GRUSK Grande 2019

I’ll be honest. This one was hard to write. It’s mid-september, more than two months after the Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob and I’m just sitting down to write about the race. I guess the fact that I DNF’d my first race in recent memory took a lot out of me. I’ve replayed the scenario in my mind over and over, but still am not sure I made the right choice. But what’s done is done, so here’s how the rest of the story played out…

Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob, or GRUSK, is a pretty fun race. Starting atop a remote ridge in the forest of West Virginia, GRUSK traditionally traversed some of the state’s finest gravel roads before making racers ascend the highest point, Spruce Knob. Last year I more or less stumbled into the race the week before it happened, and managed to barely survive the 70 mile version with less-than-desirable fitness. This year it was announced there would be a 158-mile “Grande” version for those so inclined. The finish would still include the grind up Spruce Knob, but first the course would go north towards Davis, WV, before looping back around the Canaan Valley. I’m a sucker for long, hard races so I signed up.

As aways, my July fitness was not quite where I had hoped it to be. June was mostly spent on the Mountain Bike, and a lot of it doing downhill runs at the local Bike Park with Boy Scouts. But my new Rodeo Labs Trail Donkey 3.0 was ready to go, so I didn’t have many other excuses.

The first challenge, and likely mistake, was my pre-race prep. The Grande version started a day ahead of the “regular” race, or July 5th, at 8:00 am. Problem was, it was also a four hour drive from home, the morning after July 4th. Not wanting to deny my kids the joy of fireworks and shenanigans, I opted to drive over the morning of—necessitating a 3 am wake up after going to bed after midnight. Strike one.

As always, the weather near Spruce Knob was terrific. Cool and dry, it looked like a great day for a bike race. There were only a dozen or so of us riding the Grande version, and after a quick huddle we got underway with little fanfare. Knowing my fitness was lackluster and feeling a bit sleep deprived, I opted to sit up pretty early and watch the few guys at the front of the race pull away. “Gonna be a long day”, I thought.

The opening miles of gravel went quick, and then it was a dozen or more miles of pavement. Near Durbin, we left the highway and on to the West Fork Trail, a 22-mile long rails-to-trails path along the aptly named West Fork river. Being a former railroad bed, the trail had little elevation gain. However the cinder railroad bed had given way to thick grass, and we spent more than an hour riding through what felt like a well-mowed lawn. Slow going, no coasting. I spent a few miles with a rider from Davis, and we traded stories as we hoped for the gravel to return.

After a few hours the gravel did come back, but not before some pretty epic paved and semi-paved climbs. Aside from a fast-moving thunderstorm the weather was mild, and I felt pretty good. Before the lunch stop in Davis, WV, we’d have to climb atop the Canaan Heights Plateau, and navigate the wilds of Blackwater Falls State Park. The initial climb up to the plateau was loose, wet, and slow going, but nothing compared with Canaan Loop Road, which started as a mellow jeep track and soon deteriorates until a rough-going MTB trail. I’d ridden the Loop Road on my Adventure Motorcycle last year, and knew what I was in store for, although I think it came as a shock to many of my colleagues with narrower tires. I tried to stay loose and ride smooth; my efforts paid off with my riding on Loop road being the fastest of the day (or so Strava tells me). I linked up with another rider just before Davis, and the two of us rode to Blackwater Bikes for some neutral aid goodness.

At this point we were about 7 hours in, around mile 100. I was feeling the days efforts and the weather had turned from thunderstorms to sunny and hot—high 80’s. Famished, I ate just about anything that was offered to me. In my over-zealousness I probably ate too much, at least too much sugar and junk food, which tasted amazing. Strike two. As I set off from town towards Canaan Heights my stomach was over full and my legs dull. Not a good feeling on the bike. I struggled to keep a decent pace, and found myself plodding along Highway 32 at a pace far slower than I had hoped.

After Davis, there wasn’t a lot of neutral support available on the route. The last oasis for solo riders was Ruby’s Market, around mile 125. By this time I was feeling pretty out of it—my head hurt, my legs ached, and I was ready for a nap. I really wanted to eat something mellow to calm my stomach, but when I got to Ruby’s I realized she only took cash…and all I had was $2, enough for a coke and a nap on her front lawn. After a few minutes recovery, I headed out again and was caught by two riders plodding along behind me. We rode together and shared stories again, before we dropped one of them, and then my companion dropped me. And again I was alone, feeling terrible, with the peak of Spruce Knob still looming ahead of me.

The last 20 miles of GRUSK are up and down Spruce Knob—an out-and-back—which means you get to gauge where you are in relation to those ahead and behind you. As I reached the intersection with the final spur, I sat on the side of the road and watched a rider speed by on the way to the finish. He had already been up and down on his way to the finish, but here I was in no shape to do anything. I sat on the ground for a long time, in the grass on the side of the road. After ten minutes or so I got up and gave it a shot. The climb was paved, so it couldn’t be that bad. But my body was falling apart. A few miles later I was off the bike again, unable to hold on to the bars. My head and neck ached. My stomach was like a brick. And my legs didn’t want to move. I sat there again for a long time, thinking about what I should do. Riding up would be brutally hard. What I was really worried about was the 45+ mph descent. And with a heavy heart, I did what I thought was unthinkable…I got on my bike and turned around, back towards the finish without summiting the peak.

I’ve often used the phrase “Death before DNF”, and I’ve never felt like it was the right thing to do. But my burden lifted just a little bit when I realized I didn’t have to go up and down Spruce Knob. I still had nearly 10 miles to ride back the finish, but they were relatively smooth and I took them slow. And did they hurt. I grinded up the final climb, and at the finish line gave a weak smile to the few cheering spectators who applauded my accomplishment. And then mustered the courage to say the hardest words I’ve ever said at a bike race: “thanks, but I didn’t finish”. And then I laid down on the ground and closed my eyes.

After some good food, a long nights sleep, and a lot of introspection, I made it safely home the next day. I’m still not sure what I think about the experience. I’ve never felt like I gave all I had like I did this time. And I’ve never felt like I physically couldn’t do something. In this case, I think I really couldn’t have given more. But time heals all wounds, and after a week off the bike I began to feel a lot better. Sometimes I think I might be back next year to at least finish the course. But I’ve got a lot of time before I have to make that decision.

barry croker