Dust in the wind - 2014 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest

(This is long - very long... Grab a snack and a beverage before diving in....)

All of the same fears and questions dogged my mind in the days before the race. I hadn't really finished a true 24 solo effort yet because of the rain delay last year. Every time I thought about last year, the nerves and worry would rear up, casting doubt on my abilities and my goals. I knew I'd done the work - this race had been the sole focus of my training since 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo. I trusted the plan and knew Nick would keep me moving and keep me safe. But the demons were already lurking. So many times in the past I've reached for a goal, trained and poured my heart and soul into one last chance. And so many times I've come up empty handed. It was a good thing we were far away from everyone else with with awesome Back of the Pack crew. It's nearly impossible to be nervous and stressed out around them. Had we been closer, with all the pre-race staring, it would have been hard for me to focus.
Nick making sure the pit is up to his standards. We would expand along the course as the BPR team showed up
Everyone was hoping for a full 24 hours of racing this year - no thunder, no lightening and no peanut butter mud disrupting the flow of the event. We did not get any of that - save for a few scatter sprinkles Wednesday during set up. The one constant throughout the weekend was the wind. I'd checked the forecast before driving in - and only one day was supposed to be windy. Nick double staked the tents down because of the gusts howling out of the pasture and we oriented the pit along the course to provide some shelter from the wind. Every day the wind blew, swirling the dust into everything. But we all hoped it would die down before Saturday. No such luck. Race morning was as windy as the rest of the week. Just like last year, the weather was coming out to play....

I lined up on the road with the rest of the field, feeling the sun soaking into my skin. Despite the chill from the wind the days before, it was going to be a hot race. Nina was standing on the other side of the road, one of her pit crew holding an umbrella to shield her from the sun. We waved at each other, wishing the other good luck. Then the officials started the final countdown to the start. Time to focus. I knew Nina would take it out fast again and I wanted to be right behind her. A whistle released the mass of riders onto the dirt road, kicking up a dust storm under our tires. Nina's pink and white kit quickly became my carrot and I tucked in right behind her before the first climb. How long would I stay before deciding the pace was a little hot for 24 hours? It's easy to lose the race going to hard in the first lap and I didn't want to fall into that trap. To my surprise, I kept her pink and white in sight until the trail began twisting through the trees around mile seven. Closer then last year...
Staying close for the start
And off we go into the dust....
Time to just ride. I had another soloist on my wheel and he was chatting up a storm. I know better then to let myself get caught, but it was a good conversation. I just should have kept my eyes on the trail a little better. I missed one of the rocky corners and went flying. The bike landed on top of me, shaking me up a bit. First lap and I'm already crashing? Not good, not good at all. Did the standard inventory - brakes, shifting, air in my tires and got back on. I'd landed hard and would have some bruises for sure. But to crash on the first lap was a mental shock. If I was going to last the entire 24 hours, I needed to stay focused and not make anymore stupid mistakes. After a harsh scolding, I was riding smooth again. Eyes on the trail, don't get distracted and be smart.

In every race there are choices. Despite the best laid plans, things change and decisions need to be made on the fly. In the first few laps, the biggest question was to draft from the men around me. It would save energy hiding from the vicious wind, but came with a high penalty - breathing in copious amounts of dust. The trail was beyond dry this year and I was finishing every lap coated in brown powdered sugar dust. After drafting up the hill once and then having to fight off a coughing spell, I opted to ride on my own. It wasn't worth it - the ability to breath later would be better then the energy savings. I also wanted to be able to ride my own pace and not feel compelled to keep up with guys who were riding half the distance as me. It's tempting to try to ride with the four and five person teams for some company. As a duo racer, I've been able to get away with that a few times. But not as solo. I couldn't take the chance, I had to ride my own race. I knew I was in second, didn't know what the gap to Nina was - and wasn't super worried yet. I didn't know who was behind me or how close it was. It was actually nice not having that information. Instead of looking over my shoulder and worrying about third closing in, I just rode. I stayed inside myself and found a steady, consistent pace all Saturday afternoon.

The wind was a huge issue this year. I knew from the second lap on that it was going to be a slower year then last. Even with the huge trees the trail meandered through, the wind was still there. From every direction, the wind roared. Sections of trail that should have been flowing and fun descents were constant pedaling to keep the momentum going - both physically and mentally draining. The long gradual climbs felt like mountains without a summit. The wind was strong enough to blow me off the trail once, causing another bike on the head pileup as I slammed my front tire into a rock. I was also stressed listening to the creaking of the towering trees. I actually saw one tree get blown over near mile 7, landing with a huge crash and sending shards of wood exploding into the air. I was jumpy for the next two laps, waiting for another tree to land on top of me!

Out on course, the decisions were always mine. Do I stand up and pedal through this climb or shift to an easier gear and spin? Which line through the chunky rocks would take the least amount of energy? During the afternoon hours, I didn't notice the rocks, looking forward to the sweeping fun of Berma. Didn't matter which bike I was on - my Fate or my Camber. Berma was just plain fun. I launched most of the berms, but also knew which ones to roll. Use the entire trail, very little braking, but watch the sharp rocks after mile 13. That was a hotbed for flats - I saw a lot of riders fixing flats after that rock garden. I always took my time through it, slowing before I got the the worst part and letting the bike float as best as I could over the sharp rocks. Things changed on each lap as the miles added up and riders braked hard. If the corners weren't sandy soft and blown out, they were brake chattered hard into the entrance. There was no taking the trail for granted. Every lap, something changed. It was up to me to stay alert and pay attention to the trail and not get complacent as the fatigue crept in.

Pit Crew
But once I came into pit, it was all Nick. He ran the place like the Pit Boss he is - directing everything and keeping me focused. We had multiple discussions about pit after last year when I couldn't focus and didn't listen to him. Not this year. From the time I crossed the bridge at the edge of the camp ground to when I headed back out across the pasture, I shut up and listened. The first few stops were always quick. We had a system down. I would park my bike, sit down and let Nick wash my face and eyes carefully. While he was cleaning my face, I would drop the empty camelbak. Then Nick would give me the new camelbak, I'd take some food to eat on the road and head back onto course. Quick and to the point. If I thought I would need something, I'd tell him before I left so he'd have it ready the next time I came around. If Nick made a change to the plan, I didn't argue with him. I knew he had a reason for everything and I really didn't need to know why at that moment.

After the first two laps on my Fate, I started switching bikes every lap. The two laps in the dust was enough. I'd been climbing up Y2K trail, listening to my chain grinding with each pedal stroke. It wasn't worth it to try to get a third lap from my hardtail when I had a clean bike waiting in the stand. I finished that lap and told Nick I wanted the Camber. So began the flip flop - every lap, my other bike would be waiting for me, clean from the dust and ready to ride. I had the perfect combination of bikes - the fast but kinda rough hardtail running 2x10 and the fun, plush full suspension with the 1x11. I had to change up pedaling style and riding style every lap, keeping me from getting stuck in one position and grinding away in the same gear the entire race.

One major change in the plan was when I took my longer break. Originally, I'd planned two clothing changes - once just before darkness and the second as the sun came up. But I was moving slower then planned and wasn't going to hit the goal number of laps. So instead of changing clothes at the start of my 6th lap, I headed out. Had lights per USAC instructions, but didn't need them. I would come in at the start of seven for a complete clothing change. Park the bike, into the tent. Let Nick get shoes and socks off, strip out of shorts and jersey. Nick had a wet towel ready and scrubbed most of the dirt off my legs, arms and body. Then into warm clothes for night - long wool socks, knee warmers (why he grabbed my white ones, I don't know,) arm warmers and clean shorts and jersey. Clean gloves and vest in my pocket in case it got cold out there or I had to stop mid lap. The only really long stop I had the entire race. I did end up changing shoes the next lap because my right foot was going numb and had a few other glove changes to prevent blisters on my hands.

Because our pit was almost out of the campground, I got to ride past everyone else before stopping. At first, it was a little annoying - all the spectators and team riders expected me to stop like all the other soloists. But as day turned to night and the race really began, our distance became a benefit. I could roll through the finish and start my next lap while getting a good look at every other solo rider. Other pit crews couldn't watch what we were doing and realize how important some of the little things really were. How long my stops were remained a mystery to everyone but Nick and I. There was no stopping and getting back on my bike, revealing in the off bike movements how tired I was getting. Psychological warfare if you will - I knew exactly where Nina was pitted. I made sure I looked steady and strong when I rode past, meeting the eyes of anyone who looked at me. At first, they would cheer and clap when I rolled by, but gradually things changed. The cheers faded and the clapping vanished as they toiled with her bikes and food. And then - instead of cheers, all I got were stares tracking me riding away. The first clue.

Ahh, sunset. Finally! The temperatures started cooling and it was lights on for everyone. I was rolling with the Exposure Lights as always - rotating between a Six Pack and a Reflex on my bars and a Diablo on my helmet. Nick had them set for two hour mode, so I could turn on and forget. I had two hours of high - bright and awesome lights slicing through the darkness of the Enchanted Forest every lap. Nick had the next bar light ready to go on my clean bike and the helmet bracket for the diablos made swapping lights easy. Pull off the old one and click down the new one. No cords or batteries to fuss with meant for faster pits. 

Despite the night, the Forest was alive. Sounds filled the trees, sounds that had been hidden by the howling wind during the day. Eyes peeped out from the brush, staring, wondering what the heck these crazy humans were up to. Shadows shifted every lap, casting an eerie, haunted air among the towering trees. A few days following the full moon, there were a few laps were the only light came from me and the other riders out on course. I had one shadow - a bird, a bear, I don't know what - flash in front of me on the trail. A squeak and instinctive duck, despite not knowing what I was seeing. I've never had that reaction to animals around me during a race before. Moonrise helped temper the depth of the shadows, but a tired mind sees what it wants to see.

The temperature started dropping as the darkness got deeper. The first few night laps, I was comfortable in my knee warmers, arm warmers and booties. It was a little chilly in the last five miles and the first three miles, as well as the stretch through the pits. It was a nice change from the heat of the day - and there was no wind. Finally, the wind had died down! I still carried my wind vest, knowing that if something happened - if I had a flat or needed to walk for whatever reason, I would want that extra layer. But the temperature kept dropping and I was starting to shiver coming off of Berma Trail. I would be freezing as I left pit, start warming up climbing up to mile 8, stay comfortable until about mile 15, then get colder and colder. Time to break out the vest for a few laps. I also put on a pair of overgloves - my mid weight gloves were starting to bother my hands, but it wasn't cold enough for winter gloves - or so I thought. There were a few times I was regretting that choice as my hands were numb until I started climbing. The weirder part is that my hands never get cold - it's always my feet! It got colder and colder and I finally had to swap the vest for a wind jacket. Even that wasn't enough in some places, but the cold was doing a great job of keeping me awake through the night. 

It was also keeping other riders off the trail. Nighttime in the Enchanted Forest was a solitary affair. It was hard to see other lights as the trail meandered thru the trees. The only clue I was catching soe one was the ever thickening cloud of dust in the air. I'd be riding along focused in my own world and fine particles would appear in my lights. Sometimes the catch would be quick, others it would take a while. There was one lap in the middle of the night that I saw only two other riders! Truly alone for 20 miles of pedaling. Except for the volunteers. They were awake and cheering all night. At the Junior cut off, the volunteers were bundled into sleeping bags to ward off the cold, sticking out a cowbell to ring for each rider who passed. Bacon station was cooking all night, taking turns warming up in the RVs. And the snickers station at the Hillso Trailhead also kept jamming thru the night, with music and enthusiastic cheers. (There was someone there on Saturday who knew who I was and cheered for me by name - but I'm still not sure who it was!)

The Catch
Nick was keeping me informed as to where Nina was. The gap never got that big this year - at most 18 minutes at the line, before we both went into pit. Because Nick saw her after she had pitted, the time difference he gave me was closer. There were a few laps were it was pretty consistent - we were both riding strong and staying steady. Nick had told me prior to the race to not chase her. Go out hard, get settled as the singletrack started, but ride my own pace for the first few laps. That's what I did,   knowing that the race doesn't start until midnight. We'd marked on the plan when we though the gaps would start shrinking - but that had been based on faster lap times then I was turning. I was getting discouraged that I wasn't starting to narrow the gap as nighttime approached. And then I took my longer break - about 10 minutes to change clothes - allowing the gap to get a little longer. Riding thru the solitary darkness, I was starting to resign myself to a second place finish again. Nina was just too strong, holding the distance, dangling out in front of me.

Those were the thoughts that were echoing in my mind when I rolled into pit on my eight lap. That I was running out of time and wouldn't be able to real her in. I had the mental boost from the change in how her pit was responding to me, but that didn't last long once out on trail. And then - the word from Nick that I had been longing for. I'd just reeled back four minutes on Nina. Four minutes doesn't sound like much, but the narrow gap, it was huge. And a much needed boost in energy. Nick warned me not to chase, to ride my bike and ride smart and sent me back into the wilderness. I wouldn't catch her this lap and if I did, it was too early to try to take the lead. When she passed our pit, Nick said she looked tired, but it could have been as much an act as me riding perkily past her pit. Lap Nine - another four minutes. I was starting to get hopeful each time I started seeing dust on the trail - would that be Nina? 

Lap Ten - I rolled through the finish line and started up the trail in camp. And to my surprise, Nina was standing in her pit, talking with her crew, waiting for them to pull her bike off the stand. None of them saw me ride by. I kept going, pulling into pit and parking my bike. Nick said as I sat down to eat something "Nina hasn't been through yet." I told him what I'd seen and we both got busy getting me ready for the next lap - while keeping one eye on the trail. A few minutes before I left, Nina headed out to the course. Game on. I wanted to ride my own pace, make the catch and follow - hopefully making my move before the downhill on Berma. That was the plan. I caught Nina before mile 3 and followed her until the rock garden. We were both getting tired and she bobbled the entrance. I took the opportunity to run around and take the lead - but didn't attack. If she had more in her legs, I needed to know that. She was back on my wheel about mile five, chatted for a moment and quickly passed. Like a scalded cat, she bolted up the trail away from me. I didn't follow - just rode my pace. I didn't know if the attack was for show or if she really still had that extra gear. I was hoping for the former, but worried about the later. I couldn't risk chasing and blowing myself up. But I knew she was out there, just in front of me, even as the glow of her lights vanished into the trees.

Just before mile 11, on the screaming down hill before the sharp turn onto the rock slab. I saw pink and white in front of me. It was Nina. I caught her at the top of the steep hill and we talked for a bit. The dust from Saturday was taking its toll on her and she said she was struggling with her vision. And then I was around her - in the lead again. Would it hold this time? I had no choice - I had to attack this time. With Berma coming up quickly, it was perfect timing. I took some chances flying down Berma - scared to look over my shoulder for fear of another resurgence. On the singletrack climb paralleling the road, I pushed as hard as I dared. I had gap - I had to make it stick. Nina is a strong, tough competitor and I was now the hunted.

Into pit starting lap 11. The adrenalin of the catch wearing off - now I needed to hold it. I wanted three more laps - finish out with a solid 13 laps. I had plenty of time before the 24 hour deadline at that point. But everything was starting to hurt. My legs were rightfully tired and the spunk for standing and climbing was long gone. I was in sit and spin and try to keep the momentum going mode. The insides of my thighs were aching from crouching over my saddle in all the rock gardens and through the descents. With nearly 200 miles under my tires, things were adding up. It was getting harder and harder to muscle the bike through the increasingly rocky and choppy course.

Mile by mile - sound advice as I took to the trails again. It was getting daunting to think of the distance I still wanted to ride - another 60 miles - despite the distance I'd already covered. Each mile marker out on course became my target. Through the field for mile one. Mile two - on the road. Mile three, first chunk of singletrack with the big rock garden afterwards. Mile four perched on the first steep climb. Mile five - be aware of the rocks coming up. Mile six meant even more gradual climbing. A series of rock gardens followed mile seven and sweeping berms and winding trail follows mile eight. More gradual climbing brought me to mile nine and some twisting trail to mile ten. Then came the painful, chunky sharp rocks before 11. Mile twelve had the three steep kickers and mile 13 started Berma. Never really saw mile 14, but 15 meant the fun was over. Sixteen and 17 blurred together on the climb back to camp, while 18 indicated I was almost to the road. Mile 19 - finally - just before the turn into the venue and the finish. Then for me, the climb back around into pit.

Things I had looked forward Saturday afternoon brought tears to my eyes Sunday morning. I was riding so slowly, a speed bump for the four man teams. Spinning up the hills, but all the while trying to eek speed from my legs to give me a cushion for a 13th. The short, flowing downhills proved a respite from the climbing, but my arms were hurting so bad I was having difficulty steering. Every muscle in my arms screamed when I hit the choppy rocks. I couldn't handle pedaling through the rocks, instead resorting to just bouncing over them. Shifting was also starting to hurt as my wrists became increasingly stiff. I finished that 11th lap, the clock balefully informing me that it would close for two more. A short pit, just long enough to ask Nick to check results. I didn't know where I was in relation to second - if Nina's eye problems had in fact forced her to drop or if she was lurking right behind me. Out for lap 12, still mentally wanting that 13th lap. But each little hill, each rock stood like a wall in front of my bike. I panicked when a solo woman caught me - seeing my dream slipping from my fingers. But I didn't notice the lack of a derailleur until she pointed it out. Solo Singlespeed - and two laps behind me. As I ticked the miles off, the realization that I might not have time to ride a 13th lap hit me. I was riding that slowly. All I needed was to ride 2:00 lap and it wasn't going to happen.

A mental battle - I wanted that 13th lap - wanted the definitive win that 13 would give me. But at the same time, the voice of reason was starting to whisper in my ear. It didn't matter how much I mentally pushed myself. Physically, I couldn't handle another lap. My wrists and arms were hurting that badly. It was all I could do to keep the bike upright coming down Berma. I wouldn't be able to ride another 20 miles. Nick was at the finish line when I came through to finish my 12th lap. I almost didn't see him - but his orange helmet caught my eye. I had 2:05 to ride another lap and have it count, and I knew I wouldn't be able to do it. But I said nothing to Nick. He told me to ride back to pit on the course and wait for him

I did exactly what Nick said. Plodded up the hill and picked my way around the bridge towards our camp. Parked my bike, put on the fresh camelbak draped on my Camber and sat down to wait. Every minute I sat meant one less minute I had to attempt a thirteenth lap. But it didn't matter. When Nick came flying down the hill, I looked up at him and said "I can't ride another. I'm not gonna finish it in time." He just grinned at me. I didn't have to ride another - second place had left for her 12th lap about 40 minutes ago. I sat in the chair, knowing what he was saying, what that meant, but without really understanding. It was over - I didn't have to face another lap. I was finished riding and I would be taking the top step this year. It had taken 21:55:53 with 229 straight miles of pedaling but I was the new National Champion. 

What Nick was waiting for while I sat in pit...

Women's Solo Podium. Me - first, Laureen Coffelt - Second and Nina Baum - Third


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