Thursday, November 10, 2016

La Ruta

Ignorance is bliss when first attempting La Ruta. The stories of hell about this race abound. A man swept downstream by the river found 3 days later, barely alive, naked, no clothes, no bike. A picture of racers crossing a river completely unaware of a huge anaconda in the foreground. Hiking thigh deep through mud. Falling between the railroad ties of a bridge and dangling in the air holding on for dear life to your bike handlebars. I was mentally prepared for the worst, hardest race of my life, and still I was not prepared enough.

Pictures friends sent me in preparation for the race

Day 0: 

Woke up in Jaco, Costa Rica at the Best Western, about 500 meters from the start line. There is a beautiful blue pool, palm trees, a green lawn that gives way to the sand and Pacific Ocean. Open courtyards let the ocean breeze blow through. Idyllic, some would say. Like trying to enjoy a last meal before your execution if you are staying there the day before La Ruta. For me, the trials and tribulations of the race had already started. Despite all our other checked bags making it to San Jose the night before, my bike box was left in Houston. After hours on the phone with United Airlines and being told they were unable determine the exact location of my bike, it miraculously turned up at the hotel at 4pm. Just enough time to put it back together and get prepped for the next 3 days. 

Day 1: 

The race starts at 6am Tico time right on the beach. Which means more like 6:30 am. We had to wait for the helicopter to show up. Blades whirring, it circled low around us filming as the entire race snaked its way across the sand and almost immediately onto a muddy gravel road leading out of town. Day 1 went like this: holy steep climb, slogging through the mud across the Carara Jungle, holy steep climb after steep climb until the finish 100k later. I can’t really describe how steep the hills are here. Just when you think that was the steepest hill you have ever climbed up, you round a corner and bam, there is another one that seems even steeper. The only thing that keeps you going are the people cheering for you at the top, handing out baggies of water and Gatorade, sponging down your neck with cold water as you pedal on. When you pass through remote towns, there are entire schools of children cheering for you and wanting to give you a high five as you pass. It is a very supportive and jovial atmosphere which is needed because the kilometers tick by incredibly slowly. It took me just under 7 hours to complete stage 1, 4th overall in the women’s field, 10 minutes back from Olga Echenique of Cuba in 3rd and 50 minutes back on Angela Parra, the leader. Finishing times for the leaders of both the women’s and men’s races were super impressive.

At the start line on the beach in Jaco

Pace car and helicopter ready to lead out the race

Riding along the Costa Rican roads

Day 2: 

Breakfast was at 3am. The race start was at 5:30 am which today meant a 6:30 am start. I was ready for another day of climbing, but I was not prepared for what this day had in store. Today gave me a whole new definition of hike a bike. 2 hours up a muddy, rutted, bloody steep “road” that was definitely not passable except by maybe the most daring of dirt bikers. The downhill was just as steep, muddy and rutted out and was almost harder to hike down then on the way up. The hiking went on from there. It was first time I have finished a race in tears. There was not a single fun part about the day except crossing the finish line and lying down in the massage tent. Surprisingly though, I finished in 3rd with enough of a time gap to move up into 3rd place overall in the elite women’s category.

Starting the day under a rainbow

Crossing the finish line after the worst day I have spent on (but mostly off) the bike

 Day 3: 

The day started off with a white water kayaking trip down the Pacuare River. The rafting is technically optional for racers, but if you do it, you get 5 minutes off your total time for the race. (If you opt not to do it, you get to sleep in for 4 more hours which was definitely tempting after day 2). I only had a 2 minute lead on Olga in 4th, so rafting was not really optional for me. It was a beautiful trip though. We were floating along a swiftly flowing milky green river winding through the jungle and then narrowing through canyons with closely spaced fun rapids. We were completely soaked by the end. The rafting ends at the start of stage 3 which began at 1pm. This time, 1pm actually meant 1pm. Stage 3 was flat, flat, flat; a straight out hammer fest for 35 miles with 4 railroad bridge crossings and a small amount of riding in between the railroad tracks on chunky gravel and jarring railroad ties. I was ready. I was determined to fight to keep my 3rd place spot so I could be in a podium picture with Lea Davidson. I was also fairly confident in my ability to hammer since a lot of my training in Chapel Hill is done on fairly flat roads. It was a fast start, and I was in a bad position off the start line. Olga had a teammate riding with her letting her draft. I knew I had to work hard to catch up, but I was able to do that relatively quickly. Lea, Olga and I were in the same group coming into the railroad bridge crossings. I don’t think Lea liked the railroad crossings very much and the group of racers we were with moved past her on the high bridges. Just before aid 3, I think Olga flatted or something went wrong with her tire. The next time I looked behind me, there was no one there. Suddenly I found myself about 10 miles from the finish line leading the women’s field. I couldn’t quite believe it. I ended up taking the stage win and holding on to a 3rd place overall finish in the elite women’s field. It was such was incredible experience and so awesome to be on the podium with Olympian and silver medalist this year at the UCI MTB World Championships, Lea Davidson. 

Rafting on the Pacuare River

Ready to start stage 3. Dylan and I rocking our Ridge Supply Socks!

Crossing the railroad bridges. They are high and you have to be careful but I did not find them too scary

Finishing La Ruta! Ended up taking the stage win.

Me, Dylan and Drew at the finish line

Hard fought 3rd place finish! Angela Parra in 1st, Lea Davidson in 2nd. Very very happy with the result.
Got to meet and race with Olympian Lea Davidson which was super cool 

Everyone else in the group traveling with us finished the race and was super competitive in their divisions. Jen took 3rd in the women’s 30+ age group, Dylan took 17th overall, Drew got 6th and Anthony got 42nd in the men’s 30-39 age group. I think Jen said it best after the race. After completing La Ruta, you feel like you can do anything!

Jen on the podium too!

It was my first time doing a stage race. I will say it was pretty fun being totally engrossed in biking for 3 days without having to think about much else, and I think I got stronger each day. Having the Specialized bike service to clean and fix your bike and getting a massage each day were key. By 6pm, my body completely shut down. I would stay awake long enough to order dinner and then would feel too sick to eat it and would pass out in bed. By 2am, I would wake up starving, eat a cold dinner, then go back to sleep for a few hours before it was time to wake up for breakfast. It was a rather weird schedule but seemed to work for me.

We had a wonderful additional 3 days in Costa Rica after the race exploring the national park and beaches at Manuel Antonio and the hot springs at the Arenal Volcano. We saw monkeys, went parasailing over the ocean, swam under a waterfall, and ate ceviche while watching the sunset. I managed not to tip the car over backwards on the steepest dirt road hills I have ever driven. Me in 1st gear: “OMG, what’s that sound?” Jeff sitting next to me: “THAT’S PEELING. MOMENTUM, MOMENTUM!” And no matter how hard you try to leave La Ruta behind at the finish line, a bit of the race stays with you leading to several mad dashes off the beach and out of the hot springs to find the nearest toilet :-).

I really can't say thanks enough to Joe's Bike Shop for all the support this season, Ridge Supply Socks for the coolest socks around, and Chris Beck for coaching me and helping me achieve more than I ever thought was possible this year.

Monkeys and beaches at Manuel Antonio 

Waterfalls and hot springs at Arenal Volcano 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Dirty Kanza 200

5 days finished, back to work in the emergency department and I still can't stop thinking about the race. My body is wrecked. I wake up tired every morning wishing I had 5 more hours to sleep. My legs still feel like jelly when I get on my bike to ride. But all I can think about are those white gravel roads, green prairie grasses waving in the wind and the bright blue Kansas skies. How soon until we can go back?

The Flint Hills are a truly unique place, a place I would have never experienced if it hadn't been for this race. "Kansas?" everyone said when I told them about my vacation plans. Even as we were driving out to Emporia from the airport, we joked that the largest hill we saw was man-made on a golf course.

Getting prepped for the race took almost as much energy as the race itself. What would happen out there? How many flats would we get? What would my stomach feel like eating? I had read stories online of people getting 6 flat tires in a row, converting their bikes to single speeds after a derailleur break, having to be rescued by their support crew. The race instructions are very clear: this is a self-supported race in a remote and rugged environment with minimal aid. My only goal was to finish the race, and I wanted to make sure I had the tools to be able to do that. It took multiple trips to multiple bike shops and in the end, I barely used anything I had brought. For anyone considering the race, this is what I packed with me: 3 tubes, 3 CO2s and inflator head, tire lever, chain lube, multi tool and chain breaker, 2 quick links, tube patch kit, 3 tire boots, external battery and cord to charge my garmin, credit card. I had 6 additional tubes and CO2s out on the course at aid stations and 1 spare tire.

We flew into Kansas City, MO, rented a minivan, met up with Ethan, one of our friends from Joe's who now works for Salsa, and set off for Emporia. The next 2 days were spent preparing for the race: re-assembling bikes which luckily made it through unscathed (thanks to overkill bubble wrap), prepping drop bags, going to the rider's meeting, making playlists, pre-riding the gravel, adjusting tire pressure, charging garmins and lights, eating, hydrating, wondering what we were about to start in less than 48 hours. We were lucky enough to stay with a wonderful, kind, and incredibly generous host, Grace, who we met through air bnb. She lived less than 1 mile from the course start and went out of her way to make sure we had everything we needed for a successful race. She even had official DK kolsch on hand for us!

Our host and new friend, Grace
The morning of the race, we were up at 4:45am, out to the start line by 5:30, and rolling out of Emporia at 6. There is a neutral rollout led by last year's champions and the town's law enforcement vehicles. The race was on.

At the start line
Unfortunately, what had been dry and dusty gravel the day before during our pre-ride had turned into thick clay mud and standing puddles of water with overnight thunderstorms. Immediately our bikes and bodies were covered in mud. I was charging through the puddles and mud bogs still feeling excited and fresh. I started feeling my chain skipping across the front chain ring. Skip, skip, skip, grind, and then it fell off. Fuck.

Road conditions for the first 5 miles. The mud got deeper
I pulled off to the side of the road. I put the chain back on, spun my pedals once around with my hand, and off the chain fell onto the outside of my chain ring. Panic set in. I couldn't get my chain to stay on the gears. I watched almost the entire field of riders pass me by. All that travel, all the planning and now I was here, sidelined, less than 5 miles from the start. In that moment all of my goals and plans for the race disappeared. All I cared about was getting back on my bike and pedaling again. How was I going to make that happen?

2 guys had pulled off next to me with similar shifting issues. One told me to clean as much mud off my bike as possible. Done. After more tinkering, the other guy somehow got my chain to stick in a single gear. Omg. I was going to be able to pedal. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I cannot thank you enough. I was off. I didn't care I had only 1 gear. I was back on the road and working towards aid station 1. After a few miles of dry road, I dared to shift and found that I had 3 working gears. One for the flats, 2 for the hills. All plans about conserving energy for the first 50 miles went to abandon. My only thought was going as hard and as fast as I could to work my way back up through the field. If someone passed me going faster, I caught their wheel and stayed with them until someone faster passed us and I was off at a faster pace with them. I pulled up to Ted, another member of the Joe's Bike Shop team, and he burned a match to give me pull. I really can't thank him enough for that. Just before aid station 1 at the 48 mile mark, I caught up to Jeff on his pink mountain bike. Making progress. I felt good.

At aid station 1, I restocked on water and got my shifting fixed. Still not perfect, but I had more than 3 gears and was psyched about that. Now I could more comfortably spin up the hills. I caught Ethan around mile 50. All I could think was push, push, push. I would pass people who told me I still had a long day ahead but I didn't listen. I just kept pushing those pedals down.

Around mile 90, a peloton of riders came charging by including Kris Auer, who I used to ride with Baltimore, and Amanda Neuman, last year's winner. They definitely caught me by surprise because I thought they would be way ahead of me. I found out later Kris had gotten lost and Amanda had been held up with a flat tire. We pulled into aid station 2 together. That was the first time I found out I was in second place.

I spent too much time at aid station 2. I was feeling a bit tired by the effort of the first 100 miles. It was also hot. I had to pee and there were no bathrooms. The cold mountain dew never tasted so good. I finally pulled out of Eureka by myself. I did a double take about a mile up the road when Tim Johnson and Yuri Hauswald (last year’s overall winner) rode past me. “Aren’t you guys supposed to be up with leaders?” I asked. They probably didn’t appreciate my question very much. A little while later, I saw Yuri pulled over on the side of the road with a flat tire. A little while after that, I caught back up to Tim Johnson and a few other people he was riding with. That was definitely a highlight of the race for me. I was riding in the Dirty Kanza with Tim Johnson! Then a little while after that, I pulled away from Tim Johnson and kept pushing towards aid station 3. That was also a highlight.

Getting to aid station 3 was the hardest part of the race. We were headed north about 63 miles from Eureka back to Madison, and there was an unrelenting headwind the entire way there. Each rolling hill seemed longer than the next, the wind was blowing us backwards, and the sun was baking us overhead. There were no trees, no long downhills, no recovery, no escape from the elements. Progress was frustratingly slow. 

Ethan met me at aid 3. His frame had cracked on one of the downhills. I felt bad he couldn’t finish the race, but he seemed in good spirits and assured me he would be back next year. He helped me load back up on water and perpetuem. I didn’t stay long at aid 3. I knew I probably wouldn’t get going again if I did. My body had never felt so tired before.

I was back out crunching gravel under my tires. I crested a hill. Below me, all I could see for miles around was green pastures dotted with brown cattle and above a blue sky dotted with white clouds. It was beautiful, isolating, the grasses and shadows constantly shifting with the winds yet seemingly unchanging and monotonous after 180 miles. I was an inconsequential speck to the vastness of this land.

Rolling into Emporia was the most incredible experience. Suddenly, life mattered again. A huge crowd was cheering for me. I crossed the finish line, 206 miles, 13 hours 28 minutes. No more gravel, no more wind, no more mud. I wanted to start crying but all I seemed able to do was smile. I didn’t know anyone at the finish line. Volunteers from the town were giving me hugs. I was so grateful for that. I wanted to remember how it had felt out there, how hard it had been, those dark places I had pushed through, but I couldn’t. All I could think about was that feeling of rolling into Emporia and crossing that finish line and what an incredible sense of happiness, relief and accomplishment I felt.

Jeff finished just under 15 hours. We biked our exhausted bodies back to Grace’s house, showered and passed out. Jeff drank my celebratory beer because I was too tired. Everyone we talked to after the race wanted to know if we were planning to come back. “Maybe,” I said. “Definitely not,” Jeff said. “One and done” was his mantra. It took a little longer for Jeff to realize, but by day 2, he was already thinking about how he could improve his time, his bike and his fitness for next year. We’ll be back Kansas. Those striking, austere, dusty, unforgiving, awful, beautiful gravel roads are calling.