I leapt out of bed before my alarm this morning. I felt like a tightly coiled spring, ready to explode. Today was the last stage of the Breck Epic.
I did my usual morning routine of make breakfast, walk the dog while eating breakfast, getting my food and Skratch into my race bag, heading down early to the staging area to get some time in the Elevated Legs, and then a 30 minute warm up on the bike. I tried to get in a solid warm up today, because I knew the stage was going to be fast. It was only 32 miles, significant climbing but nothing as steep as in the previous days, and the pro women's field was very close. None of us had any time to lose. I had clawed my way up into 5th in the GC on Wheeler yesterday by a mere two minutes, and I knew that if I was to keep that position I would have to be at my very best.
The race went off hot from the gun. No neutral rollout today. We started on the road and it was FAST. Laura zoomed off ahead of me, and it was all I could do not to chase her. "Let her go, don't blow yourself up," I told myself. I am notorious for blowing up at the start, and 32 miles was not long enough for me to recover after blowing - not in this strong of a field. I rode hard and strong, but didn't let myself pop.
We turned off the road onto the first section of singletrack - another rocky, rooty climb, wet from yesterday's rain. It was fast though, fast enough that I had to be really alert and watch my technique so that I didn't go down on the wet roots. I finally caught up to Laura on the first steep fire road climb. I passed, but again was careful not to explode and burn precious matches that I might need later. I kept it steady. I didn't look back, but knew she was close behind.
About a mile from the end of the singletrack, I caught Kate Aardal, the women's pro GC race leader. She is an incredible bike handler and it was fun to follow her through the fast swooping trails. We popped out onto Boreas Pass Road, and it was up into the sky again for the first time over the Divide. I had done this climb in the Breck 100, and I knew it well. I knew that to have a chance I needed to treat it like a road race and work with people. Kate and I, and one other guy, pacelined together all the way up to the top of the pass. I was working hard to hang on, and I was determined to stick with them to the top.
Finally the top came, and I powered up and over, flying down the other side and on to the Gold Dust trail. I had a bit of a gap on Kate as we crested the climb, but she came around me quickly once we started the descent. Again, it was fun to stick on her wheel as long as I could as she flowed effortlessly down the trail. But it was work... such hard work for me. Those of you who don't ride mountain bikes - going downhill is NOT resting. It is really hard, especially when you're trying to ride at your limits of speed, stay focused so you don't crash, and work the terrain to pick up as much free speed as possible. It's hard. Just a different kind of hard.
I knew the road was coming (Boreas Pass again, the other side) and my goal was NOT to hit the road alone. I knew there was going to be a headwind, and the grade of the road was just steep enough that it does benefit a rider to be working with other riders. I knew if I hit the road alone, that I was done. Fortunately when I came out, I saw about six guys about fifty feet ahead. I powered up to them and we got to business. The guy who was first in front set a blistering pace, and it was all I could do to hang on as our group weaved in and out to find the smoothest line through the rocks on the road.
About halfway up, we caught up to Kate again. She joined our group, and we pushed on. It was about then that I felt my body start to cry out for mercy. My back cramped up and my legs, firing on all cylinders, actually started to feel numb with exertion. I was breathing out my eyeballs, but I knew I had to hang on. I glanced back to see if there was anyone behind that I could work with if I dropped back... and there was no one. Just a lonely long stretch of road. I knew I had to hang on. "Just keep moving, just keep moving, just keep moving," I told myself. "Don't give up. Don't crack now. Just keep pushing." My mind would start to drift off, and I'd think "I'm almost done, I can have beer, I can sit in the river, oh damn I'm so close!" Every time I would think those things, I would fall off the pace and have to give an extra push to get back on. "Stop thinking. Don't let up. Be here NOW." Once again, like I had done so many times over the past six days, I put my head down and kept grinding away, keeping pace with my group.
Finally, the top of the pass. I could barely acknowledge the people cheering at the top, just a brief nod as I pushed over the top and kept up my power down the descent. Again, I had to tuck in or I'd be lost. I am just not big enough to pick up much speed down the fast gravel roads. I tucked, and down we went. We hit doubletrack, and holy crap, the roots. They were big, and they were wet. I lost my group as I had to rein it in a bit to keep from crashing. That was NOT the way I wanted to end my race. I got down as quickly as I could, and then, pavement. No one was around, so I made myself as small as I could and time trialed my way to the last section of singletrack.
As I turned up for the last three miles of trail, I saw Kelly Boniface a couple of switchbacks ahead. I couldn't believe we were all so close. Kate couldn't be far ahead of her, and I knew Laura was nipping at my heels. I didn't look back, but I could feel that she was close. The last section of singletrack had some short punchy climbs, but they felt like nothing. I was flying and I could barely see. I focused on keeping good form on the bike so I wouldn't screw up. "Keep it together. Keep it together."
After what seemed like no time at all, out of nowhere, I heard Larry's voice on the loudspeaker, announcing Kelly crossing the finish line. I was right there. I got a little choked up as I rounded the last few corners. My last six days was about to be over. I had done it. I had fought my way back on to the podium after detonating on Day 2. More importantly, I didn't quit, and I fought all the way to the finish. This race tested every part of me, and I rose to the challenge. Even when I thought I couldn't possibly give any more, couldn't possibly ride faster, couldn't possibly pedal harder, somehow I was able to keep moving.
Finishing this race wasn't the hardest thing I have ever done. Getting divorced and having to fight my way back up from absolute rock bottom when my life was in pieces was harder. Going through an intense shoulder surgery and rehab, having to regain my strength and fitness and come back to racing from nothing, was harder. Still, this race was probably the hardest thing I have ever done physically and athletically. And once again, in this race, just like in the rest of my life, I proved to myself that even when I didn't think it was possible, I really could keep going. And that, my friends, is why I race. It's all worth it at the end.
I have a lot of people to thank for getting me here and supporting me in this race and throughout my "comeback" season. First, my physical therapy clients. Thanks for letting your physical therapist go play pro bike racer for a full week- I hope none of you lost a limb while I was away. ;)
Thanks to my wonderful partners and sponsors. ALP Cycles Coaching/Alison Powers, Heights Performance, Skratch Labs, Griggs Orthopedics, Marzocchi Suspension, Rock n' Roll Sports, Pactimo. You have all made my life so much easier this year - thank you for the great support.
Thanks to my friends and family for always cheering me on and believing in me, and encouraging me to chase my crazy dreams, even when the rest of the world thinks I'm a crackhead. ;)
Thanks to the two strong and talented women who made my Breck Epic super special - Marlee Dixon for putting Cody and me up all week, it was awesome to have a place to call "home," and also having the time to chill out, recover, and get to know a new friend made this week so much better. And Laura O'Meara for putting up a great challenge every single day, pushing me to ride my best. We were neck and neck literally the entire race, and it was crazy that the race for 5th over 6 days came down to two minutes. The rest of the top of the pro women's field - Kate, Kate, Catherine, Kelly - it was an honor to throw down with you ladies. What a close race. I am amazed by all of us. All the racers, really, men and women - everyone has their own special stories coming into and out of this race. It was awesome to get to know you on the course and off. What a cool experience to share with another (or many) human being.
Finally, thanks to my sweetheart Donny, who I know is always cheering me on from his place in the Southern Hemisphere, guiding, skiing, and chasing dreams in Chile. This is going to sound like the most un-romantic thing ever, but thank you for not giving up on your own passions and dreams for me, and therefore giving me the freedom to do the same. I appreciate it more than you could ever know.
Breck Epic ... done. Over and out.