It's been a year since I won my age group at 2017 USAC Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals and I can say without a doubt that winning was one the most memorable experiences I've had and will stay with me forever. Just having the title and wearing the jersey changed my perspective. Wearing the jersey this past year represented more than just my ability to go fast. For without the support and infrastructure in place here in Omaha to learn and practice the sport, I wouldn't be where I am today as a mountain biker. I wore the jersey as a symbol of pride for not only the brands that support an aging racer, but more for the people who built the mountain bike "scene" and continue to keep it alive here and in all the places we ride. You are the ones that help make it possible for any racer to dream this big. Thank you.
The 2018 USAC Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals was another great adventure for me and all of our travel companions. Many of us had been training for this event specifically, putting in long training days in crap-tastic shoulder season weather. Spring was very late to join the party in Nebraska so trails and roads were either wet or ice covered well into March and April, thus limiting a lot of long rides to indoor sufferfests. So it was a bit disconcerting to say the least to find out the race-day temps were going to get into 80s. Most of us blue-bloods hadn't done any kind of hard efforts in that kind of weather so it was going to be a shocker to the system.
Our home-base for the duration was Bar-Fifty Guest Ranch, a small horse ranch about 20 minutes from the venue. Upon booking, I asked if they accepted non-horse rider types and since it was their off season, they were more than happy to welcome us dirtbags. We pulled into the ranch after lunch and met Marsha and Scott, the new owners. After unpacking and getting settled, we also met their barn cats, cattle dog, a few horses and two donkeys. The meadows were vast and full of birds and flowering trees. It was a nice little oasis for us city dwellers.
Even though it was raining upon arrival, we still were able to ride a couple hours later to check out the trails. The track was as perfect and what little rain they were getting, by Sunday, it was only going to be better. I rode for an hour and most of the others rode for a bit longer. By the time we were all back to the van the rain was coming down a bit more so we headed back to the Ranch to clean up and relax before our home-cooked meal of real southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes, fresh buns and salad- all courtesy of Marsha and Scott. Such a treat and so convenient to not have to go into town. The rest of the night we spent listening to Ted's stories of bike lore (he's been racing a while) and trying not to sneak back into the kitchen for more chocolate cake that Marsha also made for us.
Saturday we were up early for another home-cooked meal of biscuits and gravy, eggs, taters and hash browns and of course bacon. Perfect grub to top off the calorie stores we'd be using the next day. We headed to the trail after breakfast to do some final recon riding and dialing in of bikes. Shim flew in from Omaha and met us there to ride. We brought his bike in the trailer so he wouldn't have to bring it on the flight. After a quick ride, we headed into town for lunch (yes, more eating), sitting outside a quaint cafe to enjoy the warmth of the day. On our way back we hit up liquor store for post-race celebrations.
Back at the Ranch for the evening, I visited the horses and donkeys. It was quite therapeutic to be able to let go of the stress of the race and enjoy the tranquility of the ranch and beautiful animals. But surprisingly, I was quite calm going into this race. I'd done the work. Earlier this year, I overheard one of my teammates, a cyclo-cross world champion, say "train hard enough that when it's race time it'll seem easy (and more fun)". I understood what he meant and tried to put it into practice all spring. I was hitting record power numbers the week of the race in training and my mind was calm. I had the confidence of the jersey still with me. To add to the mind-body connection, I read the book Endure by Alex Hutchinson, a curious exploration into the science of endurance and in particular how to push beyond our own human capabilities. I put a sticker on my handle bars that said, "Shut Up Brain" to remind myself that my brain will tell me to slow down long before my legs will.
Per usual, I didn't sleep much that night. This is a pretty regular occurrence even when I'm not racing. The alarm went off before 5am but Ryan let me sleep a bit past five before rousing me (that meant I actually dozed off). He already had coffee brewing (such a sweetie) so I got up and got ready. Not long after the guys were following the smell of coffee in our room. Marsha was also up making us a to-go stash of breakfast burritos, bacon and coffee. When the mountain bikers find out about her...look out! We were on the road by 6am, cranking the stereo to get us amped. Upon arrival, Ryan (since he was the event announcer) got the OK to park in the pro-zone area next to the finish line and once parked, felt the need to pump EOB up with Beyonce's All the Single Ladies. So here it was 6:30 in the morning and we were already bringing the party.
So far, so good. Everything was going smooth with no hiccups, until I turn on my Garmin to go warm up. No power data. Shit. 45 minutes to race time. I shot back to the pit and I replaced the battery. Still no data. I had only heart rate. I turned the computer on and off and still it wouldn't pick up my power meter. Well, nothing I can do about it now so I just turned off the power window screen and like I did at that last big race, just used heart rate and perceived exertion. No big deal. Old school. My mind was calm. I hit the loo one more time and as I was rolling around the start line area, I hear my name - time to line up I guess. I rolled up to the front, dead center. It wasn't til we were on course did I realize all the 40-44 and 45-49 were grouped together. I was late to roll call and just assumed it was all my age group which was why I went to the front. An official asked me my age-group so being at the front with the 40-44 must have been ok. Anyway, at the 1 minute warning, Ryan is wishing me luck. I locked my eyes on the edge of the parking lot. As the seconds tick down, I switched on the Garmin. On the GO I clicked right into my pedals, stood up and and after just a few pedal strokes I was at the front! As I crested the small rise in the road, a rider came around and sat right in front of me, which was fine with me. I stayed with her on the 90-degree turn onto the highway shoulder, which was also a slight downhill. Our pace was strong enough that I tucked into my frame and coasted the entire way down. The next turn was another 90-degree right hander. I could see another line forming to my left in order to take the turn wide. The woman in front of me began to slow as we approached the corner and I didn't want to get trapped so I yelled, Right Side! and cut the corner super hard, leaning the bike way over, which sling-shotted me about 3-4 bike lengths in front. Now I wasn't planning a flyer but I was so damn proud of that move that I just let the adrenaline kick take me up the next rise, which by then the rest of the group had caught up. After a couple more short rises the turn onto the dirt appeared. Not enough room to try another risky move, I took the turn responsibly and that's really where the race blew apart. The climbers were off the front, punishing everyone. I was probably top 10 going up the double track climb. By the time we reached the start of the main loop, I couldn't see much of the front (our calves were marked really dumb W or W1. 45-49 was W. From far away and legs moving, W and W1 weren't all that dissimilar.
Right away we were in the back of the masters men traffic. I didn't recall it being a problem last year but this year was totally different. I got in train of women who were hauling ass, one of them was on flat pedals and she had a bell and was ringing the shit out of that thing to try and get the dudes to let us pass. Sometimes they would but there were too many times where our nice request was met with acceleration so we had to become more stern, especially if it was two guys riding together. So annoying. I understand for mere organizational purposes all the guys go than the ladies but putting us behind the freaking 60-70 year olds is a joke. About 45 minutes in we start seeing the back of the 29-39 women. Abbey came into view and looking strong. She was by herself. The women I was with were going strong. We got up to Abbey. Two women went around on a climb and I stayed back but we caught back after one of them spun out on a corner and we went around. Then we caught a woman on a SS who had slowed just before a technical climb. When she turned to ask if anyone wanted by I stood up and went around all of them, up the climb. I could hear yelling and cussing behind me knowing that stair step climb was giving people some issues. I may have turned on the gas a bit after that but it wasn't long until I was caught by a couple of the W1s I had been with. They seemed to be getting faster or I was getting tired. Almost an hour in and I'm still in Zone 5 heart rate. We got behind two dudes who would not move out of the way. I probably lost a couple minutes easy b/c of all the traffic. Finally at the entrance of the feed zone half way through lap 1 a guy who had been in our way was taking his time, trying to find his feeder or whatever and finally I just told him to get the Fuck out of the way for fucking sake. Then I sped up to EOB, swapped bottles and took off. I was with the W1 ladies still and our flat pedaler was done. We thanked her for the pace and pushed on. It wasn't too far after that when I kinda started to fall off their pace. It was them I wished I had used a camelback so I could keep the fluids coming in faster. I kept on the gas, hoping to come up on a W. When I finally came out of the woods I shoved some jelly bellies down and a waffle. With 5 miles left of lap one, I had no idea where I was in the race in terms of placement so I finally settled in.
I got to the feed zone at the finish line and when I rode up to the tent there were two people in it who I didn't know. They were leaning on our coolers but moved off of them when I approached. It was puzzling. (Later I found out people were hiding from the hot sun anywhere they could, even if it wasn't their tent). I downed a 5hr energy, wiped my face with a cold rag and took off for lap 2. More traffic. As a single rider, I didn't have problems asking to pass. The second lap wasn't as eventful. We were more spread out and the heat of the day was taking its toll on people. I was among them but it was manageable. I just slowed down a tick but was still high Zone 4 heart rate and instead of putting down so much power, really tried to spin faster. Nothing really hurt. It was just the classic stomach issues I get when I go out hard and don't put the calories back in fast enough. When I got to Aid 2, I had EOB pour water on my neck. The water was so cold I lost my breath but it shot new life into me.
The last ten miles of the race are a blur but I did manage to catch a W! She was someone I had passed at the start of the race on a descent but she had a great spin and could just pedal away up the climbs. I came up on her with another guy. I'd saw glimpses when the trail turned in on itself until I turned a corner and they both were getting off their bikes to walk up the stone steps. I yelled, "I'm riding this" and they both got to the side just in time, cheering me on. At the top my heart was pegged but I knew my fitness would allow it to come down within a few seconds so I soft pedaled a bit and then turned on the gas when the trail started to go down, knowing she wasn't going to do as well. Now when I say down, I mean down-ish. This was classic power riding, with ups and down and turn after turn. There were never any straight aways on the single track which is exactly my riding style. I loved it. I knew I could pedal hard into a corner and take it at speed. I was jumping kickers and just having too much fun. My Fox-32 fork was eating up the trail and the Super Fly was living by its namesake. I didn't see her again but I was running out of trail. I still didn't know what place I was in (should have asked EOB) so I just went on to try and bag me some Ws. I got passed by a couple of women from the younger group who I must have passed earlier. I passed a lot of dudes who were smoked, crawling up the hills. As I got close to the end, I saw that my time was way better than last year and that gave me a huge boost. My finish time last year was 4:47, this year it ended up being 4:31! But it was only good for 3rd, surprisingly. The course was faster this year for sure but so were two other riders; one was the woman I beat at the line last year and the other, I'm told, is a record-holding CX racer. Not too shabby of a result, I'd say.
I pulled into the finish area. Ryan called my name but made now indication that he knew me (so pro). I saw the crew hanging out in the tent but I wasn't ready to socialize. I needed to wind down so I pedaled around the parking lot a bit before finally getting off the bike. About 15 minutes later Abbey came in (the same time I did it last year - which put her 4th in the older age cat). She was the only one in her category so she won the National championship for 17-18 girls!!!!!
We continued the celebrations back at the ranch, even dragging a fire pit from a storage barn with permission from Marsha. I tried taking a nap after showering but instead I hung out with my new friend, Donkey. I told him all about my race and as long as I fed him grass, he was an attentive listener. I stared out at the land surrounding the ranch and to the forest beyond the meadows. For once, I didn't yearn to grab my bike to explore them. It was time to rest.