Fitness, strategy, health, and luck. Four factors that determine the outcome of this race, more than any other I’ve done this year.
At just over 100 miles and over 10,000 ft elevation gain, peak mental and fitness health for this “Beast of the East” are a no brainer. This race is unique in that the first 75 miles to Marion, NC are “the half way point,” similar in ride time to the last 28 miles that turn skyward and gain over 5,000ft to the top of Mt. Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. Like last year, I used local gravel races with long, arduous climbs as primary training prep. Three weeks ago, I did my final big gravel race, the Bootlegger 100, which was similar distance and elevation. It went perfectly to plan, so I knew I had the fitness in place for Mt Mitchell.
Last year, I finished in 7 hours 4 minutes. 4th overall female. 2nd in my age group. At the end, I still had more in the tank; I could have given more. Early on in the ride, there was a distinct moment, literally a split second, where the peloton I was riding in began to split into two, and I had to choose. Afraid of overdoing it, I hung back. I had a new power meter, but lacked experience with it. So the entire ride to Marion I felt I could have gone faster. But without a breakaway group to work with, I wasn’t strong enough to bridge the gap on my own. This year, I planned to start farther up front, and stick with what I thought was a faster group. Worst case scenario, I’d slip back and join a group coming up behind me. Either way, it seemed a guaranteed strategy to lop 10-15 minutes off my time to Marion.
My nutrition strategy was dialed, and I had every confidence in it, despite the forecast for a hotter than normal day. I stuck to a regiment of one Hammer Nutrition gel and two Endurolytes every 45 minutes and one small egg-bacon rice ball every 2 hours. (I’m energized by a small savory snack for races over 4 hours). I had a bottle of Heed and one of Perpetuem on my bike, and then one more bottle of water in my jersey pocket. But I made a quick change of plans at the start line when I saw my competition carrying 4 bottles. I quickly scurried back to my car for an extra bottle, not wanting to risk losing contact with a strong pack of riders just because I was the only one stopping for a refill. It proved a wise last minute decision, and I didn’t need to stop until Marion.
From the start, I held onto the back of the large leading peloton through mile 30 or so, then settled myself into a nice pack of a dozen riders, each of us taking a pull at the front to cover another 15 miles effortlessly. The undulations become more pronounced after mile 45, and the steeper pitches broke our group apart. It was a bizarre but palpable shift. We were all still proximal to each other, but the group mentality vanished. Every rider was now acting on their own. There were 3 of us who knew working together was better than apart, so we tried to maintain our trio until Marion. Despite the benefits of staying together, we all seemed to be struggling. The heat and humidity were taking its toll, and our shifty body movements suggested fatigue. Nevertheless, we made it to Marion together, and I arrived about 12 minutes faster than last year. Right on plan! My friends and support crew, Kris and DJ, were waiting for me at the Marion aid station, so I was quick to refuel. I took an extra minute to stretch my legs, and remember little else other than commenting, “it’s so hot.”
Turns out, I couldn’t verbalize much more than that because it addition to being tired, I was also losing my voice. I always have bad seasonal allergies this time of year, but in the week leading up to this ride, it progressed beyond the normal sneezing and running nose to a nagging frog in the throat. The hard effort and labored breathing exacerbated the issue, and as riders passed me by on the climb, I could only respond to their words of encouragement with a head nod and raspy sigh.
Nothing got easier on the long climb. I couldn’t find my groove, and it took a lot of self-coaxing to keep turning the pedals. But no matter how slow or uncomfortable, I refused to stop, because that’s always the slower option. I found no respite even during the brief downhills. Standing felt no better than sitting. I tried to calculate my pace, to see if I was going to finish sub-7 hours, but at my ever declining speed, I just couldn’t determine it. The climb felt like eternity, but I also knew it eventually had to end. I was out of water leading up to the second to last aid station, a mere 4 miles from the finish. At my pace, that was likely another 30 minutes so I made quick stop to fill 1/2 a bottle.
I crossed the line in 7 hours 2 minutes. Although I didn’t meet my goal, I was satisfied with my effort. Under the conditions of the day, I couldn’t have done or given more. And that was confirmed by how I felt the ensuing day. Not only was I physically exhausted, but even worse was the unanticipated misery from all the allergens I inhaled for 7 hours. No amount of Vicks infused tissues, meds, hot baths, neti pots, nose sprays, eye drops, or cups of tea gave me any relief. Sleep was the only escape, so I took several naps during the day. This morning, two days later, I am beginning to feel human again. Time for recovery and reflection….