Lutsen. The muddy, spectacular beast. 99 miles of XC MTB racing. This year the mud, muck, and stream crossings were made even more epic when downpours flooded the course. I set out to finish faster than last year and do better. Before I left town, my son asked me if I would bring home another axe, and if yes, could he have mine from last year?! (I won the female fat bike division last year for the 99er, and those on the podium bring home a wooden axe.) How did I fare this year? Let’s find out.
I had been weather staking the forecast all week for the race. Some weather reports listed a chance of scattered thunderstorms in the morning when the ambient temperature was supposed to be around 55F. Huh, I thought – I now know what to wear when it’s 35F and raining (thanks Alexander!) and what to wear when it’s 70F and raining, but what about 55?! I was rushing to pack Friday afternoon and ended up throwing everything I could think of that I MAY need into a suitcase. I figured if I got up north early enough on Friday (I did), I could figure it all out later.
I woke up Saturday morning after a long but fitful night of sleep. The weather forecast had dropped the probability of morning storms so I was quite happy. There was a higher chance of afternoon storms and I thought “great, this will just incentivize me to ride faster”. I still threw a light shell in my saddle bag but largely left the other inclement weather items behind.
The energy was electric at the start. So many people, so much anticipation for the day to come. The crowds at the Lutsen 99er are always impressive and this year they added another more reasonable distance, a 69er, so it appealed to even more cyclists. We lined up, listened to the national anthem, and rolled down the big paved hill towards Lake Superior.
The “neutral” roll out was a herky jerky affair with folks careening down the hill and then suddenly slamming on their brakes as they rapidly approached other riders. I saw someone else with a wobbly front wheel struggling to stop his bicycle in the center of the sea of riders. It was nerve wracking at best, with the smell of burning rubber in the air and tensions high. We made it to the bottom of the hill, continued our flow along the highway, and then we were released to climb the hill without the metering pace car. Like last year, I watched many other riders ease past me on the climb. At first, I was ok with it.
I’m heavy and I was a rare female on a fat bike, so I knew my overall pace would be slower than most. However, as the climb continued I could tell something was different this year. My mind just wasn’t on board today.
Soon thereafter, I saw one of the fast female fat bikers pass me. I knew I had about zero chance of beating her unless I really turned myself inside out, and I decided that I JUST. DIDN’T. WANT. TO. I thought to myself, ok, you can still hit the podium and bring home another wooden axe this year, this is still going ok.
We rode off into the woods and came up to the first muddy stream crossing. Many cyclists were trying to bushwhack their way through the underbrush to avoid getting their feet dirty and keep their bikes out of the water. I knew we had many more water crossings in store based on last year’s experience, so I charged right down the center of the path, holding my bike above the muck and mud. I had made sure my shoes were good and tight that morning so the mud wouldn’t suck them off. I made it to the other side, stomped my feet a few times to clear my cleats, and then jumped back on the bike.
As I rode through the woods I could see brief flashes of light in the periphery of my vision. At first I thought it was an aura, or some other thing my brain had created, but then I saw another, and then another. Soon, there was a huge bolt of cloud to ground lightning and a loud clap of thunder. The deluge began, making it nearly impossible to see where I was going. I felt something stinging my face and realized it was also HAILING. What are the odds of me doing 2 major events back to back and experiencing thunderstorms and hail on both?!
I rode on, skipping the first aid station. I watched rivulets form and run down the roads, eliminating what was usually the best line to take on the doubletrack. I could feel a huge wash of water being thrown off of my back wheel and onto my hind end. Everything was soaked through in a short amount of time. The rain eventually stopped and then the thick, dense fog set in. It was extremely difficult to see the path, the riders ahead, or the best line. First I sighed, frustrated at the setback, and then I giggled. This was absolutely absurd.
The trails were a greasy, peanut buttery mess at this point. I still couldn’t see much of anything and it was a matter of trusting the bike, just pedaling and hoping for the best. I hovered over the seat and churned forward. I only stopped briefly to eat some electrolyte pills and lower the air pressure in my rear wheel for better traction. My body was tensing with the slippery mud and I could feel odd muscle groups getting fatigued.
I hit the mile 40 aid station and quickly requested a refill of my Camelbak, and continued on. I had carefully planned my food, water, and electrolytes so I wouldn’t need many stops at aid stations. I wanted to be as fast as possible to save time. I saw another female fat biker just leaving the aid station and I hurried to catch up. We yo-yoed for a while, and I pulled ahead during sections of the rocky doubletrack. We briefly shot out onto a gravel road, and this section of the race has riders heading back down the same gravel roads they rode on a few miles back, and you end up passing the faster riders coming in the opposite direction. I saw another female fat biker coming the opposite way and realized I was likely in third place with the fourth woman still chasing. Ok, I thought, still on the podium if I hold this spot. Still bringing home another damn axe. That’s not what I wanted, but not so bad.
I dove off of the gravel again and back onto the double and singletrack, and to my dismay I saw that conditions were getting even greasier for those of us in the back of the pack. My front wheel jerked unexpectedly and I let out a yelp as I managed to recover. I began riding slower, as my front wheel felt like it was hopping and skipping around unpredictably instead of the bite I was hoping for. The wheel jerked again, and this time I didn’t recover. The bike quickly flipped me onto the ground, augering me sideways into the mud and muck. I was stunned and a little disoriented. Riders came up behind me and asked “are you ok?” and I quickly answered “yes”. They said “are you sure?” and this time, I paused and didn’t answer. I was holding back tears and could feel parts of my body stinging. The bugs began biting profusely I encouraged the other riders to continue on and I’d be ok. I got up, checked out my body (minimally damaged, as far as I could tell through the thick layer of mud) and checked out the bike (she was fine too). I hopped back on and soft pedaled down the trail. My willingness to hammer was completely gone. Soon, the fourth female fat biker passed me. I didn’t even give chase, watching her head up the trail and away. Then, I giggled as the realization came over me that heck, if I DIDN’T podium, we could skip the awards ceremony and get dinner even sooner this year?!
I came up to the mile 60 aid station and the Erik’s bike mechanics. I practically tossed my bike at them, asking if they could clean up the drivetrain a little bit so I could shift easier. I muttered something about them listening to my favorite band, to which they gave me a confused look and started working on my bike. I could tell I was near a bonk as I hadn’t been eating while white knuckling the bike so I slammed down about 6 gels in short order. I wandered back to the mechanics, feeling a little better after the load of sugar. They were still listening to LCD Soundsystem, my favorite band, and I danced around and sang some as my sugar rush kicked in. I’m sure I was quite the sight, being absolutely caked with mud and grit and awkwardly dancing on tired legs in the middle of the woods. We began talking about the anthology and history of the group. Turns out one of the mechanics was another super fan, and I think we spent about 10 minutes in the woods BSing about music, telling concert stories, and generally gushing over our love of James Murphy, the lead singer.
I looked down at my leg, noticing that there was a small stream of blood becoming visible through the mud. I washed off my wounds with my water bottle, thanked the boys for the help with the bike, and rode off down the gravel road singing to myself. I managed to stay with people when they rode up next to me and had a great time talking to other cyclists to pass the time and take our minds off of the suffering. I’d break out into random bits of song when riding solo, happy to view the landscape and take in the beauty of the northwoods.
The miles blurred from there. I found myself in a “flow state” where I steadily rode in my comfort zone, ticking off the miles. A few people I rode with told me that they thought that Lutsen is harder than their Ironman experiences, and ironically I had at least one person tell me that last year! Yikes. I wonder if for those of us at the back of the pack the duration of our suffering is similar to the time it takes to do an Ironman?
The mile 80 aid station came up quickly. I rolled up, surveying the options and feeling like I wanted nothing again. However, a volunteer gestured towards a few cans of opened Coke and my face absolutely lit up. He grinned back at my elation, saying that was one of the best responses he’d seen all day. I chugged the Coke, smiling from ear to ear and rolled off down the road. In the next set of miles, I had another cyclist tell me that I was “kind of dirty”. My knee jerk response would have involved profanity, but I kept it to a simple shrug and said “I fell in a mud puddle. It happens.” Two other female fat bikers passed me, and I just let them go. I was having fun and didn’t care.
The mile 90-something aid station was a longer stop for me. I decided I should finally pee (yeah, I had been holding it for hours) and then walked around sampling food at the aid station. I was chipper and heckling volunteers and other riders, and I had someone shoot me a look and say I was WAY too happy and chatty considering where we were, almost 9-something hours into a MTB race. All I could do was grin again. I was having FUN now and had finally fully accepted that I wasn’t coming home with another axe.
The final miles of gravel were absolutely gorgeous – I was rolling at an “all day slog” endurance pace, breathing easy and taking in the scenery. I saw streams rushing over rocks, an area that had been burned by a previous forest fire and was now growing tiny evergreens, and lush forests and colorful wildflowers. I didn’t stop to take any pictures and instead focused on being more in the moment while I rolled along.
I was beginning to fatigue as I hit the final miles of singletrack at Lutsen mountain and I did my best to try and work muscle groups I don’t normally recruit (hello, hamstrings and glutes!). I was tired but I was convinced my legs could keep churning for a bit longer – I knew the end was in sight. As I rode along the singletrack I could occasionally hear the finish line announcer echoing through the valley. At this point last year, I was dehydrated and very dizzy and I walked my bike a lot of the way. Not this year! I tackled hydration and electrolytes differently this year, plus I’ve been mountain biking for twice as long now (2 years!) and I only walked one section. The exhaustion set in as I neared the finish, and I glared at photographers hiding in the brush taking pictures. I wanted to be left alone in my final minutes of misery.
I rolled around a corner and was shocked to realize I was on the final ascent! I crawled up the hill, my energy fading once I was nearing the end. It felt somewhat anticlimactic after over 9.5 hours of riding. I’m always amazed at how exhausted I am at the end of a race, especially when in the final miles leading up to the finish I feel like I have energy to give. I think the body just gives up when you’re done and safe?! I grabbed a bag of Cheetos, set the bike down, and collapsed on the grass. My finish time was 9:36 and I was the LAST female fat biker. 6 out of 6, DFL, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m already excited and scheming what fun next year’s Lutsen 99er will bring!