Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ouachita Challenge 2017 - Of Mud and Miracles






The first race of a new season is always such a stresser. Time to put all the fall/winter training into action. Time to see if those new bike bits really will transfer into better ride quality and hopefully a better finish time.

This was also the husboy's first race back as a competitor instead of just being along for the ride. But more than that, it was his first serious ride since nagging back problems flared up in early March and kept him off the bike. Add in lots of work travel and last minute work stuff, getting our own series off the ground and well, his head was in lots of places that weren't bike racing.

More on that later.

The MTBWagon was a little light on this trip with just Todd "no fucks" Eyberg (he's missing the top of one of his middle fingers from a work accident, plus he doesn't usually give a F anyway), Rafal, the Polish Punisher and the authentic Noah Marcus, who met us in KC for the rest of the drive down to Arkansas. Needless to say, lots of jokes kept the wagon entertainment cranked up. 

The Ouachita Challenge is a great set up if you're wanting to try a long event, as in 60 miles long. Aid stations are stocked about every 12-15 miles with folks at checkpoints and road crossings in between, so there's always a bail out option if things get ugly. You can give them a drop bag for the midpoint so you can refuel with your own stuff. Not into racing? They offer an optional organized tour of the race course the day before but cut out the most technical part. This gives you all the good stuff without the race stress. Plus your entry fee covers dinner and breakfast before each event. That's some real southern hospitality right there!

We arrived Saturday late morning to Brushy Trail Head. That's when Ryan discovered something very bad. He had left his entire bike bag at home. Everything except his helmet and sunglasses and a few change of clothes and toiletries were in that bag; kit, shoes, socks, shammy cream, hydration. As I mentioned, southern hospitality is a cornerstone of this event. There's no bike shop within 90 miles of the venue but there is one from Hot Springs that sets up a pop up store at the venue for racers who may need last minute accessories like tubes, tools and snacks. They didn't have shoes nor shorts so the kind lady working the register phoned the shop with Ryan's shoe and short size and by that evening, he was kitted out with some new kicks and baggies. He was even able to buy Shimano cleats! Ryan's race went from from shit show to shiny within a few hours! It was a miracle.

After Ryan returned to the cabin with his new wears, we sat down to a dinner of carnita bowls with South Omaha pork and salsa. We felt redeemed after a mediocre lunch at a Mexican place (never trust a place with a sign reading "authentic" with all white people working it and a drive through)! 

THE RACE

Race morning came early. Like Zero Dark Thirty. Not that I slept all that great anyway (never do before a race). Coffee. Oats. Eggs. We kitted up and were on the road to the start line by 6:15 am. By 6:45 we arrived and the staging area was already pretty busy with volunteers getting fed and downloaded and other racers starting to arrive. I went inside to change clothes and a woman was carrying around a baby goat! I was so stoked so I stopped for a few minutes to pet Marilyn Monroe (that was the goat's name). What a treat! 

As I was getting ready and even at that hour I was still deciding if I wanted to go full camelback or not. Long race. Hot day (high of 79) but I didn't want to carry the weight. I knew the track would be muddy for the first half and it would be hard to drink. The last half would be hot. So, I decided to carry it. Finally with about 20 minutes til staging, I got on the road to warm up. No power data. F!!! I had replaced the battery the night before since I used the same power meter a lot on my cross bike and wasn't sure how much battery life was left. Ryan quickly switched it out and it still wasn't reading. So I turned the computer off and back on and another race day miracle, I had power data. Whew! Great, now I only had 5 minutes to warm up so I did a few sprints on the road before sneaking in one last bathroom stop. 



It was chilly at the line but from many many races that start this way, I've learned to suck it up and dress for the end of the race. After formalities and shivering, the gun blast sent us off down a steep driveway onto the highway where we took a quick left and were tempo riding in a neutral roll out (aka jockeying for position). Once over a narrow paved bridge, the race was on. I always feel like I go backwards in these large pack starts so I just stick to the plan. I got behind a woman who was keeping a nice pace and that's where I stayed. We had to cross a rushing river that was spilling rapidly over the road. I was hoping it wasn't slick. Everyone seemed to be riding it but it was still sketchy. I just stared at the other side and didn't once look down. It was a good 10 miles until we hit the hole shot. Once in the single track, people popped off rocks and roots and it was a mess. I had to walk over the first tech section due to traffic. I lost the woman who had been in front of me but I caught her on the descent down to Brushy where we rode the day before. 


Photo by Will Kelsay
The bike felt great. New Rockshox World Cup fork was meant for me. I've been waiting for this fork for years. I've gone through two different forks and this one has brought the 29r alive for me. I feel like I can pop off little kickers and down drops better because it seems more predictable and more playful. More dials at the ready helps me zero in on set up when terrain changes from what I ride at home. Out of the box ready for light riders was why I bought it and the reviewers were dead on. I also have new Sram Level breaks. Happy to report, I never felt brake fade or that they weren't strong enough.

Back to racing. 


Blowout Mountain tire eating rocks.
After the first aid station at mile 16, we began the climb up and over Blow Out Mountain. The name is apt as it's the rockiest section of the whole race where one can easily blow a gasket, a lung or both trying to ride it. Add in mucky run off and it was all kinds of fun. At the top it's nothing short of a rock fall. (Because of this very section I opted to NOT wear my carbon soled shoes, oh and the dozen or so water crossings that were hub deep and higher). It was at this point where I caught the next woman. We both were carrying our bikes over the nastiest parts. She let me pass and once I had some terra ferma, I jumped on the gas. I felt really good and just did my thing. Soon No Fucks came by like he's been training all winter (not) on his new HT with a dropper and just killing the descents and mach-ing the climbs. Damnit, Todd, I yelled. I pay out the nose to stay in shape and this f-er practically rides one-handed right by me singing Yanky Doodle Dandy. But it was all good because when we were out of the single track he and his trusty hard tale pulled me up to the half-way point. We switched pulls with another rider and easily caught and passed a group of 4 riders and then he sat up front for about 1.5 miles until the halfway point. And to our surprise, there was Ryan chilling on the curb. I tossed my camelback to a volunteer who promptly filled it up with my mix as I took a very very necessary pee break. The women's room was locked so I jumped in the men's. Sorry duders! Back outside I downed some food, took a big gulp and remounted. I didn't see anyone but as I rode off, I could hear Ryan yelling for me. I gave him a wave and tried to tuck in behind a truck but that didn't last long. Into the wind I went so I settled in for a few miles of pavement and gravel before hitting the Womble Trail. 

Womble is an IMBA epic. It has it's own Wiki page. It's long and flowing but not flow trail. It is off-camber bench trail cut into waves and waves of Ozark hill country. It was mostly dry until the trail headed down through a stream at least six times, all hub deep or more. At one crossing there was a group of shenaniganeers. One was giving beer hand ups. Another was in a cot taking pictures and I kid you not, another was on a inflatable life preserver next to where we had to cross. It was a funny sight so of course I had to oblige and take swig of the beer. I could have stayed there the rest of the day! Those oasis save people more than they know. By this time I was in hour 3-3.5 and starting to feel the efforts of the day. Womble though smoother by far than the opening single track, still has roots to deal with and bench trail that could toss you downhill like a ragdoll if you caught a pedal, so you had to stay focused. 


The Authentic Noah in action. Photo by Brian Brennfoerder

The Polish Punisher in the wild. Photo by Brian Brennfoerder

Shenaniganeers - photo by Brian Brennfoerder
An SS rider from KC who was doing this just for fun (wtf) after doing the tour the day before (wtff), caught me and was chatting up a storm. I kept asking if he wanted around but he liked my pace I guess and he knew the trail so it was nice knowing how soon the next checkpoint was or where the next road was coming up. At about mile 43 I had to say goodbye to my friend b/c I needed to take a minute to catch my breath after a particularly tough section and to eat. It was like he disappeared in thin air. I didn't see hide nor hare of him afterward which was fine b/c I was suffering a bit and didn't want to be pushed due to the pressure of another rider with me. I rode pretty much alone after that, coming up on people one by one but never got passed after the SS rider. I made it to that last aid station and stopped for some extra calories and water but by the time I popped out of the single track for good, my camelback gurgled and I ate the last of my food. I had a single water bottle left to get me home. I had 20 minutes to hit my time from previous years but I wasn't going to make it. I felt good but it wasn't possible. I hammered into the finish at 6:19, good enough for 3rd place. Though much slower than previous years, I did stop more this time and had to deal with pretty wet conditions early so overall pretty happy about how it turned out.


Photo by Mandi Basquez Ammann
No Fucks came in about 10 minutes later and Ryan was in about 20 minutes later. Rafal and Noah had blown the doors off coming in at 5:40 and 5:20. Rafal lost his rear brake so had to limp through the single track but his time was still very respectable despite the setback. 


Photo by Mandi Basquez Ammann

Photo by Mandi Basquez Ammann

This event doesn't do traditional podium stuff so if you get on it, they just hand you your winnings and take a snap shot. I kinda like it that way. So few people do these things for the chance to win and I like that they don't make a big deal about those who do but instead celebrate the effort of all participants.



Our own private podium, complete w/mud, sweat and smiles. 

Once we were all in and cleaned off, Ryan and I went to visit Marilyn again. This time we got to hold her and it was heavenly. I'm sure Sweater and Lala were jealous but they have a pretty good gig.


Where else do you get to hug a goat after a race?

Marilyn Monroe, the Goat  Photo by Mandi Basquez Ammann

We left the venue starving and it being Sunday in the South, nothing was open close to us so we drove all the way back to Mena to the actual Mexican restaurant we wanted to eat at and it was closed! But luckily in the South, bbq is huge so we opted for a roadhouse and stuffed our gullets with smoked meats and endless bread bar. We all staggered out with food babies, ready to get back to the cabin for an evening ritual of storytelling around a campfire, with beers in hand so we could self medicate our aching backs and legs until we fell asleep under the stars. 

No flats and nobody injured. Considering how technical this race was with all of the rocks and mud, consider that another race miracle.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Forget About Racing: Big Mountain Enduro Crested Butte

"The difference between try and triumph, is just a little umph!" as my blog header quotes.

This philosophy was put the ultimate test during this year’s Big Mountain Enduro race. With a visit to some dark corners of my mind, it was going to take a monumental effort to finish the first run, let alone the rest of the weekend.


Our trip to the Great Wide Open began with a multi-day stage race in the high mountains of Crested Butte, Colorado. It was just the Hubs and I (and #FRafal and the sheep) so we set up the Vamper and again were heading across I-80, just three days after returning from a wedding in Summit County. Such is the life of a Heartlander…

We stayed at an Airbnb for the first time. Being that we were racing, vamping wasn’t ideal as it gets pretty cold at night this time of year and last time Ryan got a pretty nasty sinus infection and he didn’t want to risk that again. Our hosts were long-time locals with a home in CB South. We lived in their basement and it was awesome. Huge basement, fully furnished with lots of room for our gear + garage + full use of their kitchen. It was less than any hotel or VRBO plus the hosts, Chuck and Olfra, were awesomely cool peeps with lots of stories and hospitality. 

At the racers’ meeting the night before, we were given a strict instructions: rain or shine, we were racing. The forecast was ominous at best. Lethal at worst but we are idealistic bike riders on an adventure. That night I slept horribly as the rain pattered down the spouts outside our window and the lightning brightened up our underground hostel. Doctor Park is going to be Doctor ER in this shit, I thought all.night.long. The next morning we were up way before the sun, heating up our oats and trying to calm our nerves. It was still raining but like the RD said, rain or shine so we kitted up and headed out to meet our destiny. “The race is cancelled for today” Huzzah! Yippee! Thank God, Mary and Joseph!! I was never been so happy to not race a $400 event in my life. Seems the race director, when he made his no exceptions declaration the night before, may not have taken into account that even though us racers could probably make our way up the mountain in crap-tastic weather, rental vans with thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of carbon wouldn’t be able to, nor could any support nor EMT vehicles. Oops. 

We cried tears of joy. We skipped around downtown CB like school children. “We’re going to live. We’re going to live!” We celebrated with Camp4Coffee even though we were already caffeinated to the hilt. To wear some of it off, we headed to Hartman Rocks in Gunnison for the day. It’s usually nice there when CB is not. We've raced there many times but don’t get to really enjoy the views, so Ryan and I took our time and rode to the high points to look around and spin out the legs. It was a fun day on bikes. We celebrated with a burrito.






Saturday morning, race day, welcomed us with more rain. Really? I thought monsoon season was over. But the race was on this time. We drove over to the staging area early to get more coffee and get in line for the shuttles. Our bikes were the first to go into the vans so I was almost last to leave the drop off point, which was fine by me.






Not 5 minutes after I started riding, we had to cross a shin-high rushing stream. Oh and it was raining. Off with the shoes and socks, shoulder the bike, step into fringed water without falling. Yeah, good times. This is enduro racing, I guess. We did this 2 more times and by the third time, I didn’t bother removing my shoes. The sun had come out and they would dry out. Maybe. Eventually. No not really.




Up, up, up. Climb, walk, hike, ride, it’s raining, too steep, get off, walk, hike, go pee, sun’s out, smiling. Wow, 2 hours of this? I see daylight, must be close. A saddle. The views were spectacular. I see people riding up ahead. Oh, now they’re walking. Where is the top??!! I finally round a bend to see other racers, Ryan too, getting ready to drop. I took off my shoes to dry out my socks and insoles more. I eat something and then went to find a tree. The crowd was thinning. A few ladies and juniors were all that were left. Then it was my turn. Honestly, it’s a blurry memory but the run started out not so bad because the sun had dried up some of the track but as soon as we hit the tree line, it was slippy sloppy all the way home. I dragged so much brake it’s pathetic BUT I only had to unclip once and had to run up a slippery power climb b/c I was in too big of a gear and with all the mud, I wasn’t going to have time to downshift and not rip my chain off. 

It was terrifying. 

Deep holes full of water that grabbed tires, roots glazed over with teeth-eating greasy mud, moto ruts up to my knees. It was a shit show but I made it down with all my limbs intact and bike in working order. Winning!





The transition to the next track was a gravel road that led us to a very merry and happy aid station. There were locals hanging out cheering us weary riders on, filling our packs with water and treats and our heads with good vibes and positive sentiments. But yet, people were already cracking. The news of the tracks to come and the transitions to get there unhinged some riders. One of the women from our age group quit after stage 1. The other, Carrie, was teetering on the idea. When I was ready to leave the aid station, she said she was having a moment. I said, I’ll see you at the next drop in on 409.5 trail. I knew what was coming. I had to hike it last time in the same monsoon conditions. Straight up was an understatement. My $9000 walking stick was the only way to get up and over some of the rocky switchbacks. It started on a sunny, grassy slope so the trail was tacky. As we got into tree line it was less so, but not as steep so we could ride and walk. Time passed really slowly. I started sinking into my head. Am I bonking on a hike? Really? Is this happening? I felt like crap. I had loads of bars but what I didn’t have was electrolytes. I didn’t put any in my pack. Hunger wasn’t the problem but I felt pretty weak and weary. Just keep moving. Just keep moving. I was around a bunch of Jr boys who were having a great time. They were suffering too but using each other to stay motivated. “Your mom" jokes were batted back and forth. My body really wanted to just sit down. I wanted to be warm. I wanted to be dry. I wanted to sleep. Anything but walking that damn bike. I started saying out loud “I’m not a quitter. I’m not a quitter. Just gotta walk. You can walk anywhere. I’m not quitting” This went on for a while, between cursing and loud sighs. At times I’d get into a rhythm with my breath. Breath in two steps, breath out two steps and so on. I forgot how hard this was.

FINALLY after eternity had passed, I heard one of the juniors say we were practically there and within a few minutes of that statement, my surroundings started looking familiar. We'd reached the top so I got on my bike and spun to the start area. There were about 20 people or so. Ryan was about to drop in. We knew what was lurking in the woods, recalling two years ago at the Ultra Enduro, where at this very location, we had to wait for word back from an EMT who had to do a preride first to determine if it was safe to ride. Same conditions, if not possibly worse. This was a moto track after all and the muddier the merrier they say. 

I was glad to just get it over with. It was a short run but with knee to waist-high ruts that were coated in greasy mud. All I did was hold on and slide. I wasn’t really riding. When I arrived at the spot where all the moto spectators were (EMTs and photographers) I felt like I entered the forest of Mordor. It was dark as dusk and all these guys in moto kits were lined around the ruts. I tried. I really did but I haven’t a clue how to navigate ruts like those. I clipped out and ran that section. After that, though still muddy, was just pure speed riding and navigating the roots. I had a few of what I call ballerina moves where one foot came out and went into the air to counterbalance what was happening on the other side. But I stayed upright and popped out of the trees for the final plunge, literally, into a large puddle that was more like a pond. Luckily, the finishing shoot was right before it so I didn’t have to actually ride through it. I was partially dry and wanted to continue that way.

The final stage was a trail on Caves Trail. It’s a fast, switchbacking trail in open mountainsides, but with serious consequences if you blow a corner. The transition to it was rideable for the most part, that is if your bike shorts haven’t rubbed your girl parts so raw from being wet all day. Holy diaper rash, I was not in a good place on that transition. Walking was way worse which leaves me to believe it was the walking that caused all the chafing in the first place. It was probably a solid 1.5 hour ride/hike to the start chute. Normally I’d be so stoked on cruising through aspens and navigating rock falls but by then, my body was at war with me. My bike on the other hand was working wonderfully. My Trek Remedy was like a happy goat, just ready to ride wherever on whatever. Even it was out riding me! I did manage to catch up with Ryan and together we arrived at the start line for the last stage. We could see lightning and the curtain of pouring rain coming at us from across the valley. It was time to get the hell off that mountain. Ryan went first. Then I went. The track was dry but very pebbly and loose. The grass was high so no sight lines which meant good luck seeing the next switchback. Stutter bumps were the only clue. I took my time. I knew fatigue would be affecting my handling and I had made it this far without any issues so I wasn’t about to tempt fate. At the bottom Ryan was waiting for me. Someone grabbed my bike and stuck it on a truck. Ryan dragged my ass to the bus. I rode shotgun. We drove through heavy rain and all I could think about were the few still left on that mountain. But all’s well that ends well. They all made it back but we heard it was in a complete white-out downpour. Even the other woman in my age group, Carrie, through the encouragement of the younger female racers, got through the entire day. Winning.

When we arrived back at staging, the partiers from the first aid station were dancing in the rain while a DJ was spinning the tunes under a huge Dale’s Pale Ale tent. I felt like I was returning from the front lines, muddy from head to toe. The volunteers at the food tent were waving us over, steam coming off the fajitas. The beer tent folks were also waving at us. It was an oasis of awesomeness, despite that it was pouring like the end of days. Music was blaring, beer cans were opening and everyone, mud and all, still in their helmets and backpacks were shoving platefuls of food down their gullets, happy to be done. So done. After satisfying our hunger, Ryan remembered there was a bike wash at one of the bike shops and we had 15 minutes until they closed to get the bikes washed. but they still hadn’t come back yet because they were on the truck with the last of the racers. Once the truck arrived, ours were one of the last bikes to come off and we quickly got out of there and headed to the shop. On our way, we all were rewarded with a full double rainbow. Maybe Mother Nature was sorry for her shitty idea of race day weather.




By the time we got back to the house it was after 7pm. That to me is not the best event planning strategy. Getting done by 3-4pm makes more sense. We barely had time to take a shower let alone get our bikes ready for another day of battle with mother nature. We had second dinner at the house. Luckily the host’s laundry room also contained their radiating water heater that turned the tiny room into a sauna. I put all of our shoes, gloves and pads in the room to dry out. It worked like a champ! As we packed up the van and got it ready for the next day, I told Ryan to come outside. We could see the entire glow of the Milky Way directly above us. It was a dizzying sight to see. THIS is why we do what we do! With the gift of a clear night, the hope was the rain was done. 

The final day of the BME wasn’t going to be a walk in the park by any stretch. It included 4 stages: one backcountry and 3 bike park. I’m not a park girl and knew it was going to be my toughest day yet. Since the race was going to end at the bike park, we had to drive our van to it so I could change out my gear after the first stage. I could have lugged my full face for stage 1 but we thought this would be a better idea. Well, it was until the effing rain started again on our way down to the staging area. We were soaked through by the time we loaded up on the bus. Ryan didn’t wear his gloves so he’d have dry ones on the transfer up. I wasn’t that tough. 


The drive up to 403 was scenic. The caravan of racers pulled over at a popular camping spot for RVs. The sun had come out by then and layers were coming off. I rode with my gloves hanging off the ends of my bars to dry out. We took our time. I partnered up with Carrie so we could support each other. Both of us were nervous nellies about the bike park stages. 403 was a layer cake of ridiculousness: super steep, off camber, rooty with mud on top. The tracks were very narrow so when the super fast juniors went by, I had to pull myself and the bike off the track into the wet flora so I wouldn’t eff-up their run. Not sure what’s more worrying: crashing or causing another to slow down or crash. As the juniors came plummeting down the track, I started counting seconds in hopes I could anticipate when each one would arrive. (Yes, they should have gone ahead but they were dilly dallying around and I was ready to drop). So be it. My counting didn’t really work but they were great about yelling in plenty of time. And saying thank you. As I made my way down I could see Ryan waiting for me at the bottom. Carrie, too. It was going to be a long transfer back to the bike park along Gothic Road. Ryan sped off. Carrie switched out some gear at the aid station and we headed to the bike park where the van was parked where I was able to switch out my helmet and body armor. My stress level was torqued. 





I took my time getting to the chair lift. There was a huge line (it’s open to the public after all). As we shuffled our way to the front, we saw racers returning from the runs down Avery. Most said it was fine. Ok good. I knew I could do Avery. But the beta coming back for Captain Jack was our worst fears come true. Super slick and unrideable. That was from people who KNEW how to ride park. I was so nervous. My stomach was in knots. Carrie and I consoled each other and just said, ride what we can, walk the rest. None of this really mattered in the big picture. We got to the top of Avery. Carrie went first then me. There were a few junior girls waiting around for the rest of their category to show up. I lined up, took a deep breath and sped off. The track was in the sun, so mostly dry. Rough, of course. Got up the first bridge and glad it was dry. First rock garden was tacky and chunky but doable. The tracked opened up and I got up some speed. Things were going fine. I knew about a couple of tricky sections coming up but it’s been 2 years since we were there so it was hard to say (totally wished we would have pre-ridden). Yikes, it was rough and that effing tricky huge tree stump was still there before a very wet bridge. Got through it and it opened up again. But as I was anticipating the next section, I saw a ribbon across the trail and I’m going into completely unfamiliar terrain in a dark forest full of wet boulders. This is NOT Avery at all!!! So in my mind I’m thinking did I accidentally get onto Captain Jack, cuz this what CJ is like. I hopped of my bike and started running back up the track to make sure. As I sprinted up to the intersection, I was thinking maybe since we were so late dropping in that someone changed the tape. I got to the intersection. I had no idea what to do so I ran back to my bike and just started down the track on foot. Junior girls were starting to come by me so by then I knew I was at least on the race track. Bad, bad, bad. That’s what happens when you don’t pre-ride. After that section, the rest of the run was what I remembered and I arrived at the bottom kinda deflated at the whole situation and swallowing hard as I tried mustering up courage for Captain Jack.


Again the line was long. Again riders were coming back from CJ and saying “Stay high left. Stay high left. Do not go down to the right. Don’t go here. Don’t go there.” I was dizzy with nerves. My chest was tight. I had to slow down my breathing on the chair ride up. I knew already I would be walking so much of this track but hearing how hard it was just to stand up was making that option seem impossible also. The start chute was a wood ramp feature that got us up to speed right off the bat. Sitting on top, the last racer of the day, the entrance to the forest before me was dark, like the mouth of hell. It wasn’t getting any sun so I had to just stay loose and let the bike do what it needed to do on the wet roots and rocks. When I arrived at the advanced technical section (seriously, this was World Cup level terrain) I could see the rider straight down walking as well. At the boulder edge that signaled the drop in to this section, I put my bike down on the rock in front of it and slid down on my butt. I had no business being on this track. I had no idea how to ride it dry! As I made my way down, I could see the tape flapping around where riders had taken it out trying to stand up or ride. Nobody was around so I just hopped over the tape and walked through the woods that were adjacent to the track. Yes, I was bushwhacking down the mountain. I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to stay upright. Luckily that section wasn’t long so when it was back to pack fodder level riding and I could actually see the sun, I joyfully jumped on the bike, knowing I could finish this track, this day, this weekend after all. When I got to the bottom, Carrie was there. I gave her a hug. We were both happy and relieved to be done with the hard parts. It certainly wasn’t pretty but we didn’t quit and that wasn’t an easy thing to do.


The last run of the day was a blue track, very pedally and rough. I didn’t care. This was more my style and I was happy to oblige. The trail actually lead us off the mountain, south of town where we connected with another trail system and down to the staging area. Ryan met me at the finish line and he went off to go get the van that was still at the bike park. He’s such a great partner!!!


The rest of the day we hung out at the staging area, eating and drinking and chatting with other racers until the podiums were announced. The emcee was announcing finishing times of each podium and was hoping he’d stop when our group was called up. Nope. It took us twice as long to complete the entire weekend as many others and though I was kinda embarrassed to have my time called out, that soon was replaced by satisfaction after seeing the junior women giving us some big props and one of the race directors giving us a heartfelt thanks for coming and sticking it out to the end. 


It’s been a few weeks now since the race and I’ve had time to reflect even more on the event and why it is we do what we do. As racers, we suffer from race amnesia. It’s not until we’re in the thick of it that we start questioning again what the hell we were thinking. And my answer is hope. We do it because we hope we can be better this time. That we can be faster or clear a section or maybe even win. 99% of the racers who commit to events don’t get on podiums yet they stand around and cheer on those who do. It’s a race so there has to be a first, second, third and so on. But everybody knows, even though it’s cool to get on a podium and do the social thing and make a big deal out of it, that to finish an event as hard as this one, is a win for everyone. From bro to pro, we all had to ride the same track, in possibly the same conditions or worse so there was mad respect across the board. If it were up to me, I’d have everyone on the podium that weekend. I looked to so many others to get through it. I leaned on my husband, got some calming words from Carrie, got stoked by the juniors’ ju-ju (especially the girls who were absolutely killing it and beating many adults). It was truly the hardest thing I’ve done on and well off the bike. 

But I’ll probably forget about that part.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Half Growler, Full Fun


Memorial weekend was the 4th time we signed up at the Gunnison Half Growler, a 36 mile race around the high desert hillsides of Hartman Rocks in Gunnison, Colorado. Usually by the time we turn the van west to the Great Wide Open, we've competed in at least 2-3 marathon races and a couple XC races. This year, the hubs and I opted to stick around to do our Ride Right MTB School and keep the travel lighter since our fall schedule is going to be a baller of a good time. So needless to say, I felt a bit behind in my fitness. My coach assured me we were right on target to have a good race. I wanted a great race. I wanted to get on that podium this year. I've been 5th, and 4th twice and I was chomping.

But that was my thing.

Seven of our friends who we brought with us were also racing. Some were back to improve their time and a couple of them it would be their first time in the area. They were about to get their minds blown. No other race gives you money right when you cross the line into town so you can spend it on the local food and beer vendors that have set up in the staging area. This event is about those that support it; the racers, the volunteers, and the town. The promoters have a good thing going and they know it.

The MTB Wagon left Omaha on Thursday night in the pouring rain, followed by a few more in other vehicles. We stayed in Ogallala per the norm so we could get Jesus burritos in town the next day. Our hearts were a little sad though, because our good buddy Larry was not with us, still recovering from a extremely sprained wrist from a fall he took early in the spring. Coming to this event was his idea in the very beginning which started our love-affair with the sprawling mountain landscape that is the Gunnison Valley. We all felt a little off. Ryan was still healing from his bicep injury and Larry was his coffee-mate. Needless to say, we made a few less coffee and pee breaks this trip.

We did however pull into a scenic rest stop to view the Collegiate Mountains before finally arriving at our cabin around 2pm. We opted to skip road-side Tai and lunch altogether so we could get to the trail and pre-ride. We had driven through more rain and the skies were threatening to dump again. The house was probably one of the best in terms of views and amenities. It sat high above a 300 acre horse ranch with views to tomorrow at every vantage point. The deck stretched across the back of the entire house, like a welcome mat to the valley below. Needless to say, we spent as much time as possible out there.






With not much time to ooh and aah, we kitted up and headed for the start of the big climb. It began to pour again so we waited out the cloud burst in the van, watching wet riders hurrying to their cars or some shelter with urgency. After a few minutes it finally let up and we took to the Kill Hill climb. Not the greatest plan when you've been sitting for hours (sitting is the new smoking) but for those new to the race, it's good to ride it. We got up to the top and then did a small, easy loop back to the van. We weren't sure of the direction to take and just when we figured out the way, Ryan shows up in the van. The clouds were starting to look angrier so we needed to get down. We took the road down to Collar Bone, a flowy sliver of single track that has huge berms and ends at the parking lot. One time down wasn't enough for the newbies. Ryan shuttled them up for a second run. And just as they finished, it started to rain. We had sneaked in our ride after all.






Next we registered for the race, picking up sweet swag and our numbers. I got a pep talk from my coach and then we headed back for some grub. And you've never seen such hungry bikers. Going on breakfast burrito fumes and road snacks, I was lucky to get my appendages out of the way. I brought South Omaha carnita all the way across NE along with some legit salsa. Qdoba can suck it! The rest of the night was the ususal pre-race fiddling around and restless sleep. But there's one benefit to restless sleep in the big wide open: seeing stars, by the zillions, all at what seemed like only an arm's length away. I've never seen the Big Dipper so big and so close!

The morning came soon enough. The sun brightened up the room well before it was time to get out of bed, even though it hadn't crested the eastern mountains yet. Nobody went on the deck as it was in the 30s and ice covered from frozen left over rain drops. 





After a frenzied morning of coffee, oats and eggs and all iterations of carb loading, we were out the door by 7:15. Race start was 9am. We got the first parking stall next to the staging area and the porta potties. It was already a winning day!




The Race
The air was crisp and low wind. Bluebird skies kept the moods up. The start line was pretty calm. Good friends from KC, Julie and Terrie Higgins and 60+ Masters speed demon Doug Long were close to the front. Great to see co-flatlanders slugging it out. At 9am the shotgut blast signaled the neutral start to the race. It was a pretty calm ride as the parade of bikes, lead by a local police car, made its way to the dreaded Kill Hill. No frantic start/stops around me. I was kinda blocked in the middle but it didn't matter b/c the line blew up once the trail went skyward. I just found my rhythm and did my thing and motored to the top. I could hear my coach in my head. Just keep moving, don't freak out about the numbers on the computer. Just stay steady. And so, once I crested the hill, I kept moving. I kept it steady. People flew by left and right but those were matches I couldn't burn. There were several short climbs immediately ahead on the dirt roads and eventually into the single track, which wound up and around hills of sage. We rode this section the day before so I knew I would have a chance to recover on the first long, flowing descent. Which isn't easy to allow because the trails are cut such that you can keep speed in the corners and over whoops. It's so fun and just begs to be shredded. I held my spot behind a couple ladies that were killing it.

I caught up with some traffic on the next few sections and hand to practically stand in line as racers dismounted for technical sections. I felt the front leaving us in the dust but there's not much one can do but wait your turn. We got going soon enough and I put in some effort to try to make up some time. I got in with some guys who were racing at my pace and we'd switch around depending on the terrain. At one point though I had to be a jerk and pass about 3 guys who were doing nothing behind a rider who was taking too much of a sweet time and once past them I was able to get back on the gas and up to the guys I had been with earlier.

The track was dry - a total 180 from last year when we were trail side digging mud out of our arses half way through. Deep ruts on these same roads were baked into the dirt where not too long ago mud had been. And not much wind, unlike last year, where it was a force to be reckoned with and in a desolate place as this without shade or wind break, it'ss everyone for themselves. This year was way more manageable. Perfect, actually.


The main aid station came into view around hour 2. I had two empty bottles with dry mix in them ready for a volunteer to fill up. The eager helper grabbed them and went to the water cooler. Apparently not satisfied with the speed of the spout, he took them over to a spray hose connected to a giant water tank in the bed of a truck. I lost count of the number of women that went by as I chomped on warm bacon wondering if I'd ever get my bottles back. Looking over my shoulder, the guy couldn't seem to be able to figure out the nozzle of the sprayer and water was going everywhere but in the bottle. After what seemed like minutes, I was off and headed down a two-way traffic dirt road that was the start of a loop that would bring me back to the same road so I could ride up it and past the same aid station. The section was pretty technical and I had to walk up and lift up my bike onto boulders that were probably meant to ride the other way. After a couple more hike a bikes I finally made it to the road and went up. I grabbed some more solid food (mine had ejected from the side pockets of my top tube bag) and I was off to take on the second half of the course.

It was all pretty straight forward. I was just having a good time. Before a super nasty dirt road climb up off a highway, Ryan and Jenny appeared, cheering us on. Ryan handed me a very cold Coke. It was like I had passed through an oasis and was a little bit more energized. As I began the climb, I recalled the last time I rode the entire grunt (say it with me, because I hate walking) and I burned some pretty valuable matches trying to stay with another woman and paid for it later, so I told myself that I'd walk if it got really, really hard. Well, that was the plan. I did get off for a few feet when the sandy soil was just too deep. But other than that, I pedaled up most of it, keeping it under control and trying not to go too deep.

The rest of the race was kinda just me doing my thing. I rarely saw any women (most of them I had seen at the start) but I had a pretty good idea I wasn't going to make my podium dream come true. The numbers were looking good so I just kept on going, kinda in a zone. Towards the last 1/3 of the race, we kept hearing "One more climb and you're done" I wasnt' the only one either. The others said the same thing. So after the 3rd time hearing it, I was like, I'll be done when I see the finish line. I could feel my body starting to tire out somewhere around the low 30-some mile mark. At the 3:30 mark, I just happened to look at my computer. Sub 4 hours seemed pretty unattainable from where I was physically. I was needing to go deeper on the climbs and recover longer. The trail got way more technical too with wheel drops and lifts that zapped any remaining energy stores. When I made the final turn down the flowing single track to the finish line, I was relieved. I kept on the gas and came across the line with seconds to spare under the 4 hour mark. Ryan and Jen were there with high fives and beer (what great people) but I was a little bummed with my performance because I had way more energy at the end, standing there, than I ever have had in the past. Usually I just want to lay down and I don't have an appetite either, kinda like when you get the body aches from the flue. But this time was different. Did I not go hard enough or was I in decent enough shape that of course I should feel fine?. The live results showed me in 9th in my age group. That really bummed me out. I was hoping for at least 3rd but it wasn't to be. So I rolled back into town with Julie who had pulled in some 20 minutes later. It was fun to not only start with her but also end the race with her as well.

Once back at in town, we got our loot and pigged out. Mark Sullivan and Stuart had come in around 3:45 or so, Mark bettering his time by 30 minutes and Stewart, being his first time, did great. Adam and Paul were next to arrive, followed by Amy and then father-daughter EOB and AOB. This being Abby's first time, Eric was a bit nervous having her ride it on her hard tail. Ryan being the awesome person he is, offered up his Remedy and she did great. Together they came in, bettering Eric's previous time of 30 minutes and I believe less profanity as well. Bringing people to these events is such a joy for Ryan and me and when a wonderful experience was had by a father and his daughter, well, I can't write a better life script than that. All the planning and preparation is completely justified knowing memories are being made and boundaries being pushed in positive directions.


Once everyone was back, we chowed down on some local noms and beer. We stuck around for the podium presentation for Abbey. She was the first female junior to complete the race! And on top of that she won her category and a coveted hand-made trophy handed to her by Dave Wiens himself! Such a delight and to see her, the only junior woman standing among the boys, made us all proud. We were sure to embarrass her with extremely loud cheering, which she accepted with her big Irish grin. So rad.

After the ceremony, we piled back into cars and returned to the house. Knowing we'd all want second dinner soon, we decided to get cleaned up first. Leisurely we all took our turns showering off the day's dirt and sweat. By later afternoon our stomachs were growling and we headed back into town in in search of burritos. Our regular stop was full so we went across the street, which had outdoor seating so we could be loud! We gorged on chips, dips and margaritas until our food arrived, which didn't have a chance either. I always say my favorite part of racing is being done, but I'm beginning to think it's really eating afterwards!


Post gorge, we took a stroll down main street. Everything was closed. The finish line was empty so we jumped up on the podium to commemorate the day. A tenacious and courageous group - but the photo wasn't complete. Our buddy Larry wasn't there, with his drunk glassy-eyed smile. Well, that's not exactly true.

The rest of the night we spent at the house on the deck or in the garage tinkering with bikes, getting them ready for the epic rides in Crested Butte the next day.

I got up early and started the pancake line. Ryan had bacon duty (subbing for Larry) and Stu jumped in making eggs. It was going to be a long day in the mountains so we needed a proper send off! By 8:30 we were locked and loaded, headed for the high country.


Ryan confirmed a couple trails were open and dry: Strand Hill and Upper Upper, trails that are accessible by way of albeit short for CB, 30-40 minutes of climbing fire roads and or single track. The whole crew dawned camel backs and snacks for a solid day on the bike. We cruised down a fire road, leaving Ryan and his bum wing once again. But he yelled at us until we were out of earshot, stoking the engines as he always does.

We reached the bottom of the climb. There were many riders out. The first of the dry single track and everyone was jonesing. Up up up we went. Taking our time. Trying not to burp up our bacon. We finally reached the top of the descent on Strand Hill. The sky sprinkled some rain but the tracks were crusty so I wasn't worried. Adam lead the group in place of Ryan, stopping every so often to group up. I had the pleasure of riding with Jenni and watching her confidently take on some seriously steep terrain that she would have walked a year prior. She took our clinic this spring and was doing everything just like we told her and she really did great. I was proud coach and friend. I love seeing more chicks on bikes gaining the confidence to come out on some of these rides in the mountains. Makes riding at home so tame too!




After a bunch of F-Yeah bombs we found the rest of the group and made our way up and down Strand Bonus. Adam's new big squishy made for some ribbing when he couldn't ride up hills that Jenni managed to climb. All in good fun. 



But then it was the downhillers' turn to burn. We made it back to the gravel road climb which was now very much a descent. We waved goodbye to the big bike boys while the rest of us took our time. We ended the first leg of the ride back at the van where Ryan was waiting with cold beers.

From there we let out to ride Upper Upper backwards which starts with stacked switchbacks to gain some quick elevation. Needless to say, I was out of breath pretty quick and made stops along the way. On top of that, it started to spit and the wind kicked up as well. Time to get ourselves butts and bikes back to town! Mark Sullivan was hammering the hills like a champ until he broke his chain. Without a 10 speed quick link, he was going to have to hail a ride back to town but Paul and Adam's quick thinking and muscles got him going again and he was able to ride the trails, minus a couple of cogs. Riding Upper Upper back to Tony's Trail is super fun and rowdy. Once we hit Tony's the wind was howling and we could see a wall of rain off in the distance. A few of us headed for the highschool where I knew there was a heated bathroom and a place to get out of the weather if we needed. (It's where we camped a couple years ago at the Ultra Enduro). The rest of the group headed straight for the visitor's center where Ryan and Jen were hanging out. We arrived within a few minutes, happy to have not been any higher as the weather turned.




What a day! And the only proper way to celebrate was to eat a very large pizza and drink very large beverages. We chose Secret Stash as our destination. We sat around a large round table that rotated in the middle so we could easily share appetizers and drinks. It was a setting for kings and queens. Warriors of the wilderness! Here, here! Barbarians of the backcountry! Here, here! Slayers of single track! You get the drift and for those that felt the amount of food wasn't enough, stuffed themselves silly with hand-made ice cream. Gluttons!

Tired, buzzing and bloated, we strolled the main street. Most of the shops were closed so we window shopped and entertained ourselves. We did manage to catch Ally from Big Al's putting away the day's demo fleet. It was good to catch up with her!

Finally, it was time to head back to the cabin. I was looking at my watch. It was just after 7pm. Perfect.

So we get back to the cabin and we're all hanging out on the patio waxing poetic about the day, gear choice, tires, a.k.a the usual when who in the hell walks out the onto the patio with a box full of beer - LARRY! The look on people's faces was priceless. It was as if they were seeing an illusion and realizing it in slow motion. I was giggling in my chair and once it dawned on everyone that Larry was actually standing there, grinning from just pulling off the greatest gag ever, the group erupted with hugs and laughter. I was crying from laughing so hard. It was a Hallmark moment if there ever was one. Cue the theme music! It was pretty hard not to tell anyone that Larry was going to be on this trip after all and the relief and utter joy of having him there made the trip complete! Good friends reuniting and celebrating a great trip full of firsts