It’s Saturday morning, 4:45 am, complete darkness. After fumbling around for food and coffee, I jump in the car and head to Cathedral Pines in Long Island for my first attempt at a 6 hour race.
Why would anyone sign up to race for 6 hours you ask? Let me explain.
One of the biggest hurdles I had heading into the 2014 racing season, was the increase in mileage. My first race in 2014 at Hop Brook illustrated the situation perfectly: Cat 3 – 6 miles, Cat 2 – 12 miles, Cat 1 – 21 miles. The math just didn’t add up for me. As the season wore on, I acclimated to the longer distances, but even as the season closed, I still felt that distance was a mental barrier. Frustrated with that weakness, I decided to tackle it head on.
As I crossed the George Washington Bridge, the sun is just peeking over the horizon, creating a beautiful array of colors through the sky. Picturesque.
For those unfamiliar with the 6 hour race format – it goes like this – who ever can complete the most laps in the fastest time wins. So the hot shot who blasts out of the gate at lightning speed but blows up at 3 laps and drops off, loses to someone who maintains a slower pace for 4 laps. If 2 racers both complete 5 laps, the faster overall ride time wins. The other thing you need to understand is that if you roll through the lap line at 5 hours and 59 mins, you have to head out for another lap. So really, a 6 hour race involves AT LEAST 6 hours of race time, with racers finishing closer to 7 hours of riding. (Logistically that information is really important for fueling throughout the race.)
2 hours later I pull into Cathedral Pines and am directed to park my car along a gravel road so we can easily pit right out of our trunks. One of my teammates spots me and pulls his car up so I can park behind him. Excellent! Always good to have teammates nearby. Now that I have a pit location staked out, I spread out my food, drinks, bike tools, spare tubes and alternate riding gear in the trunk, easy to see and access quickly.
It’s time to gear up. What to wear? Right now it’s 29 degrees, but what temp will it be in the woods? At Noon? At 3pm? Starting out overdressed or under-dressed could mean a miserable first lap. I opt to layer up – thinking I’ll shed each lap if needed.
Registration is next. The folks at Something Wicked do a great job – the lines move quickly. And the race plate absolutely made my day.
The first real challenge is the start. It’s a mass start , but a little hairier than usual – there’s no staging, no start grid. All 300+ racers line up any which way, jockeying for the best position and vying for the hole shot.
It’s about a half mile of gradual uphill on a gravel road to the first single track entrance. You want the best possible position here, if you get caught up behind 100 people that have to now ride single file, you’ll be waiting and waiting to get into the woods. But everyone is thinking the same thing, that’s what makes this portion of the race so sketchy.
The gun goes off and 300 riders shoot up the road – adrenaline pumping, everyone is sprinting, powering, overtaking, bumping into one another, some riders are all already dropping, chains are snapping, wheels are buzzing each other.
It’s a lot to take in. I’m on the inside of the first turn, with all the bustle I keep my focus on the clearest path ahead, using peripheral vision to keep tabs on the riders who pose the most danger to me. I always enjoy powering out of a start, but in this situation I’m limited to the speed and power of those surrounding me. As we ride along the first straight away, I maintain my spot and start snaking through the crowd, gaining spots whenever a opening appears. We round the last corner before the single track and things slow down to a track stand at the trail head.
Meanwhile, the spectators are cheering, ringing cow bells and honking car horns. It’s a great vibe.
Just into the trail head, there’s a pack of 8 guys staggered, track standing, on and around the trail, moving as little as possible, then one rider just in front of me loses his balance and tips over, blocking the trail. Can’t go forward, I’d better go around! I shoot through the leaves on the outside of the trail, zip around the downed rider and back onto the single track and settle into a steady pace, catching the group ahead of me.
At this point I’m in the middle of a train of 15 guys. We’re riding wheel to wheel. I haven’t pre-riden this course, so I’m not sure what to expect from the trail. I’m reading the wheels ahead of me, keeping an eye out for any squirrelly movements – a train this tight – one goes down, we all go down. I’m not full throttle, but we’re moving along at a fast enough pace. About halfway through the lap our overall speed bogs down a few notches. After another mile the heckling starts up. “We’re not here for a Sunday ride in the Park!”, “Get moving or get out of the way!” It seems there is a rider who won’t let us pass.
After more intense heckling and rising tempers, groups break past the slower rider. Eventually we all work our way past. Now I’m riding with a group of 3, one ahead and one behind. The guy ahead seems to know the course so I hang onto his wheel until we emerge from the woods and into the grassy section at the lap line. The guys busts past me while I battle the sludge feeling of riding through the grass and see the timer says :51. The announcer shouts “Here comes the third woman through!”
Holy crap! Really? Third overall? That’s freaking awesome!
Just after the lap line there is this incredibly weird twisty path through some pine trees. I don’t know what sort of after thought this mess was, but it was my least favorite part of the course. Luckily it was brief. Back into the grass and then onto the gravel road along the pit. My fueling plan was to eat every half hour for the first 4 hours. But the idea of chewing on a nut and dried fruit bar sounds like the worst possible idea right now. With the relentless twisting of the trail, I hadn’t even found a moment to take a sip from my camel back. I take in a long drag now and reason out that not eating at all is going to bite me in the butt in a few hours. So I fish a bit of bar out of my pocket and stuff it into my mouth. It’s dry and sticky feeling. I imagine I’ll be chewing this for miles. I wash it down with another long drag and head back into the trails.
Second lap goes much like the first. I pass some guys, some guys pass me. I consciously try to consume more salt-spiked sports drink. My pace feels decent, lungs are in check, legs feel good. I force myself to eat more of the bar through the pit area and continue trucking. I’m surprised at how quickly the laps seem to be passing.Third lap starts out great. About half way through the shit starts hitting the fan. The ache in my lower back I had been ignoring is building further. My contacts are fogging up. Calves are hinting at cramps. I’m wheezing. I back off my pace and try and sort some of these issues out. Standing and stretching on the bike brings temporary relief to my back. Rubbing my eyes helps clear the fog, but riding one handed is not the best idea. To battle cramping, I make an effort to drain my camel back. A slew of girls and guys pass me at this point.
Passing through the pit area I stop a few minuets to refill my camel back, grab more food and chug some OJ. I see a few more girls go by.
Onto lap four. It’s just like lap three. The constant pedaling feels like being on the rollers. That makes me laugh. Alot. I’m probably dehydrating into delirium.
Seeing the timer as I end lap 4 and start lap 5 I realize I’m doing 1 hour laps now. Ouch. Not pretty.
Heading into lap 5 I’m wondering why I decided to do this race.
Why did I do this race? A 6 hour race? That’s crazy!
I did this race to get over my mental fear of mileage. I did this race because I wanted to improve my endurance and targeting an event gave my training a purpose. I did this race, just to see if I could. I’m contemplating bailing after 5 laps. 5 laps isn’t bad! That’s 50 miles! 50 miles! That’s a personal record right there.
A group catches up to me. The first guy behind asks to pass. I let him know a spot is coming and where I plan to go right. He buzzes by seamlessly. Hearing another rider back, I stay to the right but he’s a bit over-anxious, and doesn’t bother waiting for me to call out a clear spot. He tries to blast past me but runs straight into a tree, falls over and lands on me. Nice one.
After some fumbling, we start pedaling again. I hear a friendly voice pull up behind me. My teammate Alex! She’s zipping right along! She asks to pass and promises not to fall on me in the process. After she passes I decide to stick to her wheel for as long as I can hold on. Before I know it half the lap is over.
Out of the woods on the 5th lap, and the timer says 5:45. Lots of people are milling around the lap line in warm,comfortable looking clothes. Eating real food. Sooo tempting. I came this far, what’s one more lap?
One More Lap!
Heading into the 6th lap, I’m just laughing inside. Yes, everything hurts. Yes, I’m tired… and cold… and hungry. But I came here to do a 6 hour race today. Earlier this year I was standing on a start line, terrified of riding 21 miles. Today I rode 3o miles before I even blinked. I’m not just overcoming that mental barrier, I’m obliterating it. I won’t get a cool medal to take home, but I’m going to finish this thing. All the way. And somehow that speaks louder than all the complaints.