There were three big reasons that the 2021 ULTRA is so special to me.

One is that we had a good group from Mount Dora who had mostly trained together specifically for this event. Wednesday after Wednesday since January, several of us hit the local hills for hours on end to attain the most climbing we could muster in one ride. The majority of us even came up in April to give the route a go for a training weekend. To see others introduced to this challenge was exciting to me. Of our group, each completed the challenge they accepted for the weekend: three century riders and two ULTRAs. Most placed top 5 in their age group! Even a client of mine accepted the century challenge and rode his heart out. I was so happy for each of them.

Most readers may not realize that we come from “flat Florida.” And there is a lot of truth to that label, however, we happen to live near the Mid-Florida Ridge where we have a monotonous route that offers 1000′ of climbing in approximately 10 miles. Not too shabby for “flat Florida”.

Left to right: Jose, Marcos, Dave, Alex, John, Donna, TD and Jessi
Two were volunteers (thanks so much!) but the rest of us came to face a challenge.

Secondly, being able to successfully complete my third ULTRA – after a few setbacks since 2015 – was very gratifying. I was not concerned at all with my finishing time, but just wanted to do the thing and have a good time. I rode the first part of the course with a new cycling friend, Jessi, who just decided the week of the Challenge to register for the 84 miler. Just before the first rest stop, another rider pointed out that her saddle bag was hanging precariously 1″ above her back wheel. We were in a great group that was making speedy time, but we had to stop and adjust the bag. It just wasn’t worth putting the 40+ riders behind us at risk had the bag fallen. We stopped for 2 minutes and the group was gone. A few miles down the road we found a couple who were willing to share pulls and keep the pace up. Before long, we came upon the rest stop at mile 22 and were back in the thick of a good group.

Jessi made it look easy, and smiles the entire time

This young lady and I picked up another few other nice folks to ride with: Dan from AL and Dave from Texas and several others that were just in passing. After a few more miles, Jessi found different group to ride with as we ascended the Three Mile Climb to the Top of Alabama. I spied Jessi as I left Adam’s Gap, on the south side of the mountain, and realized that she had decided to go for the Century: that little over-achiever! I was not surprised in the least. As for my new group, we kept our eyes out on each other and didn’t get too spread out over the duration of the route. Encouraging each other, enjoying descents and all but cursing on some of the brutal climbs, we stuck together. It really is difficult to find a good group to ride with at events like there. We picked up Drew Nelson, Brooke’s son, as we left Cheaha Mountain, and a few others at the last rest stop on Cheaha Mountain. We had approximately 8 miles of flats so we picked up the pace and rotated through the pace line towards Bain’s Gap: one of the meanest, nastiest short climbs I have ever done. It comes around mile 95, after over 9,500′ elevation in the legs. And it brings with it a portion that is 20%. Booger! By then we were well into 7 hours of riding, climbing and gutting it out. The chatting in our group ceased for a few minutes as each of us focused on getting to the stop sign, where the Bains Gap east to west climb ended. It was especially hard, despite having a 34 cassette on my beautiful golden steed, aptly named Moxie.

No sooner than we reached the top of that hideous climb, the pain quickly dissipated as we flew down the other side. It was fantastic! Regrouping at the rest stop, we knew we had to come right back and climb Bain’s Gap from the west side. This is where things got ugly. We decided that what happens on Bain’s Gap stays on Bain’s Gap. It’s just one of those things. Words were uttered, sounds were made and it was just one of those things you don’t want to discuss n hindsight. Again, once we crested the steepest part of the hill, whoops and hollers of joy penetrated the thick forest where many of us flew down the other side, gaining speed for the entire descent. It was amazing! The pain of Bain was in the rearview mirror. Alas!

“All” we had now was to climb Cottaquilla (another 2 mile climb, but with only minor gradients) as we made our way to the end of the course. By now we were around mile 106 of 126. Once Cottaquilla was behind us, we enjoyed another multi-mile descent where we tucked in, cut the apex of corners and picked up the pace, yet again.

We were about to finish this difficult challenge!

At mile 122 comes the most-feared climb of the entire event: a 2 mile, loathsome ascent that camouflages a 22-24% portion where your front wheel will actually skip off the tarmac if you aren’t paying attention. The only good thing about it is that it doesn’t last that long but when you are in the middle of it, you think it will never stop. Thankfully, there is a hairpin and a slight reprieve afterward for a quarter mile or so. That was my saving grace: knowing that it would be over ‘soon.’ The final climb is just about 1,000′ long but it goes straight up to heaven (or was it to hell?), to the top of Chimney Peak. That is where the final Rest Stop is – and trust me – most mere mortals likely stop there. We did and had a nice photo once our entire group made it up. The students of Jacksonville State University were a breath of fresh air as they asked what they could get for us, took care of us and obliged our requests for photos. Truly, from there it was ALL downhill to the Finish Line. And we absolutely blasted our way to it.

The finish was terrific. The four of us crossed the Finish Line together just 2 miles later: some in good form and some looking like battle-worn soldiers. But WE DID IT!

Ever since 2019, I have carried something around with me: the pain of failure. To reinforce that pain, the ashes of my finisher’s shirt from 2019 were sent to me in a small, clear envelope with a special motivating note on them from the Ride Director herself. On this day I carried those ashes in my back pocket and even reached back to touch them many times during the event. After months of vigorous training, dropping some pounds and training my mind, I had no doubt that I would complete the ULTRA in 2021. I was driven by a deep, intrinsic motivation to redeem myself. Since 2015 I had had one thing after another try and knock me down, to defeat me. But I do not quit that easily.

These ashes have haunted me since the summer of 2019.
I do not handle failure very well.

Upon crossing the Finish Line, Brooke was there to present each of us with a finisher’s medal, 2021 event cycling cap and finisher’s t-shirt. Little did she know that I had a little something for her. 🙂

Redemption was on my mind.

I asked her to close her eyes, and hold out her hands…this is what happened next:

Giving the ashes right back to Brooke was beyond satisfying!

Redemption never tasted so sweet

Finally, the crown jewel of the weekend (for me) was something that occurred at the pre-ride dinner on Saturday evening. You can read more about that in part 3.