Over my head

Last weekend Eric planned a trip to preride part of the Karkaghne Trail, the first segment of the OT100 mountain bike race. I'm not doing OT100 because of a schedule conflict and had initially decided I'd head to St. Joe State Park to preride the Leadbelt course. Some rain in the lead-up to the weekend made me think the Leadbelt trail might be too wet, so I opted to join the Karkaghne group.

I'd never ridden that section, but its reputation preceded it and some teammates chimed in with warnings:

"Tough stretch of trail there. Doesn't see much traffic either. Be prepared for a long day. Some very steep climbs. "

 "+1000 on [the previous comment]. You'll see +7500' of vert. Expect overgrowth, especially between the race start and Sutton Bluff. You might consider parking at Sutton Bluff ($2 day use fee which includes paved parking and showers) and doing two out and backs."

I knew it was above my pay grade, but I also figured I won't get better at riding hard trails by avoiding them. I did warn the guys how slow I'd be and told them I was totally cool with them riding ahead so they could see as much of the trail they'd be racing as possible.

The campground steward at Sutton Bluff gave us the rundown on how to get to the trail and gave us an ATV trail map to supplement the OTA map Eric had picked up. Even with all this directional assistance, we still rode in circles for a bit before Randy realized that staircase leading off the trail was the trail we needed.

I was immediately out of my comfort zone, and neither physical nor mental warm-up was aided by having to do a lot of walking uphill right away. I wasn't upset by it because I'd expected to have a hard time, but there was a least a touch of Am I EVER going to get better at this??

After some climbing, I reached the bluff itself, standing high above the Black River. Taking one look at the steep slope to the left of the trail (in addition to being afraid of heights, I also clip out almost exclusively with my left foot -- something I need to work on -- which means if I needed to stop my momentum would be to the slope side). "Hell, no," I mumbled, getting off my bike and cautiously walking my bike past the bluff.  I'm sure it was very scenic, but all I saw was the trail right in front of my feet.

Sutton's Bluff (9:50 a.m.)
The guys were waiting for me a little past the bluff, and we rode together a little before they pulled ahead. I felt like I never pedaled more than 100 feet before having to stop for a rock that made me nervous or a turn I didn't have the confidence to negotiate or a downed tree or a hill I couldn't get any further up. More often it was a combination of these factors. I was moving really slowly and was glad I'd established that they should just ride ahead; that way I didn't feel any pressure because my fears weren't slowing them down.

10:18 a.m. No idea why I took this one
 Except that, when I rolled up to a big tree across the trail, there they were on the other side. "We helped each other get our bikes through and decided it wouldn't be cool if you had to do it on your own," they told me.

That was basically the end of the guys getting very far ahead of me, and they weren't having my apologizing about slowing them down. "We've talked about this before," Eric reminded me. We've had more than one conversation about how I stress out about slowing my friends down and try to remember that people who've ridden with me before already know what to expect; if they choose to ride with me again they're obviously ok with it. But still...

I was definitely glad we were all together when we reached the Bee Fork crossing. The trail ends at the water with no indication of where it picks back up again. A little time with the map and some nearly waist-deep wading gave us the answer.

Crossing Bee Fork (11:02)
Our general plan had been to ride out 15 miles from Sutton's Bluff and then make the return trip before riding some of the trail to the north of the campground. At noonish I looked at my Garmin and saw that we'd gone a whopping 7 miles. Catching up with the guys at a creek crossing I pointed out a potential problem: "You realize at this pace we're looking at a 12 hour ride? And we don't have lights."

We had a couple of bailout options. We could ride forward another couple miles to a gravel road crossing. We could ride backward a couple miles to a gravel road crossing. Or..."we could follow this creek to Bee Fork and then get on this road on the other side of it!"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the get-the-hell-off-this-trail suggestion was mine. While I was open to either of the other ideas, I was most in favor of getting off south Karkaghne. The guys, who I'm sure would have preferred to stay on the singletrack, went along with my brilliant plan.

And it was brilliant, right up until we crossed Bee Fork, found the road just where it was supposed to be...and realized that light purple shading next to the water indicated private property. We spent about a mile walking through the (thankfully shallow) water of Bee Fork until we found a place where we could hop onto the gravel.

I'm pretty sure that's the last time they let me suggest a route, but once we were on gravel things were better. Well, as long as you think a 300 foot climb in full sun is better.  That hurt, but the subsequent mile and a half of downhill was a pretty good consolation. And even with our extended wading session, our route was definitely the fastest way back.

We took an extended lunch break at the campground pavilion before finally, somewhat grudgingly, heading to the northern section of the trail. It was like night and day from the southern part. Instead of the steep climbs followed by descents that were too scary to be fun for me, it was all flowy goodness without any of the downed trees that had punctuated our previous ride.

Since we had to eventually head back towards home we decided to ride an hour out and then turn back. The guys took off, and I followed at a more leisurely pace, still feeling a little fragile from the mental beating of the morning's ride. That quickly evaporated in the flat-out fun of the trail.  There were a few rock gardens that I walked at least part of, but overall it was much more rideable than the previous section.

Wheee! (4:46 pm)
As the 4:00 turnaround time approached, I started evaluating downhills -- There's only 15 minutes left...do I really want to have to ride back up this? I decided to stick it out and ride whatever came until 4 and had a blast on my way back. I rode much more of the rock gardens and felt way more confident than just minutes earlier. I was hoping to beat the guys back, but they caught me a mile or so from the road. I let them ahead of me and then chased.

I was so glad we'd continued riding after the rough morning. It would have been easy to quit and head home, but instead our afternoon ride completely redeemed the day, "Making mountain biking great again", as I titled my strava file for the second ride.

It was a hard, fun day, certainly not my best on a bike but another great reminder of how lucky I am in the friends I've made. Any mountain biking progress I've made can be attributed to having much stronger riders who've been patient and encouraging, and that was definitely on display on our Karkaghne ride. And if nothing else, at least this first attempt gives me a bar by which I can measure (hopefully) progress next time.


  1. that is such a good post. I am terrified of heights too,I know exactly what you mean about slowing people down with your fears; the thought of them waiting for you by the tree is so nice.

  2. You slow? How can a rider be fast on such ground (and across the river)?


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