India was an experience that I must share, beginning with my expectations going into this race that became an adventure more than a race.
I honestly never expect to do a MTB race from February 1 through April 15th. It’s tax season and that’s the deal I made with my boss, Adrienne. I can have flexible hours for racing throughout the year and train, but those months I’m committed to being at the office.
When Thomas and Yeti approached me about the Ultimate Uttarakhand Himalaya MTB Challenge I shrugged it off at first. Then Yeti sent me the official letter from India tourism saying that all my expenses were paid for, and I would be one of the first women to participate. At the time, all I could selfishly think was WHAT!!?? FREE TRIP TO INDIA!!!!!!!!!
After Adrienne read the letter and said, “YOU HAVE TO GO!!” I booked my ticket and planned the training schedule out with Drew. This happened just a few weeks before I was to fly out, so it was crunch time at work and that’s all I did before I left for India. Work, train, work, work, sleep, train, walk Dale! Those three weeks flew by and I never gave too much thought to what it really meant to be one of its first women participants. I was just excited to get to use India as a great training block for my next races in May. Almost 900km, not counting all the miles to and from the hotels, and load of climbing. I was excited for what I expected to be a week of training/vacation in India!
The day had come to leave, and I wasn’t ready. Luckily, I have the best mom ever that became my personal assistant, running my errands all over town. Going to Harper’s to pick up last minute supplies, going to Podium Sports to pick up probiotics and a kit, and helping pack all my clothes. At lunch Zirkle texted me to inform me because of the thunderstorms our flight was canceled. NO!!! I’m not going to get to go to India!!? Complete freak out mode. How could I have worked my ass off to not be getting on that plane. Thomas was flying out of Atlanta at 6 so we speedily changed our tickets and my mom drove us down. Hero status!! We ended up getting delayed out of Atlanta though and not making our flight out of Newark to New Delhi by 5 minutes. Yes! 5 minutes! Next flight out was 24 hours later. Bummer! The three of us complained for quite a while but sucked it up and went to a hotel to wait it out. Luckily Zirkle did his residency there and knew a little about the streets of New York. I forced him to take us on a tour, and we ended up taking a bus, subway, trains, had good food, and got to visit the 9/11 memorial. I even squeezed in some last-minute work before we got on the plane! Not to shabby of a layover.
Finally, though we make it to India! The trip has officially started and I was ready to get this party started! First up on the adventure… An 8-hour bus ride up to Naini Tal. Immediately I was in culture shock. I cannot express the magnitude of the amount of people there are in India. Every nook and cranny and I’m not exaggerating. Traffic in New Delhi had me all puckered up at first. Lanes, red lights, one ways, and other traffic procedures seem to be just suggestions in India. Yeti referred to it as harmonic Chaos. Somehow it works, but as an American, I still found myself trying not to look.
On the bus there were 10 of the foreigners brought in to do the race, and probably another 10 that would be meeting us up at the top of the mountain. There were a few ladies on the bus and they looked fit. I had some competition and I was excited and nervous and ready to get the race underway.
Day 0 was the qualifying day. The Ultimate Uttarakhand Himalaya MTB Challenge was only going to allow the top 50 riders to compete in the race. Women were automatically qualified, but I wanted to put a good effort in that day just to prove we deserved to be there. Also, to size up the competition a little and see what the week ahead looked like for me. At the start line I was amazed at all the spectators. They were everywhere: kids, adults, and all the officials. After many photos and excitement, the qualifier was off. I shortly realized that fancy gear didn’t mean you were the fastest at this race. The foreigners brought in to do the race had all the snazzy gear and carbon bikes. However, a lot of the Indian guys were on bikes with flat pedals and sneakers and most of them had reflectors still. Man, they were strong though. This race has a lot of fame in India, and a lot of these guys spent all year training so they could qualify for this race. I ended up finishing top 15 in the qualifier, and instantly men started to see that women could race this and probably beat a lot of men.
The morning of the qualifier Yeti approached me and thanked me for coming and expressed his excitement that all the girls were going to get to see me racing throughout Uttarakhand. Then some of the guys had told me that after the race last year they had a panel with the officials on how they could make this race better. A few told them they should have a women’s field, and the officials very blankly said, “Women can’t do this race!” Those officials though opened their minds and gave us a chance this year. It’s not their fault for thinking that, it is just the way of the culture in India. Honestly, I am beyond thankful that these officials of The Uttarakhand Himalaya MTB Challenge not only went against their beliefs, but helped to make history in India. At the closing ceremony one of them said in the speech, “Kaysee you’re amazing!” By the end of the week they were some of my biggest supporters.
The women that attended this race truly made history and I am humbled beyond words that they let me be a part of it.
Back to the story though…
After the qualifying race we started day one of racing with 180kms and over 11,000ft of climbing. I started off strong. This race is mainly roads and double track so I knew hanging on to wheels was important. I started with the lead group but half way up the first long climb it broke a part and I had my eyes on one man’s wheel. My main man from Greece, Ntegiannis Emmanouil (I called him Big Man, because I truly butcher his name). Most of the day we spent sitting around 12th place. A few times we would catch some Indian guys, but mostly we stayed together for the full 7 hours just the two of us.
Day one is important because that is when it truly started sinking in what I was getting into. Over the course of 180kms we passed hundreds of people cheering us on, village by village in the Himalayan mountains. Climbing up mountain roads and then bombing down curvy descents with breath taking Himalayan mountain views everywhere.
I loved riding with Ntegiannis because we both paced well together on the climbs, and then going downhill I would sit in his draft and pedal hard to maintain his speed. He would look back at me and laugh loudly, “very good!” We didn’t speak the same languages but we got to where we could understand each other. We would get to views and he would blow out kisses and say “amazing experience,” I would match his gestures. When going up a hard climb the mutual understanding of hard was to yell,”F**!”
Villages were filled with all ages, but I always made a point to wave at the kids and smile! It was truly amazing how many we would see in a day. Everyone came out from the wood works to watch us race. At some points I could hear them up the mountain yelling at us from the woods. I ended that day with a stage win and astonishment. India truly was incredible.
Day two started with more fan photos. One particularly stood out to me that Zirkle so luckily got on video. A woman and her kids were about to snap a photo with me by their dad, and she looked at me and said, “This is the woman power!” I was so shocked and smiled, “Yes Woman Power!”
All day this woman fueled the fire. I got another stage win, but I continually could hear her saying that.
Day 2 on the biggest climb of 5000ft I found myself alone and broken off from the front of the group. A 6-year-old kid and his older brother were standing outside of their house. I waved out and smiled. He grinned from ear to ear and put his hand out for what I thought was a high five. I slowed up and he ran up to me and grabbed my hand and started running beside me. We both laughed out and I felt every string on my heart pull a little tighter.
Every day, and almost every hour, being in India I found myself becoming humbler. Doing this race, I got to experience India, not the part of India that has been modernized and developed around tourism and westerners. A lot of times in these villages I think I was the first American woman they had ever seen.
Day 3 was another win in the books, with a lot of beautiful views, lots of kid smiles, and spectators. I ended day three with a 43-minute lead on second place in the women’s and 13th overall. I Was beyond happy with this result. My new goal was to get top ten in the men’s. Little did I know what was really in store.
Day 4 was a rest day, so we all enjoyed each other’s company over breakfast and a walk-through town discovering some potato chips and Pepsi. Thomas, Zirkle, and I went on an easy spin before sunset. Found some double track and kids riding their bikes. They came out to check us out and few shy girls ran up to me and stopped and giggled. A perfect rest day in India.
At 3Am I woke up to sharp pains in my stomach and spent countless times in the bathroom. I was exhausted at 7AM when we needed to start moving luggage and get to the start line. Luckily, I brought Zirkle with me. He didn’t say much to me that I remember. He just asked if I wanted a hug and if I was going to do this? I just cried a little and put my kit on. I hate quitting no matter what. Especially at this race where I wanted to prove to so many, that women can do this. Was this just food poisoning or a 24-hour bug? If so I can just survive today and it will be better tomorrow.
I took a lot of Imodium, went to the start line, and mentally coached myself to block out the sickness. Everyone started off and I instantly knew it was worse than I thought. I was off the back so quick even though I was trying with everything I had. Zirkle hung back with me all day. What a day it was. We climbed up to 9500ft that day. My legs ached somehow worse than my stomach. I had to tell myself just climb a 1000ft and take a breather. Sometimes I couldn’t make it that far before I needed a breather, but Zirkle was patient and waited it out. I kept telling myself, “You have to finish! Don’t let those men be right! You’ve done worse! It’s all in your head!”
Every time I thought we were close to the top I would tell myself one more mile. We were never close. It was always false hope. Yeti, Andy, and Natalie drove up in the car and forced me to drink salt water. At this point I just knew we were at the top and Yeti said I had 7km till the top. I broke down and my heart broke. My spirit has never been so low. I had come this far. It had been almost 8000ft of climbing and 5 hours on the bike.
It felt good for a minute to cry and give up don’t get me wrong, but then I thought about getting pulled after getting this far. I clipped back in and went on. I still had to stop a lot. Zirkle even told me once, “You know you can quit anytime!” I just told him, “I have to finish!”
Yeti was there at the last bit of the climb after Andy had ran beside me forcing more salt water in me. The last little bit was steeper and Yeti must have seen the defeat. He started running next to me pushing me up. I was so happy and gracious. We had finally reached the top. I had done it. All downhill. For an hour, we descended off the mountain. I finished! Got an escort up to my room where doctors met me with IVs. Thomas and Zirkle sat with me in my room and we laughed and I looked forward to tomorrow where surely, I would feel better and maybe I could make up my GC time. I went to bed with a plain bagel for dinner.
The next morning the IVs gave me false hope. I started the race with an empty stomach but I felt better. I thought. I hung with the lead group for a couple of hours, and then my stomach churned. I pulled back and asked the official car for juice. I was beyond thirsty and maybe if I could get some calories in, I could finish. No! All of this was delusional thinking. I started vomiting and even tried to ignore the pain and swelling of my belly until I physically couldn’t pedal the bike. The ambulance was there within the minute and I couldn’t fight it anymore I was put in and pulled out of the race. I was embarrassed and heart broken, and angry that they were right, I couldn’t do it!
I went to bed on another empty stomach, and put a ton of antibiotics in my system to hopefully kill what was in my body. I woke up and put my kit back on feeling a bit deflated mentally and physically. Hoping with every bit I had left that today would somehow be manageable! Today’s start was another 5000ft climb right out of the gate. I didn’t want to start with the lead pack again. I wanted to ease into it. I made it to the top and I felt my spirit slowly coming back and hit the downhill a little too aggressively and crashed in the first corner! Hah! I now had a gash in my arm and a good shiner on my hip. I took a good while with Yeti to clean it out and laughed about my luck. Got back on the bike and finished the stage with a smile!
The last stage all the girls decided to start and finish together. The best part was that on the start line the officials pulled the ladies to the front and we were going to do the lead out. There were a lot of smiles and you could feel the energy from everyone. We were all now a family that cared for each other and enjoyed that today was the last day, but it felt like it was the end of summer camp as a kid. It was going to be hard to say bye! Almost 900km later we had all grown as people and athletes. Memories were made but relief was felt, this was it!
It wasn’t an easy stage. In almost 45 miles we climbed over 8000ft. The ladies helped each other out. I gave pushes to the top and we all made it after many times of saying really? This isn’t the top? We took our time though. Enjoyed the views, investigated each other’s lives, and laughed. It was one of my favorite days!
I’ll never be able to write down all the memories in this blog. But this is the short and sweet even though it is quite long. I took a lot away from India. A part of me changed. I’ve never thought that I could make that much of a difference. In those two weeks in India I had one of the biggest adventures of my life and I got to witness barriers turned into gates.
Women have a long way to go in India, and I hope that out of the hundreds of girls I saw throughout the race I could shed a shimmer of light on the possibilities. I hope when they saw us they saw that if a man can do it so can they! No matter what the dream or goal is!
I grew up with a strong mom and I work for a strong lady. I’ve never felt as if I couldn’t do something! If you tell me I can’t do something those are the key words to get me to try my best to do it. I’m extremely lucky, competitive, and driven! Racing pushes me and makes me powerful as a woman! I love it!
Power is contagious and I’m grateful that I could share it with hundreds of girls and boys in India!
A big thank you to my sponsors and supporters! Without all their support, I would have never gotten this far in the sport. Having people believe in you is power and fuel! I will never be able to say thank you enough!
Also, a huge thank you to Drew Edsall. In November, I decided to step up my fitness and he took me on as an athlete. I feel great right now and it feels good to do these stage races at my best, and even at my worst he’s there with answers and support!