Friends, I’ve had a hard time getting around to writing this race report. It didn’t go all that outstandingly well for me, and I’m a bit embarrassed and humbled. And I’ve been struggling with how to describe my experience without doing too much whining or making too many excuses. I’m not a fan of excuses. I think they come naturally to all of us, myself included, but I TRY to refrain from singing them too loudly or constantly, because such behavior, in others, strikes me as an annoying failure to take responsibility for one’s own performances. I find that the best, the fastest, the strongest bike racers out there (and the best people in general) are those who quietly allow their performances to speak for them rather than trying to explain themselves into a better light. I’m not the best, the fastest or the strongest, but hopefully I’ll get better.
Okay so. Let me start with a brief explanation of events leading up to the Ouachita Challenge, and I’ll try to go as light on the excuses as possible.
The story starts last fall, when I burned out (after a very busy, fairly successful spring season that I tried to carry through summer and fall) on bike racing and gave myself permission to take a big, fat break. This big fat break quickly became the longest I’d ever been off the bike, and I trained for and ran a 5k with my Pops which was great, and it was generally good to have a break. But these breaks are hard to come back from! which may be why I don’t take them much. I had some issues with motivation and some issues with the major infected saddle sore of my career. January and February saw me fitfully riding amidst difficulties. The spring in general was a bit busy because I took a grad course on top of my usual work, etc.
The Husband and I signed up together to race the Ouachita Challenge, back in December or thereabouts. This is a big-deal marathon mountain bike race in the Ouachita National Forest in northeast Arkansas. Registration opens at 1am on a Tuesday or something and sells out in about 10 minutes, so you have to plan ahead. We got our spots secured months ahead of time and from there largely counted down woefully while observing what good shape we weren’t in. In the final month before the race I got sick twice. Imagine a sinking feeling in your stomach. Yep.
We drove to Arkansas in two days, taking time to stop off in Tyler to ride the trails at the Tyler State Park. I’d never ridden these trails before (being thwarted by rain the last time we tried). They’re great fun! Swoopy, fast, flowy, and really beautiful. I had a good time there. We headed into Arkansas on Saturday to ride part of the course.
By this time I had worked myself up into a state of panic over this race. I was heading into what might be the biggest, hardest event of my career, in what I felt was the worst shape of my career. I think the worst part, though, is the fear of the unknown: I knew nothing about the trails we’d be riding, so I really didn’t know how bad it would be. I was pretty terrified.
So to pre-ride, we tackled what we were told was the hardest, most technical part of the race. It was fairly demoralizing; Blowout Mountain is, well, it’s a mountain, and we don’t have those where I come from. It was also pretty technical, periodically covered in rock gardens that I did not find to be rideable. Chris and our buddy Rob might have been more upset at the unrideable rock gardens than I was, though – I am fairly familiar with race courses that require me to get off my bike occasionally, but these tough guys aren’t, so much. What I was most worried about was the climbing! I was gasping for air and continuing to feel terrified.
Race morning I felt resigned to do what I had to do. I didn’t have any feeling of excitement or anticipated enjoyment or even competitive spirit; I just felt that I needed to steel myself to a grand slog of pain. Chris and I had pre-ordered commemorative 10th anniversary event jerseys (not cheap) and I was determined to NOT wear my jersey unless I finished the event. Maybe it’s silly, but this was actually a pretty big piece of motivation for me.
So. After that long intro, I wonder if you’re still with me. I think my race report will be the shortest part of this race report! It went: paved road, followed by dirt road, gently climbing, maybe 8-10 miles. First singletrack, more climbing, less gentle. First checkpoint: I see Rob’s girlfriend Lisa; she cheers for me; I’m doing less badly at this point than I’d feared. I give her thumbs up. Then we hit Blowout Mountain, and yes, it’s at least as bad as it was yesterday. Argh! Come down Blowout: fun! I like to descend, and this is some fun, flowy descending, just enough rock to be interesting without having to slow down too much. More climbing. (I don’t know the names of all these mountains.) More suck. Then we hit the road again (paved, then dirt) – this is the transition between the Ouachita Trail (famously technical, climby, and hard) and the Womble Trail (famously fun and flowy). We have epic headwind; people are suffering; but I actually pass a few people here, feeling okay. Apparently I’m not entirely reformed from my roadie past, because at this point I feel like: please give me another 50 miles of headwind-road and NO MORE CLIMBING. (Later I hear Chris felt the same way at this point. Houstonians have much more experience with headwind than we do hills, let alone mountains!) Hit the Womble Trail, which I’m told is the fun part; ride some Womble feeling like okay, this is fun trail, but I am TIRED. Hear we’re only halfway done. Feel unhappy about this news. More climbing! I know climbing is relative: if somebody from Austin tells you something is “flat” and you live in Houston, you should not trust this data. Maybe the mountain-dwellers feel that the Womble is not so climby but I was hurting. I cramped starting on Blowout Mountain (early in the day) and by the last 15 miles of the race, I was cramping in my fingers, toes, back, abs, arms and of course every muscle in my legs. I think my kidneys cramped. I drank about 2 1/2 gallons of water over the course of the day, most of it electrolyte-enhanced, and ate a fair amount too; but it was the hottest day I’d seen all year (it hit 95 degrees) and it just wasn’t enough. Also, I was nauseous at the start line (I was getting sick again, but it was probably mostly nerves) and all the way to the finish – all day, nauseous, and therefore not eating or drinking as much as I would have liked. I hit a checkpoint at which I was told I had 14 miles to go, and I really thought I was closer to the finish than that, which is demoralizing. Those last 14 miles were really a mental battle. I had to get off the bike and walk out a cramp once or twice; I was talking to myself (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t out loud). I was thinking about that stupid jersey, of all things! The last, oh, 2 miles or so are small town roads (mostly dirt), and I felt that I was close, but still just had to tell myself to grind along…
There were time cut-offs at several check-points on this race – not unusual for marathon racing. But this was the first time I’d been concerned about them. I failed to put a watch on my handlebars when we left Houston, so we stopped on the drive up and bought me a little digital bracelet-style watch for $5 at a gas station. I wanted to watch out for the time cut-offs (if you’re going too slow, they don’t let you finish), and I also wanted to finish in 8 hours. Well, I made every time cut-off, but by less and less at each one. In those final miles, I knew I would be allowed to finish, so I just had to make myself do it. As I approached the school where the race started and finished, I looked at my watch and saw 3:58pm (since we’d started at 8, 4pm was my 8-hour time). I crossed the road to the school… and the volunteers said, “just up that hill!” What!! A HILL! Argh! I got off to walk up the hill. I couldn’t ride. What can I say, I’m a weakling; I’m fat and out of shape. I had done so much walking all day (up the sides of mountains, through rock gardens) that my cycling shoes (old and worn, but also just not intended for walking this much) had chewed the skin off my heels in silver-dollar-sized spots. Walking hurt, but I couldn’t ride it. So I’m hobbling up the hill to the finish… with an audience (great)… 3:59… and they’re yelling, “30 seconds to make it under 8 hrs! 20 seconds!”
Well, I made it. I think my official time was 7:59:49. Not only Chris, my loving and caring Husband, but also our friends Rob, Holt, and Lisa had waited to see me finish. This meant a lot; Rob and Holt had finished their race just minutes under 6 hours, so they had really spent some time there to show their support. I wasn’t able to say it at the finish, of course, but it was very touching; I really felt the love. I hobbled around the finish area til I thought I could sit without cramping, and I got out of those shoes immediately.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I really feel like it nearly killed me. But I wanted to be able to wear my jersey! And now, I can! (I wore it the very next time I got on my bike.) This race was harder than I thought it would be. Worst shape of my racing life, yes. But I think even in decent race shape, the climbing of mountains is extranormal for a power-based, anti-climber from Houston, TX like myself. I’m not sure I’d do this race again unless I was prepared to travel to train on actual mountains ahead of time. But I’m so very glad I did it. Even at an embarrassingly slow finish time, this is an experience no one will take away from me. Next up: I want to run a half marathon this year! Glutton for pain, that’s me. Thanks for bearing with this unreasonably long write-up. See you on the road or trail.