August 22, 2015
I came out of my room at 4 AM sharp for breakfast. The clammy air was already warm and almost sickeningly heavy as I came out of my air-conditioned room. 2 pancakes, 1 cup of rich dark Costa Rican jet fuel, and I was on my way to the 5:30AM start line. I got a good spot in the 2nd row and simply enjoyed watching everyone around me. One guy next to me let out a brash primal roar (and then I laughed at him… and later dropped him on the singletrack, haha!) We had a 100 mile course in front of us that would circle a very active volcano. The race has over 500 riders this year; nearly double what it had last year. When the whistle blew indicating the start, I managed to dangle on the back of the lead group of pro men up the opening 5km climb. (Last year was a 30 minute neutral descent on a gravel road; it was sketchy! I was happy to see a different start tactic!) There was a 10 minute twisty singletrack descent with deep moondust in the corners, as well as some roots and rocks. It was really fun and I got to practice taking the sketchy lines to get around some of the men on the descent! I looked down once I was descending the gravel road after the singletrack to discover my water bottle wobbling side to side. My bottle cage was totally loose and about to fall off. I made room in my jersey pocket, shoved the full bottle next to my 2nd full bottle already in another pocket and decided to fix the cage at the first aide station. Tactically, this would not be a good time to stop!
I did this race last year and had only a few memories; electric blue butterflies, extreme heat (and heat stroke), nausea, a long desert section, and very steep climbs. The steep climbs were my first reunion with the course. They were over 20% grade and there seemed to be more of them than I remembered. The climbs transitioned from dirt to white pavement as they pitched up; a necessary formality so that vehicles could maintain traction. Punishing, undulating terrain quickly humbled me and short trains of Costa Rican dudes began to pass me. I kept a steady and hard pace but they were increasing theirs even more. I stopped around mile 19 at Aide 1 to fix my bottle cage (the ONLY bolts I forgot to check before the race!). There had been no other women in the lead group off the start line and I hadn’t seen any the few times I looked over my shoulder. Much to surprise, I heard two women’s voices as I bolted my bottle cage back in and refilled my water bottles. I also chugged a huge cup of pink stuff in a flash and jumped on my bike to chase the other women down. As soon as I finished the cup of pink stuff, I could taste that there was some kind of protein in it; something guaranteed to mess up my stomach. I always use GU Roctane or water in my bottles, but this pink “Tico Punch” already made me my stomach feel bloated and unsteady. I decided my course of action would be to drink lots of water to expedite faster gastric emptying. I was pleased that it only took me maybe a minute to reel in the other women. I snuck up on them and throttled hard as I passed and heard them cry out in surprise to see me. I did not dial back my effort level until I crossed the finish line many hours later.
Racing is always exciting. If you’re in 2nd or 3rd place, you usually know your split to the next person because someone can tell you. When you’re racing in 1st place, you are far more vulnerable and it’s hard to have any kind of plan other than to hammer. You won’t know where 2nd place is; she could be hunting you from a short distance, or she could be miles away. There was no way to know.
As I entered the lusher part of the jungle, the heavy, burdened rain clouds dropped their cargo of large life-affirming droplets in many short downpours. Since we were on a jeep road, the vibrant canopy could not protect us. I was already soaked with my own sweat, but the rain felt refreshing. The deep mud was not nearly as greasy as I expected, and I had fun as it splattered off my tires and all over me. I hoped someone snapped pictures of the riders in the jungle because you could probably only see the whites of our eyes beneath the oozing cloak of mud! I was actually disappointed when we started crossing rivers and the crystalline water washed away the muck. The sound of the cicadas and other curious creatures blared in my ears despite the rain. The jungle was very alive and I made a note that I need to go on an animal jungle tour the next time I’m in Costa Rica to actually see what was causing all the commotion! The descents were more fun (than last year) with the crazy black mud, rushing water, and rocks. My bike was eating it up and I didn’t even tough the brakes on some of the longer straight shots down. I felt confident and basically cheered “COWABUNGA!!!” as I gleefully flew down the hills. Thoughts of my broken arm from the month before were long gone. I was impressed that my drivetrain and brakes were functioning with very little issues despite the mud. I only had chain suck once and was even running the XTR 2×11! It was my first time racing with the XTR 2×11 and I loved it! After the passing all the fast climbers in the muddy jungle, I didn’t see many people for the rest of the race. I actually enjoy being alone in races.
The climb to the Continental Divide was challenging for me. I had been absolutely pinned for 4 hours and my body was starting to complain. My stomach was having a tough time absorbing calories and was still upset from the Tico Punch, but I routinely continued to eat gel and water (which ended up being a good plan). My heart rate dropped and my legs felt heavy and dead… for the next few hours. I was thankful to have my power meter[Stages]because I forced myself to hold a minimum of 200 watts. I thought for sure that I would get caught on the climb because I felt like I was barely creeping along. The Queen of the Volcano Prime was in my head and kept me motivated. The bright blue butterflies I remembered cheered me up and I looked for the white butterfly; a rare species and is said to be the soul of Princess Curabanda but I never saw her.I was tired of being soggy and was looking forward to the dry, desert air on the other side of the Divide. However, it could be a Catch 22; if there was no cloud cover or wind, the heat would reach 115F and definitely be a problem. This year, I planned to pick up a hydration pack to carry through the desert along with bottles of water.
The terrain changed as rapidly as the humidity. The dank air was now bone dry (it reminded me of home) and the dirt was white and dusty. I looked over my shoulder to see the clouds where I had just emerged. It was very unusual to see how quickly that part of Costa Rica changed from wet jungle to parched desert. It only took minutes. The wind was the saving grace through the desert; I was still trying to recover from hammering so hard the first 4 hours, but the wind demanded continued hard effort. I remembered this section of the race and last year, it seemed to take an eternity; it was the worst of my heat stroke the year before and I had seriously contemplated dropping out because I was afraid. When I saw a sign indicating the section was only 5km, I laughed. “Only 5k to the coke aide station and some fun, moab-like trail to ride!” I was smiling on the inside but my face was a grimace as I fought the wind. I still did not know how close my competition was, but I guessed they were gaining on me since my pace had slowed; apparently theirs had slowed as well.
The remaining 30 miles went by quickly as I caught my second wind and my legs felt lighter. The wind would stop every so often and I would feel instantly nauseated; a reminder to appreciate the headwind as it was keeping heatstroke away. I passed one of the last junctions on the course, but started to feel unsure of myself. How horrible would it be to take a wrong turn 8 miles from the finish? I decided to turn around and go back to check the sign. I hoped that I could spare a couple extra minutes and I saw no one as I rode backwards on the course. It turns out that I was actually going in the right direction, but was glad that I went back for the assurance. The course was marked very well, but you still need to pay attention!
I upped my pace with everything I had left (which actually wasn’t much) and cruised the final climb. As I crossed the finish line, I finally let myself celebrate my win. I celebrated everything I had been through over the summer after breaking my arm and the huge disappointments of missing key races in my season. I celebrated that sometimes you can be delayed, but you never have to give up. I celebrated that I earned my win with sweat equity, patience, and hard work. This year, I got to be the Queen of the Volcano and stand on the top step of the podium!
I would like to thank the race promoters of theRincon de la Vieja Challengefor treating women equally at the race. They gave out equal prize money; something that I only see maybe 60% of the time. Thanks for not treating female athletes like 2nd class citizens!
Also, BIG thanks to Jimmy and Diego fromBikeLab Costa Rica(Pivot distributor in Costa Rica) for your support at the race! You were amazing!