Whoa Baby Part 2: My journey to be a competitive bikepacking mama

The women’s field of Pinyons and Pines 2023

It felt like it was about 90 degrees out. I was battling a headache and a touch of nausea as I pedaled the singletrack out of Cottonwood and began the 15-mile and 3,500-foot climb up Mingus Mountain. I veered off trail under the first shade-providing bush I spotted and pulled out my breast pumps. The gnats instantly swarmed around me and started to nibble away. I was an easy target as both hands were occupied with my task. While a half dozen or so bikepackers passed me, I managed to pull a few ounces out which relieved the pressure and helped my shoulders feel less fatigued once I was back on the bike. I hesitated for a few moments before I splashed the breast milk into the dirt. There would be no way to keep it cold and clean for the next 250 miles and I knew this moment would come, but it was still hard to dump the precious boob juice. I’d had many pre-race conversations with my husband and Dana, the Pinyons and Pines race director, about the ethical dilemma of meeting up with family to hand off breast milk and/or to nurse my seven-month-old daughter versus having a clean race with no visitations. Not five minutes after pumping in Gnat-Land, I saw Dana Ernst, Pinyons and Pines raceboss, on the side of the trail taking pictures and cheering us on. Dana had offered to transport breast milk back to Flagstaff for me, but it seemed like it would be more hassle than it was worth and possibly unfair. Either way- I hadn’t known he was right there … sigh. The sky was threatening in every direction and thunder was rumbling from the top of Mingus. I had a long way to go. 

Selfie while pumping in Gnatland. (All photos courtesy of Leigh Bowe unless otherwise noted)

About 14 hours later, I was still going. It was just before dawn, 21 hours into the race. The double shot I had chugged when the aluminum can had accidentally punctured on the Mingus climb had long worn off and I was drunkenly veering this way and that as I mashed on the pedals up the never ending Stoneman Lake climb (35 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing). I was listening to music to help keep me awake, but I gave into the temptation to dismount and stretch. This quickly turned into a standing nap or microsleep when I rested my head on my handlebar roll while parked in the middle of the empty, dark dirt road. It was probably two minutes until the song ended, and I felt recharged enough to climb back onto the bike and carry on. Shortly after that, I heard a flock of turkeys gobbling to one another from their roosts in the woods. As I often do, I called back to them; animal sounds being a silly talent of mine. We took turns conversing in the darkness, until I noticed a bikepacker breaking camp up ahead. To my elation it was Lilly! She had just been awakened from her 20 minute nap when a turkey hunter decided to park three feet from where she had just nodded off and was unable to get back to sleep. I had a kindred spirit to ride with as the sky gradually began to lighten and we found ourselves in a misty fairyland. I bid farewell to Lilly when we hit the gentle downhill pavement into Happy Jack. I was racing on a singlespeed, and Lilly could effortlessly leave me behind on the mellow grade of Lake Mary Road. 

Wet conditions abounded throughout the course.

I had intended for this to be my first foray into bikepack racing on a singlespeed when I decided to sign up for the race many months ago. Ten days after EJ was born, I was back on the bike. I led group rides in Sedona one month postpartum. I realize how fortunate I was to have a pregnancy and birth that were uncomplicated and relatively “easy.” That said, I had envisioned more long training rides leading up to Pinyons and Pines than I was able to get in. The result of being a new mom combined with the snowiest winter EVER on record in Flagstaff was that I felt incredibly undertrained. To try to compensate for the lack of miles in my legs, I decided to abandon my singlespeed to race on a geared bike and set my goal to simply finish without a big depletion in my breast milk supply. One week before the Grand Depart, I was nervously eyeing the weather predictions while having to warranty my AXS rear derailleur. It had mysteriously given up on life during a long training ride, leaving me in a stiff 32:15 ratio for the climb out of Cottonwood. With the high likelihood of encountering “death mud” on course, I decided that I’d rather have the luxury of choosing which gear ratio I would ride in and I decided to give singlespeed bikepack racing a go, afterall. That said, none of my training rides had been on my singlespeed and I was nervous about how my body would feel about it. 

During training rides, I successfully pumped breast milk using simple hand pumps without batteries to recharge. In fact, the manual pumps seemed to work better because it forced me to be intentional about the pumping as opposed to trying to multitask with my fancy wearable pump. The only training ride on which I had brought my electric pump had resulted in spilled milk, wet parts and less effective pumping due to the moisture. The hand pumps were also slightly smaller to pack, and less fragile. I’m not sure why, but the system that I had tested and worked well for me on my training rides just wasn’t doing it on the second day of the race. I was only able to get one measly ounce of milk out of two very engorged breasts in the Mustang gas station bathroom. Luckily, that was enough of a let down that I could just use my hands to massage and express enough milk to feel comfortably empty. I was back outside of the gas station when in a speed blur, “Curb” (Claire Burke), rolled past me with a kind greeting. How was she not hours ahead already?!?! I finished packing up enough calories to make it to the finish in Flagstaff without another resupply and set out with pleasant temperatures and blue skies ahead. Or so I thought. 

Attempting to nap on Rim Road. Photo: Sam McLaughlin

About eight hours later, Dana sent out a long, detailed text to all racers, alerting us to the dynamic trail conditions and the need to deviate off course. The forecasted rain had materialized and turned the trail between us and the finish into a muddy mess. I was overly angry given my understanding that this situation was nearly certain to occur at some point during the race. I had even chosen my bike based on the high likelihood of there being death mud. But I am an optimist to the core and I had deluded myself into thinking that if I were prepared for this possibility, then somehow I would magically prevent it from manifesting. I was very lucky to be riding with Matt, a fellow singlespeeder, who not only had a cell phone signal, but also had his phone on to receive Dana’s message. We quickly rendezvoused with Curb and Lilly and turned around to avoid damaging the Arizona National Scenic Trail and our bikes in the sticky, aptly named “death mud.” Despite our deviation, we still had a fair bit of death mud to contend with. Matt and I fared better than Curb and Lilly with our better clearance and fewer moving parts. Eventually we hit the pavement of Lake Mary Road and elected to end our race efforts. 

Turning around on the AZT with Matt, Lilly and Curb.

I am bummed about how Pinyons and Pines ended for me this year, but I am thrilled at how things went overall. It was helpful to have the goal of Pinyons and Pines as motivation to make longer rides happen. They didn’t always go as smoothly as pre-motherhood, but I’m grateful for each and every one of them. I ended up racing about 250 miles and 21,000 feet of elevation of the course, which would have been 330 miles and 25,000 feet without the detour. When I scratched, I was riding along with the second place single-speeder and the first three females on the short course. I was feeling good and felt well enough to push on to the finish. But I was frustrated with pumping and eager to reunite with my daughter. Even though I failed at my goal of simply finishing the race, I felt stronger and more competitive than I expected, and I’m overall happy with my race experience. 

I’m already looking forward to Pinyons and Pines 2024. I really want to encourage other new mother’s to get out and adventure, but the reality is that it’s hard to be competitive while lactating and I don’t think I’ll participate in another multi-day event until after my daughter is weaned. 

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