I entered the Fool's Gold 100 as an afterthought. My original plan for the season was to compete in four NUE Series events, the Cohutta, the Mohican, the Breck 100 and the Shenandoah 100, thus qualifying for the NUE Series overall competition. But after decent results in the first two races and a 4th place single speed finish at Breckenridge, I decided it would be worthwhile to travel to the mountains of North Georgia to try to improve my position in the overall NUE standings. After figuring out the logistics of the trip, I committed to my fifth 100 miler of the year just two weeks before race day.
I knew the race would be a challenge. A week before the race, I'd be wrapping up the Pennsylvania Perimeter Ride Against Cancer (PPRAC), a six day, 540 mile ride from Burlington, Vermont to upstate Pennsylvania. Pushing a 42x17 through the Adirondacks and Catskills would surely take its toll on my legs. And with little vacation time to spare, I'd have to fly to Charlotte on Thursday night to catch a ride to Georgia the following morning, a travel schedule that would limit my rest time in the run up to the race. But the event itself posed the greatest challenge. Racing 100 miles in the hot Georgia sun promised a long day in the saddle, as did the Fool's Gold course, which may offer the most climbing of any of the NUE Series races.
The Fool's Gold course features two tours of a 50 mile loop with roughly 7,500' of climbing each lap. The start is a sprint across a grassy field, at which point you leave level ground for the next 49 and 3/4 miles or so. From there, the course points up a gravel road for a steady five miles. Once the climb tops out, the road briefly descends before the gravel road climbing continues, bringing you to one of the high points of the course at mile 11. The remainder of the loop is constant up down up down on a nice mix of gravel roads, dual track and trail. There are no insanely brutal sections, but there are enough challenges to keep the hurt coming mile after mile.
The trip to race venue wasn't without a few snags, starting with a three hour delay at the PHL airport on Thursday night and cumulating with a detour through the scenic north Georgia mountains on Friday afternoon. But Dicky proved to be a capable traveling partner, and we arrived at Camp W. no worse for wear. We settled into a camping spot I dubbed Camp Fish Stink (named for a mystery smell that would occasionally waft through the air), and after the typical pre-race routine of beer, bikes and bullshitting, we called it an evening.
I woke up on race day feeling good but not great. My biggest concern was a sore throat that had been lingering since day 3 of the PPRAC, most likely a symptom of the low grade cold I had been keeping at bay for the previous week an a half. But my legs felt reasonably good and I was excited about the prospect of riding some great trail through the mountains of Georgia. Perhaps I wasn't at 100%, but ninety percent will typically get you a decent result. I went with that mindset as I rolled up to the starting line.
The Fool's Gold draws a smaller field than most of the other NUE Series races, but there is no shortage competition. The single speed field consisted of many of the usual NUE Series suspects, with Gerry Pflug, Roger Masse, Gunnar, and Jason Morgan among the familiar faces at the starting line. There were plenty of other fast guys in the mix, both on single speeds and geared bikes, so it was no surprise that the race started reasonably fast despite five miles of climbing right from the gun.
At the top of the first climb, I was somewhere around twentieth overall, but could only manage to stay with the chase group of single speeders, four or five guys fighting it out for the 5th position in the single speed field. I decided I'd linger at the back of this group until the first section of singletrack, counting on my strength as a trail rider to move up in the field. But bad luck hit hard in the rollers between the first summit and the end of the climbing at the first checkpoint. One of my water bottle cages had rattled loose on one of the short, steep descents, and after I stopped to fix it, I found myself in no man's land.
I took up chase and managed to pick off two single speeders by the end of the Bull Mountain loop at checkpoint 3. I was starting to make my way back through the single speed field, but I knew I had my work cut out for me. My mind wandered back to my original reservations about the race. A compromised immune system coupled with 540 miles of single speed road riding the previous week had the potential to make the last few hours of the race absolutely miserable. There was still plenty of distance to cover, but there was also plenty of time for me blow to pieces. I decided on steady but conservative tempo, still holding out hope of making my way into the top five.
I finished the first lap in just under 4 hours and 30 minutes, a minute or so behind Dicky. As I started the climb out of the start/finish area, I knew the next five miles would be the make or break point of the race. If I could catch Dicky, there was the potential of working together to bridge up to the top five single speeders. But after the first half hour of climbing, it was looking more like break than make. Dicky was nowhere in sight and I just wasn't feeling it. The chase and catch game would have to wait.
By the second lap around Bull Mountian, I had picked up the pace considerably and even managed to catch another single speeder, moving into 7th place in the single speed field. But unfortunately, I didn't have the confidence that I'd be able to execute one of my usual late race accelerations. It was time to re-think my strategy, and I decided to go on defense for the last 25 miles of the race.
From checkpoint 3 to the finish, I rode alone at a slower, but steady pace. As the lonely miles ticked away, I'd started to ponder all the crazy looking mushrooms that populate the north Georgia mountains, wondering which ones would make good stir fry, which ones would make you see things, and which ones would straight up kill you. Butterflies would briefly keep me company then quickly disappear. It was nice to have the woods to myself and I was grooving on my surroundings. I resigned myself to 7th place and continued to take it all in, eventually crossing the finish line in 9 hours and 38 minutes.
It was a good day on the bike even though I had fell short of my pre-race goals. But there are also bigger picture considerations. Over the past month, I have ridden and raced in one incredibly beautiful place after another, logging hundreds of on and off-road miles with the mountains and the sea and even the good 'ol rolling hills and woods of eastern Pennsylvania as my backdrop. It's been one of my better runs in the past fifteen years of bike riding and racing. Adding Fool's Gold to this run was an accomplishment in itself. The race was gamble since I was uncertain how my body would respond after weeks of hard riding, and given my history of running myself into the ground with physical challenges, I could have very easily shattered into a million pieces out on the race course. But I crossed the finish line in reasonable good shape. Finishing was another step in the continual process of redefining my boundaries as an endurance racer.
I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Eddie and Namrita O'Dea for their efforts in putting on great event, an acknowledgment that extends to all the race volunteers and sponsors. And Dicky also deserves a thank you for all the logistical support he provided in getting me to the starting line, even though he forgot the camp chairs. Thanks man! Finally photo credit goes to Mark Duffus. You can check out his gallery of race pictures here.