Some race weekends have perfect weather and great trail conditions, allowing you to explode off the start line and rely on fitness to carry you through to a successful finish. This was not one of those weekends. The week leading up to the races had been one of the rainiest I’ve ever seen, and for this weekend, mud was definitely the theme. Luckily the Saturday of the Southern Classic Series race was sunny and warm, but the residual water on the trails didn’t have time to dry completely, leaving us with thick and tacky mud. Saturday was the Virginia State MTB Championships up in Woolwine, VA, which was also part of the Southern Classic Series. Zeb and I made the trip up that morning since the race wasn’t until 1pm, and even had time to stop in the town of Stuart for their strawberry festival to get some strawberry snacks for the ride home.
I was hopeful that the warm weather in Virginia meant less mud than back home, but as we pulled up to the race and saw earlier classes of racers finishing with mud coating them, I knew I would be in for a tough day. I lined up with 6 other women, ready for 22 miles of fun singletrack. Two of my JA King teammates were in attendance, and one of them (Skylar Bovine) had a strong start off the line and took the lead into the woods. As we hit singletrack, the pace immediately slowed and it felt like we rode straight into peanut butter. The mud was thick and heavy, sucking up all our power and not giving us any traction. I tried to ride on the edge of the trail to get some grip, and had to muscle through the first couple of miles where the mud was the worst. Luckily it was red clay, and not sandy dirt like back home. That meant that though it was stickier, it didn’t ruin my brake pads or make my drivetrain all gritty.
I managed to stay upright for the first 9 miles, passing Skylar and taking the lead for a short period of time. As the race went on, I had to get off and run my bike up hills where there was no traction, and on descents I had to choose my line carefully so I didn’t slide out and roll off the trail. Even though we were spending tons of energy putting out watts at race pace, our speeds were much slower than normal with the friction from the mud weighing us down. About halfway into the race, I got passed by Anna Sortore, an 18 year old who was racing her first Cat 1/Pro race! She had a really strong ride and I couldn’t stay on her wheel – lots of future podiums for her in store I’m sure! I finished in 2nd after 2 hours and 20 minutes slogging through mud, but it was a great way to practice technical skills and get back into XC racing after focusing on the marathon racing format for a bit.
Even though I spent a while cleaning off my bike after that race, I had no idea just how muddy I would get the next day. I got to race a little closer to home on Sunday with the Pisgah 55.5k. Pisgah Productions puts this on every year, following the 111k that happens the day before. Maybe one day I’ll commit to the longer version, but the 55.5k turned out to be much more than I bargained for anyway, and I got in a huge day of riding on some of the best and most beautiful trails in the area. The 55.5k is usually about 36 miles (hence the name), but yesterday’s race actually ended up being 52 miles long. The bonus mileage was thanks to all the rain we had been getting, which caused questionable trail conditions and forced the race promoters to reroute the course a bit. The good thing is that we didn’t have to hike-a-bike up Black Mountain, but it did mean a lot more mileage. Because of the rain, trails like Bradley Creek were literally just creeks flowing down the mountain, and I often had to get off and wade through water above my knees or lift my bike over fallen trees blocking the trail. Some of the mud puddles were deceptive as well, seeming to be just a harmless inch or so deep but actually sucking in my front wheel practically down to the rotor when I plunged through. These kind of elements are challenging but keep the race exciting, and they’re what set a Pisgah endurance race apart from the smooth and fast XC style racing I’ve been focused on more recently. Luckily there were three aid stations well stocked with food and water to refuel along the race. A long day on the bike also means a lot of time to think, and sometimes this time alone with my thoughts is the most therapeutic part of riding for me. It is also the time that tests my mental strength the most, especially after hours racing on my own on the trails in tough conditions.
I knew I was in for an epic day once I found out about the reroute, but I didn’t realize it would be quite so long, or have such crazy conditions. When we started out at 10am, it was perfect weather and the sun was shining. Since the new cue sheets with the altered directions didn’t have mileage listed, I didn’t know that the course would be as long as it was. When I reached the first aid station at mile 21 after a couple hours, I thought I was over halfway done and would be at the finish line in a couple short hours. Fast forward ten miles and another hour and a half to the second aid station, and they told me I was slightly over halfway. Luckily they had plenty of pb&j, coke, and water to help me replace the calories I was expending so I didn’t reach the point of completely bonking, but I was definitely drained. Shortly after leaving that station, the atmosphere shifted, with greying skies and ominous thunder foreshadowing an intense storm on the way.
During these long races, I have to get into a completely different headspace than I do in XC or short track. In XC racing, the short distance means that you can burn energy quick, exploding off the start line and staying in the red zone almost the whole time. In 5 or 6+ hour races, that kind of speed and energy burning isn’t sustainable, and racing is just as much about mental strength and technical skill as it is about fitness. When I was in the middle of nowhere and hadn’t seen another racer for a couple hours, I had to focus even more on the lines I was taking down rock gardens so I didn’t get a flat tire or break a derailleur alone in the woods so far out. Luckily I didn’t have any mechanical issues, but around hour 4 with lots of mileage still to go, I really had to dig deep to keep the pedals turning. I thought about quitting after the 36 mile point. I made up every excuse in my head about how the mud was hurting my bike parts anyway, I already got a good enough workout from the distance I reached, I could go home now and have time to catch up on other responsibilities I had, etc. But I realized that all those excuses were just in the moment, and if I quit early I knew I would be disappointed later.
The impending storm forced me to refocus on the race and concentrate on maintaining a good speed to get off the ridge. It is hard to stay motivated and focused for that long in a race, but at hour 5 when it began to pour, I was quickly motivated to get to the finish again. As I climbed up laurel mountain to pilot rock, the lightning started to get closer and the rain got harder. I hadn’t seen another racer for a long time, and was worried about the exposed trail as I climbed higher and higher. I counted the seconds between the lightning strikes and the thunder – 7 seconds, then 4, then 2, and wondered if I should try to get shelter or if I was just overthinking things. Finally I saw another racer, and was able to have some company during the long hike-a-bike section to get up the final push. When I reached the top, it was beautiful and the views off the exposed rock were incredible. However, I knew I couldn’t waste any time in the storm, so I half rode/half ran down the trail and back under the cover of trees. My brakes were no longer working well, and much of the time I had to run my bike over rock gardens since I had no braking control.
When I reached the bottom of the trail and was back on fire road with 12 miles to go, I was so grateful to not be in the thick of the storm and on top of the mountain. Even though my body was exhausted and I was soaked to the bone, I couldn’t stop smiling. When I reached the final aid station, I knew I didn’t have much more. The last trail felt like the longest one of my life, and my poor bike creaked and grinded with every pedal stroke against the rain and gritty mud I had subjected it to all day. Once I made it back to the top of Clawhammer, I knew it was all downhill to the ranger station and finish line. I had been out there for 7 hours, with a 6 ½ hour ride time (not counting the river crossings, fallen tree navigation, and aid station pit stops). Crossing the finish line late that afternoon was the best feeling, filled with both relief and accomplishment.
I was able to finish in 2nd place, and received a cool belt buckle and embroidered patch. At the moment though I was most excited about the post-race burrito I got, and even took a quick river bath to get as much of the dirt and mud off as I could. It was certainly an epic day, and gave me a lot of practice with my technical skills through the mud, wet rock gardens, creek crossings and rooty descents. It was an action-packed and fun weekend, but those are the experiences that make me appreciate rest days spent curled up with a book even more. Thankful for my supporters helping me get through races like these and looking forward to hopefully carrying these fitness gains into the rest of the season!
(Bootlegger photos from Mario Quivera- Super Cycling and Pisgah 55.5k photos from Steve Barker- Icon Media Asheville)