Three months ago I stood at the top of this pile of dirt (pictured above) on my cross bike with tears in my eyes as my coach silently counted to ten, he got to ten before I got up the nerve to ride down the pile of pebbles, so we saved that for another day. A few weeks later I lay underneath my bike crying at the bottom of a sandy wash north of Lake Pleasant as I watched Ryan effortlessly pedal further and further into the distance. And a few weeks after that, while I’m embarrassed to admit, I yelled at Ryan while I slowly pushed my bike through a swarm of angry horseflies over sandy rocky terrain, “When I DNF at Crusher I’ll have you to thank for all the time I wasted hiking through sand instead of training!” Ouch.
Looking back, it might surprise most people that I signed up for Crusher in the Tushar. Yes, I have an insane amount of aerobic fitness, thanks to years of heart rate training and guidance from my coach Bettina Warnholtz at Racelab. And yes, I have two impressive Ironman finishes to my name, but biking has always been my weakest link. I have never been a strong cyclist, and before this year I had zero off road experience. Alas, I signed up for Crusher because I like a good challenge, and after training for Ironman Coeur D’Alene last year (which is known to have one of the most difficult bike courses in the Ironman circuit – a mere 5,700 feet of climbing over the 112 miles) I thought I was pretty good at climbing. The best part was the race had more elevation gain than loss, if you can’t tell from the first paragraph, I really struggle with descending!
At the beginning of the year I started training with Dave Marks, another Racelab coach, as I began making my transition to more off road cycling. We started by working on bike handling skills and Cyclocross skills as I prepared for Sea Otter Classic and then an intense training load was thrown at me in preparation for The Crusher. In addition to a ton of volume, there were several high intensity intervals, time trial efforts and lots of hard efforts up Humboldt, Mt. Elden, Mt. Ord and the like. On top of that I met with Dave once a week to work more on my skills. We worked on things like cornering, leaning the bike, riding through loose and rocky conditions, navigating switch backs, drafting and we spent an inordinate amount of time on descending. Each week after our session I left mentally exhausted, on top of aching from all the physical pain that only Dave knows how to inflict. I knew I was improving, but it was hard to continually push myself so far outside of my comfort zone. When I started working with Dave I thought, well he’s going to be able to make me a stronger rider, but he’s not going to be able to get me to overcome my fear of falling while descending, that’s just part of who I am. Somehow, we even made huge gains in that area. So much so that when I look back at that pile of dirt at Reach 11 I’m shocked that something so small paralyzed me with fear.
Even with all the improvements I made in three months, I was still not confident in my abilities when Crusher finally arrived. The race draws an insanely competitive field, with some of the most accomplished cyclists attending each year. Additionally, looking at my training logs in Strava I was really not sure if I could make the three hour cut off at mile 27. I always get nervous at races, but with every other race I have done I have never doubted that I would finish, this was new territory for me. Before I knew it race day was upon us and we were lining up in our respective starting waves. After the pro start and thirty seconds of call ups for the women, I was off!
The start of the race was a really neat experience for me. I have never been part of a large peloton before, especially not one of all women. As the fifty plus female riders worked together quickly ticking off those first few miles I thought about all the cycling races I’ve done in the past and how it’s rare to even see another female (read more here). Being part of this huge group of amazing ladies made me really happy! Since I was so worried about making the cut off my plan was to go out as hard as I could to take advantage of the lower elevation (the race starts around 6000’) and smooth pavement. At some points I was wondering if our peloton was going fast enough, but I knew it would be too hard to go faster on my own. I remember thinking, these pros can probably climb way faster than me, I wish they would speed up now so I can make the cut off. Eventually our effort picked up so those thoughts disappeared and I was just trying to hang on. There seemed to be some jockeying up front because we would surge forward and then slow down, when we would speed up the effort was pretty hard for me, but it never lasted too long. Soon some of the male age groupers started catching us and the pro women started to pull away, as our group dwindled I started to yo-yo off the back and after 7.5 miles I was working alone. This actually worked out well, because around this time Ryan passed me and since I was alone, he was able to say hi to me and give me a pat on the back.
Soon enough I was on the dirt and the climbing up to 10,000 feet was under way. Our good friend Kaolin passed me right when the climb started and gave me some encouragement as he flew past me. When I was about half way up the climb I finally realized I was actually going to make the cut off without any problems. Relieved, I backed off the intensity just a bit in an effort to conserve some energy for the rest of the race. The climbing was getting more and more difficult as we got closer to the summit. The power seemed to be getting sucked right out of my legs the higher we climbed, so I was looking forward to getting back down to where there was more oxygen. I passed another one of our friends from Phoenix (a Dirty Kanza finisher) towards the top of the climb; after giving him some grief I realized he wasn’t feeling well because of the altitude so I tried to encourage him and told him I would see him on the descent. When I made it to the cut off location in two and half hours, I was so happy that I celebrated by pumping my fists in the air and telling some of the volunteers how relieved and happy I was!
Now that I had accomplished my first goal, making the cut off, it was time to face the other fear I had been worrying about for the past three months. Descending down from 10,000 feet to 6,000 feet in less than ten miles, on what is affectionately known as the Col d’Crush. Reading about this descent prior to the race always made me nervous, the description from the website was constantly scrolling through my head: a white-knuckle, switch-backing descent. Gulp. Luckily the first part of the descent is on a straight road that cuts through an alpine meadow so I was flying down the gravel road and quickly arrived at the first switchback in the Col d’Crush. The switchbacks were loose and the exposure was definitely intimidating, but after all the work I had done with my coach I was able to navigate them confidently without tensing up or getting sweaty palms! I was even calm enough to cheer on Rob Squire and Todd Wells as they came flying back up the start of the climb (with a one minute head start they had already put close to 16 miles on me, talk about humbling). Before I knew it I had made it to the end of the dirt and was back on the pavement, the grade was still steep, but I let go and started trying to go as fast as I could. I averaged 30 mph for the next three and a half miles and I got up to 37 mph – a new personal record!
As soon as the descent was finished and the course turned onto the flat section, I felt a fierce headwind smack me in the face. Luckily my Salsa Cutthroat allows me to get in an aero position (even without aero bars), so I leaned over the bars and tried to push. Even in the aero position, the head wind was brutal. Fortunately, my friend Vince caught back up with me here and after chatting for a few minutes about Dirty Kanza the most magical thing happened, he offered to let me tuck in behind him and draft! I pretty much sat on his wheel for the next 8.5 miles. About half way through this section we picked up another rider and we started taking turns pulling. I took three short pulls on the front, though I’m not sure that I did anything except slow us down, but at least I didn’t feel so guilty.
After a relatively short, slow slog through a hot, sandy canyon filled with stagnant air I was back on the pavement and ready to start the climb back up to the finish. The first half of the climb was awesome because I was passing everyone, I must have passed thirty or more people (all the guys that passed me on the descent). I made sure to encourage every single person I passed and they were all shocked at what a good mood I was in. This is where miles and miles of bikepacking came in handy. After hauling a sixty pound bike up and over hills I’ve learned not to get discouraged when moving at such a slow speed. At one of the switchbacks half way through the climb DNA had set up an aid station. I was having trouble eating and drinking while riding so I decided to stop at the tent and force down some calories. As I pulled up I got an enthusiastic welcome from my friend Kaolin. He was battling some stomach issues, but was kind enough to give me a running push up the steep, loose grade, out of the switchback.
The last half of the climb was extremely painful. In most of the race reports I read people would write that they did not remember much from the Col d’Crush except for pain. I always found that kind of strange, but now I understand. Even shortly after finishing I couldn’t remember much from those last few miles to the final aid station. I know that they were slow, painful and lonely. I also know that at some point during these final miles on the Col d’Crush I realized my last goal of finishing under seven hours was slipping out of the realm of possibility.
Somehow, I finally arrived at the last aid station. I ate two slices of watermelon, thanked the incredible volunteers and took a few more electrolyte pills in a futile attempt to keep the cramping at bay for the last ten miles. Shortly after leaving the aid station I was excited to see a short downhill stretch of road, I tried to shift into my bigger gear up front only to have my chain get stuck around the outside of my rear derailleur pulley and cage. Unable to pedal, I slowed and pulled over to assess the situation. I nervously tried to force my chain onto the larger ring up front to no avail, two other riders flew past me and asked if I was alright, but they were going too fast to hear my answer. Luckily I realized what was going on and carefully guided my chain back into place before breaking it. Thankful to avoid mechanical failure this late in the race I hopped back on my bike and attempted to take a deep breath. Though, the breathing was a bit tough because by now I was up at 10,000 feet and would stay there for the final ten torturous miles of rolling hills to the finish.
The remaining uphills were not as steep as what I had just climbed, so I kept trying to shift into a harder gear, but every time I did that my legs would start screaming at me. The muscular pain was like nothing I have ever felt, all I could sustain was spinning in the granny gear. All while trying to ignore the extreme amount of pain radiating in my lower back. Eventually, I made it to the freshly laid gravel section, which I had to navigate for five miles. This was another time where my Salsa Cutthroat really excelled. I passed a few guys on cross bikes nervously sliding through the gravel on some of the short descents. At some points I even had to veer off of the worn ‘path’ through the rocks to get around them, but by now I had enough confidence in my bike and we made it through flawlessly. The race ends on a few miles of pavement, and the last mile is a sick joke…9% grade to finish at 10,300 feet. I put my head down, grit my teeth and slowly spun my way up to the finish line in the granny gear. I looked ahead as the finishing chute came into view and saw Ryan hobbling towards me with a huge grin on his face. At first I didn’t think I would even be able to smile back at him because everything hurt so bad, but I forced a smile and rolled through to the finish line. I didn’t experience any joy or happiness upon reaching the finish line, all I could feel was pain and then a sense relief when I stopped moving. Ryan met me on the other side of the line as I got off my bike. I started to cry and laid on the ground swelling with pride, I DID IT!
Bike: Salsa Carbon Cutthroat X9
Tires: Tubeless Schwable Thunder Burt 2.1, SnakeSkin
Gearing: 28/42 Front, 11-36 Rear
Supplies carried: Two spare tubes, two CO2 cartridges, tire levers, CO2 adapter, mini hand pump, mini multi tool, quick link.
Nutrition: 20 ounces Carbo Rocket, 2 Huma Gels (with caffeine), 1 Honey Stinger Gel, 1 package Pro Bar Organic Energy Chews, 6 Salt Tabs (with caffeine). From aid stations: 16 ounces EFS, 1 Orange, 3 slices of Watermelon, 1 cup of Coke. For a total of approximately 1000 calories.