“Man I can’t do the OC this year. Work has killed me and training time has been almost zero.”
“So sell your slot,” I said.
“No way! You take it and then report back. You know I’ve always wanted to do it, and all you have to do is pay the transfer fee.”
“Okay.” I replied, “let me think about it.”
That’s what led me to a sudden switch in my training calendar. The Ouachita Challenge (OC) is unique in the way that it will allow you to transfer your entry to anyone you want, right up to the day before the event. There are two different ways to do the OC: You can opt to do the Tour on Saturday or the Race on Sunday. The distances are roughly the same (60 miles), but the Tour bypasses a large hike-a-bike section that is included in the Race. The Tour has no “winner” and also has no prize for divisions, etc. My buddy had a tour slot, so at least I knew that it wouldn’t be too rough on me…right?
There are three types of riders in the Tour. You have the racers that didn’t get into the actual race, as the entries were gone in a matter of minutes. You have the experimental type rider, that wants to try the tour before they attempt the race, and you have the riders that just want to finish an extremely hard ride.
The route is composed of equal parts single track and forest roads over sixty miles and about 5,500 ft of climbing. It had rained like hell the night before, so all the creeks were quite full and the sections of trail that went straight up the fall line, were basically creeks. There were also 3 or 4 high water bridges that were rushing with white water. The first of these came at mile 5 and were staggered enough that as your feet were about to dry a bit, you got to get them completely drenched again. No worries, the temp at start was 55 and it was going to be in the high 60’s by the finish.
The gun went off at 8 and we had a neutral roll-out through the town. It was nice to see so many locals on the sides of the road and out in front of there houses taking pics and clapping as we rode by. I started a few rows back from the front and as the gaps started to form in the roll out, I crept forward into the field as much as I could. We meandered up a hill and then we hit the first section of single track. This part of the race was on the Ouachita Trail (OT), which is a hiking trail that runs from Talimena State Park in OK, to Little Rock, AR, some 223 miles. Since it was designed to be hiked/walked, biking on it can be a bit if a challenge. There were several parts where it was quite narrow and many key-hole slots between rocks were you had to pay attention to crank placement…plus it was all still quite wet from the night’s rain. I was with a group of about 8 at this point and we only had a couple of issues where someone would spin out or just something that wasn’t ride-able when wet. We eventually were spit back out onto a forest road that led us to out first check point and aid station. I was good on water and such so I didn’t stop. We rolled up a section of pavement and then back onto the OT.
This part of the single track had a tendency to go right up the fall line, so all the rain had turned this into a creek…and all the previous rains had eroded the hell out of it. It was a constant collection of rocks and roots, while riding in several inches of water and mud. This all made it a tough little climb that seemed to be a rather benign looking blip on the elevation profile. The reward of that mud fest was a section of super-fast gravel, that had 6 of us in a revolving paceline at 18mph. It felt good to spin out the legs and enjoy some free speed thanks to gravity.
There was another aid station and then back onto the OT for a bit. This section was pretty mellow and before long we were back out onto forest roads and then some pavement. This part was taking us away from the OT for good and south to the Womble Trail system. The Womble is an IMBA epic with nice views of the Ouachita’s and flow-y single track. There was another aid station right before the Womble and then onto single track. The initial section of trail was a section that stayed rather flat and was fun to ride. The rider in front of me went down really hard on a wooden bridge and that snapped me back to reality that I couldn’t let my guard down and relax too much. The trail twisted around most of the hills and had us following a creek for some of the route. Then the hills came back and the climbing wasn’t too bad. I might of caught a bit of the bonk so I drank the rest of my bottle and hit a gel. I was then out onto a forest road and at the last aid station. We would loop out from here and come back by this aid station again before dropping down into the finish. While I was there eating a fig newton ( my only stop btw) the lead rider came by heading to the finish and I was astonished that I wasn’t further behind. I was even more astonished when the official that was keeping track of plate numbers told me I was 14th! This gave me a boost of adrenaline and I hurriedly climbed on the bike and headed out. This was more of the Womble and a bit more rolling than the previous part. I also started feeling a bit fatigued and took some long pulls on the camelbak and debated a gel. The single track ended onto a forest road, where we continued for about 3 miles before hitting a short section of connector trail that led us back to another forest road. I knew this forest road was the same one that had the last aid station on it, and was once again energized to be close to the finish. Wooohoo! I was feeling good and then BAM! The bastards had put that aid station on the top of a hill and not some ordinary hill either. The forest road approach had three different switchbacks that were all hidden around corners, so you felt like you were climbing for days…only to turn a corner and climb more. I used some colorful language here, settled into the climb, and eventually crested the hill to the aid station. The good thing about climbing hills, is knowing that you’re going to get to come down them. I was hovering right around 26 mph and grinning from ear to ear.
The ride to the finish is an easy one, as the gravel turns to pavement and the town of Oden is in sight. I had a nice headwind to remind me that it wasn’t over yet and then there’s a short climb up the lawn of a school to the finish line. Phew, 5 hours 31 minutes was displayed on the Garmin and I had just finished the OC Tour…on a hardtail!
Ouachita = Wah-shi-tah
This was an extremely well run event. From packet pick-up to showers and a bike wash station afterwards, everything was top notch. There were no aid stations that had less than 6 people at them and the aid stations appeared to be well stocked. There was a mechanic on duty at aid station 3 and when you crossed the finish line, the announcer said who you were and where you were from. It’s definitely a race to check out.
Bike Dork stuff:
Niner Air 9 Hardtail, 32×42 (1×11), Maxxis Ikons tubeless 20/20 psi.
A 2 liter camelbak and one bottle= 90 oz Tailwind Nutrition Raspberry
What I’d do differently next time: Smaller camelbak with less “survival” stuff or maybe straight bottles. Waterproof shoe cover dependent upon temp.