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.

   

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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!  

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

Strava file: https://www.strava.com/activities/1859117489/

 

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.

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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. 

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Chasing Skylar into the woods after her strong start off the line
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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) 😉
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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. 

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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.

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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)

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Relieved to make it to the finish after an exciting day!
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The new Pisgah “55.5k” course