The Hell of the South: Race Day

The day started before sunrise. A 7:35AM start time had me wanting to be at the start no later than 7AM. I polished off my now “standard” race morning breakfast of oatmeal with dried cranberries and cinnamon (heating up some water in the hotel microwave) and cold brew with oat milk. I also took a few minutes to look at the course one more time. It had been changed the day before when the organizers deemed one of the big climbs had too dangerous of a descent given the amount of recent rain. Fine by me! We still had 128miles and almost the same amount of climbing to do once they put together the reroute.

The hotel was ~1mile from the start, and Paul pedaled out with me so I could hang on to my warm layers until the last minute. Happily, the line for the women’s bathroom was non-existent and I found myself ready to go in plenty of time. I even decided to ditch my arm warmers, realizing the day was going to get warm plenty fast. It was a little strange to be starting the race with Paul on the sidelines (since we’d done the last two together). For a brief moment I couldn’t help but think of how he’d be spending his day – getting a leisurely breakfast and coffee, going for a relaxing ride, hanging out reading in the hotel, and then meeting me at the finish. I couldn’t help but think “Wait, why am I doing this again?”.

Start line excitment!

The men started off first with a ‘neutral rollout’ that was anything but. They were going to start the women 5 minutes later, but held us more like 8 minutes to let the men really clear. The men’s field was over 200 folks, but the ladies field had just 20 of us. The group was made up of strong and stronger riders – a solid bunch of folks willing to take on the long day. When the gun went off, we all rolled out at a steady but even pace. With such a long day, the women were content to keep the pace moving without anyone making any early breaks. It was fantastic, and all thoughts of being anywhere else quickly faded.

We dropped 3 or 4 folks a few miles in, but the main group of us held together for the first ~20 miles. We passed a few of the men as our group cruised along, still at a conversational pace. I didn’t think I’d be able to hold the lead women once things picked up, but I figured I might as well try for as long as I could!

Women still together as we hit the first of the gravel – flat and fast! [credit: BWR photographers]

But then, about an hour in, some men from the shorter distance (the “Wafer”) came flying up behind. They had started a few minutes behind us and their fastest men had caught our lead group. Quickly our pace accelerated and things started to splinter as some folks charged out front and others dropped off the back.

I found myself near the rear as I was a little slow to realize what was happening. It soon dawned on me I was about to be dropped and I need to push it, NOW. I clawed my way towards the middle and held on as we weaved and bobbed through a lot of fast turns and some short climbs. As the turns got tighter, I found my limited gravel skills exposed as I struggled to keep up. I kept sliding off the back on tight corners, fighting back on during the mini climbs, but then sliding off the back all over again. Rinse. Repeat. After a bit I saw a couple other women spit off the back (along with some men), and I decided to ease up. I couldn’t remember the course well enough to confidently decide to hang on, and I knew I couldn’t hold the pace I was pushing and expect to finish. I fell off the back (again), but this time I settled into my own steady rhythm.

Finding my own pace, already dusty [credit: BWR photographers]

I flew past the first aid station (of a total of six), and soon found myself with a couple other folks. We were able to form a mini group, and pushed on for a few miles. We hit the roller section at mile 30 and things got sandy! I’d never been in a pace line in even small amounts of sand, and was happy to be hanging on. However, being in the back has a disadvantage as we got into some rocky stuff. Somewhere in that area I hit a rock very hard. I didn’t see it, but I definitely heard/felt the ping. Everything seemed okay, so I rode on.

Group of four of us kicking up dust around mile 40 [credit: BWR photographers]

In that same area I also saw a guy on the side of the road. I slowed to see if he was okay, and he started up a whole conversation. The long and short of it was that he had flatted three times, and he thought his race was done. No, there was nothing I could do for him. But it took him AGES to get that out. Y’all. If you’re bummed about being out the race, I get it. Seriously, that sucks. But don’t stop someone who’s actively racing to share your woes if you don’t actually need anything. If you need help, by all means ask! I would have stopped to get someone help in a heartbeat. But please don’t bury the lede while I watch my little group ride away from me.

Anyway, after that I found myself just behind my little group, and working together they were pulling away quick. We then moved into a section of double track where it took me a while to work around several guys going just a bit slower than me. Finally I got out of all that, and tried to step on the gas to catch up. My goal was to catch folks by mile 50 and the second aid station. Unfortunately, the few miles before the aid station consisted of some deep sand. Miles of sand. The race bible calls the sector: “Als stroop een zandheuvel opduwen”, which they say is “translated from Dutch [and] crudely means, “pushing up a sand hill like molasses”. Mmhmmm.

I have never ridden in miles of sand, and it took a lot of work for me to keep the bike rubber side down. I rolled into the 2nd aid station sandy, tired, and kinda wondering how I was going to finish another 70 miles. Thankfully the Hyland’s crew was here, and they got me quickly sorted with some fresh water while I grabbed a snack. It was also here I unclipped for the first time, and as I started off again I realized something was wrong with my left pedal. I couldn’t clip in on one side. My best guess is the rock strike from mile ~30 messed something up. It was mildly annoying, but not the end of the world, and since there was nothing I could do about it I just pedaled on.

The next 17 miles to aid station three were where things went from so-so to not-so-great. I left on my own but soon found a small group that let me join their pace line. We were going at a solid but maintainable pace, and I was feeling okay rotating along. However, over the course of the next couple of miles we picked up several more riders. Some of these new guys seemed determine to push the pace much harder. I hung on for a while, taking my turns at the front as I pushed well over threshold. We actually ended up catching some of the women I’d lost earlier, but soon after that I once again realized I wasn’t going to be able to hang. I was pushing in my sweet spot zone at the back of the line where I was trying to “recover”, and the whole thing slowly spiraled out of control for me. As I dropped back I heard another guy say, “If I’m going to finish 130 miles there’s no way I can keep this pace”. Yeah dude, seriously, I’m with you. Unfortunately, those of us spit off the back didn’t manage to group up.

Honestly, at that point I’d kinda blown myself up and so I just pedaled the last couple miles to aid station three at barely an endurance pace. “Just keep turning over the pedals” I was saying to myself, “you’ll get there eventually”. At aid three I fully stopped and drank a whole cup of water, got some food, and tried to catch my breath. I was hoping to have a repeat of my first two races where I held my aid station time to a minute or two at most, but clearly I needed a little more if I was going to finish. Eventually I shook it off and got rolling again, slowly climbing a paved road out of the station and settling into a descent.

Several miles later and back on the gravel a group of ~20 guys caught me. “Jump on, jump on!” they cried. I really, really just wanted to continue my 80 watt plod for the next 50 miles, but I knew I’d just be making a long day even longer. I pulled it together and, somewhat reluctantly, hopped on the back. But unlike my unsuccessful pace line attempts earlier in the day, this crew was rolling steady. A huge group of us, all pacing at a solid rate and taking quick (under 60sec) turns up front. When I tried to stay up front a little longer the guy behind me actually encouraged me to jump saying, “Don’t burn yourself out, we’ve got a ton of us here to pull!”. Cool! A whole ton of miles ticked off in this fashion, and I began to actually feel a bit better.

We rolled into aid station four as a group, paused for drinks and snacks, and then took off again still mostly together. However, the group quickly ended up breaking apart as we entered into 8 miles of SAND. Sand and short hills and more sand and more hills. So. Much. Sand. I had never ridden in sand like this, and certainly not on my gravel bike! I was hanging on with a small group and holding my own through the first couple miles. But as I came down yet another little sandy hill my focused must have wavered and suddenly, without warning, I found myself lying in the sand instead of cruising along on top of it. The guys in front of me quickly noticed my absence and called back to check on me. I could tell I was bruised and bleeding, but not seriously hurt. I waived them on. I stood up and spent a minute examining my now bloody, sandy knee. Well, nothing to be done there. My handlebars were bent but my drivetrain looked okay (lucky, considering I went down on my right side). For a brief, horrifying moment I thought I’d screwed up my shifting, but it was just little rocks wedged in around my brakes. Once I got everything serviceable enough to ride I hopped on and slowly began spinning through the sand once more.

Eventually I popped out onto pavement (and into a headwind). I linked up with two other folks, and the three of us rode the loop to aid station five. It felt wildly slow, but at some point we crossed the 100 mile mark and that made me a little happier. I found some of the crew of guys I’d ridden with earlier at the aid station just finishing their time there. I dumped water on my head (as the temps were quickly rising into the 80s with the sun blasting down) and decided to continue on with them. The biggest climb of the day loomed ahead, but if there’s one thing I can do it’s plod up a climb. The grade averaged 10% but went up to 15% in parts. I wasn’t fast, but I didn’t have to walk. Before too long I was down the other side and cruising into the final aid station.

However, it wasn’t over yet. At mile 116 riders had to face ~4 miles of single track. It’s not terribly technical, but I was damn tired and the three dozen turns had me crawling along at a snail’s pace as I tried not to hit a rock or tree or accidentally knock my bike off the edge. At one point someone in front of me slowed to navigate a tricky section, and I paused to put a foot down to avoid crashing into them. At that moment my right quad cramped in a way I didn’t know it could. It was so painful I had to sit down on a rock because I couldn’t even walk. I quickly took some salt tablets, drank a bunch of water, and caught my breath. After a minute I gingerly got up and took a few steps. Nope! Back down again for another minute while it tried to sort itself out. Take two went better, and I slowly pedaled off again, counting down the miles until I’d be out of the single track section. Finally, finally, the trail spit us into a parking lot and the final few miles. I got my umpteenth wind at that point, and started pushing for home. This was the part of the course we had pre-ridden on the shakeout ride, so while I knew there would be some sand (now practically nothing compared to what I’d already done) and that darn river rock section, I knew it was all doable. The single track section had slowed me way down, and I had been out of the sharp end of the race for hours, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I passed person after person on the fast gravel and eventually pavement. About a mile out I actually teared up, so happy to be actually finishing this wild ride (and also, a bit sleep and calorie deprived).

The feeling of finishing when you weren’t sure you would

I crossed over the finish line in good spirits, and sunk onto the grass where Paul had a wonderful lemonade ready and waiting (it was pretty darn hot and I was so thirsty!). I’m not always hungry after a massive effort, but in this case I was definitely both ready to eat and hungry. We got ourselves “lunch” (at this point it was 3PM or so) and sat in the shade to watch more riders cruise through. I also got my official celebratory bottle of Belgian beer – something I LOVE about this race is that you don’t have to drink your beer at the finish! Even got a few pictures in front of the official “Survivor” sign!

Survivor!

And then I realized they had waffles and ice cream, and I’m NEVER one to turn down that:

Freshly made waffles and ice cream make everything amazing. (Knee has been half heartedly rinsed off here.)

After some good chats with the Hyland’s crew, we finally rode the mile and change back to the hotel. I was totally beat. Paul was instrumental in supporting me – I can’t imagine how it would have gone if we’d both been this exhausted. He gave my bike a rinse off while I went into the hotel. The fatigue hit me hard as I walked in the room, and I spent about 15min just sitting on the floor while he prepped me a bottle of recovery drink. Over the next hour I managed to shower, clean and dress my knee, and get some dinner (leftover treats from the night before!).

The knee after a good scrubbing to get the dirt out. Not shown is the massive bruise (and deep scrape) on my right hip.

The plan was to spend the next two days exploring Zion (and maybe Bryce) National Park, and I wanted to get to bed early so we could be up at 5:45AM and in the park before 7AM to try to miss the crowds (and heat).

Ultimately, I finished the race in 8hours and 22min (just outside my most rational guess of 8hours and 15min), but slower than hoped/planned. I would have liked to be under 8 hours. That put me 14th of 20 women (times ranged from 7:02 to 10:35) and if you’d looked at the men and women as a whole group it would have put me in about 110th place of the total 225 Waffle riders (times ranged from 5:57 to 12:09 and then some DNFs). It wasn’t as strong as I was aiming for, but I was just very happy to have finished this one. And with that feeling, I headed to bed feeling generally quite satisfied.

Author: cartwheelsandcake

Cyclist, climber, hiker, trail runner, back country skier, dabbling mountaineer Lover of cake, chocolate, brownies, and sweets. Excellent napper.

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