July 5, 2014

Fire Roads Are Boring – A Chat with Paul Tarter before Patapsco 100

by Douglas Ansel

Mountain bikers delight to ride singletrack – tight, technical, pounding, flowing singletrack. That narrow strip of dirt meandering through the trees and switchbacking up and climbs makes us feel alive, cut loose from civilization, and sometimes, like little kids playing out in the woods. But too much of a good thing can begin to hurt, and at mile seventy of a 100 mile mountain bike race, the fire roads or pavement that we would decry as boring on a weekend training ride begins to offer a sweet respite from the concentration and physical abuse of riding trails for hours on end. “If only I can make it to the next road section,” racers tell themselves, “I can relax and eat and drink some. It’ll be nice.” That is, unless you are Paul Tarter.

Like most racers, Paul sighs when his wheels hit a section of fire road in the middle of a 100 mile race, but unlike most people, his sigh is one of disappointment. He can’t wait to hit the singletrack again where his cares go away and he’s back to just loving riding instead of focusing on the race.

As a racer, Paul’s dreams will be answered this Sunday when he takes place in the Patapsco 100, an ultra endurance race traversing over 90 miles of singletrak outside of Baltimore, Maryland. The race is put on by his team, Adventures for the Cure, and is being considered for a stop of the national level National Ultra Endurance (NUE) race series. The route is so difficult, though, that many have deemed it “too hard” and it may be difficult to make it into the already challenging NUE series. The Patapsco 100 takes the length of mind-bogglingly hard races like the Cohutta 100 and adds three to four hours to their duration by including much more singletrak, and not easy trails at that. The race never rises over 500 feet in elevation but manages to incorporate 16,000 feet of climbing with an incessant succession of short, steep climbs gaining 200-300 feet at a time.The winning time will be on the order of 10-10.5 hours. Last year, a mere 11 of close to 100 starters finished the race. And as he lines up at 6am on Sunday morning with a goal of hitting 11 hours for the event, Paul will be aboard a Boo.

Paul has raced his Boo on a number of occasions this year, including at the NUE series Cohutta 100.

Paul has raced his Boo on a number of occasions this year, including at the NUE series Cohutta 100.

A mountain biker for more than 12 years and a racer for four, Paul knows how brutal the sport can be, both on equipment and your body. He began with X-Terra off road triathlons beginning in 2010 and dabbled in cross country races, but after two hours of racing full gas, he would think “Okay, that hurt… but is that it?” That reaction led him to his true love – ultra endurance races lasting six, eight, or even twelve hours. In these races, it’s not just fitness or power that matters. Successful racers have to carefully manage their effort, deal calmly with mechanicals, and most importantly tame that inner voice of reason that tells them to stop hour after hour after hour. Endurance racing brings out the devils in one’s psyche and, as Paul says, “there’s a point during the race where you’re in a dark, dark place for an hour.” But despite the challenges – or more accurately, because of them – Paul keeps returning for 100 miles of punishment at a time.

The preparation required for such races is substantial and Paul spent all of this year’s brutal winter laying on the base miles in pre-dawn commutes to his job as a software developer. Neither rain nor sleet nor snow could stop him from riding in to work and, on most occasions, adding an extra hour or three to the route. His coworkers questioned his sanity, but the dedication paid off with a top twenty placing in the Cohutta 100 NUE race in April. But training is only part of the equation, as is the considerable time dialing in nutrition and hydration strategies to keep the body functioning well after seventy miles of torture.

Though we often think of pain as the result of going fast, there is a lot of truth to the statement “you don’t go fast if you’re hurting.” A bike that doesn’t fit well or is overly stiff and abusive will sabotage one’s performance, especially over the course of a 100 mile race. Those concerns led Paul to Boo and his bike for this year, a RS-29er decked out with SRAM XX1, ENVE wheels, and a Cannondale Lefty fork. Intrigued in a friend’s RS-R road bike, Paul learned more about Boo through the AluBOO kickstarter and was immediately drawn to the idea of a material with ride dampening characteristics that were well suited to the all day pounding of 100 mile races. After trying a demo bike in March, he was hooked and began talking to Nick Frey immediately about getting the perfect bike for him. Half a race season later, the difference between Paul’s Boo and his prior bikes is noticeable. Late in races, he swears he has more energy, is more comfortable, and the dialed geometry requires less mental energy to pilot through trees and down tricky descents.

Paul will need every advantage he can get on Sunday as he tackles one of the hardest mountain bike races in the country. And while he is sure his Boo will help him drop his time from last year and get closer to the top of the results sheet, he will also be anxious to see how all the time he dedicated in the winter and spring have paid off. We’ll check in with Paul next week to see how it all went, and we wish him good luck tomorrow!