[words by Clara Kelly // @claradodd]
2019 is my year for endurance. The seed was planted early last summer, when Ally, Bri and Megan made the long trek to and through Emporia, Kansas. Or maybe last Spring when I bought a gravel/any-road bike for a bikepacking trip that never came to pass. Either way, by the end of the cyclocross season my Salsa Vaya had too many cobwebs and I was determined to change that. I threw my name in for the Kanza lottery, added myself to the Fried Clay 200k roster, and signed up for the Middle Georgia Epic in February, for my first taste of long distance off road riding.
Originally I was signed up for the MGE 200k, and had big ambitions of riding 5 days a week leading up to the race to train. Between a car failure, work, and the miserably rainy GA winter, that dream quickly shifted gears. I attempted to get in a gravel ride every weekend, but when race day came, I hadn't been on my bike in two weeks. My teammate, Megan, also had to drop out to help her brother on moving day, which meant that I would be completely solo for my first long distance challenge.
Now is probably a good time to talk about the psychology of riding. Or rather, the weird gut feeling you get when you just think something will work out. I don’t know whether this can be qualified as confidence or delusion, but whatever it is was told me that I would be just fine.
Despite the lack of ride time in the weeks leading up to the race, I was over-prepared in just about every other realm. I had the route uploaded and quadruple checked on my Wahoo Elemnt Bolt and Loose Nuts Cycles had given my Salsa (Annabelle) a thorough once over the Wednesday before the race. I had new and borrowed bags from Topo Designs and our local custom bag shop The Spindle, stuffed with about a million Honey Stinger Waffles, energy bars, and countless other snacks. I had even packed two sandwiches and a bottle of pickles for the SAG stop, just in case. Even if I hadn’t trained enough, I certainly wouldn’t want for food.
The night before the race I drove down to the charming Blue Goose Bike Hostel in Irwinton, GA. This would serve as the start/finish point for the ride, and a perfectly soothing landing pad for me and my pre-race jitters. It was quiet when I landed at 9:30, evidence of other riders inside and camped around the property, but no one awake or around to chat with. This was for the best, and I tucked in for a night of nerve interrupted sleep before an early morning.
I woke up at 3:30, convinced it was ride time, and then again at 5:30 when my alarm actually went off. Turns out I’d picked a room with a Dirty Kanza veteran, and was relieved to have a new friend to help talk me through my anxious morning. Nicole was signed up for the 200k, originally from Emporia, KS, and had plenty of encouragement and tips to share. We did a few pre-ride laps around the neighborhood, and she gave me a Baby Ruth bar from her own stash of good luck snacks. I cheered her on as the 200k took off, then lined up for my own category.
During the Ride
The weather was perfect. It had rained all week (really all month, because winter in Georgia), but there was only mist as we took off, and the temperatures had blessedly climbed up in to the 60s for the day. The race kicked off with a police escort and a glorious descent out of town, followed by a tiny muddy climb and the first mud-splattered downhill.
I immediately let go of any idea of holding on to the lead pack, opting to accept my slower pace and sustain throughout the ride, quietly reminding myself it was a marathon and not a sprint. It’s hard to accept your limitations, but so essential. The battle between pushing my limits and accepting them is constantly waging.
I quickly settled in to a comfortable 14 mph average, made possible by the unexpected amount of pavement included in the ride. The organizers had been perfectly transparent about what was paved and what was not, but I was still surprised to find myself on so much road to start out. In the end, I was glad for it, and for my choice to stick with skinnier tires. The road portions allowed for a healthy average pace, which encouraged me to push myself up to a race mentality, instead of settling too much in to the “I’ve got all day” mindset.
I found myself to be pretty well matched with two other riders, Jason and Sandra, and it was pleasant to have the company. We rode together for the most part, pulling ahead and falling behind as the landscape changed. I was grateful to take turns sheltering behind them from the headwind that seemed to come in every direction.
If I were a more experienced rider, this might be a good time to talk about strategy, or reflect on the energy conservation through the paved sections of the route. But ultimately, I settled on enjoying a day in the saddle, and just tried to stay steady on that line at the top edge of my capabilities.
Hills rolled past, clouds flew overhead, and fields dotted with cotton and starlings whizzed past. The scenery provided a welcome distraction from our muscles during long climbs, and there were just enough descents mixed in to keep a big grin on my face. We trailed a tractor for a short spell, and relished the muddy off-road portions. I felt good about keeping up with nutrition and hydration, switching from regular water to electrolytes at around mile 20 and surprising myself with less hunger than I anticipated.
We rolled through the SAG stop pretty efficiently around what felt like mile 40, and I finally got a chance to stretch my legs and back out, a major relief. I’ve always dealt with lower back pain on the bike, an echo of an athletic injury at age 15 after years of ballet--and powering through 40 miles without rest was certainly taking its toll. After a quick water bottle refill and snack access rearrangement, we were off again.
That’s when the muscle fatigue started to kick in. I had hoped to feel refreshed after the break, but my legs started to fade and my knees started to whine, just in time for the more concentrated off road portion of the ride. It felt like all of a sudden everything was uphill, loose ground, and cakey mud. The headwinds were blocked, but I was slowing down rapidly.
Luckily Jason and Sandra were in no hurry, we were all there to have a fun day on the bike, and we made a few additional stops for pee breaks and photos. Though I wanted to take the race seriously and finish strong, it was nice to have companions that reminded me of the real reason we did this crazy thing--to have fun spending too many hours riding our bikes.
We jumped back on pavement around mile 50 or 55, and I started to lose J + S in the climbs. They were still within sight lines, but I quickly realized I would not be catching up to them again. I don’t think I have ever felt my legs burn out the way they did then. I’ve been tired before, yes, and I’ve used my muscles hard before, yes. I’ve done a century on road, damnit! But my quads were just done, and my knees were screaming.
I thought about crying, and I thought about finishing, and I put my head down and kept pedaling. It hurt physically to keep going and it hurt mentally to see my pace drop, but I told myself that 5 mph was better than none, and on I went.
At mile 62 that muddy descent from the start re-appeared. A slick wet clay climb loomed ahead of me, and I’d lost sight of Jason and Sandra. But I grit my teeth and climbed, and there at the top was Sandra with her camera out, and both of them cheering me on. They assured me we would finish together, and got some photos of my frazzled self grinning through the pain.
A few miles and quick pit stop for finish line beer later, we rolled back in to the Blue Goose Hostel, covered in mud and triumphant. I was surprised to be told I’d earned a podium in my category (spoiler alert: I got second place out of two women), and concerned that I might fall over once I let go of my bike. But mostly I was thrilled to have done the damn thing.
After the ride I felt like I was moving in slow motion. You know the delirium that comes from sleep deprivation? It was that, plus jelly legs and the feeling that someone was slowly applying a blowtorch to my knees.
The Blue Goose served up hearty plates of pasta, salad and their famous banana pudding, and after a shower and a healthy serving of all three, I was ready to hit the road home.
I had so much fun with this race. It is absolutely one of the hardest things I have done on a bike so far, but even at my lowest moments, finishing never felt impossible. I am grateful for the friends I made that kept me going through the ride, for Dustin and everyone else involved in putting the event together, and Donna for the magic she curates at the Blue Goose.
I was less sore the day after the race than I’d expected, and I’ve spent the week post ride jumping right back in to training. I still don’t really know how training works, but I know I need to work to combat the muscle fatigue that set in at mile 45. I’m hoping between some interval training and just plain old riding more I’ll build the endurance needed for Fried Clay and in Kanza.
All things considered, I’m pretty heckin’ proud of myself. I went and did something completely new, and completely alone, and finished with a smile on my face and in my heart. The gut feeling that I would be just fine was absolutely right, and I can’t wait to try this event again next year when I’ve got more experience under my belt. Next up, the Fried Clay 200k, then Dirty Kanza. And who knows, maybe I’ll throw something else in the mix along the way.