I can't recall a time I experienced such angst over an event. Leading up to my first Chequamegon Fat Tire 40 I was fighting the biggest mental game of my life. A month before the event I made the mistake of riding without proper nutrition and hydration in 90 degree heat. This led to what I can only describe as a three week long bout of heat exhaustion, stomach flu and dehydration. I lost twelve pounds and could barely walk around my house, let alone ride my bike. I got back on the bike only ten days before the event and did some training rides in Big Rock Creek, which didn't instill confidence. I was cashed after five mile rides in the valley. I nearly called it quits several times prior to the race but decided I wanted my $100 t-shirt badly enough that I was going! And the guilt of having the coveted race entry that other riders had not gotten in the lottery compelled me to ride.
My Chequamegon story begins on Friday. I carb loaded on deep dish pizza from Dominoes on our three hour ride north to Hayward. My appetite that day was great! I couldn't put enough down the hatch to quell my metabolism. Our family stays at the Hayward KOA every year with our "Bike Family" from Penn Cycle and Cyclova XC. The KOA folks put on a spaghetti feed Friday night for the cyclists- which is basically everyone in the campground! I feasted again on a heaping pile of spaghetti, meatballs, and bread. A group of us carpooled up to Telemark in Cable, Wisconsin that evening to pick up our race packets. I stood inside the Trek Project One demo truck and drooled over the custom color frames- florescent, neon, frosted... black stanchions inside white suspension... Oh, how I coveted those beauties.
Trek Project One Display
Returning to camp around nine that night, I thought I could barely keep my eyes open and decided to call it a night and wake rested. Ha! As if I was going to sleep a wink that night! My race jitters were kicking in by midnight as I laid in bed trying to shut off my brain. I did sleep for a few solid hours in the wee morning hours between four and seven.
I woke up with a lump in my throat as I wrestled with my brain that wanted to convince me to quit before I started it. I was scared to DEATH that I was going to bonk and get sick again during the race and spend another month recovering. I tried to eat a banana but after one bite I was gagging so hard I started crying. I knew I had eaten enough the night before to carry me and decided to get dressed and start moving around to keep distracted. I was riding my Trek X-Caliber, with 29-1 EXP Bontrager tires. My pump gauge malfunctioned that morning so I had nothing but a "pinch test" to determine pressure. I figure I was running about 40-45 lbs. I kitted up in my Cyclova XC gear from Mt Borah which has a superbly smooth chamois that has held up for hundreds of miles in the saddle. It was 35 degrees that morning so I wore my Cyclova XC windbreaker for pre-race warm up- a perfect choice.
My friend Dennis forced me to suck down a Gu Roctane at 9 a.m. before we pedaled the 3 miles from our campground into Hayward for the start. It felt good to be moving and the ride in was enjoyable with funny stories and banter from the seven veterans I rode with. About halfway into Hayward I realized I had left my spare tube, tire levers, and multi-tool in our cabin. Well... maybe my subconscious was trying to give me an easy out if I flatted or had mechanical error. No going back now. I said a prayer. The temperature in Hayward was already warming and we tied our jackets up in a drop bag. This being my first year, I was in Gate 7- the very back. I had two other friends with me that were seasoned Cheq vets. As we inched our way to the front 1/3 of the gate, they offered advice and encouragement. The most valuable piece of information was to avoid crashing on the highway. People get all jazzed up on the pavement leading to Rosie's Field and every year cyclists end up in a tangled mess.
Five minutes to start. I could barely stand it. My buddy Pat and I exchanged a high-five. The National Anthem was sung and the roar of the crowd gave me goosebumps. The gun... we were rolling. I cautiously followed the masses and avoided wheels, leaving a bubble around me for safety. The noise on main street was deafening, people blowing horns, shaking cowbells, and screaming for the riders! As we rounded the corner to the highway I saw the guy changing a flat. You know, that guy that you see at every race changing a flat a half-mile after the start. Glad it wasn't me. Two miles into the race I saw the guy that crashed- the guy that undoubtedly got hung up on a wheel and face planted on the highway. The medical crew was calling in a helicopter for him as I passed. I said another prayer. My nerves were still running the show and I knew I had to pedal until I couldn't feel them anymore. Riders were ripping past me on the highway and I feared I would be left behind, but also feared I would burn up if I attempted to keep that pace. My game plan was to ride with caution and to finish.
We arrived at the first section of Birkie trail and riders were jammed up, fighting to climb the hill to Rosie's Field. I cautiously stayed to the far left and avoided getting boxed in. Handlebar to handlebar, wheel to wheel we clawed our way up. We spread out in the field and I was encouraged by familiar faces of spectators. Another rider was down and the pack split in two, like a school of fish, merging on the other side. From here we began the rolling up and down of the Birkie hills. I tried to work the downward momentum to carry myself up the proceeding ascents but we were still too tight to ride free, I had to get over to the side and ride thicker, grassy sections to pass slower riders. At mile 4 I felt my stomach cramp up and the pain caused me to stop and get off the bike. In that moment I thought, "This is it. I'm getting sick again. I am quitting at mile 4, only 1/10 of the race in. Ugh." But then I remembered I only had a Gu Roctane in my gut and we racers all know how that can wreak havoc if not diluted a little. I drank some water and decided to press on. Much to my delight I felt better. I began to enjoy the ride. I was diligent to avoid rocks hidden along the path, still nervous I would get a pinch flat or sidewall tear.
At mile 7 I realized I had lost a bottle of electrolytes, probably on one of the many rough descents. This caused more alarm, as I now only carried about 10 oz of water and had no idea when the next aid station would appear. As the hills rolled I stood in the saddle and slid my weight back while flying down, down, down. I visualized being "one with the bike" to lessen the impact of rocks, roots, washboard and gopher holes. Like a white tail deer, "Cali" and I floated over debris. By mile 12 I realized the miles were ticking away and I wasn't even thinking thoughts, my body just moved. It occurred to me that I had found an energy and power inside of me that I hadn't felt in over a month. I was busting past other riders on climbs- riders I never saw again! Up, down, grass, rocks, sand, up, up, down.
Mile 17 had an aid station and I forced half of a banana down without nearly as much drama as earlier that morning. I drank two Gu Brews and filled my single water bottle up. I left feeling strong. We were still on Birkie trails and ahead of me was a massive descent, a wicked washboard from one side to the other. I was approaching 33 miles per hour when I felt my last water bottle jump out of its cage and hit my calf! Thankfully my pedal stroke was just right at that moment and my leg slammed it back in place. Close call! But I reined in a little to avoid losing my last hydration. Soon after, we reached a fire lane. The first section was quite boggy with sand but eventually firmed up and I was able to give her grief in there to make up for lost time.
Mile 20. Half way. Still feeling ok. The pedals spun. I would see bottles of electrolytes laying on the trail, rattled loose from cages, and wondered if I should pick one up. I recounted tales of Walter Rhein from Beyond Birkie Fever as he bonked at a marathon and picked up used Gu packets to suckle nutrients from. Picking up a used water bottle isn't as bad, right? I didn't do it! I had enough water for now and I figured I would see more bottles along the course if I was desperate enough. Mile 27 appeared quickly and we were given aid and a cautionary description of the approaching Seely Fire Tower Hill. But even that couldn't get me down. I knew I only had 13 miles left and the beast within me was roaring. I was going to finish.
I was still surprised with my level of energy, having come out of a 3 week period of convalescence. It's a strange phenomenon. Perspective is the ultimate decision maker of your success. I was telling myself I was strong and I was visualizing the competitive beast inside of me that wakes up after 20 miles of labor. Fire Tower Hill came, I clawed my way up, and it was over. The stories of horror I had heard seemed exaggerated as I looked at this hill and thought, "Is this really it?" Don't get me wrong- it's a bugger, but when you know that it's the last great obstacle, you hunker down and you get 'er done!
False Summit of Seely Fire Tower Hill
After Fire Tower we had about 8 miles left. We were once again back on the Birkie trails and the climbs loomed as our heavy legs suffered cramps. A dark cloud settled over me as I pushed my bike up a hill and felt my feet tripping over rocks. A rider wearing blue jeans came up alongside me and encouraged, "It's only a few more hills then some fast downhills on gravel." The words banished my cloud. I can do this- if that crazy man wearing jeans and riding a single-speed can do this, so can I! Two climbs later I saw the gravel. I started down the road, which was not so much gravel as rocks- very technical, rough rock, but it was downhill so all I had to do was stay upright. "Picking your line," or choosing the path of least resistance, is merely coincidence when you are gaining momentum on those downhills, everything is blurred. I just hoped and prayed I wasn't moments from a flat. My limbs rattled and I felt twinges of nerve pain in my shoulders after 30 miles of shock absorption. It smoothed out after a bit and I was once again gaining speed. My iPod started playing "Bleeding Out" by Imagine Dragons and the percussion began to pound inside me. I was tearing down the road at 27 miles per hour, made a 90 degree left hand turn that spit rocks, and hammered towards the final 2 miles.
The last section turned back onto double track with sandy, rocky climbs and debris from loggers. It looked like the Apocalypse in there. The ground showed evidence of bicycle destruction, chains lay in the dirt, tubes littered the trail, I even saw a wheel skewer. I prayed my own demise wouldn't come at mile 38 1/2. I could barely haul the bike up the terrain but knowing I was so close gave a sense of security. I could almost hear the announcer, the crowd roaring, smell the food, and was that the clanging of a cowbell in the distance?
I saw the sign. 1/2 mile remaining. The trail dropped and I ripped through prairie grass, breathing the sand that spun off my front tire. I saw the chute. I heard the cowbells. I pushed harder. I saw my husband hanging over the fence screaming my name! I smiled from ear to ear! The announcer called out my name as I hit the sensor. I DID IT! Tears rolled down my face- not of pain, but of triumph. Another woman I had ridden along side for portions of the race finished just behind me and we embraced. We shared a special bond in that moment. We conquered.
I have to give thanks to the many fellow cyclists that gave words of wisdom before and during the race. I might not have given Cheq 40 a chance this year if I hadn't been given such a detailed account of the course by Duane Lee at Cyclova XC, or the reminder that you pay the race entry because it is a civilized event with support and aid- thanks Ben Jonjak, the encouragement of Dennis Porter, Pat Sorenson, and Charlie P. And of course my husband, Keith Velaski, who believed in me the whole time.
post race photo
My Chequamegon story ends with Saturday night's feast in the pavilion at the KOA. Good friends regaling one another with tales of their personal journey by bike that day, great food, and much laughter and love! Like Minded- Bike Minded! By far, my favorite event of the year. (For those considering adding Cheq to their list of accomplishments- DO IT! And ride Big Rock Creek to train for the event, it truly has every feature the Birkie Trails boast.)