The past decade has seen an explosion of new “challenge” events geared towards being inclusive to more athletes, while adding unique features. Mud runs and warrior runs have replaced the venerable trail run, while trail ultra-marathons continue to grow. In the cycling world, the Gran Fondo has emigrated from Europe to America, with new events popping up all over the country, while the sport of cyclo-cross has experienced an enormous surge in popularity in the last decade.
But before all the boutique events, there was the Iron Cross. Billed as North America’s original ultra-cross race, the Iron Cross could be described as part Gran Fondo, part off-road adventure, mixed with a little cyclo-cross to create a day of awesome views and challenging fun. It’s no wonder why I jumped at the invite to come up and race the lucky 13th edition!
The Iron Cross was hatched in 2003 by longtime road racer and cycling advocate, Mike Kuhn. The guiding principles of the event are: 1) take care of every racer, and 2) there’s no such thing as too much suffering! From its humble beginnings, though, the Iron Cross has become known as one of the premiere ultra-cross events in the U.S. And while the race has evolved, and grown out of its original course venue in the Pine Grove Furnace State Park to its brand new home starting in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the heart of the race remains delivering an event for every racer, and, as I can attest, loads of suffering.
Starting and finishing in downtown Williamsport, the race winds itself out of Williamsport in just a few short miles. No sooner have you left town than you’re hitting the first of six big climbs, making your way upward 5 ½ miles past Racoon Mountain. There is little time to rest, however, as you head onto the open roads and the potential for serious head and crosswinds for about 3 miles before hitting the mile long “wall” on Route 44. The climb averages 9 percent, but has pitches between 15 and 23 percent. From the summit of Route 44 you are treated to a spectacular view and a 3 ½ mile descent that plunges you down nearly 1,400 feet to Elimsport, not far from your first aid station. Early in the race, many tend to ignore Aid 1, like me, but it’s a great feature for those wanting to travel lighter on the first climb.
The course then grinds its way up the road before hitting the dirt once more with the 1.6 mile 3rd Gap climb, which averages about 7 percent, but stings with a few pitches above 15%. Any thoughts of relief, though, are premature, because the course hits a series of rollers for nearly 5 miles before reaching a steady 4 mile downhill section that passes aid station 2. At the halfway point, Aid 2 is good place to restock your fuel, or pick up personal items delivered by the race. Once past Aid 2, the race tackles some of its best suffering in the final half, starting with the 4 mile climb up Walters Road.
On paper, Walter Road is the easiest of the big climbs, averaging just 5 percent with pitches of just 15, but at more than 2 or more hours into the race, this climb seems to go on forever. With so many miles left, I opted to ride conservatively, which extended my pain to more than a half an hour. Once at the top, you’re treated to a combination of rutted dirt fire roads and some rocky, technical single-track descents, before beginning a slow single-track grind to a hellishly steep torture session masquerading as a “run-up”.
There is nothing runnable about this march up the mountain. I also learned thats its impossible to shoulder my 29er. According to Strava, it took me 16 min to plod the half mile hill. Strava also says the average grade was 21 percent, with several spots nearly 40 percent! But all this brutality had its reward, in the form of the long-supported Larry’s Tavern, which featured fresh venison and ice-cold beer. I passed on the meat, but gladly refreshed myself for the final 15 miles. And if that wasn’t enough, I was treated to my first snow flurries of the fall.
After an easy 5 miles down to Aid 3, I thought the better part of valor was to stop and fill up my bottle and grab some food. I have to give props to Kuhn and huge props to all the race staff, because the rest areas are fully stocked and these folks were awesome help on a frigid day. While the 3 min stop may have cost me time, it was far better to avoid a major bonk in the last hour. As it turned out, the screaming fast descent from Aid 3 and Jacks Hollow, was followed by a painful 2 mile climb up Lorson road and then a series of rollers before the final 5 mile plunge to Williamsport. As the race hits the final 5 k, the Iron Cross throws in some tricky off-camber cyclo-cross fun before dumping you onto the flat, fast run to the finish, and some hot food and cold beer of your choice!
It’s been a long time since I’ve competed in any mass start bike races, so this was a great way to come back to the sport. I honestly cannot say enough about the event, because it has everything you want. In an era where many races look to cash in first, and leave you wondering how you will find the route or carry your gear, Iron Cross gives you the support from the start. You can leave drop bags that are delivered to each aid station, or you can drop stuff off as you go. The staff is friendly and helpful, and the course simply amazing. The prizes are pretty awesome, and even if you’re not an award winner, you still go home with cool shwag. And most of all, you get as much suffering as you can dish out! And while this year’s race was a bit frosty for me, it was great to catch up with an old friend, and get to revisit much of what I’ve always loved about the sport of cycling.
My Iron Cross by the numbers
32o F was the temperature at the start; I never saw anything above 40.
4:53:00 was my finish time
6,873 ft of climbing
3042 kJ expended
208 W Norm Power*
I also consumed 3 Honey Stinger Bars, 3 Waffles, a bag of Stinger Chews, 2 L of Skatch Lab Matcha and Lemons drink mix, 1 L of coke, and a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich. As well as an entire 14” pizza and a Fat Tire ale after the race.