This was my second year racing the 24-Hour National Championships at Palmer Park in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Last year I had one of the best races of my life and pedaled my way to the Stars and Stripes jersey. In complete contrast, this year was one of the worst races of my life. Not only did I finish in 8th place but I got really, really sick from the altitude.
The calm before the storm. Pre-riding the course the day before...
I had absolutely no clue what was in store for me at the start of the race. In fact I was very optimistic. This was my first time racing the Spearfish for a race longer then eight hours and let me tell you, the Spearfish is made for 24-hour racing. I was also excited that I could ride a lot more technical parts of the course during the pre-ride then I could last year. I was ready to go...or so I thought!
My pit crew and I arrived at the race venue about two hours early. There was plenty of time to get all of my gear ready and organize my nutrition. There was even a little extra time to sit and get really nervous. Time flew by and soon I was lining up with a bunch of other racers. After listening to the Star Spangled Banner we took off with a Lemans start and ran to our bikes. Because the race was at an elevation of 7,000' my game plan was to pace myself. A few women took off in front of me but I wasn't worried at all. I knew that I had 24 hours to catch them.
After a few laps I was riding comfortably in 3rd place but I did not feel like my normal self. I felt really, really dizzy. 'It's the altitude,' I kept trying to reassure myself. 'Just keep pedaling!' I kept pedaling and pedaling and pedaling and pedaling but started to feel worse and worse. The more I climbed the weaker I felt. My head started hurting really bad too, which was weird, and I started to have mental battles with myself. One inner voice started worrying that something was wrong, while another inner voice kept saying, 'Shut up and drink!' At this point something else happened that has never happened before in my life. I took a corner too sharp and had to put a foot down. Ok, that part has happened before...but what happened next was completely new. Both of my legs completely cramped up and I was stuck - I could NOT move for the life of me. Ironically enough, the next racer who came around the corner was decked out in a Hammer Nutrition kit. He mentioned that I should move from the middle of the trail and I had to bite my tongue. It's not like I was standing there on purpose. Trust me, I wanted to get moving but my legs were locked. I knew that it was going to be a tough race if I was already cramping. He told me to stop by the Hammer tent for some Endurolytes and I watched him pedal off. "But how am I going to get there?" I wanted to shout after him!!! "I can't move my legs!"
After a few minutes my muscles relaxed and I was able to start pedaling again. I was so relieved and stayed uber-focused on drinking out of my Hydrapak every couple of minutes. I also tried to keep my inner worries quiet by focusing on the scenery. Palmer Park is probably the most technical 24-hour course that I've ever raced on but it's also one of the most beautiful. Each climb was rewarded by a view of the mountains and during the day there were open parts of the course where I could see the city hustling and bustling below. I felt kind of sneaky, like I could spy on the city below but no one knew that I was there.
Normally I'm a better climber than descender but in this race it was the opposite. Since my legs wanted to cramp anytime I started to climb I focused on making up as much time as possible on the descents. It was pretty fun and I was able to ride some pretty technical areas that normally would have scared me. I am 100% sure that my Spearfish played a huge part in my newfound technical abilities.
A few laps into the race I noticed a man standing with his bike on the side of the trail. He was facing into the woods, and I thought that maybe he was cramping too. I asked if he was okay and he said "Yes!" On the next lap I noticed that he was sitting with his heads in his hands with his bike leaning next to him. 'What's up with this guy?' I wondered as I pedaled by. And by the way, I was so whacked out I didn't even ask if he was okay this time around. The lap after that I made a mental note to watch out for him and sure enough, he was still sitting with his head in his hands. I took a closer look and realized that he was a mannequin!!! Proof of how whacked out I was because to this day I am positive he answered me the first time, when I asked if he was okay!
Early on in the race...
As darkness fell I started to get more sick. Let's just say that my body started going through a massive detox. To add insult to injury the cold air and altitude induced my asthma. Within ten hours I had become a FREAKING MESS! Racing a 24-hour event is always hard, but this time it was a hundred times harder than it should have been. Since I couldn't keep any food or water in my body I started to feel really weak. The technical climbs became too hard to pedal up and I started tripping over my feet just walking them. I imagined a lot of different scenarios the week leading up to the race, but never, ever did I imagine that I would be puking and going to the bathroom repeatedly in the woods. I was very relieved when I made it back to the transition area and wondered how long I had been gone. A few cowbells were ringing half-heartedly but the vibe had definitely changed to sleepy-time.
Normally I have a weak moment in a 24-hour race where I want to sit down for a minute but not this time. I pulled up to the tent and wanted to keep going...but Scott took one look at me and pulled me out of the race instantly.
I will still in third place at the time.
It took a good half hour before reality set in. At first I thought that I was going to have a miracle recovery and hop back on my bike and continue on. It wasn't until my crew started packing up the pit area that the tears started flowing. Not only was I giving up a podium spot during the National Championships but I was going to miss the daybreak lap...one of my all-time favorite moments to be riding. Plus I felt like I was letting everyone else down. I don't think I will ever be able to describe how disappointed I was.
The rest of the night was probably one of the worst nights that I've had during a race. On the drive home my pit crew had to pull over in some random subdivision so that I could stick my head out the window. It felt very surreal because at 4AM in the morning, everything was completely silent. The sounds of me puking echoed through the empty streets and I felt like I was going to wake up the entire neighborhood. Even in my pathetic state I was shocked that no one else in the car joined me. If I were in their situation, I would have started 'sympathy gagging.'
When I got home I realized just how sick I was. My face was whiter then I had ever seen it. Even my lips were white. In fact, it didn't look like I had lips. I took a shower and felt like I was standing on a raft in the middle of an ocean. The walls were swaying back and forth so much that I had to hang on to the walls. After I finally made it out of the shower I sat with my head hanging in the toilet bowl for another hour. My best friend Juli came into the bathroom and hung out with me. Since I was too sick to cry, she cried for me. I think that the two of us made a very pathetic scene. Finally everyone went to bed and I spent the rest of the night on the bathroom floor. The floor was completely flat but I felt like I was laying backwards on a slide. Since my head felt like it was going to explode I couldn't sleep. I basically passed the time "Googling" my symptoms, convinced that I was going to die.
And that's how the 24-Hour National Championships ended for me...on the bathroom floor. All guts, no glory.
I have to admit that I've thrown myself a few pity parties since the race. Tears started flowing the moment I woke up and again when my mom called me. I also had a few 'why me?' moments. But it didn't take long for perspective to set in. I know that I'm EXTREMELY LUCKY if all I have to worry about is a bad race. Up until Nationals I had the best race season of my life and this just makes me appreciate the good races that much more.
And I realized something else: Bad races don't have to define a trip, sometimes they are just part of the adventure. I will forever remember getting sick during the race, but I will equally remember the following days. My bad memories of puking and feeling defeated are definitely outnumbered by the awesome memories of drinking coffee in the sun with my pit crew, walking around and exploring downtown Colorado Springs, meeting friends for dinner and getting lost in a park with Scott and watching him almost crash on a cactus. For as many tears that fell, there was twice as much laughter.
I want to send a huge thanks out to my sponsors, friends and family for being so supportive this summer. I've gotten so many kind and encouraging messages after Nationals and I really appreciate all of them. I also want to thank my pit crew. The way they reacted when I got sick confirmed what I already knew. I am really lucky to be surrounded by such awesome people.
I had a great summer full of racing and riding adventures but now it's time to enjoy fall riding in Michigan. It's definitely my favorite time to ride and is filled with my favorite things - cooler temps, fall colors, fat bikes, candy corn, and cider. Most of all I will enjoy the abundance of oxygen, something I will never take for granted again!