Today was the day. I would not have a better opportunity to "get the monkey off my back." Not wanting to be the "perennial 2nd place finisher" any longer, I was determined to leave it all out on the trail.
And so it began with the call up. I took my usual spot several rows back. Danielle was up in the front row next to Chris Eatough. I guess she was looking to get the "hole shot." At the start, I rode fast enough to get in with a good group of racers, but not so fast that I would blow up.
The temperature at the start was 52 degrees, but I knew it was going to be a long hot day (the high was 88). Using a Sharpie I wrote "EAT!" on my forearm to ensure that my nutrition plan was going to be followed.
Entering Brush Creek Tr., I was in a good position and was able to keep the pace up. I could see Paula just ahead and somewhere in front of her were Danielle and Betsy. Brush Creek was a hoot! I was in a good rhythm and already I knew my legs were going to be strong!
Entering Boyd Gap, Zeke told me that the others were just a couple minutes ahead. On this singletrack descent there were a couple guys in front of me using WAY too much brake, but I guess this was a good thing as it forced me to be patient and not do anything stupid. Descending down the paved section to Old Copper Road, I was right on Paula's wheel and could see Betsy just ahead.
The two SLOW guys were also ahead. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they were probably not locals and just did not know the trail like I. But I wanted to keep Betsy in sight so I jumped ahead of them and Paula upon entering Old Copper Road. I was right on Betsy's wheel when we hit the super rooty section. I was able to get around her by going to the right.
From then on, it was a train of three: I, Paula, then Betsy. We rode this way for the remainder of the singletrack up to the beginning of the 65 miles of gravel road, a.k.a. "the Death March."
It was here that we caught up to Danielle. We all rode together for the first couple minutes until Paula flatted.
As we started up a series of 3 short, but supersteep shady climbs, Betsy and Danielle pulled away from me. I never lost sight of them and was slowly able to reel them back in on the descents.
I knew that a 5 mile flat section was fast approaching so I started looking around for "domestiques." You know, some big strong guys on 29'rs. I found two and locked on tight to their wheel. I was able to drop Danielle using this tactic. She was looking strong and I needed every advantage to put some distance between us.
Betsy also followed suit and for a while we rode together. I thought it was pretty ingenious of her to use a riser bar and flip it down on her 29'r to give her a proper bike fit. When we started climbing Daly Gap, Betsy once again managed to drop me as she went into "mountain goat" mode.
Not worrying too much, I just settled into a rhythm and let my legs and lungs dictate the pace. After about 30 minutes, I just happened to look back and saw Danielle. Uh, oh ... it appeared that I settled a bit too much. Luckily I was feeling good enough to kick it up a notch and not let her catch me.
Once on top of the ridge, I put it in the big ring and hammered it to Aid Station 2 where I had Zeke waiting to hand off my Camelbak and gel flask. I stopped no longer than 30 seconds and Zeke also poured a much needed cup of cold water down my back. His days of working for Petty Racing paid off for me as my pit time was so short.
From there it was a short gradual climb followed by some sweet descending to Jack's River campground. I apologize to the driver of the truck who thought that he was going to make a hood ornament out of me.
By now, it was starting to get HOT! But I was hydrating well and taking a squeeze of gel every 30 minutes, so my body was feeling great. At the bottom of the Potato Patch climb, I was able to hook up with another 29'r who seemed to be equal to me on the climb. His name was Todd. It was great to be able to pace up this 9 mile climb with him.
About a mile into the climb we caught up with Betsy. As I approached her, I tried to read her body language for any indication of weakness. Her cadence seemed to be a little slow, but it also appeared she had a 2 by 9 drivetrain. But from racing against her last year, I also knew she was superfast and here I was riding alongside her. Was it because I was better or was there something wrong with her? I guess only time would tell.
Upon reaching the top, Betsy sped up a bit and I matched her, but ouch, it did hurt. I passed by Bubba's aid station 3 and when I looked back to see where Todd and Betsy were, Betsy was not there! Oh my goodness, now was my chance to try to put some distance between us.
The adrenaline kicked in and I do believe that is the fastest I ever climbed and descended the next 10 miles. It was super rutty up on top and you had to be ever so focused or you would end up cartwheeling off the mountain.
The descent on FS 17 was super fun! Even the short evil uphills were not so bad. Legs were great and I happily stood and ground up those pitches. At this point my chain was beginning to make some noises, "I ... need ... lube." So at aid station 4 (mile 65) I stopped and let them lube my chain while I refilled and refueled.
The long flat stretch after this aid station is usually my arch enemy. Usually there is a headwind and with the legs being heavy, I feel like I am on a treadmill: working hard but going nowhere. But today, the legs were good. Yes, the headwind was there but so were two more domestiques. Once again, I latched on. They were strong and a couple times I about popped off, but I dug deep, knowing that this was a place where I could potentially put more time on my competition.
At this point in the race, I was beginning to realize that a win was a possibility, However, I had no idea how far back Betsy, Danielle, and Paula were. I also vividly remembered the sprint finish in 2007 and did not want to repeat that bit of excitement.
Once I began to climb up Big Frog, I found my legs again and pushed it. I knew my favorite set of rollers lay just ahead and I was ready for some fun. This section of fireroad seemed to fly by. In years past, this was where I began to really hurt, but today I was on fire. Everything seemed to be going perfect!
I flew down the descent into the Big Creek area, almost overcooking a couple corners, but by now I was beginning to smell the singletrack, even though it was still 8-10 miles away. I flew past Bruce Dickman at aid station 5. I think he was a bit disappointed he could not serve me!
Right after Big Creek there is "the Wall," an agonizingly steep section that always hurts like a MF'r. But not today! Today I was the conqueror, not the conquered. It was here that I began passing some Big Frog racers and they looked like they were in a world of hurt. But they were indeed toughing it out!
After a few miles of rollers, it was downhill time to the last bit of singletrack. Oh, yeah! Back in my element. At the last aid station, I dropped my Camelbak, drank a Dr. Pepper, grabbed a cold water bottle. Thanks, Zeke! I leapt onto West Fork and treated this last 10 miles like a lap in an XC race. It made no difference that I had already been racing for 90 miles. I asked my legs for some speed and they responded gleefully.
I thoroughly enjoyed Quartz, Bypass, Lower Chestnut, and Thunderock. As I dropped on down to the last bit of pavement, I said to myself, "I am going to win!" My next thought was, "About damn time!" As I rolled across the finish line, I looked up and saw 8:06. A PR for me. Elated, I soft-pedaled up the paved path, cherishing the moment.
WOW! A perfect plan (thanks Coach), a perfect day, perfect support (thanks Zeke and the 29'rs), perfect bike (thanks Specialized and Bruce), and perfect nutrition (thanks Dedicated Athlete and Hammer).
A huge congrats to Paula for pulling out a 2nd place finish and to Danielle for 3rd. It seems both these ladies had bike mechanicals but dug deep and finished strong. And tremendous kudos to Betsy for hanging in for fourth as she was having body mechanicals.
As for the person who yelled out to me while on West Fork singletrack, "I read your blog," who are you so that I can hopefully see you at future races? That was very inspiring.