Report by Paul Ruchlin
Who’s been to Prescott, Arizona? C’mon, raise your hands. If not, it’s something you should really consider. Even more so if you register for the Whiskey Off Road mountain bike race put on by Epic Rides. And make sure you pronounce Prescott correctly. It rhymes with “biscuit”. This year, Michelle Faucher and I took part, she in the “50 Proof” (50 mile course) and me in the “25 Proof” (which was actually 30 miles).
Luckily, I have very good friends who live in Prescott Valley so lodging for the two of us was the easy, and cheap part. Many thanks to Christina Carmody and Chris Hummel for a great week of hosting us. We arrived, via Phoenix, on Wednesday afternoon. I planned this to make sure, 1) I could get some good rest pre-race especially with the time difference, and 2) to acclimatize to the elevation, at least a bit, before race day. Prescott sits at 5200 ft and the race would take us up in the mountains outside the city to a max of 7000. Not terrible, but enough to make a difference to us sea level dwellers.
Thursday was a prep and tourist day. I’d shipped my bike via FedEx. That was, to say the least, COSTLY, at $225. I have a somewhat unwieldy but sturdy bike box (which, by-the-way, I’m willing to lend out should any of you ever be in need) and it would have cost me almost the same and been a real pain to travel with. Michelle brought her bike with her on Southwest Airlines for a very reasonable $75, each way of course. Anyway, Michelle and I re-assembled our trusty steeds Thursday morning and then did some afternoon hiking around The Granite Dells of Prescott. In the evening we all ventured up and over Mingus Mountain to the historic mining and now charming, artsy, tourist village of Jerome for a great Mexican meal at Quince.15.
Friday morning, Michelle and I did some more exploring around The Dells before meeting up with our friends to head downtown for packet pick-up and to enjoy the weekend festivities. The race starts and ends, and all the festivities take place on the central square adjacent to the county courthouse in Prescott. Packet pick-up was well organized and efficient and took all of 5 minutes, and the swag provided was some of the best I’ve seen. Generous and useful products, such as GU (a huge race sponsor), Stans NoTubes Sealant, some other food/race products and for some reason a natural testosterone enhancement product. So, if you notice a slight mustache on Michelle……………
After check-in we headed to a couple of local breweries/eateries (The Raven, and Granite Mountain Brewery) to imbibe some and await the late afternoon Pro Crits which would determine the Pro starting positions for their races on Sunday. That was interesting and entertaining and afterwards, a great Italian dinner at Papa’s Uptown before heading back home to finalize prep and an early bed.
RACE DAY…….. WOOHOOO!!!! Michelle and Chris were up and off early, as their start for the 50 Proof was 0730. I slept in a bit and Christina and I got downtown about 0900 for my 0930 start on the 25 Proof on a PERFECT Arizona day; brilliantly sunny, a slight breath of a breeze here and there and about 65 degrees. Temps would rise a good bit throughout the day, even at elevation, and “PERFECT” may have been a little cooler, but all-in-all a great riding day.
I was rested, I’d eaten (yogurt and granola breakfast, pre-emptive Ibuprofen and 4 pre-race Sport Legs capsules), all stretched out and ready to go when the gun went off. With absolutely no knowledge or experience on this course, and having no illusions of being “competitive” in this “race”, I started off well near the rear of the 796 racer field. (There were 618 racers in Michelle’s 50 Proof). If you’d like to see the course you can check out my Garmin download, but essentially it’s an 11 mile climb (the first 4.2 on city streets, then various fire roads, jeep tracks and single track) a 5 mile descent a 5 mile climb and a 10 mile descent. Ok, ok, there may have been 500 or 600 yards of flat somewhere along the way.
Like with any race, it was hard not to get caught up in the adrenaline and excitement at the start, but I worked hard on not busting it out of the gate. I need a notoriously long time to warm up and I’m not a particularly strong climber to begin with so I was really concentrating on keeping a reasonable, steady pace so I’d have enough to perform decently on the second long climb I knew was ahead. Plus, we did get foreknowledge that the start into the single track always bottlenecks and there was no way I was beating the crowd up, so easing in to it was a good plan anyway. Up and up and up we went. It took me about 45 minutes to get the 6-ish miles to the single track and shortly in to that, the infamous bottle necking started. For the next mile or so we would ride 50 yds, then have to stop and stand around for 4-6 minutes, then ride then stop. It’s unfortunate because this part was through beautiful, smooth, gently up-and-down pine forest and it was frustrating not to be able to ride it out. Eventually we got to the few small “technical” sections that were the cause of the bottlenecking. I have two complaints about this race and this was #1. Because this was a known problem, the race was lengthened a bit this year and this section was added to help avoid the fire road to single track transition bottleneck. Unfortunately it probably made it worse. They do need to devise some sort of staged start to avoid this problem as all told, we probably lost 25-30 minutes of time standing around.
Eventually the riding opened up and there was not any more problems with stops the rest of the race. BUT (and you knew there was a “but” coming) this is where things got pretty damn tough. It’s Arizona, you know, the “dry” heat. Well, heat wasn’t a problem yet, but the “dry,” which meant dusty, loose gravelly, sandy trail, along with the “steep” (and yes, still going UP) kinda was. Throw in completely exposed telephone poles used as trail water breaks and you can already guess, I joined the crowd in doing a fair amount of walking in this section. Near the top, I took my first little break, stopping to get my heart rate down below 185 and eat a little food. I had a Honey Stinger Waffle, some Hammer Gel and 4 Sport Leg capsules. By this time, near the top of the first climb, about 2 hours in, exposed to the sun and still not really any wind to speak of, it was really getting hot. I suppose I should mention, for this ride I was wearing my 70 oz. camelback and drinking generously.
I only stopped for 3-5 minutes and then headed out………up some more. Not too much more though and then it was time for some SERIOUS down. 1300 ft in 4 miles. Yep, there was some white knucklin’ goin’ on there. Big rocks, drop-offs, sand pits……….. At one particularly nasty rock drop I got caught up and took my first spill (yes, there would be more). I’m not sure if I was lucky or unlucky that I was going slow at that point. I didn’t tumble off the mountain and die, or at least I don’t think, but it did bring me down on the rock pile, tearing up my left “hip” which is more to say………buttock, and ruining my beloved THWT bibs. DRAT!!!! Actually, “OW….DRAT (except with a “F—!!!“)”. Generally when this happens, assuming I’m not really hurt, I rub some dirt on it and move on. This time, with the aforementioned sandy, dusty trail, this step was already taken care of, so on I went.
At the bottom we came back to fire road for big climb number two. Not technical and in pretty good condition, it was a 2 mile uphill slog to Aid Station #1. This is the point where those on the 50 Proof would head west on fire road for 10 miles downhill to Skull Valley, then turn around and return making it Aid Stations 1 and 3 for them. This is the only difference in the 50 and 25 Proof courses. I stopped for a good 20 minutes this time. My Garmin was reading close to 90 degrees, though I’m not sure it was really that warm. I found some shade and ate again. A couple of orange slices from the Aid tent, a Tropical Hammer Gel, an entire Pocket Fuel packet and finished off the last of my camelback. I also took 4 more Sport Legs capsules and more Aleve. As I went to re-fill my camelback I ran in to complaint #2. The Aid Station was concerned about running out of water and ask us not to completely fill our bladders. REALLY??? Of all the race logistics to be sure is properly stocked, that should be #1. I filled up ¾ and started climbing again.
From here the road, although not paved, is a county road, so nicely graded and maintained. That’s not to say it isn’t steep, just very ridable. Again I set myself in to a nice, steady pedaling pace, not so much concerned with speed as with being able to ride the entire way to the top without bonking, cramping, or…….at this point……..puking. I saw or heard some of each along the way. Not far from the top was, as promised, a dude offering up whiskey shots. It is the WHISKEY Off Road, after all. I swore, before the race, I would stop partake, but shortly before getting there my stomach began to bother me a bit. I probably over ate at the Aid Station, but no matter the reason I wasn’t about to jeopardize all my efforts so far with getting really sick, so I passed it up. After 3 miles from Aid Station #1, you hit single track again, and the top, just under 7000 feet.
I gotta tell you, at this point, I was VERY glad to see down, and exhausted mentally and physically, which probably led, not too far in to this once again technical downhill, to spill #2. I kind of registered the thicker sandy portion in front of me but not soon enough react properly and the next thing I knew I was slamming in to the trail at a brisk 16 mph or so, this time on my right side. DRAT!!!! Actually, “OW….DRAT (except with a “F—!!!“)”. I’m sure the guy behind me had a pretty good show. There was a wide area here and I was able to drag myself off the trail and recover for a minute or two. A little bit shaken and feeling some trepidation about several more miles of hard downhill, I proceeded, but markedly slower and more careful. More quickly than expected I regained some of my confidence and let my speed creep up the further I went, although I’m not sure I ever completely let off the brakes for a good few miles. Somewhere in here, just out of fatigue, and stupidity, I fell over again, which is not remarkable other than managing to put my hand right in to a cactus-like stickery sort of shrubbery. Another minute or two getting over being angry about it (we’ve all been in that mental state, I think) whilst pulling thorns from my hand.
Cramp Hill (yes, that’s really its name). You know it’s there, if you look at the course ahead of time, but somehow you forget. Just when you’ve adjusted to no more climbing…..there it is. It’s not big, it’s not overly steep, and it’s only about a mile long, if that……..but it’s a mental crusher. Ughhhhh, I don’t WANT to go uphill!!!! (in as whiny a voice as you can muster) I walked a little bit of the steepest part of this, but…….no cramp. I’m told many people did.
From the top of Cramp Hill it’s winding, flowing trail, sometimes rocky, down to and then along a creek and then finally, back on to paved road for the last 4 miles downhill. I was rather surprised at what I had left to get me down this and I knew my mental state would soar once I hit pavement, which it did. What a great way to end this race, screaming downhill in to town, topping out at 31.2 mph. And finally, cheering, waving crowds at the finish.
A grateful and appreciative shout-out here to some of my gear and supplies. First and foremost, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE my Stans No Tubes CREST wheels. They handled all of the various terrain of this course phenomenally and gave me great confidence to ride, clearly, at the edge of my technical limits. Since I’d forgotten to bring my usual electrolyte supplements, Sport Legs were recommended to me by a local bike shop and they were AWESOME. I felt far better on my climbs than I expected, lasted longer and can truthfully say, although fatigued the next day, my legs were not the slightest bit sore. Amazing!!! I’m a convert.
And finally, great Congrats to Michelle. Although I’m sure she has her own story to tell, she ROCKED this race. Unfortunately, she appears nowhere in the official results for this race so, of course, that means I WIN!!!!!!!! But that’s a technical glitch I’m sure she’ll get worked out. Seriously, she was awesome!
Despite a few hiccups, this was a great race and I’d HIGHLY recommend it be on anyone’s list of races to do. It was a hard challenge and a lot of fun and the town of Prescott is a great place to visit. Even if you’re not into the competitive frame of mind, the weather in this part of AZ makes it ideal for riding nearly year round and there are literally hundreds of miles of trails around the city, from flat paved bike trails to mountainous and technical single track. Go West…..and Ride!