All the years I have raced the Gravel Grovel have been rough. I have never finished without feeling totally defeated. The course has crushed my legs and my soul year after year. I have told myself repeatedly, “Next year will be different. I will train harder and be better prepared.” But in September, after jumping into Bloomingcross, my first cyclocross race, my goals shifted. I had wanted to try a cross race for years but never did. I thought I would do one and get a feel for it, experience it, and be done. But I fell kind of hard for it. I haven’t done much short, fast racing and the feeling and effort was all new to me. After finishing that first cross race, I told Giesla I wanted to do more. I pretty much dropped any time goals I had for myself for the Harvest 50 and the Gravel Grovel and started to focus more on short, intense efforts. Without the usual long training rides, I let go of all expectations for myself at the Gravel Grovel. I even contemplated not doing the it at all. But it has always been one of my favorite races despite the horrible conditions and performances I’ve had in the past. So I signed up.
Race day came quickly, and I was nervous. I had less anxiety about the day than in past years despite feeling really unfit for a long race. But I was also fairly relaxed, in a weird way, because I didn’t feel any pressure to perform. I knew I was just going out for a long day on the bike, which is always enjoyable. I got up early the morning of the race, and instead of nervously quadruple-checking all of my race gear, bottles, nutrition, and tire pressure, I did things around the house. We also host my wife’s family for Thanksgiving on the Saturday after the actual holiday – which also always lands on the Gravel Grovel day. I was out in the dark of the morning taking recycling away and cleaning up the garage a bit. I ate my normal breakfast of vegan cookies, soy milk, and a banana and then did a bunch of dishes from all the cooking the night before. I emptied the dishwasher, played with Hugo, and then left the house. I felt oddly relaxed.
The start of the race was cold, as it always is, down in that valley where the Midwest Trail Ride Horseman’s Camp is located. But it was supposed to warm up and actually be sunny. The conditions for this year’s race were excellent. It’s usually cold, wet, sloppy, maybe raining, and windy. This year was almost perfect. I didn’t push the pace at all. I rode very comfortably for the first 5 miles – I pulled Bob along for a while on the paved section before hitting the first gravel road. I didn’t push myself on the first climb either. I was riding my own pace and not getting caught up with anyone passing me. It was truly a beautiful day to be out on a bike. I was really enjoying it. About 10 miles in, as Combs Road and the first trail section appear, I thought I felt better than usual. It seemed like I remember entering Combs thinking ‘I need to slow down’ most years. Either way, I wanted to pick smart lines and not let my heart rate get out of control on the trail section; I also wanted to ride the long, twisty climb and not have to walk. There are always hecklers at that point, and last year I remember walking it and at the top, someone yelled, “You’re in first place.. in the hiking division!” Haha, I could hear the hecklers already. I was in a good position at the start of the climb and didn’t have to get around anyone, so I easily picked my way up it. Being dry makes it a lot easier too.
The rest of Combs was fast and dry. I got back out on the gravel and rode along with Brian for a while. At the closed bridge, I used my recent cyclocross dismount and remounting practice and saved myself almost 1 second! Still feeling strong, I pushed the next service road a little harder and settled into a comfortable climbing pace for the next uphill. I met up with Eric L. at this point and passed him on the downhill. I was flying downhill and dismounted to get over a down tree, not seeing that there was a giant branch sticking straight at me, and I almost impaled myself on it. I got a nice cut but luckily didn’t tear my jersey. I kept hitting rim on the rock and roots on this trail and had a sinking feeling that I had burped some air out of my front tire. On every dismount to get over a downed tree, I grabbed both tires, and they felt fine. But once I would hit another root, PANG, I would hit rim. I was almost sure I was going to have a flat soon. Once out on gravel again, I checked both tires. Both were good. What the hell?
Now just to get to Nebo and get past it. That’s one of the longer, more challenging trail sections. I wanted to ride efficiently, keep my heart rate in check, and get out of that section without any flat tires or crashes. I passed a lot of guys on the climbs. I was feeling good, and I could tell my bike handling skills are better than ever (probably because of cross). The hecklers made their way from the Combs hill to the top of one of the climbs on Nebo.. I got through that section cleanly too, and at the top, I got a double Twizzlers handup! Thanks, whoever you were! That was kind of a reminder that I do need to be taking in some calories but also a reminder of the sh*t candy that Twizzlers are! Gross!! I ate them anyway. More hitting rim on rocks and roots, more worrying about my tires. I was also running really low pressure (I think 26psi in the rear and 23psi in the front). I was starting to think my pressure choice was poor.
Still, I made it out of Nebo without mishap and my tires were good to go. I rolled along, pushing a bit more and feeling good. I traded places with a few guys before settling into a nice pace with a mountain biker. We chatted a bit. It was hit first year doing the Gravel Grovel, so I gave him some tips for the upcoming sections. Once we hit Mt. Baldy, I left him behind and starting passing a lot of people. I was keeping my heart rate as low as possible and just grinding up the climb. I was surprised again at how good I felt. I was sweating but not so much that I was getting cold. I wasn’t hungry but felt strong. I felt better than any other year at this point. It was odd. I hit the downhill fast and got through the next gravel section relatively quickly. On the next long climb, I settled into my easiest gear and churned slowly, controlling my heart rate as best I could. I saw a Hashtag Bikes jersey ahead at the top of the climb and planned to ask that person if Kyle was at the race. Once I bridged up to him, it was Kyle!! We rode together for a while, talking about how the race was going so far. We were both feeling pretty okay for being just over halfway through. He was stronger than me on the flat sections and would pull ahead; I would reel him in a bit on the hills. It went like this for a while until I caught him on the Polk Patch climb. After that, we rode together and chatted for maybe 8 miles. Once back onto Deam gravel, I was feeling a little weaker so I slowed down to eat and he took off on the descent. I wasn’t sure I would see him again, but then I caught up just before the last trail section. I was confident in my tires by this point but wanted to get through this last section, which I know is rooty, without hitting rim too many times. Still feeling pretty strong, I passed several more racers on the trail. It seemed to go by quickly, and before I knew it, I was back out on Tower Ridge Road.
With about 12 miles left, all of it on gravel roads that I know well, it was time to see what I had left. I cruised the next couple of miles and let my legs stretch out a bit on the last of the long climbs. Once that was behind me, I started pushing the pace. I passed a few guys, took a right on Jackson Road, and noticed a small group had formed behind me. After a few minutes, one of the guys paced up next to me and took over. I was excited to get in a pack at this point and hopefully be able to work together to the end. In past years, this last section of 10 miles has always been a struggle for me. But this year, I felt strong and had some legs left. Then I noticed Kyle in the group too! We motored along for several miles, working together, until we had whittled down to just three of us. We continued on and once we hit McPike Branch, we started pushing each other. With 5 miles left, it was time to see who had legs left. Short answer: we all did. The three of us paced each other hard over the next few miles and were together when we hit the defunct bridge on Hunters Creek Road. We all dismounted to get over the barriers, and unfortunately Kyle’s chain came off in the process. He had to stop to get it back on, so me and the other guy ran across the bridge, hopped the other barrier, and pushed through the single track out to the paved road to the finish. My legs were toast, and I knew I wouldn’t have much left to sprint it out. Plus I didn’t want to race through the creek where the finish line was at. But the other guy missed the turn down into the creek – I finished in 4 hours 4 minutes, good enough for 46th place. I was ecstatic with this finish! My previous best time was in 2016 and was 4:56 – so this was a major improvement for me. I was shocked by how good I felt, especially considering I had not done many long rides at all. I did do a lot of shorter, high intensity rides training for cyclocross. I will keep this in mind for the years to come!