The hus-boy and I have been to many events and the hospitality that gushes from the dirty south is second to none. Though the Berryman Trail Epic still has its growing pains, the promoters' hearts are 100% in the right place. Everything from a ripping track, to smoked meat, to a swelling swag table, to a 4 alarm bon fire makes this event one not to miss. Factor in phenomenal fall foliage that would make Bob Ross cry and you get my drift. Epic is indeed the proper use of the word, in this case.
The MTBWGN crew changed up a bit this trip. We had one of the Todds, (Eyberg, to be exact), Larry, the Stoll's and also a couple newbies: Mark Sullivan and Bryan Black. Eric O'Brien, who's been on one other trip, was new to this race. We were stoked. Nine friends, nine bikes and the open road, leading us to some of the best laid track in the Ozarks. I'd be hard pressed to find a better way to end a race season.
As I stated before, the people involved in this race, from the promoters to the Bass Resort staff are absolute salt of the earth folks. They'd give you the shirt off their backs, or the chain out of their Super Duty. I'm not sure where else one could get a personal greeting and escort after arriving late, which is exactly what happened to Eric. Since he couldn't miss work, he arrived well after dark Friday night. As soon as he pulled up, he was greeted by name by the security guard and night shift clerk (which kinda freaked him out a little). Then the guard gladly escorted him to the cabin which was necessary because we missed the sign for it in the daylight! (I even made a paper plate sign and stuck it into a cairn next to the road in hopes he'd see it). We were very glad to hear his extra sarcastic voice early the next morning. And he let us know just how early it was too. :)
Lucky for all, the weather was palpably perfect. It was sunny and warm when we arrived mid-morning on Friday. We checked into our cabin that was about 1.5 miles from the start line. It had a wrap-around deck and slept like 20 people. Everyone would have a bed, except Eric, who, again, would let us know all about it. After unloading, we hit the trail for a final shake down. This year's course had some changes to it, so we rode the last loop to get a sense of the terrain and the finish. Sometimes these shake down rides reveal hidden issues, like the fact that Mark didn't have any Stan's left in his tires, so when he got a flat and it didn't seal, he was stuck with a tube for the rest of the ride. Luckily for him, he's with Ryan and Adam, who carry enough of the stuff for a small team. They hooked him back up with tubeless and he was ready for any kind of terrain.
After the pre ride, we headed over to packet pick up. This is always an interesting segment, watching the two promoters (who are clearly very good buddies) try to manage all of the details of a registration table. They even said we should know better than to be the first ones to register. As we stood in line while they worked through it, one of their dogs, a massive bull dog, took a liking to Larry's legs. He became a human salt lick and it was just hilarious. The dog went person to person and when he got to me, I jumped up onto a picnic table, which triggered the owner to call him back. I wasn't going to let this thing near me.
Once we were all finally registered, we headed back to the cabin to relax. We fiddled with bikes, made dinner, and hung out on the deck until it was time for bed. Though the day went great, I could tell I was getting Ryan's cold and it stressed me out. I didn't sleep much (which is normal for me before races). Add on top the anxiety of being sick and I was definitely not in REM mode. I didn't hear Eric arrive but when I got up to pee he was just getting settled in. Everyone was accounted for.
Race morning was full of energy and jokes. Though the sun was long from rising, we were all up getting our feed on. Eric's version of the personal welcoming committee put aside the stress of the day for a short while. Around 7am a few of us lit out for some warm up riding on a foggy back country road where we passed an old cemetery and meadows steaming against the morning sun. It was uncharacteristically warm. Usually we were in a few layers while we warmed up but this time I was in my summer kit and one base layer and a vest. Perfect. After a few tempo efforts and some spin ups, we headed back to the cabin for one last pee break and removing of unnecessary layers. We took our time heading to the start line, noting anything on the gravel road that would hinder our forward momentum come race time. When we got to the start line, it was pretty calm. Nobody was lined up and many were still milling about or spinning up the road. I took a last spin and a couple more bathroom breaks before taking my place near the start line. I was about 4-5 rows back from the front. I could see many other women but later I would find out I did not see them all.
There wasn't much to the mandatory pre-race meeting except that we should just follow the leaders b/c they knew where they were going. Then the gun went off, sort of. It was about 2 seconds late. The front lines stood up and charged like a wild stampede. This start is a killer. It rolls nicely down the paved road for about 1/4 mile and then onto gravel which is mostly up hill. With my heart rate pegged, I made my way through the pack. Ryan was close enough to me to give me a couple of pushes (which he was called out for). By the third one, I had to tell him to stop, for fear of seeming like I was cheating. I saw a few women by the time we started climbing and then I didn't see any. Maybe I have the hole shot for the ladies? It was hard to say. Ryan disappeared somewhere in the cloud of dust and adrenaline and it was just me and 349 of my closest friends.
The track was as dry as it's ever been. Loose and very leaf covered, which was typical, so going into corners hot, you just had to hope there wasn't something evil ready to take you out. Riding in the Ozarks is incredibly fun. The track was a continuous roller coaster, hugging the hills and pushing us into the corners that would turn us upward or down. There was never a dull moment and rarely a flat stretch. When there was, it was usually at the bottom of a ravine.
I hit the first aid station around mile 11 in a train of guys who pushed me a bit harder than I would have gone had I been by myself. I hadn't seen any other ladies but the ghost of them were in my ears. Every rider that came up behind me, I feared was Laureen, who handedly beat the tar out of me all spring down in Arkansas. Finding out that she placed 2nd at 24-hour Nats this summer only added to that fear. She obviously has an engine that doesn't know how to quit and a temper for pain that I have never breached. Laura Scherff was also someone I had to keep an eye on at all times. She was right there at the start. Just because I passed her on the road didn't mean anything. These ladies know how to ride single track and ride it well. They hail from these areas and rock riding is as second nature to them as walking. It was going to take more than just skill to beat them. It was going to take a lot of UMPH!
The trains I jumped on for the next hour helped me stay steady. Some I jumped on to calm me down and others I jumped on to push the pace. When I reached the Berryman Campground, aid 2, at about 25 miles in, Jenni Stoll said I was about 3 minutes back from the lead woman. And it wasn't Laureen. It was somebody she hadn't seen before. I got everything swapped out and with a big push from Jenni (so awesome) I was locked and loaded for the next 18 or so unaided miles.
This was the most fun part of the race. The track, leaving the campground, descends more than it climbs. A guy jumped on my wheel and we weaved in and out and up and down. My newly sharpened descending skills were really coming in handy here. I was looking farther ahead and setting up for corners so I could keep up speed through them. I came upon Larry who was riding steady. A steep step up (and cramps) forced him off. I too unclipped and the guy on my wheel went around. I went ahead after him but backed off only to be joined by a guy who had been on my wheel earlier. To my surprise, within about 20 minutes, I came upon two riders who seemed to be just riding along. One of them had a ponytail and was tall. Was it two dudes or was this the female leader? I stayed back about a bike length. The one with the ponytail looked back. That's right, you've been caught. I can't say they stood up and pounded but holy crap were they riding strong. They were comfortably kicking my ass on the climbs but once the track went down, I was right back on their wheels. On one corner the lead guy washed out and told the woman to go. So it was me, her (Lisa is her name) and my shadow cruising along. Every time she put two bike lengths on me when the track pointed up, I'd gain it back when we went back down. The guy behind me even said "You can descend faster than her!" But that wasn't the problem. The problem was I was burning a ton of matches on the climbs and techy bits. My heart rate was in the high 170s. I had to back off before it exploded but it turned out I didn't have to. We came around a corner and the track went down into a washed out, rooty crevice that was probably wheel deep. As she went into it, something stopped her front wheel and slammed her to the ground. Unfortunately, I had no place to go but on top which didn't work out any better. I went over the bars too and flipped over. By the time I opened my eyes, I was on my back, on Lisa, one foot still clipped in, hearing dudes yelling back that riders were down. With adrenaline coursing through my body, I squirmed to get my foot out of the pedal. I managed to stand up. My neck was stiff but otherwise everything seemed alright. We both asked about each other's condition and when it seemed we were both fine, I spun my wheels, checked my brakes and hopped back on the bike. I soft pedaled for a short while, making sure the bike was working, I was working. I took a few sips of water, taking note of the pain coming from my right index finger. "Gonna probably lose a nail", I said out loud. I saw the wheel hugger up ahead and easily got up to him. He was great about asking me when I wanted to pass and he always made an extra effort to make it easy. This would be the last time I passed him because that was when I began a strong effort to put some distance between Lisa and I. I had no idea if she was still riding or not. But I figured if she was, after a crash like that, she'd be spooked and probably riding with some hesitation on the descents. So what did I do? I smashed them. I smashed it to the bottom of each one. And not just because of Lisa. I probably lost 3-5 minutes getting myself together after the crash and that was 3-5 minutes closer for Laureen and Laura too.
I finally sensed I was near what was the end of the single track in last year's race. I knew there was a long service road climb back up to the gravel. I knew there would be a long stretch of up and down gravel and some new portion of single track, that would pop us back down on the road we started on that morning. What I didn't know was how much climbing there would be in this new section. All of the effort in the last section after Berryman, the crash and gaining back some time was going to cost me. The question was, when was it going to be time to pay up!
As I rode the gravel, I kept looking back to see if anyone was on my tail. Ahead was one lone rider, so I focused my effort to reel him in while trying to put down some nourishment. I caught him about a half mile before turning back into the trees. The climbing was starting to hurt. My pace, though steady, had to come down. I still had close to twenty miles left in the race! This new section was messing with my head. I started getting sloppy and riding like crap. The guy on my wheel didn't want to pass. We got passed a few times, which worried me because I didn't get passed much the last 30 miles. I was obviously slowing down. Fucking burnt matches! I tried eating and drinking to catch up but my stomach wasn't playing that game. It was mocking me. "You chose to starve me, so, starve then!" Crap! I switched to water to hopefully give it a rest from the Carbo Rocket. When was this trail going to end! Now? Nope. Fuck. Now? Nope. Fuck. Seriously, we're going down again? After an hour I started to see blue sky at the tops of ridges, a sign we were close. We finally popped out in a meadow, about a football field away from the main road through the resort. I hung a left and started back towards the start line. The guy I had been riding with for that entire stretch gave me a fist bump and said thanks as he pulled off for a pit stop at his cooler. Glad to help. Coulda used some, dude.
The last aid station was just ahead on the main road that goes out of the resort would take us up to the last section of single track (which we rode the day before, so I had a good mental picture of what I was in for). But I was getting low on gas. The light was on and I was going to have to milk it the rest of the way. Jenni was there waiting for me. She had my bottle in her hand as I pulled up. I dumped everything I didn't need and left with one bottle of water. I forced down a goo and prayed. If I was going to get passed, this was where it was going to happen. Lisa was a state champ XC racer with the physique of a roadie. Laureen was a sniper, precise with her attacks late in races. I was doomed if I didn't keep on the gas.
The road raised before me like a wall. Two rises, actually, formed one punishing climb. Riders up the road were hugging the left side, under the shade. Smart. I didn't have the energy to turn my bars to get over there. Straight up I went, in the blazing sun, my heart rate still reading in the high 160s which was surprising. Usually when I'm feeling this bad, it's common for it to be pegged in the low 160s. That's when I know I'm out of gas and headed straight for the bonk zone. I finally reached the turn off onto gravel that would lead me to the last bit of single track. On our pre-ride I took mental notes of landmarks because I knew I'd be hurting by this point and would need all of the help I could get to keep going. Past the gate. Past the muddy rut. Past the Dead End road sign, past the happy marshals that kept people from cutting the course that crossed over itself. I knew the track was about a 7 miles from the start of the single track. And it was the longest seven miles in my life. There were parts that I remembered from the pre ride, like where Mark got a flat and where I thought I was going the wrong way. But it seemed to never end. Every climb sent me back down to another ravine. The same track I reveled about yesterday was the bane of my existence. I wanted nothing more than to stop pedaling. Everything ached.
Umph! I had to keep going.
Suddenly I could hear the two happy road marshals cheering on riders going by on the road. So close! I was so close. I knew once I went past them, it was mostly downhill.
When they saw me come up the trail, their cheers blew air into my lungs and lightened my feet. I sprinted across the road and down into the last section of single track. Then I could hear music and people and humanity!
I popped out of the trees and onto the grass and into the finishing shoot where I was greeted with loud cheers. I was done. Beyond done. I rolled my bike to a stop and got off the bike. A streak of dried blood ran down my right leg. I took off my glove and my right index finger was black and blue. I had bumps on both of my temples and a lump on the back of my skull, behind my right ear. I bent over, putting my hands on my knees. I continued down, stretching my back and legs that had been bent at some degree for the last 5 hours. Then I stood up straight, and with my face to the sun, I double punched the air in celebration of my triumph. It was a big win, not only on the face of it, but it was a nice exclamation point on a very long racing season.
I was immediately greeted with high fives from folks hanging out and racers at the finish line, among them were a few of the guys that I had ridden with over the course of the race. After a about 10 minutes went by, I looked over and saw Lisa surrounded by people. When I realized it's the woman I had crashed into, I walked over to see how she was doing, not knowing if she had continued on or not. Come to find out, she had hit her chin and cut her knee but otherwise was fine and had continued racing. Hailing from Texas, she was there racing together with her husband. She apologized for the crash. Please! That's racing! Not a minute later Laureen walked up, as she does, reveling in her stoke for women who race hard, regardless placement. It seemed she and Lisa had been battling it out right to the end, with Lisa taking second and Laureen third.
Soon our crew started trickling in with dirt-crusted smiles on their faces. Despite having to overcome some obstacles along the way, everyone seemed pretty stoked. And for good reason. Shit, 50 good reasons! Mark Sullivan, normally a road racer, got closer to coming over to the dark side. Bryan decided 40 miles was enough fun for the day. Both Ryan and Adam suffered flats and cramps but still made it in. EOB, who's barely touched his bike since Dakota Five-0, willed himself to finish. And he even managed to kinda enjoy himself.
Mountain bike racing is hard. Not only do we battle with each other, the terrain, the weather, and our equipment but we mostly battle with ourselves. We are our own fiercest competitor or our loudest cheerleader. Sometimes it's easier (or we are forced) to concede to failure, but I think, regardless of the outcome, it's much more rewarding to commit to the fight. Sometimes all it takes is just a little umph.