To get through the middle of a tough ride, sometimes you need to focus on the finish.
It was 4:15 a.m.—an hour I really don’t enjoy. And once again, I was staring at the clock with a bucketful of butterflies swarming in my belly. The race starts in about 2 hours, I thought, with growing feelings of doom and dread. Time to get up.
Dave was still dead to the world, though he too would be racing 100 miles at the somewhat legendary Shenandoah Mountain 100 today. I was jealous of his current state of oblivion as I padded about the room, firing up the cheap hotel room coffee pot and boiling water for my morning bowl of race day fuel, some too sugary instant oats, raisins, and nut butter, topped with a finish of Greek yogurt. I’m extra miserable this morning because I’d actually really like to win today. And I know what that means—keeping focused and racing smart for 8 to 9 hours. It’s a long day ahead, with many unknowns.
For one, I’d never been to Shenandoah. So though I’d ridden about 5 miles of the start the day before, the other 95 miles were a complete unknown. I’d heard it was a great course—the best of the series many said. I knew there were big climbs and equally big descents. But what any of that looked like, I had no idea. I’d also been thrown a curve ball earlier in the week in the form of a stomach virus that had flattened me Thursday and lingered into Friday. I took extra good care of myself and felt fully recovered by Saturday, but it hadn’t bolstered my confidence.
As I sat spooning down my peachy oats, I ruminated on a few conversations I’d had with friend and accomplished 100 mile racer Vicki Barclay. “The course suits you. Lots of big climbs and the most amazing descents that will just keep you going. Make sure you have plenty of fluids at Aid Station 2, feed yourself well up to Aid Station 5—the climb is not over there—and use your stamina. You’ve got this!”
You’ve got this. In my heart I believed I could do it. At that moment, however, I was still struggling to find my mojo. Why? Why am I doing this? My mind searched for answers as Dave, now up, began kitting up and packing the car. Because you’ll be rewarded, I thought with sudden, brightening clarity. I visualized the bunch start with so many friendly faces; pictured myself chasing and charging; saw myself climbing strong and sweeping the descents, and the finish, the incomparable feeling of finishing—maybe winning—a race of that size. I felt a little lighter and happier inside. You’ve got this. I kitted up and headed out to the car.
It was still dark as we pulled into the venue at 5:40. Racers were already warming up. I had no lights and no desire to ride around in the dark. So I just did one little charge up the camp road to fire up the engines and called it good. Then I mulled over a race strategy as I stuffed my pockets and checked my tires. Both Vicki and my teammate Cheryl had suggested I stick with the lead women early on, then maybe make a move after Aid Station 4 on the big “Death” climb, which all said and done is 20-some miles long. Sounded reasonable. I could see how I felt and not burn too many matches early on a day that gets harder as it goes along.
That strategy lasted about 12 minutes. After a neutral start down the sketchy camp road, the lead vehicle pulled off and the race was off in earnest up the first dirt road climb. One of the race favorites, Laura Hamm (Moonstompers), charged ahead pretty much immediately. I got on her wheel and started thinking. I’d heard she was fast on the descents. The conditions were dry and sketchy—not my favorite for descending. I was totally new to the place. If I stuck with her wheel I might end up chasing out of my element much of the day. I felt like I could probably climb a bit faster without going into the red. You will be rewarded, I thought, and made an early pass. After a few minutes, I glanced back. No women in my immediate view. I revised my game plan to climb my heart out on the big climbs and let it rip on the descents where I felt comfortable, but be conservative when I didn’t. I’d also push myself to try to catch a group on the roads, where I often find myself alone and lose time.
Two out of three ain’t bad, as they say. I had blissfully good climbing legs, which is essential when you’re staring down nearly 13,000 feet of elevation on the day. Many of the descents were the longest, swoopiest, and most fun I’ve ever set wheels on. So I just let it rip, feeling calm and confident on those. On others, where my bike slipped over layers of pea gravel and chunky loose rocks, I would lose some nerve and dial it down a notch to stay where I felt comfortably in control. On the roads? Though I found some really nice company and a wheel or two to follow for short stretches, for the most part I was where I often find myself, Nomansland. I could see groups ahead, but just couldn’t catch them. This is where you always lose time, I chastised myself, pushing on in the wind.
Fortunately the climbs outnumbered the flats and most of them were thoroughly enjoyable. I remembered Vicki’s words and fed myself well up the longest climb of the day, feeling pretty good when I hit Aid Station 5 at about mile 75. I chugged a small cup of Coke, grabbed a quarter of a PB&J and dug in to finish the climb. Just make it to the last aid station, then one hour to go. You will be rewarded.
Shortly thereafter the day threatened to go a little sideways. I had opted to not tape the course profile on my top tube because, well, for no good reason. I felt like being all Zen about the day or something that sounded smart at the time, but I would regret that decision about 90 miles into the day. So, anyway, in my mind I thought the race was going to be considerably easier once I summitted the “big climb.” I was wrong.
It started with a gnarly, loose, fairly steep and endlessly long descent. As the rocks kicked up and my wheels washed to and fro, I started to unravel. Just get to the bottom. Chin up. Stay loose. Let the bike roll. ACK!!! Brakes! NO BRAKES! For the love of God, make this be over. I was talking to myself out loud like a mad woman, occasionally pulling over to let some faster guys go through, trying to stay on their wheels. Stay calm. Stay with them…. Then I came into a particularly steep drop into a hard right hand turn and I saw a bike lying on the ground by a tree with no rider in sight.
Oh that’s bad. I slowed to a crawl around the bend. The rider was on the other side of the trail, standing up, but clearly shaken. I stopped. “Are you okay?” I asked, looking back at his bike to make a mental note of his race number. “Yeah, yeah. I’m okay,” his mouth said, but I wasn’t convinced. “Are you really okay? Or adrenaline-fueled okay?” I asked again. “Do you need me to tell the aid station you need help?” Now here is where I confess that the racer in me started wigging out a bit. Minutes were ticking off. I knew I had a lead, but I was getting nervous. I had to be 100% sure this man was okay before I left, but I was also realizing it could mean sacrificing my race. You gotta do what you gotta do. I paused a little more, as he kept assuring me, more convincingly now, that he was really okay as he got back on his bike. “I’m going to tell them to check on you at the next aid station,” I called back as we rode on. (I did see the fallen rider back at camp at the end of the day. He was indeed really okay.)
After what felt like another hour, but was probably 10 minutes, I was finally done with the descent and at the final aid station. I grabbed a couple of fresh bottles and a few fig cookies. One more little climb to go…Or so I thought. Why they call that middle climb the “Death Climb,” when they put a godforsaken endless ladder to the sky at about mile 90 is beyond me. Why I didn’t know this race ended with this godforsaken ladder to the sky is beyond me. But well, it was there and I was not mentally prepared for it.
I can’t remember the name of the climb, but I called it many, many names every time I rounded a bend thinking it was the top only to see riders bent over their bars or worse, pushing their bikes, on another steep pitch. You need food. I thought, as I started to get nauseous and vapory in the high mid-afternoon heat and humidity. I don’t want food. I want to be done. I bargained with myself to choke down just a little bite. You will be rewarded. I was. I felt ever so slightly better as I pushed on. I had no idea how close the other women were to me. But I desperately didn’t want to be caught this close to the line.
I can’t even remember when it ended. But eventually it did. I felt the energy of the riders around me pick up. We must be close to the end. I thought. And indeed we were. A few more unremarkable miles ticked off and then I saw it—a tent! We were coming into camp! I could hear a loudspeaker. It’s the finish! The finish is right there.
Elation is an understatement for how I felt as I rolled into the open field where I could hear the people cheering my name. I had done it. I’d chalked up my first NUE win at the Shenandoah 100. It was surreal and wonderful and yes, beyond any shadow of a doubt, very, very rewarding.