This blog series follows me, an extremely average cyclist, as I go all in to complete the legendary Leadville 100 race on a singlespeed mountain bike.
12 Hours of Mesa Verde is an ultra beer-drinking event with a really long bike race added in as a bonus, and is based out of the Montezuma Fairgrounds in Cortez, Colorado, just a few miles from Mesa Verde National Park. The riding happens across the highway on the Phil’s World trail system, a network of rolling, often buff singletrack that winds through sage, cactus and pinon, and tops out to vistas of high desert, neat rocks, and much higher and neater mountains in the distance. Even neater, the race raises money for several non-profit organizations in Southwest Colorado focused on the helping the youths. In this race format, the objective is to race as many laps as you can within the 12 hours, with those who did the same number of laps ranked by the total actual time it took to complete them. As an example, Lee and I did the same number of laps this year, but he placed ahead of me because he was half an hour faster. This race can be done as a relay with teams of up to four people, or solo.
I love travelling and I love racing, but doing both at the same time and calling it a vacation gets a little exhausting, especially since the Adulting Fairy does not seem to come around and take care of the life maintenance for me while I’m gone. Fortunately, as of now, I don’t have any more races planned where I have to pack an overnight bag, until after the Leadville 100. This is one reason that completing Mesa Verde feels like a giant weight off my shoulders. The other is the the emotional baggage associated with that race that I was finally able to put down after carrying it around all year. That sounds a bit dramatic because it is. I am a mountains-out-of-molehills kind of lady. The reality is not that interesting.
I did OK last year, finishing five laps (84 miles) on my old singlespeed, but I was not happy. The course has just enough technical sections to expose my overall weakness as a technical rider. I noticed myself walking over sections many other riders were clearing with ease, and I was bucked off a few times, screwing up small obstacles and almost non-existent rocks, stuff I should have been to ride. The rough sections were demoralizing, tiring, and by my fourth lap, kind of terrifying. I forced myself through a fifth lap, but at that point, I wasn’t really even trying anymore. I had time for a sixth, and chose not to do it, citing my decreasing skill set and my increasing overall pain. Meanwhile, Lee came in after seven laps, earning second place in the Singlespeed category, exhausted and slightly delirious, but rightfully proud of himself. I kind of wanted to be mad at him. The race had left my whole body sore for days, my tailbone hurting for a month, and enough disappointment in myself to last me through my Leadville attempt last year, where I got to replenish my disappointment. In other words, butt-hurt, in many ways.
This year went way better. We left Summit County in a whiteout snowstorm as soon as I was done work on Thursday, with our crewman and good friend Dex in tow. Snow turned into rain and heavy fog for most of the drive to Pagosa Springs, where we stopped for the night. We had dinner and a couple of beers that for some reason tried to murder Dex and I the next morning, and sat around in amusement when the bartender at the hotel bar recognized Lee as a classmate from high school, from 20 years ago, in Minnesota. We got to Cortez early enough to ride one lap of the course before it started raining again, checked into our hotel, and went for an early dinner. We picked up our swag and number plates at the Kokopelli Bike Shop, and patted ourselves on the back profusely for demonstrating just a little bit of self control, and not walking out of there with a $2,300 titanium gravel bike that fit me perfectly. N + 1, they say.
The rain from the earlier in the week and the day before the race, and the frequently changing forecast had us a bit worried, especially since weather has drastically affected most of our races this year, but we were ready to give it a go. At 630 on race morning, the race director made the call to delay the start by one hour to let the trails dry out a little bit more. That turned out to be the right call. It now became 11 Hours of Mesa Verde, and here is how I did:
Overall objective: A. Although this was a big race, and all my races this year leading up to Leadville are technically “training races”, what made this objective unique from past events is that I was sort of racing to train, as opposed to training to race. Because I was still head-casing about this race from last year by remembering every single rock on the course that did me wrong, I wanted to completely remove the competitive aspect. I went as far as giving myself permission to quit after one lap, pull up a chair, and crack open a beer, if I decided this wasn’t fun. Fortunately, Coach gave me a different mission, in case I wanted to put my hard work in the past few weeks to better use than day-drinking. We decided on a four lap minimum, with a focus on riding as technically sound as possible. I managed six laps, and although I slowed down as the race went on, I rode the last lap with as much technical integrity as the first one. This does not mean that I cleaned every obstacle, but I was able to ride more of the course than last year, much more solidly. This is a huge deal for me.
Training/Fitness: B+. Things did not really start to feel any better since my last post from a couple weeks ago. I was not feeling strong in my workouts, I was still stressing about adjusting to my new schedule, I had a nasty crud since the day after I got back from Philly, and I still did not feel like I was recovering well from my workouts, even during the taper week. I did not believe Coach when she told me I was going to be pretty damn fit for this race. Finally, during a ride around the lake with Lee and Dex the day before we left, I started to feel like I was getting something back. At the pre-ride I felt stronger yet. Although I didn’t quite have the top-end horsepower for this race, I was notably faster, steadier, and stronger. This made the rough terrain way easier to handle, and I did not have to rely on momentum as much to make it up the punchy climbs. The only reason I am not giving myself an A is because I skimped on a few strength and stretching workouts. Specifically some upper body stuff. Incidentally, the day after the race, the only place where I was really sore was…my upper body.
Preparation, pre-travel: B. I have my routine pretty dialed, and prepared everything I could in the limited time I had throughout the week. I relied on Lee quite a bit more than usual because I had work all week, and he did not, and we also planned to leave directly from my job, so it was up to him and Dex to close up the house and make sure we had everything we needed. I am not giving myself a higher grade because I took for granted that Lee would deal with my bike for me, instead of cleaning it and checking it over myself.
Preparation, pre-race: A. Not much to say here. We debugged our bikes on the pre-ride and checked them over one more time. We put on our number plates the night before, and set everything out for the morning. It honestly went pretty smooth.
Nutrition, pre-race: D. It’s so hard to eat well when travelling, especially when travelling with others, and I forget that it’s not all about me. Coach and I had talked about improving in this area of race prep by researching restaurant menus well in advance to increase the chances of finding healthy meals. However, we weren’t really decided on which route we were taking to Cortez or how far we were going to drive that evening, so I didn’t really know where to start. By the time we started looking for food on Thursday night, we were tired and hangry, settling on the first place that looked open and had easy parking. We had a very similar issue the following day in Cortez, getting done with the pre-ride at the awkward time between lunch and dinner, where restaurants were either closed or not serving the stuff we wanted off the dinner menu. I will still own my choices and will do things differently next time. The only reason I didn’t give myself a total failing grade is because some things I ate were OK, I drank a ton of water, and it was that time of month where if I didn’t eat melted cheese, I would kill.
Nutrition, during race: A, but with a caveat. This was probably the most calories-to-miles I have managed to take in during a race, or even during long training rides. I even ate some real food (organic canned soup, bagel chips with hummus) in addition to the gels and Gatorades. However, I only drank and refueled in between laps, at the truck, where I would sit down and hang out for a while. The exception was the last lap, where I stopped half way for a minute for a gel and water. For training, and for making sure I could do the distance that day, this was great! I confirmed what foods work and sit well with me for endurance events. The glaring issue here is that I did not feel comfortable, at any point on the course, to take a hand of the bars for long enough to eat on the go. Had I been racing in earnest, this food strategy would have cost me a lot of time, or a lot of energy.
Execution of Strategy: B. The strategy was to just ride, focus on the technical aspect, and have fun. It sounds like a cheap answer, so I’ll elaborate. Since this was an actual race, I could have been way more assertive at the start and put myself in a better position before we went onto the singletrack. I could have taken much shorter breaks in between laps, as discussed above. I could have pushed harder overall. Yet, based on the way I felt throughout the day, it would have been way too easy to cross that thin line between feeling like I had more in me, and completely blowing up. In this case, I think I benefited a lot more from a training perspective, and had a much better result as a racer, by erring on the side of being too laid back.
Attitude: A. This was quite a big change from last year. I think taking the pressure off by not striving for any sort of result was key. I have been stressed and grouchy for at least a week leading up to the race, and was expecting to have a pretty lousy pre-ride on Friday. I accidentally had fun though, and it helped set the tone for race day. I loved catching up with a friend and drinking hot chocolate during our start delay. I was able to laugh it off when a guy crashed in front of me three miles into the first lap, and I crashed on top of him (so was he). I was a lot less bothered by the rough sections that absolutely rattled me last year. I employed every mental strategy that I could think of to get through the tediousness of going in circles. I was having fun, and I wanted to quit after every single lap. Both of these statements were true, and I have never had a long race where both of these sentiments did not exist simultaneously.
I save attitude for last on my race assessments, because that is the single most important factor in not only how a race goes, but why I am racing in the first place. When the training and packing, and bike maintenance, and last meals are done, and the start cannon goes off, all I am left with is my attitude. In some ways, I have been lucky, as I am furiously knocking on wood, that I have not really been tested with any major mechanicals, illnesses, or injuries that can make or break a race. That is not to say that what I have done so far isn’t hard. Saddle sores, fatigue, self doubt, and weather are all a part of endurance riding, these things affect everybody. However, my special talent has always been mind-fucking myself in the absence of real external factors. This race was a turning point for me, not just because of the progress I made in my fitness, but because I managed to get through it without making the experience significantly worse for myself for no reason.
The self-doubt crept in plenty of times (“Holy shit! Why am I tired after just one lap?”), and I was definitely not happy just pedaling away the whole time. I was absolutely doing Bike Math: “I am a little over halfway through the first half of the hard section, that goes on for approximately two miles, and when it’s over, will leave me with four miles to go in the third lap, which means I will be 3/4 of the way done if I do four laps, but only halfway done if I do six. There is no way I can do double of what I haven’t even done yet.” I remember the anger I had for myself, and frustration I felt with the course last year, and how tightly I hung on to it, and I had so little of that this year. The difference was my repeated, although not perpetual, awareness of my thought processes, my newfound ability to remind myself to be present (sometimes), as well the relief that comes with being able to let go of the bothersome stuff, like not cleaning an obstacle or the tension I felt in my shoulders. The self-talk is still loud, constant, and obnoxious, but it has been a little bit less mean when I fucked up, and little bit less pitiful when I wanted to feel sorry for myself.
I ended up with a pretty good result, placing 5th in Singlespeed, made more special by sharing the podium with Lee, who placed 4th in Singlespeed (there was no separate category for singlespeed solo women). Yet with less than three months until the Leadville 100, now is not the time to rest. I can’t help but notice that it took me 11 hours to ride the 100 miles at Mesa Verde, and that race had only half the elevation gain of Leadville. There is still more work to be done. I will also continue to work on my mindset, because life and bike racing is way more fun without the temper tantrums inside my head.