Has it been nearly a month since the SBT GRVL race? And has it been nearly a month since I should’ve posted this recap on the blog I’ve all but abandoned? Yes, yes it has. Alas, I still wanted to share the weekend and some photos because this race was a life-changing experience. I hope you enjoy, make it to the end, and consider signing up next year if you like bikes and riding them in the mountains!
Locked, loaded (with snacks), ready to go!
One of my favorite documentaries, “How to Run 100 Miles,” documents two friends training for the Run Rabbit Run 100-mile ultramarathon held in Steamboat Springs. The film takes viewers on a beautiful and sometimes comical journey through training and race day in a very real and beautiful way only runners and ultra-athletes can appreciate. As they got deep into the miles and as they cycled through good days and bad ones, one of my favorite things the narrator and filmmaker said was, “You have to run a lot of miles before you run 100 miles.” As with any dauting task or event, the race isn’t the race. It’s the hours of sacrifice you put in before the gun goes off.
As I stood on the SBT GRVL starting line—a 100-mile gravel bike race also held in Steamboat Springs—freezing my ass off on a crisp 42* morning, I thought about everything I’d been through, and all the miles I’d accumulated before I even rolled into town to ride my next 100.
I balled up my hands and blew hot hair into my fists as I looked around at the 1500 other riders ready for a long day in the saddle. Mentally, I waded through the long weekend and evening rides I’d done in preparation to get here. To a tiny mountain town in eastern Colorado. I’d forgotten gloves on this trip. Forget is the wrong word because they weren’t even on my list. It was the middle of summer and I’m not sure anyone expected temps in the low 40s. Another deep blow into my hands; I curled my fingertips into my palms. Slowly, so very slowly, the sun lit up the mountains in the distance a bright orange. Oh how I wished I was basking in the hot sun on top of those mountains.
At 6:30 a.m., the race directors sent the first wave of riders off onto the course to begin their 140-mile journey. There were three rides on Sunday, August 18, 2019. The green ride: a 50k. The blue ride: a 100-miler. And black: a 140-miler. The big daddy. I registered for the blue distance knowing full well I could eek out a finish whether I had fit in proper training in the months leading up to the race or not. Turns out, I had accidentally prepared pretty well amidst a busy schedule and long commutes to and from work. I rode long and torturous group rides into the mountains on the weekends, met my friend for some easy-ish rides after work, ran some trails in the evenings in the middle of my commutes home, and did some strength workouts in my basement early in the morning before work. I didn’t realize how prepared I was until we hit mile 70 on race day and I felt like the day was just getting started.
At 6:35 a.m., the race director’s voice boomed over the speakers and vibrated against the buildings nearby. It was our turn to head out and after a 10-second countdown, he sent us, the blue riders, out behind a police escort to the beginning of the gravel roads about a mile and a half out. I texted my friends earlier that morning about meeting at the start line, but it was absolute chaos and the chute was packed with racers and their bikes, so about half a mile into the ride, I caught up with them and we stuck together the entire 100 miles.
Into the chilly morning air we went. Our mixed bag peloton was silent with a mix of nerves and maybe still a bit of sleep behind the eyes. All I heard were pedal strokes and heavy breathing. When pavement finally turned to gravel, the dirt and rocks crunched underneath our tires and handlebar bags bounced against our bikes. A symphony of shifting gears rolled over the open fields as we tackled the lush, green rolling hills. It was so beautiful my eyes hurt.
About 15 miles into our ride, the sun rose up above the mountains and beat down onto the back of my neck. A couple of us pulled off to the side so we could throw our jackets back in our bar bags. I turned my face toward the sky and let the heat warm up my cheeks. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen.
One thing I was really looking forward to during this race was riding on private ranch property. At our mandatory athlete briefing the day before, we were told our route would take us through private family ranches, only open to riders on this day, for this ride. Steamboat Springs was built on ranching, and much of the land to the north and south of the little downtown has been passed down through families since the 1800s. Around mile 23, we rode through a set of giant gates, past four story barns and starter home-sized farming equipment, onto ranch land. Some of the families were even sitting in lawn chairs on the side of the road cheering us on. it was all very exciting, and I felt so grateful to be there experiencing what isn’t normally available to the public.
Mile 26 was our first aid station stop of the day and it came at the perfect time. The water in my bottles was already scorching hot, I had two banana peels in my pockets waiting to be tossed out, and I needed to pee. Like, BADLY. A note about the aid stations: they were incredible. There were porta potties, water and Gu drink stations, tons of salty and sweet snacks, Gu Stroopwafels to stuff in our jerseys, mechanics with full setups tending to bike issues, and shaded areas if we needed them. The volunteers pointed us where we needed to go, kept everything refilled, and even snapped photos if we wanted because, hey, we were riding our bikes 100 miles that day, and it didn’t happen if it doesn’t go on the ‘gram.
Rest in pieces, you salty pretzels.
With cold bottles and full pockets, we rolled out of the aid station and back onto the road. Yep, road. Initially, I thought we’d be riding exclusively on gravel, but when we turned onto smooth pavement, I was thankful for some easy miles to break up the ride. At this point, we linked up with a few friends from back in Boulder and ended up sticking with them until the finish line. The “free miles” as we called them were smooth with rolling hills, offering gorgeous, sweeping views of nearby mountains and more ranch land. We took turns pulling on the front until we hit another hill and the group stretched out.
Slowly, the temperatures crept up. By 9 a.m., it was in the high-70s and climbing. We had a perfectly blue sky with barely a cloud in sight. I had a long sleeve jersey on with a short sleeve jersey in my bag just in case, but the cool breezes and shaded turns felt chilly at times, so I kept it on the entire ride and never felt like I was overheating.
On this section, from mile 28 to 31.7 there was a KOM/QOM challenge thrown in. When I first read the racer’s guide, I thought it was going to be a long sprint…it wasn’t. Instead, it was a long and steep dirt climb that really tested our climbing legs. Over the course of the 100 miles, I learned that I had really strong ones, and I felt amazing tackling every uphill we got to. So I stuck with my new friend Matt until we made it to the top, both gasping for air.
The aid stations were ON POINT with so much hydration and food.
Mile 47 was our next aid station stop—and, actually, the same as the first. We did a big loop and ended up back at aid station one, which was a nice surprise. Knowing we had a total of four aid station stops throughout the day kept us motivated to get back on our bikes and make it to the next. Also: because snacks. But the time on the bike was absolutely amazing, and the miles flew by. I think part of it was because most of these roads were completely unfamiliar to me. I didn’t know every rock on every road like I do back in Boulder. The change of scenery was so nice. Another thing I loved was getting to know even more about my friends. We don’t see each other as often as we used to because of work and school schedules, so getting seven dedicated hours together to talk all things life, liberty, boys, and the pursuit—with little to no cell service—was maybe the best part of the whole day.
On our way to the mile 72 aid station, one of our friends flatted on a sketchy and rocky descent. A real big rock punctured the sidewall of her back tire. I was worried about this all day. I really really really didn’t want to flat. No one does, but I’ve never changed a tubeless flat before. I was prepared just in case, but at the start of the race I said my prayers.
Jimena holding all the bikes while we fixed Kelly’s flat.
Kelly: “Is my back tire looking low?” Me: “Better hit it with some air.”
My friend was also very prepared and we were able to get back up and riding in less than 15 minutes. That was the only low point of the day, and it wasn’t even that low. We rolled into the mile 72 aid station still feeling great. My legs felt like they were just getting started, thanks to our conservative pace and my fueling mantra: early and often. I filled my bottles for the fourth time that day, scooped up some pretzels, and swallowed a surprisingly delicious potato-chip filled PB&J sandwich in one bite.
If you’ve never had a potato chip-stuffed PB&J sandwich at mile 72, do you even ride bikes?
The volunteers were very excited about their creation and were handing them out left and right. I also shoved a rogue Twizzler in my mouth that I grabbed from a hand-up a couple miles earlier. Could it have been poisoned? Maybe. Was it delicious? Absolutely.
Twizzler handups. I approve.
We didn’t stay at this aid station long because I think we were all getting antsy to just get there. So we swung our achy legs over our bikes and kept on with the last aid station in our sights. But before we peeled out—and by peeled I mean crawled—we saw a group of guys from Rapha Boulder. What a treat! I knew they were out there somewhere, along with about 25 more scattered around the course, and it was so fun to see familiar faces from back home.
Miles 72-84 were some of the most beautiful we rode, in my opinion. There were a couple tough climbs, which were made a bit more difficult as the hottest part of the day was approaching, but our spirits were still high. It was hard not to be in a good mood in such a beautiful place. After one of the steeper climbs, we were treated to an amazing descent that hugged the side of a mountain and circled a wide open property that almost looked like it had a…moat around it. It was wild! Those guys are livin’.
Matt and Kevin leading the way to the next aid station.
Our last aid station was at mile 84, which meant we had just 16 miles left to ride! (Wow, I can do math.) By this time, I was starting to drag a little. My body felt good, but I almost wished I’d had an iced coffee or something to slam to help liven up juuuuust a little bit. And whaddya know, there was an entire COOLER of Peet’s cold canned coffee drinks. Like the sugary ones. The milky, sugary, gas station ones you’d never get unless you were desperate on a long road trip in the middle of the night like one time. And I’m telling you, after my first sip I thought I saw angels. I chugged half the can then passed it to my new friend Matt who took a swig.
Truly saved my life. Noted for the next hot 100-miler!
No coffee drink I’ve had since then has been as good or refreshing, but then again, I was slightly desperate. After we all refilled our bottles yet again and got back on the dusty dirt road towards town. As soon as I saw the familiar grassy-covered ski slopes in the distance, I knew we were getting so so close.
Heading back into town, this was the sweetest sight.
By this time, lots of pros who were riding the 140-mile course were whizzing past us. Their speed doesn’t seem human to me. I heard most of them didn’t even stop at aid stations. I also can’t imagine holding my pee for that long.
Suddenly we dropped onto the beautiful Cow Creek Trails we rode a day earlier on our Rodeo Labs group ride and everything started looking and feeling familiar. Chunky gravel littered with cow poop beneath our tires, giant trees that arched over the road, and sunlight that flickered between the branches. Almost home. A final few miles of pavement followed and as we finallyfinally took a left onto Yampa Street towards that beautiful finish line, I swallowed a sigh of relief, and looked over at my friends’ tired, smiling faces as we crossed the finish line together. I heard each of our names boom out of the speakers in congratulations. A rep from the iKor tent wrapped a cold towel around each of our necks and kept us moving through the chute. Fans, riders, families, kids, friends—all clapping for each of the riders who came in after us. SBT GRVL took over the town and turned downtown Steamboat Springs into a giant party. I was so happy to be done, but even happier to have done it with people I really care about, who have changed me for the better, and who have made riding even more special than I could’ve even imagined.
Best day evvaarrrr!
Our amazing crew!
Not ten minutes after crossing the line, we had stripped off our shoes, socks, jerseys, base layers and helmets and were sitting in the ice cold Yampa River just off the main road with about 20 other finishers. Sweet relief for our exhausted legs that worked so hard the last seven hours. Some sipped on beers, others on Cokes, some were shoving whatever food was left in their jersey pockets into their mouths, but we all were laughing, swapping stories, comparing tan lines, and rejoicing after a truly amazing day in the mountains.
Dead but so incredibly happy.
It was a day I will never, ever forget. Until we do it all again in 2020.
I didn’t have a hotel room for Sunday evening, so I said my goodbyes to my friends and headed to Natural Grocer for some quick and easy to-go food. It was nearing 4 p.m. by this point and I hadn’t had a proper meal all day. I grabbed an assortment of pre-prepared grain bowl salads, a falafel wrap of some kind, a six pack of Zevia sodas (that’s all they came in!), and a bag of trail mix. I was craving all the salty things and as many ice cold beverages I could get my hands on. I loaded myself and all my food into my car, cranked up the air conditioning and took a few bites from everything between sips of cream soda-flavored Zevia. But after a few minutes, my stomach got full and achy. I think the heat, the miles, the hours had started to catch up with me and I wasn’t feeling too great. I packed everything up to save for later and got on the road back to Boulder.
My only regret was not staying through Sunday night to Monday. A bunch of RCC members and friends stayed and grabbed dinner together that night—what fun that would’ve been, swapping stories and celebrating with a couple drinks.
The drive back was easy and beautiful. All those two lane highways out of town and into the mountains are some of the most impressive drives I’ve ever been on. It’s sometimes difficult to focus on the road with everything to see out the windows.
I arrived home around 8 p.m. and unloaded my bike and all my gear and laundry then collapsed into bed after a long, hot shower.