Rider Diary: Sonya Looney races the True Grit 100

Singletrack and suffering on Southern Utah's high desert trails

Race Coverage Travel
The course featured sections that kept riders alert with crevices, cliffs, and rock drops.

The course featured sections that kept riders alert with crevices, cliffs and rock drops.

St. George is becoming a well-known mountain bike hotspot in the winter. With over 90 miles of both flow and technical trails, there is something for every type of rider.

The expansive desert radiates in shades of orange and red offering a dramatic backdrop in every direction. One minute you’re riding over off-camber sandstone rocks with boulders swallowing your field of vision. With a simple right turn, you are on a ridgeline with a 300-foot cliff dropping just inches from your tire and a barren view that goes as far as the eye can see. The high desert air chills you to the bone in the wee hours of the morning, but once the sun is high in the sky, its rays attempt to melt what’s in its path.

I first visited St. George in 2009, a foreigner in the land of ultra-endurance but not a stranger to the desert. It was for a training camp by Lynda Wallenfels called Camp Lynda. It was then that I rode my first 100 mile ride on a mountain bike or any kind of bike, double the distance of any ride I had ever completed. Little did I know, I was about to embark on an adventure and career that would not only lead me to all the 100 mile races I could find but also stage races around the world. Six years later, I was back and lining up as a veteran in the world of endurance mountain biking for the 2015 True Grit 100.

The desert is full of color and no trees. Photo by Dirtwire.TV

The desert is full of color and no trees. Photo by Dirtwire.TV

True Grit was the first event of the year for the National Ultra-Endurance (NUE) Series and the morning air was biting as we waited to start. The Open Men started 7 minutes in front of us to break up course traffic. It made start tactics more interesting since it’s usually the top men who set a pace to break up the field. The neutral roll-out on the 1-mile stretch of pavement was mellow; a stark contrast to the bloodthirsty Euro-frenzied starts at the Andalucia stage race in Spain I had completed just two weeks before the True Grit.

As we turned the corner to start our climb into the desert plateaus, singlespeed national champion Gordon Wadsworth, AJ Linnell and I ended up setting the pace. It would be the only time all day that I rode with anyone for more than a few seconds. I watched them stand up and disappear on the next steep pitch with their single-geared hardtails. I felt humbled in my easiest gear getting dropped.

My legs were admittedly throbbing. I knew it was ambitious to race a 100 miler this close to a stage race finish, but I couldn’t resist. In the fall, I noted that my stage race recovery time had dramatically improved and I wanted to test it. The ache in my legs was different than the burn of fatigue so I decided to keep pushing through it. I was currently riding in first in front of proficient former NUE series champs Amanda Carey and Brenda Simril. I questioned my pace with such experienced riders behind me nowhere in sight. The only way to find out what would happen next would be to keep going.

Video highlights from dirtwire.tv of the 2015 edition of the True Grit Epic, a 100 mile mountain bike race in Santa Clara, Utah. Race number one in the National Ultra Endurance series.

The previous year was my first time at the True Grit 100. I had to race it on a hardtail; I did not have a carbon full suspension race bike. To make things even more exciting, my front brake completely stopped working for the last 3.5 hours of the race. This year, I was armed with a new weapon; a Pivot Mach429SL full suspension with a custom build. It flowed through the infamous Zen Loop, even with no pre-ride knowledge. It cornered like a dream and I couldn’t help but shriek with glee. The 22-pound machine helped me climb like a mountain goat. I am now riding my dream bike, and with big pimpin’ NoTubes Valor Carbon Rims.

The things I would have changed in my set up would be running a Continental X-King 2.4 up front instead of a 2.2 for better control on the loose, sharp, rocky sections of trail and a 700+mm bar instead of the 660mm (I was still waiting for new products from Ritchey). Some people had dropper posts. It would have been fun, but I’m not sold on it for racing just yet. I am open-minded to the idea since they are so fun and you can make up even more time on the downhill and corning, but it adds over a pound to bike. That is a lot over 8+ hours with a lot of elevation gain.

I focused on chasing the open men’s pack that had the 7-minute head start. The Barrel Ride section on the back half of the course was notably windy and like a roller coaster ride! I knew that staying off the brakes and working the momentum as well as keeping a solid effort into the headwind on the low-grade rolling climb were key points in my strategy.

Sonya in the True Grit
Dramatic vistas abounded. Photo by Crawling Spider Photography

The ache in my legs had disappeared and I focused on the mini loops near the end of the first 50-mile lap. Also disappearing was the remainder of my food until the next aid station; five diluted gels in the flask spilled in my jersey pocket. It oozed down the back of my shorts nearly supergluing me to the saddle (not enjoyable dripping down your butt crack)! I was actually concerned my shorts would rip; that would have been a story. It’s been years since I bonked- the elusive feeling of low blood sugar was disheartening.

The whirring machine also known as my body slowed to a crawl. I tried to maintain steady forward motion for the next hour to the aide station dreaming of the waffles and any sugary delight to revive me. I arrived and found that the sugary items were all gone, so I noshed on a peanut butter sandwich quarter, half a fig bar, and washed it down with water. I took the other half of the fig bar with me on the lap along with a back-up sports drink the aide station volunteer gave me. It saved me! The Zen Loop was frustrating.

My legs were weak, my spunk was gone, and my head was swimming in a cloud of disoriented confusion. I hoped my body would digest the solid food I put in it and wondered how long it’d be till I lost my lead at this pace. I was embarrassed to be walking technical uphill features that were effortless on the last lap. The sun was high in the sky and the molten heat set my feet were on fire. My big toes throbbed in agony and even gingerly walking the trail was unbearably painful. It was the first time I felt hot since the fall. I told myself that all these obstacles would pass and I would overcome them. I remained calm, patiently waited, and moved forward.

By the end of the Zen Loop, my body came back online and the strength returned to my legs. The aide station had Coca-Cola and Jelly Belly jellybeans (my favorite, especially the margarita flavor). I spent extra time regrouping, dumping water on my feet and back, and attempting to establish a sugar high. I knew my drop bag at the next aide station was a good 1.5-2 hours away so I filled my pocket with jellybeans, and filled up with water.

I flew out of there feeling like a million bucks. My body felt the best it had all race. My legs were painless although my feet were still a casualty. This was my signature move; ignite the turbo for the last 1/3 of the course. I made up for lost time on the Zen Loop. Pointlessly paranoid about getting a flat tire, I rode the downhills instead of racing them to be conservative.

Strong NUE podium Sonya Looney (1); Amanda Carey (2); Brenda Simril (3)

NUE podium: 1. Sonya Looney; 2. Amanda Carey; 3. Brenda Simril.

As I crossed the finish line, I immediately stopped and tore my off my shoes seeking water to put out the fire; a common problem amongst other riders. My hands were also blistered from the rough ride. I’ve been trying to find a balance between when to ride ergonomic grips and when to ride round grips.

Round grips perform so much better on technical terrain, but ergonomic grips generally are a more sustainable option for long, rough rides. The sounds of live music floated through the venue and I was happy to finally get to spend time with friends I hadn’t seen since last season. The final effort of the day would be the podium. The trophies were a custom rusted metal piece with the name of the race implanted in a large rock. The three of us on the podium struggled as we hoisted the trophies over our heads.

Here’s my post-race interview. Check out that curb feeler on my helmet! I never said I was cool!

Next up for me will be a stage race in the Andes of Argentina. And my full report is coming on the Andalucia Stage Race I mentioned so stay tuned.

About the author: Sonya Looney

It’s energy and attitude that have propelled World Champion Sonya Looney on a mountain bike across the rugged Himalayas, through sweltering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the clammy jungles of Sri Lanka. Sonya Looney is an adventure traveler on a bike seeking out the hardest races in the most remote, beautiful, and interesting places in the world. She believes in pushing limits because that’s when you realize you are far more capable than ever imagined. Sonya is also a professional speaker, keynoting at large conferences and has spoken at TEDx. Don't let her accolades fool you though, she loves craft beer and joking around. Follow her on social media!

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