Testing Limits

It all started when I was playing around on Ride With GPS, plotting ways to connect several portions of trail in Hoosier National Forest with the trails at Brown County State Park. No matter how I tried to do it, I couldn’t make the loop less than 62 miles.

Now, this wouldn’t have been a problem, except for the fact that I was convinced that riding more than 50 miles on a mountain bike was not only ludicrous, it was very nearly impossible. I don’t even ride that far on a road or gravel bike more than a few times a year.

My one and only experience riding 50 miles was in a race that left me completely destroyed by the last climb up All-American back to downtown Bentonville, Arkansas. Interestingly enough, it was at that same event that I finally broke through the “imposter syndrome” and realized that I did belong there, in the ranks of the pro women’s field.

Ready to Ride!

But those trails were calling me.

Every couple of days, I pulled up the route. I tweaked it. I adjusted it to ensure that I hit all of the trails Brown County had to offer.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

So finally, I called my coach. I told him that I wanted to try to ride 75 miles. I explained that I knew that the planned workout for the day was only four hours of riding, and I knew that this route would take me at least seven or eight hours. But I wanted to challenge myself.

“Go for it.”

With my coach’s blessing, I set upon planning. I planned my nutrition and fueling. I thought about how to pack the necessary 5,000 kcals of food on my bike or body. I planned to spend the night prior to the ride at my brother’s house to cut down on driving time that morning. I checked the weather, over and over, as the forecast turned increasingly negative for the ride–and packed loads of ride gear accordingly. I reviewed the route obsessively so that, even with my Garmin directing me, I couldn’t miss any turns.

A couple of days before the planned ride, I had a final chat with my mental performance coach. “I know it will be hard,” I explained, “but I want the mental challenge as much as the physical challenge. I want to learn to be present in the moment instead of just wishing for the end.” With that goal in mind, we talked about expectations and mantras and mindset.

Embrace the pain.

Have fun.

Ride fierce.

Enjoy the moment.

Thanks to Team Neighborlink for the rad top tube sticker!

I was stoked. My excitement was barely containable as I woke up early, prepared breakfast, and drove to the trailhead.

Once I was there, the final preparations were almost automatic. Like any race, I checked my tire pressure, loaded the route on my Garmin, kitted up, and made sure everything was tucked neatly into my Osprey vest and the Revelate frame pack I had borrowed from a co-worker.

When the sun peeked through the clouds, I nearly danced for joy. With forecasted cold and rain, any sunshine was reason for celebration. It was so much warmer than anticipated, that by time I finished my first lap around Pine Loop, I stopped by the car to take off my arm warmers.

With that, I was off.

Indiana Farms

I started with about twelve miles of trails within Brown County State Park. Early in, I recognized that if I was going to finish this ride in any sort of enjoyable fashion, I would need to give myself grace. I took a few bad lines and had to step off my bike to get through some rooted/rocky sections. Normally, being a bit of a perfectionist, I would berate myself for not clearing these sections, especially since I’ve ridden them many times before. But today, I just let it go, telling myself that today wasn’t the day to worry about it. Looking back, I’m glad that I had the foresight to give myself grace early, because as the day went on, I fell several times on “easy” log rolls. Because I had given myself the freedom to fail, I picked myself up and just kept going instead of getting into a mental boxing match with myself.

At about 10:30 a.m., nearly two hours into my ride, I reached the campground, refilled my hydration vest, and checked in with my coach. The next mile was paved campground roads, so I took that opportunity to eat a PB & J, before taking a multi-use trail out of the state park and into Yellowwood State Forest.

Gorgeous Hoosier National Forest Gravel

There, I joined my coach to ride the first portion of the Yellowwood/Crooked Creek trails. I’d only ever ridden this loop once before, and in the opposite direction. Due to the technical nature of the trails, they demanded my full attention, and pushed me to that day’s limits of my technical skill. I say “that day’s limit” because, though in some ways I felt as if I was riding stellarly (and yes, I know that’s not a word), I was definitely not riding “full send” on log rolls and the like. I very nearly wrecked pretty badly on one rock bridge part way through Crooked Creek, but managed to save it (and keep my Garmin incident notification from sending a crash notification to my emergency contacts). Throughout the day, I walked more log rolls than I rode, but celebrated the ones I did have confidence to ride. At the halfway point of the Crooked Creek loop, we popped out onto Trail D, heading south towards Hoosier National Forest. At the end of Trail D, Don and I split ways. He headed back towards home, while I continued riding.

Soon, I entered Hoosier National Forest and started down the famed Nebo Ridge Trail. This was the trail that I created this route to ride and it was everything I hoped it would be and more. Though it had started to lightly sprinkle, I was still enjoying myself, and riding a truly epic trail only made the grin across my face bigger. There were a couple close calls as I sent some small jumps and had to verbally remind myself to take it easy–the middle of the national forest was not a great place to wreck. Still, I was having fun and loving the trail.

Ride Fierce

As I rode, I paid careful attention to the fueling notifications on my ride computer, drinking when it beeped at me, and stopping periodically to eat, switching between real food like PB&Js and baked sweet potatoes and the standard processed ride food: waffles, bars, gels, and chews. I knew that it would be important to stay on top of my fueling if I wanted the day to be successful, so this was a key part of my strategy for the day. Frequent assessments of my effort was the other thing I had discussed with my mindset coach as a key component of staying present in the moment. Was I, at any given moment in time, riding to the best of my abilities for that moment? This helped me maintain a steady pace and to keep my head focused on the trail ahead rather than worry about the missed log rolls behind or the many miles to go.

Eventually, I looked down and saw that my Garmin had registered 50 miles. I was now in completely new territory. Not only was I riding a super dope gravel road that was covered by water ten months out of the year, but I was now riding further than I had ever ridden before. Yes! I was surprised at how good I still felt. My hands were a bit sore, but my legs still felt relatively fresh. I stopped for some photos at the lake crossing, then continued onwards, back to Yellowwood for the second half of the Crooked Creek loop.

Old Elkinsville Road, covered by water most of the year

Don had warned me that the second half of the loop was more technical than the first and, being that I was riding it solo, to take it easy. I took his advice, and was glad to do so, because the fatigue of being out on the bike for over four hours was starting to show. I fell over in two consecutive uphill switchbacks (normally one of my most solid technical areas), noting that I wasn’t reacting as quickly and that my balance seemed a bit off. Mentally, I regathered myself and started coaching myself out loud through the trail. “Up here,” “gentle over the log,” “nice and steady,” and so on. If anyone would have been out there, they likely would have thought I was crazy, but the coaching seemed to really help focus me and get me riding “straight” again.

When I popped out of Yellowwood and flew back up 10 o’ Clock Line trail to the campground, I celebrated, knowing I had only a few state park trails remaining, including several flow trails that were sure to be loads of fun. I once again refilled my hydration vest, and ate my last PB&J, then hit the trails. Lime Kiln and Weedpatch are both flowy trails and I went full send, rocking the descents and feeling good on the climbs. But then came Bobcat.

Lost Bridges on Closed Roads

As soon as I hit Bobcat, I realized that it was a mistake to have planned to ride one of the most technical trails in the park 67 miles into my ride. I hadn’t ridden Bobcat in over a year, and due to my increased fatigue, it was far more challenging than I remembered. The trail has a lot of tight switchback-type turns that follow the undulations of the ravine as it cuts in and out of the hillside, and eventually, the inevitable happened: I lost traction on the dusty trail and went catapulting into the ravine, effectively triggering my Garmin to send an incident notification and nearly impaling myself with my own handlebar. After a minute of sitting in the dust, I picked myself up and started picking my way down the rest of the trail. I approached the next few turns gingerly, taking a foot out of my pedal and hobbling across, rather than risk another gnarly fall. Slowly but surely, my confidence came back and I coached myself through the remainder of the trail.

At the end of Bobcat, I came out onto trail that I had already ridden that morning: the Hesitation Point climb. It was this climb where I had stumbled through several of the technical features, and I was determined to do better this time around. My determination made little difference, and though I did pick a better line through the roots, my power was starting to wane, and I still found myself getting stuck and needing to step out of my pedal to get through. Grace. “I don’t need to session this today,” I said to myself, and kept pedaling.

The Epic HT Adventure Machine

Hobbs Hollow, the flow trail, was next, and though my own speed (and the potential size of the jumps when hit at speed) had scared me the past few trips to Brown County, I was eager. I aimed for smooth and steady, and eased into it. Soon, however, I was ripping. “Strange how it takes 71 miles of riding for me to figure out how to turn again,” I giggled as I shredded through the banked corners. The difficulty I’d had all year with cornering was gone, and I was exhilarated by the the feel of my bike moving effortlessly beneath me. I climbed out of Hobbs and finished the day with two final trails, surprising myself at each intersection at how well my body continued to perform.

In the end, I rode 80.9 miles with 6,788 feet of climbing in just 8:10:00 moving time. My hands and back were sore, and my legs were fatigued, but not nearly to the extent I’d expected. In nearly all regards, the day was a shocking success. Despite several falls, I’d met my challenge head-on and kept my head in the game the entire day. I rode further than I thought possible, and loved it the entire time.

Embrace the pain.

Have fun.

Ride fierce.

Enjoy the moment.

Tired & dusty, but done!

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