Motherlode race report

I looked out the window with equal parts wonder and trepidation. “The Black Hills are really hilly,” I told Jeff. “Really hilly. A lot more hilly than the Flint Hills. Where do they draw the line between a hill and a mountain, anyway?”

 I knew the Motherlode had significant climbing. I’d seen the elevation profile and done the training, but seeing that elevation in person was daunting. I did my best to shove this newly sharpened worry into my mental Pandora’s Box, already crowded with things like Jacob’s please God don’t let my child need an appendectomy in South Dakota stomach pain, our income tax payment plan, a non-functioning home air conditioning, the loss of a key player from our mud volleyball team, the question of whether or not our aging minivan would survive the long trip pulling our camper, and — oh, yes — the forecast of record heat and high wind for race weekend.
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Saturday, of course, was race day, and the temperature never even dipped to the 70’s.

“This is bullshit,” I muttered, looking again at my weather app in the hopes that the forecast had miraculously changed in the last 30 seconds. “The average high for South Dakota in June is in the 70’s.”

Then, looking away from my phone and out the window, I repeated, “Those are really big hills.”


My family, fears, and I checked into the Spearfish City Campground around 2:30 the day before the race. Other racers were staying there as well, so it was fun to see all the bikes and meet gravel-famous Greg Gleason in person.  My friend Renee, who I’d conscripted to join me in this adventure, and her friend Margy, who would be crewing for us, stopped by as we finished setting up our campsite.  Jeff and Jacob made a Wal-Mart run for things I’d forgotten to pack while Renee and I went for a ride. We both needed to stretch our legs after a long drive, and I wanted to make sure everything worked smoothly with my Garmin and the South Dakota maps I’d installed.

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Mid-ride picture. It was this pretty only about 3 miles outside of town.

After a few issues getting out of town we cruised along the first few miles of the course, marveling at the scenery. Turning around rather than waiting for the escort car at a road construction site, we rode up a long gravel driveway “just because” and then turned back towards town against an intimidating wind, one we feared was only a preview of coming attractions. The forecast for race day suggested about 100 miles of headwind.

Check-in went smoothly, followed by the pre-race meeting where Kristi and Perry reviewed the course and where we could expect to get water, then explained the requirement to sign in at each checkpoint. Someone from Spearfish-headquartered Quarq explained the Qollectors we had the option to use and then passed them out. I threatened to steal Greg’s tracker, thus confusing anyone following the race as to why he appeared to be standing still/why I was allowed to drive the course, but alas he was too quick for me.  After the meeting, Craig Groseth, whose report from last year’s Motherlode was one of the few I found in my obsessive search for race info, introduced himself, so the next morning, even though I only knew one other person racing, I still had three familiar faces.

Because we were camping next door to the start line, I slept in until 3:45, waking to multiple good luck messages. I dressed, took care of all the last-minute details, and then rode the block or so to the start.

Looking way too happy for 4:30 a.m. but SO ready to finally start pedaling and stop worrying.
Photo credit: Randy Erickson

With only 30 registered and 22 starters, it was much more intimate group than the Dirty Kanza scene I’m used to.  The entire solo women’s field consisted of three.

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Renee, me, and Micki Harris

Many of the pictures taken before the race show sweaty faces. The promised low in the 60’s had never materialized. The temperature at 5 a.m. was already 81*, an ominous hint of the sweltering conditions that awaited us.

2016 Motherlode starters
Photo credit: Randy Erickson

In the days before the Motherlode, I first heard the Goo Goo Dolls’ song “So Alive“.  It completely spoke to me.  Other than a stretch that afternoon when the phrases “Black Hills” and “Gold Rush” melded into “Black Gold” in my heat-addled brain, triggering a one-woman “Beverly Hillbillies” sing-along, it was lines from “So Alive” that played in my head as a soundtrack to the day.

Open up my heart like a shotgun
Blinded by the light of a new sun
Get up, get up, get out and get done
For the first time I feel like someone

Right at 5, race director Perry Jewett led us on the neutral roll out through town.  The morning wind, which the forecast had assured me would be the gentlest of the day, quickly proved that prediction quite wrong.

It’s a sign of how far I’ve come in my ability to be at peace with conditions that all I did was laugh.  I still obsess nonstop in the lead up to an event, but once I’m actually riding I do much better at putting my head down and accepting what is.

More upsetting, though unsurprising, was the growing gap between me and the majority of the pack. It takes me a while to warm up; I know this, but it doesn’t make it any more pleasant.  And yet, with my slow starting, bargain bike, and minimal handling skills, I do feel like someone in the gravel/endurance sports community: it’s where I feel most alive, most myself, and maybe even most valued for who I am rather than for what I do.

Renee and I had agreed to ride together, so while she surely could have kept pace with the neutral roll out she instead eased up so we didn’t get separated. Finally, about five miles out, I managed to close the gap.  The wind was dumb, but the views were incredible. “We’re doing it!” we celebrated. “We’re finally here!”

The lead group was long gone, but I’d expected nothing less. In a 200-mile race with this few entrants, you can assume the people who sign up know what they’re doing. By this time, I’ve got the experience to know what I’m doing, too, but my strength is a steady, consistent effort rather than speed.

I’m so alive, I’m so alive, I’m so alive
You can make it on a wish if you want to
You can make it on a wish if you want to
I’m so alive, I’m so alive, I’m so alive
You can make it on a wish if you want to
You can make it on a wish if you want to

Within the first 10 miles I’d hit my stride and started feeling great. Though the elevation profile looks like the first 70 miles are steady climbing, miles 10-14 actually feature some gradual descents, and maybe that’s what I needed to remind my body how fun bike riding is.

For the first time since last August I was using cue sheets in addition to my Garmin and savored ticking off each line.

“We’re finished with the first cue sheet! That means we’re 1/9 of the way finished!”

“Woohoo! Our first cattle guard of the race!”

“Sand Creek Road! I remember this from the video!”

The roads wound between hillsides and streams. Between the lovely shade and the cold water nearby, there were times it felt like we were riding through air conditioning. In the weeks before the race I’d tried to figure out what a 2-4% grade would feel like. The hills we ride here tend to be relatively steep but short, so I couldn’t wrap my brain around 70 miles of steady climbing.  As it turned out, it reminded me of riding on a slightly mushy Katy Trail — something I had experienced frequently this spring — only vastly more scenic.

The temperature was comfortable and my legs were perfectly happy.  Occasionally we’d turn into the wind, but between the shelter from the hills and the winding nature of the roads our time in an actual headwind was limited.  I felt incredible.

Renee was having a harder time.  Though a better, stronger rider than I am, she was struggling with her breathing. We both live at elevations less than 1,000 feet above sea level. The lowest point of the Motherlode was around 3700 feet, and Renee felt like she was breathing through a straw. She pushed through it like a champion, and I did my best to encourage her. “Are you eating? Keep drinking. We’re doing great, we’re on pace to comfortably make that cutoff. Hang in there, you’re doing great.”

We stopped when we needed to, and I tried to make sure to get in front and pull during windy stretches. Otherwise we kept steadily chipping away at the miles, knowing that the mile 69 cutoff was really going to be key to finishing the race. Obviously we had to beat it to continue, but mile 69 also signaled the end of the steady climbing. From there the course transitioned to more of a roller coaster profile and, as importantly, more closely spaced checkpoints.

There was a neutral water stop at mile 32. With a 100 oz hydration bladder in my frame bag as well as three water bottles, I hadn’t anticipated needing to stop. Instead, I filled my bladder and 1.5 bottles. Even in the relatively reasonable temperature we were going through water and salt tabs in a big way.

Six miles later we arrived at one of the first Missouri-style hills (as in you could actually tell it was a hill) of the race. Grinding my way to the top in full sun I saw a vehicle parked at the next intersection. Race director Kristi Jewett and photographer Les Heiserman were there taking pictures and offering water.

In high spirits talking with Kristi.
Photo credit: Les Heiserman

My cue sheets informed me “Bail point #2. Stop at L. turn on Reynolds. Cell reception.”  Oooohhhh, cell reception!! I was under strict orders to refrain from Facebooking during the race (“you’re racing!”), but I felt great and Renee was still having breathing issues. I definitely had time for an update.

“Mile 38! The climbing hasn’t been awful but the air is thin. Onwards!”
8:38 a.m.

Renee rode away while my picture was still uploading. “I’ll catch up!” I called to her.

“I know you will,” she replied.

9:05 a.m.

The Moskee loop offered some rolling terrain and one somewhat misleading cue. Reading “**Caution on Descent” at mile 42.1, I assumed that point would have a downhill. Instead, we first had to climb. The view at the top was gorgeous, though.

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Around this point the leaders of the Gold Rush (110-mile) version passed me, flying past like I was standing still (which, moments earlier, I had been).  I exercised an abundance of caution on the descent, which was fast and twisty.  I caught back up with Renee, who hadn’t stopped to take pictures, and then gradually the wheels started to fall off.

Breaking down the walls in my own mind
Keeping my faith for the bad times
Get up, get up, stand like a champion
Take it to the world, gonna sing it like an anthem

The picture below shows more gorgeous South Dakota (or Wyoming? I was rarely sure which state I was in) gravel and one big change from earlier. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, my glorious shade disappeared and, just as Renee’s breathing issues seemed to subside, I began to struggle in the heat.  Now it was her turn to hold back and encourage me.  From miles 50-60 we (I) struggled to hit a 10 mph pace, and our cushion for the time cutoff shrank.

11:39 a.m./about mile 60

I didn’t get down, even as racer after racer from the 110-mile race cruised past us.  Avoiding the missteps of Cedar Cross, I kept eating and drinking on schedule. I never cramped, I never bonked, I just…couldn’t…ride…any…faster.  I began watching for roadside water so I could cool off, but the cold creeks of the early morning weren’t in evidence. I still had drinking water, but it was all warm.

At mile 60 we were just 9 miles away from the first checkpoint and had 50 minutes to get there. Kristi Jewett passed us around mile 65, driving the course backwards and filling up water for people who needed it. While the race is designed to be self-supported, they definitely stepped up the support level in deference to the weather, and while I often felt miserable in the 15 miles before the checkpoint I never felt unsafe.

The last four miles — so close! — my body began quitting on me. Or maybe I began giving up in the heat; it’s hard to judge the difference between what you can do and what you will do at tough times, so maybe I just needed to push harder instead of giving in to how bad I felt. I joke sometimes that my central governor is more of a central dictator, though, and just after we met Kristi he pretty much shut things down.

My race became a slog from one shady spot to another, catching my breath and sucking down water before struggling through the next sun-drenched stretch.  Craig, who’d leapfrogged with us for a while fighting the same battle with the heat, gradually moved ahead. I wanted to tell Renee that she needed to go on so that she could make the cutoff, but she was far enough ahead that I couldn’t call to her.

Finally, on a gentle uphill, I had to stop. I leaned over my bike, struggling to breath without throwing up, and the two-ish miles to the checkpoint might as well have been 100 for all my chances of beating the cutoff. Eventually the nausea subsided enough that I could slowly walk my bike, and it was here than another racer passed me in his car. “Do you need anything? Water? A ride to the lodge? I couldn’t handle the heat. I had to make the call.”

His wife and kids looked at me with sympathy (and probably relief) as I turned them down. “No, I’m going to get to the checkpoint under my own power, even if I have to walk the rest of the way.”

I eventually reached a stretch that was mostly flat and downhill, and in what seemed like moments I was at CP1, fifteen minutes past the cutoff, my long-anticipated race over not even a third of the way in.

Gonna disconnect from the hard wire
Time to raise a flag for the cease fire
Staring down the hole inside me
Looking in the mirror, making peace with the enemy

I checked in with the race tent in front of Trailshead Lodge and then Renee, who’d made the cutoff by 3 minutes (I think), and Margy waved me down. I rode over to them and dropped my bike. Margy got me a cold drink and a cold rag and sat me down in the shade of Craig’s crew tent with a bag of ice in my lap. I covered my face and pushed back tears, wanting nothing so much as to call my husband to come pick me up so I could cry in privacy for the rest of the day in our air conditioned camper. (And I’ll be honest: while I thought I’d made my peace with that day I’m tearing up as I write this two weeks later.)

All that work, all that training, all that driving to South Dakota. All that hope and excitement and planning. Whenever I told anyone about the race, invariably the question arose: “Why 200 miles? I don’t even like to drive 200 miles!”

I’ve wondered the same thing many times, but shorter distances don’t call to me in the same way. “I know I can ride 100 miles,” I’d respond. “Where’s the adventure in doing something you know you can do?” Ironically, I didn’t ride fast enough to beat the Trailshead cutoff for the 110-mile course, either.

Even if I’d made the cutoff, I was in no shape to leave quickly enough to have a chance to make the next one, so I wished Renee good luck as she rode away and sat in the shade with my bag of ice and disappointment. Margy brought me a bag of chips, and I think I ate half of it while talking to Craig, Shaun, and Margy.

Gradually I started to feel human and stopped wanting to curl up in a ball and die. I hadn’t come all this way for 70 miles; my race was over, but I could still ride.  At first I considered riding the next stretch of the race since Margy would have to be at the checkpoint for Renee anyway, but Margy convinced me a better option would be to ride back to Spearfish. That would give me 110 miles and, if not a completed race, at least respectable mileage.

Margy borrowed cue cards for the 110-mile course so I could copy them down (not yet having made the connection that I already had the route back to Spearfish on my Garmin because it was the last leg of the Motherlode), and then after a wobbly walk to the bathroom that made me question my ability to ride back, newly restocked food, and ice everywhere I could fit it in my jersey, I turned back in the direction I’d come from.

I am no man of steel
I have no heart of stone
Don’t tell me how it feels
I’ll find it on my own

As soon as I turned off the main road my Garmin picked up the course; I realized to my relief that I didn’t need the hastily copied cue sheets and was free to return to autopilot.  I’d expected to cry my way home a la DK2012, but I only mustered a few tears before remembering that a crying session would cloud up my contacts.

With zero urgency remaining, I pedaled when I could and stopped when I needed to, taking in the scenery and appreciating the opportunity to ride my bike somewhere so beautiful.  Entertained by noisy cows, I stopped and recorded a short video to sum up my race experience.

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There was a short stretch of climbing before a long descent that I’d looked forward to in my pre-race planning. The last leg had a definite downhill trend, and I’d anticipated it as being much easier. Shaun and Craig had warned me otherwise, but I was still surprised by just how rough and rocky the road was, interspersed with surprise sandy sections, and I was very glad to be riding it in daylight.

Once I was through that area, the roads returned to being lovely and rideable and, if they weren’t yet shaded, at least the heat was tempered by the occasional merciful cloud.

I stopped at the turnoff to the Cement Ridge lookout tower, where the 110 and 210-mile courses separated. I could ride the easier, mostly downhill, route back to Spearfish or I could follow my cue sheets to the lookout, which required a big climb. I looked again at the cue sheets, doing the math.

Taking the Cement Ridge route would only be an extra 8 miles. Jeff and Jacob weren’t expecting me back until after midnight, so I had plenty of time. Cement Ridge had potatoes, whiskey, and (the kicker) cell service that would enable me to let my husband (who, lacking access to the internet, had basically no idea what was going on in the race) as well as my friends (who, having access to the internet, might be wondering where the heck I was going if my tracker was updating) know what was going on.  Cement Ridge it was.

My turn led to some gentle climbing, which I’d expected, and then a fun descent, which I hadn’t. It’s hard to enjoy riding downhill when you know it leads to a climb. At the base of the road to Cement Ridge I looked up and groaned. A mile of pushing my bike uphill later, I turned a corner and saw more hills. Kicking myself for making this stupid detour I pondered turning around, but I’d come too far and, frankly, was afraid to ride back down the hill I’d just walked up.  I pushed my bike over a couple more little kickers and then stopped to admire the view.

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Breaking down the walls in my own mind
Keeping my faith for the bad times

Get up, get up, stand like a champion

Take it to the world, gonna sing it like an anthem

I was SO disappointed in how my race had ended and this climb was stupid hard, but I was suddenly thrilled to be right where I was, finishing things on my own terms and seeing beautiful sights. After still more climbing I reached the lookout tower. Manned by a very cool crew from SRAM, this stop was more balm for my scorched ego. They reminded me how hard the heat had been for everyone, how many people had to drop, how few people even registered for the full race.  They iced my bottles , gave me potatoes and apple pie moonshine, and sent me on my way feeling much better.

Thankfully the return trip didn’t require defying death on the steep road I’d walked up, instead directing us down a dirt road on the other side of the ridge. From this point on, the race was pretty much straight up downhill fun on smooth, lovely roads.

The last 15 miles or so of the race follows Spearfish Canyon. It was scenic and beautiful and, as we got closer to town, occasionally scary with cars rounding blind curves in the middle of the road.

The gravel eventually gave way to pavement, and after 100 miles I was speeding along downhill over 20 mph. Even at the relatively high speed and beautiful scenery, by the last few miles I was over it. Yeah, yeah, canyon walls, ok, a waterfall…now where’s that last turn??

Feeling like a hero, but I can’t fly

The turn onto the bike trail was a little tricky and again I was glad to be hitting it in daylight. From there, it was a short ride to the finish line, where I pulled up short instead of crossing so as not to confuse the results. Out of six 200-mile races this makes my fourth DNF, but the chance of failure is what makes the challenge interesting and the occasional victories so sweet.

No, you never crash if you don’t try

I’ll be honest. The disappointment is a bitter pill to swallow and leaves me feeling like less. I know the weather was not ideal, but half the field finished under those conditions, so it can certainly be done. I did a lot of things right; I think I was trained to finish, and I stayed on top of hydration and nutrition. I just couldn’t cool my body enough to make it do what I needed to do. My friend Aaron has this quote I’ve pulled out before, “There’s no failure, only feedback.” Clearly my feedback here is I need to a) work on acclimating to heat and b) figure out some workable solutions to deal better with early season heat.

Took it to the edge, now I know why

I got an incredible amount of support from friends both before and after the race, and another quote that stuck with me was “Don’t let success go to your head or failure go to your heart.” I’m still working on the latter part of that one, but I haven’t regretted going for a moment.  Motherlode was a great race. The parts of the course I saw were incredible, and the race directors were wonderful. Spearfish is a neat town, and if you like grass roots gravel you’d love this race. Of course I’m already plotting my return, so maybe I’ll see you there.

Never gonna live if you’re too scared to die

Big thanks to the race directors, volunteers, and sponsors. Thanks to Renee for being an awesome riding partner and to Margy for being an amazing crew. Most especially thank you to everyone who took the time to encourage me and/or commiserate with me about the race. It’s easy to say the right thing when things go well, but you guys nailed it when they went south, too.
Randy Erickson album

Les Heiserman album

Luke Meduna’s video from 2015 Motherlode (same course, different weather)

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Dirty Kanza 2015

The weeks of rain leading up to this year’s Dirty Kanza had left the Emporia-area rivers at flood stage and dirt roads a muddy mess. Despite a spring of strong training and good results, I lined up on race morning harbors get serious doubts that I’d beat the cut-off to the first checkpoint, 77 miles into the race. But there’s nothing new about doubts. The end of a 200-mile race always hides behind a gigantic question mark. 

And then we were off. 

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2015 Race Date

This is a race you don’t want to miss!

The Cedar Cross

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Just wanted to make sure everyone knew this event will be happening again on May 2nd, 2015. We hope to see you there!

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San Diego or bust

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 We left town at 4 a.m. on July 17 with about 6 total hours of sleep among the three drivers.  Having 0 of those hours, I scored one of the first non-driving shifts and spent the next 4 hours sleeping, waking in time to inflict Dirty Kanza memories on my family as we drove through the Flint Hills.  Our first day on the road had been planned to knock out as many miles as possible so we could get to the fun stuff sooner.  One of the highlights was crossing into Colorado, which is also where our low point of the day occurred. Read on…

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Somewhere to rest my weary head

Cabins, campsites, bear warnings, lovely lodges, sketchy discount hotel bookings, and spots mooched in the guest bedrooms of family and friends.  Almost exactly a month ago we set off on a cross-country road trip with an end-destination of San Diego and several intermediate stops planned to break up the drive; thirteen days and 4,700 miles later we were back home. It’s taken me nearly a month to get around to even starting to write up, well, anything, but I’m finally getting started with a post about all of the different places we stayed on our trip.  Suffice it to say that my major procrastination (we left on a Thursday and I started making reservations on that Monday) didn’t stop us from sleeping in some pretty awesome spots.  Like this one…

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Obviously we survived our night(s) in bear territory.  If you want to hear about some of our other stops, check out the link above.

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Tour d’oh(nut)

Staunton’s Tour de Donut is the first race I ever entered.  In this quirky race, entrants race a ~30 mile route with two donut stops; 5 minutes are deducted from your finishing time for each donut eaten, and results are tabulated for both outright time and donut-adjusted time.

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Mmmmmm…donuts…

In 2009, shortly after my first Katy Trail through-ride, my son and I “raced” this for the first time and were instantly hooked.  Well, I was; he made it back one more time before moving on.  Not only was this my first race, but it was also my first podium in 2010 (2nd place AG donut-adjusted) and the first outright podium finish that wasn’t a function of low numbers of entrants (2nd place AG last year).

Based on last year’s strong finish — by chip time I was the 9th woman overall — I returned this year with big ambitions of repeating my podium.  I even recruited a small crew of domestiques.  Granted, I didn’t really do any bike training after Dirty Kanza, but I’d logged about 120 miles on my mountain bike in the past few weeks and should be able to manage a 34-mile road effort in someone else’s draft.

Unfortunately my road bike, perhaps bitter over being ignored in favor of my other bikes, had other plans entirely.

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Stubborn Mule 30 hour adventure race

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Last weekend I headed up to the Northwoods area of Wisconsin for my first 30 hour adventure race.  After tackling three 24 hour courses, I was confident that a few more hours would be no big deal.  It turns out that being six hours into a race and realizing you have a full 24 hours remaining is a little daunting.

There were many potential dangers facing us.  Were we eaten alive by voracious mosquitoes? Did we capsize in the rapids? Did we see a bear? Did we get How many times did we get rained on? Did we finish the race?  Check out the race report and see.

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