Grind the gravel OR Gravel the grind

Grinding through the Gravel

Oregon gravel grinding series entered into my To-Do list since 2019. 

So 2022 was supposed to be it.

Ochoco was the event that worked well with everything I had on my calendar, and so I signed up for it. Having had continuous eventful weekends, from doing Ironman in CdA, summiting Mt Adams, and getting lost in the Snoqualmie forest, I wanted to do this off the grid ride as well.

After the sign up, the most important thing was owning a gravel bike and practicing gravel riding. Most of my riding is on the road, and a tid bit of MTB’ing around.

So just 2 weeks before the Ochoco gravel race, I bought the only available bike in the store Cervelo Aspero with GRX groupset, and my first bike with tubeless tires.

Next was gravel riding. My schedule on the training peaks still had swims and runs on it, and I was under the impression that my road cycling, zwift rides, will help with the gravel grind. I still tried to get in a few gravel rides before the race. My practice rides were like 18 / 35 / 21 miles before the Ochoco grind. But I was looking forward to experiencing the whole camping and biking thing at the event.

Travel to the event site in Ochoco national forest was a long 7hrs and 30 mins from Seattle. You are off the grid once you reach the Ochoco forest area. 

FYI: If you are using google maps, do not kill the application, the maps are buffered on your phone, so even though there is no network, the maps still work.

Once I reached the site, a volunteer suggested me few areas to put up my tent. So for the night, it was just setting up the tent, eating dinner, and going to sleep.

The night was beautiful, not cold, but all lighted up with stars. Clear sky which became bright mid-night, as the moon came up high. Woke up to the sound of the birds chirping, and early morning light. Headed to the event site, for restroom, food, and sign up. 

Food: Damn !! This was like a 5 start resort breakfast, in the woods. I have been to so many events in the last 10 years, but have never had such amazing food. There were fruits, salad, bakery, patties, vegan and meat options. Juices, and awesome coffee.

Dinner: They had options. From pasta, and cole-slaw to salad, and noodles with broccoli, and saute veggies, lemonade, and iced tea. Not to forget the macaroons and other deserts. 

For beer enthusiasts, and alcoholic drinkers there were a ton of options. 

From the start of the event registeration, the volunteer team was amazing. Our small talks led to friendships by the end of the event.

Ann (power-house), DeAnn (energy booster), Colleen (emcee), Mitch (life-guard), and many other amazing volunters, whose names I did not learn. Sorry !! 

In all my experience, it is the team of volunteers, who make or break the events and races.

9am start for the BigGrinder (82.43 miles).

I heard a few folks who had done this race before, that it might be good to stay at the back of the peloton, the first few miles of loose gravel, and downhill will result in crashes and falls.

So I reset my expectations from “racing this race” to “just having fun and learning”. I started somewhere behind the middle pack of riders (all Big and small grinder participants). The start 1-2 km was on pavement, and was like butter, and then the actual fun began. When I started seeing riders falling and crashing, I slowed down to avoid any scratches early on.

Reached the first aid station at around mile 17. Yay !!  mission 1 accomplished. Ann and James from the GoodBike Co, were there. I got some snacks in, and refilled my bottles. Chatted with folks, until it was time to leave the first aid station.

I was pedalling along making new friends, not realizing they were doing the small grinder. When I saw the big and small route signs, I thought for a second to do the small grinder, but it would not have satisfied my ego.

A mile into the big grinder route, I turned back to look if anyone was following me, I saw no one. May be they are riding slower than me. I turned again after some time, I still did not see anyone. I slowed down further, and still no one behind me.

I figured I am definitely in this to grind solo :), and it will be an adventure of its own.

Turned some music on, looked around, there was enough natural beauty to enjoy, and lots of gravel to grind.

I was riding slow, the climbs weren’t hard or challenging, I just did not had the experience to ride on gravel. Add to all this the feeling that I was alone out there. 

By the time I reached the second aid station, I had realized I was last in the pack, riding the big grinder. Kudos !! to the aid station support team, they kept me motivated.It was by far my longest gravel ride at mile 44. 

After leaving the aid station, half an hour later, I saw the aid station team pass by me in a truck, and then another. Moments later, a guy on the motorbike came by, to check on me. I started to get the feeling that I was the last. After a while, the sweeper truck came close to me, Mitch asked me if I needed anything and I said I was good. I actually wasn’t, because now it was confirmed that I am the last one on the course :).

But Mitch stopped there, and he let me ride. At mile 55 or so, I stopped under the shade of a tree. That shade was so inviting me for a nap. I started to get wavering thoughts, if I should just stop, and let Mitch come by and pick me up. I waited there for 20 mins, and Mitch did not show up. 

So I guzzled up a pineapple juice (I carry it for such dark moments on the bike), and got back on the saddle.  I did not want to go home, and tell my daughters that I quit the race, and DNF’ed because I was weak.

Mitch had been following me very closely, he offered me some water, but I said NO, because I only wanted to stop at the 3rd aid station, and then quit.

I had been trying to ride the tangents, but that did not work on gravel, because tangents usually have loose gravel, which makes it hard, and wheels just spin.

At mile 67 or so, I reached the 3rd aid station, and they were wrapping up. I told them, that I want to quit, but they pushed me to finish off the remaining 15-16 miles. I too wanted to cross the finish line. 

The aid station team took my water bottles off the bike, and filled it for me. Offered me snacks, and eatables. I gulped a small cup of pickle juice, thinking it is Gatorade :), and man that was strong. 

This last stop was a short one, and I quickly bounced on the saddle, thinking if I fall, these guys will pick me up.

At mile 70 or so, I stopped again, with a really bad back pain. By now, my lower back and upper traps were all hurting. Never had a good fit on the bike, bike was just 2 weeks old. The 3rd aid station folks also came by, they did stop and check on me, and relayed something over to Mitch (maybe) over a walkie talkie.

The thought of telling my daughters that I overcame the dark spots, and fought the inner demons, and did not DNF, pushed me again. 

My pedalling was slower than usual, there were few downhill sections, but I did not make any good time on those. As I reached 75 miles, I started reverse counting the miles left. 

It is always easy to count single digit numbers than to count double digits.

Once I saw the 5k to go mark, I was excited, because I had a wrong calculation of the mileage going on in my head. I had calculated it as 10k. At the 5k left to go, I stopped, had some water, and focussed on finishing strong.

I saw the 3k mark, and then checked my watch, it had almost taken me 15 – 20 mins to get there. 

I was getting tired, and almost fading. I did not had enough water left in the bottles, but I wanted to reach the finish line.

There was a point, where I was so slow, that the bike came to a standstill. I saw Mitch coming behind, I asked him for some water. He told me, that, I might have just 1.5 km to go. Drinking water gave me some energy, I started to ride again.

At the 1K mark, I saw some pavement. I rode it hard. 

And then I saw the timing mat, and Blaire standing over there with his dog. I was super excited.

I rode hard to the final finish line, which still seemed far enough. But I rode fast.

Everyone at the finish line was cheering !! Colleene, Ann, DeAnn, other volunteers, and riders. Man!! That was a kind of a hero’s welcome. They took pictures, Colleene got me a glass of ice-cold water.

I guess if you cannot win the race, might be better to come last, as that is when you receive huge applauses, and cheering.

While this was my first ever event where I came last, but I was ecstatic and grateful that I did not quit.

I could go back and tell my daughters, that I did finish a hard race.