Another early alarm wake up. And more rain. 4:15 this time. The chance of rain for race day had fluctuated between 50 and 80 % for the past week in Sylacauga, Alabama for the Skyway Epic. I, or actually Justin, had registered me on the last open day for online registration so this time I vowed it was rain or shine. The funny thing is that Justin registered me for the race when I was asleep. Ha! I had just completed the Dirty Spokes Duathlon the day before and I woke up feeling a little of that post-race fatigue. But I realized I better get used to it since stage racing is the game for the summer.
So post alarm, had my typical bagel but this time with salmon, lettuce, cream cheese, and capers (gourmet, yes…thanks Justin). We hit the road for the 2.5 hour drive to the Sylaward trails on Lake Howard in Alabama. The race is hosted by Bamacross and in it’s 2nd year. Judging by the list of race registrants it was to be a smaller race, but then I kind of understand after seeing where it is – it was in the middle of nowhere!
The race start and finish was at the trailhead for the Sylaward trails. There’s a long dock and gravel road and some picnic shelters, bike wash, changing rooms. A nice place. Justin and I drove up and parked next to our friend and training buddy, Pete. He mentioned how he slept horribly camping out there the night before because of the dogs and roosters. Justin and I have learned that even if we have to wake up long before sunrise, we prefer to sleep in our own bed, cook on our own stove, and do our usual routine before race morning. It gives us a little coffee and digestion time too.
As it turns out there had been a few showers the night before the race but the chances for rain during the race had gone way down. In Atlanta on the other hand, it was raining all day!
I wasn’t too nervous for this race – amazing how doing more and more of them keeps my nerves down and really I just have more excitement than anything. I had my routine (although this was only my 3rd straight mountain biking race after the Fool’s Gold and the Chewalca Challenge). I usually don’t wear gloves but at the last minute I opted to put them on so I could hold on since it was already steamy and in the high 80’s and I’d likely get wet on the course.
The race director had us line up, told us about the course – about 10 miles of single track, a couple of bushwacking type 4-wheeler trails, some improved gravel climbing, some unimproved gravel climbing, a turnaround then back on the same course with less single track at the end.
I’d raced 50 miles before and pre-rode the Big Frog 65 course, but this would be the 2nd longest time I’d ever spent on the bike. And my legs were already tired from the day before. I purged that from my mind as the excitement grew and then – ready, set, go.
We raced to get our positions up a ¼ mile gravel road then turned onto some grass. I kept Justin and Pete in my sights and also the another woman that had nudged just in front of me. Turning onto the singletrack I had to be a little aggressive and throw my front wheel in there so I didn’t get booted off. I was just behind the first woman I’d seen. As she was falling off the pack after the first climb about a half mile or so in, I took my opportunity to pass (and so did Pete who was behind me). We caught up to the next group who was being led by Justin. Ha! Never been so close to him in a race. Of course, the flowing mostly flat single track was all about using momentum and picking the right line – banking the turns. Once it opened up about 3 or 4 miles in across a grassy dam then started climbing I felt my quads from yesterday’s adventure. I hit the other side of the singletrack a couple spots behind where I had been. I stayed with the group as it twisted and turned for another 6 miles or so.
I was a little nervous about the end of the single track – the race director had warned about big berms, mandatory giant puddles, creek crossings, ‘goat trails’, and more. So the singletrack turned to a kind of thin trail with a few log hops then to gravel for a second then to the 4-wheeler trail. This trail undulated and had some big mandatory puddles – couldn’t figure out if going through the middle (how deep!?) or around the side (how muddy!?) was better. Eventually I learned to read these yellowy peach colored Alabama puddles. There was a small creek crossing that wasn’t too awful. I kind of like crossing creeks – for some reason when there’s water over the rocks I don’t pay attention to them and that makes it easier because I don’t brake and roll right over. The only bad thing is after every creek crossing there’s typically a climb. And this climb was steep…and muddy…and rutted out. So I ran up it instead of pedal. The jeep trail exited onto a gravel road and the first aid station. Hallelujah! I made it through the part I was concerned with. And without a scratch – just a muddy, muddy bike and wet feet.
I didn’t stop at the first aid station. Oh, and related to this race and my goals – I aimed to drink adequate water (something I’m still getting comfortable with on single track), refuel religiously, and to not be afraid to stop at the aid stations. So I did pretty good for the first 1/3 of the course related to my goal. I drank about 2/3 of a water bottle, had 1 gel and some of my gel flask. It was so steamy out. Also overcast which was nice, but it felt hot and heavy and the predicted highs for the day were in the high 80s. I knew that hydration was going to be very important.
So after the first aid station there were several miles of undulating forest service roads. The gravel was nice and the recent rain kept it packed well. I felt like I was able to gain quite a bit of speed on the quick descents. The ascents soon became steeper and steeper and I could tell we were climbing up towards the Alabama Skyway. I asked a fellow biker if we were almost to the Skyway (where the real fun begins) and he said he thought we were already on it. We were at mile 24 and the Skyway he thought started at mile 23. Oh, sweet, I thought. This isn’t technical or rocky at all! (I’d studied a couple of blogs from last year’s race – Brian Toone’s and Scott Thigpen’s being very helpful and the latter pretty hilarious).
Well, turns out it wasn’t the skyway yet at all – in a few miles of more climbing I reached aid station #2. Turned onto the shoulder of the highway and hit the Skyway. I didn’t stop at the aid station again (shame on me). But I had only drained one water bottle. I felt pretty strong, ready to spin my bike to oblivion up the mountain. I heard during the pre-race briefing that the ‘top’ was in about 2 miles. So I sat in and did the best I could over the terrain. It wasn’t horrible – the terrain. It was slow though. Washed out steep sections, loose rock, ruts that you had to pick a line over, and the like. It was foggy up there so I had to lose my glasses.
After what seemed like too long I saw the KOM 200m sign. I took the one flatter part to shift to a higher gear and roll to the KOM. I thought they’d take splits to get the KOM/QOM, but when I got there a lady chased me down with a red envelope. I said ‘What’s this?’ and she said ‘$100, Queen of the Mountain’. Woo hoo! Truthfully I was thinking about the payout and the QOM cash (it really was cash and I made sure I put it in the right jersey pocket so I wouldn’t lose it). I decided that it would be a great bonus to doing a great job and placing but it wasn’t a huge motivator. Why, I’m not sure. I love presents and of course cash, but the recognition, the feeling of winning definitely takes the cake for me. Anyway, after I felt that envelope in my back I felt a little like Gollum – my precious…can’t lose my precious.
This eternal Skyway just kept on. It wasn’t so much that the KOM was actually at the top, or if it was it was an illusion to me. It felt like it was a continual climb, short descent, mud puddle, climb. I ran into Pete and I think his lack of sleep was getting to him. He said Justin was just a few minutes ahead and that I should go get him. I started seeing the leaders come back (the Skyway portion was out and back). I wanted to count, but I didn’t. My thoughts of “is there another woman up there?” had gone away after I’d gotten the QOM. My next goals were to continue to fuel and not lose any places on the way back. A few minutes before the turn around Justin comes flying down as Pete and I are pedaling up. He said “You’re almost there!” and I knew that he didn’t want to be caught by me as he geared up and was a little more motivated. It’s nice being in a relationship with a good training partner (even if he does make me feel bad because he’s much more dedicated…as I sit here with a beer and he’s out riding).
So I reached the turnaround and saw some ice cold Cokes on the table. Oooo…I wanted one. I chugged about half of one and refilled my bottles. And took off – left Pete at the aid station and assumed he’d catch me later. I was curious to see how far the next ladies were after me on the out and back.
At least the first part had some good descending. The kind of descending where you keep that evil thought out of your mind – what might happen if you were to lose control. Oh, and for the ascents – my front shifting was all outta whack and I’d lost my chain shifting into the big ring 2 times so I elected to stay in the big ring. I’ve always been intrigued by those single speeders, surely I could manage a 1×10. And my climbing cadence went out the window. I passed another female after 6 or 7 minutes after the turnaround. Okay, good lead, but anything could happen. About halfway back down the Skyway, all alone I grappled with a few issues. My back was throbbing. Hurting super bad. My hands were sore and my arms felt a little tingly and weird. Those thoughts of “Am I going to have a heart attack?,” “Am I tough enough for this,” etc. started to come into mind. Then I thought to myself – stretch, change position, drink some water, eat something.
Another thing I was dealing with was my saddle bag. The Velcro kept coming undone. So I’d reach back and re-Velcro. Then both sides came undone and it started bouncing on my back wheel and getting sucked in. So I fixed that twice and then gave up and put it in my jersey. And I collected my wits. Ready to roll. After one fear-inducing climb I saw the back of the KOM poster and let out a sigh of relief. A 2-mile teeth jarring bumpy ride back down to the aid station. And this time I would stop. I handed off my repair kit hoping that I wouldn’t need it for the following 15 miles back to the finish.
The smoother gravel descents were very fast. I’m pretty sure I got up to at least 35 mph on some of them. With fatigue it’s hard to be comfortable at that speed, but I just tucked, squeezed the saddle with my thighs and stayed focused. That part was a very nice reprieve. I was really hoping the creek crossing, previously downhill log hops, puddles, and overgrown terrain would be omitted on the return, alas, it wasn’t. However, it was a little easier going the opposite way. I even had the energy to run up the other side of the creek crossing.
Then it was back to singletrack and not knowing these trails not having a clue where we were in relation to the finish line or trailhead. I knew we’d been in the same spot before, but didn’t have a clue how much more was ahead. The trails were still very fun, flowing, but I have a tendency to have high impact crashes with trees after a long time in the saddle. I was taking it a little easy. And the bumps on my hardtail after about 50 miles in the saddle are more jarring. My friend who I’d chatted with on the gravel climbs passed me after he’d stopped at the aid station. I thought about rolling with him, but I didn’t see anyone behind me and I honestly felt kind of delirious so I let him go.
Another few minutes and I came upon the race director in a turn and thought maybe that was a sign I was getting close. I muttered “getting close?” and he said “uh, yeah, really close.” Two more turns and the descent that I remember racing up and there was the finish! The tape turned and back up a grass hill (very short) but my fatigued state was easily confused so fortunately Justin said – keep going! And I did…right up to the finish tent. Then I stumbled off my bike and realized I couldn’t bend over! I sure could squat to pick things up but bending wasn’t happening. Weird that after a 60 mile bike race my legs felt fine but my back and hands were shot.
I was happy though, really really happy. I finished in 5 hours and 20 minutes and took the win for the females – I think I finished 20-25th overall.
So there was a sweet prize payout (the male winner told me that I shouldn’t get used to it. I wondered if he meant me winning – then he clarified – the prize payout). But I figure I shouldn’t get used to winning either. I’m excited to enter the field of some of the big dogs in the Breck Epic and other Southern MTB races and see how I can hang.
I totally recommend the Skyway Epic. It’s a great mix of terrain and was a pretty nice ass kicker. I definitely deserved that 2nd Coke and Miller High Life afterwards! The drive back was uneventful and we ended up in rain and we were so thankful that we didn’t have rain at all for the race.
And regarding my bike fit — I talked to my bike fitter – Eddie at 55nine Performance and told him of my issues. My saddle had come loose previously and he thinks it may be that my nose is too high so I’m rolling my hips back. I could totally see that. I’m going to get it checked out.
And regarding my bike – no major issues incurred from the above-bottom-bracket-mud-puddling. Just a good old cleaning and some TLC.
Next race: Chattanooga Mountains Trail Running Stage Race (Rock/Creek) – 60 miles in 3 days. I hope I can hang! I’ve only run over 10 miles a couple of times in the last few months. Uh oh.