18 Hours of Fruita — More than a bike race
Last November I made a decision to get back on my bike, bought a new snow bike (the Why Cycles Big Iron, which I named “Big Hope”) and this winter I got back out on the bike, and then in the spring I learned that the same snow bike is really fun on the dirt as well. So I have kept riding the “fattie” and loving it.
And in March I got the email that they were accepting registrations for 18 Hours of Fruita, this annual mountain bike race in one of my favorite places, so — what the heck — I signed up for the women’s solo division because Carpe diem ‘n ‘at and it’d be a chance to really see how far I could ride.
18 hours. 18 hours on a mountain bike. 18 hours of a fat tire mountain bike. Start at midnight on a Friday and then ride as many 7-mile loops as you can in 18 hours. In Fruita. HECK YEAH. The last time I did anything like this on a mountain bike was a 12-hour mountain bike race in Castle Rock in 2018, and The Silver State 508 on the road bike in 2017. So it’s been a minute, or a few years. And the longest I’ve spent on the bike since November was 5 hours in Moab on April 17. I had intended a few more high mileage weekends before this race, but this was the best I could do, fitting it in with life and work, and so my goal, always was to use this race as a chance to train and lay down some mitochondria for an even bigger event coming this summer (more on that coming soon — not ready to go public with this one quite yet).
Dude — mitochrondria? You wrote this in your race report? My training this year has really been focused on this concept of Zone 2 training and training for what I plan to ride, race and do. It started with listening to Peter Attia’s interview of Inigo San Milan talking about Zone 2 training to build mitochondria in slow twitch muscle fibers, improving free fatty acid oxidation and building a base of fitness. This totally changed my mindset in my training and health, and I decided to work on endurance workouts to see if building this base would build my base for what I really want to accomplish — improved overall and metabolic health and fitness for long distance epic rides. It’s what I’ve heard Vinnie Tortorich say in his podcasts where he talks about Zone 2 for endurance training. It’s what I’ve seen cycling friends of mine do back in the day. I didn’t always do this because of time — it’s faster to get in a 20-minute HIIT workout than spend 60–90 minutes on the bike when you’re rounding, writing and working. Anyway, this year is an experiment with more focused training, with a purpose, and getting back to ultra events. I’ll probably write more about mitochondria in a future post. Because I love obsessing and geeking out on this topic. But back to this race.
Okay so this 18 hour race was going to be epic, and mentally I was ready for it. Let’s see what I can do. Just before the race I emailed my friend, Sarah, who is hiking the Appalachian Trail (you really need to follow her blog), and she wrote back to me and laid down some trail Zen from her over 400 miles on the AT. She shared the thoughts of approaching this race with a mindset of learning: learning something from every lap of the course. And when you’re out there calling to mind people and memories, and sending them positive energy. And she reminded me that “we can do hard things.”
So on Friday I rounded in the hospital, finished all my notes, packed for the race, and headed to Fruita, with a CLUTCH stop and purchase of a back up light for my bike at Big Ring Cycles in Golden. I drove out there, checked in around 6:30 PM, pitched my tent and sleeping bag, got my bike ready, and quickly changed so I could get in one lap before sunset and see the course before our midnight start. At the end of the lap I realized this would be a ton of fun, but also realized I’d left my bug spray at home and might just get eaten alive. Sarah says that on the AT, the trail will provide. Well, in mountain biking, with the amazing community, I caught that vibe too. As I finished the warmup loop I stopped where people were taking photos and chatted with another racer, Rebecca from Carbondale. We talked about the race and how great it was to be back out here with awesome people riding our bikes again. She also offered any help I’d need from her husband who is a mechanic, and when I asked if I could borrow some bug spray, loaned me their second bottle of Skin So Soft. Clutch! I would survive. I then settled in the sleeping bag and slept for about an hour before getting up at 11:15 PM for the midnight start.
We laid our bikes down on the beach and started about 100 yards away. It was a Lemond start where the whistle blows and you run to pick up your bike and then get on and go. It’s one way to start a mountain bike race and have it get spaced out as the trails are narrow (called “singletrack,” which means more or less room for one bike on the trail) at the beginning. Many people were racing as solo, 2-person, 4-person, and 8-person teams, so I didn’t sprint as those folks racing relay would be super fast, and I was going to slow-and-steady this race, zone 2. I got on my bike, flicked on my light, beeped on my Garmin and was off.
As we started off I soon realized that my light situation left a bit to be desired. In the beginning with people behind me I was bathed in their lights and felt great on the trails. But as the faster people passed by and when I hit turns and couldn’t see well around them, it was tough and my heart rate was 10 beats higher for the effort just because of the stress of riding at night. I had a new light on my bike from Big Ring first, which could recharge with my USB battery pack, and lasted 3 laps. I’d put a helmet headlamp on (which wouldn’t last that long) as a backup so that whenever this light died I’d have something in reserve and not be blind in the dark. I tried to go out with the medium setting to save the headlight, which meant it was dimmer. But it didn’t work so I clicked it to bright. After my 2nd lap the battery was running down so I plugged it into the USB pack and swapped out to old lights from Pittsburgh for which I had 2 battery packs. They each lasted one lap. I used the headlamp a lot more. Yikes. Tense. The 5th lap I was back on the fully charged light from Big Ring. It was great. I felt a little jealous when I saw people come up behind me and felt as if there was a 747 landing behind me — their light game was clutch with a headlight on the bars and helmet. So my first lesson learned in this event was lights are so key. (And night riding is fun, when you’re not all tense about running out of battery and being left out in the dark.)
The second lesson I learned was the power of sleep. At about 5:30 AM I started getting sleepy on the bike. Like literally I-need-to-sleep-now type of sleepy. So I remembered past solo ultra events (The 508, Florida RAAM challenge), where if you gotta sleep, you just gotta sleep. So I told myself, get my mini camp, eat, and then lay down for a power nap. You might worry that you’d get up and be locked up, muscle-wise, but I had no other option really, and to be honest, because I was going Zone 2 and not running a high lactate level with my exertion, I figured I’d be better with rest. So 30-min of sleep, another Justin’s Nut Butter (as I’m not fully fat-adapted, another topic for another blog) this was my sugar source for the race, other nutrition included Swiss cheese and turkey roll ups and pickle juice), water and Ultra Salt tablets, and I was off again and my quads and arms felt AMAZING. A couple more times in the race, once around noon and then later around 3 PM when I was getting really really slow on the course and losing mental focus, I decided to pull a power nap again. The second episode on the lap before my break I thought, let me lay down on the cool concrete and let it cool my arms and legs. I did this. I ate lunch and then laid down on the concrete in the shade, and then actually felt cold, so got into my tent, another power nap (no alarm needed) for a half REM cycle (45 minutes-ish) and then again, a rebirth on the bike. The last power nap rest came after I crossed my 100-mile goal. I ate again (Chocolate Hazelnut Butter from Justin’s — manna from Heaven in a little 2 TBSP packet, I swear), and slept again. Then I got up around 4 PM, and got on the bike for one more lap. Because this wasn’t a 100-mile race, it was an 18-hour race and there was still time left. And because “we can do hard things.” Lesson 2: The Power of Sleep. You know what, in years past, I might have stopped racing, thinking my legs were done, that I was in no shape to do this race, but I learned here that giving my body a little love and a little bit of what it needs helped my keep going and surpass my goal.
The third lesson I learned was that the mental game is everything, and I have my AT guru Sarah to thank for the reminder before the ride. Before I raced I knew I had to get enough work done that I could shut it down in my brain, so I had worked hard to not leave anything important undone (notes done, labs reviewed, nothing that couldn’t wait until Monday). I also have been doing my daily readings from the Stoics (Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic) reminding me that my energy needs to go toward things I can control (like pedaling my bike in the present moment), and not existential crises elsewhere. So mentally I really did my best to get work done, make sure I had coverage for work questions back in Denver, and then ride in the present moment. And it worked. In races in the past — Castle Rock 2019 — I remember riding loops on the 12-hour course and not being able to get my mind off work and so I stopped the race, went home, and worked. Literally. So this year, approaching this race with a mind of curiosity and a “let’s see how far I can go and what I can learn” attitude, well it worked. What surprised me is that each lap I’d have a soundtrack in my head. It automatically switched to another song with the change in lap. Not with a radio or earbuds — just a song I played to myself in my brain. Most of the times they were songs from past motivational playlists I’d made for ultra races. I didn’t will them to happen, they just happened. “Unstoppable,” by Sia. “Love Song,” by Sarah Bareilles (I don’t know why this tune), Eddie Vedder’s “Setting Forth” from the Into the Wild soundtrack, “Spectrum” by Florence and the Machine, and more. Each lap there was at least one key song, but now they’ve left my head. Most of the active thoughts were devoted to keeping going on the bike, to be honest. That’s part of the bliss with mountain biking and trails — you have to concentrate just enough to stay upright so you can’t really spend time ruminating or trying to solve the world’s problems. I also had my own mantra throughout the night into the day — “I’m laying down mitochondria.” Seriously nerdy, but it worked and it reminded me that this race was a part of a bigger training plan, training for adventure. But I did call to mind people during my ride. I recalled my dear friend, Ornah, who would have loved the idea of doing this ride as she embodied “Carpe diem” every day. I thought to myself “I get to ride my bike” and smiled because that is her spirit. I thought of little Owen, a child who lives with PH in New Zealand, and our other dear friends in New Zealand, for whom I wear a Maori green stone necklace and wore it during the race, and I thought of my family and closest friends with whom I had texted about doing this crazy race, and at one point I envisioned them on the sides of the trail, rooting for me as I kept going. And on the last lap, when I got back on my bike despite sore body, I called Sarah to mind, and one of the mantras I’ve pulled from her blog and her email to me, “we can do hard things.” Thank you, “Serendipity.”
The last lesson I learned was how great it felt to be among rad people riding bikes again. The last race I did was in November 2019 with Hap in New Zealand, and then everything shut down with COVID. It’s one of those things I didn’t realize how much I missed until I experienced it again. Everyone was so kind on the course (and as a solo rider on a fat bike getting passed by fast people, those kind words of encouragement as they pass by really pumped me up). Kindness is everything, people. It really is. I enjoyed my post-race beer and cheering for the final race finishers on the last climb before the finish line. That was a festive atmosphere. Everyone feeling the endorphins, and just enjoying the vibe of the race.
So that’s it. That’s 18 Hours in Fruita. From mitochondria to night riding, sleeping, the mental game, and the people and the vibe — it was amazing. I’ll be back next year for sure.
A sincere thank you to the race organizers, fellow racers, my family and friends who encouraged me, Big Ring Cycles for the light that saved my race, and of course Elevation Wheel Company and Why Cycles for the most incredible fat bike ever.