long as we had a bed and a bathroom. However, when I saw the room we would be staying in (Violet’s Arbor), I nearly changed my mind. Romantic doesn’t begin to describe it. Frilly, and victorian, and all things feminine would be a more apt description. At least with the lights out you couldn’t see all the flowery wallpaper, girly pillows, and lacey doilies.
We arrived in Mountain View in the late afternoon on Friday, and immediately ran into friends from back home. It still kills me that we can drive hundreds of miles only to see and hang out with the same friends from Central Arkansas. David & I picked up our race packets, checked into the B&B, and then were joined by our great friends Joe & Lisa from ArkansasOutside.com for dinner at Tommy’s Famous A Pizzeria. I must say, the innkeeper at the B&B seemed surprised that we were okay with the single queen bed in our room. He made sure we understood that there was only one bed. When David said, “yeah, we know, we’ll make do,” I detected a somewhat puzzled (or was it a knowing raise of the eyebrow?) look. We took great joy in sharing that story with Lisa and seeing her reaction. When it was all said and done, what happened in Mountain View, stays in Mountain View.
I ordered a sausage and pepper calzone which turned out to be as big as my head! It was delicious and I can’t believe I ate the whole thing. Tommy, the owner, kept coming by and making sure we were enjoying ourselves. After dinner, Joe and Lisa left to go camp with some other friends of theirs, so David & I took the time to wander around the small town, listening to the live folk music. There was literally a band playing on every corner. What was unusual to us, was that even though both of us are in our early 40s, we were probably some of the youngest in the crowd that had showed up to listen to the music. We made our way back to our B&B, availed ourselves to the rocking chairs on the front porch, and talked well into the night. David had been fighting a stomach bug all week and hadn’t even decided if he was going to race until late Thursday. I admired his perseverance and fortitude to do a marathon race even if he had been sick.
Race morning – cloudy and somewhat humid. If it were to stay overcast all day, you wouldn’t have gotten a single complaint from me. We made it to the start at the Blanchard Springs Campground with plenty of time to park, get ready, and warm up. As part of my warm up, I rode up the first section of the dirt climb we would be tackling in just a short bit. Yeah, this was going to suck, but I was going to stick with my plan, dammit! We saw the 125k riders go off and then soon it was our turn. I lined up somewhere in the back, well within eyeshot of my teammates this time.
Only now did I start to get a bit nervous, which was highly uncharacteristic. I didn’t have much time to be nervous because after a few instructions and announcements, we were off! We rode a short paved section, and then hit the climb. The group split into two halves, availing itself of the doubletrack. I put it on an easy gear and spun my way up the climb, keeping my heart rate and breathing controlled. I saw David about 3 or 4 cyclists up ahead of me, and was content to stay where I was. The climb seemed endless. Every time we went around the corner, all I could see was a line of riders extending up, up, up. But staying patient and keeping an easy pace worked. After nearly a mile, we turned right onto the Yellow Trail (Jack’s Branch) and finally entered the singletrack.
My legs, lungs, and heart were glad to get a reprieve. While I felt pretty good having taken it relatively easy on the climb, the problem was that I was now at the back of the pack, and it would take some time before the crowd thinned. We were definitely riding slow (much slower than I would have gone), and it seemed like everyone was dismounting and walking whenever we encountered the least bit of technical section. It didn’t help that the rocks littering this portion of the trail were wet from either rain or condensation, and they were super super slick. I mean, slick enough that walking on them in bike shoes was like skating, and my bike kept wanting to slide enough even pushing it across the rocks. Attempting to ride over these rocks was a crash sentence, one that could easily result in a broken bike or broken body.
Like the OC, I rode when I could, passed when I could, and walked/pushed when I couldn’t. Parts of the trail were technical, some of it was fun, some of it was difficult, there was a bit of everything mixed in. Eventually, I finally caught up to my teammate David, and I rode with him for several miles. I remarked that the variety in the terrain reminded me a lot of Allsopp Park back in Little Rock. He said it reminded him more of the trails at Eureka Springs. In any case, I was glad to have gotten in plenty of practice at both. I would say I rode more than I walked but there was quite a bit of walking. It just wasn’t worth the risk of injury or a mechanical.
Many people simply got a DNF because of mechanicals or flats – it seemed like there wasn’t hardly any part of the race when you weren’t passing someone camped out on the side of the trail changing out a flat tire.
After riding with David for a while, I felt a bit stronger than the pace we were going so I went on ahead. Poor guy was still getting over an intestinal bug, so him being a bit slower than me was uncharacteristic. I wished him well and struck out on my own. At some point, I passed my friend James “Power Ranger” Gaston on the side changing out a tube. “Power Ranger down!” I yelled as I rode by. He told me to keep going because he was going to come after me. I had no doubt about that. He caught up to me not too long after, and we got to ride with each for a bit before he rode off the front while the rest of us were walking a slightly technical section.
We eventually turned onto the Blue Trail (Scrappy Mtn Loop) which was more of the same, but probably more technical than not. One of my teammates had told me that when he had pre-ridden this part of the blue trail the day before, he had crashed five times in a short amount of time. I never really encountered anything that was super sketchy, but then again, we did walk when the rocks were wet, so I probably avoided the really nasty stuff that my teammate crashed on.
I made it to CP1 and seemed like I was making good time. I still felt good and felt confident I could make the cutoff times without any problems. I refilled my bottles, took the opportunity to get some nutrition, and downed a small handful of salt tablets. From here, we would ride on the green trail (White River Bluff Loop), the orange trail (Bald Scrappy Loop), and join back up with the blue trail to reach CP2. I had heard that the green trail had some very scenic overlooks of the White River so I was sort of looking forward to that. I remember riding some fun downhill sections before reaching the overlook, but as you know, what goes down must come up. I stopped briefly at the scenic overlook which was very cool – some other racers were getting their phones out to take a photo but I decided to keep moving.
Just before reaching CP2, there was a nice creek crossing, and I actually stopped and splashed water all over myself before riding across to cool myself down. I got to CP2 and restocked on everything once again. Now we were to the part of the course I had ridden the previous year when I rode sweep so it was somewhat familiar in my mind. The next 5 miles or so was going to be tough. It was a pretty constant climb with some very technical rock ledges thrown in from time to time. I was telling some of the other riders who were unfamiliar with the trail that this was probably the most difficult part of the race. That it goes up, and just when you think you’re at the top, it goes up some more, and when you think you’re done, you keep going up. I rode the first half by myself, but eventually caught up to a group which I finished the climb with.
The last couple of miles was on some doubletrack/ATV trails so me and one other guy who felt a bit stronger than the rest sort of took off. I was ready for the climb to be done and I knew we were close to the top so I went a bit harder to get it over with. That would turn out to be somewhat of a mistake on our part. Once you get to the top, you’re pretty much rewarded instantly with a nice downhill section. We were glad to be done climbing so we blasted down the other side, with no one close behind. We came to a T-junction and I saw flagging on the left side (without even really looking right) so we kept going that way. We rode probably another mile or so until we encountered 125k riders coming the opposite direction. They assured us we were going the wrong way. Oh crap. It meant we had missed a turn somewhere, probably back up at the T-intersection that I didn’t remember taking.
The other guy seemed very down and told me to go ahead and he would catch up. I did NOT look forward to riding back UP the downhill we had just ridden. My morale took a hit too but nothing to do but go back the way we came. I eventually ran into another lady coming from a taped off portion of the trail and she told me she was lost too. I then remembered I had a printed map of the course and after looking at it, we figured out where we went wrong. The worst part about going off-course is the time lost and extra energy expended to get back on course. I figured at worst, I probably lost about 25 minutes, which was discouraging, but it happens. As I rode along, I felt like if I had stuck with the group instead of leaving them behind, I wouldn’t have missed the turn, and although I would have been a bit slower, I wouldn’t have lost 25 minutes of time. To be fair, that intersection wasn’t marked very well since there was flagging on both sides.
I heard later that there were people who had missed a turn and ended up at the finish area well before they were supposed to, and they had to re-ride up that 1-mile hill we started on to get back on course. Geez. If I had done that, I might have taken a DNF myself.
Anyway, back on course, my confidence took a hit so I rode the next section to CP3 at a slower pace than I wanted. My confidence and enthusiasm was shaken, and I was now just content to finish. I knew that the hardest part was behind me, but I still had some work to be done. The last loop on the red trail (Bad Branch Loop) was pretty flowy and fast, but it was still 15 miles of singletrack. I stopped briefly at CP3 to top off my bottles and got back on the bike. Unless something MAJOR happened, I was happy that I was going to finish the tough, grueling race.
I had hoped the trail karma I had gained during the race was going to help me finish strong. I had stopped to give aid (in the form of salt tablets) to a fellow rider when he was cramping early on. I had stopped to lend a tire lever to a guy who was changing out a tube and broken his levers. I had given away one of the tubes I had to a friend from LR who had flatted and had run out of tubes. But it was not meant to be. About halfway through the red trail, my luck and karma ran out.
I noticed that my rear tire was feeling really loose on some of the turns, and then it felt like it was bottoming out when I rode over roots. I stopped and gave it a squeeze. Yep, definitely very squishy and low on air pressure. I inspected the tire and found that sealant had been leaking out on part of the rim. My thought was that I had ‘burped’ the tire (meaning that the seal between the tire and rim had been compromised) and I was loosing air that way. I got out my pump and pumped it up as much as I could, and I could definitely see air escaping. I picked my bike up and tilted it in a way that the sealant could try and seal the breach. I probably looked pretty silly holding my bike up at weird angle over my head and shaking it back & forth. I pumped it up as best I could and it seemed like it was holding air so I got back to riding.
I had only gone another half mile or so when it felt low again. I decided to use one of my CO2 cartridges to get enough air in it until I returned to CP3. I figured if I could do that, I could get a real pump and get it to the air pressure I wanted. Using the CO2 got it pretty firm (That’s what she said) and I was pretty sure I only had a few more miles to go so it was good enough for me. But low and behold, not too much longer and it was low again. But it never lost air completely which was baffling. I continued to weigh the decision whether I should just keep riding or whether I should take extra time to put a tube in. I knew I didn’t have much more to go, but I was definitely going slower than I would have with a properly inflated tire.
After what seemed like ages, I made it back to the aid station and borrowed a floor pump to add air back in. Instead of the 2 miles I had ridden on a low tire, it was probably more like 4, and I still had another 3 miles to the finish, but was almost all downhill. It seemed like it was holding air once again so I took off – that lasted all of a 1/2 a mile but I was damned now if I was going to put a tube in. As long as it still had air, I was going to finish. After about 2 miles of singletrack, I made it back to the road we climbed up at the start, only now I could bomb down. I bombed down as fast as I was willing to go with a nearly flat back tire, and crossed the finish line with a big smile. I had done it. 3 for 3. I was greeted by several friends who were still there and I relished my accomplishment. My final time was 8 hrs and 11 minutes, but I had misread my Garmin time thinking I had done it in 6 hrs and 11 minutes. I sort of jumped the gun on that one, reporting it to Facebook to the shock and astonishment of my friends. I had to issue a retraction/correction later. But truth be told, I was so glad to have finished that I didn’t pay any attention to what the official time was.
I felt like I rode a strong race, and that I raced as hard and as fast as I could have, and I felt fortunate to get an official finish while so many others didn’t. Even with all the walking, I enjoyed it more than the OC. I definitely felt better after Syllamo’s Revenge than I did with the OC.
While very satisfied with my accomplishments so far this year, I’m glad for the end of the marathon MTB season and now I can focus on the much shorter XC races. I plan to be back next year either for the OC and/or Syllamo, this time to try and get a couple of PRs!