Not only did I meet my race goal for this year’s 2017 Off-Road Assault on Mt Mitchell, but I crushed it. My goal was less about what place I’d finish, but more about shaving off time from last year and seeing how my fitness had improved. Last year I finished in 7 hrs 25 minutes, which was a 5th place finish in Open Women, over 1 hour back from the 1st place female. My goal for this year was for a sub 7 hour race, and I elected the “Vet Women’s” age group category this time, thinking it would be a bonus if I could challenge the podium on top of meeting my time goal.
On race day morning, fortune smiled on us. We had clear blue skies, lower than average humidity and cooler temps, and exceptional trail conditions, tamped down by rain a few nights’ prior. We couldn’t ask for a better race day.
The race is a mass start, meaning everyone lines up together for the start of the race, regardless of age or gender. It’s always a squirrelly, anxious mob at the gun, where some racers aggressively vie for positions even though there are still hours of racing ahead of us. I settled into a good rhythm, a little off the front pack but still tucked in enough to benefit from a draft on the early pavement section. I spotted a couple of women around me, but quickly lost track of them as I was more focused on staying safe and dodging any mishaps. The first challenge was Kitsuma trail, which opens with steep switchbacks which are often frustrating and challenging because you’re in a conga line of racers and at the mercy of the group’s pace. But this year, my pace was such that I found myself near only a few riders. I had a mostly clear path ahead of me and could take my own pace.
I was focused on riding my own race, pushing steadily but within my limits. It wasn’t until the next set of steep uphill switchbacks on Star Gap that I caught up with one female rider. Some of the switchbacks are steep and technical enough that you have to dismount your bike and run through them, but I tried to do it as efficiently as possible to gain distance on her. It seemed to work!
Further along, another woman was slowed down by a racer who fell off and down the side of the trail in front of her. We walked past the crash site together (he was ok), but once we started pedaling again, she opened up a gap pretty quickly on me, and I wasn’t so sure I’d see her again. But at the bottom of Jarrett Creek, I caught up to her again at the aid station. She had chosen to ride with only water bottles, stopping to fill up at nearly every aid station. I ran with 2 bottles and my 50oz Camelbak. It was more weight to carry, but I only had to stop once to refill and this allowed me to close the time gap on her. I passed her at the aid station, but she quickly returned to my wheel.
Next up was the 1 1/2 hour slog up Curtis Creek Rd. She and I were testing each other out at the bottom of the climb, but while I was maintaining a consistent cadence, she’d attack, then decelerate, then attack again. Her body language seemed forced and I was betting that she couldn’t keep this up. I was counting on my steady, regulated “tortoise” approach. At some point I did separate from her, and I never looked back.
It wasn’t until some of the early uphill sections of Heartbreak Ridge that I came across two other women. They were walking, as I grunted and heaved my way past. It was a technical part of the trail, so I couldn’t pay them much attention to see why they were walking. My legs were burning and I was not moving fast, but I was moving. Pedal, pedal, pedal….no matter how slow, just don’t stop……
The 2+ hours of unrelenting uphill climbing up Curtis Creek and then the Blue Ridge Parkway is usually deemed the hardest and most soul-crushing part of the race. But this year for me, it wasn’t until the descent on Heartbreak that I really struggled and descended deep into the pain cave. I was flirting with leg cramps on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the hike-a-bike at the start of Heartbreak. I thought the descent would be a welcome rest from the uphill battle, but instead, when I stood my full weight on the pedals, that’s when the cramps fully materialized in my quads and my shins. With the extremely rooty and rugged terrain, there was hardly any place I could sit down on my saddle to relieve the stress on my legs. Too much to bear, I had to make a few complete stops to rotate my feet and get the cramps in my shins to ease. I don’t know how or why, but by the time I got to the steep switchbacks again on Star Gap (this time descending), my legs began to relax. Good thing, because I wanted to make sure I could ride the last technical section and avoid heckling and hugs from the man wearing only a bright yellow banana hammock!!!
The race ends with another lap on Kitsuma. I employed my fictitious “SSP” technique (slow speed pedaling, we like to call it), that’s slow enough to keep my heart rate under control and just barely fast enough to get up the steep switchbacks. I didn’t even worry about figuring out if I had women competitors around me, because I was already giving it all I had. I just keep pedaling.
I was elated when the final wood boardwalk came into view. I fought back a few tears of joy as I made those last turns towards the finishing arch. And then I let a big smile of relief cross my face, as I crossed the line.
I finished in 6 hours and 15 minutes. I had shaved off 1 hour and 10 minutes from last year’s time!! I crushed my sub-7 hour goal by more than I could have imagined possible.
In the end, I finished 1st place in Vet Women (2 hrs ahead of 2nd place) and 3rd overall female, only 25 minutes from 1st overall. Had I known I was going to be competetive with the Open Women, I would have joined their category instead. But truly, my goal was more about improvement and commitment, not place. Really, I couldn’t be happier. Oh, except I can be. Because Jared beat his goal too. He was aiming for sub-6 and finished in 5 hours 45 minutes for 4th place in Vet Men, less than 4 minutes from 3rd.
ORAMM 2017 was a success. Period.