Shenandoah 100k…or not?

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The 2021 Shenandoah 100k was the highlight of last year’s race season for me. It was not my best result (though it was perhaps my best performance–ironic how those two things are not always directly correlated), but something about those national forest trails and Stokesville vibes just make the race a really great event.

Despite coming off of an injury during offseason this year, I have been very pleased with my racing this season, and was excited to test it out on “home” trails over Labor Day weekend at the 24th Annual Shenandoah 100k. (The trails are not truly my home trails, and I’ve not actually made it up to the Stokesville area to ride at all this summer, but the George Washington National Forest trails have a very similar flavor to the trails in the Thomas Jefferson National Forest surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Blue Ridge/Arcadia area closer to Roanoke). Then the unexpected happened.

Due to a myriad of factors, the Shenandoah 100k was canceled.

Less than a week before the race, racers received an e-mail notifying us that the course had been changed to avoid any state/county roads due to complaints from local residents regarding bicycles on the roads. Two days before the event, a second e-mail came: the show would not go on.

The sudden news left many of us stunned, disappointed, angry even… and pivoting.

Many in the Roanoke area cycling community had spent the entire summer training for this one, single event. It was to be a test of their endurance, skill, and willpower. Others, like myself, were looking forward to not just testing ourselves, but to the competition and pain of racing. Riders from elsewhere had already booked hotels, AirBnb’s, or had already begun the journey from other parts of the country to arrive for the race.

In short, it was a cluster.

What to do?

The race director / campground host left it open for people to come and ride at Stokesville in a non-organized, unofficial way. Some chose to do that.

As for me, I wanted to push myself.

I also didn’t want to potentially aggravate the residents of August County even more by riding after the cancellation of the race. Between that and the additional four hours round-trip of driving required to get to Stokesville, I opted to ride closer to home.

The night of the cancellation, I logged on to RidewithGPS and began plotting a route.

I wanted to replicate the challenge of the SM100k race on my local trails. I also knew that without the organization of a race, I would need to either stash water or loop back past my car as a sort of self-supplied aid station.

After a few iterations, I arrived at the “Shen-Arcadia 100k,” a 69-mile route with over 9,500 feet of elevation in the Arcadia area of Jefferson National Forest.

ShenArcadia 100k

Not wanting to organize an event, but also not wanting to ride entirely solo for nearly 70 miles, I shared the route with friends near and far who had been planning to ride the Shenandoah 100k.

When Saturday morning, race day, rolled around, one lone, brave soul joined me.

Adam Fajardo had been planning to race the Shenandoah 100-MILE event as his first 100-mile mountain bike race. He, like myself, wanted to do something epic with the weekend, and he was willing to join me in Arcadia.

We started up North Creek Road at about 7:30 a.m., and had gone less than a mile when I stopped because my rear brake was rubbing obnoxiously. After resetting my caliper position, attempting to ride, then starting again, I finally noticed that I had a VERY loose brake rotor bolt. With that fixed, we continued up the first climb of the day to reach the Pine descent. When we got to the ridge, I was a bit surprised to realize that in the month since I had last ridden it, Pine Ridge had gotten quite overgrown. This should have been a warning of what was to come, but it was early in the ride and I was still feeling positive about the day’s adventure.

We ripped down Pine, paused by the cars to refill bottles and grab hydration packs before the second, much longer loop, and set off again. The second loop climbs further up Parker’s Gap Road before descending towards Cave Mountain Lake on what might be one of the most stunning gravel roads in the area. Constantly looping switchbacks over smooth Jay-Z gravel….so good! From Cave Mountain Lake, we started climbing again. Petit Gap is an iconic climb, nearly 10 miles and 2,500 feet between the gravel and then the climb on the Blue Ridge Parkway itself. It was at the start of this climb that we hit the 2.5-3 hour mark and I started feeling that characteristic plummet in energy. I shoved a few extra Sour Patch Kids in, and hoped the sugar would revive me a bit.

Eventually, we reached the start of Hunting Creek Trail, a shared hiking/biking trail off the “back” (South/East) side of the Parkway that, by all evidence on this ride, does not get much use during the summer months. If we thought that Pine was overgrown, this was worse. Stinging nettles, fallen trees, and overgrowth so close that it was nearly impossible to see the trail at points. I had also forgotten, while planning the route, just how chunky Hunting Creek Trail is in spots. It is thanks to that trail that I now have a permanent gash in the carbon of my rear wheel–those rocks were a bit closer together than I thought! We made it through, however, and popped out onto the gravel to start our climb back to the Parkway, right at the half-way mark of the route.

What we didn’t realize, however, is that Salad Hill, a forest road leading back to the Parkway, was COMPLETELY overgrown. The stinging nettles were up to my shoulders, and the thick grass required stopping every 100-yards or so to disentangle hubs, pedals, derailleurs…whatever it was getting tangled around by attempting to pedal through. It continued that way off and on for about two miles of climbing, making that section of the course by far the slowest of the entire day. At some point, along that grueling sufferfest to get to the Parkway, I gave Adam the last of my water, and mentally checked out. I was afraid that the remainder of the route would be just as badly overgrown and as much as I wanted to finish, I was over it. My hands, arms, knees, and quads were on fire from the stinging nettles and it just wasn’t any fun anymore.

But then, the glorious Blue Ridge Parkway.

Bright, open, clean pavement…and the promise of 11 miles of descending back to the car changed everything. As soon as we started the descent, I changed my mind. I didn’t want to bail anymore. I was going to finish this ride, overgrowth or not. Surprisingly, Adam agreed, and stuck with me.

We completely SENT IT down the rowdy Cornelius trail, then drifted back to the cars for our last refuel. After a sandwich, LOTS of cold water, and more Sour Patch Kids, it was back out for loop 3.

The order of the loops became a bit of a happy coincidence, as they weren’t ordered very intentionally when creating the route. That being said, the two final climbs were far smaller than anything in the first 70% of the ride, and that last loop from the cars had THE BEST singletrack of the entire day. Despite being tired, hot, thirsty, and generally fatigued, hitting Wormhole, McFalls Downhill, and Little Cove Falls in successive order elicited whoops, hollers, and feelings of absolute stoke at being on a bike.

When we finished, the entire route had taken over 8 hours, at least 2 hours longer than I had expected to spend racing the Shenandoah 100k, and little of the ride could have been considered a “race effort,” but it was a true test of endurance and a great adventure full of long climbs, wildly fun singletrack descents, and good company.

With a swimming hole at the finish, I’d say the “ShenArcadia 100k” was a great success. Try it at your own risk…and beware the stinging nettles!

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