Big Sugar felt like a truly poetic end to this season in more ways than one. In 105 miles out on the rolling hills of Arkansas and Missouri I went through all of the emotions and feelings in the book and I couldn’t help but feel like it was almost a snap shot of the season in a race.
While I would definitely consider myself the eternal optimist, I would be remiss to omit that I have faced some challenges this season (separated shoulder, and a concussion). I have almost experienced some of the biggest highs of my career (Leadville Champion, 6x UCI wins). So as I went through the highs and lows at Big Sugar I felt grounded in the fact that I knew without a shadow of a doubt that when I felt like I was on my limit, at the end of my rope, a second wind was just around the next corner and I would be taking the next pull with confidence soon. Sometimes the best thing you can have in times of difficulty, is the knowledge and confidence that it will indeed get better. Afterall, the ability to delay gratification has to be one of the strongest attributes of an endurance athlete.
In the dark morning hours on Saturday morning, athletes were already staking their claim on a position in the start grid for a 7:30 start at Big Sugar. While the start claimed to be neutral, the more experienced riders knew that what a race organizer classifies as neutral varies greatly. When the race began, chaos almost immediately ensued as if your position in the next 100 yards would dictate the outcome in the race. The challenging part of that is that it actually is very possible that it could.
The race was flat out from the start as the women fought hard to find good position. Lost in a sea of men it was difficult find each other and to navigate the sporadic movements of those around you and in front of you. At one point I was completely boxed in and stuck riding on the rumble strip of the road for a couple of minutes. It was rather stressful. Cognitively I was fully pinned and I was using massive amount of energy to take in and process all of the commotion around me. I couldn’t even get myself to reach down to grab a bottle in fear of being divebombed by another rider while I was trying to drink. A few women did disappear during this time in the race in a group of men and I would never see them again.
Finally, as the people spread out and I could find my bearings, I was able to discover that my legs did feel quite strong on the day. I began to find my pace and settle in with people around me, attacking the climbs, and actually really enjoying the sketchy gravel descents. Around mile 40 I could see some of my fellow competitors in the distance and got a jolt of joy in the knowledge that I would soon be joining their group. Over the next 65 miles, the group continued to grow as we picked up more pro women along the way. We were a force to be reckoned with as we powered through the deep gravel. A couple of women made a gusty decision to go off the front and it paid off, but the majority of us were betting on battling it out to the finish and catching groups ahead of us. At the same time, a battle within our group was happening as some of the women in the group were in a tight battle for the overall finish place in the Lifetime Grand Prix which added a whole new level of tactics to the race.
Several times as sweat was pouring down my face and when my legs felt like they could cramp at any moment I paused to be thankful for the opportunity to race quite literally side by side with the same women I’ve been duking it out all season long. As I said at the beginning, it felt truly poetic.
After struggling to drink at the beginning of the race, after we went through the second feedzone I was so thirsty that I downed almost all of my water immediately. It had approximately three sips of water left that would have to last me the next 20 miles. If I started to dream of ice cold water I felt like I was going to audibly whimper. I took my final sip with 10 miles to go and then was full focus on just getting to the finish. There were a few big efforts as we all tried to increase our chances as we got closer to the finish. Ultimately it was with a half mile to go that the flood gates opened and we all began to sprint. I crossed the line in 12th. I had the same time as 2 other women. I had a photo finish with one of them involving a bike through and the difference between 5th and 12th was only 20 seconds. It was a truly epic ending to a truly epic season. I collapsed at the finish line. I had wrung myself totally dry. I gave it everything I had left and there’s nothing that could make me smile more going into the off-season.
After some major highs and lows this season, I was able to finish up the Lifetime Grand Prix in 7th position. A beautiful part of the Lifetime Grand Prix this season was following a series with a set number of athletes over the course of 7 months allowed us to relate even better to each other as athletes. As an athlete it’s very easy to become totally consumed by your own wins and losses and trials and tribulations, but when you pause to look at the Grand Prix rankings, you’ll quickly see that most everyone has some sort of trials this year. Congratulations to everyone who stuck it out. Whether you literally won the series or not, I am confident that you had many personal ‘wins’ as you showed vulnerability putting out your fullest effort month after month.