Sunday, April 14, 2019

Pisgah Stage Race

New year, new season. I opened the year with some gravel racing at Monster Cross, Croatan 150, and Love Valley Rubaix, but this was the first mountain bike race of the season. We drove down to Pisgah on Monday afternoon and per usual it rained and thunderstormed the whole way there. At times, the rain was so heavy it was almost impossible to see the highway ahead. It continued to downpour through the opening ceremony and well into the night.

Stage 1: Looking Glass Route: 21 miles, 4,000 ft of climbing

Luckily, the rain had stopped by 8 am, when we pulled into the parking lot for the race start. We milled around and guessed how much tire pressure we should run and what layers to wear. I really wanted to eat a warm scone, which they serve every morning, but my stomach was too nervous to hold it down. I came out guns blazing at the start and probably gassed myself too early trying to keep pace with some faster guys up the 1st climb. I definitely didn't know any of the lines down Daniel's Ridge and found myself off the bike quite a few times on the top of the descent. It was a good reminder of what Pisgah riding is like if you are not from around here. Jen came shooting by me on the descent, and although I did my best to put some time into her on the climb up to Farlow, my legs just felt flat and she out-climbed me. I was super nervous about Farlow because I have never ridden it before and also knew it was a notoriously difficult descent. Somehow, I survived! There was one hike-a-bike section across this beautiful waterfall which I might have to return to to take a picture of.  I had a blast down Cove Creek, which was the last descent back to the campground and the finish. I finished 2nd on the stage, three minutes behind Jen, which, given how blah my legs felt, I was ok with. I was actually pretty happy with how I had ridden some of the descents, and it was my first race with a dropper - it has made a significant difference in my descending skills this winter. I talked to Dylan after the race, and he said he usually struggles on the 1st day of stage races too, but gave me good advice that later in the week, my endurance background would kick in and I would have legs then when others might be feeling tired.

Stage 2: Promised Land Route: 28 miles, 5,000 ft of climbing

Having opened up my legs on the 1st stage yesterday, I was feeling better and ready attack the climbs again today. There is about a 5 mile lead out on the main road with police escorts, which was pretty mellow and a nice warm up. Then the race takes a left hand turn up Turkey Pen which is a steep little climb on gravel and the racing starts. I felt great. Unfortunately, the course then ducks into a short downhill section with some log drops that were really slippery after all the rain. I was cruising downhill and completely ate it over one of the logs. I crashed so hard onto my left side and shoulder. It took me a second to get my wind back and grab my bike out of the middle of the trail so other riders wouldn't crash into me. My shoulder and left ribs were throbbing. My seat was crooked. I got back on the bike as fast as I could. At the bottom, I had to dismount to walk across a suspension bridge and had time to muscle my seat straight. There is quite a long singletrack climb followed by a rocky, rooty, ridgeline trail called Squirrel. Every single root and rock my tires hit sent a shooting awful pain into my shoulder. It was horrible. I had to walk so much because I just couldn't stand the pain. It felt like a million people passed me. I counted at least 6 women. I watched Annie just glide over all the rocks. I thought a lot about quitting. I kept waiting for Jeff to come by but I didn't see him. To make matters worse, a branch somehow ripped the mouthpiece off of my camel pack hose and all my water/carborocket immediately drained out in about 30 secs. Wonderful. Finally, we were descending off Squirrel. Georgia Gould passed me right before the descent and I got to follow her wheel down which was pretty cool. I looked at my Wahoo and realized there were only 14 miles left. I had to make a choice: either throw in the towel or go ape shit and make up as much time as possible. I decided to start doing damage control. I knew the rest of the course having ridden up Buckhorn and down Black Mountain at the Pisgah 111k/55K. I went as fast as I could up Buckhorn, down Clawhammer gravel, and back up the gravel forest service road to Black Mountain. I caught and passed every lady who had passed me on Squirrel. Unfortunately, I didn't get enough of a gap on Annie, and she came flying by me down Black. I was also wincing with every root drop, but I made it to the finish! Jen also crashed on Stage 2 and finished about 10 minutes back, which incredibly put me into 1st place overall.

Stage 3: White Squirrel Route: 30 miles, 6100 ft of climbing

I woke up this morning so so sore. My shoulder ached, my rib hurt, I could barely move my neck, my back hurt. I wasn't sure how today would go. I didn't sleep well because every time I moved an inch in bed, I would wake up in pain from my left ribs. I figured I would start and have zero expectations for the day. Luckily, my legs felt good and my shoulder didn't hurt climbing so I knew I could put in some efforts on the climbs. Jen came powering by me on the 1st climb up to Sycamore Cove, and I just stayed at my pace. Sycamore was actually a super fun trail and miraculously, after 1200mg of ibuprofen over the course of the morning, my shoulder didn't hurt at all! We passed back through the start/finish area, and then hit the climb up Thrift Cove and then up to the top of Black Mountain. I passed Jen on the gravel climb, then she passed me hiking up Black, then I passed her again on the gravel descent. The rest of the day was awesome, and I think I had a smile on my face the whole time. It consisted of long gravel climbs and fun super rocky, rooty steep singletrack descents down Avery Creek, Bennett Gap and Black Mountain. I kept it together on the descents and went as hard as I could up the climbs and finally got a stage win today! I was definitely feeling pretty tired after almost 4 hours of riding, but I felt like I earned the right to wear the leader's jersey for another day.

Stage 4: Carl Schenck Route: 22 miles, 2800 ft of climbing

I feel like in every stage race I have done, one of the days gets shortened due to weather. It was too hot for one of the stages at Cape Epic in 2017. It was too wet for one of the stages at Breck last year. And today, the threat of lightning and afternoon storms caused the race director to shorten today's stage. I hate it when stages are shortened because I feel like I am missing out on the full experience of the stage race. But I have also realized that it is out of my control, and I just have to roll with it. Anyway, we found out in the starting corral that the 1st section of singletrack had been removed and that we would be taking a gravel road out for about 9 miles, then riding Laurel/Pilot and then taking a gravel road back for about 5 miles to the finish. The only good thing about the route change is that I can definitely hammer along the gravel. Oh, and I forgot - it was also raining quite hard at the start today. I figured I would probably lose some time to Jen on this stage since she would probably ride the trails faster than me, and my goal was to lose as little time as possible. I made it into Laurel ahead of her and kept going as fast as my legs and lungs would let me. There were some hike-a-bike sections over really slippery and muddy rocks and parts of the trail were so muddy that it was hard to keep traction on the climbs. I kept waiting for Jen to pass me and every mile I made it still in the lead I did a little dance in my head. It was good way to pass the time. Finally, we were at the top of Pilot. I was still in the lead, it was still very foggy and drizzly, and the rocks were still very wet and slippery. I took the descent pretty conservatively wanting to stay upright. I was also having a lot of trouble clipping into my shoes with the all the mud in my pedals and cleats. Even though I was being cautious, I still PRd on all the Strava segments down Pilot which just goes to show how much better my descending skills are compared to 2 years ago when I last raced down this trail (or maybe it just shows how slow I used to be on this terrain!). As soon as we hit gravel, I started motoring. I was still in the lead by some miracle, and I knew I wasn't going to lose time on gravel. I got into a group with a few other guys, and we all traded pulls, making short work of the 5 miles back to the finish. Another stage win and I got to live another day in the leader's jersey!

Stage 5: The Land of Waterfalls Route: 26 miles, 3600 ft of climbing

I always agonize over the last stage of a race, especially when I have the leaders jersey. The end seems so close but all it takes is one crash, one lapse in concentration, one little mistake to lose the whole race. I had about an 18 minute lead over Jen, but if I broke a chain or a frame, that 18 minutes could evaporate very quickly. Smooth and steady, just stay smooth and steady was my mantra for the entire stage. My cocktail of 400 mg of ibuprofen immediately when I woke up at about 6:30 in the morning and then 800 mg just before the race start at 9:00am was keeping the pain in my shoulder and ribs in check. We had a gravel start up a climb and I got out in front. Then we descended down a trail called Butter Gap which was steep, rocky, and muddy. Smooth and steady. Smooth and steady. Then we popped out on gravel again and rode that until we ducked into Davidson River Trail. There was a bacon hand up and one of the volunteers stuffed bacon into my mouth as I rode through. Then we had about a 7 mile double track climb up to the top of Bracken. There were whiskey shots at the top of Bracken. I stopped for a shot and about 5 minutes later, felt like I might vomit. Bracken descent is unlike any other descent in Pisgah because it is a smooth machine built flow trail which was pretty fun to cruise down. I got a stick stuck in my derailleur which caused my chain to fall off and had to stop to get my chain back on, but otherwise I rode smooth and steady into the finish! I got the stage win and the win overall. I was really happy because I never in a million years thought I would win this race. Jeff finished a little ways behind me. He was excited because he broke the record for the most whiskey shots taken at the top of Bracken with 4! Overall, it was an awesome week of racing in Pisgah, and despite my poor shoulder and ribs, I had such a fun time.

I kept things pretty simple for the race. I rode my Trek Top Fuel with ESI chunky grips, Maxxis 2.4 Ardent Tires, Fox Transfer dropper. I use a Rudy Project helmet and sunglasses, Pearl Izumi shoes. I used a camel pack everyday with CarboRocket Half Evil 333 and Huma gels. I get a lot of grief about using a camel pack in races, but I love it because 1) it is super easy to hydrate in the trails and 2) I can carry enough water/nutrition that I never have to stop at any of the aid stations. Thanks so much to Todd and everyone at Blue Ridge Adventures for putting on such an awesome week of racing!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Cyclocross Nationals 18.2

Elite women's start in Louisville. I'm blurred out in the back. Photo credit: Velonews

Three years ago, in Asheville, I almost gave up on cyclocross. I was 29, in my 2nd year of residency in Chapel Hill, I had raced a few cross races that fall in the NCCX series, and Cx Nats was coming to Asheville. Everyone was talking about it, and I really didn't want to miss out. I had no UCI points, I had never been to a national race before, but I petitioned to race with the elites since I didn't qualify for masters yet. The pre-ride went horribly, I was struggling with the off cambers, I was sliding around in the mud, I crashed on one of the technical descents. I had no confidence on the course or on my bike. I felt so out of place. On race morning, I had the last call up. I got crashed out against the metal barriers soon after the start, broke my derailleur, and my race was over. It was the only race I have DNFd as far as I can remember. I was upset, but it was almost a blessing in disguise because I couldn't ride the course anyway, much less race it with the top riders in the country. I felt that I didn't belong, and that feeling has stuck with me a lot in elite races.

The next year, Nats was in Hartford. I grew up in Litchfield, CT about 1 hr from Hartford, and it seemed silly to miss out on a national championship race in my home state. My experience in Hartford was so much better. I was 30 and could race with the "baby masters" in the 30-34 age group. I finished 2nd in my age group, which I totally didn't think I was capable of in snowy, icy, frozen conditions. I also finished 5th in the SS race and got on the podium for my parents to see. I left Hartford with a little more confidence and feeling that I might belong in the cx community even if I wasn't an elite rider. 

My Mom in yellow and Dad in red cheering during a blizzard in Hartford

Last year, cx nats was is Reno. After you finish 2nd at a national championship race, it makes you want a stars and stripes jersey so much. I actually had a couple of good results during the 2017 season, winning both days of Go Cx (before it was a UCI race), and winning day 2 of DCCX. Having some good results gave me a bit of confidence and made me feel that I was a somewhat competent cx racer. I had a strong race in Reno, and even though it was the masters race, it still felt awesome to stand on the top of the podium given how discouraged and disastrous I felt 2 years prior in Asheville.

Celebrating masters racing with Libbey, Stacey and Alex in Reno

So that brings us to Louisville for Cx Nats 18.2. My goal this year has been to challenge myself, and that meant forcing myself to line up with the elite women and trying again to prove myself in a super competitive field. This season, I made it to 3 UCI C2 races: Go Cx, DCCX, and Hendersonville, and finished top 10 in all of them. I earned some UCI points so instead of having the last call up, I was #27. 

Racing in NCCX the week before Nats gave me a little practice in mud. Photo credit: Icon Media Asheville

My race day prep was less than ideal. The mud was insane. I found myself again failing the pre ride, crashing and sliding out around all the corners. My legs and back were pretty sore from all the running and bike carrying from the SS race the day before. My shoe buckle broke, and Jeff had to duct tape my shoe onto my foot. I somehow lost my number and had to ask registration for a new one so instead of #27, I wore #44. I was nervous and feeling again like I didn't belong in the field. Pulling up to staging, I heard someone giving another rider advice: "just ride all out, trust your bike and trust yourself." I decided to take that advice too. After the national anthem, music started playing, all the spectors started banging against the race barriers in time to the beat, and it was impossible not to feel excited. I put all my doubts behind me, I put a smile on my face, and decided in that moment, that I could do this.

Photo credit: @ktg_traill

The start was crazy. As soon as we hit the mud at the end of the starting pavement, people started crashing and there were literally bikes riding perpendicular to the race course taking out other riders behind them. Somehow I managed to navigate around the carnage and make it through the sand, up the fly over, and onto the backside of the course. There was so much running, but I just set my pace and kept plugging. I didn't care about my placement. I just kept telling myself to stay focused, keep moving forward, ride strong when possible, and be efficient getting on and off the bike.

Photo credit: @gratstagram

My bike and shoes weighed 40 extra lbs from all the mud. I slid out around corners and just picked myself up and kept moving. I was in the pits every 1/2 lap for a cleaner and lighter bike. I still don't have a pit bike, so every lap, I rode my SS bike for 1/2 lap so the pit crew could clean my geared bike for the 2nd half of the course. I don't know how the pit crew kept up with all the bike washing, but I can't thank them enough. I lost spots while riding the SS but I just kept my head down and focused. There were people cheering for me around the whole course and it was awesome hearing my name. Seeing Jeff in the pits handing me a clean bike and cheering me on was what I looked forward to the most during each lap! I crossed the line in 16th place, which felt so great, even better than winning a masters race. I conquered my fears, I raced with the elites, I raced in horrible conditions, and I came away with a result that I am really happy with and can keep building on. It's taken 3 years of working towards better fitness, better technical skills, more racing experience, but I feel that I can finally put all my self doubts, disappointments and the DNF of Asheville behind me.  

Photo credit: @jbowes72

Lessons learned: don't give up, hard work does pay off, it take a village to make a race possible, and it might be time to invest in a pit bike!

So fun having these ladies to hang out with before and after the race. Photo credit: @mrkrys66

Couldn't have done it without this fellow (and his pit monkey companions)

Friday, October 5, 2018

Fitness Tracker

For the last 2 days (ok maybe last week), I have been down an online rabbit hole trying to find a good fitness tracker. I decided that I wanted to try to be more data driven with training and recovery. I was partly inspired by Kate Courtney’s Whoop data and partly wanted to see if feeling good or bad during a workout or race corresponded at all to good recovery and sleep or lack thereof. Currently, I use a Wahoo Element Bolt for bike rides and a power tap wheel for Zwift on my trainer. I don’t even use a heart rate (HR) monitor. So yeah, I have a long way to go in data driven training!

I figured I would write a blog post to maybe help others from losing a week of free time in frustration trying to figure out the best fitness tracker to get. The short answer is that one does not exist. At least not for the capacity that I was hoping to use it in. In fact, with how far technology has come, it is incredibly silly that there isn’t a fitness tracker that does it all.

Here is a short summary of I learned from my online mining. First though, some disclosures:
  1. I haven’t tested out any of this equipment so it is mainly a summary of info from product websites, tech reviews, and online customer forums
  2. I don't use Apple products
  3. I didn’t really want a smart watch. I am already connect to my phone enough as it is, and I don’t need to get texts/emails/calls to my wrist. In fact, one of the reasons I like working out is to be offline.
What I wanted in a fitness tracker: 
  1. I wanted a product that would measure heart rate variability (HRV) as a measure for recovery. Without going into detail, HRV gives you an idea of how recovered you are - the more variable your heart rate is, the more recovered you are in theory. It would also be nice to get some data about training load as well from the tracker
  2. Built-in GPS to track runs or other work-outs
  3. Step counter: Carilion Clinic uses Virgin Pulse, so I can turn daily steps into cash which is always enticing
  4. Sleep monitor
  5. Music: I want to be able to go for a run and not have to carry my phone with me if I feel like listening to music. I would be super convenient to just throw on some bluetooth headphones and head off for a run. I also don't own any music. I can't remember the last time I bought a song. So internal storage capacity for songs is a moot point. The watch needs to be able to stream music and listen to playlists offline
  6. User friendly app to combine all data
  7. I wanted to be able to pair an external HR monitor to it for accurate HR monitoring during interval training. From everything that I read online, wrist-based HR monitors do a fairly accurate job of measuring HR at rest, but do a poor job of accurate HR monitoring during intensity workouts
  8. Good battery life. This was last on my list of requirements because I am not planning to use the fitness tracker for bike rides (I will continue to use my Wahoo bike computer for that). I figured I can easily charge the tracker when I am out riding.
I started out on Whoop and quickly realized that I did not want to be sucked into their proprietary app/wrist strap, which costs $30/month. The nice thing about Whoop is that all of your data is together in one app and they give you nice graphs and charts about your work-outs and recovery. They send you a wrist monitor when you sign up for your 1st 6 months - I couldn't find that they offer a chest strap. Whoop promises that their wrist based monitor is the best, sampling HR 100x/sec, but even so, I am skeptical of wrist-based HR accuracy. And I’m not interested in being locked into paying $30/month to use their product.

I then spent a couple of days on the Polar website, which also promises data collection and analysis to help athletes optimize their performance. I really like the polar flow app and website, and in general, it is on par with Whoop in terms of data capturing, graph generation and understanding your training and body. Polar measures HRV through the orthostatic test, which is only available on some products, however.
  1. The new Polar Vantage watches are awesome for HR and GPS monitoring, but neither offers a music option, and Polar has no plans to include a music option on these watches in the future. Polar Vantage V will measure HRV, but costs $500. Polar Vantage M will not measure HRV and costs less. The old V800 also does not have a music option.
  2. The M600 does all the basics: GPS tracking, music (you can stream/listen to songs offline via Google Music), sleep, steps but the battery life is very short 1-2 days, and only 8 hours if GPS is on. Also, it does not include the orthostatic test for HRV.
  3. Unfortunately, if I want to keep using my Wahoo bike computer for rides, there is no way to get data from my bike computer into Polar Flow. Polar flow will export to Strava but will not import ride data from other apps. So, I thought about getting a Polar bike computer which would allow me to have all data in polar flow, even though I really like the Wahoo.
  4. The M460 bike computer has the orthostatic test included, but it does not allow for route import and guidance, which is a must on a bike computer for discovering new routes and riding in new places.
  5. The V650 bike computer has the route import/route guidance option, but does not have the orthostatic test. So if I paired this bike computer with the M600, I would still have no way to measure HRV on the polar flow app. 
In summary, I just found it frustrating that all of the Polar products lacked one thing: Vantage watches and V800 lack music, the M600 and V650 do not have the orthostatic test/HRV monitoring, and the M460 lacked route import and guidance.

Once I gave up on Polar products and trying to get all of my data into Polar Flow, I was resigned to have data split across multiple apps. I did buy a Polar H10 HR monitor chest strap, which will connect to my Wahoo, so rides imported into Strava will have HR data attached. Strava automatically calculates a fitness/freshness/form score based on HR data, I can get some idea of training load/recovery from Strava. The Polar strap will also connect to Elite HRV, which is a free phone app that measures HR variability. So I can use Strava/elite HRV to get an idea of training load and recovery, and I will have to use a separate app to track steps, sleep, calories, etc.

Training Peaks was the best website I could find that would combine data from multiple 3rd party apps into a single platform. It works with Wahoo, Elite HRV, Zwift, Strava, and if you use FitnessSyncer, you can import data about sleep from your fitness tracker into Training peaks as well. This does require the premium version of Training Peaks ($10/month) and the pro version of FitnessSyncer ($4/mo). This is half the price of Whoop, and if you decide to cancel your subscriptions, you can still use all of your devices for free, which seems much more reasonable.

So back to the fitness trackers. All of them seem to do a comparable job at tracking sleep, steps and resting HR. Since I have the Polar H10 strap now, I definitely wanted to be able to pair it to whatever fitness tracker I buy, so that I can get accurate HR on runs/other work-outs.
  1. Fitbit Iconic: This had most of the features I was interested in. The music options are so/so. You can stream/listen to offline music through Pandora and Deezer (whatever Deezer is). But you can’t pair an external HR monitor to it. Really??? What kind of fitness tracker doesn’t let you pair an external monitor to it?
  2. Garmin Vivoactive/Fenix series: These devices are promising with good GPS and multi-sport tracking, but the drawback is that the streaming/offline music options are awful. You can only stream music through iHeartRadio and Deezer, neither of which I use (does anyone use these?). I really hate how cluttered the Garmin Connect app is for looking at recorded data.
  3. Samsung Gear Sport: The great plus for this watch is the music. IT USES SPOTIFY!! Finally, a streaming service that people actually use and want! From what I have read, you can pair an external HR monitor to this watch via the app Sporty Watch, which I think will also export the work-out info directly to Strava. Data is uploaded into Samsung Health, which looks like a fairly easy app to use.
  4. TomTom Spark 3/Amazfit Stratos: These are definitely cheaper options for fitness watches, but the only way to listen to music on this watch is by downloading tracks from your computer. There is no support for music streaming services. 
I am leaning towards getting the Gear Sport. It definitely has the best music options offered right now. At $250 on Amazon, I can use it for several years and wait for the technology in fitness watches to catch up to where I want it to be now. I also feel like I was in a better place before I started this whole project, and I should just go back to working out without technology! Feel free to comment if you have personal use with or advice about any of these products. I haven't bought anything yet, and would definitely be really interested in your thoughts! 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Marji Gesick 100

It was around mile 50 when I knew that my best effort was not going to be good enough. I asked the guy riding next to me through the sand what our chances were to break 12 hours and he shook his head. "Maybe if you gun it through the next 50 miles, you might have a chance." I knew that it was going to be near impossible to "gun it" through the tight, twisty technical singletrack that lay ahead, and I also knew that the 2nd half of the race was going to be harder and only slower than the 1st half.

Photo credit: Rob Meendering

I had prepared as best I possibly could for this race. I had read about every blog post out there. I had talked to as many people as I could who had done this race before for advice. I knew that I had to go out hard at the start and hammer every easy trail because I needed to bank time for all the technical slow trail in between. My mom flew out from New Hampshire to spend the weekend with me and run support. She met me at miles 30, 50, 64 and 87 with food and water so I could minimize time stopping. I had the course loaded onto my wahoo, I had a back up charger for the wahoo, I had lights, I had food, I had tools and tubes for all the possible mechanicals that I knew how to fix. I guess it is fair to say that even the best preparation doesn't really prepare you for this race.

At packet pick-up
Bagpiper playing at the top of one of the climbs in the early morning sunlight. Photo credit:XMATIC 

The race starts outside of Marquette and finishes in Ishpeming on the upper peninsula of Michigan (about a 30 min drive away). Another reason to have a support person at this race is that you don't have to worry about the logistics of getting back to your car after finishing the race. We started at 7:30 as soon as it was light out. It is a Le Mans-style start. We were led out on the run by a unicorn! The run is short and nothing taxing. It was actually a nice way to warm up in the chilly morning. It was about 40 degrees at the start. I wore shorts and a light long sleeve base layer and lined Handup gloves, and I was pretty comfortable all day in those layers.

At the start. Photo credit: Carol Williams 

I can't really remember much about the 1st 30 miles. I know at mile 17, we looped back through the starting area and there were a lot of people cheering. I remember some flowy berms immediately after that that were super fun. I know that the roots were still wet from the morning dew/yesterday's rain and my rear tire slipped several times forcing me off my bike on some of the ups. And I know around mile 30, we rode under the highway and popped out next to a Best Buy, which is where mom was waiting for me for the 1st water fill up. 

Photo credit: Carol Williams

Around mile 38, I got lost. I think the main thing that I did not prepare for was how much navigating was required for this race. There are arrows on course, but often the arrows are 15 feet into the woods so if you aren't paying attention to your map and don't know the turn is coming, you will blow right by it. There was a lot of missing the turn, stopping, turning around, peering into the woods, finding the arrow, then continuing on. Also, the course is very loopy. You do lots of loops and circuits in the same general area. I have used the navigation tool on my wahoo plenty of times before to navigate new trails/routes, but I guess I have never used it for such a tight course because when I got lost, it was absolutely impossible to figure out which loop of the course I was supposed to be on and how to get back on track. No matter how much I zoomed in, all I saw where little arrows pointing in every direction. I started cursing. I had just descended off of a rocky ridge and luckily I knew that I should be generally close to the South Trails Pavilion, where I had heard there was a unofficial but usually well stocked aid station. There were several hikers and another cyclist near me. After a bunch of time going one way and then going another way and lots of expletives, I finally got to the aid station. I felt fucked and frazzled. There was nothing to do but collect myself and keep on riding.

The next 10 miles of trail was slow going, rocky, rooty, up and down. I would describe the singletrack out there like New Hampshire meets Patapsco. I finally got myself back into a rhythm and made it to mile 50 where the course crosses a road again and filled up on water and stuffed half a PB&J into my mouth. I was feeling good, my legs still felt strong, I had 50 miles to slowly let my belt buckle goal slip away and somehow I was ok with that. I was actually having quite a fun time. I was riding the technical stuff pretty well, I was staying balanced, I was clearing almost all the steep downhills without a dropper. Mentally and physically, I felt great! I only wished my time was a bit faster and that I hadn't gotten lost. 

Jeff cruising on the rocks! This gives you an idea of the terrain for the majority of the course. Photo credit: Rob Meendering 

There was a part sandy and part paved bike path that I hammered en route to Jackson Mine park where there was a big aid station at mile 65. Quick stop for water and I was out for probably the most technical section of the course. We descended down a set of concrete steps in the woods, then it felt like over 20 miles of climbing up steep trail for 5-10 mins, cresting out on bedrock, then descending down steep trail and repeating over and over again. It seemed like there were quite a few hike-a-bike sections. I found I was frequently in the wrong gear to hit the climbs efficiently because with the trail being so twisty, I would be pedaling on a descent and then all of a sudden the trail would turn quickly right into a steep up. Sometimes I could shift in time, sometimes I could muscle up and sometimes I was forced off my bike. The course goes right by the finish line in Ishpeming around mile 75, and you can hear 50 milers finishing. 

The concrete steps to nowhere that are randomly in the woods. Photo credit Rob Meendering

At mile 85 or so, we arrived back in Jackson Mine Park. Last fill up on water and snickers, and I grabbed a new helmet with a mounted light. It was about 5:35 pm and I knew it be close to dark by the time I finished. I had read that the last 15 miles of the course is the hardest section and takes about 2.25-2.5 hours to complete, which was pretty accurate. It is more of the same, short steep climbs, and short rocky descents. My wrists were hurting from the constat gripping and jarring on the physical terrain, but I was still having fun. I cleared almost all of the climbs and was hiking a lot less than I thought I would be, which was cool. About a mile from the end, there is one last hike-a-bike section up to the top of this hill, where I collected my last token, and then you simply turn around and descend back down the trail you just hiked up. From there, it is a pretty easy roll into downtown Ishpeming to the finish line! 

Photo credit: XMATIC

The turn around and last check point at the top of suicide hill. Photo credit: Rob Meendering

To prove you have completed the entire course, there are checkpoints out on course with big bins attached to trees and you have to grab a wooden token from each of the checkpoints. They don't tell you how many checkpoints there are going to be (there were 4 this year) or where they are going to be out on course (I think there was only 1 in the 1st half and 3 in the 2nd half of the course). At the line, someone counted my tokens and gave me a finishers patch. 

At the finish: Photo credit: Carol Williams

I didn't reach my goal of 12 hours, but I am still really happy with my ride. I felt like I pushed the entire way, my legs felt strong, I never mentally broke down or entered a dark place, even when I got lost. I actually had a lot of fun working my way through the trails and was pretty happy with how I rode a lot of the technical stuff. It was awesome having my mom out there, and I kept looking forward to reaching the next spot out on course where I knew she would be. I think that if you accomplish all of your goals in a season, that means you are setting the bar too low. So I am ok with setting myself up for the challenge, giving it my best shot, but coming up 25 minutes short. It was an incredible backcountry adventure and a great end to my 2018 NUE season.

Maybe the best ending to the race was getting a facebook message from another racer telling me how his significant other was inspired to start riding/racing mountain bikes after watching me and all the other women out there racing and digging deep. "Please keep kicking ass and encouraging more women to do hard things," he wrote. I definitely plan to, and if my race inspired another lady to try out mountain biking, then it was more than a success!

Payout is $1 if you win your category! Photo credit: Carol Williams

Also, I just can't say enough good things about my race set up, I had no mechanicals out there, thanks in huge part to Joe's Bike Shop for setting me up on a Trek Top Fuel and East Coaster's Bike Shop in Roanoke for making sure the bike was running smoothly. I ran Maxxis Ardent Race tires, which have never let me down in a race and handled the rocks and roots without any problems. The combo of ESI grips and Handup gloves kept my hands blister free, I used a Rudy Project helmet, XX2i optics kept mud out of my eyes, and Huma gels kept me fueled with all natural-chia seeds, fruit and coconut water. I really can't say enough good things about these products or their support! 

Some other highlights from the upper peninsula: 

Lakenenland Sculpture Park 

Old iron ore shipping dock on Lake Superior in downtown Marquette

Barge getting loaded with iron ore at an operational dock

History of iron ore shipping and how the docks work

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

On the shores of Lake Superior 

Hiking at Pictured Rocks. The woods were filled with different colored fungi

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Leadville 100

Freezing at the start line

I was really sad on Friday after Breck Epic ended. It was such a fun race, amazing trails, amazing people. I wanted to ride more stages. After finishing Leadville, I am happy to report that my legs are toast, my bottom is scabby, and I am very happy not riding my bike for a very long time!

Leadville is the exact opposite of Breck. Breck feels personal, Leadville feels corporate, Breck is all about singletrack, Leadville is all about dirt roads, Breck focuses on trail stewardship and being nice to everyone else who is out racing, Leadville is heads down hammer pace.

We arrived in Leadville at 9pm on Friday evening after the post Breck banquet and awards. We stayed in the happy hippie tie dye house, which is one of the most interesting air bnbs I have stayed in. Each room is equipped with rolling papers, a glass pipe, and ashtrays for your 420-friendly stay. Floyds of Leadville is right across the street. 

The Happy Hippie Tye Die House

Alarm went off at 4:30 am. I stuffed a couple of cliff bars down my throat, we got our hardtails ready, chains lubed, numbers on. Then we sat in the car with the heat blasting until 6am. It was freezing out. We had to check into our corral (silver) by 6:15 and so begrudgingly got out of the car. We were both tired and feeling the fatigue of 6 days at Breck. 

At the start line

The gun went off at 6:30 and it was an all out sprint downhill for about 3 miles. My fingers and toes were completely numb. Last year, for High Casacdes, Jeff and I bought goodwill jackets to leave at the race start and not care if we got them back. We have retrieved them from a lot of races, but I think mine is finally gone for good. I rode the 1st 3 hours in it and then ditched it at one of the aid stations once the sun came out and it warmed up.

Things that were fun about the race:

1. There were a lot of people out on course cheering for you. Every 8-10 miles there seemed to be some type of aid station with tents set up and people cheering you on.

2. The guys on the powerline climb who were pouring ice cold water onto your head and neck and the one guy who filled up my water bottle with cold water for me while I was hiking up.

3. Passing so many people on the downhills. I am not a fast descender compared to other mountain bikers but compared to roadies/triathletes on mountain bikes, I am a pro. I was passing so many guys on the downhills. It was awesome!

4. The views from the top of Columbine climb were incredible. It was a long partial ride, partial hike up to 12,500ft, but the surrounding mountain views were pretty awesome. 

5. The cold wet towels that were being handed out at the bottom of Carter climb felt amazing.

6. Finishing sub 9 hours, which was my goal. I finished in 8:29, 5th overall female and 3rd in age group. I crossed the line, sat down on the pavement and did not move for about 30 mins. Then I drank some beers, cheered for Jeff finishing, and basked in the glory of having nothing to do for the next 24 hours.

Relieved to finish!

7. The pre race swag sucks but the post race swag is really awesome. Belt buckles and quality finishers jackets with your name and finishing time printed on the sleeve. They make over a thousand of these sweatshirts overnight so we get them at the award ceremony at 7:30 am the next morning.

We got our buckles!

Things that were unimpressive:

1. Packet pick-up. Every year, Breck happens either before or after Leadville. You would think that the Leadville people would understand that and make accommodations for racers paying to do both races. But no. They insist that packets must be picked up in person and they make you drive to Leadville either on Thursday night in the middle of the stage race or on Friday night and make you miss the post-Breck banquet and awards ceremony. Jeff and I drove 2 hrs to Leadville and back to Breck on Thursday night, but it was super annoying to have to do that in the middle of a stage race. 

2. The course. It is out and back course. The course is challenging because of the climbs but it is boring. I knew it would be a dirt road race, but at least make it a loop!

3. There are too many racers on the course. It is a conga line of people snaking up the climbs and descending off of them. It does help for drafting and working together on the flats, but would be more fun I think with fewer people out on course. 

4. The cost. Over $425 to register (after paying for a qualifying race) and there is no payout for the pros. If you want the race to be about the love of biking and the sport, then make the registration fee reasonable. 

At the finish with Jeff
What I would change for next time. This is a one and done race for me, but this is the advice I would pass on to others: 

1. I think you really need a 2x11 drivetrain. This is a race where you need more range than a 1x eagle offers. I ran a 34t front chain ring with eagle, but I needed more power for the flats and more low end for the climbs. I think a hardtail is ideal, I rode my Trek Procal; having a front fork definitely made the chunky rocky descents faster and more tolerable. 

2. I would probably put on aerobars. I spent a lot of time with my hands and forearms draped over the handlebars and aerobars would have made that position more comfortable. 

3. I would ditch the camel pack and I would recruit someone to run support for me at a few aid stations and hand off bottles. They make the aid stations very accessible to support crews and lots of racers around me never had to stop moving to refill bottles. 

4. I would have fresh legs! Breck definitely helped me adjust to the altitude but 6 days of fatigue in the legs made the race extra challenging. 

The awards ceremony. So many racers!
Overall, I am glad I have done Leadville, simply because it is a famous 100 mile bike race and having the belt buckle is pretty cool. There were a lot of fun things about the race, which made it worthwhile to be at. But, I think any of the NUE races are more fun than Leadville, many are more challenging, and all have way more singletrack riding!

Women's 30-39 podium. Larissa Connors in 1st and Chase Edwards in 2nd

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Breck Epic: Stages 5-6

Thursday Stage 5:

Photo taken by Jeff

Wheeler Pass today! What a ride! What a hike! Today's stage definitely would have been better with hiking boots and a dropper post. We started today in 10 person waves based on GC standings, each wave was separated by a minute. I was in wave 6 and Jeff was in wave 20. We immediately started climbing up singletrack which turned to a rocky fire road and eventually turned to steep singletrack and the hiking started. We hiked for miles up to 12,500 ft. The views were incredible. We crested a peak and then there was some rideable rocky singletrack across alpine meadows surrounded on all sides by craggy peaks and towering mountains. More hiking along some switchbacks, and we crested Wheeler Pass. I got some more skittles and there were also bacon and fireball handups, which Jeff enjoyed. After a short descent, it was back to climbing and hiking for another long time over a mountain pass coined by Rich Dillen as Mt Gawdammit, which I have to agree with him, was a slog. Then we descended off the pass on a super rocky, steep, technical, switchbacky, jaw chattering descent. I rode it with some curses thrown in, Jeff loved it. Jeff says he loved it so much he can't find the words to describe it. Then we rode ~7 miles back to Breck on Peaks Trail, which starts off with a punchy climb with roots and rocks thrown in and then gets more fast and flowey with some fun log bridges to roll over. And then we were at the finish! Kathy and her son came to the finish to say and it was fun to catch up with them. Last stage tomorrow. Legs are holding up, it is getting a little harder each day to sit on the saddle but we are still having a blast being here!

At the race start

Coming into the finish. Photo by Chris M

At the finish with Katrina. We climbed up there today! Photo by Chris M

Friday Stage 6: 

Today was the last stage. It was called Gold Dust. It was definitely the easiest stage of the race and a fun course to end on. We started in waves again based on yesterday's results. I moved into wave 7 and Jeff had a great day yesterday and moved into start wave 11. We started up a singletrack climb that had some technical sections and some sections with smooth berms. We climbed up through aspen forests that were really pretty in the early morning sunshine. I did really enjoy by 30t front chain ring for the initial climb. Then we popped out onto a road that carried us up to Boreas Pass.

Jeff and I climbing Aspen Alley today. Photos by Donald

Then we descended a trail called Gold Dust. It starts out as a steep rowdy downhill and then turns into a smooth flowey S-turn trench trail that is fast but seems pretty flat. Then we climbed a forest road back up to Boreas Pass and from there it was about an 8 mile descent back into town and the finishing area. I was lucky to have a 40 min gap going into today's stage. My goals for today were to ride smooth, avoid crashes and mechanicals, enjoy the ride and save my legs as much as possible for Leadville tomorrow. Goals were accomplished! Katrina caught me on the last downhill so I didn't win the stage, but I still can't really believe that I won the overall race. Coming into the finishing line was the coolest thing ever. I got to take some photos with Jeremiah, who won the pro men's race and Gordon/Elliot, who won the men's duo race. It was a great year at Breck Epic for Virginians! After the race, we celebrated with crepes and I got a massage at Blue Sage Spa which felt awesome. Then we went to the post race banquet, got our belt buckles, and headed to Leadville for the Leadville 100 tomorrow. It is definitely going to be hard to come back to reality after this!

Climbing to Boreas Pass

Virginia representing. Beast Coast. Photo by Chris M

We did it! Photo by Chris M

Breck Epic 6 -Day Women's Pro Podium

I have a lot of people to thank for this and wouldn't have been able to do this without their help. First, Joe's Bike Shop who has supported me for years since I first started racing. East Coasters Bike Shop in Roanoke has been helping me with bike maintenance for the last year and helped get my bike dialed for High Cascades and this race. I ran Ardent Race tires by Maxxis, and their tires have never let me down in a race. No flats despite lots of sharp rocks out on the trails this week. ESI grips kept my hands comfy and blister free. Rudy Project kept my head protected and Huma Gels kept me fueled. Kathy was kind enough to transfer me her race entry. Maybe most importantly, my coach, Chris Beck, talked me down from wanting to quit racing completely a few weeks ago and helped me recover properly from some severe mid-season fatigue. And also Jeff, who is my partner in crime and crazy enough to agree to do Breck and Leadville with me in the same year!

If you have ever thought about doing Breck, you should do it! If you still aren't convinced, you can watch all the race videos here: