REFLECTING ON FREETOWN 50: THE RAMBLINGS OF A TIRED PROMOTER
Every year around late Summer as Freetown 50 approaches I go out for a ride. It’s one of many rides that I’ll take after a relatively short hiatus from riding in Freetown to avoid the deer flies that infest the trails in the Summer. While I love riding Freetown, this one has a purpose. This ride is the initial recon of the course that I’ve devised and what condition that it’s in. As always I have mixed feelings about the huge undertaking that will consume me for the next two months and whether or not it is worth the effort. And as always, all of the great memories propel us towards another Freetown 50... which of course will be the best Freetown 50 ever.
A Little History
Most people don’t know this but back in 2013 the first Freetown 50 was founded with a partner. At the time promoting races was the furthest thing from my mind but as a rider of Freetown I had fond memories of The Big Bang race of my youth. So amidst the early years of owning a bike shop I turned to a friend who was planning to launch his own business. Enter Dan Lamoureux. Dan and I had aspirations that Freetown 50 would sell out at 500 racers. With the help of Chris Pierce, Jason Berube, Mike Donovan, and many others we designed a course that we loved. Chris and I must have ridden fifteen different variations of that course over the summer while I trained for Leadville. Shameless plug, I have one of those fancy Leadville buckles around somewhere.
We made a ton of mistakes that first year and here are the best of them.
- We used plastic arrows that required nails to mount and a hammer to remove. They were also practically invisible and many racers got lost. I still find some up now and then that I never tore down.
- We made the course too easy. In Freetown! The lead riders finished in under 4 hours. However, they still do no matter how much harder we make it.
- We put our feed zone on the southern end of the course with a plan to re-supply it as needed. It took 45-60 minutes to reach it to bring supplies which of course is too long.
- I smashed the undercarriage of my Honda Ridgeline on several rocks during cleanup. It was actually a given every year that I would need to at least replace one swaybar link.
- We assumed that we would have 500 riders and we bought a bike to raffle off. It was an expensive bike and we did not get 500 riders.
After the first year it was clear that Freetown 50 was always going to be so expensive that the bike shop would need to cover the losses, I was always going to break my truck (RIP Ridgeline), and we were always going to need a crew of friends to make it happen. Dan went on to form Northeast Race Management and put on some great running events. You should check them out if you’re into running! I enlisted my pals to create the Pukwudgie TT to make up for Freetown 50’s losses. That lost money too, and Rock Hard Racing was born! And yet my friend Chris Moniz chose to join me on the journey.
The theory behind Freetown 50 as an event was that there are very few local endurance MTB events anymore and the ones that exist are very serious. We positioned F50 the weekend after Landmine which is arguably the biggest and best MTB event in New England. Why? Well for one no one else wants that weekend.
Freetown 50 was designed to be a whooping, but an entertaining and approachable one if that makes sense. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s what it is. The different distances allow every rider to pick one that will be “epic” for them but none are short. There is no 6 mile beginner race, but there is a 17 mile beginner race that will be just as challenging as the 50 mile is for the Experts. But the 50 mile and 50k are still open to anyone.
We feel that this format is different and approachable while still being insanely challenging. No one goes home feeling like it was too easy.
One of the things that sets Freetown 50 apart is the humor that we inject into the event. It started with Yoda signs at some point and then Chuck Norris quotes. At some point we did Ron Burgundy. Then finally it clicked that the humor was one of the things motivating our racers along so we went all in with it. Jaws was the first year that we went nuts. Ryley Newton even bought a shark pinata to hang behind the podium. In 2019 we did Ghostbusters and it was everywhere. The Spark crew at the feed zone even wore jumpsuits with proton packs and played the theme song on a boom box. We’re that kind of crazy.
The theme for 2020 is Spaceballs. I’m so damn excited.
Of everything that has evolved over the years the feed zone may be my favorite. It started as a tent with some water the first year on legit, the other side of the world. The Team Spark Road Team showed up with a grill and started feeding racers hot dogs of all things. It turned into a party that we wouldn’t hear about until days later. I had no idea this was happening. But the following year it was back and bigger.
I still today believe that our feed zone helps people get through Freetown 50 in a way that no other race does.
We made it a goal to be one of the most supportive races around so today the Feed Zone is two sided and smack in the middle of the course. It’s accessible and fully staffed with volunteers to feed racers and even a bike mechanic to render aid. It is always a party and the best place to spectate the event. About an hour into the race there is a constant flow of racers coming and going from both sides, all sharing their stories of their adventure thus far. It is my favorite place to be during Freetown 50.
The Freetown 50 course is designed to inflict pain and then immediately offer relief. It is almost a cruel joke but it works. Every technical section ends just as you’re ready to quit and every fire road lasts just long enough to make you forget how hard the technical section was. Over the years we’ve gone from too easy to way too hard. We’ve ridden through motorcycle traffic, tempted heat stroke on endless singletrack that climbs the same hill over and over, and even ridden a 3 mile rock garden. Today’s course and all variations of it are a true balance of the best of previous years rolled into something that we can manage well and we all find fun.
My Favorite Memories
To list the amazing memories from every Freetown 50 would make this roughly a nine part blog series. Here are the top three that come to mind.
Year One, The Epic Marking Adventure. I mentioned earlier that we used nails and barely visible plastic arrows the first year. These of course needed to be nailed to every tree at every turn, while we taped a 25 mile course, while we placed lawn sign arrows and Strava segment signs, for nine hours. Mike Donovan and I shared one sole sleeve of Clif Bloks and maybe had one bottle each. We almost perished before the first Freetown 50. Why would this be a fond memory? Because shared experience builds a firm bond between friends, and Mike D and are friends forever now. We did go a few weeks without talking.
Year Two, When Team Spark Showed Up. Year Two of Freetown 50 was right around when Team Spark was at its largest. These folks would follow Spark to the end of the earth, or worse...into one of the original Freetown 50 courses. Team Spark at this time was mostly triathletes who we had convinced to become mountain bikers. They not only showed up to race but they helped set up, brought supplies for the feed zone, raced, and then helped tear everything down. Team Spark was a family and Year Two of Freetown 50 was the strongest example of it.
Year Seven, Ghostbusters. The Ghostbusters year was my favorite of the theme years for a ton of reasons. The theme itself was amazing and everyone loved it. But it was also the last year that the Spark was a bike shop and the crew was working Freetown 50. This was the year that the youngest of our crew all dressed up to work the Feed Zone in Ghostbusters overalls and crushed it all day. They saved racers from cramping and even saved the day a few times with their mechanical prowess. They were amazing and it was the last year that we were all together for it.
So now I’m crying.
Freetown 50 is a special event in a somewhat unexplainable way. It’s an incredible amount of work for a relatively small amount of people. It may live forever or the next time you cross the finish line may be the last time we hang one up.
About the Author
Mike O’Connell owned and operated Spark Bike Run Sports for over ten years while promoting events. Mike sold the shop in 2021 to spend more time with family and to rediscover a love for cycling and continue working around bikes through Rock Hard Racing and Endurance Threads.