My first national championship race as a pro: USA Marathon Nationals in Sun Valley, Idaho. I had ridden this course before and was looking forward to returning. The course was made up of one short lap and two big laps, bringing the total in at just less than fifty miles. The entire first hour-ish was a climb, first dirt road and then singletrack. The second half-hour was a ripping fast descent, then a 10-minute dirt road climb, then a 20-minute final descent to the line.
There was one technical section, the “rock drop” as it was referred to, which we would pass through three times over the course of the race near the finish area. There was also a go-around which was slower, but smoother. I had preridden the drop and it had a tricky entrance but otherwise wasn’t too bad. You come into it from a corner, have no view of the bottom section of the feature, and have about two seconds to set up before diving in. There is one clear line down the center, and the rest is pretty heinous. No problem, set up straight into that line and the rest is cake.
The short lap went by in a fury of dust and elbows and handlebars and tires. Then we were out to the long laps of the course. My strength is climbing, and I gradually pulled away from the small group I had been working with on the road section and got in front before the singletrack. I climbed steadily and my breathing was even. I was riding hard, but not pushing. I was eating and drinking well. I knew I had a long race ahead of me. When I neared the top of the first climb, I saw the 5th, 6th, and 7th place women crest the hill. I was within less than a minute of them.
The descent lost me some time and I got passed by a few riders. Although I have often used descending skills to my advantage in road racing and as an amateur mountain bike racer, and I have done well in super downhill races, it is safe to say my downhill skills are not quite on par with that of national-level professional riders. Especially not on long, steep descents with fast, tight corners- they are my biggest weakness, and there was no lack of them on this course. I am much more comfortable on technical rock lines, thanks to all my Front Range riding. So, getting passed was no shock to me. I am getting better, but these marathon racing women are no joke. They are fast both uphill and down. I knew if I was going to gain time, I was going to have to capitalize on my climbing strengths.
We got off the last descent and started round two. I dug deep and took some time off the long climb, steadily passing some riders again. When I hit the descent I was determined not to lose my spot, but at this point the top riders of the Cat 1 men’s pack hit us from behind. All of these guys were gunning for a podium spot and a chance at earning their pro card. They were very fast descenders and it resulted in me having to pull over and stop frequently to let them by. I didn’t mind; they were gunning for a top spot and I was not, but I definitely lost momentum and I let it get inside my head. I started riding more tentatively.
At the bottom of the long descent, right before the final 10 minute climb, a woman shot by me. Before I knew what was happening I lost my head, and the brains went right with it. My ultra-competitive and driven side rushed out from one of the dark corners somewhere inside me and I buried myself on the climb like I had never done before. I am not sure where this burst of energy came from after 3.5 hours of hard racing, but I was frustrated from the descent, and now I had this carrot in front of me and nothing but open road. I put my head down and went. I flew past the woman, and kept on going. I wanted to pour out every ounce of strength and energy left in my body and leave it all on the course.
I hit the top of the climb, and glancing back I could just barely see the woman around the last corner. I was in the red, and my eyes were nearly crossing. I am not sure how I was still pedaling. I dropped into the final descent thinking “ride smooth, hold it together, don’t lose ground.” I tried to focus and flow, and the trail felt like water. The bike moved effortlessly underneath me, we felt like one, and it was perfect. I had no idea if the other woman was catching up to me or not; I saw riders floating in and out of the trees above and below me, but I was well mixed in with the cat 1 men by that point and I was unsure if the shadow riders were male or female. It was all mixed up in my head. And I was almost done. It was almost over...