Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob, also known as GRUSK, takes place just an hour and a half west of Harrisonburg, in Circleville, WV. The race starts and finishes below the peak of Spruce Knob, the highest knob in West Virginia (4,862’). For 55 miles riders climb, descend, and climb and descend, getting a great tour of the gravel roads, mountain pastures, and beautiful views of the area. After the 2nd aid station by Spruce Knob Lake, it’s just under 10 miles to the summit of Spruce Knob. Mostly gravel, the climb feels like forever - never really quite that steep until the final quarter mile to the top. Gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains reward everyone, and the relief of finishing that climb is amazing! But that’s not the finish line. Nope. A descent down the mountain, and one more climb lay between riders and the finish. I think one of the things that makes this race so satisfying to complete is that you’re not done at the top of Spruce Knob. You have to push yourself a little harder, for a little longer to cross that finish line, and it’s such a grand feeling when you do!
My day started with my favorite way to begin a race day - grabbing a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich (and coffee, lots of coffee) from our local bagel shop. Being only 1.5 hours away from the race, I didn’t have a super early wake up call either - another good way to start the day. My drive out to the venue was sunny until I was 20 minutes away, then the rain started, again. All week the area had been by torrential downpours. Flash floods had taken out roads and damaged the small towns that lay along the race route. It was incredible that the main roads were cleared in the time they were, and that the race director of GRUSK was able to do a small reroute to keep the event going.
The rain was on and off for the rest of the morning, and waiting around to start I was nervous about my kit choice - would i get too cold descending, should I stuff a vest or long sleeve in one of my pockets? After talking with my teammate and friend Cynthia, I decided to suck it up, trust the rain wouldn’t last, accept that I would get too hot if I wore or brought extra layers, and wear what I had originally planned - the Jakroo Ultra short sleeve jersey and Solar Pro bib shorts. That decision ended up being a good one, because I did warm up quickly, even in the rain, and the sun did come out 25 miles into the race.
I had never been to GRUSK before, but from what friends told me, I wanted to be as close to the front for the start of the race as possible. It starts with a super rough dirt road, then a gravel downhill, a climb, and then this super crazy 2 mile double track grass descent to the next gravel road. Starts at gravel and cross races always have me on edge. The probability of something going amiss is higher with faster mass starts. I knew even with a “neutral” rollout to the first climb, being aggressive and getting positioned well was going to be really important for how the rest of my day went.
All week, leading up to GRUSK, I had been doubtful. I don’t know if it was just the amount of riding I had done the month before, things getting busier at work, or what, but I was kind of a grumpy cat all week - nervous about how my performance would go. At Hilly Billy, two weeks prior, I did well, but was frustrated by my lack of feeling snappy and “on it”. The starts at the last few races had me completely maxing my heart rate out, and still feeling unable to stick with the lead group for a decent amount of time. So after Hilly Billy, the focus was to rest, get a few good rides in, and try to keep my level of overall fatigue down. Chris was super great at helping me out, and having the 4th of July off, two days before GRUSK, was key.
When GRUSK started, I immediately slotted myself in a good spot, stuck on the front, and new I was feeling good as we hit the first climb. My heart rate was high, but not maxed. My legs felt quick and responsive. I even felt like I could recover the tiniest little bit as I pedaled behind a few people, just trying to stay in a good spot so I wouldn’t get stuck behind people on the grassy downhill.
That grassy downhill was crazy. During the racers meeting before the race, the organizer suggested riders stick to the grass instead of the deep ruts made by the forest service trucks, as the possibility of getting stuck and wrecking could be high. I quickly figured out though, that the best place to ride was actually in those tire ruts. The grass was so slick and wet from the rain that it took a lot to stay in control on that part of the road. One guy thought he could make a pass in that sketchy grass, cut a cross me, and then almost took me out in doing so (insert emoji slapping its face here). I then safely passed him just a few minutes later, and never saw him again.
The rest of the race was mostly gravel, with a road section from about the 25 mile point to 42 miles. After the grassy downhill, I found a good group to ride with until we reached the road. That section was so much fun. Super fast rolling gravel roads, with just a slight rain mist - perfect temperatures and “groad” conditions. After we hit the road, and for the rest of the race, it was spotty with catching up to riders (or having riders catch up to me). From the halfway point on, I rode mostly by myself. I skipped the first aid station, holding out for the 2nd aid station after the Dry Run Rd climb and 10 miles to go to the Spruce Knob Summit. Between those 2 aid stations I was maybe regretting just the tiniest bit not stopping at the first aid spot, but I had seen second place just after leaving that aid station and knew I had to keep the hammer down to put distance between myself and her. The rest of the race, my head was filled with Eminem songs (not my first choice, but it’s what popped up and kept repeating), and a mantra of “you want this, go harder, you can’t slow down.”
I really really wanted this win. I gave everything I had to keep pushing through any time I started to feel a little tired. Reaching the top of Spruce, I only got a quick glance around at the views, because I was so worried about second place catching me. Pedaling, and pedaling, and pedaling I worked my way down the mountain, changing my mantra to “don’t flat, go fast but don’t flat.” As the descent got steeper, my speed increased and the playful side of me kept wanting to come out. But I had to keep reeling that back in - way more likely to flat trying to be playful on the gravel; couldn’t have that with just 4 miles to go.
The final climb was the same road that we had come down at the start of the race. Just knowing I was on that road gave me a little extra boost, and seeing the finsih line in the meadow at the top was when I finally knew I was going to win. The whole race I had been pedaling scared - knowing that there were strong women behind me. It’s a funny thing to know you’re in front. You can’t let up, and you can’t have any problems. The nutrition I had at aid station 2 really saved my butt. I stuffed my mouth full of pickles, took some with me (yes, I was eating pickles and trying to pedal as fast as possible up the road, I’m sure it was a funny sight), and one my friends/volunteers at the aid station gave me a bottle full of coke. Sugar and salt made for quite the revival.
GRUSK feels like a local race. Local in that it’s close to my home, and it’s a big honor to win this event. The race director knows what’s up with good roads, and a proper gravel race - some support but not a whole lot, beautiful venue, and challenging and fun to ride terrain. If you haven’t been a part of this event, I highly recommend it. It’s one I definitely want to do again.
I haven’t seen or heard any news of GRUSK 2020, but you can always check on their website HERE.
One more awesome thing to note - my teammate Ellen, won the GRUSK Grande Loco (158 miles, 11,100’ of climbing, self-supported) the day before. She crushed that race through all sorts of weather, and came out on top! So awesome!
You can find a full list of results HERE.
If you have questions about the gravel women’s team I’m on, THE METEOR // INTELLIGENTSIA, you can visit our website, or get in touch with me here at the shop.