One of the main reasons that The Texas Hill Country 600 is held this time of the year is that weather forecasters normally predict temperatures at Race HQ in Helotes, TX to peak in the low to mid 70’s before dropping into the 50’s overnight. Well, that wasn’t the case for this year’s race, and in fact, the weather would have a huge impact on the outcome of the event. Temperatures at race start didn’t budge any higher than 43 degrees and racers were met with rain right out of the chute. They saw very little relief throughout the day with temperatures barely nudging above the 50 degree mark.
So with the dismal weather predictions coming to fruition, a race that normally sees more than a dozen or so entrants is now set to start with a meager roster of 5 brave souls. All had not only paid their training dues for the event, but had also invested strongly in the race due to their significant travel and there was absolutely no way they would throw in the towel before the start. So, weather be Damned, Joel Sothern, Mike Wilson, John Caton, Matt Carnal and Jerry Arnold all set out to win.
Before the race even started, Jerry Arnold from Valentine, NE began having issues that would inevitably catch up with him out on the road. Arnold, the fifth place finisher of last year’s Race Across Oregon had come down with an intestinal bug the night before the race, but still showed up for the green flag. I believe it was Dex Tooke who showed up at the Race Across America start line in similar condition thinking that he wouldn’t last, and low and behold he worked through the illness and finished the entire race. So, it certainly wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that Arnold may do the same. Arnold soldiered out the first 42.6 miles to the first time station in Medina, TX, and that was all he could muster and pulled out of the race due to his illness.
So, it’s still very early on into the race and we’re already down to four warriors. Time Station 1 sees Matt Carnal from Tulsa, OK arrive first with Sothern, Caton and Wilson all cruising through within 13 minutes of him in that order. Carnal, the owner and head coach of Carnal Endurance Coaching LLC based in Tulsa, Oklahoma was riding a very strong race thus far. He set the pace through the hilliest section of the race extending his lead over Sothern to 12 minutes upon reaching TS 2, Leakey, TX. Even though Carnal put 7 minutes on Sothern through this section, Sothern had suffered 2 punctures in route. Caton and Wilson chose to lay back and stay within their race plans and watch from a distance while at the same time not letting things get away from them as they cruised in 22 and 37 minutes respectively behind the race leader.
Even though race leader Carnal was out in front pushing the pace, he had never been tested at the 600km (~375 mile) distance. Don’t get me wrong, Carnal has a very strong endurance resume with tons of cycling, running, triathlon and mountaineering experience, but the fact is, he had yet to experience a race length beyond 235 miles. Even so, he’s first into Time Station 3 (mile 129) and riding strong. Sothern has yet another mechanical, this one a puncture on his support vehicle. Sothern continues without the essentials of his direct support and looses an additional 10 minutes to Carnal who’s now up by 22 minutes in all. He’s also doubled up the gap on Caton and Wilson.
So it’s rain, rain and more rain between TS3 & 4 with a bit of hail to add some diversity. TS4 arrival times are a bit sketchy, but it looks like Carnal hit the 178 mark 18 minutes ahead of Sothern. No shaking Sothern at this point, and as George said, “It’s typical Sothern, fast, few words and extremely efficient on the bike.” Sothern’s crew gets help from a couple of kind locals, and they get there support vehicle back into the race. Caton and Wilson drop back to 1hour and 1 1/2 hours behind at this point in the race.
Half way into the race and the weather is really beginning to be a big issue. John Caton’s Crew Chief and wife Lena is working double time doing her best to keep John in dry clothes. “It was challenging for us to get everything dry so that he would have what he needed. We had the heater in the rental van on as high and as hot as it would go for 13-14 hours drying John’s clothes. We were so hot we had the windows down even though it was 40 degrees. It worked though, we always had what he needed dry,” said Lena. With two prior Hill Country 600 races under John’s belt without an official finish, he and his crew were more than determined to somehow make this work.
Time Station 5 sees the arrival of Carnal first with Sothern just 8 minutes back. It was this section that Sothern caught Carnal after he stopped for a clothing change and a quick massage. It’s now 10PM and the 15 to 18 minute gap that Carnal had been able to maintain to this point has vanished and the two were racing no more than 100 yards apart at times. The section between TS5 and 6 is one of the more flat sections which sets the plate for an interesting duel between the two. Caton and Wilson both make it to TS 5, but the weather just proves to be too much of a factor with Caton’s race and he is unfortunately unable to continue. John’s crew reported that “His hands and feet were just too cold, numb, and painful to continue.” Caton pulls the plug at TS5, 254 miles into the race.
Down to three racers now, Carnal, Sothern and Wilson are all on the way to TS6 located in Fredricksburg, TX at the 300 mile mark. The race had evolved into a head to head duel between Carnal and Sothern on a cold, dark, and wet roadway in the remote Texas hill country. Two men who had endured the weather extremes and the brutal hill country terrain were now engaged in a cat and mouse game, one watching and waiting for the other to flinch as they took aim at TS 6. Even with the roadway illuminated by their support vehicles following behind, it is a route navigation error that will prove to be the turning point in the race.
After leaving TS5 Carnal opens a gap on Sothern to the point that they are no longer in visual contact. Then it happened. Carnal and crew missed a turn that would have kept them on the race course. It would be a long 15 mile miscue that neither Carnal or his crew would recognize until they were chased down by Race Director – George Thomas in the race official’s van. George’s description of Carnal’s attitude at this point is more than understandable; “He’s angry, frustrated and mentally devastated. But he’s also refusing to quit and assures us he will see us in Helotes.”
This unfortunate event has put Sothern in first position all by himself with 125 miles to the finish. One would think it would be difficult to stay on task to the end knowing that you have a sizable lead. Not so for Sothern, he had no idea he was leading the race. He assumed that he was still trailing Carnal and was not getting any information contrary to that belief.
One of many duties of the racer’s Crew Chief is to act as a filter to prevent information from reaching the racer that could negatively affect the racer emotionally and thus his physical performance. Crew Chief Steve Gerbig did just that, as he did not disclose what had happened to Carnal or that Sothern was the race leader. So the race continued, Sothern chasing a rabbit that he would never catch, and Carnal working his way back to the course after riding 15 “Bonus Miles.”
Sothern is first into TS6, Fredricksburg, TX (Mile 300) at 1:08AM and it was Carnal’s plan to ride into Fredricksburg and get a motel room to warm up and regroup before making the final push. Mike Wilson riding steady all night checked into TS6 at 4:10 AM and pushed right on through. Carnal would eventually withdraw from the race due to ankle issues.
The final push to the end for the most part lacked any major drama. Joel Sothern maintained the 3 hr or so gap on Mike Wilson to win his first Texas Hill Country 600 event. Wilson, the “Long Rider” who is consistently strong and steady, pulls in a 2nd place finish.
Congrats to all who raced the Texas Hill Country 600 in such challenging conditions. Best of luck the rest of the season!
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