I was scheduled to be in Boston for a week of training May 10 – May 14. Before the trip I checked the national XTERRA race schedule, and noticed XTERRA King of the Hill was scheduled for May 16 in New Jersey. Google Maps showed a 5 hour drive between Boston and the race site in Lebanon, NJ. Not too bad. So I set to work figuring out the logistics of getting to the race with all of my gear.
My first preference was to rent a mountain bike. I searched Google. I posted on the regional forums of Beginner Triathlete and Mountain Bike Review. I called bike shops that were sponsors of the race. I e-mailed the race director and people in AZ that I knew were from NJ. The result: mountain bikes are not for rent in NJ. Well, I should clarify. Mountain bikes that would hold up to an XTERRA bike course were not for rent. This is where I met my first division between west coast mountain biking and east coast. I’ve rented mountain bikes in the west with no issues, and no one even batting an eye at the thought. But on the east coast I got a lot of “Um, no one rents mountain bikes. This isn’t really a tourist area for mountain bikers.” If you want a beach cruiser for rolling along the Jersey Shore, no problem. But a bike for XTERRA racing…no dice.
Ok, on to Plan B, which was to disassemble my Blur and pack it in its flight box and fly it with me. The problem with this are the airline fees. Some think UPS or FedEx would be cheaper. And years ago they were. In 2003 I shipped my Bullit in a larger hard case from Tucson to Downieville, CA for $45 with insurance. Now it costs $150 to ship a bike via UPS or FedEx. I decided on Southwest, because a bike flies for $50, and there are no fees for the other checked bag. Also in my logistical planning was where to fly into. Into and out of different airports would mean I would get stuck with a hefty fee from the rental car place. So I decided on the halfway point and to fly into Hartford, CT.
I spent several hours cleaning the bike before packing it because it still had dirt and residue from Saipan on it. Then I removed both pedals, wheels, disc brakes, brake calipers, real derailleur, and handlebars. What follows next is padding the bike so that it would survive in the box. I used a lot of old race T-shirts to wrap parts, and foam insulation tubing for around the bike frame. My floor pump, Camelbak, and bike and trail running shoes all went in the box with the bike as additional padding and stuffing to keep the frame from moving around.
Mountain bike ready to fly.
The entire bike box was 67 lbs, along with 47 lbs of a roll-on luggage bag with all of my race gear and clothes for 10 days. Pulling those two items around the airport alone can be a pain, but I learned you just have to go slow. People in airports are also very curious about a girl toting around a huge, plastic trapezoid. In Hartford I got about five questions of what was in my box. I was too worn out and tired to make up something cool, but then again an entire mountain bike in a box that small is pretty impressive. It also makes everyone think you are some big wig bike racer. Who else would haul all that stuff around an airport?
The next hinge in my logistical plan was the rental car. I absolutely had to get an SUV or something of the like. I had Emerald Isle service through work, which meant I would be eyeing an HHR, Dodge Nitro, or worst-case a PT Cruiser. When the shuttle dropped me off there was a lone, red HHR left in the isle. Score! I folded down the rear seats and loaded the bike box on its side, followed by my luggage. It all fit, no problem.
I drove to Boston, and the next day put my bike together. I labeled all of my foam pieces so that disassembly and packing after the race would be much easier. During the week I rode a local trail that was only 3 miles from my hotel (see the Merrimack River Trail post below). I was stuck in a classroom from 8 AM to 5 PM every day, but it was awesome to have my bike with me and hit the trail before or after class. I took advantage of the extended daylight the east coast has and rode the trail any time I could.
On Friday our class ended early, so I loaded the bike box, luggage, and my assembled bike in the HHR and drove the 5 hours down to New Jersey. The drive wasn’t bad, and the next day I hit the bike course for a pre-ride to see what I would be in for the next day. While out on the course I ran into a guy named Kenny, who was stapling XTERRA arrows to trees. He worked for Green Brook Racing (the race company putting on the XTERRA) so I chatted with him for a bit and asked about the course. After my pre-ride, he and the race director, Joe, and the rest of the crew headed to lunch and invited me along. A very friendly bunch and a great group of folks!
The next morning I didn’t have to be up until 6:30 AM. The race didn’t start until 10AM! This was awesome! Joe, the race director said that it was usually cold and overcast in the mornings and beautiful by that time of day, so they found they got more competitors when they pushed back the race time. I got to transition early, set up my bike and gear, and got my numbers at registration.
Transition area in The Garden State.
I got a great spot in transition.
We had a pre-race meeting at 9:30 AM, and then it was time to get in the water for a warm-up. The race was held at the Round Valley Recreation Area, where there’s a huge lake. But we weren’t swimming in the main lake, and instead were swimming in a smaller lake over a spillway. It was kind of nice because there was a nice beach, no boats, and it was small for easy sighting. I got in the water, which was 66 degrees, and did a quick swim before getting out and heading to the start up the beach. This XTERRA started with a beach run (rather than the run being in the middle of two swim laps), then two laps of an out & back along a line of buoys. The beach run took me 1.5 minutes before I jumped in the water. There were 126 racers in the XTERRA and only 20 women, so when I got in the water I was already at the back of the pack. I tried to calm down on the first lap since the heart rate had shot up on the run. I turned at the buoy and found the major disadvantage to an out & back swim course. People like to follow the buoys, which means a higher probability of having a head-on collision with someone coming from the other direction. I moved over a bit and kept sighting every 4 strokes so that I wouldn’t crash into anyone. I got out and ran around the marker pole on the beach, and jumped in for the second swim lap. With everyone getting out and in the lake in the same area, the mud had churned up so it was hard to see until I got to deeper water. I started pulling hard on the second lap, and came out of the water in 15:50. Not too bad for an 880 yard swim including a beach run.
Super easy swim course.
I got to my transition area and looked behind me. Some of the other girls that I knew were in my age group were behind me, and I wanted to beat them out of transition. I got the wetsuit off, threw on the bike gear, and ran my bike up the hill out of transition. This being XTERRA, there were cement stairs heading down the hill, and we had to ride the stairs to get out on the bike course. It was so much fun! I love riding stairs! Many elected to walk their bikes, or take a small dirt trail around the outside. We had a small stretch of pavement before the trails began, so I got my cycling gloves on in this area. Then we hit the trails and immediately began to climb on a fire road. The climb wasn’t too bad because there was an awesome and fast downhill right after. The guys that passed me on the climb were now getting passed by me as I flew down the hill. I swear I’m going to give up this triathlon thing and race Super D.
The start of the bike and run courses.
The first climb on the bike course.
View of the lake from the top of the first climb.
It was important to get out in front of as many riders as possible, because we had a switchback section coming up on singletrack, and there wouldn’t be much room to pass. I entered into the top of the switchback section with a guy right on my tail, and I wanted to ditch him because I knew he was already looking to pass and was probably thinking I was going to be slow in this section. The trail headed down and I pushed the bike around under me while standing to limit braking and hold as much speed as possible. I caught another rider, but he hopped off on a slight incline and I was able to ease by and start the next section. The switchbacks weren’t too tight but still required some control. There were also a ton of tree roots that formed drop-offs in the middle of the trail. I grabbed the big ring to keep my chain from bouncing around and snaked my way down the switchback hill, catching air off of the roots. I was now at the speed where you “float” over objects in the trail. The guy behind me was nowhere to be seen. I was annihilating this section! Towards the end I caught up to a train of slower riders, but thankfully the two front guys dismounted and moved off to the side so I could get by. The trail popped out onto an open, grassy field, and then started up a gravel road. The very beginning involved another set of switchbacks on the climb, and riders all around me were getting off their bikes. I got into the inner ring and set to work spinning up the hill in a fast cadence, passing those that were walking.
The open, grassy field after the switchback section.
Riding through the trees.
A tunnel of trees.
The fire road was the easy part of the climb. It was steep but the gravel made for good traction. The fire road ended and we split off onto another singletrack section, which was the major technical climb. I was in the granny gear now, but I was still spinning at a high cadence and climbing on the bike. I wanted to stay on the bike as much as possible. Riders were dismounting all around me, but I moved off to the side around them and kept going. I made it to a rooted section of trail before finally having to get off the bike and hike. But once I was through the roots I was back on and climbing. The trail was in the shaded forest now, but the shade wasn’t helping much. The humidity was super high, and combined with my high heart rate I was completely drenched.
I climbed and climbed, pushing as hard as I could to stay with the group of riders I was in and staying on the lead lap. The course would double-back on itself, and I wanted to be done with the out & back before the leaders came through. Then, it happened. As I shifted gears on the climb, my legs suddenly spun with no resistance, but my back wheel was making an awful noise. I looked down to see the chain on the inside of the inner ring. I figured I had just dropped a chain on the climb, and hopped off and grabbed it to slide it back over the inner ring. The chain whipped around, revealing two open ends. I had broken a chain in the middle of my race!
I grabbed my bike and laid it on the ground off the trail. First things first, get the Camelbak off the back to get water weight off the body. I then assessed the mess in front of me. The chain was broken and wrapped in a mess in the rear cog. I grabbed the chain and set to work on unraveling the mess. My hands were shaking like mad and sweat was dripping off the front of my helmet. Going from race mode and Zone 5 heart rate to 0 in 2 seconds causes the body to do strange things. But I HAD to get this fixed! I was at the worst point in the trail. I was 3.5 miles in, so to hike out would be forever and would mean DNFing. I did NOT come all this way to DNF! But I couldn’t break the chain further and had to be careful. It was like diffusing a bomb. I carefully un-wedged it from the rear cog, then got it routed correctly through the rear derailleur.
I reached into my Camelbak and pulled out my powerlink. I had been carrying this powerlink with me ever since I started XTERRA racing, 6 years ago. An entire link had broken, and the pin was long gone somewhere on the trail, so at least I didn’t have to use my chain break tool to push a pin out. I tore open the package, and one half of the link went flying onto the forest floor. GAH!!! I slowly dug through the leaves and rocks and finally found the tiny gold link. As I worked, the entire world passed me by. People would ask “Need any help?” and I said “No, I broke a chain.” Most would quietly say “oh” and keep riding because they couldn’t help. One guy that rode by responded “Did it fall off or is it really broken?” THAT comment sent me into a fury. WTF!!! Here I am working on my bike with two halves of chain in my hands trying to link them together and I have some IDIOT asking if it “just fell off?!?!” Like I couldn’t tell the difference between a chain that had broken and one that had fallen off?!? I mentally pushed him off his bike and gave him a Shimano heel to the nads.
I put the pin ends of the powerlink through the open ends, then spent some time connecting the eyelets together. This is normally an easy operation any other time, but in the middle of a race with adrenaline spiking and hands shaking it becomes tough. Finally there was an audible snap as the link joined. I stood the bike up and shifted a few times to make sure it was working, then grabbed my Camelbak and got back in the line of bikers. I was now back with the stragglers. You do all this training to specifically NOT be a straggler and then one mechanical issue sends you back there. Many were walking, so I pedaled hard, trying to make up any time I could. I had lost about 10 minutes dealing with my chain, so there was no way to catch back up to the group I had been racing with. Thankfully there was a downhill, so I shifted into the big ring. Each shift made me cringe, wondering if the chain would snap in a different spot. But I had to keep going. I was now in the “irresponsibly fast” zone on the downhills but I didn’t care. I was dancing over the rocks and tree roots, and then hit the rock garden. Two guys were in the middle of the garden and going much slower. I grabbed the left line and said “on your left” and made it past. I was now free to pick up momentum again and make it through the garden. Then there was a hard left turn and we were on the campground road.
The campground road is another gravel fire road about 2 miles long. Here I was passing other stragglers with mechanical issues. One guy couldn’t change his flat, but I couldn’t stop because I had already lost a ton of time dealing with my chain. Another guy that was in front of me stopped to help him. Another guy was walking his bike out with a tube draped over his handlebars. He had gotten 2 flats, and walking a bike means he obviously didn’t carry any patches with him. He had about 3 miles of walking to do at that rate. I climbed up onto another singletrack section that joined back up with the out & back of the course. I was finally headed back to transition. I hoped my bike would hold together long enough for me to get back there. On my way down I passed the course sweeper heading up the hill, and he said I had a mile of downhill. I took advantage of this and once again entered the crazy fast zone to make up as much time as I could.
Flowers alongside the singletrack.
I crossed the open green field again, and started climbing the switchback section that we had come down earlier. It was much tougher going up than down, but I climbed what I could. I was demoralized at this point, just trying to salvage what I could of my race. But it was really hard to push with the same vigor that I had before the chain broke. I got back out on the last fire road, and started the last downhill on the fire road. I could see the lake at this point, and only had about a mile and a half to go. The next section I dreaded. It was a climb back up the fire road, but at this point the bike and run courses would intersect and I could see all the runners finishing up their races. It was horrible to see people I had been racing against out on the run course while I was still on the bike course. I made the turn onto the pavement, and had a fast downhill all the way back to transition. I got to transition and people were already done with their races and packing up. I racked my bike, threw on the running gear, and was out of there in 45 seconds.
The run starts on the same pavement as the bike course and leads to the same fire road. But runners get to make a right turn and run up “Toboggan Hill,” which is where the race gets the name of “King of the Hill.” Toboggan Hill is covered in grass, and is huge. I resorted to walking like all the other racers around me, due to the insane slope. Once at the top there’s hardly any rest because you get to run down the back side, turn around, and then run up the backside before being able to run down. The views from the top are fantastic though, and I tried to take them in to try to bring some sort of positive light to my race. The run down Toboggan Hill was pretty tough, just because of all the pounding your legs take on the steep slope. I was happy to get to the bottom, then continue on up the fire road. The last part of the run involved the same fast downhill on pavement as the bike course, then an extra section of trail looping around the lake. I ran past a playground, and the kids on the playground cheered and yelled “Girl power!” as I ran by. It was pretty funny. I got onto the beach and finished up the last bit of the trail run, crossing the line in 2:36:58. Had I not had the chain to deal with it would have been under the 2:30 mark.
The Finish Line!
I picked up my transition area as they did the obligatory XTERRA pushup contest. I decided to hang around for the awards, just to see if results would get posted. I was absolutely shocked when they called my name for 1st place in W30-34! I waited afterwards and talked to Kenny (the guy I went to lunch with the day before), who was also doing the timing for the race. I wanted to be sure of the results. We went back to the timing shack and he pulled up the results. Sure enough, the others behind me had longer times. I was given a cool bobblehead doll as an award. So as they say, don’t ever give up! You might just be in first place. ;)