I rode gravel today for the first time since getting home from Colorado. My bike is now covered in grey Iowa gravel dust, and the remnants of Colorado dirt are gone. I was sad to see them go. It was a wonderful trip, and the Idirtarod 200 was a fantastic first year event. I am so glad I had the opportunity to go.
I stumbled across the Idirtarod 200 on the Riding Gravel race calendar when I was looking for an event to fill a gap in my schedule. Labor Day weekend was not the time frame I was looking for, but I kept coming back to the website over and over again… I was drawn to it. I had always wanted to race in Colorado, but had not yet had an opportunity that worked out so well with our family schedule. This year the race started in Palmer Lake, and finished at Peaceful Valley Scout Ranch in Elbert. There were four 50 mile sections of Colorado front range gravel, dirt, and a little bit of single track, with over 14,000 feet of climbing. The course itself would be challenging enough to justify the 10 hour drive from Iowa, but in addition the entire race took place at an average elevation of 7,000 feet. The opportunity to spend a weekend of hard riding at altitude sounded like something that would be fun, and good for me. Maybe good for me in a painful way, like a root canal, but still something I should do. I added it on to my already full calendar in the middle of my last big training block before the Tejas 500.
My ability to attend this event hung in the balance until just a few days prior. I had injured my left ankle and missed Gravel Worlds two weeks before, and the projected timeline for healing did not look to be in my favor. I had walked into my doctor’s office with a persistently swollen and painful ankle, thinking she would tell me to tape it up and carry on. I didn’t think it was all that bad. Our initial conversation was promising, and then we started talking about my races, and training volume, and next year… The next thing I knew I was imprisoned in an air cast boot wondering what the heck had just happened. Yikes. Immobilizing the joint and restricting my walking helped things to improve rapidly enough that I felt like I could take some chances and continue on with my planned training schedule. The weather looked promising for a dry Labor Day weekend in Colorado, and little chance that I would need to hike through mud carrying my bike, so I decided to take the risk and race the Idirtarod before my ankle was fully healed.
The Idirtarod is a self supported event, meaning there is no on course support, but crews were allowed and recommended at each of the 50 mile checkpoints. I brought my friend Katherine Roccasecca along as crew, as I knew she would be able to find enough single track and gravel to ride over the weekend to make the trip worth her time. Logistically, this event could not have worked out much better for us. Katherine found mountain bike trails to ride within minutes of our hotel in Monument, and the 10 hour drive from Iowa was one of the easiest I have ever done. As a destination race, this was perfect for us.
Race morning dawned clear and cool, and we lined up in the dark for the neutral rollout on single track. I haven’t ridden single track in two years, and I’ve never ridden anything but gravel on my cross bike. About a mile into the trail, we encountered a deep rut on a downhill. When I saw the rut at the last second, my first thought was that I was not going to clear it. I have more experience with Iowa B roads than I do single track, but I know that once I think I am not going to clear something, I don’t. Sure enough, I went down on my right side and slid to the edge of the trail. I scraped and bruised my right leg and hip, but no major damage. It was highly embarrassing, but I was up and back on my bike in seconds. I cleared the remaining ruts without problem.
After a few miles, the neutral rollout ended where the trail crossed a road and opened up into two track. The sun was rising over the hills just in front of us, and it was a beautiful morning. Naas (the race director) had warned us that some of the lines had more deep sand in them than others, but it was impossible to tell which line to ride in the faint light of dawn. I have never ridden in sand like that before, so I got behind a man that seemed to know what he was doing and stayed behind him. We were moving pretty quickly, darting from line to line and occasionally passing people. Whenever he snowplowed into sand, I was prepared to plow into it soon after. The key seemed to be to hit it as fast as possible and not crash when you hit it. We made it through unscathed, but if there is a way to ride sand with more finesse, I would like to hear it.
A few miles later we emerged onto gravel, and I thought I had seen the last of the sand. Oh, naive innocence… the sand was a constant feature throughout the day. My heart rate was a little higher than I wanted it to be, probably due to the altitude, and I got dropped by the front group of men. I noticed that I was making time on them on the climbs, so rather than push to catch them I let the hills bring them back to me. It took some time, but I eventually worked my way through them, and then it was just me and Austin, the eventual overall winner of the 200 mile. I didn’t go into this with any expectation that I would race hard or do very well, so it was a nice surprise to find myself out front.
The first 50 miles was very beautiful, with pine trees, farms, and a lot of climbing. I was surprised when Austin and I arrived at the first checkpoint ahead of all but one of the 100 mile men. Part of the fun of gravel racing is the tall tales we tell afterwards, so if you ask me directly, I’ll tell you that first stage was 10 miles of fast, and 40 miles of sand and washboarded roads. That’s what it felt like anyway. These weren’t washboards like we get in Iowa, where it’s generally in short sections near stop signs and turns. This was the entire road, ditch to ditch, washboarded for long stretches at a time. And often covered in deep, momentum killing sand. It was really tough.
I left the time station a minute or two ahead of Austin, and he caught me soon after. Our style of riding was very different, so it was hard to really ride together but it was nice to have the company whenever possible. He was stronger and faster on the rutted dirt roads, washboards, and deep sand, and I would get out front on the easier, faster rolling gravel. It was enough of a mix that we ended up fairly close throughout the entire race.
The terrain in the first 100 miles reminded me of the Alexander 380, with its big, long hills and fast, curving descents. My top speed descending was 45 mph, and there were others where I topped 40 mph. Some of the descents were washboarded or covered with sand in places that was difficult to see until you hit it. About 15 miles into stage 2, I hit a long patch of deep sand going well over 30 mph. My bike went sideways, twice, and then I ran it off the road onto a narrow strip of solid dirt between the sand and the ditch. I stopped, and waited for Austin to make it down. He said it was one of the best saves he had ever seen, and that I missed my calling as a mountain biker. I felt pretty good about that, and I guess as long as there are not trees or ruts involved, I am not half bad at mountain biking.
In the middle of another heavily sanded section, Austin joked about this day being like riding on the beach. That struck me as being hilariously funny, and I laughed to the point of dysfunction. SO MUCH SAND! I could barely pedal I was laughing so hard. I suffered from intermittent giggles for the remainder of the ride. I have very little finesse as a gravel racer, and usually get beat down by the course and the weather to the point that it’s really not so much about racing… more of a survival experience. I was very ready for some humor.
Austin and I rolled into the second checkpoint at the softball field in Calhan together. I emptied my pockets and pulled out a handful of uneaten gel. Between the bumpy roads and the sand, it had been difficult to take my hands off the bars long enough to get anything out of my pockets. I hadn’t started this ride rested or with full glycogen stores, so that hard 50 miles on next to nothing was a big problem. I had chocolate milk and soda, and tried to get in as many calories as I could before I rolled out. Katherine gave me a gentle reminder that I needed to actually take in some calories at some point during the next section. She should’ve just smacked me.
I left the second checkpoint just a little bit ahead of Austin. There was one long climb up past the Paint Mine and wind farm, and then it was a nice long tailwind and a lot of descending. I spun out in my 46/11, and spent a lot of miles going over 30 mph and not pedaling at all. I wished I had a bigger ring on the front, I could’ve made up more time on that section. The third 50 mile section from Calhan to Simla was on the high prairie, and very desolate. There was nothing to see beyond the occasional farmhouse, and miles of uninterrupted blue sky and brown and gold fields, with the occasional splash of something green. The wind was howling. There were few cars, but it was difficult to hear the few that came up behind me because the wind was so loud.
I tried to do a better job with my nutrition, but my hands were so dysfunctional that I never really managed to get much in. When I could let go of the bars to get something out of my pocket, I was happy to see my own gloved hand, and not a shriveled old lady claw. I don’t think my hands have ever hurt that bad before. My triceps felt like they had been beaten with a baseball bat, and it was ridiculously painful to reach behind me, or pull my bottles in and out of their cages. I used to have a nice pair of cycling gloves that were perfect for gravel riding, and never had trouble with my hands. But my dog had a thing for them, and while he never chewed them up, he carried them around in his mouth and slobbered all over them. They became too disgusting to wear. The gloves I was wearing were not up to the task.
Austin caught me just before a dirt road, and passed me as I struggled with the sand and ruts. The dirt roads were very much like those in Nebraska, miles and miles longer than Iowa B roads, with ruts that were incredibly deep. Austin put some time into me on that road, and then we turned into a very long, very miserable headwind and sandy stretch. The temperature had risen to 90 degrees, and the sun was beating down on us. There were just under 70 miles to the finish, but from that point on it would be predominately uphill and mostly into the headwind. Naas had told us that section 3 would be a good place to make up time, and it was a little faster than section 2. But the howling wind, heat, desolate prairie, and sand made it tougher than advertised.
There was a bit of tailwind and some fast rolling gravel in the last miles of section 3, so I made it to the checkpoint in Simla a few minutes ahead of Austin. I sucked down as many liquid calories as I could stomach and was getting ready to roll out when he rolled in. His family had brought him some food, and I couldn’t think of a single thing I would’ve wanted Katherine to bring me. My mouth and throat were so dry from the lack of humidity and altitude that I feared if I had anything solid I would choke on it.
As I was getting ready to leave the first two checkpoints, I would look over at Austin and ask him if he was about ready, and then I would leave knowing he was coming. I looked over at him as I was getting ready to roll out of checkpoint 3, and all that came out of my mouth was “ow, f*%k, ow, f*%k”! Well, there was nothing more I could say after that, so I left. The longer I ride, the more my social skills deteriorate.
The last 48 miles were mostly headwind and climbing. I’m not sure how much time I had on Austin when I left, but he had told me earlier in the day that there was a lot of sand and ruts in the last stage, so I knew he would likely catch me before the finish. I am prone to making profound navigational mistakes at the worst of times, and unfortunately I went off course before a dirt road. Another bike that I assume had been in the 100 mile race had gone left there, and I followed the tire tracks around to the left instead of going straight. I hadn’t noticed that the patch of weeds in front of me was actually a road. My Garmin beeped when I went off course, but the wind was raging so loudly I didn’t hear it. By the time I backtracked to the weed patch dirt road (for my fellow Odin’s Revenge survivors, think Brushy Road), I could see Austin a short way ahead of me. I managed to catch and pass him back, and put a little time back into him. The race was on then, but he caught me back in another long stretch of headwind and sand, just before the last long climb of the day. That climb sucked for the both of us, and I managed to keep the gap between us pretty close until the turn off to the jeep road to head to the finish line at Peaceful Valley Scout Ranch.
When Naas said that the last few miles to the finish was on a two track jeep road, I envisioned hard packed fast dirt, and the possibility that I could still run down Austin. About 50 yards into the road, I started cracking up laughing and knew that I was going to finish second unless Austin wrecked. I love gravel races, you really never know what you are going to get. The jeep road was twisty, sandy, bumpy, and really hard to negotiate in the dark. Just before the last turn to the finish, there was a set of steps to ride up. That was fantastic, and a fun way to finish. I finished just 4 minutes after Austin, and 2nd out of only 3 finishers in the 200 mile.
I was the only woman entered, so it didn’t feel like any kind of win for me, but I still enjoyed the prizes. I was so tired, Naas had to hand them to me where I was sitting in the dirt. I won a set of BMC bibs, and everyone got a pint glass for finishing. Katherine even got one too. The Tredoux family were fantastic hosts, the event was well organized, and I can’t say enough good things about it. The course was challenging, brutal in places, and definitely worth the trip. The altitude was an added challenge, and I definitely felt it, but not to the point that it would deter me from doing the event again. Katherine is already making plans for next year, so hopefully it will work out with my race schedule to do it again.
Katherine and I drove home the day after the race, and I jumped right into my last big training week before the Tejas 500. I am so very tired, and pretty ragged around the edges trying to get all of this training done around our normal busy life. My ankle hurt during the race, and it still hurts. It’s just another pain at this point. My hands have been numb for a week, but they are improving. I’ll be ready for Texas.
It’s been hard not to dwell on all that has been difficult, sad, and tragic this year. A family member passed away, and two more friends died far too young. I have felt sad, and overwhelmed by it all at times. This weekend away with Katherine was a much needed break, and just plain fun. Thanks Katherine, for the fun and friendship, and for being stellar crew!