Race Report

True Grit Epic 2019

By Coach Justin
3/9/2019 St. George, UT

Race Prep

Trends start around a frequency of three so I’m not going to get too balled up in my emotions about how race prep began for this race.  Last year’s capstone, La Ruta de Los Conquistadores, had me running around in the weeks leading up to race day ensuring that I had a bike fit to my needs.  Custom bike manufacturing, tweaking of the fit, test riding, and feeling comfortable on said steed all took longer than planned.  Ultimately the race came off great and the bike was perfect.  I hoped the red-flag-prep was behind me.  And yet…. I ran around getting a squared away rig for True Grit.  Like Captain Phillips for the better part of his story, my XL Orbea Oiz remains afloat at sea.  Most assuredly scared, worried, and lonely.  Floating adrift all 120mm of travel, ornately decorated carbon, and restless trigger shifters.  While I’d prefer to leave my flock and find this lost soul, I have a bike race.  So, in what’s become familiar, I, along with the compassionate studs at Base Camp Cyclery, made the necessary adjustments to a L Orbea Oiz.  With trail conditions in the Front Range somewhere between unadvisable and sub-Arctic, my first test ride was on bike paths and city streets.  Attempting to test the Oiz’s suspension travel limits I sent a staircase at Denver Performing Arts Center.  PSSSHHHHHH! Tire blowout.  Another five-alarm-fire visit to Base Camp and I was off to Pueblo Reservoir, with fresh rubber, to try my luck on dirt trails.  Fortunately the Orbea impressed me.  Insanely stiff yet nimble, fast under pedal, and the handlebar-mounted suspension lockout made transitions easy and immediate.  22 miles down and feels race ready.  

En Route to St George, UT: 

Did I mention sub-Arctic weather?  What I meant was: Mother Nature/God/Dark Energy, whichever your deity, unleashed the fury of Ullr and crashed upon the I-70 Corridor a series of damaging, life-threatening, and frustratingly inconvenient avalanches.  Covering roads, shutting down power, and forcing 1,000’s of upper-middle-class yuppies to watch not 1, but 2, and even sometimes, ugh I don’t want to say it, 3, yes 3!, movies in their Bluetooth connected, WIFI-enabled chariots while traveling the mountains.  Oh, the misery.  Oh, the hardship!  And yes, your faithful adventure-junkie servant found myself interrupted by this catastrophe.  I found myself stuck behind an I-70 closure at Copper Mountain only to turn around and learn the Eisenhower Tunnel had closed behind me.  Trapped in Winter Wonderland with a mountain bike and a rooftop tent.  Now many would assume the rushed bike prep, the avalanches, and the thwarted travel routes would turn someone around, abandoning the plan.  However, those assumptions, as rooted as they may be, do not apply to an endurance racer.  Our entire sport of choice is marred in detours, what-if’s, and obvious signs.  None of which change our intention: suffering.  Like a good endurance athlete should, I took a 2.5-hour detour through a 2-lane mud road and made it to St George, UT in a cool 12 hours.  That’s 12 hours, 2 hot coffees, and 1 cold brew to be exact.  Comfortably supine in my rooftop tent, on BLM land, on the True Grit racecourse, I succumbed to the dark.

Pre-Riding the Race Course: 

Per the True Grit Racer Bible, I pre-rode the Zen Trail: a 6-ish mile loop of the most technical riding on the entire 100-mile race course.  With fresh legs and a full night’s sleep I attacked the climb with fervor.  Passing several other riders I began to boast that a Coloradan’s definition of technical and a Utah resident’s definition vary by several degrees.  And then, while my ego basted in the desert sun, my ass found itself hurriedly scampering to maintain footing while I flew head-over-handlebars.  Okay, maybe this is technical, but it is damn fun to be railing a bike again!  Nearing the end of the Zen Trail I came upon a group of riders from Big Bear Bikes and chatted up our racecourse recon.  Happy to meet new friends, enemies tomorrow of course, I checked my GPS computer data and saw….a crack.  Dammit.  Bike computer down!  Signs.  Panic washed over me as I envisioned a day without concrete data to pour over, timed segments upon which I can judge myself against others, and proof that I am better than someone, anyone!  Ahhhh!  No data!! Must I ride this bike for pure pleasure only?  Preposterous!  So, in good endurance racer fashion, I simply went to the race-sponsor bike shop and used the company card to buy a new one.  Easy.  Racer.  Boom. 

The Race: 

For those oblivious to the bike racing world: yes.  I know racing 100 miles on mountain bikes is crazy.  But you’ve got to try it.  It’ll change what you think is possible. 

For those who know bike racing: yes.  I know a 100-mile race on March 9th is crazy.  But you’ve got to try it.  It’ll change what you think is possible.  

There were dozens of other crazies at the starting line at 6:40AM.  Skinny, cold, and over-caffeinated we shook the 35 degrees away and rubbed elbows for the 7AM start.  In this moment I understood the mountain in front of me.  See, my intentions were not to simply “try my best”.  I wanted a top finish.  Top-5 to be exact.  With a Top-5 Finish secured I’d be on my way to competing for the NUE Series Endurance Champion title.  I thought that a March race would give me the advantage, you know, being that I’m a gym-owning, fitness-nut who stays “race ready”.  I never stopped to ask: “What type of people sign up for such an early season race?”  Had I been prudent I’d have surmised that my fellow competitors would be primarily professional, and former professional, bike racers from warm climates (see: Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah) who’ve been on there bikes without interruption.  Signs.

My pre-race habit of a sprint escape from the corral to pee in the nearest, semi-public, bush complete.  Its race time.  Years into the sport the butterflies never disappear.  Will I meet my expectations?  Can I hang with the top of the field?  Will this baby-bike hold up?  

And then it happened.  The moment any race begins marks the disappearance of question marks.  Answers are felt through the handlebars.  Lessons are learned under the haze of dust.  Bike racing tunnels my vision and blots out the peripheral.  Bike racing makes me feel alive.  

I hung with them.  I battled.  I rode the rear hub of the top racers and experienced a 16 mph pace line, on singletrack, weaving in and out of dry creek beds, up shelf rock, and through rutted Jeep roads.  I hung with them.  Until I didn’t.  About an hour into the race I looked down at my bike.  I even slapped the side of the frame.  Something was wrong.  The racers in front of me seemed to be getting faster as we ascended the 3rd climb of the morning and yet my bike didn’t accelerate with them.  It.  Just.  Didn’t.  Go.  Distraction settled in.  And then it cleared.  I knew the title of the Instagram post I’d share later in the afternoon: “Early Season Ego > Reality”.  I tried in vain to bridge the growing gap.  I fought to keep my gaze ahead and not behind.  To look at who I’d catch and not who was catching me.  And I lived in this purgatory for the better part of the first 40 miles.  I had moments where the bike felt fast and free, moments when I was racing.  I also had moments where I knew I wasn’t pushing full-tilt-boogie.  Heck I even got off the bike to pee.  I abandoned my race-advantage of soiling myself to save the precious seconds.  Zen Trail came and went.  I cleaned the technical portion unscathed and celebrated seeing the backside of the course.  I careened down Bearclaw Poppy Trail sailing the Oiz through the air with tail whip flair over the BMX-style downhill course.  Whooping and hollering.  Racing bikes!  Catching back up!  Then I settled in for the long slog though a false-flat stretch.  When racing a key mental trick is reminding yourself that all racers are experiencing the same sensation.  If a part of the course is challenging you, its challenging them.  That kept me pedaling.  Never stop the pedal.  

Nearing the end of Lap 1 I was passed by a too-positive racer from Aspen, CO.  

“How’s it going?”  He asked.  

“Oh man, I’m not sure how I’m going to do this second lap,” I grunt.

“Really?  I’m just glad its not hot.  I usually am sweating down here, but with the weather today, I could ride all day,” he joyfully shared.  

(under my breath) “Well aren’t you Mister Won’t You Be My F’ing Neighbor”, I grumbled. 

He passed me only to be passed back by me as we reached a technical ridge.  I sent it.  No ride around.  Plus, its a rental. 

Successfully onto Lap 2 I perked up.  Mental toughness remains one of my strong suits but when alone on long efforts I am challenged as much as the next guy.  Being alone, in the desert, performing below expectations, drains the self-motivation tank.  Thankfully in those moments I have my wife.  Well, not my wife in her physical presence, but the tasty treat she gave me before I left Avalanche Alley.  Chocolate covered espresso beans.  Once referenced as “magic little beans” to my ride buddies.  I gobbled down the entire bag and kept on.  Climb, climb, speedy descent, repeat.  Lacking sufficient mountain bike riding time in the last few months, my arms started to resemble fettuccini cooked beyond the recommended al dente.  Holding the handlebar became a chore I’d rather avoid and each rocky segment advanced me even closer to an arthritic future.  

Have I mentioned how frugal I am?  Oh yeah.  Stingy even.  So when I came though my second lap around Zen Trail and headed out for the backside of the course again I took a hard look into my frugality.  Only a mile or so from my truck, the tent-bed warmed by the sun and kombucha in the cooler, I could’ve called it.  Could’ve if I didn’t spend $200 on my race entry.  Frugal.  I could’ve if I wasn’t wearing a jersey that read: “No Ride Around”.  I could’ve if I didn’t hold in my heart an entire fitness community fueled by our joined passion for putting in the effort.  I couldn’t have.  I would never quit.     

Somewhere in the middle of the Stucki Springs Trail climb I quit thinking.  I pedaled.  I looked at the vista.  I relished the opportunity.  I didn’t race necessarily but I did begin living again.  My legs churned steadily beneath me and the miles started ticking away.  And then I saw him.  Mr. Positivity from Aspen, CO.  He probably thought me a distant memory but here I am.  I started hunting again.  His helmet dipped behind a hill only to reappear again on the next rise.  I gained on him.  He looked to be fighting his pedals.  He’s hurting and I’m feeling strong again.  “You’re mine sunshine.”  Huh?  I didn’t remember him wearing a hydration backpack on the first lap.  That’s odd.  We of the Spandex-Clad Coven shun hydration packs.  In the next minute I learned that Aspen-boy wasn’t my prey.  My prey was a middle-age guy enjoying the second half of the 50-mile course.  He’s out for a great day on the bike and I’m back here in my psycho-self-talk trying to eat him up.  While passing Jerry didn’t get me closer to a podium finish it did feel damn good.  I passed more of these 50-milers.  Each Pac-Man chomp brought life to my legs.  They cheered me on.  They praised my 100-mile efforts.  The community in the bike world continues to amaze me and I used their congratulatory huzzahs as race fuel.  Passing by aid stations, slowing only to grab handfuls of pickles and pretzels, I turned on the final chunk of the race.  Smiling again.  Racing again.  With a cleared vision and inspired effort I caught the real Aspen-happy-boy and hammered on past him.  He didn’t seem so chipper this time through and I made sure to pass him with an ease that was sure to dig him a little deeper into the pain cave.  Rounding the final turn I saw my camping spot from Thursday evening and knew that glorious sign was just ahead.  “True Grit Epic 1.5 Miles to Finish”.  Hammer time.  

Santa Clara, UT resembles the cinematic “Pleasantville”.  Houses well kept.  Yards maintained.  Friendly faces at each corner.  On any other day the site of my pursed lips, furrowed brow, and manic pedaling would cause parents to pull their children close, but today it brought out cheers.  “You’re almost there!”  “Great job!”  

The announcer called my named as I crossed the line.  They acknowledged Base Camp Cyclery and e3 Fitness.  I smiled.  16th across the line.  Maybe I didn’t hit a Top-5 finish.  Maybe I’m a ways off from the peak form I’ll need to hit my goals this year.  Not maybe, definitely.  But I’m here.  Standing at the finish of my first 100-miler this year and I’m cramp-free, feeling light, and know where I can improve.  I’m a bike racer and I’ve got grit. 

2019 True Grit Epic 100 / 8 hours 41 minutes / 16th Place Men’s Open