True Grit Epic—A Fat Bike Race Report

Bullet on Trek Farley on the Zen Trail

Bullet on his Trek Farley on the Zen Trail (photo by Crawling Spider Photography)

A race report by Bullet.

 Our morning of March 15, 2014 began before the sun came up over the mountains in the west. We had an hour drive ahead of us to get to the starting area in St. George Utah. There was a little league baseball tournament going on in St George this same weekend and all the hotels were booked. Cedar City was the closest place we could find an opening. No worries. I downed a glass of orange juice and ate a banana before we loaded up and headed out. I figured I could eat more on the drive down and while we were waiting for the race to get started.

While we were checking in and getting our race plates I asked why there wasn’t a fat bike category. There was a single speed category but nothing for fat bikes. Apparently there hasn’t been enough interest from the fat bike community yet to warrant our own category. There were twelve single speeds registered for the 50-mile sport category. Other than Doc and myself, we saw two other fat bikes on the course. A hot pink Surly who I think did the 50-mile sport and another Surly running a shock and what looked like a 3” Knard on the front end. He did the 100-mile and did quite well. So the challenge for next year is to get a new fat bike category added to the race.

We had a good time before the lineup talking with other riders and catching up with friends we hadn’t seen in a while. I ate a Stinger waffle and before I knew it we were on the line listening to last minute course instructions and we were off. I knew I hadn’t eaten enough but I had my top tube bag full of Stinger gel and chews as well as other things I could eat on the go. I’d be fine. I also had my Camelbak with 100 ounces of water and a bottle full of Gatorade.

Before the race; Bullet, Goat Boy, and Doc.

Before the race; Bullet, Goat Boy, and Doc.

The course is a maze of interlaced 4×4/ATV trails and single track. We started out on a decent dirt road that climbed a bit up and over a ridge and dropped into the Green Valley area. The sky was crystal clear and it was warming up nicely with a light breeze. Perfect conditions.

Early in the race, Bullet out front.

Early in the race, Bullet out front.

Doc on his Salsa Mukluk 3.

Doc on his Salsa Mukluk 3.

Goat Boy on a skinny-tired sissy bike.

Goat Boy on a skinny-tired sissy bike.

After a few miles of rollers on this road we turned off onto our first bit of single track and I felt like now we were finally getting started. We climbed up a narrow wash filled with step-ups, shelves, and rocks that had you pulling on the bars to get your front end over the lip and then powering the rear through with your quads. It was tough work but I was feeling good.

We climbed and descended this Green Valley area three times as we traversed our way back the way we had come in. The climbs were pretty similar with picking your way through tricky technical sections with some less technical 4×4/ATV track mixed in. The down hill runs were generally pretty technical as well but most of the time quite fast as you shot over the drop offs and steps in most places. There was one section, just before the Barrel Run downhill, that is extremely technical. It starts at the bottom of the second descent and begins with a couple pretty good drop offs, about 18” or so and then you turn into a section that drops a good 20’ or more that requires you to pick through 18” to 2’ drops one after another to the bottom. There is no room for error here and trying to change course too dramatically ends with disastrous results as my son learned during one of our pre-rides in February. He was about a third of the way down when he tried to redirect and promptly went over the bars and rolled through the rocks tangled in his bike until finally coming to a stop at the bottom. He was banged up pretty good. Both knees bleeding and trail rash on his arms. The look on his face told me he had just had a reality check with his mortality. I was glad of that. A good scare with a little fleeting pain would help him keep his head in the race and not take unnecessary risks.

So I reach this point on the course. I had ridden it a couple times before and was comfortable with the upper section but had decided to not attempt the longer section. As I approached the first drop I saw a rock to the left and a rock to the right of the step that I could use to roller down that would make the drop much less dramatic. So I promptly stared at the gap between them taking a hard drop through the steepest part and went over the bars. I piled up in the rocks below, quickly untangled myself from my bike, and assessed. My knees and shins were banged up. My right quad had taken a direct hit and my left elbow ached. I straightened my bars and re-secured my top tube bag that had been dislodged. Lets see, brakes? Check. Wheels? Check. Good to go.

Doc was a couple hundred yards in front of me when I went down. He called to me to make sure I was okay. Cursing under my breath I assured him that everything was fine with a tone in my voice that said, “I meant to do that”. A monetary lapse in focus is all it takes to change a great ride into a disaster. The funny thing is one of the first bits of advice I give to the newer rides I coach on the high school teams is “look where you want to go not at what you want to avoid.”

I learned after the race that one person broke their collarbone in this area and another needed some sewing to get stitched back together. I feel fortunate it wasn’t any worse for me.

Moving on I walked my bike down the sketchy section before getting back on the bike. The gears skipped around for a second or two while they repositioned. Now I felt I had ground to make up. The next section traversed the hillside through a rough slick rock section that was pretty physically trying but fortunately not too long.

The Barrel Run downhill section was the final descent before hitting the first aid station and beginning the Zen Trail, the most technical section of the entire course. Barrel Run is fast and rough with a lot of drop offs through loose rock. This trail is particularly interesting as it has alternate route sections that take you through some spectacular gap jumps and monstrous drop offs. Fortunately the True Grit course takes the alternate routes around these but there are some pretty good YouTube videos out there that are fun to watch. At the bottom of this stretch I was starting to feel it in my upper body. I hit it pretty hard trying to make up the time I lost crashing.

I still was feeling pretty good over all and took the road section to the aid station pretty fast. I was only a minute or so behind Doc who was pounding down some Stinger gel. As I pulled in, two of my high school team riders Jake and Mathias, who’s parents I coach with and were racing as well, were immediately there asking what I needed and began handing me Stinger gels that I voraciously sucked down. They were awesome to have there and it was nice to have our rolls reversed for once.

Bullet at the aid station early in the race.

Bullet at the aid station early in the race.

Doc and I pulled out of the aid station together and began the mile long climb up the Zen Trail. The climb is about a 10% average grade through the typical loose rock and broken slick rock shelves so common in this area. At the top of this section you start moving over some solid slick rock that takes you over a couple drop offs before you roll down a 30 degree rock ramp that ends with you literally squeezing between two rock slabs. When I say squeeze I’m not exaggerating. You have to line it up just right and the stone sides nearly bring your to a complete stop as your shoes on both sides grind through the opening as you make the last little drop to the sandy ground below.

The rest of this upper section consists of very technical climbing over slick rock, sometimes only a few feet away from the cliff edge, connected by short stretches of sandy single track. Much of this section was spent off the bike, partly because it was just faster for me to push the bike through it and partly because I wasn’t interested in another crash. We had ridden this part of the course a couple of times before so there were no surprises and I knew I would be spending time off the bike here. My goal was to just keep moving and get through Zen in one piece.

Just before the main descent I came across a guy on the side of the trail fixing a flat. Clearly frustrated he informed me that this was his third flat. The last one was a sidewall tear. He lives close by so he phoned his wife who brought a new tire to the aid station so he could get back in the race. Flats and other mechanical issues plagued many riders and it’s no wonder with how rugged the trails were. Other than a little brake noise after my crash, the Farley ran beautifully from start to finish.

At the beginning of the race, course officials mentioned that they had used over 7,000 feet of orange tape to mark the course. And I will say the course was very well marked and easy to follow almost everywhere. The trouble for a lot of people came on the Zen descent. Half way down the course veered off the single track across slick rock. There was orange tape on some rock cairns marking the turn off but if you were not familiar with the course and/or were going really fast, it would have been easy to miss. I made the turn and began this miserable track of rough and rolling slick rock that seemed to beat me relentlessly.

Goat Boy on the Zen Trail.

Goat Boy on the Zen Trail. (photo by Crawling Spider Photography)

By the time I made it back to the first aid station, it was placed where Zen both begins and end, I was feeling pretty hammered. My whole body felt worked over. This was mile 19. Only 31 more to go. Again my crew went to work assisting me with nutrition. I filled my water bottle with something they had there that tasted stale and chalky. Doc was there but headed out a minute or two before I did. He said he was still feeling pretty good. Matt, one of the other high school coaches I work with, was there munching down a PB&J. I was surprised to see him. He had a pretty good lead on me, as I expected, so I didn’t expect to have caught up to him. He was taking his time and refueling before heading out again. Nothing really appealed to me at the aid station. I think I ate a gel or two and I remember eating a brownish piece of leathery apple. Looking back on it I should have spent a little more time and ate more real food rather than relying on the easy to consume energy type things I brought.

I was surprised Heather, another high school mountain bike coach, hadn’t caught up to me by now. Her group started several minutes behind mine, but she is a stronger rider than me and I expected her to catch up to me by now. She had dislocated her left elbow in a crash in October and I was concerned she may be having some difficulties with it. It seemed good during our pre-ride but something was clearly slowing her down. I asked her son Mathias where she was. He informed me that she was out on Zen but was having problems with her legs cramping.

I asked my wife about my son. I wanted to make sure he was doing well and hadn’t crashed through these most technical sections. She had a laugh in her voice as she told me how great it was to watch him passing everyone up the long climb to the top of the next section of single track. We call him Goat Boy for a reason.

I checked my time before heading out. I had finished the Zen trail 30 minutes faster than I ever have before and I was only 30 minutes behind my schedule to keep a 7 MPH average speed. That made me feel pretty good. This would be the slowest section of the course so if I was only off by 30 minutes I was sitting pretty good.

I headed out of the aid station and began the climb to the top of the Three Fingers of Death. It sounds worse than it is. Matt was soon by my side and looking refreshed. I wasn’t feeling so great but knew I had the easiest section of trail ahead of me and I could recover with some easy spinning and still maintain my speed.

Matt hit the top a couple minutes ahead of me and Doc was well out of sight by now. The Three Fingers of Death consists of a series of short, fast descents that take you to the Bear Claw Poppy trail. This is a fast rollercoaster section that runs several hundred feet under the Zen plateau. After reaching the south end of the valley, Bear Claw Poppy turns back North through a wash back to the bottom of Three Fingers of Death.

And this is where everything began to unravel. The wind had been picking up and was gusting pretty good by now. Of course it was a head wind. We had not ridden the Stucki Springs trail before. During our last pre-ride we were told by another rider that it was a “false flat” and just miles to get you to the other end of the valley to pick up a couple more single track trails. We were short on time so we cut it out so we could get the more technical single-track sections in before the sun went down.

Stucki Springs, it turns out, had a few pretty good climbs during its six miles. Couple that with a head wind accompanied by gusts that would literally almost blow you off the trail. At this point my lack of real food intake and the psychological blow of not having the easy miles as expected, was really slowing me down. Another rider caught up to me moving at about my same pace. He was wearing a jersey from the SoCal high school mountain biking league. He was a couch out there so we talked about our teams and how each of our leagues were growing. We sort of leapfrogged through this seemingly endless section. By now I was being passed pretty regularly by riders doing the 100-mile including the guy on the Surly with the front shock. He was clipping along pretty good too. Nearly everyone who passed me made comments like “way to go doing it on a fat bike” or “nice fat bike”. The general impression I got from people was “you’re hardcore doing this on a fat bike”. I didn’t feel hardcore although the suffering at this point did.

The endless madness that was Stucki Springs finally ended with a steady climb to one of the last checkpoints. My friend from SoCal reached them first. When I rolled up he looked at me and said, “well I’m done”. “What!” I said in surprise. He was looking much stronger than I was. “Yep, I’m done. I’ve had enough. I’ll save the rest for the next time”. And so he rolled off down the ATV trail back toward home.

Rim Reaper is a pleasure to ride and offers fantastic views of the valley. I was feeling a bit better now probably because I knew the end was in sight. Before long I was at the last aid station at the Barrel Roll trailhead. I topped off my Camelbak and filled my bottle with more stale stuff. I shoved a fist full of BBQ flavored chips in my mouth that left an awful synthetic after taste in my mouth for about an hour. The aid workers commented on my fat bike and one of them started telling the other how you don’t need suspension on them because the tires take up all the bumps. I looked at him and said “You wouldn’t say that if you ever rode Zen on one”.

At this point another rider came in off Barrel Roll looking pretty hammered. “ I live close to here and we ride these trails all the time. We’ll come out and ride one or two of these trail super fast but this is killing me”. The promoters aren’t exaggerating when they describe this race as extremely technical and refer to it as epic.

Barrel Roll is a fantastic trail. Not a lot of climbing fairly technical in several spots but not over the top. Just a good mix that is fast, fun and challenging. At the tail end of a 50-mile ride it was more than challenging and not as much fun as it usually is. I felt like I was running on fumes by now. The only thing keeping me going was the finish line in sight. Not literally in sight but I knew where I was and what I had before me.

The 4×4/ATV route back across the valley to the finish line rolled on for a few miles. A couple of the climbs though short were ridiculously steep and I found myself off the bike pushing to the top. Outside of these really steep climbs the course was pretty fast and I was feeling better knowing I was almost done.

Doc at the end of the race.

Doc at the end of the race.

I crested the final hill with the school where everything began in full view below me. Nearly everyone was gone. I rolled down the hill and across the parking lot to the event trailer with a couple people still there to take down times and plate numbers of the final finishers. My wife, Doc and Goat Boy were there to greet me as well. It felt good to finish. My official time was 8:44:18.9. Average speed by the end of the race was 6 MPH. Turns out I just kept getting slower as time went on. Doc finished at 8:29:00.5, which means in my forties I’m still just trying to keep up with my big brother. Matt finished ahead of me with a time of 8:06:39. Nice job Matt. Goat Boy turned in a very respectable 11th place finish in the 14-29 age group with a time of 5:39:29.1.

Bullet, one of four fat bike finishers.

Bullet, one of four fat bike finishers.

Of the 232 people entered for the 50-mile in their various categories 44 did not finish. One of which was Heather. Feeling sick all day, fighting severe leg cramps and finally loosing a screw from one of her cleats twice, she decided her race was done. She had worked so hard to get in shape for this race while rehabbing her dislocated elbow. She had only been back on the bike for a month before the race. She is a tough woman and a great rider. She’ll be back with a vengeance. She is not easily beaten.

Overall I am happy with my performance. I beat two guys. This time last year I couldn’t ride to the top of a quarter mile gravel road with a 10% grade without walking the last half of it. I will do a few things differently for the next endurance race. First of all I’ll eat better before and during the race. If the next one is half as rough as True Grit I’ll take my tire pressure down to 8 PSI. That is what I usually run on dirt trails but before this race I decided 9 PSI would give me a little more speed that would be good to have. I had ridden the trails before so I figured I could handle the rough stuff just fine. I think that little bit took its toll on me through the first third of the course. Lessons learned. Thanks for reading. I’m going riding.


One comment

  1. If there is a fatbike class I will enter and ride my fatbike

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