I Never Met a Rock I Didn't Like

At nearly six hours and 55 miles into a 64 mile mountain bike race, everyone is tired. Everyone is hurting and looking for the finish line. Sometimes, the question becomes who is willing to hurt even more? To dig just that little bit deeper, push that little bit harder? I've never found myself in that position before, usually being so far off the back of the Pro field that the leaders are closer to the finish line then to me. This year was a little different at the 10th Original Growler. I found myself asking - who wants it more?
The Growler delivered this year! Even if he needed to stop and have some iced tea near the end of the race.
Photo: Matt Burt, http://www.mattb.net/
There was still a very strong women's field assembled, but without the hefty prize purse of years prior, the biggest names were opting to sit out the race. It's a busy summer and riders have to chose events that suit their needs, whatever they are. Me, I always choose the Growler because it's fun riding, hard race and a good day on the bike - regardless of what else is going on. This year however, even racing the Growler was looking questionable in March when I started having issues with my left eye. Luckily, I have a strong (and understanding) team of professionals working with me now to keep the chafing inside my left eye under control. That and drugs... And brand new sunglasses due to the side effects of those vision saving drugs... There was a lot of inside riding, more then a few weeks of minimal activity and hardly any rock play prior to the Growler. I knew I'd gotten some good workouts in, some fun long rides and was generally ready to ride the course. Ready to race? That was a different story - but I was as ready as I could be.

Okay, so this is from the Half Growler - we didn't have a cloud in the sky the entire day. But it's a great view!
After helping Nick the day before, it was finally my turn to race. Sunday morning was nice and crisp - about 35* at the start, but with nothing but blue skies all around. Because of the chill, I started with knee warmer, arm warmers and my light wind coat. No sense in shivering. The neutral roll-out was one of the oddest starts I've been in. The group was mellow and everyone was riding nice, hiding the nerves about what was coming well. But the escort vehicle couldn't keep a consistent speed. We'd accelerate and the pack would stretch out and then the cop would slow down and the sounds of 600 break rotors filled the air. Even after we got onto Gold Basin Road, the same thing. Speed up, loosen things up, slow down and regroup. It was nerve wracking, not knowing what was coming next. I found a decent spot, close to the outer edge of the group so I could bail if needed and waited for the turn onto dirt and Kill Hill. The start and Kill Hill have always been a weakness for me. It seems that no matter what I do, I can't maintain the effort up that darn hill and get swamped. This year was no different. I slid way down the field, from a solid second all the way down into 6th. Wow. There was no recovery on the Main Street climb either. I had to keep the pace high and try to move up a little so I didn't get caught in the bottle neck caused by the first rock on Josho's.

I somehow had it in my head that the first rock on Josho's would set the tone for my race. If I could make it over cleanly and keep moving, I felt like I'd be able to handle everything Hartmans had waiting. That's a lot of pressure for one rock and one big move to get over it! There were four people on the rock, pulling their bikes over when I got to it, including two of the women ahead of me. I gathered myself, assessed the line and called out "riding." A small path was cleared and I was able to make it up and over and back onto singletrack. The first obstacle conquered. But now I had a line of guys behind me who wanted to climb a little faster then I did! Letting them around was easy, but tucked into the train were the two women I'd caught. I wanted to try to stay on wheels and use my technical riding to my advantage, but that wasn't happing. Less then 30 minutes into the race and I was already starting to mentally give up. I couldn't climb like them, I wasn't strong enough, I'd lost too much with all the crap going on in March and April... And so the negative thoughts swirled around in my mind all the way up the climb of Josho's. When I couldn't really see the women on the descent off Josho's I allowed those thoughts to creep in even strong. I wasn't ready to race, but I could still ride and have fun. It would be a long day, but I would be able to play on the rocks and test my skills. Even Nick knew something was wrong when I passed him the first time. We'd planned on me either taking a bottle or my Rev pack - pending if I'd taken my jacket off. Well, I'd taken my wind coat off on the road before Sea of Sage, but hadn't taken more then a few sips from the bottle on my bike. Something about 35* temps at the start. So I didn't take anything from him - not even food which is rare for me.

And play on the rocks I did. I made the rock outcropping on Skyline - the one I've struggled with for the last four years. No issues and was able to pass a few guys both on the move up the rock and the drop off the other side. I wasn't anticipated the quick turn off Skyline onto the new trail - especially with the sun in my eyes it was a little sudden. A lot more enjoyable then the old route! More rocks which I was happy to jump off of and singletrack in the sage. The first half of the course going this direction is definitely more fitness oriented, which didn't help the negativity I was feeling. There were plenty of guys around me and it was a really good group, but I didn't know where any of the other women were. I was in sixth place and pretty much assumed I would be staying there.

Then we turned onto Outback. I was still in goof off mode mentally and more focused on cleaning all the rock gardens and hucking off any rock I could at that point. So far, I was successful on both those tasks and I was having a blast. I'm not sure what caused the switch to nudge out of play mode, but I realized I was in a race still. A long race where anything could happen. While I could play on the rocks and have fun, I needed to get focused and ride my bike. The descent into Skull Pass was the real awakening. I didn't see any other women coming back up the road - that mean I wasn't as far behind as I though I was. And I was able to remember my line through Skull Pass and ride it smoothly. Smooth enough that one of the guys who caught me on the road climb told me that the next time I'm talking to myself about line choices, he's going to listen and follow! I was more into the race as we climbed back up to the aid station and starting to push the climbs a little more. I was still more focused on riding everything - all the little rock outcropping and obstacles, as well as getting my flow back on the descents. But I was paying attention to the climbs and actually riding hard. Hard enough to start dropping some of the guys around me. And when we got into the tech stuff on Dirty Sock, Dave Moes and Josies, I didn't have that many people around me.
Still having fun at this point, with a smile!
Photo, Matt Burt, http://www.mattb.net/
Just like the day before, we'd decided that parking the van at the bottom of Luge would be a good place to base operations out of. Close to several points on the trail and easy access both on foot and bike for everywhere Nick was planning on being. Nick was waiting for me with my pack at the junction of Josies and Gateway. We made a quick pit stop - getting my pack and some more food. And then I was off again, energized by the news that the next three girls weren't that far ahead. There was a chance... I just needed to actually race my bike when appropriate and ride when smart. I made the major rocks on Gateway - the first time for me in the race. We'd sessioned it a little on the pre-ride Friday and I'd gotten it then as well. Increased confidence for race day - as long as I rode it and didn't try racing through it. Onto the Graceland trails, a new addition for this year. We'd ridden them on Friday as well and I was happy we did. I knew the long climb and the even longer descent. Out of Graceland and back on the road. Nick was waiting at the aid station - opted to grab the bottle he had for a chug and pitch. I had enough in my pack to get me through to the next point.

There were four miles left on the lap and those miles suited me just fine. On the climb up to Top of the World, one of the guys around me cracked a joke about how he didn't see the point of passing me so close to the top of the hill - I'd just catch him back within seconds. That made me happy. An affirmation that I was riding the technical parts of the course really well. And the most technical climb of the race was waiting for me - Ridge Trail. First came the climb and descent off Top of the World though - more fun for me! As we hit Ridge, I saw the first women I'd seen since the start of the race. Finally! Time to ride and keep it smooth. I had to get through one thing first - up over a rock, with a drop of about 5 feet on the right side and then a vertical slab on the left. The up and over is the easy part - just focus on the line and ride the skinny. Its the 130* right turn coming off the rock that is the hard part! You know any time there's spectators at a rock obstacle that it's going to be a challenge and they are expecting carnage. It's just nature. And I was able to ride it cleanly for the first time. Another victory.

I made the pass and kept riding. Missed one thing near the end of the climb, but was satisfied. I would have another lap to try to make the two things I'd missed on the first. As I came through the start/finish, I saw one women ahead of me and another stopped in pit. We were separated by less then a minute. After one lap, the race was on and I was back in my head, away from the negative thoughts. On the climb up the Notch, all three of us were within seconds. I opted to save some energy and hike the entire Notch. I could see them on Becks, pulling away on the fitness parts. Nick was waiting for me at the top of Becks as planned. A quick bike wipe and chain lube while I slammed some fluids and ate something. A bag of Skratch drops in my pocket and I was off again. I was nervous about Rattlesnake, knowing I hadn't pre-ridden it and didn't really remember the lines. I knew there were two places I'd be walking, and there were a few spots where the bigger lines were actually easier. Too bad I didn't remember that on one of those bigger lines, there needed to be a little wheelie before riding the second rock... Whoops. A reminder of my mortality and the need to pay attention and ride my bike - not just try to race.

On Rattlesnake, just before the one rock that didn't like me...
Photo, Dave Kozlowski, http://www.davekozlowski.com/
I was a hunter again, stalking my prey. I could see Brynn dangling out in front of me, just minutes away. I was still riding everything, pulling the seconds back with each rock I was able to ride. Through Skull Pass again - not as smooth but still clean. A quick shout out to the Bacon Station/Skull Pass volunteers - you were all awesome! I gave you my empty bottle as I started down and asked for water. When I came back up, my bottle was ready, waiting for me. Thanks!

Still chasing - but getting closer. I dug deep on the climb up Dave Mo's and Dirty Sock. Finally, as we started up Josies, I was on her wheel. I made the pass just before the rock gardens near the end of Josies. Nick was waiting for me at Gateway again. I pitched the bottle and quickly donned my Rev. I only had seconds to get moving and get through the next rocks so she couldn't follow my lines. Nick stayed long enough to give her the can of coke he had and half the snickers bar I'd ignored. Now I was between prey and predator. Brynn was still close behind, but I could see the woman in third ahead of me. And the gap was coming down...

How hard are you willing to dig?
Photo, Dave Kozlowski, http://www.davekozlowski.com/
And when the question - at mile 55 and nearly six hours in - becomes how hard can you dig for one more hour, the answer had better be hard. Because if you don't, someone else will. If you are going to make the pass, make the pass and make it stick... Just before the climb up Graceland I made the catch and then the pass. Into third. Now to make it stick. Everyone is hurting. Everyone is tired. Just block it out and ride. I had one thought in my mind as I climbed up Graceland. Make it to Top of the World ahead of them. Every guy I caught and passed was one more obstacle the other women had to get around. I dropped off Graceland as quickly as I could, taking as many chances as I dared. Just make it to Top of the World... Nick was waiting for me at the aid station. I could tell that he was expecting me to have made the catch, but excited that I had and that I had a gap. I needed nothing. I had 30 minutes of pedaling - if that. One more brutal road climb left, then Top of the World, Ridge and the final climb of Tailpipe.

On Ridge Trail, digging deep to keep the gap.
Photo: Matt Burt, http://www.mattb.net/
I had the gap, but it wasn't huge. I could see both of them behind me on the road climb up from Alonzos towards Top of the World. That was my goal - the singletrack of Top of the World. Like the rock at the beginning of the race, I knew that entering Top of the World with a gap would be the end of the chase. I could ride everything between there and the finish. But I had to be smart. It wasn't the time to get cocky. I had to ride hard and smooth. One mistake would cost me every second I'd gained. Off the road and onto single track. I stayed focused on the climb, not letting myself look around until I reached to summit of Top of the World. They were both still back there, but the gap had stretched. Time to ride like Nick taught me. Everyone is tired, everyone is hurting. But the difference is the ability to ride the technical when tired... I made the rock on Ridge again, and then cleaned what I'd bobbled on the first lap. Ride smart, ride smooth. Smooth is fast and fast is smooth. As I crested the climb up Ridge, I allowed myself to relax a little. No sight of them now, with only a few minutes left to ride. The fatigue of the last 40 minutes and the effort on the climb was settling in my legs, but I couldn't pay attention. One more climb left, the little one up tailpipe. I snuck another look around as I crossed the road. Freedom. No one in sight. I would be able to enjoy the descent of Collarbone...

Women's Podium, with the Growler standing in for Ksenia
It was a very close race this year with the top five women separated by less then 15 minutes. Jenny Wolfrom took first in 6:44:42, Ksenia Lipikhina was second in 6:47:44. I took third in 6:52:03, with Meghan Newlin hot on my wheel in 6:53:57. Brynn O'Connell rounded out the top five in 6:55:39.

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