This year marked the beginning of my 30th trip around the sun and to celebrate I decided to go big. I wanted to push my body and mind to the limit and see what kind of things I could accomplish – what better way to celebrate big than to sign up for a six-day mountain bike stage race?! I’ve been wanting to do a stage race for several years now, but stage racing is hard on bank accounts and can be difficult to get the training in if you have a tight schedule, not to mention the amount of time you have to take off to actually go and do the race. But none of those things deterred me, it just meant that I had to do A LOT of planning years in advance before I could actually make the commitment.
In September 2017, I took the leap and signed up for the Breck Epic in Breckenridge, CO. Why the Breck Epic and not one of the other stage races? Logistically, it was the best option for me, but beyond logistics I really, REALLY liked their racing philosophy of “have as much fun as possible” and the three golden rules: 1) don’t be a dick, 2) wear your helmet, and 3) don’t litter in the backcountry. I also fell in love with the daunting challenge that was the race itself, consisting of approximately 220-240 of mostly single track and 40,000’ of climbing at an average altitude of 10,000’ above sea level. Woah. WOAH. That sounds hard. I like hard. I’m not working on a PhD in soil biogeochemistry because I like easy things. So, the Breck Epic became the obvious choice.
In the months that followed I worked my ass off training for the race. During the winter I was in the gym three days a week, on the bike several days a week outside on snowy, icy gravel roads (I can’t stand the trainer and will avoid riding it at all costs!), working on stretching and mobility three days a week, and cross-country skiing whenever the snow was nice. Come spring, I transitioned into stage race specific training where I would ride hard for six days in a row, meeting specific climbing and mileage goals. In the subsequent “off weeks”, I would spend my time in the gym and recovering with fun mountain bike or road rides. This went on for months while I simultaneously worked on my PhD proposal, completed an intensive workshop on isotopes, conducted field work, and started and finished a few lab experiments. Wow. This is the first time I’ve seen all of my hard work summarized in words, on paper. It was certainly a very specific process. This was a process that I learned to trust and wouldn’t have had the slightest idea of where to start if it wasn’t for Chris Dunn with Ascend Endurance Coaching.
Finally, a few weeks ago I departed NH to make my journey westward to Colorado and race the Breck Epic. Here’s how it all went down:
Stage 1: Pennsylvania Creek, 35 miles and 6,000’ – Rain. And a little more rain. The race was delayed by two hours and the course shortened to 17 miles. The start line was chaos and I ended up toeing the line with the pro ladies instead of the cat 2 ladies and didn’t realize it until about 5 miles in when I was ready to vomit. It wasn’t a bad day, but I also wouldn’t call it a good day on the bike. However, I was VERY surprised to learn that I ended up second on the podium! And then presented with another HUGE surprise after the results were further sorted due to a snafu that occurred with the chaotic start. Turns out, I actually came in first. Cool! I’ll take it! And I’ll take that neato, white leader’s jersey!
Stage 2: Colorado Trail, 43 miles and 7,200’ – There was a lot of buzz on the start line because everyone was excited to get their first full day of racing underway. Me, on the other hand – I was scared shitless because I felt a new pressure to actually race well, now that I was adorned in a white leader’s jersey. I thought I was pacing myself properly at the start, but I still got caught up in the frenzy of the start of the race. I finally settled into my rhythm, but then out of nowhere I got double quad cramps at mile 15. Mile 15 out of 43! I tried to keep good spirits and work through the cramps hoping they would go away, but I had a deep feeling that it was going to be a long, slow day of painful leg cramps. I was not wrong. At mile 17 I started getting double hamstring cramps along with my quad cramps. To be honest, the rest of the day was miserable. I wasn’t able to climb, and I was barely able to descend without my legs seizing up. I am incredibly grateful for the community of people that I met on the trail that day because without them I would have been even more tempted to quit. Thanks to their encouragement, I pushed through and finished the stage… an hour and a half behind the new race leader.
Stage 3: Circumnavigation of Guyot, 41 miles and 8,100’ (Queen Stage!) – GREAT day of riding mountain bikes. After reflecting on what went wrong during Stage 2, I made a bunch of changes per recommendation of my coach, Chris, and the day was 1000 times better than the previous day. If there is ever an example of “effort follows attitude”, this is it. I was so nervous that I was going to be plagued by cramps again, but Chris assured me otherwise and encouraged me to stay positive. And he was right. I had a ridiculously fun day on the bike. My legs were fatigued, but they turned the pedals with tenacity without an inkling of a cramp. I started the day with the goal of recovering from Stage 2, but after I picked off dozens of riders and passed the woman sitting in second on a gnarly descent, a new fire was lit inside me. I decided to ride faster and harder to put time between me and third place. In the last 5-10 miles I ended up catching the woman in first place! Unfortunately, she was working with a nasty mechanical and I felt bad. But such is bike racing. Such is stage racing. Such is life. Everyone has good days, and everyone has bad days.
Stage 4: Aqueduct, 44 miles 6300’ – Stage 4 was kind of a “meh” day. I was tired and just rode my bike. There was no way I could close the hour and a half gap between me and first place, so I decided to ride my bike as best as I could and try to secure a solid standing in second place. I think I was kind of out of it by day 4, I hardly remember the course from this day! Relatively uneventful. I got kind of bonky in the last 10 miles and definitely slowed down a bit, but still finished strong.
Stage 5: Wheeler, 24 miles and 5,500’ – Wheeler was a hike-a-bike party! Bacon and Fireball for all! My favorite kind of mountain biking is hauling my bike up to the top of a mountain anyway I can, whether it’s pedaling, pushing, or hiking with it on my back, and then bombing down a long descent. I can’t get enough of it! That was pretty much stage 5. We pedaled up for about 4 miles, then pedaled on and off for another mile or so, then our only option was to hike-a-bike to the top. There was a false summit here and there and a couple of down hills before we reached the tippy top. Then it was a super cool, super long descent down to an old mining camp. The last few miles resembled some technical New England single track and I got pretty excited about it. Those last few miles were some of the best racing I’ve ever done. I was fast and cleared all the features – it felt good. I loved this stage, but I think I was in the minority after hearing grumblings of my fellow races later that evening!
Stage 6: Gold Dust, 30 miles 4,800’ – Last day! At this point I was sitting pretty solid in second place and went into this stage with a calmness that took all week to discover. I didn’t ride particularly fast, but I was content and happy to be on my way to finishing the Breck Epic. If anything, it was a day that I was able to reflect on the past week of riding. And think about how BAD my ass hurt. I think I pedaled most of the day out of the saddle. Not always efficient, but it was better than increasing the size of the patch of the raw skin on my rear end.
When I crossed the finish line I couldn’t help but get a little emotional. Shane greeted me with champagne and strawberries (according to a fellow racer from Germany, this is the only proper way to recover post-race). I was SO happy to be done because I was SO tired (and my ass hurt so freakin’ bad!), but I was also sad that it was all over. It took years of preparation to condition my body, save enough money, and secure enough time off to make this dream come true. Even then, there is a bit of uncertainty when you toe the line on day 1 that there is a possibility that you could not finish due to so many potential reasons. At the finish line I was proud of myself because I did it.
I learned a lot from this whole experience and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again if the opportunity presented itself. I am so incredibly grateful that I got to participate in such a cool event. There are many, many people who will never get to experience something like this for whatever reason(s), and that humbles me. I am grateful for the lovely people that I met on the trail who became my family for the week. We all endured massive daily challenges together and there was never a doubt that we would be there to support each other. My favorite thing about this race is that I met people from all over the world – Columbia, Kenya, New Zealand, Chicago, Belgium, Japan, SoCal, the list goes on – and everyone is SO EXCITED to share their local trails with their new friends. The global mountain biking community is special with our dedication to being stewards of nature, commitment to rider safety, and advocating for full-send fun.
Party on and ride bikes, y’all!
Shout outs and THANKS YOUs
Race Support: Shane ❤
Everything Bike: Huge shout out to DG Cycle Sports for shipping a last minute box of gear and making sure I always have what I need to have the best ride possible! Also sending lots of love to my friends at Tennessee Valley Bicycles and Harpers Bike Shop.
Coaching: Chris Dunn, Ascend Endurance Coaching
Gym Workouts Crafted By: Michelle Kenik, Health First Fitness
Race Day Mechanics: Marty Caviano and Shane Hensley, Smart Cycling Service
Post-Race Massage: Julie, Mary, and Casey – love these girls! Thanks for the gift certificate!
Encouragement: Family and friends, near and far! As well as all my new trail pals.