Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn: True Grit in Gravel Racing

I was in deep, so deep I didn’t even see the landscape bouncing by. Not deep in sand or washboard. Sure, there were plenty of patches to jar your brains out. No: I was in deep inside a dark place. A dark place where your inner critic tells you how much you suck, how you’ll never be good enough, and how you won’t make it. That little hateful voice gives you every reason to quit while obsessing about the detail of things you could have done differently.

Mental Anguish

Cycling is around 70% mental. I say this because it’s been proven that you can psych yourself out of pain. Physical discomfort can be overcome to a certain extent. Look at Jens Voigt: “Shut Up Legs!” Mental anguish, however, is a different kind of enemy. One that you will tear you down on the inside faster than you can reach your VO2 Max. This kind of dark place requires true grit and determination.

In any sort of racing, grit is required and training. Or luck – or all three. More grit is required in gravel racing than most, literally. After a day of gravel grinding in the boiling hot sun of Texas in August, I was in pain and the worst was mental anguish.

The Trifecta of Gravel

I’ve said before that winning a gravel event is 1/3 preparation, 1/3 luck, and 1/3 grit. The Trifecta of Gravel Racing is a real thing. In gravel racing, sometimes you are alone. If you don’t stick with a group – you are in for a long solo grind that requires a type of determination few actually have.

Do you have what it takes to be in the saddle for 5+ hours, mostly alone?

Do you have what it takes to push yourself regardless if anyone is around?

Will you still do your best even if you know you won’t win?

True Grit Required

gravel-road-cycling_mtnsGravel racing isn’t for the faint of heart. I hold a deep respect for those who can complete a long brutal endurance event without medical augmentation (ie: ‘doping’). Face it: rolling 1 mile on gravel is like 1.25 on pavement. Longer if that gravel includes deep sand, loose rock, and washboard. What sadistic crazy ‘tard decided that all gravel races had to be at least 100 miles??

Gravel grinding is beautiful and these rides take you to places that you would never see otherwise. It’s a sense of adventure and exploring in a raw, new way. You need to have a little bit of a pioneering spirit and also be a bit of a boy/girl scout. Food, fuel, and support are often miles away and you must be self-supported. All of these things are great fun! Now: throw in squirrely adventure riding at race pace.

Go Hard or Go Home

I knew that pinning the number on for my first 100-mile gravel race was a gamble. In the Trifecta of Gravel: I missed #1, preparation. I had not yet ridden 100 miles on gravel.

Minor detail…

If you are going to skip a step, you’d better get your perspective right before you begin. I set two goals. One: to go farther than I have yet gone on gravel, which was over 70 miles. The second goal was a stretch – to complete the whole 100 miles. Considering the time of year and location (August in Texas) I also knew I was under a time-limit. Once the sun hit its zenith, it became the ‘burning hours’ and my core temperature would be under attack.

The Pain Cave

My inner pain cave started almost immediately as I saw the lead group slip away. The critic piped up and let me know that I should have stuck with them. As people straggled out to find their pace, I wound up alone. I stayed that way for 98% of the ride. My pain cave was brought on by my own inner ego and the little snarky voice that told me how I should quit, I wasn’t going to make it and I was not good enough.

Ego is a tough parasite to kill. Your ego will make you do incredibly stupid things. If I left it up to the ‘ol Ego, I would have tried to keep up with the fast group from the start and be in a different sort of pain cave a lot earlier. Instead, I stuck to my plan, sucked it up and eventually got into my rhythm.

Stick to Your Goal

If you are a smart competitive cyclist you will have races that are essentially there for training purposes. This race was definitely one of those. Starting late in the season to beef up the mileage to get ready the Gravel Gran Fondo of Rebecca’s Private Idaho – I knew I hadn’t yet put in the time on gravel to expect great results yet. I was open to the possibility of completing 100 miles, but I set a reasonable goal of +70 miles as a training milestone.

With this in mind, I knew better than to blow my legs within the first 30 miles. I had to stick to a strong pace, but one that I could keep up for a while. I also was focused on nutrition and hydration. One of my downfalls is not eating often enough because I have chronic hypoglycemia. I’m also a heavy sweater (not the sort you wear). I will go through almost 4 liters in 40 miles on gravel in summer. That about 1 liter/10 miles.

When Things Don’t Go to Plan

sad rider 3About mile 45 everything went pear-shaped. One: I didn’t drink enough right at the start. I was only 1 bottle down at mile 20. Two: I was enjoying the tailwind section so much I forgot to eat enough. It struck in the middle of a climb. I felt like I was pedaling through wet cement and I bonked.

I didn’t panic. It’s not impossible to come back from a bonk but it takes time. Time was against me as the sun climbed higher in the sky. I ate and I drank as I moved…. I suddenly realized I was almost out of water. Then I panicked! I pushed on, trying not to drain my resources, but it was too late. Before I knew it I was out and I hadn’t even reached the 56-mile aid station.

Lost in My Mind

I wasn’t quite out of my mind, but I was definitely lost inside: deep in a mental pain cave which tore me down, mile by mile. I didn’t know if I had missed the aid station or not. I was upset because I had lost time and my core temperature was rising. I berated myself for not drinking more earlier or putting my drop bag in for the 56 mi aid station instead. Miles went by and the only consolation I had was the fact that my legs, which took almost 30 miles to find a rhythm, were ticking over nicely. Even without water and post-bonk, I was finally keeping a good pace.

After what seemed like a century I got to the aid station but I was already in trouble. I was nauseated and dehydrated. Ice cold water down my back helped. After a fill-up, I was off and set my sights on reaching the next aid station. I tried not to think too far ahead. Even though I had established a reasonable goal, the Ego was kicking around in my brain with combat boots on.

Is Winning Easier?

Regardless of what people may think, winning is marginally easier than tackling an event knowing that you might not make it. When you win an event (or podium) – you can ride high on endorphins for a while. When have to pull yourself from the race: it’s incredibly hard both mentally and physically.

bulldog on ice3We are always harder on ourselves than we are on others. Even knowing that I gave it all I could and it just wasn’t my day – I will think hateful things of myself while thinking that another rider who had to pull out did what was brave and right.

If it hadn’t have been for my husband, I may have let Ego win the battle and tried to complete 100 miles. That would have been incredibly stupid. I was cooked to the core and dehydrated. He pulled me at mile 76 and I’m very glad he did. I don’t think I would have been strong enough to pull myself from the race.

It’s funny when you think of it that way. I don’t think I was strong enough to step away from trying to complete the race. It should be the opposite. Only the strong win, right?

The Strong Come Back

Actually, true inner strength (or stubbornness) keeps you coming back. I’m not giving up. I love riding gravel and my legs were pounding out a good pace while the rest of my body fell apart. When you are in deep in endurance riding, you wrestle with a lot of demons. Ultimately: you decide if you will let those demons win or not. I may not be the fastest or the strongest, but I’ll be there anyway. With time and training, all things are possible.

There’s internal fortitude and then there’s physical strength. You can be strong but not have the grit. You can have the grit but not be prepared. You can be prepared but not be strong. You never know, the Trifecta of Gravel is a real thing and if your cards are dealt right: it’ll be your day to shine.

Ride On Friends!


2017 biking with Venny 2
Venny Jane Photography