(While this post might seem obscenely long, it has everything you could want: a thrilling race report, beautiful views, an objective review of the race organization, AND personal introspection!)
It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden 50 miles, let alone raced 50 miles. Not to mention I’ve done exactly 2 gravel rides in my life. But a few weekends ago I raced 50 gravel miles at the Croatan Buck Fifty race. It had been awhile since I’d had a real bike challenge to train for (outside of cross) and as the new year started, I felt motivated to find something to aim for. My friend Casey suggested the Croatan Buck Fifty, which is a new race down in North Carolina put on by Ridge Supply. It’s a gravel race in the Croatan National Forest, and consisted of a 50 mile out and back lap, which you could ride 1, 2 or 3 times – 50, 100, or 150 miles respectively. I was initially too intimidated to try 50 miles as my first race “back” after years away from endurance riding. But, flat course + the presence of friends + lap race = enough bravery to sign up.
In the months and weeks leading up the race, I vacillated between excitement at the challenge and serious anxiety and self-doubt. Shockingly, I’ve come to enjoy the thought of a bike challenge, as I get perverse pleasure out of wondering how much it will hurt and if/when I’ll break down. But every bike challenge – especially races were the expectation is to go fast and compete for a podium – comes with a lot of self-doubt. I do not fit in the typical demographic for races, as I’m fat and slow. I worry most about judgement and pity – *I* don’t care much that I’m fat and slow, but I can’t help but wonder what others think. Then we got some emails that mentioned “peloton” and “motor pacing” and I got even MORE anxious, as I worried my slow pace would mean I would be dropped like a hot potato and constantly passed by faster riders. To help calm my fears, I reminded myself that I have just as much right to be out there as anyone and that if someone judges me for how I look, that’s THEIR problem, not mine.
However, in spite of my anxiety, I was looking forward to a long weekend to enjoy my friends, bikes, and beaches. My friend Samantha and I drove down Thursday afternoon and about halfway there a car passed us with Dirty Kanza 200 car sticker and a bike that had handlebar tape that looked suspiciously like Casey’s bar tape that actually was Casey. So the three of us rode down in tandem and once arrived, had some delicious homemade pizza and some leftover cider we found in the fridge.
Friday’s weather was perfect, and became sweeter once we realized there was snow in the DC area! There was a pre-ride Friday afternoon, which we had planned to do, but first we had to drink some cider/beer we found in the fridge, go to the grocery store, drink some wine, find some oysters, get a crab cake sandwich, eat ice cream cake, sit in the sun, and go to the beach and then there was no time for a pre-ride. #priorities
Friday evening, after going to the pre-race briefing at the Carteret Speedway (the start/finish line of the race), there was a mad rush at our house to get our pasta dinner assembled and get all our gear together for the next day. After a semi-chaotic dinner, and last minute prep, we all had an early bedtime.
When we arrived at the Speedway Saturday morning, I realized I had grossly underestimated the still-winter weather of North Carolina. Up in DC, it was still straight winter, but I had been lulled by the sun and warmer weather of the previous day. I assumed it would quickly warm up that morning and only brought my arm warmers with me to the track – even though I had all the winter gear back at the house. I knew I would warm up eventually, between the sun and my exertions, but it was damn cold at the start line with bare legs! Until about 9:30, it was a very cold ride, with frozen toes.
Leading up the race, my training mostly consisted of riding longer and longer distances over a series of weekends. I knew the only person I’d really be racing is myself, as there was no question I’d struggle at 50 miles in the saddle. The longest distance I rode during training was 40 miles on the C&O Canal the weekend before, which is a flat gravel trail that runs next to the C&O Canal in Maryland, and seemed like the best approximation of race conditions that I could get in the area. That was a shockingly tough ride – it was hard on the body to stay in the same position on the bike for so long, both my arms and undercarriage suffered from the flat and bumpy terrain, and mentally it was tough to keep going. Based on that last training ride, my goal was to keep at 13-14 mph pace as much as could and finish hopefully in the 4 to 5 hour range.
The “neutral roll out” went well and it was fun to ride with so many people. Once the race started in earnest, I was pretty quickly on my own. I would get passed periodically by people who would be with me for 5 or 10 minutes and I could usually see a person or two up ahead, but I was basically on my own for the first 10 miles. I didn’t mind – it was beautiful and I like going at my own pace. By mile 16, I was riding generally with a group of women who all seemed to be going about the same pace. We would usually chat for a bit, say hi, someone would ride faster for a bit, I’d catch up, etc, and it was nice to have some casual company. But about 75% of the time I was by myself and enjoying it. I was doing so well maintaining my 13-14 mph pace and feeling very proud of myself! At mile 18, the lead group finally caught us going the opposite direction so we knew we’d have to be aware of traffic coming towards us. Once I had been “lapped” it was actually kind of fun, as my friends who are faster than me (all of them!) were now periodically passing me going the other direction! Every time a Bikenetic team member would pass (even if I didn’t know them personally!) I would shout “HI!”. It was energizing to see my friends and helped keep it from being too boring (it also made me seem very popular with whoever I was riding with at the time!).
I had been feeling pretty good up to this point, but 18 miles of non-stop riding at an aggressive pace was starting to wear on me and I was really looking forward to the turnaround rest stop at mile 23. At mile 20, I rounded a slight bend in the road and saw before me the whitest, flattest, straightest section of road so far and knew these last 3 miles to the turnaround were going to be brutal. This would be the first of three really (mentally and physically) tough sections.
I decided the best way to tackle this section was to put my head down and power through. Instead of a 13-14 mph goal, I was now aiming for a 15-16 mph goal. Based on Strava I met that goal, and based on what I remember of the suffering, I’m glad to know it wasn’t wasted.
At the turnaround point, I didn’t stop long. I stretched, used the bathroom (which was the most vile bathroom I’ve ever been in my LIFE), ate some GORMP, got some electrolytes for my water, and pressed on. I left with the same group of women I had been riding with at the beginning of the long-straight-flat section and stuck with them for a little while, but needed to ride my own pace and left them.
I soon hit the “infamous” Savage Road, the 2nd tough section. This is a stretch of un-maintained roads, full of huge craters full of water – nasty looking water. The water could be 3 inches deep or 3 feet and I was not interested in finding out! There was a line ridden in by previous riders, tracing a path around the craters. But some of those lines were very narrow and/or right on the edge of giant crater. It was here I was so thankful for that 1 and a half seasons of cross I had under my belt. I never would have felt confident enough to navigate some of the trickier lines without the bike handling skills I’d picked up in cross. Another unexpected challenge of this road was the uneven surface between the crater sections. It was hard packed, uneven dirt and because I had slightly too much air in my tires, I was being thrown around, bouncing all over. This was hell on my undercarriage and it made the section miserable. Between the rough road and the craters, I couldn’t keep any speed which made this 3 mile section feel like an eternity!
It was a relief to leave that section behind for the “smoother” gravel roads! Once I exited Savage Road, I immediately stopped and took a break – I really just needed to unclench my body from the bike and give my lady-bits a reprieve from the saddle!
At around mile 35, the course was on pavement for a bit. Once back on pavement, I realized how mental exhausting it is to ride on gravel. You can’t let your mind wander, you always need to be paying attention to road conditions, on the look out for potholes, patches of loose gravel, other obstacles. It was a relief to let my mind go blank for a bit while riding on the pavement.
I could feel myself starting to fade and when I turned back onto the gravel around mile 37, I was able to keep up a good 13-14 mph pace for only a mile or two. After that, I struggled to keep above 10 mph! I was losing energy and power. Just in time for the last truly rough section, yay. On the way out, I had noticed a sandy-ish section, but didn’t take much notice of it. On the way back, I marveled at how I managed to forget this section because it was now torture. It had become a packed sandy road, bumpy and unforgiving. The road was either packed, bumpy sand or loose, shifty sand. I couldn’t relax for a minute and my undercarriage was taking a beating.
In hindsight, I should have stopped and let out a little air, but I was too addled at the time to think straight. This sandy section was only 2 miles long but those 2 miles almost broke me. I had only stopped twice the previous 40 miles, but in this 2 mile stretch, I had to stop twice, plus once after I finished the section. I’m sure part of the problem was I hadn’t eaten or drank enough, but, it was also 40 miles into the longest, hardest ride I’d done in years.
One coping strategy I came up with to help get through the miles was to count the route in 10 mile sections. Ten miles seemed reasonable and I bike 10 miles all the time. So I hoped I could trick myself into riding 50 miles with less pain. And it had worked pretty well so far! But I had never seen the mileage tick over so slowly as those last 10 miles. I was counting down every hundredth of a mile. Even after I left the sandy section (which was only 2 miles!), it felt like I was moving through molasses and every pedal turn was a challenge. I had planned to finish without stopping again, but I had to stop at mile 45, to cry a little, eat a snack, and convince myself to finish!
Thankfully, about 1 mile later, the course switched back to pavement, which helped a bit as I knew I was so close and I could turn off my brain a bit for awhile. The last few miles went without incident and I finished with much rejoicing 3 hours and 39 minutes after I started!
On every level, the race didn’t disappoint. It was a great course, tough and challenging, and best of all, pancake flat! You could feel the excitement and enthusiasm of the organizers and the volunteers. And the FOOD! Entry included lunch/dinner and I was worried it would consist of tired looking spaghetti and congealed potatoes, that had been sitting out too long, with crumbs left for those who finished later in the day. I’ve never been happier to be wrong! The food was delicious and thoughtful – there were potatoes, veggies, and marinara sauce for the vegetarians, plus chicken and meat sauce for those who eat meat. Plus THE COOKIES! I engaged in an unofficial eat-off with Robin to see who could eat more of their amazing chocolate caramel and apple pie/spice cookies. And the best part was that they spaced the food out enough so there was fresh trays and cookies throughout the day – everyone had a chance to eat hot, fresh food.
Ridge Supply is a pretty hip company and I was worried the race and organizers would be full of “bros”, unlikely to welcome someone who looks like me or other newbies to racing/riding. But I following along on the Facebook event page, I was pleasantly surprised at how thoughtful and thorough the organizers answered questions that were both obvious and technical. I asked a question that I realized was obvious/stupid once I did about 5 minutes of research, but they answered it politely and without snark! It’s surprising how something as little as that can act as reassurance. I would not hesitate to recommend this race to someone who felt unsure about their racing abilities.
This race ended up meaning more to me than I could have expected. I felt so much pride after finishing so far under my goal time, so grateful for the confidence bike handling skills from cross gave me, so soul-happy to be experiencing this with so many good friends.
After I became disenchanted with bike commuting, discouraged by saddle pain, bored with the social rides, grudgingly accepting of my love/hate relationship with cross racing,
I was worried cycling didn’t have any more highs for me. While I still love racing cross, it’s a very different experience because, honestly, I don’t enjoy the racing – being slow is often discouraging, and it hurts a lot. I do feel pride after finishing a race, mostly because I didn’t quit even when I really, really wanted to – but I don’t really enjoy it. Cycling hadn’t given me any real highs for awhile and I fully expected this race to feel like a cross race – a mostly miserable experience I slogged through, mostly proud I didn’t quit. But…it wasn’t! Not at all. I even, dare I say, enjoyed myself on the race! It was truly gorgeous out there and I enjoyed both the scenery and pushing myself. I think the very flat course was mostly responsible for my enjoyment. I was able to “wrap” myself in the pain and focus on my rhythm. When it’s a consistent pain, I’m able to move it to the background a bit. I suspect this is why I struggle with cross – the pain is always shifting because the course is changing and it’s harder to ignore the pain.
It was also deeply satisfying to set a goal and hit it. I rarely race with goals in mind, partly because I’ve never had a way to measure how I was during while racing, and partly because setting goals means potentially failing and who likes that?? This was the first race where I used a computer to track distance and speed, which allowed me to set some goals to track while racing. I sort-of-not-really-on-purpose overestimated my
finishing time as, even for me, 5 hours to finish 50 miles is pretty attainable, as I had done my last 40 ride on terrain that was close to the race terrain in about 4 hours. And honestly, I secretly thought I could finish 50 miles in 4 hours in a race situation where I was pushing myself with minimal stopping. And had I actually done any math, I would have realized that at a 13-14 mph pace, I would definitely hit a 4 hour goal, and even be under that goal (math is clearly not a #priority for me). But I didn’t want to jinx myself! But I didn’t want to publicly state I could do it in 4 and miss that by a mile – that felt like a disappoint I couldn’t bear. So, I gave myself a laughably attainable goal and having a computer was a shockingly good motivator! Seeing my speed was an especially good motivator. I loved hitting that goal MPH and found myself digging deep when I wasn’t hitting it.
This “win” affected me in ways I didn’t expect. Going to work Monday, I had this happy secret inside of me – all my fellow commuters didn’t know I was capable of riding 50 miles and beating my goal time! It made me feel special! Then, when I went to the Crosshairs Garage Races on Wednesday (a race series that takes place in a parking garage!), I guess the magic of Croatan 150 was still inside of me and I crushed the race. I was corning like a master and even lapping people – which I’ve NEVER done! I ended up with 16th place (out of 24!) and felt on top of the world. I know I won’t always have bike successes like I had in March, but now that I have a taste of what success (for me) is like, I think I’ll be chasing more personal wins in the future!
I still worry about how I’m perceived and if people are judging me by how I look. But I’m starting to realize it doesn’t matter what people, it just matters how I feel. And if I feel fast, or like a badass, or a racer, then that’s what I am!