Yesterday I ate 5 energy gels, drank 4 bottles of water, was 3 minutes off first place, ran over 2 snakes, and finished my 1stMarathon Mountain Bike Nationals. It was 50 miles of hot and fast racing near De Gray Lake, Arkansas just outside of Arkadelphia. Before this year, I had never thought I would be able to race that long of a race, and especially not at the national level. Thanks to my coach Nina with Carmichael Training Systems, I’ve been pushing myself mentally and physically more than ever, and realizing how many barriers to racing were just in my head. I was happy to have done some of the 6-hour race series before this to get a feel for racing long distances, but this was a slightly different format since it was a set distance rather than how many laps you could do in a set time. I was shooting for a finish time around 4 hours, but wasn’t quite sure how to pace myself. The last race I did was a 30 mile XC race that was under 3 hours for me, but I was racing at threshold or red-lining the whole time. I figured that for this race I could probably go the same speed and just hang on for the last hour, but wow I underestimated the difficulty of the race.
When we started at 8:30 that morning it was the perfect temperature – warm enough for short sleeves but not hot yet. We started at a relaxed speed, pacelining for most of the 4 mile start loop and sizing each other up. No one wanted to make any moves that early on, but heading into the first lap one of the women made a pass to head into the singletrack first and I was able to follow in second place. My plan was to follow her and let her set the pace, saving any attacks until the second half of the race. The only problem was that we were going faster than the older men’s categories, but their field started before us. This meant we had to spend a lot of time and energy passing people on the narrow trail. In one technical uphill section, I went to pass a rider and clipped my bar on a tree at the edge of the trail, wiping out in front of everyone and causing a huge pileup. It was extremely embarrassing, especially so early in the race when everyone was trying to get positioned and we were all still together in a pack. Not to mention, this allowed the woman in front of me some time to get a gap on the rest of us. I got up as quickly as I could, ignoring the pain in my thigh from falling directly on the rocks. Filled with adrenaline from the race start and the crash, I raced up to catch and pass the lead woman, and then carried my momentum and got a small gap on the other riders.
Looking back, I shouldn’t have made an attack so early in the race, but I was feeling good and figured I should use that to my advantage, assuming I could make the other riders tire themselves out trying to catch up. What I didn’t realize was how much they were holding back. About 10 miles in at the first long climb, I was caught by a different rider in my field (I learned later her name was Staci). She passed and set a fast pace up the climb, but I held on because I didn’t want to miss my chance to be in the lead group. We passed several riders, gaining distance on the rest of the field, but with the day getting hotter and the pace getting faster, my heart rate quickly climbed to 185, then 190, then close to 200. As we finally reached the top, I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold her pace the whole time, but luckily the trail leveled out and we had some respite from the intensity as the trail descended. Going through the first feed zone just 15 miles in she let up the pace a bit and I was able to catch my breath a bit and let my heart rate go back down. We rode together for the next ten or so miles, and I was enjoying myself once I wasn’t going all out to try to keep up. The singletrack was rocky and had rolling hills, reminding me of the trails back home. The views of De Gray lake were beautiful too, and every creek crossing gave a refreshing splash of water to give some relief from the heat.
As we caught another group of male riders on a hill around mile 23, Staci passed them but I got caught behind one of the riders as the trail narrowed too much to pass. She strategically attacked and was able to get a gap on me at the climb. I burned some energy trying to catch up, and could never get back on her wheel. Coming around for the second lap I was really feeling fatigued, and tried to continue eating to keep from bonking. Unfortunately, I dropped one of my water bottles into the woods with about 17 miles to go, and had to ration the water I had left until I could make it to the last feed zone. I tried to stay on the gas since I didn’t know where the third place rider was, but I could feel myself quickly fading. The last 10 miles of the race were the hardest of my life, but my goal was to see riders ahead of me and try to pick them off, getting space between myself and the rest of the women in my field. I ran out of water with 5 miles to go, and was relieved to see the finish line because it meant not only being done, but also getting water. I think I drank two full water bottles and a whole Gatorade within an hour of finishing, not realizing how dehydrated I had gotten. I was able to finish in second place after 4 hours and 20 minutes – even though I went into the race with the top step as my goal, Staci had a great ride and it was a well-deserved win. I’m hoping that I can finally beat this recent theme of 2ndplaces and will be setting my sights on XC nationals in West Virginia this July!
Poor Zeb had been looking forward to this race all season, but he got two flat tires within the first 6 miles of the race and had to DNF. Luckily I got my flat tire out of the way during the pre ride the day before, and the guys at Orange Seal helped me out. I was lucky to have him in the feed zone though, and he greeted me at the finish line with snacks, water, and ice to help me cool down. I was also extremely grateful for the CTS team and the tent that they brought which kept our bottles in the shade during such a hot day. Overall, it was a great learning experience and I gained a lot of knowledge about pacing and nutrition techniques during a race of that length. It was an honor to race with fast women from around the country, and I am always grateful for this sport’s ability to take me to beautiful places and meet inspiring people. I am especially grateful to my J.A. King racing team for the support! Now for the fun road trip home – we already stopped in Hot Springs, AR on the way back to drink some “healing elixir” spring water. Maybe that will make us extra recovered in time for the next race 🙂