When you get knocked down…
The 2019 Epic Rides OZ Offroad was the highlight of my season, so I eagerly signed up for the 2020 edition, not realizing a pandemic would entirely derail all racing. When it was finally announced that the 2021 OZ Offroad event would happen, I eagerly put it on my calendar as the premier race of my season. With two years of training and growth, I was excited to measure my progress.
The race prior to this one left me longing for just a bit more and hoping for a podium spot. I knew it was a stretch goal, but my coach was on board, so we doubled down on training in the month leading up to OZ. I squeezed workouts in before and after school, and intentionally picked challenging trails to push myself mentally and physically. I was ready.
I rode my S-Works Epic equipped with the Specialized Fast Track Grid 29×2.3 tires and Orange Seal tubeless sealant. Unlike many riders, I did not flat (for the second consecutive year!). I can’t claim any riding prowess, but do credit the Grid tires and a lot of luck for that one! In retrospect, because the course ended up being quite wet and slippery, I should have ran the Specialized Ground Control or even the Fast Trak Control tires, but by time I realized it was raining, the bike was already packed and ready to fly to Arkansas, so I opted to ride what I brought. I also flew with a second set of wheels, set up with Maxxis Velocita 40c tires for the Fat Tire Crit on Friday night.
Nutrition & Hydration
My nutrition plan was to attempt to eat 200-300kcal/hour, which I thought was manageable from my recollection of the course from 2019. Without pre-riding, however, due to a late flight, I struggled to get that much food in. I was very grateful for my Osprey Duro 1.5 hydration pack, which allowed me to stay hydrated even when I wasn’t able to grab for a bottle. Even so, I drank less than planned, only making it through about half of my hydration pack and 1.5 bottles.
I left Roanoke, VA on Thursday afternoon right after school, intending to arrive in Bentonville late Thursday evening. Due to flight delays, late Thursday evening became early Friday morning and my hopes for being able to get my bike assembled in time to do a short pre-ride vanished. I was confident nonetheless and did my best to spend the majority of Friday resting with my legs up prior to warming up for the Fat Tire Crit. My plan was to use the Fat Tire Crit as an opener for Saturday, and to focus primarily on Saturday’s event.
By time this race actually rolled around on the calendar, I was ready to be done for the season. Since November 2019, I had not taken more than three consecutive days off and my rides were quickly turning more to drudgery than fun. Still, I was excited for this event. Todd always puts on a stellar race, my experience in 2019 was phenomenal, and I was excited to see many of the other racers whom I hadn’t been able to see since this event in 2019. I was tired, but I was excited.
The excitement carried me through the Fat Tire Crit, where despite my anxiety about being in a tight group of riders, at speed, through a twisting course… went really, really well. I found myself dropped off the back of the lead group relatively quickly, but was able to stick with the chase group until the last few laps of the race when we were (finally) pulled. My legs felt good even if my lungs were burning from the cold air, and a 16th place had me ready to go on Saturday morning.
The weather forecast continued to drop in temperature all the way up until our start time at 7:20 a.m. I was a bit surprised that I was comfortable during my warm-up, and so chose to take my knee warmers off at the last minute. That was a mistake. My legs and knees were numb and achy from the cold for the majority of the race, and I’m sure that contributed to my mental fatigue leading into the technical sections of the course.
Like so many other races this season (face palm), I couldn’t hang with the group on the rolling gravel climbs at the start of the race. My legs were cold and not firing, and I just didn’t have the power I expected (or needed).
As I followed other trailing riders through the gravel section leading to the first singletrack, I came up on another rider who had slid out on a corner and appeared to be injured. After making sure that she was not in need of emergency care, I checked that she had a phone and someone to contact, then rode ahead to the next volunteers to let them know that there was a rider down. Part of me was a little scared that someone was hurt already…and part of me was discouraged that there was now no way I’d recover from being in dead last. I was cold. My legs hurt. And now I was minutes…lots of minutes…behind.
When I hit the first section of singletrack, I quickly realized how much of a disadvantage not pre-riding this course would be in the current trail conditions. Trails were wet and the rocks were extremely slick. My brain alternated between renewed confidence in finally being on trails, my sweet spot, and in complete terror as my tires slipped on the wet rocks and towards the ravine below. “Breathe,” I told myself, over and over. I had heard one of the other pro women (with far more race experience than myself) saying how she had been scared on her pre-ride earlier in the week due to the wet rocks as well, and gleaned a bit of comfort in knowing that I was not “less than” just for being scared–that I just needed to do my best and keep moving forward. Over and over, I gathered my focus, only to have it shattered by piercing fear at the next sketchy moment on the trails.
When I reached the first aid station, I had been rolling along with a bit better mindset, then slipped as I grabbed the bottle, missing my bottle cage entirely. I shook my head in frustration and kept riding, annoyed at “one more thing.” It was a few miles further when I looked down and realized my Garmin device was pointing nearly vertical on my bars. It took me awhile to figure out that this was due to my handlebars slipping slowly inward, which was also causing my inability to fully lower or raise my dropper post, and my increasing wrist pain due to the acute angle needed to reach my brake levers. I eyed it for a few more miles before realizing the increasing wrist and hand pain wasn’t going away and I needed to take the necessary time to stop and fix my bars.
Shortly after I got back on, I was passed by the first pair of lead male riders in the 30 mile race. Consumed by their own race, they were less than polite in waiting for me to find a reasonable place to move aside on a narrow bench-cut trail, and admittedly, I was unusually annoyed by their rudeness. Still, as with the moments where I was struggling to negotiate the wet rocks and feeling little to no confidence in my handling abilities, I reminded myself that I might be suffering, but I was still out here riding some of the very best trails in the U.S.–and needed to enjoy that experience. “Breathe…and smile.”
With about ten miles remaining, and riding through another (seemingly) long section of technical, wet, slippery singletrack, I was done. I was muttering in frustration that, “I am so sick of wet rocks!” I hadn’t seen any other female riders, was pretty confident that I was still in last position, and was incredibly disappointed at my inability to ride anywhere near my expectations for the day. I kept remembering, however, that it wasn’t about my position in the race–it was just about doing the best I could do on that particular day–even if that just meant surviving. So I doubled down yet again and pushed for the finish.
The 2021 Epic Rides OZ Offroad was not the race I was hoping for. Saturday was just not my day. I felt like I got pushed down over and over and over again–even if I didn’t have to contend with the flats and mechanicals that were almost expected on such a course. I ended up finishing in 19th place out of 27 pro women, something I should be proud of. I didn’t give up. I didn’t quit. I showed up and gave it my best–even if it was pretty ugly.
What’s more, I left Bentonville last night disappointed in my race, but absolutely stoked with the weekend. I loved getting to hang out with teammates from Indianapolis and Saint Louis, getting to spend time in fellowship and prayer with other Athletes in Action athletes before the race weekend really kicked off, and enjoy the company of fellow athletes like Rose, Alexey, and others who I had only “seen” via Instagram for the last two years. Already, I’m looking at my proposed schedule for next year and trying to figure out how I can work in more Epic Rides events for 2022.