Four months ago, I had never even ridden 100 miles. Saturday, I was standing on the startline of the Croatan Buck Fifty gravel race, excited to start the 100 mile course that awaited us. Since most of my racing background has been with shorter cross-country and short-track style mountain bike races, I’ve never had much experience with the longer mileage. Even with the 6 hour mountain bike races I did, my longest race was only 75 miles. However, during our time in Europe this winter I was luckily able to put in a lot of miles on the road and completed my first “century ride” in early December. I was excited to test my limits in a race setting this time, especially since I’ve always found gravel races to be a lot of fun.
The atmosphere of the Croatan Buck Fifty gravel race was no different – the race promoters were friendly and enthusiastic, the social media updates leading up to the race were funny and exciting, and the “swag” that each entry fee came with was generous. The race started at the Carteret County Speedway, which was perfect for warming up and socializing around the paved racetrack circuit. When we checked in at packet-pickup during sunrise, we were given a personalized “stoke box.” The contents included a Cutaway fabric race number, a soft race t-shirt, a custom neck gaiter, Hand-Up gloves, and Ridge Supply socks by Defeet. Even after the race, the fun continued with “finisher’s hats” and a taco buffet.
Zeb and I made the trip out to the coast of North Carolina Friday night before the race, staying in an Airbnb on the water with some of our cycling friends. The excitement levels were high, even at 5am when we woke up early to eat breakfast and get ready for the long race ahead. The Croatan Buck Fifty has several race options: 150, 100, 50, and 25 miles. Maybe next year I’ll put on my big girl pants and go for the 150 miler, but this year 100 miles was definitely plenty.
The course is a 45.4 mile lap of dirt road, gravel, muddy trail, corn field path, and pavement. Most of the lap is out-and-back, which I actually enjoyed more than I thought I would because you can constantly see people going both ways throughout the race. It made it a little easier to see my competition as the race went on, and also kept it interesting to be able to see the leaders groups sprint by each lap. Around mile 27 you reach the “black swamp feed zone” with ready-filled water bottles, Gu products, cans of coke, pickle juice, and plenty of snacks to fuel for the grueling miles that remained.
Though most of each lap is out-and-back, the main difference is the section that takes you through “savage road” when you return back to the speedway. This section is known as “savage road” because it’s infamous for major potholes and muddy swamp puddles as wide as the road itself. It requires a lot of concentration to navigate, especially when you’re trying to pick lines around narrow gaps with dozens of other people around your wheel. Luckily I managed to make it through unscathed, but I did watch a poor guy rocket himself headfirst into the swampy canal next to the road when his front wheel got sucked into the mud.
The first half of the race was fast and crowded – I worked my way up from the mass start to get in a large group of riders for the first 50 miles. It was a big enough group to draft off of, but small enough to still be able to pick lines around the potholes and not get tangled up in each others bars. This was necessary with the rough gravel roads we were on, and I even ended up dropping a half eaten clif bar and a water bottle while rattling my way through the potholes. In a race as flat as this one, being able to work together in a group and paceline with other riders was crucial. The riders at the front block the wind, “pulling” the following riders along at a pace faster than would otherwise be sustainable alone. I was feeling good during this first lap, using the draft to my advantage and thriving off the adrenaline that comes with the start of every race. However, as we reached the speedway again and headed back out for lap #2, the group broke up and dispersed, with many riders stopping at their tents for a quick snack or bottle refill.
I tried grabbing onto the wheel of another group as we pedaled back onto the gravel course, but their pace was much faster and I found myself digging too deep for the amount of time still left in the race. I sat up, allowing myself to drop back and conserve energy, since I knew that pace would be unsustainable for me for 50 miles. However, now that the fields were so spread out, I didn’t realize how long it would take to find another group to work with. I lost a lot of time and motivation trying to keep my speed up alone and facing the wind for the next ten miles, but finally I looked over my shoulder and saw a small group catching me.
I was able to work with these four racers to make it to the feed-zone at the end of the lap and turn back for the final stretch to the finish line. Working with a smaller group means that you have less people to draft off of though, and it also means taking more pulls at the front. After the feed-zone they sped up, and I got dropped off the back again. I thought it would be a lonely 18 miles back, but during the “savage road” section, I was able to navigate around some crashes and work with another rider to make our way back to the finish. Even though it was just the two of us, having someone else to ride with was extremely helpful and a huge boost to my moral in that final stretch. He was racing the Men’s 100 mile open, so we both got to celebrate after crossing the finish line, elated that we had completed the fun event but also relieved to be able to stop pedaling.
After 5 hours and 11 minutes, I had finished 2nd in the Open Women’s 100 mile category! Sarah Moloney was the winner, with an impressive time of 4 hours and 57 minutes. Washing the layers of dust off my bike and eating my weight in tacos post-race felt great. We also got to celebrate by shaking up bottles of Perrier and spraying them on the podium. It was a good day for my CTS teammates as well: Zeb and Nick gave it their all in the 150 mile race, Josh Whitmore won the Men’s 100 mile race, and Dylan Johnson (while not on the CTS team, is a coach for CTS) won the Men’s 150 mile race! It felt good to push my limits in a style of racing new to me, and shake the cobwebs off as I prepare for the 2019 race season. I’m looking forward to “The Knot,” my first Cross Country race of the season this Sunday in South Carolina, but in the meantime I can’t wait to take a loooong nap after the Croatan Buck Fifty!