Friday, June 21, 2019

Fearless Women of Dirt at the Borah Epic

The Borah Epic is a race held in Cable, Wisconsin on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The event is hosted by Borah, the company that produces the Fearless Women of Dirt jerseys, and all the proceeds benefit CAMBA, the local IMBA chapter that maintains and builds the trails out there.

I have ridden Chequamegon two previous times, once in September 2016, 3 months after I started mountain biking, and then again in September 2017. 

I knew from experience that there was a huge variety in the trails, from some epic flow stuff, like Gravity Cavity, to some more technical riding like the Ojibwe trail. When the race was being promoted this spring, the race seemed like the perfect opportunity to go ride the trails again since I didn’t make it in 2018, as well as a great opportunity to do my first mountain bike race that wasn’t a winter fat bike race.

I signed up for the half race, as 36 miles seemed like a lot to take on, especially for a spring race when it’s hard to get dedicated single-track training miles in. The half race was advertised as “18+ miles of single-track,” which, unfortunately for me, I assumed meant it was an 18-mile race. It turns out the race was 18 miles of single-track, followed by an excruciating 3-mile haul on a mix of gravel and paved roads, with a short stint on a double track road to finally get to the finish line.

Going into this race, I didn’t think about too much besides just trying to make sure that I got training miles in. I knew I had ridden 18 miles on a mountain bike in a day before with no training, so it was physically possible for me, but I wanted to feel strong going into it. What I didn’t take much time considering was race-specific nutrition, hydration, or strategy. In retrospect would’ve been good to work on dialing nutrition in prior to the race, and also talk with some more experienced riders about what to expect the riding and pacing to look like.

Waiting in the starting gates was when I started to realize that I had no idea what it was like to ride in an actual race. My only other mass-start race experiences had many wide sections where passing was easy. Those races were also on snow, so it was less about passing people and more about not falling off the rideable line for as long as you could manage. There were close to 200 people riding the Borah Half Epic. I started in the last wave, which I believe had the most amount of riders. I started getting really nervous being around so many people and realizing I was going to be surrounded by other riders all day. As much as I like group rides, I adore the independent aspect of mountain biking, sometimes never running into a single soul out on the trails when I ride solo. It was that moment that I realized I was going to feel like I was racing all day, not merely going for a long ride.

I enjoy running 5k races because mass starts always feel so cool to me – it’s a very primal feeling of a massive amount of people all running in the same direction, and my pace is always way faster than I usually run on my own due to the adrenaline surge. This race gave me the same giddy feeling at the start – it was so neat to be pushing myself, surrounded by a ton of other people doing the same. It was about a quarter of a mile of double-track before it narrowed down to single-track, and I did my best to find a comfortable spot to before then, as I expected to be one of the slowest people of the day. That was when my first surprise came – the girl I first ended up behind was considerably slower, and was struggling handling over roots and rocks. There were 5 other people right on my tail, so I knew I needed to pass her as soon as I could. Once it opened back up to doubletrack, I upped my pace to sneak past before it narrowed into singletrack again. This led to my second surprise – I was by myself riding for 5 minutes after passing her. In less than 10 minutes into the race, I was already not in large group, despite there being 200 riders on the trail, and plenty of people behind me.

Quickly people started to catch up though, and I’m of the sort that I’m not going to wait for anyone to ask to pass – if they’re behind me, they’re faster, and I’d rather be proactive in choosing how and when I let them pass instead of having them right behind me for an extended period of time. A lot of people commented that I “didn’t have to do that, but thank you” when I slowed down and told them to pass. Ultimately, I think this led to a better race experience for me, as I was able to chase people more frequently to motivate myself to go faster, but also felt like I had more control over when I needed to slow down for other riders.

Mile 4 is when I had my next surprise of the day – I passed people on climbs. I don’t consider myself a strong climber nor a fast rider, but the folks who were my speed or faster on the downhills and flats were walking or stopping on the climbs.I had no problem slowly cruising up the trail, passing all the folks who were off of their bikes. That was one of the more incredible experiences of the entire day that was repeated on every major climb and technical section – I rode past competent bikers who were walking their bikes. This was one of those “Fuck yeah!” moments for me, as I constantly have to stop myself from thinking I’m a terrible, no-good cyclist. It was a reminder to me of how far I have come as a mountain biker, and that my hard work and training pay off. Two years ago, I would’ve been walking all of those sections myself.

The majority of the course is mostly flow, with a few sections that require some handling skills, but at mile 14, the course goes onto the Ojibwe trail, which is one of the older trails in the system and becomes quite technical with a lot of rocks, roots, off-camber surfaces, and twisting turns. This is where I started to fly on my bike – I felt great, I thought there was only 4 more miles left to the course, and I’ve been working really hard on my technical riding skills. Everything clicked and I was passing a few riders who had passed me previously in the day. It was most definitely my favorite part of the course to ride as well. It required a lot of focus and energy, but it felt so good to nail that stuff when I know how much I used to struggle with those kinds of trails.

Unfortunately mile 16 is where things started to go downhill. I thought I only had two more miles left, so I was pushing myself to use the energy I had left even though I could tell I was starting to fatigue. That’s when I misjudged a very short, two foot long rock garden and ended up stalling my back tire causing me to launch over my handlebars. My abdomen slammed into my handlebars and I landed pretty rough on my left side. My main concern was making sure I got out of the way before another cyclist came through, so I got up as quick as I could. Luckily my bike appeared to be in working order and while I was hurting I figured the best bet was to ride it out. But as I started riding, the adrenaline from the crash started a chain reaction of my body protesting that it had enough abuse for one day. I started getting really bad cramps, was struggling to maintain power on the technical terrain, and I was almost out of water.

Good news was there was only 2 miles of trail left to the race! ...or so I thought. I kept pushing thinking I was almost done, and when I hit mile 17.5 with no end of the race in sight, I knew I had miscalculated. At mile 18, the course dumped out onto a gravel road with no support crews or other riders nearby. The saving grace was that the gravel road was downhill for a mile, so I was at least able to coast, but I was exhausted, out of water, and starting to cook on the road, especially when it turned to pavement. At some point I had to stop in a shaded area on the road to recover, which I believe was the longest break I took all day. I was really hurting at this point and it took a lot of effort to get rolling again and keep riding. Eventually, after 20 miles, I finally saw the finish line, just as I was passed by the first and second place winners of the long race! It took those men 30 less minutes to cover almost twice the distance as I did.

I was so relieved to get to the finish and the only thing I wanted was water, but as soon as I got off my bike, the cramping was so bad I couldn’t even walk. I had to sit on my knees for five or ten minutes until I was finally able to walk again to get some water but I was getting really nauseous at this point. After drinking some water, the nausea was bad enough that I went to go find a secluded spot since I thought I was going to throw up. Luckily, I dry heaved a few times and then felt good enough to go find ice cream, the ultimate dehydration and heat fatigue recovery food. I don’t know that I have ever enjoyed a cone of ice cream so much in my life!

Overall, I greatly enjoyed the race, and I felt like I pushed my physical limits. My official time was 3:19:31, coming in 32/44 of all women for the half and 145/170 overall – but ultimately it’s not so much about where in the pecking order I fell, it’s about finishing. On my first visit to ride Chequamegon, I did 18.4 miles in one day, but it took me 5h45 to complete with 400ft less climbing than the race course. It would’ve been close to impossible for me to complete another three miles that day. In reality, I was able to finish this race in half the amount of time when accounting for the extra road miles. It’s a great feeling to have demonstrable proof of progress in my riding skills, as well as having pushed myself for pace in a competitive environment. If you’re looking for a great race with a lot of single-track miles, I highly recommend checking out the Borah Epic next year!

-Written by Fearless Women of Dirt Ambassador, Melody

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