Road Runner Rocks: Surviving my first gravel event in 3 not-so-easy steps
Signing up for long distance events motivates me to stay on top of my miles during the week. I'm lucky enough to live in North Texas where I can take advantage of gravel events close to home. Dave and I signed up for the 50 mile Road Runner Rocks Route. The Spinistry put on the event. Kevin, the race promoter, can be counted on for lots of hills, and a challenging well-mapped course.
I'm new to gravel. What I've learned is not earth shattering. However, if you want to learn from a newb's point of view then please read on
Road Runner Rocks Event
The morning of the event we arrived at 4R Ranch Winery in Muenster, TX. The drive was scenic, parking was abundant, and there were friendly volunteers to help with whatever we needed. During the racer’s meeting Kevin who started and runs Spinistry, left us with the reminder to have fun and get ready for some hills.
We had already driven up and down plenty of hills on our way to the event - an especially steep one entering the winery. I knew that this was going to be a tough ride, and the finish was going to be earned.
And so it begins...
The gravel at the start was large and lose with a bit of climbing. This was only my second gravel event, and up until now most of my rides have been on roads or on a mountain bike trail where the path is evident. At the start, the path wasn't apparent to me. The large gravel shifted easily underneath my tires, and riders moving at slower paces made it challenging to navigate. It felt like I moved better if I was going faster, so the conundrum was real. I kept bouncing back and forth about whether or not to slow down, but the more I slowed down the harder it was to keep moving up hill with the shifting ground, so I picked up my pace to get through the start.
The large shifting gravel didn't stick around. We quickly hit packed ground and chatted with other riders. 2 miles down, 48 to go.
Tip #1 Ride your own ride
It turns out that everything about how I handled my morning was wrong. Those riders that I wasn't sure how to navigate around at the start? They were doing it right. Okay, first, I probably shouldn't have started in the very back of the group. I had to pee yet again and almost missed the start. So there I was, putting on my gloves as the count down began. Looking back on the start, I also didn't ride the gravel correctly. I have ridden single track before, but on this road I didn't pay attention to where tire tracks would be if you could see them. The gravel would have most likely been packed if I had imagined where a tire would have driven.
On top of that, I didn't start off riding my own ride. In my head I was going too slowly. Since I was late to the start I didn't have time to stop my phone from going to sleep and hiding my bike computer. Since I had no idea how fast I was going, I based my speed on comparing myself to everyone passing me. This was dumb, because most of these riders had obviously ridden gravel many times before. I was also riding with Dave, my partner, who has this ability to ride up climbs and for long distances regardless of how much time he has or has not been putting in on the bike. It's super annoying. But it's my fault for using Dave and the other riders to set my pace. If I had ridden at my own ride and not worried about everyone else around me I would have had more leg power later on.
#2 Nutrition and Hydration
There was a lot of climbing, and at the pace I was riding I knew I was going to be on the course for at least 4 hours (it ended up being around 5 with stopping time). After an hour of riding I wanted to stop and eat to keep my energy up. Prior to race day I tried out different foods to see how my body would react - my stomach and head are finicky, and I wanted the best chance to finish without feeling sick. I couldn't figure out how to eat while riding - just drinking while on gravel was hard. Stopping every 30 minutes to eat something wasn't what I anticipated doing, but maybe with practice, eating on the move gets easier. Or maybe fast people stop and I was too slow to notice. The good news is that I never hit a sinking spell, felt sick, or got hungry.
I already owned Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition and used that as my reference. I packed a mix of GU, workout beans, Lenny and Larry's cookies and Cliff Bloks. Scratch Labs was in my pack for electrolytes. I took enough to eat every half hour for six hours (it ended up being too much, FYI).
One of my bottles contained plain water to mix with the GU and sugary stuff in my stomach so it was easier to digest (link to a video explanation on YouTube). The other bottle was for said Scratch. A third bottle was on the bike just in case I ran out of agua before the first water station - and guess what? It came in handy before mile 30! (see notes on being slow earlier in the post).
Despite having too much food, the additional water was a win. I learned to carry more than I need while I’m learning how to gravel, because you never know how hard the course is going to be when you’re new.
#3 Keep your eyes on what’s directly in front of you
I became obsessed with the horizon line in search of the climbing ahead. “Oh shits,” and, “I can do this,” took turns running through my head.
My bench mark was half way. All I had to do was make it halfway, and then I’d decide what I’d do. I’m not sure I had a choice other than to pedal the next 25 miles after the halfway point, but the idea of a choice gave me comfort. When the halfway mark passed, and I made it one more mile, to mile 26, my mindset changed. I realized that fixating on the pending pain wasn’t setting myself up for success. At the rate I was going I had at least another 2 hours on my bike. I could spend that time in misery, or suck it up and enjoy myself.
I was on my freaking bike. My beloved Salsa Warbird that was carrying me over the gravel. It was Saturday. I was with Dave. The sky was blue and the weather was perfect. I apparently enjoy riding my bike, so maybe I could act like it. I decided to give myself credit for all of the riding and weight lifting I had done to get me to where I was on the ride. I also decided to stop obsessing over the horizon line.
Instead of looking so far ahead of me I appreciated what was around me and kept my head down. All I needed to do was pedal and my bike would roll. This isn’t to say don’t pay attention to what’s directly in front of you. It’s easy to miss a turn if you aren’t paying attention. Even with the marked route I used the provided event route on Ride with GPS. On two occasions I would have missed the marked turn if my phone hadn’t alerted me. But what I learned was that the point of the ride is to ride, not to worry and fret. The hills will be there, and if you’re busy staring over the horizon you’ll miss the company and the scenery right beside of you.
I didn’t think it was going to happen, but I finished. The last climb was steep and I happily walked it. I rode across the finish line and met Dave who had not surprisingly ridden up the final ascent.
My legs started cramping when I stopped about 10 miles before the end of the race. When I crossed the finish line I had to take a second while my quads freaked out. But after that, it was wine time! I hadn’t appreciated the fact we were at a winery until now. The race was over, and two wine tickets had my name on them.
The wine was delicious. Ending at the winery with such a scenic view was a bonus. The post-ride company was fun - in addition to hanging out with Dave we joined a few riders for an hour and relaxed outside.
I take on events to keep me motivated, and the lessons learned apply to life off of the bike too. I learn to work hard and the value of preparing well in advance. That focusing on what we don’t want is sure to deliver just that. And that we can choose our mood and enjoy the ride when we want to. Now to get these legs even stronger and learn a few more lessons on my next event ride.
What Have you Learned?
What are you go tos when a ride gets tough? Or, do you have a super cool ride coming up that you want to brag about? You’re in luck! I want to hear about it too.