A little over a week before the Cornhusker State Games Gravel Grinder I began to seriously entertain doing it. I had a decent amount of 50+ mile rides and one 61 mile ride. Looking toward Gravel Worlds in August, I thought this might be a chance to see how well I could manage a long gravel ride. Discussions with Skip (husband and frequent riding partner) evolved into a plan for him to ride it with me so that when Gravel Worlds rolls around, he could race it and not be worried about me. Skip has raced long gravel races for over 10 years. This would give me the opportunity to tryout a long gravel race with a seasoned gravel rider as my domestique. This race was 112 miles which would be over 50 miles more than I had ever ridden. I tried Cyclocross for the first time at age 45, why not a long gravel race at 46?!?!
Heat is my biggest enemy. Being a ginger with a low sweating ability makes it difficult for my body to deal with the blazing sun and humid heat. In preparation, I updated my helmet to an all white and light grey one, got a sleeveless white mesh jersey, white gloves, and Pearl Izumi In-R-Cool shorts that are mostly white with a panel of black that is not supposed to absorb heat. I wanted all that heat to just bounce right off me! Side benefit: the white, with pink and black accents on everything matches my bike extremely well!
Arriving at the race on Sunday morning, I felt pretty confident but was nervous. I had my ,“cool kit”, insulated bottles, plenty of bars, endurolytes and my own personal soigneur. I felt good about my chances. Funny, I was pretty cold at the 6am start but didn't want to carry my jacket later and knew the heat would come! The race started and it seemed like to me people were rolling out really fast. I was still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this was actually happening and I was doing it.
The first checkpoint at Wagon Train came quickly at 23 miles in. Hey, this gravel racing thing is very doable.
The second checkpoint at the Last Chance Bar in Burr at mile 48 still had me in good spirits. It had warmed up but wasn’t really hot yet. I felt really strong and still like this is not that big of a deal. Just pay attention to the cue sheets, reload bottles at checkpoints, and keep eating.
And then things changed.
The minimum maintenance roads and the topography were an evil I had not yet really met. I was expecting to meet the evil Heat at some point, but this new foe was trying to break my spirit before Heat even got the chance. Skip tried to use these opportunities to talk me through the best ways to use momentum in climbing and other climbing strategies. I can now, a few days post race, appreciate it as all very valuable information and I did make use of it later in the day. At the time I was getting so tired of the up and down, going through the whole range of my gears repeatedly and those stupid dirt roads, I was angry at how hard this course was. Skip’s encouragement or advice was often met with comments from me like “Shut up”, “Don’t talk to me” or “Shut the fuck up”. Honestly, I didn’t think he could hear me since I was several yards behind him and the wind and gravel was loud, plus Skip’s hearing is not great. Not the case. When I admitted to him the day after the race, what I had been saying, he said, “Oh, I know. I heard all of that.” Oops. He had been a very patient man, who is not always know for his patience. In hindsight, I find it hysterical that I did that. That’s not how I normally operate. That just shows how much the race was getting under my skin.
So, from that point on, I was a tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde depending on the type of road and the climbing required. My patient guide just keep offering words of encouragement and advice despite the verbal abuse he was subjected to. Until I actually used the advice given, I sometimes had to walk my bike up a hill since I had tried to mash it out instead of spinning. As the evil Heat made its appearance I had settled into my suffering and still needed to sometimes walk up the final part of a climb because I know my heat limits. Despite me following along with the cue sheets sometimes the target of my cussing pretended the suffering would be over sooner than it really would be. As the mileage got higher and higher though, I appreciated what I was achieving. I hated a lot of it but never really entertained the idea of quitting. I knew physically I could finish I just needed to give myself the breaks my body needed to do it. Skip said afterwards that he knew I could do it but wondered if I would let myself finish it.
There was a mobile water station at mile 68ish. I can’t really even remember where that fell in the midst of my angst. I remember the cold water though. The checkpoint at mile 80 had ice cold orange slices that tasted like gold. After that checkpoint I wanted to feel like I was in the home stretch but there was still a lot of race left and the cross wind was going to continue for a while.
I hated the race and whined and complained every time I could see huge rolling hills in the horizon and knew we wouldn’t be turning anytime soon or another Minimum Maintenance sign. Patient, kind words continued. On the downhills when I stopped hating I sometimes got teary realizing I was actually doing this and often thought of the phrase "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" from Animal House.
Finally, we got to Princeton and turned onto the familiar Homestead Trail with a tailwind. I felt reinvigorated and dropped Skip in my full Bike Path Hero mode. I liked the race again. Now, I felt like I was in the home stretch. Skip knew otherwise as he knew what was waiting for us once we refilled bottles in Roca. In our race postmortem, Skip pointed out that I should have been using that section to recover. Noted. Bennet Rd completely kicked my ass, I hated the race more than ever but I knew I could finish. There were lots of shade breaks and probably a lot of complaining. I dumped a lot of water on myself. Still lots of words of encouragement, advise and patience from my sweet husband.
In my own defense, I did repeatedly thank Skip for doing the race with me and for being patient with me (and apparently my mouth).
Finally, we turned into the neighborhood to weave through signaling the end of the race. Wow, I had done it! We rolled up to the finish a little over 11 hours after starting. The after party was over. The few volunteers that remained cheered our arrival, marked our arrival times on their clipboards and handed us participation medals. I sat down in the shade and said to Skip, “Shouldn’t I have gotten a different metal?" There were only 3 women in my category, so a finish pretty much guaranteed a medal. As Skip went to get the car, I walked over and inquired about how I placed in my category. I saw the volunteer write “SILVER” next to my name and got a different metal. An apology was given for not remembering that. I didn’t care, I just wanted my medal! I earned it! And we were off to change and to watch my son’s CSG soccer match.
The accomplishment didn’t really sink in until Monday morning as I was riding into work and seeing other people on the trail. I had a huge smile on my face thinking, “you guys have no idea what I accomplished yesterday.” Put my medal on my desk and basked in its glory all day. I went for a slow ride Monday evening with Skip to work and was amazed that really where I felt the race was the heels of my hands and my forearms.
Here’s my true race recap:
Strava reported 9hrs 19mins moving time compared to 11hrs 07min of total elapsed time so I stopped a lot. That 9:19 also includes several walks up the end of climbs. Average speed of 12.1mph which would have also been lowered by the walking. I'm very happy with my effort going 50 miles longer than I ever had!
My final thoughts:
- I can finish Gravel Worlds and will try not to cuss at those around me. :-)
- I will listen to the advice of people with experience and actually use their advice.
- I am in great cardiovascular and cycling shape. I can expect my body to do really difficult things.
- My husband showed a level of patience and support that was amazing and touching.
- I am a badass.