Dealing with the aftermath of gravel racing has become an entity all its own for me, and for my family. It’s me, standing in front of my husband bleeding and covered in dirt, asking him, “Can you bandage this up?” It’s my daughters combing the mega knot out of my pony tail that I get every time I spend hours in the wind and gravel dust. And it’s my son, driving me to various errands around town and teasing me about maybe needing to drop my sorry ass at the door or park in a handicapped parking spot. It’s a thing now, a consequence, and a shared burden more so than it ever had been for triathlon. And then there is the sleep deprivation, and the trip to the bike shop to fix whatever I broke, and the ice cream… there must always be ice cream.
24 Hours of Cumming this year for me was plagued by random misfortune, mistakes, minor injury, and bad weather. There was definitely more of a physical aftermath to deal with than I had hoped for, and it was a lot slower finish time than I anticipated. I won’t pretend that I am not disappointed by that, but I learned a few good things in the process, and felt a bond with my crew of friends that made the suckiness totally fade away. I just love this event.
Lee Buell (aka Brewer Bebe) and me
The course for 24 Hours of Cumming this year was exactly the same as last year. Four 100K loops starting and ending at the Cumming Tap, with a 24 hour time limit for finishing the entire 400K. New this year was a 100K race added to the mix for Loop 1. It’s tough, hilly terrain with over 15,000 feet of climbing. I live near the course, I train on the course, and I know it pretty well. I know what I can do in good conditions and in bad, and I had what I thought were realistic expectations for a sub 17 hour finish. I met fellow 400K competitor Lee Buell only a week before the race, and getting to know her was one of the highlights of this experience for me. Lee said that if I fell in a ditch she was going to go right by me for the win… I really wish I had met Lee ages ago. She is truly awesome.
My hope for a PR started to circle the drain Monday night when I broke the fourth toe on my left foot. My bike repair stand and trainers are all in the same tiny little corner of my basement by the water heater, and I caught the leg of the trainer with my toe when I was working on one of my bikes. I felt it crack, and without even looking at it I walked up the stairs and told Brian and my kids that I had just broken my toe. I grabbed the Kinesio tape and hobbled into the living room and had my first look at it. It was crooked, and the joint was dislocated. I taped it up while my husband and kids watched and told them I was going for a short ride, just to make sure I could. Not even 5 minutes had passed, and I’m headed out the door to ride on my newly broken toe. Right then I realized that this race was a little more important to me than I had known.
Our transition space
There wasn’t much Brian could say to me at that point, and to give him credit he didn’t say much at all. Once I got halfway down the street on my bike, I tried standing up while pedaling and the pressure popped the joint back into place. That eased the worst of the pain, and I no longer wanted to vomit. I rode a few miles just to make sure I could, and it didn’t suck too bad. I went home, re-taped it, told everyone it would be fine, and went off to the grocery store with my daughter. Life goes on. Nothing to do but keep it taped, keep riding, and hope for the best. There are worse things I could’ve done to myself on race week for sure.
The rest of that week went well thankfully, and I was able to ride on my broken toe without too much pain. By Friday, I was able to walk without much of a limp at all as long as I had it taped, so I didn’t anticipate that it would be too much trouble during the race. The big concern became the weather forecast, which disintegrated as the week wore on. It went from sunny and perfect, to rain and a high probability for severe storms overnight.
Race morning looked pretty dismal, with a large band of rain moving in to the area. I watched it rain until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and then I texted Lee and told her I was heading down to get set up a little early. With an 11am start time, there is really no need to get there too early, but Lee texted me back that she was already there. I had to laugh, because usually I drive people crazy with my obsessive punctuality and early morning cheer, and she beat me to the punch. Score one for Lee.
Steve Fuller, Lee Buell, and me
Lee, Steve Fuller, and I set up our gear together behind the Cumming Tap. I brought both of my gravel bikes, a titanium Eriksen and a carbon Crux. Given the wet forecast, I planned to ride the Eriksen and use the Crux only as a back up. I had my nutrition and gear set up so that I would not need a lot of support from my crew. All I needed was to grab new bottles and my nutrition after each loop, and lights and reflective gear for the night loops. Liz Bryant, Katherine Roccasecca, Daren Munroe, and Rachelle Little had all volunteered to come by at various times. I definitely did not need such an army of people, and I was overwhelmed by the offers of support.
The band of rain broke up quite a bit as it hit the Des Moines area, so the roads were not very wet at all. It was a pleasant surprise, and a PR still looked possible. I lined up for the race start behind David Krohse, Steve Fuller, and Lance Harris, all doing the 100K. Next to me were Luke Wilson (the eventual men’s winner of the 400K) and Brian Pottorff, also doing the 400K. We took off out of Cumming Tap, and promptly almost ran into an old lady driving around the corner on 44th street. She picked a really bad time to drive into Cumming.
I stayed on Steve and David’s wheels for a few miles, then rode up next to Steve to blow him a kiss and say goodbye. I had no plans to ride their 100K race pace up the hills right out of the gate. Steve and David pulled on ahead, and I looked around for what I hoped would be the 100K chase pack to ride with. It was just two guys, Luke and Lance, with a third guy barely in sight yet. So much for that plan. I rode with them for a few miles, then they went on after Steve and David a few miles later, and I decided to do my own thing.
photo by Eric Roccasecca
I lost a water bottle somewhere shortly after that, because by mile 10 or 11 I noticed I had only one. A fourth of my calories and half of my fluid, just gone. I hadn’t ejected a bottle since Odin’s Revenge last year. As if on cue, it started to heat up and the sun came out. 50 miles on 24 oz wasn’t going to go well for me on a hot day, so I would have to spend some time trespassing and foraging for water.
There were two bridges out around 17 miles into the first loop. Steve Fuller was stopped there, changing the first of two flats that ended his 100K early. Both bridges were pretty easy to get around, but immediately after them was a large, steep hill that you had to ride up with essentially no momentum. It was really slow, and very hot. The first B road was not far after that, and it was mostly dry. It was, in fact, in the best condition I have ever seen it, despite the rain we had gotten. There was only one small muddy section I dismounted for. I took off running for the few steps I needed to get around the mud, and promptly jammed my broken toe into the front of my bike shoe.
There had been another guy riding near me until the B road, and then he fell back shortly after. For the rest of Loop 1, I was alone. The second B road was again mostly rideable, but with a bit more mud to hike through. My toe was fine as long as I remembered to put my heel down first. I felt pretty optimistic that this day was going to turn around soon, and the next loop would go better. I stopped at a farm with a water pump near the road about mile 40 and chugged water for a few minutes until I felt like I was no longer going to die of dehydration. I finished the first 100K in just under 4 hours, about what I expected.
celebrating my Loop 2 finish. photo by Eric Roccasecca
Steve and Liz were there to help me transition to Loop 2. Liz jokingly apologized for helping Luke get in and out so quickly for his transition. I told her to help him, and help everybody that needed it. That’s how we do it in my camp. Steve and Liz handed me the few things I needed, I switched to dry shoes, and took off. Loop 2 is at least a 4 hour loop for me. In my opinion, it’s the hardest of the 4 loops and I’ve never done it in less than 4 hours in training. I had a tailwind heading out though, so my speed was good and I was happy. Sometimes you get to stay happy for awhile, sometimes you don’t. Sadly, my happiness was brief.
The T intersection of Bevington road and 218th street is where it all got pretty crappy for me. I came towards the intersection too fast with the tailwind on a lot of loose gravel. I had committed to the center of the road as I was planning on making a left turn there and I heard a car coming up behind me on my right side. A car was coming from the right at the T intersection as well, and began to slow as it entered the intersection and spotted me heading towards it. I prayed that he would just shoot on through the intersection, because I could then roll the stop and complete my turn behind him without crashing. But the sight of me sliding sideways towards the intersection did not inspire his confidence in my ability to stop, so he stopped in the center of the intersection, eliminating my last hope of escape. The car on my right pulled up next to me just as my rear wheel fishtailed around, dumping me on my left side. Had she not been coming up on my right I could have moved right and still saved it, but alas… there she was.
Liz Bryant, helping me after Loop 2. Photo by Eric Roccasecca
I had not seen two cars together at any point thus far, and I never did again the entire race. It was sheer bad luck to have two cars show up together on such a low traffic loop in the one situation where I really could not stop quickly. It was my own fault for going too fast, but still…. what were the odds? The man that stopped in the intersection asked me if I was ok, and waited until I was on my feet before leaving. The lady on my right asked me if she could do anything for me, so I asked her to please wait and watch me ride away to make sure I could ride and that my bike worked. She waited while I retrieved my bike and my shoe (it had flown off my foot) and put my chain back on. I rode off down the road and made my next right turn before she pulled away. Iowans are pretty nice people.
I was rattled by the crash, but pretty much ok. It was a minor deal, or so I thought. I had a painful and bloody left knee, and my left arm was torn up and badly bruised. I was pretty sure my hip and shoulder were going to be bruised, but no bones were broken. I was incredibly thankful that I hadn’t torn open my bib shorts on the rocks, because I know that I would never, ever be allowed to forget rolling into Cumming with my backside hanging out. There would have been pictures and much teasing.
My bike had minimal damage that I could see. Only a missing bar end plug and some torn bar tape. I had 171 miles to go at that point, and I was still pretty optimistic that I could PR, although my optimism by this point was peppered with a large dose of profanity. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had broken my light mount, and my neck and back were completely jacked up from the crash. The pain did not set in until later.
I don’t know what Liz is doing for me here, but I look like I don’t want to leave. photo by Eric Roccasecca
My ride time for Loop 2 was 4:10 by my Garmin, which I didn’t think was too bad considering. When I got back to Cumming to transition to Loop 3, Katherine offered to swap out the torn arm sleeve for something less bloody and dirty, but I declined. I didn’t want to know what was under there, and I didn’t feel like messing with it. I splashed a little water on it trying to wash it off, and it hurt. I told her it felt like I had a rock stuck in there, but I wouldn’t let her do anything about it. She didn’t pressure me into taking the rock out. If I wanted to ride 171 miles with a rock stuck in my arm, she wasn’t going to argue with me about it. She knows better than to force good common sense on me unless it’s something serious.
Before my rock and I left on Loop 3, Liz told me thunderstorms were expected to hit by 11pm, about when I anticipated finishing that loop. Not far from Cumming, whatever adrenaline I had going on that got me around Loop 2 was gone. My neck and back hurt really badly. Something felt out of alignment in my neck, and I was having a hard time with the extra weight of the headlight on my helmet. That had never bothered me before.
Once it became dark, I realized that my light mount was busted, and I could not tighten it to keep it level on the bars. I would pull it into the position I wanted it, only to have it droop back down and project a nice bright spot on the ground next to my front wheel. It was completely useless. Fortunately I had a headlight on my helmet, but it wasn’t very bright, and definitely not bright enough to ride fast on the descents. In training on this course, my typical speeds on the descents were 37-40 mph, with a few bigger hills where I could top 40 mph. My top speed on Loop 3 during the race was 32 mph. That is ridiculously slow. I lost so much time simply because I could not see where I was going. Loop 3 was incredibly slow and painful.
Steve Cannon’s Facebook commentary on the storm
Within 10 miles of returning to Cumming, I could see and feel the storm moving closer. There was a lot of lightning. I planned to switch out my light for one with a functional mount once I got back to Cumming, but I was distracted by the storm and flat out forgot. So I was stuck with the useless light for Loop 4. The good thing was that at some point whatever was out of kilter in my neck self adjusted, and it was less painful. Daren and Katherine were there to help me swap out bottles and nutrition. I again complained about the rock stuck in my arm, but resisted Katherine’s offer to extract it. I’m not sure why I felt the need to keep telling her about it if I wasn’t going to let her help me.
Katherine and Daren told me the storm was mostly red and orange on the radar, and that the race was still in play. I made it just a few miles out of Cumming before the storm hit. The rain was so heavy that I could barely see. The rain drops lit up by my headlight were mesmerizing and beautiful. I had to force myself to look past that and try to see where I was going. Water was deep on the roadway in places, and running in small streams down the hills. The lightning was frequent and uncomfortably close. It was a doozy of a storm.
The storm lasted through 10 miles of that loop, and after that it was intermittent rain. The roads were soaked, and my legs and bike were coated with gravel sludge. It became very difficult to work the right shifter, and there was a lot of resistance when I pushed on the lever. A few times the cable popped out, but I could feel the knob of the cable end through the cover, and was able to push it back into place. That happened a few times when the cassette was in the 11T on a downhill, and I was stuck in my hardest gear for a few moments of panic as I looked forward at the next monster hill. This was getting more difficult to deal with by the mile.
My shifter cable popped out at the top of a hill when I was in the easy 28T gear, and I could not find the cable end to push it back in. I thought I had broken it completely. Jim Cummins and I had leapfrogged a few times on Loop 4, but were riding together again at that point. I told Jim to go on ahead, as I wasn’t moving very fast in that gear, but he said we would stick together until past the B road and then he would go on ahead.
Jim Cummins and I after the finish. Photo by Steve Cannon
It was nice to have Jim’s company, especially for the B road hike. We dismounted and started walking as soon as we made the lefthand turn onto it. With all of the rain, there was not one inch of that road that you would want to ride. The worst part about it was not the slow pace, or the mud, but the BUGS. The moths were dive bombing my helmet light, and at any moment I had a flock of 5 or more slapping into my face. I ended up with too many mosquito bites to count. As far as B roads go, when dry this one wouldn’t have been anything too gnarly. But the rain turned it into a swamp, with mud of biblical proportions. Jim and I ended up walking in the weeds on the side of the road as much as we could.
It felt like it took over half an hour to walk that mile, but I’m not really sure. When we finally got to the end, Jim took off to take the win for his 4 man team, and I spun along slowly in my 28T hoping I could hang on to second place overall. I had no idea who was behind me, or how far. I did finally locate the shifter cable end and get it back into place, but I never took a chance on shifting down past the 25T until I was past the last big hill and within a few miles of the finish. It was slow going.
The finish line. Photo by Steve Cannon. The mud on my face is from swatting at bugs
There were more people at the finish line than I expected, despite the early morning hour. Sometimes the finish line at ultra events can be pretty anti-climactic, but this one wasn’t. Steve Cannon, Luke Wilson, Katherine Roccasecca, Jim Cummins, and a handful of other people were there. It was just perfect, and very cool. Even though this wasn’t the race that I hoped I would have, I never wanted to quit, and I never wished it were over before the finish line. Physical misery never progressed to mental misery, and that is a skill I have worked very hard to develop. I wanted it to suck less, and I would prefer that my next race suck less, but in the moment I wanted it all. The ride, the hills, the storm, the mud, the adversity, and the time spent with friends new and old. I was right where I wanted to be, and I couldn’t imagine being any happier about finishing a race.
First place woman, second overall. 6 of 12 solo starters finished this year. Photo by K. Roccasecca
Shortly after I finished, Lee came in from her third loop and got ready to go out on her fourth. Her Garmin had died, so I plugged mine into a charger and mounted it on her bike. While she finished getting ready, I finally peeled back my arm sleeve, and a pea sized rock popped out and fell into the grass. I wish I had caught it before it got away. It would’ve made a nice souvenir.
400K winner Luke Wilson and me
Thank you Kyle Robinson and Kyle’s Bikes for keeping me going for another season. I could not do this without your support, and the excellent customer service. Thank you Kyle, for another ‘blessing of the bike’. It’s becoming a favorite part of my pre-race routine. You bless it, I break it!
Steve Cannon and the race volunteers: Thanks for another great year! This event is really something special. Thank you so much for making it happen. A special thank you to Stretch Wilson for finding me after the event, and for your kind words.
Thanks so much to my crew for lending a hand at all hours of the day and night!
Liz Bryant: you were the only one I asked to be there, and I told you to come once after loop 1…Thanks for going above and beyond yet again, and for taking care of me and Luke. Thanks for shoving my sorry ass out of Cumming in a timely fashion
Steve Fuller: thanks for joining in the fun and racing the 100K. It would not have been the same without you. Thanks for pitching in after loop1. You are hired!
Daren Munroe: I saw you at whatever dark hour that was and I thought, “Daren is here? Of course Daren is here”. Thanks for being there for me yet again.
Rachelle Little: I no longer remember what time it was that I saw you or what you did for me, but thanks for being there
Katherine Roccasecca: Thanks so much to you and Eric for being there all night, for taking care of both Lee and myself, for taking pictures, for at least trying to get me to take the rock out of my arm, and for editing all of my writing. There is hope that someday your common sense will get through my thick head during a race, so please keep trying.