Racing with the Armadillos – The Natchez Trace 444 Roundup

Jillian Mooney
October 10, 2022

Joe here – well its finally done, season 50 is complete. It feels like yesterday when I was going to my very first race on my shiny purple Falcon bike. Of course that was1972. What a journey racing bikes has taken me on for those 50 seasons.

The Natchez Trace 444 was a whole new race and race experience. Held on the historic Natchez Trace Parkway, George Thomas wasn’t joking when he said no turns, no stop signs , no traffic lights , just 444 miles of the most beautiful pave you could imagine. It’s certainly not built for a little guy who is too light and too old to race such a fast time trial but passion carries me forward every time!

The race starts near Nashville, Tennessee and passes through Alabama to finish in Natchez Mississippi. Beautiful landscape, incredible people, Jill and I will be back to enjoy some more southern hospitality.

Alongside Jill my crew consisted of fellow ultra cyclist and World Ultra-Cycling Association record holder Doug Chivington and his wife Amber. Doug holds 13 different WUCA world records. He’s a talented guy. From the minute we connected in Nashville I knew Doug and Amber would have my back. It was instant trust and I get the sense we’ll be in Ohio and they’ll be visiting us in Ireland before too long.

The first 100 miles is where I set out my race stall. My intent was to go close to 4 hours 10 mins with an average heart rate of 160bpm, which is uncomfortable but sustainable. A challenging start to fuel but Jill kept a close eye on my blood glucose levels via the Supersapiens dashboard. Between my bottle mix and TORQ bars I maintained levels high enough to support the effort. I came in though at 4 hours 20 mins, 10 mins slower than I did for the first 100 at Sebring at the start of the season. I put this down to the nature of the long, leg sapping drags. But it was the downhills that surprised me because I had to push equally hard to maintain speed. Normally downhills are a help, these ones, not so much. I guess I am just too lightweight.

At 104 miles I was overhauled by Chris Stellato who started 5 mins behind me. A super fast time trialist on a fully loaded machine with rear disc and route knowledge. When he passed me I kind of knew I wouldn’t be seeing him again. I’m pretty proud it took him100 miles though as I’m his senior by at least 20 years. I was now in second place or that’s what I thought, the tracker system was not providing any real information for crews or public, making it extremely difficult to understand race flow. It was the same for everyone so nothing to be done but maintain full concentration on my task, which is always the podium.

At around 118 miles we had a 40 mile shuttle in the car as a section of the parkway was under reconstruction. We used the time to refuel and to change into night time clothing. We knew the temperature would drop and after enjoying solid day time temps it would feel cold.

The night arrived and I was extremely purposeful about putting in a dedicated fight with the race. I may not be built for time trial speed but I am experienced in managing performance in the tough hours of dark. I knew if I were to make the podium this was where those precious minutes were up for grabs. I set off full gas and one by one reeled in each rider’s flashing lights in front gaining confidence and self belief as the night wore on.

However, I also knew the time was coming when the inner dialogue would force a conversation about why I should slow down and coast….just a little. This season has seen a marked improvement in my mental ability to sustain high output in the most difficult night hours, even over multiple nights. I think back to Race Across the West, each night I put in a dedicated shift when riders around me were slowing down. All the hard work Jill and I have done behind the scenes has paid off making me a better all round ultra rider. This is impossible to fake when you are in the depths of night trying to hold speed without being forced off the bike. My passion to race with the top guys trumps all the talk of age related decline.

True to form the night was cold but I managed just fine. After the 2nd but shorter shuttle at Jackson I had a more difficult time getting going again. I was still in the depths of dark and as the first glints of light emerged so did the rising mist. I’m no stranger to damp mist but it really does get inside you after a night time of full gas.

Jill was managing my blood glucose levels. In fact she was decreasing the concentration of my bottle mix and requesting longer gaps between feeds. This is the beauty of a continuous glucose monitor. She could see blood glucose trending high (above 170mg/dl) for too long putting me at risk for the dreaded performance gut. Crises averted, my gut was fine I was just fatigued from the effort.

The last 50 miles hurt me. I did have pressure from riders behind and the fact that we really couldn’t monitor their position because of the lack of tracker information meant I had to assume they were just out of sight. Larry Osland, an experience recumbent rider was fast on the flats and downhills, thankfully the last 50 consisted of long drags uphill and I knew that if they hurt me, they would hurt him more.

Leaving it all out on the road is an easy thing to say but to slowly and methodically empty the tank and then empty the reserve tank to the empty tank takes experience and a willingness to descend into a world of eye watering hurt. The parkway has mile markers and I would search ahead for 30 miles turning to 29 miles turning to 28 miles. I was done.

‘Push Joe, stay on top of the gear, the biggest gear you’ve got’, I refused to move out of the big ring on those last long drags. ‘Feck it, I’m not budging’. Up and over and then the final abrupt end of the parkway. It was done and we had no idea what position we were in, we just knew we had a great race!

The crew bundled me into the car and we scooted to the Natchez Grand hotel where we were met by George and his team. A third place finish in a time of 22 hours and 48 mins and a Natchez 444 forever name, awarded by George, of Mississippi Wild Clover. I kind of love that!

Smiles all round from beginning to end and then the after party. George Thomas knows how to organise a race. He’s got a number of races on the world calendar and we’ll do our best to race with him again, maybe the Race Across Oregon in 2023.

One last thought, I became enamoured with wildlife on this trip especially the armadillo’s. Beautiful creatures whose name means ‘little armoured one’. I guess you could say the same about me. I’ve been known to armour up every once in a while. Its been necessary at times but more and more I realise that there is strength in the soft underbelly too.

A heartfelt thank you to Team Chivington for taking Jill and I under their wings, our connection with you turned this race into so much more.

And there’s a whole other post about riding and training camps with my good friend Marc Poland in North Carolina. You’d be hard pushed to find a more beautiful and hospitable place to ride. Exciting times ahead…..

If you are interested in being on a mailing list for Marc and Joe’s training camps in North Carolina please email me at Joe@teamjoebarr