A Lesson In Humility

I knew the reason I got off the course at 2017’s LandRun 100 was the right call. I also knew very few people would understand all of the pieces behind it. But LandRun—in any year, any weather—is a lesson in humility.

A Lesson in Humility

I knew the reason I got off the course at 2017’s Land Run 100 was the right call. I also knew very few people would understand all of the pieces behind it. But Land Run—in any year, any weather—is a lesson in humility.

The First 35

Race day dawned cloudy and cool, but not frigid, with just a light smattering of rain on the ground, not even enough to cause puddles—yet. That said, the predictions of 60s and sunny from earlier in the week (when I packed and left Minneapolis) were clearly not going to be accurate. In recent days, the predictions of a quarter inch of rain and highs around 50 seemed more likely the direction of the day. I had picked up some cheap leggings at the local Big Box store the day before, because while I had arm warmers and a rain jacket, I did not plan to need more than that, initially. My paltry riding gloves were all I had; two other thin wool base-layer gloves and two pairs of wool socks were in a Ziploc in my jersey pocket and my drop bag, respectively, and that was it.

On my Cutthroat, I had five water bottle cages, a similar setup to what succeeded for me at DK200 the previous summer; three had various electrolyte/calorie mixes, two plain water. In my EXP Toptube Bag I carried a variety of bars, Honey Stinger waffles, GUs, electrolyte tablets and Tylenol. Hydration and fueling were my primary concerns going into the event—while I knew I wasn’t in as great of shape as I’d like to be, I was confident I’d be able to slow-pedal to the finish line in 12 hours or less—goal, really, was less than 10.

Also on my bike were a half-framepack and a small saddle pouch. In each I had my bike “fix kit”—patch, chain link, two derailleur hangers, multi-tool, tire lever, two tubes, lube, then some other odds and ends (maybe some gummy bears). In my back pockets, I had five more Honey Stingers waffles (I like them because they fold easily in half and go down relatively easy while on the bike), two more GU, and my cell phone and earbuds in another Ziploc.

The start of the race already was a few hundred people shy of the 1,300 registered, but those who were there all looked strong and excited as Bobby Wintle set off the cannon, signaling the start of the fifth annual notoriously challenging race. I quickly found myself in the front 1/3 of the field, cruising at a pleasant quick pace through town, even after we hit gravel. Rain came in waves across the plains, steady at times, pelting at others, sometimes just a light mist. I first ate and drank around mile 7, when I was forced off my bike due to my pump opening up—the weather wasn’t inducing thirst or hunger, but I knew I didn’t want to get behind in my fueling.

It was during this glorious part of the ride where I enjoyed the scenery. The rain temporarily was turning many pastures an almost neon kelly green. One thing I’ve discovered in my limited gravel experience is it puts me so much closer to nature. When you are sludging up hills at a snail’s pace, looking around provides an impressive distraction. On this ride, I was transported yet again to my youth, surrounded by the sounds and smells of cattle that remind me of days on my grandma’s dairy farm in northern Wisconsin. She had passed away unexpectedly just the week before, but her love of nature is what resonates with me. She walked every day in the woods on her property; the last time I spoke with her, in fact, she complimented me on my commitment to a fit lifestyle and asked a lot of questions about riding 100-plus miles on gravel. Needless to say, passing under the scrub-brush-like trees that canopied the gravel was particularly poignant on this day.

Amidst the wonder of nature, however, we occasionally ride right past a small operating oil drill. “They seem so much smaller from the highway,” I think, as the rhythmic tick-tick-tick of the drill hums by. These along with other signs of almost bygone days in the region, and the ensuing poverty in some areas, were sobering on a dreary day.

As I watch the puddles ahead, they start to bubble with mini-eruptions of the fat drops start to fall. A roll of thunder clasps above my head. Someone asks me what mileage I have, and I share that I have it on a different screen—my hands, thoroughly glove-soaked now, are starting to feel chilled—but if I had to guess I’d say around 20.

A few miles up we come upon a clay field too churned to ride. I’m excited and run up that first hill, trying to keep my wheels clear of the mud. This proves impossible, and now I have an extra 10 lbs. to carry on my shoulders the next 1.5 miles. I don’t mind, though, as the physical activity has warmed my numbing hands and wet feet. (This doesn’t negate, of course, that wet clay removal is not helping my wet gloves.) I’m surprised to hear in passing someone predict that only 15 percent of the field will finish, given these conditions; I’m still feeling strong. Once clear of the really loose clay, I once more scrape off the mud and hop on to ride.

My Secret

Coming into this event, my training was about as off-the-couch as I’ve ever been with an organized race. I had a good (great, really) base going into mid-December, but then the holidays derailed my riding a bit. Just as I was ramping up again, I was struck with a series of stomach ailments—three in a row, every other week—that knocked me out for days at a time. I couldn’t seem to get my energy back up. Throughout this, I was commuting 30 miles on a fatbike a couple of times a week, but not succeeding at much else. By the third unexplained bout, I went to see a doctor and found out I was 7 weeks pregnant (our fourth). The exact gestational age in question, I immediately asked the obstetrician about my planned physical activity. Despite a rougher-than-usual first few weeks, my history of pregnancies were complication-free, and the last two highly active (I rode through 38 weeks with the last, working out right up until the day before delivery).

During the first trimester, OB reassured me, Baby is protected by the pelvic bone. Given my suspected timing, though, I’d be just coming out of the first trimester on March 11, literally at border week 15 at time of race. Riding dry pavement at home didn’t concern me—but if this gravel was at all approaching singletrack, I’d be anxious—the risk, of course, a fall. After multiple interviews with friends I knew who had ridden the past few LR100s, focusing on terrain, I felt confident it sounded rolling enough that I’d be relatively safe, provided my bike was functioning properly and I remained in control. I discussed again with my doctor and got the (guarded) OK—even still, I didn’t share my pregnancy with anyone beyond my husband, choosing to avoid the judgment I knew was inevitable with a risky decision such as this.

I’m sure to many it sounds selfish, putting my pregnancy at risk to—what?—earn some toughness medal? Prove some sort of independence point? My dad in particular had given me a really hard time about commuting while pregnant with my 2-year-old. And I get it: It’s one thing to put my own wellbeing at risk amidst traffic and potentially the elements, but that’s my choice, one I’m capable of making for myself. Baby doesn’t have a say in these types of decisions, and my actions directly affect Baby now, too.

I guess the place I came to 2 years ago, and still am at today, was one of “agree to disagree.” As parents, mothers in particular, we constantly are making choices for our children, some arguably more life-altering than others, everything from what foods they eat to what sports they play. For my older kids, each decision is weighed, pros and cons, risks versus rewards. When riding my road bike while pregnant, I knew I needed to go slower, monitor more closely my breathing and pulse, always stay hydrated and avoid sketchy sections of a route that might be overly rough or slick. In many ways, even on unfamiliar terrain devoid of most traffic and at a comfortable slow gravel pace, I felt more in control than on the spring roadways of Bloomington, Minn. And so (with my husband’s blessing) the decision was made, training (and periodic morning sickness) continued, and I found myself warmed up and ready to go at Mile 30 of my first (and to-date the coldest, wettest) LandRun.

The Last 20

Slogging through the mud, my need to relieve my bladder is becoming apparent, more pressing, and the temptation to “just go” prevalent. My concern going into this ride was so strongly staying hydrated, and I’m somewhat regretting it now. (Later, I’m told the body exudes a lot of heat storing urine; whether or not this is true, it felt significant on this day.)

I’m grateful not to have had rain while hike-a-biking, but literally within 100 yards of popping back on, it starts again, hard this time, and I notice my cheap leggings bogging down with moisture. The wind seems to be picking up, too, but I’m in optimistic spirits, done now with a 1/3 of the course and back in the saddle. As the rain turns to an incessant misty spray and I settle into the now grinding rhythm of my gears against the silty mud, I notice my strategy of slow-rolling in wide-open gears failing—my hands again, the cold of which I’d become accustomed to, had stiffened my fingers to the point that shifting was a near impossibility, and getting worse. As this problem progresses, I shift into a single-speed strategy, using my knuckles to achieve a manageable gear.

By the time I reach The Ranch, a private Texas longhorn domicile that Bobby has secured for the day, I really have to pee, and, I’ll be honest, the idea of going on my hands for the temporary warmth is very appealing. Not surprisingly, I barely fumble out of my gloves and zippers, and I am cursing my decision to wear bibs. (I discover also that zippers no longer work once the red dirt of Oklahoma gets into them. Neat.) For the first time, I’m worried—60 miles to go, and I know I have no better glove options than what I have on, now completely toast between the rain and mud.

In retrospect, I absolutely should have gone to the bathroom in that first clay pit—I would have been undressed for less time as my hands were still working, and if that theory about temperature control while holding urine holds any water (pardon the pun), I might still have felt OK going into Guthrie, the midway point. As it is, I leave The Ranch without seeing the longhorns and in no better place to use my hands than when I arrived. And what comes next shakes me to the core.

There was only one major crash at this year’s event, as far as I am aware, and it occurred on the steep downhill and sudden right turn coming away from The Ranch (there were a few other spills and a couple of hospitalizations due to hypothermia, as well). As I come down this steep grade, I am braking as much as I have all day, never letting myself get up to speed—and I realize that despite my best efforts, my brakes aren’t reacting. I believe this to be due to the frigid state of my hands—I literally can’t squeeze any tighter. But only moments after I successfully navigate this pass, another rider is not so lucky. Brakes were failing left and right due to the incessant grind of the gritty clay against discs and pads, and this young man’s momentum sent him crashing 20 yards into the heavily wooded brush on the opposite side of the turn. (I find out afterward that he broke a femur, a wrist, his clavicle and had a collapsed lung.) Meanwhile, I am struggling with a normally manageable bit of off-road trail—the exact terrain I was concerned about going into this event, made worse by my inability to shift or brake. (Incidentally, this characteristic of gravel rides is normally my favorite, but due to the risks associated with pregnancy, it drew dismay.)

The realization of this comes to me suddenly, and I begin to cry. With just 8 miles to Guthrie, I know I should call it there. Knowing my good reason, the devastation at this discovery takes me off guard.

I roll slowly back onto gravel, back to my singlespeed strategy, and my spirits are momentarily lifted on a dryer section with a tailwind. “Maybe,” I think, “I could use the plastic sandwich bags I have in my drop bag as interior liners for my gloves, hopefully trapping heat and allowing my hands to stay a bit drier.” Buoyed by this, I churn on, but doubts remain—I have but a thin pair of gloves, and by now the increased wind is causing me to shiver as well.

The back-and-forth continues all the way into town, and even once there and in a heated bathroom, I hem and haw, walking back and forth over the two blocks between SAG and the bathroom. Again, in retrospect, I knew I needed to find a hand solution and get out of Dodge if I was going to keep going. I lingered too long, learning of the brake failures and the crash that occurred just behind me, and also that the weather ahead still looked ominous. I struggle even today thinking about these moments in Guthrie and what I might have done differently—and I think part of me struggles in terror, contrarily, at how close I was to continuing even then.

But the Mom in me prevailed this day. I knew what the call had to be in that stretch of single track in the woods just outside The Ranch, when my ride came crumbling down in teardrops larger than those of the rain.

Humbled, I SAG back to Stillwater.

There’s Always Next Year

It was the right decision. It is the right decision. Even if I weren’t pregnant, hypothermic riders were being found and plucked off the course throughout the rest of the afternoon. I would have, at best, finished well after dark, around 8 p.m., and that if I could maintain what I thought was a decent ride pace for the first 52—who knows how long my “off-the-couch training” would have held up.

You learn something every ride, and for me this one was particularly humbling. I came in confident that I had even a cool day in Oklahoma licked, given all my training was done in below-freezing temperatures. But I in no way packed or dressed as I would in Minnesota, and that’s what this day required. (Truly, if I just had a glove solution, I think I’d have carried on and been just fine.) Additionally, I’m a planner by nature, and I had over-packed my bike for hydration purposes (though the clay did take one of my five water bottles). How embarrassing to be a project manager from Minnesota who was so ill-prepared for the cold!

In the middle of the gravel grid, the LandRun 100 course is hard and humbling in and of itself, but most humbling, I think, are the avoidable lessons learned. Next year …

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