Racing terrifies me. When I think about racing, I get a pit in the bottom of my stomach as a major wave of anxiety washes over me. I have passed up so many races in the past few years, and I think this is the primary, over-riding factor. Sure, I’ll come up with some dumb ass excuse and end up psychotically scouring the results of the race I wish I could have done. Here are my top 5 “I don’t want to race excuses”:
5. I don’t want to pay to ride my bike or run on a street!
4. I’m too cool to train…besides I just want to ride my bike, you’re not the boss of me.
3. I am not comfortable being in the redline for ___(fill-in-the-blank)___ minutes/hours.
2. I don’t want to get injured, I have an important thing in the next year.
1. I have five bikes but I don’t have the *RIGHT* bike for this race.
The one and only excuse is, I AM SCURRED. Scared of what? Getting my ass kicked? Yes. Getting my ass kicked? Yes, again. That’s really…that’s it.
So I’m not sure why I signed up for the Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob (G.R.U.S.K.), other than it was 100% in my wheelhouse – a long gravel ride with about 100ft/mile of climbing. Gravel, elevation, distance. All stuff I absolutely love. Plus the whole race is incredibly charming – you drive out to the heart of West Virginia the day before and set up a camp site (or you can even stay in a Yurt). You eat, drink, sleep in, eat some more and then race late morning. After you finish you drink more beer and camp out again or drive home. I don’t care how low your comfort level with racing is, how do you say no to that?
I drove out with my good friend Josh A on Friday (ok, just kidding he needed a ride and we barely knew each other, but there was no serial killing, so NOW we’re friends). After some flailing around with navigating in the middle of God’s Country without the benefit of phone service and Google Maps, we rolled up to the Spruce Knob Mountain Center about 4 hours after leaving NoVa. It didn’t take long to find the perfect spot with the perfect view and it was all I could do to not just sit there and get rip roaring drunk gaping at the vast expanse of beauty.
Soon other friends arrived – Jon, Cyndi, Dexter, and at least half of the world famous Bikenetic Stunt Cycling Crew and it quickly felt less like a race and more like an impossibly chill reunion with beer and whiskey. Folks would shuffle down to the Mountain Center to grab food or use the wifi, but mostly everyone milled around the general vicinity of the camping area and absorbed their surroundings.
Being an overly serious nerd, I watched the beautiful sunset and turned in soon after because hey THERE WAS RACING AFOOT. Plus I am terrible at camping and worse at sleeping outdoors and I was getting a little antsy about my ability to get a good night’s sleep (a top recommendation from actual competitive athletes everywhere).
I decided not to put the rain fly on my tent because I knew that it would never rain. It did not occur to me that rain flys are also good at blocking wind and noise, so when I woke up shivering at midnight I made a mental note, like so many times before, to stop being such a MORAN. After rolling awkwardly out of the tent to tend to nature, I took a few steps into the dark black expanse on the edge of the camping area. While finishing up I heard a distinctive SNORT maybe 50 feet in front of me. It is an animal. It is a BIG FUCKING ANIMAL. Please god, let it be a moose and not a goddamn bear. My heart now slowly sliding out of my ass, I slinked (slunked?) back into my FLYLESS tent and rezipped the side flap. Then I looked up through the mesh ceiling and realized I was basically a large hors d’oeuvre under Saran Wrap, waiting to be chosen and eaten. Fortunately Polar Bears (it was definitely a polar bear) can’t smell fear, so I was spared, sleeping fitfully and cravenly until daybreak.
I suck at camping, but there is no feeling like waking up outdoors in the mountains. I should do it more because it’s like being secretly blood doped for 8 straight hours and then given pure oxygen and a shot of Vitamin B12. I felt awake as fuck, to put it inartfully (yes, that’s a word, Google, stop underlining my writing like you know any better).
One of my favorite features of GRUSK is that it doesn’t start until 10am, which gives you all kinds of time to drink literally 10 cups of coffee at the Mountain Center breakfast buffet (foreshadowing) and catch up with friends. I am as slow twitch as they come, so it was nice to be able to putz around for 2 hours while trying not to think about how much pain I was going to be in by lunch time.
The single speed category seemed like a great idea when I signed up 5 months ago. After all, what other idiots would enter that category? Sure I had never actually raced single speed, but it seemed like I had a better shot at the podium and plus I would also be eligible for the Masters 40+ category. Hi it’s me, casually double dipping the categories because I am much smarter than your average bike racer!
Fast forward to the start of the race because, really, get to the fucking point Chris. There I was clad in black Rapha and pink socks, just like all good middle-aged single speeders from the suburbs. But NOT LIKE any of the other single speed entrants who all seemed to be cool, hip, and YOUNG. Those dudes just exuded fast while I exuded “Why yes, I live comfortably and have money to burn at the local bicycle haberdashery!’
As Travis the Race Director made his pre-race announcements I hung near the back, pretending not to hyperventilate. Then *BOOM* all of a sudden the neutral start is upon us and I am awkwardly rolling along near the back as all of the racers up front hammer away from the mass start. I was so nervous it was all I could do to stay upright. A few miles in I started to calm down, but it was already looking pretty bad.
Fortunately there was a little climb near the beginning and I was able to pick riders off here and there for the first five miles. Then I gave most of it back on the first feature of the race – the grassy double track descent. It was two miles of beautiful trail and I just did not have the confidence or the gearing to hammer down it. Too many fishtaily puddles, too much wet grass. A bunch of mountain bikes passed me, as did a lot of other racers. I would have sworn a blood oath to catch and destroy each one of them as they passed if I wasn’t preoccupied with very real possibility of crashing and snapping my leg in half. Yes, I let my fear control me. It’s 4th level race strategy.
The first twenty-five miles of the race were out-of-this-world gorgeous. Mountain vistas and pristine gravel and forests and rivers as far as the eye could see. I felt really good, and for early July the temperature was extremely reasonable (high 50s at race start). I just tried to stay steady on the flats and pass people on the climbs. I even blew through the first aid station because I had barely touched my water and excuse me but this was a race and professional racers don’t stop for any reason.
A lot of this stretch was a ridge called Middle Mountain Road and looking back I had a few of the fastest segment times of the day along this section. Which, like all races, probably means I was using up too much energy early. Lots of early trophies, very few, if any, late trophies. That’s my MO.
Still though, I felt good. I passed my friend (and known beast) Hans about 32 miles in and kept the pace steady. Even though I hadn’t passed a singlespeeder yet I knew I had to be in the top 10 for my race category.
I also realized I had to pee.
I had barely had any water so I was not sure what was up. Then I remembered – I had a gallon of coffee at breakfast, and despite hitting the port-o-potties twice before the race, my bladder was a roaring tidal wave. I tried to suppress and just focus on the race. With aid station 3 in the distance, I had to make a choice – stop and lose time but get this distraction taken care of – or just keep rolling. It was a long flat and I didn’t want to lose my momentum (and I was all alone caught between two separate packs of racers) so I sucked it up and kept riding.
Now about halfway through the race in addition to having to relieve myself I was getting hungry. The only food I brought was a flask with Hammer peanut butter-chocolate gel. I figured it was light and portable and well, the athlete testimonials on their website were EXTREMELY impressive. So I dutifully sucked some down. Then I sucked down some more. Wow, I was really hungry because this literal goo tasted like the icing off a prize-winning Parisian pastry. NOM NOM NOM. Sadness. Urge to pee.
This is when the race went sideways for me. The climbing kicks in hard at Dry Run Road, the 9 mile 1,000 foot appetizer to the grind up Spruce Mountain. I was having a hard time keeping my speed up, riders would pass me here and there, my energy was dropping, and did I mention I had to pee? I sucked down a little extra water but I was definitely hitting a wall. In my addled state I decided that by working NOT to pee in my bib shorts I was using up valuable energy. I immediately started looking for places to go. After about 15 minutes I felt like I was separated enough from other humans that I could Tour de France off the side of the bike without slowing down. So I twisted and adjusted and squirmed and OH MY GOD I AM NOT GOOD AT THIS.
Needless to say, this was not a success. Silver lining is I did not have to go anymore and could get back to the race. Except I was extremely destroyed and I had just PEED ON MYSELF FOR FUCK’S SAKE I was in a place of just not caring. All I wanted to do was pedal pedal pedal until I was home. I had no sense of where I was or where Spruce Knob was or that I was climbing to it. I think I passed another aid station.
Then the gravel got REALLY chunky and steep.
As I started up the 11 mile, 1,400 feet Spruce Knob Climb, I was riding through quicksand. Nothing was moving. At 7-9% grade I was just spinning in place. At least it felt that way. Survival mode kicked in as I took my last swallow of water. The one dude I passed on a single speed (it was on a long descent) passed me back. He was wearing skater shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and might have been 20. I remember thinking, correctly, that I will never be or look that cool.
That’s when I saw riders come flying down the hill towards me. The race leaders. Then a bunch of others and then I thought that maybe I was way farther back then I had been estimating. Then I saw some Bikenetic peeps I knew and yelled out to them (they were doing the slightly shorter route) and I realized I was closing in on the summit and that a lot of the racers I saw weren’t doing the same route I was. So maybe I was still in good shape! That gave me a huge energy boost.
The final climb was so steep and the views were so vast and I was so dehydrated that I could have seen or felt or experienced anything at that moment and it would not have seemed in the least bit weird. As I rolled to the top, someone took my water bottles, re-filled them, and handed them back to me as I circled the summit and rolled back down the way we climbed. I slugged back some water and tucked in as tight as I possibly could as i flew down from Spruce Knob. On the descents and the flats though, I was no match for geared bikes and got passed by a bunch of racers.
Thankfully, the end came quickly after a short climb back to the Mountain Center. I felt pretty good about my finish and thought that there was a good chance that I finished top 5 for single speed, but…I finished about 40 seconds off the podium. Still I was excited because it looked like I did make the podium for 40+ dudes! According to my calculations I had the 3rd best time in that category.
I am also an idiot.
I was never on the podium because I wasn’t entered in that category. I thought that the ages overlapped the other categories – like 3rd best open time could also win an age group category. Lesson learned, as they say. Overall I was 6th for single speed, which I could not be happier about, considering the competition. I was 20th overall, one spot ahead of my friend Hans, who is one of the fastest, toughest riders I know. I also had zero mechanicals, which I always consider a minor miracle. My stupid rides riding partner Brad had nothing BUT mechanicals and another dude I know flatted three times. Again, lucky (and a good bike mechanic, thanks Pete!)
But the race is not about the podium, it’s about the whole gravel scene, the community of kind, cool people. The people you meet, like Travis, and Ken and Ellen and Lena. You ride as hard as you can, and that’s all you can do and that’s all that matters. GRUSK is such a great atmosphere, with free beer and food and just a good, relaxing vibe – the kind of way you feel after doing something that is really hard.
Like accidentally peeing on yourself, for example.