Sometime around April or May 2016 Michael and I learned about the Pisgah Monster Cross Challenge. Some fellow MTB racers, and now friends, talked about this event with so much enthusiasm that we got curious about what was so special about it. An endurance race consisting of 70 miles of mixed road and off-road terrain with 11,000’ of climbing, winding through Pisgah National Forest’s gravel roads and a peak into the magic to be seen from the historic Blue Ridge Parkway, winding through endless vistas of blue green hazy mountains. Who can really say no to that, right?
We have always looked at all the races and events that promoters like Pisgah Productions or Blue Ridge Adventures put together as “races we would put in our bucket list”. Truly, they only organize EPIC events. Regardless of the length of the races, they all appear to be the kind you’d have to train for or otherwise you can easily just die in the middle of the mountains. That is my personal perception, at least. Being from the flatlands of Florida gives me a sense of vulnerability every time I do make it to the mountains. It’s an environment I just absolutely not feel 100% comfortable in. A race in the Pisgah National Forest or its surroundings is just something I’d have to prepare myself a lot in order to be successful. But I was in for the challenge, and following USAC XC Marathon Nationals in early June 2016 I put this in my calendar and started training for it. My daily bike rides once again had a specific purpose and I was excited about it!
Race day came on a gorgeous day that promised to keep the temperatures comfortable throughout the duration of the event. My goal was to finish the race in 6 hours, so the highest temperatures would be toward the end of my race and I was relieved that the forecasted highs would be in the low to mid 80’s. I spent the last few weeks leading to the event training in the typically hot summer days of Florida, so when the locals thought it would be a hot race, I borderline felt like I needed a base layer under my jersey. Pathetic, I know.
Twenty-minute warm up and seventeen-runs-to-the-bathroom later I lined up at the Start of the race in about the 7th row of the mass group. After taking a quick look around me, I could see the few familiar faces ready to shred. I also noticed that 99.9% of the racers were racing with dedicated CX or Gravel bikes, which I expected to see, but I certainly knew I was in some disadvantage with my MTB setup. And guess who I was going to be racing against? Elite Road Racer Nina Laughlin of the Visit Dallas DNA Pro Cycling Team, the amazing Nina Otter of the Liberty Cycles Race Team of Asheville, NC, and Kaysee Armstrong of Liv Cycling. I didn’t quite recognize the other ladies, but I knew the abilities of these awesome athletes as I’ve been following their cycling careers for some time now. I have lined up with Nina Otter twice in the past at the Off Road Assault of Mt. Mitchell, but she was gone from my eyesight within seconds of the race start. Though I knew very much about her, I know I have never been in her radar. However she introduced herself with a big smile on her face and wished me luck after small talk just before taking off.
Pace yourself, pace yourself, pace yourself! I kept telling that to myself from the very beginning. I knew which Power numbers I could hold in every major climb of the race, so I didn’t get caught up in chasing competitors when I saw them ride right past me on the first big climb of the race. First thing that came to my mind was, “Wow, 30 minutes into this and I already got dropped by all these fast racers on their fancy CX bikes…this will be a long race”. So I reminded myself of my goal; regardless of my placing, I wanted to finish in 6 hours. Ultimately I knew that I couldn’t be competitive, and I was truly racing for the Burritos and Beer at the end of the race.
So I kept turning that crank up the steep climbs, settling into a comfortable cadence and power. Legs felt good, Heart Rate looked good, so I was rolling. The forest looked lush and the temperature was PERFECT. I had no concerns in the world. I huffed and puffed on the climbs, focused on smooth pedaling and proper line selection to avoid hitting holes on the ground that would suck all my energy, and then would come the descends, where I would make up a few spots passing both men and women on my MTB. Though I had selected 40c tires, I did have full confidence when descending the loose gravel and aggressively hitting the turns to keep my speed high.
Within the 2nd and 3rd hour of the race, I felt like I was in a good place. I was riding faster/stronger than I thought I would. I was climbing alongside my friend Jim Hoffmeister who is like a Turbo Diesel engine when climbing on steep roads/gravel. We kept passing each other back and forth until he just suddenly came up on me on the Blue Ridge Parkway, allowing me to catch a draft off his wheel which would help me keep a higher speed than I could spin with my low gear selection. I stayed with him for some time, we would pick up riders ahead of us, and we would drop them right behind us. Certainly Jim is a strong cyclist, and I knew that if I could keep up with him, I was in for that 6 hour goal time. But he then said that the pace we were keeping would put me at the finish line at about 5:25. How would he know? Jim is a guy that rides/races by “feel”. I don’t even think he owns a HR monitor, let alone those fancy bike computers that tell you all kinds of information we often don’t even understand. How would he be able to predict with such precision? I was hoping he was right, but I wasn’t exactly sure I could finish that soon. Ultimately, I still had a bit more than half of the race’s mileage to go when he said that.
The last big climb of the race was on the paved Blue Ridge Parkway. I don’t believe I have enough words to tell you how beautiful that was. The blooms of the trees and plants alongside the road kept me distracted, and every time I would come across an open view or overlook I took the time to look around me and take in the beauty that surrounded me. That last climb itself would take me about 1:30 hrs to crest according to my calculations, but it did not feel that long. I was stronger then than I felt on the entire race so far, and I had left Jim behind somewhere on that climb. He said, “If you have good legs, go for it”, so I did. I think I may have passed 20 racers in that one section only, and only one female amongst them. Unfortunately she was suffering from cramps on her legs, but fortunately for me I had gained one more spot in the standings if I could keep myself from having to deal with any delays.
I cannot tell you about how my race ended without mentioning my friend Jim one more time. This guy apparently descends fearlessly faster than I believed he could because, though I had dropped him a while ago on that BRP climb, he caught me at the last SAG station before entering the last gravel section of the race course. How is that possible? I have no idea. Well, I do have an idea: he made up all that time on a long and winding 12 mile road descend. But when I saw him, I almost choked on the water I was drinking. I took off after him, I didn’t want him to beat me! We had some friendly competition going on for a few days and I was not about to let that happen. Well, I was praying it wouldn’t happen. The man is STRONG, I know it. He has totally dropped me on some training rides in the mountains, I know what he can do. But at the very least I wanted to finish WITH him. I did quickly catch him and a few other guys that were with him at that point and somehow managed to ride away from all of them, that felt good!
I knew I was within 30-40 minutes of finishing the race so I took off and attacked every short steep climb I had left of the race. I still had a lot of power in my legs, I felt good! I wanted to make sure I finished the race leaving all I had on the course, and so I did. I settled into a Time Trial type of effort on the last 15 minutes of the race, which was on pavement. I used every gear I had, I got off the saddle and hammered when I saw a short climb ahead. Heart Rate started increasing, so I knew then I had some more left in the tank. When I looked down at my computer I saw that I was going to finish in 5:20 hrs, and that if I didn’t push with all I had, Jim would catch me on that last section…WHAT A RUSH!
I crossed the finish line in 5:21 hrs, beating my personal goal by 39 minutes. That put me in 5th Place in the Women’s Open Division, behind Nina Laughlin who took the win, followed by Jaime Bokwalter in 2nd, Kaysee Armstrong in 3rd and Nina Otter in 4th. I realize after seeing the results that I was in the mix of really strong professional and elite racers, all within just minutes from one another, and that I was competitive contrary to my original thoughts on this race. And when I was trying to stay away from my friend Jim, I was putting some time between myself and some other ladies who were so close to me.
Truly, I cannot explain how ecstatic I am about my performance and results at the 2016 run of the Pisgah Monster Cross Challenge. I am not a professional racer yet, I am just a girl trying to challenge herself to what may have appeared as an impossible accomplishment just a couple of years ago. I am honored to have been surrounded by such incredible breed of cyclists at this event, and I’m looking forward to what’s next. I have been working very hard to increase my fitness, and this is proof that I’m headed in the right direction under the guidance of my Cycling Coach Drew Edsall and the endless support of my sponsor Alex’s Bicycle Pro Shop. I must also give much credit to my loving training partner Michael Hodges for making sure I am always ready to shred with properly working equipment. Special thanks to Jim and Beth Hoffmeister for all of their encouragement, support and hospitality, and for providing so much insight on this race which would help me plan a race strategy that would help me finish strong. Today I consider myself successful because I have wonderful people around me who are able to acknowledge my hard work and accomplishments.
Celebratory “I ROCKED THIS” pose. Notice Jim Hoffmeister directly behind me about to cross the finish line.
Whoever came up with the idea to place hurdles at the finish line of a race like this obviously likes to watch people experience cramping directly upon completion of a race (LOL).
The Pisgah Monster Cross Challenge delivered everything that Pisgah Productions promised, including the delicious Burritos and Beer post-race.