NEK Women Rock the Rasputitsa by Vivian Buckley

I am an avid cyclist, mostly mountain biking and dirt road riding.  As a resident of the Northeast Kingdom and an individual not inclined to drive to ride my bike, my husband and I have traveled thousands of miles in the past 25 years on our “county” bikes.  Just about anywhere you go in Barnet, Danville, Peacham, Waterford, there is some kind of County Road…..Old County Road, County Hill Road, etc. Despite what I consider my passion and prowess for riding the dirt roads, I have been able to gracefully avoid the Rasputitsa.  It has always been during my April Vacation (I’m a school teacher) which my husband and I spend in a family home in Stone Harbor, NJ.  Why stay in Vermont in April if you don’t have to?

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When Carrie Tomczyk asked me when we were going to be in Stone Harbor, I thought she was asking so she and her family could come visit.  When I gave her the dates she said, “Good, you can ride the Rasputitsa.” I think I spit out whatever was in my mouth...or I started sliding backwards (we were skinning at the time of this conversation).  If I did not begin my litany of reasons not to ride the Rasputitsa, Carrie was already hearing them.  Instead, I heard her litany of reasons to ride the Rasputitsa.  She said, “Here is why I am doing it.”  She went on to tell me that female ridership was very low and declining, hardly any locals did it, and began to describe the passion, determination, commitment and contributions of founder Heidi Myers.  For every reason she had to do it, I had three not to. Except she kept going on.  Another trail transition later, “Oh and also because……”   At this point, I was out of excuses and Carrie had once again worn another person down with her enthusiasm; never say never attitude; if I can do it, so can you; and tireless selflessness.  She owns a business, has two daughters, just sold her house, is in the process of moving, and has a dog.  She even graciously hosted part of a women’s team from NYC for the event at her house.

Carrie Tomcyzk, owner of The Hub Trailside, works the bar with pro cyclist, Alison Tetrick.

Carrie Tomcyzk, owner of The Hub Trailside, works the bar with pro cyclist, Alison Tetrick.

Fairly soon after registering, I got the group text.  There were 12 women on it.  TWELVE?!  Carrie got twelve women to sign up for the Rasputitsa?  When she told me women ridership was declining and hardly any locals did it, I thought, “That’s because women are too smart to sign up for it and no locals are in shape in April.”  The race is filled with cyclocross maniacs that ride all year long and choose to pay to suffer.  Those of us that live in the NEK suffer as a fact of life.  Plus, we live here, we can ride those roads anytime we want.

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  But I had signed up, and now when my phone lit up, my husband would say, “Is that the team?”  He found it all very amusing.  I wasn’t laughing.  Who were these women on the group text?  Few were identified.  Do I know any of them?  I was pretty sure that some of them were part of Carrie’s workout group.   Do they even ride bikes?  Do they know what they are getting themselves into?  Carrie, what have you done?  You have done it, this time.  You have gotten yourself  (and others) into something that is unlikely to succeed.  As the event approached and the course lengthened, and the weather forecast deteriorated, I bit my tongue and refrained from saying, “Don’t worry, Carrie. I’ll still be your friend.”

While I was in Stone Harbor riding my fatbike on the beach and riding the surprisingly rural and completely flat roads of the Cape May Peninsula, I got the group texts.  Carrie and the team were organizing group rides. Some went out solo and reported. I was getting nervous as I was unsure of my “training plan” which consisted of chips, pizza, hoagies, tequila and flat, albeit windy, rides. But then one of the riders went to Mexico, and one to Utah to ski, and the weather in Vermont was not conducive to riding. Good, no one would be ready, except Carrie.  

It’s going to be interesting.  What are these women riding?  Their mountain bikes?  Their 27.5, full suspension, probably second hand mountain bikes?!  Carrie, what have you done?  Do these women know what they are getting themselves into?

When I got back to Vermont the week before the Rasputitsa, I knew I would need to rest, and I knew I would need to ride some hills.  So I went out for a 12-15 miler after school.  As I climbed East Darling Hill, I saw a woman on her 27.5 full suspension mountain bike also climbing the hill.  I wondered who she was.  I thought maybe she was a member of the team and caught up to her. I was on my county bike. After 20 years of trial and error my gravel grinder is a carbon, hardtail mountain bike, with 29 inch wheels, a front shock, and 700X37 tires.  The woman climbing the hill was Disa, a member of the team.  She and I told each other about how we got roped into the ride by Carrie.  As Disa put it, “Carrie is a very good salesperson.”  Disa also told me that this was maybe her second ride of no more than 10 miles because a member of her family had been ill.  She told me to go ahead because I had more energy than her. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it had everything to do with equipment.  Better for her not to know she was riding something that was not meant to be ridden in the Rasputitsa.

When the 47 mile course description came out members of the team, including me, were panicking. Carrie sent us an inspirational text about the orphans of Sudan who traveled thousands of miles through illness and attacks by animals and soldiers only to arrive at refugee camps of miserable conditions…..and they didn’t have aid stations and people cheering them on. Really?  

More group texts. Should we watch the primer video? Some suggested “Wonder Woman.”  I added, “Maybe a documentary on the Sudanese orphans?”  I wasn’t being helpful.  Amy McClure, fitness and lifestyle coach, and eventual race day team manager due to injury, wrote, “It’s going to take about four hours, I’m sure childbirth lasted longer than that for most of you.”  I believe I am the only member of the group text who has not given birth.  Advantage or disadvantage?

I went to the Rasputitsa website searching for a purpose.  “To challenge the human spirit.”  OK.  I can get on board with that.  I’m pretty sure it will. (I later learned this quote was also Stacey’s inspiration and motivation).

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The day before the event (I prefer not to use the term race) arrived.  Can I do this?  I started to recall other sufferfests I’ve endured.  I can do this.  In my individualistic way, I decided each member of the team had her own spirit to test, although I wish they all had better bikes.  

Late night and early morning texts:  women stretching shower caps over their helmets, asking for surgical gloves to keep hands dry (there are a few medical personnel on the team and in the families). Will there be a support vehicle?

And so it came.  I kept wondering I was doing it.  My friend Margi (who taught me about cyclocross way back when, taught me how to mountain bike, is 6 years my elder, and has suffered through enough events and life in general) and I were kindred spirits in this ill-conceived adventure.  As we drove 3 miles to the mountain stuck in race traffic watching the racer types on their fast bikes and in their kits, we laughed at our conversation. “None of us has any business participating in this.  If we didn’t love Carrie….” The two of us were going to ride our own program. No group riding, no waiting for anyone, just doing what we know how to do, knowing it was going to suck, and knowing (hoping) we were going to finish.

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We started in the rain and the cold.  I didn’t even look for anyone from the team.  I was prepared and I had my strategy.  Sustainable and steady pace.  I believe the conditions of that day are well known by now (1600 registered, less than 900 finished), but here are a few from my perspective.  I kept it light. I conversed with other (willing) riders.   I saw friends and neighbors cheering.  There was a young girl under an umbrella dressed in winter clothing holding a sign for her mother.  I recognized the name as a member of the team.  Cyberia was short (and the revised course was only 41 miles).  Thank goddess!  Around the course I saw husbands of the team following the race and repeatedly stopping to cheer and support.  Around several bends, there was Amy and the support vehicle. That was a good sign. The team was still out there.  

And then there was carnage. Water bottles scattered everywhere and people scattered everywhere….at the aid stations and on the sides of the road shivering in the wet and snow.  The snow was accumulating.  I heard one rider howling then came upon him as his mate was massaging his quad.  Just keep riding.  Don’t stop.  I’m shivering.  Go slow on the downhills so you don’t get too cold.   OK I’m not shivering.  My feet are wet and cold.  Are they freezing? 

Should I be worried? It doesn’t feel like January ski boot cold so I think I’m OK. I later learned that same ski boot  conversation was had by Disa and Leah somewhere else on the course!  I had dry things and extra layers in my hydration pack but I did not want to stop. I knew I had to climb Pinkham road at the end and that would warm me up.  And so I finished.  I had no idea people were not finishing, though I could tell there were plenty who did not look good out there and wondered about them.  

Margi came in a short time later.  We hung out and waited for the team.  Really, we were waiting for Carrie.  I saw her husband, Chief and asked him the status.  He gave me their last location and said everyone was doing OK.  I knew Carrie could have completed that ride alongside me.  How was she doing it?  Chief explained that she was determined to support her team.  I said, “Maybe she got that out of her system.”   I saw Jen in the lodge.  I wouldn’t have recognized her, but she spoke to me and said she eventually had to ride her own ride and left the team behind.  I assured her that taking care of herself on a day like today was the right thing to do.  More women should be more selfish.  At the finish I saw husbands of team members faithfully waiting and cheering other finishers.  Supportive husbands are a common, though not ubiquitous, thread in this story.  

Other team members began to arrive in groups of two and three.  Reports of Carrie and Stacey.  They would be in soon.  Arrive they did in a little under 6 hours. I was impressed with the team and was once again overwhelmed by Carrie’s determination, belief in others, and selflessness.  Regrettably, I was surprised that every team member started and every team member finished.  Not so much because I didn’t have faith in their fitness and determination, but because who wouldn’t simply stop doing what seemed foolish?  

It began to dawn on me later that 100% of the team finished in a year when the finish rate was less than 60%.  Eleven team members started and eleven team members finished.  Was there any other team with those numbers and that success rate? 

Then I saw the pictures that Amy took.  Are members of the team wearing hiking boots?   Add shoes and flat pedals to the list of inefficient equipment.  Becky would later tell me that her rear shock wouldn’t lock out.  

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I consider myself unworthy of the team. My only real connection to them is that Carrie convinced me to ride, and I got to read the group text stream that spanned weeks and was practical, ridiculous, supportive, inappropriate, revealing, and encouraging. Writing this article is my tribute to them. I wish I could tell each of their stories. I just want lots of people to know what this team of women did, what is possible, 100%success achieved by one remarkable leader.

Carrie (self imposed lanterne rouge of the team) and Stacey (challenging her human spirit) finishing with one generous rider sharing his bottle of Jack Daniels.

Carrie (self imposed lanterne rouge of the team) and Stacey (challenging her human spirit) finishing with one generous rider sharing his bottle of Jack Daniels.