TAT CN Header

Monday, July 18, 2016

Over my head

Last weekend Eric planned a trip to preride part of the Karkaghne Trail, the first segment of the OT100 mountain bike race. I'm not doing OT100 because of a schedule conflict and had initially decided I'd head to St. Joe State Park to preride the Leadbelt course. Some rain in the lead-up to the weekend made me think the Leadbelt trail might be too wet, so I opted to join the Karkaghne group.

I'd never ridden that section, but its reputation preceded it and some teammates chimed in with warnings:

"Tough stretch of trail there. Doesn't see much traffic either. Be prepared for a long day. Some very steep climbs. "

 "+1000 on [the previous comment]. You'll see +7500' of vert. Expect overgrowth, especially between the race start and Sutton Bluff. You might consider parking at Sutton Bluff ($2 day use fee which includes paved parking and showers) and doing two out and backs."

I knew it was above my pay grade, but I also figured I won't get better at riding hard trails by avoiding them. I did warn the guys how slow I'd be and told them I was totally cool with them riding ahead so they could see as much of the trail they'd be racing as possible.

The campground steward at Sutton Bluff gave us the rundown on how to get to the trail and gave us an ATV trail map to supplement the OTA map Eric had picked up. Even with all this directional assistance, we still rode in circles for a bit before Randy realized that staircase leading off the trail was the trail we needed.

I was immediately out of my comfort zone, and neither physical nor mental warm-up was aided by having to do a lot of walking uphill right away. I wasn't upset by it because I'd expected to have a hard time, but there was a least a touch of Am I EVER going to get better at this??

After some climbing, I reached the bluff itself, standing high above the Black River. Taking one look at the steep slope to the left of the trail (in addition to being afraid of heights, I also clip out almost exclusively with my left foot -- something I need to work on -- which means if I needed to stop my momentum would be to the slope side). "Hell, no," I mumbled, getting off my bike and cautiously walking my bike past the bluff.  I'm sure it was very scenic, but all I saw was the trail right in front of my feet.

Sutton's Bluff (9:50 a.m.)
The guys were waiting for me a little past the bluff, and we rode together a little before they pulled ahead. I felt like I never pedaled more than 100 feet before having to stop for a rock that made me nervous or a turn I didn't have the confidence to negotiate or a downed tree or a hill I couldn't get any further up. More often it was a combination of these factors. I was moving really slowly and was glad I'd established that they should just ride ahead; that way I didn't feel any pressure because my fears weren't slowing them down.

10:18 a.m. No idea why I took this one
 Except that, when I rolled up to a big tree across the trail, there they were on the other side. "We helped each other get our bikes through and decided it wouldn't be cool if you had to do it on your own," they told me.

That was basically the end of the guys getting very far ahead of me, and they weren't having my apologizing about slowing them down. "We've talked about this before," Eric reminded me. We've had more than one conversation about how I stress out about slowing my friends down and try to remember that people who've ridden with me before already know what to expect; if they choose to ride with me again they're obviously ok with it. But still...

I was definitely glad we were all together when we reached the Bee Fork crossing. The trail ends at the water with no indication of where it picks back up again. A little time with the map and some nearly waist-deep wading gave us the answer.

Crossing Bee Fork (11:02)
Our general plan had been to ride out 15 miles from Sutton's Bluff and then make the return trip before riding some of the trail to the north of the campground. At noonish I looked at my Garmin and saw that we'd gone a whopping 7 miles. Catching up with the guys at a creek crossing I pointed out a potential problem: "You realize at this pace we're looking at a 12 hour ride? And we don't have lights."

We had a couple of bailout options. We could ride forward another couple miles to a gravel road crossing. We could ride backward a couple miles to a gravel road crossing. Or..."we could follow this creek to Bee Fork and then get on this road on the other side of it!"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the get-the-hell-off-this-trail suggestion was mine. While I was open to either of the other ideas, I was most in favor of getting off south Karkaghne. The guys, who I'm sure would have preferred to stay on the singletrack, went along with my brilliant plan.

And it was brilliant, right up until we crossed Bee Fork, found the road just where it was supposed to be...and realized that light purple shading next to the water indicated private property. We spent about a mile walking through the (thankfully shallow) water of Bee Fork until we found a place where we could hop onto the gravel.

I'm pretty sure that's the last time they let me suggest a route, but once we were on gravel things were better. Well, as long as you think a 300 foot climb in full sun is better.  That hurt, but the subsequent mile and a half of downhill was a pretty good consolation. And even with our extended wading session, our route was definitely the fastest way back.

We took an extended lunch break at the campground pavilion before finally, somewhat grudgingly, heading to the northern section of the trail. It was like night and day from the southern part. Instead of the steep climbs followed by descents that were too scary to be fun for me, it was all flowy goodness without any of the downed trees that had punctuated our previous ride.

Since we had to eventually head back towards home we decided to ride an hour out and then turn back. The guys took off, and I followed at a more leisurely pace, still feeling a little fragile from the mental beating of the morning's ride. That quickly evaporated in the flat-out fun of the trail.  There were a few rock gardens that I walked at least part of, but overall it was much more rideable than the previous section.

Wheee! (4:46 pm)
As the 4:00 turnaround time approached, I started evaluating downhills -- There's only 15 minutes left...do I really want to have to ride back up this? I decided to stick it out and ride whatever came until 4 and had a blast on my way back. I rode much more of the rock gardens and felt way more confident than just minutes earlier. I was hoping to beat the guys back, but they caught me a mile or so from the road. I let them ahead of me and then chased.

I was so glad we'd continued riding after the rough morning. It would have been easy to quit and head home, but instead our afternoon ride completely redeemed the day, "Making mountain biking great again", as I titled my strava file for the second ride.

It was a hard, fun day, certainly not my best on a bike but another great reminder of how lucky I am in the friends I've made. Any mountain biking progress I've made can be attributed to having much stronger riders who've been patient and encouraging, and that was definitely on display on our Karkaghne ride. And if nothing else, at least this first attempt gives me a bar by which I can measure (hopefully) progress next time.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Devil's Tower

While we were still in Spearfish we took a couple of day trips. On Sunday, after a leisurely breakfast for Motherlode participants, we headed into Wyoming to Devil's Tower National Monument. We'd been there on our first South Dakota vacation 13 years ago, and while I'd enjoyed it I had no huge desire to go back. That's why we'd planned the visit on Sunday; if I was still too tired from the race I could just stay back at the camper. Instead, my unexpectedly short ride left me with plenty of sightseeing energy.

Devil's Tower

Because we'd gotten a late start there was a decent line at the entrance gate, but we were still able to score a good parking place and picnicked out of the cooler while waiting for Jeff's family to arrive. After a quick spin through the small visitor's center (not much there), we walked up to the trail around the tower.

Jacob loves scrambling on rocks, so he'd been very disappointed to learn that there's a voluntary climbing ban in place during the month of June out of respect for Native American religious beliefs. It was still nice to walk the path around the monument. Most of our group wasn't much for hiking, and my sister-in-law's dogs weren't allowed on any of the trails, so we stuck with just the Tower trail, a paved path that circled the base.

Devil's Tower
Beautiful day
Jeff, my nephew, and I walked around while Jacob opted to run the trail, catching us just before we hit the halfway point and then continuing on with us. Another sister-in-law and nephew started the hike planning to only go a little bit and ended up completing the whole circle. There were other trails as well, but we skipped them because no one else really wanted to hike. 

There's a prairie dog village along the road on the way out, so we stopped there to watch them for a while and then made another stop at a gift shop just outside of the park grounds. I prefer to buy from the park stores so that the money goes to support the parks, but I hadn't found anything in the visitor's center that called to me and ended up buying a hat I liked in the store. 

From there, we went our separate ways for the last time of the trip. Everyone else was already in Custer; we headed back to Spearfish. With a relatively short day, I still had time to take our dirty clothes to a nearby laundromat.  We have a nice little drying rack for all the things that need to hang dry (seems like more and more of them), but it stormed that night, so we had to make some drying space inside the camper.

Still better than smelling my sweaty jerseys for another week!
I'd prepped and frozen taco meat before we left for Sunday's dinner; unfortunately the new cooler and freezer packs we were using hadn't kept the meat cold enough. It was room temperature when I took it out of the cooler; with two friends having just finished a nasty bout of food poisoning and Jacob already dealing with stomach issues I wasn't taking any chances. We threw away the meat, made do with a very unsatisfactory (but non-food poisoning) meal from McDonald's, and spent the rest of the night packing things up for our move the next day.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Spearfish, SD

During our time in Spearfish, we stayed three nights at Spearfish City Campground. While the camper sites weren't spacious, they were level and most had trees around them. The campground bathrooms/showers were probably the nicest I've ever seen camping. Spearfish Creek ran along the campground, which neighbored Spearfish City Park and the historic D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery.

One thing I noticed about the town was that bikes were everywhere. Very cool to see. Most of our meals in Spearfish were out of our cooler, but the Motherlode post-race breakfast was hosted by Crow Peak Brewing. Being 9 a.m., they weren't serving beer, but the atmosphere was great and the reviews online I've seen are good. The breakfast was catered by Killian's Tavern, and if it's any indication of the quality of their food I'd eat there any time!

Most of my time "in Spearfish" was spent riding in the Motherlode, so I didn't see much outside of the race.  Jeff and Jacob visited the fish hatchery a few times and did some sightseeing in Spearfish Canyon as well with my in-laws while I was on the bike. I did get a nice view of this in the last 10-15 miles of the race, and we walked through the fish hatchery on our last day as we headed out of town.

D.C. Booth fish hatchery
The entrance

D.C. Booth fish hatchery
One of the fish ponds
D.C. Booth fish hatchery
Feeding the fish
D.C. Booth fish hatchery
Underwater viewing area
The grounds also included a boat that was used on Yellowstone Lake to harvest fish eggs, a train that carried them, and a museum filled with artifacts from the early days of the hatchery. One exhibit had containers that were used to transport the fish for stocking in remote areas. The buckets and baskets could be carried by horse, mule, and some by people. It was a cool place to visit.  Speaking of stocking trout in streams, here was a funny story we learned on our trip about President Coolidge's time in the Black Hills and his very successful trout fishing hobby.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Now what?

Now that Motherlode is over and I don't have any huge goals on the horizon I'm feeling a little aimless. I've got a few upcoming races: right now I'm registered for another go at BT Epic, I know I'll do the Thunder Rolls 24 hour AR again, and I'm hoping to be at the No Sleep 30 hour and the Berryman Adventure Race in September. Somehow none of those races exerts the same training pull from me as a ridiculously long gravel race.

Every year after my big spring race I tend to slip into my couch and stay there until school starts and the lack of elastic waists in my dress clothes informs me how much weight I've gained. So far I've managed to run a couple times a week and get in several mountain bike rides.

#winning CCLP
Creve Couer Heartbreaker cat 3 podium
I even managed to win my division in a race! Nathan is home from Japan and a family obligation kept me from entering the marathon class, but the two laps and 9:30 start time of cat 3 worked out perfectly with our schedule. I have a hard time with starting aggressively because I don't want to somehow end up in front of people who are faster than I am on singletrack, so for possibly the first time ever I was caught behind slower people and had to pass quite a few times.

Doing such a short race is a very different experience. Usually I'm aiming for measured, sustainable effort so I can finish a 3+ hour race strong; this time I could go "all out" (as all out as I get, anyway...where I'm not limited by fitness I'm still held back by handling skills and confidence) without worrying about blowing up early.

The shorter mountain bike rides are definitely helping with my handling, but I don't want to lose my endurance. After being out of town all weekend for a mud volleyball tournament, I had Monday free and made plans to ride with a couple friends who still have a big bike race to prep for. Unfortunately, Mickey ended up injured and couldn't go, but Eric was still game to ride.

The forecast had correctly called for rain, and when my alarm went off I had repeated thoughts of bailing. I know I won't melt, but the idea of a soggy ride was unexciting at best, and my bed kept calling me. The only thing that got me out the door was knowing how much I'd hate myself if I skipped out and then spent the day doing nothing.

Hawk Point
Misty Missouri morning

My poor cross bike was still covered with South Dakota dust when we rolled out, but that was quickly covered with Missouri gravel spray in the light rain of the first three hours or so.  Early on I felt super sluggish, like I was working way harder than I should be to keep up, so I wasn't sad at all when he had a flat 8 miles in.

Hawk Point

Neither of us had ever ridden this route before, and neither of our Garmins was particularly clear about which way to go when the course split directions (beginning/end of a loop), but it didn't really matter which direction we went. The route was heavy on wildlife; definitely the coolest moment was when a coyote ran across a field next to us and then ahead of us on the road for a time, but we also saw cows, horses, a groundhog (?), birds, rabbits, and the entire farm dog population of the Hawk Point area. None of the chasers seemed unfriendly, but one girl kept us company for a long enough time that I worried about her finding her way home, running alongside us, licking our legs, and darting in front often enough to make me nervous about crashing into her.

Hawk Point
When you've taken a bite just before your riding partner takes a picture...
We had another short break when we were caught in a small-town July 4th parade. Had we been more appropriately dressed for the occasion we'd have joined in; instead we waited for a break in the patriotically decorated tractors and snuck through.

The light rain and cool temps made riding really pleasant, but I definitely didn't drink enough and massive leg cramps hit me about 40 miles in. Arriving home the previous evening, I'd thrown together a few Payday bars and filled my water bladder, but with typical long-ride supplies still strewn among 4 different bags after the trip to South Dakota, I'd neglected to make sure I had ibuprofen and electrolytes. With no solution other than stretching and soft pedaling, I limped along the next 10 miles trying not to whine about how awful I felt.

We planned a convenience store stop so I could pick up some ibuprofen and Eric could grab a drink.  I told him I'd give the ibuprofen an hour or so to work and then bail if my legs were still hurting. While the store clerk couldn't be bothered to get off of his phone while waiting on us, he did still have a delicious-looking piece of pizza left in the case. I slathered in in mustard (don't judge...it's delicious), took my ibuprofen with a bottle of gatorade, and tried to walk off the leg cramps.

It was a more extended stop than we'd originally planned, but it was well worth the time because my legs felt 100% better afterwards. It's a lesson I've learned time and time again on the bike and in adventure races, but it still amazes me to experience the way you can go from feeling awful to great (and then sometimes back again) as long as you don't give up.

The next 40 miles or so were fantastic. The second loop was hillier, with some decent climbs and several sections of fun rollers. I really appreciated Eric's patience when I felt terrible and was very glad I hadn't quit riding when I had the opportunity. Then around mile 90 I was pretty much over it all and started to get a little crabby about being on my bike. That final 18 miles became something of a slog as we were both suffering and ready to be finished.

My legs felt pretty good, but my arms and hands were sore and my left foot was killing me. I've had the same pair of bike shoes since I started riding clipless, and if the holes where you can see through to my socks aren't enough of a sign that it's time to replace them the long-ride foot pain should be.  I entertained myself with thoughts of what I was going to eat and drink once I was off my bike, attempting to compose a song to the tune of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. I'm sure that wasn't annoying at all to someone who was in his own pain cave. ;-)

But at the end of the day, we logged 108 miles, got lots of time in the saddle, and had a good ride. Not bad for a rainy Monday.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The route to Spearfish

I go out of town frequently for races, always traveling with friends because crewing or waiting for me at the finish line isn't my family's idea of a good time. With the trip to South Dakota for the Motherlode being a longer one and having vacationed there 12 years ago and loved it, I thought this race was the idea way to finally combine race life and family life.

That didn't quite work out as I anticipated. Jeff remained steadfast in his refusal to crew for me, but we did schedule our vacation around the race, leaving around 5 AM the Thursday before Motherlode. Several of my in-laws joined on the trip (my mom was supposed to go as well, but her plans changed when the vacation conflicted with the first part of my niece's visit from Alaska), so we drove westward in a caravan of three cars, two pop-up campers, two 12 year olds, two dogs, and 8 adults.

My child, a virtual only child because of the age separation between him and his older brothers, has no memory of the crowded trips he once experienced in a car seat. 
Though traveling as part of a group sometimes results in about four times the stops of a solo journey, our breaks were held to a minimum, combining bathroom breaks with gas refills and eating picnic lunches at rest areas. We drove through Missouri for what seemed like forever...

...first driving across the state to Kansas City and then north along the western border. While Race Kate would have preferred to push ahead further, Mom Kate was OK with stopping in Mitchell, SD (home of the Corn Palace, one of the few tourist traps we didn't hit) around 5:30 so the boys would have a chance to swim.

"Indoor water park!!"
Translation: one big waterslide, a structure that dumps water on you occasionally, and a really cold pool.
After an unimpressive hotel breakfast the next morning we saddled up for the remaining 4.5 hours to Spearfish (for us...everyone else was heading to Custer, where we would meet them after the race.). Our original plan had been to make a stop at the famous Wall Drug Store on the way, but a bathroom break at a gas station next to 1880 Town led to a change in plans when everyone decided to stop there.

One of the buildings

Located on what seems to be basically a blank spot on the map, the "town" is filled with around 30 structures from the 1880-1920 era as well as numerous photos and artifacts. I love history and historic buildings, so I probably would have enjoyed it more had a) it not been about 100 degrees out and b) I hadn't spent the entire time calculating how far behind my preferred schedule this stop was putting us.

I tried to stay relaxed and not be a pain about it since it wasn't just my trip, but my stress level rose with each new building. Finally, Jeff asked if I was having fun, and I gave him the rundown on exactly how long it was still going to take us to get to Spearfish and how late a stop in Wall was going to make us. My stress level subsided a bit after we all decided to postpone Wall until later in the trip.

The rest of the drive was smooth and unremarkable except for my growing intimidation as we entered the Black Hills and I imagined riding there the next day.  We rolled into Spearfish City Campground at around 2:30 (ahead of schedule!), checked in, and set up on our site. The long drive was over, and after months of training and anticipation it was almost time for the long ride.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


I looked out the window with equal parts wonder and trepidation. "The Black Hills are really hilly," I told Jeff. "Really hilly. A lot more hilly than the Flint Hills. Where do they draw the line between a hill and a mountain, anyway?"

I knew the Motherlode had significant climbing. I'd seen the elevation profile and done a lot of training in preparation. Seeing that elevation in person, however, was daunting. I did my best to shove this newly sharpened worry into my mental Pandora's Box, already crowded with things like Jacob's please God don't let my child need an appendectomy in South Dakota stomach pain, our income tax payment plan, a non-functioning home air conditioning, the loss of a key player from our mud volleyball team, the question of whether or not our aging minivan would survive the long trip pulling our camper, and -- oh, yes -- the forecast of record heat and high wind for race weekend.

Saturday, of course, was race day, and the temperature never even dipped to the 70's.

"This is bullshit," I muttered, looking again at my weather app in the hopes that the forecast had miraculously changed in the last 30 seconds. "The average high for South Dakota in June is in the 70's."

Then, looking away from my phone and out the window, I repeated, "Those are really big hills."

My family, fears, and I checked into the Spearfish City Campground around 2:30 the day before the race. Other racers were staying there as well, so it was fun to see all the bikes and meet gravel-famous Greg Gleason in person.  My friend Renee, who I'd conscripted to join me in this adventure, and her friend Margy, who would be crewing for us, stopped by as we finished setting up our campsite.  Jeff and Jacob made a Wal-Mart run for things I'd forgotten to pack while Renee and I went for a ride. We both needed to stretch our legs after a long drive, and I wanted to make sure everything worked smoothly with my Garmin and the South Dakota maps I'd installed.

Mid-ride picture. It was this pretty only about 3 miles outside of town.
After a few issues getting out of town we cruised along the first couple miles of the course, marveling at the scenery. Turning around rather than waiting for the escort car at a road construction site, we rode up a long gravel driveway "just because", and then turned back towards town against an intimidating wind, one we feared was only a preview of coming attractions. The forecast for race day suggested about 100 miles of headwind.

Check-in went smoothly, followed by the pre-race meeting where Kristi and Perry reviewed the course and where we could expect to get water, then explained the requirement to sign in at each checkpoint. Someone from Spearfish-headquartered Quarq explained the Qollectors we had the option to use and then passed them out. I threatened to steal Greg's tracker, thus confusing anyone following the race as to why he appeared to be standing still/why I was allowed to drive the course, but alas he was too quick for me.  After the meeting, Craig Groseth, whose report from last year's Motherlode was one of the few I found in my obsessive search for race info, introduced himself, so the next morning, even though I only knew one other person racing, I still had three familiar faces.

Because we were camping next door to the start line, I slept in until 3:45, waking to multiple good luck messages. I dressed, took care of the last-minute details, and rode the block or so to the start.

Looking way too happy for 4:30 a.m. but SO ready to finally start pedaling and stop worrying.
Photo credit: Randy Erickson
With only 30 registered and 22 starters, it was much more intimate group than the Dirty Kanza scene.  The entire solo women's field consisted of three.

Renee, me, and Micki Harris
Many of the pictures taken before the race show sweaty faces. The promised low in the 60's had never materialized. The temperature at 5 a.m. was already 81*, an ominous hint of the sweltering conditions that awaited us.

2016 Motherlode starters
Photo credit: Randy Erickson
In the days before the Motherlode, I first heard the Goo Goo Dolls' song "So Alive".  It completely spoke to me.  Other than a stretch that afternoon when the phrases "Black Hills" and "Gold Rush" melded into "Black Gold" in my heat-addled brain, triggering a one-woman "Beverly Hillbillies" sing-along, it was lines from "So Alive" that played in my head as a soundtrack to the day.
Open up my heart like a shotgun
Blinded by the light of a new sun
Get up, get up, get out and get done
For the first time I feel like someone
Right at 5, race director Perry Jewett led us on a neutral roll out through town.  The morning wind, which the forecast had assured me would be the gentlest of the day, quickly proved that prediction quite wrong.

It's a sign of how far I've come in my ability to be at peace with conditions that all I did was laugh.  I obsess nonstop in the lead up to an event, but once I'm actually riding I do much better at putting my head down and just accepting what is.

More upsetting, though unsurprising, was the growing gap between me and the majority of the pack. It takes me a while to warm up; I know this, but it's still frustrating.  And yet, with my slow starting, bargain bike, and minimal handling skills, I do feel like someone in the gravel/endurance sports community: it's where I feel most alive, most myself, and maybe even most valued for who I am rather than for what I do.

Renee and I had agreed to ride together, so while she surely could have kept pace with the neutral roll out she instead eased up so we didn't get separated. Finally, about five miles out, I managed to close the gap.  The wind was dumb, but the views were incredible. "We're doing it!" we celebrated. "We're finally here!"

The lead group was long gone, but I'd expected nothing less. In a 200-mile race with this few entrants, you can assume the people who sign up know what they're doing. By this time, I've got the experience to know what I'm doing, too, but my strength is a steady, consistent effort rather than speed.
I'm so alive, I'm so alive, I'm so alive
You can make it on a wish if you want to
You can make it on a wish if you want to
I'm so alive, I'm so alive, I'm so alive
You can make it on a wish if you want to
You can make it on a wish if you want to
Within the first 10 miles I'd hit my stride and started feeling great. Though the elevation profile looks like the first 70 miles are steady climbing, miles 10-14 actually feature some gradual descents, and maybe that's what I needed to remind my body how fun bike riding is.

For the first time since last August I was using cue sheets in addition to my Garmin and savored ticking off each line.

"We're finished with the first cue sheet! That means we're 1/9 of the way finished!"

"Woohoo! Our first cattle guard of the race!"

"Sand Creek Road! I remember this from the video!"

The roads wound between hillsides and streams. Between the lovely shade and the cold water nearby, there were times it felt like we were riding through air conditioning. In the weeks before the race I'd tried to figure out what a 2-4% grade would feel like. The hills in Missouri tend to be relatively steep but short, so I couldn't wrap my brain around 70 miles of steady climbing.  As it turned out, it reminded me of riding on a slightly mushy Katy Trail -- something I had experienced frequently this spring -- only vastly more scenic.

The temperature was comfortable and my legs were perfectly happy.  Occasionally we'd turn into the wind, but between the shelter from the hills and the winding nature of the roads our time in an actual headwind was limited.  I felt incredible.

Renee was having a harder time.  Though a better, stronger rider than I am, she was struggling with her breathing. We both live at elevations less than 1,000 feet above sea level. The lowest point of the Motherlode was around 3700 feet, and Renee felt like she was breathing through a straw. She pushed through it like a champion, and I did my best to encourage her. "Are you eating? Keep drinking. We're doing great, we're on pace to comfortably make that cutoff. Hang in there, you're doing great."

We stopped when we needed to, and I tried to get in front and pull during windy stretches. Otherwise we kept steadily chipping away at the miles, knowing that the mile 69 cutoff was really going to be key to finishing the race. Obviously we had to beat it to continue, but mile 69 also signaled the end of the steady climbing. From there the course transitioned to more of a roller coaster profile and, as importantly, more closely spaced checkpoints.

There was a neutral water stop at mile 32. With a 100 oz hydration bladder in my frame bag as well as three water bottles, I hadn't anticipated needing to stop. Instead, I filled my bladder and 1.5 bottles. Even in the relatively reasonable temperature we were going through water and salt tabs in a big way.

Six miles later we arrived at one of the first Missouri-style hills (as in you could actually tell it was a hill) of the race. Grinding my way to the top in full sun I saw a vehicle parked at the next intersection. Race director Kristi Jewett and photographer Les Heiserman were there taking pictures and offering water.

In high spirits talking with Kristi.
Photo credit: Les Heiserman

My cue sheets informed me "Bail point #2. Stop at L. turn on Reynolds. Cell reception."  Oooohhhh, cell reception!! I was under strict orders to refrain from Facebooking during the race ("you're racing!"), but I felt great and Renee was still having breathing issues. I definitely had time for an update.

"Mile 38! The climbing hasn't been awful but the air is thin. Onwards!"
8:38 a.m.
Renee rode away while my picture was still uploading. "I'll catch up!" I called to her.

"I know you will," she replied.

9:05 a.m.
The Moskee loop offered some rolling terrain and one somewhat misleading cue. Reading "**Caution on Descent" at mile 42.1, I expected a downhill at that point. Instead, we first had to climb. The view at the top was gorgeous, though.


Around here the leaders of the Gold Rush (110-mile) version passed me, flying by like I was standing still (which, moments earlier, I had been).  I exercised an abundance of caution on the descent, which was fast and twisty.  I caught back up with Renee, who hadn't stopped to take pictures, and then gradually the wheels started to fall off.
Breaking down the walls in my own mind
Keeping my faith for the bad times
Get up, get up, stand like a champion
Take it to the world, gonna sing it like an anthem
The picture below shows more gorgeous South Dakota (or Wyoming? I was rarely sure which state I was in) gravel and one big change from earlier. As the sun climbed higher, my glorious shade disappeared and, just as Renee's breathing issues seemed to subside, I began to struggle in the heat.  Now it was her turn to hold back and encourage me.  From miles 50-60 we (I) struggled to hit a 10 mph pace, and our cushion for the time cutoff shrank.

11:39 a.m./about mile 60
I didn't get down, even as racer after racer from the 110-mile race cruised past us.  Avoiding the missteps of Cedar Cross, I kept eating and drinking on schedule. I never cramped, I never bonked, I just...couldn't...ride...any...faster.  I began watching for roadside water so I could cool off, but the cold creeks of the early morning weren't in evidence. I still had drinking water, but it was all warm.

At mile 60 we were just 9 miles away from the first checkpoint and had 50 minutes to get there. Kristi Jewett passed us around mile 65, driving the course backwards and filling up water for people who needed it. While the race is designed to be self-supported, they definitely stepped up the support level in deference to the weather, and while I often felt miserable in the 15 miles before the checkpoint I never felt unsafe.

The last four miles -- so close! -- my body began quitting on me. Or maybe I began giving up in the heat; it's hard to judge the difference between what I can do and what I will do at tough times, so maybe I just needed to push harder instead of giving in to how bad I felt. I joke sometimes that my central governor is more of a central dictator, though, and just after we met Kristi he pretty much shut things down.

My race became a slog between infrequent shade patches, catching my breath and sucking down water before struggling through the next sun-drenched stretch.  Craig, who'd leapfrogged with us for a while fighting the same battle with the heat, gradually moved ahead. I wanted to tell Renee to go on so that she could make the cutoff, but she was far enough ahead that I couldn't call to her.

Finally, on a gentle uphill, I had to stop. I leaned over my bike, struggling to breathe without throwing up, and the two-ish miles to the checkpoint might as well have been 100 for all my chances of beating the cutoff. Eventually the nausea subsided enough that I could slowly walk my bike, and it was here than another racer passed me in his car. "Do you need anything? Water? A ride to the lodge? I couldn't handle the heat. I had to make the call."

His wife and kids looked at me with sympathy (and probably relief) as I turned them down. "No, I'm going to get to the checkpoint under my own power, even if I have to walk the rest of the way."

I eventually reached a stretch that was mostly flat and downhill, and in what seemed like moments I coasted into CP1, fifteen minutes past the cutoff, my long-anticipated race over not even a third of the way in.
Gonna disconnect from the hard wire
Time to raise a flag for the cease fire
Staring down the hole inside me
Looking in the mirror, making peace with the enemy
I checked in with the race tent in front of Trailshead Lodge and then Renee and Margy waved me down. I rode over to them and dropped my bike. Margy got me a cold drink and a cold rag and sat me down in the shade of Craig's crew tent with a bag of ice in my lap. I covered my face and wiped away tears, wanting nothing so much as to call my husband to come pick me up so I could cry in air-conditioned privacy for the rest of the day. (And I'll be honest: while I thought I'd made my peace with that day I'm tearing up as I write this two weeks later.)

All that work, all that training, all that driving to South Dakota. All that hope and excitement and planning. Whenever I told anyone about the race, invariably the question would arise: "Why 200 miles? I don't even like to drive 200 miles!"

I've wondered the same thing many times, and my answer is that shorter distances don't call to me in the same way. "I know I can ride 100 miles," I'd respond. "Where's the adventure in doing something you know you can do?" Ironically, I didn't ride fast enough to beat the Trailshead cutoff for the 110-mile course, either.

Even if I'd made the cutoff, I was in no shape to leave quickly enough to have a chance to make the next one, so I wished Renee good luck as she rode away and sat in the shade with my bag of ice and disappointment. Margy handed me a bag of potato chips, and I ate half of it while talking to Craig, Shaun, and Margy.

Gradually I started to feel human and stopped wanting to curl up in a ball and die. I hadn't come all this way for 70 miles; my race was over, but I could still ride.  At first I considered touring the next leg of the race since Margy would have to be at the checkpoint for Renee anyway, but Margy convinced me a better option would be to ride back to Spearfish. That would give me 110 miles and, if not a completed race, at least respectable mileage.

Margy borrowed cue cards for the 110-mile course so I could copy them down (not yet having made the connection that I already had the route back to Spearfish on my Garmin because it was the last leg of the Motherlode), and then after a wobbly walk to the bathroom that made me question my ability to ride more, newly restocked food, and ice everywhere I could pack it in my jersey, I turned back in the direction I'd come from.
I am no man of steel
I have no heart of stone
Don't tell me how it feels
I'll find it on my own
As soon as I turned off the main road my Garmin picked up the course; I realized to my relief that I didn't need the hastily copied cue sheets and was free to return to autopilot.  I'd expected to cry my way home a la DK2012 but only mustered a few tears before remembering that a crying session would cloud up my contacts.

With zero urgency remaining, I pedaled when I could and stopped when I needed to, taking in the scenery and appreciating the opportunity to ride my bike somewhere so beautiful.  Entertained by noisy cows, I stopped and recorded a short video to sum up my race experience.

A short stretch of climbing preceded the long descent that I'd looked forward to in my pre-race planning. The last leg had a definite downhill trend, and I'd anticipated it as being much easier. Shaun and Craig had warned me otherwise, but I was still surprised by just how rough and rocky the road was, interspersed with surprise sandy sections, and I was very glad to be riding it in daylight.

Once I was through that segment, the roads returned to being lovely and rideable and, if they weren't yet shaded, at least the heat was tempered by the occasional merciful cloud.

I stopped at the turnoff to the Cement Ridge lookout tower, where the 110 and 210-mile courses diverged. I could ride the easier, mostly downhill, route back to Spearfish or I could follow my cue sheets to the lookout, which required a big climb. I looked again at the cue sheets, doing the math.

Taking the Cement Ridge route would only be an extra 8 miles. Jeff and Jacob weren't expecting me back until after midnight, so I had plenty of time. Cement Ridge had potatoes, whiskey, and (the kicker) cell service that would enable me to let my husband (who, lacking access to the internet, had basically no idea what was going on in the race) as well as my friends (who, having access to the internet, might be wondering where the heck I was going if my tracker was updating) know what was going on.  Cement Ridge it was.

My turn led to some gentle climbing, which I'd expected, and then a fun descent, which I hadn't. It's hard to enjoy riding downhill when you know it leads to a climb. At the base of the road to Cement Ridge I looked up and groaned. A mile of pushing my bike uphill later, I turned a corner and saw more hills. Kicking myself for making this stupid detour I pondered turning around, but I'd come too far and, frankly, was afraid to ride back down the hill I'd just walked up.  I walked my bike over a couple more little kickers and then stopped to admire the view.


Breaking down the walls in my own mind
Keeping my faith for the bad times
Get up, get up, stand like a champion
Take it to the world, gonna sing it like an anthem
I was SO disappointed in how my race had ended and this climb was stupid hard, but I was suddenly thrilled to be right where I was, finishing things on my own terms and seeing beautiful sights. After still more climbing I reached the lookout tower. Manned by a very cool crew from SRAM, this stop was more balm for my scorched ego. They reminded me how hard the heat had been for everyone, how many people had to drop, how few people even registered for the full race.  They iced my bottles, gave me potatoes and apple pie moonshine, and sent me on my way feeling much better.

Thankfully the return trip didn't require defying death on the steep road I'd walked up, instead directing us down a dirt road on the other side of the ridge. From this point on, the race was pretty much straight up downhill fun on smooth, lovely roads.

The last 15 miles or so of the race follows Spearfish Canyon. It was scenic and lovely and, as we got closer to town, occasionally scary with cars rounding blind curves in the middle of the road.

The gravel eventually gave way to pavement, and after 100 miles I was speeding along downhill over 20 mph. Even at the relatively high speed and beautiful scenery, by the last few miles I was over it. Yeah, yeah, canyon walls, ok, a waterfall, that's nice...now where's that last turn??

Feeling like a hero, but I can't fly

The turn onto the bike trail was a little tricky and again I was glad to be hitting it in daylight. From there, it was a short ride to the finish line, where I pulled up short instead of crossing so as not to confuse the results. Out of six 200-mile races this makes my fourth DNF, but the chance of failure is what makes the challenge interesting and the occasional victories so sweet.
No, you never crash if you don't try

I'll be honest. The disappointment is a bitter pill to swallow and leaves me feeling like less. I know the weather was not ideal, but half the field finished under those conditions, so it can certainly be done. I did a lot of things right; I think I was trained to finish, and I stayed on top of hydration and nutrition. I just couldn't cool my body enough to make it do what I needed to do. My friend Aaron has this quote I've pulled out before, "There's no failure, only feedback." Clearly my feedback here is I need to a) work on acclimating to heat and b) figure out some workable solutions to deal better with early season heat.
Took it to the edge, now I know why
I got an incredible amount of support from friends both before and after the race, and another quote that stuck with me was "Don't let success go to your head or failure go to your heart." I'm still working on the latter part of that one, but I haven't regretted going for a moment.  Motherlode was a great race. The parts of the course I saw were incredible, and the race directors were wonderful. Spearfish is a neat town, and if you like grass roots gravel you'd love this race. Of course I'm already plotting my return, so maybe I'll see you there.
Never gonna live if you're too scared to die
Big thanks to the race directors, volunteers, and sponsors. Thanks to Renee for being an awesome riding partner and to Margy for being an amazing crew. Most especially thank you to everyone who took the time to encourage me and/or commiserate with me about the race. It's easy to say the right thing when things go well, but you guys nailed it when they went south, too.

Randy Erickson album

Les Heiserman album

Luke Meduna's video from 2015 Motherlode (same course, different weather)

Friday, June 10, 2016

Motherlode race info

The Motherlode version of the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder is 210 miles. The race starts at 5 am on Saturday morning and the cutoff for finishers is 2 am Sunday morning. (Note: SD is on Mountain Standard Time.) The Saturday forecast for Spearfish, where we'll start, is a high of 98, low of 60, and windy. 

The course is basically two loops joined by an out-and-back section, and we'll have four checkpoints where we can meet our crew. 

Leg 1: 69.3 miles. Cutoff: 12:30 pm
Cue sheets 1-5. This leg is basically one sustained climb. And we ride into Wyoming. 

Leg 2: 53.7 mi. Cutoff: 6 pm. Cue sheets 5-7. This segment looks more like a sawtooth. We enter the Black Hills National Forest at mile 92.7. 

Leg 3: 29 miles. Cutoff: 9 pm.  Cue sheets 7-8. Mostly a downhill trend before beginning another sustained climb. We ride on part of the Mickelson Trail. Bridges!! Tunnels!!

Leg 4: 20 miles. Cutoff: 11 pm. Cue sheets 8-9. Sustained climb. 

Leg 5: 37 miles. Cutoff: 2 am. Cue sheet 9. Downhill trend. We'll ride through beautiful Spearfish Canyon. At least the pictures look beautiful. It'll most definitely be dark when I get there. 

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned about the heat and wind. My hottest race last year was a 17-hour race in 97 degrees, and it was rough for a few hours there. We'll definitely have to take care of ourselves. 

I quit Dirty Kanza three years ago in challenging conditions and still regret it. This race is getting my best effort. As long as I can keep pedaling, that's what I'm going to do. If I miss a cutoff I'm going to miss it riding, not quitting. I've never been more prepared for a race. I'm so excited to ride in South Dakota and looking forward to incredible views, good company, and riding across the finish line!