Florida, Man: Austin Wins HuRaCaN Lite
2023 HuRaCaN LiTe: Lucky number 13 for Austin
For those unfamiliar with the off-road biking scene in Florida, it’s a lot more spectacular than you’d think. And a lot of that has to do with one person: the Singletrack Samurai, Karlos. He’s been pioneering dirt routes and behind the scenes at bikepacking races for over a decade, headed into his 13th edition of the HuRaCaN this year. We follow OBED gravel ambassador Austin Sullivan for his fourth voyage down to the Sunshine state in January to participate in the HuRaCaN.
My first HuRaCaN was in 2017. I was feeling somewhat experienced, having ridden the Colorado trail in the summer of 2016, and wanted to keep the bikepacking vibes alive. While I was a bit tired due to a miscalculation of driving time, I had a blast and completed the route in 2.5 days on a full-suspension 27.5+ bike. After a stint of living in Colorado, I returned to the Southeast amid the Covid lockdowns and rejoined the event in 2021, riding the route over three days with two friends, aboard a titanium hardtail.
Last year, 2022 I took a more race-y approach and blazed the route in 42 hours with a fellow Chattanoogan. While we did a solid job with our riding speed, I still felt like I was underselling myself with too much stopped time and lollygagging—I knew I could move through the swamps and trees faster.
Towards the end of 2022, I broke my collarbone, and with that came some serious doubts about my annual participation in the HuRaCaN. After a couple weeks of recovery riding on the trainer, I began to ponder a return to the start line in Ocala, Florida. I knew there was a “LiTe” version of the route that was published the year prior, for those who wanted to forego some of the rougher singletrack and skip the chest-deep water crossings. Karlos’ description of the LiTe route had a suggested minimum tire of 42c, and a campfire lit in my head; I bet I could ride this on my OBED GVR. The metaphorical wheels began to rotate.
Fast forward to Shangri La campground, February 3rd. A gaggle of bikepackers congregated for a pre-race pizza party hosted by Karlos himself. My brief interaction with Karlos went something along the lines of, “You feeling fast?” I replied, “Yeah, I think so.” We both traded our thoughts on the current course record (or FKT if you’re into that sort of thing), and both thought it was breakable. 1 Day 9 hours was the mark. Judging by my Unbound XL times of ’20 & ’21, I really thought 24 hours was within reach assuming there weren’t too many sections of sugar sand or mud. Let’s do this, I thought to myself.
Before dawn on race day, it was darned cold. “I hope it’s not this cold out on the course”, I told the people camping next to me as they broke down their tents to pack them on their bikes. I then peered over at my bike, with nothing more than a couple of top tube food bags and a tool roll. In the past, I have brought a bivy and a couple more items of comfort, but this year’s intention was to make riding the priority and not have the option to nap comfortably. I’ll go more in-depth on my gear and bike setup in a future post, but for now, this one is all about the race.
Naturally, I thought I was ready to roll. I got to the start line in time to hear the tail end of the pre-race briefing. “Record-breakers at the front, everyone else in the middle, and if you’re trying to break the slowest time record, over 7 days, then grab the rear of the group”. I moseyed my way to the front, and after glancing at a friend’s sunglasses, I realized I didn’t have mine.
I rushed back to my car, rummaged around, and found some, though not the transition lenses I’d intended to wear. I sprinted back over to the start area as the group is rolling out, trying to get back toward the front of the 100 participants before we entered the singletrack. About two miles in, the LiTe route deviates from the OG route onto the Santos Greenway- a paved bike path stretching through the middle of the state. I look up to see four friends looking around wondering where I was. I caught up and chatted for a minute or two before Eric loudly announces, “Alright, see ya later, buddy” as if to tell me it's okay to motor on and leave the group.
I did just that. Rolling away, one guy comes with me. I look over and to my surprise, he's riding a Litespeed Ultimate G2, two days old. We chat a little about how he just got his bike and was excited to ride it. He looks at how little I have on my bike—somewhat astonished—something I experienced the day before as everyone was prepping their seat bags and bar rolls for an expedition. Soon enough another guy catches up, and again we talk about the contrast of our volume of gear. He mentioned he hurt his shoulder but otherwise was planning on riding the OG route, much like myself. “The bum shoulder tour” I dubbed our version of HuRaCaN.
Personally, I love riding my gravel bike on singletrack, and in the opening 20-30 miles there are some wonderful sections on our route. A little bit of the Florida Trail split our group up, and then the Marshall Swamp trails ended up being the last time I’d see my hurt shoulder brother until the finish line. Overall my editions of riding and racing the HuRaCaN, the Marshall Swamp is still my favorite section. I just wish it lasted as long as the Green Swamp… Tall pine trees with short palm trees fill the ground view, and tight, twisting singletrack is bliss.
Leaving the swamp, hitting a couple of sections of pavement, I find myself on the long straight dirt hills around the bombing range. Unfortunately, the route no longer goes along the perimeter of the bombing range as it did in 2017, but I knew it was nearby because the roads are seared into my mind from years past. This time around, I was feeling great. Eating through some gummies and cookies, I was humming along and enjoying the sun while occasionally checking behind to see if fellow racers were in sight.
Rolling through the various swamps and forests, I felt like I was quickly checking off the boxes of the route. Santos Greenway, done. Marshall Swamp, done. Looming was Maggie Jones road, a notoriously sandy bit of road that I’ve found myself walking in previous editions. While it was quite loose and would cause me to come to a near stop, I managed to ride through all the loose bits. Much to the chagrin of my sandy rotors and chain, I kept shifting gears and trying to float the bike through the sand. I was having a lot of fun, mainly trying to focus on keeping my weight off the bars, and over the rear wheel. After a couple of connecting roads and bits of pavement, I rolled into the double track that rolls along the shores of Lake Apopka- the best place for gator sighting.
With wide open views with the lake on my left and swamps to my right, I kept my visual gator hunt on. Earlier in the day I had been battling a little bit of a headwind, but by the time I made it to the lake, it had shifted to a tailwind. Excited to have some help, I kept tempering my effort to stay within myself, using my power heart rate data to stay in line. All in all, I saw 11 gators hanging out on the side of the road, and none of them seemed to even notice my presence. Lake Apopka, done.
Laying ahead of me was a lot of pavement, starting off with the highest point in Florida- Sugarloaf Mountain at a whopping 250 ft above sea level. When deep into a bike ride, 140 miles in this case, the short climbs can feel a little more than usual. Cruising through the Florida Pyrenees, I passed a fellow racer who was in the lead for the route but in the opposite direction. Nothing more than a nice hoot and holler as we passed, I hope it lifted his spirits as much as it did mine! After finishing the last of the climbs (if you can call them that), I passed through Minneola on a bike path I’ve watched be built up over the years. Lo and behold there was a family camp in the park event going on, so the path was a little busier than normal and there were dozens of tents in a field overlooking the lake. I grabbed a selfie at the Suncreek Brewery, mandatory for route verification, and kept rolling to a Taco Bell I had spotted along the route for my biggest resupply before the long stretch of the Green Swamp.
167 miles done & 167 miles to go. Twenty dollars of Taco Bell, a bottle full of soda and I was ready to tackle the second half.
It was around 7:15 pm, putting me halfway at just under 11.5 hours of time. That felt good, knowing I was on track for a sub-24-hour finish, I was motivated. Also motivating was the expected crossing paths of some friends who were riding the OG route in the opposite direction. Fellow Chattanogans Ali, Monica, and Kim were crushing along in what was their first go-a-round at the HuRaCaN.
The Green Swamp has often been a slog for me. I’d zoom out on my GPS to see when I’d exit, and see that we were basically riding in squares, Karlos trying to get every bit of dirt into the route without double-backing. Shake a fist at him, I have. But this time it felt more exciting. The moon was nearly full and lit up my path. A lot of the roads in the swamp are hard-packed limestone, and super white. The combination of a smooth white road and a bright moon had me turn my headlights off for what had to be a couple of hours, occasionally turning them on for bumpy sections or passing cars. I don’t know if you’ve ever ridden somewhere that feels magical, but this was it. Maybe it was the 13 previous hours in the saddle, or it truly was out of this world but I was so happy. The white ribbon of the road twisting ahead of me, my moon-lit shadow cast on the ground in front of me and the reflections of moonlight off of palm trees put the biggest smile on my face. Somehow it was all topped off by seeing my friends, right after a dismount and lift of the bike over a gate, I saw three headlights approaching. “Is that Austin?”, I heard and responded with some sort of visceral chant/yell/whoop. Lay the bike down and quickly grab a hug from them, check in on how they are feeling, spread some stoke, and remount to get this thing done!
At 1:30 a.m. Green Swamp was done. It dawned on me as I searched the Ridge Manor gas station for some Coke-a-cola. All the racers going the other direction had drained the coolers of what I call ‘real coke’. No, I don’t want Diet or Sugar-free, I want sugar-FULL Coke. The only option was a 2 Liter, so I obliged thinking I’d leave the leftovers outside for the next racer to indulge (a not-too-uncommon gesture in bikepacking races). Chatting with the clerk, he seemed a little annoyed that the store had been so busy with cyclists all day. I thanked him and told him there would be more still. A 2 liter of coke, coffee cake, pop-tarts, more cookies, and some water had me fueled up to finish it out.
At 66 miles to go, there was one more checkpoint selfie, and hopefully, no need to stop for food. Rolling out of Ridge Manor was the coldest I had been the whole night. I resisted the urge to put on my jacket, knowing I’d get warm in ten minutes and have to stop to pack it away. I rolled on, taking long, deep breaths thinking they would help me deal with the cold air on my sunburned arms. Soon enough, I was warm and happy to not be dealing with a jacket. I began to do some math, something about if I averaged 16mph I could finish under 23 hours. Around 4 hours left, I began to push a little harder than my intended plan. A target of 200 watts turned into 250 which led to a fair and sizeable bonk. Boom, I felt done! I was pushing 125 watts just thinking I’m happy to finish with whatever time I could. Shortly after, I snapped out of it—I’m hungry. At this point in events, I often must convince myself to keep eating.
I managed to eat some, but certainly didn’t keep up and would end up with little bonks every 30-40 minutes. 2 caffeine gels shut down the yawns I began getting around 4:30 am. Then came a section of road I don’t remember from years past as it was in worse condition than ever. Too dark for photos, I’d describe it as an 8-10 foot wide road of tilled sand. It made no sense to me- Why was it tilled? Why is it on the course? Will I break my bike? The mind had turned a bit sour. I was getting text messages from family and friends, and just receiving messages made me mad as I was simultaneously dealing with another bonk and a very unfortunate road. Unable to ride the tilled section of the road, I was up on the shoulder getting whacked by branches and brush—but still moving! All of the sudden, a terrible sound- what seemed like my derailleur ripping off was actually just my chain getting jammed in the frame and I was nearly crushed. So happy to see I did do anything catastrophic, I unjammed the chain and remounted to continue onward.
Ecstatic to see pavement ahead, I felt slight relief amid the sugar crash. But that couldn’t be it for mishaps, right? My Wahoo decided to add to it, showing 6% battery with 15 miles to go…I pulled out my other Wahoo (for 24hr events I carry two units and switch them mid-way so as to not deal with charging while riding). Loaded the route and had it ready in my thigh pocket for when the main unit died. Next glance down and it was dead, I quickly swapped units and continued to the finish without stopping. That felt like a huge win, amid all the darkness in my mind and gut.
The last 12 miles included more singletrack than I thought, especially since I thought there was none left! Luckily it was brief, I was on double track and then the Santos Greenway. Anticipating the last turn onto the connecting singletrack that began the whole race, 23 hours and 30 minutes earlier. Such a relief when I saw the trail sign “Shangri La Connector”. With 2 miles of trail left, I put it in high gear. However many bonks I had prior, it didn’t matter. Some sort of new freshness was in my legs. That finish line freshness, you could say. Soon enough I could see the tents and cars in the campground, and I popped out of the woods to a raucous and rowdy cheering crowd of no one. Well, one guy in a campsite about 200 feet away gave a single clap and congrats, but I don’t think he really knew how much relief I felt to be done.
Austin's Tale of the Tape
Finish time: 23 hours 46 minutes
Distance: 334 miles 6,495 ft of vertical gain
1st finisher and LiTe course record by over 9 hours
16,000+ calories burned
8 gels, 5 gummy shot blocks, 2 large cookies, a lot of soda, 1 bag of combo’s, 1 McDonalds fries and chicken sandwich, Taco Bell (1 quesadilla, 3 burritos, 1 taco), 2 poptart packages, peanut crackers, 1 Chips Ahoy, 1 Coffee Cake, handful of Sportslegs
Solar exposure: Ridiculous tan lines (read: sunburn)
Gator sightings: 11
Families scared watching me eat in Taco Bell: One
Shimano Di2 gear shifts: 3,800 (my personal favorite stat)