The Gold Rush Gravel Grinder is a 110 mile gravel road race in South Dakota and Wyoming. It's the first year for the event, so we (Dennis Grelk and I) had no idea what to expect. The website for the event said that "the course will consist of mostly gravel, some dirt, and a bit of pavement (gasp)! while rolling over open prairie, meandering through beautiful canyons with flowing creeks, exploring the deep forest, and climbing to several spectacular vistas." This summation of the course in no way prepared us for what was to come...
We made the long day's drive out to the Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota 2 days before the race. The day before the race, we explored a little bit. We went to Devil's Tower in Wyoming and also did a brief spin around our campsite to check the bike and loosen our legs. Throughout the day, I was noticing the amount of climbing the area had to offer. I also noticed the strength of the wind and how open the area felt for the wind to blow. The race director had also sent out an email before the race telling us that June was a wet month in the area and to be prepared to ride in the rain. I was NOT happy about riding in the rain. We checked the weather the day before and I went to bed content with the fact that the forecast called for a zero percent chance of rain for race day.
I woke up several times during the night to the sound of pouring rain and blowing wind.
When the alarm sounded, it was still pouring. We got ready in the rain. Then, we breathed a sigh of relief when our friend checked the radar and said that the rain was ending and we ought to be fine for the race. Then, the tension came back when he cursed and said that there was a wind advisory posted for the day with 40mph winds throughout the day. *sigh*
We lined up for the mass start and 4.5 mile neutral rollout through town as the only tandem to start the race. Since we were the only tandem, our only goal was to finish the race. It nearly didn't happen...
The neutral rollout was the most low-key rollout you've ever seen - lots of chatting, super easy pace, no jockeying for position, lots of compliments on our Sprintin' Kittens kits... Then, as the rollout ended, BANG! We ran right into a girl who pulled off to the side of the road as the race began! I have no clue why she pulled off at that point, but we kept it upright and kept rolling the rolling hills out of town. It didn't take long for us to realize the hills were rolling, but the elevation was climbing. The course was beautiful - the trees, the hills, the creeks, the clouds. In the first 30 miles before the first water stop, we chatted with many people as we found our pace and settled in for a long ride. Word on the course said that there was 8000 feet of climbing in store for all of us today and the wind was only getting stronger.
(Dennis took this photo at our first stop when he stopped to check the crank arms. A beautiful crossing on Sand Creek, I believe.)
After the first water stop at mile 32, we realized that most of the people we had been riding with were part of the 70 mile race and not the 110 mile race that we were doing. Bummer to find that out and we rode out of the checkpoint wondering if we were riding sweep for the 110 mile group. "It's ok," I told myself as I reminded myself that the only goal for the day was to finish. Soon after that, a guy rode up behind us and joined us for a bit. He told us that he had missed the start by 15-20 minutes due to having a flat tire on his car before the race and had been trying to catch up all morning. He also told us that there were more people behind us in the race. He rode on, and we noticed that there weren't any more rollers and we were simply climbing. Not a steep grade. Just enough to notice and settle into, knowing that it could go on for a quite a while. So, we rode, settling into a climbing pace and all the while making sure that we were staying above the 10 mph average we needed to make it to the first checkpoint on time. If we were going to finish the race, we HAD to make that checkpoint on time. And, we did well. We climbed for miles and were averaging around 12-13 mph and enjoying the scenery as we went. The gravel was super buff interspersed only with occasional open range cattle guards that were a bit unnerving to cross at speed.
Soon, though, the gravel roads got steeper, the trees got thinner, and we found ourselves in some true open cattle range. We also found and experimented with the difference between our climbing riding speed and walking speed. We determined that we could walk up those steep inclines just as fast as we could climb with our mountain bike tandem rig. It felt more efficient to walk and gave our legs and our butts a much needed break. And, this is where Perry, the race director, happened upon us and snapped this shot of us walking up our first big climb...
Soon after this photo, we crested the hill and turned and found the 40 mph winds at our backs and we flew! We played tag with a group of 4 or so up and down a few rolling hills as we dive bombed down the hills and they caught us on the uphills. It was gorgeous and the trees returned as we moved into the National Forest and the fire roads. The fire roads were wet and mucky and rutted from a record rain event they had in the weeks before and we rode, avoiding the trees and ruts and water running across the road as much as we were able to. I held on for dear life and we bombed down the opposite side, scared out of my mind at having no control and not being able to see what was coming but seeing all the obstacles as we rode past them - too many chunky rocks, deep ruts, and fallen limbs to count.
We came down out of the National Forest and back onto the sometimes buff and sometimes sandy gravel with more beautiful open cattle range views and trees in a valley. The views were just gorgeous. But, the climbing was becoming relentless and brutal. At our 'good' riding pace, we were going between 6-9mph. When it got especially steep, we were walking at 3mph. It was somewhere near 1pm, we had been climbing for most of the morning, we had nearly 10 miles to go before the checkpoint (which we thought we had to be at by 2pm), Dennis was bonking, and with each passing minute we were getting further away from our goal of finishing the race.
We sat on the hillside and pondered our options.
I fed Dennis one of the emergency Snickers I had packed just in case. Option #1 was to call our support person to come get us. Since we had no cell service, this was clearly not our best option. Option #2 involved us staying where we were at and letting someone find us. Hmmm... Option #3 was to keep going and just get to the checkpoint, some way, some how. We were expecting our support person to be there with supplies for us so we could bail at that point. I checked the cue cards again. To our surprise and relief, we had until 3 pm to get to the checkpoint! Dennis laughed and laid down amidst the pine needles and rocks. "Ha! We're good..." We ate and drank some more before climbing back onto our beast of a bike again to meander our way uphill some more.
With a lot more struggle, both physical and mental, we finally pulled into the checkpoint. I sat down in the car and drank a Pepsi while Dennis went into the checkpoint. We were both struggling. We seriously considered bailing. I think everyone expected us to. Finally, I decided that I was not going to come out to do this race again and I knew I wouldn't be happy if I came to finish the race and I didn't finish it. Unfinished business is never finished. I wanted this done and in the bag.
So, off we went.
We climbed for just a little bit before we descended 9 miles on a dirt road filled with rocks and wet dirt and sand and water flowing across the road and downed trees. It was gorgeous and it breathed a new life into Dennis. It was good to have Dennis back again. Of course, it filled me with fear and I was wanting the super buff gravel back again.
Here's Dennis walking the tandem over the one unrideable obstacle (a downed tree) on that dirt road descent and over the water on the other side. That guy in front of Dennis is the last person we saw for the rest of the race.
After that descent we had a steep climb to the Cement Ridge fire tower. As we steadily climbed, I played mind games in my head. Why exactly was I doing this to myself? Was this fun? What do I like about riding bikes? I was miserable and I couldn't figure out the answers to these questions.
And, then it hailed on us.
It wasn't big hail. It was only pea sized hail. It didn't help my misery any and I scrambled to get into my jacket.
We kept climbing and soon we were walking. We thought we were to the top and got back on only to turn another corner and see a rocky ascent to the real fire tower and the deafening winds that were up there. The fire tower even had a sign that designated it a 'Wind Shelter.' I wish I had taken a picture. (We found out later that they had a baked potato station at this fire tower that was taken down partly due to the wind before we got there.)
The only way down was the way we had come up or a rocky ATV trail. Much to my horror, we went down the rocky ATV trail. I had a death grip on the handlebars as I watched the chunky rocks and deep ruts and multiple water crossings pass us by. At times, I could see over Dennis' back as the rocky, rutted descent was so steep! We soon turned and found ourselves climbing up another rocky descent and then walking. I swore and renewed my vows that I was never, ever doing something this stupid again.
We got to the top of that ascent and began descending. It probably would have been a lot more fun if I wasn't so shelled and frightened from the prior descent. We descended for a good 20 miles or so. We could have coasted to the finish, but Dennis made me pedal. We were starting to lose the sun in some of the deep canyons as we finished up the race. We passed some gorgeous falls - Roughlock and Bridal Veil Falls as well as descending along the creek the entire way. (We went back the next day to look at them properly.) The last part into town was all pavement and all descending - 20 mph even while coasting. That's about all I remember at that point. I still can't believe we actually finished it...
Goal accomplished and race finished!
Thank you to Dennis Grelk for doing it with me and to Sprintin' Kittens Coaching for helping me get that goal done!