2022 USA Cycling Marathon MTB National Championships Race Report (10/25/22)
- by Alex Forte Howell
FREDERICK, MD - I knew going into this race that I would be somewhat “underprepared” as it’s cross season and thus hard to train for both a 4-hour long mtb race and a 50 min cross race. Luckily, I have an amazing coach who puts up with my craziness (shout-out to the great Crystal Anthony) We planned the early part of the fall—Sept & Oct—to be more Marathon MTB focused which meant that my early cross races could suffer (endurance does not equal speed)…however, being that this race is smack in the middle of cross season, I had to do some cx training which also meant that my legs were not really ready to ride 32 miles in the Shed.
All of this translates to me not really being 100% ready for this race, but are we ever really ready for anything? And I thrive off a challenge so here I was lining up for a national championship a few miles from my house knowing that it was gonna be a PAINFUL few hours on the bike (which it most certainly was). I was also incredibly nervous about having a bad flat or technical issue out on the trail and needing to take the “walk of shame” back.
Well, what do you know?! A self-fulfilling prophecy perhaps? There I was in the lead 2 miles into a 32 mile race and BOOM! a rock kicks up and punctures the sidewalk of my (brand new) front tire There’s no better time to learn how to plug a hole with bacon than in the middle of a national championship mtb race.
Shaking and flustered, I manage to plug the hole and inflate the tire (which holds!) as every single person in my category, the one behind us, and the next one passes by SHIT! So I get back on my bike and continue. But then…my shifter is loose. Damn it! Can something go right today? Again, I stop, take out my multi-tool, and tighten down the shift lever (thank you Chris Howell for packing me the Wolf Tooth one with the torx wrench).
“Did I lose 5 minutes, 10 minutes?” I think. Panic sets in and I begin to spiral: What’s the point now? I’m so far behind. This is stupid. I can’t do this. There’s no way. My race is over. I’m gonna be 3rd again. I’ve always been so close (2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th). But whenever it’s in reach, it just slips away
“Stop it!” I tell myself. “You’re being ridiculous! You want a chance to win this thing? Stop throwing yourself a pity party and go for it!” So that’s what I did. The rest of that 1st lap, I hammered. I’ve never ridden my mtb so hard. Halfway through the lap just after the Feed Zone, I caught the 2nd place woman in my field. “OK, I can do this I thought.” I just had to chase down Simona Vincenciova.
Anyone who knows Simona, knows that is not an easy feat. She is one tough cookie and she doesn’t give up easily. I had my work cut out for me and I knew it. So I rode hard, I took chances, and I emptied the tank. Coming back up to the start/finish area near the end of the lap, someone yelled “She’s less than a minute ahead of you!” WHAT?! Seriously! I couldn’t believe it. But I also knew that I had burned many, many matches and we had 1 more lap to ride (another 16 miles on rough, rocky, technical singletrack).
This is the part of the story that sucks: Coming down the final descent in the woods before climbing back up to the start/finish area and Feed Zone, I saw a woman sitting on the side of the trail. As I slowed down, I realized it was Simona. NO!!! “What happened?” She had gone down and hurt her knee. I stopped to check on her and told the course marshals up ahead that she needed assistance. Then I continued to the Feed Zone area and told her team. I was bummed. You never want to see that happen to a friend or a competitor.
Stopped in the Feed Zone, I refueled (thanks Matt Holmes) and saw the next woman in my category coming down the other side of the trail. It was time to go! Back on the bike with 16 more miles ahead of me, knowing I was now in the lead, the fatigue started to set in. This was gonna be brutal!
TBH, I don’t remember much of the 2nd lap except that I broke it down by segments and told myself to “just keep pedaling” to the next checkpoint on the course. I knew I would see Rob Reahl at the Feed Zone about halfway through the lap and Julie Whitehair on the trail in the woods. There were friends spectating and cheering (Dane Paris & Casey L Bailey) and others volunteering on course. Every single person I saw and heard kept me going through those 16 painful miles…and Hillary Elgert Marques is my head telling me to “focus on the foot-wedge” (foot-wedge FTW!)
With about 6 miles to go, I hit a wall. I knew the 2nd place woman was behind me but I didn’t know where, and a small part of me was convinced that Simona was gonna make a comeback (she’s basically Super Woman) so I just kept pedaling. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a beautiful goddess appeared: Jen Tillman For about an hour, we rode with each other trading encouragements along the way. The 2 things that stick in my mind are her telling me to keep eating & drinking and me (basically) crying that my legs were gonna fall off. “You can take Advil for that when we’re done,” she said
When we hit the Yellow Trail back in Gambrill State Park, I suddenly felt a wave of energy. “I’m gonna do this!” I thought. HOLY CRAP! Being careful not to crash or break my bike, I rode as hard as I could still secretly convinced that I was gonna get caught. In a road, gravel, or cross race, you can usually see where your competitors are on the course. In an mtb race, you can’t. It’s just you and your bike in the woods on the trail. It’s both physically and mentally exhausting.
Riding passed the start/finish area, I heard cheers from everyone. It was only 1 more mile of rocky singletrack down and back up the other side to the finish. My legs were so tired that I could barely pedal. The course designers decided it would be a good idea to put a steep section of trail with water bars/steps at the end before the finish (thanks Joe Whitehair). On a normal day, I can ride it. Not this day! I basically walked the last part of the climb and then sad panda pedaled through the finish where I promptly collapsed into the arms of Rebecca Auyer.
And there you have it! A flat, a loose shift lever, a comeback, and so much support from so many people. Special thanks to my amazing husband for keeping our bikes in top shape and reminding me that no matter what, he will always be proud #nevergiveup
Photo by Weldon Weaver/USA Cycling