Breck Epic with USMES | MTB Season Last Hoorah
This is my third year of racing at the Breck Epic. I had heard of it long before I really paid much attention, at the time my focus was zeroed in on the one day International level events that led to a ranking amongst the fastest cross-county girls you could line up with. As the numbers dwindled in those races I realized the fun wasn't in it as much for me anymore. Rather than do hot laps around a one mile course that rarely did the areas riding justice, I'd prefer to find something that challenged me as both an athlete and a person. I knew coming into the Breck Epic that a solid six days of backcountry racing was a formidable obstacle not just physically but mentally as well. While I love to push myself, I have discovered that it is even more rewarding to compete alongside another racer; to have someone else to share the experience with, to learn from, someone to tell you to eat food when you forget to, or to share a tube or a tool when you don't have one. All of this contributes to the quality of the stories at the end of the day and adds to the overall fun of the week.
In my first year I learned that I can push harder than I thought and then push beyond that. It hurt a lot, I faded hard by the end of the week, but we did what we came to do and finished on top. For a while after that race I looked out at the world with fresh eyes, I was walking on a different plane than I had when I had left, the world looked cleaner and clearer, and I saw myself from a new perspective. I thought of the week in terms like "life changing" and slept for 13 hour stints for a few days after. For my second year I choose to race with a friend closer to my own ability level. She excels at road riding while I am happy as a clam on the winding singletrack. On a standard day we meet in the middle with cyclocross but this race was the perfect opportunity for me to encourage her in the woods, and her to push me on the roads. Again we came out on top, had an absolute blast, and I learned a lot about teamwork, myself, and my capabilities.
For my third year I wanted more personal growth, not to be greedy but who could turn down such a scenic, beautiful, epic (yes that's overused but valid), healthful way to continue to develop yourself to be a wiser, kinder, stronger version of yourself. Being a member of the US Military Endurance Sports (USMES) program for some years now combined with the appreciation that the race director Mike Mac has for service members, I thought this might be a good opportunity to fly the red white and blue of the team colors. It is a meaningful opportunity to help bring awareness and recognition to a program that aims to improve the lifestyle of current and former service members through encouraging participation in endurance type competitions.
I had met JC at my first Breck Epic in 2016 and I was pretty sure that he would be game to give it a second shot. We connected in the spring and sure enough he was stoked, the caveat was that he had been very focused on school for the past year and hadn't been riding much. So the compromise was I would coach him through the spring and summer and we would arrive together in Breckenridge ready to conquer any mountain set in front of us. We proceeded as planned with just a few hiccups in training motivation mid summer. Regardless by the time we finally met face to face in Colorado, we were both full of excitement for the opportunity the upcoming six days would present.
JC is one of those guys who takes everything in stride with a brilliant and positive attitude. He's been through a lot and is the better person for it. I hate to throw out terms such as "hero," "shining example," or "impressive," but it's challenging not to go there when you spend a few minutes of time with him. He's comes off as quiet and reserved but with a wild thick mane of hair and a beard any hipster would be envious of. If the dude would ever wear long pants, you would never know he wears a prosthesis, there is no limp, no signs of weakness. Heck, when you catch a glimpse of him he projects a strength and confidence that will make you do a double take. We knew that we would both survive the Breck Epic, the challenge was to thrive, see how we stacked up to the other competition, and see how fast could we could be.
The Breck Epic strategically (I'm looking at you Mike Mac!) does not put out a start list in the days leading up to the race. When you take to the line on the first day, 500 people group together in one mass gaggle and do their best to sort themselves out in the preceding two and a half miles of road climbing before dropping into the pinball chute of singletrack that rewards you for reaching the top. This year however, the mountain gods dumped rain throughout the preceding night and early morning leading to the fated twitter post stating the course had been cut to preserve the trails. Certainly the smart decision, but a bit of a bummer to miss out on the best bits of the days riding. So dirt roads and double-track it was; seventeen miles of the original 36 with most of the singletrack omitted. To accommodate 500 riders attempting to enter a single file trail after just .5 miles of off the start line road effort, we were broken up into waves by category. Previous years experience told me the duos cut no favors in the order of categories and sure enough we were the final wave to go, 45 minutes after the planned start.
The excitement of finally being on course got to us. Combine that with knowing who we were actually racing against and we went out hard. I was working to hold back but when we were warming up JC was holding some pretty high watts on my wheel and not showing any obvious signs of discomfort. The first day is all about feeling out your partner and your competition if not also setting the bar high for the rest of the week. So we charged.
In the final days leading up to the race I began to get that quick thrill of exhilaration, the little flutter of your heart while visualizing yourself on the start line or going head to head against a competitor that you want to beat. With the final preparations of bike tuning, list making, and food shopping, the excitement to be out there racing was catching up to me. I was wary, I know JC is strong, I coached him, I saw his data, I was aware of his capacity for taking on and conquering challenges but I had a suspicion that if I were to put the pressures on him of leading the race or needing to beat other competitors that he had no concept of, it might not pan out in our favor. I understand that there is a selfish theme to this, a feeling that anyone with a degree of competitiveness and a solid understanding of their capabilities possess when the possibility of winning is just within your grasp.
I tried to reassure him before we met up that I would take everything in stride, I didn't expect us to win and I would be happy at merely putting forth our best effort. JC is as much a competitor as I though and I believe he was shouldering the weight of performing well for our team as we finally got rolling on stage one.
Most of the days 2,700 feet of climbing culminated at mile twelve. I watched the mileage tick to 11.8 and hold for what felt like an eternity. We were climbing up a loose, rocky, and legitimately steep stretch of fire road that was more of a scramble than a climb. Everyone around us was suffering and like most of those around us, bike pushing was the focus. I tried to shout some encouragement but I wasn't quite sure if that was the best tactic, everyone is motivated a bit differently and I was uncertain if I was helping or if I were being impressively annoying. JC was head down and focused ignoring me which at least gave the appearance that I wasn't making things worse.
The final five miles included no more than 200 more feet of elevation gain but I felt I had maybe exceeded my quota of coaxing, "you got this's" and maybe (more than) a few false promises for stating nothing but downhill was remaining. The concern over the shortness of the day and the extensiveness of our teams bonk did play into my mind as we closed in on the finish. We were only covering 17 miles, that wasn't even a third of the longest day we would face in the upcoming week.
So we rolled back to the house, washed bikes, ate food, went to the meeting, and chatted about it. What could we do differently? We decided to start the days off lower key. Chill spinning that would ideally keep us calm, give us a better warm up, and seat us around mid pack on our way out of town. We were sitting in forth place overall so a podium finish could be a strong possibility on any given day.
We set this plan in action as the second days morning rollout commenced. Knowing how much more efficient it was to stay in the group and out of the wind it took a bit of self-reflection. I could see the pair in the leaders jerseys sitting tight up ahead of us, gaining ground as the front end pulled away but we had a plan and I directed my thinking forward to the hours ahead when we still would have the energy to turn the pedals over. JC was latched firmly onto my wheel as we dove off the pavement and started up the first steep fire road. Knowing he was physically close but not wanting risk a bobble in the crowd to check, it took me a while to realize my tactic of riding the secondary lines to give him more room to maintain momentum and my use of little surges to create gaps in the line of riders and give us more space was actually working against us. JC has more determination than he would even attest to when it comes to holding the pace that's being set and he was working hard to close the gaps I was making, much harder than I intended. With it still early in the week our communication and familiarity with each others pacing wasn't quite there yet and we were exerting a lot of energy early on in the day.
One of my favorite features on day two is three miles of narrow flume trail where too much deviation in either direction can throw you off the rock pile you are traversing. There is no significant elevation gain for the duration of this section but there also is no passing and typically long lines of riders form. Knowing that this feature was approaching we bombed down the preceding section of double-track fire road, launching off the water bars with gusto and past a few riders that had been in front of us to secure a spot free of traffic. I was once again impressed at JC's determination when I said "go," there was no hesitation to move through the riders and he handled himself on the descent comfortably and efficiently. While it seemed that he was more comfortable sitting on my wheel and allowing my experience to guide us, I had an inkling that having him lead the descents would give us an extra edge.
When we popped out of the flume on the other end at the first aid station we caught sight of the team in front of us. A look of panic crossed their faces and they took off hurriedly as we hastened to refresh our supplies. JC was quiet on the next climb as I made small talk with the other riders around us but when we swung back into the wooded singletrack and approached the first gnarly piece of downhill for the day with JC leading us, I realized it was all I could do to keep him in sight. I did a double take. Any loss of attention or wheel slip on my part and his back end was slipping away around the next corner. We settled in for the longest climb of the day and my focus went back to pacing us up the hill. Once we reached the top, a mile of false flat and rolling pitches across the peaks kept the promise of prolonged descending just out of reach. It's a painful final push after nearly an hour of uphill but when the trail points down and it's go time it's all you can do to not hoot and holler your way down the mountain. Once again I had to focus and work my tail off to stay with him, I had seen JC glance cautiously back at me few times to make sure I was still there and didn't want to risk him having a crash. I was entertained by the fact that he thought I was having a mechanical or the like because I wasn't keeping up with him, he didn't realize how strong he was descending.