Though I might like to think I could live by this famous mantra, truth be told, I'm too much of a control freak. It's just not in my genes to let go and allow nature take its course. So whenever I sign up for an enduro race, and especially one like the Monarch Crest Enduro, I do so with jittery hands and an elevated heart rate. Racing bikes in the high mountains is hard enough. Add in the time of year where weather swings are a daily occurrence and I start to sweat. This year's event would be the ultimate test of everything I thought I was capable of on a bike.
Ryan and I signed up for this race with all the excitement of a first date: We think we know what we're doing but probably we're going to have to wing it most of the time. But it'll be a fun adventure.
As we do before heading to the Great Wide Open, we check and recheck the weather report. It was looking good for race weekend but the days leading up to it were wet and cold, especially in the higher elevations. Salida always has pretty decent weather but it's a different story up at Monarch Pass. That's like another planet altogether. So we hunted down the live cams online to keep tabs on Mother Nature and it was not looking promising. About 5-7" had dropped the night before we left Nebraska but we were hopeful that the autumn sun would burn it off in time for the race.
We left Omaha on Thursday night and hunkered down at Lake Mac. We weren't in quite the hurry we were a couple weeks back. Since the weather in Salida wasn't the best, we took our time so that we'd arrive in the warmer part of the day. By the time we got to our campsite the rain had quit and we set up camp. Since it was going to be a chilly and wet weekend, we stayed in an RV park not far from town with hot showers and electric hook up so we could run our electric heater at night inside the van (not to worry - it had auto shut off if tipped or when it reached max temp).
After setting up camp, we had a whole afternoon to kill so we decided to spin out the legs. Instead of hitting up the same trails we always do on S Mountain, Ryan found a section of the CT that wasn't too far up the road. Always up for exploring new trails, it seemed like a perfect idea. We drove about 15 minutes towards Monarch and turned off the highway and up a gravel road for maybe a mile. According to the map, this was part of the CT. We pulled off and unloaded. It was chilly but not too bad. We headed up what looked like a 4WD road and soon enough we came upon a trail head kiosk. Must be in the right spot!
We rode up for about an hour. Looking at the map, we were on the North Fooses trail and by the time we turned around, we were just starting to see snow on the ground and our gradual climb was soon going to get much steeper. The sky was turning gray again and Ryan didn't have on much gear so we didn't want to get caught in a hail storm for sure! It was a fun, albeit wet, descent and a good test of the bikes' set up for the race.
We returned to camp and got into some clean clothes and headed to town for the pre-race meeting and dinner with the other racers.
Part of the entry fee for the MCE in particular includes breakfast burritos and coffee and full-on buffets for dinner, with free beer. So if you do the math for two people to eat resort town meals for four days, that's probably equal to about $200-240! They set it up so that racers can pull into town and just show up to race and not have to worry about making food before or after. Doing this isn't just convenient but also creates a social environment where racers can meet each other and get to know the people in their category. This can help racers feel a little bit better about being in the backcountry with someone who at least knows their name, especially appreciative for those like me, who bring up the caboose on the shred train. I'm the last one to drop most of the time and knowing the timing guys and the other racers know me a little helps with the nerves in case something goes sideways.
The meeting was outside at the Boathouse, a busy restaurant on the Arkansas River. We had the outside patio all to ourselves and it was burrito buffet and beer on tap. The promoters, Keith Darner and David Scully, gave us the run-down for the weekend, we got our timing bracelets and we stuffed our faces with awesome burritos. Afterward we chatted with some familiar folks before heading back to camp to get ready before the sun went down.
Race morning the sky was once again overcast. The promoters opted for a later start to allow snow to melt and for warmer temps, not just for us but for the race staff who had to stand up there and wait for our asses! It was nice not to have to get up before sunrise, especially when one is camping. Instead we got up just as the sun was rising and took our time getting ready. I liked going into day one relaxed.
We arrived in town and parked in the open lot near the restaurant. Many riders were milling about and had already drained the coffee but there were plenty of burritos so I snagged one for the shuttle ride up. Our shuttle was a "short bus", barely sitting two per seat. It was a bit snug with all of our gear but we managed. On the ride up the radio had some pretty horrible light rock and we all joked at how stoked we were getting from the sounds of Asia and Deonne Warwick. But only after 45 minutes or so we were unloading and riding towards our first stage. The weather was chilly but not terrible and there wasn't much snow.
The transition from the drop point to the start was only about 20 minutes. The wind was low, thankfully, as we were in a pretty exposed area. The road was muddy so we were already getting a taste of what was to come.
The first stage was Starvation Creek, a notoriously rowdy ribbon, with a lot of off-camber and narrow singletrack with exposure. Though not death-dropping exposure, one wouldn't want to get knocked down the rocky creek banks. And that's kinda the mentality I took with me that first stage. If I wasn't tentative already from the weather, the track definitely put me there. It was wetter at the top than the bottom but the steep sloping mountain kept me pretty nervous. I kept reminding myself to relax but my mind's eye was on the mountain, trying not to catch my handlebar on a sniper branch. There were a few nasty root clusters that forced me off the bike but I was happy to ride through the rough rock falls that don't really have a line. I got down the hill and was off the back but didn't let it deter me. I couldn't. I had much bigger things ahead to deal with. At the bottom was a "pick our poison" buffet of bacon, bars, whiskey or water. These guys knew bike racers.
|Photo by Emil Tyler for Pink Bike
Day 2, Stage 3, Canyon Creek, was the biggest day of the three, and just one run, dropping from 12,600 to 8700 ft in 9 miles. But first we had to get up there. We got dropped off and spent the next 3 hours either riding or hiking up service roads until we were so high that only blown out moto track was the only way upward. We were all so relieved at the absence of snow on this side of the mountain. It was already pretty gnarly hike a bike, traversing steep, stacked switchbacks with rocky steps underneath our feet most of the way. If my shoes weren't wrecked before this day, they sure as hell were now.
Here's a Relive Video link: https://www.relive.cc/view/g14588299926
By the time I made it to the last rendezvous point before the start, there were a few guys in line to drop in. As it was pretty windy up top, this was the last stop to put on layers or fuel up.
Word on the mountain was there was snow for part of the start. I could see it when I got up there, staring hard to see the tiny riders ahead making their way across it. Luckily, it was on a slight uphill grade. The promoter had told us earlier that morning (he had ridden his moto up there the night before to make sure the track was clear of snow and trees) that it was the gnarliest he'd seen it in a while. It was afterall a motocross trail and an uphill one at that, so lots of sniper rocks were embedded, ready to take us out at any wrong turn.
Finally, it was my turn to drop. The last one of the day. Even though I knew I'd take at least 50 minutes to get down and everyone would be waiting, I had to ride my ride. This is not anything usual. This is not the time to "try new things". This is the time to stay true to what I knew to get me down safely. The mud started immediately. The sun had melted all the snow on all the south-facing track and replaced it with a running stream. The chunder wasn't as bad as I had imagined and I kept my gaze out far, scanning the "safe lines". The start is not steep immediately. It's gradual with some pedaling. When I got to the snow line, I got off and walked. Nope, not today. I didn't want to slip off. Even though it wasn't certain death it would have been a bitch to get back up with a bike. After that it was mud and rock. Then it got a little steep and a little off camber so I just took my time. Once down from the steep mountain sides, it was more open and I was able to up my speed. I was clipping along, happy to be down, when I see the treeline and the medical team member standing there. At first I was thinking someone was down but then as I got closer and saw the gaggle of photographers and medical, it was too late to actually realize I was in a rocky, nasty, droppy chute. The only thing to do at that point was hold on and keep moving forward. There was absolutely no stopping. The fan club on the rocks were cheering me on. "You got this! You got this!" "This is the hardest section" "Go girl!" And that was all I needed to get me through it. Had I been alone, I probably would have walked it. But my Trek Remedy had other plans. I am constantly amazed at that bike. I wish I could tap into its magical powers more than I do. It forces me to be a better rider!
|Photo of me in the chute by Emil Tyler for Pink Bike
After the chute, I still had a lot of work to do. There wasn't a dry patch anywhere but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Muddy, wet rocks, when not dangling off a precipice, I can handle. I kinda slide around more but sometimes that's easier than muscling over something. I was riding on a Magic Mary up front and a High Roller in back and those tires gave no fucks. They ate up that track like it was hero dirt and it was just up to me to keep the train on the rails.
An interesting phenomena happens on these kinds of runs: time stops. The terrain is too gnarly most times to take your eye off of it for a second so it's hard to know where you are on the trail, how long you've been riding and how long til the finish! All you know is keep pedaling until you see the finish line.
Down lower the mud was thickening and the holes were deeper, especially those with tree roots on either side. Sometimes I could find a line around but sometimes I couldn't and in my tire went, not knowing if it would be hub deep or tire deep. All I could do was sit back and react to whatever happened next. It was maddening and my quads were on code red meltdown. I would stand up any chance I could or sit down, depending on the terrain, just to give them a break. On top of that, something was up with my shifting. I could not get the chain to rest on a cog in the back. I was afraid it was my chain so I didn't want to put a lot of stress on it so I ran up a couple of the climbs instead of mashing for fear of breaking the chain. No matter what gear I was in, it would just grind!
Finally, I made it to the horse corral, which is where the XC part starts and the gnar ends. A couple moto guys were there making sure we made it across the river. Yes, the river. There was no option but to get as much speed as possible in order to make it across and up the bank on the other side. It was the color of chocolate milk so I didn't have a clue how deep it was. I chose to go across the narrowest part and though it was hub deep, I just put in all my might and hoped my Magic Mary would dig in. Victory! (It's the small things that add up). "Half-way there!" they yelled. Half way? Damn, I was hoping for at least 3/4. The rest of the trail was XC moto style with sandy whoops, huge puddles and a few draining rocky climbs that had me off the bike. Not enough skill and low on energy isn't the time to muscle obstacles that are over my pay grade. And by then, I was praying the next turn was the end. I tried to recall some land markers but every time I thought I recognized one, and felt I was close to the end, the end didn't appear so I stopped trying to assume I knew where I was on the trail.
With maybe a couple miles left I started seeing photographers. Yay, that meant I was close! That gave me wings and before I knew it I saw the finishing tape and there was Ryan, ready and waiting to give me a big hug! That was the best part, seeing someone you know waiting for you after such a stressful time. I told him about my shifting and he looked at the derailleur. The cable was almost cut! Aha! But that needed to be fixed asap and the bike shop was only open til 6. It was 4:30 and we were an hour's shuttle away from town.
When we got back, I didn't even get out of my riding clothes. It was raining in town anyway. So I cruised a couple blocks to Absolute Bikes and peeked my head in back and asked if they could sneak me in. Sure! (and without a hint of sarcasm nor scorn). So I took it out back to hose it off and handed her to the peeps in charge. Ryan drove over and I was able to get out my wet gear and into dry comfy clothes. We hung around the shop until it was fixed and then headed back to the Boat House for noms.
(Side note - the mechanic was Andrea Wilson, a bad-ass SS racer from the midwest, who I raced against a couple times at Syllamo).
Dinner was giant burgers w/ homemade potato chips and tiramisu. I was in heaven! We sat around the restaurant listening and telling our stories. One guy slipped off the snow and went down the mountain, another got caught in on one of the big holes. But for the most part, everyone got down safely with minimal damage to bikes and none to bodies. It was a pretty amazing statistic. Though it was fun to hang out, we had to leave so we could get our stuff ready for the next day, as it was going to be an earlier start, leaving town by 7:30.
Day 3, Stage 4 was Greens Trail that descended down off of Monarch Crest. The shuttles dropped us at Monarch Pass and we rode 4 miles or so to the staging point. It had snowed overnight but the sun had already melted the track so it was easy to see where we needed to go.
As we rode through the white landscape, already dripping from the sunshine, we could look out and see the brown, lower mountains and wish were riding there! I caught up to Ryan and we took some photos. It was chilly and sometimes the wind would whip the snow across the face of the mountain but it was absolutely stunning scenery.
But there wasn't much willy-nillying around. The weather was too unpredictable to get caught up that high without much shelter so I just put my head down and pedaled. Just before I made it to the staging area, I went up over a root and slid off of it and crashed. I didn't notice at first but my Garmin popped off. As I reached the starting area and went to turn off my computer to save juice I saw it was gone. Even though riders were still arriving, I rode back on the trail to the spot where I'd crashed and there it was, lying face down in a bunch of tire tracks, still keeping time. Whew! That would have been a bummer!
It was going to be a while before I descended. They were holding on starting until all medical was in place and the trail report was clear. Luckily, there is a hut up there and they had started a fire where we could try to stay warm and dry our our shoes.
Finally, it was my turn. The clouds were starting to pile up behind me and the race director took notice. The question of if there was going to be a 5th stage hinged on those clouds. Five...four...three...two...one and I was off. Slipping, sliding and into the black abyss. Once into treeline, I felt as if I'd been swallowed by the forest. The mud was black. The shadows were dark and the sky was murky. I also felt very alone. The only thing I could focus on were the tracks of the racers before me. They would lead me home.
I was a on the rivet for the entirety of the decent. At the top, it was all I could do to keep up enough momentum just to keep moving forward but also so that I could feel in control and not tip over. I had to trust the bike and the tires to do the hard part. Mud was splashing up on my glasses and face. There were semi-frozen puddles below dark, black webs of gnarled tree roots. I had the death grip and the tense arms and one small over the bars moment was enough to remind me to keep the front end light so it could make its way over the terrain and my weight low to keep as much traction on both tires as possible.
At some point I started hearing ice pellets hitting my helmet! Though it wasn't much, I was worried that it could turn into a storm. I finally reached drier ground that ran along the creek. Moto trails usually follow fall line, meaning that's where the water runs down the mountain, so naturally they can be really wet after a storm. I was now on the trails that ran parallel to the mountain's grade so I was able to pedal much faster. It flattened out the last three or so miles and I started to get pretty warm with all of my wet weather gear on but I didn't care much. I knew I was past the hardest parts and that helped me find whatever energy I had left to bring me across the finish line where once again Ryan and another pro woman, Stephanie, were waiting with high fives and the best news of the day - We don't have to do the 5th stage!!! I was stoked. I didn't want to have to ride that fricken snow field again and I didn't have one nerve left to ride down Fooses. It was going to be rowdier than Greens at the top with the fall-line descent in the snow. I had no idea how to ride that and I wasn't going to learn today. My race was done.
We went back to town. There was a little confusion b/c the other van didn't return with us. There were some that wanted to do stage 5. Ryan was one of those but the van had already left. I felt horrible. He waited for me and that cost him a run.
The short bus returned to town. When we went inside to get our timer dipped in for the final time, we asked if the other van had come in and he said nobody had returned. We told him the story about the option to do Stage 5 or not and he said that they'd have to do some voodoo if Stage 5 was timed. Since we were back early, we went to Mo'Borrito to celebrate our day and our survival and our anniversary! (I highly recommend this place. They even squeeze the limes for their margaritas!) By the time we left, I was buzzing and happy. We brought our own flasks to the awards ceremony as we told the tales of battles won and lost on the day. They did end up neutralizing Stage 5 and podiums were based on the finishing times of four stages. I was the only one in my group and thank everyone for waiting for me all weekend. Ryan was 6th in his group and they called him up, we think, as a make-up for leaving him behind on stage 5. He got his pickles and was happy.
After the ceremony and raffle, we shared hugs and said our last good-byes and headed back to the campground. We lit our final camp fire in the mountains and hung out beneath the first starry night since our arrival. The moon was bright. After three days of testing our personal limits we were spent but our cups were full. Our minds were buzzing as we recalled our favorite moments and our scariest. This will be a trip we'll share when sitting around future campfires, telling stories of races gone by.
As the days have passed since, we both have said that the MCE was an epic adventure. Even though we did something that scared us everyday over those three days, we made it out the other side, better and stronger riders and definitely feeling more alive than ever.
Check out this awesome racap video of the whole event: https://www.pinkbike.com/news/the-monarch-crest-enduro-rocky-mountain-enduro-series-round-5-highlights-and-recap-video.html