Analyzing numbers are a great tool for training and tracking progress – in cycling, the feeling of hitting your target watts perfectly on a set of tough intervals, or reaching a new fastest time up a strava segment is exhilarating. However, intensely tracking numbers became a slippery slope for me, when my focus on numbers began to become more important than their inherent value. I started thinking about numbers more recently after my coach and friend Nina started a great social media page, @athletemindspace, that “talks about the tough stuff athletes face.” The post below surprised me with how prevalent eating disorders are in collegiate athletes:
Always seeking improvement is important as an athlete, and I’ve always liked feeling “in control” – so being able to analyze, track, control, and improve my numbers in cycling has always been exciting to me. I wanted to track every number in my quest to continually reach new personal “high scores.” However, the numbers began to matter to me more than the actual value or context. If I came in first place at one race, surely anything less than a podium at the next race would be a failure, right? But I was only thinking of the raw numbers – of my power average, of my weight, of my finishing place, of my target heart rate, of my mileage and speed – not of the value of the experience, my improvement, or the factors that put those numbers into context.
In college, that desire to track numbers spilled into my relationship with food, and I began tracking every calorie, planning everything I would eat that day in advance, and controlling what kinds of food I would “stay away from.” I thought that restriction and tracking was what I needed to do to be dedicated. I thought that there was a golden number I needed to hit on the scale, and that anything smaller would be faster. Trying to reach the “right numbers” clouded the real reason I was riding.
When I lost some weight before a race season in college, a fellow cyclist asked me, “you must be training hard, have you lost weight?” It was meant it as a compliment, and I took it as such – but in my “always be reaching the high score” mentality, I thought about how now I could never let my weight fluctuate back up again after the season, or else I might seem like I’ve “let myself go” or become less committed as an athlete. In reality, daily weight fluctuation is normal, as is weight fluctuation outside of a race season. Looking back now, that kind of thinking was harmful, and unrealistic, but I thought that calorie restriction was just another way I could be dedicated and committed.
The power to weight ratio in cycling is real, but you can’t look at the numbers alone. Quickly losing weight in an unhealthy way will only hurt your power output, since performance needs to be fueled. Once the weight and results numbers I was tracking started making me rethink my personal value and self-worth, I knew it was becoming a problem. I was never at an unhealthy weight, but I didn’t realize that the mindsets and habits I had around food were harmful until I heard the stories of other athletes. Thanks to them, I was lucky to realize that I was engaging in harmful eating practices and could begin to change them, before they developed into an eating disorder.
Throughout this past year and all the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19, the forced lack of control in other aspects of life has made me realize that I don’t need to obsessively track and control every number in order to improve or be a stronger athlete. I’m not as lean as I was in college, but I’ve continued to get stronger. I don’t track all my calories anymore, but I haven’t suddenly gained a ton of weight (which was the irrational fear I had around calorie counting). I can’t always control my schedule, but I don’t feel extremely anxious about rearranging my workouts if it’s necessary. I still struggle with body image and occasional guilt around food (as many women and athletes do), but now I know that I’m not alone in those thoughts.
One of the silver linings of Covid this past year was realizing that I can’t (and shouldn’t) rigidly control everything. Relaxing that control has given me a huge amount of relief and freedom, alleviating training anxiety and allowing me to refocus on the value of cycling. I’m trying to focus on improvement and quality in my training, rather than just the raw numbers without context.
Balancing self-love and self-improvement is a continuing effort for me – I was told once that the act of riding a bike is just the relentless pursuit of balance, but that’s what all of life is in the end. You have to set aside time in life to devote to training, but too much focus on the numbers and you forget the big picture. I’m still learning that being an athlete isn’t a cookie cutter image, and fitness isn’t something you can measure on a scale. Every time someone shares their story on how weight and sport have intersected for them it helps me, so I hope that these thoughts might resonate with someone else too.
It’s been a while! I’ve neglected this blog mainly because a large part of my job in the summer is daily blog writing for the camp I work at — trying to keep up a personal blog simultaneously just created too much writing fatigue. However, that neglect drifted into the rest of the year, especially with a lack of racing in 2020.
Even though covid caused race cancellations and altered my race season goals for this year, I haven’t stopped biking (even though I stopped writing about it for a while). Reading back over an old blog post I wrote about biking with my dad, I remembered the importance of putting value on the “everyday adventure” rides, not just the training and racing.
This year has definitely provided the opportunity to focus on other aspects of cycling that motivate me beyond racing. One of my favorite things about this sport is the way a bike allows you to explore new places. On a September weekend two weeks ago, Zeb and I had the opportunity to do just that.
After work on Friday, I set out on the first part of my weekend of camping/riding in three states and four national forests. This area of Appalachia that we live in is beautiful, and it was a privilege to spend the whole weekend exploring some new roads and trails. A couple times I got a little lost, but it was all worth it.
I’m looking forward to many more adventures on the bike that are yet to come!
Growing up near Pisgah, the Blue Ridge Adventures’ “Pisgah Stage Race” has been on my bucket list for a long time (despite it’s reputation intimidating me for years)! This year I was so excited to finally be participating.
Stage racing is a completely different format from the short track and XC style mountain bike racing I am used to, mainly because it is a multi-day race format with the cumulative times deciding the winner at the end of the week. I had never raced that many days in a row, especially not in brutal Pisgah conditions with such technical trails and huge elevation differences. However, I was eager for the challenge and excited to race such a well reviewed event so close to home with my CTS teammates.
This particular stage race was made up of 5 stages, with one each day from Tuesday through Saturday. Each of the stages ranged in distance from 21 miles to 32 miles, with a daily elevation range from 2300′ to 5800′ of climbing. Each day also had an “enduro” section, which was a timed descent that would be placed separately in results from the overall stage time.
On the day of the first stage, I woke up early and prepared my usual grits and eggs breakfast before driving to the start. Having a morning ritual is important for me during race preparation – it helps me make sure I am properly fueled, in the right headspace, and can go through a mental checklist of all the gear and food I need to pack for the race ahead. During the stage race, the morning ritual became even more important as I got more fatigued and forgetful as the race went on. Luckily for this race, I didn’t have to rely on just myself and I had a whole team of people there to support me. My CTS teammates were so great to have around each day, making sure I was feeling ok and congratulating me after every stage. I was even able to use the CTS office to shower after each stage and Brandon was our team mechanic, meticulously washing all the Pisgah mud and sand out of our bikes after each day. Having him take care of my bike so I could shower and refuel and rest was such a luxury. Finally, we had the support of Clif Bar with their seemingly unlimited supply of gels, bars, chews, and recovery drinks. I helped mix recovery drinks at our CTS team tent after the stages, and they were definitely a hit with all the racers.
There were over 175 other racers from 23 states and 9 countries when we lined up at the Cove Creek Campground on that brisk Tuesday morning. As we waited for Todd to start the countdown, “Welcome to the Jungle” played over the speaker system. It was very fitting as I contemplated what I was about to get myself into over the next week in rugged Pisgah. Suddenly, the race started and we were off – I was trying to stay on Jen Nielson’s wheel, a strong racer who I had ridden with in the Pisgah 55.5K the year before. We splashed through the first creek crossing (why had I even bothered trying to dry out my shoes!) and headed toward the Daniel Ridge climb. Carla Williams passed us like it was nothing, and continued to charge ahead up the climb. She’s an incredible climber, and throughout the whole week I would be attempting to chase these two.
Even when my heart rate soared above 200bpm just trying to keep up with the strong women ahead, I was still smiling inside thinking about how much has changed since the first times I rode those trails growing up. The campground we started at was one that I practiced riding my bike in as a kid on family camping trips. We raced through sections I remember crashing on or struggling to keep up with my dad through when I was younger. As a teenager, Farlow Gap was the only trail my dad made me promise to never ride alone because of its remote and technical nature – When we descended Farlow on the first day, I remembered that and tried to channel his good judgment while still going as fast as possible, and luckily only crashed once. Stage 1 was 21.5 miles, with 3000’ of elevation. It took me 2 hours and 47 minutes, and I was able to take 3rd place overall and 2nd place in the Enduro down Daniel Ridge.
Elated from my podium finish the day before, I was eager to see how things would shake out on Stage 2. This time the stage start/finish was by the Ranger Station, just at the bottom of Black Mountain Trail. We started with a 5 mile paved section to get over to Turkey Pen, but it was led out by a police car and turned out to be a good warmup before the gravel climb to Squirrel Gap. I was surprised to find myself in first during this stage, but with only a couple miles to go, I was getting tired quickly. We just had the final climb up to Black Mountain left, and then we would finish with the enduro descent down to the finish. However, I looked over my shoulder to see Carla hot on my wheel and gaining time fast up the climb. I couldn’t match her pace and was quickly left in the dust, but was hoping to make up time on her during the descent. About halfway down Black Mountain, I saw Carla and she let me past her. I had never made it down the whole trail clean, but with adrenaline pumping and Carla right behind I knew I had to at least try! I was so relieved to make it to the line without crashing, and to actually win a stage! I was surprised and excited, but I knew that the longest “queen stage” was waiting for me in the morning, and my strong competitors weren’t going to let up in such a close race.
Stage 3 started in the same location as Stage 2, but went up the trail to Sycamore Cove first this time. I was really feeling the fatigue after going as hard as I could the day before. Pacing myself in races has never been my strength, but I was learning my lesson that pacing is way more important in stage racing than it is in the short track and XC races I’m used to! Carla and Jen passed me up the first climb, and my legs felt like they were jello as I tried to keep up. Soon after, I got caught and passed by Jenna Downey and Beata, two more strong racers that were soaring up Thrift Cove. The rest of the day was difficult for me not just physically, but mentally. I was tired and frustrated with my performance, and it was hard to keep negative thoughts out of my head. Finally after 29 miles, 5800’ of climbing, and almost 4.5 hours, I rolled across the line in 4th place. I lost 24 minutes in the overall rankings that day, which is huge in a race with stages that average just 2 1/2 – 3 hours. However, it was a great learning experience for me and everyone was just as supportive and congratulatory when I finished, despite me being far more cracked and tired than before. Luckily with the creek nearby, I spent a looong time sitting in the chilly water washing off all the mud/having a little ice bath. The positive to the day is that there were 0 rain drops and 0 mechanical issues! I ate a big dinner and went to bed early, hoping that carbs and sleep would be the answer to get through the final two stages.
On Stage 4, we awoke to quintessential Pisgah conditions. The pouring rain that lasted all through the night was continuing that morning, and made for some muddy trail conditions. Trying to stay dry during the warmup and prep was hopeless, but at least it wasn’t cold. On the start line, Todd told everyone that the route would have to be shortened due to weather and lightning potential, and that we would be going straight to Laurel Mountain on the gravel road. Initially I was bummed because long gravel climbs aren’t always my strength, but the whole group stayed together and it was easy to draft off each other and pace well. I had so much mud and sand in my eyes, but it was kind of fun to race in such crazy weather. My teammate Josh offered to ride with me and help me with pacing, and I’m so glad he did. Just ten miles into the stage I couldn’t clip in and realized one of the cleat bolts on my shoe had fallen out – Josh offered up the bolt from his own shoe to help me finish! His selflessness helped me get down the rocky and steep enduro on Pilot Rock in one piece. Though it was a nice day for ducks, but the mud made the rocky sections over Laurel Mountain more interesting, and I was able to finish in 3rd! The best part of the day was when Zeb surprised me at the finish line and we got to go into town to get lunch together. He even changed my flat tire (on my car, not my bike at least) later that evening – whoops!
The final stage was 27 miles and 2300′ of elevation, starting and ending at the Brevard Music Center. This was called the “Land of the Waterfalls” Route, and it was hard to not get distracted by the beautiful waterfalls cascading down around every other switchback. This stage had the most gravel roads (or maybe it just felt that way), but after dropping my chain at the start and having to catch back to the group, I focused hard on pacing myself up the final climb to Bracken Mountain. The enduro down Bracken was more of a “super-d” since there were two punchy climbs in the middle of the descent. I gave those climbs everything I had since I was only 13 seconds off the overall Enduro podium. It was so close! When I rolled across the finish line a couple hours later, my parents and younger sisters surprised me! It was fun to celebrate with them, and to finally be done with the last stage of the week. My first stage race was both more challenging and more fun than I thought it would be, and I was thrilled to take 3rd in the final stage, which secured my third place spot overall! I narrowly made it onto the overall enduro podium too (by 2 seconds! I was trying so hard not to crash!)
The week of racing ended with a fun final banquet, good food, and beautiful handmade awards by Matthew Gentry. There was also a slideshow of incredible photos by Icon Media Asheville, and a fully edited video from the stage (still can’t believe they were able to shoot and edit a video for each stage and have it ready by the end of each day!) Burke Sanders also wrote a great article for PinkBike about the race, including beautiful pictures he captured of each day: https://www.pinkbike.com/news/rougher-than-expected-the-pisgah-stage-race.html
Thanks to Todd and the @blueridgeadventures team for such a great week of racing, to Jenna Downey and @clifbar for making sure everyone had plenty of fuel, and the @ctscyclingteam and Brandon Davis for making sure my bike and I were ready to go every day. Such a fun and challenging first stage race experience with some really incredible women competing. Now it’s time for a nap.
I’ve been enjoying the book Endure by Alex Hutchinson recently, especially his focus on the mental side of endurance training. As athletes, it is easy to focus on the body and muscles, without putting the same emphasis or hard work into training the mind. Luckily, my coach Nina knows the importance of mental endurance training as well as physical endurance training, and she pointed me toward the Sisu Race Ready Coaching quiz to reveal what aspects of my “mental toughness” I could focus on improving.
It turns out, I could improve on a lot. The quiz rates your self-reported levels of confidence, constancy, determination, visualization, control, self-belief, self-esteem, and positive cognition. I can be a bit of a worrier, and can get caught up in my head too much before competitions – did I train enough? Am I overtrained? What if I don’t clip in off the start line? Do I have the right nutrition during the race? All of these questions and more will race through my head if I’m not careful about consciously quieting them. When I took that quiz though, the results revealed “visualization” as a strength of mine.
Going into the race this weekend, I practiced using that to my advantage. When I started getting nervous about whether I remembered everything, I visualized my bag and mentally checked off all the gear and clothing I had packed. When I worried about whether I could have a good sprint off the start line and get the hole shot, I visualized myself clipping in properly and having a successful sprint. It seemed a little silly to picture myself at the race before I even got there, but I can’t deny that it made me feel a little better to positively frame scenarios that I got caught up on, and use visualization to picture them in detail.
The good news is that my preparation helped, and I got the hole shot at the start of the race! The bad news? I was charging ahead without looking far enough down the trail, and missed the turn into the woods… I was heading straight for the tape instead of the trail, and luckily my teammate Deb saved me! “Heads up Annie!” she shouted, suddenly snapping me out of my unknowingly focused path into the tape. I was able to steer left at the last minute, going the right direction this time, and slid into the trail behind her. There were 7 of us racing in the Pro/Cat 1 category, but I was unfamiliar with most of the women so I had no idea how the race would play out.
Deb set a good pace once we were in the woods, allowing us all to catch our breath a little after the initial sprint for placement. A few minutes in though, I could hear some racers behind me trying to pass each other, so I got a little antsy. At the next straight stretch, I asked Deb for a pass and upped the pace as I took the lead. I was feeling strong, but didn’t want to make any mistakes by going out too hard off the front, only to blow up an hour later (a bad habit of mine it seems, haha). At the same time though, I was excited that it was the first race of the season and I had more base miles in my legs than ever before. I took the gamble, holding the pace above my steady-state until I couldn’t see racers behind me anymore. I tried to rest on the descents and push myself up the climbs, and the course was rolling which played to my strengths.
Coming through to head out for a second lap I found myself still in the lead, trying to hang onto the wheel of a train of junior male racers ahead of me. I ate half a clif bar and continued to drink my water bottle with Heed in it, trying to stay ahead of my nutritional needs. I realized a few miles later that I hadn’t planned ahead enough with my water, and was running pretty low. With 5 miles to go I ran out, making a poor bargain with myself that the faster I finished, the faster I could drink more water. My pace had slowed considerably on this second lap, but I hoped it would be enough to maintain the lead through to the finish. I ate an energy gel with 45 minutes to go, and tried to stay focused for the last quarter of the race. My goal was to finish the 24 mile race (my Wahoo said it was actually 20.6 miles) in under 2 hours, and I was excited to reach the finish after 1 hour and 48 minutes!
Getting back into racing at that intensity after such a long block of slow and steady rides on the road was a bit of a shock – my average heart rate for the whole race was 186 bpm, with my peak heart rate at 199 bpm! However, there is nothing like the excitement at the start of a race, or the feeling of accomplishment after the finish line. I was so happy to be back out there as we kicked off the first XC mountain bike race of the season. This was just the first race of many in the Southern Classic Series, and I’m eagerly awaiting the ones to come.
It was a great day for my CTS teammates as well! Deb finished strong in our field with a hard fought 4th place. Josh won his race in the Pro/Cat 1 Men, followed by Zeb in 5th (even though he had been sick all week before!). Reid earned 2nd in the 30-39 Cat 1 Men, and Ely finished strong in his first Cat 2 race ever (a competitive performance as a junior!). Zeb, Reid, and I celebrated with a Chinese Take-Out lunch on the way back home. 🙂
Next week I’ll be helping out with a Carmichael Training Systems road cycling camp all week – the athletes attending will be training and learning all week in preparation for the Assault on the Carolinas race that Saturday! Then the week after I’m super excited to be participating in the Pisgah Stage Race for the first time. Big things ahead!
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 mass start at the Croatan Buck Fifty!
It was tricky getting this many people through the first gate
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!
Since my last race in 2018, I enjoyed a nice block of rest during the “off season.” Then this winter, I was lucky enough to spend three months logging some long base miles in Europe. On December 1st, Zeb and I set out for our long-awaited trip with the bikes in tow. Our OruCase bike bags had been a great investment since they were padded enough to prevent any damage, but allowed us to pack our bikes down small enough to not have to pay any bike fees the whole time (even when we flew 13 different times!)
We worked on olive groves in Spain through a WorkAway program, visited friends in Vienna and Amsterdam for Christmas and New Years, and toured Nice and Florence by bike with a friend from North Carolina. Zeb and I were able to ride in four different countries (five if you count Monaco) 🙂 and I got to set a lot of personal cycling records during our trip. While we were working on an olive grove in the Tabernas Desert of Spain, I rode my first century ride. While we were staying in a caravan on the island of Mallorca, I rode my most miles in a single week. While we were with a friend in the Tuscany region of Italy, I climbed my most feet in elevation in a single week. Every week I was lucky enough to have another opportunity to push myself, reach new goals, and see beautiful new views. It was an incredible experience, and I continue to feel fortunate for all the places my bike has taken me over the years.
the final climb on a ride out of the Tabernas Desert
Coastal Cruise outside Palma, Mallorca
Snack break before the descent back to the Tabernas Desert, Spain
my first century ride in Spain
early morning training in the Tabernas Desert, Spain
Taking in the views on a training ride in Senes, Spain
By the end of the three months, we had traveled to Spain, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Monaco, and Portugal. Zeb and I also got engaged on New Years Eve in Amsterdam! During the 10 weeks we had our bikes, we rode 2058 miles, spent 152 hours on the bike, and climbed 165,560 feet of elevation.
Though that trip deserves a whole blog to itself, (Zeb actually kept one up if you’re interested! velodendron.com) I hope this short summary gives a glimpse of the riding I’ve been up to since my last post. Even though the views from the road were stunning, I can’t wait to trade the skinny tires for knobby ones and get back out on the dirt!
We’ve only been back in the U.S. for a little over a week, but we’re already gearing up for the first race of the season – This Saturday, Zeb and I will be at the Croatan Buck Fifty gravel race, and I’m hoping the long base miles over the Winter will have prepared me for my first 100 mile race!
The most exciting part about this first race is that it will be the first time I wear my brand new team kit! This year, I’m excited and honored to share that I’ll be a part of the CTS Cycling Team, a team filled with racers that I have admired for a long time. Today it was surprisingly warm out, allowing me to ride in shorts and without a jacket for the first time in so long. I got to show off my new CTS kit and enjoy a long gravel ride to get everything dialed in for the 100 mile race at the Croatan. I can’t wait to line up on Saturday in my new CTS kit, ready to start the 2019 season with a bang!
The Swank 65 has been a race on my bucket list for a long time. Blue Ridge Adventures has been putting it on for the past 20 years, and the course runs through some of the most famous and beautiful trails in Pisgah. Not only does it boast the title of being the first permitted bike race in the Pisgah forest, it’s also now the longest continuously running mountain bike race in this area. Being in early November, the weather is always a gamble in this part of North Carolina, but we really lucked out on Sunday. The sun was out, the colorful Fall leaves were prime, and the trails were in great shape. With 65k of untamed singletrack and gravel, 5600 feet of climbing, and one wild descent down the infamous Farlow Gap, I knew it was going to be a memorable day in the saddle.
Even though this race has been going on in my backyard for years, I had been too intimidated to actually register for the event until this year. After spending the Fall getting in more long Pisgah rides, getting more comfortable descending technical trails, and making sure I had the fitness to climb almost 6000 feet, I was feeling more ready to test myself at the Swank. Another huge incentive for registering came when my friends at Dixon Pacifica and Brush and Level reached out to me to generously sponsor my entry fee. Their support and encouragement was awesome, and greatly appreciated. My J.A. King mountain bike race team has also been unwaveringly supportive all season, so this last race of the year was a great one to end on.
Over 100 people were lined up at the Cove Creek Campground start line on Sunday morning, eager to get in a full day of Pisgah pedaling. The start of the course had us racing down the gravel road, jockeying for positions as we headed to the base of the Daniel Ridge climb. The road out of the campground had a creek crossing, which could be avoided by taking a narrow bridge option. I would have rather taken the bridge to keep my feet dry, but of course the bridge entrance was bottlenecked with all the participants right off the start. There was no choice but to splash through the water, starting the race off right! The first climb up Daniel Ridge was fast and technical, with everyone still bunched together and trying not to lose time up the rocky trail. It was a steep mix of riding and running to get over some of the more technical sections, but the long descent back down to the forest service road was going to be worth it.
I could see the leader for the women’s category ahead of me, and was trying to keep her in my sights as she powered up the hill. We had finally reached the crest of the trail, and I was hoping to catch sight of her again after the descent. Suddenly, I heard a hissing sound coming from my rear wheel. I knew that terrible noise meant an impending flat tire, but luckily I had my wheels set up tubeless and was hoping the sealant inside would do its job. I pulled over, spinning the wheel to try and help it seal the hole. When that wasn’t working, I grabbed my CO2 cartridge, hoping that the puff of air would reseal the tire before it lost too much air to keep the bead sealed on the rim. Unfortunately, that didn’t work either and I had to put my spare tube in the tire instead. I was losing a lot of time, but everyone that passed me was so nice, asking if I needed anything or if I was OK. Gracie and Jenna, two of my “competitors”, even stopped to try to give me a hand which was so kind of them. I finally changed the flat and was pumping up my new tire when I noticed it was hissing air again! My spare has somehow either gotten pinched when I changed it, or there was still something in my tire poking a hole in the tube that I hadn’t noticed. Frustrated and out of tubes, I had to run the whole two mile descent down to the first rest stop. What a wild way to start out the first hour of the race!
One of the local bike shops, Sycamore Cycles, sponsors the Swank 65, and they had a great crew out at the rest stops along the course. Carlos helped me out by changing my tire and getting my bike back in business so I could focus on the rest of the race. Even though I was bummed to have lost so much time, it was a beautiful day out, and was able to shift my focus to just riding my personal best times on the trails rather than racing those around me. I headed up to Gloucester Gap, trying to catch back on to the group. As I came down Butter Gap, I saw a spare tube on the trail that someone had dropped. I hope that whoever dropped it made it out of the race without a flat, but that tube ended up saving me later on in the race (thank you trail gods).
The most infamous part of the Swank 65 course is the Farlow Gap section. It’s the third big climb of the route but definitely the longest, followed by one of the most technically demanding descents in Pisgah. The climb starts on Forest Road 475 after the descent down Butter Gap and Long Branch, and continues climbing for 5 miles and 2000 feet straight up. This part of the course was what had intimidated me for so long, and doing such a long climb two-thirds of the way through the race is brutal both physically and mentally. The climb went well, but the descent is where the risks come in. I rode the first steep part of the descent, but as the trail turned right and became more of a rough rock garden I misjudged a line and crashed. Luckily the only casualty was some chipped paint on my bike frame, but I had to walk/run/scramble most of the remaining trail to the bottom. Farlow Gap also crosses a few creeks, so if my feet weren’t wet from the initial creek crossing that morning, they were soaked through by that point.
As I got to the end of the trail, I was feeling good about only having one long climb left. Unfortunately, as I got back on my bike after the last creek crossing I realized I had yet another flat tire. I was disappointed, but also thankful that I had found that spare tube back on Butter Gap and wasn’t having to run to the rest stop again. From looking at the flat tube, it seems like the cause was a pinch flat this time. Because of that, I made sure to pump up the new tube more than the last one, especially because all I had left was a pretty tame ride along the Davidson River trail before the gravel climb up 475B to Cove Creek.
The final climb up 475B felt longer than usual, but I really enjoy gravel climbs because you can just settle in and focus on pedaling. On this pretty November day, I was able to really appreciate the surrounding views and colorful leaves. At the top of the climb, I found a funny surprise since someone had lined the road with Sierra Nevada pale ale beers. It was like a little hand up to reward people for a long climb up. Even though I wanted to stop and enjoy the cold beverage, I only had the descent back into Cove Creek left. The final trail was one of the most enjoyable ones, and it was fun to finish the day on a downhill, floating along the trail as the leaves crackled beneath my wheels.
As I rounded the final corner to the finish, I got the best surprise of the day! My dad stood along the trail cheering and taking pictures, surprising me by showing up to support. When I crossed the finish line, I saw my mom and two youngest sisters who also came out, running up to hug me even though I was gross and sweaty from a long day of riding. It was so exciting to have them there, and I didn’t expect to see them at the finish. Mountain biking is so unpredictable, and even though I was bummed by the flat tires throughout the race, it was still an incredible day in Pisgah and a great final race of the year. I couldn’t have asked for better weather or kinder people to race with, and being greeted at the finish line with family and food was the best feeling. I loved getting able to be a part of the 20th anniversary Swank 65 race, and I’m already planning on putting it on the calendar for next year!
It’s been a while! I took some time off from racing after a busy summer focused on mountain biking- however, this November my goal is to race the Swank 65 mountain bike race for the first time, so I figured I should get back into racing a little before then! Even though the Dirt Diggler is a gravel grinder instead of a mountain bike race, there’s about 5000’ of climbing which will hopefully help prepare me for the elevation in the Swank. It was also a longer race (47 miles), so I hoped the length of the course would help me get into that longer-race-strategy mindset, and give me a little different experience than the <2 hour XC races I had been focused in the late summer.
The race started on Saturday at 8am, and though it’s been an unusually hot September, it was a foggy and slightly chilly morning as we prepared to race. I got up at 5:30am, had some coffee, and made rice and eggs for breakfast. I like the combo because it’s a little bit of protein to fill me up, but also a lot of carbs to fuel a long day on the bike. Plus it’s tasty. After eating, I gathered my things together for the race, making a mental checklist as I got ready. I anticipated taking 3.5 hours for the race at most, assuming all went well, so I wanted to carry 3 water bottles with Heed (for electrolytes and some carbs) and hopefully not have to stop at any of the aid stations. I also stuffed 2 granola bars and an energy gummy packet in my pockets, and filled up my gu bottle with some Hammer energy gel. Even though I prefer eating actual bars and food during races, a lot of times it’s just easier to swallow the energy gel in a race instead of eating, so I made sure to have both just in case. I also put some Topical Edge lotion on my legs, which has sodium bicarbonate in it to help buffer muscle fatigue. It might just be mental, but I’ve felt like it helps my performance remain steady throughout long events, so I continue to use it.
Even though I feel like I’ve done plenty of races, I always seem to forget something when I go through my pre race mental checklist – this time it was gloves. I don’t wear them on the road, but on trails and gravel the terrain is a lot more rough and when my hands get sweaty I don’t want to have to hold on for dear life just to keep them from slipping off the bars. Luckily Zeb had an extra pair I could borrow – whoops. After we arrived at the start area at the Oskar Blues Reeb Ranch, we got our race packets with our number plates and were ready to go. The only problem was that there were only three port-a-potties and hundreds of people, so I waited in line for the bathroom so long that I almost missed the starting line up. One day I’ll have everything together right? It was a casual start though because everyone was beginning at the same time and starting up a wide paved climb, so start line position wasn’t as crucial as it can be in an XC or short track race.
I had the course map downloaded on my Garmin in case I was by myself during the race and got lost, but Todd and his crew at Blue Ridge Adventures had the course marked so well I didn’t even need it. It was a really pretty course that wound through some beautiful parts of Transylvania and Henderson counties. The first part of the race was a 1000’ climb up and over Pinnacle Mountain to spread everyone out after the start. The pavement quickly turned to gravel as we continued the ascent, but once we started going down, the terrain was claiming victims left and right. The gravel going down pinnacle was really chunky, and I counted 7 people changing flat tires and 2 people on the side of the road waiting for medics within the first 10 miles! Even though we were warned about the technical aspects of the course at the pre-race riders meeting, I heard afterwards that there had been two broken collarbones, a broken wrist, and a head injury, yikes. I was trying to find that balance between making up time on the descent, while also not being dumb and crashing myself out – luckily I didn’t have any mechanicals or crashes, which was a big relief.
I had no idea where I was in the field after starting mid pack. I passed several women in the initial climb, but I wasn’t sure how many more were ahead. That’s sometimes the exciting part about mountain and gravel races – the race can be affected by so many things, so you just have to go as hard as you can even though the results are usually a surprise till the end. I saw my friend Sarah on Pinnacle as we reached the top – we race each other during the Southern Classic MTB Series and she’s great. As we were speeding down the other side, another woman passed me, flying by. I later learned her name was Jenna, and am still so impressed by her handling skills on the loose gravel. They were the only two women I saw after the start, so during the whole race the results were a mystery.
The second big climb was up Rich Mountain, which was mostly paved. I was able to get in with a group of guys while we rode along Reasonover Rd., which turned out to be extremely helpful as I saved energy drafting off of them. Jenna was also in this group, but as we turned onto the Rich Mountain climb, the pace stayed high and I got worried. We were pushing watts over my threshold, and since we were only 18 miles in I decided to back off so I didn’t blow myself up before we were even close to the end. Jenna continued at the same strong pace, and I didn’t see her again for the rest of the race. I debated whether I should have just stayed at that pace and suffered through the rest of the climb without letting up, but since I have a history of bonking at the end of long races, I took a gamble and hoped that I could just catch up by the end of the course. Though I never caught Jenna again, I was able to stay steady through the end, so I think it was probably the right choice.
After a steep paved descent down Rich Mountain (I need to work on my sharp cornering skills on the road..), there was a 6 mile paved section to get to the next gravel climb. I started out alone, but was quickly caught by another rider and we were able to work together and take turns “pulling”. Wilson Rd. and Everett Rd. are fairly flat, but once we hit the climb I was dropped. We climbed through “The Reserve”, a private community outside Brevard that was tucked into the woods. Since it is usually gated, I had never had the chance to ride through before, and it was fun seeing some new roads. We eventually came out by Little River and pedaled through some cornfield lined roads before beginning to climb up Cascade Lake Rd. This was one of my favorite parts of the course – the gravel climbed up by the lake and alongside a pretty waterfall. Once we came to the top, we turned onto Staton Rd. and began the descent back to Dupont.
The road was busy today since it was National Public Lands Day and Dupont was hosting volunteers for trail work throughout the forest. Traffic wasn’t as bad as I expected though, and I was excited to be reaching the finish as we climbed up the final long push at the end of Staton Rd. One exciting part of this gravel grinder is that it ended with a mile of singletrack trail! To get to the trail section back at the Reeb Ranch, we had to climb up a short but extremely steep pitch (Strava says that at one point it’s a 25% grade!). Once we reached the final peak, it was just a fun trail descent back to the staging area! I have never actually taken my CX bike on trail, so it was fun testing the limits with my skinny tires. I was trying to navigate the rocks and roots with limited grip and no suspension, but it was exciting and I made it down safe! Rolling into the finish felt awesome, and there were so many kind people cheering me on and ringing cowbells as I came across the line. I congratulated Jenna on a great ride, and it turned out that she had been first and I finished second, out of 32 women! It was an exciting surprise, and I celebrated with a free beer from Oskar Blues.
September is probably my favorite month to ride – it’s not too hot or too cold, there’s still plenty of daylight, and the scenery is perfect as the leaves start changing color. Overall the Dirt Diggler was a great challenge, a beautiful course, and a fun day on the bike. It made me that much more excited for the next Blue Ridge Adventures race. Here’s to more fall riding!
Whew what a whirlwind of a weekend in Snowshoe! I had been looking forward to Mountain Bike Nationals all year and these races exceeded my expectations. I registered for three races back to back, which was extremely tiring but also very worth it. Luckily collegiate MTB national had been held at Snowshoe for two years before open nationals, so this was my fourth time competing on these trails and I was excited for the chance to be back. The weather was much cooler than home up on the mountain, with most days hardly getting above the 60s or 70s. The weather was calling for rain, but Snowshoe Mountain’s forecasts are usually wrong, and this time they happened to be wrong in my favor! For the first time, none of my races had any precipitation during them, which was a great change from previous years. The course still had the same muddy root sections and technical single track, rock gardens, and long gravel climbs, but the trails were similar to what I was used to back home and I felt more prepared this year than ever before.
We arrived on Thursday morning, the day before my first race. The excitement in the air was palpable as racers from all over the country arrived to get their race packets and pre ride the trails. I was able to meet up with several locals from teams back home, including some guys on the CTS team that I rode my openers with. I also got to see some friends from the Happy Tooth Women’s team, my JA King teammates, and an old friend and teammate from Appalachian State. Nationals is fun because it not only brings riders together from all over the country, but it also allows you to compete on the same stage as pros, something that I rarely get to do. I was starstruck as I saw some of my favorite racers from Specialized, Trek, Clif Bar, and many others out on the same trails warming up.
The first race that I had was the XC race for my age group, Cat 1 Women 19-24. We were starting bright and early at 8am, so I woke up at 5:30 to make sure I had enough time to eat and warm up. It was a brisk morning, but I much prefer that over hot weather. I was really nervous about the day, and even though there were only 8 women in the field, there were a few that I had raced against and come in second to. We lined up for three laps of the course, and I felt nervous but ready, excited for the race that I had waited so long for. As the gun went off, we rocketed off the start line, and I immediately grabbed the wheel of Sydney, who was the national champion last year. We flew down the trail toward the first climb, and as we turned up the road, Allison attacked from behind and cruised up the road. I was now in third place, but still had the two in my sights as we crested the hill and headed into the muddy root section. After getting lots of wet root practice on the trails in Pisgah, I was able to navigate the technical sections and make up time to catch Allison and Sydney. Our field of women had started in the back, so it was hard to get around all the other women in the older categories. However, this worked somewhat to my advantage because it also slowed down Allison and Sydney, allowing me to catch them before the trail opened up into a gravel climb. We rode together on the climb and went back and forth with positions. By the second lap, I had moved into first place after the long rock garden, and I was determined to hold my lead through the final lap. I worked on getting as much of a lead as I could through the rooty section, especially since it had cleared up so much as the racers all got spread out along the course. As I came out of the single track, I knew there were only three main climbs to go, and I focused on pushing hard through those sections. The first was coming out of the single track, the second was passing through the feed zone, and the third was the longest, but was the final push before the long rock garden. Once I made it out of the rock garden and couldn’t see second place behind me, a huge smile came over my face and I pedaled furiously down the final section to the finish line. As I crossed the line victoriously, I was so happy and thankful that I had made it. I had been dreaming about a first place finish at nationals for years, and it finally happened.
The rest of the day was spent recovering, taking an ice bath, hydrating, and spending as much time off my feet as possible to prepare for Saturday’s race the next morning. I made sure to eat plenty of food to replenish the energy I had burned, and stocked my jersey pockets with Hammer Gels for the next day’s race at 11am. Saturday was another XC race, but this time it was much harder because it would be a U23 race, meaning anyone pro or amateur under the age of 23. I was lined up on the second row because of my previous day’s finish, but there was a whole front row of professional racers, ready to tackle the course. Many of these other racers were girls that I looked up to, who race internationally for big name teams. It was intimidating and humbling to race with them, but also a huge honor because I have been dreaming of racing at the level they are at one day. As the gun went off, we raced off for four laps. My body was much more tired during this race, and I had to dig deep to find motivation. This course was slightly shorter than the one we raced the previous day, but had the addition of a very steep hill at the start of every lap. It was a struggle to even make it to the top, and I was glad we only had to get up it four times. I was quickly dropped out of the top ten, and Allison and Sydney from the day before both passed me during the second lap. I had nothing left in the tank to catch them, and I finished the day in 12th place after a humbling race. Though I was hoping for more, it was a much better finish than my previous year racing short track in U23, and I was happy to have had the chance to race against such impressive women.
The final race was the fastest, but also my favorite. Short Track is a quick format where racers are red lining the entire time, going as hard as possible right out of the gate. Though I was more tired than ever, I was also most excited for this event, especially with it having the biggest field of women. The category was open to all women 17 and older, and I was able to have a front row call up. The call up in short track is the most important, because you don’t want to be caught in the back of the field and forced to catch back on. I was so nervous before this event that I even broke out in hives on my legs, but once I was on the start line I was excited for the thirty minutes of pure effort. As the gun went off we exploded off the start line, racing up the hill to start the lap. There were a ton of extremely fast juniors, which is exciting for the future of the sport. It was hard to maintain their pace however, especially after two hard days in the saddle. I hung on in the top five for a bit, but eventually I blew up and dropped back to 9th place. I was excited for at top ten finish in the biggest field of the weekend, but I know that next year I will be aiming for a short track podium.
All in all, it was an extremely rewarding and fun weekend filled with racing against women that I really admire. I even got to watch the pros race, which was so incredible to see the power, speed, and strategy that they have. For now, I’ll be taking a bit of time off the bike to recharge my batteries and set goals for the upcoming year. I am already looking forward to nationals next year though, and I am so thankful for the friends and memories that I have been able to make through this sport.
Today marked the end of the Southern Classic Series with the tenth and final race of the season. We headed to Bur Mill Park in Greensboro to race the “Sizzler,” a fast and rooty course on a hot July day. I was excited to line up with 9 other really fast women, one of the biggest fields of the year. This race was also a lot of fun because Zeb was able to come with me, and we saw our buddy Miles from our App State racing days. There were several of our JA King teammates in attendance, and I also got to meet John King, the owner of the team. He lives right next to the park, and I was happy to finally meet the man who has made much of this season possible, both by supporting our personal racing and by being the title sponsor of the Southern Classic Series.
The women’s race was at 11am, and we were headed out for three laps, six miles each. The course was really rooty and had a lot of sharp sandy corners, but with the minimal elevation gain I could tell it would be a fast one. I was determined to finish strong today, especially as redemption after I unfortunately overheated and dropped out of the last race in Hobby Park. I was disappointed in my performance in the last race, and had planned this one much better by making sure to prehydrate more and get more sleep ahead of time. I was ready to go with my hammer gel in my pockets, heed in my bottles, and some beetelite that I drank right before warming up.
The beets are supposed to help stimulate nitric oxide and extend your endurance by improving your blood’s oxygen delivery. I don’t know if it is just mental, but I feel like drinking it helps me perform better, so I’ve been making it a part of my pre-workout routine. I also just got some topical edge lotion after reading positive reviews, and though I’ve only used it a handful of times so far I also feel like it’s a big help. The lotion has sodium bicarbonate in it, which is supposed to help your muscles get rid of lactic acid faster so you can go harder with less soreness later. It also might be just mental, but my legs feel fresher longer in my ride with the lotion, so I’ve been having fun experimenting with these pre workout additions.
I had raced against all of the women at the “Sizzler” before at previous races in the series, and it was fun to battle it out one last time together. The start of the race was on a grassy stretch of field that led immediately to a paved greenway before turning onto the trail. The start of the race was fast, but everyone settled in on the paved stretch to try to draft off of eachother. I tucked behind Philicia from CycleWorks and Erica Zaveta, but Skylar (one of my JA King teammates) snuck in front of me as we turned the corner and climbed onto the trail. I was into the woods 4th, but since the course was so fast, everyone stayed together for the first half of the lap. A couple miles into the course, the trail turned into greenway again, and Erica attacked. I followed her, drafting on her wheel until we made it back to singletrack. I stayed in second until we came around for the second lap, when Skylar attacked from behind and moved ahead of me. I tried to stay on her wheel, but she was too fast on the descents and her technical skill surpassed mine in the sandy corners. I lost a lot of time by braking too much around turns, and she and Erica rode away from me before we came around for the third lap.
I was alone in the woods for much of the final lap, until I heard laughing and whooping behind me. Bonnie, another racer for JA King, was having so much fun on the course that she was practically giggling down the trail. Her positivity is infectious, and she hardly seemed tired because she was having so much fun. Sarah from SpokeEasy was riding with her, and she broke away on a climb, leaving me to chase her. I caught her wheel on the greenway section again and was able to draft a bit and luckily let my heart rate lower again. We stayed together for the remainder of the race, and she is great at keeping a steady but demanding pace. As we came around the final turn of the race, we sprinted up the grass to the finish, and I barely outsprinted her to the line. Of course you always want to win any race you enter, but I was also happy with third against such a strong field.
The most exciting part of the day was that I was able to hang onto enough points to get the regional champion title for women! I was also really happy that Zeb won the regional title for men, and it was fun to celebrate a great season with racers that I really admire. On Wednesday we’ll start the drive up to Snowshoe for mountain bike nationals, and I can’t wait to see what this weekend will hold.