7 Hours in the saddle. 8,000 vertical feet of climbing. 3 miles of hike-a-bike. Oh, and of course a rain-storm that came in just as the racers were on the 9,500′ ridgeline dropping the temps to a finger-numbing 40 degrees. That’s just a part of the sufferfest that is known as the Eden Epic mountain bike race. Mixed in, during the 45 mile perpetual slog, was actually a stunning landscape that wrapped around high above the Eden valley. Check the course out on Trailforks.com. The race course was a mix of forest roads that were rocky, muddy, and steep, as well as loose, technical single track. But don’t worry, you’re not alone in your ignorance, I don’t think anyone has heard about the Eden Epic. But anyone looking to challenge themselves beyond their limits really should know about this race!
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I signed up with only 47 days to prepare for the race. And though I did my best to pack as much vertical feet into every training ride I could over that one and a half months, I had no idea if it was going to be enough. But as race day rolled around, we drove down the dark, dirt road to the starting area well before sunrise, along with only 60-ish other riders. Yup, as it turns out, this race didn’t draw that big of a crowd. Maybe it was the lack of publicity, or maybe it was the staggering vertical gain over such a short distance. Either way, it was time to race, and I had a strategy that I needed to stick to in order to make it to the finish line without bonking. And that strategy was to not worry about position in the race or speed, but only focusing on my heart rate staying within my endurance/temp and threshold limits (below 165 bpm). But when the gun goes off, all pre-race strategies can easily go out the window.
The race, in my opinion, was broken up into 5 sections, divided up by aid stations. The first, being the easiest, was a rolling climb and descent around forest roads on the north side of the valley for 14.5 miles and 2,800 vert. The second part was the a climb up to the alpine zone, just below the ridgeline over a short 6 miles and 2,100 vert. Third, was the exciting and exposed portion that climbed up to 9,500 feet along the Ben Lomond ridge-line. The segment length was about 3.5 miles of climbing up another 1,100 feet followed by a hand-numbing 7 mile descent. The fourth section was highlighted by a two mile hike-a-bike up 1,500 vertical feet, a short traverse, and then blissful 7 mile descent. The fifth, and last section, was a relaxing, albeit muddy, 4 mile ride along the Pineview Reservoir into town to the finish line (with minimal climbing).
The start was exciting and admittedly the hardest part of any race for myself. The competitive nature in me wants to beat everyone, but that’s simply unrealistic. I’m not the fastest guy on bike in an XC race, and I constantly had to remind myself of that. Instead, I just let the race happen, I tried to keep a good cadence, and most importantly, keeping my heart rate down. And after the initial start, everyone seemed to settle into their positions. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. Even though it was double-track and forest roads, the climbs were steep and rocky, requiring serious precision or else you’d slip on the wet terrain. Speaking of wet, this section had tons and tons of mud puddles and patches. After riding through the first few, everyone’s bikes picked up another 10lbs of mud on each tire, making it a slog. And the short descents were just as sketchy because of all the loose rock without a dedicated line to navigate through it. This kept things interesting before we headed into the next sections that were nearly all climbing.
The second section was really the start of when I started having to dig deep, and settle into the pain cave. We headed up. And up. And even further up with little reprieve. Not much excitement here, to be honest, because half the time we were trying to avoid all of the hunters and off-roaders sharing the road with us in their trucks, side-by-sides, 4-wheelers, and dirt bikes. I’ll be honest, it got old quick. I’d be trying to focus on climbing the most stable/efficiency line, when a vehicle would come from around the corner and just expect us to move out of their way. It was frustrating. But at least the sun was still out, temperatures were in the upper 50s, and my legs still had gas in the tank! This section was capped of by cresting Willard Basin Overlook at 8,732 feet of elevation, and a brisk descent to the second aid station.
The third section of the race truly broke me. Well, not at first, but by the end it really did. At the second aid station, I filled up on gels, honey stingers, a glass of coke, and even a piece of bacon. And though I was temporarily energized, that was quickly evaporated at the first hike-a-bike of the race. The course finally entered singletrack, which normally I’d be elated about, but in this instance it was a steep moto-trail. And after a slow slog hiking uphill for a few hundred yards, I was able to get back on the bike and climb up into a remote alpine zone, just as the clouds began to creep lower and lower. At this point, the ride was slow-going, but was just about to get interesting.
Just as I climbed up and over the Willard Basin, onto the ridgeline, the winds picked up from the west, the temperatures dropped into the 40s, and it started to rain. I was in for quite the adventure, but just didn’t know it yet. The trail traversed south, through the low-lying clouds that hung out below me at 9,000 ft. With sharp drop-offs, thousands of feet down, on both my left and right, I just pedaled on towards a peak that was sticking out of the clouds. That peak was Ben Lomond, which sits at 9,716 feet. And after a combination of riding and hiking my bike through the rain, I reached just below the summit. And even though the race course technically didn’t climb up to the summit, I wasn’t going to come all this way without tagging it. So I hopped off my bike and scrambled the 50 feet up to the summit, in hopes of better views, but it was all the same white cloud I was stuck in. But of course, what goes up, must come down and I was in for quite the ride.
The descent off the summit of Ben Lomond, via the Northern Skyline Trail, was a 7 mile descent that dropped nearly 3,000ft. Normally, something I’d be excited about, but being that I was soaked, cold, and exhausted, this Blue rated trail became a double black very quickly. My gloves were soaked, rendering my fingers numb within minutes of the descent. I could no longer feel my fingers as I tried to navigate the technical switchbacks off the summit, let alone the high-speed sections through the muddy terrain. The rain and mud caked my face and glasses, making it nearly impossible to see the trail. I remember stopping mid way down, shaking out my hands just to get some feeling back in them. But somehow I made it down, in quite possible the worst shape I’ve ever been in, to my wife and dog waiting for me at the third aid station. And what relief that was.
The fourth segment of the race was filled with pure despair followed by some of the most fun descending. After I left the my wife, after changing into my spare (dry) bike kit, I pedaled off for what was going to be the most gut-wrenching part of the race. A 2 mile, 1,500 vertical foot hike-a-bike. Yup, I pushed my bike up a steep, muddy, rooty, moto-trail for an hour before getting back onto the bike. At this point, a group of racers were all at the same pace, complaining about the situation we were in, so at least I wasn’t alone. But luckily, the sun had come back out, warming our bodies and souls, just in time for one of the best downhill trails I’d ridden all year. After cresting the trail, just below Lewis Peak, it was a full-on, no brakes required, descent down the South Skyline Trail. The grade, difficulty, and cut of the trail was perfect. I was able to open up the speed without worrying about a rouge technical feature or hidden obstacles. Just pure flow, flying through the forest, just as the leaves were beginning to change colors for the fall.
The last section and the finish was comically some of the hardest riding. After my amazing descent, I popped out onto the road near Pineview Reservoir, stopping to say thanks at the fourth aid station, and also getting to see my wife and dog one last time before the finish. Unsuspectingly, I thought the race was going to be an easy pedal back on the road for the last four miles. I was wrong. We were routed onto a perimeter trail, that after the intense rain storm we had just experienced, turned the mellow trail into a mud bath. In a short time, my bike and myself, were once again covered in mud and it sucked the last bit of energy I had out of me. Luckily, I had just enough to make it through those last four miles and back onto the road to sprint my bike across the finish line to the cheers of a few spectators and of course my amazing wife and dog!
My final time was 7 hours 18 minutes, which I couldn’t have been more excited about. The race organizer congratulated me for finishing 10th (which turned out to be incorrect, I finished 11th). I was completely elated, and also incredibly sore and exhausted. My legs were slowly shutting down, but I didn’t care, because I had just completed the Eden Epic. Will I do it again, I don’t know, it’s still too soon to tell. But all I do know is that was one of my best days on a bike, and also one of the most challenging and adventurous days too!
Hi there, my name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.