A Downieville Experience

I crossed the finish line holding back tears. My glasses were mud ridden, my shoes and socks were soaked, and my knee was throbbing. Did I just finish the Downieville Classic All Mountain World Championship Mountain Bike Race? I felt like I survived something bigger than that – and I had.

Six months ago I weighed 80 pounds and was battling to get my nervous system back in working order after a round of e. coli. In February, I started training for the Downieville race as a symbol of my start to recovery. The actual participation in the race was going to be a sign of my healthiness and ability to beat a pretty deadly illness.

I pedaled down past the red awning that showed I actually DID cross the finish line and looked around me. My legs were shaky and my arms were exhausted. I could feel the dried mud pulling against the smile that started growing across my face. I knew I hadn’t placed. I knew I didn’t ride fast enough. I knew the hill climbs killed me…but I felt like the hundreds of other bikers there that day. I did it. I finished one of the toughest mountain bike races in the country.

Downieville is a small town in Northern California with a population of 325 people. It’s a little place nestled next to a river and surrounded by high peak mountains. Elevation is somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 feet depending on where you are at in town or on your way out of town. The mountain bike race starts in the adjoining small town (about a 40 minute drive away) with an immediate uphill climb. Starting out on a paved gradual climb you are able to lie to  yourself in the beginning that the climb will be totally manageable. After about a mile of a climb, the road turns hard right and becomes a craggy, rocky dirt road that starts winding up and goes up, and up, and up….

For me, I climbed for 3 miles before I had to pop a Gu and take a break. My newly formed muscles were hitting their limit. I hauled my bike and myself up 3,000 feet and it took me two hours to do it. Thankfully, helpful hands were at the top handing out cups of ice cold beer. I love mountain bikers. A guy held out a cup to me and asked if I wanted it. My response? “Fuck ya!! I heard about you guys!!” I took the cup, downed the golden goodness and pedaled a little harder up the next portion of the hill (yes, the top isn’t really the top. This race has climbing all the way through).

Downhill at Downieville is no joke. It’s radtastic and makes you whoop and holler all the way down.

A few small climbs and a killer climb to a section called “The Third Divide.” The Third Divide is awesome downhill. Awesome. You have to be on your game to survive and smash down this twisty, technical singletrack. Everyone should ride Downieville at least once before they die. I will be riding it from now on EVERY year.

Back at the finish line in the heart of Downieville, I let a few tears fall down my face. I finished a hard race. I survived a tough year. I have muscle again. I’m training to be stronger. I lived through being sick, unable to eat and so skinny I didn’t recognize myself in my clothes. I trained hard and it wasn’t enough. I placed 11th out of 12 on the cross country course and placed last in the downhill. I was disappointed. I thought I would have done better. I took a deep breath and let myself feel the victory of finishing the race. It WAS hard. It WAS challenging. I will be able to do better next time. Ah, next time…the training has already begun for Downieville 2012. With red dirt mud still stuck to my bike from the mountains of Nor-Cal, I rode the local trail yesterday as hard as I could. The hills seemed smaller, the rocks seemed more manageable and the downhill…I could have done with my eyes closed. Downieville has made everything else seem more manageable. Easier. Doable.

See you in Downieville in 2012. I’ll be the one smashing it uphill and shredding it down. Catch me if you can.

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