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.
The last few miles were not quite as rough as day one but we were indeed tired and it was still a challenge. This round however we were facing the finish with three times the amount of riding under our belt as the day prior. We rolled across the line exhausted but feeling the satisfaction that comes with a solid accomplishment. When we regrouped later that evening for bike
washing, meetings, and dinner I noted that any descent that day where we weren't held up by other riders I had set a Strava PR. JC was taken back, I could see the glow of pride beginning to grow from the realization that he wasn't just along for the ride, he was contributing to our result and carrying around an equal share of the responsibility to get us around the course as fast as possible each day.
Each finish line you cross at the Breck Epic is accompanied by worked legs and a degree of exhaustion. While you are elated to be done for the day there remains - up until the final day - a twinge of worry that the countdown of minutes left to recover has begun. The next days dose of hurling yourself through the mountains on two wheels will be upon you before you are quite ready, you are tired NOW and tomorrows course has more miles.... or more climbing, or a steeper hill, or worse weather. The cumulative effect is part of the beauty of this event. Many of these rides would be considered a difficult feat when accomplished as a stand-alone outing. To make them consecutive is part of what earns the race the title "Epic."
The third day of the Breck Epic is the first to take you much above 11,000 feet and pretty clear to 12k. True high country riding above the tree line is a whole animal in itself. We knew there would be hike-a-bike sections and much of the climbing today was to be in steady unrelenting stretches. Despite JC mentioning that his bike leg wasn't great for hiking, he was proving to be a beast when it came to attacking the walking sections. If anything slowed him down it was merely the extra second or two it took to clip and unclip the prosthesis to the pedal.
We started out at our now proven casual start pace only this time just as we were leaving the pavement for the dirt, the team lagging behind us in what was now 4th place joined us in the transition to single file congestion with a competitive but friendly greeting. JC and I exchanged glances as we remounted our bikes and he staged a whisper to me that they were the ones that could take our podium spot. I knew this but I didn't want to put the pressure on. It was still so early into such a big day that I wasn't sure risking our big picture endurance to stay in front of them on the start was such a great idea. But I let JC take the lead and we tracked them up the climb. I was concentrating, trying to keep tabs on JC's effort when not a few minutes later he opted to accelerate and take the lead from them. I was still harboring hesitation, was this too much for us to hold when we didn't know where they would be behind us? I put my trust in him and followed as we took the lead from them. As the trail became increasingly slower, rocky, narrow, and steep, I listened to the voices behind us to try and determine if they were indeed still there. I caught sight of them one last time before we exited the tree line for higher ground. The oxygen is thin enough that point that your immediate concerns become less about the competition and more about turning the pedals over or putting one shoe down in front of the other.
As we crested the top of French Pass and the first continental divide crossing of the day I gave JC the lead once again but warned him I didn't want to get too crazy on the exposed descending. The trail beds tend to be narrow and well below bottom bracket height while the scrubby shrub growth likes to encroach on your line of sight. All of these factors set up the perfect storm of an errant pedal strike becoming catastrophic with the achievable speeds. My worries were for naut when we ended up joining the rear of a line of traffic and a smorgasbord of riders in all states of descending attempts on the most technical portions of the trail. When we regrouped at the bottom and were once again facing a lengthy stretch of climbing I realized I hadn't had much food in the first few hours. The remainder of the day was looking more and more impossible in my head and I zoned out a bit before I realized I needed to consume everything I had with me. Three gels later I pulled my head back up just in time to run through my (nearly always wrong) claims of "last climb" and (always right) "phenomenal downhill just ahead" to motivate JC up and over the top of our days final traverse of the continental divide. Crises averted.
This descent is my favorite for the week. The trail starts out mellow and progressively becomes more rocky, more rooty, and more rowdy as you trade elevation for speed. Eventually there are spots you can barely stay on top of the rocks and roots long enough to hold momentum. JC had clear trail in front of him to let it out and we went down in style, catching and passing a number of riders as I belted out whatever song was in my head at the top of my lungs. Following him down was fantastic fun and our spirits were high as we passed through the final aid station and headed through the remaining miles towards home. I had remembered that last climb for the day being a long and draining one but we were communicating well and elated to have the biggest challenges of the day behind us. Before we knew it we were cruising down to the valley bottom and the finish line but just when you think you have made it, the final two miles is something of a punchy tour around the finish line noises, the tailing piles, and low woods in the valley. It's an exhausting surprise after you feel like you are so close to being done and I was back to my coaxing and well meaning but potentially false promises of "almost there." We had only rolled in and come to a happy stop for moments when the team now in fourth rolled up behind us. They must have been pushing hard as I had never even caught a glimpse of them on our tails. I was so proud of JC, he was setting the bar high for the time we were making up on the downhills, and it was pure determination that was keeping us ahead of them on the climbs.
We were feeling pretty dialed at this point. I had come to the hard-fast conclusion that JC could indeed push harder than he thought, we just needed to ease into the effort and keep our emotions on the situation low threat. We chanced the day three start by backing into the front of the group, the corral at the front for those in leaders jerseys was large and the videographers were following us around this morning causing us to join the line late. There was a moment of panic on JC's part, "I don't belong here" he whispered to me. I pulled my sunglasses off for the eye roll and told him just because we were up there didn't mean we had to leave the gate at mach ten. It was just a safer position to be in and we would start just as we had been.
This time our closest rivals for that coveted podium spot were hot on our heels early on. They once again gave us a cheery greeting as they eased through and once again JC and I exchanged glances. "That's them!" he once again whispered to me. I knew this but still didn't want to push the pace up so soon on a day with the combined longest milage and most feet of climbing. I shrugged in an almost defeated sort of way and hopped on JC's wheel. He in turn planted himself on to our competitions wheel and proceeded to track then up the hill. My heart rate was the highest I had seen that week as we continued up the first climb. I was floored by JC's ability and sheer willpower to hold on at such a strong pace. I took the time to study the strengths and weaknesses of the other team. If we continued on at this clip we could hold them. I could see where we could take advantage and get ahead, namely on fast descending or technical climbing but both were sparse on this days course.
We punched out of the trail onto a downhill stretch of road and they motioned for us to move past. JC was mid reply stating "nah, that's okay we will just stay here" when I screamed "GO!!!!!" So go we did. We leap frogged with them all day generally passing when the bikes were pointed down. The majority of the riding on day four is smooth and we needed to really stay on our A game to make it stick. As we once again made a move off the front, JC took the first of two consecutive minor spills. Despite being unharmed, as we settled in for the longest climb of the day he began to lag behind. "Everything okay back there? You got quiet." I asked. He replied "my leg is coming off, I'm going to need to stop and adjust it." We took a few moments halfway up the climb as JC rotated the rubber lined sleeve that creates suction to keep his leg secured into the prosthesis. It had ripped at the knee and the vacuum attached just above the foot was just drawing air in through a hole. We got rolling again but the other team who had been hot on our heels had passed us by that point and it would take a gallant effort to catch them back. We did our best, rallying the descents and keeping the pace consistent but the momentum we had set out with that morning was missing and we rolled through the finish dust-covered and with an air of defeat. They had booted us off the podium by nearly ten minutes. We still knew that we had each given the day our all and while we were bummed about the results I was proud of JC for pushing through and keeping it together. I'm quite certain that with the fast speeds and amount of pedaling on todays course, while a few people may have thought they did, no one else had their actual leg ripped off that day.
We regrouped at home and took solace in the knowledge that pretty much nothing the next day was flat or fast. I was determined to mind my calorie consumption as day five was traditionally my bonk like a fiend day. We started in waves of ten in a time trial start of sorts categorized by overall time. Luck would have them in the start group with us and once again we fastened our sights on their rear wheels. When the trail opened up to jeep road before what becomes a solid line of racers pushing their bikes for as far as the eye could see up the mountain, I moved us forward in the line. We we familiar enough with each other by this point for me to know to ease us into a harder effort and for JC to know he could trust me to not blow him up. My plan worked and we entered the hike-a-bike a good distance in front of them. I was doing good on my eating for once, I knew eating while pushing was really challenging for me and had already had three gels by the time we were off the bikes walking. We climbed strong and steady and I could no longer spot our immediate competition behind us.
Rolling over the top of Wheeler is always awe inspiring. This day is generally the shortest of the week at 24 miles (not so this year with the changes to day 1) but the first climb tops out at the high point of the race at around 12,400 feet and after dropping down a bit, returns there twice more. We kept the momentum going and the vibe positive. We were only carrying two bottles a piece and JC ran out a few hours in. I had one full still so I gave him half and after the smashy descent to the aid station three and a half hours into the day, he was in a pretty solid state of cracked. My roommate took the opportunity to surprise me by showing up at the aid station and I had to blink to make any sense of the situation when we rolled in. He had brought us donuts and did we want any? I choked on my dr. pepper, more sugar, ugh. We declined and moved on and a few minutes later JC remembered that he had meant to drink some of my soda. "Damn I should have eaten that donut!" he mentioned after the next hour of slogging through the woods was over. We had faded a lot at the end but after crossing the line we waited to make sure the other team was nowhere near us before calling it a day to spin home.
When we sat down at the meeting later that evening I went up to the board to snap a shot of the results. "JC we didn't get third like we thought." I said as I sat back down. With the time trial start sometimes a team can beat you without actually having to pass you, this had been the case today. I let that sink in for just a split second before I showed him. We had beat the team ahead of us in the GC (general classification), and we had actually finished in second. Consistency and teamwork pays off. We were both beyond elated to see our progression on paper and have hard proof we were making each other stronger as the days progressed.
The sixth and final day was short but less technical and fast. We were determined to hold on to at least third place and that mornings time trail start had us in a group in front of the second place GC riders from Costa Rica. JC being fluent in Spanish had been communicating with the number of non-English speakers throughout the week. He struck up a friendly conversation with the second place CG team as we waited to go and for one final time we were off scrambling up the steep singletrack that took us to the base of Boreas Pass. We climbed steady and I was nothing short of amazed that JC was relaxed enough to finally be laughing at my jokes as we continued up a significantly tough ascent. When we popped out onto the dirt road that carried us up over the pass and down to the singletrack on the other side I kicked the pace up a notch and JC did his thing and latched onto my wheel. It was rad how in sync we were, we had come a long ways in six days.
We briefly paused at the aid station on the top of the pass to snag a bottle before flying back down the other side. The trail we were heading to is high on my favorites list. It takes us to the bottom of the far side of Boreas before climbing back up the road and crossing the pass for the second time that day. Minus a few holdups with other folks being overly cautious or skidding off bridges, we made sure all the shredding was shredded and busted out onto the dirt road at the far end of the days course. We were now truly facing the final climb. As we rolled through the false flats leading up to the base of the final 7 miles of uphill I realized I was slowing. In my excitement of the final days rush I had forgotten to eat. There was no way I could let our team down and not pull my own weight so once again I scarfed down everything that was in my pockets and waited for the magic to happen. It's pretty amazing how those calories work. By the time we settled in to the climb a few individual riders had caught and eased passed us with encouraging words. The grade is mellow here, averaging at just about 3.5%. I felt my energy levels coming back and began to pick up the pace. JC realized we were getting down to business, he latched onto my wheel and I gently ramped us up.
We passed first one guy and then another that had just gotten ahead of us. One of them chuckled and it fueled me to push us even harder. I continued to build the pace while also adjusting my motivation techniques from encouraging to demanding. "Your a freaking animal!!!!" I was shouting as we finally rolled over the top. JC was hurting but he was there. I was supercharged at the effort, I was hurting too, much more than JC realized but I knew we both had reserves and it was a reasonable effort, there was no reason to hold anything else back at this point. We crossed over the top of Boreas for the final time and I gave JC the lead. It is beautiful to see the leadership and confidence come to play and JC's motivation and determination take over when we were mission focused and he was in control. I was pushing watts nearly as hard to stay with him on that false flat downhill as I had been climbing. When we dropped into the final bits of singletrack trail we were rallying! We ticked off the last miles tired but proud and stumbled across the finish line elated. We were confident we had secured our spot on the podium, while we weren't in contention for moving up in the GC we had put forth an effort that we were sure had kept us where we wanted to be.
But apparently we were saving the best for last. Results were posted at the awards banquet later that evening and we had only missed first place by 35 seconds. That was one guy not falling of a bridge or us having not stopped at the aid station. We were in there, we were contenders with the best of them, we were pumped.
Our objectives for the week were to get to know and respect each other as friends and racers, to develop and use solid communication, to stay whole and healthy, to have fun, to learn, to grow mentally, and of course, to be competitive. It can be challenging to see progression taking place when you are in the midst of it but this was one time I could feel the daily development of our mutual respect and camaraderie as it grew.
My fears from early in the week became null as they were replaced with the knowledge and awareness of how to help bring the strength to the surface in JC's riding. He is capable and determined, it was my job to allow him to see just how strong he could be. In turn JC's stress of being along side a professional racer were put to rest as it became increasingly obvious throughout the week that his strengths brought out the best in both of us.
I consider myself to be a strong and driven person. To be matched up with someone who is equally if not more so and to be able to face a challenge along side of them is a source of pure joy. The success in pursuing our goals is made apparent by the gains we made each day, each stage brought us incrementally closer to the top step, each finish line left us feeling stronger, on each consequent start line we were more determined to improve on our previous days performance. I finished this race with a sense of euphoria I hadn't had in previous years, a feeling that I had indeed built a relationship that was meaningful beyond six days in Breckenridge, that we would both walk away in our separate directions stronger, more capable, and better able to conquer each day of our futures. JC is a special guy and it has as much to do with the open mind he approaches the world with as what he's been through to get here. As arbitrary as a bicycle may be, it's something that brings much joy to my life and it is a pure privilege to spend a week with someone who is comfortable sharing that their life was spared by finding the sport of cycling and the community and family that the love for riding and racing brings. JC, thank you and lets do this again. 💕