Racing the Trans Am Bike Race two years in a row was tiring.
Delicious, indeed. (So many Twinkies.) But very very tiring.
After spending June of 2016 and 2017 racing across the country, then the rest of both summers more or less sprawled out on my back deck trying to recover, I decided that this year I would do things a little differently.
I started late last year thinking about how I could build on the fitness and learnings of the last few years, but also stretch myself in new ways – mentally, physically, emotionally. For me, cycling is the best method I have for continuing to evolve and test myself in a way that combines the body, heart and mind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every single workout, every ride that I do I learn something new, about myself or the world around me. Having that daily practice feels necessary and rewarding for me.
In addition to that critical daily process, it’s good to have markers – like races – along the way that help you know in what ways you actually are evolving and growing, and equally where you are weak. As I thought about this year, I kept coming back to racing off-road, and shorter distances (of course, “shorter” to me still means 50+ miles). At the same time, I didn’t want to let go of the long racing entirely; that is what brings me the most joy and where I feel most in my element.
In the end, I set up a 2018 race schedule that I thought would give me the variety, and challenge, I was searching for (because if one race makes you really tired, why not do ten?):
- February 2: Pace Bend 24 hour ultra (road)
- March 31: Austin Rattler 100k (mountain bike)
- April 28: Encierro 100k (gravel)
- May 5: Anti-Epic short course 71-mile (gravel)
- May 20: 12-hour National Championships Road Race (road)
- June 2: Dirty Kanza 200 mile (gravel)
- June 30: British Colombia 1000k Epic (rail trail, off road)
- August 11: Leadville 100 (mountain bike)
- October 6: Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra (gravel)
- October 26-27 (TBC, since I may have fallen over from exhaustion by then): World Time Trial Championships Borrego Springs (road)
Pace Bend Ultra 24-hour
First up was my first go at a 24-hour race in Texas on February 2. This race was held on a hilly 6.2-mile circuit and started at 6pm. Things went really well for a while (14 hours and 6 minutes, to be exact), but about 6am I began contracting a mysterious corneal edema that by 8am left me with no vision in my left eye and only a pinhole of sight in my right. Sadly, I had to pull the plug just as the sun was coming up, after 14 hours and about 260 miles. It was disappointing for sure, but I learned a lot of good lessons for what I hope is another attempt at that distance someday.
Two days after that failed attempt, Jimmy and I traveled to Colombia, where we had an absolutely amazing three-week bikepacking trip through the mountains of Boyaca state.
Our friends Sandy, Jill and Catherine joined us for the second half of the trip, which upped the fun factor further.
Turns out that Colombia is a bikepackers’ paradise, full of beautiful colonial villages, jaw-dropping scenery, and pastry-filled panaderias. Contrary to popular belief, the coffee in Colombia is generally terrible. That said, this country is highly recommended for anyone interested in cycle touring or bikepacking.
We met a 75-year-old couple who had done 12 bike tours in Colombia already – and every one in a different area!
When I got back from this magical vacation, I was stoked to get back to some harder riding and more structured training. My coach, Greg Grandgeorge, was more than willing to indulge me. Since March he has challenged me with more Vo2 max and ‘sweet-spot’ type workouts (for non-cyclists: this is just code for “really hard”) – alongside the regular, consistent endurance riding that is required for long-distance racing.
Austin Rattler 100k Mountain Bike
My first mountain bike race was a muddy, humbling learning experience. I initially signed up for this race because it is a Leadville 100 qualifier – and also an opportunity for those who are already entered in Leadville to advance their start corral placing for that race in August. Normally I wouldn’t be bothered about a start-line position, but I am hoping to try to chase the Big Belt Buckle at Leadville, which requires a finish under 9 hours. In most years, only about 10 women clock a time this fast, so it is an extremely ambitious goal for me. With Leadville being such a huge race now, the further back you start, the more riders you have to navigate with and around on the early parts of the course. I am pretty sure that I am going to need all the help I can get for a shot at that sub-9 – so Austin was a potential chance to move up in the race, before it even starts!
Only problem? I’m a pretty terrible mountain biker. Added to that, I had just gotten my new mountain bike the week before (thanks Lora Glasel at Recyclist Bike Company for making this happen, and the Lester family for in-person delivery from Wisconsin).
But. Not to worry! This was a course deemed “a mountain bike race for road cyclists,” with about 50% singletrack and 50% double track or dirt roads. I’m good with the double track and dirt roads, so I figured I would be at least 50% fine.
Weather had other thoughts on this one. Austin got about 6 inches of rain the week before the race, turning the double track and dirt roads into mud bogs. This turned into a clinic in mud-riding, and a chance to get a crash course (quite literally – I think I took four crashes during this race) in trying to ride singletrack fast. I did end up getting advanced by a couple of corrals for Leadville, and my friend Jill and I had some good laughs about the race in the end, but certainly can’t put it in the category of stellar performances. In the end, we can add that one to the “learning experience” category.
Encierro Gravel 100k
My first gravel race was the Encierro Gravel 100k just north and east of Colorado Springs. There were about 150 starters, and I was ready for it – or so I thought. Gravel racing, at least at the start, is much more like road racing in a peloton – and in Colorado, most gravel racers are also road racers. This style of racing, which entails holding onto a group of other racers with sometimes-ferocious surges up steep hills early on in the race, is pretty antithetical to my natural bent as a time-trial rider – which is to say starting out rather lacksidaisical and eating Ding-Dongs, and then try to hold on longer than everybody else.
It’s also to say that it hurts, it really hurts – and in a way that I don’t (yet) particularly enjoy. Still, this is what I have committed to for now, and I do think that building this skill is something that is benefiting me mentally and physically. In any case, I didn’t do a particularly good job of holding on and gaining this advantage during this race. In fact, I got dropped within the first 20 minutes, couldn’t find anyone else going my speed, and rode the remainder of the race on my own. Instead of finding a positive mantra I could use to encourage myself, I spent most of the race with a mental feedback loop of “This is my idea of hell. This is my idea of hell.” on repeat. Try as I might, and despite knowing that things could turn around, I could not get my brain into a positive headspace for the remainder of that race.
Jimmy, on the other hand, rode a great race – riding with a fast group for the entirety of the race, and finishing about 13 minutes in front of me. I crossed the line as second female overall, which was a good outcome. Still, I was irritated with myself after seeing how much I had to learn, and how I had let myself sink and stay mired into an unhelpful, unfun, negative brain space.
Another “learning experience.” Learning schmearning. 2018 has seemed to have these in spades.
Anti-Epic Short Course (71 miles) Gravel Race
The next weekend was the Anti-Epic Gravel Race put on by the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club, which started in Monument – same area as the race the week before, with short punchy climbs that are far outside my happy place. Instructed by Greg to “take some risks,” I decided to go back with the attitude of working as hard as I needed to at the beginning, then letting the chips fall as they might.
But when Mark Lowe said “go” and we headed out onto the course, nothing happened. Everyone was just tooling along. After a week of trying to positively visualize going out hard, I was completely confused about what to do. So I just decided to ride hard at the front, which did do the trick of picking up the pace. Within the first ten miles or so, we had a group of about 15-17. The pace stayed high, other guys went to the front and started pulling, and the group got down to about 10. I fell off the back on some of the punchier climbs – I am not that powerful of a rider and have a hard time hanging on with those who can hammer uphill better. Still, I would manage to work back to the group on the flatter or more gradual uphill sections.
About mile 30, I ended up pretty far off the back during a climb that had a gradual pitch, then went up steeply at the end. At that point, I watched the group get further away, and realized I might just be riding my own ride after that.
Instead of chanting demoralizing slogans to myself, though, I was able to do the opposite. I continued to push the climbs, recover, then push again. I was working hard, but happy. When I passed two of the guys from the front pack on the longest climb of the race, one of them called after me, “Who ARE you? Are you related to Rebecca Rusch?” I was currently in the middle of reading Rebecca Rusch’s book, Rush To Victory, and was pretty impressed by the trajectory of her life and athletic career. So this was one of the most encouraging random compliments (if completely overstated) that I could have received during a race. (I found out after the race that this guy was the one who was yelling at me, so that was pretty cool too.)
Shortly after, I spotted a group of three just about a minute ahead. They were the second group on the course, now, and I knew that I was riding well and had regained time. We were in the last 20 miles by this point, and I was riding as hard as I felt was sustainable. Timing their group of three intermittently as a carrot for myself, I continued to dangle about 1:15 behind them, and the time gap was not changing much. On the other hand, I knew that they were working together – rotating pulls and pace-setting for each other – while I was riding solo at the same speed. So maybe I was actually feeling stronger?
In this kind of situation in a race, I find that it’s very easy for me to just be content with where I am. Especially if I feel that I have ridden a solid race, the logical extension of the positive self-talk sometimes evolves into a cop out: You’ve done a strong race, and you have nothing to prove; therefore, just be content to stay in your lane, finish where you are. This is just how my brain works, and it’s probably lost me a few races in my life. But the effort (and sometimes pain) required to try to work even harder, especially at that point, often feels like it would take a level of energy I am unable to summon at that time. And maybe there’s a part of me that’s afraid to ruin the mojo – if I try, and fail, will I lose that sense of accomplishment?
But this attitude also doesn’t do justice to all the long days of training. It doesn’t honor all the work that goes into the process, and it doesn’t push me to face my fears.
So, this time I took a different tack. I was able to recognize that pattern of thinking, and decided to just work with my brain, instead of explode it. I told myself I didn’t have to do everything all at once, just try “a little harder” than I already was on each climb. On the second to last climb, I noticed the gap was now under 1 minute. And as we took the screaming downhill to approach the final long ascent, I knew it was my last chance.
On the lower slope, one of the guys came unhitched from the back of the group, and I decided to go for it. With more effort, I was clearly advancing as the climb got harder. I was also dying inside, but as I passed one guy and then a second, I still tried to say hello (“Hi, guys! How’s it going?”) in a way that made it seem like I was hardly trying. I finally caught the other guy at the top of the last climb, and that was lucky because I was in a world of hurt by then. Adam and I rode downhill to the finish and crossed the line together, tying for third place (two guys had tied for an equal first just in front of us).
Here’s race organizer Mark Lowe’s race recap and some nice photos.
Next up: My race report on this past weekend’s National Championship 12 Hour Road Race at the Maryland Endurance Challenge.