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Ali's story: Valley of Tears

BaseCamp group coaching member Ali Knutson shared her experience at the inaugural Valley of Tears gravel race in Turkey, Texas.

It was only $20 to register. Even with a long drive, I figured this would be worth it. The prize purse for the pros was $26,000 split between men and women. They had planned to pay ten deep. At the start line, they announced it would be twenty deep. The support on course was top notch. The aid stations were well stocked, and the volunteers were all in for the riders. NeverSecond provided hydration and liquid gels. One aid station even had fireball and margaritas. I passed up on those though since we had only been about fifty miles into the race.

They lined up pros in the front. There were call-ups for the main players and after the final countdown, the race took off quickly. We were on sandy roads within the first mile. I was able to move through the group, thinking about the training we had done with hard starts and breakaway work. I settled in nicely. And then we really hit the sand. I saw people going down ahead of me. Some people chose to still ride, but because the way was getting blocked, I decided to get off and start running. I knew I'd burn less matches that way. This would continue for a number of miles. At one point, we hit a sandy area that was called the lime pit. It had a little rock ledge that crossed the entire road. There were chunks of concrete in sections of the road that you had to get around. A lot of people were walking this section. Unless you were in the front, that was pretty much your option. Still, I saw people trying to ride this section of the course. Later, I would see video of even a number of the pros running through this.

The roads got less sandy and we were able to ride again. I was settling in once more and being safe. I had the aid stations marked on my top tube and I had set an alarm to eat every 45 minutes on my head unit. This turned out being very helpful, as it would have been very easy for me to miss my time to eat while riding. Much of this was due to needing to have the hands on the handlebars to control the bike as we went through many more sections of sand on the course. I ended up going through nine NeverSecond gels. I also drank I don't know how many bottles. I started out with Fluid hydration (passion fruit tea and blueberry pomegranate) and then moved to NeverSecond, which I have frequently used. I didn't bonk at all on the race, and I did not have any problems with cramping. Listening to Namrita's guidance on hydration and fueling has been very helpful.

I also had some guidance on my top tube to try to hit Tempo for a section that I knew would be a long gradual climb. If I wasn't in Tempo, I was at least at the top end of aerobic endurance. Again, BaseCamp guidance played in well here as related to knowing the course. I was unable to ride it, so all recon was via the RideGPS map and some online video. We went through a tunnel that is usually filled with bats if it is the right time of year. There were no bats, and they had cleaned out a lot of the guano on the tunnel floor. Still, I saw the dust kicking up as riders went through. You did not want to stop because there was still guano dust on the tunnel floor. I pulled up my bandana, started pedaling into the tunnel and removed my glasses since it was pretty darn dark and I couldn't see a good line. I made it through and there were photographers on the other end. They must have captured me with my sunglasses in my hand and my bandana up over my nose.

We were now on the Caprock trail, which is like a rail trail. Narrow, like a four-track. And in some sections, it was rather bumpy.

There was a cutoff to get back to Turkey before you continued on to the last 30ish miles of the race. That cut off was 3:45. I made it through at 2:30. I was going much slower in that second part of the race. I got lucky a couple times, working with someone in the wind. But I was alone a fair bit. I would talk to myself, think about the training that prepared me for this, think about my pedal stroke. I thought it was funny that I could tell the gender of the rider by the way that they pedaled. So many women I saw pedal with their toes pointed downwards.

There was a gentleman who rode my wheel for quite some time. His name was George. He was friendly. He said he was cramping, so that's why he rode on my wheel to get some relief. At some point, we did separate. When I stopped at the 70 mile mark in Turkey, he continued on. I would catch him and one other with the help of one guy. Then there were four of us. But that didn't last long. I had worked hard with the other guy to catch the two ahead and found myself lagging on keeping at their pace. The 4th guy with us said he was barely hanging on and we split apart. I was alone again for a little bit. It was nice to have the quiet. I played random music in my head and kept pedaling my pace. I'd see these two again at the next aid station and we'd ride close together for a while. Then we had some nice punchy climbs. I'd dig into them, grinding away. Not fast, but not walking. There was another young woman here that I rode near for a little while, chatted and she told me she had entered the Open category because there wasn't anybody else in her age group. George caught up to us. He sat on my wheel again as the other rider pulled away. I didn't feel I had the legs for her pace. I didn't want to talk much at this point. We hit some little descents that were fun. There were cows that stopped us. We came up on some horses across the road as well. I took off my sunglasses and talked to them as we moved slowly to get past them as they trotted off the road. We hit the trail section again, more bumpy. More railroad-like gravel. Slow going. I was mainly in front, but when we hit the smoother dirt, George pulled. I took a little break, but he wasn't quite going the pace that I was hoping to go. I pushed ahead again. We eventually came into the finish area together. He was slightly ahead of me on the corner to the line, but I picked up the pace to catch him, thinking he'd do the same. I didn't sprint, although I felt I had a little power in me to do so.

7:18ish. I grabbed a coke and walked my bike back to the car as I drank it. Podiums for the previous finishers were long over and I was a little confused where they were doing the age category podiums. I didn't hear any announcements and only later found the results posted on a wall by the event t-shirt booth after someone told me where they were posted. There were only two women in the amateur age categories that had finished, and I was first in that group. The sand apparently took a lot more out of people than I had originally thought, or maybe there were a number of DNS. I later found out that out of the 25 pro/open women who registered, only 12 finished in the long race. There were six amateurs registered, and I do know of one who couldn't make the race. Only two of us finished.

I was also told there was a podium finisher's glass, so luckily I got one of those before everything was completely shut down.


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