Gravista's punch in the mouth
... and repaying Baron von Fancypants
I knew what to expect from Gravista, a beautifully punishing 65 mile gravel race in the Blue Ridge mountains above Buena Vista, Va. I was humbled by it last year, having to walk a few minutes on the last climb, a 3½ mile ascent with a grade that averages over 7% and tops out above 14%. It’s the coup de grâce after climbing 7,500 feet just to get to that point. So I knew what to expect, and I had a plan for nutrition and pacing.
I loaded two large water bottles with 180 grams each of my home-made carbohydrate mix, which I figured would give me four hours of fuel, and I had a baggie with another 180 grams in my pocket that I would use when I refilled at the second aid station. That would get me home. I had a gel and some Clif bars if I needed more.
I’d figured out a conservative pacing plan, since the race starts with a 4½ mile climb just a mile into the race. And to my own surprise I followed it. Troy, a mountain biker relatively new to gravel who was next to me for most of the climb asked “are you riding by power or heart rate, because it’s really steady and exactly the pace I need.” Happy to help. His skill at descending was evident after we crested that first climb. That was the last I saw of him.
I wanted to make up as much time on the descents as I could, but the back side of Robinson Gap was pretty rough and I took a couple of hard jolts.
The boxer/philosopher Mike Tyson is famous for saying “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In boxing, the punch in the mouth is literal. In gravel racing, as in life, you don’t know what form that punch will take. For me it was one of those jolts on that tricky descent; I looked down and saw that one of my water bottles had ejected itself. A full third of my planned calories were somewhere on the side of the road. I needed a plan B, and I found it at the bottom of the descent.
There on the side of the road was someone else’s bottle that had popped out. At the first aid station, I dumped it and re-filled it with Tailwind, the drink mix the race was providing.
Finding that bottle helped me salvage most of my nutrition plan. And then on the penultimate climb, the one before I had to walk last year, I flatted. I put a plug in the tire, something I’d never had to do before. Fortunately I had watched a YouTube video about plugging tires a few nights before. I put in just enough air to get to the aid station at the top of the climb. There the bike mechanic said it looked pretty good, and pumped up my tire. It got me home. Despite the unplanned stops I was 30 minutes faster this year and third in the 60+ age group.
The only part of my plan left to complete was finding Baron von Fancypants.
Last year, on the same descent where I lost my bottle, the mount holding my bike computer broke, and at the first aid station I was looking for a zip tie or anything I could use to strap my Garmin to my bars. Another rider said he thought he had a rubber strap I could use, but he couldn’t find it.
Ten miles later he pedaled past me holding out the strap. I took it and promised to give it back. He waved me off. I didn’t know his name at the time, only that he was registered for the race as “Baron von Fancypants.” But I’ve had that strap in the garage for the past year so I could give it back to him at Gravista. I was waiting for him when he finished this year and held it out. He took it and started laughing and said, “I’ve got like a thousand of these in the shop.” His name is Nathan Baker and he’s an owner of a bike shop in Lancaster, Pa. It turns out his punch in the mouth was more than a dropped bottle.
He told me that last year, a couple days before Gravista, a training partner who is a nurse practitioner happened to hear a heart murmur when she gave him a hug. He rode Gravista as planned but saw a doctor as soon as he got home from the race. A week later he was scheduled for open heart surgery to repair a valve his doctor said looked like Swiss cheese. He’s back to 100 percent now, but I’m sure with an even greater appreciation for how fragile we are and how valuable time is.
It reminded me that a promise to return a strap, or to see someone later or next year, is always only a hope. It’s never really a promise.
An update on the missing bottle:
After publishing, I received this Instagram message from Michael McNulty, who had his own punch in the mouth: