A single loop, over and over:
Cascading canopies, punchy climbs, gravel rollers.
An array of riders, fast and slow.
From mad-dashers to those embracing the flow.
A brisk start amidst the tall trees,
With warm sunlight flickering between the leaves.
Protruding rocks forcing a weaving line,
And sandy pits materializing from time to time.
A day for harnessing solitude, lap by lap,
Aiming to not get caught by cognitive traps.
Anticipating the little joys around the bend:
That one scarlet tree, trailer sign, or smile from a friend.
A long day in the saddle, riding the shield.
Fatigue wavering, resisting the desire to yield.
With each loop, round and round,
A sense of accomplishment, by each, was found.
I was excited to have the 8 Hours of Hurtin' in Haliburton on my race calendar this year; little did I know it would be my only race of 2020. I was stoked that a couple friends and Faction teammates had signed up for the race and eager to test out my endurance that I had been building all summer. A unique format amongst Ontario gravel races, participants could tackle the hilly 27 kilometre loop solo or in a relay format.
As race day approached, I was cautiously optimistic that it would go ahead with safety protocols in place, and that we could all still enjoy the race atmosphere that we had oh so missed. I was grateful that the Valley Works team had a well-thought out plan to keep racers and volunteers safe. Masks were mandated off the bike and start waves were spaced out to limit course interactions. This helped with keeping a 2 metre distance from other riders at all times.
It had been months since my last race, the Silver Goose Cyclocross Pan Am Championships in November 2019. It felt so nice to get back into the race prep routine - meaning mostly that I painted my nails a pretty colour - a race tradition of mine.
My tactic for this race was to stop as little as possible so I made sure to have enough pre-filled bottles and snacks to last me the 8 hours. This included mini ginger pecan muffins and date balls to keep in my feed bags.
I noticed that my left hamstring didn't feel quite right leading up to the race, so forfeited my pre-ride the Friday afternoon in lieu of more rest time. Thankfully (miraculously?) the extra rest did the trick and I felt back on track for race day. The only other physical hurdle was sleeping in a tent in temperatures below freezing the night before - perhaps not the wisest gamble, considering my tent sleeps are never that great. When I arrived at site, my teammates already had a fire going which helped keep up the warmth from the start. I cocooned myself in a fleece blanket inside my -7C sleeping bag, with a double layer of wool socks, toque, jacket and mittens. To my surprise, I actually felt more rested sleeping in a tent than normal! A great success.
I oddly woke to my frosty saddle, welcoming the colder temperatures, knowing that my competition may not like the cold as much as I do. With some good luck wishes from friends and a breakfast smoothie waiting, I was eager to get racing.
Once all checked-in, following the COVID protocols, it was time to line up. Angela and I lined up beside each other, both braving the cold in shorts with no knee or leg warmers. I was excited to have Angela there (a friend from KW) as it was her first gravel race and I knew she was a force to be reckoned with. We donned our face masks until 30 seconds before our start.
27km - 321 m elevation gain - 1 hour and 13 minutes
The twelve of us solo females eased out of the corral but things quickly picked up and I found myself maintaining a pace much quicker than I had planned. I went with the flow, eager to keep up with my competition, counting that I was in fifth place almost off the hop; further back than I wanted to be. Still, there was a sense of camaraderie, with us saying hello and making introductions as we rode by one another.
Despite me planning to go slower the first lap to learn the lay of the land (hard-packed gravel hills with scattered rocks and few straightaways for drinking and eating), my adrenaline kept me at speed.
54km - 642 m elevation gain - 2 hours and 20 minutes
I passed the lap marker and kept on going with no plan to stop in the pits yet. Soon into the second lap I came across a fellow solo rider who had flatted, moving into fourth place. I was confident in my tubeless set-up and wide tires (43mm - wider than most!), so kept on charging down the descents despite spotting others with flats.
Just past the second aid station, things took a turn. A rider was coming at me in reverse and yelled out that another rider was down. Around the bend, I found Chris lying on the ground, his head propped up on a log bounding the bridge. He had blood streaming down his face and crying out in pain. I hopped off my bike and assessed the situation; thankfully he hadn't lost consciousness and seemed stable. It was apparent that he had broken his collar bone but would be okay. I waited with him until the paramedics arrived, relayed necessary info, and decided to get back on my bike albeit a bit shaken by the incident. My friend's girlfriend pedalled on by shortly after (they were on a relay team) which lightened the mood a bit as we chatted.
As I was honing in on the pits and drinking water on a straightaway, I lost focus attempting to chat to a fellow rider across the roadway and smacked into an embedded rock, losing control. Ironically the man who had witnessed Chris' crash was right behind me and witnessed me get tangled up with my bike as I hit the ground. Luckily my adrenaline was still high so I was able to laugh it off. He stuck around to even out my handlebars and make sure I was truly okay.
81 km - 963 m elevation gain - 3 hours and 36 minutes
I stopped in the pits this time, giving myself a couple minutes to recoup and try to reset my mental state. The second lap was a doozy and I knew I needed to shake it off if I were to continue. At this point, I was cognizant of my stinging knee and blood dripping down my leg but decided to just leave it and get back out there.
This lap is where second-guessing my abilities started to set in. I had somehow convinced myself that the first half of the loop was harder, validating my slower pace, which resulted in a dwindling average speed.
Near the end of the lap I came across Natalie who was in third place. I was excited to see her not because that meant I was back in the running for a podium finish, but because she is a lovely soul and helped give me that rejuvenated energy I needed. We chatted for a bit, at a distance, and then somewhere near the end of the lap, our paces were no longer matched and I pulled ahead.
108 km - 1,284 m elevation gain - 4 hours and 54 minutes
Again, I skipped the pits, having enough food and water for a few more laps. This was a key lap for me. Not only was I more than half-way done my laps but pulling ahead to third gave me a confidence boost I needed to pick up the pace a little. I had an internal dialogue going at this point, reminding myself that the first half of the loop was not truly harder than the second and that I needed to put in more effort here, harnessing the momentum of the rolling gravel hills.
It was in this lap that I started to appreciate route markers - the one dainty tree with scarlet leaves fluttering in the wind; the sign posts at junctions; the no fishing sign; the hut near the end of the lap. I also started to use the smiles and cheers of volunteers at aid stations as motivation (I wish I had photos of them!).
135 km - 1,605 m elevation gain - 6 hours and 11 minutes
It felt good to roll past the pits after my fourth lap and keep on going. I kept chugging along to my groove. The duo and trio racers that zipped by and the ladies on fat bikes cruising along were all quick to offer up words encouragement which meant a lot to me.
I ran into my friend Steven and we finished the lap off together, at a distance. He was on his fourth lap, looking strong, while I felt like I was running low on energy. I think this is also the lap where I watched Spencer (a rider I met doing the BT700), gracefully dismount from his singlespeed bike and run up a massive hill so effortlessly. I was in awe.
162 km - 1,926 m elevation gain - 7 hours and 30 minutes
I stopped before my final lap, chucking all but a few snacks and one water bottle off my bike, ready to rock and roll. The day was almost done, with no sight of any other solo riders encroaching on my podium spot. I went out ready to finish strong. I was hoping I would get lapped by some faster teammates, meaning that I get to see their lovely faces but had no such luck. The lap went by quick knowing that it was indeed the last and a well-needed rest was drawing near!
After seven and a half hours on the bike, I had covered almost 2,000 metres of elevation gain over 162 kilometres. I was proud of the effort and happy to have finished the race with no major mechanical issues and in one piece, albeit a bit scraped up.
Once I had a couple minutes to cool down I finally had the sense to provide some attention to my knee. The crash had happened over five hours earlier and besides some road rash, I had a fairly deep wound that was still bleeding a bit. I headed to the washroom to awkwardly place my knee in the sink and wash it off. The paramedics deemed it stitches-worthy however my mind and body were more interested in food and rest. I opted for having a teammate clean and bandage it up with a first aid kit he had on hand.
Valley Works created giant-sized podiums to space us out, keeping with COVID protocols. Angela took first place (as I had no doubt she would!) and Ruth took second. The carved plaques we received were absolutely gorgeous. Each participant also received a patch corresponding to the distance they had completed throughout the day - a thoughtful touch that recognized everyone's hard efforts.
The event was so well organized and the volunteers were top notch. I can't wait to race this again!