More accurately, I guess, you could say that I'm slow to apply what I've learned and, thus, am repeatedly retaught important lessons by cruel experience. That's why, despite having a pretty good working knowledge of the birds and the bees, it took two unplanned pregnancies before I finally accepted that being consistent with birth control was imperative. That's why, despite knowing how important it is to keep fueling and hydrating on the bike, at least annually I have a soul-crushingly bad race due to not fueling and hydrating properly. And that, in turn, is why BT Epic has haunted me since last October.
The nutritional/physical/emotional debacle of last year's race has been on my mind at nearly every OT-area mountain bike ride I've done since. Anyone who's shared those miles with me could probably tell you how much of it was fun (10 miles), how much was awful (40 miles), how many times I cried (three), or relate my sense of betrayal that the last section of singletrack didn't lead straight down to the finish. "Let it go," they'd say. "It was just a bad day."
"I know, but..."
I stewed for a year, rode significantly more miles in 2016, and avoided going into the race with a recent injury/high levels of antibiotics in my system. I spent a lot of time on the Ozark Trail this summer. I was really excited about BT Epic until the drive down, when race nerves kicked in full force.
Last-minute terror aside, staying at Bass and hanging out around a campfire the night before was far nicer than the early-morning drive we made last year. Camping with friends is the best way to start a race weekend, even if the temperature did drop into the low 30's and make me reluctant to climb out of my sleeping bag the next morning.
Leg 1: Bass to Brazil Creek ~10 miles 1:22
The first big climb up the gravel sucked, leading to the un-mantra that always echoes through my mind at times like those: I ride my bike way too much to feel this out of shape. Once the hill leveled out I settled in to enjoy the nice, safe gravel. Apprehensive as always about singletrack, I was grateful to have a few miles of low-stress warm-up.
I chased Chuck onto the Ozark Trail, remembering how fun this section had been last year but feeling weirdly tentative considering how non-tricky it is. He was quicker to pass other people than I was, and we got separated a few miles in. I leapfrogged for a while with Sally before catching her just before the descent into Brazil Creek. As long as we were on relatively flat ground or climbing I could keep up, but we were about to hit a long downhill and I'm hesitant to pass anyone under those circumstances. Turns out I was right to hold back. She almost immediately disappeared from my view and ended up putting a minute on me on the descent.
2015 vs 2016: I was disappointed to be about 12 minutes slower hitting the first aid station this year, but I'd kept eating and drinking, which made a big difference in the rest of my day.
Leg 2: Brazil Creek to Berryman Campground ~10 miles 1:38
I didn't need anything at the aid station, so I rolled on through, crossing highway W and beginning the climb where everything had begun to unravel last year. This was a totally different experience. I felt great and posted my fastest time on that segment. What a huge confidence boost! I rode and chatted for a while with Al until I lost him, and then I was basically on my own for the rest of that leg.
There have been several reroutes build on this section of the Berryman trail, and they make the ride so much more flowy and fun. The newest reroute, finished just the previous week, was a little less so. I'd anticipated a smooth ride after all the leaders packed down the fresh trail; I hadn't factored in the 2" of rain the area had received days before. The new trail ranged from unpleasantly soft to practically unridable. I ended up hiking my bike up the last hill here rather than blow out my legs digging ruts into the dough-like surface.
MK caught me shortly after the new trail and we yo-yo'd back and forth. I'd open a gap on the climbs and then lose ground with my cautious descending and inability to ride switchbacks. One problem with being semi-familiar with the course is a heightened awareness of my trouble spots, so I was all ready to pull up short when I came to a rooty turn that is probably so easy to ride but looks scary. MK may have been slightly less ready for me to stop and ended up toppling over and slightly downhill. I'm not sure it was my fault, but it sure felt like that. Rather than cause her any further problems, I waited for her to go ahead before starting up again.
In no time we were rolling into Berryman Campground, where Lori was waiting. I'd felt like I was moving really slowly, so I was surprised to hear that Chuck was only 10 minutes ahead of me. I switched out bottles of Perpetuem, grabbed a bag of food, remembered I needed my camelbak filled, and then rolled out of the campground without the food I'd meant to take. I actually remembered it before I hit the trail, but some quick calculations convinced me that I had enough calories left that I didn't need to turn around.
2015 vs 2016: I hit the second CP 9 minutes faster this year (measuring time from the start of the race), which is already an improvement, but that 9 minute improvement doesn't tell the whole story. In 2015 this second leg took me 2 hours; this year it was only 1:38 for a slightly longer trail with a little hike a bike (due to the new reroute).
Leg 3: Berryman Campground to Bass ~20 miles 3:09
I caught up with a guy shortly after leaving the campground and he pulled over to the side to let me pass. "I'm pretty slow downhill," I warned him, to which he responded, "I'm pretty slow all-around." That kind of thing always makes me laugh from someone who's ahead of me, and I was convinced that he'd pass me back any minute. As it turned out, I was wrong.
This side of the Berryman loop has two things I've never been able to ride -- a sharp switchback and a rocky step -- but once I was past those I relaxed and just rode. I felt super slow on the uphills but less fearful on the descents. I was sporting a big bruise on my right hip from washing out on some loose rock the previous week on this section, so I watched like a hawk for that trouble spot but never noticed it or had any problems, and before I knew it I was turning back onto the Ozark Trail and heading towards the gravel. Last year I'd greeted the dirt fire road climb to the road with despair and walking; this time I rode all of it except for one quick stop for some electrolytes.
|Riding the forest road up towards the gravel the previous Sunday|
Craig passed me when I stopped at the water jugs to check if I needed to top off my camelbak. "Do I get a little happy face on my number for each time I pass you?" he joked. A far better technical rider, he'd ended up behind me after stopping for a mechanical. Once I hit the gravel, though, I felt amazing. speeding along and passing several people before turning back onto the Ozark Trail.
This section of the race includes the infamous "Three Sisters", but even before hitting the first of these climbs always I seem to forget how to ride my bike. Naturally that's where Craig passed me again. In a weird-for-me twist, though, I was riding more of the uphills than many of the people around me, leading to some Twilight Zone alternate dimension where guys were telling me, "Go ahead, you'll beat me up this hill." Granted, they always caught me on the downhill, but it was still pretty cool.
|Taken the previous Sunday atop the final sister before Bass.|
Almost 40 miles in, I was tired but didn't feel awful, and riding along the top of the third sister I savored the gorgeous weather and the fall scenery. Missouri may lack the drama of Colorado, but it has no shortage of beauty. I caught up with a girl from Texas on the way back down to Bass, passed her on the field, and sped along the road to where Lori and Mickey (who had finished long before) were waiting at the turn for the last short loop.
"Chuck's just 5 minutes ahead of you!" they told me. I still had a partial bottle of Perpetuem and had them fill my empty with water so I could leave behind my Camelbak; then I hurried off to see if I could finally catch my friend.
2015 vs. 2016: I got to this point in the race an hour faster this year than last. In 2015 the Berryman Campground to Bass leg took me 4:01; this year it was 3:09. I felt a million times better, too.
Leg 4: OT loop west of Bass ~8 miles 1:06
Last year I'd believed that this leg was a ride up Butts Rd (a big, paved climb), along a gravel road, and down a short stretch of Ozark Trail to the finish line. I was incredibly betrayed by the realization that the "short stretch down" was only the last mile and that Butts Road, which I'd had to walk a huge piece of, was hardly the end of my climbing. I didn't take my disillusionment with good grace, and it's embarrassing now to think back to what a trainwreck I was.
|This is not all downhill.|
He passed me back as I walked my bike down the rocky drops just past the overlook and I think Craig closed in on me again here, but I pulled ahead on the next uphill. When I started to get sick of all the climbing, I thought back to the summer day we rode this piece of OT as an out-and-back: This felt way more uphill on the way out, I reminded myself, You're going in the down direction. You're practically finished.
Craig caught me once again as I got ready to push my bike up a rock ledge. "After all of this, you know we have to ride across the finish line together!" he told me.
We reached the gravel road where a volunteer directed us across to -- finally -- the last downhill before the finish line. I waved Craig in front of me, knowing that following me there would be no fun for someone who takes hills as fast as he does. I did my best to stay close and managed to hang in there for a little while before getting nervous on a curve and braking. Almost immediately he disappeared from sight, but as I emerged from the trail there he was, waiting for me before the finish line, which we crossed together moments later.
2015 vs. 2016: This leg took me 1:28 last year, and I cried at least once. This year it took 1:06, no tears.
I finished in 7:15, cutting about an hour and a half off of last year's time. I couldn't turn off my finish line smile and had so many friends there to share it with. It took me forever to get showered and changed because I kept running into more people to celebrate with. This year's race had been such a good experience, such a redemption..so different from last year.
It had been such a good day. No crashes, no mechanicals, no nutritional failures. I remembered to eat, I didn't spend 40 miles crying and feeling awful. I rode mostly solo but never felt alone, talking to people throughout the day. I never felt awesome, but I never felt really bad, either; it was a good, consistent effort.
That's not to say there wasn't room for improvement. I had about 19 minutes of non-moving time, which isn't that bad over seven hours; I was efficient at the two stops with crew, thanks to Lori's help. I made one unnecessary stop at the mile 31ish water stop that cost me a couple extra minutes when a friendly ambulance guy kept talking to me, and any other time lost was quick stops along the trail, which I kept to a minimum.
I think the biggest need for improvement, though, is in my technical riding. I almost always lose ground on hills, but lack of confidence on rocks, roots, and switchbacks really costs me. Each segment of the race was punctuated by things I "know" I can't ride, and it's not just the time lost in walking something vs. riding it but also in the loss of momentum. So my goal for the next year is to improve on that. And have a finish time that starts with a 6.
As do-overs go, though, 2016 was a pretty good one.