The irony of this event is that it was supposed to be my first NUE series event, way back in 2020. I remember asking friends, veterans of the event, for beta, and gearing up for my first season “as a pro” and… then COVID happened.
Now, two years later, with a full season of 100k races in my legs (or perhaps more importantly, my head), I came to this event excited and still a little nervous.
Though I participated in the Stokesville 60/40 and Appalachian Journey races, neither were truly “races” where I was going full gas or aiming for a podium position. They were training events, used primarily to get me out on trails (or gravel roads) and get miles in the legs after coming off of injury. This was my first test of the body and fitness, and I really wasn’t sure how either would respond.
Since the Appalachian Journey in early April, I had continued piling on the miles and hours as work permitted and as of a week prior to this event, called my coach with mild alarm: my resting heart race was trending high, my legs felt like complete trash, and I needed an extra day off. We did just that, and when I arrived at the Ocoee Whitewater Center on Friday for packet pick up and my shakeout/pre-ride, I felt like, just maybe, there was some life in my legs.
After doing some course recon via the GPX files sent out to racers, I chose to ride my Epic Hardtail. Until now, I’ve not attempted a full 100k race on the hardtail because I’ve been afraid of how much it would beat me up. But with the amount of gravel roads in this course, it seemed like the right choice.
Looking back, I stand by that statement. The hardtail was definitely the right choice. With the 120mm Rockshox SID fork, I have plenty of travel to really shred on the singletrack, and thanks to the super lightweight ROVAL Control SL wheels mounted with the uber-tough Specialized Fast Track GRID tires, its a tough, fast-rolling, nimble, lightweight machine. That all being said, my hands were nearly blistered and my back aching something awful by the end. So yes, it beat me up. But it was worth it. There was nothing on course that I would have wanted the full suspension bike for.
Nutrition & Hydration
Going into this weekend, I noted the predicted temperatures were in the upper 80’s, hotter than anything I’d ridden in yet this season. Typically, I love racing in the heat, but wanted to approach the day with caution due to the lack of acclimation. I started pushing extra hydration a few days prior to the event, and drank a ridiculous amount of water on Friday as I drove to the race. I made sure to hydrate well when I pre-rode Friday, and used Osmo’s Preload mix during my warm-up Saturday morning to help prepare my body for the long day on course in the heat.
For the race itself, I carried my Osprey Duro 1.5, plus two full-size bottles (thank-you-hardtail!), filled with Osmo. I had a refill of Osmo for my pack and bottles at the middle aid station in my drop bag for when I refilled. I finished the race with about a half a bottle remaining, so feel like that was a decent strategy for the day.
Food-wise, I had a pretty detailed plan laid out, mixing Clif Shot Bloks, Spring and Maurten gels, Honey Stinger waffles, and a package of peanut butter crackers. For the first half of the race, everything was grand, but by mile 55, I was shattered and my stomach wanted nothing to do with food. At one point, I knew I needed to eat, but took one bite of my Honey Stinger waffle and threw the rest to the side of the trail (after riding with it in my hand for about 10 minutes) because I thought I was going to throw up. Eventually, I did force-feed myself some Clif Shot Bloks, but I definitely under-fueled the last hour because I just couldn’t eat. Next time, I’m thinking I should plan a Spring gel or two for the last hour–just so I don’t have to bite or chew anything!
This event starts with a 1.5-2 mile paved climb to the first “chunk” of singletrack (about 13 miles), then continues for another 13 miles of singletrack before dropping out into gravel roads for the majority of the rest of the race (there is another 1.5-2 mile section of singletrack just before the end). Going into the race, I had debated my strategy on the start: really put the hammer down and try to be in the front pack going into the first bit of singletrack (with the risk that I’ll go too hard and not be able to come back for the rest of the event), or maintain a steady pace on the road climb, then use my strength (the singletrack) to work my way forward in the pack. Eventually, I chose a balance between the two. I really tried to not let my fear of the chaos of mass starts hold me back, and maintained my place in the field until it started spreading out on the road climb. At that point, I settled in.
Due to the nature of the mass starts, I had no idea where I really was positionally entering the woods. I knew there were at least two other women ahead of me, but likely more. Instead of worrying about that, I decided to just have fun and push as hard as I could through the singletrack. Pre-riding the day before was certainly helpful, and I focused on using momentum to keep me on the wheel of the rider in front of me. I ate and drank whenever I could, and made the occasional pass when it was safe and made sense.
After the first 13 mile chunk of trail, the course opens up just slightly following a deep water crossing that I had pre-planned to run. I passed another female rider as I ran through the water, then crossed the ensuing bridge and caught the next female rider as we started the singletrack climb. Living in Roanoke has taught me how to climb and stay within my zones, and I knew this was a good chance for me to both pass and even attack without hurting myself too much. I waited for a good place to pass, then put in a short minute effort to create a gap before settling back in.
From that point on, I caught and then was passed by two other women repeatedly (the ladies who would end up being 2nd and 4th). We would ride together for stretches, one of us taking the lead, then the other, getting spread out, then always coming together again, like an overextended slinky. On the climb leading up to the middle aid station where I needed to refill water and pick up my drop bag, I finally got left behind. I didn’t see them at the aid station, and I knew that not stopping was not an option. I needed the water. So I stopped, then pushed on, hoping to catch them.
Somewhere around mile 55, I cracked. I was struggling to take in food, and was only creeping uphill. In my head, I knew I was chasing the podium, but was struggling to get that message to my legs. Survival and finishing started to be the more attainable goals, as I began riding the rougher portions of the gravel roads just to get a bit of shade. Still, I tried to always push over the tops of each climb and give myself manageable goals.
With about 5 miles to go, just as I was getting close to the top of the final climb, the female rider who had been chasing me (who would eventually get 5th) caught and passed me. In that moment, I knew I had a choice: give it everything I (didn’t) have and chase/attack, or let her go. There was risk, for sure. I was broken enough that I didn’t know if I could ride 5 more miles if I attacked…but I also knew that there was a descent coming, if I could just beat her to the top of the climb. So I attacked. I caught back up, passed her, and kept on pushing. After a final pedal stroke over the top of the climb, I tucked in to make the most of the descent (my strength) in hopes I could solidify whatever tenuous gap I had created.
As I entered the last 2-mile section of singletrack, I caught a glimpse of one of the two riders I had been trading places with all day. Without knowing anything about this section of trail, I knew I had to chase. In my mind, at this point, I was chasing for second place, and, if the second girl was close, perhaps even the win (I didn’t realize that there was one female who had been ahead of us the entire time, so I was really chasing for third). I caught her wheel and stuck to it until we popped out of the woods onto the road. Though I hadn’t pre-ridden the finish, I knew that there would be an immediate right turn into a 1.5 mile road climb to the finish, so I stayed on her wheel hoping for any kind of draft–until she missed the turn. I dropped into the road climb and simultaneously into my mtb-tt position (hands in, head down). I didn’t know how close behind me she was, nor did I really know how far the climb was, just knew I had to go. As I caught riders, I either passed them or encouraged them to “ride faster” until there was space to get around (if that was you, I promise I was trying to be polite… I was just in a hurry and couldn’t breathe!). That climb seemed like forever. By the end I was nearly screaming it hurt so bad, but unwilling to let up even for a moment.
In the end, I got third, and am STOKED with that result. I fought hard nearly the entire race (except for that 5-mile section where I was dying towards the end until the rider back caught me). The best part is, I competed and had fun doing it!