DNF – 3 letters no racer ever wants to see next to his name, but this day at Grand Targhee would be my first.
100 miles on a mountain bike is never easy. But at 10,000 feet, it’s simply unforgiving.
In a place where I’ve had so many glorious days snowboarding in some of the best powder on Earth, I was beaten into submission. I don’t know if it was the elevation, dry air, 5,000 feet of climbing per lap, or no sleep the night before. It was most likely the combination that sucked all my energy and dragged me down.
The event did not start well. To maximize sleep and avoid waking the family at 4:00 am for the drive from Jackson Hole, I had my wife, Laura, drop me at the race start in Targhee the day before. After a short pre-ride of the first climb and dinner with teammate Jessica, I went to bed at 9:00pm but tossed and turned all night. It’s an awful feeling knowing that you have to be at your best physically and mentally but can’t get the critical rest needed.
The gun went off at 6:30am for the first of three laps of the 100, and I felt pretty good as we made our way up the reasonable fire road climb. Temps were around 45 degrees, but the dry air and slow climb were a comfortable combination. About 2/3 of the way up, we entered a series of dusty singletrack switchbacks through a sparse aspen forest for the push over the top of Peaked Mountain. Then the fun began as we started an eight-mile descent, first on 38 Special, which was a series of 40+ (!) switchbacks, some with berms but most just dry powder. It took some trial and error to learn how to drift my rear tire through the powder, but I started to get the hang of it after 20 or so turns. We then continued down a super fast, smooth, flowy singletrack, probably the most fun descent I have ever ridden. At one point, the trail turned south out of the forest, and I almost rode off the trail when I saw the view of the sun rising over the Grand Teton.
The descent dumped out onto the paved road that leads to the resort, which we climbed about halfway up before turning left into another very fast double-track descent to Pierre’s Hole, a low-lying area once abundant with beaver (hence the trapper term ‘hole’). At the bottom, the route crossed through a ranch before climbing back out via a two-mile, steep, old fire road that averaged about 8% and pitched to well over 10% in a couple sections, forcing many to walk. This was the type of climb that makes it impossible to stick with the goal of keeping my heart rate below 80%, but I did my best to be smooth and efficient.
The climb dumped out onto the same road that we had climbed earlier, then continued up another mile or so to the Grand Targhee resort area, then ducked back into the woods for some nice singletrack. It then circled back to the resort before heading to an open valley on the north side of the mountain. Although beautiful to look at with wildflowers for as far as I could see, this section was a bit maddening because it rolled and twisted back on itself, making it seem as if I kept riding the same trail over and over.
After about 3.5 hours, I completed the first lap with the welcoming smiles and cheers of Laura, my mom, and my girls. I stopped to restock on water and food, then started lap two. At that point, I was feeling good and optimistic about finishing with a good time, possibly under the 10.5 hour cutoff for the PH buckle. But rather than the relatively easy fire road climb that we did at the race start, this lap immediately dropped into singletrack and meandered up the north side of the mountain. For those who have visited Grand Targhee in the winter, this area is tree and powder heaven, with some in-bounds the resort used for the famous Targhee snow cat tours. Thoughts of the powder runs I had done six months ago took my mind off of the relentless climb, but it was long and slow.
The course rejoined the lap-one route on the same dusty singletrack switchbacks. When I reached the top, I was feeling the effects of the long climb with the energy level low and my stomach starting to hurt, but I tried to focus on eating and drinking as I headed down the descent. By the time I started the climb back out, I was feeling the effects of the dry air and high altitude. I pedaled steady up the road, dropped down the super fast descent to Pierre’s Hole, then dug deep to stay on the bike on the climb back toward the resort. My biggest concern at that point was my stomach, which was hurting, making it hard to keep up the food intake and sapping my energy.
After such a hard climb and feeling weak, I debated cutting the lap short as I rode passed the resort base area, but decided to continue to the valley loop and see how I felt after completing lap two. The winding, rolling valley singletrack sucked all my energy and will to do a 3rd lap, and the feeling in my stomach turned from discomfort to pain by the time I started the descent through the aspens to the start/finish.
I’d never quit a race before, but I didn’t think my body could do another tough four hours. My family cheered as I came down the hill, then the mood changed when I told them I was done. The hardest part about making the decision was seeing the look in my daughters’ eyes. Explaining the situation helped a little, but it was still tough to not finish. In hindsight, it was a good decision. I enjoyed most of the 60+ miles of riding at one of my favorite spots in the world, and I now have the motivation to go back and finish the race.