After moving to New Hampshire in January, I made it my goal to get back in shape and race the collegiate mountain biking season in the fall. I had about 8 months to make this happen. To accomplish this goal, I signed up for two very challenging races over the summer, each with a different race format. The first race was the Attitash Enduro in the Vittoria Eastern States Cup. For those of you who are not familiar with the enduro race format, basically you’re racing to get down the mountain faster than your competitors (but it’s not a downhill race). You have a timing chip that records all of your descents, but not the climbs, and at the end of the race you turn your chip in and the computer figures out the fastest rider. These races take place on ski mountains that have long, technical descents and usually have some sort of true downhill course. Because this was my first enduro race, I didn’t really know what to expect and was a bit nervous.
The second race that I signed up for over the summer was essentially the opposite of an enduro. The Hampshire 100 is an endurance cross country mountain bike race. Don’t let the names fool you — an endurance mountain bike race is really different from an enduro. I’m not really sure of the etymology behind the word “enduro”, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. At any rate, the Hampshire 100 is an endurance race with several categories to choose from. There’s the 100 mile race, the 100K race, and the 50K race. In addition to the mountain bike race, there was also a foot race with distances of 100K and 50K. I signed up for the 100K (basically 60 miles) in the women’s sport category. This race was structured around a 32 mile course, so the 100 mile riders went for three laps, the 100K two laps, and the 50K one lap. The racers lined up at 6:45 am Sunday morning and had until 7:30 pm to complete the course.
PART I – ATTITASH ENDURO
I arrived on a Friday evening to check in and try to get a few practice runs in. I got there later than I expected, so I only had an hour and a half to practice. Practicing some of the runs required that I purchase a lift ticket, which was expensive and I couldn’t justify buying it if I was only going to use the lift two times. In addition, they recommended a full face helmet for the race, which I needed to rent and the bike shop at the ski resort was closing. (FYI – When a full face helmet is recommended or required, that probably means you’re going to be riding on some burly terrain). I ended up not practicing Friday evening, but rather relaxing and trying not to let my nerves get the better of me.
Saturday morning rolls around and I head over to the information tent for the racer’s meeting. The Saturday lift ticket was included in the race entry fee, which allowed me to get some practice runs in before the race. However, the bike shop still wasn’t open, so I completed my first two practice stages with my regular helmet. Stage 1 was fun; it had some interesting off camber turns and a few technical bits, but was overall not a big deal. Stage 2 was an entirely different story; there were drops, constant rock gardens, and a bombardment of feature after feature. It was very technical and pretty terrifying. I crashed many, many times on the practice run alone, which really didn’t help my attitude towards the race. Racing is mostly mental, and if your mental game is destroyed you’re going to have a shitty race. I finally finished getting down Stage 2 and went straight to the bike shop to pick up my rental helmet. My goal was to leave with all my teeth and hopefully no broken bones.
I never got around to practicing Stages 3, 4, and 5. Everyone said 4 and 5 were fun and easy, so I didn’t feel like it was imperative that I make it to that side of the mountain before the start of the race. I probably had time to do a practice run down Stage 3, but I was worried that I would still be on the race course after the allotted practice time was up which would result in getting disqualified. I hung out at my car for about 45 minutes trying to relax and slow the rush of adrenaline that flooded my system during the practice runs. When the race finally started, the parking lot cleared and folks were headed up the mountain. I didn’t really understand that the start would be at the BEGINNING of Stage 1 (i.e. on top of the mountain, up a steep one mile climb), so I hurried along to get there in time for the start of my heat. The first climb to Stage 1 turned out to be a timed climb, which was made clear during the racer meeting. What wasn’t clear was that the station that we were to clock out of was located only about half way up the mountain. I didn’t see the station and climbed all the way to the start of Stage 1 before I realized my mistake. I had to ride down the hill back to the chip reader, then climb all the way back up. This was my third time climbing that thing, and I was already exhausted before I even started my timed runs.
The first stage went really well, I felt fast compared to my practice run, I didn’t crash, I even made it up and over a feature that I was worried about. I ended Stage 1 feeling much more confident about the race. Let me be clear though, when I say I felt confident, I don’t mean confident that I was going to win the women’s amateur category, I felt confident that I was going to make it out alive. I rode the chair lift up to the next stage with my competitor, M* (there were only two of us in the amateur category). She was ridiculously awesome — awesome that she was only 16 or 17 and was conquering this gnarly mountain, awesome that she had top notch sportsmanship, and awesome for being so encouraging and waiting for me at the bottom of each stage. M is a true class act and I can’t wait to see her excel in the sport of mountain biking. As I approached the start of Stage 2, I couldn’t help but get a little knot in my stomach. My practice run was rough, I crashed at almost every corner. Imagine a human pinball. Somehow, though, I descended Stage 2 will minimal issues. There were certainly sections that I walked down because I don’t have the technical skills yet to squash four foot drops and then immediately cut around a switch back. But overall, I made it down Stage 2 waaaay faster than the practice run and without a single crash. At the end of that stage I was feeling pretty good about myself. So good that I flew down the mountain without chipping out. I got to the bottom and looked up and realized that the clock was still running. That was frustrating. I threw my bike down and ran as fast as I could up to the timing box.
M was waiting for me at the next chair lift and we road up to the start of Stage 3. I really didn’t know what to expect from this stage, other than that it was rumored to be just a burly as Stage 2. From talking to the other racers I was able to get an idea of certain features that I should probably walk. For example, go left at the steep chute (whatever that means, they said I would know it when I see it) and there’s a ride around the wooden jump, so veer right. I started Stage 3 feeling pretty good. I did a lot of positive self-talk and encouragement on Stage 2 and that seemed to work well: “keep your head up”, “look through the turns”, “focus on riding smoothly”. I did the same for Stage 3. When I approached “the chute”, I went left. Success. I continued down the mountain feeling confident and I was having fun. Further down the course, I saw a little wooden bridge that I was excited to ride. Or was it a ramp? When I was cresting the ramp I realized that I was riding up the jump that everyone warned me about. I super maned over the handle bars and down the mountain, all while trying my best to prepare myself for impact and pain. Funny how it feels like time can literally stop when you’re crashing. I belly flopped into the ground.
For about I minute I thought I broke my leg. I laid at the foot of the ramp and looked up at it and realized it was no-joke of a ramp. I untangled myself from my bike while hollering out in pain and scooted off the trail, because another wave of riders was about to haul ass down the mountain. Several guys whizzed by me and all asked if I was ok. I grunted at each of them, and shouted that I don’t know and told them leave me alone. I rolled around the in dirt for a few more minutes, trying to shake off the pain and fight back tears. I decided that I had to get up and finish my run so I could cross the mountain over to Stages 4 and 5. I suppose I could have quit at the end of that run, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could ride this mountain and finish the race. I got a DNF (Did Not Finish) once at a little race in Tennessee and was so mad at myself afterward that I didn’t push through. I decided I would never get a DNF again, unless I was so injured that I couldn’t walk or my bike was so broken that I couldn’t ride it.
Once again, at the end of the run, M was waiting for me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated her company and encouragement. She could have kept going, but she waited a good 10 minutes for me to hobble down the rest of Stage 3. After Stage 3, we rode across the mountain back near the start of the race. From there, we had to climb back up the initial climb (the one that I’ve done three times already, remember?). The climb is certainly rideable, but considering the level of exhaustion I was feeling, hike-a-bike was a better option. In fact, most of the riders opt for the hike-a-bike strategy since we aren’t timed on the climbs, only the downhills sections. Stages 4 and 5 were relatively unremarkable, they would have probably been fun had I not just crashed, but I powered through them anyway, slowly but surely. One of the hardest things was hiking back up the mountain a fifth time to finish Stage 5. A thunderstorm broke loose and there was lightning flashing all around and rain was pouring down. Honestly, the rain felt great. It was so hot at that point, the rain was a welcomed relief; however, it made for slick trail conditions.
After the race I stuck around for the award ceremony. Even though I had a much, MUCH slower time than M, I still got second. Ha! That’s one of the perks of only having two competitors in a category. Even if you’re the slowest one, you still get a prize. And I got a nice prize at that, two new tires for the mountain bike! But the best price was knowing that I can finish an enduro in the gnarliest of terrains on an ill-equipped bike. I’m glad to know I can push pass the mental blocks that tell me I can’t do it. It was also awesome to receive encouragement from my fellow racers across all categories and feel like I was a part of a community that I just met.
Would I do another enduro? Absolutely. Would I do another enduro at Attitash? Probably, and next time I’ll be more prepared. I didn’t find this out until after the race, but Attitash ski resort has a nickname: Atticrash. Go figure!
PART II – THE HAMPSHIRE 100
Initially, when I first signed up for the race, my goal was to finish in under 8 hours. I only started training for it a month beforehand, and while it’s easy to jump on a road bike and crank out a long ride, it’s nowhere near equivalent to the energy and strength required to do the same mileage on the mountain bike. Unfortunately, given my schedule, I only had time to train on the road. I would ride 60+ miles on the road once per week, and continue with my regular mountain bike riding during the other days. I was able to spend an entire Sunday a couple of weeks before the Hampshire 100 riding a long mountain bike ride (I logged about 32 miles). At this point I figured my endurance was good enough to finish the race, but I had to come to terms that my original goal of sub 8 hours wouldn’t be very likely. On race day, I had to tell my brain to chill out and just have fun because I get to ride my mountain bike all day!
The first lap was good, but I got caught up in the excitement of racing and started off too fast. I was easily on the tail end of the expert women, but decided that there is no way that I would be able to sustain that pace the entire day. After the first feed station the field of riders started to thin and I started to find my groove. Gravel grinding doesn’t suit my riding style very well and the first 10 miles of the lap is mostly double track. I was very excited to leave the rest area and find that the double track climb led to a really fun downhill section of single track. From there on out, there was single track scattered about and connected by sections of double track. The last 5-10 miles were mostly single track on super soft, loamy soil. It was really enjoyable to ride, but many of the rock garden features became challenging as I became more and more tired. When I finished my first lap I was pretty exhausted and wasn’t sure how I would gather up the strength to do another one.
I arrived at the start/finish line where there was a large feed station with SO MUCH food. I took a really long break — probably around 20 minutes — to rest and eat food. Even though I didn’t feel like I could stomach it, I ate as much as I could. (FYI: boiled potatoes are great to have at an endurance race feed station!) I filled my water reservoir and started the second lap. I felt energized, but that was entirely attributed to the large amount of cold brew coffee that I consumed after eating a bunch of sugar. My new found energy only lasted until the first feed station on the loop, at which point I spotted another female rider and decided to try to catch her. I didn’t race out of the feed station, but rather decided to try to reel her in slowly. Eventually, I caught up to her and had a perfect opportunity to pass her as we crossed a paved road. At that point I caught another wind of energy, determined to put distance and time between me and her. I kept churning away at the race course and encountered very few people on the second lap. This is primarily due to most racers being registered for the 50K. All of the other women were either done racing for the day (raced the 50K) or a considerable distance ahead of me. However, I wasn’t entirely alone, you end up making friends with trail buddies along the way that you may play leap frog with and end the end is fairly comforting knowing that you’re not the only one suffering.
The last five miles were tough. I was so tired that my skills were sloppy and I started having mini crashes on even the smallest obstacles. There were a bunch of self-service feed stations scattered throughout the race course and they were stocked with energy gels and water. I started stopping at these little havens to suck down gu packets so I could get my ass across the finish line. I eventually made it to the finish, sweat soaked and dirt covered. It was a relatively uneventful finish. Most of the competitors had finished at that point so there were just a few people clapping as I rolled through the finish. Little kids came running after trying to give me my finishers medal, but I avoided them because I really didn’t want to puke all over them. The children eventually caught me and congratulated me on my hard work. I said thank you and accepted my medal.
I hung around the finish line because they were starting to hand out awards. I wasn’t really sure where I stood in comparison to the other women in my category. I wasn’t even sure how many other women were even in my category — online it showed only three of us registered, but who knows if any participants signed up the day of the race. As it turns out there were only three of us and one of the women didn’t finish her race, so by default we both placed first and second. I finished second to the other lady in my category. Which sounds nice, but I always feel like getting second when there are only two of us in the category isn’t that big of an accomplishment. But then I have to remind myself that 1) most people find participating in a 60-mile mountain bike race insane and 2) because it’s a ridiculous event, most people don’t even bother attempting it. In the end, I’m really happy that I pushed myself to finish the race because that was my goal to begin with. It wasn’t about “winning” or beating my competitors, it was about challenging myself to complete a difficult task — and I did it.
I’m looking forward towards racing for UNH during the collegiate mountain biking season (yes, grad students are allowed to compete!). My goal is to place in the top five by the end of the season and hopefully position myself for having a really strong year next year. It will be tough because I don’t really “train” for races. Working on a PhD takes a lot of time and is my number one priority. It just so happens that riding bikes is my method of stress management and if I get to participate in races and have fun doing it then I’m happy. And when I’m happy, I produce good work.
* The letter “M” was used in place for my competitor’s actual name to give her some internet privacy.