For those a kin to the nature of the Chequamegon 40 – you fully understand that this cliché tag is spot on. After all, a race that utilizes a lottery system to whittle the entrants down to 3,100 must have some room for competitors of all abilities. It’s your classic sandwich situation – pros in the front, the meat is made up of semi-serious competitors, and then there’s the rest of us. Don’t get me wrong – I can be serious, at times even aggressive, but this year I was happily nestled in the back. More on that later…
In 2009, I was a top 20 overall women finisher in the Short & Fat. Ask my husband – I will obnoxiously bring that fact up and show off my clay award whenever possible. Ever since, my training has wavered. My first experience in the 40 mile race was shortly after a severe concussion. I was still on narcotics for post-concussive effects, and the entire race was a seamless picture show of glowing trees, cartoon pirates with rum, and a distinct memory of a gaggle of females complaining that Martel’s Pothole was too dangerous and shouldn't be in the race. The following year, I opted for the Short & Fat just because race day would be 6 weeks post-partum after the birth of my daughter. Those 16 miles were a stretch, much like me fitting into any of my pre-baby jerseys. This year marked my first real return to being fairly competitive. (I use that term loosely). I put in for the 40, and low and behold – September arrived far quicker than it seemed to in previous years. Funny how that happens.
This past month, our little family has been riddled with illness. My training bestie, Alicia Fisk, and I seem to enjoy passing colds to one another on an equitably frequent basis. All in all, the entire Olson family has had maybe 3-4 RIDES let alone road rides (which is what you really need for the Chequamegon). All the Mucinex in the world wouldn't get this girl out of bed for anything other than work. Riding? Phbbt. Whateva. Pass the Nyquil.
Of course, come the week of the Chequamegon – I’m thinking to myself, “You can wing a Chequamegon. Hell, if you can wing a marathon, you can wing a Chequamegon”.
After this initial back and forth, the Hayward area got nailed with severe weather and flash flooding. Photos from pre-rides started making their way into people’s blogs, text messages, and MORC. I was just fine with beating myself up, but the idea of beating my bike up in the sludge and water of Birkie trail was too much to bear. When the amount of the replacement part outweighs the cost of the race entry, it’s time to do some serious soul-searching. Luckily, my husband is a pro at soul searching.
“You break your bike doing this…I’m not working on it.” We toyed with the idea of me using the Burley bike (rigid Raleigh mountain bike) for a while, then even thought to pick up my bib, take my free t-shirt and go home. But everyone knows that t-shirt becomes the tell-tale heart eventually. You’ll never wear it because it whispers to you “You’re a pansy and you do not deserve to wear me.”
Fast forward to Saturday. Chequamegon officials announced the reroutes under their wet weather contingency plan– and the changes seemed positive. I brought my good bike.
Since my preferred start offer expired many moons ago, I didn't even pay attention to what gate was adorned on my number plate. After the first few gates, I looked down and saw the number seven. Kept walking…and walking…and walking. Finally, after turning a corner well-off the actual race course, I saw tiny, little gate seven.
I felt like I was seated at the wedding table where you throw all of the guests who aren't family or maybe they are family but they act eccentric and might embarrass the newlyweds or fall on the cake. I looked around and saw the girl with all the bells on her handlebar. There were like six bells on this girl’s handlebar. Are you going to really need those bells today? Who are you going to be alerting today in the form of bell ringing? I looked the other direction and saw a guy in jean shorts and a puffy winter coat eating a banana with far too much ferocity for a man in jean shorts at a mountain bike race. It took a few moments to shake out of my snotty Sam attitude and remember that THIS SCENE is the beauty of the Chequamegon. How impressive is it that an event can cater to riders of all levels and that so many people of all backgrounds want to enter? How cool is it that the Sam Olson’s of the scene can share a course with the Brian Matter’s of the world? Regardless of what you wear or how you ride, we’re all out there doing something that we love.
Suddenly, we heard a noise. Being so far away from the start, it was hard to tell what was happening. Turned out it was just the race starting. After what felt like 20 minutes, the gate seveners finally passed over the start line. Shortly before Rosie’s Field, we were slowed up as a caution for a rider who was being put into a neck brace as I passed. Without missing a beat, I looked up and saw a few riders trying to snap selfies with their cell phones. This sight was infuriating. You wonder why accidents happen? Because we're crammed into a thick pack of riders and you're taking pictures with one hand on the bar!
After Rosie’s, the Birkie trail was decent. Wet leaves clung to my tires, and the entire trail seemed quieter and damp. The first descent, I was kicking myself for foregoing the glasses. Riders were sending rocks, wet leaves, and mud clumps right at me. Twas heinous.
It’s funny who you run into while you traverse. My first conversation of the day was with Nicole Penman, wife of veteran racer Jeff Penman. She was giddy and nervous – and her compliments made me feel like much stronger of a competitor. Shortly after Rosie’s, Richard Woodbury (of the Travelin’ Woodburys) struck up a conversation with me about the day thus far. He is just the most pleasant man – always kind and supportive. We shared battle stories about the demise of our climbing fitness, and conversed about the balance of family and biking. A little later, a gentleman by the name of Charlie Strantz, all dudded up in Cyclova XC, blew by me. We had a few moments to talk about Chad, and then poof!!! as if by some sort of bike necromancy, he left me behind. I also made single-serving friendship (see Fight Club for explanation) with Pat Ptacek out of Prescott, WI. Out on the trail, he was just this super friendly singlespeeder who kept mysteriously turning up by my side. I thought, “How does someone pass me, then come up behind me?” - Turns out he was riding back and forth, checking in on his wife as she rode. How romantic! I don’t know many guys that would put their race aside and ride the extra distance just to encourage and support their significant other. Also, it turns out he’s the owner of some grocery store in Prescott that is super famous and broke some world record involving the largest brat. You never know who you’re riding next to!
There were several incredibly wet sections. The first was the infamous Bitch Hill. We were all stopped, off our bikes, while the bottleneck of riders slowly dissipated. People towards the back were really taking that descent very cautiously. I found a hole-shot and flew threw it. I may not have a lot of wind in my lungs for the climbs, but I know how to fly down a hill. Even a wet one. I trust my bike, and I trust my reactions. I took a skills clinic put on by the Woolly with retired pro Kyia Anderson. She taught me some positioning tactics for descending. I had always prided myself on my lines when I descend, but her new perspective into my riding really gave me an edge on the hills. I would pass everyone on the downhills. Of course, they would be right back in front of me on the climbs, but for those downhill moments – I was their queen.
Another really wet area was on the Birkie trail somewhere. I can’t remember, but I know it was well before Fire Tower. There was this long stretch of singletrack that course officials put in to divert riders away from this giant lake formed in the trail. It was a long, slow moving line of single file riders making their way through the track. It took about 15 minutes of stop and go traffic to get through. Riders were absolutely hilarious though – yelling their commentary for the captive audience around them. “Bet there’s some roadie trying to update his STRAVA up there, holding us all up!” “Well this surely takes away my sub 2 hour time!” “Will you hold my bike? I have to use the restroom!” I was a variable line of guys off to the side relieving themselves, and everyone else taking the break as a time to eat gel or a Clif Bar.
My riding from Hayward to 00 was pretty good, considering my lack of fitness this go around. I was holding just shy of an 11mph average. Not too shabby for Sammy considering how torturous the Seeley PreFat was. However, after 00, I apparently just stopped caring. Which is true – I started to feel the beginnings of dehydration and cramping. Hills got tougher. My attitude started to take a turn for the worse. Before 00, I was all “Hey, this is fun! This isn't as bad as you thought! Hey, you’re dressed super appropriate and everyone loves you!”
After 00, it was “See what you get for sloughing off for a whole month? Oh, ya chilly? Maybe you should have thought about that when you saw the weather report, Miss Had-To-Wear-Shorts.”
There’s this somewhat steep climb a bit before Fire Tower. Chad calls it “The Qualifier”. I call it “that hill that every first-timer thinks is Fire Tower”. Sure enough, a pair of jovial fellas come grinding up the hill next to me “Man! This Fire Tower ain't that bad! Didn't Chuck say it was real bad?” Snotty attitude Sam was just waiting in the wings to set them straight. But I was out of breath because Fake Fire Tower is still a pretty lofty hill.
Real Fire Tower comes at you without warning. Just a sharp right hander and a pretty little sign with an up arrow. And up goes on forever.
I rode to the first plateau and then it was walk city. Walk City is almost worse, because I am pretty sure it is harder on your body to push your bike up that climb versus ride it.
The last three miles were the worst. My calves were on the verge of Charlie-horsing. My right quad had such a bad cramp I could barely stand up out of the saddle. And worst of all, I had to pee. Really bad. I had overcompensated the pre-cramping by drinking everything I had on me. And now I was paying for it. Every bump was agony. Every climb was a one-two punch of exhaustion and depression.
By the time I reached the finish line at Telemark, I just wanted to be off the bike. All the fist bumps and high fives from my gate group were just keeping me from the bathroom. I was annoyed and cranky. I was that sort of hangry that makes people say things they wished they’d never said. So I smiled, kept my mouth shut, and went hunting for my man and my toddler. They were there somewhere in the sea of spectators. I just had to find them.
Now that it is all said and done, I am glad I made it through. Given the circumstances, I had convinced myself there was a chance I might not finish. But it’s the Chequamegon. You’re packed in with thousands of riders - creating this living, breathing, organic mass of people all out there to experience the event. It’s hard to give up when everyone is cheering you on. Granted, I know there were plenty of DNFs, injuries, etc. But when everything is said and done, you still find yourself watching the calendar – waiting for the lottery to open for the following year. Waiting for the email that confirms you got in.