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Big Mountain Break Away

Exhausted. Tight. Nauseous. Groggy. Drowning in mucus. Today was the morning of Stage 4 of the Breck Epic. From the way I feel at the start of each day, you’d never guess that my teammate and I have been wearing race leaders’ jerseys for the last three days of a mountain bike stage race 10,000-13,000 feet above sea level.

Big Breck-Fest: Ben Parsons of Team Hammer Nutrition on the Colorado Trail. Photo: Liam Doran.

So once more this morning, the sound of my alarm breaks a deep, blissful slumber. Reluctantly I peel my eyes open. Day 4, more than halfway there. This has been the hardest part each morning—getting out of bed at 5:30 a.m., but my teammate, Jeff Kerkove greets me in the kitchen without showing a speck of weariness. I slog through the morning routine, barely able to stomach a piece of toast and a single egg. I push it around, half asleep, half aware of my surroundings, hoping somehow it will look more appetizing. It doesn’t.

The early morning air in Breckenridge has been biting, even in August. I know today will be no exception, and that I’ll be shivering so hard that even grasping my Ergon grips will be a challenge. The stage ahead racks up 42 miles with 8,850 feet of elevation gain over technical alpine singletrack and steep jeep roads, and I’ll have to set a pace that will keep us in the leaders’ jerseys. I had learned over the course of the past three days that the worse I feel in the morning, the better my race goes. But I’m not so sure about today.

When I decided to line up for the first stage of the Breck Epic last August, I knew I was in for a great journey of body and spirit, but I didn’t realize how the experience would deepen my understanding of exactly why it is that I race my bike. Mountain bike stage racing was an adventure I simply had to try. When I got the word that there was a six-day race in my favorite Rocky Mountain playground, I knew it was going to be an enjoyable swift kick in the ass. The Breck Epic boasts about 42,000 feet of elevation gain over about 250 miles in the mountains surrounding Breckenridge, Colorado, and it’s arguably one of the hardest stage races in North America—yet anyone who loves long rides, high alpine views and a trying test of mental and physical strength (a.k.a. me) would thoroughly enjoy this event. I have a lot of experience with endurance racing, but only with one-day 50-100 mile events. My only stage racing experience had been the Tour of the Gila, a road stage race, which I raced 3 different times. Let’s just say that it was a humbling experience. I’m the worst roadie you’ll ever meet, but my mule-like stubbornness always gets me through.

Alex Grant and Jeremiah Bishop gut through the rain and fog on Georgia Pass. Photo: Liam Doran.

Day 1 went a little too well. I was familiar with the race course, I was fresh and giddy, and the competitive side of me took over; forward we charged. Jeff warned me not to get too ambitious, since we still had five days to go. We rode hard from the start without looking back and easily took a commanding stage win in our co-ed duo category–16 minutes ahead of second place.

For multi-day events, pacing and recovery are the most important elements to consider. I thought I had done everything right, but the next morning, I woke up, absolutely unmotivated, with a sore back and legs and no appetite. Trouble. I was also suffering from something I had eaten and was making far too many trips to the righteous porcelain throne. Mmmm.

Despite my morning issues, the show had to go on, so I swallowed some ibuprofen and Immodium, and packed some emergency TP in my jersey pocket (fortunately I never needed it). My excruciatingly sore back relented about halfway through the 41-mile stage on the Colorado Trail—or maybe I simply forgot about it because I fell in love with the singletrack. The 7,300 feet of elevation gain for the day went by quickly, and we rolled through the finish extending our first-place lead. We had a solid 30 minute lead now over second place, but that type of gain in a stage race can evaporate in one day. Nothing would be guaranteed.

Just when you think things are going your way, the entropy of the universe kicks in to remind you who is ultimately in charge. Stage 3 dominated me. My legs were barking. I began to learn that stage racing not only has physical demands, but it’s also an emotional roller coaster— I would go through phases of feeling like a superhero, then the switch would flip and suddenly I would be overwhelmed and stripped down to a raw, depressed, struggling excuse of a human being. Yet I was slowly learning to believe in myself.

Doctor Feelgood: While riders recuperated in hot tubs, The Organic Mechanics made sweet love to broken bikes. Photo: Liam Doran.

Jeff was learning how to have patience with me. When you are the slower rider (me, in this case), you are the limiting factor. All the pressure is on you. Add the team element to it, and I’d feel disappointed and guilty that I was letting Jeff down. Day 3 was pure physical and emotional detonation. As we approached the slopes of 13,370-foot Mt. Guyot, most of the mountain was consumed by a large dark cloud. We ascended anxiously into the rain and fog, wearing jerseys and shorts (of course we had left the Gore-tex jackets at the last aide station). My hands were so frozen and numb that I couldn’t tell if I was squeezing my brake levers, I was violently shivering and the blood had left my legs, making it difficult to pedal. Then came a steep hike-a-bike in thick fog at French Pass around 12,500 feet. No stopping, just moving forward as best we could. I felt mortal.

Descending was dicey—my eyes were constantly tearing up from the piercing, cold air. My perception of speed was gone. The motion and lack of visual acuity made me dizzy. My whole body hurt: my calves were on fire from pushing my bike up the side of a steep slope. I could barely stand on my pedals, and my forearms were cramping from being tight and nervous on the descent.

Jeff said as nicely as he could, “We are losing a lot of time on this descent.”

It wasn’t news to me. I was emotionally spent– frustrated, scared, tired, panicking, in a lot of pain. We got to a jeep road. It did not lend much relief. In fact, it led to another dark climb up to Georgia Pass in the rain. I had no idea how close second place was to us, and I was stressed out due to the slow pace I was setting. I tried to pedal circles, searching for power but finding nothing but agony.

Author and coed duo champ Sonya Looney is a dirty girl. Photo: Liam Doran.

I had a choice. I could give up or put my head down and tell myself that things would get better. I chose the latter, and after what seemed like forever, things did get better—the rays of sun that pierced through the clouds energized me. My legs felt lighter. Suddenly, I was raging down the trail. Sixteen miles to go, and I was reborn. Jeff had warned me about the upcoming final climb—ironically, it was my strongest part of the race. We started it with four guys behind us. The road was increasingly steeper, but I refused to get off and push. I feverishly said out loud, “I refuse to walk,” and charged up the road, full of power and determination. We quickly dropped the dudes behind us, which made me want to push even harder. I was full of adrenaline, fortitude. I even felt a little insane.  At the finish line, the tears and goosebumps overwhelmed me. We did it.

Stage 4 turns out to be a mini repeat of Stage 3 except it plays out in reverse. Despite all the morning pain (or maybe according to that pattern of a rough morning working into a solid ride), I feel strong at the start of this 42-mile stage. Ah, but I go too far. I burn every match I have with a blow torch. I bonk hard, vomiting in my own mouth, feeling every bump of the trail and searching for the finish line. It becomes yet another day of highs and lows, but we get through and over the hump.

The last two stages go much better—we hold onto the leaders’ jerseys and encounter no mishaps, excluding the tough mornings and sore start legs. I dig in to the singletrack climbs and hoot and holler swooping down. We ride so fast that I get butterflies in my tummy. I can’t hold back the giggles.

Safely in the lead, we make the last climb of the race, the backside of Boreas Pass Road,  a long, triumphant victory ride. In my pink mustache knee-high socks, I flog myself back to life and once again feel overcome by pure madness as I transform into a stubborn, snarling, unwavering beast up the climbs. I go at it with what Phil Liggett calls, “pedal strokes of anger.”

We start catching guys groveling up the climb. “This is where you stick the knife in!” I say with a panting laugh.

The Pain of Victory: Colby Pearce celebrates his victory in the final stage and an eighth place finish overall. Photo: Liam Doran.

Before I know it, we’re almost to the top. At the final aide station, I am once again laughing. I turn to Jeff with a smirk and say, “Let’s finish this up the right way” and we fly down the road and singletrack to the finish, taking home the overall coed duo win, as well as wins on all six stages.

Winning a six-day event feels more rewarding than a one-day event because I have an intimate comprehension of every ounce of energy and drive it takes to simply finish: the hundred thousands of pedal strokes, the brutal nuances of each stage. It’s like life. Sometimes it flows and you go through it shining and everything just feels easy. Other times, it’s rocky, cold, sickening and steep. You fight it at every corner. And sometimes you just enjoy it in your funky, knee-high socks.

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