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SRAM customer service rep Kelly O’Brien is an avid gravel racer, clocking in well over 10,000 miles a year. This year’s Mid South race was a challenge unlike any she had faced, however. Her story of perserverance inspired us and speaks to the reasons so many of us are pulled toward the sport.

My alarm for the morning of the Mid South gravel race was a downpour pelting the Airbnb bedroom window at 2:00 a.m. As the coffee and storm brewed, the fear began to build up faster than the Oklahoma clay that would soon clog every crevice on my Giant TCX. “Why didn’t I mount mud tires?” “Where the heck are my toe covers?” “What’s the SAG rescue phone number?” The questions and rain flowed steadily, but the race was on. When nearly 1000 people showed up at the start line despite the uncertainty of the weather and the world’s health, Stillwater, OK was truly a Disney World level of magical. The iconic Mid South Director of Stoke Bobby Wintle put it best:

This may be the happiest place on Earth right now

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Before the rains came

It was. Sure, we all stood at the start knowing our bikes were about to be destroyed over the next 103 miles. But this kind of challenge is what grows gravel. It’s in these unpredictable conditions that we push beyond our physical, mental, and emotional barriers on the ultimate trying terrain. The Mid South mud gifted us with barriers beyond belief.

A lightning delay to begin did not discourage a lightning-fast first few miles. The pavement soon turned to peanut butter, though, and the pace sunk with everyone’s wheels. The red roads showed no preference to a specific type of peanut butter. We had chunky, smooth, extra crunchy, creamy, and every combination of each. Within 20 miles, every smiling face featured a smattering of Skippy, and every drivetrain jammed with Jif.

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Is that bad? Photo by Wil Matthews

When the route took us onto an unmarked two-track farm road, the sticky started to turn sucky. Deep mud and jagged rocks kicked off the long day of hike-a-bike sections. A sketch descent culminating in a mud pit tipped me like an Oklahoma cow before I realized resorting to walking was more a requirement than a choice.

A few miles later, I did everything in my power to ride Brethren Hill’s 20-percent grade. Along the climb, a man in nothing but hiking boots and an astronaut helmet cheered me to the top. It may as well have been outer space up there because I surely was out of oxygen. I caught my breath and kept rolling, thinking it couldn’t get any harder. Nope! The muck only got deeper and looser!

The slip-n-slide persisted until about mile 40 when the concrete mix of gravel and clay could no longer clear my frame and fork. I stopped and reached for the paint stirring stick provided at registration. Gone. My vest pocket was empty. I tried to lift my bike to carry it. My tank was empty. The bike was easily 60-plus pounds. This was it. For the first time ever in a race, I considered calling the Jeeps to take me out of this mess.

I rode 16,000 miles last year, and I can’t make it past 40 freakin’ miles?

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Photo from 241 Photography

I threw my gloves on the ground and began clearing the slop with my bare hands. With some of the weight removed, I started rolling my bike forward, making it maybe five feet before everything had clogged up again. I looked around, and everyone was carrying their bikes. One person rode past me, and their rear derailleur exploded. “I’m done!” he shouted.

I went back to scraping until I could lift my bike. I hoisted it on my shoulder, and then found out my shoes had sunk. Imagine clipping into red bricks and then attempting to walk. When I finally got back on the bike, I still had nearly 10 miles to the rest stop. In last year’s bone-dry Land Run, I didn’t even stop at the halfway point in Perkins. This year, I wasn’t sure I would even make it.

The last few miles leading into Perkins were pristine pavement, and the instant I hit it, I gobbled most the gummy bears in my top tube bag. I had not eaten anything besides a fun-sized Snickers in nearly 50 miles due to death grip on the bars. WHOOPS.

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Photo by Gravel Guru

As I descended increasingly destroyed furrowed roads, my upper body tensed. I do not race cyclocross. I’ve hardly ever really ridden in mud. After a crash on a steep descent in a race the previous weekend, I felt anything but confidence. But I repeated one word over and over:

FORWARD. The bike wants to move forward. I’m moving forward. At one extra treacherous point, I shouted it out loud. Forward.

The Skratch rice cakes and familiar face of a Chicago friend at mile 80 were just the source of carbs and camaraderie I needed to finally visualize the finish. 20 miles to go? I commute more than that every single day!

I wanted so badly to ride up to the final creek crossing, but my gunked-up wheels did not. A photographer caught me stripping more stuck mud with my crusty hands, but hopefully he didn’t catch me cursing. For what felt like the thousandth time, I dipped my bike in the water when I walked through the creek and hoped my bike would stop making all the sad noises. My drivetrain still cried. It did work, though. Shout out to Force 1 HRD!

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How much more? Photo by 241 Photography

With just 10 miles remaining, the rollers were relentless. I was totally alone. The sun was dangerously close to setting (always bring lights!). The headwind was ripping. Forward.

I crested the final hill and saw downtown Stillwater. I instantly started crying. All the ups and downs of the day tested me to my limits. Struggling through this race felt a lot like the major life changes over the past year that had led me to working at SRAM. Gravel is hard. Life is hard. You move forward. You will get to the finish line. I did at the Mid South 2020. Who knew the happiest place on the planet was covered in mud?

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Time for a thorough cleaning.