It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there.
But last week, I did something I’ve never done before: a mountain bike race that consists of only the aspects of mountain biking that are my biggest…ummmm…challenges.
I raced in the Heartbreaker at Baker, a women’s only Enduro race in Knoxville. It was promoted by the local Bell Joy Ride group and 3rd Coast Productions. My teammate, Maureen, was brave enough to join me, and it was her first Enduro race, too.
I started riding mountain bikes a few years ago, but have been plagued with old injuries and a couple new injuries. Two surgeries later, and I’m now trying to figure out this whole mountain biking thing, once and for all. Riding downhill has been my biggest weakness throughout.
So why not go try a type of racing that consists ONLY of my biggest weakness?
You may be asking, what the heck is Enduro racing?
It’s a mountain bike race that includes a number of downhill stages, five in our case. In between each stage, there are transition stages–to the top of the next downhill stage. One has to finish the entire race within a given time frame, but the transitions don’t count toward total race time.
Courses can be as difficult as huge jumps, giant rock drops, super-steep downhills, and other features. Our race was pretty tame, as it was designed to introduce more women to this racing format.
After the prerace meeting, Maureen and I got our timing chips activated, and then rode together to the top of Stage 1, where we had to wait for all 70-ish women to make it to the top, as we were going straight back down.
Let’s pause for a moment to think about that.
SEVENTY women racing a format that is considered high risk and tends to attract significantly more men than women. Were we nuts? What were we doing? I’m 46 and Maureen is 60. Should we really have been standing on the side of a mountain, with what seemed to be mostly 20-somethings, about to shred some downhills? Hoping that the downhills didn’t shred us??!!
Yes. Yes, we should definitely have been there.
Stage 1 was the only stage Maureen and I did not get to preride the previous day. Racers were being sent off at 30 second intervals. But again, until we crossed the Stage 1 timing chip line, we weren’t accruing race time. My heart rate was skyrocketing as it got closer and closer my turn.
This stage was mostly flowy downhill. There were several 180 turns that were pretty open and some rolling bumps. I took off and got to the first 180, and slid on the dusty, red dirt! I slid four more times! Needless to say, that freaked me out a bit and I felt like I had stiffened up, which is the worst thing you can do on a mountain bike. I felt like I was pretty slow and decided I needed to get my act together for Stage 2!
Since the transition stages are not timed, racers had zero idea of how we were doing compared to our competition until every racer was finished. A much faster downhiller could have stopped for a break…to drink Yee-Haw beer in someone’s yard, for instance. It might seem like you are ahead of that person, but you totally are not.
I found out later that Maureen had a tumble on Stage 1, but luckily she had put on those pesky, smoldering hot knee pads and was ok. Did I mention that it was about eleventy billion degrees in Knoxville that weekend?
I meandered through the transition alone for awhile, but ended up with other gals here and there, chatting like we had known each other all along.
Stage 2 was more like a downhill on a cross-country mountain bike course–lots of skinny single-track trail, trees flying by right next to your face, a few rocks, lots of turns, and quite a bit of pedaling in a few spots.
I felt like I was doing really well on this stage…and then I came off my bike. I don’t even know what happened, but I’m lucky I didn’t go over the bars. I slammed into my stem and ended up with a nice, black bruise right below my belly button!
The next transition was a tough one! It was much longer than the other transitions and had never-ending climbing. But again, transitions are not timed, so it’s not like anyone was in crush-it mode. I finally got to Stage 3, which I thought would be my best stage. Stage 3 had lots and lots of fast, sweeping turns and berms,
…and table tops.
I really thought I crushed Stage 3. Not so much. Of course, I didn’t know this until I saw everyone else’s results.
The transition to Stage 4 was much shorter. But O.M.G.
It was up a hill that was big, loose gravel. When we prerode, I got off the bike to walk, but in shoes with metal cleats for clipping into my pedals, walking was harder! So I figured I’d just go to my easiest gear and just keep pedaling. I was the only one I saw on a bike. All the girls in beefy, flat pedal shoes were walking. I was suffering. Sweat pouring off my face. That stupid hill had some 20% grade spots, and Garmin thinks it had a 30% spot.
I believe Garmin.
I got to the top and it was surface-of-the-sun hot. When it was finally my turn to go, I was definitely nervous. When we prerode, I did not like this stage. There were about eight crazy-tight switchbacks. Most had barely enough room for me to get my bike around the turns without falling down the sizeable drop-offs right on the edge of the trail. I have a lot of work to do going down hill and maneuvering a switchback at the same time.
So I was scared. I stood at the top taking some deep breaths. One of the other racers gave me an amazing, albeit colorful pep talk and high-fived me. I took off. I drug a foot on the first couple switchbacks, and felt super-awkward. Then I totally flubbed two of them and pretty much stopped around a couple turns. That was an ugly stage.
The transition to Stage 5 was back up the Stage 1 trail and across to another downhill. I was getting pretty tired by that point. After all, I was at about an hour and 45 minutes of total ride time. Maureen was never far behind and always made her way up to the start before I went.
This stage had lots of fast turns, tons of singles and doubles, and had some spots that required quite a bit of pedaling. It was way fun, and I finally felt like I was doing a little better at that downhill thing.
I did almost bite it around a switchback near the end. One of the spectators had a chainsaw and was revving it when racers went by. I think the only thing that could have been more scary would have been seeing a damn clown in the woods.
[I was going to put a photo of a clown in the woods here, but google images were far too terrifying…couldn’t handle it].
I don’t know if it was the chainsaw or just that I was tired, but my entire back end slid out from under me. Luckily, it slid around the switchback in exactly the line I needed to take, and I managed to somehow keep the bike under me! Sorta like I did that on purpose.
When we finished, Maureen and I were all smiles.
After the race, we were so hot and so hungry that we didn’t stick around until all the racers had finished–everyone still had more than an hour to make it in. I was sitting in 4th in the beginner category and Maureen was in 7th. We figured that since we were off the podium, we’d go down the road to the after-party at SoKno Taco Cantina and get some free Yee-Haw beer!
Well, a couple days later, I saw the final results. I ended up 8th , and I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed. I was one minute, 11 seconds off the winner, and 55 seconds off the podium.
If I’d registered for masters 40+, I’d have been on the podium. Darnit! I felt pretty dumb for not racing masters, as I’ve been advocating for more masters road racing for years (but that’s a story for another time).
Maureen was 17th in beginners, but would have been 5th in masters 50+! Darnit! Well, we know for next time.
I do think it’s pretty cool that we tried a “high risk” discipline of our sport. And we survived. We suffered up the transition stage hills. We swallowed our fears. We tackled those descents. And we smiled. And all the other women were smiling with us. They were all just darn nice. So, even though we didn’t win, and we didn’t even podium, we put ourselves out there and had a great time.
The moral of the story:
It’s never too late to try something new. Get off the couch. Get outside. Take risks (but take measured risks–don’t get hurt!). Challenge yourself. Do something fun. You might just surprise yourself with what you can accomplish!