Four hours into a 38-mile race, with three miles to go and somehow still in second place, I was done. I walked the remaining portions of a climb I should have ridden and congratulated the two racers that rode by and onto the podium. How did I get here? What can I learn from this let down? Let’s rewind.
All forms of competition push you to the limit and sometimes over. That’s the point, to give it everything you’ve got. But it is those races (or training rides, if you’re a special kind of masochist) that push you so far over the limits that are truly special. You learn more about yourself, what you can do and what your limits truly are in those races than you do anywhere else. This year’s Big Sandy did that for me.
Coming in I hadn’t raced a long XC race in nearly eight months. There was a successful season of singlespeed cyclocross in there that helped keep some form, and some decent training rides where I thought I was pushing my limits and even overreaching. But I needed a race to truly test myself and the racing ability of my new Santa Cruz Tallboy.
I’d never raced the Big Sandy so I didn’t know what I was getting into. But a 38-mile race of flowy singletrack with winning lap times just under 3.5 hours in dry conditions sounded like a good challenge. Three days before the race, my friend Ron (who’s won the singlespeed division there) suggested I use a bike with a dropper post, which I didn’t have for the Tallboy 3 yet. I didn’t think that I would really need one for such an endurance centered race, but I took his advice and ordered a Fox Transfer post that arrived at my door Friday afternoon. All of this demonstrates that I was doubting my fitness and abilities.
The race started off with a doozy of a climb. We filed in and I was about sixth spot for the initial steep grunt. When it leveled out slightly I was able to keep that same threshold pace and pass a few riders as we kept climbing. Not even a mile into the race, I couldn’t believe how well I was doing. I’m a tall, heavy guy on a dropper-equipped Tallboy 3 that is more “trail” bike than its predecessor. I had clearly underestimated myself and this bike.
After we crested and the trail turned slightly down, this gradual contoured descent was where the bike really shined. I didn’t feel like I was really pushing it, but the bike just carried momentum over the rocks and through the turns so well that I caught and passed Team Clif Bar rider Vinny Owens and made my way up onto the leader, Jeremiah Root. The trail turned down even more, with ditches and muddy ruts to avoid as we ripped the descent together. I paid the price for riding too closely in these conditions and caught a piece of mud from his bike in my left eye which immediately closed up. One eyed descending isn’t quite as fast so Jeremiah rode away. When the trail eventually turned up again I could afford to take a hand off the bar and clear my eye. I was still in second, but in no-man’s land with no riders in sight anywhere. From this point on it was a solo adventure, a battle with the elements and my mental reserve.
At the top of the next climb I came to an unlatched but closed gate. I’d never been on a race course where I had to open a gate and there was no course marking, but I did see tire tracks go through the other side so it had to be the way to go. I quickly learned the reason for the closed gate — cows. Yep, the trails we were racing on went through open cow pasture for the next 10 miles. Thankfully, the cows didn’t use the trail as their main route of travel, so it wasn’t terribly potted. But there were several places with fresh poo and a creek crossing/mud pit the cows use. Thankful I had taken the time to install a front fender.
Pasture trail aside, the course was almost all relentless undulating singletrack, which would have been much more fun if it wasn’t wet and muddy. Speeds were down, climbing was slick and tough, and it was really hard to keep momentum. Yet the Tallboy 3 was still rocking it. I never had a problem with the front wheel lifting on steep climbs and it stayed well balanced when slipping and sliding around. These conditions also made it really hard ride with a hand free to stay fueled and hydrated, so I don’t think I took a drink until about 10 miles in when the course hit a short section of dirt road. It was a slog and I felt like I wasn’t going fast at all, just getting through it. How was I still sitting in second?! I kept pushing as fast as I could, not knowing where I was going but just following the two fresh tire tracks laid down by the leader.
As the course approached the “lollipop” split at mile 16, the terrain was getting noticeably rockier. I had a few fumbles on some rocky climbs, figuring that eventually on one of these mishaps I would get caught by someone. At one point, I came around a corner to a dry rock wash with a big up-and-over that was rideable, but there was a dog standing right on top of it. Since I wasn’t sure what the dog’s move would be I dismounted and ran it, and had to walk through the next section as well since I had no momentum. I remounted and pedaled up the next steep climb, a challenging grade with wood water bars topped with rubber flaps that would catch a pedal if my timing was off. On this climb, as with many others, I was surprised that I could power up.
Finally, I crossed the Squaw’s Leap suspension bridge over the San Juaquin River and started the 2-mile, 1,200-foot climb of Pa’San Ridge. The initial portion was all hike-a-bike over rocky steps. Once that was over, climbing was steep and relentless. By the top I was getting hungry since I hadn’t eaten anything two hours into the race. I didn’t eat though since I knew a long descent was coming, and if I did, I would certainly cramp on the next climb. Looking back, I probably should have eaten since I was already in deficit.
The Pa’San Ridge downhill was awesome with plenty of rock gardens, small drops and fast corners. I put the dropper down and let‘er rip. But by that I mean I let the bike do the work and just relaxed. I couldn’t really push the downhill since my back was knotting up and it was hard to hold myself up in a low attack position. Conserving energy became my main concern and I’m sure I left a couple minutes on the course in that descent alone. Coming around the last corner and seeing the bridge was a very welcome sight. I was finally on the way back!
On the climb after the bridge, I could feel that fluid had settled in my legs from the long descent. I tried to ride it out easy but the cramps started anyways, and I’d be battling them the rest of the race. I crossed through the aid station parking lot after two and a half hours and finally on the 15-mile return home on the same trails I rode up. From here on out I was completely over extended. Just get through it, I thought, it’s only 15 miles. But those miles just were NOT ticking off. Trails were more chewed up, slicker and slower than on the ride out and it was a total suffer fest. I started catching the 23-mile course riders pretty regularly and we cheered each other on, because this was tough.
My whole body hurt, and the gears were making horrible noises. But there was a new ringing noise I noticed. It took me a while to diagnose it, but once I realized the noise stopped when I used the rear brake I knew exactly what it was. I stopped and took a minute to tighten the rotor bolts that had rattled loose before catastrophic failure.
With about 10 miles to go I was mentally done and so sick of climbing out of yet another muddy, chewed up gully. There were many profane words yelled for no one to hear on several occasions; my mind was toast. It was brutal. Why did I sign up for this, I wondered? Yet somehow, I could still climb up and out of nearly everything and keep chugging forward in second place. Then came that last climb with three miles to go…
Remember that muddy, rutted descent at the beginning of the race where I caught the leader? That was fun. But not so much going the other way. It was a nasty, steep, rutted climb after four hours of pushing myself. I climbed initially until it turned a corner and got steeper. No thanks. I’m done. Everyone else around here is walking. This sucks, I thought to myself. I then hiked past another couple riders and it leveled out slightly. Well I’ll get back one and give‘er, but 50 feet later I was walking again. Stupid climb, stupid ditch, stupid mud, ugh.
This was my complete mental meltdown. I gave up. I hadn’t been able to get my heart rate above 140 for the last hour, but I should have just buried myself for 10 minutes and gotten through it. Yes, there were a few sections that truly were too steep to ride. But there were only two miles to go! C’mon! Just push through it! I’m mad at myself now and this is the real value in the experience.
Physically I will certainly benefit from the effort I threw down in this race, but it’s the mental training I gained from it that is of the most value. I can do more than I think I can, and I will not let this happen again. Thanks for kicking my butt Big Sandy!