What a study in contrasts!
On Wednesday, I participated in the Play Roanoke’s second Disco series race on Mill Mountain, but with strict guidelines to not go too hard (and thereby “ruin” my race on Saturday). The Disco course is rocky, mostly climbing, and the field thins out quickly, allowing for plenty of space to ride the trails at one’s own pace.
Then, on Saturday, at the Mohican 100k, my entire goal was to go hard and leave it all out there on the course. The Mohican trails are mostly smooth, with only short rocky sections, and thanks to the paved start, the field seems to form one giant congo line through the trails, making momentum a thing of distant memories.
On my drive to Loudonville, OH, the home of the Mohican 100, I listened to a podcast by Magness & Marcus, where they described the competition that their track athletes held to “win the brick.” This was an award that the team gave to the athlete who, though they may not have won any prizes, took a risk, gave it their all, and ran “fiercely” (my word). I took motivation from this, and added the mantra “win the brick” to my goals for race day.
In 2021, the Mohican 100k was my first-ever 100k event. I had no idea what to expect, and when I look back at my race notes, the themes of “hot,” “dehydrated,” and “hard” stand out. The 2022 event introduced only minor changes to the course, namely a 5-mile road start (that had been a staple of the Mohican 100 prior to COVID, but that I had not previously experienced). This gave me some confidence, as it meant I’d seen most of the trails we would be riding.
One section in particular, the infamous “Mohican Wilderness Rock Garden,” stood out as being exceptionally difficult. Remembering this, I chose to incorporate a pre-ride of that section in my Friday shake-out ride. In the end, this was a solid choice. My friend Elizabeth (who crewed for me in 2021 and raced it this year) and her husband Aaron (who crewed for both of us this year), and myself all rode the Mohican Wilderness trail portion of the course on Friday. It was much wetter than I expected: the trails were muddy and slick, and the rocks themselves were treacherous. After walking the rock garden, plotting out lines, and then trialing several of those lines without repeated success, I evaluated my options. Sure, there was one line that was relatively low-consequence that I might make without dabbing or sliding out and having to dismount, and there was a second, much higher-consequence line, that required more speed (and confidence) over the top of some slick rocks, but my reasoning tends to follow the risk v. reward valuation. The risk of the latter line was too high if I lost traction or slipped, and the rocks were too wet to allow riding it at a lower speed. The reward of riding the high/fast line was definitely gained speed–but that reward would be lost entirely if I crashed in the attempt. The low-consequence line offered far lesser risks, but also much less reward. The likelihood of having to put a foot down or dismount was high (based on several trial runs, none of which were entirely successful), and the line was not fast, so very little time would be saved by even attempting to ride it. Despite knowing that the camera crews and spectators would be there to watch any carnage, I made the decision to walk the rock garden during the race. As my friend Katie often reminds me, “There are two kinds of cyclists: those who walk and those who lie.”
One of the best part about this year’s event was that I got to spend the weekend with Elizabeth and Aaron, and my parents drove out to watch the event. I saw them briefly before the start, but then, once I was finished, got to hang out with them as we watched other racers finish and waited for the podium. Now that I live 8 hours away from them, those moments are especially sweet.
A consequence of the mass downtown start of this year’s event was that riders started lining up at the start line more than 20 minutes prior to the start. I did not realize this and was still finishing my warm up. By time I had switched bottles and gotten to the start line, I had to wriggle my way into midpack instead of lining up near the front of the pack with the other elite women. Because of the “neutral” start and immediate hill climb, my start position really didn’t impact the race. Regardless of where I started, I would quickly be shuffled back as stronger, more powerful riders attacked the climb and the ensuing five miles of pavement–so much so that I could not even see the front riders by time I crested the hill, much less when approaching the start of the singletrack.
As I entered the singletrack, I realized that my failure to be in the lead pack of riders could have dire effects. Very quickly, it was evident that I was stuck behind a long line of 30+ riders who, at least as a collective whole, did not ride trails at the pace I was expecting to ride. One rider’s error dominoed through the group like a tsunami of muttered curses and squealing brakes. Passing one rider seemed always to be met by the immediate braking of the next rider, causing terrible inefficiency and worse frustration.
The event that caused my anger to come to a roaring crescendo was a rider that, when the crowd had finally started to thin, refused to let me pass, and then, after multiple requests to pass, proceeded to do a small tailwhip off a root. It was everything I could do to not yank his party pace off his bike. The irony of this is not lost on me (after the fact), as it was just three days earlier where I literally wore PARTY PACE in capital letters while racing Disco…and celebrated the fun of racing party pace. But in that moment, I was not at Mohican to party pace, and I was sick of easy pedaling trails that were meant to be ridden fast, and I only held on to any dignity or sportsmanship by virtue of the fact that I kept my mouth shut and waited for any shred of a chance to get past.
The first 41 miles (or, if my Garmin file is accurate, 44 miles) of the race felt like an avalanche of minor frustrations. Two missed turns, the congo line through the Mohican State Park singletrack, heat that forced an early water stop, my handlebars slipping (and the eventual difficulty of finding the right size allen key on my multitool to fix them), abysmal traction through the slime of the Mohican Wilderness trails, and Mr. Tailwhip… by time I reached Aid Station #3, where Aaron was waiting with chain lube, an Icee, jalapeno chips, two bottles, and a fresh hydration pack, I was on the furthest possible end of the spectrum from party pace. When Elizabeth later asked Aaron how I was doing, his response: “She was salty.” Accurate. And not because I was soaked with sweat. I even told him that I would enjoy the second half of the race a lot more if I could stop being angry with the world.
My best guess, as I rolled away from Aid Station #3, was that I was in about fifteenth place. I had only seen a few other women, and none of the women I expected to be in competition for the podium. After getting third and racing at the pointy end of the Big Frog 65, I had been hoping for another strong race at Mohican, but wasn’t feeling that. Instead, I forced myself to focus on the little I could control: pedaling my f***ing bike. With the mud, even that felt questionable at times. Still, I was determined to “win the brick.”
For the last 20 miles, I just put my head down and pedaled. “Ride fierce.” “Win the brick.” “You can still catch them.” I refused to give up hope that I would somehow, against all odds, catch one of the women ahead of me. Eventually, as I came back into the State Park, with just 1.5 miles left, I acknowledged that I wasn’t going to get that desired podium. I was sure that I was in fifteenth place (why that was the number I decided on, I still don’t know) and still hadn’t caught even a single woman. But I kept coming back to it: “Win the brick.” I did everything I could to lay it all out there, even in those last few miles to the finish.
As I put the final few hard pedal strokes through the finish banner (because I don’t believe in coasting through the finish, even if no one is directly in front of me), I was excited to see my parents were there and watching, and overwhelmingly glad to be done. I knew I had given it my best, but was still frustrated at how the first half of the race went. Then, it registered: as they announced my name, they also announced that I had finished in third. Third?!
In the end, I got on the podium. But the value was in fighting through the difficulties, both in my own errors and the ones out of my control. That was the real win, and one I’m proud of, no matter where the results say I finished.