I don't have any pictures yet, but I'll add some if/when any show up.
Yesterday I made the drive over the hill to Breckenridge for my first ever mountain bike stage race- the six day Breck Epic. I was excited for my first one; I've done plenty of road stage racing but never on the dirt! My goal for this race is to learn how to do it so that I can be good at it. :) I know from road racing that fueling, pacing, and recovery are VERY important. But there are two very big differences that I can see right from the start: in road racing, you can "rest" at times in the middle of the pack. If you're riding smart, you can still do this to some extent in mountain bike racing, but not near as much. The second difference is that mountain racing is so much more total-body physical than road racing. So, other than feeling like it will definitely be harder, I figure I've at least got a good enough background to start with.
I must admit, my preparation leading up to this race for the last two weeks has not been optimal. I have been working nonstop, through the night many times, not sleeping much at all and not preparing like I usually do. It felt weird to go into a race feeling off the back. I didn't get a chance to make my Skratch Labs portables, so I'd be eating 100% energy bars which I haven't done in a very long time- I much prefer real food. To top it all off, I got a flat tire on my car as I was leaving town for the race. D'oh!
In all honesty, I considered pulling out. I definitely wasn't doing myself any favors here. But, I told myself, I have six days to figure out how to pull my head out of my ass and race my bike, as my coach Alison so eloquently has said to me in the past. I have become quite good at being prepared for races, we'll see how I can recover from being not so prepared. Head out of ass, all in, game on.
The first stage was the Pennsylvania Gulch (or Creek, don't remember) stage. It was 36 miles and 6000 feet of climbing. I woke up this morning feeling pretty good, and methodically got ready just like I do for any race. I am self-supported this week, so I packed my drop bags for the two aid stations and arrived to the race start early to send them on their way. I even had to scrape frost off of my car this morning at 6:30- crazy! I got in a pretty good warm-up and at 8:30 am we were off.
The start was fast, and I am not great at starting fast. I pushed myself, but was careful not to explode. For the majority of the race, I kept feeling like it was so short. My last race was 100 miles, so 36 isn't much in comparison. I had to keep reminding myself that I have a whole six days in a row of racing, and I need to be smart and not blow myself up. I warned myself that it would get harder. Still, I felt strong. I raced a little faster than my 100 mile pace and I think (I hope) that was a good call.
Kelly Boniface and a few other women flew by me early on, and I didn't know what place I was in. As I passed spectators, I heard that I was anywhere from 2nd to 6th. I turned off the voices in my head and just focused on pushing forwards and riding smoothly. On the first descent, I passed Marlee Dixon with a flat. She is an incredibly strong rider and I spent the rest of the day wondering if she was going to catch me. It was a good reminder that in bike racing, anything can happen. In a six day race, it is important to ride as smoothly and cleanly as possible, because you never know when one of us might have problems.
The first feed zone came quickly and I had only drank one bottle. I was a little worried, but I reminded myself that it was chilly and I was still drinking about 14 oz an hour. Typically I drink around 20, and for the Breck 100 second and third laps I drank nearly 30! But that was a hot race. This was cool. I should be okay. My pet peeve in racing is that I always feel so sick in the first hour when I am trying to eat food. It sucks, and I have to force it down anyways because I know the consequences if I don't. Especially in a stage race. The rest of the race is fine, but that first hour - damn. It actually takes a lot of mental energy for me to choke it down when my stomach is in knots. At this point I know though that it's always that way, and once I get through that first hour it's not a big deal so I try not to stress about it.
I rode near the same group of about six men for most of the day. I would motor past them on the climbs, and they would fly past me on the road descents. There were a lot of road descents today, which is hard for me being a tiny rider. I just get smoked because I don't have enough mass. I tried to tuck in behind people the best that I could to save energy. The singletrack descents were fun, fast, rooty, and rocky, and it felt good to be riding this terrain again. My first introduction to Breckenridge riding was just this year with the Firecracker 50 and the Breck 100, and I really like it. I definitely felt strong on all the climbs today. I kept telling myself "bike is light, bike is light, bike is light." I think my legs actually believed me!
About halfway through the stage I caught a girl who looked really strong. She was climbing steadily and making a good pace, so I sat behind her to observe how she rode. I figured I'd sit there awhile, but when she got stuck in a rut on a tricky climb section, I moved ahead. We rolled into the second feed zone at the same time, and noticing the ominous clouds, I grabbed my raincoat and was off quickly. Now I really felt like I was being chased! I learned later that she was Laura from California, and she ended up finishing only seconds behind me.
The dreaded Little French climb came near the end of the stage today. I've suffered up that climb I'm not sure how many times this year, but whatever the number is it's one too many. ;) Fortunately, by the time we got there I still felt really good, and charged up the climb passing men (who I knew would pass me again later). Like before, however, the effort and the altitude got to my head after that climb. I felt woozy, and I was glad that the Little French Flume is a relatively easy section.
I didn't really feel tired until about six miles to go, then my body suddenly realized that it had been racing over three hours and all of a sudden a voice in my head told me to back off - NOW. I listened and dropped my pace a little. Strangely enough, I started to cramp. First one hamstring, then the other. Being the nerdy physical therapist that I am, I focused on using my butt muscles to push the pedals down with more force rather than focusing on my upstroke, to give my hamstrings a break. It worked, and I was able to ride through the cramps. It was a little weird because I think I've maybe cramped twice in my entire life. I really think it is likely due to the stress, no sleep, and probably shitty hydration over the past two weeks. I made a mental note to do an even better job of recovery today than I usually do. We will see how that goes - I hope they recover!
When I rolled through the finish line, I was glad to be done. I didn't feel as tired, since I backed off my pace a little I wasn't totally cracked at the end. But I knew there was much more to come. I finished in 4th. Laura came in only seconds behind me, and Kate Zander was seconds behind her. There is a strong women's pro/open field of at least 20 riders, and it's going to be a fun fight to the finish! Kelly Boniface from Steamboat cemented a strong early lead, followed by Kate Aardal from Canada (not sure where) and Catherine Williamson in third. Rumor has it she placed 5th in the Leadville 100 yesterday! Bad Ass. I'm eight minutes back from Catherine right now. As Alison always says, "anything can happen." You never know which one of us might have bike or body trouble, who might be feeling super strong one day- or not. This stage racing thing is already shaping up to be pretty exciting.
Stay tuned for Stage 2! It's the Colorado Trail stage - 43 miles and 7200 feet of climbing. The West Ridge climb on this stage is where I nearly cracked in the second lap of Breck 100. It's long, and slow, and steep, and I was tired, and I didn't know when it would end! But now, after having raced it before, I know what to expect - and I know that the descent off the back side is sooooo worth it. I can't wait.