The weekend before Big Frog I was covering an attack in a road race when I had an exercise-induced asthma attack (thanks, allergies).
One minute I’m doing my job, the next it felt like someone was squeezing my lungs and taking my breath away. I argued with myself on whether or not to get off my bike at the side of the road but settled on slowing down, recovering, and finishing the race (alone).
Needless to say, I wondered if my allergies would wreak havoc at Big Frog.
But, the old saying goes, “it takes a village”…and as I rolled up to the starting line with my teammate and long time training partner, Susie Farmer, “my village” and all the work that was put into this moment was all I could focus on in my mind.
I didn’t know it at the time, but today was going to be a game changer for me.
From my training plan by Steve Carpenter, to nutrition plan by Barry Murray to superb bike mechanics from Cycle Sport Chattanooga (and Spencer getting me the right equipment, of course) I was more prepared than ever.
But most important, the support system I have from the Chattanooga cycling community and especially from friends, family and coworkers (who may not even ride bikes) is second to none. It’s easier to ignore any self-doubts when you have people cheering you on.
Here’s my Big Frog 65 race report
We rolled off the start line with pleasant temps and good company…a lot of smiles and excitement. I lined up with Susie and near other riders I knew from Chattanooga. Carp had me well-prepared with training, but I knew I needed to not blow myself up during the long stretch of road before the single track.
I decided to stay close to my friend (and cycling hero), Amy Phillips. She was racing for fun but as a seasoned pro road racer, I knew she’d keep a steady pace that would help me warm up (and help ease my mind being close to someone I knew in the single track).
I had a lot of fun once we got onto Brush Creek. My fitness almost always surpasses my technical skills on winding trails. But I was able to connect the dots of my mind, body and bike and follow the wheel in front of me steadily without blowing up or letting a gap open up. Don’t worry, I still managed an idiot moment after PR’ing Brush Creek and nearly the Boyd’s Gap descent when I noticed my fork was still locked from the pavement section at the start (because descending Boyd’s Gap with your forked locked on the ‘ol hardtail is totally good for the equipment…doh!).
Only 10 miles in and it’s time for Old Copper Road. I have a love/hate with this trail…when it’s good, it’s good but when it’s bad, it’s bad. And if it’s going to be bad, it’s likely when you’re racing around a bazillion other racers. I’d have to say this run-through was the worst, ever. But that’s the consequence of racing conservatively through the first 20ish miles of single track…you may not have a choice on your position and who’s racing in front of you (and in front of that person).
For those of you who don’t know, Old Copper runs along the Ocoee…the trail is basically flat but always has at least one puddle…usually more and a pretty significant root section and creek crossing that will catch you by surprise if you don’t know they’re there. Well, no one around me seemed to know they were there.
The nicest way I can describe my time on this trail is ‘a complete shit-show’ (sorry, language).
The root section blew everyone up in front of me…riders were off their bike in every direction, blocking every line. And this shit-show continued into the creek crossing with everyone in front of me dismounting their bikes and blocking every coast-able line across the creek (which is the appropriate technique to get across all the slippery rocks). I could taste my sour attitude, got a little bit snarky about it being ride-able, then quickly reminded myself that I was in my comfort zone since I’d ridden the trail before (back off, Ali!).
I quickly got over myself and carried on as quickly as I could around the walkers to try to get a clear shot onto the Bear Paw climb.
This climb has become one of my favorites, probably because I used to be really bad at it. But Carp has really helped me improve my climbing fitness and riding with Spencer has helped me learn to clear roots uphill with greater ease. I passed a few guys who had to get off their bikes and made my way back to Amy Phillips…and Monica Desjardins (and Thom) was in sight, too. Time to party!
The way I felt climbing on the single track was almost too good to be true. But I kept my pacing (and breathing) in check on the longer climbing sections so I’d have plenty left for all the gravel climbs. My descending was ‘ok’ but definitely didn’t compare (at least my fork was unlocked though, haha).
Made it through 20ish miles of single track in a little over 2 hours. Time for 35ish miles of gravel but not before the first aid station. I went through at least 2 of 3, 20 oz. bottles of Skratch I was carrying (I hate Camelbacks). I quickly made sure all three bottles were filled, ate a pack of Skratch chews, then went on my way.
It was at this point I passed Monica and Thom. I could tell Monica wasn’t herself by the way she was riding (to which she confirmed she wasn’t feeling well) but she said she would finish which was super-inspiring to me. I had no excuses at this point. Time to push through what (should be) the section of the race best suited for my skills and fitness (hello, roadie Ali).
Thanks to Lee Carmichael’s pre-ride in April, I knew what to expect on the gravel sections and made specific notes on where to drive the bike a bit harder and where to recover. It was helpful having a plan. I was passing more people on the gravel section than I allowed to pass me. That was a first for me and felt awesome.
But early on in the gravel, I felt two riders closing in on me steadily. I was incredibly happy to learn it was Shannon Greenhill and Paula Burks! I’ve admired these women since I started riding and was really inspired to see them. Was a great reminder that I was RACING my bike…not just out for a ride. I kept them in sight as long as possible and felt good keeping a steady pace (even though it wasn’t quite as fast as theirs).
I passed #2 and #3 aid stations knowing I’d pass both again before climbing back out of the gravel section. I was stocked with hydration and excited for the Big Frog climb.
I made it through Big Frog pretty well (barely avoiding the usual wheeze-breathing). But for some reason I thought it was a good idea to eat half of a Perfect Bar. Dumb decision! …and I physically didn’t feel like I needed so it made the slight belly ache more annoying than painful. Luckily most of it was on a flatter section of gravel (but would have been nice to push harder than I did at this point).
Once I got through the slight gut rot it was on again. I was yo-yoing with two other women so needed to get my shit together. I skipped the 4th aid station (which was the same as #3 just a different direction), and they were at the next aid station when I got there. They looked tired and were sitting down.
I quickly split the one bottle of concentrated Skratch I had left between two bottles, filled them the rest of the way with water. Then filled my third bottle with water and poured some cold water over my face, neck and head before slamming my second pack of Skratch chews.
I left the aid station before the two women did (and right after another woman I had passed on the Big Frog climb earlier).
It was time to climb out of the gravel section. This part is no joke, but I was ready for it and felt refreshed and motivated after the aid station. No belly aches remaining, so no reason to hold back. I was so close to the final single track to finish this thing.
I was keeping a steady pace while trying to be safe on the descents (this part can have a little bit of traffic). A few dudes passed me on the descents, but I usually passed them back on the climbs (not always though). The voices of women behind me kept my ears perked and legs pedaling. And then I heard it…
JIM FARMER’S VOICE. “There she is!”
I shook my head in disbelief. Turns out Jim had been cramping for a good 2 hours. I can’t tell you how many people I saw walking their bikes…all due to cramping.
My motivation was through the roof after seeing Jim! I was almost out of the gravel hell hole I descended into earlier that day and I got to see my teammate!
The next thing that happened was a defining moment for me.
Last aid station of the race…10-12 miles of single track left. I had less than one bottle left…of basically water (with maybe half of a single serving pouch of Skratch in it).
The aid station was next to the single track entrance, and I spotted a woman entering the trail.
Do I stop and refill or do I chase?
CHASE! CHASE! CHASE! …and suffer the possible consequences of slight dehydration after the race. The decision was easy for me (say, what?). I’d been working with Barry Murray on my nutrition since January and I trusted the improvements I’d made in race/training nutrition. I knew I could handle this. I believed in myself…that I was a competitor…not just a finisher…what an amazing feeling!
[Quick pause for another idiot moment] I took off my gloves during the gravel section because my hands were hot (which I can’t stand). Yep, didn’t have time to put them back on after I decided to chase. So, I went through Quartz, Riverview, Chestnut and finally Thunderrock WITHOUT GLOVES.
Anyway, I think it was sometime toward the end of Quartz that I caught the woman in front of me. She was stopped on the trail and someone was trying to help her get something out of her Camelback, not sure what was going on.
I passed her and picked up the pace. I think I had my best run ever on Riverview. It’s like I was a different rider. Normally my handling skills get extra sloppy under pressure, but not this time. I was determined to give it all I could since I made the decision to race instead of refill my bottle.
I think I started actually hating myself some time on Chestnut.
My hands were THROBBING. The bottom of my right foot was throbbing. I was out of fluids and thirsty. I had to AGAIN get over myself and accept this was part of it and move on.
Luckily my legs felt good and I was still able to clear challenging uphills on the trails. I was in disbelief, happy, and in pain all at the same time. Chestnut never felt so long but I ended up passing another woman on the steep uphill. But by the time I got to Thunderrock I was grateful for any sort of focus I could manage for safety’s sake. I could barely hold my handlebars because my hands were so torn up, and falling off the side of the trail would be awful so close to the finish.
Finally, Thunderrock finished chewing me up and spewing me out. I’d been looking forward to this moment the entire day and suddenly ready to go hard again…IT WAS TIME FOR THE PAVEMENT. Pretty sure the two guys with me thought I was nuts.
I put my head down and drove the bike as hard as I could toward the finish. One guy was able to hang on as I pulled him closer to the finish. Of course I wasn’t about to let him beat me after pulling him all that way so eventually I stood up and made another push all the way to finish line.
Spencer was there with the biggest smile on his face. I landed in 13th in open women (and would have been 67th of 120 in open men’s category). Needless to say my decision paid off, and was able to recover from my thirst relatively easily (thanks, Skratch Rescue!).
This is definitely one race I’ll never forget.
Thanks, Justin and Amy Mace (Roost Racing) for putting on a most memorable event!