Mountain Bike Nationals! How do I write a recap that is fitting for such an emotionally charged and massive event? I have no idea and I will probably not do it justice, but dammit I will try!
So in the lead up to Nats, I had spent very little time on the bike in order to allow my body to recover and be super fresh for race day. Most of my rides were very short and at a very chill pace (this was a struggle for me!). Mentally this tapering was hard for me (as it is for most people); not only is your body out of routine and unhappy but also it starts to play mind games by second guessing EVERYTHING. Trusting my coach and training up to this point was key, as well as staying as busy as possible. I worked a little more, spent more time reading and creating, and just tried not to focus too much on what was to come.
Zack and his family had already been down for a day or two, as Z was helping out other fellow racers, and his dad Gary was racing on Thursday morning. He pre rode the course and sent me a text Wednesday night to let me know what to expect. When I received it I was a little unnerved as Z informed me that it was totally rad and fun but unlike anything I had ever ridden before and would be my hardest race yet. He explained the tricky sections would be some natural and man made rock gardens, as well as a technical rooty section through the woods. I wanted to compare it to trails around here and Z informed me there was nothing like it in our area. This would be a completely new challenge but he assured me that I had what it took to take it on. I asked for a bit more advice concerning how to handle the rocky sections (an uphill rock garden just sounds so delightful!) and then I told him I would see him on Friday morning.
So as an added bonus my Mom had decided to come along to see me at Nats. This was a very special treat as my parents have never seen me race before, so I was very happy to have her along and also worried it might possibly be a little overwhelming or nerve-racking for her. Since I was racing on Friday the plan was to leave Thursday because neither of us could afford to take too much time off of work on such short notice (next year I will go ahead and plan for Nats J ). This meant we would be leaving around lunchtime on Thursday, and arriving in the West Virginia mountains at nightfall. I knew that this meant I would not be able to pre ride the day before, but I was so happy to have my Mom along I didn’t care, and planned to pre ride Friday morning instead. I booked a decently priced hotel at a town right at the foot of Snowshoe Mtn, about a 45 minute drive for race day morning. At around 1pm we were loaded up and headed North!
The drive up through Virginia and into West Virginia was extremely easy and downright breathtaking at times as we drove up and through the mountains. Traffic was extremely light, and we were making great time. This was nice as it kept me from stressing out about anything before the race. I pretty much just caught up with Mom and looked out the window at all the green, lush mountain views. The only time I got a little freaked out was as we went up into the tight and twisty mountain roads the heights started to make me uncomfortable (I am very scared of heights) but I was also getting excited about riding surrounded by such beauty. We would also drive for half an hour or more before ever seeing another car which was a bit creepy but also nice to be so isolated (not having cell service was frightening though). We arrived in the little town of Elkins, WV around 9pm and decided to check into our hotel and leave the bike safely inside before finding dinner. Getting settled was more important than our growling stomachs. As I took the Santa Cruz off of the bike rack I noticed that the front tire had lost a lot of air and immediately I started to panic (but was careful not to let my Mom know I was having an internal meltdown). I tried to calmly text Matt and Scott for their opinions on what caused it, thinking it could be a combination of a newly seated tire and the changing air pressure as we were driving through the mountains. For now, I settled the bike in to deal with later, while we went out in search of food.
Beautiful views and awkward tan lines
I’m definitely a mountain girl
As I sat in the very nice and updated Hampton Inn of Elkins, I was yelping any restaurant around that sounded feasible. Mexican food was out (too risky) as was Barbeque joints due to my vegetarianism. It ended up that Elkins is not a very hopping town and almost every choice was already closed for the night or closing very soon. Great. We had a microwave in the room, so my ever resourceful mother calmed my panic by assuring me we could go to the town Walmart and get some quality meals and sides to microwave in our room, and all would be well. This made me slightly nervous as a pre race meal, but I knew our options were limited and I needed to eat something. Now I don’t know about you, but heading to a Walmart at 10pm at night in a tiny mountain town of West Virginia is a bit of a scary adventure to me and proved to be quite a unique experience. I was quite happy that I was not traveling alone as we witnessed two fights in the parking lot, which included screaming and hair pulling before we even made it in the doors. Luckily the selection for microwaved dinners was quite large and my Mom and I made some solid choices of side salads with Mac & Cheese with broccoli. Truly a champion’s dinner! We were ravenous as we got back to the hotel but as only we can, my Mom spilled half of her Mac & Cheese on the bedspread, so I apologize to the cleaning ladies of the Hamptons Inn who probably thought we North Carolinians are animals. After eating our buffet of frozen dinners, I took a look at the bike… Both Matt and Scott had calmed my nerves a bit by letting me know the tire was normal and would probably be fine. Just pump it up a little above the pressure I wanted before racing, just in case it had a slow leak. I had my pump in the hotel room so I pumped it up to where I wanted it so that I would tell in the morning whether it truly was leaking or if there was a bigger problem. Then it was time to settle in and get ready for a very early wake up call.
At 4am on Friday my Mom and I woke up to head to Snowshoe Mtn Resort which was the home of Nationals. We knew the drive might be a bit tricky so we wanted plenty of time to get there and settle in/pre ride before my 8am start. I also still had to get my race plate and check in which was freaking me out a bit. As we drove there the weather was not looking great and there was a thick fog rolling in. Once we got to the resort at the top of the mountain, visibility was terrible and you could barely see 10 feet in front of you. My nerves were kicking in as I realized I could not pre ride a new trail in these conditions, especially alone in the middle of nowhere, and there wasn’t a lot of movement going on yet. I decided to grab my plate and super cool water bottle, and then pedal around on the main streets and maybe if the fog would lift enough I could try to see part of the course. Getting to registration was easy, and I was checking over the bike and getting kitted up by 7am. Thank God the tire had held air through the night and my fears over a leak were maybe a bit overblown. I went ahead and added a tiny bit of extra air and started to pedal around. I had the forethought to throw on a rain coat as it was a bit chilly and sure enough it started to sprinkle a bit. At this point many women were out warming up and everyone was very friendly and excited for the race. Suddenly the sky opened up and it started to pour, and we all had to seek shelter under a large tent near the race start (can I add it was amazing to see those USA Cycling gates and know I WAS AT NATS! HOLY SHIT!). The race officials came over to let us know there was severe weather in the area (ya think?) and to head to the PE Center to hide out until the delay was over. We all crowded into the building–bikes and all–and settled in to wait and chat. I saw a fellow racer I knew from cyclocross, Sarah, and asked for her views on the course since I had not had a chance to pre ride (I felt like an idiot for not being able to get a pre ride in all day but I couldn’t change it). Sarah gave me some super helpful views on the course, and I felt a little better after talking to her. The officials finally came back and said that they would update us on the start time around 8:45, but that they were definitely shortening our course to 2 laps due to the amount of rain we were getting. I think we were all relieved more than disappointed at doing just 2 laps, as pretty much everyone was focusing on not letting competition get out of hand and everyone staying safe.
Before recounting the race, let me first take the time to describe the conditions of the Nats course at Snowshoe:
You start on an slight uphill climb on asphalt down the main street of the resort, before taking a sharpish left turn onto a grassy stretch with a big downhill right in front of the spectators and on the opposite side of the hand off/technical area. From there you take a couple of swooping grassy turns and a few uphill/downhill stretches and then on to the start of one of the gravel climbs. This first one is not too bad, but you take a sharp left where the climb becomes sharply steep and is more of a rocky run up than a climb. From there you dive back downwards and enter into the wooded singletrack on your left.
The woods are a wet, damp, loamy sort of footing with roots EVERYWHERE. Slick spiderwebs of roots appear in varying sizes so you are constantly picking your way across lines as you navigate on the twisty and windy trail. It is pretty flat at least, with only a small amount of climbing, but the slick roots make it difficult and frustrating. You sort of feel like you are making zero progress moving forward. You wind around quite a bit before you start to hit the downhill section, but it is still that wet loamy dark dirt that doesn’t allow any traction on your bike and so you are slipping and sliding over roots while trying to navigate the switchbacks downhill (many riders will take the option of dismounting and running this as it is a bit faster than risking sliding out all the time). You take a couple sharp turns, and then finally you get spit out onto a fire road.
This fire road starts out on a gradual uphill which seems okay until the grade starts to become increasingly steeper and steeper. Due to the rain, it also has sections of peanut butter like mud that cakes your wheels and makes keeping your traction uphill super super fun. You finally start to reach the top and things are easing off a bit, until it starts back uphill with a man-made rock garden right in the middle. Keeping your momentum going uphill with the wet is hard enough, but now you have to maintain it to try and navigate a very clear line to the left. The rock garden itself is not that difficult, but the fact it is on a hill makes it harder to keep a good speed to pop over the rocks smoothly. Most riders attempting it will get about half way before they will end up having to put a foot down and catch themselves since they cannot pop over a rock. Due to the wet conditions the rocks were also very slick which just adds to the difficulty. Most riders, including myself, will simply dismount and run the thing since it will be much faster, as long as you are careful and you have time to remount and get back up to speed before the incline starts to get too bad. From there you take a hard left onto the enduro portion of the trail.
The left hand turn drops you straight into a really fun downhill with nice berms that are sandwiched between rocky shored up walls. You sort of have to trust your bike and tires to keep grip on some of the looser portions. You travel downhill and then drop down a few rocky drops into the woods and the enduro gets even more rad. Big sweeping berms, long downhill stretches, you can really fly and it is easy to forget how steep the drop off is to your left. You then take a couple sweepy right/left/rights before you have a sharp off-camber right handed turn out of the trail. The off-camber is slick and you have to take a high line and use a flat rock shelf to make the turn correctly which is a bit daunting, as failing means sliding down into a gully.
After the enduro portion you are again spit out onto a fire road that is the worst climb of the entire track. You are spinning and spinning as the grade gets worse and worse. It is a tough and grueling 12% grade and all you can do is get into a rhythm and try to not let the feeling that you are falling backwards get to you. The climb then takes a sharp and steep right hand turn and flattens out a bit, before dropping you down into a rocky gully. This natural rock garden alternates between large rocks that you have to pick around or pop over, and more manageable stretches that present multiple lines to take. Due to the rain there was a lot of standing water in this section which makes reading lines even harder because you can’t tell just how deep the puddles are, or how large the rocks might be sticking out of them. The gully continues for a very long stretch before you finally start with a technical rocky climb out of the gully. A lot of riders will choose to run this as the larger rocks are difficult to clear 100% of the time. You then climb out onto a grassy portion which spits you back near the start.
You head down a grassy uphill/downhill section which is nice because there are no rocks, but everything is on an off-camber that is very slick from the rain. The most deceptive down hill off-camber leads you straight into a massive flyover with a very steep rise, so you have to maintain a huge amount of momentum while keeping your bike balanced well on the slope. You fly up and over the feature and then negotiate a series of winding climbs back onto the pavement and finally turn and head for the start-finish shoot to continue on your next lap (or the finish if you are lucky).
Getting tatted up
He accidentally wrote 35 first and then I cried and he fixed it
At around 8:45 they came and informed us we were looking at a bit more of a delay but that they were hoping to get us out there at 9am. We waited a bit more and hydrated/ate some energy bars, and also got our calves marked with our age category so we would know who we were racing against during the race (Very smart! Please, all races adopt this policy!). I was happy to have my Mom chilling with me in the center as it really kept my nerves down and I had something else to focus on. It was weird that I felt very calm the whole time even with all the weather chaos. I think I had accepted that my goal was to finish and ride the best that I could on that day. After all, I was racing THE BEST IN THE COUNTRY and I still had only been riding a year so I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself. I was also one of only two Cat 2 riders in my age category, so I had a sweet pass due to that fact. At 9am the officials were back and said that the race was on and they wanted us to get to the start asap and we would be off. This meant there was no warm up after sitting around for so long but at this point it hardly mattered. We all grabbed our bikes and walked out of the building to cheers from spectators who had lined up for us, and it felt amazing. I heard Gary and Zack call out to me, my Mom gave me a thumbs up and told me to be safe, and I lined up under that USA Cycling finishing gate. We sat in the lineup wishing each other good luck but I could tell we were all ready to race. My fellow Cat 2 rider turned to me and said “Can you believe that you are here?” and I answered her honestly “I never would have believed anyone if they had said I would be at the Mountain Biking National Championships a year ago.” They called us to the line, and amid cheering, the countdown commenced. With the whistle blast we were off zooming up the slight uphill stretch on main street in one giant pack of pure excitement and adrenaline.
Goosebumps….. (it was chilly)
GO SPEEDRACER GO
For my first lap my goal was to just grab a wheel and hang on. I was riding blind so I wanted to just follow lines as I learned the course the first way through. The speed was very high even with the VERY WET conditions, and mud was flying everywhere. As we sped along the grassy uphill/downhill stretches I was getting a feel for how the Santa Cruz’s tires were maintaining traction. It seemed to be LOVING all the wet which helped me gain confidence, and I was super glad that Matt had switched to the bigger front tire that I liked (YOU’RE THE BEST, MATT). When I hit the first climb I was doing fine until the sharp steep left handed turn caught me in the wrong gear. No matter, I jumped off and ran up it and remounted and managed to stick with the group, then made a mental note of it for the next lap. We flew down the trail in a group of about four and then took a sharp left hand turn into the woods where a group of young men were watching and shouted “Here comes the fun part!”… oh how right they were! The woods were dark, damp, foggy, and the loamy wet earth was like riding on a victoria sponge cake (thanks, The Great British Baking Show). It was crisscrossed with a network of wet roots that took intense concentration to pick the correct lines through. Even trying to follow another rider’s lines was hard because everyone seemed to be taking a different approach! I was picking my way around and pushing my frustration out of my mind. You really felt like you were going nowhere but luckily it seemed to be the case for everyone. I kept the bike upright and was making good progress (on a blind run no less!) when the trail started a long downhill section with the same rooty, wet, soft earth. Luckily Z had warned me that this spot would be treacherous as the ground was so soft your brakes were useless. Locking them meant the bike would just slide around in the muck, so I tried to carefully roll my way down the trail, which was starting to deteriorate badly.The trail takes some nasty switchbacks, and I saw the two women ahead of me dismount to run the tighter sections. I followed suit and found it to be the best game plan for the moment. It was nasty to run in that loamy dirt, but it proved to be way faster. At the bottom I hit the fire road and fell in behind the two women in front of me as we started to climb.
The climbing was not bad and I was quickly back up with the women I was chasing, thanks to my fitness and strength at hills. There were sections where it was quite peanut buttery, so it was hard to keep up momentum in spots. Right in the middle we hit the man-made rock garden that is on an uphill and I realized that the pictures online did not do it much justice! The line was very clear on the left but the grade made it super difficult to keep any momentum to clear the entire thing in one go. I dismounted and ran it as Z and I had planned, and I actually passed the two women in front of me, who tried to ride and didn’t make it all the way through. I jumped back in the saddle and started climbing back up to dive into the trail for the enduro portion. This was INSANELY FUN! Like, I want to go back asap and ride these trails in better conditions because the berms and downhills were to die for. You hit some nice long stretches with some fun drops mixed in here and there, and in no time you have covered a decent stretch of mileage. I was trusting the Santa Cruz to be a little badass berm-loving monster and just smiling ear to ear (even though I was still slightly terrified and overwhelmed). Before I wanted to, I hit the sketchy right handed off-camber out of the woods (which I fucked up every lap) and it was now time once again for the worst climb of the race.
I was behind two women as we started the climb and right on their heels. The awful part was that although the fire road was wide, there was a ton of peanut butter mud to avoid and so you were stuck fighting over the dry tracks. I really wanted to try to pass since my climbing fitness was better, but as we hit the worse percentage of grade the woman in front of me almost came to a standstill which killed my momentum and I had to put a foot down. Damn! I quickly dismounted and started running the last bit which SUCKED but I was able to get around and up the climb faster than being stuck behind on a climb. The course takes an evil right hand turn where I remounted, and then down into the short downhill stretch into what was a natural rocky gully. As I started to see what was ahead of me I really started to get overwhelmed with just how much was going on. The water had filled up sections of the rock gardens so it was hard to tell where the lines were, and I was picking my way around in the slippery, foggy, darkened gully. I started to really think that maybe I wasn’t ready for this and that maybe I should have waited until next year. As my vision around me was getting bleaker due to the fog, so was my inner dialogue, and I was considering pulling out after one lap. I was worried “What if I messed up Matt’s bike? What if I crashed and got hurt on the next lap trying to go too fast to catch up? Was I really ready for this? Had I overestimated myself?” It was a very dark place but thank God it happened in the rock garden, because I had to just buck up and shut up in order to concentrate. It is distracting to be so negative when you are riding through a gnarly rock garden submerged in water. As the trail started to smooth out (ehh “smooth” is being used liberally as it was still a rocky mess), I realized that no, I had done one blind lap and lived through it so I could definitely handle another.
With my new positivity I climbed out of the rock garden and hit the grassy stretch headed back towards the resort. As I ascended I heard my name and saw Gary, Zack, and Spencer calling out and cheering me on. This lifted my spirits even more and I couldn’t help but smile as I really was having a BLAST. Plus I could see ahead that the GIANT FLYOVER was coming up and I was uber thrilled to hit it. Luckily Gary called out a warning to me to keep the bike upright and I realized it was because the big downhill towards the flyover was on a deceptive off-camber that you had to fight against to get traction for the rise of the flyover. Luckily I was able to adjust and hit the flyover with speed and I was up and over in a flash! From there you twist back and forth before hitting the home stretch and the wall of spectators cheering everyone on. I was able to catch my Mom in the crowd and gave her a wave and thumbs up that I was good to go for another lap.
I’m smiling because the rocks were over.
FRIENDS! Dat fog tho
Smiling after the first lap? Good sign.
I again tore up the main street and was headed for another fun and challenging 4.5 miles of muddy carnage! I had more confidence this lap now that I knew what to expect, so I hit each section with more skill. I felt good physically so I was trying to maintain the same effort throughout the course, because I had no fear of hitting the wall. I hit the steep uphill that I messed up the first lap and only had to dab a couple times to get up successfully this time around. As I flew into the woods it felt eerily quiet as the fog was so intense I could not see too far ahead of me, and I felt like I was completely on my own. With so many racers having gone through the wet earth, it was even worse this lap and I was sliding all over the place while trying to keep my calm. There was that same feeling of not going anywhere at all, but I remembered it was the same the lap before and not to worry too much. I hit the downhill section and again ran it for better time. I was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to ride that section again!
It was time again for the fire road with the man-made rock garden, and I crossed it without incident yet again. I was between a couple racers so it was very nice to have some company. The enduro portion again was a ton of fun and I was having a blast, but covered in mud head to toe by this point. I knew the worst climb was fast approaching so I tried to focus on being fast downhill while recovering for the climb. As I skipped out the fire road I was again behind another rider, but I knew that this climb was MINE and I was going up the whole thing! I picked the inside track and passed, then climbed and climbed while my legs were burning like fire. I kept my breathing nice and smooth and before I knew it I had hit the top, then took the hard right back into my favorite rocky gully. This time through it I was able to pick out a couple better and drier lines, and was very happy to avoid putting a foot down too often. I stayed focused on the fact I was almost done, almost to the finish, almost going to be able to say I raced at NATS. As I climbed out onto the grass I kept my emotions in check and pushed as hard as I could to the flyover. I was going to cross as fast as possible dammit! I was purely in a state of getting to that finishing shoot and crossing that line. I was up and over the flyover, switching back and forth towards main street, where it was noise, cheering, and the voice of the announcer. And in a blur, I was crossing the line amid the voices of my friends and Mom cheering for me.
I thought I was going to run over the photog…
SO HAPPY. SO MUDDY.
Everything caught up to me all at once: the excitement and adrenaline, the fact I had just ridden a course like that, all my hard work leading to this moment. I was truly overwhelmed as I sat on the bike. I heard my Mom calling to me and I rode over to her and immediately broke down with happy tears as she hugged me. I am not an emotional person in public but I couldn’t help it; I was just so proud and relieved to have really challenged myself like that. Pretty soon I was surrounded by friends giving me hugs and I found myself speechless, because I was rubbish at properly expressing what I thought of the race. There was still cheering for the other racers coming in and riders celebrating, so I just soaked up the atmosphere at being a part of such a big event. My Mom reminded me that I needed to drink some water and get cleaned up, and I waited until the Men’s start had gone off before worrying about myself. I wanted to make sure and cheer for Zack and his brother Spencer as the 19-24 year olds took off on course at an insanely breakneck speed.
Big bikes and happy tears.
Once I was a bit more pulled together I rode around a bit and spectated the race with my Mother. She was very proud of me and she had a great time watching, which I was pleased to hear! Hopefully she understands my passion for mountain biking now! As I cheered for Zack who was killing it on course to a 5th place finish, I just let everything sink in. I had finished 12th in my age group out of 12. Technically last place, but I was also the second Cat 2 rider in the group. I had ridden a trail more technical than I could have imagined and never crashed, never got banged up, and had ridden extremely well for being on a blind run. I now know what level of competition I want to aim for. Being at Nats was eye opening for me as it really showed that I was capable of putting in the hard work in training and showing up on race day ready to tackle whatever I was faced with. My first thoughts were turning to what I wanted to work towards and where I needed to go from here. I went to Nats and came back even more determined to improve and to become truly competitive at that heightened level. I realize that I did not go a year too early; in fact I think I went right at the perfect time to reignite my passion for mountain biking. I will most definitely be back to kill it next year!