"How on earth do you do that? Do you just ride straight through for the whole time or what?" Those are questions I get a lot when I tell folks that I compete in 12 and 24 hour endurance mountain bike races. In fact, I was just asked that very thing regarding the Charlotte Jaycees Cowbell 12 Hour Challenge I raced this past Saturday. So, I figured I would answer it in this month's article. Now granted, racing a 12 hour event is a bit different from a 24 hour one, but since the 12 hour is what I just did, I'll focus on that for this particular essay.
I arrived in Charlotte Friday night, and Steve and I set up our tent and pit area (we normally take the travel trailer for the 24 hour events, but for these shorter races, where sleep is not an issue for the support person, the tent is fine). The alarm went off at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, and while Steve went about ensuring my bikes (I always bring a backup, just in case) were ready, I took advantage of the early rising to stretch gently and have a light breakfast of yogurt and water. After chatting with some of the other racers for a bit, I then went ahead and got dressed for the racers' meeting. Shortly thereafter, the race began, and we were off! As I was not familiar with the Catawba trail, having never ridden it before, I took my time and just followed the rest of the racers into the singletrack, but making sure to keep the other solo woman in my sights as much as possible. She eventually got on far enough ahead where I lost sight of her, and I had to settle for simply getting myself through the more technical sections of trail. Sometimes it gets intimidating and worrisome to be behind, even by a few minutes, but after completing 6 solo 24 hour events and with this being my 7th solo 12 hour event, I have learned what my "comfort pace" is (the pace that I know I can sustain all day and all night), and decided to just be content to ride that speed Apparently I've developed a pretty good feel for that pace, as I was told that all my laps were within just a couple of minutes of each other in time. After each lap, I rode over to my pit area, where I had my hydration pack refilled with cold water, and took in either a gel or an energy drink, but made sure not to stop for more than 5-10 minutes, at which time I promptly hit the singletrack again. After my fourth or fifth lap, decided it was time for lunch, which consisted of another yogurt and one-quarter of a sourdough roll, along with half a can of caffeine free soda, and still more gel and another energy drink. This was my longest break at perhaps 15 minutes or so. I managed to do okay like this until near the end of my 8th lap, when I developed intense cramps in both knees, requiring me to actually stop on the trail to gently stretch my legs. Unfortunately, the cramps also reduced me to having to walk a couple of the steeper climbs, as any forceful pedal strokes would intensify the pain and cause excruciating muscle contractions. However, stopping was simply not an option for me, since the other solo woman and I were turning almost identical lap times, and up to this point we had not been more than 14 minutes apart. Besides this, though, I had my heart and mind set on completing 11 laps - 11 is my favorite lucky number, being the number of laps I got at Conyers, Georgia last year at the 24 Hours of Adrenalin when I qualified for the World Solo Championships - which meant that I would need to keep going in order to get in the remaining 3 laps I needed to meet my goal.
As it turned out, apparently I was not the only racer combating muscle cramps and heat-induced fatigue. I ended up riding a lap with one of the solo men who was suffering the same fate, and discovered later on that the other solo woman had basically had to stop for a break that was long enough for me to complete an entire lap before she was able to ride again, thus putting me in the lead for the first time in this race on completion of my 9th lap. Still determined to meet my 11 lap goal, though, I continued to press on, continuing to never stop for more than 5-10 minutes between laps. My competitor did continue to press me, turning out two consecutive laps at the finish of the race, but fortunately I managed to cross the line mere minutes ahead of her (I don't even think she was 30 minutes behind me), thanks to Steve's gentle urging to "just keep moving" throughout the day, for my first ever real win at an endurance race (barring the ones where I was the only solo woman). And I have to tell you, after so many tries, only to fall just short of the top spot on the podium, all of a sudden, learning that I had done it, that I had actually won, made the pain in my knees, the stiff neck, the red clay mud clinging to my body and clothes, the briar cuts on my arms, the soreness in my hands, all of it, so worthwhile. And it had nothing to do really with the prizes or the trophy - it was like all my failed attempts to claim victory finally meant something more than just having tried. It was success; finally, sweet, undeniable success where I had never been able to quite grasp it before. And I'm going to enjoy it while I have it. After all, next weekend is another race, and anything is possible - which goes not only for me, but for my competition as well!