Lost & Found
Words by Megan Ruble | Photos by Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship
I knew that the week after racing Redlands would be hard. I was prepared for the depression that comes after spending a week racing -- brain flooded with adrenaline and endorphins. When you go back to regular life you miss the high and everything seems gray.
I trudged through the week physically and mentally exhausted. I decided to race the masters championship race in Fort Ord when they added a 30-34 category. Why not? It was something to do. On my pre-race ride Friday evening I crashed hard. My palm, elbows, and hip were raw. I still raced, but it wasn't good.
Another week passed and things were still gray. Modesto road race had me over-sensitive and emotional. Another week. The grayness just wasn't going away. I wasn't having fun, I didn't want to ride my bike, I didn't want to train or get up early to race.
Mt. Hamilton stage race was next. The road race was good, but by Monday, I was resentful of the time trial and resentful of the crit and just plain ready to go home. This wasn’t like me at all. Something wasn’t right. I sat in my car at the gas station after the TT and cried on the phone to my friend, Perry. Mr. I-Don't-Ride-In-The-Dirt told me to sign up for Lost & Found. It would be fun, I would meet new people, and maybe it would make me feel better.
First thing Tuesday morning I hunted down a ticket and started making plans. I called the number for Sweetwater Nursery listed on the Lost & Found camping page. Tim answered. He described his 40 acres of property up on the ridge, with a great view. No one else was staying there, but he hoped the good word would spread. This sounded like the place. I loaded my car on Friday and headed to Lake Davis. I was greeted by Tim, set up camp with a couple other guys who were last minute-ers like me and tried get to sleep for a big Saturday. In the morning I drank my coffee with Tim's dog, Oliver, at my feet.
The start line was alive with excitement and anticipation of a fun and hard day. I saw lots of friends as I lined up for the Pro race. I'm not exactly sure why I signed up for that category. I have so little dirt experience and I've never done a gravel grinder race or ride of this distance. But, I love the challenge, and in a way, I think I needed it.
The start was mellow, down a fast, paved descent. I thought, “I know how to do this!” Right. We turned onto the dusty, rocky, first climb. As soon tires hit that dirt, shit hit the fan.
It was hard. Up and up we climbed, dust in my mouth and my eyes, legs and lungs screaming "Why didn't you warm up?!" “It's ok,” I thought, “Go your pace. Settle down. There are a lot of miles left to go. A lot can happen.”
The climb was followed by a quick descent and then another climb. It was rocky and with aggressive guys crowding me as they passed and edging me out of my line, making the climb all the more challenging.
Over the top and down a fast and FUN descent. The dust was so thick you could barely see, people were whizzing by in every which direction, coming out of the dust from nowhere. Unnerving. Now a flat stretch. I caught Solana Kline and we rode together for a bit, then caught the Rock Lobster women.
Soon a fast group came up behind us which included Amanda Schaper. This is a good group! I jumped on. I knew Amanda from cross and though her technical skills far outmatch mine, I felt that my fitness may compensate. Past the first aid station. Pavement. They motored along, to the next gravel section. This is gooooooood. AND my chain dropped.
There was no fixing it without stopping. Drat. Stay calm, fix it. They aren't too far ahead, you can catch back on. No, actually you can't. But another motivated group came up behind me and I was saved. Just as we were about to catch the group, it happened again. Chain on pedal. Dammit bike. I was more flustered this time, I fixed it and kept riding.
A little climbing, a little descending and I was starting to feel a rhythm. I came up on the second aid station. I still had a good amount of water, so I decided not to stop and hopefully gain back some time. There was more climbing. I was feeling pretty good. I saw the woman in the Velocio kit from the group I lost earlier (she ended up second in W 31-40 category). Climb and keep climbing. I kept her in sight. The dust and hard climbing was taking its toll and my water was running low. Another descent and back to pavement.
The next thing I knew, coming up behind me was an Herbalife guy and two Squid women. Let me tell you. They were GOING. I jumped to get in. The Herbalife guy pulled. So. Freaking. Fast. At this point I think we were around mile 45 or so. I hung on to the Squid train for dear life, shoving some kind of bar into my face and taking the tiniest sip of water, trying to conserve what I had left. I could feel it. I was cracking.
As we started the next dirt climbing section they were going so hard. I couldn't hang and fell off the back just trying to climb at my own pace. This turned out to be the never-ending climb. Out of water, I was coming completely unglued. I climbed and climbed, no idea when it would end or when the next aid station was. I have never felt this unhinged on my bicycle before. My mouth was dry and coated with dust. I couldn't eat. I thought I might just sit down on the side of the trail and wait for someone to come fish me out. At about mile 50, I knew it was bad when a guy came up next to me and said, "Do you need help?" Oh god. I just got a giant drink of water from him and asked when the next stop was--2-3 miles.
2-3 miles turned to 4. I wasn't sure I could keep the pedals turning. Finally a descent. Technical, rocky, and long. And then like seeing an oasis in the desert -- there was the aid station. I stopped, drank water, ate some handfuls of junk. Watermelon. Peanut butter sandwich. Filled my bottles and got back on my bike.
Here, there was a long pavement section. I was feeling so much better I could have cried. Then my bike shifting got cranky. It's probably just gunked up with dirt and chain lube, I thought. I'll squirt some water on my derailleur. I turned around, still pedaling, to rinse off my derailleur and when I looked forward again I was sailing over my handlebars landing in a thorny bush. I scrambled to get myself and my bike out before anyone came up the road to see me. On my bike again, a little bloody, but maybe I needed the jolt!
I hooked onto another group of guys and whatever was making my shifting stick, unstuck. And we pressed on. The pavement was such a relief. At the last aid station. I topped my water off, grabbed some bites of food and saw Sammi Runnels (Squid) take off up the road. Not wanting her to get away I followed and joined her small group. A few minutes later we learned that we were totally off course. We turned around, back to the aid station and onto the trail. This last section was uneventful - flat and fast dirt/gravel, a creek crossing, a final climb and fun descent. I felt a renewed snap in my legs. When I finally crossed the finish line at Lake Davis the feeling of elation, relief, and success was unparalleled.
Beer. Food. Wash face in lake.
I rode back to my camp spot (+bonus getting lost miles). Tim took one look at me, covered from head to toe in dirt, and handed me a beer. Life was good. The hospitality and companionship of this stranger was touching. In the morning there was a note:
"You are always welcome here. May Plumas County grow feathers in your soul."
-My practical takeaway:
Despite my water mistakes I'm happy with how I performed. Next year I know I can be competitive. I will be ready for the shit to hit the fan on the first climb, I will properly hydrate, and have a year more technical experience under my belt. This is my type of race. Grit your teeth and be the last one standing.
- There is something cleansing about experiencing such suffering and coming out the other side. These are the best races. When you come face to face with yourself and test your own resilience. "It's in these moments of great suffering when something inside [...] seems to ask: How bad do you want it?" For me in this moment, in this race, the question was how bad do I want to face my pain and dig deep just to finish. And I finished. I found a new level of suffering. I pushed myself past my limit. It's a glimpse at your true self. And your true self has no limits.
- Show up. I signed up for this event by myself, made plans by myself, and had never done this type of race before. Those things are scary. But something in me wanted to do it so I did it. Great things happen when you show up for your life. So, show up in spite of your fears. I've never regretted it.
A weekend in nature, new friends, caring people, and the cleansing power of pain. Maybe I'm still riding the high of a great weekend, but life feels much less gray today.