Adventuring in Appalachia

Hello again!

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.

I even made a video if you want to see it here.

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!

Day 1: Biking 40 miles from home to Gorges State Park in NC. This is the view from the top of Toxaway Falls on the way over.
Day 2: 61 miles, 7000′ of elevation, and 3 states (NC, SC, and GA). Finished the day in Sumter National Forest, and got to see the country’s smallest post office.
Day 3: what was supposed to be a casual ride turned into a misadventure when the road didn’t connect – 50 miles, 6300′, and another exciting tri-state ride from the campground.

Pisgah Stage Race

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Navigating the rock garden at the bottom of Pilot Rock (photo by Icon Media Asheville)

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.

stage race 2
Packet Pickup and Opening Ceremony the night before the races start

stage race 1
Stage 1 with the CTS team van!

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.

stage race 1
blurry photo, but awesome local race hecklers giving me a mood boost before the climb up to Farlow Gap on Stage 1 

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.

Smiling on Stage 2, hoping to stay in 1st through the end of the stage!                                              (photo by Icon Media Asheville)

Burke Lawrence Photo

stage race 3
Stage 2 win!

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.

the first descent of Stage 3 “the queen stage” (photo by Icon Media Asheville)

Rehydrating with some sparkling water after my toughest day (Burke Lawrence Photo)

stage race 4
nothing like a natural ice bath in the chilly Pisgah creeks post-race!

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!

navigating the steep and rocky descent down Pilot Rock (Burke Lawrence Photo)

good clean fun at Stage 4!

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Good day for ducks

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!)

Don’t crash, don’t crash, don’t crash (Burke Lawrence Photo)

heading to the finish line after 5 days of racing! (Burke Lawrence Photo)

3rd overall and 3rd in the overall enduro! (photo by Icon Media Asheville)

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:

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.

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beautiful handmade awards by Matthew Gentry

Swank 65 – what’s a day in Pisgah without plenty of surprises?

     IMG_9204The 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.

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetOver 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).

A98F6735-A6BA-4485-AF0E-3CDB8D1F845DThe 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.Processed with VSCO with g3 preset

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!


Dirt Diggler Gravel Grinder

All smiles during the 2018 Dirt Diggler
All smiles during the 2018 Dirt Diggler!

     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.


Climbing up Pinnacle during the first part of the race

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!  

Jenna, myself, and Sarah on the podium for Open Women!

Strava file:


Mountain Bike Nationals in Snowshoe 2018!

National Champion – Cat 1 Women 19-24 – MTB Nationals 2018

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.

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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.

IMG_4452The 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.

77BD964E-728B-4EF0-BFE3-1E4339CDF264The 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.

IMG_4490All 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.


Mid-Mud Musings: Bootlegger’s Blitz and Pisgah 55.5k Race Reports

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You know you love something when you’re soaked and still smiling 6 hours into the race

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.

Strawberry snacks from the festival in Stuart, VA on the way to the race

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. 

Chasing Skylar into the woods after her strong start off the line

JA King ready to start racing 

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. 

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Getting mud out of my teeth post race? (or strawberry seeds) 😉

2nd place at the Bootlegger’s Blitz VA State Championships

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. 

Discussing the course changes with a teammate pre-race

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 final push up the hill to the first aid station 20 miles in, before the storm

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.

Processed with VSCO with g3 presetWhen 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)

Relieved to make it to the finish after an exciting day!

The new Pisgah “55.5k” course 

Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals

Second place Marathon MTB Nats Women 19-29!

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.

Weldon Weaver captured some great mid race photos

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.

The trails were beautiful and in great shape – got to pre ride the day before

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!

Grateful to make it to the finish, whew

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 🙂

Taking the tourist route home through Hot Springs

Podium high-fives!

Bikes: The Relentless Pursuit of Balance

creek crossing on our Pisgah route

So far, I have really only used this blog to report on my races – however, while racing is challenging, exciting, and fun, it isn’t the only reason I’m passionate about bikes. Last weekend I was able to go on a long mountain bike ride with my dad, and it reminded me why I got hooked on this sport to begin with.

My dad turned 50 on Friday, and he isn’t much of a celebratory type. He usually keeps it quiet, enjoying cake and presents with the family, and often we eat his favorite meal of meatloaf. He would rather have a small family meal than get a big gift to celebrate, so I was surprised that he had an answer when I asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He told me that to celebrate, the thing he wanted to do most was go on a long mountain bike ride in Pisgah National Forest.

My parents are the main forces behind me getting into mountain bike racing. Growing up, my dad was into adventure racing, where teams use orientation skills to find checkpoints on a map, and then get to those points by running, biking, or paddling. He took me on long rides in Dupont and Pisgah that pushed me, but he never pressured me to be competitive or do better. It was always for the challenge and fun of it. My mom also worked hard to organize youth mountain bike races for me to compete in, because she knew that biking was something that made me happy. My parents have always supported and encouraged me in the sport, and they still do today with my collegiate and open racing.

The idea of going on a long ride with my dad again was exciting – I hadn’t been home as much because of college and traveling a lot for races, so it had been a while since we rode together. Initially in life, the aspect of mountain biking that appealed to me most was the thrill of exploring a new place and feeling that sense of adventure on the trails. The route dad wanted to take was certainly an adventure, but I didn’t quite realize the extent of what we were getting into.

Dad wanted to drive to a trailhead in Marion, and ride a 25 mile route that would go up and over Wood Mountain on a bike-friendly section of the mountains to sea trail. He told me there would be about 3000 feet of climbing and maybe a couple sections where we’d have to push our bikes. Turns out he was 1200’ short on his elevation estimation, and we ended up carrying our bikes over fallen trees or pushing up extremely steep sections more than I could count. The whole ride took about 5 hours, but only 3 ½ hours of that was moving time. This was double the time I expected the route to take us, and not to mention I had my first cross country mountain bike race of the season the next morning, so this overdid it a bit for “openers”. The only prediction I was happy we proved wrong was his estimate that we wouldn’t get back to the car until dark. I underestimated how long it would take, how tired I would be, and how steep the trail was, but the most important thing I underestimated was how much fun we had.

Dad wanted an adventure for his birthday, and he sure got one – but I got a gift too. Not only was I able to spend a whole day in the woods on my bike with my dad, but I was also reminded why I spend so much time dedicated to this sport. With cycling, it’s easy to get caught up in numbers. I tend to be a fairly type A and anxious person, so numbers are something that I can quickly get hung up on. Is my heartrate in the right zone? Did that ride have a high enough miles-per-hour average? Do I weigh the right amount? Am I putting out enough power? Should I train more hours this week? Riding with my dad that day we were able to just think about the fun of biking in the moment, enjoy the weather, and relish the challenge of a long day spent navigating and riding.

Trying to reach the “right numbers” sometimes clouds the real reasons that I ride. Cycling is empowering, exciting, adventurous, scary, fun, tiring, and exhilarating. My bike has taken me to places I would have never gone to if not for the opportunity to race there, and training has pushed me beyond what I thought my limits were. My dad’s birthday ride wasn’t a particularly grueling day as far as “adventure rides” go. We rode hard, but we also stopped often, took snack breaks, snapped pictures, and joked throughout the ride. It didn’t end with some miraculous story of accomplishment or memorable tale of enduring a bad storm or mechanical issue. Instead, my dad’s birthday ride was important because amongst all the numbers and training and racing, it reminded me how crucial it is to go on rides just to remind myself of the adventure and love that make cycling worth it.

The car parked at the end of the trail was a welcome sight after a long day. We loaded up the bikes feeling accomplished, even though there had been no target heart rate reached or new power threshold set. 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 to live. On the drive back I was able to reflect on some of the opportunities that riding has given me, and about how biking enhances my quality of life by giving me both happiness and a continual push to be better. I feel lucky to be able to ride and race, having a support team that enables me to continue pursuing the balance of biking and living. Dad and I headed home that day sweaty, stinky, salty, and smiling.

up and over- lots of trees to add some technical elements 🙂

great mix of double track, single track, and hike-a-bike