Jun 19, 2013

Mud, sweat and 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest

For my first 24 Solo attempt, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would it be easier or harder than the frantic, Nascar style duo races Nick and I did together? Would I be able to keep my head on and keep pedaling for the entire 24 hours? How would I do against a stacked women's solo field, all of them with years of racing and plenty of solo experience? I still don't know the answers to the first two questions - but that is due to circumstances beyond the control of the race. I did find out how I would do in that group of experienced racers and while the race was shortened, I handled myself well and finished second. With Nick's help and the occasional pep talks, I rode the entire time we were able to ride. I don't know what would have happened had the race gone the entire 24 hours, but I am not going to dwell on the "coulda-woulda-shouldas." I raced what everyone else raced, under the same conditions as the rest of the field. Warning - the race report is long! Pull up a comfy chair and a cup of coffee...



Waiting at the start - it's gonna be a long, hot day
I pedaled over to the starting line with Nick. He wished me luck and rode further up the road to take some pictures. Finding a good spot in the herd of cyclists - beside Nina Baum and a row ahead of Jari Kirkland, I stood and waited. Only minutes away from my first solo race. Then the gun and we bolted into the hot New Mexico dust. The start speed was incredible, leaving me wondering if this was a cross country race or a 24 hour race! But the time for thinking was over. I needed to get a good position on that first stretch of singletrack or I would be caught in a bottleneck. One of the few technical features of the trail came within the first two miles of single track - a rock slab with a tricky exit. Besides, Nina and Rita Borelli were just ahead of me. A hard acceleration and I was on their wheel, third woman into the single track. How long would I hold that? Thru the rocks, then onto the unrelenting climb up towards mile 7. All single track, a nice and steady climb that meandered through trees and up rocky stream beds. About halfway through the climb, I decided the pace was a little high for me and backed off. I'd done the work to get a good position - now I needed to ride smart for the next 23 hours. I settled into a comfortably hard tempo, spinning up the climbs and riding smooth through the rocky descents. Blasting down Berma, I was grinning from ear to ear. That trail is so much fun, with flowing corners, surprise kickers and generally an awesome reward for all the climbing.

I rolled into pit a mere 20 seconds behind Rita and 18 seconds ahead of Jari. Nick wiped my face off, gave me some food and swapped camelbaks. Then back on the bike and back into the heat. The sun was rising higher in the sky and the temperature climbing towards the 90s. I'd gotten out ahead of Rita, but it was still early. Now was the time to just ride hard, ride smooth and be smart. Nina took the early lead and never looked back, leaving the race for second. Rita, Jari and I were all seconds apart for the first three laps. I always had faster pit stops thanks to Nick, but was riding a little slower on the long climb, allowing them to catch back on. On lap two, both Rita and Jari caught me - Rita passed and I attempted to let Jari around, figuring she would be riding faster than me. No, she decided to stay behind me. I re-passed Rita on the little road section before the singletrack climb and gained about 20 seconds on them. The gap was pulled out to just about a minute by the end of lap 3, but Rita came back on lap four. I'd swapped bikes so Nick could clean my Fate and was having a blast jumping the berms on Berma. Shoulda been paying attention to the race, not on the amount of fun I was having! We rolled across the line together to end that lap. But more importantly, we were starting to open up the gap on Jari - it was out to 6 minutes at that point.
I took a little longer in pit , with a complete face cleaning and a short break to eat. Then back on my Fate and off into the woods. Some clouds had come up with intermittent sprinkles that had damped down the dust, making the trail fast and smooth. A few sections were starting to get muddy, but overall, the rain had really helped. The temperature was nice and cool and it was pleasant riding. Racing had settled from the frantic pace of the first six hours into a sustainable effort. The leading four and five person teams were starting to lap me while I was starting to lap other riders. I caught Rhino from Back of the Pack and gave him some encouragement - he was there to race and was doing awesome. As I floated through the trees towards Bacon Station and Berma trail, I was looking forward to changing clothes. My pre-race plan had me changing kits at the end of the fifth lap - into something clean and a new pair of shoes. It was the shoes I was most looking forward too - I was starting to get some hot spots on my feet. But when I came into pit and told Nick I wanted to change, he said to get another lap at least. Oh well! He was in charge in pit and I listened (most of the time). A quick pee break while he changed out helmets and stashed a Diablo light in my camelbak. I was going to be back before dark, but it was close enough that I needed the light in case of an emergency. Nick also washed my face again and gave me my yellow glasses. I didn't even realize he'd swapped glasses until a few miles into that lap! Starting to get delirious... I rode another steady lap, but with one eye on the gathering clouds and building wind gusts. While the intermittent showers had been perfect, the clouds in the horizon looked ominous. Any more rain then what we'd had would turn the trails into muddy soup.

Made it back before dark. Nick had arm warmers and my vest waiting, but again didn't let me change clothes. My Era was ready with the Exposure Lights Toro and a different helmet with the Diablo mounted. One more lap - then change he promised. Okay. Off I went. It was nice for the first few miles, then the storm hit. I was getting drenched as I climbed up to the high point. Lightening crackled all around, the flashes rivaling the illumination from my lights. It was actually pretty cool - the rain drops glimmering from the Exposure lights with the lightening illuminating the trees and horizon. But it was also pretty scary. Some of those lightening strikes were really close. I made it back before the trails got really sloppy, half anticipating the race would be called because of the thunder storm. Nope - at least not then! So back to camp and time for a complete change into my winter wet gear - wool socks, booties, knee warmers, warm jersey, gore jacket, winter gloves and hat. Clean bike and new Exposure lights. The pit stop took longer than Nick and I wanted - I wasn't doing a good job of shutting off brain and just listening to him.

Because my stop was pretty long, Rita pulled back all the time I'd gained on her. I saw her ahead of me on the road and accelerated to get on her wheel before the single track. Or I should say mud bath. The horizontal rain was turning the trails into deep, sticky mud. The first clue of how bad the mud was came when I saw a junior racer walking back along the trail, carrying her bike. The mud was that deep. But as long as we stayed on the trail, we were able to ride. I passed Rita about 4 miles into the lap and she stuck to my wheel like, well mud. Made a few little accelerations, but never seriously enough to break the connection. Just after the second steep hill, Rita re-passed me. Usually, I was able to descend with her and regain any time I lost on the stretch back into camp. I could see the distinctive flashing of her tail light until the crest of the hill before Bacon Station, but that was it. Somehow, I never saw her again this time. Maybe I was too busy focusing on keeping my bike upright and staying moving. Berma was a disaster. I wasn't riding my bike down that hill, I was slithering through mud, terrified to touch my brakes for fear of not getting going again. I rode off the trail three times, but was always able to keep moving. That was better than many of the other riders. I saw lots of racers on the side of the trail, scrapping the peanut butter like mud from their bikes. I also saw a few riders loading their bikes into cars, bailing on that lap. I was covered in mud, my bike was covered in mud, but I kept going. Until I reached the finish line. One of the USAC officials was standing in the middle of the trail - hands out. "Race has been postponed due to weather and trail conditions."

The entire race had just changed. Instead of being a 24 hour, non-stop test, the weather had thrown a wrench in the plans of all racers. Add into that the uncertainty of how and when we would restart and it wasn't an easy break. It turned out I'd also donated that lap to the trail gods - it wouldn't be counted in the final results because I had finished after the time the race had been called. Argh... Nick spent over two hours, using six gallons of water to get my Fate rideable again and that lap was just a nice, additional training lap. I stripped from wet clothes, got bundled up in the Wally World tent with the heater blasting and tried to rest. Nick would handle everything outside of my control
Nick scrubbing 30 pounds of clay off my bike at 2:00.... 6 gallons of water later and I was ready to ride
photo - Judd Rowher

Speaking of Nick, there is no way I could have done this race without him. He was doing the job of three people and doing it awesome. Seriously - the other top women all had multiple people helping them out, each with a specific task. Nick was doing it all - and we still had some super fast pit stops where I was in and out. The biggest issue in pit was me! I'm so used to having to come in and take care of everything that I had problems turning off my brain. I kept babbling, not listening to Nick. I lost minutes on some of the transitions because I was not thinking straight and not letting Nick think for me. (This despite a message from 2012 Men's Solo Champ, Cameron Chambers to just let Nick do all the thinking.) Nick thumped me on the head with a water bottle once - or so he says - I don't remember that at all. There were a few times he had to shout at me to get me to shut up and just let him do is job - helping me and getting me back out on course.
 
Finally, the decision was made for a re-start at 6:30 on a modified course to eliminate the mud. Four and a half hours left of racing with the race for second still really tight. The restart was as fast as the initial start - the teams were rested and some riders had only done one lap at that point. I once again tried to stay on Nina's wheel, but once again failed. She was gone from the line like a scalded cat and I would never see her again. I got a minute and a half on Rita in the first lap of the restart, then lost focus for a little on the second. I was riding with another solo woman who'd done the race last year. We were talking about the lack of duo and the race in general. I shouldn't have been nice and talked for as long as we did. The race was still on and I forgot about that for a little. Jari came back, catching me just before Bacon Station. Rita was right on her wheel. We descended the road together, then I made Rita take the singletrack climb ahead of me. I wanted to see how she was feeling and how she was climbing. With Jari now ahead of us, a third lap was a given. I didn't want to ride that third lap, my left Achilles was starting to tighten up and creak with every pedal stroke. But I had no choice. If we didn't finish that third lap, Jari would leap frog us both into second. Rita and I came through the line separated by seconds. As I made the turn to our pit, I caught a glimpse of one of her boys. He was all kitted up in a distinctive solid red kit, straddling his bike, ready to ride.

Huh? I thought this was a solo event, not a team time trial. I had a chance if it was me against Rita. I didn't have much of a chance if it was me against Rita's boy pulling her around the course. But I would have to try. I made that one of the fastest pit stops - just swapping camelbak and back onto course. Despite the fatigue, despite the growing pain in my Achilles, I had to keep riding my bike. The thought of her getting help at this stage in the race fueled my pedal strokes, propelling me forward. Entering the single track and I took a quick glance over my shoulder. No red yet. Ride hard - ride smart. Smooth is fast and fast is smooth. Just keep riding. The sustained climb never seemed longer. Each chance I got, I stole a glance behind me. Every wheel spinning behind me made my heart plummet - thinking it was them. But no, just other riders, also trying to finish that final lap. I was riding from mile to mile, knowing that every mile took me closer to the finish and left them that much less time to catch me. Mile 10 - the top of the climb and no Rita. I took a few chances on the rocky sections after mile 10, including bouncing off a rock, tagging a tree with my handle bars. But I kept the rubber side down and kept moving forward. Up and over the first two steep hills - still no Rita. Then on the last steep hill, just before Bacon Station, I took another glance and saw them. The solid red in front and the red and white of Rita's kit behind. But the catch hadn't been made yet. My calf was creaking, protesting with every pedal stroke, forcing me to change my posture slightly. I would get a brief respite on the long, fast road section. I also got a little bit of help. The final rider on the Light and Motion four man team caught me just at the turn on to the road. He passed me and pointed at his wheel. Okay! I know what that means! We descended like demons falling from heaven - just flying down the road. Then the final section of singletrack and I finally to breath a small sigh of relief. The chances of her catching me now were slim. I just needed to keep pedaling and ignore my Achilles. And I was successful in holding them off. As I made the turn into the finish line, I could see them coming up on the trail paralleling the road. She was finally ahead of him, not taking the draft this close to the finish.

Yeah! Finished! Larry announced me as second place as I rolled across the finish line. Second overall in my first attempt at Solo 24 Hours, against some of the best endurance riders in the nation. All the riders assembler were cheering and clapping - a tunnel of noise among the tall pines. I soft pedaled to the pit, where I was greeted by the cheers of the Back of the Pack Racing crew and Nick. I wasn't the only one who had a great race - Rhino persevered through the mud and the insanity and the restart to claim 5th in the Solo Single Speed class, jumping to the front of the Back of the Pack. His neighbors, the Thorpe Family, had raced in the Enchanted-Land Family race and took the top step, a family friendly shorter race course without night riding. One of the reasons this is such a great race - there's plenty of things for everyone to do over the weekend; wine tasting, movies, kegs, a band, and kids events. Nick got me some food, I took a quick shower (swimsuit + solar shower = semi clean for awards...) and then we settled down to celebrate surviving the night and the race. The beer was flowing - even Nick with his 8 oz Bud Lights and everyone was happy and excited. I was just getting settled into recovery when two women in orange vests showed up. USADA, wanting a sample! I had my chaperone all the way through the awards, with Nick, Judd and Tedd all making fun of me for having such difficulty with providing that sample. Tell you what - there's some performance anxiety when having to pee in a cup under the watchful eyes of USADA... Finally done and the partying could begin in earnest. At least if we'd been able to stay awake for the end of the day fun. Both Nick and I fell asleep to the amusement of the rest of the pit.
Women's Solo Podium - Nina Baum - 1st, me - 2nd and Rita Borelli - 3rd
The Thorpe Family on the podium

Celebrating a fun and successful Father's Day weekend!

2 comments:

  1. Nice job Tracy! I raced both Jari & Rita at 24 Hours of OP this year. They are tough competitors.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Julie. It was an interesting day for sure! Hope you got your Fate built up and are raging on it :)

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